One of Britain’s most celebrated novelists, the author of Money and Time’s Arrow, thinks there should be booths on street corners where the aged can put an end to their own lives. How serious is he?
There’s nothing unusual about modern-day literary novelists’ obsession with the notion of time. Aging and decay, youth and vigour – these have been key themes in human prose since the Sumerians first started chiseling wedges into clay in 2900 BC. Cuneiform, the world’s earliest writing system, in fact developed in partial response to time – as in, how many units of the thing was it taking a labourer to complete his assigned item of work? From Mesopotamia, China and Egypt to the Indus Valley, Phoenicia and Mesoamerica, it’s hard to find an ancient script that isn’t in some way connected to the methods our species use to measure a life. Contemporary English literature is of course no exception to this history.
Witness Martin Amis, son of Sir Kingsley, master of what the New York Times calls “the new unpleasantness”: in 1991 he published Times Arrow, a book written in reverse chronological order (in the beginning, even the dialogue is spoken backwards), which was shortlisted for that year’s Booker Prize.
“Time now passed untrackably, for it was given over to struggle, with the bed like a trap or a pit, covered in nets, and the sense of starting out on a terrible journey, towards a terrible secret.” These are the thoughts of Amis’s protagonist as we first encounter him on his deathbed, where’s he waiting to “grow younger” through life, but they could easily be the thoughts of an old man waiting to die.
Now in his 61st year, the respected author has a bit more to say about time and death, and he’s saying it with just as much flamboyance. Specifically, Amis has called for the installation of euthanasia booths on British street corners, where the elderly can opt out of time’s relentless march with “a martini and a medal”.
Amis made these comments with reference to the “grey power” of Britain’s elderly (and aging) population, who, he feels, are engaged in a civil war with the young and are about to advance “like an invasion of terrible immigrants, stinking out the restaurants and cafes and shops.”
Unsurprisingly, the comments drew some heated reaction from the UK’s anti-euthanasia groups. As Alistair Thompson of the Care Not Killing Alliance told the Guardian newspaper: “We are extremely disappointed that people are advocating death booths for the elderly and the disabled. How on earth can we pretend to be a civilised society if people are giving the oxygen of publicity to such proposals? What are these death booths? Are they going to be a kind of superloo where you put in a couple of quid and get a lethal cocktail?”
The Telegraph, in their version of the story published yesterday, pointed to the statistics. Between 1983 and 2008, they wrote, the proportion of people aged 65 or over in Britain grew by 1.5-million, a trend that’s set to accelerate in the coming decades – by 2033, 23 percent of the British population will be over 65, which could mean that the country’s workforce will then have to support 16-million people of current retirement age.
Amis, who wondered aloud how society would sustain this “silver tsunami,” said his observations were meant to be satirical and not glib. “What we need to recognise is that certain lives fall into the negative,” he told the Guardian, “where pain hugely dwarfs those remaining pleasures that you may be left with. Geriatric science has been allowed to take over and, really, decency roars for some sort of correction.”
The novelist’s pro-euthanasia stance is reportedly a response to the deaths of his stepfather Lord Kilmarnock, who “died horribly,” and his friend Dame Iris Murdoch, who suffered in her last years from Alzheimers.
To those old people who find his comments offensive, Amis, a grandfather, has the following to say: “Well, I’m not a million miles away from that myself.”
By Kevin Bloom
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