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UnHerd Book Club

Books to help make sense of a chaotic year

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December 24, 2020

One of the highlights of my December has been watching a community advent calendar unfold on the streets of High Town, Luton. 24 neighbours have got together to, one by one, decorate and illuminate their windows with messages of hope and the coming of Christmas. An old friend of mine kicked it off with a bird, a sunrise, and the message: “A light has dawned”.

It’s a deeply religious project, firmly rooted in the Christian story, conceived and executed by a community of profound faith. So what is it that warms the cockles of my deeply atheist heart? I think it’s the strength of the promise: the coming of hope after a brutal, bitter year. For me, that hope is primarily in the shape of a vaccine being dispensed in hospitals and clinics in every corner of the country.

Is it sacrilegious of me to think of the coming of a vaccine — bringing with it a temporal salvation — as analogous to the coming of Christ? Or is it simply that religious stories work so well precisely because they are the archetypes of so many individual human experiences? I don’t know. But one thing I appreciate about Advent is the way Christianity gives us 24 full days to prepare ourselves for the arrival of hope. After all, if you step out of the dark into the light you will be blinded; you need time to adjust.

More from this author
Why should a life without faith be without meaning?

By Polly Mackenzie

The Covid-19 crisis is not over. But the vaccine does herald the end of the worst; even if this latest surge were to push us beyond the peak hospitalisations of the spring, at least the fear that this is forever has gone. So, as we navigate the next few difficult months, we need to prepare ourselves to step into the light again. Am I the only one who thinks that will be hard?

Launching the vaccine, Matt Hancock said this was “a day to remember in a year to forget.” A beautiful line, of course — but balderdash. We should not forget; we can’t, even if we wanted to. This year has scarred us and bereaved us. We need to grieve what we have lost. The book that’s been helping me do so is Good Grief: Embracing Life At A Time of Death. It is a memoir of the first half of the year by Catherine Mayer and her mother Anne Mayer Bird, who lost their husbands within five weeks of each other around the beginning of this wretched year.

It would be a stretch to call Catherine a friend, but I know her a little and admire her a lot. I’ve been to the flat where many of the events in this remarkable book played out, above the recording studio where her rockstar husband played and recorded his last music. I’ve met, all too briefly, many of the characters whose deaths she recounts, or who help her, sometimes clumsily, to grieve. But it’s the universality of the experience of loss, not its closeness to me, that sticks.

The book as a whole is a metaphor for grief. It’s jumbled. It skips forward in time and back again. The chapters are themed, but messily so, taking you with them through surges of emotion just like those which hit you unexpectedly after the loss of a loved one, just as you’ve decided you’re going to be ok. Its greatest strength is a series of letters from Anne to her dead husband, with whom she wanted so desperately to share the experience of this dreadful year. Written at intervals during the worst phase of the lockdown, they punctuate the book, acting as a trigger for the reader’s own detailed memories of how it felt, then, to be scared, or worse — scared and alone.

Suggested reading
We need to talk about death

By Ruth Davidson

I’ve been finding it hard to remember much of this year. It blurs. We did the same walk in the same park so many times it’s hard to be clear about what happened when. Even specific trips, like the one time we visited my mother, or an eat-out-to-help-out lunch in my hometown, seem to have an ethereal, faded quality. But without memory, there is no healing. Catherine and Anne’s book is a catalyst for all our memory, and a playbook for how to deal with its darker corners.

There are dead people everywhere in Good Grief, brought to life by the stories Catherine tells of them. Some you’ve even heard of like Michael Hutchence and Paula Yates. They are not gloomy spectres haunting the text, but the warm spirits of what Catherine calls the “lovely dead”. Catherine and Anne are both advised to leave the homes they shared with their husbands, to escape the memories. But they do not want to escape the memories: they bring them joy. It reminds me of the lines Shakespeare gives Constance in King John:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty look, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,

Mourners are told this is pathology. This is how you get stuck in grief, and forget to live. But the central message of Good Grief is the opposite: we live well by doing justice to the lovely dead. We live well by making time and space for grief, making it “welcome,” not trying to suppress it. That is how we will do justice to this year, as well: not by pushing our grief away, but by making space for it.

Suggested reading
Not every death is a tragedy

By Mary Harrington

Unless you are the luckiest person in the country, you have lost something this year. Your freedom. Your peace of mind. Your watercooler moments. Your sense of smell. Your favourite pint. Your club nights. Your income. Your security. Your prospects. Your university place. The list is endless. And our feelings of loss will not go away simply because the experience has ended: they need to be discussed, and processed, and dealt with.

Good Grief helped me to see that leaning into grief is not self-indulgent. Experiencing your loss is the best way to understand what you had; it’s even a way to relive the joy of what was. The dead, of course, can only return in memory. The same is not true of the opportunities to create new memories that we lost in this catastrophe, of course. But it is worth spending time with your grief this winter to help you work out what you want back. Will you keep up the volunteering or the zoom calls with your family? Will you return to the commute? Will you join a campaign for a living wage? For changes to local government funding? Will you eat differently? Will you spend more time in the park? No-one could come through a crucible like 2020 unchanged. How has it changed you?

Since we’ve been told to celebrate Christmas as little as we can, now seems like the moment to ask that question and start to find the answer. Let grief fill up the room, if only for a few hours. Let it walk up and down with you, and see what it says. Matt Hancock got it wrong: this is not a year to forget, but to remember. We will be best prepared for the dawn if we allow ourselves to experience the darkness which precedes it.

Join the discussion


  • December 26, 2020
    Good article. Read more

  • December 24, 2020
    A wonderful Spring and Summer, sheer nectar for my dogs. Trump and Cummings sadly got the chop, a mass panic over the Chinese instigated Scamdemic, and Brexit executed against all the odds. Coffins on Amazon for only £210 + £2.99 for delivery! Otherwise little of note, yet another bucolic... Read more

  • December 24, 2020
    One of my pleasant memories of 2020 will be discovering your columns, Polly. I agree with everything you said about grief. Fortunately, no-one close to our family has died of COVID, although several people close to us have had it. Read more

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