Monday, January 17, 2011

I met this beautiful man in the summer of 2009, when i was a Robert Louis Stevenson fellow at Grez-sur-Loing.
His name is Bengt Amundin. He is a swedish sculptor. If you speak swedish, you can find out more about him here:

He was already in his nineties when I met him, and was there in Grez with a young film-maker called David Wadstrom, who was making a documentary film about him.

This is the link to David's site. He is a fine man, a gifted film-maker I would guess, and heavily involved in the promotion of safe water systems in the Third World:

I speak no Swedish, and Bengt spoke no English, so on one level we could communicate little.

But I loved being in his company. He had been a sculptor all his life, very active and well known in the early sixties, and still very clearly a hugely creative, curious, and active artist.

He came across as someone who loved life but was also somehow very ready to leave it.

There was a kind of luminosity about him.

One difficulty in his life was that his art had fallen out of fashion and his achievements had been largely forgotten.

David admired and loved him and wanted to set this right: first with his film, and then with assembling a retrospective exhibition of his work, which opened in a gallery just outside Stockholm the other day.

I was invited to the opening, but sadly could not go.

And then today i received this message:

"Dear Jo
After the opening night of the exhibition Bengt passed away. It happened in the car just outside the gallery.
It was a good day, all his family was there and he loved the opening."

I guess the photo was taken at this opening. That what we are seeing is a man just before his death.

As soon as I post this, I go off to Jean's house. Her legs are a little better; but her chest sounds worse.

And she is being tormented by nosebleeds. these terrify her because they were the first sign of her mother's death.

But early this morning she got up, with great pain and trouble and strain, to go to the day hospital. A visit I think she hopes will prolong her life.

I can no longer deny the fact that in the not too distant future I, too, will be in the same situation.

I hope I can let my life go.

I hope I keep creating.

I know which of the two deaths I would choose.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Last year, on the 9th of November, my 86 year old mother-in-law stood up to get something from her sewing basket.

She can't quite remember how this happened, but she fell. She tried to steady herself with her right hand, but couldn't stop herself falling, badly bruising her wrist.

It was the same wrist she broke about 6 or so years ago, and her main concern was that she might have broken it again.

In every other respect she seemed fine.

But that Sunday when she got up she found herself suffering the most intense pain in her legs. It seemed to start round her groin and then travel down her legs. It was a stabbing pain, she said. As if she was walking on knives.

At first she wouldn't see a doctor. She thought it had something to do with her arthritis, and that there was nothing they could do. But in fact she was frightened of going to hospital.

She was also most reluctant to think about getting more help. As she said: "I like my independence".

After a week of struggling with her stick, which clearly was no use to her any more, she finally relented and we could call a doctor. The doctor tried a variety of pills, some of which gave her hallucinations, but the best thing was she managed to get her a zimmer.

I wanted to write an entry in praise of this humble thing, which had trays incorporated into its design, and which suddenly made life possible again.

But the pain just got worse and worse; and by Friday 17th December we had reached a crisis.

But she still would not go to hospital. Perhaps it will ease, she said. But by Monday life truly had become impossible.

It was a day of heavy snow. We had to wait twelve hours for an ambulance. But eventually one came.

Once in hospital, everything got easier. She was no longer bound by the iron law that told her she had to get dressed every morning. She no longer had to walk down the long corridor to the toilet in the middle of the night. She no longer had to shuffle, in agony, to and from her chair.

She was in hospital 3 weeks. They gave her respite. They gave her stronger painkillers. They looked at all her illnesses, and tut-tutted over the vast amount of pills she takes, and gave her more.

She came home last Tuesday. She has problems with her heart. It beats very fast, often very irregularly. Because it is not really functioning as it should, her legs are very swollen and are at constant risk of becoming infected. She also has diabetes. If she doesn't eat regularly, she becomes dizzy and sick. It also worsens the problems with her swollen legs. She has an old hiatus hernia. An underperforming thyroid. Her blood pressure is high. She has osteoperosis. She suffers appalling pain from her arthritis. She has a hairline fracture in the femur. Because of all this, she doesn't move around very much, and this puts her at risk of chest infection.

Because of all this, she takes 33 pills every day.

Her chest is very wheezy, and I must make sure the doctor knows about this and prescribes her antiobiotics. This will take her pill count up to almost forty.

She keeps on. I have seen her forcing herself to eat through nausea because she wants to go on living.

A carer comes in every morning. Mornings are the worst time. Yesterday she was in great pain and distress because the milkman had knocked on the door. He needed his money. And she had spilt water down her wrist when she was washing: and so needed an extra journey down the corridor to change her dressing gown.

A carer also comes in the evening. But me and Bex take it in turns to also go round. Last night, watching her struggle to lift her poor swollen legs up into the bed, I couldn't bear it any longer and helped her.

She said, very gently but very firmly: "I have to learn to do it myself".

She keeps on.

I don't know how many acts of heroism like hers take place every night in lonely rooms.

I hope it means something that we are there, at least sometimes, to give a little love and encouragement.

And bear witness.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

When i was a boy i decided to read the bible.

I don't remember why, especially, though it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

My plan was to read a chapter every night until I got to the end.

Which I never did, of course.

Apart from all the sections that were stupefyingly dull, one memory which keeps returning is of a verse that said:

"for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me" (Exodus 20:5)

Which even at the time, boy that i was, struck me as a very unfair thing for the Lord to do.

To make the innocent children, and grandchildren, and great grandchildren, suffer for the sins of their parents.

Especially here, at the beginning of the 10 Commandments, when God is telling us to be good. But apparently reserving for himself the right to be arbitrary and unjust.

But then we always assume we know who God is. Maybe his name is just another one for the mysterious workings of life. And then it's clear that the verse reflects a profound truth.

For the distress of the parents is visited on the children; and one of the hugest efforts involved in being a parent is to try not to repeat the mistakes our parents made when they brought us up. To attempt not to inflict their hang-ups on our children.

We fail. Of course we fail. But it's always worth trying.

Sometimes this distress manifests or expresses itself as abuse. It is so difficult to escape its effects: we may turn from being victims into perpetrators.

Or we may internalise our treatment, and imagine ourselves at heart worthless and not deserving of happiness.

Sometimes the abuse comes from the individual parent, or parents: who can inflict the most terrible suffering.

Sometimes it is abuse of a more generalised or collective kind: the absolute taboo against my expressing my sense of gender.

For instance. And although my parents sincerely loved me, they, too, were children of their time and collaborated in my oppression.

I collaborated with it too: for years I imagined that if I was unhappy and apparently having such difficulty with relationships it was because there was something wrong with me. It was my fault, I thought. Being damaged, I imagined, I could not stop myself from damaging others.

It took me so many years to understand that it wasn't my fault. It wasn't something uniquely wrong with me. That i was not to blame.

"We hug our chains" says Baudelaire. We hang onto the suffering we know about because it fels familiar, and so we imagine we can handle it.

Dropping our chains and launching ourselves towards the light opens us up to previously unknown suffering that feels a hundred times more frightening.

And it is not so much that we need to learn to forgive others for what they have done to us: we need at first perhaps to learn to forgive ourselves.

Even if it is for crimes that stretch back for generations: and that have nothing to do with us at all.


Sunday, January 09, 2011

So long since I last posted an entry here.

Feels like months.

I've been struggling to resist the onslaught of old age on my mother-in-law. A really pitiless and cruel assault, that had a bit of a respite over Christmas, when I managed to persuade her to accept help from the hospital.

And such intensity, too, between me and my lover, that is so private I cannot write about it.

And trying to write my new play, TREE OF KNOWLEDGE, to commemorate David Hume. The madness of it: the constant having to stop, go back to the beginning, and start again. A cast of 6 going down to 4, and then 3, and then 2, and now going back up to 3 again.

It's all been too much. Too much to record here, at least.

And suddeny again I couldn't understand why I persevere with this.

Lately a remarkable young friend of my daughter's, called Heather Marshall, asked permission to use a couple of entries from the blog as an exercise with her youth group.

She writes:

"I’m sitting in my studio, watching while my students work. Today we’re working on two of Jo’s Clifford’s blog entries which she very kindly gave us permission to use.
I asked Jo if we could use her work as I feel that her writing is so descriptive that you can see exactly what she’s talking about. Its there right in front of you. I felt this was perfect for my students as we’re exploring the idea of relating to and identifying with text.
What I didn’t expect was how much they’d fall in love with both Jo and her writing. These kids have never met Jo. They’ve heard me mention my friend Katie’s Dad and about plays she’s written but they know no more than that.
The power of Jo’s writing is that its real. Its not melodramatic. Theres nothing exaggerated. At points she often plays down something that others would dramatise. Because she’s so truthful the kids trust her and they believe what she’s telling them through her blog.
They’ve all just written down the points they identify with in Jo’s piece. There are far more than you would ever think. I didn’t expect a 17 year old girl and a 60 year old playwright to have so much in common. But they do. Jo never believes me when I say that she’s cool. But she is. She someone the electric kids can identify with. They’re fighting so hard to be themselves and Jo is leading the way. Its ok to be who you need to be, who you are."

The full entry is on
... and it leaves me moved and humbled and proud all at once.


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