'It's me, she said. It was the physio': Michael Rosen recounts his Covid ordeal, step by step, in new collection
In early March 2020 the poet Michael Rosen was doing what he normally did, making school visits, socialising. Then Covid struck him down, and nearly killed him. He spent three months in hospital, of which nearly seven weeks were in an induced coma. In his new book of poetry about his long road to recovery, The Advantages of Nearly Dying, he blames Boris Johnson’s government for what happened to him. He makes this quite clear in the first words of the preface to the book, introducing his poems thus: “How the government ended up killing and maiming us in February, March and April 2020.” He blames official failure to act quickly enough on a flirtation with the theory of ‘herd immunity’, and concludes: “They must never be let off the hook.”
In ‘J’accuse’ he also condemns “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 [the older members] can be dispensed with for the sake of the greater good”. His anger comes to the fore in ‘O Let’s Do Away with the Oldies”: “They take up too much space. / And who wants to be with an oldie / and look at their wrinkly face?”
More than once in this collection Rosen refers to himself as a ghost after what he has been through. In the first poem in the collection he says: “The thing is / I tried to die / and they wouldn’t let me. / So I’m probably alive.” “They” being the NHS, rather than the government: “The people exist / because the NHS makes sure that we do.” (‘The NHS and the People’).
The poems at turns fizz with anger or black humour, either joking, or mourning his loss of seven weeks in hospital, and what it has done to him (‘I Am Not Who I Was’). They catalogue his slow road to some sort of recovery, from his new, in-growing toenails after his original toenails fell off, his difficulties in swallowing – the after-effects of undergoing a tracheostomy – problems with seeing and hearing, scarring on his lungs, needing voice therapy, and learning how to walk again.
Without in any way trying to minimise what Rosen has been through, individually some of the poems can be seen as slight, little more than notes. But cumulatively they amount to an extraordinary documentary record. And in the midst of all this there is a sequence of poems about his son Eddie, who died of meningitis in 1999: “I think myself into his head / drifting off to sleep, / it’s 2021 – 22 years later - / and I’m trying to capture his last thoughts / as if I’m pulling film out of an old camera. / I imagine flashes, / something dazzling / falling stars falling / night.”
By the end of the collection, he is able to focus on other subjects, such as refugees, Ukrainians and others: “We are learning how to say / welcome / In Ukrainian. / Could we learn to say it in / some other languages too?” (‘Learning’). He remembers
my parents talking of aunts and uncles and cousins
who criss-crossed the very same land
that the refugees are crossing now,
one who escaped
the rest who didn’t
(‘As If in a Dream’)
It’s encouraging that Rosen has recovered from Covid to the extent he is able to look beyond his own condition, again.
But for me, the most moving – and affirmative - poem in the collection is one titled ‘The Physio’:
I said to one physio at the rehab
that I didn’t think I would be able
to do a show
to 100s of children in a theatre again.
She said I would.
This year I did a show to 100s of children
at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
A woman with her kids
asked me to sign a book.
It’s me, she said.
It was the physio.
Michael Rosen, The Advantages of Nearly Dying, Smokestack, £8.99
John F Keane
Sat 25th Feb 2023 17:25
No government in the world handled the pandemic especially well and things could have been a lot worse. Corbyn would have been pressing on with his plans to put all the Patagonians through college while the country fell apart around his ears.
Sat 18th Feb 2023 08:26
If anyone is interested in teaching children to write poetry, my son has co-written a book with Michael. It's called
Michael Rosen's poetry videos: how to get children writing and performing poems too
They started it together before he became ill, and finished it soon after he got better. (Sorry for the unashamed plug)
Sat 18th Feb 2023 07:53
Michael Rosen's ordeal after contracting Covid was truly horrible and it is wonderful that he has been able to bounce back (in spite of the awful physical consequences of his illness) and continue writing. I am looking forward to this new book - the poem 'Physio' is very moving.
The early stages of Covid were difficult for givernments. I remember wondering whether a Chinese-style lockdown could ever be implemented in the West, and it's probably true that most governments were too late in implementing restrictions. However, the Johnson government in the UK clearly delayed too long, despite having advanced warning from Italy and the rest of Europe and the subsequent oafish behaviour of the Downing Street crowd was deservedly sanctioned.
Fri 17th Feb 2023 20:16
Sorry Graham, but I couldn't disagree with you more. The way that the pandemic was handled was beyond shambolic. The then government acted with complete contempt for human life.
The one thing that they did get right was the roll out of the vaccine, but that far from compensates for the criminal ways that they behaved.
Fri 17th Feb 2023 19:53
I agree Graham, and I can see by your tone how strongly you feel about this. It's open season for government bashing these days, but without their actions on supporting businesses and individuals during the pandemic, and in developing the vaccine so quickly, we would be in a much sorrier state now.
Fri 17th Feb 2023 16:28
Whilst I have some respect for Rosen as a writer, I am sick and tired of 'anyone' slagging off how the pandemic was handled. Yes there were poor decisions that with hindsight (that remarkable quality that makes us all experts/sages/etc) could have been better but we, nor he, were the ones taking those decisions. Of course he is bound to want to relate his experiences but keep off the bashing Michael, it doesn't become you. It's easy for us to be flippant about Covid now! But I remember coming out of hospital in the middle of it and being shit scared of catching it!!
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