The Great Below

living the feeling life


The other night I watched a programme in which the singer Emeli Sandé goes to Mexico to explore the life and art of Frida Kahlo, who has long been one of my favourite artists; her open-heartedness in depicting raw images of pain in her paintings is breathtaking, whatever you think of her skills as a painter. (The programme itself was slightly annoying, as much about ES as Frida, and shot in a grainy ‘artistic’ music video style that got old very quickly, but it’s here if you want to watch it.)

Emeli Sandé visited Frida’s “Blue House” in Mexico City, which is now a museum in honour of the artist. Michael went there on a reading tour of Mexico, during which he got serious sunstroke, ate an iguana tamale, and came home with suspected hepatitis (he didn’t travel well!). As a young woman Frida Kahlo was in a terrible bus accident which left her in severe pain for most of her life, unable to bear children, and probably contributed to her early death at 47. She began painting to pass the time while confined to bed – a wooden four-poster which is still in the house, and features in one of her best-known paintings.

ImageFrida Kahlo The Dream or The Bed 1940

Frida Kahlo, The Dream or The Bed, 1940
Frida Kahlo, The Dream or The Bed, 1940

I have a particular connection with this painting: when I was sitting beside Michael’s bed in the National Neurological Hospital where he lay unconscious after a catastrophic brain haemorrhage, I brought along a book of Frida’s paintings. I don’t know why I chose it, but somehow I must have had the feeling that looking at these images of suffering might be illuminating, or at any rate pass the time without needing concentration – at this point we were still hoping he might wake up. This bed, floating in the air between life and death, a skeleton on the canopy, seemed to sum up our experience, as well as reminding me of the Mexican view of death, that it is always present. A Mexican Day of the Dead sculpture was the cover picture on Michael’s second book  of poems Errata (published by OUP in 1994, and later incorporated into Dances Learned Last Night under Picador).


Standing beside Frida’s bed in the Blue House, Emeli commented that she felt that an artist left most of their spirit in the place where they were creative. With a jolt, I realised that the sofa on which I was sitting was exactly in the position where Michael’s desk used to be when this room was his study. After his death, I left it pretty much as it was, full of his books and things, for several years, but eventually I realised that we needed to rebuild our home from the crater around which we were encamped, and turned it into a living room, storing his belongings, including seventy-five boxes of books, up in the loft. (These books will soon form part of the library at the newly refurbished Arvon Centre in Shropshire, The Hurst).

A shiver ran through me at the thought that I was sitting exactly where Michael used to write his poetry. Although I can’t claim to be infused with his spirit, I do sometimes sit on this sofa to write; although I wrote much of my book in bed, like Frida, while I was ill with M.E. Maybe I’ll do it a bit more often from now on.

The Launch

I’ve been to many book launches, but this is the first time I’ve ever had one of my own! On Tuesday evening, we held a party for The Great Below in a funky and charming little Soho bookshop/bar – The Society Club.


The evening passed in a bit of of a whirl for me – being something of an introvert I’m better one-to-one and get anxious about not having time to talk to everyone properly. I’m also shy of  the limelight – as a child I used to hide under the table when everyone sang “Happy Birthday” – so to stand up in front of people and blow my own trumpet feels quite daunting. I meant to make an Oscars-style speech, thanking my agent Jennifer Hewson, my publicist Nicolette Praça, and my editor at Garnet Publishing, Mitchell Albert for all their support and belief in me. But somehow I found myself just rambling on about the process of writing the book and what I hoped it would achieve out in the world.

It didn’t feel right to read from my rather sad book at this happy occasion, but there was a piano in the bar and I’d decided to sing two of my songs, settings of poems by my husband Michael Donaghy. Songs don’t really have a life until they are performed, and when else would I have the chance to sing in front of an audience of supportive friends? I made a decent job of playing them, and then recited a poem of Michael’s “The Present”, which I had spoken to him while he was dying, and a line of which is on his gravestone: “Make me this present then, your hand in mine, and we’ll live out our lives in it.”

The irony is that Michael’s death has opened the door for me to become a writer. Well, I have always written things here and there, and when I met him I was writing half-decent poetry. I suppose there’s no reason why you can’t be a writer and be married to another writer; it’s just that he was so damn good, there didn’t seem much reason for me to do it as well.  I have spent a long time as the gardener, and perhaps now it’s time for me to be the rose.

Michael’s spirit was very strong that evening – some of his very dear friends, the people who probably think about him almost as often as I do, were there, and our wonderful son, now all grown-up and confidently chatting to everyone. It seemed fitting to have Michael’s words rather than mine on that occasion – after all, he won’t write any more. Whereas I may be just beginning…

“The Visitors”

It’s funny how often a novel I’m reading turns out to reflect my current preoccupations – after Michael died it seemed every single book I picked up had a death in it, even if not flagged on the cover. I’ve just finished “The Visitors” by Sally Beauman, a long novel about the discovery of Tutenkhamun’s tomb in Egypt in the 1920s, as witnessed by a ten-yeat-old girl who finds herself on the periphery of the community of archeologists working on the dig. This is the main ‘story’, but the overarching theme of the book is loss and grief – the narrative moves back and forth from then to the present, where the young girl is now an old woman of ninety and mourning the ghosts of that time. Without giving too much of the plot away (it’s a long book) she has lost her mother, her baby, her lover, and her best friend – and though many years have passed, these beloved dead still have “their sharp presence, their terrible absence” in her life.

On speaking out

Germaine Greer, in The Change, describes how over time “grief became first a private thing, veiled and silent, then a secret thing, and then a shameful thing.” From the flood of responses to my article in the Daily Mail, it’s clear that many people feel unable to freely speak about grief; perhaps they fear being misunderstood, or even ignored, or they simply don’t have the language for the complicated, confusing world of feelings they’ve been thrust into. To have someone else talk about it openly is a tremendous relief. Of course we are all different, but as one person said: “All griefs are personal but seem to contain many parallel experiences.” The thing I have heard most often in the past week is that something I’ve said resonates with another person’s feelings or experience: “You have told it like it is for me.”

Several people have said I am brave for speaking out, which is interesting. I don’t feel particularly brave, but I did find it harder than I expected to have my private thoughts broadcast so widely and publicly – even though that is exactly my point, that more of us need to feel free to “tell it like it is” for us. That until we express our feelings and experiences more clearly, we will continue to misunderstand each other and not know how to give support.

I’ve also worried about appearing critical of people for not knowing what to say, or how to support a grieving person; for being clumsy, or frightened of saying the wrong thing. But people do the best they can, given what they have been taught, and our society does not teach us emotional intelligence. So each of us meets grief (our own or another’s) totally unprepared for the depth and power of it, and often without the tools to cope. How can we learn to deal better with the world of such feelings except by speaking out? It feels vulnerable and yes, occasionally shameful, to talk so personally about painful emotions (and I’ve had a lot of practice with various therapists!) but the more we do it, the better we’ll get.




The Great Below

My book The Great Below – a journey into loss will be published on the 12th of June by Garnet Publishing

It is a memoir about my husband Michael Donaghy, his death at the age of fifty from a brain haemorrhage, and my subsequent journey of grieving.

The book has had a long process of gestation – ten years since Michael’s death, about four years in the writing and another three making its way to publication.  Below is an ‘interview’ I did with myself, about the process of writing the book.But first, a few of the nice things other people have said about it:

GreatBelow-v03“A forensic examination of grief and its coils. Maddy Paxman’s book is intelligent, heartfelt, clear-eyed and, as a result, very moving” Nick Coleman, author of The Train in the Night – A Story of Music and Loss

“A compelling memoir of a marriage, a death, and the long passage of mourning. Maddy Paxman is a clear, bare writer, honest to the point of harshness, above all on herself; but her intimate, hard won insights on the processes of grief will surely speak to many, while her warm memories of Michael Donaghy will be essential reading for his many admirers.”Kate Clanchy, poet and author of Meeting the English

“The Great Below” is written with great restraint, delicacy and wit, and every page shows the author’s talent for original phrasemaking; she also seems to have something of the poet’s gift for the ‘the singing line’. The book is a moving, compelling and cleverly constructed memoir of grief, head-and-shoulders above a number of books I have read in a similar vein; it strikes me as the work of a considerable new talent.” Don Paterson, poet.

“Please pass on my appreciation to the author for a massively powerful and moving book, beautifully written and full of profound insights and deep wisdom. Facing an incurable illness myself, I found it curiously therapeutic.” 

Tell us about the title.

The title comes from the opening lines of an ancient Sumerian poem, The Descent of Inanna, which starts: “From the Great Above, she opened her ear to the Great Below.” Long adopted as a story about the therapeutic journey into the ‘underworld’ of the psyche, about listening to and honouring your feelings, it seemed a decent metaphor on which to build a book about grief. (See below for the story of Innanna.)

How did you come to write the book?

After Michael’s death, I started writing a diary of sorts, knowing that if I could get some of my experiences and feelings down in words, I might at some point be able to make sense of what I was going through. At the time it was totally bewildering, and my initial title for the diary was “Unacceptable feelings”; I didn’t seem to be feeling either what I or anyone else expected, or not at the right times. For example, I did not feel particularly sad at the funeral, although I have cried plenty since. Also it seemed that the experience of grief is very solitary – that as a society we have somehow forgotten how to grieve or how to support others who are grieving, so that I couldn’t find a mirror of my experience out there in the world to reflect what was happening to me.

A couple of years later, we were on holiday in Cornwall and I suddenly decided that I would try and turn my miscellaneous collection of outpourings into a book. Partly, I wanted my son to have a coherent record of what had happened around his dad’s death, as he was only eight at the time. Also, I thought that perhaps I could, in writing, create that mirror of grief for others to look into and see something of their own experience.

How long did it take to write?

It took me several years to finish the book, during which many other things happened to distract me from the writing, but which also contributed to the end product. I got very ill, with a kind of M.E. that laid me low for long stretches of time. However, this proved to be fertile time for writing as every day, after putting my son on the bus to school, I spent the morning  in bed with my laptop. The illness also became a major part of the narrative, as it was clearly in part a reaction to the shock of bereavement.

Then my mother needed to be moved into a nursing home because she had developed Alzheimer’s disease; we had to clear out her house and put it on the market to pay the fees. At the same time, my son was being thrown out of the Steiner school he had attended since kindergarten – he had got into a spiral of bad behaviour, which they simply did not know how to handle. It was a very painful, confusing time and although much of this initially found its way into the book, I later decided to cut it out again in order to concentrate on the main narrative.

What period of time does the book cover?

I thought it important to show that grief is not over and done with in a few weeks or months. I’ve read several books about the first year of bereavement, but in some ways I feel the real work does not start until after that period of total shock and confusion. I even wonder if, in a strange way, writing can be a way of postponing the inevitable facing up to your feelings. Bereavement is a long, long process – in fact I think it lasts a lifetime, which doesn’t mean the intensity of the grief remains the same, just that it becomes part of who you are now. You are forever changed.

The story in the book extends over quite a few years, but I have somewhat compressed the timeline because it began to seem like an endless log of events and trips: a “wandering in pathless pathways ”  (the OED definition of ‘bewildered’). I needed it to have a conclusion of sorts, an ending that allowed for hope rather than despair – both for myself and the putative reader. But I hadn’t quite lived that part of the story yet. In my mind I held onto “The Descent of Innanna” as an overall shape, because I knew that eventually she returns healed from the underworld, and even while I was still trudging through the darkness, I hoped that I would one day see light in the distance.

Did you show it to anyone?

When I had finished a first draft I sent it to a friend who teaches life writing at university, who was also a great friend of Michael’s. I knew that she would be honest, but also kind, in telling me what it needed. She explained that I needed to think of how to turn it into an ‘artefact’ – a piece of work that had it’s own inner logic and shape. That’s quite hard when you are still, as it were, living the narrative. But I knew what she meant: I sometimes compose music and I learned early on that it’s not the individual tunes or bars that make a piece work, but the overall structure.

I also showed it to my sister, which raised another issue – when you write about your own life, you inevitably write about other people’s part in it. I had been careful throughout the book not to name names, particularly when I was describing some less-than-helpful encounters, but also because I didn’t feel that I ‘owned’ those people as material for my own writing. My sister was very central to the story, though, and I needed to make sure I represented her in a way that she was happy with. (She’s also a punctuation demon, though we argue about the correct use of colons and semi-colons.)

How do you feel now that it’s being published?

Great pleasure mixed with some trepidation: I am quite an introverted person, like many people who write, and the material is of course very personal. But as a friend said to me – ‘You can’t write a memoir and then not want to talk about yourself!’ Enough time has elapsed since Michael’s death that the subject no longer feels so raw and vulnerable. And maybe it’s time to tell everyone a little bit more about him – he was also a very private person, so I haven’t completely “spilled the beans”, but I am undoubtedly the person who knew him best in the world.

My biggest hope for this book is that it will reach out to others going through bereavement, loss and trauma, and offer them a path of hope and healing. After all, it’s something we will most likely all have to face at some point. It’s a book about sadness, but I don’t think ultimately it’s a sad book – a book about strength and resilience, but also about staying true to your feelings and finding a way to live with them.




InannaInanna, the goddess of life and the heavens in Sumerian mythology, descends to the underworld to appease her sister, the furious queen Ereshkigal who is mourning her dead husband. On the way she must pass through seven rocky gates; at each of these she is stripped of one of her royal garments or attributes, until finally she is killed and hung naked on a hook like raw meat.

Up above, her handmaiden Ninshubur goes to the father gods to ask for help, as she has promised to do should Inanna not return within three days. At first no-one will comes to her aid, until Enki, the god of wisdom and the waters, fashions two creatures from the dirt beneath his fingernails who he sends to rescue Inanna. These creatures are able to slip through the earth into the underworld, where they meet and sympathise with the unhappy Ereshkigal. They bear witness to her pain and grief, and in her gratitude for being heard she softens and allows Inanna to be freed and restored to life.

Innanna is pursued out of the underworld by evil spirits who want to find someone to replace her – they seize upon on her husband, the shepherd Dumuzi, who has been enjoying his life on the throne without appearing to mourn his missing wife. But Dumuzi’s sister, out of love for him, offers to spend half the year in the underworld in his place. Thus are scores settled and the spirits of the underworld appeased.