Magazine article The Spectator

Dying on Twitter

Magazine article The Spectator

Dying on Twitter

Article excerpt

In the social media age, breaking 'the last taboo' is de rigueur

Not content with Facebooking our every foible, Instagramming the births of our children and live-tweeting our daily lives, more and more of us are now making a public spectacle of dying. We're inviting strangers not merely to 'like' expertly filtered photos of our breakfasts, but to admire the way we peg out. Nothing better captures the death of privacy than this publicisation of death.

It began with the literary set. It's a rare writer these days diagnosed with a terminal illness who doesn't get a book out of it. Jenny Diski is the latest public dyer. She's giving readers of the London Review of Books a blow-by-blow account of her death by lung cancer, covering everything from the diagnosis to her chemo sessions. It's moving and sometimes gripping, but it feels wrong.

To draw back the curtain on a woman's death scene and watch her skin turn 'deep red with flaky patches' -- shouldn't that be for friends and family, not for strangers? Even Diski seems to have doubts. 'Another fucking cancer column' is how she refers to it. She follows on from Christopher Hitchens, usually the scourge of fashionable hoohah, and Iain Banks, who set up a website where fans could read updates on his cancer and even sign a guestbook: a kind of pre-death condolence book which soon filled up with mawkish expressions of sorrow. On the site, Banks's wife was referred to as his 'widow-in-waiting'.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, John Diamond's cancer column in the Times was widely praised and eventually turned into a play: A Lump in My Throat . Ruth Picardie's cancer column for the Observer -- six pieces in which she graphically detailed her decline -- became a bestselling book: Before I Say Goodbye . The actress Sheridan Smith has just appeared in a BBC Sunday-night adaptation of The C Word , the memoir of Lisa Lynch, who died from breast cancer in 2013.

Dying is now such a major publishing sell that it can bring a writer the kind of fame he or she only dreamt of when healthy. The Guardian drily noted this in its obit for Diamond: 'It was a horrible irony that the illness that eventually ended [his] life was also, professionally, the making of him.' Or consider this desperately sad headline to a blog in the San Francisco Chronicle , written by a young woman who died from skin cancer in 2010: 'Cancer. …

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