They shoot horses, don’t they

The current debate about ‘assisted dying’ brings to mind a novel which starts with a murder and ends with assisted dying. Or, depending on your point of view, another murder.

Horace McCoy’s They shoot horses, don’t they? is about a young man and a young woman who take part in a ‘dance marathon’, an endurance contest, popular in depression era America, in which couples danced continuously for hours on end until, after a process of elimination, the prize went to the last surviving couple.

But in this case, the contest is abandoned following a shooting and the remaining contestants get fifty dollars each. Outside the dance hall, the young woman, Gloria, takes a gun out of her handbag and asks the young man, Robert, to shoot her. He does and, when the police ask him why he did it, he says, “Because she asked me to.”

Remembering the time when his grandfather shot his horse after it had broken a leg, he adds, “They shoot horses, don’t they?”

It’s a novel, not real life, but it’s real enough to give some perspective to the debate. Both of Robert’s answers point to kindness as his reason for doing what he did.

I am reminded too of what my mother said to me many times in the last few years of her long life. “Send for the doctor and tell him to finish me off.” Of course, I could not and had no wish to, but doctors have always had a way of making death a little easier when the time comes.

Dylan Thomas told his father to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’. But how could that help? Robert’s way, though brutal, was kinder.

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