The many ways a life can unravel

I get a lot of people coming up to me for a chat when I’m with my daughter, so it wasn’t a surprise when we were sat in the cafe and a woman, perhaps in her sixties, wandered over to us. Her opening gambit was to stare at my daughter in a mildly unnerving manner, which worried me a little, but when she started talking to me it was the usual questions “what’s her name?”, “how old is she?” and so on.  This woman had a tendency to repeat herself, and her memory seemed like it might to be starting to go a little, but it wasn’t the difficult conversation with the crazy stranger I had been concerned it might be.

A few minutes later, a man she was with, a little younger, wandered over too, his conversational skills consisting mainly of non-sequiters like “we’ve been to Derby on holiday”, but he was pleasant enough, and my daughter happily munched away on her croissant while I chatted with these strangers. Presently the man wandered off, and the woman seemed as if she was going to leave too, but changed her mind. She started to talk about the man, it becoming apparent he was her son. “He has that Aspergers, have you heard of it?” “It was hard, because they didn’t know for a long time” “It was hard”, she kept repeating.

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On Joy Devotion – Jennifer Otter Bickerdike

Today is an important date in Joy Division history, as Unknown Pleasures was released on this day in 1979. But one month from today is an even more significant date. July 15th 2016 would have been Ian Curtis’s 60th birthday, and that date is being marked with the release of a new book, Joy Devotion : The Importance of Ian Curtis and Fan Culture. I was lucky enough to contribute a chapter to the book, but its’ existence is due to the hard work and devotion of its’ compiler and editor, Dr. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike. To mark the book’s release, Jennifer has contributed to On a Good Day the following, very moving, piece on how Joy Division helped her to cope with the loss of her grandfather. 

I don’t know if you have ever watched anyone you love dying. It is horrible. It is slow, slow slow, and yet there is not enough time left for anything.  All the things you hoped you would have time to do with them, all of the things you wanted to say- it’s now or never. That is how it was with my Grandfather. He was the man who had taught me some of the most important and treasured skills- how to swim, how to surf- and most importantly, how to have confidence in myself and not let fear overwhelm me, even in the face of the seeming ridiculous.  The things that are most important to me- the ocean, the beach, the Central California Coast- those are all directly presents he shared with me and have been the most precious places to me for over 40 years. And yet there he was- the tower of a man, always throwing me over his shoulder, or helping me repel down the side of his three story house- yes, true story- withering away into nothingness under the scratchy hospital sheet. I will never forget the most profound thing ever said to me.  It was one of those days when I had brought him a bunch of random gifts to the hospital, anything to make things in the sterile environment at least a bit more homey- a boom box with Dave Brubeck CDs (the entire catalog- nothing was too much to show my love), some home cooked muffins, some pine cones from the Douglas Firs outside.  He looked into my eyes and he said, ‘Jenny, there are so many things I will never get to do.’ I wanted to say, ‘No! There is plenty of time,’ but my grandfather had taught me not to lie, even if it would make the immediate situation a bit more palatable.  We both knew it was true, and there was nothing neither of us could do about it.

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So they let him leave the hospital to die at home. He was still totally copasetic- it was like his body was literally failing him, giving him two huge fingers up, while his mind remained completely untouched. He never said he was scared, he never complained.  He spent a lot of time giving me messages to give my Grandma after he had passed. ‘But why don’t you just tell her yourself?,’ I would ask him. It was clear that men from that generation just did not share those feelings with others.  Until her death over a decade later, my grandma would thank me every time I talked to her- which was often- for giving her my grandfather’s platitudes post mortem.

I don’t remember how we knew it was nearing the end. I just remember we were all at my grandparent’s house. Grandpa had finally lapsed into unconsciousness, but it was clear he was in a lot of pain. My dad was trying to give him some morphine on a little soaked sponge, anything to assuage the suffering. Then we heard it- what is called the ‘death rattle.’ It is horrible. It is like a mad snake in the back of a graveling throat. It seemed ages between each breath in and out of my grandfather’s labored lungs. Part of me just wanted him to die, so the entire horrendous ordeal would finally be over. The other part of me just could not believe it- that I was sitting here, by the side of the man who had contributed so much goodness to my life- that momentarily he would be no more.

My grandparent’s house was set on the cliffs in Carmel, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was usually foggy at night, as the clouds would shroud the sea and the sky.  But this particular evening, it was clear. My mom whispered softly into my grandfather’s ear, ‘It’s a beautiful night for a trip.’

Then he was gone. I don’t know if it was my mom’s urging to join the crystalline horizon, or it was just his body finally giving in to the inevitable consumption of cancer. If you have ever see an immediate before and after of someone you love, before and after they die, I don’t think there is any way you can NOT believe that something has changed. Everything that had made him was gone. The coroner came and zipped his body up into an anonymous black bag.  But it was just the shell.

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That was when I really relied on Joy Division. I remember driving back home that night, after the ambulance had pulled away.  I got about two miles from my grandparent’s house, when I just lost it. I sobbed, and sobbed, huge, snotty, mournful, screaming cries. I had to pull the car over to the side of the road. All around me were strawberry fields with the winter moon illuminating the fragile leaves. Everything was still and quiet. Except my entire world had been destroyed. The man who could make everything alright was gone. I just sat there in the car, probably for over an hour, pounding the steering wheel and wailing, rewinding ‘Novelty’ and ‘Disorder’ over and over and over.

It didn’t end there. For a period of about 6 months after my grandfather passed away, I would etch ‘Joy Division’ on my arm with sharpie before going out. I was thirty years old, and totally ill equipped to deal with emotions and loss.  I could write a mean marketing plan for a Grammy winning band, but I could not accept death. I would go out, get super drunk at clubs, and have to be carried out sobbing by my friends as the reality of never seeing my grandfather would hit me ten or twelve gin and tonics in.  During this time of self destruction, of confusion, of pain, it was Still, it was Closer, it was Unknown Pleasures– over and over and over again- that kept me from fully going over the edge.  No amount of praying, whisky or carton after carton of Ben and Jerry’s could reach me the same way that a Joy Division song could. I knew I would get through this, if I could just get to the end of the song.

It is almost 15 years ago since my grandfather died. I miss him every day. I wish he could see all the insanely amazing things I have done, and how I have tried to live fearlessly.  I will always be so indebted to Joy Division, though, for being the soundtrack to those days without hope, the days when there seemed like nothing good could happen again.

Dr. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike is a media and music academic, specializing in fan culture, the cult of dead celebrity, pop culture and music. She has written and presented extensively on fandom and media, including The Guardian and has recently been featured on BBC Radio 4.  Formerly a music executive where she worked with acts including Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Dr. Dre and Gwen Stafani, she now lives in London and writes and lectures full-time.  Her newly edited book, Joy Devotion:  The Importance of Ian Curtis and Fan Culture is out July 15th on Headdress.  For more information, go to jenniferotterbickerdike.com
Dr. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike
@JenOtterBickerd

 

 

Blog – 20 Years

Yesterday marked 20 years since my dad died. Hard to believe it’s been that long, or that he’s now been gone for well over half my life (and my entire adult life). One of the  first pieces I wrote on this blog was about him, just before I became a father myself. Now that I am, I wonder what it was like for him, with four children by his first marriage, two (including me) by his second, and a stepdaughter by his first. Is it possible to have a close relationship with all of your children in those circumstances, to really know them? How did he feel about his kids?

I wonder too, when my daughter will start asking about him. We have a couple of pictures up in the house, and have told her that the man in the photograph is daddy’s daddy. She’s aware that she has one grandad who is around (even if distance prevents us from seeing him too often), but is too young to understand that her other grandad is not. At some point we will have to explain, and that conversation may be the first time we have to broach the subject of death with her.


The question I am most dreading from my daughter though is “What was we he like?”. Because the truth is, I don’t know the answer.  My parents separated when I was five years old, and after that I saw him at most one weekend every fortnight. When I grew into a selfish teenager it was not even as often as that. And how well can you ever really get to know someone as a person when you’re a child?

From what I do remember he was a quiet man, fond of routine. We had the same lunch (tinned hot dogs, chip shop chips, tinned peas) every time we visited. As far as I recall he was not ill-tempered, with us at least, and did his best to find ways to keep us entertained. He was a typical northern working-class man in many respects, fond of darts, dominoes, rugby league and traditional seaside holidays. I remember sitting with him helping him check off the results of the football pools on a Saturday afternoon, and placing pretend bets on the horse racing.  No doubt though, there was far more to his character than these scant memories suggest.

As the years go by, my already patchy memories fade. I feel I know him less and less. I’m barely in touch with his side of the family. My mum and I have talked of him, but infrequently. My sister and I rarely talk of him at all. There is no-one I talk to about him who also knew him and can help keep his memory alive.

The thing is, I don’t even know whether this makes me sad or not. My mum has never liked to speak ill of him in front of me, but I know enough to be sure he did not treat her well. He and I were never close, and I’m not sure we would be now, were he still around. I also have enough people close to me whose relationship with their fathers is at best a mixed blessing to know it most likely would have been the same for me.

Then, I have other friends who have lost fathers they loved without question, and my own sadness at the loss of my father sometimes feels fraudulent compared to theirs. At other times I feel guilty for not feeling sad enough. Truth be told, I don’t think I have ever grieved properly. Each year, at this time of year, I remember him, and think I should do something to mark his passing. I never do though, and the chance to truly grieve is missed again. No matter how complicated my feelings are towards him, he’s the only dad I ever had, and I can’t keep letting these years slip by.

MBW

My memories of Bowie

Back in November I wrote about the Day of The Dead, and grief and loss. It felt like I’d been writing a lot about those  subjects in 2015, so as I wrote that piece I made a silent pact with fate. By writing about this one more time, I’m drawing a line under 2015, and 2016 can be a year where I don’t lose anyone I care for, or any musicians who matter to me, ok?

Sadly, fate has a way of ignoring this kind of pact, unspoken or otherwise. Little did I know however, how quickly 2016 would fail to keep its’ side of the deal. The first thing I heard when I turned on the radio on Monday morning was “this is not a hoax” and the news we had lost David Bowie to cancer. I was surprised at just how upset I was. I’m not usually affected so badly by the deaths of musicians, and I can’t claim to be Bowie’s biggest superfan. But somehow this was shocking, significant and hugely sad.

I thought of my memories of Bowie. My formative musical years, were the early to mid 1990s, which coincided with Bowie’s grunge and drum n bass periods. I think it’s fair to say that these were not Bowie’s peak creative years (although I retain a fondness for some songs from the era, such as Little Wonder, below) so I didn’t quite grasp how important he really was, even though I read about his influence and history in the music press often enough.

Glastonbury 2000 was my moment of Bowie revelation. I nearly didn’t even watch his set (god knows who I had been planning to see instead), but changed my mind at the last minute and headed to join the thousands and thousands of people at the Pyramid Stage. I was rewarded with one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen, as classic song followed classic song, almost the entire crowd bellowing along to every word. During the set I had the thought “oh, so this is where the bands I like got all their ideas from” (Suede, I’m looking at you in particular).

From then on I delved into his back catalogue a little deeper, finding out what a diverse, innovative and influential artist he really was. But he still wasn’t such a huge part of my life in many ways. He kept mainly out of the public eye, not feeling the need to maintain a huge media presence and his new material was sporadic. He’d crop up in a cameo in Zoolander, or championing some new band (he never lost his love for new music. Pixies, Goldie, The Arcade Fire and TV on The Radio are just a few of the bands younger than him who he covered or collaborated with).

So, I didn’t have too many direct memories of Bowie, compared to those who grew up in the Seventies and Eighties, but he never seemed to be too far from my mind, especially since I met my wife back in 2009. (David Bowie I Love You) Since I was 6 by Brian Jonestown Massacre became one of our favourite songs. I remember dancing to Let’s Dance at an alternative Eighties night in Brighton, and wandering down the street singing “Blue, blue, electric blue” on another night out.

Still, Bowie was mainly on the periphery of my life, so I’m surprised my grief at finding he’s gone, just as I was surprised at the impact it had on almost everyone I know, young to old. He touched all our lives, from my wife’s grandma who she remembers singing Starman in the kitchen, to my friend’s toddler who can do the handclaps in Space Oddity already.  I think he was just one of those people who we always expected to be there, until suddenly he was not. It felt more like the loss of a family member than the death of a celebrity.

So I spent Monday at work moping, with my headphones on, listening to his music. Even now I discovered songs I wasn’t familiar with before (My Death, his cover of a Jacques Brel song, is astounding, and I previously had no idea he’d released a live album from Santa Monica, where my wife grew up). I then went home and spent the evening lamenting with my wife, talking of our Bowie experiences. I was just about to go to bed when the house phone rang. A phone call at that time is rarely a good thing, and so it proved.

Whereas the death of Bowie had felt like the loss of a family member, this actually was. It was my mum calling to say my grandpa had died. He was nearly 90, had been unwell for some time, and no longer really knew who I was. I can’t claim we were extremely close even before his illness, but he was still my grandpa. Many of my happiest childhood memories also belonged to him, even he could no longer remember them himself. Somehow a day which had begun with such bad news had ended with even worse.

Not the way I had hoped or expected 2016 to begin, but I take comfort in the fact that both Bowie and my grandpa lived remarkable lives, in their own very different ways (my grandpa grew up in Poland during the 1920s and 1930s, which may give you a clue). Cliche it may be, but the only lesson we can take from this is to enjoy and appreciate our lives and live them to the full, as one day, be we 49 or 69 or 89, they will end.

David-Bowie-Memorial

El día de los Muertos

2015 has been a wonderful year for many reasons, not least watching my daugher grow from baby to child. I feel perhaps more contented this year than I ever have before. But it’s also been a year of loss, with death and mortality never too far from my mind.

The first piece I wrote this year was on Broadcast’s Trish Keenan, love and loss. My father, who passed in 1996 has been in my thoughts more than usual, now that I’m living back in Leeds, just round the corner from his old flat. A more than usually high number of friends and colleagues seem to have lost people close to them this year, although perhaps these things are just affecting me more now than they ever did before. Most significantly, back in March, my friend Nick Mann was killed in a tragic accident, and he and his death have been on my mind ever since.

Me and Nick, with beer unsurprisingly
Me and Nick, with beer unsurprisingly

Once you start thinking about death, you’ll find reminders everywhere, often where you least expect them. I remember sitting down with my wife to eat a takeaway the week after Nick died. We were searching for something light to watch with our meal, and settled on Series 2, Episode 2 of Inside Number 9. If you’re not familiar with the series it’s a comedy, dark and macabre at times, but essentially pretty silly. However, this particular episode proved to be one of the most devastating half hours of TV we’d ever seen, especially given the news we’d just had (I won’t spoil it, but it deserves to be seen if you haven’t already). By the end of the episode I was weeping into my falafel wrap, but also half laughing at what a spectacularly bad choice of entertainment we’d made.

Inside Number 9, Season 2 - Episode 2
Inside Number 9, Season 2 – Episode 2

Even watching Peter Kay’s Car Share, which is about as gentle as comedy gets, made me sad when they started talking of what song they’d have played at their funeral. I used to joke that I’d like the theme music to Johnny Briggs as it seemed the most jaunty and inappropriate tune imaginable for a funeral, but it’s not a subject I’ve wanted to joke about so much recently.

With mortality so much on my mind, I’ve found myself pondering more than usual what life would be like if I lost someone close to me. It’s not unusual or wrong, I think, to worry about these things, but I’d rather enjoy the company of those I love than spend time worrying about what would happen if they were no longer around.

The one person whose death I have never been able to think about is my daughter.  There’s no reason I would want to think of such a dark topic of course. However I now know a number of parents who’ve lost children in vastly different circumstances, from my friends who lost their son Theo, after just a few hours of life, to Nick’s mother, losing her oldest son completely out of the blue. So, in a way, it wouldn’t be surprising if I imagined losing her. However, when I say I it’s impossible to think about my daughter’s death, I don’t just mean that it’s difficult or tragic to do so, I mean I literally cannot. If my mind even begins to wander in that direction, it shuts off or changes tack completely, a protection mechanism of sorts, I guess. I’ve even found it hard to write this, feeling somehow that death, especially the death of a child, is a taboo subject, but the one thing that everyone I know who has lost someone close has said is that they want people to talk about it, to not be afraid to bring the subject up.

day of the dead

Today, in Mexico, is the Day of the Dead, a festival to celebrate and remember those we have lost, and that seems a much healthier attitude to death to me, even if it is an attitude that I sometimes struggle to hold. I’ve just read back the tribute I wrote for Nick back in March, and my main emotions are the time were sadness and anger. That’s still the case today, but I feel it’s starting to change.  Should I be sad that Nick is no longer around, or happy that I was lucky enough to know him for 15 years? The latter, of course, even if it is easier said than done.

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So today, and this day every year, I’ll be with the ones I love the most and remember those we have lost. I’ll remember Nick and smile at his ways. For some reason the time he chased two burly men who had stolen his chips up Oxford Road in Manchester always springs to mind, as do his fits of giggles at the clown college episode of The Simpsons. I’ll remember the good times with my dad, the trips to the seaside, the games of football in the garden, the staying up late watching Monty Python. I never met Theo, but I’ll remember his funeral, and how much love and support from friends and family was in the house of my friends that day. And everyone else we have lost, or will lose as the years roll on, I will remember them too, until I become one of those who is remembered.

Just as importantly, I’ll think of all those I love who are still here and how lucky I am to have so many people in my life who make me happy, even if I don’t see all of them as much as I would like. Some of those people will be reading this, and if so, I hope you know who you are, but if not I promise not to wait until it’s too late to let you know.