The American war in Vietnam has a complex and dark history. It began in 1954 as a war for independence with the French, after a brutal period of French colonial rule. It ended in 1976. Robert Macnamara, former US Defence Secretary at the time, later wrote, “Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.” For me, trying to understand something of the consequences of foreign powers drawing borders and funding factions teaches us both the importance of recognising what has happened, but also to see how it continues to cast global shadows in the present. The intelligence/counter intelligence and propaganda techniques of that time pre-figure our era of ‘fake news’ and political marketeering. Seeing Ken Burns 10 Part documentary series ‘The Vietnam War’ and reading John Pilger’s ‘Heroes’, then seeing the documentary photographs in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), combine to build a picture of the era for me. However, it is meeting real people whose relatives were killed on one side or the other; and meeting people whose disabilities are a direct result of the use of ‘Agent Orange’ shock, but connect me to the real after effects. There are still areas where land mines or chemical residues cause serious harm. We visit the area, which was marked the ‘DMZ’ between designated North and South Vietnam. This was officially the De Militarized Zone, but known locally as the VMZ or Very Militarized Zone. Near by we bend down to enter long narrow tunnels in the clay soil, where local villages took shelter from bombing raids. We try to feel our way into imagining the terror, hunger and confusion experienced at the time. We feel the hard metal of iconic tanks left behind, inhumane in purpose.


At the (not mentioned in our Lonely Planet) temple, we find heaven and hell. Ten kilometres or so outside the city of Da Lat is a fabulous Buddhist temple complex. It takes the ancient traditional art form of mosaic making, and uses it artfully to decorate the concrete structure. (Breton is the Vietnamese word for concrete, borrowed from French. It is used liberally in every context from city to farm, as the nation expands and grows upwards.) The curved surfaces of broken china – often with delicate roses or tableware – are tessellated into patterns to form brightly coloured three-dimensional dragons, demons, clouds and birds. It is a wonderful visual feast. Buddhas are halloed by neon mandorlas. There are giant bells to ring and plastic welcome mats. In typical Vietnamese fashion, there are street food sellers, shops selling elaborate Tolkein-esque furniture, huge marble statues, communist party posters and corners for mops and detritus. Under the giant Buddha covered in dried flowers there is a gift shop selling marble knick-knacks where an unexpected opening leads to a visual representation of the ‘hell realms’. I am not a Buddhist scholar, so my understanding is limited, but these realms represent metaphorical states of mind created by ordinary human suffering. In turn, the causes of suffering are generally covered by hatred, greed or ignorance/delusion. In this context I get the impression this is a more literal hellish representation of the torture that follows vices of the flesh. Theology aside, the display is a ghoulish romp through the underworld. Demons torture souls, skeletons eyes bulge with red lights. It is a spooky feast of horrific delights that is designed to make even the virtuous squeal.

Forty five minutes outside Hué, (the old capital city of Vietnam), lies another city. ‘The City of Ghosts’ is not inhabited by the living, but the dead. It is an eerie and extraordinary place. We have already passed war cemeteries with uniform graves, cemeteries full of tombs decorated with cement curlicues, rice paddies with a small family tomb in the centre, and large gated roadside family tombs. This, however, is in another league. The City of Ghosts boasts family mausoleums in a bigger league. The grandeur, ambition of construction and decoration super cedes most houses. These multi-coloured mosaic tombs are now rumoured to be costing up to $300,000. Set on a beach, built with concrete on sand, the layout of plots is un-gridded. Unlike the meticulous division of paddy fields and farmed plots, the edge of each mausoleum randomly butts up against the next, without formal pathways. I am told that refugees exiled as ‘boat people’ in the 1970’s, no longer able to return, send money from western incomes to older family members who save for these grand memorials. The designs represent the faith, décor and architectural styles of their patrons. There are Buddhas, Confucian symbols and crosses. Some are themed in blue and white – willow pattern style. A Virgin Mary is nestled in an alcove. There is a Vatican shaped cupola. Dragons and bears guard doorways. While family gatherings to remember ancestors are an essential part of life in Vietnam, there are few signs of life as we scramble around endless memorials in the rain. It is definitely one of the most incredible places I have ever been, and it made me feel strangely uncomfortable and empty.

The novel’s title quotes from a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘On Receiving an Account That His Only Sister’s Death Was Inevitable’. Miriam Toews writes this poignant and unflinching tale based on the autobiographical details of her own family life. She writes with humour that sounds almost flippant about their family dynamics and troubles. She captures the senses of paradox that comes when dealing with difficult circumstances that co-exist with the common rituals of everyday life. Hence when a family member is sick, there can be a heightened intimacy, and yet provisions must still be bought, meals cooked, and cars repaired. There is a sense of melodrama in the unfolding story. She brings dark humour to the tragic circumstances her central protagonists find themselves in. “Now I couldn’t think or write. My fingers hated me. I was afraid that when I went to sleep I’d wake to find them wrapped around my throat.” Two sisters grow up in a family already carrying sorrow. One sister longs to end her life, the other, lives with anxiety and responsibility of care, which this creates. My own mother had a strong death urge, so I identified with the care-taking narrator, and the tension, which a preoccupation with suicide places within their relationship. Through descriptions of domestic details, and the unfolding narrative, I empathised with the complexity that comes from loving someone for whom depression is so bleak that annihilation is preferable; and how that desire affects everyone around them. Miriam Toews treads lightly around what might be considered a taboo theme. She describes all their ‘puny sorrows’ with grace and tenderness.

In ‘From Here to Eternity’, Caitlin Doughty, American mortician, “travels the world to find the good death.” From her experience running a funeral home in California, she says, “We have fallen behind the rest of the world when it comes to proximity, intimacy and ritual around death.” She is a passionate advocate for more connected, healing processes around contemporary funerary rituals. Her aim is, “to reclaim meaning and tradition in our communities.” In search of alternatives, she visits Belize where the question (posed by Luciano, local death attendant), “Hey, what do you want when you die?” is a part of every day conversation. She witnesses a spectrum from the more esoteric practices of mummification and living alongside the dead bodies of family members in Tana Toraja, Indonesia, to the low environmental impact experiments in ‘recomposition’ in North Carolina, USA. In beginners Spanish, I learned the question, “Donde son las momias?” At the time I wondered when I might need to use it. In this book, I discover several places where mummification is practiced and this phrase might come in handy. Doughty explores cultures that offer “tasks beyond the lonely, interminable silences” after the death of a child for example. Looking for inspiration to the community open pyre in Crestone Colorado and the ‘Dias de los Muertos’ (Day of the Dead) tradition in Mexico, she finds customs that could be adapted as an antidote to a western secular ‘denial of death’. She is an entertaining and forthright travelling companion who isn’t afraid to shine a light into what might be considered taboo.

In his memoir ‘When Breath Becomes Air’, Paul Kalanithi writes with elegant clarity about his journey from euro-surgeon through cancer toward death. He writes with poignancy looking back at his life. First through literature, his family life, then medical training and neuro-science, he is “Seeking a deeper understanding of a life of the mind.” He struggles as a “Physiological-Spiritual Man” (Walt Whitman) to find a way, “that the language of life as experienced – of passion, of hunger, of love – bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracts and heart beats.” A cancer diagnosis brings a different perspective to his life’s purpose as “the future I had imagined…evaporated.” He sees with new eyes as he experiences being the patient after years of being the doctor. He grapples to find, “What makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” He seeks to act “as death’s ambassador,” to show us in both medical and human terms, “Here’s what lies up ahead on the road.” Kalanithi is unflinching in his portrayal of the feelings which make him afraid, frustrated and joyful. He says he “started in this career, in part, to pursue death; to grasp it, uncloak it, and see it eye-to-eye, unblinking.” This is a book about the responsibility those who care for us hold, and as a reminder for all those who will die. (If you think that’s not you, think again). He writes, “Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis I knew that someday I would die but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely.”

‘A Little Life’ is an epic tale by Hanya Yanagihara. It documents the lives of a small circle of close male friends, over four decades. I began it with trepidation, wondering if I would be bored with the lives of four American students, who at first seem unremarkable. The story slowly wriggles beneath the surface of the characters to discover their emotional struggles. As their lives interweave, what unfolds is a detailed depiction of the repercussions of both physical and emotional abuse. The novel explores shame graphically. With relentless detail it describes pain and suffering. Sometimes it goes beyond the bearable as a reader, but that’s the heart of what Yanagihara is trying to show. She takes us into the landscape of survival and of disability. It is a remarkable telling, ambitious in scope, sometimes too dramatic. I wanted the protagonists to make different choices. It’s an excruciating read, but it stayed with me, and I wanted to know how it would play out. Through reading to the end, I found an empathetic understanding of the link between abuse and shame that I had known but never really ‘got’ before. It also delivers a visceral examination of self-harm in the wake of trauma. It twins inner misery with outer lives that are against type, which makes an interesting paradox. I think Yanagihara also explores the criteria to measure success – outward achievements, overcoming physical wounds, or the capacity to endure – and how best to respond and relate to those who hurt. It is not for the faint-hearted.

‘A Manual for Heartache; How to Feel Better’ by Cathy Rentzenbrink, illuminates, a process of recovery, in not too many words. After her brother’s traumatic death, Rentzenbrink felt ‘stuck’ in grief. Looking beyond the content of her story, she finds what we all share. She explains, “all loss – from the untimely death of a loved one, through to the loss of innocence, all the way to having a bag stolen – feels as though it is specific to us, but is actually universal.” What she does brilliantly is describe nebulous territories like depression, shame, grief, and gradual recovery in metaphors that resonate. “Grenades come in all shapes and sizes,” is how she describes the impact of different deaths and traumas. And of crying, “Give in to tears, think of it like bleeding a radiator.” Although a self-confessed ‘Pollyanna’, I found her willingness to expose her vulnerability comforting. “I realised how many of us look as though we’re navigating life in an apparently successful or even happy way, yet are weighed down by burdens and exhausted from the effort of hiding our sadness.” She articulates “the pursuit of distracting ourselves from our pain, so chaos and destruction often follow in the wake of the first wound.” She also reveals how touching into her pain allowed a shift to happen. “And in daring to look again on the most painful scenes from my life, I also reconnected with the warmer, sweeter memories that had been trapped in the no-go area.” Rentzenbrink’s perspective is reassuring, but not prescriptive. She sees the holes in secular society, reaches for a meaningful weaving between grief and love, and ends by offering questions for the reader to consider.

Oxford old and new co-exist like parallel worlds. I feel how Lord Asriel and Lyra took shape in this city, where the ‘Schola Metaphisicae’ is only a short walk from the Modern Art Museum. It is a place where ideas are currency. Wren and I take a conversational journey of ideas from death to art and back again via welding. We enjoy animals and patterns in the tapestries of Kiki Smith. “How imperative it is at the moment to celebrate and honour the wondrous and precarious nature of being here on earth,” says Smith. Wren and I speak of the need to follow subtle impulses in order to manifest creative ideas in our unique ways. We met through a shared enquiry of metaphysics. (A philosophy which examines the nature of reality and the relationship between mind and matter.) Today Wren shares an invocation from the 7th Dalai Lama, which inspires me. “Help me to make myself into a jewel, able to satisfy all the needs of the world, able to manifest as best suits each and every occasion.” Later I head off to look at repositories of fossilized ideas and values. These lurk under the scent of formaldehyde, dust and mothballs at the Natural History Museum. With another friend, I see ‘Performing Tibetan Identities: Photographic Portraits’ by Nyema Droma at the Pitt Rivers Museum. The young modern Tibetans portrayed find identities constructed through work, sexuality, what they choose to do, alongside more traditional cultural identities. Finally, a conversation in the Eagle and Child introduces the study of architectural decay and the world of academia. As I return to London, my head is full of ideas.

We stand in a South London garden, on this cold bright day. Back to back gardens are sandwiched between two terraces of houses. We burn sage and drink mulled cider and apple juice. We stand a little awkward at first, despite the warmth from the cider, but willing. Bunched together between raspberry bush, which is pinned to wall on the east, and the thin afternoon sunset, which leans over the wall on the west, we make shadows. To wassail means ‘to wish you health’. Wassailing is usually carried out on the new or old twelfth night (5th or 17th January). There are different traditions, sprung from Anglo Saxon ones. They involve cider and singing, with an exchange of blessings, walking either from orchard to orchard, or house to house. Today we have been invited to reclaim this old custom that connects us with the seasons. We offer our ‘wassail’ to the apple tree in this garden as a simple acknowledgement, in return for its benevolence later in the year. This is done by pouring a libation (drink poured as an offering) of cider, mulled with apples and spices at the base of the tree. Then we doff our hats and sing. We sing to the cherry and rowan trees too. It’s a short, rousing refrain and it feels good. The youngest member of the group is particularly delighted. We sing once more for good measure.

Oh little apple tree
We have come to wassail thee
Will you bear some fruit for me
When the season changes.