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Learning process

27 November 2015


WHEN Jenny Diski was told that she had incurable lung cancer, she responded with the driest of quips: “Better start cooking the meth.” If you are not a Breaking Bad fan, you’ll have to take the dark humour on trust. But it is fair to say that this initial reaction is typical of Diski’s attitude to her mortality, as revealed to David Schneider in One to One (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week).

In many ways, terminal illness has been the making of her. At the age of 68, with plenty of rich experiences behind her, Diski was starting to feel depressed about the forthcoming years of decline. But then the diagnosis came along, and her career is again on the up. Death by cancer is sexy, she declares: it sells books, and gets you profiles in the national papers and interviews on Radio 4.

She is embarked on a “Here’s me dying” story that people cannot get enough of. So Diski is pretty OK about dying — just don’t tell her she is being “brave”. The sentimentality of “the bravery thing” is not her tune at all.

This was the second in a short series of encounters between Schneider and people involved in the process of dying; and what links this tonally to the otherwise very different exchange with Kathryn Mannix the week before is the control asserted by the patient.

Mannix works in palliative care, and has seen how people will choose to pass away at a given time, such as when the family member who is keeping vigil has momentarily left the room, or when some piece of news — the safe delivery of a grandchild, perhaps — has been reported.

There is a pattern of events leading up to death, Mannix says, just as there is leading up to childbirth. And, having seen about 14,000 people die, it is a pattern that holds no fear for her.

So well established is the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival that the annual invasion of the world’s musical avant-garde into a town otherwise best known for its performances of Messiah now barely raises an eyebrow. But When Stockhausen Came to Huddersfield (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) it was a different matter. The festival was only ten years old in 1988, and Stockhausen was certainly the most glamorous — and possibly the most unflinching — modernist they had ever had.

Ian McMillan, who does the banal transcendent better than anyone, told the story with typical wit and charm. More a doyen of West Yorkshire ales than West German serialism, McMillan mused on the impression that Stockhausen made on the good folk of Huddersfield.

What did the ping-pong players do when they found their sports hall appropriated for a performance of Stockhausen’s epic Sternklang — did they grumble about the lunacy of modern art, or were some converted to his fantastical vision of a music that could be played to visiting aliens?

What is for sure is that an encounter with Stockhausen was always memorable. For one collaborator, he was the greatest person he had ever met; to the stage manager, it was all rubbish. He was somebody who claimed to offer a route to the Infinite; although, as McMillan pointed out, most of us will need to change at Honley.

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