Oliver Sacks was on the radio last week, reading from his latest book, which is an autobiography. Correction – it wasn’t him reading, and it’s not his latest book: it’s going to be his last book, because he is dying.
Sacks is a neurologist best known to most people as the author of the unforgettably titled ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat’. I had no idea, until I’d listened to the first extract on Radio 4, that he was originally from London, had an early passion for fast motorcycles, and was a gay man. The memoir is nothing if not candid, and the reader, Oliver Ford Davies spoke movingly about what it cost Sacks to come out to his family, as he did back in the not so swinging sixties.
The programme may not be online forever, but luckily this article in The Guardian will be. In it, Doctor Ranjana Srivastava talks about how she was struck by Sacks’s candid admission of mortality. Sacks doesn’t merely accept the imminence of death: quite the opposite. The presence of death makes him feel intensely alive, as he wrote, wanting to “deepen my friendships, to write more, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”
At the same time, someone else I heard talking about their imminent demise last year has had a lucky escape. Wilko Johnson, legendary guitarist of Doctor Feelgood is now the unlikely star of a film by Julien Temple, reviewed here by Mark Kermode.
In 2013, Wilko was diagnosed with inoperable terminal cancer, and his intense and almost ecstatic response (he went out on what really was going to be ‘a farewell tour’) earned not so much public sympathy as admiration: how could anyone be so cool in the face of death?
But then he didn’t die. Despite that, he’s still as cool as ever, feeling a bit anti-climactic after coming back to life, dealing with the depression that went away when he had only ten months to live, but still candid, lucid, and funny as hell.
A strange pairing, Sacks and Johnson, but they both have a lot to teach us about ways to prepare for death.
The film, The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson should be in an art house cinema near you about now. The book is out in hardback too, and among other places, you can find it at Waterstones