Posts Tagged ‘death’

When my mother, God rest her soul, was in her final years in the nursing home, her ninetieth birthday rolled around. She had retreated, at that stage, into a very small world that seemed inappropriate for such a powerful, independent personality. Most afternoons she would be assailed by “Sundowning”, and frequently in tears.

It is now well understood that people with dementia may become more confused, restless or insecure late in the afternoon or early evening. They may become more demanding, restless, upset, suspicious, disoriented and even see, hear or believe things that aren’t real, especially at night. In Mum’s case, she simply became more lonely, despite the efforts of her care staff,

No one is quite sure what causes sundowning, although it seems to result from changes that are occurring in the brain. A person experiencing sundowning may be hungry, uncomfortable, in pain or needing to use the toilet, all of which they can only express through restlessness. As the dementia progresses and they understand less about what is happening around them, they may become more frantic in trying to restore their sense of familiarity or security. Many families and carers say that the person becomes more anxious about ‘going home’ or ‘finding mother’ late in the day which may indicate a need for security and protection. They may be trying to find an environment that is familiar to them, particularly a place that was familiar to them at an earlier time in their life.

On her 90th birthday, Jenie, Caitlin and I visited with a cake, on top of which were candles in the shape of a nine and a zero, a banner that said Happy Birthday, and various other little celebratory items, and the nursing home kindly let us use one of their side rooms for a bit of privacy.

We sang happy birthday, more than once, and she smiled happily, which was really as much as we wanted by way of reaction. Then her mood swung, suddenly.

She kept staring at the cake, and then looking at me, who by now she thought of more often as my father, than me. In fact, I would frequently get reminded to do odd jobs around the family home in Sketty Green in Swansea, where she hadn’t lived for many decades, while she was temporarily in “hospital”. During two confinements, she was hospitalised for long periods. I believe her fading mind now imagined her back in an earlier era, when she was still married to her beloved Stewart, and still master of her own destiny, as a way of coping with the indignity of extreme age.

She shot me glance after glance, a worried look on her face.

“Ninety?” she asked, querulously. Then with more vigour, “Ninety!” And then finally, with some annoyance, “Ninety?”

The mere fact of her great age clearly disagreed, fundamentally, with her view of herself. She steadfastly refused to accept that she could be ninety, so we simply quietly removed the candles, and carried on celebrating her birthday, giving her some of the cake, and having a famously sweet tooth she quickly calmed down and started relaxing again. Wreathed in smiles, and being hugged by her grand-daughter of whom she was so proud, she was soon once again a contented mixture of coquettish child and venerable sage, living once more in the moment.

As I write, I sit looking at the garden that Jenie and I have planted outside our computer room, in our small back yard. It is, to be sure, a work in progress, and what progresses most successfully is Oxalis, tubular rye grass, and Dandelions. Indeed, we have so many Dandelions that I have taken to researching salads using their leaves.

Dandelions are found on all continents of course, and have been gathered for food since prehistory, but the varieties cultivated for consumption are mainly native to Eurasia.

It’s very reliable: the leaves will grow back if the taproot is left intact, which as they are almost impossible to uproot with the bare hands is “usually”. To make leaves more palatable, they are often blanched to remove bitterness, or sauteed in the same way as spinach. Dandelion leaves and buds have been a part of traditional Kashmiri, Slovenian, Sephardic, Chinese, and Korean cuisines. In Crete, the leaves of a variety called ‘Mari’ (Μαρί), ‘Mariaki’ (Μαριάκι), or ‘Koproradiko’ (Κοπροράδικο) are eaten by locals, either raw or boiled, in salads. Dandelion leaves apparently make good tea.

The pretty yellow flowers, along with other ingredients, usually including citrus, are used to make dandelion wine, which I recall is excellent, as dandelion was also traditionally used to make the traditional British soft drink dandelion and burdock. Also, dandelions were once delicacies eaten by the Victorian gentry, mostly in salads and sandwiches.

Dandelion leaves contain abundant vitamins and minerals, and historically dandelion was prized for a variety of medicinal properties, containing a number of pharmacologically active compounds. It has been used in herbal medicine to treat infections, bile and liver problems, and as a diuretic. Indeed, the English folk name “piss-a-bed” (and indeed the equivalent contemporary French pissenlit) which I still remember from my youth  refers to the strong diuretic effect of the plant’s roots. Rather more stomach-turningly, in various northeastern Italian dialects, the plant is known as pisacan (“dog pisses”), because they are found at the side of pavements.

As I look out of the window now, the oak tree which we planted from an acorn is shedding its leaves in the winter sunshine. They fall as if they are gentle tears for the summer just past. Capturing the sun until it browns them from the inside and they sigh and drop.

Winter this year has been very kind, and it has held onto its leaves for as long as it possibly is able, but they are a riot of browns and yellows now, and in increasing numbers they carpet the garden below, providing useful mulch, and smothering, with luck, a few of the weeds. We are frankly not sure what to call this patch of garden. It is, variously, the Paddock. Or the Meadow. There are vague intents to try to create an English cottage garden. But we look away for an instant, and all the delicate hollyhocks and Love-In-A-Mist and Sweet Williams seem to lose out to hardier entrants like Camomile and Verbena and the Italian Parsley that has spread like wildfire, outdoing in its aggression, if such a thing were possible, the Vietnamese Mint. We may have to re-christen it as the herb garden and be done with it.

In front of my eyes, the endless round of birth, death and renewal is happening in real time.

It is my birthday, tomorrow. And having been born, grown, been to Uni, traveled some, raised a family and done a bit of work, I suddenly and without warning find myself staring down the barrel of 60. It has all gone by in a blink. I have no doubt, on my death-bed, I will rail against the dying of the light – convinced beyond reason that there is something I meant to do if I could only remember what it is – I will regret having not done some things, and regret having done others, but I will not, ultimately, regret all that much. In short, I have seen much, enjoyed most of it, known many inspirational and heart-warming people, built a wonderful business with great partners, and been blessed largely with good health – a stout heart and good lungs, strong limbs and clear eyes. I married the kindest person on the planet and then she gave birth to another like her.

I am losing my hair but not my faculties.

It is enough.

Nevertheless, my newfound right to apply for a Seniors Card comes with something of a profound shock. Somebody said to me the other day, “Cheer up, 60 is the new 50, you know!” “Yes,” I replied tersely, “but it’s not the new f****** 25, is it?”

In my head, I think I will always be 25. Being able to get reduced fees on a local tram does not really compensate for being able to smash through a hard 80 minutes of rugby, and then stay up all night drinking pints of Gales 6X and playing 3-card brag, before popping into work still full of ink but essentially functional.

“Sixty?” “Sixty!’ “Sixty?

My leaves are starting to fall, as they must. I will cling onto them for as long as I can, before giving them up with as much good grace as I can muster, which I doubt will be very much. I don’t expect I will make 90, but I know how she felt. I am very like her, in many ways.

And I think I’ll leave the Dandelions where they are. The last thing you need at 60 is to piss more often.

 

  

In today’s world, everyone makes much more of Christmas than Easter. It’s become a quasi-secular festival, full of joy and fun, especially for kids, and has strong echoes of earlier pagan festivals marking the middle of winter for northern hemisphere types and the summer solstice for us lot down south. But for all that, the Christmas story still resonates for many who do not consider themselves especially “religious”, with its gentle story of new life and new hope, even if many of the traditional elements of the story are actually not strictly Biblical.

But for those who truly explore the Christian story, Easter is by far the more significant celebration. In the open tomb we see the actual point of the Christ story, which is that death is a mere interruption of an eternal life, no more to be feared than any other event. This is why Christians cry out “He is Risen!” with such excitement. In Christ’s victory over death there is a triumphant answer to the most frightening and indisputible fact of all – we will all die. Every single one of us.

But if death is a mere transition to a new form of life, then one can live without that fear, even if we mourn the passing of those who have been dear to us.

We don’t die when we die. It’s a stupendous, incredible thought. It seems impossible, of course, which is why Jesus went to such lengths to impress upon those he met outside the tomb that he was a real person … a real body, not just some spectral form or spirit.

He got up and walked out of the tomb, requiring the stone to be rolled away so he could get out, in a new body, miraculously transformed from the beaten and broken one deposited in the tomb on Good Friday.

For every individual, a choice must be made as to whether the story is true, and it is a huge leap of faith, to be sure. What a staggering suggestion it is. We don’t die when we die. We live on, transfigured, healed, and contented. Quite whether this occurs at the moment of death or at some “end time” is the matter of theological debate but the essential point is the actual survival of the individual. With their own memories and experiences. It alters our whole view of the Universe. Of reality itself.

Some will say, of course, that the end of the Christ story is simply made up, a fiction to put a good gloss on the end of a social movement that was in danger of collapsing in ignominy. But without the literal truth of the story, the rest of the Christian tradition becomes meaningless. Read from beginning to end, the whole Christ story inexorably leads up to his death and rebirth. He kept it from his closest supporters – it was the most dramatic and unexpected coup de theatre. Along the way he warned them that they didn’t really understand what was going on, but also told them not to worry, because they would, one day.

And that is the ultimate message of Easter. That one day, we will all actually know what is going on. In our own death, we will be awakened to the actual truth of what the Universe is all about. No matter how stressful, how frightening, or how terrible the world may be, something better awaits us all.

As they hung on the cross, in unimaginable agony, Christ’s instinct was still to tell the world not to be scared. “Fear not,” he says to the dying thief hanging next to him, “tonight you will be with me in Paradise.” In extremis, he is still trying to reassure us of the miracle that we cannot yet see.

In two millenia of Christian theological debate, it seems that humankind can manage to argue endlessly about anything. The sterile and ultimately pointless debates about whether the bread and wine actually turn into the body and blood of Christ cost many a principled man and woman their head. Today’s endless musing over Creationism is another mindless distraction, as is our obsession with sexual niceties.

At Easter, we are given the opportunity to stop and refocus on what truly matters. Imagine if every Christian in the world turned to every other non-Christian tomorrow and said “By the way, do you know that you don’t die when you die?”

Now THAT would be Good News.

mork

 

When Robin Williams killed himself in August 2014, depression was considered the culprit.

But the beloved film star and comedian was in fact struggling with a demon even more sinister: Lewy body dementia, a little-known and often misdiagnosed disease that manifests as a combination of the worst symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia. Robin Williams’ widow, Susan Williams, shared this diagnosis, which was revealed in an autopsy, Tuesday in an interview with People magazine and ABC.

A few days after Williams’ death, his media representative, Mara Buxbaum, said in a statement: “He has been battling severe depression of late.”

rubberNow we know that wasn’t the full story: “Depression was one of let’s call it 50 symptoms, and it was a small one,” Susan Williams said Tuesday, in her first public interview since her husband’s death.

Lewy body dementia, she said, “was what was going on inside his brain, the chemical warfare that no one knew about.”

And even if the 63-year-old had not ended his own life, the disease would have killed him within a few years, she said.

Lewy body dementia usually strikes at age 50 or later. Like Parkinson’s, it begins with abnormal protein deposits called Lewy bodies, which disrupt brain cells’ normal functioning and later cause them to die. The disease’s plethora of terrifying symptoms start slowly but worsen over time, and include: Alzheimer’s-like memory loss and dementia; Parkinson’s-like tremors and loss of balance; and terrifying, schizophrenia-like hallucinations. The symptoms “present themselves like a pinball machine,” Susan Williams said. “You don’t know exactly what you’re looking at.” Perhaps worst of all, at least at first, the patient can be fully aware of his or her own decline.

After it is diagnosed, Lewy body dementia usually kills a person within five to seven years. There is no cure or effective treatment.

Despite the fact that it is little known, Lewy body dementia is not rare; in fact, it is one of the most common forms of dementia, affecting more than 1 million Americans, according to the National Institute on Ageing. But because it bears many similarities to other degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, it is frequently misdiagnosed. It can take more than a year and visits with multiple specialists to get a correct diagnosis. According to Susan Williams, a coroner’s report revealed signs of Lewy body dementia, as well as early-stage Parkinson’s.

Although Williams didn’t know he was suffering from Lewy body dementia, he seemed to know he was losing his mind.

“He was aware of it,” Susan Williams said. In her opinion, she told People and ABC, his suicide was his way of taking control of an impossible situation. “He was just saying no,” she said. “And I don’t blame him one bit.”

The news may reignite the ongoing debate about “dying with dignity”. For a man of the intellectual and emotional depth of Robin Williams, the perception – even if not yet formally diagnosed – that he was losing his cognitive function would have been unbearable. Especially as we know he had concerns that his career was faltering and he faced certain financial pressures.

It may be that depression contributed to his death, or it may be that it was a carefully-considered and rational response to an awful situation that he felt would only get worse. As his wife says: “taking control”.

We will never know, but it is something to ponder … It is also worth considering that a different cultural response to chronic illness and dying might have encouraged him to hang around a little longer, and to end his life more gently, in the bosom of his family, with the people around him given an opportunity to say goodbye.

Again, we will never know.

(Slate and others)

A Determination.

 

image_living-life-with-purpose

 

I have taken a decision.

 

I am going to live until I die.

 

The alternative

is far too horrible to contemplate.

all is well

This is how I want it to be when I go. Beautiful, and apposite.

I posted it on Facebook this morning, and later on got a message from one of my oldest friends saying he was about to fly home to his mother’s funeral. His distress was somewhat alleviated; he now felt all is well.

God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.

I was so taken with the words that undertook to find out who wrote them. The writings are actually a poem written by Victorian churchman and academic Henry Scott Holland.

Holland (27 January 1847 – 17 March 1918) was Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford. He was also a canon of Christ Church, Oxford. The Scott Holland Memorial Lectures are held in his memory.

He was born at Ledbury, Herefordshire, the son of George Henry Holland (1818–1891) of Dumbleton Hall, Evesham, and of the Hon. Charlotte Dorothy Gifford, the daughter of Lord Gifford, and educated at Eton where he was a pupil of the influential Master William Johnson Cory, and at the Balliol College where he took a first class degree in Greats. During his Oxford time he was greatly influenced by the philosopher and political radical T.H. Green.

In 1884, he left Oxford for St Paul’s Cathedral where he was appointed canon.

He was keenly interested in social justice and formed PESEK (Politics, Economics, Socialism, Ethics and Christianity) which blamed capitalist exploitation for contemporary urban poverty. In 1889, he formed the Christian Social Union.

In 1910, he was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity, a post he held until his death in 1918. He is buried in the churchyard of All Saints church, Cuddesdon near Oxford. Because of his surname, the writer, secretary and political activist Mary Gladstone (daughter of Prime Minister Gladstone) referred to him affectionately as “Flying Dutchman” and “Fliegende Hollander”.

While at St Paul’s Cathedral Holland delivered a sermon in May 1910 following the death of King Edward VII, titled Death the King of Terrors, in which he explores the natural but seemingly contradictory responses to death: the fear of the unexplained and the belief in continuity. It is from his discussion of the latter that perhaps his best-known writing, Death is nothing at all, is drawn: the frequent use of this passage has provoked some criticism that it fails to accurately reflect either Holland’s theology as a whole, or the focus of the sermon in particular. What has not provoked as much criticism is the affinity of Holland’s passage to St. Augustine’s thoughts in his 4th Century letter 263 to Sapida, in which he writes that Sapida’s brother and their love, although he has died, still are there, like gold that still is yours even if you save it in some locker.

Which is another sweet thought to end on.

Wandering Facebook today brought us across this lovely snippet from our friend and reader Mimi in California.

“Today’s irony, brought to you by Hailey’s school:

“Let’s have a moment of silence for the deaf” at the end of the afternoon prayer.”

How thoughtful of them. Next week, poking our eyes out for the blind, no doubt.

marceauxAnyhow, it did remind us of the only joke we have ever consciously written. It ran thusly:

“So when Marcel Marceau died, did they hold a minute’s noise?”

Hardly enough to establish us as one of the world’s great humourists, but we are proud of it. Years later – and we never published the joke apart from gleefully sharing it with friends and acquaintances in the pub and over dinner – it was fed back to us from a comic in the UK. Amazing how the world works.

Marceau was a French actor and mime most famous for his stage persona as “Bip the Clown.” He referred to mime as the “art of silence,” and he performed professionally worldwide for over 60 years. As a youth, he lived in hiding and worked with the French Resistance during most of World War II, giving his first major performance to 3000 troops after the liberation of Paris in August 1944. Following the war, he studied dramatic art and mime in Paris.

In 1959 he established his own pantomime school in Paris, and subsequently set up the Marceau Foundation to promote the art in the U.S. Among his various awards and honours, he was made “Grand Officier de la Légion d’Honneur” (1998) and was awarded the National Order of Merit (1998) in France. He won the Emmy Award for his work on television, was elected member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin, and was declared a “National Treasure” in Japan. He was friends with pop artist Michael Jackson for nearly 20 years, and Jackson said he would use some of Marceau’s techniques in his own dance steps.

Marceau’s work was frequently whimsical and humorous, but also often exquisitely beautiful and sad. Given that existentialism is basically a French invention, it is hardly surprising that he addressed it in his work.

His famous performance of “A Life” in three minutes was happily captured on film and is on YouTube with a number of his other history-making performances, and although the quality is very poor – it almost obscures the fact that he starts and ends in a foetal position – it is well worth viewing. What is fascinating is how he can create tension through repetition, can create suspense through inaction, and can provide shock through the tiniest changes in facial expression or bodily position. In a word: exquisite.

It has been a bad week for losses.

This is for you, Simon. A unique Aussie anthem, for a unique guy.

Heaven

It is a matter of public record, Dear Reader, that I do not deal well with bereavement, or even, for that matter, with simple uncertainty.

Apparently I was alone with my dead father for a couple of hours after he collapsed with a heart attack when I was just two years old. I am told by people who should know that such experiences can leave traumatic psychological scars that therapy can help us understand, but not necessarily “cure”.

Such is life. In many other ways my time thus far has been rich and varied, and I am not going to rail against the less wonderful moments. Into each life a little rain will fall. It was ever thus, and my ledger has far more weight in the pluses column than the minuses, for which I give thanks.

But it is, nevertheless, the very nature of human existence that we are cursed as well as blessed by self-awareness. The remnant of my childhood sadness is that I seem acutely aware of the possibility of death, not just for me, but for those around me that I care about, and I am more anxious than I need to be as a result.

Yet such fear is surely not erroneous. Media Vita In Morte Sumus: in the midst of life we are in death, as the famous quotation that plays its part of the Latin funeral rite solemnly reminds us. Awareness of death is rational. It happens.

What matters for our peace of mind is how we deal with its ever-present imminence.

It was my birthday yesterday: nowadays, an event that feeds inexorably into my deepening contemplation that less of my life is ahead of me than is behind me, and that how I live and what I achieve with my life, and what I leave behind me as a legacy, is now a matter of some pressing concern.

Simon

Simon

I flicked open my emails expecting to enjoy the usual (and very welcome) crop of messages from the worldwide diaspora of friends and family who always so kindly send me a brief note on the day.

Instead, I saw a torrent of emails informing me that one of my oldest and dearest friends, Simon Titley, had been rushed to hospital having collapsed at a family lunch, that he has a massive and inoperable brain tumour, and not long to live. Worse, that he is currently suffering, with the dreadful combination of poor communication abilities and obvious fear at what is happening to him.

Simon was and for a while still is one of those individuals who enter our lives and fill it with things we wish we could say about ourselves.

He was hilariously funny. His humour ran the entire gamut of the things we call “funny”. As a consummately political animal his grasp of satire was complete and un-yieldingly courageous. He understood that to be effective satire must combine genuine wit with social insight, and time and again his wry, askance view of the universe infused his writing with piercingly accurate observations that changed the lives of others, in line with his fiercely held beliefs, all the while making them laugh uproariously.

“Words? He could almost make them talk”, as Roger McGough once memorably remarked about someone.

The same presence of mind infused his dialectical invective, so often seen in the pages of Liberator magazine, the radical street-sheet of which he was a collective owner and editor, which enlivened and informed the politics of the United Kingdom, Europe, and the Liberal tradition especially, for 40 years. Of this, more in a moment.

He was also a consummate master of silly, scatalogical humour, searching it out in the byways and alleys of human existence and gleefully circulating it to his friends. With roguish good nature he thoroughly enjoyed “bottom jokes”, well aware of how ludicrously sensitive the British are to anything remotely to do with bodily excrescence or functions. He reveled in the laughter and embarrassment he unearthed, knowing full well that every silly gag was just one more brick in the wall of sniffy fussiness removed. Indeed, I still have a small plastic toilet of sweets he mailed me from one of his peripatetic travels around the Continent he loved so much, chortling no doubt as he popped it in the envelope, now many years ago. It will remain unopened.

Simon and co-conspirators Mark Smulian and Peter Johnson man the Liberator stall at a Party Assembly - for a generation it was a hotbed of ideas, humour and occasional insurrection. Simon is on the left.

Simon and co-conspirators Mark Smulian and Peter Johnson man the Liberator stall at a Party Assembly – for a generation it was a hotbed of gossip, ideas, humour and occasional insurrection. Simon is on the left.

In his serious writings, in Liberator and many other outlets, he was nothing more nor less than the most cerebral yet coherent and intensely relevant commentator that the Liberal side of politics has produced in my lifetime. A PR professional of some reputation, he could have devoted his life to simply piling up gold, yet he could never drag himself away from the pressing need to inform the body politic long enough to end up a mere careerist.

His was, above all, the polemic of personal responsibility, and he was as hard on himself as anyone. Where he saw cant and obfuscation instead of candour he exposed it consistently and ruthlessly. He continually advanced new and exciting ideas on how to construct a society where all were participants, where opportunity was available to all, and where the deadening hand of conservatism was lifted off the levers of power when it was serving no remaining purpose. He fought for innovation both within the party he loved and without, but always, especially, within it, infused with the passion of the ironed-on supporter, the pick and stick determination that is born of the deepest convictions.  One only has to pop the words “Simon Titley Lib Dem” into your preferred search engine to gain an insight into the breadth and depth of his influence.

With Simon gone, as another of my closest friends remarked yesterday, we shall simply have to learn to think for ourselves. I genuinely fear we will struggle to reach both his levels of perspicacity and expository skill, and the world will be a poorer and less hopeful place as a result. That he leaves us at a time when his beloved party is in an unprecedented state of internal flux and focus on its future direction is a bitterly cruel irony.

Yesterday, as I say, was my birthday. I am somewhat sidelined at the moment, as my daughter has galloping glandular fever, and we are yet to ascertain whether my wife and I are also going down with the annoyingly infectious and ubiquitous Epstein-Barr virus, or whether we are immune. The next seat to mine at the office has an expectant very-soon-to-be-father in it, and I am not taking any risk of spreading the bug there, so discretion is the better part of valour and I am working at home this week.

Thus, as I wasn’t chained to my desk, my family prevailed upon me to take a short drive to the nearby Yarra Valley for a couple of hours to both celebrate my birthday and lift my spirits. Which is how we came to be sat in a newly-opened chocolate factory, enjoying the delights of their highly inventive production line, and gazing over the patchwork of green, lilac and grey fields and trees fortified by an excellent coffee, observing the whirling clouds of sulphur-crested cockatoos perfectly reflected in the glass-still dams and lakes.

blackAs I sat there, I reflected on the side of Simon that was always the most accessible and, ultimately, memorable. His was a life that was lived joyously and with celebratory appreciation of all things gastronomic. Just up the road, he and I had enjoyed a memorable lunch at the De Bortoli winery some fifteen years previously (I realised the passage of time with some shock) and with a quiet smile I recalled how he had marveled at both the inventiveness of their menu and the unique, luscious quality of their “sticky” dessert wine, the “Black Noble”.

Unique. Like their fan.

Unique. Like their fan.

A true connoisseur of not just wine but beer and food – especially his much-beloved Lincolnshire sausages, about whose pork and sage recipe he could wax lyrical, and for which he typically launched a campaign for EU recognition of their special and unique status – and as many will attest a massive fry-up organised by Simon after a night on the tiles was an experience never forgotten – the Black Noble was unlike anything he had experienced to date in his rich and full life.

When the botrytised Semillon grapes are being harvested for the famous De Bortoli legend “Noble One”, a discrete parcel of fruit at about 20-22 baume is selected to produce the dessert wine’s intense and ripe botrytis flavours. Very little fermentation occurs before fortification with a neutral grape spirit, which is added to inhibit any further fermentation. Black Noble is then clarified, a touch of brandy added for further complexity before being transferred into used Noble One barriques. The winery suggest enjoying its astounding toffee, raisins and mandarin-peel complexity with Christmas pudding or sticky date pudding, or poured over vanilla ice cream.  Never slaves to convention, we sat on the balcony and toasted each other over a sideplate laden with a fine local blue cheese, and just gazed over the vineyards. Afterwards, he pressed the winemaker at the cellar door for more and more detail, before buying as many bottles as he could fit in the trunk of my car. “How are you going to get all those back to England?” I asked, concerned. “Oh, we’ll find a way,” he smiled.

“We’ll find a way” seemed such a Simon-like thing to say that I didn’t give it any more thought. When he left, he took a bottle or two with him, and left the rest secreted in our spare room for later discovery.

To understand the measure of the man, know that he once drove the length of France to pick up the right ingredients for a Christmas lunch he was cooking for my family, and various friends. In a world where a hundred celebrity chefs had not yet made cooking roast potatoes in duck fat a commonplace thing, he insisted it was the only possible medium in which to burnish the unusual species in which he had especially invested because of their world-beating crispness when par-boiled then roasted. And not just any duck fat. This particular duck fat.

Witness, also, as he whisks my ailing mother away into Paris for the longest of long lunches so our little troupe can enjoy a trip to Euro-Disney, creating a lifetime of memories for a tiny daughter who remembers to this day the frozen waterfall of the Disney castle. It was minus 4 degrees. Simon knew that my mother attending would have, of necessity, have led to our visit being curtailed, so he stepped into the breach. Over breakfast: “There’s this little place I know off the Champs Elysee, Betty,” he grinned. “Fancy a trip?”

My mother loved Simon and not just because he shared her adoration of chilled chardonnay and langoustines. He was “an old style gentleman”, she said. Yes. Yes, he was, indeed.

In a kinder universe, Simon would have been some Georgian grandee, dispensing largesse to the peasants with the same enthusiasm with which he consumed it. Or an avuncular and reforming Minister of the Crown, leaving yet a deeper mark on the lives of many.

As it is, he was what he was, and we are bereft. Our friend and brother is on a journey we can’t take with him, and we are suddenly all – again – more alone than we ever realised we could be. And yes, the pain will dull, given time, to be sure, but it is currently very intense. And it will never quite go away: there will always be a space. A gap. A hole. That only Simon can fill, that only Simon could fill, indeed, because the space in our lives he created was huge and unexpected and unparalleled and bright and blinding and warm and funny and above all ineffably kind and meaningful.

And sometimes, without warning, we will sense that gap, and weep silently inside ourselves.

Despite professing faith, and meaning it, I am never quite entirely sure whether we are reunited with those we lose along the way. I hope so. I would like to meet my Dad.

And I would like to share another thick, luscious pint of real ale with Simon, or an anis in a little bar somewhere in some heavenly Brussels.

They do that in Heaven, right? Please tell me they do. I do hope so.

Further reading:

http://liberator-magazine.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/simon-titley-living-obituary.html

 

UPDATE

An operation to remove at least some of Simon’s brain tumour took place a few days after this blog was written offering him some respite, and the opportunity to say his goodbyes to those who loved him, and some time to come to terms with his predicament.

Simon Titley died peacefully on August 31st 2014, mourned by innumerable friends and his family, to all of whom we send our heartfelt condolences.

Two quite different stories making news today reveal how the descent of political debate into hatred and abusive propaganda can have an awful effect on innocent lives.

At the Wellthisiswhatithink desk we are often in discussion with friends, colleagues and commentators who essentially believe in unfettered free speech. We often hear an argument which runs something like this: “The correct response to this nonsense is ridicule: given the oxygen of publicity, these people condemn themselves out of their own mouths. It is more important to preserve the liberty of all at the price of allowing nutters to say what they like, rather than curtail freedom of speech.” This argument is advanced regularly by the right in America, but is by no means limited to there. It occurs in all corners of the blogosphere, it is evidenced by recent moves by the Australian Government, just as one example, and it is a favoured line by libertarians worldwide.

Disgusting "humour" like this is freely available all over the internet. Should concepts of "free speech" protect those who produce it from sanction? In our opinion: No.

Disgusting “humour” like this is freely available all over the internet. Should concepts of “free speech” protect those who produce it from sanction? In our opinion: No.

We respect the passion of those who advance this argument against, for example, anti race-hate legislation, but over many years we have come, reluctantly, to disagree with it.

Yes, we recognise that the “elephant in the room” is “Where do you draw the line once you start to censor free speech?” but we nevertheless also believe that a line must be drawn.

And the reason for that line being drawn is the encouragement given to those who would take extreme ideals and translate them into real-world violence, whether because they take the comments to their logical conclusion, seeing no moral distinction between holding a violent thought and acting on it, or merely because they are mentally unhinged.

We see no desperate need to be able to advocate ridicule and violence that justifies the fact that it leads, as night follows day, to real injury and death for innocent people.

For example, in recent days we have seen yet another shooting perpetrated by members of the far-right in America.

A day before going on a shooting rampage that left two Las Vegas police officers and a bystander dead, Jerad Miller, one of the killers, posted this on Facebook:

“The dawn of a new day. May all of our coming sacrifices be worth it.”

Amanda Miller created and posted this Bitstrip comic to her Facebook six months ago.

Amanda Miller created and posted this Bitstrip comic to her Facebook six months ago.

Witnesses reportedly said Miller, 31, and his wife, Amanda, shouted, “This is a revolution” and “We’re freedom fighters” when they ambushed the officers who were on their lunch break at a pizza restaurant.

If their social media accounts are any indication, rants about attacks and disgust with authority were a common thread in their lives.

“To the people in the world…your lucky i can’t kill you now but remember one day one day i will get you because one day all hell will break lose and i’ll be standing in the middle of it with a shot gun in one hand and a pistol in the other,” Amanda Miller posted on Facebook on May 23, 2011.

 After killing Police Officers Alyn Beck, 41, and Igor Soldo, 31, who were having lunch having clocked off, and taking their weapons, police said the Millers fled across the street to a Walmart store, where they shot and killed customer Joseph Wilcox, 31, who apparently confronted the shooters with his own weapon, before apparently taking their own lives in a suicide pact.

SurvivalistThe couple, who married in September 2012, moved from Lafayette, Indiana, to Las Vegas, Nevada, in January of this year. Photos on 22-year-old Amanda Miller’s Facebook page shows the couple celebrating Christmas with family two weeks before departing for Nevada. In one photo, she poses with copies of the “Shooter’s Bible” and “Extreme Survival.” “My new books that my Grandma Paula got me!” she wrote on Facebook. The merging of influences between the “survivalist” community, gun aficionados and extreme militia-style groups, laced with racist and white supremacist groups, is a key concern for both community organisations and law enforcement in America.

It is not the lawful promotion of legal activities or legitimate opinion that causes concern, rather it is the ability of those on the fringe of those movements to hijack the genre and spread concepts of ‘legitimate’ violence to the soft-minded.

According to the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Jerad Miller had a long history of arrests and convictions for drug offences while in Indiana.

In a July 8, 2013, video he posted to YouTube, he vents about the government making a profit from an ankle monitor he has to pay for and wear while under house arrest. He also rants about the local courthouse and questions why citizens need permits.

“You have to go down to that big stone structure, monument to tyranny, and submit, crawling, groveling on your hands and knees,” he says on the video. “Sounds a little like Nazi Germany to me or maybe communist Russia.”

On Monday, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that a neighbour said the Millers might have been planning a larger attack on an unidentified court building. According to the story, the couple’s next-door neighbour and friend was holding documents for the couple that included detailed plans to take over a courthouse and execute public officials. Other reports link the couple of the recent Cliven Bundy ranch saga when armed militia lined up against government officials to protect the ranchowner’s right to continue to illegally graze his cattle on public land, although hard evidence has yet to be produced that they were there. UPDATE 12 June, video has now emerged of Jared Miller speaking at the Bundy ranch, from which he and his wife were asked to leave because of their extreme views.

JokerJared Miller used the handle “USATruePatriot” on another YouTube account where video titles included “second amendment logic,” “Would George Washington use an AK?,” and “Police confiscate guns and threatened to kill me.”

In two videos, he stands in front of an American flag dressed as the Joker and rambles about what it would be like to be president of the United States.

“A new world order under the Joker,” he shouts while belting out an evil laugh.

Jerad Miller’s profile picture on Facebook is of two knives behind a mask and the word “PATRIOT” in stars and stripes. Much of his social activity was centered on Second Amendment gun laws, government spying and drug laws. Six days before Sunday’s rampage, he posted on Facebook that, “to stop this oppression, I fear, can only be accomplished with bloodshed.”

“We can hope for peace. We must, however, prepare for war. We face an enemy that is not only well funded, but who believe they fight for freedom and justice. … We, cannot with good conscience leave this fight to our children, because the longer we wait, our enemies become better equipped and recruit more mercenaries of death, willing to do a tyrants bidding without question. I know you are fearful, as am I. We certainly stand before a great and powerful enemy. I, however would rather die fighting for freedom, than live on my knees as a slave.”

Investigators with the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center aid the Millers’ web writings were typical of right-wing, militia-type thinking. But the SPLC’s intelligence files don’t show the couple to be members of an organized group.

“It’s just the two of them doing this crazy thing that the two of them decided to do,” the director of the SPLC’s intelligence project commented.

The ADL says in the past five years, there have been 43 separate incidences of violence between domestic extremists and U.S. law enforcement. All but four of the attacks were perpetrated by right-wing extremists, according to the ADL.

“The two police officers who lost their lives are only the latest in a series of casualties in a de facto war being waged against police by right-wing extremists, including both anti-government extremists and white supremacists,” Mark Pitcavage, ADL director of investigative research, said in a written statement. “Some extremists have deliberately targeted police, while others have responded violently when meeting police in unplanned encounters. The killings are not the effort of a concerted campaign, but rather a series of independent attacks and clashes stemming from right-wing ideologies.”

It is the propagation of these ludicrously extreme ideologies – of left and right, which is where strands of political thinking actually merge, in our opinion – that needs to be carefully examined. The capacity for unhinged individuals to create mayhem is simply too obvious to allow their mental furies to be whipped up. Indeed, anti-terrorism experts now say that the ability of propaganda materials to provoke murderous behaviour by previously unobserved and not-formally-aligned individuals is actually their biggest headache. As “spectacular” attacks on a more alert West have declined, so the capacity to use words to enrage and empower lunatics becomes a more ever-present threat. One madman with a “dirty” low-blast nuclear weapon (which apparently is not that difficult to create if you can access the right materials) could take out the population of a small city. Anywhere.

pakistan attackMeanwhile, the other end of the scale was also on tragic display. Thirty people – ten of them insurgents – were killed as Pakistan’s military fought an all-night battle Monday with Taliban gunmen who besieged Karachi airport.

The assault has left Pakistan’s nascent peace process with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in tatters and officials in the northwest reported that some 25,000 people had fled a restive tribal district in the past 48 hours, fearing a long-awaited ground offensive.

The assault on Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport was just the latest spectacular offensive to be launched by the TTP in an insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives since 2007.

Authorities were checking reports that seven airport workers were trapped in cold-storage facilities after apparently shutting themselves inside to escape the carnage.

“We are looking into this and according to the families some seven people were trapped inside the cold storage and were in contact with the families on cell phone,” said Abid Qaimkhani, a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority.

bodiesThe attack began just before midnight Sunday. Some of the gunmen were dressed in army uniform, as authorities put their mangled bodies, assault rifles, grenades and rocket launchers on show for the press. At least three detonated their suicide vests, witnesses said, and one severed head formed part of the grisly display.

“The main objective of the terrorists was to destroy the aircraft on the ground but there was only minor damage to two to three aircraft,” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told a press conference at the airport late Monday. “Pakistan’s national assets are safe and secure.”

The administration in Washington condemned the attack and offered to assist with the investigation. UN chief Ban Ki-moon also condemned the airport siege and a separate attack in the southwest targeting Shiite Muslims which a local official said killed at least 24 pilgrims.

Ban was “deeply concerned by this upsurge of violence across Pakistan” and urged the government to increase its efforts to address terrorism and religious extremism, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.

The bodies of the 18 victims – including 11 airport security guards and four workers from Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) – were taken to a Karachi hospital where another 26 wounded people were being treated, a hospital official said.

The charred remains of two cargo terminal employees were later recovered on Monday night, to bring the total dead to 30, Qaimkhani said.

PIA spokesman Mashud Tajwar said no airline passengers were caught up in the incident.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s office issued a statement “commending the bravery” of security forces and saying normal flight operations would resume in the afternoon, while Afghan President Hamid Karzai – who is battling his own Taliban insurgency – condemned the attack in a statement.

The attack took place just three kilometres (two miles) from the Mehran naval base, which the Taliban laid siege to three years ago, destroying two US-made Orion aircraft and killing 10 personnel in a 17-hour operation.

The group also carried out a raid on Pakistan’s military headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi in 2009, leaving 23 dead including 11 troops and three hostages.

Latest revenge

The TTP said the brazen attack on the airport was its latest revenge for the killing of its leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone strike in November. TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said the government had used peace talks as a ruse, and promised more attacks to come in retaliation against recent air strikes in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Talks to end the TTP’s bloody seven-year insurgency have been under way since February, after Sharif returned to power last year, but little clear progress has resulted and more than 300 people have been killed in militant strikes since then. Analysts say Sharif is under pressure to act and risks angering the army if he does not authorise a swift retaliation.

Thousands flee tribal district

In restive North Waziristan tribal district some 1,000 kilometres north of Karachi, residents and officials told AFP 58,000 people, mainly women and children had fled the area for different parts of the northwest, fearing a long-awaited offensive was imminent.

The exodus has increased rapidly in recent days, with more than 25,000 fleeing their homes in the last 48 hours alone, a government official in Peshawar said.

“I am taking my family to a safer location,” said one resident who did not wish to be named.

The latest rumours of an operation began after government talks with the TTP broke down in April, and were further stoked by the air strikes and the widespread distribution of a leaflet from a local warlord last week warning residents they should leave their homes by June 10. An offensive in North Waziristan has been rumoured for years but analysts remain cautious about whether the military has the capacity to attempt such a move without assistance from the Afghan side of the border where militants are likely to flee in the event of an attack.

What do we think?

Well, this new survey revealing that 92% of Pakistanis report having seen hate speech online is sobering indeed. We cannot imagine it is much different elsewhere. It may well be that we are crucially under-estimating the role of hate speech online in creating real-world violence.

Whether it is three dead in a shopping mall, thirty dead in Pakistan, or tens of thousands maimed, made homeless, or killed in conflicts all over the world, it is surely the power of words to justify the unthinkable that should concern us.

A challenging question that demands an answer.

A challenging question that demands an answer.

Whatever the root causes of societal tensions, and the world is full of injustice, to be sure, both minor and major, the casualacceptance that “violence is the answer” is a cancer that grew up in the relativist 1960s and has been growing and spreading ever since.

It must be said that the instinctive resort to violence is, unquestionably, exacerbated by the wanton use of government force, official and unofficial, whether it is foolhardy killings of people by gung-ho police officers, (a trend which seems to be increasing), the assassination of leaders such as Salvador Allende and Patrice Lumumba, drone strikes, dis-proportionate attacks on the Palestinian community by the IDF, the fuelling of the contras and others slaughtering hundreds of thousands in Central and South America in the 1970s and 80s, the massacres of Chechen civilians, the slaughter of Tamil civilians, and so many more examples the list could be virtually endless.

 

We are concerned here with the knee-jerk resort to violence, with the assumption that such violence is warranted in all cases by national interest, rather than the admittedly more complex discussion of when and if violence could be justified. Governments everywhere seem, to our eyes, to be becoming far too wedded to the idea of “shoot first and ask questions later”, both domestically and internationally. It is a slippery slope, and we seem to be sliding down it, willy nilly.

And while government continues to behave as if life and liberty are irrelevant to their own interests, so individuals will consider they are similarly exempt from moral restraint, as we saw with Baader-Meinhoff and the Red Brigades.

Hate speech does not equal free speech. In our opinion.

Hate speech does not equal free speech. In our opinion.

And yet, none of us are exempt from moral restraint. When we all cry, in bewilderment, “How could someone do such a thing?” it is because we are from the sane majority, those who would no more shoot a fellow citizen on the streets over a political or religious principle than we would try to fly to the moon by flapping our arms.

And yet, that same sane majority cowers silently behind the free speech argument while others pour mental filth into our communities unchallenged and unrestrained.

In our view, it is not enough to outlaw someone actively arguing and presumably planning for armed revolution, it is also necessary to curb the enthusiasm of those who “wink” at the concept of it, who pat elements on society on the head and murmur “There, there, settle down children”, when they should actually be as outraged as us that anyone can actually voice the type of vile propaganda that leads individuals to gun down women’s health practitioners, attendees at a Holocaust museum, or a Jewish school.

We do not pretend to know where or how the line should be drawn in each and every case. We simply feel we know hate speech when we hear it, and we don’t want to hear it. So as a starting point for the debate:

Killing people is wrong. Always wrong. Under any circumstances. It is an inadequate, tragic and awful way for us to resolve our differences, whether with a neighbour over a wall or a neighbouring country over a border.

Killing people is just plain wrong. And saying it’s sometimes OK to kill people is wrong, too.

Let’s just start there, and work on?

I have been doing a lot of contemplating of life, recently. This is hardly a surprise for a creative writer and poet; it is, after all, our “stock in trade”.

But sometimes one’s life events conspire to make one even more reflective than usual, and lead to discoveries that one was not deliberately intending to try and make.

Grief, it appears to me, is one of the more unpredictable, distressing and difficult things any of us have to go through.

And like most lives, mine has had its share.

Before my life really got going at all my father died of a massive coronary when I was just two years old.

Psychological prognosticating that I have engaged in as I settle into my middle years suggests that this event may have had more impact on me than I had previously suspected.

L-R Betty Yolland, Derek Yolland, me, Stewart Yolland

L-R Betty Yolland, Derek Yolland, me at a week or so old, Stewart Yolland

Not only was I alone in the home with Dad for a couple of hours after he suddenly collapsed and died rather inelegantly on the toilet – apparently when people came home I was very distressed and kept repeating “Big man won’t get up …” until I was bundled next door, (an event which I think I recall clearly), but I now suspect the subsequent experience of grieving in the household, indeed, in many of the events surrounding my growing up – the plethora of aunts, uncles and friends conferring sadly with my mother on the memory of Dad and the unfairness of his being taken from us at just 46 – had a considerable effect on how I have subsequently processed emotional matters.

My mother, you see, was a “coper”. Indeed, like many of her generation, she “coped” heroically, and made a virtue of it. She didn’t deal easily with the sympathies of others, and habitually turned them away with a self-deprecating comment.

Of solid Lincolnshire stock, and raised in lower-middle-class respectability in Swansea in South Wales, born in the middle of the Great War and growing up with all the national angst and sadness that implied, she was famously independent, ferociously strong willed – she left school at 15 without telling her parents for six months, which says something about both her and her parents – and demonstrated a stoic acceptance of whatever life threw at her, including Dad’s unexpected demise.

She coped heroically with the Great Depression, with living with a young child, (my eldest brother, Derek, 17 years older than I), under the horrific Nazi bombing of World War II, with Dad being away on destroyers for all six years of the war, with the death of a child, (my “middle brother”, Roger), with the ups and downs of life as a small retailer, and then with the trials and tribulations of impoverished widowhood with another young child to look after.

She was from the generation for whom “stiff upper lip” was more than a badge of honour, it was the only expressive option on offer. This meant, of course, that whilst she was a kind and thoroughly hard-working mother, she wasn’t the most emotionally “giving” person. She didn’t wear her heart on her sleeve so much as tucked away in a hidden pocket inside her voluminous layers of undergarments. I am sure many British kids from the era, whatever their social class, can picture themselves in the description I have just offered.

In primary school, I very clearly remember feeling somewhat lost and other-worldly amongst my contemporaries.

Only one other boy in our coterie had lost a father, and he was so fearfully clever as to eclipse even my better-than-reasonable academic performance and I really didn’t like him much, (especially as he was always shoved in my face as a paradigm to aim for), so I felt something of an oddity, as if the other kids somehow steered a little clear of me for fear of catching the disease of dead Dadness.

All the while my mother was busily coping, and my brother had moved overseas, and I recall plainly wondering why it had fallen to my lot to be moderately poor (in a relatively well off area), without the love and guidance of a Dad who everyone assured me was a great bloke, (which just made it worse), with a charismatic and good looking elder brother who lived seven thousand miles away and who I only saw for a couple of weeks every two years or so, and to cap it all not having all that many good mates either.

(I had some, though, and they know who they were and are, and I am forever grateful.)

I was happy enough, till Dad died. That was the start of a long haul.

In retrospect, then, I had grief as an undercurrent in my life for much of my growing up. And I managed it by doing the only thing I knew how. I intellectualised it away.

I was precociously clever, imaginative to a fault, (I could play alone contentedly on my bed with toy soldiers and whatnot for hours, indeed, I remember the elaborate fantasies I constructed in my head as some of my happiest days of childhood), and so I neatly compartmentalised my brain to deal with my life.

The things I grieved over – the absence of Dad, the distance of my adored brother, the un-reachability of the extended family I enjoyed so much spending time with in Wales, even my mother’s odd remoteness – as I write these words I wince at that word, because it seems so unfair for one who attended to her responsibilities with such care, but emotionally remote she undoubtedly was – these things I plonked into cardboard boxes in my head and stuck them down with sticky tape and did my level best to develop into a “coper” myself.

I repeated this process when I was unexpectedly dispatched to an English boarding school at 11, courtesy of having waltzed my way through a scholarship examination, (without any understanding of why I was sitting it – if I had known, I would have failed deliberately), and promptly found myself ensnared in the most emotionally abusive environment yet dreamed up by social engineers to torture sensitive, intellectually-gifted children.

I was bullied. Unmercifully.

Psychologically, physically – by both teachers and students – for my plummy southern accent, for my enthusiastic willingness to answer questions in class, (usually with the right answer, naturally), for the fact that I was not the biggest kid around (I filled out later, some would say as a deliberate subconscious response to avoid getting kicked in the shins by life any longer), for … well, for whatever reason they chose to dream up on the day, really.

First XV

I am prouder of this picture than most – I finally made the First XV – but looking back, at what cost? Anyway, here’s the proof. And I had nice legs, too.

Looking back, the fact that I did not raid the Combined Cadet Force lockers for a Bren gun and take fifty or so of my torturers out is entirely to my credit and to my development as a coper.

Indeed, ask my contemporaries at that school today and they will confirm that whilst they knew I was bullied, they were also impressed by my leading performances in school plays, as a capable top tenor in the school choir, as a moderately good rugby player (I made the First XV once, and played every other game of the final season of my schooling in an “unbeaten” Second XV – I should and could have played all season in the First XV but key individuals didn’t like me) and generally that I seemed like a capable and well-balanced fellow, for the most part, despite the bullying, who was making a pretty good fist of sharing their allotted time in middle-class prison.

And they were right, in a way. I was damned if I was going to let the system beat me, and ultimately it didn’t. I ended up with a passable liberal education and left on the very first day I could, a couple of weeks before the end of the last term (on some pretext or other) and breathed a very cold “And fuck you all.” as the taxi left the school grounds to take me to the quaint nearby station and home.

The pattern was set. I duly coped when a youthful first marriage went disastrously south prematurely (prematurely, that is, in my opinion, at the time; in later years the wisdom of hindsight has convinced me it was the right decision for both of us). I poured my grief out in poem after poem many of which form the first part of my book. I thought the process was cathartic – it wasn’t. I was crafting on the page a simalcrum, a mirror, an expression of the grief I was feeling, but as if that grief was happening to a third party, not me. The poems are good, and even when edited some 20 years later for publication they stood the test of time as worthy explorations of the psyche of lost love, but as a way of genuinely dealing with my grief they were merely sophisticated boxes and tape.

In time I coped with other broken love affairs (like everyone does, to be sure).

I coped with moving to the other side of the world and feeling most insecure to have done so.

I coped with working in an abusive environment that I had to ensure I stayed in because I needed the money, I coped with … well, whatever life threw at me really.

I coped when my brother died suddenly at 52, just when I thought we might get to spend some quality time together one day soon.

I don’t claim any special credit for this coping, nor am I looking for praise; I simply didn’t have any alternative, because that was how I had been brought up, do you see, and in any event, it’s not as if coping is such a bad thing. Any grief I felt at life’s shitty little surprises I neatly packed up and put away, decided on a course of action, and followed it with determination and even occasional élan.

So this was all very well, I guess, and something and nothing and a testament to the upside of coping, except that in later years the pressure of shoving all my distress and grief away into cardboard boxes in my head became too much.

When something really unconscionably close and awful happened – our first daughter got tangled up coming out, and was taken off life support five days later – it turned out the cupboard was full, there was no more room for any more cardboard boxes of neatly disposed emotions, the grief at an event so unexpected, so cruelly unfair, so immeasurably awful and unpredictable, meant I fell entirely, massively, and utterly into a heap.

Yet even then the effect of this terrible and almost unendurable life-moment was delayed by my innate copingness.

I didn’t know how to grieve. So when Rhiannwen Cari Yolland died, my first priority was her Mum.

I knew what I had to do: cope.

And so I did, I coped for 18 months. I strove to live up to, despite the pressure I was under, my image of being a “good man”. I held down a job with some success, I tried to be supportive to my wife, I didn’t allow myself to become overwhelmed when she was, I tried instead to be cheerful, I … coped. In retrospect, with the benefit of 24 years of reflection, my flaws as a husband during this period are all too obvious and cringeworthy, but I assure you, Dear Reader, I did my best; my best as I knew how. I kept going. And even now, inside you, admit that some of you are nodding approvingly at my traditional, male-role-oriented determination to “carry on”.

Leaving the hospital with Caitlin. I was already near to a complete sanity breakdown, and indeed, my smile looks a bit wan. Nevertheless a wonderful gift: this is known, reflecting our earlier troubles, as the “You got a take home one, Daddy!” moment by my daughter.

Except that then, when our second daughter, Caitlin, was born, I promptly lost it. Altogether. The doors of the cupboard broke open, and within twenty four hours, I was pretty much a basket case.

Unable to grieve effectively, to grieve for so many reasons of which the baby’s death was just the most recent and most dreadful, and with grief accumulated inside my head for so long, I overnight developed a crippling case of Obsessional Compulsive Disorder which made life almost impossible to live, (not to mention its effect on the lives of those around me), and I struggled with it for fully ten years or more before a recovery slowly began and persisted.

My mind simply revolted from the pressures to which it had been subjected for all my life, having been refused the outlet of grieving.

OCD is the most pernicious and awful “mental” illness. It seems tailor-made to torture the “coper” with exquisitely precise horrors. Starved of the chemical transmitters that one needs to function rationally (which are “used up” prematurely by years of unresolved tensions and continual low level stress, and, ironically, used up most quickly, it seems, in individuals of high intelligence) the brain instead erects “rituals” designed to put the world back into order.

If only I tap my foot a certain number of times, all will be well with my day. If I count a certain number of telegraph poles correctly while driving to work, and click my teeth between each of them, it’ll be a good day. If I wash my hands, repeatedly, slather them in disinfectant or antiseptic cream, if I avoid touching anything, then I will never become sick or die, even if my hands become red, cracked, suppurating mockeries of hands. If I never say a word beginning with B, if I never use the number 6, if I always count to fourteen before speaking, if I don’t tread on the lines between paving stones, if I turn to the left and never to the right … the rituals and “rules” are as many and as bizarre as the endlessly creative human mind can construct. And all the while, with all the effort involved, they are completely, utterly, ironically incapable of controlling the world around you, of deflecting the real and natural experience of grief, or of protecting you from the future randomness of life.

That’s why OCD holds a special place in the list of “things not to get”. Not only does it turn you into a non-functioning recluse (at best), but it doesn’t even work. It doesn’t help you cope. The rituals solve nothing. Bastard. Bastard bastard bastard fucking illness. I hate it. Indeed, my hatred of OCD is so intense, it prevents it recurring in my life. My emotions over OCD are untrammeled, un-contained, unreduced. It is a bastard trick our own brains play on us, and my hatred of it is healthy and realistic.

You don’t “cope” with OCD – you can’t. You beat it, or it beats you. You smash it into little pieces, no matter how wild or scared or angry you have to become to do so. And every day, thereafter, for the rest of your life, you allow your mind to revel in its disgust at this vile illness, as you encourage everyone around you to fight it too (it affects about 4% of people and is no respecter of sex, age, social station, or any other divider) by facing up to whatever it is that triggered the brain’s response in the first place.

And that’s why, on this pleasantly warm summer’s day in my comfortably mostly-paid for home in the world’s most liveable city, looking forward to enjoying a meal this evening with my endlessly patient and loving wife and talented and adorable daughter, I am allowing myself to grieve.

Indeed, more than that, I am co-opting you to share the experience, I am reaching out to you to share it, because it is painful, and it hurts, and I don’t want to go through it alone and silent.

As regular readers will know, my dog was put to sleep eleven days ago, and I am not over it. And my rational mind is telling me that it’s silly to grieve over a dog all that much, let alone for nearly two weeks, you imbecile, and my new, pristine, “don’t always try and cope” mind is telling my rational mind to go boil its head.

I work at home. If I didn’t have meetings out, Zach was frequently the only living creature I would talk to in the day.

He would invariably come and lie at my feet, and usually on my feet, or he would lie as close to my office chair as he could, behind it, which meant I would often absent-mindedly “run over him” when pushing the chair back or stretching. This would invariably result in a plaintive yelp but no lasting damage, and an affectionate admonition from me along the lines of “Well, then don’t lie there, then, you stupid animal” as I massaged his toe, tail, or whatever. He never paid any attention to my warnings.

This morning, as I rolled the chair back, he wasn’t there. It hurt. I got hurt. And there’s no one here but you, Dear Reader, to rub my heart and make it better, so instead of rushing on and ignoring my hurt and putting it in whatever battered old cardboard box I have left up there, I am writing to you instead.

See: a little while ago, just before starting to write this article, I did the dishes.

By which I mean, specifically, I walked to the dining room a few times, rescued the dendritus from last night’s meal, and brought it back to the kitchen and stacked the dishwasher. Except today the dog didn’t ploddingly follow me from kitchen, to dining room, to kitchen, to dining room, to kitchen, waiting for scraps to fall off the plates and dishes, whether deliberately or accidentally, as his expected supplement to his daily diet. And I didn’t have to mutter “for fuck’s sake, dog, get out of the way before I break my neck” as he wandered purposefully towards me, looking up with mournful but expectant brown eyes. And he didn’t sit by the kitchen fireplace, rigidly sat to attention, following me with those huge brown pools of light grown cloudy in old age, just in case a crust, a bit of bacon rind, or a handful of left over rice was about to get lobbed in his general direction as the dishes went into the dishwasher.

And because I have vacuumed, again, there are ever fewer of his silken, golden-white hairs inhabiting the nooks and crannies of our home, needing me to pull them off the furry head of the vacuum cleaner and feed them up its capacious mouth by hand, because we’re gradually getting them all up. And one day, there won’t be a single dog hair anywhere in the house, none stuck to any of my socks, none hiding under chairs or behind tables, none floating past the window on a gentle zephyr, and then he will be totally, erasedly gone. Forever.

And it hurts. It hurts like hell.

Please understand, I don’t want you to do anything with my grief. Except listen to it.

Zach
This photograph was taken a few minutes before he died. Our local vets were magnificent, as they had been since the first day we had taken him there for puppy training, a lifetime ago. (If any of you need a caring vet, and you live near us, I’ll gladly give you their number.) They gently confirmed that his lungs and spleen were riddled with cancer, and even if we got rid of the tumour on his skin then the ones inside him were killing him with inexorable certainty, and that he was almost certainly – uncomplainingly – in considerable pain and discomfort. That was why he was coughing. That was why his back legs had gone wonky. It was time to say goodbye.

To their eternal credit, they arranged for us to gather round him as he lay on a comfortable pair of towels, in soft sunshine under a lovely tree. The vet patiently explained what would happen as he died, that it would be very fast and painless, and that animals don’t fear death as we do, and we should know that he was really quite happy, and happy to be with us.

I took him to a nearby water bowl, and let him have a drink, which he did, gently, and it seemed to me, thankfully. I don’t know why, I just think I thought being thirsty was an unnecessary indignity. I knew he was going to be dead in two minutes, but “there’s no reason for him to die with a dry mouth, is there?” I reasoned to myself.

My wife placed her hand reverently on his panting chest as he lay there, and my daughter massaged his velvet ears, as she had done ten thousand times before, and murmured to him quietly how much she loved him. We all said a small prayer, unsure of whether God has a place for dogs, but hoping against hope he does. And then the green liquid flowed into the catheter in his leg, and his eyes closed, and my wife said “There.” Because his chest was suddenly still.

And it was very sad, but it was OK. They let us leave by a side gate so we didn’t have to run the gauntlet of the people in the waiting room with our tears flowing. I took one look back. His giant body lay so still in the dappled light, and he looked simply and contentedly asleep in the garden, as I had seen him so many times over thirteen and a half years, and more than that, he looked at peace. As if the burden of plodding from place to place with the pain inside him and keeping the love in his eyes constantly there despite his trials had been lifted from him, and now he could really, genuinely, finally rest. And it was very sad, but it was OK.

And eleven days later, I miss him every time he doesn’t stick his great, silly, donkey-like head enquiringly round a corner. And right now, my days seem longer and emptier and lonelier. And you know what? It’s OK to feel that, and it’s OK, even, to say it.

That’s my discovery. It only took 53 years, since the day the big man wouldn’t get up.

Thank you for listening.

weapons

This is a deadly weapon ……….. and so is this …………… and so is this.

There is a lot of discussion in the world currently about guns. The recent events in Colorado make that inevitable. And the arguments on both sides in favour of the Second Ammendment to the Constitution in America, and in every other country in the world, will rage on. We do ourselves a dis-service if we do not concede that there is sincerity on both sides, although not in the case of everyone doing to the arguing.

Try to pick this issue apart, I have always said that in my opinion it is the attitude – the desire to carry a weapon, and the acceptability of that – that determines the likely outcome, and the question of an innate a preparedness to engage in violence. Even if that preparedness is momentary, fleeting, instinctive. The effects can last forever.

There is little doubt in my mind that some countries are inherently more violent than others, with less concern about the potential for human injury or death. I have opined many times that the real problem with guns in America, for example, is their casual acceptance of violence – not to mention poverty, disconnectedness, crime and lack of social justice – that leads that nevertheless great country to suffer even more gun violence than even its vast number of weapons in circulation would assumptively lead to.

It’s not just the number of guns in America that matters. It is people’s preparedness to use them.

But guns are only part of the story. We have seen recent high-profile cases in Victoria and New South Wales – but they occur regularly – where a single punch has killed a young man.

I have thrown punches in my life. The thought now horrifies me. A single punch can kill. When will we learn?

So it is surely the duty of all parents, all teachers, and all law enforcement officers, all social workers, all churchmen, all imams, all politicians, to promote one simple fact.

Violence – other than, PERHAPS – in self-defence (a matter for another article) – is unacceptable, under any circumstances, because violence, even minimal violence, even violence without serious intent, can maim or kill.

Another tragic case today

Today, the Victorian Supreme Court has heard the story of a 15-year-old boy, who fatally stabbed a mother of three after “egging” her home, and that he would be considered just “a naughty little boy” had he not been carrying a knife.

However, he was. And the teenager has pleaded guilty to manslaughter, after he killed a 43-year-old woman with a single stab wound to the chest. She died of severe blood loss.

Prosecutor Mark Rochford told the court the teenager targeted the house with his friends, after he told them the woman’s son was bullying him after school.

The court heard that the woman, her husband and 11-year-old daughter gave chase after eggs were thrown at the roof of their house, carport and cars in July last year.

The boy, who was 14 at the time, ran away and was hiding in a nearby driveway when the woman confronted him.

He was armed with a knife that he had been given by his friend. It was described as being “no bigger than a pen.”

Mr Rochford said the woman said “we’ve got you” before running at the boy, who then stabbed her.

The teenager asked his brother to get rid of the knife. It was found by police divers in a lake.

Friends gave him up

The prosecution said the boy shaved his head to try and avoid detection, but he was arrested at his home after his friends went to police.

The boy’s lawyer said causing the death of a person was hard for a 14-year-old to digest and his client was deeply remorseful.

“He is not a child who was off the rails at the time,” he said. “He is no rat-bag.”

Indeed, the court heard he is a very timid, quiet and withdrawn boy with no history of violence. The defence submitted the boy should be sentenced to three years in youth detention.

Justice Paul Coghlan questioned whether it was enough, given that he was armed with a knife. “Apart from the knife, they were just naughty little boys,” the judge said. However, he said, the boy had chosen to take a knife to what was a childish prank. The boy will be assessed by youth justice and will be sentenced at a later date.

“Why would anyone think it necessary to have a knife?” the judge asked.

Why, indeed?