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Liam Clarke documentary: 'I've seen the film three times... it's a tribute to his love of life'

Belfast Telegraph political editor Liam Clarke was two days into making a documentary about his cancer diagnosis when he died last December. Here Liam's widow, Kathryn Johnston, describes the decision to finish the film in his memory ahead of its screening on BBC Northern Ireland on Monday.

Published 17/10/2016

Brave fight: Liam Clarke in his office
Brave fight: Liam Clarke in his office
Stills from the documentary
Stills from the documentary
Stills from the documentary
Memorable moments: Liam interviewing former First Minister Peter Robinson
Memorable moments: Liam interviewing current First Minister Arlene Foster
Memorable moments: Liam interviewing the chair of the Press Complaints Commission Lord Hunt

The last piece Liam did for the Belfast Telegraph appeared on December 21, 2015, the shortest day of the year and the second anniversary of his diagnosis with rare terminal cancer.

It was a lengthy interview with UUP peer Lord Kilclooney , who had known Liam for years.

Shots of the interview, in the Europa Hotel, open the BBC Northern Ireland True North film made by producer and director Aaron Black of Erica Starling productions.

During the interview, Liam heard one of the bizarre connections he appreciated so much. When he and Aaron came back for lunch, he gleefully pointed out that John Taylor, like me, was a strong advocate of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland organising electorally in Northern Ireland. "Forbye that," Liam added, as one of our oldest friends would have said, "Lord Kilclooney remembers Jeremy Corbyn fondly from the time they were both in Cuba Solidarity. Just like you."

Months later, when East Antrim DUP MP Sammy Wilson told Suzanne Breen in the Belfast Telegraph that, although he and Jeremy Corbyn were "poles apart" politically, "on a personal level, I find Jeremy a lovely man ... He's a true gentleman", my first instinct was to reach for my mobile to tell Liam about it. He would have laughed his leg off. "There is more," Liam often said, "that connects us on these islands than divides us."

Aaron Black had got in touch with Liam in September 2015. Liam had originally been reluctant to have a film made about him. He preferred uncovering the truths behind others to being the focus himself. But as Aaron and he grew close, Liam realised that the film offered him a great opportunity to explore his fascination with life and death.

Liam was a Zen Buddhist. We had both taken precepts (lay ordination) in May last year. Liam wasn't afraid of death. As he wrote in the Belfast Telegraph on June 11, 2014: "The fear of a slow, lingering death blights life now." And Liam was a man who wasn't afraid of living. Or of telling people how he felt.

When the time came, he often said, he wanted what he called "a good death" - the right to die with dignity, on his own terms.

Since Liam had first been told that he had a rare terminal abdominal cancer (pseudomyxoma peritonei, or PMP, which affects roughly four in every million people worldwide each year), he hadn't shied away from discussing it openly.

Over the last six months, Liam's condition had been deteriorating. Shortly before Christmas, he had had a consultation with his oncologist, Dr David Conkey, at Antrim Hospital, where Dr Conkey confirmed that Liam's cancer had spread to his lungs. He knew that he would soon have to make the decision to undergo chemo, or palliative surgery, or both.

Neither would have been a cure. It was too late for that. The most he could hope for would be that they might have bought him more time. The effect of either, or both, would have been life-changing; he would have had to give up work. That wasn't on, for him.

We had a wonderful Christmas Day, with Liam insisting on being photographed in a Star Wars slanket, which he immediately posted on Facebook. Later that night, he told all of us how much he loved us and how happy he was.

On Boxing Day, he was terribly weak, but refused to call a doctor. At the same time, he had had periods of illness, bowel blockage and weakness before. He had been admitted to hospital as an emergency patient several times, but had become used to treating his symptoms at home.

So it was a shock, on December 27, 2015, when Liam died at ten to two in the morning. The first person I rang, outside the family, was Gail Walker, Liam's editor. Later that morning, I rang Aaron, who was coming for lunch to discuss filming with the whole family over Christmas. It must have given him the shock of his life, like Gail, when I rang them from Liam's phone to tell them Liam had died. Aaron's reaction was immediate: "You're f****** kidding me."

Within an hour, Aaron and Alison Millar, of Erica Starling Productions, had arrived at the house to support us in any way they could. We talked for hours about Liam, waking him at home and the funeral. Other friends called in during the afternoon. The elephant in the room was the film. Aaron had only two days of filming under his belt.

In reality, there was no contest. Liam would have wanted us to go ahead with the film. He hated leaving anything unfinished.

Aaron and Alison have become close friends of the family - especially since the day Alison saw Aaron and I nearly fall off Malin Head when we were scattering some of Liam's ashes.

Before Liam died, he told Aaron he hoped he would face death with honesty and courage. He said: "When you're young, you basically hear about people dying and you think, "that's for someone else'. That's in most of our minds. Kids often have fantasies about dying and everyone being sorry and apologising to them. They don't realise the finality of it. As you get older, you do.

"It changes your perspective and is a very valuable thing to recognise. It's pointless hiding from it. I wouldn't pretend I wanted it to come quicker than it needs to, but it's pointless hiding from it, or being in denial."

We've been lucky to have such wonderful, funny, brave and touching memories of our lives with Liam. Honestly, you wouldn't believe the half of it.

On the morning of the service, a very good friend introduced me to The Physicist's Eulogy by Aaron Freeman: "You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. And you'll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they'll be comforted to know your energy's still around."

At the end of June this year, the Northern Ireland Media Awards honoured Liam with a lifetime achievement award. At the ceremony, he was described as an "inspiration". The family had been invited to attend; in the end, I simply couldn't go. Attending would have made me notice Liam's absence all over again. I wish I had remembered Freeman's words: "According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you're just less orderly."

I want to thank all our friends and journalistic colleagues, especially Liam's former colleagues in the Belfast Telegraph and the Sunday Times, as well as our fellow Zen practitioners, many of whom phone us constantly. There are too many people to mention anyone individually. And Liam would have been embarrassed at the many tributes to him.

So, the last words go to Liam's consultant at Antrim Hospital, Garth Beattie, who wrote to me after his death: "He was some pup".

I've seen the film three times. The kids have also seen it. It is a beautiful, touching, intimate and funny piece of work. It's a tribute to Liam's love of life, his courage as a journalist and as a human being, his joy in his family and his compassion. In fact, "it's Liam looking at you," as a friend who saw the trailer commented.

We will watch it as a family on Monday night. We will probably watch it again on Christmas Day, the day before the first anniversary of Liam's death, to remember the last full day that he was fully at himself, as we say in this part of the world.

We still miss you, Liam.

True North: Liam Clarke - A Matter of Life & Death, BBC One Northern Ireland, Monday, 10.45pm

Belfast Telegraph

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