The Advantages of Nearly Dying

Michael Rosen was dangerously ill from COVID at the beginning of 2020 and as doctors told him, if he hadn’t received treatment, he would have ‘gone’. While he was in hospital, 42% of the patients on his intensive care ward died. He spent three months in hospital, of which nearly seven weeks were in an induced coma, followed by several weeks recovering in an ordinary ward and then in a Rehabilitation Hospital. He couldn’t walk and his memory was damaged. Three years later his hearing and eyesight are still badly affected (‘I can’t hear with my left eye, I can’t see with my left ear and I get muddled’). Following his best-selling COVID memoirs Many Different Kinds of Love: a story of life, death and the NHS and Sticky McStickstick: the friend who helped me walk again, his new collection for grown-ups records his bewilderment with what’s happened, and shares his thoughts about the politics of the pandemic – the ‘crazed incompetence’ of the Tory government and the war against the ‘Oldies’ that led to over 200,000 dead in the UK. Unforgiving, whimsical, grim, warm, philosophical and comical, The Advantages of Nearly Dying is a book about hospital appointments, waiting-rooms, blood-tests, brain-scans, eye-tests – and a song of praise for the NHS.

Front cover: David Levene/Guardian/eyevine

Sample Poems


I wander about the streets of Muswell Hill.
People see me.
They say
‘You’re alive!’
I say,
‘Am I?
How do you know?’
I think, 
how DO I know?
How can I be sure?
Maybe I’m a ghost.
A Jewish ghost.
A Jewish ghost is called a ‘dybbuk’.
They wander about haunting people.
I’m The Dybbuk of Muswell Hill.

The thing is
I tried to die
and they wouldn’t let me.
So I’m probably alive. 


I had microbleeds in my brain.
So now I can’t hear with my left eye
I can’t see with my left ear
and I get muddled.

The Brain Hospital

At the Brain Hospital
they gave me a Cognitive Functioning Test.
The first question was:
‘What is the name of the Prime Minister?’
I said, ‘I know it, but do I have to say?’


They talked of ‘underlying health problems’: 
Covid-19 was not really something  
to be too bothered about  
unless you had these underlying health problems. 
As people with underlying health problems 
were going to die soon 
(they seemed to be saying) 
then we really shouldn’t get too bothered 
about Covid.  
We were given a picture  
of perhaps just a few people 
at death’s door with terminal cancer 
and the like. 
And these people aren’t your loved ones 
and they aren’t you 
so relax. 
Ignore them 
and ignore Covid. 

But the phrase didn’t just refer  
to people like this.  
All sorts of people were 
more likely to be affected by Covid: 
a whole raft of possible susceptibilities. 
And it’s even affected some  
who didn’t seem to have any  
underlying health problem.  
Young women who run marathons 
cropped up in the newspapers, 
their lives massively altered by Covid, 
struggling to climb stairs. 

Talking of underlying health problems 
was a way of dismissing Covid  
as not really a problem for all of us. 
Or more: 
it was handy for 
blaming people for getting Covid. 
Covid was no longer a problem  
for all of us. 
It was just a problem  
for near-dead people, 
their lives thankfully shortened.  
In fact 
we all have underlying health problems 
at some time or another. 
Underlying health problems is us. 
Life is an underlying health problem.

The Vicious Narrative

The vicious narrative is the one  
that leaves us saying,  
'What did I do wrong to have got Covid?'  
rather than,  
'what did the government not do that meant that I got Covid?’


thanks to Kevin Ovenden

a government of not protecting us

a government of experimenting with its population

a government of putting profit before people

a government of toying with the idea of ‘herd immunity’ without vaccination

a government of knowing that herd immunity without vaccination inevitably necessitates the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people

a government of knowing how little they knew about how Covid-19 works and that how it might spread, mutate, reinfect were unknowns and therefore any idea of ‘letting it rip’ was lethal and fatal to thousands of people

a government of refusing to listen to World Health Organisation guidelines issued from February 2020

a government of dishing out contracts to friends and supporters to provide services and equipment

a government that turned away from the local public health bodies that were best placed to run services

a government that has not provided and is still not able to provide a proper test-trace-isolate system which could and would protect more of its citizens

a government that decanted thousands of old people out of hospitals into care homes without them being tested, resulting in tens and thousands of deaths

a government of failing in early March to issue strict guidelines about social distancing, mask-wearing and hand-washing

a government of underfunding the NHS for ten years prior to the pandemic so that it was not sufficiently equipped to cope with the emergency

a small group of scientists of peddling the idea of ‘herd immunity’ without vaccination as a viable and ethical policy even though they knew that it necessitated the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people

journalists and commentators in major papers and news outlets peddling the idea that people over 70 were or are superfluous, unworthy of saving, who, if dead, would help the economy by not existing

journalists and commentators for helping to provide a seed-bed for what is in effect a form of creeping fascism, that a whole section of the population can be dispensed with for what is deemed to be a greater good.


In the Rehab Hospital
I tried very hard to be happy. 
This Covid has hit me bad, I thought
but these people are trying to make me better.

One time
Emma and the kids
sat with me outside in the garden
and I told them I was doing OK. 
We laughed in the sun.

She explained to me 
that I had been in a coma.
You were in a coma for forty days, 
she said,
they put you in a coma,
she said.
I said yes.

The next time they came,
a week later,
Emma told it to me again.
Was I? I said.
Yes, she said, I told you. 
Yes, I said, as if I remembered. 

I thought about Covid.
That was the bit I understood.
I knew I had had Covid.
That was why I couldn’t walk
I thought,
but I was learning to walk
and I was doing OK
I thought. 
Now, 18 months later
I see me back then
trying hard to be happy
but inside there were dark corners
where I was afraid that I had fallen apart:
the man who forgets yesterday.

I know now 
that I couldn’t walk
because I had been in the coma
for all that time.

If I want to confuse myself –
terrify myself even – 
I try to remember
what it was like in that time
when I didn’t know 
that I had been in the coma.

I try to remember the next bit: 
the feeling of not understanding
what Emma told me
and not remembering
what Emma told me.
And the next bit after that:  
the long blank 
where all I know is the word 
‘coma’ but not the coma itself; 
the long emptiness
the long muddle;
and it feels pathetic
that I tried so hard to be happy. 

Sonnet for Anne Frank

Since you took us into that attic space
no room under the eaves has been the same.
Wherever we go – our homes or others
whenever we dip and duck under beams
you are in the shadows, writing pages
laughing, crying, eating, daring to love
imagining a better world than yours
How you wrote leads us to think we know you.

You compressed so much life into that loft
which we pore over and love you for it
yet the real world – not the one you imagined
didn’t allow you to live and write anymore.
Each time we read, we struggle to enjoy 
your love of life while knowing how it ended.

If They Want To

There is a man on Newsnight
saying that the situation with refugees now
is different from when the UN drew up
its charter on refugee at the end of the 
Second World War.
What could he have meant?

I switch channels.
The debate shifts to ‘criminal gangs’.
Politicians who want to sound ethical
go on and on about criminal gangs.
The ethical thing to do with refugees is
to help them. 
They could also make sure that they 
don’t bomb other countries. 
And they could stop supplying arms
to governments that bomb other countries.
That is, if they really do want to save lives.

At the end of WW2,
the government hired boats
and brought the soldiers and thousands of refugees
who were them, to Britain. 
Amongst them was my father’s cousin.
They were put into Polish Resettlement Camps,
all over Britain.
I’m not saying it was perfect.
I’m not saying it was ideal.
There was all sorts of xenophobic 
and racist stuff swirling about
but it remind us of what governments can do
if they want to. 


‘an inspiring record of someone struggling through an ordeal and finding a way to live a different life. It speaks as well to the rest of us about courage and how to carry on fighting.’

Morning Star

‘The poems fizz with anger or black humour.’

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