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Changes Joy Month: Michael Rosen

Annie [00:00:04] Hello and welcome to Changes. My name is Annie Macmanus. We are in the middle of a whole month dedicated to Joy, and today's guest is a very special person whose words have been a source of joy and laughter for children and adults across the world for 50 years. Celebrated poet, author, professor and broadcaster Michael Rosen has written over 140 books, including the beloved award winning classic We're Going on a Bear Hunt. In 2023, he was awarded the prestigious Pen Pinter Prize for his ability to address the most serious matters of life in a spirit of joy, humour and hope. Michael himself has had to learn to find joy in the aftermath of huge personal tragedies. His son passed away suddenly from meningitis aged 18, and Michael has come close to losing his own life to Covid in 2020. In his latest book, Getting Better, Michael says "staying silly has always been important to me. It comes from the strong sense of the absurd. The way I see it, there really isn't much reason why we're on Earth. When we're focussed entirely on daily troubles and chores we don't notice it's all ultimately pointless, so why not try to look for fun while it lasts?". Michael, what a pleasure to have you on Changes. Thank you for being here.

Michael [00:01:17] Well, thanks for having me, Annie. Thank you.

Annie [00:01:19] What is joy to you?

Michael [00:01:21] Joy is that sensation, isn't it? When you feel elated, you feel happy, you've got a sense that you're smiling outside and inside, err you feel in some way or another, light. It's hard to describe as sometimes you have to describe it as being the opposite of something. Because we know that when we're fed up and we're down and we're depressed or we're anxious, upset, very sad, we have a sense of heaviness. There's something- maybe it might even be in our legs or as if somehow or other, our eyes are slightly fogged, or we have a sense of twitching. Any of those senses of unease, erm joy is almost the opposite of that, where we don't have any of those sensations and we feel almost as if we're floating. We could be sitting on the sofa or walking along or running or in a gym or somewhere like that, and you just have a sense of lightness and feeling that this moment, this very second is good.

Annie [00:02:21] You've written, as we've said, for all sorts of people, but so much of your work is for children. What do you get out of writing for children and performing for children and being with them?

Michael [00:02:31] Well, it happened more by kind of chance than me somehow or other working it out, that's what I wanted to do. I'd written some poems about myself as a child, and that interested me because I'd had a very happy, funny childhood and I thought, oh it'd be fun to write that down, and so I started doing it too. Then a book came out exactly 50 years ago, as we're talking now, in 1974 and I called it Mind Your Own Business Annie laughs. And suddenly I was being invited into schools and libraries and book festivals. And not only was I having fun talking about this stuff, but also I could see that children were having fun and I thought, oh, this is really weird. I'm talking about my very specific childhood from in the 40s and 50s, and here are these children in the 1970s and they think it's quite amusing and funny. And then I sort of found ways to perform it, if you like, a bit like a stand-up comedian. And I learnt that off a wonderful teacher called Sean McClean from the West of Ireland in a school called Princess Frederica in north west London, Kensal Rise.

Annie [00:03:41] It's half a mile from where I'm sitting right now.

Michael [00:03:43] Well, where you go! And the wonderful Sean McClean showed me that you could dance a poem. And this moment, it was absolutely transformational for me and it gave me pleasure and I could see the way Sean was performing for the children, gave them pleasure. Pleasure is both in your body and in your face, in your arms and your hands and your eyes, but also in what the children are doing. But that moment of contact is very, very special for me.

Annie [00:04:14] And is there something, with regards to joy, that you associate being around children and writing for children? I mean, when you think about joy and children, I suppose, and working for them, with them.

Michael [00:04:24] Yes, but you have to be a bit careful about that. Because obviously children don't express or feel joy all the time. Erm, -- everywhere they experience anxiety and sadness and troubles at the same time. The nice thing about joy is that, one way to look at it is it can be like a an island or an escape, or a moment where you don't have to think about things that trouble you and bother you. So there is that sense that there's a moment of relief. You know, we seek out moments of relief, whether that's relief from hunger or, you know, if we're going swimming, that might be a way of, you know, relieving tension. So Joy can have that sense of relief and release and also a way of not being in the unhappy place or the troubled place. So that's important. You know, we do want these moments where we're not beset with things. So it's nice to be that person who arrives in a school or at a festival somewhere, and then people are there for about an hour. There's this moment of elation in a room. And I just think, well, this is great for this moment. This moment is good. Yeah. Hurrah for that!

Annie [00:05:37] What kind of child were you?

Michael [00:05:40] I was err, quite a happy child. I was actually the third in line. My parents had lost a child between me and my brother, not that I knew that before I reached the age of 11. I think my mum treated me very much as the child who came after. Now I look back at it, she was very protective, very kind, and my parents were fantastic believers in comedy in the sense of absurd. They loved laughing, telling stories, singing songs, telling jokes, seeking out people who were like that themselves and bringing them into the house to have meals and to stay over. Us going on long camping holidays that were full of weird and strange adventures, which they then turned into fables and storytelling.

Annie [00:06:26] And how did you find things like school and that kind of business?

Michael [00:06:30] I'm afraid at secondary school I was one of those people that teachers really, really, really hate. I was quite good at school, but I mucked about. I was just irrepressible. There was nothing they could do to get me to basically behave as they would put it. I was talking, joking, taking the mickey, getting into a group of guys who were very similar. They invented a kid called Furd. F u r d, they invented him. So that if ever any of us got into trouble, we used to say Furd. So they'd say, 'what's your name, boy?' 'Furd, 4C' and then of course, you would get a detention. But then you didn't attend the detention because Furd didn't exist, so then Furd's name would be read out in assembly, and then a whole group of us would go 'hooray!' like this. Now this is completely nuts and quite juvenile, as you might expect, because we are talking about 14 year olds. But of course, in its own way it's wonderful, isn't it? We invented somebody-

Annie [00:07:30] There's creativity to it, yeah. It's creative.

Michael [00:07:32] Exactly. We invented somebody who didn't exist and then this institution of discipline and the school in all its attempt to laughs keep order and the rest of it, utterly undermined by the fact that his name was read out in assembly Annie laughs. I mean, we regarded that as like a major victory. So it was a nightmare for the school, but very, very funny for us.

Annie [00:07:54] Your book Getting Better, I absolutely loved it. It's kind of part memoir, part guide, but not a How-To, you're very insistent on that, just how you have experienced some of the, some of the biggest changes actually, in your life. And one of the things that you mentioned with regards to what has helped you and which we touched on in the intro, is play. And just talking about kids and what you're referring to there, I wanted to ask you about play and joy and kind of, I suppose, where you think you get your sense of fun and silliness and the absurd from? And also, can anyone have that? You know, for anyone who's listening, can you just easily access something like that or does it have to be something that's inherent in you?

Michael [00:08:35] I think it's easily accessed and people who like stand up comedy, and that's very nearly all of us, if you listen to stand up comedians and just sort of sit back for a moment and watch yourself watching them, you'll see that quite a lot of what we get attracted to with stand up comedy, is the absurdity they point out. You know, if you think of somebody like Peter Kay, you know, he does that little thing, doesn't he? I won't do it in his accent because I can't but anyway, when he says, 'what's that all about?!' Annie laughs. Now when he does that he's actually saying, why do us, why do we, we human beings, why do we do this thing? Why do we say this thing? You know, there's that thing he does, for example, where he says 'have you noticed the kids at weddings, they do sliding' and then he does it. He takes his great frame, and then he rushes across the stage, throws himself to his knees and slides across the stage, and the whole audience cheers. What are they doing? Why is the audience cheering this adult bloke sliding across the stage like a, let's say, a nine year old boy at a wedding? Because we sense laughing how absurd it is. Why would a child do this? But we know that's what they do because weddings are boring. You go to the reception, people are standing around telling absolutely appalling, boring stories about who they met and how hard it was to get there and they were on A413, and kids do a thing that excites them- we talk about joy, they get the fun, they get their own joy hormones going by running about and getting excited and red and sweaty and all that, and then they go sliding because you can't slide at home, you can slide in a great big hall Annie laughs. So he shows us that.

Annie [00:10:14] Yeah.

Michael [00:10:14] And he shows it and we take the joy in that. So in a way, that aspect of finding the fun in the everyday, we see in stand up comedians. And they do it, they do it very well but we can do it as well, and we can do it in a whole variety of ways. We can do it through just talking and chatting and gossiping. We can do it by scribbling things down. We can do it just by making a space in our head and thinking about it. We can go onto social media and say, 'heya, guess what? You never- you'll never guess what happened to me yesterday', and then tell each other these absurd stories which I often see on social media. And, and we can also, if we want, explore these things in other ways, we can join classes of all sorts- in all sorts of classes, like dance or pottery and even gardening. You could be absurd in the way you garden, you can be very ordered. Or cooking, you can be totally ordered and do it the way it is and then think, oh well I'll throw this into it.

Annie [00:11:13] Yeah. I guess, like with regards to play and the absurd and all of that, that it feels like there needs to be a kind of readiness to laugh. There's a choice, I suppose, you can make at a certain point, like if you're with your kids or you're with someone and you're trying to make something and it all goes terribly wrong, you can choose to be cross because it hasn't gone to plan, or you can choose to embrace the absurd and just go with the wrongness of it. And I think that kind of choice is really interesting because I've found personally that the more stressed you are, or the more burdens you have, or the more burdens you feel you have, the less likely you are to be ready to laugh. And it's kind of how do you, and the people listening, like, allow for the laughter? How do we choose the absurd as opposed to the, the kind of crossness of a situation? Or just choose to- it's kind of, there's a looseness to it, isn't it? There's a kind of looseness to being silly.

Michael [00:12:08] Yes. Well, we are easily stressed. We are easily made angry. We are easily troubled. The world is not a very easy place.

Annie [00:12:18] Yeah.

Michael [00:12:18] But as I say, if you focus on the fact that the actual core of the human condition is utterly absurd... We don't really know why we're here. I mean, I'm not a religious person but even religious people, you know, you say well, we're here for a certain destiny and there is a certain overall view. But actually, in the day to day, it's very hard to imagine that the, the purpose of the divine is that I should empty the dishwasher every day because I emptied it the day before. Why should I empty it again today? You know, why should I keep having a bath? I mean, how absurd is that? In fact, that was noticed by a famous classical Japanese poet maybe 500 years ago. He said 'one bath after another, how absurd'. Basho, I think his name was. So, you know, the absurdity of human existence, you know, Groundhog Day, what is that if it isn't a joy, if you like, in how absurd it is. We do the same thing every day. So if we can emphasis pivot, oooh I do like that.

Annie [00:13:23] Ooh I love, I love the word pivot. Great word.

Michael [00:13:25] Yeah, you like pivot? Yeah, I like pivot. So if we pivot, and if somehow or other, instead of looking in on our troubles, stress, anxieties and deep mourning, obviously on occasions if that happens to you, if we could pivot and find that core absurdity in 'what are we doing here?' you know, there is no more purpose of us being here, I would argue, than an amoeba or a hedgehog. But we are here and we have these ups and downs in our lives, but what we can do in order to get through it, make it worthwhile, one of the ways is to find that, find that absurdity. I mean, go back to Furd. I mean, dear old Furd, 4C. The idea of existing-not-existing is at the heart of a lot of these wonderful absurdities. I wrote a little poem 'down behind the dustbin I met a dog called Jim. He didn't know me and I didn't know... Dave'. No, I always got that wrong Annie laughs. 'Down behind the dustbin I met a dog called Jim. He didn't know me and I didn't know him. Well, if he didn't know me and I didn't know him, then how did I know his name was Jim?' Yes, lovely little contradiction there. So these laughs these things about why we're here and how we're here, they're a great source for joy and for fun, particularly at these moments of stress and so on where it might be nice to get away from them.

[00:14:53] Short musical interlude

Annie [00:15:03] You have had your fair share of great stress and deep mourning, as you have said- err mentioned earlier. Which brings us on to the biggest change you went through as an adult, Michael. Can you tell us about that, please?

Michael [00:15:16] So, what happened in 1999 was that my son, who then was nearly 19, he said that he was ill, I came home from actually doing a gig where I was making children laugh a lot, in part telling stories about Eddie and how funny he was as a boy and erm, he said that he had something that felt- sounded and felt a bit like flu. And to cut a long story short, I put him to bed, made sure he had paracetamol and ibuprofen and so on and in the morning he was dead. And what he had had was meningitis, or the version of meningitis which is called meningococcal septicaemia, tends to get called sepsis I think these days.

Annie [00:16:02] Mmmhm.

Michael [00:16:02] Meaning that the meningitis bacterium had entered his bloodstream. And there it multiplies fantastically fast and basically destroys the walls, the membranes of every cell it comes across in the body. So in the words of the doctor, your body turns to mush. And so he had died in the space of what felt like about 5 or 6 hours. And of course, this was a terrible, terrible trauma for me. I, I mean, I haven't really got over it. I mean, it's the wrong word to use. You don't. You find a place in your mind where you can be less in pain... I was going to say at ease with but I wouldn't say it's really at ease, it's just that, you know, in telling this story, I don't feel in pain as I tell it in the way that I would have done, you know, at the time. So you find a way to position it, to place it where it can't harm you. I know it's a funny way to describe it, but-

Annie [00:17:08] No, not at all.

Michael [00:17:08] The unhappy thing or moment can sit in your mind and be somewhere or another something that- you feel as if it's hurting you. It isn't because it's your mind doing it, but you can somehow feel that way. And now I'm in a position where it doesn't hurt me in quite that way. Can do, every now and then I had a surprise- a few weeks ago, I was invited to a school in London's East End and one of the erm, assistant teachers, she came up to me and she said 'I was in the same class as Eddie at school'.

Annie [00:17:46] Wow.

Michael [00:17:47] And, of course, that was lovely and there was no problem. And then she said, and I've got a photo, and she pulled out a photograph of her in the class, and it wasn't a formal class photo. If it had been a formal class photo, I'd have been fine. But what happened was it was- the class, most of the class was sitting about on the steps of the school, Columbia Primary in the East End, and you had the steps leading into the door, and they were sort of lolling about on the banister, and Eddie was sitting on the top there and he was doing a funny thing, he was showing the soles of his feet out to the camera. And he had a kind of curious but trusting face that I'm describing to you that I just found very, very typical of the way he was, that he loved to be curious, but he was very trusting as a child. And that immediately hurt. That immediately hurt because I saw in the trust in his face that he trusted me- I'm going to find this difficult to say now, that he trusted me and would have trusted me to look after him, and I wasn't able to. That I had looked after him for the previous, nearly 19 years, pretty well. I'd made some mistakes, I know, but I had done okay. And here was this moment when I sort of thought he was flying, he was on his own, he wasn't living with me all the time anyway, he was often living with his girlfriend. And so it was a bit of a coincidence, even, that he was at home. And he'd obviously trusted me and thought, oh well Dad can look after me as I'm not feeling very well. And, you know, there I was dosing him up with paracetamol and putting him to bed and, you know, wiping his head with a cold flannel, but I hadn't. That's what I feel. And so to look at his picture suddenly like that, it was thrown at me by this kind woman, she was being lovely, she was saying, you know, here he is. I was utterly overwhelmed inside by this huge rush of feeling. And then two minutes later, I had to stand up in front of 300 children and tell them jokes and stories.

Annie [00:19:54] Did you manage to?

Michael [00:19:55] I did, I did. Every now and then the picture would flash up in my mind, and then I would lay it to one side and do Down Behind The Dustbin or another funny story about me getting up in the middle of the night and getting chocolate cake and things like that. And then afterwards- well, no, in fact I think the woman had given me the picture or sent it to me I think on err, digital, digitally. And then I sent it round to the family and we all kind of looked at it and sent each other comments and so on. But there's an example of how you can be safe, and I have made it safe mostly, but there and then in that split second, I wasn't safe and it was no point pretending I was either. Ermm, and shouldn't. But err, yes, so that's how it sits in my mind now. And I guess that's because I've done many, many things to help myself in the years, nearly 25 years since he died, whether it's playing games, whether it's talking with the family, whether it's erm, having our annual reunion hockey match. Eddie played in goal for the Arsenal Community Sports hockey team, and every year they hold a, a hockey match in his memory which is always fantastic fun and very daft and people play silly games and they're all getting a bit older and they bring along their kids, and it's a great, fun, heroic sort of festival, if you like, to do with Eddie and these kinds of things they, they last, you know, it isn't just the moment which is lovely, they last and the fact that all those guys cared for him and liked him and loved playing with him and so on, that matters a lot. And his wonderful coach, dear Freddie, Freddie Hudson from Arsenal, head of community sports at Arsenal, he's been a fantastic, kind person who's reached out to me over this whole business in a wonderful way and supported me and they've even put a picture of me and Eddie up on the Arsenal mural outside the ground. If you go to Arsenal, and obviously you may not support Arsenal, but if you do ever go to Arsenal football ground and you ever walk past that wonderful mural, then you'll see, there not far from a funny little dinosaur called Gunner Saurus, you'll see a picture of me, and next to me is dear Eddie.

Annie [00:22:18] You mention Eddie being curious, which is something that you are also very much, and it comes through the whole time in the book, and you talk about that as a way of coping, actually. And it's something that helped you, after Eddie died, was the curiosity of finding out the real, the kind of real root, the biology of what happened to his body and his brain. Can you tell me about how curiosity, I suppose, helped you in those moments?

Michael [00:22:45] Yes. I mean, everyone has to approach death in their own way, and for me, I wanted to feel and know that it wasn't something mystical, that it wasn't something that he had been sort of grabbed by fate or through some misdeed. And I thought, well, I want- I want to know what doctors know. And so I spent quite a lot of time doing that, and it was a huge relief to me. I also actually wanted to know, did he know he was dying?

Annie [00:23:15] Yeah.

Michael [00:23:16] And the doctors were able to tell me absolutely not. And that was, in a way, a relief to me that as he fell asleep, he wouldn't have known that he was dying. His body, as it were, 'knew', I put that in inverted commas, that his body was being unable to support life, but he wouldn't have known that and that's a relief to me. And this may seem like a huge jump, but there was a moment when I got Covid when I was being asked whether I would sign a piece of paper that would let the doctors put me into a coma, or as they put it, put me to sleep, so that my body could have a go at defeating the Covid virus itself you see so they said, will you sign this piece of paper to allow us to put you to sleep? So I said straight away, will I wake up?

Annie [00:24:11] Yeah.

Michael [00:24:12] And the doctor said, you've got a 50/50 chance. And I said, if I don't sign? He said, zero Annie sniggers. Now, in that moment I thought two things very, very quickly. One was 50/50, that sounds quite good. Why I thought that I've no idea laughs erm it's absurd of course, because it's not very good is it? 50/50. But anyway, I did think that. And it may be because I was suffering from hypoxia, in other words, short of oxygen and that makes you, you know, kind of high in a sort of way so- and the other thought was, if I'm asleep I won't know that I'm dying so it doesn't make any difference anyway. So I did actually have that thought and I thought of Eddie. I thought at that very moment, Eddie didn't know because he was asleep and that was a relief to me, and so it was a relief to me in that moment when I said, eyy, yeah, I'll sign. Because I thought well I won't know anything about it. Boom, gone.

Annie [00:25:09] Was there ever any thoughts, I mean, you say you weren't religious erm, about the idea of being with Eddie again in some spiritual realm? You know, if you did die.

Michael [00:25:21] I don't think that rationally. I don't think there is a place where I'll meet up with Eddie again. Err, no sadly, stutters I'm sad about it that I don't believe that. And I don't. But at the same time, I do have a sense that our existence on earth is that we have this living thing that me and you are doing now.

Annie [00:25:48] Yeah.

Michael [00:25:48] And that death is a presence amongst the living. So that's slightly different from people's understandings of the afterlife. That's to say, if you go to a cemetery, you are in the presence of the dead. If you are in a family and you start talking about somebody who died, that's because all of you have got a bit of that person in your head. So there is a way in which death is with us and amongst us. And so I suppose there's a part of me that thinks that when I die, I will be in that existence, how it exists in the minds of others. I will exist in the minds of others, people who knew me, and so on. And that if they go somewhere, whether I'm in a cemetery or whether whatever, that they are in the presence, in the- sighs I would call it the land of the dead, I shouldn't really but somehow or other in that place that we have because death sits amongst us. So that's how I see it. It's different from people who believe in an afterlife. It's nothing to do with an afterlife, if anything it's almost the opposite it's actually about the present. Instead of 'the afterlife' it's the the present death, which some people find quite awkward and difficult because they'd rather not think about death, you know, where's the joy in death? In fact, there's another old song isn't there? 'Oh death where is thy sting a ling a ling?' if you know the works of Brendan Behan.

Annie [00:27:28] I love Brendan Behan.

Michael [00:27:28] Yes! Well it gets sung in one of his- one of his plays, sings 'oh death where is thy sting a ling a ling... duhduhdumdum dah'. Anyway, ermm-

Annie [00:27:36] What you're saying, Michael, reminds me of this quote that I used in one of my novels, it's a Seamus Heaney quote, can I read it out to you?

Michael [00:27:41] Please do, because he wrote that wonderful poem about his brother dying.

Annie [00:27:45] Well, this, this is actually not from any of his work, it's from an interview, that I found it. 'I'm not personally obsessed with death. At a certain age, the light that you live in is inhabited by the shades. I'm very conscious that people dear to me are alive in my imagination. These people are with me. It's just a stage of your life when the death of people doesn't banish them out of your consciousness, they're part of the light in your head'.

Michael [00:28:07] Utterly, totally. Yes. And he could speak from the experience of losing his brother. I think it's called something like Breaktime or something like that. It's when the head, his head teacher, called him out and took him to-

Annie [00:28:21] Oh, yeah.

Michael [00:28:22] Study and told him that his brother had died. And it is a beautiful, fantastic poem. I've got- had great relief from reading it that somebody, you know, had a similar experience to me. And of course, people listening will be able to describe the loss of brothers, sisters, children, parents, grandparents and so on. Of course, we all have that experience and we can get great relief from finding that common point, that commonality between us. And Seamus, the famous Seamus was wonderful at doing that. And particularly as it happens in that very poem, and there he is expressing it. It's the light. Yes, that's right. It's the light we share. It's it's that presence. We so often think of death as being non present, not being there but in actual fact it sits with us you know, anybody listening to this will know of somebody who died and that person is existing in their head. You know, it is one of the most extraordinary things.

[00:29:27] Short musical interlude

Annie [00:29:36] Michael, talking about the grief that you felt after Eddie died and relating that to Joy, I suppose was there a point when you realised that you had to purposefully go and seek those feelings, you know, of getting better and of striving for joy? And if there was, what did that look like?

Michael [00:29:55] I think I fell upon it, err not purely by chance. I mean, I have a reflex and I think you do too, which is when there are things that matter to you one of the responses that I have is to write, and it may be in a fiction form, it may- in other words a story, or it may be a poem, or it may be just a funny little jotting even, not even to dignify it with the word poem. To start off with, I couldn't really do that when Eddie died, it almost felt like his death was too important to somehow or other reduced to words on the page. So I couldn't do what Seamus Heaney did. And I just sort of thought, no, no, that writing stuff I do that's got- that silly stuff or its story stuff. And then my wife and I, I think it was her actually, she came across a poem by Raymond Carver about a man being locked out of his study. So it's an American house, so it's got a what we would call a veranda and what Americans call a porch. And so he can walk along the porch and look in through the window and, of course, he's not in his own study. And so he writes about it, and he writes about it in a very plain, laid back sort of a way, at least to start off with until it builds to him wondering about the things that he had done in his life and that he'd got wrong and the people he had harmed. But it starts off by just him looking at himself and him not being there. And of course, it is in its own way, a contemplation of his own death. And reading this with my wife, with Emma, it suddenly freed me to be able to just jot down some things about Eddie because he wasn't there. And so I just started jotting. And that was a way, it may not sound like it to some people but it was a way of playing with my feelings and with my thoughts, and it had been stimulated thereby, by this poem.

Annie [00:32:02] I mean, one of the beautiful things about this book is how you talk about writing and what it can do for us, not just people who are aspiring writers or professional writers, just anyone, anyone who's, you know, sentient being. You know, if you pick up a pen and you write, it can, it can change you quite profoundly and change how you see yourself. Can you help explain that, Michael? How does writing bring joy, I suppose?

Michael [00:32:31] One of the great things that education gives us is the ability to write in sentences. Sometimes writing in sentences is not a help. Sometimes we have to find another way of writing. When I was in hospital, I noticed that doctors and nurses were coming to my bedside and they kept saying the same thing. They kept saying, 'you know, Michael, you were very poorly'. Then they went off and then another one came and would go, 'you know, Michael, you were very poorly'. So that phrase, 'very poorly' sat in my mind because they were repeating, and I probably heard it 20 or 30 times. And of course, in a way, it's a euphemism.

Annie [00:33:09] Biggest understatement of the year!

Michael [00:33:11] Well indeed, they were saying, I tell you what brother, you were at death's door,  you virtually died, you were about to kick the bucket. You know, you were on the way out. You were about to check out. All these other phrases, but they were using the phrase 'you were very poorly' and of course, I-

Annie [00:33:26] To me poorly I think is like a runny nose or a cold, you know?

Michael [00:33:28] Yeah, exactly. And of course, I started to find it funny. So- that these people were nodding so gravely and saying 'you were very poorly, you see'. I just wrote down 'very poorly', and then I wrote underneath it, 'that's what they say to me'. Well, when you write in these phrases and half sentences or even whole sentences and start a new line, it enables you to think in another way. You can think according to the flow of feeling. You don't have to make things logically flow from one thing to ano- and it doesn't have to be logical. We've invented all these words like when, where, although, because - they are part of the logic of sentence writing and that's great.

Annie [00:34:09] Yeah.

Michael [00:34:10] And sometimes we need to, but at other times we might just want to blurt. It's another word I use is 'unfold' your thoughts and feelings.

Annie [00:34:16] Yes, I love that, unfolding.

Michael [00:34:18] So you put down that thought, then you just put the next one underneath like you're unfolding a sheet. That's a nice way of writing and some people might find that a relief. You sometimes can write lists of things because sometimes we exist with lists of things, lists of feelings, or lists of things that people have said to us. So it might be lists of words or expressions that you've heard people use, lists of thoughts that came into your head, lists of things that you've seen on a journey that make that remind you of things.

Annie [00:34:53] Yeah. You give so many reasons how writing can make you feel better. I'm going to read a quote from your own book. So, this is from the book Getting Better, 'remember the blank page is your friend. It doesn't laugh at you. It doesn't sneer at you. It doesn't say that you're no good. It just takes what you write. It's just there for you. And when you write on the blank page, what you've written is there for you to look at and think about. And if you want to, then you can share it. And that's a bit different from sharing something just by talking to a person. If you write something and share it, you're sharing something you've unfolded onto a page, making it into a shape. It's you, but in a way it's not you because now it's out there separate from you'. That's the magic!

Michael [00:35:35] Yes. That's right. You see, we don't fully know what thought is, but a lot of it is in language, some of it is in just feeling and sensation and we mix these things up in ways that are quite curious to ourselves. And the great thing about writing is that you can look at it and go, blimey, did I think that? Do I really think that? Am I really that daft? Am I really that- you know, I just watched the other night, Dawn French doing her kind of Twat show.

Annie [00:36:02] Oh, yeah.

Michael [00:36:03] Now what she's doing there, it's very interesting, she's saying basically, you know what? We all have this feeling don't we, that sometimes we were just really daft. We did something really twatish, as she calls it, and we hold these ideas in our head. We're quite often ashamed of them. She even describes how she's ashamed of it. And then what does she do? She gets it outside of herself, puts it on display and shares it with other people. And I know one of the things that does for her is it makes her feel less twatish because people laugh and share it, and she doesn't feel so bad about it.

Annie [00:36:38] And also less alone, right?

Michael [00:36:40] Exactly.

Annie [00:36:40] Yeah, yeah.

Michael [00:36:43] But also she's put it out there and she's able to contemplate just what kind of a twat she was Annie laughing, was she really daft or could she have done something different? So she can turn it over, she can think about it. Well, in a way, a lot of writing can be like that for you, for us. And you can change it. If you want to, you can run a fantasy where you didn't behave like that, or you can run a fantasy where you wish you behaved like in a certain way. Or you can try to be, authentic is a word I use. You can try and be as true, as true, as true as is possible to be to that moment. What did you say? What did you do? What did you think? What did you feel? And you don't have to burden yourself with the concerns of what anybody else will think about it.

[00:37:28] Short musical interlude

Annie [00:37:37] I need to ask you the last question, and you need to quickly tell us, because we've referred to it a few times, about what happened to you in 2020. So, the change you'd still like to see in the world, you talk about the NHS and was it flourishing, I think you used the word?

Michael [00:37:54] Yes! I mean, the NHS did a miracle to me. They saved my life. So I went in, in a very, very bad state. They turned me around for a few days but then I dipped again and luckily I was in hospital when I did dip again. And so they put me in what's called an induced coma. And then I was looked after because I couldn't look after myself for more than 40 days in that induced coma. So they were doing everything for me, yes. They were feeding me, they're giving me medicines, they're dealing with my waste products. They're doing-

Annie [00:38:29] They were singing you happy birthday!

Michael [00:38:31] Shaving me, singing me happy birthday, as you say, yes indeed. Doing everything. Holding my hand. Telling me stories, talking to me, writing a diary of what I was doing and what they were doing for me. And then, mysteriously, I was able to wake up because when you're in a coma for that long, you may not necessarily wake up. But with the help of Emma, who came in and helped my hand and played recordings of our children in my ear, somehow or other I came out of that coma, because they had stopped the meds you see, they'd stopped giving me the medication but I hadn't woken up. And that's always a big worry, because they give you those meds to get better, I'd seemingly defeated the Covid virus but I hadn't woken up. And then they put me back together again because I was so deconditioned, that's the word they used, that I couldn't stand up, I couldn't walk, and I went to a rehab hospital and in three weeks they taught me how to walk! What they did for me, for three months, I can't put into words. I get a bit overcome, to tell you the truth, because it's so much. So to me, this is, you know, human behaviour at its best. It's social, it's caring, it's full of thought, experience, education, sympathy, compassion, teamwork. And for me, this is fantastic. I fear that what's happening to the NHS is not good. There's not enough money going into it. The people working in it are not being paid enough. And there's all sorts of ways of trying- of the government trying to hive off bits of it, privatising it. I would love to see anybody, anything, any authority, any government helping in any way that's possible, helping the NHS to flourish. That is something that matters to me enormously.

Annie [00:40:24] What did you learn about your body after that incredible thing that it went through? You know, you got to the threshold of death, basically, maybe even passed it for all you know and came back. Now you're living in your body again, you've had to learn all over again how to walk and how to be in it, I suppose. What have you learned about your body in relationship to joy? How those things are related, the physical and joy, and how you can make yourself feel better in your body?

Michael [00:40:51] Well, it's the theme of today, isn't it? It's changes because there's the body and mind, the mind and body of me before I'm ill, then there's the mind and body of me being ill, and then there's the mind and body of me after I'm ill. So there's three states of being. So I've become acutely aware, and it's almost every day, every hour, every minute, that there are these three states of being somehow or other in me, in my mind. Now, this is huge because you have to somehow or other come to terms with it, explain it, describe it to yourself. Now, one way is to be terribly serious, as I am now being quite serious about it. Or of course, it's actually quite daft and quite crazy. And so this idea of change is, it can be can be funny and extraordinary. And so, that's also, I explore that in my mind as I go about and I think how funny it is that I'm sort of stumbling into the table because Covid damaged my left eye and left ear. I'm a bit wonky. Well, wonkiness is, in its own way quite funny. You know, kids talk about wonky donkey. Well, it's sort of a bit like that. I kind of walk into the table and people around the family go, 'hey! Look, dad's walked in to the table again' Annie laughs. So, you know, it's possible through these changes, and they are, to find the, the funniness, the absurdity, the humour in them, even as they are in their own way, traumatic. We always think of trauma as being a source of unhappiness, but trauma can actually, in its own way, be the source of humour too.

Annie [00:42:27] What are your intentions, if any, for the rest of your life with regards to how to live the best you can live?

Michael [00:42:35] I have no real intentions for the rest of my life, as such, I have intentions for the next minute, the next hour and maybe for tomorrow.

Annie [00:42:43] Okay.

Michael [00:42:43] And I gather that once you're in tomorrow, usually there's another tomorrow unless you die, you see? So you can work on the basis of living for today but in the knowledge that there'll be tomorrow, at least the hope there will be tomorrow. So I travel in hope. I think that's probably best to do it because if you travel in despair, then you get to the end and all you have is despair which seems a bit of a shame because despair, it's very difficult to enjoy despair. So I always think that if you travel in hope, you travel in a good mood, you travel and you can enjoy things. So though, as I've said before today, that all this seems absurd and there is no end or reward point in my life, in my cosmos. I think well, make the most of it. But of course, though, if you die the following minute, then you have made the most of it for the rest of your life. There we are, there's a a jolly thought Annie laughs Laughs I'm glad it's made you laugh. Yes, good.

Annie [00:43:45] Michael, I thought it would be nice to end the episode today with a poem that for you, relates to joy or the feeling of joy. I believe you have one for us?

Michael [00:43:55] Here we go. Performatively Hands on the bridge, feel the rhythm of the train. Hands on the window, feel the rhythm of the rain. Hands on your throat, feel the rhythm of your talk. Hands on your leg, feel the rhythm of your walk. Hands in the sea, feel the rhythm of the tide. Hands on your heart, feel the rhythm inside. Hands on the rhythm, feel the rhythm of the rhyme. Hands on your life, feel the rhythm of time.

Annie [00:44:21] Ahh, what a beautiful poem. Thank you so much, Michael.

Michael [00:44:26] Thank you!

Annie [00:44:29] We put a link to Michael's book on our show notes. It's a very beautiful read. It's one of those books you'll want to give to anyone you know who has gone through grief or is going through grief. It's called Getting Better: Life Lessons on Going Under, Getting Over It and Getting Through It. Also, I want to hear from you! Give me your thoughts on joy in general, in your life. What brings you joy? Have you changed your opinion? Have you changed your approach to joy and accessing joy and maintaining joy in your life upon hearing any of these episodes? I'd love to hear from you. That's where you can go. Send us an email or a voice note. Thank you, as ever, for listening. Please subscribe to the podcast if you get a chance. Share the episodes around your mates, your family, and we'll be back next week with our final episode of Joy January. Changes is produced by Louise Mason with asistant production from Anna Dewolfe Evans. We'll see you next Monday!