When people stop Michael Rosen in his local neighbourhood of Muswell Hill in north London to ask him how he’s doing, which they do quite often these days, he replies: “Well, I’m not dead!” As is now well known, the former children’s laureate spent 48 days in intensive care after contracting coronavirus almost exactly one year ago. He went into hospital at the end of March as one of the nation’s favourite children’s writers and emerged a national treasure: his poem “These Are the Hands”, written to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the NHS in 2008, became an unofficial anthem for health-workers coping with the first wave of the pandemic; and, in a nod to his most famous book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, teddy bears were placed in windows for children to spot on their daily walks during lockdown.
Rosen was completely unaware of these tributes as he spent all of April and much of May in an induced coma, “a kind of pre-death that is similar, presumably, to when we go”, he says now. “People were reading this poem by this dead bloke, but he wasn’t actually dead, he was just lying like a cadaver up the road in the Whittington hospital.” He doesn’t cry so much now, he says, but when he was first told about the public reaction to his illness (Michael Sheen read “These Are the Hands”, “much better than me”, on Jo Whiley’s Radio 2 show on his birthday last year), “it was just, whoosh!”
The 74-year-old writer is very much alive on Zoom where, after a few technical hitches, he appears on screen seemingly as energetic as ever, his conversation an engaging ragbag of rants and anecdotes, ranging from King Lear to last night’s football match, even if names escape him occasionally. In real life, as has often been remarked, Rosen resembles the BFG, or at least Quentin Blake’s giant, all long limbs, extravagant ears and messy lines. “You’d have to ask Quentin. He’s never said: ‘By the way you are the BFG’,” he says of the illustrator with whom he has collaborated since 1974. “I think he was partly inspired by Dahl himself.”
Rosen’s poems for children always see the world from their perspective and can be counted on to induce giggles – “‘Don’t throw fruit at a computer’ / ‘You what?’” – especially when performed by the poet himself: he doesn’t have 98 million YouTube subscribers for nothing. He is learning to adapt to virtual school visits, “a kind of informal telly”, zooming into the camera with one eye: “then my dad came in and said …” He has written more than 200 books and counting, including greedily devoured favourites Chocolate Cake, Fluff the Farting Fish and Monster. His most recent books for adults include The Missing, an investigation into the fates of his European Jewish relatives during the second world war, and his 2017 memoir So They Call You Pisher!, a lively account of growing up the son of Jewish communists in postwar Pinner: “Not the most encouraging place to start a branch of a political organisation aimed at world revolution.” Then there are the two books he wrote in response to the death of his second son Eddie (he has five children, including Eddie, and two stepchildren) from meningitis when he was 18 just over 20 years ago: Carrying the Elephant, a mixture of prose and poetry, and Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, illustrated by Blake. “I loved him very, very much,” Rosen writes, “but he died anyway.”
His new collection of prose poems, Many Different Kinds of Love, with drawings by Chris Riddell, is his attempt to make sense of those missing weeks last year: “It’s just gone. You can’t quite deal with it.” He felt as if he was in a “portal”: his hospital bed liminal, like the train in Harry Potter or the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, he says, his body “an unreliable narrator”. It is about “what it feels like to be seriously ill, what it feels like to nearly die, and what does recovery mean?” He likes to say that he is “recovering” rather than “recovered”. Covid has left him with “drainpipes” (Xen tubes) in his eyes, a hearing aid in one ear, missing toenails, a strange sandiness to his skin and he suffers from dizziness, breathlessness and “everything gets a bit fuzzy every now and then”.
Many Different Kinds of Love follows a familiar Rosen format – an anthology of “Bits and Stuff”. As well as the poems, there is a letter written by a GP friend who sent him straight to A&E, extracts from his “patient’s diary” recorded by nurses and care-workers while he was in intensive care, and messages from his wife Emma, very much the heroine of the story. The result reflects how being in hospital “jumbles up your memories and perceptions, there’s no chronology to it”, and also his habit of jotting things down “to have a conversation with myself on paper” as a way of coping with “strange and weird” events.
He likes “writing fragments and then piecing it together as fragments”, a process he compares to creating a stained-glass window or mosaic, “in which you make a picture out of different colours and shapes. When you stand back you can see it. It emerges.” Light and shade play off against each other, with Rosen’s trademark humour providing respite from the grim unreality of being in hospital, where “the nights are long and sad”: when a neighbouring patient in rehab is told his urine is dark, he deadpans “the times are dark”; on the next page, with barely a heartbeat between, comes the darkest of poems, “I know death”, in which Rosen unsparingly recounts his mother’s final moments, then discovering Eddie. “Later, they put him in a bag / I heard the zip / and they slid the bag down the stairs”.
Carrying the Elephant was written in the same fragmentary style. “What happened with Eddie was so traumatic I couldn’t make it a coherent whole, so I just sort of said: ‘Well, what am I thinking today?’ I scribbled that down and tucked it away.” The title was taken from a postcard of an 18th-century engraving by Jean-Baptiste Oudry illustrating an Aesop’s fable that he saw in a Paris bookshop shortly after Eddie died. “It felt like I’ve got this elephant that I’m going to carry for the rest of my life,” he says. “It’s not quite like that now, but it certainly felt like that then.” (In a much-shared short piece as part of a series on grief on Radio 4 last year , the actor Rob Delaney spoke of losing his three-year-old son in 2018; shortly after his son’s death Delaney spotted Rosen in a bookshop and came in to tell him how much Sad Book had helped him and his wife. “He hugged me, said ‘Can’t stop’, and walked out.”)
Rosen himself appeared on the Today programme last year, around the time he contracted Covid-19, arguing that older people have as much right to live as anyone else. “What is ‘but’ about being 74?” he asks in one of the poems. “Meanwhile, I was presumably sucking in the virus.” While “hurtful” on a personal level, the idea that some people “matter less” or are “more expendable” than others on the basis of age or any other factor is “a very dangerous slippery slope”, he says. And he has no truck with what he perceives as a pernicious rise in blame culture. “In a way we all have underlying health problems. It’s called life.”
He holds the government’s delayed response to the pandemic responsible for the fact that he was exposed to the virus. “What were they thinking in February and March? I was going around on tubes and buses, packed full of people. I was going into schools, kids coming up to me, signing books.” In a blog posted last month, Rosen has created a timeline of those first two weeks in March, bringing together all the government’s statements on the virus, from Boris Johnson’s “boasting” about shaking hands with coronavirus patients to talking about the need “to strike a balance” between intervention and a push for herd immunity. “Why would you balance it? Why wouldn’t you just dismiss it as lousy biology and incredibly dangerous?” he asks now. “It was a huge, huge gamble and, in a way, I’m a victim of it.” And he has no intention of letting the government off the hook, tweeting daily reminders: “Yes Rishi,” he writes in reply to the chancellor’s pre-budget tweet on 2 March. “One year ago, your government was still playing about with the idea of herd immunity without vaccination. The result is that tens of thousands of people have died and thousands more affected, some of us for life.”
Of the patients on his intensive care unit (filled to more than double its capacity) 42% died during the time he was there. Doctors and nurses were working in “nearly war conditions. They’d go and get a cup of tea or something and the person has died”. As his consultant, Professor Hugh Montgomery, quoted in one of the poems, remarked: “It was carnage.” Again, he didn’t know about the Clap for Carers until Emma told him about it much later: although a wonderful expression of solidarity, he says now, “at the same time people are underpaid, there’s a danger that it feels a bit hollow for the health workers”.
Another example of the government’s “crazed incompetence” in his view has been the handling of schools and universities during the pandemic, in particular the uncertainty surrounding exams. Both his parents were teachers, and he “imbibed” not just their socialist politics, but a passion for education (on which he writes regularly for the Guardian). He’s never been a fan of what he recently described in one of his columns as the “rigid, prescriptive, formulaic approach” of the primary school curriculum, and an “addiction” to exam testing. His youngest son Emile was due to be sitting his GCSEs this year and his daughter Elsie is in her first year at university, but has been at home until last month. “It is an awful situation for teachers, pupils and students to be in,” he says.
In 2014, when “homeschooling” still seemed mildy zany, Rosen published Good Ideas, a guide to educating your child at home (key stages schmegegge!). He’s also written a book called Play for adults. But even he agrees it is “very hard. If you are stuck at home you’ve got no social motivation” … Young children need that social thing of sitting in a classroom and seeing how others are doing.”
Publishing a new collection less than a year after nearly dying is impressive, but in prodigious Rosen fashion he also has three picture books in the pipeline: one, Rigatoni the Pasta Cat, about the neighbour’s cat was written while he was in rehab; Sticky McStickstick, his name for the walking stick he was given; and another inspired by his son’s football being mutilated by foxes. “I thought “Oooh, foxes playing football, there’s a story!” He’s also working on an oratorio with Ealing Symphony Orchestra to mark their 100th anniversary and has recorded a series of his radio programme Word of Mouth (for which he’s just completed Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light on his new Kobo, as reading is a bit tricky).
When he finally got out of hospital, small acts of independence, such as being able to make a cup of tea, were “just incredible” after so long during which “every pee, every poo, every drink” had required assistance. He also really appreciated his home: “The corners, the light, the shelves, everything – just the sheer presence of the place,” he says, turning the computer for a glimpse of white walls, big windows. “It has been wonderful.”
An old friend asked him if he sees the world differently now. “The answer is yes, but I’m not quite sure how.” The most profound change is an increased sense of vulnerability; as he describes it in one of the collection’s earliest poems, he has gone from being “a certain person” to an awareness that “Now everything’s not certain”.
But despite coming so close to dying, it is still “very hard to think of yourself as part of the death gang”, he says. “If you do, do you become morbid and obsessed and miserable, or do you think: ‘Well, another day and I’m still alive – great?’” A trick he learnt after Eddie’s death is to try to concentrate on doing one thing, however small, each day that makes him feel proud or good: he tries to “build optimism into every day”, such as planning a trip to the deli. “I can’t see any point in feeling hopeless,” he says.