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Eat, drink and be merry because no one gets out of here alive

Not that long ago dinner in most French hospitals was a civilised, grown-up experience.

Care was taken in the serving of a four-course meal and, if permitted, a mini-bottle of an appropriate wine came as standard.

Oh, and one final thing. You'd be asked with a pleasant smile: "Do you need an ashtray?"

Un cendrier? What bliss was that? In your bed, after dinner, still sipping your wine - contemplating your mortality, wreathed in smoke. Sublime.

While that was happening here, I was in a Glasgow hospital and had to drag myself and my i/v stand to the lifts, down four floors and out to the front doors for my legal drug of choice.

There, a merry band of brothers, including doctors and nurses, huddled around an upended urn packed with fag ends, shivering in up-yours solidarity.

Is it any wonder I went in search of fume-filled, wine-sodden, sun-drenched pastures new?

I got roughly a year's grace in France to drag away in public before the health police opened a European branch office.

The ashtrays disappeared from the hospitals. Simultaneously the food downscaled into that universal institutional beige and even the beloved wine was quietly removed in most town clinics.

Yes, I'm aware many of you will be muttering "and quite right too," but get over it, you've won.

You're all brisk, smokeless marchers to a five-a-day, 14-units-a-week, no-red-meat, six-month-check-up tune.

Admittedly, meanwhile, I'm wheezing and slurping my way along; hitting five a month when dinner-party force-fed, wilfully ignoring all available to me from the world's finest health service.

And I will not shirk the truth: had I my time again under this brave new health fascism, I might well be a lycra-clad, joyful juicer bounding around these French country lanes smothered in Factor 135.

For after 60, as I read recently, death is a sniper, and in the early hours of the morning when sleep has fled I tremulously imagine his sights lining up on my helpless form.

In those hours I curse myself for my careless husbanding of a body that deserved to be treated far better. Curse myself for my merry "live for today" mantra in every aspect of my life.

Promise God, the Cosmos, my long-dead mother, my son, that tomorrow I'll stop smoking, cut back on the vin, buy a pair of Nikes and … just, well, jog on to 80 at least.

Then cometh the dawn. And I console myself with the thought that whether romping along in self-denial, or scuttling self-indulgently sideways like me, we're all on the same path in the end.

There is only one exit.

So, no wonder I was cheered with a piece of news that proved that, here in France at least, all is not lost, or rather, when it is, there is little point in punitive action.

A hospital in south central France plans to open a wine bar next month in its centre for palliative care - a euphemism for care of the dying.

According to Dr Virginie Guastella, head of the unit at the CHU Clermont-Ferrand in Puy-de-Dome: "A situation can be palliative for several weeks or even several months and it's because life is so precious and real until the end that we decided to cultivate all that is fine and good.

"It's a way of rethinking the care of others, taking into account their feelings and emotions that make them a human being."

Patients, under medical supervision, will be able to sit and chat with family and friends in the wine bar, in a relaxed, pleasurable way, she said.

French studies have shown that wine and food can have a positive impact on our last days and it was with that thought that she was opening the bar.

There is something so pleasingly French in Dr Guastella's statement that life is so precious and real until the end.

No, that's not fair.

Rather, perhaps French in the recognition that the very things that may have conspired to kill us are still the things we enjoy most.

So, a familiar understanding shrug of the shoulders.

I'm told that in many hospices in the UK - those wonderful if too-few outposts - a nightly tot of whisky or any other drink is quietly available on the drugs trolley.

A drink, a cigar or cigarette may not be everybody's choice of companions or tiny props in those last faltering steps. Indeed many are not actually "well" enough to do so.

But for others, as this wise doctor knows, they are a reminder of life itself with all its mistakes and stumbles.

And when all is lost anyway, what purpose is served in their denial?

Having re-read this I recall old colleagues dead too young of drink, and none of the above would make sense to their loved ones.

But for the majority still, a glass of a fine vintage, a puff of a long-loved cigar, is as good a way to accept the ending of a life as is a prayer.

Me - I want champagne, a vintage. More red, smells, bells and morphine. Oh, and a priest bearing a Bordeaux.

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Food and drink

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