The Observer view on Steve Hewlett

The master storyteller who touched us all with his life’s final chapter

Steve Hewlett, who died last Monday from oesophageal cancer, was a remarkable journalist, a former Panorama editor and a courageous broadcaster, who used his last months of fatal illness to extraordinarily moving effect. Not only did Hewlett write a must-read cancer diary here in the Observer, he conducted an unforgettable series of intimate conversations with presenter Eddie Mair on BBC Radio 4.

“Two men talking about cancer” became essential listening, while Hewlett tackled his diagnosis and subsequent treatment with a journalist’s thoroughness. He demonstrated how to fight illness, never flinched from researching his condition on Google, widening the circle of his inquiry to talk to friends who had been through cancer, investigate the best treatment and challenge his doctors. Millions responded to these dialogues.

Last exits are – we have to confess – gripping. There’s a rare heat in words uttered in the antechamber to eternity. We look to the terminally ill for answers to questions we can hardly bear to contemplate, and perhaps also for the glimpse of a hint of meaning in a merciless and irrational universe.

Hewlett, with a true Englishman’s irony and self-deprecation, understood that. He was both living up to a role thrust on him by a malign fortune, but also educating his audience in oncology. He made himself his own story out of a profound commitment to hard-nosed reporting, as well as a deep humanity: “I’m absolutely convinced that the more we talk about cancer – both to our families, friends and loved ones – the better it is for all concerned,” he said. “Above all it’s empowering for them.”

As a baby boomer (he was born in 1958), Steve was part of a generation which, in its quest for self-fulfilment, has become increasingly complicit with fantasies of immortality. In his final year, he gently addressed the questions that torment the generations who have been raised to believe they are living lives of infinite possibility. Why am I here? What is my fate? Where am I going ? As a great correspondent, he did this, quite practically, by reporting on his cancer with painful candour, never hinting at self-pity.

Hewlett’s answer to the conundrum of life and death was both wise and existential. With wry good humour and supreme matter-of-factness, he suggested to his spellbound audience that ageing is as natural as breathing and that humanity must learn to live in the moment and accept its fate. Following Montaigne, he seemed to say: “Let us deprive death of its strangeness.”

In putting this idea into some brilliantly memorable words, Hewlett filled the void left by the death of religion and the collapse of faith, to give his untimely exit a sense of ritual and a language appropriately expressive of the need for consolation.

In so doing, he made sense of our inevitable endgame and conducted an inspiring masterclass in the noble art of dying well. RIP.


Observer editorial

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