‘Overwhelming love. Overwhelming love. Overwhelming love. I am surrounded by it, wrapped in it, and I am trying to learn at the end of my life to learn how to deal with it and respond to it. It isn’t easy. It’s the most difficult thing I have ever done’
In Case of Any News
By Kenneth Roy
Published by ICS Books
Try as I might, there is no way in which I can give this month’s column a seasonally jolly topspin. It’s not about Christmas, carols, cracker jokes, stupid sweaters, office parties, balloons or stuffed turkeys. It’s about saying goodbye to all of that, about the empty chair at the feast. It’s about dying.
Most of us have read books by people who know they are dying and want to put into words what their life meant, to describe their experience of love and friendship before it all goes away. I’ve ghost-written such a book myself, on behalf of a man dying of a brain tumour, and in terms of how much it meant to its subject, it is probably the best thing I have written. But in the vast literature of death, I have never come across anything quite as moving or brave as the late Kenneth Roy’s In Case of Any News.
I didn’t, I hasten to add, know him: I never met him, saw him on television, or heard him speak. I haven’t read any of his other books, heard of the charities he founded, or written for Scottish Review, the magazine he founded and edited, in either its printed quarterly (since 1995) or (since 2008) online weekly iterations. My admiration of his book isn’t tainted by friendship or professional courtesy: in short, it’s not personal.
I had, though, read his journalism for years. From it, I had constructed a mental picture of him: a bit crabbit, perhaps, not the sort to throw himself into the mad social whirl but commenting on it from a laconic distance. A cynic, possibly; definitely not a joiner-in or a booming extrovert. One thing for sure: his byline was a byword for clarity of thought and expression, usually with a dollop of wit on the side – ‘writing worth reading’, in the words of the Scotsman advert from the days when he was writing for it or Scotland on Sunday.
Magnus Linklater begins his excellent introduction to In Case of Any News by saying that he always saw Kenneth Roy as ‘the conscience of Scotland – a writer who gave it a wee nudge when he thought it had strayed off course’. I’d put it slightly differently: that he had a knack for asking awkward questions. If he were reviewing his own book, for example, he’d probably ask what on earth the living could possibly hope to learn from a book written by someone who is dying. He might even have been sceptical about the whole project: that would, after all, be the contrarian position, and Roy never shied away from taking the minority view. What, he might ask, can a writer teach us about Death when it is already in the hospital room, scythe raised?
This drastically foreshortened focus is the truly remarkable thing about Roy’s ‘diary of living and dying’. He began writing it on 4 October 2018, just after being told that his cancer was terminal and ended it on 1 November, four days before his death, and yet for all his caveats about not having had time to edit it properly, it is complete in its own right. A rare and ultra-lucid despatch from very edge of life, it is a last testament of will from a writer who ‘wonders how near the finishing line I can get and still file a line or two of copy’. And that’s the key: these are the final pages of a reporter’s notebook, and he will struggle through sleeplessness and embarrassment (vomiting, soiling the bed) and pain to fulfil that oh-so-simple-sounding journalistic instruction to ‘tell it like it is’.
But that, he says, is the easy bit. Recording what is life like in Room 303, Station 9, at Ayr Hospital is straightforward reportage of the kind that writes itself (yeah, right). The really worrying bit, he adds, is that if he suddenly runs out of any added insights into the business of dying, any last words of wisdom, the whole project will be doomed to failure.
Now this, remember, is what Kenneth Roy has decided he will do with what remains of his life. Finishing this book is his one remaining ambition. Not reading poetry, because the words float away, unabsorbed. Not watching films, because or reading histories because, well, what’s the point? Even music palls. Religion doesn’t help, because he’s not a believer. The news no longer matters and will happen without him. Philosophy doesn’t console, not even Seneca. Pastimes are pointless when there is so little time to pass. But 3,000 words a day: that counts for something, doesn’t it, even if only a fragment to shore up against ruin? Spurred on by his estimable consultant Dr Gillen, he carries on.
Of course, he has his visitors, and they have their place in the reporter’s notebook, although – and again, this is another way in which this book differs from most other examples of this curious sub-genre – they are not its primary focus. As family and friends take turns by his bedside, one is never quite sure who is who. Perhaps he didn’t want to embarrass them, but my own guess is that he didn’t want to dwell on the love and friendship he was leaving behind him lest it undermine his own purpose. Wallowing in self-pity isn’t his style. Nor does he bore us with the details of his treatment, because that’s what they are, just details.
He tells us something of his life, and it’s not remotely what I expected. A bleak background in Bonnybridge, driven to truanting aged 12 by a bullying maths teacher and leaving school three years later without a single qualification. An embarrassing, alcoholic father (‘no good purpose. would be served by a celestial reunion’) and reserved mother. Wondering why he and his sister never talked much about either of them, he notes that ‘dying doesn’t necessarily release inhibition; it can actually reinforce it.’
And if belatedly confronting the past is a strange experience, so too is life on Station 9. ‘Overwhelming love. Overwhelming love. Overwhelming love. I am surrounded by it, wrapped in it, and I am trying to learn at the end of my life to learn how to deal with it and respond to it. It isn’t easy. It’s the most difficult thing I have ever done.’
Read that paragraph again, you can see just how far it is from my initial mental image of Roy (crabbit, cynical, witty etc). Yet his affection for the NHS staff who look after him (and to whom the book is dedicated) is clear enough. If there has indeed been a change in him, it has happened in front of our eyes as we are introduced to them – the assistant nurse who helps him to shave, the nurse who makes time for a kind word before she goes off shift, everyone who cleans up after him or cares for him, or who quietly understands what it’s like to be afraid to go to sleep when you’re not sure if you’ll wake up in the morning. The palliative care expert who quietly asks him if he wants to carry on.
Maybe, if he had time, he would have edited that paragraph about overwhelming love. But that’s the point. He hasn’t. He notices how his whole style is shifting, becoming less energetic, less elaborate and more direct. He has things to say, but it’s getting harder. He is fighting against tiredness, interrupting his own narrative even more than the most po-mo novelist (has that first chapter been lost for good? Has he gone over the top in the heartfelt tributes to Station 9 at the end of his self-penned obit in Scottish Review? Should he have written it straighter, maybe with a joke in the first par?). But he hasn’t time to change anything. It’s there, 49,000 words, at one and the same time raw and thoughtful, and delivered, somewhat miraculously, just in time for that final, and sadly unalterable, deadline.
I wrote earlier on that I had never met Kenneth Roy, and that’s true. But In the course of writing this, I remembered that I had received an email from him. Three years ago, compiling one of those Books of the Year round-ups, I had asked him to pick a couple of books that had impressed him. He replied courteously and in time for my own deadline. So I’d like to repay the compliment. If anyone asks me for my own book of the year, this is it.
In Case of Any News by Kenneth Roy is published by ICS Books, priced £14.99.