The Great Below

living the feeling life


Thanks for the memory

I haven’t been writing any kind of ‘coronavirus diary’ but I’m glad that some people are. It’s important to keep a record of how it feels to live through such an extraordinary event – like the Mass Observation diaries during and after the Second World War, which are being revived for our times. From my mother’s schoolgirl diaries, I get a strong sense of what it was like being in London during the Blitz.

For many years I wrote an occasional diary of my thoughts and feelings, rather than of external events, but I haven’t done so for a long time now. The last time I kept any regular account was after my husband Michael Donaghy died in 2004 – it was a terrible and confusing time, and I knew that I would not remember clearly how it felt later on, as even at the time it was hard to pin down the ever-changing emotional landscape.

I started it in a brand new notebook, which I originally titled the Book of Unacceptable Feelings. In it, I wanted to be completely honest, day by day, about how things truly felt – not how I was expected (or expecting) to feel, or how various ‘psychologies of grieving’ laid out that it should proceed. I didn’t intend for it to be read by anyone else, except perhaps hoping that one day it might serve as an account for my son, who was eight at the time, of what it had been like when his father died.

That diary eventually became a book about grief, and about my relationship with Michael, called The Great Below. The book in turn gave birth to this blog, which has now become a place to put down my reflections as I write a new and different book, the one about my mother. Different – but also a book about memory, about loss, about love and its challenges.

I used to write a lot of letters – we all did. It was the main way that friends and family who were separated stayed in communication, before the internet and cheap telephone calls. In particular, I wrote long letters home when, in my late teens and twenties, I was travelling around the world or living abroad for periods of time, in France and the USA. In these I freely poured out my feelings, experiences, relationships, philosophical and political musings, and observations of the places I visited, using them in much the same way as a diary.

My mother – always the hoarder – kept every single one of my letters home, sometimes making multiple copies. She apparently used to read out passages or pass them on to friends and family, hopefully leaving out some of the more personal details. So I still have all of those letters, and my mother also somehow managed to retrieve all the letters she had written to me, which I am now using as material for my book.

When my parents were moving out of our family home and I had to retrieve all my stuff from their loft, I remember sitting down and systematically throwing away all the letters I had kept over the years from friends and family. At the time, I thought that it would have been more interesting to see my own part of the correspondence. Now I rather wish I had kept some of those testaments of friendship, the kind of which we no longer send each other. Like many things in our youth, letter-writing seemed something that would go on forever.

In one of my mother’s letters to me, she urged me to start writing in my diary again because “The memory is much more frail for feelings and detail than you ever think it will be at the time. The essence has a habit of paling.” And yet her letters to me, written by hand without corrections or edits; by turns absorbing, funny, prosaic, perceptive, rambling ; all signed and sealed with love – these strongly conjure the essence of her, and of our relationship.

I had to look out a couple of my own letters this week, to check the details of something my mother had referred to in hers. They are up in my loft, awaiting re-reading. But I resisted diving too deeply into that particular Pandora’s box right now, because I knew it would swallow me up for the duration; it’s a journey into the past which I’ll save for another day – or maybe never.

Love and work 1947

Woman’s Hour recently ran a feature on romantic relationships at work. Some companies are apparenty so worried about legal issues arising from workplace romances that they ban them outright. But as people spend most of their days at work, and often share interests or inclinations with those they meet there, it’s not surprising that it is also a place where many find love.

When my mother was twenty, she got a job in a design and engineering company in West London. She was taken on as secretary to a man in his forties, married with two school-age children, and at some point during the three years she worked there, they became lovers. Looking at it in hindsight, we might consider this relationship to be inappropriate, or even an abuse of power, but for my mother it was her first, and possibly only, experience of falling deeply in love.

I always knew about this man – that he had been married (my mother said unhappily), that he had eventually left her and gone to Australia, that she had been heartbroken. But recently I found a ‘short story’ that my mother had written some time later, after briefly meeting up with him again, that revealed the intensity of her feelings for him – a passion of mind, body and soul. Two years later, she was still devastated and grieving at the loss of this love, and very much attached to him in her heart, though fully aware that he would never be hers: “Oh dear God what shall I do, what shall I do – will I never be free, will the chain always be with me?”

So was he also in love with her, as she believed, or taking advantage of the beautiful, intelligent and besotted young woman he saw every day? Maybe it was something in between. Divorce was less common in those days, and he must also have been painfully conscious of the huge age gap between them, which clearly didn’t matter to her. He resolved the situation by taking a job halfway round the world and moving there with his family.

Before he left, he wrote my mother a glowing reference, which she, of course, typed up. By this time, she was no mere secretary, but ‘Chief Assistant of the Experimental and Research Department’. He notes that she “posseses an intelligence far above the average” and that “with an outstanding talent in draughtsmanship and a natural flair for modern design” she is “well-equipped for work in the experimental field.” It goes on in this vein for a while. At twenty-one, she might have seemed to have a glowing future ahead of her, but she left the firm at the same time as him, and returned to more mediocre clerical jobs.

Perhaps this in the end was the greater loss. Love fades and sexual intensity mellows, but in her pain, she perhaps gave up the opportunity to pursue a fulfilling career and I think she felt forever frustrated and thwarted. Still on the rebound, she went on to marry my father – a pragmatic, but in the end not very happy, choice – and to become a depressed and disappointed wife and mother. Never again was she really able to shine in her own right.

But despite the sad outcome, I can’t be sorry that at least for a period in her life, she knew what it was to feel passion and deep connection for someone, however doomed the affair. If, as Tennyson writes, it is “better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”, then at least she had that.



The loss of keening – singing for the dead

Good programme on Radio 4 this week, about the old Irish tradition of ‘keening’ (literally ‘crying’) for the dead. Particular local women were known for their skill in keening at funerals – a way of expressing and helping others to express their sorrow. By the mid twentieth century, it was seen as a bit primitive and had been edged out by the more ‘modern’ habits of biting back your grief and ‘bearing up’.
For me, the saddest comment in the programme was that perhaps we are no longer so affected by death in general, because of our overexposure to it at a distance in news broadcasts, films etc.
Of course, when you are deeply affected by a death close to you, it’s a different story, but it seems we no longer know how to express our feelings of grief and loss, and there is little encouragement to publicly mourn. (Or sometimes even for writing about it!).

“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.


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.