Wednesday, 30 April 2008

A night of magical thinking

This happened on December 30, 2003. This may seem a while ago but it won’t when it happens to you.

And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you.

This is what I’m here to tell you.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing Mike Leigh’s new film, Happy-Go-Lucky, since I first heard about it. A cheery, hope-filled, life-affirming piece of cinema filmed in my own backyard with none of Leigh’s usual strained relationships, awful revelations or sudden deaths to trigger my miserabilist tendencies.

I was intending to go to see it this week. Tuesday night looked good. Instead I had tickets to see Vanessa Redgrave in The Year Of Magical Thinking at the National. Written by Joan Didion and directed by David Hare, it’s a 100-minute, no-interval, one-woman tour de force based on Didion’s best-selling memoir of, in Hare’s words, ‘the madness that overwhelmed her following her husband’s death’. The play also takes in the death of Didion’s daughter, aged 39, just 20 months later.

I went to see it with my best friend and soulmate, Anna, who’s been through more than her share of death and tragedy. Her dad died when she was a teenager, and we nursed her uncle, mother and brother through illness and death together during the mid-1980s and 1990s. Adopted as a child, she traced her natural mother when she was dying, saved her natural father from alcoholism and the streets (he never drank again after she found him) and nursed him through his death in 2002. Last year we lost our best mutual friend, Paul, to a stroke. There’s more – too much to tell. Suffice to say that Joan Didion’s writing and Vanessa Redgrave’s recital of it chopped away at every raw sinew of grief and loss with an honesty and absolute lack of consolation that captured whole what Didion knows to be the true meaninglessness of death.

What David Hare describes as ‘madness’ doesn’t seem like madness to me. Didion’s ‘magical thinking’ is a way of coming to terms to with death that doesn’t actually deny its reality but allows the mind to pretend that the deceased aren’t really gone, that they live on in your thoughts, that they can somehow come back if only you believe it, make it possible, alter the circumstances that led them to die, keep their shoes because they’ll need them when they do return.

I’ve never seen an audience in quite the state of the one that left the National’s Littleton theatre last night. Red-eyed, shaky, shell-shocked; in touch with a thousand different bereavements, all dissimilar and all the same. The details will be different but it will happen to you. Even the applause at the end had a different timbre to the ordinary; not so much a celebration of a great performance (and oh, but it was) as an acknowledgement of having been in the presence of truth.

Didion describes in her book and the play her ‘craziness’, the lengths to which she would go to avoid what she calls the ‘vortex’ of grief. Mastering every medical and other detail of the events leading up to and surrounding the death that she determinedly avoids naming as death. Meticulously planning her days and her movements to steer clear of any person, place or memory that might take her thoughts spinning out of control and into the vortex. Believing that you are okay, you are strong, you are in control, you can control events, even these – that if you keep that belief, keep that control, your husband, daughter, lover, friend, will be safe, will be well, will come back. In the absence of any belief in an afterlife, what other comfort is available to you?

A few people in the audience found it all too much. A few had to leave. No one could depart untouched.

An insomniac at the best of times, my personal vortex last night took me into a whirling spiral of departures.

My grandad, who killed himself when I was nine; my grandma being led from the court screaming that it wasn’t so when the coroner delivered his verdict; my dad denying it to this day – it feels like some sort of betrayal to write the truth even now. My best friend Brian, when I was 17, whose heart gave way, the valve to his left ventricle opening and not shutting as he watched Match of the Day with his dad and brother, a few days after the hospital had declared the operation to give him an artificial valve on the opposite side a success.

My friend Dave, whose wife was a former lover, who died of a skin cancer that moved faster than our ability to get to California to see him. Karina, the sister of my first true love, who I also loved and was killed by another cancer before I even knew she was ill. Paddy, George Melly’s son, killed by a particularly pure batch of heroin when his tolerance was down after having given up the habit for a while. Bill, who died of Aids when there were no drugs available to treat it. Eric, my sister’s lover and a man who showed me more kindnesses and friendship in the brief year that I knew him than I could have hoped for in a lifetime. Rose, Anna’s mother, and Len, Anna’s brother, who were as dear to me as my own mother and brother. Paul, our friend. The list goes on but I cannot. This feels like a naming of the parts that have made up my life and as I do it I feel the vortex pulling me in and I have to stop.

Life, if you live it well, is an ongoing deceit. It is based on the pretence – the madness, if you like – that it has meaning. It doesn’t in the end. That is just the lie that we tell our children to let them sleep at night.

We live, we die, and all we can do in the meantime is to make the most of it, to care for ourselves and for each other.

And tomorrow night I’m going to see Happy-Go-Lucky.


Jane Pritchard said...

Brilliant writing. Just brilliant.

Probablyblonde said...

I agree, really brilliant but its left me feeling very sad. I saw Happy-go-lucky a couple of weeks ago and can recommend it for cheering anyone up, if temporarily.

Interval Drinks said...

I second the comment about brilliant writing.

Yes, we did have very different reactions to this and reading your thoughts on the play made me think about why.

Having read the book recently and found it so moving, I was surprised I didn't feel more when watching the play, but I think that was partly because I had just read the book - so all those shard-like details of her pain were already known to me. Some time and distance may have made quite a difference I suspect.

I have also been fortunate enough in my life never to have had to deal with the death of someone that close, so many of the emotions and processes described remained abstract, I didn't make the necessary personal connections a work like this requires. But the fact that for many people it is clearly a deeply affecting production does make me reconsider my somewhat flippant response.

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