“All things are ready if our minds be so…”

This is about the risks and limits of language, and the power hidden inside it and ourselves. This is about what words can and cannot do.

Image: A seated man sharpening a quill pen. Engraving by C. Guttenberg after F. van Mieris. (Mieris, Frans van, 1635-1681) Credit: Wellcome Collection, Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Exhibit A: “Grief.” A term scarcely fit for purpose. So personal, so vast, so all encompassing, and yet, passing. I was going to say that so few letters should not do so much heavy lifting, but then you think of “love”, “God,” “I,” and realise, we do it all the.. (and here comes another four-letter inadequate) “time”.

Exhibit B: “Dementia.” That we have one word for everything under this umbrella is (to use another one) “insane.” From “where’s my keys?” to endgame Alzheimer’s, there must be a kinder phrase. Something with some hint of implicit dignity, “dementia” seems like it’s in a hurry to take things, to relegate the whole business. Like the word itself is uncomfortable with the process it refers to, and seeks to shoo it away. This hurts, when it is applied to you. I’ve seen it happen. We can, I feel, do better. Besides, knowing things can be overrated. Memory too. We’re throwing our own fear onto the subject because we don’t know what else to do.

A while ago some music playing on Radio 3 Radio 3 – Listen Live – BBC Sounds stopped me in my tracks and filled me with – or reconnected me – to some outrageous sadness and I couldn’t quite place it, but I knew it was old, and had something to do with me and my father. This was it:

Even now, months from that recognition, I need to sit down when I hear it. If there is no one about then, I will cry. It might be the same if someone were about, it just hasn’t happened yet and I wouldn’t want it to. I’m telling you, through this gauze of anonymity, because you have come this far with me, but that’s as intimate as I can let it get, for now.

Once I connected the music to the movie it began to make sense. My dad, who had left school aged 14, loved Shakespeare. And this infection became a part of me, by accident or design or osmosis and his determined dream that I should have more time in education than he. Either way, those words, centuries old, would become part of our connection. More, somehow and sometimes, than the everyday ones we used to say.  

He loved Kenneth Branagh’s movie of Henry V particularly. We watched it together, once I think, on his VHS, and I have seen it many times since but it is always, for me, about me and him. And so that music now takes me back to us. Before I even ‘know’ what’s happening. Closer in recollection, or just clearer, maybe, than we were in real time.

This is another property of grief – that it can pull us out of time and locate us with the lost somehow in some kind of impossible union. We are ‘there,’ and this is closer then, than being apart. This impossible touching is the addictive component perhaps, the taste of stability that provokes us to swallow and then replant, plough and devour again our mourning when grief gets complicated. Or when something just comes out of the radio, junks the narrative and grabs you by the soul.

That music of Patrick Doyle’s scores one of the movie’s, and Shakespeare’s most famous scenes, the King’s speech on the eve of Agincourt. Branagh does an amazing job with it, his voice an instrument that finds the music in the words and plays it, in effect. The result is a release of inordinate power. It speaks to the latent forces in us, the secret parts. Home to power and powerful sadness. This is why the speech is used to rouse groups and teams facing “fearful odds” to all kinds of action, for better and for worse, I’m sure.

The irony here – and this might be implicit to its brilliance – is that it is both a call to unity and conflict at the same time. This is very human, we are seldom more together than when we know what we are up against. Of course this is also what makes it so tempting, so dangerous and so common a tool for those who must make others take action on their behalf. This is also why it makes me think me think of care, dependency, and so, again, my father.

“strip his sleeve and show his scars”

Once, he fell, and I could not for the life of either of us lift him. We sat there bloody, and entwined (he bled so easily) on the bathroom floor, urging one another on for multiple attempts, moaning, falling, trying again until, using the toilet as a kind of lever, I stood, straining, and somehow bought him with me.  So our battle was not glamorous, our opponent foreign to us or our story told. But it was something, and splendid in its way, I came to understand.

That’s from my book https://www.panmacmillan.com/authors/the-reluctant-carer/the-reluctant-carer/9781529029352 . But the more I reflect on Shakespeare, the clearer our scene on the bathroom floor becomes.

I wished for help, it wasn’t coming. It was just us, against gravity and frailty and our entwined mythologies of what we could and couldn’t do. I stripped his sleeve (of his pyjamas) I saw his scars, and brand-new wounds upon them. And up we got, the two of us. We few.  And of course there was for a second something repulsive in it, this messed up, ailing, unglamourous figure and his uncertain son. But then I saw the deeper truth of it. We were one, in a way, through purpose. Father by blood and now bleeding, and son, made brothers by inclination. Since he did shed his blood with me and so, “Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile.”

The point, for all the warlike connotations of that speech is that your brother can be anyone – and so is everyone your brother. “This did the good man teach his son”, and I never even realised it was happening. For all they cannot do, words somehow did all that, and then did all this too.