‘If your time ain’t come, not even a doctor can kill you’ — so goes the proverb that best echoes the dilemma of an aging humankind as we glimpse the harrowing vista of decrepitude to come: a panorama that first takes in the custard-stained wingback chairs of a soul-extinguishing care home, then yaws off nauseatingly to a vision of the demented and the drooling as they hobble into that good night. How can you swerve incarceration and indignity when you just won’t die — and, more pertinently, when no one is allowed to kill you? How to be the auteur of your own death when ‘self-euthanasia’ proves so tricky you need the help of a loved one, thus implicating them in a criminal act?
This is the puzzler that fell into Guy Kennaway’s lap when his octogenarian mother Susie — ‘certainly no Mrs Tiggywinkle’ — asked him to buy her enough heroin to stun a giant. Her plan was to take to the master bed of her home at the foot of the Pyrenees and kill herself and her frail husband Stanley (90, a former showbiz accountant), before they became utterly infirm.
Notes made over the subsequent two years became this, Kennaway’s fifth book, an irreverent and comical account of the knotty, loving but paranoid relationship with his boastful, glamorous mother, a potted history of suicide (who knew the Roman Senate gave hemlock on the house to anyone who applied?), a sober consideration of how to die on your own terms, and a journey into the unknown territory of finding the least messy route to do it.
Susie consults the internet for advice and her son asks anyone who’ll listen. Cocaine, pure nitrogen (‘the brain doesn’t panic’) imbibed through a Spitfire gas mask, a poison-tipped umbrella, even revivifying the CIA’s former interest in Susie are all mooted (America really did tap the family phone in the 1980s, when Susie’s anti-arms-trade activism peaked). In this theater of the absurd the author gives up pot and starts popping Tramadols from the stash that his mum is stockpiling. He’s funniest when imagining what could go wrong with some of the death drugs.
Curtains closed at 4 p.m.; Stanley on the phone trying to hurry up the dealer; the two of them bickering. ‘If you hadn’t spent so much on the garden furniture, we could have got an eight-ball.’
The book comes alive in Kennaway’s sympathetic account of the ineffably sweet, unreconstructed Stanley, bashing his wheelchair into the drinks trolley, modeling airplanes or explaining his theory of his own life as ‘positive drift’. At the hypermarket Leclerc, Susie decided that Stanley was ‘too frail for the final push into fruit and vegetables’, so sent him back to the car park, where stepfather and stepson diverted themselves with a
gentlemen’s perving session… When a woman went by with a cart, [Stanley] said in a fluting, almost pious tone: ‘I have the sculptor’s interest in the human form unadorned by clothes. I make it my work to imagine what lies under the so-restrictive and unnecessary vestments.’
The momentum is temporarily lost when Kennaway switches register and turns to camera in an unnecessarily cutesy tone. ‘I hope you lot enjoyed that,’ he writes, after describing his mother’s angry reaction to reading the book’s manuscript; and, worse, ‘I imagine some of you will be smiling or even laughing at my discomfort, you rotters!’ It’s difficult to square a sudden public-school boy jokiness with the rest of the book’s derisive, cool tone.
There might also have been less exploiting of the aging couple for comic effect; but Susie gets her revenge with her own letter, which Kennaway reproduces verbatim. ‘Obviously,’ she writes, ‘I could bring a successful action against him for defamation, slander and probably identity theft, so ridiculously inaccurate is his portrayal.’ She instead decides to string it out, no doubt plotting on giving interviews denouncing him further.
When Stanley does shuffle off, Susie, it turns out, is not quite ready to follow. As the book ends, mother and son are discussing the option of her driving off a cliff on the road to St Antonin, into a deep gorge of Corsican pines and the sparkle of the River Tarn far below.
Time to Go is a sometimes manipulative but mostly hilarious book — a marshaling cry for the cause of legalizing assisted suicide. Kennaway believes the law is hopelessly inadequate for the times we live in. ‘Choosing how you die is nothing less than a human right. It’s just not acknowledged as one. But it surely will be soon.’
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.