A photo of Michael Rosen in profile, against a grey background

‘Stories are a way of laughing at death’: Michael Rosen on the human need for literature

In this transcript from The Penguin Podcast, the beloved poet and author of Many Different Kinds of Love: A Story of Life, Death, and the NHS reflects on the vital role reading and writing play in understanding ourselves and others.

On this week’s Penguin Podcast, we spoke to Michael Rosen, the poet and author whose latest book, Many Different Kinds of Love: A Story of Life, Death, and the NHS, recounts his experience of becoming gravely ill with COVID. The book, which encompasses not only his story but those involved in his recovery, is his first Sunday Times bestseller, and it's not difficult to see why: it’s a gripping, deeply human story of love, resilience, and a bit of chance, too.

In this transcript from Rosen’s interview with writer, comedian and podcast host Isy Suttie, he speaks about how his brush with death helped illuminate the crucial function of literature – to help see ourselves and others reflected in ways that allow us to contemplate life and grow from its experiences – and how writing helped him through his long recovery.

Isy Suttie: I adored your book – I was in tears. That was the only book that's made me cry on the first page of reading it, so I just wondered: is that a response that you're getting a lot, that people say it’s made them cry?

Michael Rosen: Yes. Some people have said that they've got a bit tearful reading it. I think it might be for different reasons. I think some people think about the situation they were in – if they had COVID – or sometimes it's about their relatives or loved ones. And sometimes it's just… the word, the phrase I come up with is ‘social trauma’. I think we all went through – perhaps we're still going through – a sense this was happening to us, not just to me. And so if you suddenly read a very personal account, then it can, in a way, penetrate that social trauma.

'Isn’t that why we've invented literature? You look at something or somebody, wondering whether you're a bit like it or whether something like that has happened to you'

I think when I first started writing, what I was doing was mapping. Because you’ve got to imagine if you come off an experience like 40 days in a coma, and you were in intensive care, your brain is completely mixed up. It's completely discombobulated. It's very hard to describe. I've never been in anything like it. And so really, my very first steps were, ‘What do I remember? So it's sort of finding the stepping stones through this period of lack of consciousness and lack of awareness. I was writing a little bit down. You know, ‘Was I wearing mittens? Yes, I was – why was I wearing mittens? Because they said that I might pull my tracheotomy tube out. Was that it?’ So can you see I'm sort of struggling. So I write: ‘I'm wearing mittens.’ So that's the way I wrote. As you say, it's full of uncertainty and full of worry – and disbelief, I think, as well. So to start off with, there was no intention other than just to grab each moment and put it down on a piece of paper so that I could understand it. And then the series of fragments then started to form a narrative.

The book covers the whole of your journey from a really hard moment. You've got a family friend who's a GP, who, as far as I understand, happened to have had the instrument for measuring your oxygen levels delivered that morning, because she thought she ought to get one at home. You sought help, and on the phone they'd said, ‘Michael sounds fine.’ It's chance that she came at that time. God, I thought [reading that], ‘Imagine if she hadn't come? Imagine if something had happened to her and it delayed her or something.’ It's almost too hard to contemplate.

But I have to – I have to contemplate the fact that if [my wife] Emma hadn't got in touch with her, if she hadn't had the oximeter on her, if she hadn't been able to come round, I'd have gone that night. There's no question, because this thing that we now know of, the sats [oxygen saturation] levels, mine was at a level at which it was beginning to damage my body. I was becoming unconscious without knowing that's what I was doing – it was at 58. As she says in her letter to me, you know, she had never heard of anybody at that level who was still conscious.

'When I first started writing, it was full of uncertainty and full of worry – and disbelief, I think, as well'

But isn't that the case, though, with stories, non-fiction, or fiction, that some of it is full of people's intentions – you know, they're intending to do something, they're motivated to do something or even, as in Shakespeare, say, they're plotting to do things. And then other things genuinely happen by chance. I mean, to make a ridiculous comparison, that's what happens in Romeo and Juliet, is that we're meant to feel, ‘Oh, if only he hadn't done this’ or ‘If only she hadn't done that’. Well, these things happen in real life, don't they? And it's exactly what happened to me. I can dare myself to think of these other possibilities, but that means that that's the end of the story, as far as I'm concerned. I've died. So the fact I live is because those ducks were all in a row. [The friend] came and she rang the hospital and said, ‘Get in there quick, buddy.’ And I said, ‘No, I can't.’ She said, ‘Yes, bump yourself down the stairs.’ And I can remember her saying that and me sort of resisting it and not wanting to go because the only comfort I could find at the time was lying very, very still in bed – which of course was the way I would have gone.

Is it difficult to think about what would have happened? And was it difficult to revisit the memories of the harder times?

There were times when I came home and I was feeling very fragile, probably with quite a lot of the drugs still in me. I mean, that's all a bit of a mystery. When you come off of something like intensive care, you are very fragile. [At that point,] if I contemplated any of this stuff, I did well up. I wasn't able to cope. Now it feels like… well, there is an idea, isn't there, that stories are a way of laughing at death, that you kind of put death away for a bit while you read the story and get engaged with it. In a way it's sort of getting your own back, or getting one up on death. 

'I can dare myself to think of these other possibilities, but that means that that's the end of the story, as far as I'm concerned; I've died'

So I guess that's how I feel about it now, and it's already, thankfully, become a bit of a time ago. So, you know, I first got ill in March 2020. And so I can do a sort of grim cackling, I think: Hehehehe, I nearly died, but I didn't. So it's a different feeling now. But if you were talking to me in July 2020, you’d probably go, ‘Oh, he's in a bit of a rough way – have a hankie, Michael.’ So it has changed.

And do you think writing the book has helped you to… accept, I suppose, what happened? Like, would you recommend it to someone who'd been through a similar thing? ‘Hey, if you write it down, it might help you to process the fact that life is uncertain and these things can just happen?’

Yes. For me, writing is actually a way of having a conversation with yourself. If you write down things in a way that is truthful to the moment that is bothering you… I see it as unfolding something that happened, but doing it as if it's happening now. So I put it in the present, ‘A nurse comes to my bedside’, right. And then I don't worry about whether it makes sense in the way prose makes sense, full of becauses and moreovers, and notwithstandings and all that sort of stuff. It can be very brief. And it doesn't have to have whole sentences; it can just be little fragments. When I get to the end of one fragment, I just start a new line, and I'd recommend that to everybody, because it's very, very simple once you get there, and you don't have to be burdened by the kind of things we were told at school: that you had to write a sentence for the finite verb, and that if you put in a subordinate clause, then this was good style, and if you put the subordinate clause before the main clause – all that stuff, you know. We get burdened by this, and it gets in the way of you writing so that it feels like it felt [in the moment].

'There is an idea that stories are a way of laughing at death, that you kind of put death away for a bit while you read the story and get engaged with it'

If you want to deal with difficult stuff, then you do have to have a conversation with yourself about how it felt. One way is obviously to see somebody and talk to them, but the blank piece of paper is a good friend, it doesn't answer you back, it doesn't mock you, it doesn't get angry with you. You can write anything on it, and you're the only judge of it. If you get it wrong, you can chuck it away and try again. Or you can scribble things out or add things.

It's incredible. it's helped me enormously, because some of the stuff that's been difficult is the dislocation and the uncertainty of it all. It was a close scrape. And, you know, life is always just on the edge of death anyway – we could walk out of this building right now into a bus, or get an infection, as we discovered with Covid. Life is very precarious. And, you know, we have to find a way to deal with that. One way is just to ignore it and just carry on and sit down, have your fish and chips and not think about it. But occasionally, it's worth thinking about. And this kind of writing helps with that.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Photo at top: David Levene

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