Walking in Mind

A Trail of Thoughts



What to say first? I learnt I was afraid,

Years back, before the turn of the century, I lived for a time in a shared flat near Highbury Corner in North London. It was a dilapidated place spread over the two upper floors of what, in its day, would have been a rather grand terraced house. My room was on the lower of the two floors and shared a wall with both kitchen and lounge. Most nights I was undisturbed by this proximity to the lives of others, but not that night.

Not frightened in the way that I had been

When wide awake and well, I simply mean

Drunk feet on bare boards, and two voices. One was that of my flatmate, C. The other was unfamiliar, a deeper male voice that presumably belonged to his catch for the night. Had I fixed the latch on my door, strangeman would have merely fallen against it, but instead he came crashing through and hit the floor face first. Out cold. C. grabbed the carcass by the ankles, dragged it back out into the hallway, and closed the door without a glance.

Fear became absolute and I became

Subject to it; it beckoned, I obeyed.

The following morning, C. knocked on my door, this time bearing a gift of apology. We stood there wordless while I removed the book from its wrapping and read what he had written inside the front cover: Elizabeth Jennings wrote a poem called ‘A Litany for Contrition’. She’s a poet I love very much & I thought this would make a suitable offering from your contrite flatmate.

In 1998 I went to Barcelona and ended up staying, and in the process I lost touch with C. The book, however, has remained close to me, above all for Sequence in Hospitaleight short poems, each individually titled. One of them, After An Operation, struck a chord at the outset, stirring and constructing memories of hospitalisation in childhood.

Fear which before had been particular,

Attached to this or that scene, word, event,

Now, as I recover from a perforated colon and fecal peritonitis that saw my life begin to wane, I find the lines of that poem mingling with my own thoughts. Thoughts about C., wondering where and how he is, and visioning in my mind’s eye how he dragged the unfucked body of a stranger back into the hallway with all the nonchalance of a slaughterhouse worker or master butcher.

Here became general. Past, future meant

Nothing. Only the present moment bore

This huge, vague fear, this wish for nothing more.

Thoughts, too, about my own body out cold on the operating table, and about the wonders of our day — anaesthesia, antibiotics, precision surgical instruments. Slice me open, flush me clean, sew me back together again.

Yet life still stirred and nerves themselves became

Like shoots which hurt while growing, sensitive

To find not death but further ways to live.

And then there are the digital wonders. What was once for surgeons’ eyes only is now available to all via YouTube. It’s all there in brutal, beautiful detail — how to perform a Hartmann sigmoidectomy and subsequent reversal of the colostomy, the two procedures I underwent, four months apart, to salvage my colorectal system. For me, now, there is something uncanny about watching these videos. It is akin to an out-of-body experience, except that it is not my body, merely my reflection in the mirror of dreams.

And now I’m convalescent, fear can claim

No general power. Yet I am not the same.


And now I’m convalescent, and fear has dissipated, what remains is gratitude. To C., for introducing me to the work of Elizabeth Jennings, and above all to Laura Lázaro and Antonia Lequerica, the two surgeons who brought me back from the edge of life and shadowed my every step as I inched back into the fold.



He was talking of you and me…

I was born in Cornwall, but live in Catalonia.

I have a British passport and a Spanish wife.

I am an immigrant here and I am loved and accepted in my adopted home.

But today I am afraid, afraid about what has been unleashed in my country of origin by politicians who are happy to foment hatred in order to further their personal ambitions, who are willing to sacrifice community and compassion on the altar of greed and prejudice.

Today I have wept, and will weep again for what my country is becoming.

In March 1939 – the date says it all, surely? – WH Auden wrote:

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,

Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there. 

We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

How hard it is for us to learn. So let us come together and speak out against hatred and prejudice, against bigotry and lies, before it is too late. And let us not think that the victims of our silence and inaction will be others. That is not the case now, just as it wasn’t the case in 1939. As Auden wrote, a few lines later in the same poem:

Came to a public meeting, the speaker got up and said:

“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”;

He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Jo Cox, RIP. Like so many, I never knew you, but like so many I will reap the rewards of your efforts. Thank you.