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Death wish

Was it a shock, Joan Bakewell was asked, when Harold Pinter showed you the script of his latest play?

12 August 2009

12:00 AM

12 August 2009

12:00 AM

Was it a shock, Joan Bakewell was asked, when Harold Pinter showed you the script of his latest play? Bakewell was hardly going to reveal live on air to ten million listeners what she really felt about Pinter’s use of their affair as a plot device in Betrayal. She’s far too smart for that. All she would say on Desert Island Discs this week is that their long friendship of 40-plus years was far more important than their seven-year affair. Her inquisitor, Kirsty Young, still would not give up. But surely it was a curious situation for someone like you to be in? ‘We had a damned good time,’ Bakewell replied.

I tuned in on Sunday morning precisely because I had been so caught up by Bakewell’s thoughtful direction of a discussion on terminal illness and the elderly on Inside the Ethics Committee the previous week, and wanted to find out more about her personality (in a Harmanly, not Jordanly, kind of way). But I guess I should have known better. Bakewell was given the DID once-over, and in spite of her valiant efforts to talk intelligently about her choice of music and her new official role as the Voice for Older People much of the conversation was devoted not to her intellectual journey but to her love of high heels and the fact that at 76 she’s ‘still in incredibly good nick’.

When asked what she thought of that clever but irritating moniker ‘The Thinking Man’s Crumpet’ (dreamt up for her by Frank Muir), she again showed her mettle. The fact that people still ask me what I think, she said crisply, ‘shows the unoriginality of male editors’. (As it happens, DID is currently produced by a woman.)

To be fair, the conversation did touch on Bakewell’s approach to death and we discovered that she has made a living will and carries a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) card. This was a telling insight in the light of her new government post and the Radio Four discussion on ethics. Bakewell and her team of experts — a palliative-care nurse, a philosopher, a senior lecturer in medical ethics and a psychiatrist — were investigating the case of an elderly woman in her eighties, whom they called Mary, who was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Mary began by accepting the treatment for her condition but then, knowing she could not be cured, refused any palliative care and attempted three times to end her life. Should she be treated as depressed and even admitted to a psychiatric ward for treatment of her mental illness (not her physical condition)? Or should her wish to be helped to die be respected?

Many families must be facing these questions as their elderly relatives become increasingly infirm. But what transformed the programme from a dry debate into a compelling conversation was the way we were given an empathetic exposition of Mary’s case history through the circle of people who were concerned about her — her GP, the palliative-care nurse, the psychiatrist, a relative and the carer who found her one morning half-drowned in the bath. We heard this not as one huge chunk of medical detail but in three separate sections that were interspersed with the studio discussion between the experts. As a result a direct and powerful connection was made between what was happening to Mary as she became weaker and weaker nigh unto death and the changing response this demanded from those responsible for her care.

As I listened I felt like a privileged witness. But at the same time because the programme, at 45 minutes, had been given a slightly longer slot than usual, there was airtime to chew over in my mind what I thought even as the experts were talking. Would I, should I, choose euthanasia?

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