Bob Marshall-Andrews, in his memoir of public life Off Message, attends a Private Eye lunch at Soho’s Coach and Horses. ‘I remember,’ he writes, ‘an agreeable and ferocious row with CH which lasted all the afternoon. It ended in a long silence when we realised we were quite alone.’
It makes for a fine and emblematic story. Argument was Hitchens’ meat and drink and it suffuses Mortality. His wife provides a short afterword to these eight pieces, originally published in slightly different form in Vanity Fair. Amidst ‘the poking and prodding, the sample taking, the breathing treatments, the IV bags being changed,’ she writes, ‘nothing kept him from holding court, making a point or an argument.’
Mortality appears within a few months of Philip Gould’s When I Die. The two death memoirs make fascinating reading together. Hitchens is writing for his customary audience and never forgoes his characteristic mordancy. He manages to pull off a TV appearance with Salman Rushdie, although he vomits twice ‘with an extraordinary combination of accuracy, neatness, violence and profusion.’ Note the ‘neatness’.
If Hitchens is the volcanic public commentator, Gould is the ultimate back-room operator. Hitchens writes from a country he calls Tumorville. Gould calls his new world the Death Zone. Both are on the receiving end of cheaply given, ridiculous expressions of optimism. Gould is told, ‘You are so strong you are bound to get through.’ Cancer does not care. Hitchens: ‘No well-wisher omits the combative image, “You can beat this”.’ Thirty years after Susan Sontag, cancer still provokes the same dead military metaphors. Battles and bravery are ubiquitous, ‘You don’t hear it,’ says Hitchens, ‘about long-term sufferers from heart disease or kidney failure.’
Both patients have cancer of the oesophagus. Both suffer horrendous weight loss. Both receive treatment in world-leading cancer hospitals. Treatment for both entails travel. Gould may be one of the architects of New Labour but his first action is to buy an air ticket out of Britain. The figure of the decent GP, in whom the sufferer may place his trust, is absent. Both these books are, however, superior to Michael Gearin-Tosh’s Living Proof (2002), which is a tale of pursuit of doctor after doctor after doctor.
Hitchens ends his life in Houston’s M. D. Anderson Cancer Centre. Back in a British ward, Gould is told that the American treatment has probably had the effect of shortening his life. Hitchens cites philosopher Sidney Hook with a dismal tale of iatrogenic suffering.
‘In Tumortown you sometimes feel you may expire from sheer advice,’ comments Hitchens. Advice pours in, ranging from chakras to essence of peach pit. ‘I did get a kind note from a Cheyenne-Arapaho friend of mine, saying that everyone she knew who had resorted to tribal remedies died almost immediately’.
Both undergo physical torment. Hitchens: ‘I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning in June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. I could faintly hear myself breathe but could not manage to inflate my lungs.’ It is not helped by the post-traumatic after-effects of his voluntary interrogation by former Special Forces members.
Gould moves ‘from being inchoately spiritual to more emphatically religious. I was confirmed into the Church of England.’ Hitchens is on the receiving end of religious website comment that takes some delight in his condition. He lashes back with gusto at the fundamentalist malice. On the Divinity’s dispensing of sickness to the unworthy he notes that ‘Bertrand Russell and Voltaire…remained spry until the end, as many psychopathic criminals and tyrants also did.’
Both are driven men reluctant to relinquish their public roles. Gould takes a last holiday with his wife in Italy. ‘Unforgivably, I allowed my work on the book to intrude on the holiday. I would sit in my room, writing furiously’. His wife is left, alone, outside by the pool.
Hitchens retains a pugnacious black humour. His last flight brings him past an airline’s million-mile threshold that should by rights give him treats and upgrades for the rest of his life. ‘When you fall ill, people send you CDs. Very often, in my experience, these are by Leonard Cohen.’ He remains in the public sphere, pays tribute to Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project, cites Saul Bellow: ‘Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are able to see anything.’
Both writers appear to enter a zone of exalted experience. Hitchens: ‘I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.’ ‘For me to remember friendship is to recall those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off: the ones that made the sacrifice of the following day a trivial one.’
The last section of When I Die contains moments of profundity. ‘I feel I have entered a world which is not as I thought it would be. It is much better than I thought it would be. The ground rules, the nature of reality, in this world are different.’ Daily trivia slip away. Gould: ‘when you enter the Death Zone the intensity is either overwhelming or extraordinary in its possibilities…You map your course according to the coordinates of emotion and feelings, love and compassion.’
Hitchens makes his last tribute to the two things that have made his life, friendship and writing. ‘My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of friends.’ ‘And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language; the freedom of speech.’