IN PRAISE OF PRAISE
14 Feb 23
Dear Readers, my dispatches will always be free and open to everyone. I am unable to use my hands and I’m writing, via dictation, with the help of my family. If you could become a paid subscriber and support me, it’d mean so much.
First, Shit and Piss.
Both Miss S and the Maestro come to visit me, and I am keen to see them, but the conversation is almost entirely about shit and shitting.
They are both in the process of trying to shit independently, which means moving from their wheelchairs to the toilet and out of their diapers. This is a big step in the life of some of the patients here.
But both of them have had disastrous toilet accidents, which meant that neither were able to shit in the appropriate place. They shat on the floor, which isn’t so unusual at this stage. But the Maestro is stressed and humiliated, and now begins to weep.
Miss S tells him not to be silly; it’s part of the process; there can be no progress without failure. But the Maestro continues to take this badly. He goes to bed with an infection. We don’t see him for several days, and we worry. Then Miss S gets an infection, which isn’t so unusual in any hospital.
As for my arse, you will be fascinated to hear that I am still having an enema twice a week, which is both painful and awkward. When the male nurse comes to give me the enema, because he doesn’t speak English, he enacts the whole process, making loud farting and shitting noises, as well as slapping his fists together so as to picture clearly what is going to take place.
He does this with some relish, and since he looks like Dario Fo, the whole performance seems hilarious, at least to him.
The following day, in a separate incident, a doctor visits me, presses my stomach and then, to make sure that all is working properly, sticks his finger up my arse. I designate my arse Route 66. The female nurse, a friend, giggles, “Hey, you might even start to enjoy this.”
Then she removes my catheter. This, apparently, is progress. Now every four hours a nurse presses a tube into the end of my penis which sucks out my urine. It is horrible at night, because when you are asleep, you might wake up to find a nurse with his hand around your balls.
Still, as Isabella says, enough already of the shit and piss. Do they really want to hear it? But this is the reality of life here for most of the patients, to say the least. For us, this hospital seems to encompass the entire world. I cannot believe it, when Isabella leaves to have dinner with her family or friends. There really is another world out there where people drink, laugh and finger one another.
All this shrivelled cock talk reminds me that I must finish the Amsterdam Orgy piece. There was a time when I was not in hospital and was even horny.
Recently, I have been receiving much kind praise for my blog, and many sweet emails and texts from people saying how much it means to them. I am grateful for the encouragement; I need the appreciation, and it certainly cheers me up. It should act as fuel for future blogs. Unfortunately, I have been writing less in the past couple of weeks because now I am doing more physiotherapy in order to accelerate my recovery. The physiotherapy renders me exhausted; it now takes three hours a day.
With regard to praise, I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, which was still almost a Dickensian period, when, as far as I can recall, children were rarely praised or encouraged. The educational ethos of the time was punishment and reprimand; a stick rather than a carrot.
On my first day at Secondary school our form teacher slapped two sticks down on the desk and said: “This is little Willy and big Willy. One or other of these will be coming for you if you don’t mind your lip.” I immediately defecated in my trousers, as did, I imagine, several others in the class. It was the beginning of The Terror.
My father encouraged me to succeed as a writer, but neither he nor my mother praised us. I don’t remember many compliments for any of the other kids I knew in the school or in the neighbourhood. In fact I knew that many of the kids were kicked and punched by their parents.
I believe it was felt that approbation would do something called “spoiling” children. Too much veneration would hold up their progress and they would deliquesce like an ice-cream in the sun. This idiotic idea was not tested until the countercultural late 1960s, when the educational ethos slowly began to change from punishment to gentle encouragement under the influence of educationalists like Donald Winnicott, Bruno Bettelheim, Anna Freud, Carl Rogers and others.
Children who had been traumatised by the war were finally addressed kindly, unlike children previously who were treated like a wild species who had to be beaten into respectability.
I am not one for the indiscriminate, neoliberal fantasy of today, where young people are told that they can “have it all” or “be whatever they want to be”. This is clearly not the case. It is a lie. This kind of cruel optimism and fatuous use of illusion and ideology is as useless as any punishment and leads the child nowhere useful.
My writing students are not children, and whether they are praised or unpraised is beside the point. My work as a teacher is neither to uplift nor discourage them, but to say something that will help them move on as writers. I want to help them say something tomorrow that they couldn’t say yesterday.
But, if they do write something that brings a smile to my face, I will tell them. After all, the aim of so-called creative writing is primarily to give pleasure. And if they give pleasure, they should know it. They are in showbiz. This writing work is not therapy for the writer – it is entertainment for the reader.
It is odd that writers are more likely to believe the vile things that are sometimes said about their work, particularly by professional critics, rather than good things said by friends. There is no reason to believe that an unpleasant remark should carry more weight than a pleasant one. But, of course, who hasn’t said false things to friends, when we know quite well that their latest work is not as interesting as their previous work. Therefore it is difficult to gauge the truthfulness of friends’ reactions. Quite rightly, they will want to cheer us up.
But ultimately, when one reads or hears a wide reaction from critics, acquaintances and friends, one should be able to measure the value of one’s latest work, and whether it has resonated with an audience at all.
If it has, one should be able to take this praise seriously and use this reaction as a kind of charge for the future, in order to keep going. It should not be an excuse to bath in some kind of ego orgy. Unfortunately, we are afraid of being praised since it might give rise to envy in others, who might then hate us. We might even envy ourselves.
There is a sense in which work does liberate us. We are making a contribution to the world; our art is for others and not for ourselves alone; a connection is being made. This is the spark of life, a kind of love.
This afternoon I stood up for the first time since my accident. I was strapped to a gurney and raised up above my natural height, but in a standing position. I felt such a sense of exhilaration and pride I almost cheered myself. Perhaps at last I can afford a little optimism, and even praise.
Your loving writer,
Dear beloved Hanif,
Thank you for today’s dispatch! I grew up under the shadow of the same pernicious belief: that praise or affirmation of any kind would lead to the unforgivable sin of self-regard…leading inevitably to moral sloth and the complete breakdown of the social order. What a pile of crap. Now, like you, when my students surprise or move me or make me smile with their writing, I’m happy to let them know and always do.
And I’m even happier to tell you how much your dispatches mean to me. Your writing, reaching me in my surgery recovery bed, is something I look forward to every day. I love your radical honesty. I love the way you look deeply at all of life - the enemas and toilet accidents right along with the poetry of a face or the kindness of nurse’s touch. I love your humor and wit, astoundingly present in that hospital, and I also love when you just can’t summon it that day. Your writing shows me what it means to be a human being, a soul, a mind, a personality within the confines of a physical body, with all its delights and miseries. You invite us right into your room and I feel honored to be there.
Thank you for your generous heart, your wildly expansive spirit. I think of you and send thoughts of healing to you each morning. Praise for this day with you in it, Hanif Kureishi, praise to you for all you are.
All praise to you, Hanif, for talking about shit and shitting. Of course kids talk about it, but entry into adulthood seems to come with the bargain that defecation will never be broached, at least until we become infirm enough to let it all hang out, so to speak.
I too shit my pants (haven’t we all) in elementary school; well, on the way actually. I still quite fondly remembering duck-walking the rest of the way to school with a definite load on. That was the occasion I also fell in love with my kindergarten teacher.
As I was sitting at my desk, praying that no one would notice me or my olfactory emanations, the teacher suddenly said: “Children, what is that smell? Oh look, they are tarring the street. Let’s go look.”
And as the class gathered at the windows, she took my by the hand and led me to the toilet where I was made presentable.