Hazel McHaffie

Michael Rosen

Many Different Kinds of Love

Listening to Michael Rosen speaking at the Hay Festival was enough to make me immediately order his book about surviving Covid: Many Different Kinds of Love. And read it as soon as it arrived! It’s an account like no other.

He was a whisker away from death because he didn’t fit the criteria (at the time) for serious illness. But thanks to the intervention of a skilled and determined GP friend, Michael bypassed inappropriate advice to stay at home, and was whipped into hospital with a dangerously low level of oxygen in his blood. So ill was he, indeed, that he spent 47 days in Intensive Care, much of it in an induced coma on a ventilator.

During this time, even though they were working ridiculous hours under extreme pressure, often way outside their comfort zones, the staff took the trouble to pen personal, encouraging, reassuring messages in a diary. Their entries make fascinating reading. Learning of their care, seeing them in action, Michael was reduced to tears by their devotion and love; it was akin to that of a parent keeping vigil with a sick child.
They aren’t my parents … It’s a kindness I can hardly grasp.’
Michael was, of course, a celebrity patient, a well known and loved children’s author and poet; they were willing him to return to his natural milieu of writing and performing again for others.

Reading their words, I was personally struck by the vast range of occupations these novice writers came from. Here they were in a high-tech, fast-paced, highly specialised environment, a unit packed to the gunnels, surrounded by patients presenting with a hitherto unknown infectious disease affecting multiple systems, and they were, in their other lives, speech and language therapists, physios, children’s nurses, school nurses, infection control personnel, urology specialists, even dental hygienists!  Mind-blowing!

After ventilation, Michael spent another long period hovering somewhere between life and death, and it was his wife, Emma, who brought him through to the other side of this, surrounding him with love and the favourite soundtracks of his life.

It was only then, as he re-entered consciousness and self awareness, that he could pick up the threads of the story for himself.

Reviewing that time while he hovered on the brink of life/death, he himself could see the humour in his situation.
Of the constant monitoring he says:
There is now a ledger telling
the story of my ups and downs.
I have become an account.

He was mesmerised by the multiple tasks these caring hands accomplished.
Your hands speak.
Touch is a language.
Each palm
each fingertip
is a line from your stories.

He saw the ‘Land of the Dead’ as having taken bits of him prisoner. (His left eye and ear are still markedly impaired.)
They’re waiting for me to come back.
The ear is listening.
The eye is the lookout.

Recovery of strength and will power became a painful inch by inch struggle.  Early on, trying to will his leg to move, was like speaking to a blank space.

As he improved physically he became alive to humour around him.
The nurse tells Peter in the bed opposite,
that his urine is dark.
‘The times are dark,’ he says.

But at each stage of progress Michael feared this was as good as it got …
… now in a wheelchair – is this me?
… using a zimmer frame – is this me?
At intervals: I’m not going to get better – am I?
… remaining on one level in the house  – I’m 74. Maybe I’ve become a kind of 90 ...
Watching and listening to the monumental struggle made me value in a new way his personal appearance at the Hay Festival this year. He had learned from OTs how to own his frailty.

And when he eventually went home:
I am not sure I am me.
I can’t see as I used to see.
I can’t hear as I used to hear.
My legs feel like cardboard tubes,
filled with porridge.

And ‘I’m not sure I am me’ became a bit of a refrain.

But he did get home and little by little he did gain strength and mobility. Returning as an outpatient:
Woman at the door asks me
if I want anything sharpening.
My wits, I say.
(I didn’t.
My wits aren’t sharp enough.)

By now you’ll have got the sense of the style of writing – short staccato entries, written as poetry, as if that is all his recovering brain could handle. Lots and lots of white space. But underpinning it, the irrepressible wit and wisdom for which he is known and loved.

All perfectly illustrated by Chris Riddell‘s wonderfully evocative and delicate pen and ink drawings.

I was pleased to see that, even though he’s so conscious of the great debt he owes the NHS, Michael’s not afraid to criticise the government and scientists where they got it wrong. Perhaps he sums up the whole handling of the pandemic as well as his personal progress when he says:
And it never stops:
we are always becoming.

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Hay Book Festival

I’m like a pig in muck this week!! Hay Book Festival is online again. Wahey! They’ve already reached upwards of 2 million people, and I feel privileged to be one of those visiting and enjoying such thought-provoking and stimulating events. I’m immensely grateful to the team that ensures it happens. They’ve had more than their fair share of technical glitches unfortunately, but I think we’re all acclimatising to those kinds of issues in this era of Zoom. Puts our own mishaps into perspective.

In this first week, I’ve already listened to vaccine hesitancy, the effects of the pandemic, motherhood, grief, the first human cyborg (who has MND), deafness, adoption, racial discrimination … I won’t bore you with a rundown on them all, but three really stood out as exceptionally memorable for me. (Please excuse the quality of the photo – screenshot during the performances, so no time for finesse!)

The title, Life and Death with Covid, sums up one brilliant session. Dr Rachel Clarke, Palliative Care Specialist/author, who’s always good value, was in the chair and sensitively and confidently steered the conversation between herself, the legendary author/poet/presenter Michael Rosen, and a specialist in critical care and anaesthetics/author, Dr Jim Down.

The two doctors spoke eloquently about the impact of the pandemic on staff, and the imperative and willingness to care –  really care – for all their patients, be they serial killers or prime ministers, to the end of their lives. Their selfless dedication shone through. Michael Rosen spoke from the Covid patient’s angle. He survived 48 days in intensive care and 3 months in hospital, and compared the attention he was given to the love that drives a father to sit all night beside the bed of his sleeping son. The NHS, in his judgement, is the most ‘caring collective cooperative thing’ he could ever imagine – polar opposite of the Holocaust that killed so many of his relations. One of the most engrossing literary events ever. I simply HAD to buy all three books: Many Different Kinds of Love (Rosen), Breathtaking (Clarke), Life Support (Down). Reviews will doubtless follow on this blog! They arrived lovingly encased in red tissue paper too!

I’ve heard Ruby Wax and Alastair Campbell on the topic of their depression before – both appeared again this year with new books to talk about, but new to me was travel writer and teacher of creative writing, Horatio Clare, talking about his mental health experience.

In Heavy Light: A journey through madness, mania and healing, he has eloquently captured the reality of being sectioned/detained when he developed bipolar disorder, an action he believes saved him. And he really underlined the importance of listening to the patient and tailoring care to individual need. What an articulate and sympathetic speaker. I was riveted.

Then there was Rev Richard Coles speaking to psychotherapist Julia Samuel (the ‘Queen of Grief’ as Richard described her). He spoke eloquently of the devastation, and the powerful emotions of anger, guilt, emptiness, he has experienced following the death of his beloved husband David, who was an alcoholic as well as fellow priest. No empty platitudes or trite sayings or pious hopes from him! And what sensitivity he must bring to bereaved parishioners. Julia Samuel concluded with poignant accuracy that, though he is still grieving acutely, he is taking David with him into a planned future of ministering to prisoners where the effects of addiction are seen as their harshest. A wonderfully honest and moving conversation, laced with humour, about a subject that needs more openness and candour. I’ve heard Coles speaking before; here I think he was at his best.

To be continued …

 

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Guest blog

I am currently travelling back from Switzerland, so decided it would be a good week for a guest blog. I’ve invited my son, Jonathan, who is himself an avid reader and critic of books, to talk to you this time. Over to him.

I have an amazing inability to remember some things because I refuse to write them down.  However, I do know that at some point in the last year or two, I was reading something in which the question of belief came up, and the answer given was “I believe in books”.  That part stuck in my head, even if the person saying it didn’t.  So what is it about books?  Let me go off on a tangent for a minute, I’ll get back to the question unless I forget that as well.

The imminent arrival of the Edinburgh Book Festival programme is an eagerly awaited day in our family.  We actually have the day marked on the calendar.  For some reason, I get two copies, which is entirely a good thing because there is now one copy for the adults to read and one for the two girls to take away and mark up.  Their approach is to highlight anything by an author they think they’ve heard of, a title that sounds fun or a picture that appeals to them.  We then sift out the events that are for 5 year olds, much older teens and those where they can’t actually remember why they were interested in the first place.  That tends to take care of ninety percent.  My approach to the programme has evolved over the years.  I now go through it very very slowly so I don’t miss anything.  And then do the same again, backwards, and find all the things I missed.  I then forget to book and in a blind panic try to find the programme some days after the booking opened and hope for the best.  Over the course of the next few weeks, I find other people at work asking me if I’m going to so-and-so because it’s something they know I’ll be interested in…and I discover I’ve missed that as well.  It really is pathetic.

One event particularly resonated with me this year (actually, it was three, one of which I didn’t even see until someone else checked that I was going…and I wasn’t… but I’ll stick with the one for now).  Michael Rosen, the only poet we all read together at home because we tend to end up crying with laughter after a few of his poems.  It turns out he also wrote Going on a Bear Hunt.  It also turns out I’m not very good at putting authors’ names with books as I didn’t know those two belonged together until the girls were, well let’s just say it was a good ten years after they had last read the book.  My summary of what I was expecting him to talk about is why books are the most important thing on the planet.  I might be exaggerating a little, and he was in fact somewhat more measured than that, but the power of books can be remarkable (this is me getting back to the question, by the way, I didn’t forget).  A lot of the books I read are just good stories, an insight into someone else’s life, mind or experiences.  Some of course are non-fiction.  And then there are the ones you can’t forget, the ones that help you to see something you knew was there but didn’t want to recognise or acknowledge.

I’ve had a book on my shelf for a good number of years now, By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Cried by Paulo Coelho.  Now, to me he is definitely not the best writer in terms of style or even storytelling.  But sometimes he understands something and tells his stories in a way that can change lives.  The story in this particular book is nothing special really and you could argue that it meanders around sometimes later on.  It’s the story of a man and woman who knew each other when they were younger and then meet up again years later when they have both lived very different lives, even though they are still fairly young.  So far, so nothing special.  But the book – for me – is really all about not giving up on something which is in our hearts, not allowing ourselves to be so rational that we forget that we once had dreams and still do.  Because out there there are enough people telling us what’s sensible, what we should do.  This particular book was one that I knew I would come back to, but only when I was ready to make a change in my life.  I knew that re-reading this one book would be the trigger for making that change, and that there would be no going back.  As Coelho writes,

“You have to take risks, he said.  We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen.”

And here’s the beauty of words, of stories, of books.  That sentence (and a lot of others in that book) really hit me.  Maybe nobody else will ever have even a similar feeling reading that, but in each book, we find something that we didn’t know or didn’t recognise before.  And the same is true of the person writing the story.  I’m experiencing that at the moment as I work on writing my first novel (let me tell you, it looks easier than it is!).  I find characters saying or doing something that surprises me.  It turns out you can’t control it any more than you can control a conversation with another person because you cannot know what they’re going to say and each word changes how the conversation will develop.

So although I knew that Michael Rosen would probably say nothing that I was expecting him to (despite the fact that I had already imagined the whole event in my imagination), I knew that something special would happen just because there was be a conversation between him and an audience and we were all changed by it.

So I believe in books too.

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