Gentle Reminders

Personal

Last week, I went for a walk in the cemetery park near my flat.

The heatwave was still very much in session, golden light filtering down softly through the canopy of leaves. As I turned off one of the main paths, a brown and white greyhound trotted up to me, nosing at my dress. His owners were sitting at a bench a few feet away, and I held out my hand for the dog to sniff. His damp nose bumped my knuckle, and he moved away again.

This gesture was something that my dad had taught me to do. I was a very excitable dog-loving child – if I saw one in a pub, I instantly wanted to run over to it and make it love me more than it loved its owners. He had grown up with dogs and loved them too, but he told me I had to wait for a dog to come to me, and to hold out my hand for it to inspect before touching it: a polite gesture of human-canine friendship.

It was a lesson in gentleness, the gesture now itself a gentle reminder of someone gone (readers of this blog will know that my dad died in May 2018).

On the Internet, the gentle reminder is its own subgenre. It is proof that reminders are not always as gentle as advertised – search the phrase on Twitter and in between well-meaning missives about unclenching your jaw and drinking a glass of water you will find chiding posts about remembering that there are x many members in a band, not just the one you like, or that “an unsupportive friend is a hater too”.

In the three years since Dad died I have been learning to navigate reminders of him, and like these tweets, they weren’t always as gentle as they seemed. I’d see someone on the street that looked like him, or search my email inbox for something innocuous and bring up an old email thread, then find myself three days later only just coming up for air after being sunken in a kind of haze.

Sometimes, they weren’t gentle at all. Last year, I was watching a horror movie with my boyfriend (title redacted for the sake of spoilers) and in the final act the distant father who had been trying to protect his daughter throughout sacrificed himself to save her. Suddenly I was loudly sobbing with all the lights on while my boyfriend sat there looking very uncertain about what to do. The funniest part about that story is that it was Father’s Day. The universe! She loves a joke!

The good news, realised only on that sunny day in the park last week, is that the reminders are much gentler now.

Maybe it’s something about passing the two-year or three-year milestone. Maybe it’s that thanks to lockdown I’ve had to do a lot more reflecting and processing than I previously allowed myself to do. I’ve thought a lot about what this process has been like for me, and what I wish I could go back and tell myself, what gentle reminders I would give to myself when I was still in the wilderness of it. And unfortunately, thanks to the situation that brought about lockdown, there are probably a lot more people navigating that wilderness now.

So, here’s a Father’s Day gift from a fatherless writer who won’t shut up. These are the gentle reminders I wish I could go back and give myself, and that you are free to take for yourself, if you want to.

1. A few months – even a year, two years, three – is not a long time.

It might be a long time to go without a haircut or without speaking to a close friend, but to process a death, it’s really nothing. This was very hard for me to see in the beginning.

Once a few months had gone by, I started to feel self-conscious bringing up my Dad in conversation. I didn’t know anyone else close to me who had lost a parent beside my siblings – we even still have a full set of grandparents – so as the emotional triage phase ended and life started to seem like it was going back to normal, I began to question whether I, too, should be starting to forget.

Everyone seemed to expect me to be my normal self, to have normal-sized reactions to things. In hindsight, this was probably a combination of reality and projection, but it felt unrealistic in a way I found hard to articulate at the time.

The way I described it to a friend recently is that in life, you usually have two hands to deal with your problems: two hands to catch an argument before it hits you, to break it down into something less painful. But grieving is a two-hand task, and in the beginning, it’s a crushing one. So, when something comes flying at you, you have two choices: take your hands off the grief and let it crush you, or accept the body blow of whatever it is that’s come up. The shitty part is that most of the time, you end up getting crushed by the grief either way.

All this to say: if you’ve lost someone, and things are crushing you more than they would have before, that’s okay. It’s okay to remind people that you’ve still got your hands full with this difficult thing, and to ask for patience. And if you’re supporting someone who’s grieving, it’s worth giving them that patience. Ask them, every now and then, how they’re doing with it, and let them know that there’s space in the conversation for any answer they might give, even if that’s no answer at all.

Which brings me to my next reminder.

2. You don’t have to talk about it all the time, to whoever asks.

You might find that you do anyway, and that’s fine. I’ve had my fair share of parties and work drinks where I blurted out “Well, my dad died” to blank looks or nervous laughter – but it’s not compulsory.

Sometimes, it can be helpful to talk about it. To a friend, or a family member, or even a total stranger who has similar experiences to you. Some of the most healing and helpful conversations I’ve had have been with people I don’t know well at all, but who have also lost someone close to them.

But sometimes, it can feel terrible. I always think having an unproductive conversation about grief feels a bit like someone seeing you puke on yourself – you feel like you’ve embarrassed yourself by letting them see all that undigested mess. In the worst cases it feels like they just want to see it out of curiosity. I’m willing to bet we all have those conversations at some point or another, and it’s okay to decline the opportunity if you see it coming.

Maybe there’s no one you can talk to or want to talk to about it. Maybe you don’t know anyone who’s gone through something similar, or at least, nobody you see often or feel comfortable reaching out to. For me, what helped was listening to The Griefcast: a podcast of comedians talking about death. I would probably not recommend this if you’re in that horrible first year, but it totally transformed my relationship to this loss after the second anniversary. It is also a perfect example of an ungentle reminder becoming gentler over time – after the first few episodes I had to stop and take a break, because it was weighing so heavily on me, but now listening to the show is a relief.

3. Finally, forgiveness is key.

I know I sound like Gwyneth Paltrow trying to rope you into a kind of Grief Goop, but listen: I’ve learned more about forgiveness in the last three years than I had in the previous twenty-three. Its different shapes, its different uses.

Not everyone is going to know what to say to you, and that will hurt sometimes. You will pick up awkward interactions like souvenirs and exchange them with other people you meet who’ve been through the same thing – the time someone was callous, or flippant, or cruel in a way that is hilarious now despite being apocalyptically upsetting at the time.

You yourself might be a bit shit. A bomb’s just gone off in your life and everything feels different now. You might act erratically or say or do things you’re not proud of. Maybe you’ve spent a lot of lockdown torturing yourself with the memory of every bad thing you’ve ever done (or maybe that’s just me).

And, of course, there’s the person who’s gone. They walked out in the middle of a conversation, and even if you thought that conversation was going nowhere, or had lost the capacity to change direction or become productive, that sudden silence can be infuriating.

I can only speak to my own experience here, and that is very much still a work in progress, but working out what forgiveness might look like in relation to each of these things has been important to me. I mean forgiveness here as a kind of bloodletting, a siphoning-off of the resentment and anger I didn’t realise had built up until it was overwhelming. Asking yourself what you need to get rid of it – do you need an apology? From who? Are they able to give it? What can you do with an apology that you can’t do without one?

Forgiving doesn’t have to mean forgetting all the bad things, or pretending they never happened. It doesn’t mean letting yourself or someone else off the hook, and it doesn’t mean flattening your feelings down to an unrealistically compact solution so that you can never be tripped up by it again. I just mean whatever kindness you can do to yourself, to set down some of the weight you’re carrying.


I’m not sure if these reminders will be helpful for anyone. I’m not even sure if they’d have been helpful for me – it’s one thing to be reminded of something, and another to internalise it the way you learn from a mistake. But I hope they do help. And even if they don’t, I hope that someday soon you’ll be walking through a park in summer, and you’ll get a gentle reminder that this grief doesn’t always have to feel so heavy. There are good things among the bad, even if that good thing is just you. As I love to say, life is a mixed bag. You take the reminder, and you keep on walking.


It took me a long time to understand the phrase “distant regard,”
but I am grateful for it now,
and I am grateful for my heart,

that turned out to be good, after all,
and grateful for my mind,
to which, in retrospect, I can see

I have never been sufficiently kind.

— Tony Hoagland, “Distant Regard”

9 Times the Women of Love Island 2019 Said Absolutely Not

TV

When the history of 2019 is written, I hope it is remembered (to the exclusion of literally everything else) as the year that the women of Love Island finally delivered a righteous chorus of “fuck this.”

Faced with the standard onslaught of callous stupidity from a reel of tightly-trousered, emotionally illiterate men, the show’s 2019 cohort have repeatedly said “no” to bad treatment.

It’s not all been victories, and it’s certainly not the new frontier of feminism, but it has been a wild ride. Here is my unasked-for countdown of the top 9 girl power moments from this season.


9. Amber tells Tommy and Joe “I’m no one’s second best”

Cast your minds back to week one. Amber is still a widely disliked islander. Floppy-haired and floppy-personalitied Joe admits to her face that he was flirting with her to try to make his partner, Lucie, jealous as she talks to Tommy Fury. As for Tommy, he is soon rejected by Lucie after telling her that he would “crawl to the moon and back” for her. In the tradition of many Love Islanders before him, and without the candour shown by Joe, he tries to backtrack and put the moves on Amber.

Amber shuts both of them down.

“I’m no one’s second best,” she shrugs to the camera in the beach hut later. A small moment in the arc of the series, but in hindsight, the equivalent of dimming the lights and setting the mood music for the season to “I think the fuck not”.

8. Joanna calls Michael a snake

Cut to a few weeks later, and a lot has changed.

This moment might be a controversial pick for this list, partly because a lot of people have a grudge against Joanna for her (admittedly questionable) attitude towards Amber when she was in the villa, and partly because of the fact that pictures have recently surfaced of she and Michael kissing on the outside.

However, I’m in the spirit of leniency. Not all fuck-yous are forever, we’ve all forgiven someone who maybe didn’t deserve it, and at the very least it did make good TV. I am therefore graciously allowing Joanna a low spot on this list that solely I care about.

7. Maura dumps Tom

Credit: Photo by REX/Shutterstock (10322789aq) Tom Walker praying ‘Love Island’ TV Show, Series 5, Episode 22, Majorca, Spain – 27 Jun 2019

Ah, Hurricane Maura hits the list. The great provider of so many of this season’s greatest hits.

Though by the time this moment rolled around, Maura and Tom had already had their peak blowout, this was a lesson in not letting anyone abuse the second chance you give them. Maura’s best moments are yet to come in this countdown, but refusing to be called “embarrassing” is up there for me.

6. Yewande pulls Danny and Arabella for a chat

Winner of my unofficial Islander Who Deserved Better award, Yewande was sick of the relay race of information going on between herself, her partner Danny, and his new love interest Arabella.

Flouting the unspoken Love Island ritual of piecing together information one “chat” at a time by moving from the terrace to the day beds to the fire pit with the mechanical regularity of a cuckoo clock, Yewande did the scientific thing and went straight to the source. Big Dick Energy if ever I’ve seen it.

5. Amy’s exit

Much as I was annoyed by Amy for most of her time in the villa, I do think she deserves some credit. Sometimes standing up for yourself isn’t about standing up to anyone, it’s about looking at the next four weeks of watching the man you love swivel his hips in the direction of another woman while creepily mouthing “Young lady” and making the decision to say “No thank you, actually.”

4. Maura and Anna vs. Curtis and Jordan

The thing that made this moment great was its complete typification of the Maura mentality: no hesitation, no reluctance to upset her panto villain of a partner. Her wine glass instantly went over her shoulder and she sought out her friend, ignoring Curtis’s panicked stage whispers from the bean bags. Anna also gets points for the immediacy and boldness of her reaction, even though the argument really did hurt to watch.

3. “Shut yer mout ya prick”

I know technically this should be lumped in with number four but I could watch this moment on loop for days.

Anything that comes out of Maura’s perfectly-glossed mouth she backs to the hilt—no embarrassment, no fear, no forced guilt. An icon.

2. Tom’s “dickhead comment”

The moment that Maura rejected Tom was one of my favourite ever moments of reality TV and, possibly, my life.

I’ve already spoken about the instantaneousness of the retribution men in the villa faced if they crossed Maura; the blistering speed with which her anger came down on them if they disrespected her or one of her friends.

Speaking to friends about the episode, what was generally agreed upon was the remarkable familiarity of the situation, contrasted with the unfamiliarity of Maura’s refusal to back down from her outrage.

Faced with the same thing, I’m sure I would have doubted myself; swallowed my hurt and anger under the pressure of a roomful of men all assuring the other party that they’d done nothing wrong. Not Maura.

She had her bad moments in the villa, certainly, and at the end of the day it is all warped through the lens of the edit. But Maura set her own benchmark for how to be treated on this season, and it made for glorious viewing—and, I think, had a significant ripple effect for the women around her.

1. Amber recouples with Greg over Michael

Though I will be hearing Maura’s thick Irish accent shouting obscenities at any man who crosses me for the rest of my days, there’s no argument as to who had the biggest moment this season.

Looking back, Amber choosing sexy Irish Greg over Michael in the recoupling seems obvious, and any anxieties over it going the other way merely the result of good editing. But this moment defined the arc of the whole series and revived the premise of Love Island as a show for me.

The truth is that this season, for all its drama, was tough to watch. Nearly every one of the moments on this list was born out of pain inflicted on women for the purposes of reality TV. If you feel any empathy for them at all, there were times when Love Island 2019 felt like a gruelling uphill climb with no signs of a summit.

The moment that Amber chose Greg was an instrumental one in breaking that pattern. It was the fresh start that the series needed to alter its course—a healthy choice, made enthusiastically, by someone who rightly believed that she deserved respect and happiness. It couldn’t save Anna from Jordan’s eleventh-hour head turn, or Queen Maura from the clutches of Curtis, but it made sure that the series parted on a message of resilience. It is what ultimately upset the order of what makes a Love Island winner and it delivered the incredible final result.

Previously, winners have been clear from early in the show’s run, and longevity and basic likeability were all the ingredients for a winning couple. As such, the show lost all momentum the closer it got to the final.

Greg and Amber winning has bucked that trend. A couple of less than 12 days in the villa rising to the top, largely on the strength of one woman’s belief in her own self-worth, has flipped the script on a format that was losing its edge, and it’s renewed my hope that the microcosm of modern dating we see on this show can actually be something other than a bit depressing.

So, long live the women of Love Island 2019. May their crops of Boohoo voucher codes ever flourish, and may someone please get Maura a presenting job so I don’t have to say goodbye to her too soon.

When all is said and done, you’ll believe God is a woman.

Ariana Grande, philosopher

Ode to Rocketman, the Silliest Biopic

Film

In an early scene in Rocketman, a young and so-far unremarkable piano player called Reginald Dwight is told by an American soul singer that “You’ve got to kill the person you were born to be to become the person you want to be.”

It’s been remarked upon by critics that is this is the central argument of Elton John’s biopic: kill the fact to create the fiction; invent yourself and reap the rewards.

The result is that Rocketman is a festival of artifice. Discarding the by-now expected format of the gritty biographical drama, it embraces spectacle by creating a musical of Elton John’s life, set to his own songs. It’s ridiculous and flamboyant and very, very fun.

A lot of critics liked it—the Guardian’s Mark Kermode gave it five stars in his review—but others left disgruntled. Vulture’s David Edelstein called the film’s “Crocodile Rock” sequence (in which John performs at his breakthrough gig at the Troubadour in LA and literally levitates the crowd off their feet) “one of the silliest things I’ve ever seen.” He also pointed out that, as the movie shows, the music was Elton’s but none of the words were—the songs, therefore, should strictly have been put to work in a musical about the life of Bernie Taupin. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody said dispiritedly that Rocketman “sacrifices the depth of Elton’s character to make a feature-length commercial for the real-life back catalogue”—the songs are there, but the man himself is missing.

To cut a long rant short, I think these critics need to lighten up.

Look, anyone is perfectly entitled to expect biography from their biopics—it is, after all, in the name. And they all make a compelling case for the film’s shortcomings, particularly the creation of music biopics as a way to market old songs to a new audience.

The thing that I would question, though, is whether a biopic is obliged to capture the facts of a life—the gritty details, the bloody nose and the coke on the toilet lid—in order to be a success.

Yes, Rocketman plays it fast and loose with historical detail. Events are jumbled, and the facts are often errant if not absent. “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” takes John from a childhood gig in a pub through to his rowdy late teens. As mentioned above, his breakthrough 1970 performance at the Troubadour is imagined through a rousing rendition of “Crocodile Rock”—which, as Variety’s Owen Gleiberman noted, is “the equivalent of making a biopic about the Beatles in which they launch their Shea Stadium concert in 1965 with a cut off the White Album.”

But insofar as any biopic is a creation myth, Rocketman does an exceedingly good job.

What it lacks in “gritty realism”, the film more than makes up for in its delivery of the technicolour montage I would think plays in John’s head each time he looks back over his career. Instead of trite scenes about the genesis of legendary songs—a phrase is overheard on the street or in a bar and, gasp! the writer reaches for his pen—the film gives us a romp down memory lane, complete with dance numbers, stylised scenes, and outrageous costumes.

It’s an aptly surrealist landscape and one that made the film ring so true for me. The words of these famous songs might not be John’s own, but they’re not ours either, and that’s never stopped anyone who was feeling melodramatic from blasting “I Want Love” at full volume and gazing in melancholy out of the nearest window.

This partiality to John’s side of the story isn’t hidden from the audience. John and his husband David Furnish are both executive producers of the film, and much of the story is narrated from John’s perspective in a rehab therapy group.

The result is a film that presents not so much ‘what really happened,’ but rather, ‘what it really felt like’. John wrote in a Guardian essay that “Some studios wanted us to lose the fantasy element and make a more straightforward biopic, but that was missing the point… when my career took off, it took off in such a way that it almost didn’t seem real to me… it went off like a missile: there’s a moment in Rocketman when I’m playing onstage in the Troubadour club in LA and everything in the room starts levitating, me included, and honestly, that’s what it felt like.”

If you ask me, any biopic of Elton John was going to be silly. It’s Elton John. One day maybe someone will make a biopic of Reginald Dwight and give Rocketman detractors what they crave, but if this was a story about killing the fact to invent the fun, it succeeded for me.

Of course, it wasn’t perfect. Shockingly for a film that leans so far into excess, I found myself thinking as the credits rolled that it had fallen just short of its arc.

The film is preoccupied with John wanting and searching for love, and the ways in which the love he has—from his parents, from his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, from his lover-turned-manager—variously hinders and helps him through his struggles with addiction and fame. But when John comes out to his mother and she tells him that he will never be truly loved, a ball is tossed into the air that never quite comes satisfactorily to earth; instead, it is hastily caught up in the closing credits’ admittedly touching ‘where are they now’ slideshow.

So, I am by no means saying that the film was a perfect artistic feat. What the film did do well, however, was convey the personality of the man behind the songs. There’s an exuberant Elton-ness to the whole display: a sense of camp and joy and silliness—and, at bottom, a very earnest desire to be understood, to be loved, to have his story told.

Maybe the problem isn’t that the man is missing, but that he’s a bit too present for the traditional tenets of biopic cinema to get a proper look-in.

[Bernie Taupin] was apprehensive about the film. He read the script and he didn’t like the fantasy aspects of it. ‘But that didn’t happen, that’s not true’ – very Bernie. Then he saw it and completely got it. I don’t think he actually burst into tears, but he was incredibly moved by it. He understood the point of it, which was to make something that was like my life: chaotic, funny, mad, horrible, brilliant and dark. It’s obviously not all true, but it’s the truth.

Elton John, The Guardian, 26th May 2019