When, two years ago, Sir Chris Woodhead lost the use of his legs completely and succumbed to life in a wheelchair, he and his wife Christine moved house.
You might assume they chose a conveniently adapted bungalow fitted with grab-rails and ramps, a short walk from the shops. You’d be wrong.
Instead, the home they bought was a renovation project: derelict, labyrinthine, bereft of water and electricity. It rambles over four floors, from medieval cellar to Georgian attic, and stands on a hill in the handsome Shropshire market town of Ludlow.
It is beautiful, imposing and utterly impractical for anyone in a wheelchair. And Sir Chris adores it.
‘Of course Christine thought I was completely bananas when I said I wanted to buy it,’ says the 65-year-old former Chief Inspector of Schools, whose movement is now cruelly constrained by Motor Neurone Disease.
Christine, 56, who is pretty, blonde and reed-slim, rolls her eyes and smiles. She is her husband’s second wife and sole carer, and they have been together for 16 years.
Today, despite his failing health and the fact that he became a pensioner when he turned 65 on Thursday, he remains head of Cognitas, Europe’s largest chain of private schools.
Does he intend to slow down? ‘No,’ he cries. ‘In fact I’m accelerating!’
His body may be failing him, but his mind remains vigorous and he muddles through the indignities of his illness with remarkable good humour.
‘I hate being dependent, but what’s the point of sitting here going on about it? So my theme is, make the most of what you’ve got left and stop whingeing,’ he declares.
So, despite this robust optimism, why has he made the controversial admission that he plans to end his life at Dignitas, the Swiss assisted suicide clinic?
He made the pronouncement this month after watching a contentious TV programme on the subject in June, which was presented by author Sir Terry Pratchett, who has Alzheimer’s. It followed and filmed the assisted death of a man who also has MND.
Today Chris concedes that, although in the past he has stated he would rather propel himself off a cliff in his wheelchair than endure the ministrations of a ‘bearded social worker’ at the Dignitas clinic, now he has changed his mind.
‘If I progress to the next stage of the disease I’ll have difficulty breathing, swallowing, speaking,’ he says. ‘I’ve decided in that event I don’t want a tracheostomy or any life-prolonging aids at all.
‘I can’t get to a clifftop independently now. I suppose if I had a sharp blade I might just be able to slit my wrists. But having seen the documentary, I have revised my opinion of the clinic. I watched the man sit on a sofa with his wife and drink a glass of liquid. It took 30 seconds or so and it seemed a dignified, calm and quite acceptable death; not such a bad way to go.’
Set aside, for a moment, the profound moral questions this raises. The practical conundrum for Chris is, when should he capitulate? Already Christine must hold a cup to his lips so he can drink. He cannot lift a fork to his mouth to eat. Could he actually administer the poison himself? And is he certain that even a life bereft of autonomy might not still be worth living? ‘I’m not absolutely convinced I won’t change my mind. You can’t be,’ he replies. ‘But at the moment I think there will come a day when I feel I’ve had enough and I can imagine the day when all my loved ones will agree.
‘I’m not cavalier or enthusiastic about it. Our lives have been given to us, and there is a moral imperative to make the best of them for as long as we can, but if you have a terminal illness it is rational at some point to give thought to ending the suffering of your life.’
There are, of course, a multitude of counter arguments against legalising assisted suicide: the infirm or elderly may consider themselves burdensome and feel obliged to end their own lives; others could be coerced by unscrupulous relatives seeking a financial legacy; decisions made impulsively would be irreversible. Even so, Chris is campaigning for a change in the law to make assisted suicide for the terminally ill legal in Britain.
‘If two or three psychiatrists show you’re of sound mind, if your medical records have been scrutinised and tests show you have a disease that is killing you; if you’ve had enough of the poverty and humiliation of your existence, why shouldn’t you be given an injection in England instead of having to trek across to Switzerland?’ he asks.
‘Parliament should build in the tightest possible regulations, of course, but I think people who are compos mentis should be free to exit this world if they want, rather than putting their loved ones in an ambiguous position.
‘I wouldn’t be prepared to ask Christine to risk a jail sentence by helping to kill me. Besides, she wouldn’t. But if the local GP would, that would be completely different.’
He says he is a reluctant campaigner — and does not anticipate success. ‘Politicians don’t like doing anything controversial; they haven’t got the b***s. So I don’t predict a change,’ he admits. ‘Perhaps I’m wrong. They have decided on a badger cull. Maybe they could agree there should be a cull of the terminally ill.’
His physical faculties, meanwhile, are already pitilessly diminished. He loves to read but can barely turn the pages of a slim book. His hands are clawed and virtually inert. He can barely raise them to type. Christine must clean his teeth, wash him; accompany him to the loo. Such are the daily indignities he endures.
Even so, he contends, life still holds a multitude of pleasures.
‘For me, and the great majority of us, family and relationships are the centrally important reasons for living. So you balance the bad with the good. The good is Christine. I was lucky in late middle age to find someone I really get on with. If I’d been on my own I’d have gone to a hospice. I’d have taken steps to end my life some time ago.’
He met Christine during his Ofsted days. She was in charge of legal complaints from teachers there. Her gentleness and tact are the perfect counterbalance to his bluntness.
‘Is she the love of your life?’ I ask. His eyes crease with mirth: ‘You could say that. And I suppose I should or I’ll get told off.’
His first marriage, in his early 20s, produced his only child Tamsin, 36, but was brief because he and his wife were incompatible. ‘We made a mistake. Neither of us was suited, even Tamsin would agree,’ he says.
They divorced when his daughter was still a baby, but he was a diligent weekend dad. Now Tamsin, a teacher who has given up work to raise her family, has made him a grandfather to Elsa, seven, Morva, five, and one-year-old Agnes.
‘I’m not a natural grandfather. I like doing what I can to enrich their lives,’ he says. ‘If I could I’d have taken them swimming in the river and chased them round the room going: “Boo!”
‘Instead, I listen to them. Our conversations are very important. We read together and do sums; not because I’m obsessed with basic skills and numeracy, but because it’s fun doing things they get right and I enjoy seeing them achieve.’
The abiding tragedy for Chris is that he was such a fit and active man. He loved the thrill of scaling a mountain and looking from the summit across a rolling vista; he and Christine still own the remote farmhouse in North Wales where they used to live. Poignantly, he says his greatest regrets are not having climbed Everest or K2, ‘because I’d have liked to have been a great Himalayan climber, and the moments that burn with most intensity are those spent gazing at the beauty of the landscape from the top of a mountain’.
Now, he must take pleasure in the scenery alone. ‘And because I’m conscious that I’m not going to go on for ever, there’s a greater intensity in experiences that has to be cherished,’ he says.
He recalls being driven recently along a mountain pass in Snowdonia and seeing the glory of the landscape as if for the first time.
‘The colours seemed richer, the rocks were starker and the water on the lake had a glassy stillness. It all came together in a beautiful way that was almost physical,’ he remembers.
He was climbing a Welsh mountain in 2000 when he had the first indication of his illness. ‘My legs turned to jelly. I thought: “I’m getting older. This is what happens.” ’
The symptoms accumulated — his legs persistently failed to bear his weight; he found standing difficult — but he ignored them. It was six years before he went to his GP who dispatched him instantly to a neurologist. ‘My doctor said: “You’re lucky. The specialist is a nice woman and usually they are very cold and clinical.” ‘Possibly that is because they are dealing with one of the worst diseases known to man,’ he adds dryly.
When he was told he had MND, a disease with a normal life expectancy of two to five years, he says: ‘It was not as cataclysmic as I’d expected. My attitude has always been that you have to accept the cards you’re dealt. The only sensible thing is to make the most of it.’
It is typical of his dogged tenacity that for years he refused to submit to a wheelchair, pretending a broken ankle caused his difficulty in walking. Now he uses humour to diffuse his frustration.
‘When I go up the hill in my powered wheelchair I tend to put it on maximum throttle and mow everyone down,’ he laughs. ‘I careered into a tattooed gentleman the other day.’
He is not noted for his patience, but seems to have accepted debilitation and dependency with remarkably equanimity. ‘I do get angry and frustrated at the daily tasks I can’t do for myself,’ he says. ‘But it isn’t cosmic anger. And I’m lucky to be preoccupied with work. It’s a great blessing.’
I feared my meeting with Chris Woodhead would be a sombre one. Actually, he often twinkles with merriment. When I admire his house he breezily dispatches me on a solitary tour.
Before I leave, he asks me to remember the work of the Chris Woodhead Foundation, which he set up to help those with MND who are less affluent than he is.
He explains its purpose: ‘Supposing you were a dad diagnosed with MND; you had three children and no money coming in and your greatest wish was to take the kids to Disneyland. Maybe I’m getting sentimental in my old age, but that’s what the foundation is for: it’s to make a dream come true for that dad and his family,’ he says.
Chris Woodhead is abrasive, frank, funny, uncompromising and remarkably stoic. He is also the tiniest bit soft-hearted. And I have a feeling he’ll be around to gaze upon his beloved mountains for a good few years yet.
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