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Michael Rosen on his Covid ordeal: ‘You are a different person after something like that’

The beloved children’s author is speaking at Hay Festival about his near-death experience and the people who saved him. He talks to Roisin O’Connor about his new book, recovery, his feelings on herd immunity, and the haunting loneliness of hospital wards

Tuesday 25 May 2021 09:39 BST
Michael Rosen: ‘I get flashbacks of times in hospital, and, at the very least, it’s a bit uncomfortable'
Michael Rosen: ‘I get flashbacks of times in hospital, and, at the very least, it’s a bit uncomfortable' (David Levene)

I’m looking at Michael Rosen through my computer screen and trying very hard not to cry. Not because he’s being a brute – Rosen would no doubt be a strong contender for World’s Nicest Man – but for the sheer fact that he’s here. He’s alive. Barely a year ago, this fact was very much in doubt. In March, the award-winning poet and former children’s laureate rang 111 with what seemed to be the symptoms of a virus. He was told to take some painkillers. A few days later, he was rushed to intensive care with Covid-19, and spent most of his time there in an induced coma. He pulled through. Just.

Like so many children, I was raised on Rosen’s books. I was hooked on the schadenfreude (I’d learn the word years later) when the narrator of Chocolate Cake was busted after raiding the fridge at midnight. I joined my brothers on bear hunts through the woods. I asked my mum if, like Eddie in Quick, Let’s Get Out of Here!, I could have two birthdays. Before Covid, these stories were what Rosen, now 75, was most famous (and universally adored) for. But after his ordeal, he’s coming to terms with a new identifier. He’ll be out for a walk and encounter complete strangers who stop him in the street to say, “Well done!” He calls it “the ill coat”, the way in which he is now associated with that period of illness. It’s something he’ll be addressing at Hay Festival – which begins today – in a panel appearance with doctors Jim Down and Rachel Clarke.

“It’s quite a difficult thing, because you are a different person after something like that,” he tells me over Zoom. He’s at home in north London, looking very well despite everything he’s been through. There’s something distinctly cartoonish about his appearance: the big ears, the toothy grin, the eyes that widen – lifting his entire face – at each question. “There are three people: there’s the person before, there’s the person during, and there’s the person after.” His interest in the nature of that fracturing keeps him going, he tells me.

Rosen’s new book, Many Different Kinds of Love, shows him attempting to familiarise himself with “the person after”, but also trying to fill in the blank pages the coma left in his memory. It’s a poignant collection of poetry, prose, and emails and letters from Rosen’s family and the people who cared for him. He holds up his hospital diary to show me the handwritten entries from doctors and nurses. One from his physio, Claire, reads: “You are now resting in bed listening to your playlist which I am also really enjoying! I used to listen to Dave Brubeck’s quartet with my mum – and tried to learn the saxophone and failed miserably. KEEP GOING!” The writing is accompanied by Chris Riddell’s illustrations, which are gothic, scribbled, haunting. His early versions of Rosen have hollowed eye sockets and gaunt cheekbones; they stare vacantly from hospital beds and out of windows. It’s a shocking contrast to the cheery, colourful work of Rosen’s regular collaborator, Quentin Blake. But it makes sense as you read his faltering, pieced-together thoughts. For the first 150 or so pages, it’s as though the colour has been sapped from him.

“I get flashbacks of times in hospital, and, at the very least, it’s a bit uncomfortable,” he says. It’s the loneliness that haunts him most. “Mostly I was quite successful [dealing with it at the time] but actually all you’re doing is suppressing it, hiding it.” There are moments where he’s at home alone and it comes back, “whoosh”, like a corridor between the past and the present. “I’ve written a poem about being in the lonely corridor,” he says. “My LCS, my Lonely Corridor Syndrome. You have to find something to do to deal with it.”

He’s not entirely sure how or where he caught Covid. He speaks of friends who posted on Facebook about “battening down the hatches” from 1 March 2020, after the World Health Organisation raised the alarm. “There were people saying, ‘Well, I figured it out, so why didn’t the government?’ And I think, ‘Well, why didn’t I? Why did I go on visiting schools? Why did I go and see Arsenal play?’” He went to the stadium twice, about two or three weeks before he fell ill. He’s still furious with the government for discussing the idea of “herd immunity” last year, a plan that would have relied on a large percentage of the UK population getting the virus. “They made a calculation that this virus wasn’t really going to affect people under the age of 70, that the over-70s would get it bad, and people with underlying health problems get it bad.” Of course, thousands of people would die, too. Rosen asks a question that seems to have a definite answer: “Can you call it ‘callous’ if it’s calculated?” He posted a tweet shortly before falling ill himself, sarcastically commenting that old people didn’t matter.

He’s back on Twitter now, with a vengeance. In November, he had a run-in with Spencer Morgan – the son of former Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan – who claimed he had yet to meet someone whose experience of Covid was worse than the flu.

“My oxygen saturation level was 58,” Rosen responded. “If my wife hadn’t taken me to A&E I would have died within hours. I had blood clots in my lungs and bleeds or clots in my brain. Lost sight in eye, hearing in ear, feeling in toes. Flu?”

Morgan wrote back: “I haven’t met you.”

“Yes – I was due some good luck at some point this year,” Rosen retorted.

The author describes the way in which he is now associated with his hospitalisation for Covid as ‘the ill coat’ (David Levene/PA)

More recent tweets take aim at Brexit, at education secretary Gavin Williamson, and at Priti Patel’s stance on immigration. Rosen is bemused at the post-war nostalgia that permeates so much political discourse, something I suggest is an “Enid Blyton fantasy” evoked by Brexiteers such as Nigel Farage, of lemonade and cucumber sandwiches and rolling green hills. Rosen, who grew up in a Jewish family in Middlesex in the Fifties and Sixties, calls it a form of dog-whistling, and says politicians should be “very careful” when deploying it. “You only have to lift the lid on some of the terrible things that did go on in the Fifties,” he says. “The way in which children were treated, the kinds of abuse that took place [at schools]. And worse.”

He feels there’s never been any sense of “mass guilt or shame” on issues such as the British Empire. Just last year, a poll showed that a third of the population believed the British Empire left its former colonies “better off”, sparking questions over how – or if – citizens are educated about our bloody history of slavery, massacres and mass torture. “We’ve never had to deal with that as a national conversation until now, so it’s all kind of shock-horror: ‘Why do you expect us to be guilty for things that our forebears did?’” Rosen says. But it’s not so much a demand that we feel guilty, he points out. Just that we acknowledge the ugly parts of our history as much as the others.

Where certain politicians insist on glorifying the past, Rosen is keen on moving forwards, as willing to educate himself as the people who devour his books. He scolds himself when I ask what he thinks of the Women’s Prize shortlist (“I missed that, sorry. That’s my own sexism at work”), then listens as I explain the longlist controversy surrounding trans author Torrey Peters – that she was targeted in an open letter by writers, several of them anonymous, who claimed that Peters’ inclusion was “an insult”.

“I feel very uneasy when society excludes people because of who or what they are,” Rosen says. “At the very worst end of that spectrum are the Nazis, so that we use that as almost like a yardstick. What did the Nazis do? They persecuted gays, transgender people, the mentally ill, the ‘criminally insane’, as they called them, and then Jews, Poles, Czechs, Gypsies, Travellers, and so on. They were trying to create something ‘pure’, in their terms.” Rosen’s own family experienced this first-hand – his 2020 book, On the Move: Poems About Migration, was inspired in part by research into his great-uncle and great-aunt who were murdered at Auschwitz.

“So if you then flip that, and say, well, what’s the opposite, it must be a form of inclusivity,” he continues. “The moment I can see people dismissing the right of somebody to say who they want to be, I get worried.” He says his 20-year-old daughter, who is studying at university, continues to “school” him about issues of gender: “I’m on the sidelines, modestly waiting to be informed.”

Maybe people are more open about [grief] because they have to be

Michael Rosen

Compassion has always been at the core of Rosen’s work. In his Sad Book, he navigates through different kinds of grief like a meteorologist pointing out the various forms of clouds. It was released in 2004, about five years after the death of Rosen’s son Eddie, aged 18, from meningitis. I wonder if he feels the way the public talk about grief has changed at all over the past 12 months, whether we’re more open about it or have yet to fully process everything we’ve experienced.

“There hasn’t been a time in my lifetime when quite so much illness and quite so much death has been, as it were, daily news, so there must be some change,” he responds. When Eddie died, he found people were “very open and caring and thoughtful, and gave me space to talk about it, if I wanted to, and didn’t intrude”. Then at work, he found it was actually “quite helpful to just get on and do stuff. Maybe that’s a blokey thing, but I found it quite helpful.”

“I wouldn’t be able to put my finger on it,” he says, of this perceptible shift in the public mood. “Maybe people are more open about [grief] because they have to be.”

Rosen has already given me more than an hour of his time, and he told me at the beginning that he can get dizzy if he talks for too long. So we say our goodbyes, and suddenly I want to tell him – though the lump in my throat returns and prevents me from doing so – that I’m very glad he’s still here.

Many Different Kinds of Love is out now. Michael Rosen is speaking at Hay Festival 2021 on 27 May

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