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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.’
‘The poems fizz with anger or black humour.’
Write Out Loud