Simon Parke: Focused on dying

by
16 November 2011

PHILIP GOULD, who recently died of cancer, aged 61, will perhaps be most remembered by the public for his focus groups and his dying.

Tony Blair described him as an in­dispensable part of the rise of New Labour: “To me he was my guide and mentor, a wise head, a brilliant mind, and a total rock when a storm was raging. . . He was always a constant advocate for the British people, their hopes and anxieties.”

Mr Blair refers here to the focus groups that Lord Gould intro­duced to politics. Such groups have a tarnished image now, sullied by too close an association with an out-of-vogue New Labour. But perceptions are as solid as smoke, and Lord Gould would have us think again.

Focus groups, he claimed, reveal a deeper truth than the traditional Yes or No polls. They reveal who people are, their deeper longings. Like the court jester of old, Lord Gould’s ability with such groups made him a significant if uncomfortable truth-teller to those in power — “This is what people really feel about you.” Lord Gould found this particularly hard in the 2010 election with Gordon Brown: “Gordon is such a vulnerable man so easily hurt; no one wanted to hurt him.”

But the onset of cancer brought a new experience of life to this self-confessed “obsessive nutcase”. “When you move from one diagnosis, that’s one thing . . . but the death diagnosis — the level of intensity is so high, so strong and so powerful that you are just in a differerent world.” The doctor, when questioned about how long he had to live, said the worst case was three months. “What’s the best case?” asked his wife, Gail. “Three months,” was the reply.

Lord Gould described his time in the “death zone” as “certainly the most important time of my life. . .I look out of the window and I feel the intensity — the intensity of my wife, the intensity of my family — that it is the natural place to be.” Mr Blair says that, in dying, Lord Gould grew “emotionally and spiritually into this remarkable witness to life’s meaning and purpose”. The former pollster agreed, saying that he would not have wanted to die the person he was before the cancer: “I’ve reached levels of integrity, decency, and com­passion which are entirely different,” he said, six weeks before his death, in a TV interview with Andrew Marr.

The words of the dying carry their own power. Certainly, Lord Gould’s clear-sighted acceptance melted my own minor difficulties and took me instead to my north-London window to contemplate the grey, cold, but holy day.

“To leave this extraordinary place now, I would not want to do that,” he said. “This is the final place, and the right place for me at this time is to be in the final place.”

Solitude: Recovering the power of alone by Simon Parke is published by White Crow.

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