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How Michael Rosen returned from the brink of death

The children’s author on surviving Covid and the “chaos and contradiction” of the Conservative government’s pandemic crisis. 

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Michael Rosen has learned to walk three times in his life. The first was when he was a toddler – as you’d expect. The second was when he was 17, after he was hit by a car while walking home from a school basketball game. The police came to pick him up. “They heard this burbling from the ditch, and that was me,” he said. “They asked me questions and I talked – quite articulately apparently – and then they took me to hospital.” Rosen doesn’t remember anything about the incident, or the 12 hours that followed. In the morning, he learned that he had broken his pelvis. He spent eight weeks in a hospital bed.

“It was quite a wake-up call for a teenager to be in the midst of all this fragility of the human body,” said the poet, broadcaster and former children’s laureate, now aged 74, over video call in late February. He sat in his living room in Muswell Hill, north London, where he lives with his wife Emma-Louise Williams, a radio producerand his two youngest children, who are teenagers. (Rosen has five children, including his son Eddie, who died of meningitis aged 18 in 1999, and two stepchildren.) He wore a blue jumper and peered over glasses perched on the end of his nose.

Following his hospital stay, the teenage Rosen spent two weeks in rehabilitation. He remembers standing at the edge of a field in his basketball kit and being asked to run around it. “There’s a weird thing about this learning how to walk again, where your brain knows how to do it and your body doesn’t. So you start to do the thing that you want to do, but there’s a strange gap. It feels as though you’ve lost everything from below your neck, as if you were just a head – a bit like that Roald Dahl story with just an eyeball.” (In “William and Mary”, the recently deceased William’s brain is transplanted from his body and attached to an artificial heart with one eerily functional eye, and he regains consciousness.) “You feel like, if someone came up to you, they could put their hand straight through you.”

Last year, Rosen learned to walk for a third time. He contracted Covid-19 in March 2020 and spent seven weeks in intensive care at the Whittington Hospital in north London, six of them on a ventilator.  Some 42 per cent of patients on his ward died – a statistic he did not learn until he returned home. Now it is a startling reminder of just how ill he was. “If I died, it would have been unexceptional,” he said. Months of rehabilitation followed, as teams of occupational therapists and physiotherapists supported him in learning to stand, pick up things and walk. Once again he had to learn how to overcome that sensation of corporeal estrangement – of a chasm between his brain and his body. 

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Rosen was born in Pinner, Middlesex, in 1946. His parents, Harold and Connie, were the grandchildren of eastern European Jewish families that had migrated to France, Britain and the US. Harold and Connie were educators – he was a secondary school teacher and then a professor of English, and she taught in a primary school – and politically minded, having joined the Young Communist League when they were 16. These sensibilities have lived on in Rosen, who, after studying English at Wadham College, Oxford, began his career as a trainee at the BBC until he was asked to “go freelance” (Rosen has since said he believes he was let go because of his left-wing views.) He published his first book of poetry for children, Mind Your Own Business, illustrated by Quentin Blake, in 1974. His ordinary language, arranged in funny, bright ways, with easy rhymes and warm onomatopoeia, quickly established him as a charming voice for young ears. He has since written about 200 books, including collections of poems, jokes and stories for both children and adults. He has presented a range of documentaries for BBC radio, as well as reading aloud stories for his YouTube channel, and, pre-pandemic, visiting numerous schools each week to perform in assemblies.

[see also: “The pandemic has shown the best of humanity”: Dr Jim Down on a year fighting the virus]

But it is perhaps for We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, first published in 1989 with illustrations by Helen Oxenbury, that he is best known. “I have two boys (four and two) and we sing Bear Hunt wherever we go. You’re our hero,” wrote the speech and language therapist Claire Elliott-Purdy in Rosen’s patient diary, which sat at the end of his hospital bed as he lay in an induced coma last year. Nurses laminated a copy of “These are the Hands”, a tribute he had written for the 60th anniversary of the NHS in 2008, and hung it over his bed. “Your NHS 60 years anniversary poem is touching to all working here in ICU – thank you. Please send it to Boris Johnson!!” wrote Kajal Doshi, a physiotherapist, in the same diary. These messages are among those published this month in Many Different Kinds of Love, alongside emails Rosen’s wife wrote to update friends on his care, and new, moving poems by Rosen which explore his period of illness and recovery. 

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“I'm alive!” he said when our video call connected. Though still getting to grips with what happened to him a year ago, he seemed thrilled to be living and able to talk about it at all. He is now off medication directly related to Covid-19, but has permanent damage to his left ear (for which he wears a hearing aid), his left eye and his toes. He was always lean, his slimness exaggerated by his wide, animated eyes, but now his face is gaunt and more tired. He has “alternate day syndrome”, he said, where he is “full of beans one day and pretty smashed the next”. On good days he meets up with his older children and they “tramp around” Alexandra Palace, close to his home. “They exercise Dad like you exercise a dog. ‘Are you doing another lap, Dad?’ ‘Erm’” – he grunts – “‘maybe!’” He is, he said, “a different sort of person” now. “I’m less certain, less able to be frivolous. I’m still clinging to my frivolity – but it has sobered me up a bit, which is a shame. I liked that frivolous person.”

Intensive care unit (ICU) doctors and nurses write diaries for patients while they are unconscious. Such logs are beneficial tools for patients who suffer from delirium and post-traumatic stress disorder on leaving an ICU, their short-term memories gappy and distorted, as Rosen’s were.

When Rosen first read his messages, he was “overwhelmed”, struck by the kindness shown to him by “people who didn’t know me” – by NHS staff, he only later realised, who were not intensive care specialists at all but who had been moved across from their departments to work on the exceptionally busy, understaffed ICUs. “In a way, I see it like you’re a corpse in a morgue and the person who’s laying you out is writing a diary and then you wake up in the morgue and you say, ‘Oh really? Oh, my feet were rotting, were they, oh that’s interesting!’ It feels like that because I have no possible memory – I have no memory at all.”

The care he does remember – instances of kindness he is still working out how to fathom – came later. As he left the Meyrick Ward at the Whittington, a nurse told him: “You’ve still got a great contribution to make.” “You just think: she didn’t need to say that,” Rosen said, “what a nice way to say goodbye.”

Later, at St Pancras Hospital Rehabilitation Unit, a senior nurse arranged for him to meet with his family in the small garden outside. “She would say, ‘You wanna see your Tweety Pie?’ And Tweety Pie is the little bird, isn’t it, in the Warner Brothers cartoon. And then she said, which was lovely: ‘If I was in hospital, I’d wanna see my Tweety Pie,’ meaning her husband, do you see? I was so moved by that. It’s such a familiar way of talking, friendly. It’s slightly teasing as well.” He didn’t include it in the book, he said, because he worried it would sound as though he was making fun of the nurse. Here was a writer rendered almost wordless by the grace of another human. “Tweety Pie,” he said, shaking his head, “just wonderful.” 

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It was only when he came out of hospital in June 2020 that Rosen saw “with horror” how poorly the UK had dealt with the crisis. He remains appalled by the “chaos and contradiction” of the Conservative government, particularly its early toying with “herd immunity” and the suggestion that vulnerable people would die to protect the rest of the population. “It reeks of the worst kinds of ideas about how groups of people in a society are dispensable for the benefit of the others,” he said. “I don’t think we can build, make, live in any kind of society where we have an attitude where hundreds of thousands are less necessary or less valued. It is the complete opposite of the NHS: the National Health Service, a system to enable the whole nation to be as healthy as possible.”

Has Keir Starmer’s Labour Party done enough to hold the Prime Minister to account? “No. No, they haven’t. They could have set up a house committee or a commission, a people’s enquiry, and said, ‘Ah, what have we done wrong? How’s it going wrong?’” An investigation last summer into why, for example, the government was not advising against mass gatherings in February and early March last year, as the World Health Organisation recommended, could have prevented a second wave. “The Labour Party didn’t do what it could have done to nip it in the bud.”

Rosen continues to do exercises to rebuild his strength, planking every day and practising his bridge. “It’s coming on, isn’t it! It’s not bad. Sometimes people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, you’re alive.’ And I go, ‘No, I’m a ghost. Sorry, not alive: wrong! Look’” – he mimes trying to sweep his arm through his body – “though I have to be careful about saying that to kids. They might believe me.”

He is still, wonderfully, quick to joke – but his understanding of himself as somewhat apparitional is not just a gag. “Part of me thinks I am a ghost; that’s why I say it. Jewish ghosts are called dybbuks. I have a granddaughter who calls me Zayde – the Yiddish word for grandfather. Maybe if I have any others I’ll get them to call me Dybbuk.” 

“Many Different Kinds of Love” is published by Ebury Press

[see also: My near-death experience on a Covid-19 ward]

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman’s assistant culture editor.

This article appears in the 24 March 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special