Blessay 49: My Mother, Dennis Potter and The Language of Dying

With China still on my mind I discovered an article that I sent to The Guardian in late 1994. They didn’t accept it but the “Society” features editor found it touching. A few changes and updates have been made, but the piece remains essentially the same and I’d like to share it with you.

Before I flew to Beijing in April 1994 I carried out two important acts. I watched Channel 4’s Melvyn Bragg interview with Dennis Potter (That later resulted in the book, Seeing the Blossom.) and I visited my mother just after she was admitted into a residential care home. That June, when I returned to London, Dennis Potter died shortly after and my mother a fortnight later. There’s no obvious connection between them but their attitude towards death and the language they used still haunts me.

Dennis Potter (Funny, touching and risky) deliberately ‘stage-managed’ his death for a television audience of millions. With Melvyn Bragg as interviewer, cigarettes and a flask of liquid morphine, he eloquently spoke about his life and writing. By then both the trivial was now more important for him and the important perhaps really trivial.  He thought that a great deal of authentic experience had been cruelly sold back to people (Now termed consumers not citizens) for a spectacle of facile mocking.

“Now, the world that you and I came into, television or radio, when we came into it, I’m not saying it can be preserved as it was, and I’m not saying there mustn’t be change, but that world was based upon a set of assumptions that are almost now derisible. We’re destroying ourselves by not making those statements. Just as we’re destroying our television. Week by week, day by day, I see it.”

Yet the process of dying was giving Potter a perspective on the “nowness” of things.

“…the blossom is out in full now…it’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but its white, and looking at it, instead of saying ‘Oh that’s nice blossom’…last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest that there ever could be, and I can see it.”

Potter’s TV ‘death’ was a highly articulate and heroic leave-taking. Manipulative but joyfully so. For Dennis Potter (Probably Britain’s finest TV playwright) no longer gave a bugger about what he said and we held on to his every word.

My mother Florence had none of the philosophical sharpness of Potter when it came to describing her life. She’d left an orphanage and school at the age of fourteen with the most basic of education. Mother was now 83 and her speech was drying up. But when younger she could talk and talk. It was that colourful, if repetitive talk that I now missed. It carried such feeling, stubbornness, enthusiasm and a wilful determination never to be seen as old. She had rheumatoid arthritis, not helped by needing a zimmer frame to get round – the result of two ‘botched’ hip replacement operations. And eight months previous she kept falling down too much and was in hospital for a check up.

On a cold November afternoon in 1993 I travelled up from London to Liverpool. When I arrived I found her sitting in a chair, in a transit ward, staring straight ahead. She displayed a shocking gaunt vacancy. I had to prompt her to make a sound. Then without looking me in the face she asked me questions I’d heard many times before. “Are you going on holiday, soon? Do you like it in London? Its cold today, are you wearing your scarf?”

Dennis Potter needed no rehearsal for his interview. My mother probably did. For her words conveyed an almost valedictory sub-text: lines she needed to internally memorize and convince herself that this was really happening (“My life is finishing. It’s funny that it has too.” Who’d have thought I’d have ended up here…waiting.”)

I tried not imagining this, wanting to shut it out and dump my anger on the nurse who’d left mother, staring in a hard chair, for more than an hour, next to an even older woman moaning in her sleep. Mother never made a fuss. “Why didn’t you ask to moved back to your ward? “ I saw no bell or cord to pull for attention. She tried to crack a smile through the vacancy. “Oh, it’s alright” A sad cadence fell on “alright” forcing me to reluctantly translate it as “I can give up now, can’t I?”

Dennis Potter as a cultural icon, controversial writer and generous man wasn’t going to be opaque and merely drop hints about dying. It was his last interview. And he was smiling upfront about death (Of course my mother was also smiling but I couldn’t see that.)

Mother’s first sign of death was made the previous summer by telephone. She’d given me that third person statement again but with a difference.”Yer mother’s not very well…I don’t think they can do anything else for me…Yer mother will just have to put up with it.” Her resignation shocked me. Made me indignant. How dare she give up? Cease bothering to accept another box of useless paracetamol and ineffective lotion; stop believing that she’d get better by herself (Mother was very strong-willed) beyond her new indifferent doctor and an under-funded heath authority.

On Christmas morning of 93 she couldn’t concentrate on the television and was untypically falling asleep too much. She woke up, barely made it to the toilet, arrived too late and wet herself. I heard her embarrassed crying from the bathroom and my brother Derek helping her. I looked back at the living room. On television Harold Lloyd was performing daring gymnastics on the ledge of a skyscraper. After lunch I prompted her to talk. She sang instead, launching into a sad medley of twenties and thirties songs finishing of with the tacky cheeriness of Ken Dodd’s “Happiness.” She’d always wanted to be a singer.

Potter, the great radical of popular culture, spoke of the potency of cheap songs as having “…something of the Psalms of David about them. They do say the world is other than it is. They do illuminate…” If god exists (And I doubt it) then the tiny divine bit in mother was awake. Potter’s sense of god is acceptable. “…the shreds and particles and rumours, some knowledge that we have some feeling why we sing and dance and act.”

During my childhood Mother’s talents surfaced in her emotional intelligence – a kindness and selflessness to others, her ability to listen and a psychic skill to read fortunes – those tea leaves in a neighbour’s cup being a mere act. “It’s the eye in my forehead” she insisted. Nothing directly artistic. No education. No support early on.Her energy being authentically put, like most women of her generation, into being a good housewife (which she was). No ‘bigger’ meaning than that. None necessary.

By February mother couldn’t manage living on her own. In the same month (ironically on St.Valentines day) Potter learnt of his terminal cancer.

The bright, over-clean residential home was ready. Mother was still in hospital so I went home to sort out a few things for her. In her wardrobe I discovered, inside an old hat box, a miniature brown envelope about a quarter of the size of a weekly wage packet. On the outside mother had written births, deaths and remembrances. Inside where three small cuttings from the Liverpool Echo – funeral tributes to my father, mother’s sister Jessie and her brother Stan. And amidst a wardrobe drawer of old birthday cards, letters and two out of date insurance policies I found my government identity card (defaced by childish scribble) for the year of my birth, 1949.

I packed some clothes into mother’s suitcase. All this rapidly going through her effects felt intrusive. Me (not her) deciding what was needed, what could be junked. It was the first short prelude to death. The putting things in order stage. Mother couldn’t handle it. Dennis Potter announced to his TV audience that he had done so.

“Obviously I had to attend to my affairs as well. I remember reading that phrase when I was a kid. He had time to tend to his affairs…”

The last time I saw mother I wheeled her into her room (Number 15) and tried to relax her. I sat watching her drink the chicken soup I’d heated up. Gradually the glazed appearance she’d caught from the communal lounge (That she hated) began to fade and we had a normal conversation. We returned to our old intimacy. I comfortably felt I was ten years old again, and it was my lunch break before returning to school.

According to Potter he had the most sensitive of doctors to keep him alive. The G.P. “gently and carefully” led Potter to a “balance between pain control and mental control.” He still had two television plays (Karaoke and Cold Lazarus) to complete and realised that working flat-out was shortening the little time left him.  Projects where his priority, his food.

“Morality teaches a serene acceptance of those ills which science and technology are powerless to abolish – pain, disease, old age. It claims that the courageous endurance of that very condition which lessens us is a way of increasing our stature. If he lacks other projects, the elderly man may commit himself to this. But here we are playing with words. Projects have to do only with our activities. Undergoing age is not an activity. Growing, ripening, ageing, dying – the passing of time is predestined, inevitable.”

Old Age        Simone De Beauvoir

Potter’s life-project was his writing, my mother’s was handfuls of courage. Her project was to embrace life and have it vividly self-dramatised in her stories – those repetitive monologues about the past. She constantly looped fact (her two dead sisters) with fiction (Her unseen neighbours). She haunted herself silly with memories. She couldn’t write. She couldn’t dance. Or sing well about it. And when she unwisely moved away from her house to a first floor box of a council estate, the neighbours stopped visiting. Yet she continued to self-dramatise; remain a working-class woman raconteur of limited experience and the life of the distant street. All this was long before the small signs of dementia (conditioned or organic) that preceded her death. Her artistic distraction was an embroidery by numbers picture kit. Her hands threaded the wool, allowing her to dream and remain optimistic, in spite of a struggle against eighty plus years of sad contexts.

A severe stabbing pain came to her right side and she told no one. Only when my brother Derek visited her one day did she admit to its intensity. I think she intuitively knew it was the final pain (the post-mortem said gall stones with complications: brought too late to hospital and I suspect her will to live had gone.) I wasn’t present at her death but my brother was in the ward. He rang me at a quarter to midnight saying they didn’t know what the scan had revealed but it was unlikely she’d last the night. I put down the phone preparing myself for a long wait. But Mother didn’t even make it to midnight. She passed away whilst I’d spoken to Derek.

What am I left with?  The language of her death, months before her real death, tearing through my dreams. I foresaw it on my long overnight train journeys in China. From Shanghai to Beijing she and my deceased father, appearing re-united in death, kept telling me not to worry as during my Silk Road journey they kept falling down flights of broken steps.

I never dreamt of Dennis Potter but whilst travelling two interview words kept ringing through my head. “nowness” and “vocation.” Mother never used such terms. But she was a regular participant in the “nowness” of the moment. Like the loud laughter issuing from her when she remembered such a moment thirty-five years ago. Alone in the house, she’d been pasting a strong vinyl covering on the wall behind the gas cooker. She stepped backwards to admire her work and placed her foot in a bowl of smelly glue. On pulling it out, the paste went and stained her other foot. (At her funeral I recalled the divine comedy of her mad glue predicament)

Finally, the Potter word “vocation.” A career or calling. I write respectful of a need for professionalism but the voice that says you must do it is integral. I knew I was a writer since the age of fourteen (Those absurdly verbose compositions on gardens and the River Mersey.) But the 54 years since then have been stormy, causing me to forget the duty and the pleasure.

Thank you Dennis for reclaiming that wonderful term. Thank you mother for supporting my “vocation.” It was all part of your unspoken vocabulary which I’ve long ago acknowledged, accepted and taken responsibility for. From the language of dying, subtly entwined in our lives, that we silently rehearse from the moment we are born hopefully emerges a way to shape a good life.


Blessay 48: The Ins and Outs of China

I’ve done a great deal of travelling but rarely written about it at length: an occasional essay, material for a poem and incidents that sparked a short story. Guide book travel writing hasn’t appealed.  Extended lyrical travelogue has. I’d loved to have produced a book as illuminating as Lawrence’s Sea & Sardinia or Henry Miller’s book on Greece, The Colossus of Marousi. Yet I’m personally unsure of writing a long travel narrative. I feel happier with scraps of notes backed up by a few photographs.

Travel holds three things close to me – escapism, confrontation and reflection. They’re mental zones I inhabit whilst physically exploring a country’s sights, both famous and banal, during my getting on and off buses, boats and planes. The idea of adventure or misadventure is very appealing. And though I shall never be a keen Lonely Planet researcher I do hold on firmly to the title traveller and not tourist. Too many years of backpacking (though recently the backpack has been replaced by the shorter trip bag) have kept me an independent visitor.

A critic friend of mine has just returned from covering a film festival in China. Her photographs caused me to dig out some notes on my own 1994 visit. Two pieces in all. One about ‘misdemeanours’ in the Peoples Republic. And one on The Great Wall.

(1) It’s 11 am in Urumqi in the North West province of Xianjang. The railway station is as hard and grey as most buildings in this muddy and doggedly ugly city. Train tickets for tomorrow go on sale from 9.30 – 11.45 and then 1.30 – 4. By 11.20 there are still ‘thousands’ in front of my partner and me. But the queue (like most queues in China) is deceptively long. Few actual travellers are queuing. Clustering round every ticket purchaser is an entourage of friends, relatives or black-market hawks. They function as an impatient Greek chorus, minus a tragedy, shouting noisy comments that quickly burst into flurries of rage or laughter. There’s now a large group of people departing to the other side of the steps to examine two pairs of tickets, handed round like precious stones.

11.30. An old man wearing a dusty peasant jacket walks towards us and then stops. He stares in disbelief at his ticket. The evidence of his eyes is nakedly insufficient. He asks the younger man following him to confirm things. “Yes. Yes. Yes. Fine. Fine…Fine” (I don’t need English subtitles to get this) All the crucial pieces fit to transform the old man into a triumphant passenger. He starts kissing the ticket, then lifts up his eyes to the broken station roof. In his joy is he thanking the gods or a high-up railway official? Bribe or answered prayer he turns and happily departs. We’ve been shown it’s possible to come through, become a passenger.

11.40. Now it’s our turn. We trust our smidgeon of ticket purchasing Pin-Yin Chinese won’t be dismissed as being hilariously inept. I’m peering through the tiny arch (designed for small children) in the ticket clerk’s window. I slide through a piece of paper. It has, in Pin-Yin, which no one understands, all my instructions: student double underlined and some carefully copied Chinese characters. Two bright read student cards try to back up my case. The clerk looks doubtful. I reveal a grubby phrase book and mark the word student again. It makes no difference. Our evidence has to be approved. She takes the cards and disappears. A tense two minute wait. She’s back. We are approved. But we want four tickets and only have two cards. Part mime and part speech follows. “Yes. Yes. Four. Yes. Other two students sleeping at hotel. OK?” My hands indicate they’re snoozing. It works. Four Chinese-priced, soft sleeper tickets are handed over.

Like all the good citizens of Urumqi we celebrate, but not with a glance towards heaven but each other, smiling. An obvious black-marketeer stares, peeved at our success (All we’d have got from him was  a hard seat to Chengdu – three nights of the radio always on, lights never off, a squashed fruit and peanut shell ridden floor, spitting everywhere and smoke ridden pain).

Next day 7.30 am at our hotel. There’s a knocking on our door. It can’t be another delivery of vacuum flasks of hot water, which was done at 7. We ignore the persistent knock and go back to sleep. At eight I get up to discover a note (in English) that was slipped through the door.

“Ladies and gentleman, welcome too our hotel! But our hotel haven’t the right that receive foreign friend. So you and your companions can’t stay in our hotel. I must say sorry to you. Today, you must leave off our hotel and paid the room rent. Thank you!”

Two nights ago the relief manager allowed (after some haggling) to let us in. We’d suspected that the hotel might be a Chinese guests only one – they exist throughout China, and if they don’t obtain police permission to take foreigners, would face a large fine for doing so: this still holds true for my Lonely Planet guide to China of May 2013. Yesterday there was much collective grinning and nervous excitement from the hotel staff. Now this message.

Luckily the morning of the note is also the morning of our departure to Chengdu. We all get up and go out to buy food for our journey. On our return we discover a tall policeman posted outside the hotel who prevents us from going in to get our luggage. He stretches out his Great Wall of China arms and says NO. We retaliate, shouting and ‘building’ our own wall of English and American protest. The department manager appears and ushers us back in to avoid further embarrassment.

We are asked to hand over the room keys. We then follow a member of staff to our rooms. She opens them and snaps in English that we have one minute to collect our luggage. We do and step out. She then rushes in to examine the room; probably making sure the hotel property is intact. When finished see looks suspiciously at me and touches my bulging backpack. Does she imagine that the bulges are caused by vacuum flasks and Chairman Mao coasters? Maybe sensing the absurdity of that thought she pulls back. Back in the lobby, she and the manager walk us to the door. We stop. They stop. The policeman reappears with his extended arms. Its time to move quickly on to the station.

After boarding the train, and given the heat of the day, we’d like to have a nap. But the piped music of our compartment is unforgiving. A tape of militant orchestral music, sounding wobbly and off pitch sounds almost an apology for the Cultural Revolution. This is followed by a soupy arrangement of the slow movement from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. Being first class ticket holders we naively assume we have first class power to turn it off. But a volume control isn’t to be seen. The distorted Russian soup begins to slurp down into the deepest recess of our eardrums. A guard appears, checks our tickets, discovers the switch, turns up the volume and leaves.

The volume switch is now disturbingly locked. In desperation one of us clambers onto the top bed to examine the loudspeaker. I hand him my Swiss army knife. He takes off its case. Two frail wires are screwed to the speaker cone. They are unscrewed. Silence.* They’ll not be screwed back until we reach Chengdu. There’s a brief reflection on how serious this interruption might be rated in the Peoples’ Republic. Long ago, in the politically turbulent sixties, some of us might have been good Maoists and have been charmed by such muzak. But all the good Maoists of the western world could never quite make it over to the East.

*Our escape from music proved temporary. Four days later, in our Chengdu hotel room, we were woken up at 6am to a communal speaker, placed on a roof, in the middle of town, booming out more military bands to accompany pre-work, keep-fit exercises for the populace.

(2) London, just after midnight. I’m looking out of my window at an intensely clear full moon. I imagine myself as an astronaut returning from the moon and gazing atEarth. The story was that The Great Wall of China was the only building that you could see from space. Alas, this proved to be myth. Even China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, who went into space in 2003, said it wasn’t visible.

“The Great Wall of China cannot be photographed. It is not a line of stones on the ground. It is an idea. It is not even a wall. It is many walls built roughly over 2000 years by different dynasties.”

Daniel Schartz.

By moonlight I can browse through my large book of photographs by Daniel Schwartz called The Great Wall of China. They’re as hauntingly beautiful as any moon or space shots. The book’s text includes Borges’s famous essay, The Wall and The Books. The first Chinese emperor Shi Haung ordered the building of the wall, to keep out his enemies, and the burning of all books, as his opposition drew upon them to praise the emperors that pre-dated Shi Haung. Borges speaks of a tenacious wall that “casts its system of shadows over lands I shall never see.”- referring not only to Borges not physically being on the wall or other politically repressive spots but the writer’s encroaching blindness.

I have my own photographs of the wall. Without the aid of Schartz’s wide angle lens I still achieved a passable image. My triptych image at Mutinoyou (90 kms from Beijing) glued together from three photographs taken on that hot day in early June 94.

The wall photographs remind me of standing on the real wall. Over the centuries it was a means of fortification and defence from enemy tribes. A metaphor for non-admittance and secrecy. A holding on to its power and knowledge as guardedly as The Forbidden City. Whist Shi Haung’s actions, in attempting to suppress and obliterate what had gone before him, begin his own clean slate of rule with a disturbing blankness – repressing history, self-knowledge and awareness of death.

Within months of returning from a very distant country it’s easy to feel that you merely imagined you’d been travelling. Even with all the photographs, videos and notes the mind sends so much of our experience hurrying down a disssapearing river.

My forgetting or erasure of the real Wall in the real China, began the moment after I photographed it. I tired myself out walking along a very small portion of the wall – a remorseless, undulating structure on rough mountainous terrain, that despite breaks in the wall, offered no relief: it makes for crooked, and when smoother, more vertiginous surfaces and hundreds of steps to climb. And in spite of tired legs and feet I felt I was moving through an idea more than a reality. That the wall’s presence, its form, now lived on as an aesthetic force* more than the evidence of the ethic and cultural control of a deluded Emperor.

“Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belaboured by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should have missed, or are about to say something; this imminence of a revelation which does not occur, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.”

     The Wall and The Books                 Jorge Luis Borges


I visited the Mutinoyou section of the wall on my last full day in China. China is not an easy country to travel through. I don’t mean getting to the places that a traveller is forbidden access. The obstacles are its bureaucracy and the Chinese character. Not losing face isn’t just an Eastern cliché but a reality (Arguing about the cost of an item, of clothing or a bus driver not stopping at the right stop and causing a swearing match.) Defeat is not admitted. Walls of resistance are built up. Such walls of Imperial memories and state control (running parallel with the warmth and felicity of ordinary people on the streets of Beijing or say Gansu province – made up of other non-Chinese nationalities and not recognised as citizens of the Republic) do palpably exist.

Yet I can’t end on a possibly intimidating note, for I experienced many pleasures, much humour and beautiful scenery in China. Sailing along the enormous Yangtze River (Before they built the wall of the Three Gorges Dam) where at the end of the journey my plastic bag of rubbish was blithely thrown, with many others, into the river. The cuisine of Szechuan was always sensually outstanding (Though the quality of food throughout China was variable – a street market meal could be delicious whilst some very pricey restaurants served junk.)

The look of horror on the face of Madame Wu, landlady of a hotel and bar in Yunnan, when she realised that it was Friday and her customers would inflict drunken karaoke on her. The  wonderful Tibetan monastery town of Xiahhe, in the hills of Southern Gansu; rows of glistening golden roofs, lines of prayer wheels, donkeys galore, the market and meals in the monks’ café, all unforgettable. My shock at experiencing the Europeanised wharf area of Shanghai for it reminded me of The Pier Head waterfront of my home town, Liverpool. A trip to the desert. The beautiful gardens of Suzhou. And the vast scale of China’s geography. Parts of China are so ancient and uninhabited. Inside its plains, with tremendous mountain ranges, you could fit huge chunks of Scandinavia, and most of the Scottish Highlands, round the corners and they’d still look lost.

*At junior school I was forced to memorise the names of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.” The three that most fascinated me where The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, The Pyramids of Egypt and The Colossus of Rhodes. The first for its musical sound and image (As Schoenberg’s song cycle, of the same name, revealed to me much later) the second for those pyramid shapes enchanting my child’s eye and the last because the colossus (A Greek statue of the sun god Helios) no longer exists and colossus became a word I loved to shout out in the playground. The Great Wall of China would be my eighth wonder of the Ancient World. To represent the wall’s power I will simply stretch out my arms and encircle you like my hotel policeman, though not taking orders from emperor Shi Haung.