The World We Live In

 

It’s five long years since our beloved daughter died suddenly. Yet somehow we have lived on, through further bereavements and our own respective cancers. And it is good to be alive – we still have a son, after all, and the world has so many places to visit and to marvel at its beauty. And yet I find myself frequently in despair as I read the news and feel powerless to do anything.

 

My friend, who is the Director General of the United Nations in Geneva, says that, despite the opposite impression, there are in fact fewer wars being waged now than at any other time. I guess he should know! But somehow I find it hard to find this a comfort when there are so mnay awful things happening all around us.

 

Let’s take Syria and the refugee crisis. Somehow the west has allowed this to escalate by continuing the mistakes of past interventions in for example Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. And now we have the showdown everyone has been trying to avoid – between Russia and the west, with local Shia and Sunni factions making incomprehensible bedfellows. The long and short of it is that this total devastation rained on Syria is causing such mayhem that the people have no option but to flee, and Europe, after initial encouragement for Merkel, is now shutting the stable door long after the horse has bolted.

 

Meanwhile the French are bulldozing the Jungle camp in Calais where there is a large number of unaccompanied children, who have families in Britain, but Britain refuses to take them. They will simply vanish to traffickers and prostitution. Now the EU has come up with what Amnesty and other human rights organisations say is an illegal scheme to return a ‘migrant’ to Turkey, to join the 3m Syrians already there, for every refugee they give asylum to. And guess what? Turkey gets $6bn and fast-track entry to the EU for sorting out EU’s ‘little’ problem. Oh – and they have just shut down the country’s largest newspaper for being too critical of the government.

 

What happened to the UN charter for refugees which every country has signed up to? Most EU countries are not even processing the refugees, just hoping they will become someone else’s problem. As member states they won’t even adhere to the policy of sharing the refugees on a pro rata basis which was agreed.

 

I am proud to say that one of Louise’s friends set up Calais Action, the first grassroots movement in UK which has mushroomed into a national organisation to help refugees not only in Calais but in Lesbos and the Greek islands. She would have been there, at the front line, and so would I if I was in London.

 

Then there’s Brexit: the behaviour of our European ‘brethren’ leaves me in little doubt that European unity is a joke. Why did we rush to let in so many countries which have such different values and wretched economies – their people are the true economic migrants! And now they are turning on people – mostly far better qualified – who threaten their access to jobs and wealth in the richer EU countries. However, I always think, to quote that old toad Lyndon B Johnson ‘it’s probably better to have him [the enemy] inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in’. In other words it’s better to be in Europe trying to improve the status quo, rather than cutting ourselves off, and some of our largest export markets to boot.

 

Talking of jokes – what’s up with the US? It seems likely that Trump is going to be the official candidate of the Republican Party! Yikes! Cynic that I am, it’s not impossible that he might win the Presidency. I suppose in South Africa you have a President who occupies a similar space these days, but it’s not good news for the rest of the world if its largest economy and most powerful country is run by a bigot with no international experience. Hillary’s lies have done her no favours, and I think Bernie is the best bet, but probably not a winning one.

 

China is poised to become the largest economy and on a recent trip to Laos, I saw its tentacles creeping over that lovely country, from huge infrastructure projects – five new hydro dams at the expense of several villages and wildlife, a new railway from China to Singapore, new roads, shopping malls, hotels etc – to the insidious takeover of agricultural land with enormous banana plantations, fields of food to feed their hungry billions, all doused in lethal chemicals. It is the same in many parts of Africa – Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Rwanda – the list is endless. At the same time the new regime is clamping down on human rights ruthlessly.

 

What can we do? As with all these other issues, there is little that we can do. The current obsession is with all these petitions that pop up endlessly on social media. I am sure it makes you feel better to sign one, but really what does it achieve? In England the wretched government is imposing a contract on Junior Doctors which results in them continuing to be paid less than tube drivers and working twice as long! The numerous petitions and public opinion have no effect because the silly old Brits gave Cameron such an overwhelming mandate, and elected a Labour leader that will never, ever be PM. Oh dear.

 

All over the world, people must be asking the same question: what can we do? These issues are only the tip of the iceberg of the inequitable world we live in – I haven’t even touched on the rights of women in countries such as India, where rape and wife-burnings abound; the destruction of the rainforest for palm-oil plantations which I see everywhere in SE Asia; the famine in Zimbabwe which goes largely unreported while Mugabe eats cake like Marie Antoinette.

 

I’m afraid I don’t know the answer. But at least I feel passionate about such issues and try to raise awareness to the followers on my various blogs that life outside our front doors is far from good for most of the world. One thing I do, and you can do, is give money to charities who are trying to make a difference.

Vicky’s View

The grief will never go but I’m different — nicer [well, I like to think so!]

The pain was crushing when Vicky Unwin, like musician Nick Cave, lost a child to drugs.  But pouring energy into campaigning has helped to heal her.

Last week’s photographs of the devastated Nick Cave and Susie Bick at the inquest for their son Arthur, who fell to his death from a Sussex cliff after taking LSD, revive harrowing memories. Just 4½ years ago we, too, had to sit and listen in horror as our 21-year-old daughter Louise’s final hours were relived for the coroner.

Nick and Susie had to leave the room as the extent of the 15-year-old’s injuries were read out; we sat there in a fog of disbelief and sedation, as unknown details about our daughter’s life were revealed. And the press is always there, ready to snap your pain for others to gawp at.

There are many similarities between the two young lives: both were much loved by their friends, funny, vivacious and a “joy to be around”. And there are horrible parallels in their deaths.

Both died from drug-related accidents, LSD in Arthur’s case and ketamine in Louise’s. Both thought they were being careful — Arthur had researched LSD online and Louise, we learnt at the inquest, had weighed out the doses. As the coroner said at Arthur’s inquest: “The long and short of it is that the drug was taken. It was taken by lads who were inquiring and experimenting, which kids do all the time.”

And this is the nub — most young people experiment with drugs and are not aware of how dangerous this can be.

In Louise’s case, she took ketamine with her friends very occasionally, and that evening she was celebrating submitting her application to Chelsea College of Arts. Some friends came round to share her achievement and one brought ketamine. They were all more regular users than Louise. They all took the same amount. After one friend had gone to bed and the others had left, Louise, being tiny and unused to the drug, was still high and decided to have a bath to help her sleep. A few hours later her friend awoke to find she had fallen asleep in the bath and drowned.

Nick Cave and Susie Bick: fatal tragedy

Nick Cave and Susie Bick: fatal tragedy 

When your child dies, your world shatters. For a mother, in particular, it is like losing a limb, for the baby you carried and nursed is ripped away from you. No other grief comes near it — and I have lost both my parents as well as dear friends. The first few weeks go by in a haze of love and support from family and friends, both ours and Louise’s, and then the grim reality of life after Louise sets in. There were times when I felt I could not go on and just wanted to curl up and die: suicidal thoughts lurked in the recesses of my mind, but of course there was my husband and our son, who were also in torment, and such thoughts are self-indulgent.

Despite the fog that surrounded me, early on I took a decision that I was not going to immerse myself in self-pity and grief. I remained so angry about Louise’s senseless death that I decided to campaign about the dangers of ketamine and became a trustee of the Angelus Foundation to raise awareness of the dangers of club drugs and legal highs. We lobby government, write in the press, share ideas with Amy Winehouse’s father, Mitch, sit on TV sofas, give interviews, visit schools, make films and even launched a national advertising campaign. Now legal highs and club drugs are top of the agenda and new laws are being passed.

All that kept me busy for a year or so and it felt good: I was doing something to try to stop other horrible accidents happening to children who simply did not know how lethal club drugs, some of which may be legal, can be. But I also became unable to keep repeating our sad story, to hold back the tears and hide how devastated I felt.

Day-to-day life does not get easier either. “How many children do you have?” is a question I am frequently asked when meeting people. If I am feeling bloody-minded, which I quite often am, I say, “Two, but our daughter died”, and watch the reaction.

Best of all are Louise’s friends, with whom I am in constant touch. But being caught unawares when photos of her pop up on Facebook, smiling and gorgeous, posted by her friends remembering the good times, can reduce me to howls of anguish. I would not change that, though: it shows how she remains in their hearts as much as in ours.

They are able to talk and laugh about Louise and all her eccentricities — for she was one of a kind: witty and talented, with hair colours to suit the seasons or her mood; zany clothes as befit an art student; a singer, a photographer, a DJ and everyone’s best friend. She helped people with anorexia, a neighbour with cancer, and made a monthly contribution to Help the Aged in memory of her granny. She was the kind of girl who “lit up a room” and made you feel you were the only person in it worth talking to. Everybody loved her.

Just when we thought life could not get worse, we had a double whammy to deal with. First my husband, Ross, was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which was easily treated and has an excellent prognosis; then two years ago came my potentially life-threatening soft-tissue sarcoma, now also operated on, and we wait and see. Again, I stared into the abyss when doctors thought they had detected secondaries in the liver. I realised I really did not want to die and, despite it all, I have everything to live for.

It was at that stage I decided to crack on with the book that had been languishing since Louise’s death, Love and War in the WRNS, my mother’s war-time letters, and to get involved in a new charity, United World Schools. We “teach the unreached”, building schools in the poorest areas of Asia: in Cambodia, Burma and Nepal. Ross and I sponsored a school in Cambodia — we knew Louise would have just loved this charity — and I am visiting it next week for the first time.

The pain never goes away; nor does time heal as people tritely say. The grief morphs into something else, and you become a different person, a nicer one I hope, ready to forgive slights from the past — because none of these things really matters any more. In my case channelling energies into positive actions — helping others, writing — acts as therapy and is healing.

It will, I am sure, take Nick Cave and Susie Bick a long time and their own journey to learn to live with their grief. Arthur, like Louise, was one of those rare children: Tim Arnold, the Soho Hobo, summed it up in the song he wrote in her memory, “Some of us burn too bright to stay for long enough to find our way.” I hope they find peace.

Love and War in the WRNS: Letters Home 1940-46 is published by the History Press, priced £20.

This article was originally printed in the UK Sunday Times on 15th November, 2015 – the fee for this article has been donated to United World Schools

“Icarus” – Book Review by Vicky Unwin

Deon Meyer’s new book Icarus gets me thinking about cops in crime fiction.

 

A couple of weeks ago I stopped off in Johannesburg on my way back from Zimbabwe to Singapore. I was staying with an old friend and former colleague from my Heinemann days, when I was publisher of the African Writers Series so, even though I was only there for one night, I was thrilled when she told me she had got us tickets to go and hear South Africa’s best-selling crime writer, Deon Meyer, talk about his new book, Icarus. In fact I vaguely remembered reading and enjoying one of his thrillers, 13 Days, not so long ago. I am a great fan of the genre and have read thrillers from all over the world, my latest favourite being Qiu Xialong’s Inspector Chen series.

The best cops or private detectives are nearly always hugely flawed characters: the women tend to be impetuous, dangerously brave and have attitude, like Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski, Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander and Camilla Lackberg’s Erica Falck (maybe Miss Marple doesn’t share all of these attributes but she certainly has tenacity in place of attitude).

The men, on the other hand, nearly always seem to be pretty hopeless and have problems of addiction, usually to alcohol. The great Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallender immediately springs to mind, a hugely troubled soul, unable to maintain relationships with women or his daughter, although addiction to work might give the booze a run for its money, something he shares with Hercule Poirot, who has OCD, which is, I suppose, a form of addiction too; Dave Robicheaux, antihero of of the quite superb series of books set in Louisiana by James Lee Burke, is recovering alcoholic whose sense of justice quite often leads him into foolhardy situations. Joe Nesbo’s Harry Hole is a complete wreck – booze, drugs, women – and yet we love him, as we do all our flawed cops.

And Deon Meyer gives us Bennie Griessel, another alcoholic who has, by the time we read Icarus, one marriage and two estranged children under his belt, and is skating on thin ice in his current relationship with another recovering alcoholic, surely a recipe for disaster.

Deon is at great pains not to give away too much in his talk at Love Books in Joburg and, likewise, I must follow his example. However, we learn in the first few pages that Bennie has been on the waggon for 602 days, only to fall off it quite spectacularly, and the struggle for his sobriety becomes a key plot driver.

Meyer is not content to have one alcohol-related storyline in the book, so he adds a well-researched history of the development of the South African wine industry. Fascinatingly, he reveals that he was not in fact a great drinker, preferring a whisky to a glass of wine. Had I read the book before the talk, I would have asked him how he manages to get inside the head of an alcoholic so convincingly. As a writer myself, I am in awe of those who can imagine what it is like to be something that they are not – a man, a woman, an animal (think Animal Farm) and in this case an alcoholic.

The cause of Bennie’s lapse and lack of self-esteem is wrung out of him by his partner, Vaughn Cupido: the sense of helplessness and spiralling depression in the face of the wave of of crime the Hawks deal with on a daily basis. ‘How are we going to save them? How are we going to turn this around?…we can’t stop the tide, it’s not ever going to draw back…the disease, the serial killers, more, every day there are more of them, and they are getting sicker. It’s like a moerse train that’s just picking up speed. The brakes are fucked Vaughn – we are the brakes, and we are fucked’.

Cupido encourages him to go back into therapy, something which he resists. But the therapist gives great comfort: ‘The purpose of therapy is to analyse traumatic events until you understand that you are not responsible for the damage that has been done. The dilemma is that your job is one long string of traumatic experiences. You told me yourself how you experience the last moments of your victims’ lives, every time you arrive on a murder scene. But it isn’t all as terrible as it sounds. With hard work you can master the the techniques to handle this on your own in due course.’ So therapy offers hope and support for a future without the alcohol, which Benny turns to as an antidote to having to carry so much guilt. One feels that Meyer is sending a universal message of hope for all sufferers of this disease. Surely there must be some personal – direct or indirect – experience that feeds his fiction?

In case this sounds like a heavy read, rest assured that there are some lighter touches too. Budding romance for Cupido and an amazingly coincidental main story-line involving a company called Alibi, that provides electronically-forged alibis for adulterers using sites such as Ashley Maddison. The irony is not lost on Deon Meyer, although he wrote the book long before the data scandal hit the headlines. How he chuckles when questioned about it.

Meyer takes some witty little side-swipes at the Pistorious case, politics and political correctness. I particularly like the references to the cult foodie author ‘Dr Tim’ Noakes, whose faddy cauliflower diet Bennie’s female boss, Major Mbali Kuleni, is rigidly following. My hostess was exhorting me to buy the book at the airport, but I am wise to so-called gurus who chop and change their message according to fashion (check my website www.healthylivingwithcancer.co for a much more sensible take on a balanced lifestyle!)

So our Bennie fits nicely into the stereotypical cop character, whose ups and downs propel a successful series of crime thrillers. And make no mistake, Deon Meyer is in the top 20 writers on the world stage during the past 10 years. Like all major figures in crime fiction, he’s simultaneously loveable and irritating, but I am sure Benny will live on, drunk or sober. We’ll have to wait and see where Deon Meyer takes him next.

Amy

Review by: Vicky Unwin

Film: Amy

Director: Asif Kapadia

Stars: Five

This cannot be an objective review. Amy and our daughter. Louise, died within a few months of each, both from drugs. Her poison was alcohol, Louise’s was ketamine. They used to hang out in Camden together, playing pool at The Good Mixer. There is even a scene in the film with one of Louise’s friends. Both of them were clean when they died, although Louise had never been an addict like Amy, just a ‘recreational’ user. How daft that word is, when it leads to death.

In the wake of their deaths, Mitch and I got to know each other through our work in trying to educate people about the dangers of drugs, of which alcohol is of course the biggest killer of the lot. We even had a joint event at the House of Lords, where Mitch sang with one of Louise’s best friends, Tim Arnold, the Soho Hobo.

So Asif Kapadia’s film is laden with sad and poignant memories for me. I wasn’t sure if I could bear to watch it, let alone write about it, especially knowing Mitch’s objections to his portrayal.

As in Senna, Kapadia’s BAFTA award-winning documentary about the eponymous Brazilian racing driver, there is no narrator: the movie is fashioned from a series of film clips taken by family, friends and lovers. The voices are mainly Amy’s, peppered with conversations and reminiscences. Of course Kapadia exerts editorial control in directing us to the scenes from her life he wishes us to see, but leaves us to judge for ourselves as to who bears responsibility for the hounding of Amy Winehouse. 

Naturally Amy is the star of her own picture: she shines out from the first time she sings happy birthday as a child, a small girl with an enormous, grown-up voice. Where did this North London Jewish girl get that? Jonathan Ross remarks with glee on her voice being ‘common’ at one point, something they both shared in addition to their family background.

As we see her growing up and getting up to all sorts of teenage mischief, we do sense that she is looking for a father-figure: Mitch himself admits that he left the marriage when she was very young; Janice, her mother says he was ‘never there’. Why else would she latch on to unsuitable boys, ending up married to the vain, drug addicted Blake Fielder-Civil, who unashamedly sought and revelled in the lime-light and admits to being her dealer. Less unsurprisingly he abandons her when she is on the skids.

Through all of the alcohol and early drug abuse, her personality and sense of fun shine out. Although her girlfriends despair of her, they still love her and rescue her; Mitch, despite his absence, was also always there for her. He was a devoted and loving father and would have done anything for his ‘Daddy’s girl’  – the tattoo Amy had on her shoulder. OK, so it wasn’t so smart to turn up in St Lucia with a film crew, something I am sure he regrets to this day. It does not cast him in a good light; but I will stick up for Mitch – he adored his Amy.

I know he came running when she picked up the phone and cried for help, time and time again. I know he uttered the the now-famous sound-bite, ‘Amy doesn’t need rehab’ – he claims the word ‘now’ was cut – which she used to dramatic effect in her haunting song of that name. As she says when she wins the Grammy (winking mischievously when Justin Timberlake’s name on the short-list is read out) – it is ‘so boring without drugs’.

The music is of course key to the film and her song-writing is largely autobiographical, from the obvious Rehab, which gets increasingly ragged as it is played throughout the film, charting her descent into hell, to the much earlier and ominously foresighted words, ‘Played out by the band / Love is a losing hand…Though I battle blind / Love is a fate resigned’, through to her heart-breaking duo with Tony Bennett in the closing scenes ‘My life a wreck you’re making/You know I’m yours for just the taking/I’d gladly surrender myself to you, body and soul’.

I remember seeing Amy perform at Nelson Mandela’s birthday celebrations with Louise. She was at the height of her addictions, clutching the hem of her dress, her skinny little legs and emaciated body just above us on the stage. She could barely get the words out. Louise was visibly shocked by her appearance. It was the last time she saw her.

The sad truth is that you can’t stop people from being what they are, but you can try and save them from themselves. Amy had an addictive personality from a young age, fueled by her prodigious talent, and had agents and the media forcing her into situations, which she wasn’t strong enough to cope with. They were ruthless in their exploitation of this fragile talent, when they should have been shielding and protecting her.

How poignant her words, early on in the film, when she says that she wouldn’t survive being famous. We know she didn’t, but Kapadia’s masterful direction somehow allows us to feel there could be a different outcome.

If only, you keep saying to yourself, if only…

Vicky Unwin

Contributor