Michael Rosen on his Covid-19 coma: ‘It felt like a pre-death, a nothingness’

Earlier this year, the beloved children’s writer spent six weeks on a ventilator with coronavirus. He talks about the magic of the NHS, the mismanagement of the crisis and how his near-death experience has changed him

“I’m drinking lemon tea,” Michael Rosen says. “Would you like some? It’s what my mother used to call Russian tea, by the way.” And before I am through the kitchen door of his north London home, he has given me a potted history of Russian tea. It is classic Rosen. Rarely does a sentence pass without the much-loved children’s poet and author teaching you something. There are anecdotes within anecdotes, tangents galore and an astonishing frame of reference – from the Palestinian professor Edward Said on “othering” to the former footballer Gordon Strachan on resilience, the poet Benjamin Zephaniah on us all being migrants and the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, on memory banks – and back again. “Sorry to inflict the Arsenal mug on a Man City fan,” he says with a wicked smile. Rosen, it seems, knows everything about everybody.

Earlier this year, the 74-year-old contracted Covid-19. He spent seven weeks in intensive care, six of them on a ventilator. His hair is white and thinner (although still pretty lush), he wears a hearing aid because his left ear is buggered, the bags under his eyes are more scrotal than ever, his left eye is fogged over, his voice is underpowered and he struggles with his breathing. Then there is the dizziness, numb toes, increased arthritis and blood clots on his lungs. Having said that, he is doing amazingly well. He is not hobbling around his kitchen, but cantering. He is writing books and newspaper columns, performing on his YouTube channel (run by his son Joe; 86m views), tweeting like billy-o. And yet there is something different about him.

Rosen is a cartoon character of a man – long, lanky limbs, jug ears, elastic face, buck teeth, eyes on stalks. He is part startled hare, part eternal boy scout. Despite having aged over the past few months, he seems more boyish than ever. He is dressed in a denim shirt, jeans, black Crocs and green socks. But the boyishness is more in his manner than appearance – the way he listens so attentively to his wife, Emma-Louise Williams, as she fills him in on his recent past and tries to make sense of it.

Rosen with his wife, Emma-Louise Williams, at their home in London.
Rosen with his wife, Emma-Louise Williams, at their home in London. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

After he came out of the induced coma, it was all a blank. He didn’t even know he had been in one. When asked his phone number, he gave his parents’ home number – he last lived there 50 years ago. Miraculously, his brain appears to be in perfect nick, except for the seven-week vacuum between March and May.

Rosen had been ill with flu-like symptoms in mid-March. He seemed to be getting better, but then he got “bed-breaking shakes” and extreme aches two weeks later. On 28 March, Williams, the mother of his two youngest children, called NHS 111 and was told to keep him away from hospital if possible. As the day progressed, she became terrified. She asked a doctor friend to take a look at him.

“His oxygen level was at 58,” Williams says.

“Nearly dead,” Rosen says.

Nearly dead,” Williams replies. “Not quite.”

Rosen didn’t want to go to hospital. He had the shivers and was freezing. Williams and their 19-year-old daughter, Elsie, insisted. His respiratory system, liver and kidneys were failing.

Williams, a freelance radio producer, works quietly on her laptop in another part of the spacious kitchen. But every so often she pops round to offer chocolate biscuits, facts and a different perspective. The couple seem perfectly matched – opinionated, warm, funny, no-nonsense.

“It sounds a bit spooky; I don’t believe in God or anything, but you know when people say the shadow of death passes through someone’s face?” Williams says. “I looked at Michael that day and I thought I saw that.” She looks at him: “I didn’t tell you that at the time.” She looks back at me. “I thought we were going to lose him that night, and Elsie did as well.” She is relieved she didn’t listen to the blanket advice to stay at home and protect the NHS. “If he’d stayed upstairs overnight, he would have been gone in the morning.”

I ask Rosen: what were the chances of him surviving six weeks on a ventilator? Now it is his turn to surprise her. “I was told as I went under there was a 50-50 chance of survival. And I asked: ‘What chance have I got without it?’ And they said none. So I said: ‘Oh well. That’s at least a one in two.’ I suspect I was already on some happy drug.”

“I can’t believe they said to you that you’ve got a 50-50 chance of surviving,” Williams says.

“Yes, somebody said that to me.”

“I don’t believe that,” Williams says.

“No, honestly, they did.”

They agree to disagree.

For most of his stay in hospital, the family were not allowed to visit. When the sedation was reduced, Williams would call. For three weeks, he was agitated and delirious and never fully woke up.

“I played him the voices of the children and messages, and kept repeating them, and he started to put his arm up like this.” Her arm shoots into the air in a salute. “It was his stock response.” She looks at him. “You don’t remember? When you heard Emile [their 15-year-old son] mentioned, you went like this –” Again, her arm shoots up.

“That’s a bit Nazi!” He bursts out laughing and looks appalled.

Is he shocked when he is told about this period? “From a personal point of view, it feels like a pre-death, because it’s a nothingness. Then when Emma tells me what she was doing and how she and the family responded, I get a bit overwhelmed with emotion.” Not for himself, he stresses, but for them. “When the phone rang, you didn’t know if it would be the doctor saying: we’re doing this, doing that, or: sorry, he’s gone. I find that quite difficult to cope with. Yep.” He swallows loudly.

After he came round, Rosen spent three weeks rehabilitating in another hospital. He didn’t have a clue what kind of man would emerge. “I couldn’t stand up, so I thought: ‘Oh, I’m the kind of person who can’t stand up,’ and there was a bit of me that resigned myself to the fact that I would be in a wheelchair. Then I got to stand up with the Zimmer thing and I thought: ‘Oh, I know, I’m a Zimmer person.’ But the occupational therapists never accept no. I got from a Zimmer to a walking stick. I gave it a nice friendly name. Sticky McStick Stick.” As he tells the story, I can already picture the illustrated book of him learning to walk again. “By the time I came home, I was just weaning myself off the stick.”

Rosen, the former children’s laureate, has been fabulously prolific in all areas of his life – about 200 books, three wives, five children (including his son Eddie, who died in 1999, aged 18, after contracting meningitis) plus two stepchildren. His work ranges from the children’s classic We’re Going on a Bear Hunt to Carrying the Elephant (a desperately moving collection of poems about the loss of Eddie), So They Call You Pisher! (a memoir about growing up with his Jewish communist teacher parents in the notably uncommunist suburb of Pinner, Harrow), The Missing (an investigation into his Polish great uncles – one of whom was born in Oświęcim, the town where Auschwitz was situated – who migrated to the safety of France, only to be transported back to the extermination camp and murdered just before the second world war ended) and Fluff the Farting Fish (about the eponymous pet who learns to sing through her bottom). His latest book, On the Move, is a beautiful and timely collection of poems about migration, asylum and intolerance.

In rehab, he wrote a children’s book, Rigatoni the Pasta Cat. “I wanted to see if I could do it.” He says he is one of the lucky ones. He points to his head. “At the moment, it seems that things are working.”

I ask Williams if he has changed. “Yeah, he’s more vulnerable.” Hadn’t he been before? She laughs.

“I’m the kind of person who is pathologically certain,” Rosen says. “Emma takes the piss out of me for saying things with a very certain voice even though it’s complete bullshit.” He asks her what the word is.

“Stentorian,” she says.

“Now, suddenly, all that certainty was gone,” he says. “What will I do, what will I be, how will I cope with the fact that I can’t see out of this eye or hear in this ear? And, of course, what can I do if I can’t work?”

He mentions his teachers; how many had been injured in the war or had had shellshock, how they talked about it as a life-changing event and how little sympathy they got from the kids. “In its own way, this pandemic is a bit like a war.”

He apologises for the flawed analogy, but it is the best he can do. “We’re not very good at accepting that people come out of big crises damaged, because we go: ‘Oh well, at least he’s alive; at least she’s still with us.’ So I guess people have transferred that response from people who survived being bombed in the war: ‘You survived … great, well shut up, then.’”

Rosen doing a workshop in January.
Rosen doing a workshop in January. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Does he feel a duty to speak out? “Yes, very much so. I just assumed when I came home that there was a consciousness that it’s having an impact on how hundreds of thousands of people lead their life, post-Covid. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. It all seems to be down to the stat of the number of deaths.” Recently, he had a Twitter spat with Kirstie Allsopp, who posted a screenshot of a graph showing that most people had a 99.9% chance of surviving Covid-19. “You think: ‘Well, that’s not the only thing going on.’ There is the fact that some people have got these long-term or lifetime things going on.”

If lockdown had been introduced earlier, he is convinced he wouldn’t have caught the virus. “I wouldn’t have done the things I did in the first half of March, whether it was school visits or social events. They should have explained rationally at that point that if you mix with lots of people and there’s close contact – which was all coming out from the World Health Organization – you’ll probably get this. But, of course, we’re living in an era where some people think the WHO or anything vaguely related to the UN is basically a communist plot.”

He is furious at the way older people have been treated by the government. “They thought that by decanting the old people out of the wards and into the care homes they would relieve stress in the NHS. They had some policy that they’ve never fully declared. It’s eugenics, isn’t it? It’s the sense that some people are less entitled to live.”

Rosen mentions the controversialist Toby Young, who suggested people in their late 70s weren’t worth the economic cost it would require to save them. Ironically, he says, just before he caught the virus, he was debating in the Today studio whether 70-year-olds had as much right to live as 20-year-olds. “I said: we can’t live in a society where we think old people are expendable, but it’s clear that thought was going around.”

He says it’s impossible to express just how happy he is to be alive and his gratitude to the NHS. “Suddenly, you realise there’s this great logistical thing that I floated up on to the top of. It buoyed me up and saved my life.” Again, he becomes emotional as he talks about how nurses sat by his bed every night, kept a diary, praised him for coughing up secretions, urged him back to life, showed him the same care and love his family would do.

Yet he despises the government’s hypocrisy – telling us to protect our health service while doing the opposite itself. “The NHS has been targeted in two ways: underfunded during austerity and this constant nibbling away. Privatising.” He considers the appointment of the Tory peer Dido Harding to be corrupt and questions her expertise to run test and trace. “The idea that you’d do it with a bunch of cowboys who’ve run a mobile phone company badly, you just think: ‘Jesus’.”

He says it runs counter to everything the Conservatives preach about education and meritocracy. “The old theory was that you build up expertise by doing GCSEs, A-levels, degree, MSc, PhD and then you might rise to the top – and they might call on you to run an emergency like a pandemic – but no, because Dido will get in there instead.”

‘We’re living in an era where some people think the WHO or anything vaguely related to the UN is basically a communist plot.’
‘We’re living in an era where some people think the WHO or anything vaguely related to the UN is basically a communist plot.’ Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Politically, Rosen is unchanged – a staunch socialist. But yes, he says, he is still adapting to his new self. He talks about the nightmares he has started having since the coma – including the night before. “We were living in a house and it was being partly bulldozed. Emile was coming back with his friends and they were all shouting: ‘Cunt!’ and I was going: ‘Maybe not so loud, guys,’ in a very reasonable, modern, liberal way.”

“Well, it’s exactly what has happened to us this year, isn’t it?” Williams says gently. “Everything that was strong has been made shaky and wobbly – for everyone.” She turns from me to him. “What we thought was solid, when you come that near to death …” She comes to a stop. “Sorry, darling,” she says.

Despite his astounding recovery, things still feel so raw and fragile.

“When you think somebody is going to go, you’re all changed by that,” says Williams. Rosen had said he gets tired after talking for an hour and we have been chatting for the best part of two. We bump elbows to say goodbye.

“Keep creating!” I say.

“I will do my best! ‘Oooh, he does create, doesn’t he!’” he says with a hint of Frankie Howerd. And he giggles to himself.

The following day, he tweets me to clarify something. “One thing I was trying to spit out is that it’s easy to think, following this, that I am less of a person. Harder, but better, is to hold on to the idea I’m different, not less.”

On the Move – Poems About Migration by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Quentin Blake, is published by Walker Books (£7.99) on 1 October. To order a copy for £7.43, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15


Simon Hattenstone

The GuardianTramp

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