by Tom Lubbock
At the risk of appearing deeply superficial, I confess that I was attracted to this book just because of the title. Tom Lubbock was a writer and illustrator and the chief art critic of the UK paper, The Independent, between 1997-2011.
He was also very happily married, with a young son when, in 2008, he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and told he had 1-2 years to live. This book is his chronicle of his life from then to his death in 2011.
Apparently he was renowned for the clarity and unconventionality of his writing and, according to the front book flap, “the same fierce intelligence permeates this extraordinary memoir.”
With the dramatic pronouncement, “The news was death. And it wasn’t going to be maybe good luck and getting through it. It was definitely death, and quite soon…” in the first paragraph of Chapter One we’re catapulted into Tom’s world.
“Mortal. We occupy a limited patch of time… Manipulated by our failing bodies. We know the deal. We’re bodies. We are not in our own hands,” he comments soon after diagnosis. Then, a month on, “Why am I calm? Why have I been walking around with Marion [his wife] today feeling kind of blessed? Ever since the attack [a fit] ten days ago I’ve seemed to be in a new life.” And “I am even energised by this condition of life, which is not at all how I expected to react.”
Some – well, to be honest, quite a bit of his writings I struggled with; perhaps it is just that his ‘unconventional’ writing style doesn’t quite gel with me. But then that made me more appreciative of the pearls sewn within the fabric of his expression here and there… moments when his emotional self was to the fore.
“I thought that fear of the idea of my non-existence would seize me. I find it’s sadness at the idea of loss, parting, those I love, the world, that pierces me. I am moved by praise of the world… I have no desire for the lifeboat of immortality. The goodness of the world is all I know or can imagine or wish for…. I keep feeling I am blessed. By this change of life I am blessed…. I am both standing outside my life, in a rather transcendental state, and also more intensely within it.”
He quotes Bertolt Brecht as saying’ Although the purely biological death of the individual is of no interest to society, dying ought nevertheless be taught.’ Then he decides that there are ways in which dying is a practice, and for him the thinking that goes with that is, “Holding allegiance to the world, even while accepting your links to it are very weak.” And further on he opines that “Teaching dying, if it could be done, would be in part to teach you how to keep your view on both life and death.”
He is a man of words and it is the fear of losing language (and his tumour was in exactly the region of the brain associated with that faculty) that, as his situation progresses, consumes him. As a fellow wordsmith I can relate to his concern. I also wonder if – should I ever be in a similar situation one day – I shall be as focused on this one aspect.
As I read on I found I was waiting for some great revelation about the paucity of words to descend on him. When it appeared not to, I wanted to say: ‘But Tom, there’s a world beyond words! It’s called no-mind… meditation. It’s silent and altogether more amazing that any experience that can be encapsulated within language.”
The end, or at least the end of the book, comprises short statements – all the more poignant because of their simplicity – as he notes: “I cannot count. At all…. Names are going… It’s very difficult for me to write at all… First of all it was scary; now it’s all right; it is still, even now, interesting…. My true exit may be accompanied by no words at all, all gone…
“Quiet but still something? Noises? Nothing?
“My body. My tree.
“After that it becomes simply the world.”
Review by Maneesha
Buy on Amazon: Until Further Notice, I am Alive [Paperback]