Minding the Deathwatch

Casting my roving satirical eye over the week’s news-sheets I see that controversial author Martin Amis has got into trouble again. This time the old rogue has been upbraided for some remarks on euthanasia:

The novelist Joan Brady has accused her fellow writer Martin Amis of ‘flippancy’ and ‘prostitution’ over his controversial call for euthanasia ‘booths’ on street corners where the elderly and demented can end their lives with ‘a martini and a medal’.

US-born Brady, 70, the first woman to win the prestigious Whitbread book of the year award, told the Guardian: ‘Trivialising a subject of enormous magnitude just to flog a book? How can a man prostitute himself like this?’

Brady, whose husband died from a degenerative disease, added: ‘Amis’s schoolboy flippancy leaves euthanasia proponents – serious people, thinking people – open to the attack that they understand nothing about death, that they see it as something out of a TV ad. Your head lolls to one side and it’s over, all neat and tidy: a martini and a medal on a street corner, no need even to bother with closing credits.’

Amis, 60, whose latest novel, The Pregnant Widow, is shortly to be published, drew criticism from anti-euthanasia organisations over remarks made in a Sunday Times interview in which he predicted a ‘silver tsunami’ of ageing people, ‘like an invasion of terrible immigrants, stinking out the restaurants and cafes and shops’.

I am sorry for her loss, but I can’t help thinking Brady has overreacted: if Amis is just an ageing provocateur, why not ignore him?

But the silliest reaction has come from the Guardian‘s Michael White. In a riposte to Amis’s theory that ‘novelists tend to go off at about 60’ White points to an Equality and Human Rights Commission report that argues that old people should be able to keep on working way past retirement age. He gives the following ‘cheerful vignette’ about a guy called David Buckley: ‘Made redundant at 60, he found new life as a call centre customer adviser and is still going strong at 73. No one has yet written a good call centre novel – a stint with the gas board might get Amis’s juices going again.’

I can’t imagine a less dignified old age than working in a call centre – fuck me, it’s bad enough when you’re in your twenties. Geriatric phone monkeys for equality! Jesus, shouldn’t we be making sure old people have decent pensions to live on, rather than encouraging them to spend their twilight years rotting in some industrial outpost for seven pound an hour. I don’t know what life will be like when I’m approaching the clearing at the end of the path but if Buckley’s is the fate on offer, then I’ll be happy with Futurama’s suicide booths. Just make sure there’s a cigarette and a shot of JD on hand before I pull the lever.

The problem faced by advocates of euthanasia is that we sound like heartless bastards at best, fascist engineers at worst. It wasn’t just the Nazis who talked of getting rid of the lives unworthy of life. If and when euthanasia is legalised there will be unscrupulous relatives conning grandad into signing on the bottom line so they can cash in his premium bonds. We must guard against the ugly opportunism of human nature.

Writers tend to be preoccupied with death and Amis is not some Fabian hack from the 1930s – he is a sixty-year-old grandfather. He’s facing some hard choices in his life, and I feel for him. And I feel that people on the other side of this argument fail to appreciate that quality of life is just as important as quantity of life, and that we should not only live well, but die well.

In an inspired article, Nick Cohen adapted the myth of Tithonus for a warning to a culture that puts longevity before quality:

His lover, Eos, asked Zeus to make him immortal, but forgot to ask for eternal youth. Tithonus lived forever ‘but when loathsome old age pressed full upon him, and he could not move nor lift his limbs, this seemed to her in her heart the best counsel: she laid him in a room and put to the shining doors. There he babbles endlessly, and no more has strength at all, such as once he had in his supple limbs.’

If Tithonus is not to become a 21st-century deity, we may have to accept that an end to suffering is better than suffering without end.



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