‘The land of life’: Muswell Hill’s Michael Rosen on surviving coronavirus, the NHS and returning to writing
- Credit: Archant
“These are the hands that stop the leaks, empty the pan, wipe the pipes, carry the can, clamp the veins, make the cast, log the dose and touch us last.”
Michael Rosen spent 48 days in intensive care with coronavirus at the hands of the NHS. Thankfully, his last touch sent him home, to Muswell Hill.
In 2008, when the children’s author crafted and calibrated his words in tribute to the NHS on its 60th anniversary, little did Michael realise how they would take on meaning in his own life.
“The NHS saved my life at least two, possibly three times, so there’s an immense sense of gratitude and affection,” he said.
“An hour or two either side could have killed me. It was touch and go.”
Back on home territory, Michael, 74, told the Ham&High he’s relishing his time writing and spending time with his family.
However, the physical and mental scars of the virus remain.
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The writer, who has penned children’s classics such as We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Little Rabbit Foo Foo, has lost most of the sight in his left eye and all of the sound from his left ear.
His toes are numb; his memory is “a bit fuzzy”; his arthritis has worsened and his voice has weakened.
He doesn’t yet know if the blood clots have been cleared from his lungs, and he’s started to bald. But his humour is healthy.
“I laughingly say to my son ‘I’m going to look like Pep Guardiola,” Michael said. “Although being a Gooner, I’d rather look like Mikel Arteta.”
In June, at a rehabilitation hospital in St Pancras, the poet spent three weeks learning how to stand and walk again.
“I remember the physiotherapist coming to my bed and saying: ‘Now, we’re going to get you to stand up’ – and I couldn’t. My legs were just jelly.
“I was panting and gasping. I remember I couldn’t do it, then I sat back in the bed and it was an extraordinary relief.
“I’d just been through some huge ordeal – standing, aided and helped, for about four or five seconds. That was it.”
Gradually, the former children’s laureate found his feet using a Zimmer frame and then a stick which he nicknamed Sticky McStickstick.
To build his confidence he walked between parallel bars, as he would throw and catch a football to develop his stomach muscles.
Now, back at home and climbing his stairs, Michael completes a regular exercise routine including leg lifts, mini squats and mini press ups.
He’s able to go for short, calculated walks in Muswell Hill.
At Alexandra Palace, while Michael poses for photos for this article and he jokingly but effortlessly practices his French, a few passers-by wish him well.
At one point, Michael waves to TV chef John Torode who is walking his dog through the park.
“I can walk around the block here in Muswell Hill and do 30 or 40 minutes,” Michael said. “I do the chemist, M&S and W Martyn all in one go.
“I can carry things as my upper body is quite strong, so that’s good. And I write.”
While Covid has forced Michael to “improvise” with some of his primary senses, his poesy appears unperturbed.
Since coming out of an induced coma at the Whittington Hospital, the former children’s laureate wrote his latest book, Rigatoni the Pasta Cat, in a couple of days.
He’s also “scribbled” away on a series of poems about migration, drawing on his childhood in a Polish-Jewish family living in London, and the killing of his relatives in Auschwitz.
Another of his recent works rethinks William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, mapping it onto the dreams of a 12-year-old footballer.
“Writing I find wonderful,” Michael said. “Fiction is a lovely space to be in because you invent and imagine.
“The page is your friend because you go to it and it doesn’t answer you back. You can write all sorts of abusive things about yourself and it doesn’t answer you back.
“You can even write abusive things about other people if you want, so long as you throw it away.”
The poet’s brush with death has renewed his sense of purpose, which he attributes in part to his vulnerability.
His love for his family, however, has only been reaffirmed. The writer has a wife, four children and two stepdaughters.
His second son, Eddie, died from meningitis aged 18 in 1999, and Michael closes our conversation with a story from Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, soon after his son’s death.
“There was a woman who was weeping by the grave of her son so I went and spoke to her,” Michael recalled.
“She said that her son had died in an accident. I asked when and she said ten years ago.
“I remember feeling that of course she was entitled to be in pieces and upset about it, but I felt at the time that she was, in a sense, living in this territory with death, rather than with life.
“So now, though I’ve been with death, I don’t want to live in the land of death.
“I want to live in the land of life, fully aware that just over there, there’s death. So that’s how I live.”