Tuesday, 30 October 2007

A testament of youth

I make no apology for the length of this post, or for the fact that I have taken it directly from The Times newspaper.

Libby Purvis, the mother of Nicholas, is a British Institution. She is a superb and brave journalist, specializing in both newspaper and radio reporting. She has worked for BBC Radio 4 for many years. She is a sailor and contributor to Yachting Monthly, a successful novelist, a columnist in The Times newspaper and most importantly a woman who is not afraid to speak out about injustice and unpopular issues.

During my career as a reporter, both in radio and TV, I have striven to try and emulate, to the best of my ability, the superb example that she gives by tackling stories with thoughtfulness and passion. I have never been in her league but by God I admire her hugely.

When her son, Nicholas, committed suicide recently I was so sad for her. Her pain, and that of her husband Paul, was unimaginable.

Once again, even in tackling such a personal and painful journalistic subject her compassion and intelligence shine through.

This is her article: A testament of Youth.

After the suicide of Nicholas Heiney, her 23-year-old son, our correspondent discovered his moving diaries and poems. They show maturity, insight and a rare mystical quality, and are now to be published. Here she introduces extracts from the book

"My goal,” wrote my son Nicholas a few days before he died, “is to write something I could show to somebody”. The irony is that he already had. In his short life he shared only his university essays, a few formal accounts on the ship’s website of his life as a square-rigger deckhand in the Pacific, and a brief exasperated blast against the literary-critical industry. Nobody knew the extent of his sea-logs, poems, journals and philosophical musings. We found them only in the weeks after his suicide.

He threw nothing away, but showed his work little respect. There were notebooks, crumpled pages, poems on Postit notes casually interleaved in books. I transcribed it all unedited, two hours at dawn each day, setting the computer to a different font from the one I normally use, and found a rough chronological order. This was mainly to help my own understanding of his life and death. It was forensic. I was picking my way across the battlefield.

There was no thought of wider publication. We had our own way to make through this bereavement, and diaries, especially those that contain clues to an advancing illness, are not always fit to be shared with strangers. Nor did we feel inclined to contribute to any debate about mental illness and suicide in young men – important subject though that is. We had, and still have, a sense that Nicholas was so untypical of his generation that it is hard to draw general conclusions from what happened to him. That view was confirmed by his psychiatrist, to whom he was frankly “a puzzle”, and by his Oxford tutor, Professor Duncan Wu, who, like us, finds more answers to the puzzle in poetry, particularly of the Romantic period, than in psychiatry.

So publication was not a first thought. But it became more and more apparent that, despite his reclusive reticence, he had a reader in mind. He would casually write: “If you read this . . .”, or “I’m sorry, I must go back a day . . . ”. The sense of privateness receded, replaced by a belief that he had left, as Duncan Wu wonderingly put it, a kind of testament. It records the adventures and visions of a rare and strange spirit, whose joys and despairs place him closer to mystics and romantics of the past than to the age he was born in.

Moreover, his account of sailing the Atlantic and Pacific as an apprentice deckhand on the square-rigged barque Europa was too vivid not to share, and so were some of the poems. Nicholas was a natural mystic; although he never spoke about organised religion except in mild exasperation, we now know that for years his inner world was populated by demons and angels: the spirit and the shine of heaven and the terror and beauty of poetry. Shelley’s strange 1815 poem Alastor, in which the poet is led on a perilous journey by a demonic spirit, was very close to him: nobody knew how deep it went, but from the age of 17 his e-mail address was alastor1815 and the password was “shelley”.

All this we came to understand in the bewildering, sorrowful months after his death. With caution, I shared the documents with cooler heads, and it is Duncan Wu’s encouragement and judgment that enables us to present our son’s mind and work publicly, adding only enough narrative to give a context. Lovers of the sea, and of poetry, should find much in it. We also, with some diffidence, decided to publish for another reason. He was young, and not many who die at 23 get an opportunity to leave a legacy. His writings contain truths and perceptions that – although they come from an unusual and troubled soul – have already shown an ability to touch hearts and lives.

He would want that. In the most vivid portion of his life, the Pacific voyage, Nicholas worked with great conscientiousness aloft the Europa, seizing and splicing footropes and handholds high in the rigging, with a conscious awareness of the security of strangers who would come after him. Much of his work is still up there, headed at this very moment for Antarctica. In his writing too there are many unexpected handholds, which support us to this day.

None of us can expect more than that: the hope that somewhere up in the crazy cobweb of life, we have left a good piece of work that will serve fellow beings. Despite the illness that overcame him, our son left something worth having. As he wrote: “What is important is to remember that it is not the way in which we record our existence, but that we do record it. In the air, and everywhere around, we must remember how the streets ring out for every soul that thought and felt and passed through them in weakness and in strength.”

Publication had to be handled with care. I wanted Duncan Wu’s collaboration in the editing to counterweigh maternal judgment; moreover, it rapidly became clear that any commercial publisher with an eye on sales might inflict too much intrusion on all of us. The misery-memoir genre has a firm grip on the culture just now, and we needed to ensure that this exercise was not about us and our loss. It is about what Nicholas had to say.

Also, he loved well-produced books on good paper, and would work in the local secondhand bookshop, taking his pay in elegant old editions of the Romantics. So we decided to control production ourselves, guided by two retired publishers, and present the writings as honestly and straightforwardly as we wanted. When considering a cover we thought immediately of the painter Alan Parker, one of the few new acquaintances with whom Nicholas made a genuine connection in the last months of his life. Alan went straight out onto bleak Star Fen in Lincolnshire and painted a brewing storm. When we saw it we knew it was perfect: a visual version of the lofty terrors and cloud-mountains in our son’s late poems.

We also felt it necessary to stress that none of this has anything to do with the sickly romanticisation that often surrounds suicides, especially of beautiful young men. Nicholas was emphatically not a “suicide-groupie”, never even read Al Alvarez’s The Savage God, and had nothing but sympathy for our good friend Frieda Hughes, Sylvia Plath’s daughter, who has been pestered all her life by the faction known among us as the “Plath-loonies”. He would be horrified to think that anything he wrote or did should encourage suicidality: it is very clear from unpublished diaries how long and how hard he himself resisted it.

A short account of Nicholas’ life: he was born in November 1982, on the rising tide, at Greenwich. Superstition has it that boys are born on a rising tide. We named him because it was nearly Christmas, and it was much later that we discovered that St Nicholas of Myra is the patron saint of both sailors and scholars.

His sensitivity showed early and, for him, stressfully. When a great beech tree crushed the end of our house in the 1987 hurricane he wept, saying “I will be dead before it can grow up again so beautiful.” I tried to say no, no . . . but, of course, he was quite right: it was nearly 200 years old. At 4, he had looked beyond the comfortable assumptions of daily life and grasped ideas of mortality. He also demonstrated early a romantic love of the sea. On family trips in our small boat he would creep from his bunk in night-watches, to sit with whichever of us was on the helm and watch the silhouettes of the sails moving across starry skies.

School was not particularly easy for him, but drama, poetry and language drew him irresistibly; he read with intensity, once in his teens running through with a copy of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady saying: “I hate Osmond so much I want to stab the page!” His use of language in distress often shook his teachers. In a brief bad passage at one school, aged 9, he said “even the bricks in the walls curl themselves up to throw themselves at me”. The image, we now know, remained: in a poem much later he wrote:

While lying, waiting in the shimmering cold It was as if the bricks broke free and hurled themselves with vice to cleanse the sullied world from me who stood behind perception’s bars as if it were a judgement from the stars searing through my icy prison bars But the bricks stayed in still because they knew with every breath that every ghostly shuddering chill was marking time until my death I lay quite still within my eerie cage convulsing, contorting and feeling its rage

He called the poem Bad Trip, but it should be stressed that drugs were no part of his life. He was all too aware, after a bad reaction to a prescription medicine, that he belonged to the group who should not take risks with recreational drugs: his mind found wild enough territory already. Eventually he found equilibrium at Royal Hospital School at Holbrook, where he was a famously kind and pastoral head of Juniors. But at 17, he suffered a violent infection of the inner ear – labyrinthitis – which, during his slow recovery, threw him into an extreme post-viral depression.

He fought this in every way possible but it took a toll, and some physical damage may have contributed to the more serious psychosis which, it is guessed, was developing when he died. Certainly the themes from this time turn up in poems of the next six years: as do reflections of his happier passions. He was a teenage scuba enthusiast, for example, as many are; but on the secret pages of the notebook lay images like this:


The sea thickens
In the coral dell
As the divers descend
Where the stonefish dwell
The light splits, in shafts
As the darkness swells
And creatures desert
The fatal well
Death eats colour
In a diving hell dark since the time that Man first fell
The stonefish are still
We are all alone
The stonefish are flesh
With heart of stone

He did physics A level as well as English and history, an odd mixture at first sight; but then, clarity of expression is necessary in science. And, having read his writings, I now suspect that the rigour and certainties of physics – like his technical interest in racing bikes and computers – comforted something in him that valued rationality simply because it was always under siege from poetry and the first dark tendrils of psychosis. And only a physicist could have written, two years later, this definition of death:

“What we were, we will become
As we give our heat to the desert sun”.

He was a careful critic, and his approach to poetry good or bad was always one of gentle interrogation, trying to understand the writer rather than deconstructing or catego-rising. After his first Oxford interview he came back saying “Mum, I need to be taught by those guys!” and when they turned him down he spent the next year reading avidly, to win a place on a second try. His mentors were the late Michael Gearin-Tosh and Duncan Wu of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, both known for their humane and modest approach to literature. It was a revelation and a liberation to him after the process of A levels, which he furiously described to later students as “drudgery. They do not test or resemble knowledge, they simply test the limits of how far you will go down the path of moral destruction for relatively little reward. Hang in there. Browning began an inspirational journey on the morn of Rome and May, and so shall you”.

The sea continued to be important to him. Despite the long aftermath of his illness, and a fear of going aloft, he insisted on sailing in the Tall Ships 2000 race across the Atlantic aboard the Dutch barque Europa. He loved it, proudly helped others to overcome their fears of climbing, and, in his gap year, signed on as an apprentice deckhand for a six-month voyage to Japan and Korea. In a striking fragment of one of his summer tall-ship logs, he expresses both his social discomfort in teenage circles – though he had individual good friends – and his need:

Imagination is my absent curse
And so it is that time of year again
To go to sea, for better or for worse
Where silver sails break sun in golden shards
And I can work at being pure again.
The heady rush of middle England’s crush
The bars and awkward social teenage circles
Will dissolve into an absent thought
And I can be pure again.

Before the Atlantic, he had only done family trips and shorter sea races, leaving entertaining schoolboyish logs: this from the trawler Excelsior:

“My bunk is on top of some important bloke’s bunk, so I had better keep my annoying personal habits to a minimum . . . Next to my bunk is a fire bell which you have to turn to operate. This ensures that you will be deafened as well as burned . . .”

It is a boon, in the months after a sudden death, to find that the lost one can still make you laugh. His account of working as a hotel waiter to raise money for his gap-year voyage is full of dry observation about customers and staff: we had always wondered why he volunteered to work the Christmas morning breakfast shift and now we know — “with a giant hotel Christmas lunch impending, I wanted to see the type of person who also ate a cooked breakfast”.

Editing has been a strange process, and not wholly painful. When someone writes so privately (and yet with a future reader somewhere in his heart), it can be a shock to see into the familiar stranger’s mind. But to us, the writer Nicholas is wholly recognisable. He is more troubled than even we knew, and with a greater depth of mysticism, but the voice is familiar. It is gentle, amused and amusing, modest and tolerant, curiously old-fashioned.

He loved his technology, his iPod and internet, yet wrote in long-hand; he loved comedy, finding BBC7 his last refuge from the shadowy world of transcendence which became in the end too close and dark to bear. He steeped himself in great literature, but never treated it as something to be academically “clever” about. It was, to him, a key to the puzzle of existence.

So we put his scattered writings together, with explanations but with the minimum of intrusion, and now offer them in print. Not for vanity, not as some mawkish memorial, but just in case for some reader, somewhere, he provides a useful handhold in the perilous clamber through life’s rigging. He would no doubt have edited them more sharply in a few years’ time if he had been able to stay with us. But Duncan Wu and I have done what we could, so that his words will not be lost.

The Silence at the Song’s End by Nicholas Heiney is available for RRP £12.95 at www.songsend.co.uk

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