In Case of Any News

Kenneth Roy

ICS Books, £14.99

Intimations of mortality arrive in different ways, and at different speeds.

Some are a normal function of the ageing process; physical impairment being an irritating sign that whatever the mind is saying, the body is making its own judgements as to likely longevity.

But perhaps the most devastating indication that life is finite comes to those whose illness – and swiftly following demise – arrives with little prior warning, giving the unexpected patient little time for mental or emotional preparation.

That was the shocking fate which befell the Scottish writer, broadcaster and publisher Kenneth Roy. His diagnosis of a terminal cancer was delivered in October of last year. He was dead little more than a month later. And his last very few weeks were spent in a hospital room, attended by a cast list of NHS personnel with whom he seems to have established a relationship of mutual respect and affection far exceeding the normal staff patient variety.

It was they, and in particular his consultant, who by turns encouraged and chivvied him in his last defiant rage against the dying of the light. It began as a diary; a written account of his daily treatments and failing health, interspersed with memories of his troubled childhood, and myriad subsequent ventures and friendships.

For Roy words were ever the stuff of life, and he wielded them one final time to challenge onrushing death by crafting an astonishing 49,000 words which became posthumously a book, latterly composed with one fingered typing. In Case of Any News: A Diary of Living and Dying was a title he seized upon when one of his two sons indicated it was why he left his phone always on and handy when he heard of his father’s plight.

The book gives no little insight into the life and character of this complex man; a clever child who became a serial truant at his secondary school. He left without much in the way of qualifications when, doubtless to fulfil his father’s injunction to “be something”, he had always envisaged university as the primary punctuation point to his education.

He writes unsparingly of teachers whom he accuses of sadistic use of the belt due to psychological flaws. Yet he is sufficiently curious and self aware to ponder why his peers were able to survive and prosper in the same environment.

His life became one full of both achievement and contradictions. He wrote widely for a number of publications, always with a trademark iconoclasm. Nevertheless, although a kenspeckle TV face for a period, he seemed happier operating from rural Ayrshire than a high octane newsroom. All of a piece with his unwavering support for a defiantly unfashionable football team, rather than those in more glamorous leagues.

Amid many ventures, some more successful than others, were two which offer a considerable legacy: his Young Programme, which encouraged interaction and debate among younger people UK-wide and The Scottish Review, which he edited until his death and in which, typically, he broke the news about his impending death. A much followed-up scoop, but not one he would have wished to acquire.

But this book is more than just an autobiographical memoir. Rather it is an account – all too vivid at times – of the many indignities visited upon a person when he or she can no longer exercise proper control of their own bodily functions. (Not the least of the dark humour he intrudes regularly is pondering the prospect of having to die facing two signs marked Toilet.)

There is throughout a strong thread of philosophical inquiry; interrogating his own agnosticism, musing on the random nature of death and disease, examining unfulfilled ambitions. And it is in these passages that Roy's sometimes perplexed reflections will strike the most resonant chords with readers.

For we are all familiar with death in its many guises, and all have personal experience of dealing with it in relation to those close to us. Reading this account of his final weeks reminded me forcibly of my own husband’s diagnosis and death, again within a month. Yet he was spared the traumatic events of final weeks spent in an unfamiliar bed, tended to by strangers, or awareness of the end game. A death following a failed surgical process is shattering but not to the patient, mercifully granted no sense of impending doom.

Most people, when they consider their time on this earth, have similar views as to how they would wish to leave it. Very few harbour a wish to die in hospital yet most of us do. What most of us fear is not death per se, but decrepitude and dependency.

A couple of years ago, at a book festival, I was interviewing an eminent Irish doctor. His very firm view was that the process of dying had been wrenched from familial control and subjected to unwarranted medicalisation. He thought “striving officiously to keep alive” was far from the optimum response when the life in question had been well-run and reached a natural conclusion.

Yet handing back control to the nearest and dearest of the about to depart is not without its own attendant risks. Many relatives actively connive in demanding procedures when they can inevitably only prolong agony – whether physical or mental. Many choose to ignore the very specific wish of their loved one that their organs be deployed to alleviate other human distress.

In recent years we have seen heart-wrenching examples of parents who demanded their infant be kept alive, or dispatched to foreign parts for experimental treatment, when the medical team most intimately involved have counselled that further intervention would be both pointless and not in the best interests of the child.

The “whose life is it anyway?” conundrum is most acutely relevant in the other high-profile cases of recent times when people suffering from desperately debilitating conditions conclude that their life is not worth living, but whose cries of impotent distress are thwarted by politicians or those with a theological axe to grind. I can see no scenario where we should feel proud of forcing people to travel abroad in order to extinguish an impoverished facsimile of life, a mortal coil being shuffled off only to avoid a living death.

Life expectancy has improved for most people, and broadly that is to be welcomed. Yet the bald statistics do not factor in quality of life. There are 80-somethings rejoicing in their ability to still run half marathons. There are others locked in the torment of advancing dementia.

Kenneth Roy bemoaned the fact that he left our world aged 73. “I’ve never thought of 73 as an age to die,” he wrote. “It’s a score in an Open Championship, respectable enough but on the fringes of contention at best.” But arguably it’s not the time you are allotted so much as what you do with it. Roy may have felt cheated of another decade or so. But he packed an impressive amount into his three score years and three.