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Review: When I Die by Philip Gould

Philip Gould's book, When I Die, Lessons from the Death Zone, is a compelling read and the rave reviews are justified.

Written during the last few months of his life, it is a courageous and inspirational account about living and dying, and as I closed its beautifully designed hardback, I found myself comparing it to the best books I know on this subject, including Dante's Divine Comedy, Rinapoche's The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and Irvin Yalom's Staring at The Sun, because Gould's book seems to illustrate a profound understanding of the complex and dense spiritual tenets explored by these heavyweights. Cutting through difficult to grasp spiritual principles of what it means to live and die, the former polling and strategy advisor for Tony Blair delivers an impressive account of all you need to know about living and dying but were afraid to ask.

At the beginning of 2008 he was leading an enviable life, having achieved much. Since Blair left power Lord Gould (now ennobled) had taken up a new job as deputy chairman of Freud Communications as he continued to enjoy a long and happy marriage to Gail Rebuck, chief executive of the publishing group Random House. He had two daughters, both at Oxford, and lived in an elegant stuccoed terrace overlooking Regent's Park, in London, and was admired and loved by many. It was, he tells us, a perfect life.

But less than a year later, he was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer and nothing was the same again.

For the next four years he fought the last campaign of his life -- to achieve a "good" death -- "If you accept death, fear disappears" he told the Guardian two months before he died, and the book tells of his unique and heroic journey to achieve this.

Originally he was told he had a 75 per cent chance of surviving the next five years and, determined he could defeat the odds, he set about planning this win. Touchingly, he makes a mission of understanding the lessons of life and death and takes the reader with him as he discovers this meaning for him.

As he asks the big questions (terror and the fear of uncertainty) he takes us on a breathtaking journey to discover our own death. Elegantly and eloquently his experiences show us how he learnt to deepen his relationships with those he loved and to become a better man. We learn that the last months were the happiest of his life -- more revelatory and meaningful than ever before.

The imminence of death providing a brilliant intensity to every hour. In facing his death, he tells us, he learns to face life.

The course of his cancer was hideous from the start. He had a large tumour at the junction of his oesophagus and stomach. The NHS doctor he saw in London advocated radical surgery, cracking open his ribs and removing much of his stomach and as many of the lymph nodes as possible.

A top doctor in New York claimed he could perform the surgery far less savagely (through the stomach) and with far less unpleasant aftereffects. Gould chose the latter option, and it was a disastrous choice, though he recovered temporarily and returned to work. His wife and daughters pleaded with him to rest, but he continued to fight death until he had to surrender to it. It's a spellbinding read but something about feeling dazzled by the text bothered me for weeks and, until recently, I couldn't pinpoint it.

But from the moment he writes about hearing of the diagnosis -- he leaves the page.

A faint and different voice takes over the narrative as he sets out on his mission to win the most important campaign of his life, but he never really recovers from the shock.

Providing the pathos of the text for me, every time he has the opportunity to engage in the mystery of death, his paragraphs flow, but lack depth -- as he touches on his terror, he moves the narrative along in smooth, but empty, observations.

As he focuses on his indignance that death is robbing him at the age of 61, he barely mentions his rage, and his desire to write the book ahead of spending valuable time with his family raised more questions for me.

Gould faced death as he faced life, believing that in good company (big names find big drops in the text) and excellent planning, he could articulate dying -- but death is not a cause to be triumphed over or languaged in words, and so this limits the book and separates it from the aforementioned masters.

Rinapoche's finest lesson on dying eluded Gould "the logical mind seems interesting but it is the seed of delusion" -- the numinous quality of death cannot be articulated in words -- but in its context, Gould's book is unquestionably a beautifully written instruction on how to be led to the mystery of the human experience.

Christina Reihill is the author of Soul Burgers and winner of the 2012 Allianz to Business Arts bursary www.soul-burgers.com

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