33 Meditations on Death
By David Jarrett
Doubleday, 304pp, £19.99/$24.95
Had David Jarrett’s new book 33 Meditations on Death: Notes from the Wrong End of Medicine been published last year, it might have been mildly controversial but accepted by most. Appearing now, however, in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, it has an entirely new, and unwelcome resonance.
Jarrett’s contention, which has grown during his forty years as a doctor, thirty of which have been as an NHS consultant in geriatric and stroke medicine, is that we do not pay enough attention to what happens after our Biblical three score and ten and, indeed, for many (and perhaps most) people, death may be a happier outcome than an extended senescence.
Perhaps because he has spent much of his life surrounded by death, Jarrett is sceptical about life-extension, suggesting that the only method that has any scientific evidence is intermittent fasting, and for those who follow this, life will seem much longer even if they don’t get the bonus years.
His own approach to healthy living is simple and easy to follow—don’t smoke, eat as healthy a diet as you can (he doesn’t advocate vegetarianism or veganism), drink in moderation and exercise. After that, he suggests, what happens to you is largely down to luck. Born to Catholic parents, who met at a church-run youth club, he himself no longer believes in God, and plans to donate to atheist charities in his will.
But although this seems at first like a straightforward medical memoir, there’s something peculiar at the heart of it, which makes it read more like a novel by an unreliable narrator than autobiography.
Jarrett’s account (and beliefs) are not just coloured by his ward observations, but by two biographical details. The first is the rather startling revelation that Jarrett often has screaming fits in his sleep. The second, surreal, revelation is about his father. Jarrett’s dad was a health freak, avoiding alcohol, prawns and eggs, and exercising vigorously into his late eighties. But when he was ninety, he became plagued by the belief that he was being tormented by a centenarian villain named Peter Barleycorn.
Peter Barleycorn was Scottish, did aerobatics in a private plane, and employed twenty people (including children and old ladies) to spy on Jarrett’s father, eventually hiring an assassin to kill him at midnight on August 8th.
After he died, Jarrett investigated his father’s background and found that this figure wasn’t entirely imaginary but based on a broker his father had known at work, although he’d died long before he could begin this fictional campaign.
It’s clear that both fear about his own future and his resentment towards having to care for his father in the later stages of his life have coloured Jarrett’s opinions as much as his time around other people’s failing bodies. While I’m certain his observations are accurate and I have sympathy with a lot of his opinions, there’s a chilliness to this book that makes it hard to take completely at face value.
It’s undoubtedly a macabre read, but there are moments of black humour that lighten Jarrett’s message, the best sections being his occasionally irrational hatred of the elderly. I’d quite like him to talk to my parents and in-laws as he thinks old people who don’t help with childcare or take part-time jobs are so idle it prompts him to want to bring back national (senior) service.
And his rants against golf and films made for the grey generation cross over from reasonable observations to loopy exaggeration. Is it really true that “the UK film industry seems to be dominated by films aimed at the retired”? His threat that he will cut his throat if he has to “sit through another film about loveable elderly people rediscovering sex while living in a hotel run by Indians with ‘goodness gracious me’” accents makes me wonder exactly how many of these films exist? I’m aware of two, but I’d be surprised if there were more than five.
While Jarrett does not seem an overly literary type, at least compared to some of his friends mentioned in the book, he does have a great love of music, especially prog rock of the 1970s (which might explain why he’s looking forward to death), and the book is filled with quotations from his favourite albums and songs (the fact that there are thirty-three observations here evokes the playing speed of LPs and suggests that in an earlier draft this connection might have been more explicit).
If and when he does enter a nursing home, Jarrett wants to be woken each morning by rave-rock band The Prodigy’s “The Fat of the Land”.
He may not have much time for old people, but if he gets his wish on this one, he may discover his fellow aged inmates may not have much time for him.
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