Every week, for the last three and a half years, I’ve posted on Facebook about ‘Good Things’. This isn’t a ‘let’s not talk about the bad stuff’ exercise – it acknowledges, explicitly, that the reason I’m doing it is because there is a lot of bad stuff, globally and personally, and it is thus important sometimes to home in on and hold on to the good that is there, even if that good stuff seems rather small and trivial in comparison to war and climate change and poverty and everything. It’s not ‘always look on the bright side’ so much as ‘always look for the bright moments’. Older readers might think of the 1913 children’s book Pollyanna, whose central character is known for being relentlessly cheery at all times. Whilst this can be rather cloying, and I would refute the notion that there is something good to be found in every situation, the idea that it is healthy to remind oneself that there are good things is a valid one. Which is why I’ve kept those posts going, and why they invariably get likes and comments, and people urging me to continue.
It’s certainly not as if the period during which I’ve been doing this (and there were sporadic efforts before, my ‘reasons to be cheerful’) lent itself particularly to optimism, on any front. The world has been going to hell in a handcart faster than ever, it would seem. And on a personal level, when I posted my first ‘Good Things’ my youngest brother was terminally ill with cancer. He died the following February, just before the pandemic deprived us of so many of the things that might normally bring us comfort in hard times. Then, of course, in October 2021, I lost my husband. He died less than 24 hours after I’d posted that week’s Good Things, and when I re-read it I realised that despite the horror of what had happened, I stood by everything I’d said. Those good things were real and true and not invalidated by the huge Bad Thing that had engulfed us. So I’ve carried on.
It’s hard to find much on the national or global scale to celebrate – at most, some things didn’t turn out quite as badly as we feared (the US mid-terms, notably). Our government was incompetent and corrupt, chaotic and callous, as we’ve come to expect, and the usual people are suffering as a result – don’t be poor, don’t be disabled, don’t be old, don’t be sick, and for heaven’s sake, don’t be a refugee… Conspiracy theories, whether about climate change or vaccines or anything else one can think of, seem to be multiplying and spreading more rapidly each year, not helped by the takeover of Twitter, already an excellent breeding ground, by a leading conspiracy theory enabler and exponent. Ukraine is still suffering under – and fighting back against – the Russian invasion. Women in Afghanistan are shut out of the universities. It is easy to despair.
Of course there are always good people standing up for the vulnerable. The RNLI will carry on risking their members’ lives to save those whose dinghies are capsizing in the Channel. Food banks will continue handing out essentials to families who can’t make ends meet. Individuals and organisations will continue to provide safety nets, to challenge bigotry, to tell the truth and to shame (or at least try to shame) the powerful into using their power for good, and the brave will stand up anyway, in Iran and Afghanistan as in so many other places, whatever the risk.
In my own life, despite the sadness, I’ve had good things.
I got a new knee in February and (after a short but tough period of recovery) that gave me the confidence to be braver and more adventurous than I would have done otherwise. I went to Wembley to the Championship Playoff final, with my son. (The football has actually been a Good Thing in 2022, the first year for decades when I could have said that.) I went to Progfest with my brother in law and to the Tramlines music festival, with my son and with friends. I travelled to Rome, on my own (but was met by my brother, with whom I stayed). I would have done none of those things without the op, I would have been too scared, not only of the pain, but of my knee suddenly refusing to bear my weight, or of falling. That fear nearly paralysed me when he died – I could see myself so easily becoming virtually housebound, dependent entirely on others to get around, and that hasn’t happened.
I have needed more help this year, especially without a car or someone to drive it, and I’ve always found the help that I’ve needed, sometimes by asking very directly for it (anyone taller than me – i.e. most adults – entering the house is likely to be greeted on the doorstep with a request to change a light bulb or lift something down off a high shelf), at other times because some nice young man or woman has seen me struggling with a suitcase or whatever and has offered assistance. I’ve also found someone to help me with the cleaning, someone to help me with the garden, a handyman and a decorator.
I finished the PhD, submitting just over a week before he died, and had my viva in May. I’m very proud of the thesis, and I absolutely could not have done it without his support, in big ways and small – so many times I was writing away, lost in my work, only to realise that he had snuck in, delivered a hot cup of tea or coffee and snuck out again, without breaking my train of thought.
I’ve been to the theatre, to a stunning production of Much Ado, by Ramps on the Moon which used its cast of (mainly) deaf and disabled actors inventively and boldly, and tweaked the text accordingly. Much Ado works or doesn’t depending on Beatrice and Benedick, and here both were outstanding and unforgettable. The Guardian reviewer described Daneka Etchell (who is autistic) as ‘the most compelling Beatrice you might ever see’, and she was responsible for an extraordinary scene, when, in her distress at the injustice being inflicted on Hero, she starts stimming. Both her anguish and Benedick’s tenderness in trying to help calm her were very moving.
We very much enjoyed a performance by Under the Stars, an organisation who we supported with Martyn’s memorial fundraiser, who are an arts and events charity for people with learning disabilities and/or autism, running music and drama workshops and nightclubs. The play was The Many Journeys of Maria Rossini and it used words, music and dance, exuberantly and engagingly, to tell the story. Under the Stars band also performed at Tramlines.
Final theatre outing of the year was to Richard Hawley’s musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge, which we’d somehow missed when it was first produced at the Crucible in 2019. We loved it. The musical weaves together the stories of some of the inhabitants of Sheffield’s Park Hill flats, over five decades, telling those stories through some of Hawley’s songs. The action is beautifully choreographed, the singing is marvellous, and it builds to a very moving climax. Obviously this piece has special relevance and resonance for Sheffielders, but it goes beyond that – every major city has communities like Park Hill.
I’ve done my usual summaries of what I’ve read and watched over the year. As far as listening to music at home goes, I’ve tried to develop my own approach to music nights, which were so much about our shared enjoyment of music that initially I couldn’t see at all how I would do it. Now, I pick a few things over the course of the week, prompted by someone mentioning an artist or a band, by an artist’s death, or some other kind of event, just so that I don’t get paralysed by the vast choice when I look at our CD wall. I listen when I can to the Radio 3 weekend programmes we used to love, to Inside Music, Sound of Cinema, Music Planet, J to Z, Jazz Record Requests, and these also often suggest what I listen to from our collection.
Highlights amongst the music that I’ve heard live this year:
- Beethoven String Quartets plus a piece by Caroline Shaw (‘Entr’acte’), in a Music in the Round concert which I sponsored in Martyn’s memory, at the Crucible in May
- Focus, the highlight of the Progfest in April. Still led by Thijs van Leer, who may not be able to reach all the high notes these days but is still a great performer, and the band (which included Pierre van der Linden, another veteran) was great and of course the music brought back so many memories of listening with Martyn.
- Jazz Sheffield gigs from Laura Jurd, Zoe Rahman and the Espen Ericksen Trio with Andy Shephard, all excellent.
- Tramlines highlights: my old favourite, the Coral, and new favourite, Self Esteem.
- A rare orchestral concert, at a great venue, the Auditorium in Rome: Gershwin, Bernstein and Stravinsky.
Last New Year’s Day was one of the hardest to wake up to in all of the days since he died. Knowing that I was about to start on a year without him, the first year without him since 1973… It was bleak. Perhaps, whilst this NYE/NYD will acknowledge the sadness, it may be easier. I hope it will be less bleak, less raw.
So, allons-y to 2023. I will formally graduate (for the last time, definitely, categorically) on 11 January, and my next project will be to look for a publisher for a version of the thesis. I’ll have chapters published in two forthcoming books, both on W G Sebald. I’ll travel, to see friends in Scotland, to see family in various parts of the country, maybe a city break in Europe. I’ll go to two family weddings. I’ll finish phase 2 of the decorating, maybe even phase 3. I’ll carry on sharing the cultural riches of Sheffield with friends and family.
Without being Pollyanna-ish, I do know how very lucky I am, to be surrounded by people who want to and do help me, emotionally and practically. I am thankful for them, every day.
For you, I wish for health and strength, for peace and comfort, for love and support.
In 2023 I wish, of course, for a world without war, a world where people are not persecuted for their beliefs, or simply for who they are, a world where women can be safe on the streets and in their homes. I wish for action on climate change, before it’s too late. That’s a lot, I know.
But as we go into another new year I think, as always, of this poem, which gives me hope.