Archives for the month of: May, 2013

Part of the London Literature Festival, I attended a very moving performance of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel at the Southbank Centre yesterday.

Plath died 50 years ago, leaving a final collection of poems that became the posthumous collection Ariel.

At this performance, 40 female performers and poets read one poem each from the restored edition of the final unedited manuscript. Plath’s daughter Frieda Hughes introduced the evening.

It was a very special performance for many reasons, not least the poems, some of which, for example Cut, Lady Lazarus and Daddy (which we heard being read by Plath herself) were very familiar, but others less so. One of these was Tulips, read wonderfully and movingly by Juliet Stevenson, which utterly gripped me.

From Tulips:

‘The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.

Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in

I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly

As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.

I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.

I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses

And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to the surgeons…’

‘…My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water

Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.

They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.’


Currently on at the Battersea Arts Centre, Caroline Horton’s 70 minute play is a real gem.

Based on the writer’s own background, the performance deals with the very difficult subject of eating disorders in a way that feels brave, authentic, and empathic. It is also at times very very funny, and wonderfully acted.

One had the sense at the end that everyone in the auditorium connected with the play, whether or not anorexia had touched their lives. For me, Mess represented one of those few moments where illness and the arts do truly connect, and thereby speak and listen to each other.


The poet, novelist, playwright and doctor Dannie Abse kept a diary for a year following the death of his wife Joan as a result of a car accident in 2005.

In his first diary entry, some 4 months after Joan’s death, Abse writes:

‘The past survives however much one tries to drive it down and away from one’s consciousness.’

The diary presents itself as both a living record of loss, loneliness and grief, and also a reflection on the past, a looking back. Most entries start with the current date and end with a ‘Then’ section, which relives a memory from Abse’s earlier life, and often one that also includes Joan.

Abse shares the mundane realities that confront the bereaved, as letters continue to arrive addressed to his now dead wife. He includes a poem by Peter Porter, written after Porter’s own wife’s death:

‘A card comes to tell you

you should report

to have your eyes tested.

But your eyes melted in the fire…

and the only tears, which soon dried,

fell in the chapel.

Other things still come –

invoices, subscriptions, renewals,

shiny plastic cards promising credit –

not much for a life spent

in the service of reality…’

Abse is not self-indulgent or maudlin in his grief, and is not seeking our sympathy. The diary was not originally intended for publication, evolving more as a tool for coping with loss, a response to an inner voice saying ‘Physician, heal thyself.’ Thus, the diary became a ‘prescription for self-regeneration.’ However, as the diary progresses he acknowledges that he did presuppose another reader.

Abse tells it like it is. One diary entry just contains the short sentence ‘I cry, therefore I am.’ On another occasion, when asked by a friend how he was coping, he tells us that ‘I confessed, perhaps melodramatically, that for intermittent hours each day I feel like an exile in the Land of Desolation.’

He cries frequently, often waking up with tears in his eyes. A new experience for him, since Joan’s death Abse does not find it difficult to unsettle ‘the too prompt tearducts of my eyes.’

The diary is not all about grief, but more about a life that continues within that loss. Abse speaks of Freud, of current events such as the Iraq war, as well as past events in his own life as a doctor and as a poet. He also includes his own poetry, and speaks of other writers, such as Elias Canetti and the poet Owen Shears.

Abse muses on his own life as a poet:

‘I’ve often thought of poetry as a vocation, even a destiny, rather than a career but sometimes I wish that on certain occasions in my life I had not retreated from the limelight.’

During the year of diary writing, Abse’s older brother dies:

‘I weep for Wilfred. Yet it is hard to mourn for more than one person at a time.’

And Joan’s loss is immense. He remembers the grief he experienced when his parents died, yet it was incomparable to his profound sense of loss following his wife’s death:

‘But I have been so dependent on Joan. Absolutely. Mentally, emotionally, physically.’

Six months after the accident:

‘…as I remember this or think that, my eyes leak like a tap with a half-perished washer. I am, I feel, leading a posthumous life.’

Yet, he can also see that ‘I’m OK. I’m coping. I’m limping along.’ while at the same time accepting that ‘I miss Joan.’

He acknowledges that his grief is not an illness, ‘I’m not clinically depressed. Merely unhappy.’

Eventually, Abse finds his way back into poetry, both writing and reading again in public.

‘Authors, poets, are supposed to be imaginative people but I didn’t, couldn’t picture my life without Joan. Everything is so other. The very silence has changed. It is the very silence of the abyss.’

One of these poetry readings ends with the short poem Valediction:

‘In this exile people call old age

I live between nostalgia and rage.

This is the land of fools and fear.

Thanks be. I’m lucky to be here.’

As he approaches the end of the year since Joan’s death, and the end of his diary entries, Abse wonders whether he will miss the writing ‘not only for my health’s sake’, but also because ‘For doing so has allowed me sometimes the pleasure of escaping into a benign Past. The Past, indeed, can sometimes be a sanctuary.’

‘There is no happy ending’, yet Abse does not leave one feeling desolate. I was touched by his openness, as well as by a realism that allowed for many emotions to sit alongside each other. Abse’s life following Joan’s death reads as one that embraced his unmeasurable loss, and one that allowed grief to accompany rather than to destroy.

The diary ends with Abse’s poem Lachrymae:

‘She is everywhere and nowhere

now that I am less than one…’

‘…Now, solemn, I watch

the spellbound moon again,

its unfocused clone drowned

in Hampstead’s rush-dark pond

where a lone swan sings

without a sound.’


I am a great fan of the poet Hugo Williams.

Now aged 70, Williams developed kidney problems three years ago and is currently on haemodialysis.

In a recent interview (, the poet describes how he felt when he first heard the diagnosis:

‘ “There are all kinds of reactions you go through. One is a slight sense of shame, another is depression and a shrink­ing of the world. People who have been through it before say you just have to get a grip really.

“It’s interesting why one feels shame,” he adds. “I suppose it’s because one is no longer quite the physical speci­men one was before. And also feeling ashamed at being so self-obsessed and self-pitying.” ‘

I have mentioned Susan Sontag in the context of illness here previously, and specifically how she believed that we all go through life belonging to one of two camps, either the kingdom of the ill or the kingdom of the well. Although the kingdoms are very distinct, one can find oneself suddenly in the ‘opposite camp’ following a diagnosis of serious illness. A fine line in fact divides both worlds, yet those who find themselves in the land of the ill very quickly feel alienated and isolated from those who are well.

Williams alludes to this experience:

“Sick people tend not to be with well people very much because they remind them about being ill too much. Whereas if you’re with sick people you can say, well, I’m not as sick as him.”

Poetry has to a large extent ‘rescued’ Williams, ‘because to write means going to a mental state where he is neither ill nor well.’

‘ “Poetry is like that – a place where there is no illness or wellness.” ‘

Currently, Williams has dialysis three times a week and is on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. The ‘average’ wait is three years. In the meantime, he shares his experience through his poetry:

Excerpts from ‘From the Dialysis Ward’  (

 ‘A Game of Dialysis

The home team appears
in a blue strip, while the visitors
keep on their street clothes.
We find our positions
from the file with our name on it
placed beside our bed.
Now all we can do is wait
for the opposition to make a move.
We don’t like our chances….’

‘The Art of Needling

You find out early on
that some of the nurses
are better than others
at the art of needling.
You have to ascertain

who’s on duty
that knows what they’re doing,
someone familiar
with your fistula arm
and beg him to ‘put you on’….’


The shock of remembering,
having forgotten for a second,
that this isn’t a cure,
but a kind of false health,
like drug addiction.

It performs the trick
of taking off the water
which builds up in your system,
bloating your body,
raising your blood pressure.

It sieves you clean of muck
for a day or two,
by means of a transparent tube
full of pinkish sand
hanging next to your machine.

Your kidneys like the idea
of not having to work any more
and gradually shut down,
leaving you dependent.
Then you stop peeing.

Dialysis is bad for you.
You feel sick
most of the time, until the end.
The shock of remembering,
having forgotten for a second.’


Just visiting Wilton’s Music Hall – the world’s oldest and last surviving music hall – in East London is a treat in itself.

At the same time experiencing the currently running song cycle Ten Plagues, which features Marc Almond, libretto by Mark Ravenhill and music by Conor Mitchell, is a double treat.

Ten Plagues is about one man’s survival through the London plague of 1655 that killed over 100,000 people. The song cycle consists of 17 separate pieces, all performed, wonderfully, by Almond.

A story of grief, isolation, and fear, Ten Plagues resonates far beyond 1655, through, for example, the AIDS ‘gay plague’, and to much that troubles our present time.

My experience of Ten Plagues at Wilton’s Music Hall is a very special, nay exquisite, memory.


I just saw this absolute gem of a film at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) London (

Created by the animator Don Hertzfeldt in 2012, It’s Such a Beautiful Life is actually an edited feature length version of an earlier trilogy of chapters: Everything will be OK, I Am So Proud of You, and It’s Such a Beautiful Life. The 65 minute film tells the story of the stick man character Bill, from the everyday mundane happenings in his life, to mental illness, and to coping with being told he is soon to die (which serves to awaken Bill to the wonders of life: ‘clumsy, beautiful and new’ ‘Isn’t it amazing?’).

It is difficult to categorise this film, a fact that probably adds to its value. It explores much of what it means to be human and to be alive, and as you leave the auditorium, you cannot help but feel uplifted and grateful for such a cinematic treat.



I Could Read The Sky, written by Timothy O’Grady with photographs by Steve Pyke, first appeared in 1997.

The photographic novel was later adapted by Nichola Bruce to create a film of the same name (1999). I recently received a gift of Iarla O’Lionaird’s haunting accompanying soundtrack, which also features Sinead O’Connor, Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, Noel Hill and Liam O’Maonlai. The music inspired me to re-explore both the book and the film.

A deeply melancholic and tragic narrative, I Could Read The Sky has loss, poverty, isolation and loneliness at its core.

It tells the story of one man, as he looks back on his life from solitary old age in Kentish Town. We get flashbacks of growing up in Ireland and of his life after leaving his native land to find work in England. The book unfolds as memories, as a looking back, to what has constituted a life.

The tone of the book is set at the outset, with a poem by Peter Woods on exile:

‘Exile is not a word

It is a sound

The rending of skin

A fistful of clay on top

of a coffin.’

We first see the lone figure in a Kentish Town bedsit:

‘This is me. I have a round bald head. My eyes are blue and watery and my fingers are stained with tobacco. I am alone here with a black dog. I sleep badly.’

His life in England has variously included working in a beet factory in Ipswich, slab laying in Bedford, and working with drainage pipes in Coventry, before settling in London amongst his compatriots:

‘There are men on the Kilburn High Road you can only see unfinished buildings in their eyes.’

He shares his flashbacks and memories, ‘sounds and pictures but they flit and crash before I can get them’, images of long-left Ireland and Labasheeda (‘The day of the Stations is a big day’) interspersed with the reality of his today:

‘I open my eyes in Kentish Town. Always this neutral air.’

‘A chair beside the bed. Tablets. A shirt with little blue squares, the collar shot. A bottle of Guinness here and another on the ledge. Maggie’s rosary, crystal beads.’

‘A wardrobe made my people I’ve never met.’

We return again and again to the Kentish Town bedsit:

‘I roll onto my side. The wardrobe door is open, Maggie’s dress with the bluebell’s hanging there.’

Maggie was the love of his life, and her death its greatest tragedy. The story of how they met, and what she meant to him, is a most beautiful and moving thread that weaves through the narrative.

‘I’ll not be leaving Kentish Town now except in a brown box and when I do I’ll be going to Labasheeda to lie with Maggie. I’ve left the instructions.’

His grief is almost tangible:

‘What is it to miss someone? It is not the throbbing ache of a wound. It is not the pain you get under your ribs from running. It is not a befouled feeling, the feeling of being in mud. It is the feeling of being in a strange place and losing direction. It is the feeling of looking without seeing and eating without tasting. It is forgetfulness, the inability to move, the inability to connect. It is a sentence you must serve and if the person you miss is dead your sentence is long.’

As fragments of his past and present life come and go, he pieces together a list of sorts:

‘What I could do.

I could mend nets. Thatch a roof. Build stairs…I could dance sets. Read the sky…Make a field…I could read the sea…Shear sheep. Remember poems. Set potatoes…Read the wind…Make a coffin. Take a drink. I could frighten you with stories.’

‘What I couldn’t do.

Eat a meal lacking potatoes. Trust banks. Wear a watch…Drink coffee…Follow cricket. Understand the speech of a man from west Kerry…Speak with men wearing collars. Stay afloat in water. Understand their jokes. Face the dentist. Kill a Sunday. Stop remembering.’

It makes you think about what we are, what constitutes our lives, lists of dos and don’ts, the memories we hang onto and those we forget, the people of our lives…

Watching the film again after re-reading the book, I love the collage of images, music and voices that interplay on the screen. How fragmented and bitty our lives in reality are, and the challenge is to try and pull it all together and somehow create a meaningful whole…

‘I remember loneliness and the walls of Quex Road. I remember pure sadness.’