The Irish poet Brendan Kennelly was born on April 17, 1936. Some of his poems remain in my top 100 favourites, including for example Poem from a Three Year Old, which I have often read to my daughter.

Poem from a Three Year Old

And will the flowers die?

And will the people die?

And every day do you grow old, do I

grow old, no I’m not old, do

flowers grow old?

 

Old things – do you throw them out?

 

Do you throw old people out?

 

And how do you know a flower that’s old?

 

The petals fall, the petals fall from flowers,

and do the petals fall from people too,

every day more petals fall until the

floor where I would like to play I

want to play is covered with old

flowers and people all the same

together lying there with petals fallen

on the dirty floor I want to play

the floor you come and sweep

with the big broom.

 

The dirt you sweep, what happens that,

what happens all the dirt you sweep

from flowers and people, what

happens all the dirt? Is all the

dirt what’s left of the flowers and

people, all the dirt there in a

heap under the huge broom that

sweeps everything away?

 

Why you work so hard, why brush

and sweep to make a heap of dirt?

And who will bring new flowers?

And who will bring new people? Who will

bring new flowers to put in water

where no petals fall on to the

floor, where I would like to

play? Who will bring new flowers

that will not hang their heads

like tired old people wanting sleep?

Who will bring new flowers that

do not split and shrivel every

day? And if we have new flowers,

will we have new people too to

keep the flowers alive and give

them water?

 

And will the new young flowers die?

 

And will the new young people die?

 

And why?

 

This poem is so nostalgic of my mothering. My daughter asked similar yet different questions, but more than the questions themselves I remember the earnestness of the young questioner, and her then desperate need for answers to the mostly unanswerable.

Tonight at dinner, our conversation reflected that of two adults at different ends of the spectrum of lived experiences. Now 17, she still questions the ‘why’ – as do I – but she has become more accepting of the unknowable.

Kennelly believed that ‘Poetry can come from anywhere – unlike the novel, unlike drama, which require perhaps human experience; poetry has in it a kind of child wonder.’

I would like to believe that my grown up daughter continues to carry that child wonder within, that her ‘whys’ of life will continue to be asked, and that her questions will not be beholden to answers.

Happy birthday, Brendan Kennelly.

 

CQ

 

 

 

 

 

One of my heroes, the director Patricio Guzman was in London this week for the screening of his latest film The Pearl Button. It has been four years since his harrowing masterpiece Nostalgia for the Light (reviewed here). During that time he has been exploring the Patagonia hinterland of his native Chile.

The Pearl Button bears many of the hallmarks of Guzman’s earlier works. It is extraordinarily – and eerily – beautiful. Sublime feels appropriate. The landscape of Patagonia – the coastline, the ocean itself, the mountains, the lakes – is breathtaking, and the cinematography does it poetic justice and more. Guzman creates a world, interweaving narrative and images, where the history of the indigenous people of Patagonia, and their tragic fate at the hands of invaders and settlers at the beginning of the 20th century, is slowly revealed. Rich in metaphor – water, sky, planets, infinity – The Pearl Button is a story of loss, not only of the Patagonian people and their culture, but more recently – 1970s and 1980s – of those thousands who died during the Pinochet regime, and whose bodies were dumped anonymously forever in the ocean. It is almost impossible to comprehend the cruelty of not only killing loved ones, but to compound the grief of those left behind by deliberately denying them the possibility of burying their dead.

Guzman confers an animate and almost spiritual significance to water. It contains secrets, and ‘colluded’ with the atrocities that Pinochet sought to keep hidden. The exiled Guzman continues his work in The Pearl Button of revealing these secrets, and of exposing the horror of the dictator’s regime.

During the Q&A after the screening, Guzman confirmed that a further film will complete the trilogy, this time about the Andes and its people.

Good news, indeed.

 

CQ

Following on from my most recent post, this review – ‘Elegy of an unfulfilled life‘ – of the current production of Chekhov’s play at the Almeida in this week’s The Lancet seems particularly apposite…

 

CQ

I went to an interesting event called ‘5×15’ this week. It was my first experience of this regular happening, which consists of five 15 minute talks by well known/prominent-for-diverse-reasons people.

This week’s featured Roz Savage (who holds world records for ocean rowing and is an active environmental campaigner), Gavin Francis (a GP and writer; his most recent book is Adventures in Being Human, a landscape of the human body), Raj Kohli (the highest ranking Sikh officer in the Metropolitan Police), Isy Suttie (comedian, writer, songwriter and actress), and Andrew Solomon (writer and lecturer, and author of The Noonday Demon, amongst other books).

Both the speakers and the content were wide-ranging, diverse and entertaining. The 15 minute time limit is a good tactic – just long enough to build on a single idea or theme, without overburdening the listener with too much detail. There was much of value, and many points raised have lingered. Much to consider and to reflect on.

One thought has particularly stayed with me. The first speaker, Roz Savage, worked for 11 years as a management consultant, which she hated but struggled to find a way out of. She delved into self-help books looking for a solution, one of which recommended the task of writing your own obituary; two in fact: one that reflects the life you will probably lead if you stay in the same predictable trajectory, and another that reveals the life you could lead if you chose a path that feels more meaningful and rewarding, albeit one that may require much courage and determination, and an openness to failure. It did not happen overnight, but Roz slowly and steadily revised her trajectory, choosing the second path, making the necessary changes that could and would allow her to lead a more meaningful, purposeful, and rewarding life.

I am now distracted by this obituary idea. It feels important to resolve. Do I truly believe that I am right now living the most present, meaningful and authentic life that I possibly could?

Or not…

 

CQ

 

Currently running, this festival ends on March 6. The venue is spectacular – a series of underground tunnels just by Waterloo station. The festival features a wide and diverse range of innovative theatre, comedy, music and dance. The emphasis is on new and emerging talent – ‘the next generation of creators’ –  which lends an exciting and ‘happening’ edge.

Last night I saw ‘The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity’ by Clout Theatre. The theme is suicide. Which may not sound like a great night out. But it was. Very much so. I am still thinking about it 24 hours later. Not in a sad, mournful, tragic sense, but partly in a quizzical ‘what was that all about’ sense as well as a ‘looking back in laughter’ sense. At times, it was skittishly funny.

Three characters, all ‘dead’ as a result of suicide, constitute the post-event support group. The performance takes us on a journey – absurdist at times – that veers off on many different paths (sometimes inexplicable but I think that that is actually the point). I was absorbed throughout, electrified by the energy of the actors, jolted (not uncomfortably) by the thematic pirouetting, impressed by the depth of the imaginative leaps, and totally seduced by the courage and fearlessness that the script and actors displayed throughout. Also bizarrely flattered that Clout Theatre believes that people like me might ‘get it’.

I think that I did, but am still reflecting on this. For me, the play highlighted the absurdness of the human condition.We desperately try to control ourselves and our destiny as much as possible. A pointless exercise. In the end, we are all fragile, vulnerable and completely out of control. Which may actually be ok.

 

CQ

It has been many years since I read Jennifer Johnston’s works – The Captains and The Kings and How Many Miles to Babylon? stand out in my mind. A couple of weeks ago I picked up The Christmas Tree (1981), which I had not previously read in a local bookshop.

When choosing a book to read, I realised some time ago that I gravitate towards titles where I hope to find myself within the text. This really struck me while reading The Christmas Tree – the central character Constance frequently reminded me of me.

A slight read in terms of length (183 pages), the book unfolds as Constance’s narrative, where she shares both her feelings about dying from leukaemia and her recent and long past memories. Constance is not old – her baby is nine months – but she has decided to face death without embarking on what she sees as futile treatment. This choice – a freedom of sorts – is resolute and critical, although Constance also realises how insignificant this personal sense of control ultimately is in the face of imminent death.

‘If only it were possible to choose your time to die, I thought, this would be a good moment. A time to be born and a time to die. Only you hadn’t the right to choose. All the other choices that you had fought to be allowed to make, were all irrelevant in the end. Someone else made this choice.’

Constance realises that this will be her last Christmas, and the book opens with a memory from her childhood.

‘It was always a great day when the Christmas tree was brought into the house.’

Constance’s sister Bibi hovers throughout, desperately hoping that she will change her mind and agree to a hospital admission. Bibi refuses to acknowledge the fact that Constance is dying. The sisters love each other, as siblings do even when there is little else to connect them.

Constance: ‘We have a lot of genes and some memories in common. That’s all.’

Constance left Ireland, for London, many years earlier, only now returning to Dublin to die. Bibi remained in Ireland, looking after their parents, particularly the protracted care of the slowly dying mother. Constance disagreed with Bibi’s desperate need to keep their mother alive at all costs, which undoubtedly contributed to her own decision to avoid such a fate.

‘I saw an old woman who should have been dead being kept alive and tormented by the whole process just to make you and all the doctors and nurses feel good.’

Constance also muses on ‘the road not taken’, particularly her decision many years earlier not to marry Bill, a local boy and now her GP, and friend, in her dying days.

‘Suppose I had married Bill and we had gone to Connemara and had six children, would we have been better people? Happier? Would I have comprehended more in that isolation than I succeeded in doing in the isolation I created for myself?  Would I have been able to write, in those circumstances, the books that I wanted so much to write? Damn fool questions with no answers.’

Constance is resigned to the process of dying, and what it necessarily, or so she believes, entails. She remembers the pains of labour – just months earlier – and how it had a pattern, a rhythm.

‘It didn’t frighten me, even when the pauses became inadequate for me to collect my equilibrium.’

But now is different.

‘I am frightened now. There is no rhythm now. I get no warning. It is like being eaten by some animal that tears at me until its hunger is temporarily satisfied and then it sleeps uneasily until the hunger starts again.’

‘I smell of death these days… It creeps out through my pores again and clings to my clothes contaminating anything I touch. It depresses me almost more than the pain.’

The ending is predictable, but not tragic. In fact, there is something hopeful and redemptive as Constance’s baby daughter appears and reminds us that our lives and stories can continue without our physical presence. We are all of us born into the middle of someone else’s story. These narrative threads, like silver linings, extend without us, and beyond.

The poet Dennis O’Driscoll died on Christmas Eve, 2012.

Today, the winter solstice when the North Pole is tilted furthest away from the sun, marks the shortest day and the longest night of 2015. For me, the significance of the astronomical alignment extends also to the existential, and makes me consider what being human might mean in this extraordinary and often inexplicable physical world that we inhabit.

I look to the words of Dennis O’Driscoll:

You

Be yourself: show your flyblown eyes

to the world, give no cause for concern,

wash the paunchy body whose means you

live within, suffer the illnesses

that are your prerogative alone –

 

the prognosis refers to nobody but you;

you it is who gets up in the morning

in your skin, you who chews your dinner

with your mercury-filled teeth, gaining

garlic breath or weight, you dreading,

 

you hoping, you regretting, you interloping.

The earth has squeezed you in, found you space;

any loss of face you feel is solely yours –

you with the same old daily moods, debts,

intuitions, food fads, pet hates, Achilles’ heels.

 

You carry on as best you can the task of being,

whole-time, you; you in wake and you in dream,

at all hours, weekly, monthly, yearly, life,

full of yourself as a tallow candle is of fat,

wallowing in self-denial, self-esteem.

 

Dennis O’Driscoll

Today is December 1. It feels auspicious somehow, and I wanted to mark it with a poem. Choosing Derek Walcott’s Love After Love was an easy decision – it is good to be reminded to love ourselves, something too easily ignored and forgotten.

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott

Following on from my last blog piece on ageing, I came across an interesting book review in this week’s issue of the Lancet. Desmond O’Neill speaks about Four Last Songs: Aging and Creativity in Verdi, Strauss, Messiaen, and Britten by Linda and Michael Hutcheon.

The book I will check out for sure, but for now I particularly like Desmond O’Neill’s positive take on ageing:

“By reframing old age in terms of potential rather than problems, it counters those who portray ageing in terms of unmanageable deficit and loss. Creativity also illuminates the complex interplay of growth, loss, and transcendence in later life.”

 

CQ

 

I welcome the recent increase in the number of films where older people, particularly the ‘older than old’, have taken centre stage. I missed Advanced Style, the documentary film that followed elderly (over 60, some in their 80s and 90s) stylish women in New York. The film was well received, and a Guardian review shared some insights into the positive effects that can accompany ageing:

“Ageing has, for these women, brought with it a kind of liberation. “We all want some kind of approval,” says Lynn Dell Cohen, “but I think you have to like yourself first.”

“I am not afraid,” says Carpati warmly. “That’s what age can do for you. It gives you a freedom! I don’t care. I must sound outrageous to you, do I?” she says. “I’m free.””

I did see Iris, also a documentary centred on the fashion world. Iris Apfel is a 93 year old New Yorker, and the film follows the ‘geriatric starlet‘ as she continues her life as a prominent fashionista today. The film was directed by Albert Maysles, himself 88 at the time, which perhaps partly explains its upbeatness as it delivers the message that old age can indeed bring fun, laughter and fulfilment. Iris herself contributes in no small way to this. She exudes vitality – even as her body fails her a little – and continues to love living. I suspect that she ages as she has lived, embracing life.

More recently, I saw Ping Pong at the Royal Society of Medicine Global Health Film Festival. Filmed pre and post the 2010 Veterans Ping Pong World Championships hosted by China, this documentary follows seven participants, variously aged between 82 and 100. Some have played ping pong for most of their lives, for others it has been a hobby discovered in old age. For all, it is a hugely immersive, enjoyable, and sustaining part of their lives. During the competition, there are inevitably winners and losers, participants who are much more competitive than others and a modicum of aggression, a human attribute that transcends age, but in the end, all ultimately pulled together with grace and with their shared love of the sport. It is of course significant that the seven characters are ‘older than old’. One cannot but marvel at the ingenuity of their strokes, skill that seems to defy physical frailty, and even more so their sense of humour. We are invited to laugh, not at them, but with them. This is a film about old age, and to a certain extent inevitably also about mortality, but more so, it is a celebration of living while alive.

Last weekend, during the London Irish Film Festival, I saw Older than Ireland, a documentary film featuring Ireland’s centenarians. There are approximately 300 people in Ireland over 100 years of age. The film interviewed 30 of these. It is a gem. Largely driven by the interviewees themselves, the film is funny, moving, poignant, and real. The director Alex Fagan (who created the wonderful The Irish Pub a couple of years ago) joined for Q and A after the screening. Much of the film is hilarious, mainly as the centenarians speak so disarmingly freely and directly. They invite us to laugh as they share anecdotes and stories. This is a feel good movie, yet there is also a palpable sadness at times, and Fagan commented that most of the participants mentioned the loneliness of old age.

I have written previously here about The Lady in Number 6, another inspirational film that featured Alice Hertz Sommer at 109, a pianist and the oldest Holocaust survivor. I have also spoken about the loneliness of old age, exemplified by Timothy O’Grady’s I Could Read The Sky (both a book and a film), and Michael Haneke’s Amour, which celebrates the transcendence of love.

There are of course many more.

As life expectancy continues to increase generation on generation – by 2030 it is estimated that there will be four million people over 80 in the UK – it is good to see representation of this fact within the arts, particularly as the ‘older than old’ population is a relatively recent phenomenon and one with which we have little insight and experience to date. The arts are perfectly positioned for helping us understand and appreciate this experience, thus serving to pave the way for a welcoming of the elderly towards the centre rather than the periphery of our lives.