My dear friend's lonely death

17:41, Jan 28 2014

I was going to write about the arrest of Justin Bieber. But I've just learned how a friend and former teacher died, and Bieber has shrunk from view.

Valerie taught me at university 35 years ago. I was studying English, though studying may be overstating it. In my first week I went to five lectures, but in the next three years I went to none. So my only appointment in any given week was an hour with my academic supervisor.

I had several of these in my first two terms. There was a nervous medievalist in slip-on shoes; a renaissance scholar who burned incense in her room; an idle modernist who purported to teach critical theory but who rarely read a book and never read my essays. I didn't get on with any of them, and they, perhaps more pertinently, did not get on with me.

In my third term I was farmed out to Valerie. We got on so well that she remained my supervisor for the next two years and a friend for the next 30.

Because she didn't have a place in college we met in my rooms. Some mornings I'd still be in bed when she arrived. It added zing. She'd talk through the bedroom door while making coffee and smoking my cigarettes. We discussed literature from time to time but it was the non-literary conversation that I relished. She was the first mature woman I had got to know.

She told me about her husband, their childlessness, oil lamps, fish stocks, the menopause, anything. She had a lust for conversation, for the life of the mind. Unlike me she'd had it tough.

Born in the mid-1930s in the west of England, she was raised in a cottage with no running water or electricity or sanitation. She was a clever girl but because the family was poor she had to leave school early and go to work.

It was only in her late 20s that she was able to get a grant and go to university.

Once there she blossomed.

Having gained a first-class degree she spent the rest of her life on the fringes of the literary world, writing, reviewing, editing, teaching. She wrote a couple of novels and several books of literary criticism.

Around the turn of the century she edited for an American university a huge encyclopaedia of English literature.

She asked me to write the entry on the poet Philip Larkin. I told her I felt flattered but that I lacked the scholarly credentials. "If I'd wanted scholarship, sweetheart," she replied, "I wouldn't have come to you."

You can see why I liked her.

By then she had Parkinson's disease. The last time I saw her was perhaps a dozen years ago.

On holiday in England I stayed a night with her and her husband in their cottage lined with floor-to-ceiling books.

From the window of the bedroom I looked out over a field of chooks with a single strutting rooster and then the flat and misty fens of eastern England. Valerie was already weak.

At dusk, I remember, she suggested a walk round the village and leant on my arm. We went only a couple of hundred yards and it took a while.

She died in 2007. I presumed the disease had killed her and it seemed like a release. But this week I learned that it was suicide. Her husband told the story to a newspaper in the hope that it would bring about a change in the law.

Valerie chose to kill herself before the disease robbed her of all dignity. She wanted to take an overdose and die in her husband's arms.

But they discovered that the law forbade this. If he held his wife of 48 years while she lay dying he could go to prison for assisting suicide. So Valerie insisted that he let her do it alone. When he agreed, she said she'd do it the next day.

That night they went to the pub for a steak dinner, then watched a Woody Allen film at home.

In the morning she almost shooed him out of the house. He spent the day at a library. When he came home in the evening he expected to find her dead in bed. But she had died on the bathroom floor. She was wearing a red dressing gown.

She'd left her last words on a computer screen. "Don't think of this as a suicide note," she wrote, "but rather as a thank you for half a century together."

The law gets some things right, like the arrest of Justin Bieber. But it gets other things as wrong as it is possible to get them.


The Dominion Post