How hospices make you think differently about life

19 May 2018

9:00 AM

19 May 2018

9:00 AM

The timing of the Today programme’s series about hospices could not have been more apt, coming as it did so soon after Tessa Jowell’s death was announced with its array of tributes and the poignant interview with her husband and one of her daughters. In themselves such personal testimonies are not always that helpful — everyone’s situation is individual and the actual outcomes necessarily different. But what Jowell’s family said about her last hours and their evident acknowledgment and acceptance of their situation gave a real sense of purpose on Monday to Zoe Conway’s report from the North London Hospice. This was part of the Dying Matters campaign, urging us to think more about death and end-of-life care. We heard not just from doctors and counsellors but also the cleaner at the hospice who has to go into the room where someone has just died to prepare it for the next incumbent.

‘Has working here made you feel differently about dying?’ asked Conway, a question whose directness was unusual given their proximity to death. ‘It’s made me think differently about life,’ Angela replied without hesitation, explaining that she no longer complains about having to cook for her family now that she’s spent time with people who would dearly love to be able to do that again.

But perhaps the most striking comment was made by Joe, who has been volunteering at the hospice since his wife died from cancer 12 years ago. He gives his time to those he meets in the hospice trying to do for them what his wife asked him to do for her in her last days, which might involve something as simple as taking them outside to feel the rain falling. ‘They notice life at a much deeper level than we do,’ he said with a quiet but resolute dignity that will stay with me.

To confront those questions not normally talked about openly or with real honesty was also the intention behind Nora Fakim’s documentary for the World Service, My Mixed Up World (produced by Sue Mitchell). She’s mixed-race herself with a mother from Morocco and a father from Mauritius whose family were originally from India. She grew up speaking French to her father, Moroccan to her mother and English only outside the home, and then spent three years in Morocco as an adult trying to work out where she belonged. She was, she says, not black enough to be thought of as having suffered from prejudice, not Indian enough to know what it feels like to deal with that kind of racial discrimination, and not white enough either to have an easy ride, unchallenged by issues of racial identity. ‘You can feel alienated,’ she says, as did many of those she spoke to for her programme whose ethnic make-up was a reflection of how complex, and enriched, people’s lives have become.

She sees this week’s royal wedding (and Meghan Markle’s willingness to talk about her own experiences of harassment as a person of mixed origins) as an opportunity to begin a country-wide discussion about what it means to be neither white nor black but something in-between. (It was noted that Obama was always referred to as the first black president when in fact he was mixed-race, which for anyone mixed-race meant something quite different.) Not until the 2001 census was there an official recognition that many citizens of the UK cannot be categorised as simply black or white but are of mixed origins, and sometimes of several ethnicities at once. ‘It’s a curse and it’s a gift,’ says Fakim. Often it’s other people who impose an identity upon you because they assume who you are from your appearance, which is not always an accurate reflection of your cultural make-up. But, ‘you understand so many things other people don’t because you are forced to think’.

Who would have thought that a royal event, and Prince Harry’s wedding in particular, could become such a catalyst for change, for a greater acceptance and understanding of difference. But Fakim is optimistic that such things are possible. The conversation has begun.

Mahan Esfahani’s programme for Radio 3, The Other Iran (produced by Chris Elcombe), was also about cross-cultural exchanges. Esfahani, a harpsichordist and former New Generation Artist, grew up in America but was born in Iran. His father, though, came originally from Azerbaijan, which was annexed from what was northern Persia by the Russians in the early 19th century and later was absorbed into the Soviet empire. Esfahani is intrigued by the differences between Iranian music, which looks firmly to the East, and that of Azerbaijan, where the classical western repertoire, including opera and ballet, were promoted and absorbed into the musical heritage. How did Purcell and Bach reach the capital, Baku?

The discovery of oil in the mid 19th century brought with it not just money but people from elsewhere, Russians, Germans, Poles, Italians, who in turn demanded live music and theatre. Baku became the Paris of the Caucasus, absorbing both European and Islamic influences. Later, when under Soviet rule, Baku welcomed visits from avant-garde composers banned in Moscow. No one in Baku knew they had been forbidden. It was all slightly confusing and unexpected, but revealing too of the play of chance on culture and heritage.

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