Tag Archives: death

Book review – Left for Dead

303 yachts left Cowes on 11th August 1979, at the start of the famous annual Fastnet Race.

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Two days later the fleet was confronted by the deadliest storm in the history of modern sailing. By the time the race was over, 15 yachtsmen had perished, 24 crews had abandoned ship, 5 yachts had sunk, 136 sailors had been rescued and only 85 boats managed to finish the race.

Nick Ward was one of the crew on the Grimalkin, a 30-foot boat owned and skippered by David Sheahan. There were 4 other crew members, including Gerry Winks and Matthew Sheahan, the skipper’s 17 year-old son.

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Written by Nick more than 20 years later and first published in 2007, Left for Dead is the absorbing account of what happened to the Grimaldi and its crew over that fateful 48 hours in 1979, after which David and Gerry were dead, and Nick was left wondering why the others had abandoned him and Gerry, both unconscious but alive on the storm-tossed boat, in favour of the life-raft.

Nick acknowledges his debt of gratitude to journalist and documentary film-maker Sinead O’Brien, without whom he says he would not have written the book, and certainly not so graphically. Indeed, it is a testament to their joint contributions that the reader is enthralled for over 200 pages in which Nick struggles to survive, badly injured and with only the stricken Gerry for company.

In the same genre as Touching The Void, Left for Dead is a gripping first-hand survival story, with a touch of moral jeopardy. I would love to hear the version of events from the other 3 crew members of Grimalkin in an effort to resolve that jeopardy, but I fear that won’t happen now.

Left for Dead as an intriguing account of a terrible few days at sea, with fatal consequences for some, but an astonishing story of survival for one man.

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A Day To Remember

Well, I’m glad today is nearly over….

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Leonard Cohen checks out on Remembrance Day.

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We get back from the funeral of Victor Sayer, a wonderful old friend of Gill’s, and who will be sorely missed….and find out that my dear father is in hospital again.

In the prescient words of Jools Holland and his ever brilliant Rhythm & Blues Band, who we were lucky to see in Guildford last night with good friends Chezza & Dave: Enjoy yourself….it’s later than you think.

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Book review – The Universe versus Alex Woods

Alex Woods is an unusual boy. It’s not many 10 year-olds who have survived a meteorite landing on them, after all. And who suffers from epileptic seizures. And who has a clairvoyant Mum, and no Dad.

So it’s no surprise that he’s a natural target for school bullies.

But it is a surprise when he strikes up an unusual friendship with cantankerous, reclusive old Mr Peterson. Especially as he only gets to know the old man after breaking his greenhouse.

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Gavin Extence’s debut novel is a delight from start to finish. Some of the narrative strands arguably struggle to fit together at times, but the depth of friendship this odd couple develop is beautifully observed.

What a shame then that Mr Peterson is dying. And tries to commit suicide. But it’s ok….Alex saves him.

The final third of the novel sees Alex entering into a pact with Mr Peterson, that is simultaneously heart-breaking and heart-warming.

The author clearly did a huge amount of research into the process of assisted dying in Switzerland, that’s all I’m saying.

The book poses some fundamental questions about the right to die, the right to determine the timing of your own demise, when you’re suffering from a terminal illness that you know will render your last days painful and incapacitated.

But most of all the book is about people at very different stages in their lives, who have much to teach each other and who need each other’s support in very different ways.

Darkly humorous, educational yet entertaining, sad yet uplifting….The Universe versus Alex Woods will surprise and delight you.

Thank you, Gavin.

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Theatre review – Mummy

Well, that was different….

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Just back from seeing our first Guildford Fringe performance – Mummy – in the Back Room of Guildford’s Star Inn.

We had no idea what to expect. Other than a pint and a pasty. And probably a different experience than going to the Yvonne Arnaud theatre, just down the road.

Written and performed by the very talented Amy Gwilliam, this one-woman show packs more thought-provoking theatre into 60 minutes than most West End dramas do in twice the time, and for at least three times the price.

Dr. Elizabeth Niccoll, a Cambridge graduate and Egyptologist with a specialist knowledge of death rituals, returns to her old school to give a presentation on her newly launched book: Mummy – The Art of Saying Goodbye.

Initially in total control of herself and the teenage audience, it all unravels when memories of her own dead mother froth to the surface.

Expect some interaction, a bit of mummification and some rather black humour. And a pasty.

Directed by old Guildford friend Sophie Larsmon, I hope we get to see more collaborations from this exciting team in the future.


The sands of time

I wrote recently about a brutally fascinating book, Being Mortal.

It struck several chords, rather loudly. Not just how best to spend your end of life, when you know that you’re probably going to die quite soon. Hopefully, at that stage the medical profession will give you some palatable, more humane options, instead of fulfilling their surgical obligations to maintain life as long as possible, through any means available.

In sporting parlance, I’m close to hearing the bell for the start of the final lap of the 1,500 metre race that is my life.  At 58, I’ve hopefully got a long final lap still to run, but I think it’s fair to say that my PB is some distance behind in the rear view mirror.

I never used to read obituaries in the newspapers, but I find myself increasingly drawn to them. Most are about people who have had incredible, interesting and rewarding lives. Poets. Soldiers. Politicians. Writers. Sporting icons. Movie stars.

Listening to Desert Island Discs is also a source of simultaneous joy and envy. Hearing an interesting guest uncover their life story and achievements, to the soundtrack of meaningful music, is a delight. But it’s also a violent kick in the shins, the pain screaming that my own days are numbered. And demanding to know what I’ve achieved, compared to titans of industry, sporting giants, artistic legends.

To continue with the sporting analogies:

“You might be on the back nine of life, but it’s good to finish strong.” 

Morton Shaevitz, Refire! Don’t Retire: Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life

So much to do, and so little time…..


Book review – Being Mortal

I am indebted to Steve Dover, our next-door neighbour, friend and founder of the West Surrey Book Club.

For creating a blokes-only forum to discuss chosen books and drink ale in some otherwise unexplored hostelries. And most recently for his book selection – Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.

I rarely read non-fiction books. I’m sure it says something about my own life, but I enjoy lapping up a fiction writer’s imaginative plot and characterisations much more than reading about history, a biography or a book about the development of the motor bike engine during the 20th century.

But reading Being Mortal was a bit of a revelation.

It’s not a fun subject matter. It’s not written by a brilliantly creative writer. And it doesn’t provide any definitive answers.

But it does raise some very important and emotional questions about how we live the end of our lives. Particularly when we know that end is coming.

Atul Gawande is a US-based surgeon, and writer, with Indian roots. He questions whether the advances in medicine and technology actually provide the best solution for patients with terminal illnesses, or approaching death from more natural causes.

I’ve wondered myself whether a doctor’s obligation to keep a patient alive is always necessarily the best solution. Gawande goes further, and ultimately concludes that each individual should be consulted on how they want to spend the last period of life.

Of course each situation is different and far from black and white, but he suggests the medical profession should carefully discuss the outlook with the patient before an obligatory next chemo session, drug dispensation or injection.

If it’s possible you have only 3 months left, would you prefer to undergo non-stop medical efforts to extend your life marginally further, or would it be better to enjoy some final treatment-free time with your family, friends, doing what you enjoy and coming to terms that the end is close? What trade-offs are you willing or happy to contemplate in the dilemma of painful life extension v happier living?

As Gawande says: Medicine’s focus is narrow. Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul. Yet – and this is the painful paradox – we have decided that they should be the ones who largely define how we live in our waning days. For more than half a century now, we have treated the trials of sickness, ageing and mortality as medical concerns. It’s been an experiment in social engineering, putting our fates in the hands of people valued more for their technical prowess than for their understanding of human needs.

That experiment has failed. If safety and protection were all we sought in life, perhaps we could conclude differently. But because we seek a life of worth and purpose, and yet are routinely denied the conditions that make it possible, there is no other way to see what modern society has done.

Gawande highlights his conclusion through insightful – and emotional – cases he has experienced himself, or is aware of from colleagues.

I found the book uplifting and empowering. Surprising, given the subject matter.

Thanks, Steve.