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Michael Rosen: ‘We never know when, why or how we might become a refugee’

Michael Rosen talks to The Big Issue about his new book which brings together poems about migration, displacement and the meaning of home

In mid-March, beloved children’s author Michael Rosen started suffering flu-like symptoms. Just as he was starting to recover, his health suddenly and severely declined. NHS 111 advised his wife, Emma-Louise Williams, to keep him at home. Seeking a second opinion from a friend who was a doctor saved his life. Rosen spent the next seven weeks in intensive care, six weeks hooked up to a ventilator. He was given 50/50 odds, at best, of survival.

While the country was adjusting to lockdown, news of Rosen’s condition brought the severity of the virus home. The former Children’s Laureate, now 74, was a fixture of many of our school days, and as we grew up we discovered that beyond the nonsense rhymes there was another side. Born into a first-generation Polish family, always a bit of an outsider, Rosen’s poems are as humane as they are humorous.

One of his poems, These Are The Hands, written to mark the NHS’s 60th anniversary, found new relevance this year as it was read out to celebrate the sacrifices made by anonymous frontline workers to save our loved ones.

Today Rosen is still suffering the effects of the virus. The sight and hearing in his left eye and ear were damaged. There are dizzy spells, and he has trouble breathing. But his values, integrity and compassion are stronger than ever.

Despite his ongoing health issues, he took the time to talk to The Big Issue about his new book On The Move, which brings together his poems about migration, displacement and the meaning of home. Rosen understands more than most the benefits of a wider, open outlook on the world.

The Big Issue: What did you learn about the hands who had helped you while you were in intensive care?

Michael Rosen: Part of the irony of being in intensive care is that you don’t know – well I didn’t – who was looking after me. I wasn’t conscious. By the time I came round I was ‘on the ward’ so I didn’t ever meet the people who had looked after me, nursed me, cleaned me for all that time. Perhaps I never will.

Hospital staff have had to become surrogate families for people who can’t have visitors. That’s not on the job description. What does it say about them?

It says a huge amount. Remember, when you’re in hospital as helpless as I was, every daily need has to be catered for by someone who doesn’t know you and who has no family motive to look after you. And yet they do it! It’s incredible.

How can we support them so they can keep supporting us?

We have to support their demands for better pay, more recruitment and proper help with their own emotional trauma caring for the seriously ill and the dying. They must also be safe to do their work. The provision of PPE at the beginning of this pandemic was not satisfactory. Nurses were improvising clothing in order to keep safe. Health workers have died in this pandemic.

Can anyone go through a significant experience with the NHS – either as a patient or as a relative of a patient – and not be aware of the key role migrants play in our country?

Absolutely not. Every minute I was awake in hospital I was aware that amongst all staff – nurses, doctors and all health workers – were people who were themselves migrants or who had come from migrant families. Actually, I was in a way ‘aware’ of it when I wasn’t awake too! I was in an induced coma and each morning the nurse who had looked after me the night before wrote me a kind of letter-diary ‘telling’ me what I had been like in the night. They put all these together as a ‘patient diary’ which I now have. Once again, some of the nurses in that book are people with a migrant background. I am grateful beyond words to them and for the care they gave me.

When you were in a coma there were Black Lives Matters protests around the world and a lot of talk about how the world we would ‘build back better’ could be fairer for all. Learning about that afterwards – have you noticed any difference?

No. Only this morning I read about where we’ve got to with the Windrush scandal. It is outrageous and cruel that people who came to the UK as British children on their parents’ passports have lost the right to free access to the NHS, have been refused services of all kinds and in some cases deported to a country that they hardly know or don’t know at all.

To me, this reads as racialised discrimination. It doesn’t say that ‘black lives matter’ at all. And when people say, there is no ‘legacy’ from the days of slavery, well they’re wrong. This is the very long tail of those times still wagging. To be clear, it’s not because the Windrush generation are slaves. I don’t mean that at all. What I’m saying is that the enforced trips of their ancestors from Africa to the Caribbean, the migration to the UK – invited in order to help reconstruct post-war Britain –and the careless callous way they have been treated is a chain of historical events.

Fear of the outsider is as old as time, but what has driven the latest wave of resentment towards migrants?

Some of it has been deliberate government policy. What was the ‘hostile environment’ if it wasn’t directed at migrants? Alongside that we’ve had the hostility directed at asylum seekers crossing the Channel. We’ve also had both Boris Johnson and Priti Patel deriding ‘do-gooder’ lawyers who have quite legitimately and legally, of course, supported migrants in their cases with the Home Office.

Much deeper than that is the way in which someone like me and millions of my generation and younger have been taught to view history. How many people really understand and know what the British Empire was, how it dehumanised and humiliated millions of people all over the world? How it created in the minds of many (not all) people in Britain that they were somehow at the top of a tree, better than others? Then, when Britain fought two world wars, the fact that this asked of millions of people from that Empire to fight, get injured and lose their lives, we find that this is hardly known.

The cliché ‘Britain stood alone’ at the beginning of that war is not true. The life of Britain rested on the work and resources of the British Empire and soon after it called upon peoples from that Empire to fight too. It’s phrases like that which subtly ‘teach’ us that we’re superior in a pernicious and damaging way.

Why is that what must often be wilful ignorance has come to dominate debate on some of the biggest issues?

We’re all ignorant of something! There is a problem that we think of ‘debate’ as a kind of battle. We talk about ‘winning’ an argument. How often do we see on TV or elsewhere in the media two or more people debating something in order to get a job done? This strikes me as a real debate with real substance.

What is the best way to learn about why people are ‘on the move’ – poetry?

In an ideal world, we would have time to hear from people who have experienced being on the move. Some of the great learning experiences I’ve had is listening to children in schools who are themselves migrants or who can talk about their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences. This chimes with people in my own family.

At the heart of this, we need empathy. We all move. I love how Benjamin Zephaniah said to me that he had once looked after refugees. ‘Where were they from?’ I asked. ‘The Lake District,’ he said. He had taken in and put up some people who had been flooded out of their houses. That says it all. We never know when or why or how we might become a refugee or have to move in order to make a living.

Growing up as a child of a migrant parents did you feel like you belonged?

My father was a migrant – my mother not. His father was Polish, and all my parents’ grandparents were migrants. I grew up in a North London suburb and there were plenty of children around me who had Irish parents or grandparents but only apparent in that – if they were Catholic – they didn’t come to assembly. There were no Jewish children in my primary school when I was there, though by the time I got to secondary school, there were students and teachers from a variety of backgrounds: Chinese, Burmese, French, Swiss and Jewish students with very similar backgrounds to mine.

In recent years you’ve researched what happened to relatives who lived in Poland and France at the start of the Second World War [Rosen wrote about this in a book called The Missing]. Did learning more about that history affect your identity?

Yes. Of course I knew I was Jewish. My parents would remind me of it one way or another very often and there were times when I was growing up when I thought that I might be observant without being a believer. I also knew in a very basic way that there were people in our wider family who had been killed during the war because they were Jewish. Researching this has at times overwhelmed me: the cruelty, the randomness, the hate, the official legality of it, and an overall sense of loss that the beauty of having had an international family spread across Europe has been smashed. I didn’t know or understand that before.

Then again, I know and realise that this situation applies to many if not most Jewish families in Britain. It’s something shared by us. I also remember that losses in families are not uniquely mine. I’ll never forget sitting next to two primary school children while one explained to me that the boy sitting next to him had lost his mother, father and everyone he knew where he came from but that he couldn’t explain this to me or even really talk to me.

How can we rise from the ashes of 2020?

We need hope and we need a belief in ourselves: personally, socially and politically. A lot of different things conspire to make us feel personally inadequate or feeble or inclined to blame ourselves for reasons that are beyond our responsibility. Socially, we are inclined to think of the small group of our family or a few friends as a refuge. No harm in that but it does mean that we can easily overlook that this group can be the source of our strength and hope. Then, politically – ah! Now that’s a problem, eh? I’m not a member of a political party. I tend to support individual campaigns or issues that I agree with. I hope that one day these issues or campaigns might connect up, in some way that I can’t imagine, so that we can all – and I mean all – can find freedom, justice and fairness.

On The Move: Poems About Migration by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Sir Quentin Blake is out now (Walker Books, £9.99).