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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Great friend still loved a laugh till the very last

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Life was too short for Graham, whose eyes really did twinkle.

British American author Christopher Hitchens never lost his sense of humour during his struggle with cancer. Photo / Supplied
British American author Christopher Hitchens never lost his sense of humour during his struggle with cancer. Photo / Supplied

British American author Christopher Hitchens never lost his sense of humour during his struggle with cancer.

The Order for the Burial of the Dead in the Book of Common Prayer doesn't beat around the bush: "In the midst of life," it says, "we are in death".

The preceding lines are even bleaker: "Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow."

Apart from the misery, this was sadly all too true of an old friend who died last week. Graham glowed with joy and we bathed in his warmth.

I met him during our first year at university, in what used to be the Leopard Tavern behind Victoria Park. He was a fund of jokes and impersonations who attracted nicknames as effortlessly as he made friends. His elastic funnyman's face was permanently creased with laughter lines.

Eyes twinkle less often than lazy writers would have us believe, but Graham really did go through life with a twinkle in his eye. You could imagine him with cap and tie askew, shirt hanging out and socks around his ankles, playing the part of a mischievous schoolboy in an English comedy from a more innocent time.

He was in fact a performer, treading the boards in a number of musicals and appearing in TV ads, most notably and appropriately as an overgrown schoolboy, or perhaps permanent adolescent, in a plug for self-saucing spongy puds.

It's sometimes said that you shouldn't laugh - or at least not too heartily - at your own jokes. Graham had no time for this stitched-up formula: he operated on the principle that every time he told a joke, he improved it. This quality made him a highly valued member of our old friends' lunch club which, like all such exercises in nostalgia, exists primarily for the re-telling of oft-heard stories and the resuscitation of semi-forgotten riffs and catch-phrases.

Early this year Graham learned he had cancer of the oesophagus. At first the terror and heartbreak for him and his family was tempered with hope that it was treatable. For a short while he saw himself as a lucky man: they'd caught it early; it could be removed; life would go on. Tragically his and his doctors' optimism was misplaced. It was already too late.

Christopher Hitchens' losing struggle with the same disease is recorded in his collection of essays, Mortality. Like Graham, Hitchens never lost his sense of humour, though both had every justification for failing to see - or even resenting - the funny side of life.

Hitchens had various responses for those who couldn't help opening conversations with "How are you?", a fairly meaningless pleasantry at the best of times. "A bit early to say," he would reply. Or: "I seem to have cancer today."

And being what could almost be described as a professional atheist, Hitchens was tickled to discover a gambling website where punters could bet on whether or not he would repudiate atheism and embrace religion before he died.

Both men confronted their fates with grace and stoicism. Hitchens wrote, "To the dumb question 'why me' the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply, 'why not?"'

With his fame and connections Hitchens gained access to the most cutting edge treatment the American private health system could provide. It extended his life by months, but reading his accounts of the hellish side-effects - the simple act of swallowing became a self-inflicted torture - makes you wonder whether it was worth it.

For Graham the period between diagnosis and death was shockingly but perhaps mercifully brief.

Now and again you hear it said of someone that "no one's got a bad word to say about him", or "I've never heard him utter a cross word". Common sense tells us that it can't be literally true, but Graham came as close as anyone I've ever met to warranting those testimonials.

That was partly because of his unfailingly sunny disposition, partly because he wasn't disputatious or overly interested in subjects that generate dispute, such as sport and politics. I can only remember him once making the sort of vehement assertion that brooks no argument and therefore tends to cause one.

Responding to my expression of admiration for Bruce Springsteen, he snortingly declared that he couldn't stand that "dreary working class crap". I was so taken aback I didn't argue; it was so unusual I've never forgotten.

When I visited Graham in the hospice, he was physically diminished and heavily medicated, but still taking delight in jokes old and new, as often as not at his expense. He loved the sound of laughter till the very end.

I don't believe that, as Billy Joel sang, "only the good die young". But they do die too young.

- NZ Herald

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