Saturday, September 08, 2007

Bad Hair Days, by Pamela Bone

Pamela Bone amazed and appalled many of her readers when she declared her support for the Iraq war. Friends and colleagues couldn’t believe her decision. Bone , a tireless writer on human rights abuses, was asked at a public discussion by Bob Ellis if she liked killing children.

After a year or so of reading her columns supporting the war I decided to write her an e-mail. Happily she wrote back. Unhappily, she didn’t respond to the subject of my e-mail. She thanked me for at least being polite in disagreement, and that was it. Frustrated, I wondered why this strange, empty , almost disinterested response. After reading Bad Hair Days, now I know: Pamela Bone was in the midst of gruelling cancer treatments.

Bad Hair Days is the kind of book Bone never intended to write. What was there to say? Cancer was a private matter. Who’d want to share all the physical humiliations that the disease puts you through? When the news broke that Kylie Minogue had cancer, Bone cried out in frustration: just leave her alone!

Friends and family told her to keep a diary, as it would make good writing material. No, cancer was the last thing this columnist would want to write about. Luckily for her readers, Bone changed her mind after reading books by others who have had cancer, and decided that disease and death are things we should be discussing as a society.

And so, we are taken through in some detail Bone’s various treatments for cancer, the losing of hair, the loss of appetite, the loss of her life as she knew it. Fear and anxiety soon followed.

‘What was I frightened of then? I was full of unfocused fear. I would sit in the chair at night, afraid to get up and go to bed. In the morning I would lie in bed, afraid to get up. I sat in the chair each morning reading The Age, making it last, afraid to come to the end of it. Because when I came to the end of it I would have to find something else to read and that was frightening. Or I stood at the window, forcing myself to take long, deep breaths.’

Despite all of the physical suffering from chemotherapy, the one theme Bone keeps coming back to is the kindness of people and how good our lives are, despite all the horrors we read and see in the media.

‘It’s a good society we live in. Not perfect, but good. It doesn’t always get it right but our governments, the governments elected by us, the people, and kept accountable by us, try to make sure there are supports available for everyone who can’t look after themselves.’

In one of the most moving parts of the book, Bone describes the mammoth amount of e-mails (they were printed up by The Age and sent to her) and letters she received after her last column, announcing that she had cancer. She had not been able to cry since diagnosed, but this happy event allowed the tears to finally come.

Bone admits throughout the book that she’s still not completely comfortable focussing on her cancer as a prime subject, and so the book keeps morphing into one of her columns. All of her usual passions are here: Iraq, Darfur, Africa, the Taliban (she was one of the few writing early on about their abuses), poverty, the treatment of women and the falling quality of today’s media (The Age comes under some scrutiny).

There is also a lot of discussion of voluntary euthanasia. Early on Bone tells us she has received ‘the knowledge’, and so can end her life at a time of her own choosing. This ability to have control over one’s own life is very important to Bone, a basic human right.

Many reading Bad Hair Days will want to see where Bone now stands on the Iraq war. She details her original argument for removing Saddam Hussein.

‘Like the Perowne character, I had been influenced by the refugees from Iraq. In 2000 I talked to a group of exiled Iraqi women who were trying to organise a protest in Melbourne against the abuses of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq. The women told me that in Iraq, women were beheaded with sword and their heads nailed to the doors of their houses as a lesson to tother women. The executed women had been dishonouring their country with their sexual crimes, the then Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, had said on national television. More than two hundred women had been executed in this manner during the previous three weeks, the women from the Committee in Defence of Iraqi Women’s Rights told me.’

Going into the war, Bone believed Saddam Hussein was a danger to his own people and the world, and that dictatorial leaders should not be able to kill and torture with impunity. She also hoped that the follow on effect of a successful democracy in Iraq would be more democracies through out the Middle East, greatly improving people lives.

Bone now accepts that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has in itself been a disaster: ‘I acknowledge, now, that the price of getting rid of Saddam Hussein has been too high.’

But…There’s always a but. Or an ‘if only’.

‘Perhaps it did not have to be like this,’ she laments. ‘If there had been better pre-war intelligence, less arrogance and les incompetence on the part of the United States administration, if there had been sufficient troops and a firm plan for immediate reconstruction, there may have been a different outcome.’

Well, finally I did get an answer to that e-mail. And more than I bargained for. Reading the book I found myself mildly anxious at times for Pamela Bone’s health: how could she be writing a book after being so sick. Take it easy, I wanted to implore her.

What’s the take away from Bad Hair Days? Does the book have a message? This is not some triumphant cancer survival story. Bone hates them. She’s dismissive of alternative medicines, sceptical of the power of positive thinking, and completely fatalistic about death. We all must do it. What’s the best way to die?

‘To be honest, there is, at times a small, lingering disappointment that I didn’t die. I had an opportunity to escape, gracefully and blamelessly, and didn’t take it. I wasn’t strong enough, two years ago, to say no, I won’t have any treatment, thanks. And as a consequence I still have that problem to face: how to get out of this life with as much dignity and as little pain as possible.’

How to live? How to die? What’s the best way to live? I always think of those great lines from Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure: ‘Be absolute for death: either death or life / Shall thereby be the sweeter.’

Pamela Bone is now in remission from cancer. Life is full of sweetness she tells us: new books to read, music to listen to, new flowers in spring to enjoy. She leaves us with some good advice.

‘I say this to you too. Don’t give up on people, ever. People, and this life, are the only guaranteed things we have.’

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