Review: “Good Grief” by Catherine Mayer and Anne Mayer Bird

In the 1980s, our bookshop had no computerised systems and often customer requests were vague (“It’s about history, and it’s green”).

Customer, irritable manner: Do you have a shelf on bereavement?

Me: Er, let’s try the General Non-Fiction or Psychology sections? (Self-help, even in Hampstead, didn’t have its own shelf then.)

Customer, impatient: That’s not what I had in mind.

Me (hauling volume one of British Books in Print from under the counter): I’ll look under B for Bereavement but do you know a title or author’s name…?

Customer, tearful: How could I know a title, I didn’t know I was going to need it!

A wiser colleague took over. I’m still ashamed of my insensitive response and not sure my youth was an excuse.

In this New Year without fireworks there are many more bereaved. Here’s children’s author Shirley Hughes on widowhood in the Oldie:

“(After 12 years it’s still hard), but I’ve kept working. I go to my studio every day at half past nine and I’m on deadlines. Working keeps your brain in your head. During the week I was holding it together but you can’t work all the time and weekends were, and still are, absolute hell without John. But I started writing a novel and… it kept me going. What really kept me going was my three grown-up children… and my seven grandchildren; I see a lot of them.

But what about bereavement during a pandemic, without extended family visits? (What’s the right verb – do we negotiate/manage/undergo/suffer/survive bereavement?) My first read of 2021 was Good Grief, by journalist and activist Catherine Mayer and her mother Anne Mayer Bird. They were both widowed within six weeks at the turn of 2019/2020, supporting each other through the aftermath as Britain entered lockdown. Anne found herself writing to her husband John, telling him about current events and how she missed him, her difficulties and successes, setbacks (including falling victim to cruel fraud) and support, the government’s Covid failures and how John’s garden was pushing ahead into spring without him. Catherine wraps these letters with her own reflections on losing husband Andy Gill. She describes how his loss undermines her day-to-day functioning, notes how she can mourn, plan and celebrate, tries to eat healthily, exercise, work and maintain morale. It’s all additionally affected by lockdown. Anne and Catherine dislike the common “keep busy” advice given to the bereaved. I remember my father and the widower of a very close friend both swearing by it. accepting all invitations, travelling, theatre-going, having friends to stay. The Mayers couldn’t, whether or not they wanted to. Their memories of coping with previous bereavements are comparative studies of a different society.

Good Grief is a thematic but not a chronological account. We meet two funny, clever, kind men several times, and they are repeatedly taken away. Two funny, clever, sad women celebrate them during and after bereavement. Some of the (welcome) humour is laugh-out-loud funny, some wincingly awful – the condolence message sent through a courier service that kept Catherine awake with postponed delivery alerts; the unbelievable crassness of an aeroplane passenger’s remark to the suddenly widowed woman in the next seat. But most of the humour here is humour in the old-fashioned sense – an imbalance of body and mind. Bereavement is a physical and emotional upheaval, no matter how expected and even when a “blessed release”. Those left behind change inside and out; they experience heat and cold differently, their digestion alters, their reactions slow and may be inappropriate; their thoughts take surprising paths. There are questions, what-ifs, guilt, regret, memories galore. Grief’s ambush can’t be quelled; it just bursts out elsewhere.

These are two very personal takes on becoming a widow. Some reactions will resonate more than others, as Anne’s worry did with me: how, without John, to reach the top cupboards and master the TV remote? Meanwhile Catherine creates the hashtag #lovelydead to celebrate Andy. Using social media may support many and let’s hope they’re not trolled as she has sometimes been. Some potential comforts disappoint: Anne wants to revisit the film Truly, Madly, Deeply, whose laconic hero (Alan Rickman, himself now among the #lovelydead) haunts a mourning Juliet Stevenson. This time round, Catherine and Anne find it mawkish, fictional grief that can’t comfort real grievers. (I think Stevenson’s acting could illuminate a shopping list and was disturbed by their dismissal of my favourite scene, but then I’ve been lucky, my own 2020 more frustrating than grief-filled.)

The Mayers struggle with what Catherine calls “sadmin” and “dread tape”. So, everybody, please: write and update your will; make your funeral/memorial wishes known; tidy your financial affairs and tell someone you trust your passwords. These loving acts reduce the practical burdens of death.

Faced with such pain, why “Good Grief (apart from the professional journalist’s knack for a punning headline)?  Welcome it, was the message I received. Grief discards trivia and reminds us what really matters. Grief puts the dead centre stage and celebrates them. If they hadn’t been so loved, we wouldn’t be so sad. Without grief, we can’t continue living.

It so happens my third novel describes bereavement from the point of view of the dead. My main character can’t RIP until problems are resolved and conversations finished. I’m still hoping she’ll find a publishing home in 2021. Meanwhile, or as well, if Good Grief had been available in the 1980s, I’d have suggested it to my customer, to perhaps reflected some feelings, help her pause for breath and support her moving forwards.  

© Jessica Norrie 2021

What can I say?

It’s Friday again. Unusually, I haven’t made any notes for today’s blog post during the week. I’ve done no writing or editing either in the past seven days. But if I don’t post, it’s the start of a slippery slope, a particular shame as I approach next week’s Blogiversary. So what can I say?

One good reason for not writing was reading. I finished On Golden Hill, which I thought one of best books I’ve read in the past couple of years. It’s a spoof on early English novelists like Sterne and Smollett (at least, I think it is. I’ve never read them, just accumulated enough literary bric a brac over the years to think I would know what to expect if I did. And now along comes a 21st century author with an easier to penetrate, shorter pastiche so I’ll never have to.)

On Golden Hill 2
Detail from cover of “On Golden Hill”

There are great characters – the hero, with the deliberately neutral name of Smith, his friend Septimus Oakeshott, a complex, poignant, wily figure, Tabitha the peculiar heroine, who echoes Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and the mysterious, tragic but ultimately strong slaves Achilles and Zephyra. Slaves from A-Z, you see? The descriptions of New York in the first decades of colonial settlement are fascinating, and the research into detail impressive – for example 18th century theatre craft or how citizens kept clean. There’s an amusing device, presumably Sternian or Smolletesque, whereby the narrator begins a minute description  – of a card game, for instance, or a duel, and then stops short, telling us he doesn’t have enough technical knowledge and we shouldn’t pay him any credence. Tabitha struck false for me almost from the beginning to the end, but otherwise, this was a stylistically impressive, richly entertaining story with, at the end, a surprising twist that reminded me I was reading in the present day after all.

Then I galloped through the latest Nicci French, Saturday Requiem. If you’ve been with this series from the start, on Blue Monday, you’ll be familiar with psychotherapist Frieda Klein who is unwillingly drawn into investigating whatever gruesome crime the police last made a mess of solving, all the while making powerful establishment enemies, continuing to see clients, and attempting to protect the interests of those who have suffered collateral damage. I thought Monday, Tuesday’s Gone and Waiting for Wednesday were excellent, but by Thursday’s Child I was finding it harder to suspend disbelief and Friday on my Mind has barely registered there.

I’m afraid Saturday is another step down for me. As usual, there was an ingenious plot and I couldn’t put it down but this time it was more because I wanted to tick it off than because I was gripped. Frieda has now walked around London in the small hours a few times too often – the London settings are normally evocative enough to be a character in themselves but these felt barely sketched in. She’s played too many calming chess games, confronted too many invasions of her home and threats to her sanity. As with Eastenders, you can only take so many episodes before you become too inured to be affected. In Saturday Requiem French toys only fleetingly with Frieda’s old adversaries before they disappear without explanation, and doesn’t bother to give her the usual love life or dysfunctional family related setback. This must be because even calm, counselled and counselling Frieda would be too damaged to continue into Sunday – the dilemma for which is set up on the last page and which French is presumably contractually obliged to deliver. It’s an object lesson for a crime writer. Never start a series of books with Monday, or worse still January, in the title.

To be fair, my concentration is not what it was (is anybody’s? Roll on the collective legal action against Facebook, Twitter and all their scheming relations for compensation for damage to our synapses.) Also I was tired after an exciting week. Top sopping for the Hackney Singers at the Festival Hall went very well on Monday, thanks very much for asking. Adrenaline flowed, the London Mozart Players sparkled, the soloists soared and the conductor brought the whole cast together in glorious celebration.

HS

All this just five nights after the same hall was evacuated and events cancelled for the attack on Westminster on Wednesday 22nd. I do not for one minute wish to belittle the suffering and shock of the victims and their families, but Londoners of all races and backgrounds are the heroes of this story. Why? Because in London terrorism cannot keep a foothold however much the media magnifies it: we all just get on with what is important to us. My daughter’s response on the night of the attack was to get on the tube and go into central London so she didn’t miss her evening class – all the other students and the teacher turned up as well. Ours was to deliver the concert we’d been preparing since Christmas. The audience was full, the South Bank was packed in the sunshine, the blossom is out and the great city of London is alive and well.

Blossom

(In my opinion London is more likely to sustain long term damage from the UK’s own foolish Brexit decision and our ridiculous posturing government – satirical material aplenty there for a modern Smollett or Sterne. My despair at that may be the less positive reason I lost writing energy this week.)

However – onwards and upwards! Next week – look out for a giveaway! Look out for some awards! This blog will be one year old and there will be due celebration.

©Jessica Norrie 2017