In October I sometimes wonder what it must be like to be a tree that sheds its leaves.
Despite all the self-help books I have read ( a fair-sized library), all the counselling and psychoanalysis I have had, and all the progress I have undoubtedly made since the black dog first snapped at my shins, I still find it hard to let go. Regardless of their approach each and every counsellor, doctor, psychoanalyst, or psychiatrist I have seen has agreed on one point: let it go…
If only feelings were like leaves, appearing in the spring, changing colour as the months progress, and then dropping off the branches as the cosy velvet of the early evenings at this time of year envelop the fields and streets.
I was cycling round a local park last week, my tyres skimming through the leaves thinking about why I return so readily to themes of agony and death in my interests ( current affairs and history, to name but two.)
Here’s why: as a kid, I regularly used to play a game called N.K.V.D. (Stalin’s secret police, the precursor to the K.G.B., it existed between 1934-54) with my brother. My maternal grandfather had been interrogated by them in 1941, before being sent to fight for the Soviet Union after Hitler invaded his erstwhile ally’s empire that summer. My mother, her sister and their step-mother were deported to a labour camp in the frozen steppes of Central Asia, and so escaped the inevitable fate of the rest of the Jewish community of what is now Belarus, at the hands of the Nazis’ Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing squads.) The combination of genocide and the Gulag (Soviet-era labour camps) does not encourage the pursuit of the raffish pleasures of conkers, hopscotch and sticking peas up the nostrils of your younger sibling.
‘Third degree interrogation’ from Drawings from the Gulag by Danzig Baldaev. Illustration: Danzig Baldaev
Nor could I turn to my father’s side of the family for light relief. They fled what is now the eastern reaches of the Czech Republic in 1938 to make their home here, as the Nazi regime squeezed ever more savagely at the throat of Jewish communities across the burgeoning Reich.
Thinking of the long – dead Hitler and Stalin, Shakespeare comes to mind. Mark Anthony, in his oration at the funeral of the murdered Roman Emperor Julius Ceasar, reminds us that: ‘The evil that men do lives after them…’
So what’s a chap to do when the rigours of life in Nazi – occupied Europe in 1942 feel as current as the multi-tasking miasma we live in today?
At the risk of labouring the point, I need to let it go; trouble is, I don’t seem able to shake off the seductive charms of suicide. For me, suicidal musings are nothing more than the cruel comforts of depression. Over the years, I have learned to scuttle out of the Household Cleaning Products aisle in the supermarket the moment I start to look at the bottles of bleach as a way to quench this bitter thirst.
Now there’s a letting go, to be sure.
To be, or not to be (from Hamlet Act 3 Scene 1)
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.–Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.