Showing posts with label death. Show all posts
Showing posts with label death. Show all posts

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Death in the new normal - by Lu Hersey

We're all used to only seeing people on zoom, or other chat forums. We have no choice. Not in real life.  Work meetings, friend meetings, family groups - if we don't meet virtually, we can't meet at all. Sometimes it's a good thing - we don't have to travel miles, and ironically we can attend more events in far flung geographical locations than we possibly could in reality. It saves time and money. It's become the new normal. It's been a year already and despite the fantastic vaccine roll out, there's still no real end in sight.

Zoom isn't so bad most of the time. Introverted writers sometimes relish not having to be sociable. Those events you know you'd have had to attend, but you can't. Because rules. 

But at other times, you desperately WANT to be there. For me, it really hit home at my cousin's funeral. We'd had a long facebook chat the day before she died, while she was in hospital with Covid, getting oxygen, wired up to various drips. She was in good spirits despite the breathlessness and pain. We talked of summer and going to the beach. Of families. Of the past. 

The next morning, one of her sons (who's nearly my age) messaged to say she had passed. I was shocked and very upset - she'd seemed so feisty, so upbeat, less than 12 hours earlier. And of course I couldn't go to the funeral in lockdown. 

That's when I found out it's not just writer conferences and online learning platforms that can be viewed virtually. Funerals can be too. With so many deaths from Covid, it's standard practice, everything arranged by the funeral directors so you can be there, and yet not be there. 

If you've watched a funeral recently, you'll know how it goes. The master of ceremonies (funeral director, priest, whoever is leading the service), who almost certainly didn't know the deceased, introduces the order of service. Unlike the immediate family who are actually present in the room, they're aware of the camera and the remote viewers and make every effort to include you, even if you can't be seen and can't say anything. In fact, they have no idea who you are, or whether you're there or not. 

Funerals are no fun, and this was no exception. I watched most of it through a wall of tears...yet there was that other part of me that found it really interesting to be an observer and not being able to interact. What is it about the writer brain? Why was some other part of my mind thinking of all the possibilities of including online funerals in a novel? It's as though I'd become detached from reality, watching TV... but the players were people I know in real life, even if I haven't seen them in years. 

There's something very strange about observing a large family gathering when no one's aware you're watching them. I mean, you can really stare without being rude (though only from one point of view because the camera doesn't move) - you can marvel that someone you last saw when they were 14 is now over 50 and balding. Where did the time go? And your sweet little second cousin, who you'd swear was only about ten - somehow has four grown up children with her. Another second cousin, so very like his mother - keeping an eye on everyone to make sure they're okay, lifting his mask to mouth I love you to his sister when she found it hard to give her speech, so caring for everyone - yet I know he was devastated, and still only just recovering from covid himself.

My father had written a letter of condolence to the family which was read out at the service, and I'd sent him the link before the funeral so he could watch if wished. Being 93, he's a bit forgetful, and called me the day after the funeral to ask when the service was starting. That's when I found out you can actually watch the service online as many times you like (once was enough for me, but a fictional YA goth character could watch on tape-loop... I felt bad even thinking that, but on the plus side, I know my cousin would have thought it was hilarious...)

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad I got to be present in some way at her funeral. And I cried buckets. But the virtual experience, however interesting to the writer brain, doesn't begin to compensate for reality. There was no chance to hug people, talk to them (however awkwardly), try to comfort them. I just wanted to be there. 

Sod the new normal. I want normal back. To be able to repeat Victoria Wood's immortal lines at the wake. '72 baps, Connie. You slice, I'll spread.' My cousin would have loved that.

Lu Hersey

twitter: @LuWrites

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Writing for a generation that might never grow up – Clémentine Beauvais

In the past few months or years, in the light of what seems like a dramatically accelerating ecological crisis, many of us in jobs linked to education, teaching, or children’s culture and literature have thought, why are we doing this? What’s the point? What becomes of our main drive to act, reasons to exist, if the generation of children we’re addressing might never grow up to be adults? 

My first (and only) academic monograph, drawn from my PhD thesis, called The Mighty Child, was a theorisation of politically committed children’s literature. It is premised on the idea that children’s literature relies on one simple theoretical ‘fact’: children are, in today’s world, symbolically endowed with greater temporal power than adults. Children's symbolic currency is time left, while adults are defined by a greater wealth of time past. Time left provides one with a kind of power I called might, or potential, and time past with a kind of power I called authority. Children’s literature, I theorised, is one of the ways in which society orchestrates the conversion of time past into time left – of authority into might.

But over time, struck, like many others, with the alternatively depressing, paralysing, infuriating and – to a weird extent – liberating, realisation that we might actually be among the last representatives of humanity on Earth, I’ve come to rethink my relationship to writing, to children, to transmission. The panic is concrete, contextual, situated (where will we live? What will we eat? When and how will we actually die?), but the thinking is more philosophical in nature. What is the essence of children’s literature in a world where childly temporality is no longer overlapping with adult temporality, but coterminous with it?

Some might say that in this climate, the sole function of children’s literature should be entertainment, and aesthetic pleasure without purpose, as it always should be and always should have been. In a world which dies tomorrow, the argument goes, making today the best possible day for children should be on everyone’s list of priorities. That means – no to ‘didactic’ children’s literature, no to ‘edifying’ books, educational non-fiction, none of that stuff. Give them their Pascalian entertainment, and let them live a short, but happy, life.

Some might say, on the contrary, that children’s literature should now be about teaching children the wisdom of how to die, which would be a fascinating comeback to the times when children’s literature had that mission, to a great extent, as its priority. When child mortality was high, literature for the young was, of course, very much geared towards preparing readers for that eventuality – making sure they died virtuously, so that the pearly gates would creak wide open at the squishy sound of their footsteps on the clouds.

Some might say children’s literature should no longer be a priority for anyone; in fact, that its very existence is both environmentally harmful and intellectually and emotionally distracting. It destroys armies of trees that should breathe for us; every single stage of its production, from designing it to printing it to transporting it to storing it to selling it to throwing it away, is toxic. I have been acutely, anxiously aware of this recently, thinking of my own books to come, each of them with a little cloud of CO2 hovering above its covers: the lovely picturebook with bright inks and glossy paper shipped from China, the cheap paperbacks to be gluttonously devoured and discarded, the luxury hardback editions in indestructible shrink-wrapping. 

And those oh-so-instagrammable publicity packs, lovingly prepared for the purpose of being ripped open and thrown away on a Story with 24 hour planned obsolescence, the gold-glazed bookmarks, the nylon ribbons around the resin trinket, the plastic-stick lollipop, the superfluous fridge magnet, all in a nest of bubblewrap and chunks of polystyrene the size of cocktail sausages…

Some might say that children’s literature should, in fact, continue existing, should continue existing even more, albeit differently – be more modestly produced, be more politically committed still. That school, of which I am, or want to be, sees that category of text as characterised precisely by the fact that it carries within it a hope for tomorrow.

It is perhaps, we say, the most important thing that distinguishes children’s literature from ‘literature for adults’: its very existence is premised on an extreme, obsessive concern with tomorrow. Not necessarily a better, more enchanting tomorrow; just a tomorrow. As long as that faith exists, then children’s literature is imperative; it calls; it must exist too. Children’s literature, perhaps, is the literary expression of our desire and belief that there is such a thing as a day after this one for us as a species.

To what extent is this desire, that belief, maintained solely by that very performance? To what extent is it anything else than an odd kind of Pascal’s wager? I have days when I don’t think it is anything else than that; days when I am genuinely convinced that we are speaking and writing for the very last generation of children to reach adolescence, adulthood maybe at a stretch.

Some other times, I’m more upbeat, and I think – and yet, what if we do survive? or what if some of us survive who value the fact that we kept producing that discourse that we call children’s literature? Sometimes I think that I would like, even after I’m dead, for a corpus of texts to remain that testifies that, even in the face of a potential complete loss of future, we kept alive that discourse of hope for the existence of tomorrow. 

Clémentine Beauvais is a writer and literary translator. Her YA novels in English are Piglettes (Pushkin, 2017) and In Paris with You (trans. Sam Taylor, Faber, 2018).

Sunday, 18 February 2018

The Haunted Attic by Lu Hersey

Moving is traumatic. I know, because I moved this week. For me, the trauma wasn’t so much about the upheaval or change of neighbourhood –  it was dealing with the bodies in the attic.

Not my attic - way too interesting...

Somehow the loft had accumulated a number of dead relatives, and I had to clear everyone out. There weren’t any actual bodies of course (sorry to disappoint) - I’m talking about family history. Sentimental attachment. Guilt. More guilt. People’s entire lives in a few boxes.

I hate dark, spidery loft spaces, and have a fear of death by falling from a loft – so over the last 20 years, I’d been shoving things up there just to get them out of sight, thinking I’d deal with them later.

Bad idea. The day comes when you have to confront them all, and that time is when you move house. The loft had to be totally emptied, so I was forced to clear out the ghosts. All those things you get landed with when people die, the detritus left from other people’s lives.

Years ago, I had to translate a chunk of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from the reign of Alfred the Great (an interesting man, who didn’t just burn cakes) as part of my English degree. It was about a visitor to Alfred’s court from somewhere in Scandinavia, telling them about the customs of his people.

King Alfred

When someone died in his community, all the dead person’s possessions were piled up in a big heap in the middle of the village. Then everyone raced to take what they wanted before the rest was burned. Alfred probably recorded this to make a point to his courtiers - that inheritance isn’t a foregone conclusion.

However, since King Alfred chose not to introduce this custom over here, we still end up dealing with our dead relatives’ possessions. If we’re lucky, these will include useful things, like treasure and property. Sadly, not in my attic. 

My grandmother was up there, confined to a box of photos of her family, a moth-eaten patchwork quilt, a horseshoe from her wedding cake, a few sad letters relating to the death of one of her children, and more on the death of my grandfather. My grandfather was divided between the photo box, and a collection of watercolours in varying degrees of awful.

An unknown dead relative from the attic, and his horse

 My mother took up a lot more attic space. After my father remarried, I got landed with all the photos ever taken of her, her books, all her dreadful paintings, and a collection of letters (which I’ve never read) between her and my father when he was away on National Service.  And all the letters she wrote to me when she knew she was dying. 

My mother with me, a long time ago...

So what we’re talking about is a lot of things you can hardly bear to look through, and leave you feeling like an emotional wreck when you do, but you feel obliged to keep. It’s all that is left of them. And that makes it very hard to get rid of.

Worse, my dead relatives were just the tip of the loftberg. There were all the paintings my children did at school. Four children can do a lot of paintings over the years. And they get a lot of school reports and bring home a mountain of school work. Two very large boxes and a trunk’s worth to be precise. Fortunately, my two youngest showed up to laugh at their old stuff and share the best of it with their friends online, and we managed to more than halve the quantity after some harsh quality control.

Lastly, there were the ghosts of my own past. Photos of people I’d forgotten existed, letters from old boyfriends, and piles of folders of ‘ideas’ (mostly pieces from magazines and old journals, all yellowing around the edges, and frankly the easiest thing in the loft to bin.) There were old computers I thought might still hold info I needed, old tvs that ‘might come in useful’, and tins of paint. Enough to paint entire mansions in a range of out-of-date colours.

My stuff was the easiest to deal with. I junked it all, entirely guilt free because it was mine to junk. My relatives were the real problem. In the end, I squeezed them into a few boxes, and the charity shop benefitted from the rest. Maybe other people will like the some of the terrible paintings. I thought about burning all my parents’ letters, but my youngest daughter persuaded me to keep them. So now they’re in a box marked ‘archive’ – and they’ll become her problem one day.  

But part of me is still tempted to dump all of it. Along with all the guilt and the sadness. As it is, I’ve spent much of the last year writing a book about people in a Mesolithic type environment who aren’t overloaded with stuff. In fact they own nothing.

It’s been very therapeutic...

Lu Hersey

Monday, 18 December 2017

How to remember Christmas - by Lu Hersey

It’s that time of year again. A few days off and you might think you’re going to be able to finish a draft or a book edit, or maybe get some brilliant new ideas jotted down on paper. Well, forget it now. You won’t. Or at least, I won’t. December is basically sabotaged by a logistical nightmare called Christmas.

I was talking to my father earlier, trying to pin down the size of the turkey we needed while listening to his lugubrious ‘if I’m spared’ remarks about his chances of making it to Christmas dinner. He’s 90, so I guess it’s fair enough, but I felt like screaming Dad, it’s less than two weeks away, and we seriously need to talk about the turkey. Just try and live another ten days, and I’ll do the rest!

While we were discussing life, possible death and turkeys, he told me there were only two Christmases in his entire life that he really remembered. One was when he was doing national service and his ship was moored in Penang - he spent Christmas by a swimming pool at a rubber plantation, with a gibbon wrapped around his neck. The other was when he was a boy, and the house next door caught fire. He and my grandfather rushed out to watch the flames shooting out of next door’s roof, leaving my grandmother to wrestle with the turkey.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the whole business of Christmas and how one turkey Christmas dinner generally blurs into another. It’s only when something different happens that you remember it. One of my daughters is in Australia this year, and sent me a picture of a dawn trip to a deserted beach, where Kangaroos were boxing. She’ll remember that for the rest of her life, and I’m really pleased she’s having that experience and not worrying about the impracticalities of turkey to oven ratios.

I asked my other kids (all adult now) if there were any Christmases they remembered from childhood. Apparently the one that stood out was the one when I didn’t realise the turkey gall bladder had burst into the gravy, and ruined everyone’s Christmas lunch by pouring it over their plates for them (they were too young to pour it themselves). Pfft. All I can say is at least it made for a memorable Christmas, and they learnt the true meaning of the phrase ‘bitter as gall’.

Gallstones are surprisingly attractive. (This has nothing to do with turkeys, but it's interesting)
I polled a number of writer friends to find out if other families fared any better. One told me that she and her daughter decided one year to ban family altogether, and just do what they wanted. They went swimming in the morning and had fish for lunch – and had the best Christmas ever. I have to say, this made me feel envious. No wrestling with family feuds and giant turkeys sounds like heaven.

Swimming on a freezing Christmas day is a popular pastime
Christmases from childhood that people remembered were either ones where they got amazing presents (bicycles featured a lot here) or books that changed their lives (ALL writers get excited by books) – or those disappointing Christmases when the truth about Father Christmas was finally revealed (one writer told me she was six when her father came into the room with a pillow case on his head - which sounds even spookier than seeing an old man with a white beard and a herd of reindeer…)

Books like these made many a memorable childhood Christmas
Christmases spent abroad cropped up in several accounts – like Sally Nicholls, who at 18 spent her Christmas working in a hospital in Japan. Although Christmas wasn’t celebrated there, on Christmas day she and some fellow expats put on a variety show for the patients, including renditions of English songs translated into Japanese. She can still sing ‘Gloop, gloop went the little green frog one day’ in Japanese, proving it was definitely a Christmas to remember.

Romance makes for a Christmas to remember too. HuwPowell  proposed to his (now) wife on Christmas Day, and Jenny Sullivan’s (now) husband spent three hours trying to get her father on his own one crowded family Christmas to ask for her hand in marriage. Apparently it's also a lovely time to discover you're having a baby, even if it means you can’t drink (possibly another reason these Christmases were remembered better than others...)

Last but not least, the magic of a white Christmas. Several people found snow falling at Christmas made it particularly memorable (it doesn’t ever snow here in the West Country at Christmas, so I may need to drive north one year to experience this…).

As it turns out, no one I asked said that writing or editing their book made for a memorable time, so think I’ll abandon that idea right now. Too late to book a trip to Oz for a beach bbq, but am hoping to make this a Christmas to remember without ruining the gravy – and hope you all have a good one too. Maybe we can compare notes in January…

Lu Hersey
Twitter: @LuWrites