Julie Hesmondhalgh reviews Death and the Elephant for Northern Soul.
Okay, full disclosure: I know Raz Shaw, the author of this book. He’s my mate. So this obviously isn’t a completely objective critique. However, anyone who knows the two of us will know that the foundations of our friendship are based on a healthy mutual disrespect and a sometimes brutal honesty. Rest assured I’m not here to blow smoke up his bum or to hoodwink you in any way.
Raz is a director and I’m an actor. We first worked together on a play called Wit, about an American academic dying of cancer, at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in 2016. It was during the rehearsal period that I learned he was in the process of writing the then untitled Death and the Elephant, a memoir of his own cancer journey decades before and the way it had changed his life.
It’s fair to say that Raz was pretty much existing rather than living when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 28. A gambling addict in a well-paid but soulless job, he’d lost his way in life. Cancer changed all that. In a freewheeling, conversational style that I can attest is authentically the author’s voice, packed with candour-bordering-on-TMI at times, he takes us with him as he recalls his cancer journey, from symptoms to diagnosis through treatment and its (sometimes horrific) side-effects to his rather shocking ambivalent feelings around his recovery. This section has proved to be the most controversial since the book’s publication: Raz’s characteristic honesty about his relationship to being ill, his ‘cancer swagger’, his feelings of invincibility, his perverse delight in the discomfort of others around the disease and his endless wisecracking about it, his feelings of being in some way special and part of a club, and his subsequent feelings of loss when he was given the all clear.
Several newspapers have latched on to this notion of him ‘missing’ his cancer when it was gone, and taken out of context one can understand why several readers reacted strongly to the sentiment, readers who would give anything to receive that news for themselves or for their loved ones. But for all the book’s anecdotal jollity and bravura, it never loses sight of, or respect for, those who didn’t make it. He balks at the term ‘survivor’ as he asserts he was merely one of the lucky ones, that to survive suggests the winning of a battle that has nothing to do with the fighter and all to do with chance. And superb medical care. Shaw is only telling it as it is, and was, for him. That cancer, as well as pulling his own life into sharp focus, also gave him a unique perspective on the tricks we play on ourselves to cope, the strategies we employ to make our own stories palatable to ourselves and, tellingly, the recognition of the need to be special, to be chosen, to belong in some way. All of this is told with laugh-out-loud humour and indefatigable spirit (the section about him escaping hospital to attend a wedding and dancing to Wham! like his life depended on it is my favourite in the book).
It is a crazy book, more punk than poetic, more stand-up than misery memoir. It is also, at its heart, a love letter to the NHS to whom he undoubtedly owes his life, and also to his incredible mother Val who was by his side through it all and who died of cancer herself just before the book was published.
By Julie Hesmondhalgh
Death and the Elephant is published by crowdfunding publisher Unbound and is available to buy now.