Happy birthday Michael Rosen

May 7, 2021 0 Comments

When I consider how the government of our country – I mean the one with the satirical name ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ –  has fallen under the control of a set of unscrupulous and heartless gangsters, who lack any kind of moral standard or basic competence, and when I consider that millions of Britons, far from condemning the behaviour of Johnson and his chums, seem perfectly happy not only to overlook their bungling, arrogance and corruption, but also vote for them with enthusiasm – when I think about these things, I feel, I must admit, something close to despair.

But then another thought comes to me.  That for every person who overlooks or endorses the crimes of our rulers, there are many more who devote themselves, with not a trace of Johnsonian self-worship, to better causes.  One of the great celebrators of the latter is Michael Rosen – author of works for children and adults, ex-Children’s Laureate, poet and performer, broadcaster, and tireless school visitor.  Earlier this year he published a book called Many different kinds of love: a story of life, death and the NHS

In time there’ll be whole libraries of books about the Covid pandemic and its effects.  Some have already appeared, and many more will follow.  But few, I’m certain, will carry the force and feeling of Many different kinds of love.  I’ve got into the habit of buying multiple copies, giving each one away after re-reading it.  Anyone, young or old, who picks it up and starts reading will find it hard to stop carrying on to the end.

The book tells the story – mainly, but not entirely, in his words – of what happened to Michael Rosen after he caught Covid in March 2020: how he was rushed to hospital, within hours of dying – a GP friend realised his oxygen count was almost fatally low – how he spent 47 days in an intensive care unit, mostly unconscious on a ventilator, how he was awakened, how he gradually regained his mobility in rehabilitation, and how he made a slow and imperfect recovery.

Inevitably a lot of the book is preoccupied with observing his physical body, how it closed down when attacked by the virus, and how it began to open up again after treatment.  But there’s another, equally powerful narrative that runs in parallel: the story of how he was cared for by his family and by a large number of people working within the NHS.

The first section of the book consists mainly of entries inscribed in his ‘patient diary’ while he was unconscious and being ‘breathed’ by a machine in the ICU.  They’re written by nurses.  Many of them aren’t ICU specialists: they’ve been drafted in from other wards, or they’ve taken a break as speech therapists or physios or dental hygienists to volunteer here.  In spare moments snatched from caring for patients, they jot down short messages. They introduce themselves, address him directly, give him encouragement.  ‘My name is Carmen and I have been your nurse looking after you for the past two nights.’  ‘I am so happy and pleased to see how you are recovering so well.’  ‘Keep fighting.’  Most nurses know about him, and some have read his Going on a bear hunt to their children.  Above his bed is a copy of his poem, reproduced at the end of the book, ‘These are the hands’.

The rest of the book is a long series of short prose-poems, thought-fragments that seem to mirror the broken, snippety experience of spending a long time in a hospital.  Most are a page of two in length, and they’re arranged in roughly chronological order.  They log Rosen’s conversations with himself, as he moves from near-death to new life: from ICU to rehabilitation ward to home.  The themes are broad and cover almost anything described by the subtitle, ‘life, death and the NHS’.

Being a seriously ill patient means giving up control of your own body, and many of the pieces deal with immobility (‘I move my hand over my chest. / There’s nothing else to do’) and the feeling that you’ve become the property of someone else:

I turn on the bed and
into the pillow.
They don’t belong to me.

My body has become theirs.
They have it.

They tell me about my liver,
my kidneys, my lungs, my heart.
It’s all in the account.

Being ‘confined’ like this is like what new mothers experience.  It has its compensations – time to rest and think – but it also means surrendering control.  It’s also a liminal world, a between-world, half awake, half dreaming (several pieces narrate dreams).  There’ve been ‘lapses’, gaps in memory during the long ventilator weeks, and at other times: ‘Islands of memory / Seas of forgetting’.  It’s futile to try to reconstruct what happened chronologically.

There’s plenty of time, though, to observe his own body, and the patient finds plenty to notice, including the body parts that have stopped working properly, thanks to Covid: a fuzzy eye and a deaf ear.  He recalls his father’s last years, ‘how he shrank down to a list of ailments’.  Then there are the parts that start to revive, with the help of medics and physios. His lungs need to be ‘weaned’ off the ventilator, and his legs cranked back into action, with the help, in turn, of a Zimmer frame, parallel bars and ‘Sticky McStickstick’.  He knows he must ‘de-bed’, despite the bed’s siren calls: ‘The bed sings: / ‘Why have you left me? / Come back’.

Despite all these recoveries, though, all is not the same.  ‘Before all this / the body was reliable / It told me stories of good walks, /swimming for an hour, / running round a field.’  Now it’s become an ‘unreliable narrator’.  There’s no denying what’s happened: that he’s visited the land of the dead.  He’s returned from it, but it could have been different.  Before he was put on the ventilator the doctor asked him to sign a piece of paper to give his permission:

‘Will I wake up’?
‘There’s a 50:50 chance.’
‘If I say no?’, I say.
And I sign.

It was a close shave:

I’m a traveller who reached
the Land of the Dead.
I broke the rule that said I had to stay.
I crossed back over the water,
I dodged the guard dog,
I came out.
I’ve returned.

I wander about.

I left some things down there.
It took bits of me as prisoner:
An ear and an eye.

They’re waiting for me to come back.
The ear is listening.
The eye is the lookout.

He knows that he didn’t travel back from Hades alone.  ‘I got very nearly to the end. / But then people, many people / pulled me back.’  His wife Emma untrapped his mind, frozen in unconsciousness, by playing him favourite music.  But many of his rescuers were strangers, like the nurses who wrote him diary-letters: ‘Why did these strangers try so hard / to keep me alive? / It’s a kindness I can hardly grasp.’  The NHS is the best example we have of the kindness of strangers in daily action.

There are some angry outbursts, against a negligent government, crazed conspiracy theorists and those who think older people expendable.  And, since this is Michael Rosen, the book has dozens of jokes.  Some of them are silly (‘I’ve been summoned to have an echocardigan / I mean echocardiogram’), but many have an edge:

They’ve been worried
about my low blood pressure
but they’ve brought me the Daily Mail
so I’ll be fine in just a moment.

Others are grimmer:

The nurse tells Peter in the bed opposite
that his urine is dark.
‘The times are dark,’ he says.


Me: I’ve a spot on my leg.
Doctor: What do you think it is?
Me: Skin cancer?
Doctor: It’s more serious than that.
Me: Really?
Doctor: It’s old age.

If there’s any conclusion at the end of the year’s immense journey, it’s that we must accept that we can’t put ourselves on hold.  All we can do to respond to constant change (‘we are always becoming’) is to live in, and for, the present.  ‘I am not who I was’ is a refrain throughout the book, but in a message to his children Rosen writes

What we always have is now.

The moment before the next moment.
It’s only the next moment
We’re not sure about.

So whatever we’ve got to do
We have to do it now.

Today Michael Rosen is 75 years old and back on the radio.  May he celebrate the good people and their deeds for many years to come.  His book will live even longer.

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