Poignant Publication Days by Julia Jones

The final ‘Bernie Gunther’ thriller, Metropolis by Philip Kerr was published last Thursday.  So was Nicci Gerrard’s What DementiaTeaches Us about Love. Missing from the celebrations were Philip Kerr, who died from cancer in March 2018, and Nicci’s father Dr John Gerrard whose ‘catastrophic’ decline and death in 2014 was the starting point both for John's Campaign and for the much wider concerns of this passionate new book.

At the pre-publication party for Metropolis Philip Kerr was represented by his wife Jane Thynne who quoted Philip Larkin’s famous line, ‘what will survive of us is love’. She would have been as aware as anyone in her audience that this statement, in context, is not unadulterated Valentine’s Day schmaltz.  Here is the last verse of  Larkin's ‘An Arundel Tomb’:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

When my father, George Jones died, suddenly from a heart attack in June 1983, he and my mother were in the process of divorce. It had been acrimonious and upsetting and one might almost have wondered whether the stress contributed to his end. When the news of his death came through, Mum sat for days with the curtains drawn. His body was brought home and my brothers and I made all arrangements – cremation, memorial, interment – and by the time we’d done that, the slate had been wiped. It didn’t matter that Dad’s current inamorata was at the memorial service. Mum was the widow. I think she'd already forgotten that she'd considered anything else.

My youngest brother
& our own 'Arundel Tomb'
She was a widow, then, for almost 36 years, longer than the 33 years they’d been married. As her dementia progressed she forgot what Dad had looked like much more quickly than she forgot her own father. When we visited his grave she always wept for someone she had loved -- though she mightn't have been quite certain who. Last week we did as she'd wished and interred her ashes in the same plot. I felt a moment of oddness. But it passed. What will survive of my parents is also love.

An author, Jane reminded her listeners,  is additionally survived by their books. Many writers will recognise a feeling of urgency to get a book finished, as if we’re subconsciously uncertain that we’ll live to see it through, but Kerr had already received a terminal diagnosis. Metropolis ‘was conceived and written entirely while he was dying’. He wrote all the time and everywhere, said Jane ‘even in the chemotherapy suite’. 

Jane Thynne & Philip Kerr
None of this pressure shows in the novel – I get no feeling of famous last words, or that the author is trying too hard. Metropolis is a prequel to the Bernie Gunther  series. It's set in 1928, ten years after WW1 (the year Eric Maria Remarque published All Quiet on the Western Front and Siegfried Sassoon The Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man) and Gunther cannot forget the trenches -- however much he drinks, .  The city of Berlin is doing its best to blot out the past in an orgy of decadence -- a modern Babylon. A killer decides that the city would be a better place, and the past more effectively buried if prostitutes and crippled veterans were cleared away. So he kills them.

Jane is coming to the Felixstowe Book Festival in June to talk about her own brilliant Berlin novels – the five books in the 'Clara Vine' series. These are set a decade later when, for instance, children with birth defects or learning difficulties might be considered better off dead. Aktion T4, operating out of a building at Tiergartenstraße 4 in Berlin, also required German hospitals and institutions to produce lists of patients with schizophrenia, dementia, paralysis, and other incurable conditions, who were then rounded up and gassed -- clearing thousands of hospital beds. Baroness Mary Warnock (who died last month) shocked many of her admirers in 2008 when she suggested people living with dementia might be helped to kill themselves if they felt they were a burden on their families or the NHS. 'But I don’t WANT to die,’ my mother repeated endlessly, desperately, certain that this was what was planned. On her unhappy days she felt surrounded by potential killers and it was only three days before her actual death that she ceased objecting. Others admired Warnock for her courage in raising this question.

Nicci Gerrard’s balanced discussion of individual suicide pacts in What Dementia Teaches Us about Love has attracted considerable attention in the interviews surrounding publication. I was surprised to discover that I felt sorry for the intellectual couple she interviewed in Utrecht ‘Our life was and is a life of thought. When that goes, well – it’s no longer our life.’ They will request euthanasia according to the recognised legal process in the Netherlands. Clearly a correct decision for them -- but I still hope there is more to existence than thought only. I’ve recently read Wendy Mitchell’s account of the early stages of her dementia (Somebody I Used to Know) and found myself fascinated by the changes she records in her values and perceptions as her brain ‘softens’. Many of these changes are distressing and disconcerting but there are gains as well:  a new appreciation of small things, an unexpected affinity with animals.

Wendy Mitchell & her daughters
The losses caused by dementia are huge but Nicci also gives generous space to a daughter who describes her mother’s condition as ‘a difficult gift’ and explains how much she gained from her time spent caring. It's so much easier, however, as Nicci points out – and Wendy Mitchell would agree – to be ready to care for someone you love than to accept being cared for by them.  Wendy's pre-dementia self had worked so hard to give her daughters a happy upbringing as a single mum and she absolutely rejects the role reversal involved in them becoming her ‘carers’. But, as I remember one of Nicci’s loving daughters saying, ‘what if we WANT to care for you?’ There are some wry and delightful passages in the new book which record Nicci’s appreciation of her own mother: frail, gallant, muddled, vital. Is she a burden or a ‘difficult gift’? Dementia does indeed have much to teach us about love, both individually and collectively – if we can allow it to do so.

‘When you’ve met one person with dementia … you’ve met one person with dementia.’ I wish I could remember who said that – someone wise ... Nicci will probably know. She's also coming to the Book Festival so I'll ask her. Dementia is an illness so entwined with the developed personality but also, often, so shockingly random, so unexpected and unpredictable. (I used to think of Mum, sometimes, as a boat without ballast, horribly liable to tip her passengers overboard.) It’s reckless – and perhaps dangerous – to generalise about dementia, yet almost impossible to write a book or hold a public discussion without some use of the plural pronouns. Nicci offers a selection of other people's individual experiences and opinions to expand  her own reflections. Jane Thynne's mother also died with dementia and I hope she'll join our discussion in Felixstowe. All of us challenged and struggling to do what we hope for the best.

I will bring my mother to Felixstowe in my heart but the person whose spirit I would choose to hover over our conversation is Nicci’s father. She describes him as ‘a stoic’ someone who ‘believed you must simply and with dignity endure what life hands you’. Yet in his own family life, caring and cherishing, he did his daily utmost to improve on this, for others. Like his daughter in her eloquent, imaginative way.


Jan Needle said…
Important and uplifting and sad. As usual. Thanks
Julia jones said…
I must cheer up! I will. I am. If only people didn't keep on being so bally heart breaking. HOWEVER bilge and ballast work on PD is now complete, one coat of anti fouling on and IF it woudl just stop raining I will make a start on the topsides. THEN there's be a little more spring in my step....might even manage a down river blog by May 9th ...
Bill Kirton said…
This made me want to write so much in appreciation of the wisdoms in it and, overwhelmingly, its humanity, but I'm too small. I have a sense of the grandness of its truths, its importance - for young and old - but I don't have the words to convey it. It's not much of a comfort, but at least the constant is the universal presence of love. Thank you, Julia.
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you, Julia, for this important and moving reminder of our shared humanity
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you for posting so candidly about this with such wisdom and compassion. I cared my father through the mid-1990s - always a robust man - who suffered with dementia in the last years of his life. I know the feelings of instability, helplessness and frustration that can this mean for an entire family. Few books and events dealt with dementia and families until a short while ago. Best wishes and good luck with the festival and your writings.

Popular posts

What's the Big Idea? - Nick Green

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

The Splendid Rage of Harlan Ellison - Umberto Tosi

Misogyny and Bengali Children’s Poetry by Dipika Mukherjee

A Glittering Gem of Black, Gothic Humour: Griselda Heppel is intrigued by O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker