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

A non-fiction selection box

I mostly get my non-fiction fixes from news and media, but by mid 2020 I’d become tired of Covid related items. I wanted more varied food for thought, and entertainment. Also Novel 3, despite wonderful, polite, positive comments (“a beautiful and bracing read” said an editor from one top publisher) wasn’t finding a contract. I needed to reconsider what makes a book readable and saleable, whatever the subject. So I turned to five popular non-fiction bestsellers published or revised since 2018.

In my school chemistry and biology lessons, I pushed worms aimlessly round Petri dishes, larked about with Bunsen burners and stayed ignorant. Now being stalked by Covid rang alarm bells. I’ve passed (my) existence in this warm wobble of flesh and yet taken it almost entirely for granted. It was time I learned how my body works and I decided Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants would be a good teacher. He is full of awe and wonder: The brain exists in silence and darkness, like a dungeoned prisoner. It has never felt warm sunshine or a soft breeze…and yet, everything else (in your body) is just plumbing and scaffolding.” I can’t remember all the details, partly because as Bryson tells me, my ageing cells are pre-programmed to die. But the book has an excellent index and I should have time to reread it because compared to other animals, we are awfully good at surviving.” Bryson is always a comforting presence for grim times.

I bought Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race months ago, because I thought I should tbh. Having been paid extra in urban schools to develop diversity policies, I smugly thought I knew what Reni Eddo-Lodge would say in this book derived originally from blogposts. (Although I did at least realise my white person’s racism awareness came from study that I could drop at will rather than from personal daily experience.) Then I heard her on Woman’s Hour, when she took the UK non-fiction number 1 slot as Bernadine Evaristo headed fiction, saying this double black success was more bitter than sweet in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in the US. She writes from a perspective white people can only imagine. She’s rightly angry that the aggression that killed Stephen Lawrence in 1993 is still rampant. She dismisses handwringing like mine. She links feminism, class, and racism. She relents somewhat, suggesting how white handwringers can help. She does see positives ahead, though rightly commenting (and note my preamble above): “So much of touring this book has involved regulating other people’s feelings”. Anyone who wants to comment on race should read this book first and remember, as quoted: We are here because you were there”. I’d be amazed if your comments didn’t alter in the light of it.

“Something you may not ever have given any thought to is how you would fund a criminal defence. But you should.” The Secret Barrister also began as a series of articles about injustice. This anonymous practising barrister-author is alarmed by how little the public understand the law. He’s amusing, informative and angry. The system can destroy, bankrupt, or madden anyone: defendant, witness, legal professional or plaintiff. This book explains anomalies, anachronisms, and the effect of underfunding, overwork and random priorities from headline chasing governments, analyses serial offending and reveals shocking court and prison conditions. Defending a client in the magistrates’ court is often like “pitching to the admissions board of a 1980s country club”. Politicians and sentencing guidelines get even more stick. This isn’t (mostly) a dry read. He’s compassionate towards the accused and passionate on their right to a fair defence. Individual case histories, humour and the lucidity of a disillusioned expert channel Dickens, but 150 years later, our legal institutions should serve and be served better. “How we treat..ordinary men and women who have been fed into the justice machine, mangled, battered, confined and, years later, spat back out onto the streets, is inexcusable.”

We all need light relief. I find The Crown entertaining and, never a royalist, don’t really care whether it’s a true account. So I lapped up Lady in Waiting. Author Anne Glenconnor grew up in a stately home so huge that raw eggs in a bain-marie would be perfectly boiled by the time a footman had carried them from the kitchen to the nursery. Her account of working for Princess Margaret isn’t exactly warts and all – the worst you hear of Margaret is that she was so fascinated by everyday gadgets she once gave another lady-in-waiting a loo brush for Christmas. “’I noticed you didn’t have one when I came to stay.’ In fact, Jean had hidden the loo brush when Princess Margaret had visited and was rather upset by the gesture.” The reader is granted fly-on-the-wall privileges and this fly was buzzing, especially on the trips to Mustique.

The Five: The Untold Lives of Women Killed by Jack the Ripper isn’t (quite) as miserable as it sounds. Historian Hallie Rubenhold, one of whose other books became the TV series Harlots, deliberately doesn’t focus on the Victorian murderer. I regularly pass the London pub where some of his victims were last seen and the advertised tourist walks and memorabilia are ghoulish. Rubenhold remembers the women instead, describing “respectable” backgrounds, not the prostitutes the press dubbed them, with skills, children and circumstances shared by thousands (I recently discovered a relation who also had to leave a violent husband, only a few miles from Whitechapel at the time the Ripper was active.) Each individual woman is, in a sense, brought back to life in these accounts based on meticulous research and contemporary evidence, having first been driven like piles deeper and deeper into the ground in order to bear the weight of everyone else’s demands”. Despite The Five selling so well, the pattern continues. The BBC was recently heavily criticised for trailing a documentary series about Oscar Pistorius without once mentioning his murdered girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, and in fiction we still analyse Othello’s tragedy more than Desdemona’s.

How could five such different books have bestseller appeal? Well, they all have variety. There is tragedy as well as royal gossip in Anne Glenconnor’s life; science and wisdom well as humour in Bill Bryson’s bodyscape. Humour lightens the injustices found in the court room and Eddo-Lodge has calm suggestions to balance her anger. The Ripper victims’ stories include fascinating social history of homes and workplaces, clothes and speech, and unexpectedly colourful episodes in apparently ordinary lives. Effective popular non-fiction spins yarns like any novel and plotting is key. Glenconnor is the heroine of her own story, childhood to old age. Bryson’s journey round the body includes medical heroes and villains, good and bad microbes, happy accidents and fateful events. My other choices have the compelling interest, emotional involvement and quest for resolution of well recounted true crime. These are valuable models for the fiction writer too.

With Christmas coming, I hope you’ll find something to your taste in my selection box and I’d be happy to hear your own non-fiction choices.   

©Jessica Norrie 2020