I was talking to a friend the other day about times past when Sunday supplements used to have small ads for ‘book finders’, individuals who, for a fee would track down out of print books. It was expensive and most people instead had to rely on the library or chancing on a copy while browsing a second hand bookshop. How the internet’s changed all that. Thanks to Amazon and eBay, I’ve now bought copies of all but one of the items on my ‘book list’ and can now browse for titles I didn’t even know existed.
And so I stumbled on the autobiography of the British Beirut hostage Jackie Mann, aided by his irrepressible wife Sunnie who was always on the news in the early ‘90s, as the search for her missing husband waxed and waned.
The book appealed to me partly because of the way the world’s been thrown upside down in the years since its story played out. In the late 1980s the chaos was in Beirut and its reporting journalists were based in Damascus; today, the journalists are in Beirut with Damascus in turmoil. Also, I admired Mann’s dignity and ‘stiff upper lip’ – being taken hostage as an old man, yet getting through the ordeal to spend precious remaining time with his wife.
I went straight for the chapters on the kidnap, incarceration and release, then turned back to the part of the book about his earlier life. I was aware Mann had been in the RAF but forgotten he’d been a Battle of Britain pilot, badly burned in a plane crash and treated by a pioneer in plastic surgery. Fascinating, the tricks of memory and the passing of time…
[Yours till the end, by Jackie and Sunnie Mann with Tess Stimson, was published by BCA in 1992]
It must have been even more difficult in the days before video, sound clips, photographs. How did you preserve the memory of your loved ones? Would even the sound of their voice be forgotten over time?
For our precious photographs and video clips, the early 19th century equivalent must have been something as simple as a lock of hair.
A couple of weeks after Jenny died, I desperately gathered as many photos and negatives of her as I could find. I put them in as best chronological order as I could and wrote as much as I knew or could remember about each one. It sounds crazy now. The images have laid in a box for the best part of 20 years and I’ve probably never looked through them apart from when I wanted to make the Twinned website.
Objects that Jenny made a school – pottery, woodwork – became important, as did anything in her handwriting.
Most things boxed away. That is, apart from a rose.
The fragile rose bush came from Jen’s front garden, dug up the day before her funeral. It survived several house moves in the years since but never flowered apart from a couple of years ago when it enjoyed the heavy clay soil of my old place in South East London. When I moved into town in December 2014, the rose had to make do with a large pot on the patio. It wasn’t happy. It struggled through last year but didn’t make into this summer. I’m probably the culprit with my erratic watering and neglect (it was so much easier with a garden!).
So last week, I conceded it was well and truly mort and threw away the dead plant. A little sad, but I do have a lovely photo of the rose taken a couple of years ago.
Many people who go through traumatic experience spend years afterwards avoiding reminders of it. After Jenny’s death, I wouldn’t for example want to watch a screen adaptation of Great Expectations, as I’d be anticipating Miss Havisham’s clothes going up in flames.
The trouble is, reminders of shocking events crop up in the dullest of places. Queue that staple of early evening television, Coronation Street, which my friends were anxious to record as they’re avid followers. I’d gone round there for dinner and we were chatting on the sofa in front of the telly, its volume turned down. They were messing with the channels trying to make sure they were recording Corrie when they realised dramatic events were unfolding.
No need to go into detail but it culminated in Anna Windass being on fire. Had Jenny not died in a similar way, I could imagine just rolling my eyes at this ratings seeking stunt. As it was, I sat in silence, repelled but not drawing attention to my thoughts. As with most of my friendships formed in the years after Jen’s death, I hadn’t told them her story, and they remained unaware of my private angst on their sofa.
I suppose it’s no different to the sort of experience shared by many I guess, for a myriad of unspoken memories.
It’s been a difficult year in general – a surfeit of celebrity deaths, that shock Brexit result, the departure of a Prime Minister. But for me, 2016 was largely going to be about one fact – the 20th anniversary of Jenny’s death.
The approaching date has nagged at me since the end of last year. We were only 27 when she died. Not that long from now I’ll reach the point where more time has passed in my life since I lost my twin than when we were both alive.
As it turned out, today was ok, quite peaceful. I didn’t get upset or even anxious and, strangely, I didn’t think about Jenny much more than usual. I’m grateful this anniversary fell on a Saturday, so I didn’t have to face the trade-off between office stress making the day worse and the empty time to fill if I took the day off.
This year the worse month has been August – with its associations of staying in Jenny’s spare room and seeing her for the last time. By comparison, today was almost normal.
In February I posted a blog which stemmed from a news story on a 16-year-old’s brush with the benefits system. Edward Bright, who lost his limbs in early childhood due to meningitis, received a letter insisting he is reassessed regarding his qualification for benefits. Clearly very distressing to him and his family, this has thankfully now been resolved.
It reminded me all too well of Jenny’s ridiculous annual health assessments by the DHSS (the 1980s equivalent of today’s Department for Work and Pensions) and how futile it is to reassess people whose conditions are, unfortunately, not going to get better.
In the news today is that claimants for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) with severe conditions and no prospect of recovery will not have to be reassessed.
It’s a small, positive step, not just for disabled people and their families but also the attitude of society in general towards the disabled. There’s much more to be done of course – not least the ludicrously counterproductive problems caused by the ‘Bedroom Tax’ on some disabled people.
Strange, what with the impending 20th anniversary on 15 October, I remember something similar from 15 September 1996 which I’ve not thought about in years. A car crash at Puddletown near Dorchester in the early hours that day killed four young men. All were in their late teens. A colleague at work knew one of them and was very upset. Strange how random memories are triggered.
Against my better judgement, I allowed myself to be dragged (literally for part of the journey) to this new production. I never really got into Brecht, don’t like jazz, and as my husband rightly points out, tend to be a bit of a prude. It was not going to make for an entertaining afternoon.
What still managed to surprise and unsettle both of us though, was the portrayal of Mack the Knife’s henchman Matthias. Played by Jamie Beddard who has cerebral palsy, the character’s wheelchair featured prominently – part prop, part extension of the character. It was good to see more diversity on the stage, and I later learned that Beddard did some thoughtful work with the director on how to integrate his speech pattern into the production.
But the unnerving factor was the audience response. This show was a sensory overload, with much noise, plenty of in-jokes and the casual violence that Threepenny is known for. I found it difficult to relate to the laughter around me. And here’s the nub: when the other characters respond to Matthias’s speech and the audience laugh, who is the joke really on? The other characters, society’s foibles, the audience itself? Having grown up seeing (and hearing) time and time again how people mocked the way Jenny moved or how some of her friends spoke, I couldn’t shake off the nasty lingering feeling that, much of the time, the butt of the joke was the disabled character himself.
On the plus side, perhaps this ambiguity is part of the show’s strength. And we can definitely do with more strong and confident disabled actors, writers and directors.
No gym this morning and very strange that I find myself sitting at the computer writing this. It’s 20 years exactly since I last saw Jenny. That was at 7.45 on 31 August 1996, a Saturday morning. I’d already had breakfast and was about to leave to catch my train. Jenny had got up – early for her for a Saturday – to say goodbye and was sitting in her wheelchair. I probably made her a cup of tea. I don’t remember much about the goodbye but expected I’d be seeing her at Christmas, if not before – maybe even for our birthday in November.
A most difficult day. Probably the most difficult day in years – flitting between irritability and tearfulness all day but having to hide it from everyone. I looked up the anniversary of Jenny’s death – 15 October – and saw that it falls on a Saturday this year. What a relief. I usually prefer the 15 October to be buried in a week day at work, but after today I think a bit of solitude is called for.
Looking back at my diary for August 1996, it’s not the best written-up of months, although I’ve stuck to it more rigorously that I have to this blog at times. The August bank holiday that year was Monday 26th. I was staying at Jenny’s but we spent the day doing our own stuff. I headed out to Todmorden and Hebden Bridge – the outer reaches of West Yorkshire; she spent the day with her friends. I’d come back and worked on her front garden – the bungalow itself was ideal for a wheelchair user, but the large front garden with its dozen or so rose bushes, lawn and uncontrollable marestail weed outbreak was a bit much. Pruning, mowing, weeding behind me, I was satisfied we wouldn’t have to worry about it again until spring 1997.
One thing we did do together that Bank Holiday was watching, of all things, a TV documentary on the Carpenters. I don’t think we’d ever watched TV together since our childhood. The content now long forgotten, I vividly remember Jen’s verdict – turning to me afterwards, she said ‘What a waste.’
So in response to poor ticket sales, Paralympic events in Rio are being cut right back. Clearly the Brazilian population hasn’t got swept up in the thrill of Disabled athletics like we have been here in the UK, and are treating these events as a sideshow. More depressingly though, organisers seem to be taking the same approach. I can’t help being appalled by the ‘make do and mend’ attitude of UK sports, hoping to get the best out of what remains on offer to its athletes. Surely the time has come for the host city to be held accountable for staging the whole event – and in dire economic circumstances, to spread the cuts evenly across both Olympics and Paralympics.
Or how about this for a more radical solution: scrap the separate Paralympics, and instead include its sports within the main Olympic programme. Wouldn’t it be great to have the Olympic 100m race followed immediately by the 100m Paralympic race. Same stadium, same audience, same network coverage.