Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Meeting Tony

I first heard of Tony Nicklinson when Radio 5 Live's Victoria Derbyshire Show came from his home last year. He was campaigning for a change in the law to protect from prosecution someone assisting a person unable themselves to commit suicide. He himself had a massive stroke six or seven years ago which has left him in a "locked-in state". It's a wretched condition. He's totally paralysed, except for his head. He communicates via a computer which he operates by the blink of an eyelid. He has carers to get him up and in the evening, as well as an all-night carer. He lives in a nice bungalow home with his wife, Jane, and one of his two daughters. Even so it's not much of a life, and one can understand his wanting out.

As you'll have gathered, we were meeting as part of a projected BBC Inside Out West programme for October. The BBC obviously thought that getting two crocks with opposite views about ending life would make good TV, and so Jane and I agreed to go over yesterday to his home in Melksham in order to be filmed in discussion, or "debate" as Tony preferred to call it. It was bright and sunny, the wheat and barley fields beginning to turn to gold as we drove across the Downs - the best of English summer days. Then it was along the motorway and down the A350. Jane timed it perfectly, drawing up on the dot of 11 o'clock. There was Kirsty's Ka and, presumably, the cameraman's VW estate. The house was obvious, with its ramp and extension. Outside was a skip full of builders' rubbish. Kirsty, the producer, popped out as we arrived, radio mike in hand. So once I was installed in my wheelchair and wired up, Steve the cameraman took over, and we had all the rigmarole of meeting and then pretending to meet Tony and Jane - knocking, "Oh hello, nice to meet you etc...."

Then it was into the sitting room for the real business. By the time we had two wheelchairs, Tony's flatscreen computer with its stand, and the camera and sound boom in there wasn't room to swing a mouse, let alone a cat. In the end we were ready for the conversation. It transpired that Tony and I were going to be left to get on with it. The format was basically him putting questions to me and my answering. It was a slow process as he had to type his questions blink by blink on to the computer, which then spoke to me, and I then answered, which isn't itself a fast process. He asked me if I wanted the law on suicide changed, to which my answer was No, because I don't want the taking of life to be sanctioned in any form. Was that because of my religion? Probably. My faith affects my whole life, but it's not the only reason. There are other factors why I think it's a dangerous idea. And so we went on.

I suppose the nub of the argument was his insistence of having the choice, which he reckoned I still had and he certainly doesn't. Afterwards I reflected that, in fact, I would be physically very hard pushed to commit suicide, even if I wished to, which I don't. He feels it's a matter of equality, that those who are physically incapable are discriminated against by that fact. He'd produced a "scheme" which, he reckons, would afford immunity to those who helped people like him die. I felt that "my choice" can't trump all other considerations. Our choices have consequences for other people. "No man is an island". My main point was that once we open the door to allow the taking of human life in any circumstances it sets a precedent. At one point I asked him about the good things in his life - which, unsurprisingly, he couldn't see. I was fairly convinced that there were some. I felt we were really talking at that point, not just debating. I hope that survives the final editing.

Not Steve our cameraman, but you get the idea
of the size of the camera
Because, evidently, there is much more material on tape than can be used in a 10-minute programme. I guess we were filmed for getting for a couple of hours, as well as the filming that Kirsty has done before with us and Tony's wife Jane. We eventually called a halt to the filming, partly because the poor cameraman was wilting (with the camera on his shoulder the whole time), partly because we were beginning to go round in circles, and partly because I felt tired. And so we parted. And hoped to keep in touch.

We decided to do something entirely different on the way home - and so we did. We stopped at Morrisons' Chippenham store, made use of their facilities and had some lunch in their café. Not exactly haute cuisine, or even, to be honest, moyenne, but rather refreshing ambience and very sympathique staff. It was fine. Suitably fortified, we made for the motorway, the hills and home. Thank you, those of you who remembered us. It makes a difference.


  1. Really glad you got to chat meaningfully with Tony, Dad, and we hope when it's screened in October that they show some of the genuinely 'connected' parts of your conversation x

  2. Well done Michael. Do let us know when it comes out. Peter