Archive for category Personal
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.
I’m still not reading as much as I used to. It’s the silence that’s the problem. Lord knows I used to tut sometimes when I was reading and he broke my train of thought with his own train of thought, but Lord knows I would love to have him do that now. So I turn to the TV sometimes when in the past I would have turned to a book, just to break the silence. Nonetheless, I’ve still normally got two or three books on the go – one on the Kindle and a couple of physical books, usually one fiction and one non, and nonetheless it’s still quite an eclectic list. As always, I haven’t listed absolutely everything – I want to share my enthusiasms rather than my disappointments – and as always I have tried to avoid spoilers but make no guarantees. Top reads this half-year? Jan Carson’s The Raptures, Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives, David Park’s Travelling in a Strange Land. From the first half of the year, I’d pick out Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker, J L Carr’s A Month in the Country, and Sarah Moss’s The Fell. Since I make the rules for this blog, I shan’t require myself to choose amongst those six titles.
Pat Barker – The Silence of the Girls
This, and its sequel The Women of Troy (which I have yet to read) tell the familiar story (familiar not only from Homer but from countless retellings – in my case the first encounter was with Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greeks and Trojans and The Luck of Troy) with the focus shifted to the women. In this one, the central role is that of Briseis, handed over to Achilles, appropriated by Agamemnon and retrieved by Achilles, all as part of the spoils of war. It’s a grim tale, beautifully told.
Thomas Bernhard – The Loser
Sebald and Bernhard are often linked, and I figured it was about time I gave the latter a go. The choice of book was a foregone conclusion once I discovered that The Loser was about (in part) Glenn Gould, who fascinates me. There are elements of the style that certainly recall Sebald (any influence was from Bernhard on Sebald) – the novel, like Austerlitz, is one unbroken paragraph, and the narrator’s voice constantly makes it explicit that these are his thoughts, and when he was thinking them (‘I thought, as I entered the inn’, ‘I thought in the inn’ , ‘he said, I thought’, etc) which reminded me again of Austerlitz.
Frances Hodgson Burnett – The Shuttle
I adored The Little Princess and The Secret Garden as a child (never read Fauntleroy, as far as I can recall) and this adult novel was a delight too. It’s quite Gothic in places, but punctured with humour, and with a hero (Bettina) who shines from the pages. The theme is intermarriage between British aristos (broke, with run-down country estates to maintain) and wealthy American heiresses but it’s also a very perceptive (based on first-hand experience) account of coercive control.
Jan Carson – The Raptures
This is stunning. I had no idea for most of it where it was heading, what the answers to the questions were going to be, and indeed ultimately there were no firm answers. But it grips on every page, its characters live and breathe, even when they’re no longer living and breathing. It’s a supernatural mystery, a who (or what) dunit, an allegory about plague and pandemic, a coming of age narrative, a portrait of a small Protestant Northern Irish community. Never mind all that, just read it.
Ann Cleeves – The Rising Tide
A new Vera! I wasn’t sure Cleeves was still writing Veras. Anyway, very pleased to get this and it’s as enjoyable as ever.
Robert Galbraith – Ink Black Heart
Oh dear. I have enjoyed all of the Cormoran Strike books so far, although few of them need to be the length they are. But this one desperately needed an editor to tell her to slash great chunks of the book so that it’s coherent, and particularly to cut back the use of verbatim online conversations (three columns of different conversations, going over several pages) which are incredibly hard to read and to follow. There’s also the issue of the subject matter – online abuse – and its proximity to the author’s life on Twitter and other social media over recent years. I think it’s too close for her to be able to examine that world with any objectivity and the book is a mess.
Elizabeth Gilbert – City of Girls
I read The Signature of All Things a few years back and loved it. Still haven’t read Eat Love Pray or whatever it’s called, fairly sure that would not be my cup of tea. But she’s a lovely writer – City of Girls is captivating, and very witty, it sparkles like one of those screwball comedies from the era in which the book is set. And then the tone shifts, and whilst it’s every bit as witty it’s also darker and deeper and very moving.
Graham Greene – The Quiet American
I honestly thought I’d read all of Greene, many years ago (he was a favourite of my mum’s). But this one had eluded me and it’s a fine example of his style and of his preoccupations.
Elly Griffiths – Bleeding Heart Yard
This is Griffiths’ third novel featuring detective Harbinder Kaur, now relocated in that London, and it is hugely enjoyable. As always with Griffiths, the characters are drawn with humour and affection (mostly), and with compassion and insight.
Abdulrazak Gurnah – After Lives
Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021 but his name had never registered with me. I shall put that right now and read his other books, because this one was excellent. Set in what is now Tanzania, in the early 20th century when the area was a German colony, it sweeps across that century, through the first and second world wars, the shifting boundaries and colonial rulers, but is always centred on the lives of a handful of characters who are battered, in different ways, by these forces. Despite the scale and the horror of what is unfolding, it manages to be, in relation to these people, gentle and subtle and, somehow, hopeful.
Yaa Gyasi – Transcendent Kingdom
I’d read Homegoing a couple of years ago, an epic family history that begins in Kumasi, Ghana, and crosses continents and centuries. The scale in Transcendent Kingdom is much smaller, although it still reaches back to Kumasi, but the central family is contracting rather than expanding (as the narrator says, “There used to be four of us, then three, two. When my mother goes, whether by choice or not, there will be only one”. Its concerns are philosophical, scientific even, as the central character is a neuroscientist, her research intimately connected with her family’s tragedy.
Robert Harris – Act of Oblivion
After Cromwell’s death, those who signed King Charles’ death warrant are on the run, and supporters of the new King are determined to track them down. Harris cleverly builds the tension but also gives us insight into both sides, so we as readers have to keep switching our perspective, as we are with first the regicides and then the manhunter, and we see how both are driven by the absolute certainty that they and their cause are absolutely right.
Mick Herron – Live Tigers/Spook Street
The third and fourth of the Slough House novels and they’re as sharp and funny and dark as ever. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, and to seeing the dramatisation of the second book – Gary Oldman has a marvellous time as Jackson Lamb, really letting rip, in every sense.
Tayari Jones – The Untelling
Secrets and lies and their toxic effects upon relationships are the theme here, and Jones is perceptive and subtle in her portrayal of Aria(dne) and the small circle of people who matter to her.
Stephen King – Fairy Tale
This resembles his 1984 collaboration with the late Peter Straub, The Talisman, more than it does his most recent spate of novels. That’s deliberate, I’m sure – King often makes references to his other books, sometimes in passing, sometimes to create resonant connections (see his various books set in or around Castle Rock, for example), and there are some nice echoes here. He and Straub had talked about another collaboration, although it had never got off the ground, so maybe we can take this as a tribute. It’s King on top form, in any case.
John le Carré – Silverview
Ah, the last le Carré. Edited by his son, from what was a virtually complete manuscript. It’s not the best le Carré but it’s bloody good le Carré and it has the melancholy and the anger that have characterised his work in later years.
Attica Locke – The Cutting Season
A stand-alone from Locke, after her two excellent short series of crime novels. This is crime that drags one back into the past, the slavery past, and it is tense and gripping stuff.
David Park – A Run in the Park/Travelling in a Strange Land
Beautiful writing. A Run in the Park is the gentler read, although there’s plenty of emotional heft in there. Travelling in a Strange Land goes to dark places but in both books there is always darkness and light, loss and love, grief and hope.
Sara Paretsky – Tunnel Vision
The eighth in Paretsky’s excellent detective series, featuring PI V I Warshawsky battling corporate crime and corruption. I’ve read these in random order as I got hold of them, so at some point I will try and fill in the gaps.
Ann Patchett – Bel Canto
My first Patchett – this is compelling and often moving. It’s about a terrorist attack, and the fate of the hostages, but its also about love, beauty and music.
Louise Penny – The Madness of Crowds
Inspector Gamache series, no. 17, the most recent. As with the Paretsky, I’m reading these in a totally random order, so there are references in this one to events which I don’t yet know about, but the main plot stands alone. As always with Penny, there are times when Three Pines seems just too magically cosy but she always undercuts that with the crime and its motivation, which are anything but.
Bapsi Sidwha – The Ice Candy Man
Many years ago I read Sidwha’s debut novel, The Crow Eaters, which I remember loving even if its plot has faded from my memory. The setting is Lahore, once in India, then allocated to Pakistan at the time of Partition. The Ice Candy Man (also published as Cracking India) starts in the period leading up to Partition and confronts the horrors of what happened, through the eyes of a child, who at first has no real notion that the different communities (Sikh, Parsi, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian) are potentially a threat to one another. Indeed, her home is a place where people from these communities meet and bicker and insult one another in a largely friendly way, and when violence is predicted insist that they will stand by their friends. We see things through Lenny’s eyes, not all of which she understands, not all of which adults are prepared to explain to her. It’s unflinching, but also often funny and touching.
Zadie Smith – White Teeth
I struggle with Zadie Smith and am still trying to work out why. Her characters never quite seem to live and breathe, as if she’s at too much of a distance from them to really bring them to life. This, her debut, didn’t change my view, unfortunately.
Russ Thomas – Nightwalking/Cold Reckoning
Parts 2 and 3 of Thomas’s Sheffield-based trilogy which began with Firewatching. Excellent plotting and interesting, complicated lead characters.
Anne Tyler – Redhead at the Side of the Road
I hadn’t read any Tyler for ages, not since being so disappointed with Vinegar Girl (kind of a take on Taming of the Shrew, but it really didn’t work). But I have read most of her stuff, and I love most of her stuff (top two are Saint Maybe and Breathing Lessons, I think). This one is a lovely variation on ‘a perennial Tyler theme: the decent, mundane, settling-for-less kind of life whose uneasy decorum is suddenly exploded by the random, the uncontrolled, the latent sense of what might have been’, as The Guardian’s reviewer put it.
I read this account of widowhood, by a family friend, a few years back when it was first published. Reading it again now was a remarkable experience – so many of Molly’s observations are ones that I can relate to – I kept thinking ‘Yes! Yes, that’s it!’. It’s insightful, honest and warm.
Sarah Churchwell – The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe
Having felt rather grubby after watching Blonde I thought this would be a good antidote. It’s the story of the stories of Monroe’s life, of the clichés and stereotypes, the biographies and memoirs and attempts to uncover the ‘real’ Monroe. It’s incisive and rigorous and fascinating. It was published before the film of Blonde came out, but includes Joyce Carol Oates’ novel in her analysis, along with Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller and a host of lesser lights whose accounts have been published over the years.
Laura Cumming – On Chapel Sands: My Mother and other Missing Persons
A very intriguing memoir/detective story. Cummings gradually reveals the secrets of her mother’s early life, and at each step shows how she had to reevaluate everything she thought she knew, and her understanding of the people involved. If it were fiction it would be a great read but it gains depth through the knowledge that it is a true story – it’s deeply personal, and terribly sad.
Mike Duncan – The Storm before the Storm
The rise of the Roman Republic, as Duncan tells it, was the beginning of its fall. Fascinating, accessibly written account.
Sebastian Haffner – Defying Hitler: A Memoir
Haffner (real name Raimund Pretzel) wrote this account of Germany in the First World War, the Weimar Republic and during the rise of Nazism, in 1939, after he had emigrated to England. It was only published in 2003, having been left unfinished, as Haffner worked on his less personal account, Germany: Jekyll and Hyde, and was collated for publication by his son. It is therefore written without hindsight, at least without the knowledge of what lay inexorably at the end of the Nazi road, and thus its insights are fresh and passionate, exploring how Germans came to choose Hitler.
Sudhir Hazareesingh – Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture
Epic is right. An extraordinary man, with an extraordinary life and achievements, which resonate to this day (as I was reminded in the cinema the other day, watching Wakanda Forever…)
Hans Jahner – Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955
An excellent study, exploring many aspects of the post-war period, and taking the story further, beyond the bomb sites and the hunger, to recovery, and division. He draws on a number of memoirs, often from women, which shed light on daily life, on culture and politics, on work and money. It’s rigorous but entertainingly written, often with a wry humour.
Michelle Obama – Becoming
Great stuff – she writes interestingly and engagingly, about her life before she hooked up with Barack as well as showing us his presidency from her perspective and that of the family. I would have liked to hear her account of the years after his presidency ended – maybe another volume will be forthcoming…
My reading this year has taken me out of my own time and place and as always I feel enriched by it, I feel my sympathies have been extended, as George Eliot puts it. I’ve been entertained as well as educated, often at the same time, and I’ve been moved to both laughter (laughing out loud is something I do too little of these days, living alone) and tears (well, no shortage of those, nor any surprise to those who know me, even before recent losses). I am deeply grateful to all of the writers with whom I’ve shared 2022 and who, in their various ways, have helped me through it.
Lissa Evans’ lovely novel, Spencer’s List, talks about how grief moves into a different phase one year and a day after the death. That until that point, every day one thinks, ‘this time last year’, and recalls a world in which that person is there, in which one can reach out and speak to them, hear their voice, hold their hand. And one year and one day later, ‘this time last year’ recalls a world that they have already left. It doesn’t mean it gets easier – that realisation in itself is painful – but it is different. And it goes on becoming different, as we are different, each time we lose someone close.https://cathannabel.blog/2020/05/29/some-fantastic-place-2/
A couple of years back when I wrote the above, I was talking about the loss of my mother and my youngest brother. I had no idea then what I would soon face, or how it would affect me. But there’s truth in that idea, that one year and one day is a staging post in the weird, convoluted journey of grief.
It’s not only that you’ve accumulated a whole year of memories of the world without them in it. You have got through the practical stuff, by and large – you’ve dealt with the bereavement admin, maybe tidied their clothes away or donated things to charity shops, figured out how to do the stuff around the house that they always dealt with (or figured out who to ask for help). You’ve got through the ‘firsts’ – first birthday, first Father’s Day, first Christmas, first wedding anniversary without them, and the new anniversaries, of the day they died, of the funeral.
And then you realise, this is it now. Which is why, I think, many people have said that the second year is tougher than the first.
During that first year, it often felt a bit as if I was part of an experiment in solo living. A friend, Molly Bell, in her warm and insightful book on living alone after her husband died, likens it to ‘those TV series, where a willing group of people are made to live as though they existed at a different point in history … for a year, perhaps, … before returning to life as it was before’. But there is no returning.
The things I’ve learned to do for the first time on my own now seem normal. Cooking a meal for one and eating it alone now seems normal. Going to sleep and waking up on my own, coming home after an evening out to an empty house, deciding on my own what and when to eat, what to watch or listen to – all normal. (Which doesn’t mean I don’t have moments when it seems ridiculous, impossible, that I’m on my own, when I still think, even after all this time, where the heck has he got to?)
Some of this is kind of OK. I can do the cooking and eating alone thing, as long as every now and again I have a meal out with friends or family, or I can cook a meal for them. It’s OK, but it’s harder to find the motivation to tackle a meal with a lot of ingredients and a lot of prep time, when it’s just for me. I go to concerts on my own, if friends aren’t free to go with me, and it’s OK. I go for walks on my own, although I am much more cautious about going off-road, if there isn’t someone with me whose arm I can grab if I wobble, and just because I generally feel more vulnerable.
Other things are much less OK. It’s quite possible to go for days without speaking out loud (other than when doing my Duolingo sessions), or hearing another person’s voice (other than via the TV or radio) in the room. It’s quite possible to go for days without laughing out loud. We were always talking – mostly nonsense, trivia or simple practical discussions, but also about what we were reading, what was going on in the news, what was going on in the lives of the people we loved. And we did laugh together, a lot. It feels odd to laugh at something when I’m sitting on my own.
I spend as much time as I can with family and friends, but at the end of the meal or the cinema trip I come home to an empty house. I am used to it – though there are odd times when it hits me all over again as if it was the first time – but I don’t suppose I will ever like it. I think it’s the starkness of the contrasts that makes it hardest, between being with other people and being completely alone. For over 44 years I was only alone at home for a few hours in a day, if that. The norm was that companionable presence, no need to talk, but he was there, and either of us could share our thoughts with the other whenever we wished. And so when I’ve been out, or the house has been full of voices and laughter, and then it’s just me and there’s silence, that abrupt, brutal contrast sometimes lays me very low. And so no matter how many more outings or visits I arrange, how much of my time I spend with other people, at home or away, at the end of that I will still feel that aloneness.
Loneliness is now normal. Sadness is normal too. It’s not a mood so much as a presence. I’m not talking about being wracked with grief, though that happens sometimes too – just about that sense of having lost, of being less, of an absence that will still be palpable in every room in the house, in every activity outside the house, whatever I do.
Those things can’t be fixed. I’m not asking anyone to suggest how I could fix them, or asking anyone to do more than they’re already doing to support me. I have to work through this process – and writing about it is part of how I do that – and believe that I will over time get a better balance, feel less bleak less often.
My experience of widowhood is, obviously, very much mine, and will not follow the same pattern as anyone else’s (if any of us are following any discernible pattern). The ‘one year’ thing is very different if the year leading up to the loss of your person was spent watching them weaken, anticipating their loss, nursing them, trying to support your children through that gradual bereavement in advance. My year up to 9 October was entirely, utterly normal. With hindsight there are events – occasions when we spent time with family or friends, for the first time since Covid – that have gained significance because they were both the first and the last time, but then, they were just lovely occasions, that we expected would and could be repeated in the years to come.
Whatever differences there are in the way we – widows – lost our person, what we share is that the person we lost is the one with whom our lives were inextricably entwined, so that there is nothing that has nothing to do with them. So the loss is inescapable. Because we share that, we can help each other. I’ve found immense comfort and strength in talking to other widows (in person or online) – not that they have answers for me, but to have someone say, yes, I know, I know what that’s like, I feel it too, and to understand that isn’t an imaginative leap on their part, but real, deep, lived knowledge.
So what has helped me through this year and a bit? Obviously, love. The love of my children, as we support each other. The love of my family and friends, which has been steadfast and sustaining. Letting myself feel what I feel – not berating myself for having weepy days, not feeling bad for not weeping as much as I ‘should’. Being practical – getting things done, getting things fixed, making plans, reminding myself that I have a future, even if it’s not the one I envisaged. Enjoying – on my own or with other people – things we used to enjoy together: music, films, TV, books, the view from our windows, local walks, good food and wine. Talking about him, reminiscing about him, never shutting him out of the life I have now. Being sentimental – the yellow roses to remind me of our wedding day, the patchwork cushions made from his old shirts, the playlist I made for the wake, wearing his old dressing gown, dedicating a track to him on Jazz Record Requests.
There is no road map, no itinerary, no timetable for any of this. I can be fine, and then ambushed by grief. I can be strong and practical and able to cope, and then whimpering in a corner because the central heating thermostat needs new batteries. I can be adventurous and bold and then want to just be here, in our home, with the familiar things that we shared around me.
And so I go on into that difficult second year, trying to be kind to myself, holding on to the many, many good things in my life, holding on to the people who’ve got me through this far. Allons-y.
I’ve read a lot less so far this year than in the first half of 2021 – half as many books, in fact – despite the fact that back then I was intensively working on my PhD thesis, trying to finish and submit it by the end of the summer (spoiler – I did, and was awarded the doctorate in May 2022). My ability to concentrate, and to sleep well enough at night not to fall asleep over a book in the daytime, is still impaired following the loss of my husband, but for several months of this year was also limited by the painful aftermath of knee surgery. However, I did read (and the flip side of the surgery recovery was relative inactivity), and it’s a reasonably eclectic selection. As always, I try to avoid spoilers, but you takes your chances if you read on. And, as always, I have missed one or two books out that really weren’t worth drawing anyone’s attention to. I haven’t picked out a winner from this half-year’s crop, but I have starred those books which had the greatest impact on me and which I’m most eager to share.
Ben Aaronovitch – Amongst Our Weapons
The latest in the funny, engaging and often rather magical (yes, it’s about magic, but there are so many moments that achieve that, rather than just describing it) Rivers of London series. The interface between ‘the weird stuff’ and regular policing never fails to entertain (e.g. the senior copper who won’t take any lip from witnesses, whatever they say they’re the god of).
Rumaan Alam – Leave the World Behind
Very, very unsettling. Especially when, whilst I was reading it, on holiday with friends, we had an episode when none of us could get internet on our phones, and there was this weird looking cloud up ahead… Can say no more without spoilers but it’s excellent and unnerving.
J L Carr – A Month in the Country*
This is beautiful. A tender gem of a book. There’s joy here, something almost magical in the uncovering of the long-hidden mural, which mirrors the gradual revelations about some of the characters, but there’s such deep sadness too. Remarkable.
Sinead Crowley – Can Anybody Help Me?
A decent thriller, with an interesting setting, in the world of ‘mumsnet’ type fora, where people seek reassurance and online friendship via online identities, but end up giving away more about themselves than they intend.
Will Dean – Black River
Third outing for Dean’s deaf female detective, Tuva Moodyson. It’s a dark and gripping tale, the lead character is fascinating and I will certainly find the first two in the series and then read on.
Maurizio de Giovanni – The Bastards of Pizzofalcone
Hard-boiled Naples-set Italian crime. The series has been compared to Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, which we read voraciously for years (it may still be going on, I’m not sure, with Steve Carella et al mysteriously un-aged). There’s an earlier novel, The Crocodile, which I haven’t read, but must do so.
Bernardine Evaristo – Mr Loverman
This is lovely – we see our hero through his own eyes and through those of other people close to him, and he isn’t who he initially seems to be. There is warmth and humour and real sadness, and one ends up kind of rooting for all of the characters, even when they’re most at odds with each other.
Penelope Fitzgerald – The Bookshop*
Low-key and heartbreaking, and beautifully written. The initial reviews when this appeared in 1979 were screechingly condescending – ‘a harmless, conventional little anecdote’, according to The Times – but there have been more discerning readers since. It reminded me a bit of Dorothy Whipple – it may appear gentle but it’s razor sharp.
Alan Garner – Treaclewalker*
Every Alan Garner book brings with it echoes from every other Alan Garner book, including his memoir, Where Shall We Run To? It’s all part of this rich weave of folk tales, childhood memories, of place and landscape. His style is as spare as ever and the rhythms of his writing as mesmerising as ever.
Winston Graham – Poldark
I started binge reading the Poldark series (which, surprisingly, I never read during my historical fiction obsessed teens), after my husband died and I needed reading matter that was not going to challenge or break me. They are very well written, and clearly well researched, the plots were familiar from the more recent TV adaptation (at least for the first five of the series), and very enjoyable.
Elly Griffiths – The Locked Room
The latest Ruth Galloway novel, set just at the start of the pandemic, which is beautifully well handled and conveys the strangeness and the anxiety of that time.
Robert Harris – Enigma/The Fear Index/Pompeii/The Second Sleep
I had a bit of a binge on Robert Harris, evidently. They’re all very different. Enigma fed into my long-standing fascination with WWII codebreaking, with a plot blending actual events with invention, but thoroughly researched and much better than the film of the book. The Fear Index is a highly intriguing contemporary thriller, however probable or otherwise its central premiss may be. Pompeii is, unsurprisingly, a historical account of the destruction of the city, which gives us not only the individual and social dramas, but the scientific background too, whether in terms of volcanic eruptions, or the engineering of water supplies – gripping and fascinating, even though of course we know what’s coming. The Second Sleep is most intriguing – I won’t say anything about the plot because you have to read it and pick up on the subtle hints and clues before things become clear (and if anyone reads this and Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle, which I talk about below, there’s a surprising link).
Melissa Harrison – All Among the Barley
‘As an evocation of place and a lost way of life, Harrison’s novel is astonishing, as potent and irresistible as a magic spell’, as the Guardian reviewer puts it. But there’s nothing romantic or sentimentalised about it, and there are darker undercurrents as national politics starts to infiltrate the life of the countryside.
Tayari Jones – Silver Sparrow/Leaving Atlanta*
I read An American Marriage last year, and loved it, so I followed it up with these two. Silver Sparrow explores the lives of two sisters, who share a bigamous father. The Guardian reviewer called it ‘moving, intimate and wise’. Leaving Atlanta was Jones’ debut and is a response to the Atlanta child murders (see also James Baldwin’s Evidence of Things Not Seen), drawing on her childhood in that city at the time. It’s compelling and dark, and offers a different, child-centred insight into these strange and deeply troubling crimes.
Philip Kazan – The Black Earth
A bow drawn at a venture, but I very much enjoyed this account of WWII in Greece (about which I knew very little) and the internecine battles which engulfed the country so that the bloodshed didn’t end with the end of the war. It’s got a romance at its heart, but it’s not romantic fiction, it’s well constructed, dark and gritty.
Barbara Kingsolver – The Bean Trees
Kingsolver’s debut. Well worth reading, though it’s kind of softer than some of her later work, verging on sentimental.
Malcolm Lowry – Under the Volcano*
A friend told me this was his absolute all-time favourite book, and I had to admit I’d never read it. I have now remedied that, and I can entirely see how one could become lost in it, and obsessed with it. I would not dream of offering any insights without a re-read, but I can still summon up its woozy, shifting realities and its deep sadness.
Val McDermid – 1979
One can practically smell the cigarette smoke in this thriller set in a newspaper office in, oddly enough, 1979. McDermid at the top of her game. I love all her work, except for the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series which I have never got on with. Soz Val – that still leaves a lot for me to enjoy!
Dervla McTiernan – The Murder Rule
I was disappointed in this, having enjoyed a couple of her others (The Ruin and The Scholar) very much. This is a stand-alone, and the setting is the US rather than Ireland. Neither the plot nor the characters entirely convinced me, I’m afraid.
Sarah Moss – The Fell*
One of my favourite contemporary novelists, and this is a remarkable, powerful novel. It’s set mid-pandemic, with one character shielding, another self-isolating after contact with Covid, and it explores subtly and sensitively the sense of ‘accumulating dread’ as Moss puts it. But the dread is less of Covid itself, more of the effects of isolation and confinement. Beautifully written, with the voices of the four protagonists creating ‘polyphonic momentum’.
Joyce Carol Oates – A Fair Maiden
A troubling tale, with echoes of Lolita, which was widely regarded as a disappointment from Oates. I think I agree – I’m not sure what she was attempting here (a reworking/reimagining of Lolita? To what purpose?). It is of course well written and the protagonist (the ‘fair maiden’) is an excellent creation.
Rob Palk – Animal Lovers
Very funny, and very touching. Palk has a delicious turn of phrase, but never lets the comedic elements turn the characters into mere jokes or caricatures.
Philip Pullman – Serpentine
This novella is set between the end of the His Dark Materials trilogy and The Secret Commonwealth, Vol. 2 of The Book of Dust. It seems slight, but it sheds light on the troubled relationship between Lyra and Pantalaimon. Eagerly awaiting the final part of the second trilogy…
Ian Rankin – Resurrection Men
I have read the Rebus novels in an entirely random order, and thought I had read this already but it turns out the plot is familiar from the TV adaptation – it matters not, I’m absorbed and entertained.
Donal Ryan – Strange Flowers
Ryan writes with such beauty and tenderness, about people and about landscape. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the story within the story, which took me out of the narrative that I was fully invested in, rather than enriching it or shedding light on it. But it’s a fine novel, even with that caveat, and will stay with me.
Sunjeev Sahota – China Room
I’ve read both of Sahota’s previous novels, and this one didn’t disappoint. Much of it is set in the 1920s, with a contemporary plot woven through, and it’s quite different in pace and tone to its predecessors. Subtly powerful and very moving.
Elizabeth Strout – Oh, William!*
Oh, Elizabeth! I thought I might have got used to Strout’s writing, and that it might therefore affect me less. I was mistaken. As always, her narratives overlap with one another and so we meet or hear of people and stories from other books, and with every novel the tapestry becomes richer. As the Guardian’s reviewer says, ‘the intense pleasure of Strout’s writing becomes the simple joy of learning more while – always – understanding less. “We are all mysterious, is what I mean,” says Lucy towards the close of this novel, leaving us already hungry for the next one’.
Russ Thomas – Firewatching
Sheffield set crime, very dark. This is Thomas’s debut and I will look out for more from him. The plot is complex, as are the characters, but it’s not driven, as far too many thrillers are, by the need to include ‘an incredible twist which you’ll never guess’. (That’s a bugbear of mine. Twist away, but it’s got to work with the plot and the characters, rather than just blasting in from nowhere simply to make us gasp.)
Lesley Thomson – The House with no Rooms
The fourth in the Detective’s Daughter series. The two leads are each decidedly odd, and not in the classic ‘detective with a fatal flaw/memorable quirk’ way, and the crimes are odd and troubling too.
Rose Tremain – Music and Silence*
This is fabulous. Set in the Danish royal court in the mid-17th century, it interweaves the stories of royalty and musicians and servants in the most intriguing and moving ways. And as the title would suggest, music plays a major, almost magical, certainly spiritual role.
Nicola Upson – Josephine Tey series
I started binging this series last year, and have continued. The conceit of having a writer of crime fiction getting involved in real crimes is hardly a new one, but it’s nicely done, and the period setting (the series has now reached the start of WWII) is interestingly handled, drawing out complexities that could only have been hinted at by Tey and her contemporaries.
Ocean Vuong – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
I found this difficult to read, and am not sure why. It may well be that my concentration, which has at times been sadly lacking this year, was insufficient to follow the narrative or fully appreciate the very beautiful poetic prose. Another attempt may be called for, given how strong the recommendations have been for this.
S J Watson – Before I go to Sleep
This was certainly gripping (and much better than the film, which had to skate over so many aspects of the plot that the improbabilities were sharply highlighted). I don’t think I quite believed in any of it, but I was fascinated to see how Watson put the narrative together and how he was going to resolve things. Entertaining.
Colson Whitehead – Harlem Shuffle
After the horrors of slavery in The Underground Railroad, and of a brutal reform school in The Nickel Boys, there is really quite a lot of hope, and much more scope for humour in this story of a furniture salesman’s attempt to negotiate the blurred lines and moral grey areas of Harlem in the 50s/60s. The writing is just as acute as in his other, darker novels, and the narrative just as gripping.
James Baldwin – The Evidence of Things not Seen
This is Baldwin’s essay on the Atlanta Child Murders (see Tayari Jones’ Leaving Atlanta, above). As always with Baldwin, it’s both passionate and lucid, and if it comes to no firm conclusions about guilt or innocence, that is hardly surprising since we appear to have moved on barely at all since Wayne Williams was charged with two of the murders back in 1982.
Antony Beevor – The Mystery of Olga Chekhova
I’ve read most of Beevor’s WWII history tomes, but this is a bit different. It’s a complex narrative, and one is very grateful for the Dramatis Personae at the front, to help the reader keep track of who is who (I remember reading Dr Zhivago as a teenager and struggling with the many variants of each character’s name). Gripping stuff.
Ruth Coker Burks – All the Young Men: How One Young Woman Risked it all to Care for the Dying
I feared this might be a bit sentimental, and also a bit too much God-stuff for my liking, but Burks is not given to soppiness, or to judgement. She’s an outsider, as a single parent in a rather conventional society, and her chance encounter with an AIDS patient – isolated, terrified, uncared for – immediately starts her on a path which leads to remarkable work both in exercising practical compassion and in lobbying for changes to the way people with AIDS are treated. The title isn’t as hyperbolic as it appears either – she lost friends and jobs, and ran the real risk of losing custody of her daughter due to her activism.
Michel Butor – Selected Essays*
A new translation of some of Butor’s essays on the novel. He writes with such clarity, so refreshing for those of us who have wrestled with some of his slipperier contemporaries (looking at you, Deleuze, in particular), and sheds light on his own four novels, as well as giving an insight into his later work.
Joe Hadju – Budapest: A History of Grandeur and Catastrophe
I had a tantalisingly brief visit to Budapest, as part of a Danube cruise, which left me wanting to know much more about the city. I am unlikely to visit in the near future given the political climate there, but the history is fascinating.
Debora Harding – Dancing with the Octopus
As the sub-title tells us, this is ‘The Telling of a True Crime’. And it really is about ‘the telling’ – the remembering and attempted forgetting, the being believed and, horrifically, not being believed. It’s a tough read and a gripping one.
Kerry Hudson – Lowborn*
This is a vital read, as more and more families are forced into the kind of poverty that Hudson experienced as a child and a teenager. What hits me most is what bloody hard work it is being poor. The simplest things – eating nourishing food, keeping warm, keeping clean, staying safe – things that many of us take for granted, can only be achieved with constant, relentless battling against the system.
Yasmin Khan – The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan
I’ve been fascinated by Partition since reading Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown novels, and watching the dramatisation. I think the experience of living in Northern Nigeria during the build up to its Civil war, when Igbo people were murdered or driven out of the northern territories, gave those events particular resonance for me. I’ve previously read a collection of personal accounts of these events (Kavita Puri’s Partition Voices) but this is a detailed, solid history, with an emphasis on the human consequences of violence and displacement.
Rachel Lichtenstein – On Brick Lane
Portrait of a changing community through time, as different waves of immigration each reshape the area (Huguenot, Jewish, Bangladeshi) and its culture.
Wendy Lower – The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed
When we are losing day by day the eye-witnesses to the Holocaust these scraps of photographic evidence become more vital, and Lower uses an image of one of the massacres of Jews in what is now Ukraine to identify killers, witnesses and victims. It’s a brutal read, as it should be.
Patrick Marnham – War in the Shadows: Resistance, Deception and Betrayal in Occupied France
A gripping account of the murkier aspects of SOE’s activities in Occupied France. It’s a very complicated story – it helps if one already knows some of the story of at least some of the protagonists – and sheds some light on who was doing the betraying…
Wendy Mitchell – What I Wish People Knew about Dementia
I read a lot about dementia when my mother-in-law was diagnosed. Some things were helpful, others less so. Wendy Mitchell’s first book didn’t so much give us practical help, as tremendous insight, from the person actually with the dementia, into what the condition means. Remarkably, she’s still writing, still sharing her experiences and this book may give us some useful ideas in supporting my father who has recently been diagnosed. He’s aware of his condition, as Mitchell is, and so can be involved to some extent in finding work-arounds to make life easier (mother-in-law’s confusion progressed so quickly that any solution we came up with one week was useless by the next).
Caroline Moorehead – A House in the Mountains: The Women who Liberated Italy from Fascism*
I know very little about Italy’s war (see above for the same admission re Greece), but this was a fantastic, inspiring read. It focuses on four young women, in the mountains around Turin, who risked their lives daily during German occupation to move weapons and pass on messages, to fight, to take prisoners, to help liberate their country.
Philip Norman – Wild Thing: The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix
Another biography of Hendrix, and dammit, the ending is the same as always. Having read so much about the man, there were anecdotes here about which I was sceptical, but also real new research and insights.
Tim Parks – Italian Life: A Modern Fable of Loyalty and Betrayal
Fascinating account of how HE in Italy works – the subtitle is very revealing. Having just completed a PhD in English HE, I am very thankful not to have had to go through the Italian system!
Samantha Power – The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir
An essential read for anyone interested in international politics, particularly in the politics of war and genocide from someone who, both as a journalist and as a US government official (including as Obama’s ambassador to the UN), saw at close quarters many of the events she discusses.
Tracy Thorn – Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew up and Tried to be a Pop Star
A delight. Funny and touching, beautifully written.
Dorothy Whipple – Random Commentary
I only recently discovered Whipple’s novels and that she had lived in Nottinghamshire, including a spell in the vicinity of Newstead Abbey, very close to my teenage home. These are her own edited extracts from her diaries between 1925 and 1945, touching on the minutiae of everyday life, the successes and frustrations of her writing career and the momentous world events just off stage.
Reading has, over the last eight months, to some extent been an escape. But that doesn’t mean only reading easy stuff, or cosy stuff (I feel about ‘cosy’ books similarly to how I feel about Classic FM’s insistence that music should be ‘soothing’). The books I’ve read – the funny ones, the challenging ones, the heartbreaking ones, the gripping ones – have all taken me out of my immediate situation, out of the familiar home that is so strange without him in it. I’ve not only gained that respite, but also what George Eliot called the extension of sympathies – it’s easy to become very self-focused in a situation like mine, but books take me into other lives, other places, other histories. And I’m grateful for that.
A guest blog from Arthur Annabel
This has been the worst year of my life by a wide margin. It’s also had some of the most deliriously, life definingly joyful moments I’ve ever experienced.
The fact that both those statements can be true suggests Dickens may have been on to something.
On the 9th of October my dad died suddenly. No warning, no build up, no anything. I went to bed one Friday night oblivious to how my entire world was about to change and then a phone call at one in the morning realigned everything.
I’ve spent the last few months trying to work out what my life looks like without him in it, how I manage to move forwards with this chasm of grief suddenly smack bang in the middle of everything I do.
I’d always understood that losing a parent is one of those life defining moments, but understanding and experiencing are two vastly different things.
The months since have been a real challenge, with both the loss and the illogical abruptness of it bringing out the worst in my mental health. Depression and anxiety are constant companions for me, but for the past eight months they’ve threatened to overwhelm me multiple times a week. Sometimes like the slow building pressure of a crowd that only seems dangerous when it’s already far too late to extract yourself from it, sometimes like someone running up and punching you in the face with no warning. I’ve spent those months discovering just how much truth lies behind so many of the clichés about loss and grief, and finding that they inevitably don’t do justice to it at the same time.
So it has sat truly oddly with me that interspersed throughout these months are some of the most enjoyable moments I can remember.
As with so many emotional reactions that don’t really make sense in my life, Nottingham Forest are behind those moments.
My dad never really got being a football fan, he vaguely supported Mansfield Town as his friends dragged him to games in his teens, but the idea of a football club having the ability to trigger despair or joy always seemed illogical to him. He’d often decry (at least 50% of the time to wind me up) the nature of tribal loyalties and the way they bring out the worst in people. Stubbornly individualistic in everything outside of his family, he never truly understood or approved of what I loved about the collective experience of being part of a crowd, a group of people defined by their shared devotion to a concept, a cause, a club.
He was frequently baffled by why I spent so many of my weekends jumping on trains across the country following a team that seemed to mostly only bring me disappointment. The idea of going to Birmingham or Bradford, Peterborough or Preston only to see us lose was alien to him. He never really got the escape I found when in a packed away end, that sense of being with “my” people, of for 90 minutes it not mattering how awkward I felt, because we were all there for one shared reason, the way Forest even at their most disheartening, were something I could invest emotional intensity in, whose failure couldn’t be blamed on me, where there were thousands of other people sharing in the exact same joy or despair I was.
As someone who struggles to just be in any moment due to my anxiety and over analysis, football and Forest in particular, have always somehow existed in a separate realm and those little pockets of breathing space have always been priceless to me. Much like when I’m playing football, when I’m watching Forest so much of the background noise drops away.
I inherited my love of Forest from my mum, a devoted fan who along with my uncles and aunt saw us win practically every competition we set our sights on in the late 70s and 80s. Growing up in Sheffield, being the only Forest fan in my year at school, was often not fun at all. Particularly when Forest conspired to throw away a lead in the play-off semi-final against United in 2003. That was the birth place of my occasional theory that Nottingham Forest Football Club is a specially designed science experiment intended to engineer the most depressing experiences possible for an individual in order to test how much they can tolerate. It’s the kind of self-indulgent theory that requires ignoring all the other football fans so much worse off than you, but I suspect we’re all prone to it.
My first in person Forest game was a premier league draw against Leeds United, unaware that my first game would also be the highest I’d see us play for more than two decades. My life time of being a Forest fan is one that’s been spent listening to the stories of how good we once were while watching us be relegated, fall short of promotion, be relegated again, scramble our way out of league one, fall short of promotion a couple more times, avoid relegation on a final day and then throw away a play-off spot from such a seemingly secure position that you’d almost wonder if there was a fix involved, if you didn’t subscribe to my dad’s theory that cockup wins out over conspiracy 99% of the time.
There’ve been good days, but they’ve been few and far between.
I don’t believe that things happen for a reason or that there’s any grand design to how things pan out. I lean towards the chaos theory end of the spectrum when it comes to trying to explain why what happens, happens.
So I can only turn to thank the universe in all its random variations, for the fact that in a year where I so desperately needed reasons for hope, belief and unbridled joy, Nottingham Forest picked this year to suddenly deliver the best season in my time supporting the club.
The whole journey from being bottom when Steve Cooper came in, to securing a spot in the Premier League on Sunday has been joyous and better writers than me have captured that (check out Daniel Storey and Paul Taylor in particular), while Phil Juggins at the The Loving Feeling blog captured the way that that wonderful, wondrous Welshman took all our apathy and frustration and threw it in the Trent to be washed away.
What I want to focus on is on four particular moments. They’re not necessarily the most important games to the turnaround or the triumph, though unsurprisingly there’s plenty of overlap, they’re the moments that meant everything at the time and still stand out knowing exactly where they fit within the overarching story.
October 19th 2021
One day after my 31st birthday. barely a week after my dad passed away. Me and my mum sat at home, watching on tv as Forest took on Bristol City. Results had turned around significantly but I’d be lying if I’d said I’d had any sense of what was building at this point. There was no sense of what was to come or belief that there was anything more at stake than three more points away from the relegation zone. No this was a scrappy away game that for 90 minutes offered me an escape and a distraction from every unavoidable feeling I’d been experiencing. Given the gap between the dates I suspect birthdays will always be difficult from now on, but even a few months on I can’t put words to the cocktail of emotions I felt with that one.
We’d played ok but were 1-0 down. The rain was pouring down in Bristol. And then goals in the 91st and 92nd minute saw us snatch a win from the jaws of defeat (a reverse of the pattern we’d seemed to perfect for so many years) and as Taylor scrambled home the winner I got a minute, maybe 90 seconds of unadulterated, uncomplicated, utter joy. My sister, who shares my Dad’s minimal interest in football, wandered in to see what the fuss was about and got whisked off the ground and spun around several times, much to her bemusement. In that moment this Nottingham Forest team gave me an invaluable moment of delirious glee at my lowest and I can’t help but think about how often football must throw up those moments for so many fans. The right goal, scored at the right time and that escape hatch on everything else you’re dealing with right then opens up and you just get to revel in it.
February 6th 2022
By this time the novelty of not being terrible had worn off slightly and those delicate little tendrils of hope were starting to creep out. We’d seen off Arsenal already and now we had Leicester at the City Ground in the FA cup. Given we’d already had one shock win and were now playing the holders, I fully expected Leicester to see us off without too much fuss. Instead, what happened was perhaps the most unbelievable 9 minutes I’ve ever experienced in a football ground. One goal followed another before we’d even settled down from the one before and suddenly we were demolishing a local rival from the league above like it was nothing as the crowd reached a volume and intensity I’d seldom experienced. While there’ve been the occasional shock win in the cups before in my time (the 3-0 win at the Etihad in 2009 stands out, or the Eric Lichaj inspired 4-2 against Arsenal), they were anomalies in otherwise underwhelming seasons.
What made this different was that, personally, it truly felt like something was building and it scared me how far we might go. A lifetime of supporting Forest had taught me that hope was not just dangerous, it was downright foolish. I’d only ever really feared how we’d screw things up or fall apart, and on that Sunday afternoon I started to believe that maybe, just maybe. this year might be different. When Spence put in the 4th and we knew there was no way back I got to revel in a full City Ground unified behind a team and a manager in a way I don’t think I’d ever experienced before. As Cooper did his now customary fist pumps towards each stand, I remember I started to lose the fight with daring to wonder just how far we could go.
May 17th 2022
Of course, it was Sheffield United in the play-offs. And of course, we threw away a potentially commanding advantage to make it unbearably tense.
I was sat in my seat, feeling beyond sick with nerves, with two thoughts circling around: “how can this be happening again?” and “why, oh why, did it have to be United?”, a club that comes with fans I count as my closest mates, who I suspect would have driven me close to murder if they’d won.
But somehow United didn’t get that winning goal. Or more accurately, because of Samba they didn’t. A keeper I, and almost all Forest fans, already loved because of rather than in spite of his eccentricities, then went on to deliver one of the best goal keeping performances I’ve ever seen in a penalty shoot-out and suddenly, somehow, history hadn’t repeated itself and we were actually, really, truly, going to Wembley. One of the last sides in the Football League to make it there but we’d done it finally.
It was another skeleton laid to rest on a personal level, trauma from just shy of 20 years ago melting away as I celebrated.
Despite my earlier profession of belief in the randomness of the universe, I think we all occasionally indulge in a belief in fate or destiny, however illogical we believe it to be deep down. As I stood there in the Trent End watching the celebrations, it really did feel like something had shifted and we were going to go all the way this time. It’s been interesting to see, since the final, that so many fans shared a similar sense, that some two-decade long curse or prophecy or sheer, baffling incompetence had finally been overcome and we really could dream of that promised land that had evaded us for so long. Which brings me to Sunday 29th May.
May 29th 2022
The less written about the game itself the better, a dour affair settled by an own goal and the officials missing probably two penalties for Huddersfield.
What I will always remember from the day was the sense of the collective experience that I talked about earlier. From the moment I arrived at St Pancras (I’d stayed over near London with a friend the night before so missed the travel drama so many other fans experienced getting to London), everywhere I looked it felt like there was someone in a Forest shirt. When we came out of Wembley Park station and I saw the ground looming at the end of a Wembley Walk painted red, I felt a rush of adrenaline unlike any other I’ve felt pre-game.
When I got to my seat behind the goal an hour before kick-off and saw how our half of Wembley was already starting to fill up the nerves did kick in, but if I’m honest I don’t think at any point in the final they reached the level they had during the semi-final, I suspect because I truly believed we would do it. Thankfully I never had to find out if that belief would have held if Huddersfield took an early lead.
Then the game took place, as cagey as you’d expect from a game with so much riding on it.
The explosion of emotion on the final whistle was unlike anything I’ve experienced in a football ground before, and probably ever will again. I have no idea what noise I made but I know my voice didn’t fully recover until mid-week. Around me some were crying, some were laughing and others just stared into the distance, soaking up a new reality. 36,000 fans realising a dream come true that they’d long ago abandoned hope in.
I teared up a little watching the players climb those Wembley stairs to lift a trophy, a sight I don’t think I’d really contemplated that I’d get to see. Watching that team of local lads, young loanees who’d found a home on the banks of the Trent and a sprinkling of experienced characters like Samba and Cook, dance around in front of the delirious masses, it slowly started to sink in that we’d really done it
All of the above, taken individually or collectively will stick with me for a long time.
But most of all, what I’ll remember is that I got to share this season with my mum, who needed it every bit as much as me. We didn’t explicitly talk about that need until we were sat in the pub at the station waiting for our train home. I suppose to do so would have felt too much like tempting fate or asking for help from higher powers neither of us believe in. But as the season went on, we both started to feel it. This year has been horrible and would have been regardless of Forest. If we’d had a season like so many recently where we spluttered to a mid-table finish it wouldn’t have been any worse really.
But just this once things fell into place right when we needed them most. And I know we weren’t alone in that. Not at Wembley and not amongst the wider fan base. The crowd and the fan base will have been full of people struggling, people grieving, people lost and people who had become numb to it all, and I hope that for a moment, maybe if the universe was kind slightly longer than that, football provided one of those escape hatches I mentioned earlier for all of them like it did for me and my mum. It doesn’t solve the problems and it never can, but those moments of fresh air, of breathing space, where something as joyous as that drowns everything else out with such intensity that the happiness becomes the only thing you can focus on, are inconceivably valuable.
Football is often a distraction at best from the rest of our lives, but sometimes it becomes something so much more, because we invest so much more into it than we probably should in something that is, despite all our protestations to the contrary, fundamentally “just a game”.
For one season, culminating in one May afternoon, it meant everything that we needed it to be and I will never forget that.
Samba, Spence, Worrall, Cook, McKenna, Colback, Yates, Garner, Zinckernagel, Johnson, Davis, Horvath, Lowe, Figs, Cafu, Lolley, Mighten, Grabban, Surridge, Taylor. Gary Brazil and Dane Murphy. Steve Cooper. Steve Cooper. Steve Sodding Cooper. I hope they know what this season has meant to people like me and my mum, to Forest fans and the community as a whole, because it will stay with me for the rest of my life and I can’t thank them enough.
I know my dad would have been delighted for us, baffled as to why we cared so much, but delighted all the same.
How can I even begin to write about this year? As it began, we were still grieving the loss of my younger brother in 2020, still in lockdown, still despairing over the state of our present government, still unable to think very far ahead or make firm plans. The world continued on its headlong rush to hell in a handcart. I blogged only occasionally, about Passing Time, and for Holocaust Memorial Day, and about my reading during the year (all my writing energy was going into the PhD). All the usual sort of things happened, and some less usual ones – I had a fall, which reduced my mobility significantly for the rest of the year, we went to a family wedding, our son moved into his new house, I submitted the PhD, to general rejoicing.
And then, on 9 October, a week after I’d submitted the thesis, I woke in the early hours to realise that my husband was having a cardiac arrest, and in the blur and muddle of a sudden awakening to realise that I was losing him. The paramedics did everything there was to be done, and kept on doing it until they knew there was nothing more that could be done. Our kids were summoned and arrived, and we sat, shell-shocked, trying to understand what had happened. In the space of an hour our world had utterly changed, for ever.
Since that day, everything I’ve done, everything I’ve written, everything I’ve watched or listened to, has been about that loss. The mountain of bereavement admin, of course, and the planning of the funeral. The decisions about how to manage here on my own, especially as I’m not very mobile at present. Every conversation, even when we’re not explicitly talking about ‘it’. I was determined to do my usual summaries of what I’ve read and what I’ve watched during the year, but I had to acknowledge and address the huge gulf between Before and After. And I still find I cannot listen to music in the focused way we used to.
It’s too early for me to have any profound reflections on grief. I’m just at the beginning of that journey. I’ve encountered it before, of course – the loss of my mother 26 years ago, the loss of my mother-in-law gradually to dementia and then finally to a stroke three Christmases ago, the loss of my younger brother to cancer in 2020. The difference here is that, as much as all of them were loved, however important they were to me, none of them was woven into the fabric of my daily life. And so I could go for hours, even days, feeling normal until I bumped into something or was ambushed by something that brought it back. Nothing is normal for me now and yet everything around me is familiar.
I know that the old Kubler-Ross ‘stages of grief’ hypothesis has been re-thought, to describe ‘states’ rather than stages, getting away from any notion of a linear process. If I have learned anything about grieving it is that it is not linear. The description of the five states also clearly encompasses a wide range of situations, including coming to terms with one’s own illness and mortality, and other life crises, and some of them seem alien to at least my experience of bereavement.
I have not in any of my grieving so far felt anger. Perhaps, as I do not believe in God, I have nothing/no one to rail and rage against, and the people I’ve lost have been lost to illnesses that, however cruel and brutal, are common, rather than to tragedies with a human cause. I haven’t ever asked, why him? why her? why me? The question makes no sense. Why? Because cancer invaded their body, because their heart had a genetic weakness, because dementia took away not only cognitive but other physical functions too. The same goes for bargaining: who would I be bargaining with, and for what? The people I’ve loved and lost aren’t coming back, however virtuous my life from this point on.
Denial? Only in the sense that in those early hours, as we prepared to make phone calls, we all had this sense of unreality, that we were perhaps about to waken family members and close friends with bad news that we had somehow hallucinated. But we knew. We knew there was no alternative reality to cling to, that the sense of unreality was a product of shock at something utterly unexpected, and of the only possible human response to death, that it makes no sense.
It makes no more sense now, over two months later, than it did in those awful first hours. How can a person be there, fully there, and then not, and so completely not that their absence from their own body is unmistakable and irrevocable? There’s an episode of Buffy that I will never, I suspect, be able to watch again, which confronts this, using a non-human to express what we all feel but don’t usually say:
I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s – There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And – and Xander’s crying and not talking, and – and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why. (‘The Body’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 5)
Faced with this incomprehensible reality, it is little wonder that human beings feel the need to believe in something after life, whether it is heaven, or reincarnation. Unfortunately those ideas seem as incomprehensible to me as death does. What lives on, I believe, is not the person, in some other sphere or inhabiting some other form, it is the memory of the person, the shape of them in the lives that they’ve left behind, the echo of their voice, the physical objects that they touched, the music that they loved. I do like this, however, which our son quoted in his tribute to his father at the funeral:
Picture a wave in the ocean. You can see it, measure it – its height, the way the sunlight refracts when it passes through – and it’s there, and you can see it, and you know what it is: it’s a wave. And then it crashes on the shore and it’s gone. But the water is still there. The wave was just a different way for the water to be for a little while. That’s one conception of death for a Buddhist: the wave returns to the ocean, where it came from, where it’s supposed to be.Michael Schur, The Good Place
I was very moved by the way death was shown in The Good Place, the origin of this quote, a comedy about what happens after you die. Various versions of heaven and hell (the Good Place, the Bad Place) are encountered, but in the end, our protagonists choose, instead of going on forever, to become part of the ocean, part of the universe. And I can find more comfort in the idea that the people I have loved and lost are part of the ocean now than in the idea that they exist in some other plane, where I could theoretically be reunited with them in due course.
I know that this process of grieving will be lifelong. Each loss has altered me, and this one most profoundly. There is nothing in my life that is the same as it was on 8 October. And so I have to learn how to be myself, how to order my life, how to enjoy the things we used to share. It’s not that he defined me, rather that our partnership helped me to figure out who I am, to define myself.
I’ve learned some things so far.
I need to accept offers of help, whether I could manage without them or not, where they are prompted by the desire to support me and be useful. If I turn that away, I am in some way rejecting that person’s love. I’d rather swallow my stubborn independence in some small measure and say yes, thank you. And I need to ask for help clearly and directly when I really do need it. That’s not easy but it’s going to be vital.
Life is short, and one may get no notice that it’s about to end. After he died, we found so many things bought for him with love, that he was delighted to get, but so delighted that he saved them ‘for special’. That ‘special’ bottle of wine or whisky was untouched, the new rucksack still had its labels on, the book’s pages had not been opened, the cellophane was still on the CD or DVD. That’s not going to be the way I live, not now. If I have something lovely, especially something lovely that someone has given me, I will use and enjoy it now. Now may be the special time, for all we know.
The kindness of strangers has helped me more than I could have imagined. I have been overwhelmed with messages from my friends and family, and their support has been what has kept us from going under in these last two months. Practical and emotional support. Hugs and flowers and scones and lasagne and shared tears. But since I spoke about this on social media, I’ve also had support from people I’ve never met in real life. People may hesitate before expressing sympathy with someone they only know from a few tweets, because they fear intruding, or because they don’t feel they can express themselves articulately enough. The thing is, I’ve been public about what’s happened, so an expression of sympathy and support is not an intrusion. And I don’t expect anyone to have anything mind-blowingly profound to say – clichés have their place, in allowing us to reach out to someone we don’t know. And all of the ‘you’re in my thoughts’, ‘I’m so sorry’, ‘sending love’, and just ‘Oh, Cath’ have comforted and strengthened me, made me feel less alone. So, if you feel moved by someone’s situation, tell them. (Please, though, don’t give advice unless asked for, and don’t tell them they’ll feel better soon, and don’t say that everything happens for a reason…)
This is going to be a long haul. I will learn to live on my own, but to ask for help when I need it. I will learn to live in our home in a way that suits my needs and circumstances, and to celebrate the good things and the good times, and to enjoy the music and the TV and films that we used to enjoy together, as well as the new things I find, and the things that I always had to cajole him into watching or listening to. I’ll adapt, and I’ll cope, and I’ll be OK.
But we had 47 years of companionship, 44 years of marriage, and in all those years we were never apart for more than a week or so. We’ve now been apart for nearly twelve weeks, and I don’t understand where he’s got to. Our conversation hadn’t ended; there are so many things I want to tell him or discuss with him, things I want to ask him (the name of that neighbour who was so kind the other day, where on earth he put the locking wheel nuts for the car, that sort of thing), plans I want to make with him. Maybe the strength of that sensation, that he’s just popped out somewhere and been inexplicably delayed, will fade. But for the last 47 years, our lives were woven together and that can’t be unravelled. The pattern of my life will be different, but I will still see the threads of our companionship running through it.
What is grief, if not love, persevering? I took that line from the Marvel TV series, Wandavision. It took us a while to understand what was happening in the show, but I can see now that it was all about grief. And grief is all about love. The shape and power of that grief and that love will change, but I don’t believe they’ll fade into nothingness. And I don’t want them to.
At the funeral, I talked about the ordinariness of the last day we had together, a day which is only memorable because it was the last one.
In 44 years of marriage, there are more days like that than there are portentous or memorable ones. Days like that are what a lifetime of companionship is all about. A lifetime (all our adult lives, anyway) of affection, laughter, sharing out tasks and sharing worries, bickering (about things that mattered and about things that absolutely didn’t), watching detective dramas and Marvel movies and Doctor Who, and listening to music. Lots and lots of listening to music.
I don’t know what the shape of my days will be, without him. I’ll learn to listen to music and to watch the programmes and films we both loved, without him. I’ll go to concerts and the cinema and the theatre with other people, and I’ll spend time with our kids and our families and with friends. It will be strange, and difficult. But I’m thankful for those 44 years of everyday days, as well as the momentous and challenging and glorious and awful days, every kind of day. So, as Ray Davies put it (and as Kirsty MacColl sang it):
Thank you for the days,
Those endless days, those sacred days you gave me.
I’m thinking of the days,
I won’t forget a single day, believe me.
I bless the light,
I bless the light that lights on you believe me
And though you’re gone,
You’re with me every single day, believe me.(R. Davies)
My love goes out to our children, who in their own profound grief, have given me so much strength, comfort and practical support. He was so very proud of them both, as am I.
So, 2022? I hope it will bring the completion of the PhD, weddings and babies, maybe a new knee for me. I can’t think much more widely than that at the moment, I’m afraid. I’m deliberately trying not to grasp the enormity of living alone as a permanent state not just (as it sometimes feels at present) as an anomaly, or an experiment, because when I do for a moment I feel so weary and so daunted. If I think a day or a week at a time, I can do this. Because I’m not doing it alone, but with people I love and who love me. And if I hold on tight to that, I’ll find the strength I need to keep on keeping on.
I will hold on to my hat and hang on my hope, and wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day. And this poem, Sheenagh Pugh’s ‘Sometimes’, which you can hear read by my dear friend Ruth Arnold, is for all of us: ‘The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.’
Normally, as New Year’s Eve approaches, I post some reflections on the year just passed, hopes for the next one, that sort of thing. This year, there seems to be nothing I can say about the year that I haven’t already said, or that others have not said better. I wrote about the loss of my lovely brother here, I bade au revoir to the EU here, I said my piece, for what it’s worth, on #BLM here, and I’ve referred to the pandemic, directly or indirectly, in most of my posts since March.
2020 was wretched, for all of us, to different degrees (we may have all been in the same storm, but not in the same boat…). Let’s not rehash that now. And if we ever thought we could embark on a New Year blithely confident in what lay ahead, the last few years, and especially this last one, have disabused us rather brutally. So I won’t look ahead much either, except in very general terms.
I do, though, want to celebrate the people who’ve made this year a little bit better, directly or indirectly.
NHS staff – and by that I mean not only GPs, consultants, doctors, midwives and nurses, but health care assistants, the staff who clean the wards, who feed the patients, who provide the services that underpin front-line patient care. I know that many of those staff have paid a price this year, in stress and anxiety, in their own losses and grief, in sickness and, in a tragically large number of cases, with their lives.
The people who keep essential basic services going – the bin collectors, the postal workers, the supermarket staff (I know from chatting to staff at the till that they have at times been subjected to abuse from customers when supplies run short or queues are long), the bus drivers, the lorry drivers moving supplies around the country… We tend not to think about them, until something we take for granted doesn’t happen.
The international teams of scientists and researchers who’ve been battling to find out everything they can about the virus, how it spreads, how to treat it and how we can protect ourselves against it. And many have been battling too to counter the relentless tide of misinformation and conspiracy theories that flows on social media. (Shout out to Prof. Carl Smythe (Professor of Cell Biology) at the University of Sheffield, who’s been refuting arrant (and lethal) nonsense on a daily basis for the last nine months… )
The people who’ve helped out, whenever and wherever. Khalsa Aid, a Sikh charity (who also sprang into action during the Somerset floods a few years ago), one of a number of organisations who delivered provisions to lorry drivers stranded at Dover because of the border closures. And the cafés, shops, pubs and other small businesses (many struggling themselves during the pandemic) who nonetheless stepped up to offer free meals for schoolchildren during school hols when the government declined to do so.
Some people who have brightened our world, or my life in particular, in absolutely no order: The Doctor, Marcus Rashford (and his Mum), Jacinda Ardern, Pariah Press, Angela Davis, Ruth Arnold, Jackie Kay, David Olusoga, Persephone Books, The Good Place, Greg Fell, Songhoy Blues, Caroline Shaw, Michael Rosen, Hilary Mantel, Music Planet, Céline Sciamma, Lissa Evans, Inspiration for Life, Alyn Shipton, Jean-Luc Picard, Ensemble 360, John le Carré, J to Z, Stephen King, Brian Lewis’s Lockdown Walks. You’ve made me smile, given me hope, made me dance around the kitchen, informed and challenged me, brought me books and films and music to inspire and delight me. Love and gratitude to all of you.
And whatever is around the corner, we can keep our eyes on two beacons of hope.
Firstly, there are the vaccines, which will save lives and reunite us with our friends and families – oh, the hugs that will be hugged.
And then there’s the inauguration of a new US President and VP. Whatever their flaws, and whatever difficulties the GOP will place in their path, once again this major power will be led by people with intelligence, integrity, concern for the powerless at home and abroad, and a commitment to engage positively with the world.
Some stuff that gives me a glimmer of hope and optimism, that I hang on to in the bleak nights:
First off, I refer you to the project I’ve been involved with in recent weeks. Inspiration for Life is the charity I helped to set up in 2012, and then chaired until last month, which raises funds for cancer charities. Our major fundraiser has always been the 24 Hour Inspire, a 24-hour lecture marathon, which was, obviously, impossible to run in the midst of a pandemic. So instead, we offered 24 Reasons to be Cheerful, our on-line Advent Calendar. There’s some lovely stuff – music from Fay Hield, Ayusp, the Cancer Choir and the Creating Hope choir, plus comedy, art and craft, a bit of science, and contributions from our partner charities. If you feel moved to donate a few quids, that would be lovely.
One of the films is a reading of the poem ‘Sometimes’, by Sheenagh Pugh, which I usually include in my NYE post. This time I’ll let you hear Ruth Arnold reading it.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day
Theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man…
Sweet moderation, heart of this nation
Desert us not, we are between the wars
(Billy Bragg, Between the Wars)
We are building up a new world.
Do not sit idly by.
Do not remain neutral.
Do not rely on this broadcast alone.
We are only as strong as our signal.
There is a war going on for your mind.
If you are thinking, you are winning.
(Flobots – We are Winning)
The simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.
(Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl)
If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if … nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. … All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
(Joss Whedon – Angel)
Never be cruel, never be cowardly, and never, ever eat pears! Remember, hate is always foolish. and love is always wise. Always try to be nice, but never fail to be kind. … Laugh hard, run fast, be kind.
(The 12th Doctor, Twice Upon a Time)
Love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way, and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.
(Bertrand Russell, Face to Face interview, 1959)
Last time I posted these, we had no thoughts of a pandemic, of health care workers dying, of care home occupants separated from their families, of theatres, concert halls, football grounds, churches empty of people, of pubs and restaurants with doors closed to customers, of facemasks and R numbers and shielding and bubbles.
Nonetheless, they hold true. And they’re worth holding on to.
And maybe, just maybe, there will be blue skies ahead…
Normally, there’s quite a bit about cinema in this review of the year on screen. This year was, obviously, different, and whilst I could have watched more films on screen via DVD, for a host of reasons I found refuge in telly, in short bursts of drama rather than longer forms. My concentration was shot in the first part of the year, with the loss of my brother, and the onset of the pandemic.
I got used to the latter, to the extent that those of us who weren’t directly affected got used to it (finding new routines involving lots of local walks and evenings in, as we had the luxury of no work or financial pressures, plenty of space indoors and out, and no one close to us being ill).
As for the former, grieving isn’t a linear process, one can seem to be fine and then walk into a wall that wasn’t there before, one can seem to be fine and then be ambushed by a memory, an image, a word. So there are things we’ve avoided watching because, well, why deliberately provoke it? The exception to this was Little Women, of which more below, which we saw at the cinema very early in 2020, in full knowledge of how it would foreshadow the inevitable loss that we were facing.
The Small Screen
Please note: this reflects what we have watched in 2020, and thus includes old stuff that is circling eternally on ITV 3 and Drama, stuff from 2019 that was still sitting on our BT Vision Box as the year turned, as well as this year’s TV. This is the telly that has diverted, amused, intrigued, enlightened, moved and informed us during 2020. I’ve missed out the things that we started watching and then decided life was simply too short to waste time on, but, whilst I don’t normally spend much time talking about things I haven’t liked, there are a few dishonourable mentions here, mainly for things that I expected to like and in the end was very cross with. I’ve linked to some reviews, where they are not too spoilery, but as always, caveat lector.
You know you’ve watched too many episodes of Midsomer Murders when the ITV 3 intro causes eruptions of rage every single time it invites us to go to the ‘infamous village of Midsomer where only one thing’s for certain’. As any fule no, Midsomer is not a village but a county. I mean, that body count would be just too improbable in just one village, wouldn’t it? Another clue is when you overhear someone saying ‘Oh, hello, what are you doing here?’ and turn abruptly, expecting imminent violence with a pitchfork or perhaps a giant cheese. It’s very silly, and the writing is variable but at its best, it knows exactly what it’s doing, and there are lots of little in-jokes about the bloodthirsty nature of these picturesque villages (like the incoming DS from the Met who is shocked at the carnage). We’ve re-watched all the Nettles series, which allows us to marvel every episode at how Joyce manages to get involved in every single case, because she is a member of every single committee, book club, art class, choir, am dram group, and so forth in the entire county. I have my suspicions that she is actually the mastermind behind the whole murderous business.
There were lots more weighty contenders, of course. Foreign language offerings included Nordic crime from Twin, Before We Die, Wisting, and Below the Surface, and best of all The Bridge, whose first two series we had missed when they were first shown (I know! What were we thinking?) and enjoyed very much, whilst concluding that the plot, especially perhaps in Season 2, was a little too complex for its own good and if one was being picky one might mention a couple of possible holes. But one won’t, and one is now re-watching series 3 and 4. Saga is, of course, a most wonderful creation.
Wallander is obviously Nordic but Young Wallander is in English. It’s an oddity – if we hadn’t been alerted before watching we would have been most bemused by the contemporary setting. There are nods to ‘our’ Wallander (the father who paints the same scene over and over again, the girlfriend called Mona) but clearly this is not the equivalent of Endeavour. It was enjoyable, if not unmissable. Van der Valk is a remake of a 70s series which we never watched – again it’s in English but set in Amsterdam. The setting was, I fear, the best thing about it. The plots were ludicrously baroque, the motivation of the culprits unconvincing, the script clichéd – and if anyone wonders how I dare level such criticisms when I’ve just admitted to a fondness for Midsomer Murders, MM has a lightness, a touch of humour, that VdV lacked.
The latest series of Spiral had us shouting at the telly, primarily at Laure and Gilou. Excellent stuff – our deeply flawed heroes may be infuriating but they’re convincing and won our hearts a long while back, and the plot was gripping and tense. The other French offering was The Other Mother, based on Michel Bussi’s novel Maman a tort, which was also excellent – the plot was complex but just the right side of incomprehensible. The Team was a multinational European offering – it’s series 2 but with no characters in common from series 1, just the concept of a multinational team pulled together from different EU nations to solve a crime.
We also watched the movie Goldstone, which is linked to the Australian crime series Murder Road, whose new series is awaiting our attention, and the much lighter-weight but diverting Harrow, about an Aussie pathologist, the sort of pathologist who investigates crime, not the sort that gets called in when there’s a corpse and says ‘I’ll know more when I get him on the slab’ and then eats his sandwiches whilst foraging about in someone’s insides – see MM, Vera, et al. They know their place, unlike Harrow.
We visited the frozen landscapes of Canada for another dark and dour series of Cardinal, and back to the US for The Sinner (this was series 2, with only Bill Pullman in common with series 1). A much more unusual setting for Baghdad Central – an excellent, tautly plotted thriller with powerful performances by Waleed Zuaiter and Bertie Carvel. And we visited the past – Vienna in the 1900s -for Vienna Blood. The protagonists are an ‘unlikely duo’ of a brash young medical student and disciple of Freud, and a battered older cop, the production is very Sherlockian, and altogether it was slightly daft, but enjoyable, with a darker undercurrent running through it, of the endemic antisemitism of the time and the place, whose consequences we know too well.
Back in the UK, we enjoyed the Agatha Christie dramatization of The Pale Horse, with Rufus Sewell; Guilt, a blackly comic take on murder, with the always engaging Mark Bonnar; and McDonald & Dodds, with Jason Watkins, another lighter weight crime series, with good enough performances and writing to be worth catching when it returns. We watched Judge John Deed, which turned into a montage of 90s conspiracy theories about phone masts and the like, with improbable legal scenarios, and a protagonist whose compulsion to seduce every attractive woman he meets (key witness, fellow barrister, ex-wife, his therapist) becomes tiresome and frankly a bit creepy. Actually, all of the characters are intensely annoying, and one watched it mainly to be infuriated with it. Series 2 of Bancroft was just as ludicrous as the first.
The really good stuff:
Strike, Series 4 – charismatic leads, great plots, thoroughly enjoyable series, weaving the personal narratives of Strike and Robin in with the investigations very skilfully.
Hidden, Series 2 – Welsh noir – very, very noir – with an excellent female lead. As with the first series, the ending brings a very compromised and uncomfortable resolution.
Deadwater Fell – dark psychological drama, excellent cast, very unsettling.
Elizabeth is Missing – based on the book by Emma Healey. The lead character, Maud, has dementia, so when she insists that her friend Elizabeth is missing, no one takes her very seriously. Her recent memories keep getting mixed up with much older ones, of a much older disappearance. Glenda Jackson’s performance is absolutely mesmerisingly brilliant.
Dublin Murders – based on the first two books of the Tana French series. The plots are interwoven in a way that perhaps didn’t totally work, but the quality of the writing and the performances carried the day.
Endeavour – the penultimate series, apparently. The quality of the writing continues to be an absolute joy. The interplay between Morse, Strange, Thursday and Bright is so well played, often very emotionally powerful even though (or perhaps all the more because) none of them speak easily about their feelings.
Vera – Brenda Blethyn is a fine-looking woman, and so somewhat at odds with the descriptions in the novels, but she gets the character beautifully. The way in which the relationship with Joe’s replacement as DS is developed is convincing and touching (I particularly like the way he kneels to help her put on her crime scene shoe covers. As an older woman with dodgy knees I can so identify).
The Capture – about surveillance and deep fake images and whether or not we can trust what we see… A nicely paranoid atmosphere and a gradual blurring of the lines between right and wrong
Giri/Haji – my pick of the year, without a doubt. That it didn’t get commissioned for a second season speaks to a certain cowardice amongst the decision makers, but as the Independent’s reviewer says, it is pretty much faultless as it stands, so maybe it doesn’t need a sequel. This was stylish, often audacious, bloody, darkly humorous – really striking and memorable telly. Applause to all concerned.
Homeland returned for the last time. The final series was an encapsulation of everything that we’ve seen over its whole run, very consciously a drawing together of many of the threads from all the previous series, satisfying without being oversimplified. As a jazz fan I was delighted that Carrie’s love of jazz, rather forgotten about in recent series, was foregrounded in the final scenes, as the wonderful Kamasi Washington performed live on stage.
Deutschland 86 took us to the brink, everything in place for the collapse of the GDR and the destruction of the Wall. I hope we get one more series, to take these characters, and us, through those momentous events.
We would not normally have thought of watching The New Pope. The trailer, rather bafflingly, showed Jude Law in tiny (very tiny) Speedos walking along a beach, as women gazed, and fainted away, on either side. Hmmm. However, we knew that my brother had a moment on screen as one of the Cardinals gathered at a funeral, and we had to watch – and watch with full attention – to ensure we didn’t miss him. I’m glad we did – it was bonkers but beautiful. (So we got to see both of my brothers on screen this year, strangely enough, our Aidan in purple robes in The New Pope, and our Greg in an orange trackie at a football match over 40 years ago – see below.)
Philharmonia was bonkers too – the orchestral setting was unusual, and it was enjoyable, even if one didn’t ever believe a word of it.
The Accident was grim, and some of the plotting was a little bit careless, I thought – or maybe setting up for a second series where other things come to light? No idea. I just felt that – without giving too much away – a character was introduced who played a key role in events, but that role never seemed to be properly explored, and the images at the very end seemed, almost, to suggest that the truth was something other than the established official version. I may have imagined it! There were some powerful performances, from Sarah Lancashire and Joanna Scanlan in particular.
The Plot against America, adapted by David Simon (The Wire) from Philip Roth’s alt history, in which Charles Lindbergh, running on an America First ticket, wins the 1940 US election rather than FDR. It is, of course, incredibly topical (more so than the novel, which came out in 2004, when the events of 2016 could not have been imagined). It was powerful, incredibly tense, and subtle when it needed to be. Its final moments – and this is where it differed significantly from the book – with the central characters tensely awaiting the outcome of another election, hoping and fearing the outcome, kept coming back into my mind in November.
We’re saving up Small Axe. Looking forward so much to this.
Let’s draw a veil over the awful Batwoman. Wooden acting, clunky scripts, a plot that made no sense at all.
Devs – sci fi that’s about ideas, as much as it’s about tech. There was no predicting where this one was heading, or where it ended up. Whether it entirely made sense, I’m not sure, but it was, as the Guardian reviewer put it, a ‘deep, dark, wild ride’.
Dracula – yet another take on the Stoker original, this one was about as faithful as any of the others, but it really went for it, with conviction and style. As Lucy Mangan in the Guardian put it, ‘It’s a proper job […] And that means proper scares. No spoilers, but the one in the [redacted] when the [redacted] suddenly [redacted] had me clinging to the ceiling. I advise parental supervision at all times. My dad was annoyed at having to come over, but needs must when the devil calls and starts emanating from your screen.’
His Dark Materials – As always with a screen version of a book/series that I have loved with a real passion, I was anxious that the adaptation would mess it up. I needn’t have worried. The performances are grand, the visuals stunning, and it’s powerful stuff. We loved it, and are looking forward to Series 2.
Star Trek: Discovery – we’re through the wormhole now, and it’s Trek, Jim, but not as we know it. This allows for real character development, though if I were to be picky I’d ask them to rein in the reaction shots of awe and wonderment and so forth. No idea where we’re headed but we’re now liberated from the need to be consistent with the existing series, which is pretty exciting, if you’re a long-term Trekker.
Star Trek: Picard – it’s a good time to be into Trek! Not only Discovery, but Picard too. My love for Jean-Luc is undimmed and he carried this very effectively. Some lovely shout-backs to NG, but its not pure nostalgia for the fans.
The Walking Dead – The first part of the season ended prematurely due to the pandemic – we only got the finale in October and now have to wait till next year for the second half. The series has come back strongly from quite a long slump, and whilst some of the regular gripes (apocalyptic battles which end up with only one peripheral character being killed, regular characters behaving with untypical stupidity to bring about some new peril, that sort of thing) are ever present, it’s back to being essential after a period where it was a mere duty watch.
Doctor Who – This year’s series was controversial amongst some Whovians, for seeming to change some of what we thought we knew about the Doctor’s origins. But did it? After all, our main source was the Master, who, as we know, lies… We will see. The Doctor did make a few appearances later in the year from her Judoon cell, to give us hopeful and inspiring messages about coping with lockdown isolation, which, I have to admit, brought a tear to my eye. She’ll be back on 1 January 2021, and let’s hope that the Tardis is a harbinger of hope for a better year ahead.
Some films watched on TV: Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom was perfect New Year’s Day fare. And the general stress of lockdown drew us to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The first I rather enjoyed – the script was just clever enough, with some neat historical references buried in amongst the improbable action. The second, well, once we had chuckled at the Bennett girls practising martial arts and strapping lethal weapons to their stockinged legs, it was slightly thin stuff. Last but not least in this category, the only superhero movie we watched this year, very unusually, was Deadpool, which was, to say the least, different… Very funny, very rude.
We’re saving up Agents of Shield (the last ever series) and Series 2 of His Dark Materials – some things to look forward to early in 2021.
We caught up with Modern Family, which we’d abandoned at the end of series 4, for no good reason. I found myself laughing loud and often. The characters don’t develop, not really, but when the writing and the performances are this good, there’s plenty of comic mileage to be had. We discovered Friday Night Dinner (only series 1 so far) which also made us laugh a lot.
The Good Place managed to be both very, very funny and profound. It made full use of its fantasy license, regularly wrongfooting us in ways that made us shout out something along the lines of WTF, and its final couple of episodes reduced me to real sobs, not just ‘something in my eye’ but full-on weeping. And yet, right up to the end, it was very, very funny too. A fabulous achievement.
We enjoyed the ebullient and charismatic Stuart Copeland in a couple of docs, his own Adventures in Music series, and his episode of Guitar, Drums, Bass (Lenny Kaye and Tina Weymouth represented the other instruments). We enjoyed the Lennon at 80 radio programme hosted by Sean Lennon, and a documentary about John and Yoko, Above Us Only Sky. The film Matanga/Maya/MIA was fascinating, though it left me somewhat dubious about her, not so much musically as politically. K T Tunstall presented an absolutely charming documentary about Ivor Cutler. A number of classical documentaries featured members of the remarkable Kanneh-Mason family: an Imagine programme, This House is Full of Music, Young, Gifted and Classical, focusing on cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who cropped up too in the excellent Black Classical Music, fronted by Lenny Henry and Suzie Klein, which introduced us to a number of composers we had not heard of previously. This last programme tied in with Black History Month, as did Gospel According to Mica, in which the singer explored the history of the genre through six songs, taking us from slavery days through the civil rights struggle to our own time. Soul America charted some of the same history, though taking a much narrower slice of history, broadly from the transmutation of gospel into soul, through the socially conscious sounds of the late 60s, to the sexual healing of the ’70s. Music, Money & Madness was a fascinating look at the background to Rainbow Bridge, the incoherent mess of a film that features Hendrix’s excellent 1970 gig in Maui, Hawaii.
Afua Hirsch presented African Renaissance (on African art), and co-presented with Samuel L Jackson the outstanding and at times overwhelming Enslaved. David Olusoga’s Africa Turns a Page put the spotlight on African writers, some familiar, others less so (see my books blog for some contemporary African fiction).
I Am Not Your Negro is an extraordinary film. It’s a 2016 documentary directed by Raoul Peck, based on an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin. It explores the history of racism in the US through Baldwin’s reminiscences of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Baldwin was one of the African American writers who I discovered in my teens and who inspired and challenged me. The film left me feeling quite shaken, such is the power of the images and Baldwin’s words.
France 1939: One Last Summer – A poignant compilation of home movies from France, from the summer of 1939. Impossible to see even the most carefree moments without the foreshadowing of what was to happen.
Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel was thoughtful, intelligent and impassioned.
On a somewhat (much) lighter note, Rome Unpacked was a lovely corollary to our recent visit, reminding us of how much we had yet to see (looking forward to our next trip, in the after-times…). I also fell somewhat (quite a bit) in love with Giorgio Locatelli. One quibble however – they visited the Jewish Ghetto and talked about the history of medieval antisemitism, without mentioning that the Ghetto’s inhabitants were deported and murdered by the Nazis in 1943. It’s not that I wanted the programme to delve into that in any detail – it just needed a one sentence coda to that section of the programme, rather than leaving the impression that murderous anti-semitism was something from the distant past.
A documentary about Nottingham Forest’s 1970s European Cup successes turned out to be a much more emotional experience than I’d been anticipating, when I caught sight of my lovely kid brother, who died in February, on one of the clips. He’d been a ball-boy at the first-round match against Liverpool in our 1979 Euro cup campaign, and was caught on camera at the end, clapping the team off the pitch and then punching the air in celebration. I sobbed for quite some time after that.
The Big Screen
2020 cinema began shortly after New Year, with Little Women. I knew what was coming, of course, having known the books for most of my life, but it didn’t stop Beth’s death being devastating, as I knew how soon I would be losing my little brother. I have the DVD but will need to brace myself before rewatching, particularly the bits where… well, if you’ve seen it, or any of the previous versions or read the book, you won’t need me to spell out the parts of the film which will break me on the rewatch. In fact, I won’t even say any more now, just refer you to Rick Burin’s review. Hell, it broke him, and as he says, ‘I’m northern and into football and stuff, but I just kept crying’.
And then a two-film day in mid-March, watching Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood (second time round for me) with Liz at the Showroom, and then in the afternoon Sciamma’s newest film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, with Martyn. I loved both films, I found Girlhood just as powerful as I had the first time, with several moments that are firmly lodged in my mind, and Portrait definitely requires a re-watch. I wrote about both films for this year’s International Women’s Day blog but I’m going to send you to read Rick Burin again, as he reviews all of Sciamma’s films and much better than I can.
Note that the films I did see in 2020 totally kicked the Bechdel test‘s ass.
And that was it. No more cinema – they did reopen, of course, for a while, but as we have been super-cautious throughout the pandemic, we did not take advantage (I renewed my Showroom membership, as a gesture of support).
Can’t talk about cinema in 2020 without noting the tragically early death of Chadwick Boseman. I only knew him as Black Panther but that role alone was enough to imprint him on my consciousness – it was a performance of grace and power, as well as huge cultural significance. Will look out for chances to see Boseman’s other movies.
Previous years’ cultural highlights have included Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre. Obviously, since March, the pandemic has put paid to that. In fact, I’d had to drop out before that – I could not attend the three productions in January/February as my brother’s condition worsened and I knew both that I needed to be available to see him whenever I could, and that I really couldn’t commit to producing a review in a reasonable timescale, or at all. I had no idea when I made that decision that my stint as an opera reviewer would have come to an end for the foreseeable future. I loved doing the reviews, and had a marvellous time seeing superb productions of works from Monteverdi to Britten and all points in between.
The move to on-line cultural activities, devastating as it was to the future of live performance, offered some delights. The Sheffield Classical Music Festival in May gave us access to some joyous and uplifting chamber music, as members of Ensemble 360 filmed performances in their gardens and living rooms. It was fabulous, even if it made us miss Music in the Round in the Crucible Studio even more.
Other online treats were Ian Dunt talking about being a liberal, David Olusoga talking about Black and British in Black History Month, Kit de Waal talking about My Name is Leon (all three talks part of Sheffield’s annual Off the Shelf festival), Sarah Churchwell and Bonnie Greer talking about the US election outcome (part of the national Being Human festival) – and two chances to hear and see someone who was an idol during my teenage years, the awesome and inspiring Angela Davis, first in her own South Bank lecture, and then in conversation with Jackie Kay (as part of Manchester Literary Festival). I might, theoretically, have got to the Off the Shelf events in normal circs. But I wouldn’t have made it to the South Bank, or the University of London, or even across the Pennines to Manchester.
But I long to get back to live chamber music and theatre at the Crucible, live opera at Leeds Grand Theatre, arty French movies at the Showroom and blockbusters at the IMAX… We’ll get there, thanks to the vaccine(s). And it will be so very lovely when we do. I may, just possibly, weep.
Screens, in general, have been our lifeline in the plague times. Not just the entertainment and enlightenment of what our television channels offer, but the Zoom/Messenger/Facetime link ups with the people we love, who we can’t be with. It’s not the same, obviously, and in the early days at least it made me feel, briefly, sadder once we’d waved goodbye and blown kisses to the small figures on our laptop screens. But our isolation has been less stark, less absolute, and at best those virtual encounters have made us feel hope, made us feel loved, given us the chance to support each other.
Eight years ago, I wrote about my Mum, on the anniversary of her death. It was the most personal thing I’d posted on this blog, which I’d only started a few months earlier – and whilst many of my posts since have been heartfelt, they haven’t, for the most part, been about me and my family. Earlier this year, though, I wrote about my youngest brother, on what would have been his 58th birthday. And now I feel compelled to write again to mark the 25th anniversary of Mum’s death.
What I’ve learned is that one doesn’t ‘get over it’. Loss changes us. The raw, wrenching pain of grief eases, with time, though it can still catch us unawares. But we adapt to a world without that person in it, to a world where we can no longer see, hear, hold that person. It takes time. Lissa Evans’ lovely novel, Spencer’s List, talks about how grief moves into a different phase one year and a day after the death. That until that point, every day one thinks, ‘this time last year’, and recalls a world in which that person is there, in which one can reach out and speak to them, hear their voice, hold their hand. And one year and one day later, ‘this time last year’ recalls a world that they have already left. It doesn’t mean it gets easier – that realisation in itself is painful – but it is different. And it goes on becoming different, as we are different, each time we lose someone close.
As life goes on, we accumulate losses. We lose not only grandparents, but parents, siblings, partners, friends, even children. Each loss brings back every other loss. No wonder that as we get older, our tears flow more freely.
I still think of my mum so often. I ask myself what she would do, what she would say. And when I feel sad or lost, the thought that comes to me, even now, at 62 years old, is that I want my mum. I want her embrace, her unconditional love, her tenderness, her understanding. I know my brothers and sister, and sisters in law, feel the same. Not only that, but each year when I mark her loss with a post on Facebook I hear from other people who miss her too, people whose lives she had touched, people who turned to her in times of trouble and found understanding.
I’m always shocked to realise how few photographs I have of her. In those I have, she’s often looking down, at a small child at her side, or a baby in her arms. She never liked being photographed, that was the thing, and when forced to face the camera she tended to look a bit awkward, or anxious, her smile not the one we knew, the one that warmed us.
I wish she was here. But she was spared so much – the gradual decline into dependency that might have been her lot had the cancer not taken her at 65, and above all the loss of her youngest son. For the first time, when I knew my kid brother was terminally ill, I was thankful that she wasn’t still here to endure that pain.
She was intuitive and empathetic. Good luck ever trying to kid her that you were OK if you weren’t. She knew – even over the phone. And her emotional energies were channeled into sensing what others needed, not just her family but anyone she met.
She constantly questioned herself, and fell short of her own standards, whilst somehow setting an example for us that we can hardly hope to meet. (I remember her berating herself mercilessly because she had in a careless moment bought a tin of South African peaches during the apartheid era.) Her goodness was rooted in integrity and empathy, qualities she had in abundance. The latter prevented the former from becoming harsh and judgmental, the former prevented the latter from becoming mere sentimentality.
It was so quick, so brutally quick, just weeks from the diagnosis. But slow is brutal too, with cancer, and either way, at the end, as a wise man said, it’s always sudden. I remember this day 25 years ago, the unreality of it, as we came back from the hospital to the house where her absence was so tangible and incomprehensible. I remember the unfinished knitting (a child’s jumper) that came back from the hospital, the book that I’d lent her with a bookmark still halfway through. Powerful symbols of a life cut short far, far too soon. Those memories can still break me.
But most of all I remember her love. Love that nurtured and protected us, that showed us how to be loving and generous in our turn.
‘Her love was life and happiness and in her steps I traceSome Fantastic Place lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., EMI Music Publishing
The way to live a better life
In some fantastic place’
Cecily Hallett, 8 January 1930-29 May 1995.
I miss her. Always will.
There’s only 4 years and 8 months between the eldest (me) and the youngest of us four. I can’t really remember the arrival of Two and Three. Two arrived when I was only 15 months old, and Three 15 months after him. There was a slight pause then, during which we relocated to West Africa from our home in Kent.
Four was born in Kumasi, Ghana, in 1962. A newly (1957) independent nation. It’s part of our heritage. We cheer on the Black Stars whenever they are in international competition, holding that loyalty alongside our support for the England national team and Nottingham Forest. We all know our day names, the names all children in that part of Ghana are given, to indicate the day of the week on which they were born. I’m Abena, Two and Four are Kwame, and Three is Akua.
I can’t claim to remember that much about Four’s arrival. I know from my father’s memoirs that the trip to the maternity hospital in Kumasi was somewhat eventful:
We very nearly didn’t make it to the hospital. The President was visiting Kumasi on that day and all roads were closed, with police and soldiers restraining the roadside crowds. We had to drive seven miles to the hospital and, at first, were refused permission to drive along the route that the President would shortly take. Later, a senior policeman responded to our pleas and we were allowed to drive along, a mile or two ahead of the procession, waving back to the crowds in royal fashion.
I do recall that on being introduced to Four, I didn’t think much to him. He was bright red in the face, and wrinkly. Thankfully, he became more appealing very soon, and grew on me.
Over the years, we four pursued our own paths to career and marriage and children and so on. At various points we were divided by considerable distances (Three in Bermuda, Two in Northern Ireland). And so the times when we could all be together became fewer.
We had our differences too, of course. Whilst I am the only heathen amongst us, Four was the only one to take a more conservative line politically. The former never became a source of tension, even if we don’t understand each others’ perspectives fully. The latter was, from time to time, thanks to the three more left-wing siblings’ tendency to express our views vigorously and not always sensitively on social media. We got past all of those things.
And we could always all agree on Nottingham Forest, having collectively nailed our colours to that particular mast back when I was about 11 or 12 years old. Before the glory days, and through the peaks and (mainly) troughs that followed.
Most of all, whenever one of us was having a tough time, the others rallied round. Whatever the circumstances, we knew we could count on that.
In July 2018, things got really, really tough. Four was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Chemo could buy him extra time and so he started on a punishing regime of first one type of chemo and then when that stopped working, another more experimental treatment.
Inevitably, time ran out. The second chemo stopped working, and the cancer was off the leash. Even so, until the last couple of weeks, one would not have guessed to see him how ill he was. But things moved terrifyingly fast, and it was clear that he would not see much of 2020.
Very early on 2 February, Four left us. Peacefully, at home, with his wife and his sons and daughter in law around him, with the music he’d chosen playing.
And so we are three. And it feels so wrong. It feels … kind of lopsided. We no longer balance. The perfect pattern of Girl, Boy, Girl, Boy doesn’t work. And, as Two put it:
‘THE LAST SHALL SHALL BE FIRST.
Early this morning, the last to arrive was the first of us siblings to leave. It feels all wrong and it’s deeply sad. The only consolation is that he did not linger in pain and discomfort.
We buried him on 17 February. He’d planned the service, and it was led by someone who loved him as a brother, with readings from Two, a close friend, and his daughter in law, and prayers from his cousin. We were all there, friends and family, old school-friends, recent colleagues, people from his church, neighbours. The love and respect were palpable.
And if he had to go so soon, I have thought in the last few weeks that I was grateful that we had the chance to say our goodbyes together, and to hold each other tight, literally. A few weeks more and the virus would have taken that from us. Small mercies. But it has taken the chance for us to spend time with each other, and with Four’s wife and sons, for whom the daily pain of loss is so cruel and unrelenting, just when we’d have wanted to be able to be close and supportive. We’ve got social media – and are very grateful for that – but of course it’s not the same.
Us Three will always, in our hearts, be Us Four. Always. Today he would have turned 58. Would have, should have. We hold him in our hearts, as we do the family he loved so much.
Greg Hallett, 24 March 1962-2 February 2020. Love you, our kid, always have, always will.