‘We had an extraordinarily happy 14 years, dancing through the days’
Julia Blackburn doesn’t want this to come across as mawkish or overblown, and I hope it doesn’t. But it is a very sweet love story that I think is happy and life-affirming. And we don’t talk enough about death. We should.
This is what happened.
Julia, born in 1948, is the child of her poet father and artist mother’s fractured marriage. She meets sculptor Herman Makkink in the 1960s when he arrives as a lodger. She is in her late teens, he a decade or so older. They have a relationship, part and live their own full lives – Julia having two children and building a reputation with her writing: books and radio plays.
She and Herman meet again later, most significantly in 1999. Much of their courtship is played out by fax, across the North Sea, with Julia on this side and Herman then teaching in Amsterdam.
They meet in the spring of that year and by December are marrying at Lowestoft Register Office. The reception is held in a village school and the honeymoon in Walberswick, where they rent a freezing-cold cottage for four days. The bride loses her voice.
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Their time is divided between the Suffolk countryside, where Julia has her home, and a house in Italy that the sculptor had originally taken on in a ramshackle state.
In 2004 the artist is treated for throat cancer. Things are touch and go at times but he beats it and it leaves him with a light-headed sense of elation.
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Years later, Herman grows frail. He knows the end is coming, though not when, but doesn’t fear death. He doesn’t want pain, but he’s not scared of dying.
In the autumn of 2013, a couple of days before his 76th birthday, the couple go for a walk in the moonlight. Perfect moonlight. They hold hands as they stroll by the sea at Walberswick.
After driving home – eating supper, drinking a glass of wine – they watch the Ealing comedy Whisky Galore! Neither has seen it before. They don’t have a telly, so play it on a laptop computer, on the kitchen table, before turning in.
The next day, Herman tells his wife he’s happier than he could ever have thought possible – though he admits he’s not sure how long his body will hold out.
That afternoon they do their own things. As the October light begins to fade, Julia leaves her writing room in the garden, at the top of a steep bank, and comes down the zig-zagging steps towards the house.
It’s about 5pm. She finds her husband lying still under an oak tree, on wallflowers she’d planted in a clump.
He’s alive – looking like a Victorian picnic-er – with a look of gentle surprise on his face. It’s as if he has seen an angel passing close by, Julia will write later.
Ambulance. James Paget hospital at Gorleston. Cerebral haemorrhage. Nothing can be done. A room. Waiting. Breath soft and shallow. Stopping. Such a gentle departure that it takes a while for Julia to realise he’s gone. It’s about an hour shy of his birthday.
A friend takes Julia home, to the house near Halesworth. It’s about five minutes to midnight when they arrive. The friend has a birthday card for Herman; Julia a bottle of Chablis. They have a glass. The friend goes home, and Julia goes walking in the fields for about an hour and a half. “It was a full moon,” she says. “There we are…”
The following New Year’s Eve, Julia goes to the house in the hills near Genoa with her son and his wife. They stay a week, and then she has three days there on her own.
“Like one doesn’t, I didn’t sleep. I kept on sort of surfacing through the night and I started, in a notebook, writing what had happened, as a way of anchoring myself, I suppose you’d say. I thought of it just as my own account.” It comforted me through a dark time”.
Back in Suffolk, neighbour Andrew Smiley showed her photographs he’d taken a week or two before Christmas of starlings flocking, parting and combining again, at Walberswick.
“And in that moment I thought ‘Gosh, this would bridge the gap between my own thinking and something to do with the mystery of life and the fact that although to me it was a terrible tragedy that my husband died, for him he couldn’t have had a better death.
“The manner of dying is so important, and to honour someone if they die without fear or complexity, without (you) going into a complete spiral – if you can...”
Andrew printed about 30 images. Julia laid them out on the floor, in a kind of sequence, with her bits of writing. Within a week or so she’d rewritten it all into a kind of dialogue, a poem, featuring the pictures.
“It was very fast. Because it had gone from being a private thing, I felt it had suddenly become universal and I wanted it to be published, in a curious urgency. I’d never written poetry before.”
Now it is published - as Murmurations of Love, Grief and Starlings - by Suffolk’s Full Circle Editions.
It’s been described as “hauntingly sad”. Take this extract:
“Lying on the imprint of his absent body/In order to be closer to him./And when I go out/I often wear his coat/With its deep pockets/And the cloth moves as I walk/So he seems to be inhabiting me”
And starlings? Apparently the night-time storm surge of late 2013 killed a lot of the birds at Walberswick because it arrived so quickly.
“I felt the starlings were also in a state of grief. Simon felt the starlings were suddenly diminished in number.” It was almost as if, as they came together, there were gaps were birds were missing.
“You can’t project grief onto something, but you could say they weren’t as they had been.”
Julia says: “The mysterious and profound language of swirling shape and movement created by this mass of birds against the colours of the evening sky gave a form to thoughts beyond the reach of words, and so I rewrote the poem to include the starlings: ‘Starlings make me able to believe/That everything will be alright/In its own way/And that is good to know/–If it is knowing –/Perhaps it is more to do with trust.’”
She’s already given readings in the Netherlands, Herman’s homeland. “It’s amazing how many people contacted me to say it helped them through grief or loss, or that they’d given it to friends or relatives to help them.”
We sit at the kitchen table – the one where Whisky Galore played. Julia and Herman had this raised-up, light and airy, eco-house built about six years ago. Through the door are the zig-zaggy steps, the oak tree and the clump of wallflowers.
Julia’s talking about Herman’s fight with cancer about 10 years ago, which at points had left him clinging to a thread. “He’d been very close to going a couple of times, because it was very severe. From then, he’d been terribly… ‘elated’ I suppose is the word. He wasn’t afraid. He got through it without fear. He’d looked at death. I’d looked at death. It would have been a terrible thing if he’d gone then.
“Then, in the years afterwards, it was bonus time. Although the cancer went, he had lots of frailties – to do with the treatment. They said they’d added 10 years to his life with the amount of treatment they gave him.
“We had an extraordinarily happy 10 years, dancing through the days. Every so often he would almost go, it would seem – he was a great one for terrible falls – but we went walking in the mountains, camping, and all the things one does.
“He said ‘Thank goodness there is death.’ Which I think is very nice. Not this idea of ‘If I could live forever…’ He found it not a bad thought. The only thing he didn’t like, which he’d experienced a bit with the cancer, was pain. He was afraid of that, and he was terrified of having a stroke or something that would leave him incapacitated, mentally or physically. Which I think we all are. That would not have suited the nature of the man that he was.”
She fetches a lovely picture of them in Italy, two months before he died.
“You see how jolly we are! We just had such fun. We’d joke that if we got stuck in a traffic jam together it didn’t matter. Whatever happened didn’t matter. I have to acknowledge or honour the closeness that we had, and know it is all right. Sometimes I sit and weep, of course I do, when I’m suddenly startled by something or in the night wake up and sort of call out for him. But at the same time I think ‘Yeah, good run… we had a good run.’
“We had 14 years of laughing and dancing. He was a wonderful dancer; I’m not so good. At his funeral, his daughter played these little films of him dancing and we had it on a loop. He danced beautifully. I shake, rattle and roll, but he was a very elegant dancer.”
For Julia, then, life goes on. She does some teaching, and there’s always writing and ideas – plus the delight of two grandchildren, one aged a year and the other six months. “It’s been so extraordinary to suddenly have new life coming in.”
She wipes her hand back and forth across the surface of the table, lightly. “The nature of my grief is that I miss him terribly, but I don’t have anything of wishing I’d said something different, or that I still had something to tell him. I felt we’d said and done everything. There was no unfinished business between us. And that, I think, makes for a quietness in the head. It would have been dreadful if I’d been away in London (when it happened). But it was so peaceful.”
She remembers a lovely thing she read, about keeping working if you’re bereaved. You’ll be exhausted, but don’t worry; it will pull you through time.
“The alternative is lying in a heap and weeping for a year and a half. It’s getting through time that’s difficult. And to step out of yourself. It’s the focusing that means you’re ‘not there’ any more – which is the great joy of writing, anyway. You come ‘back to land’ and wonder ‘where have I been?’ – which is a sign that it’s going well!”
At the time Herman died, Julia was working on a biography of hardly-known Norfolk artist Thomas Craske. “When I managed to return to the writing, the book became the companion that helped to pull me through my grief,” she says.
Craske, who died in 1943, was a fisherman who became too ill to go to sea. He began to create paintings and embroideries of the sea so he could stay close to everything he missed.
The book has raised hugely the profile of his work. There’s talk of a permanent gallery at Snape Maltings and Julia laughs about one reviewer’s notion that she’s done a service to the nation.
“He’s an interesting artist; a sort of missing link. The work is so damn beautiful, and so elegant. I did go to places where they said ‘Oh, we’ve got some but they’re really rubbish’, and then you’d see them on a wall in a proper gallery, beautifully displayed, and they’re exquisite.”
Also helpful are a couple of poems her father, Thomas, wrote. She fetches them. Mercy was for and about her – a plea for protection by God. There’s a line about trusting that “whatever happens/Is destined to occur”.
And in another poem: “May chaos though have light, within your mind/And be of use.” That last one she’d carry with her as a child, for comfort and fortitude. “I think that’s my mantra. I think I’ve always had this though that you don’t have control of being born, of what happens, but we do our best to use what we’ve got.”
So it sounds as if she’s (and this is such an impertinent thing to ask) doing OK? She smiles. “The new generation is coming, the sun is shining, this Craske book does very well, and I go on with life. So yes, I’m all right, I think.
We walk up the zig-zag to look at Herman’s studio and, a few metres away, Julia’s writing room. She points out the quince tree planted where his ashes were buried. (She’d been making quince jam that day…) “I thought it wasn’t going to flower, but actually it’s flowering beautifully.”
Julia’s giving a free teatime reading at The Aldeburgh Bookshop in a week’s time. Does she look forward to it? “Yes. I love reading. I’m a closet exhibitionist, I think! I used to be terrified of public appearances, but I really enjoy them. I’m doing it with the pictures, so that means I’ll have a screen.
“I’d like to talk a bit about death. I find it interesting. People should talk about it. People have said to me ‘Oh, this tragedy of your husband’s death…’ He wouldn’t have said it was a tragedy. It’s terrible that he’s gone, but it’s not a tragedy.”
She’s read about octogenarian neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, who this year learned he had terminal liver cancer. He’s trying to live his final months “in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can”.
Julia says: “He said ‘I’ve had such a wonderful life; it’s fine. This is not a time for sadness.’ This is what Herman felt: that he’d had such a wonderful life.
“On his computer – he’d been applying for a Dutch grant – the last thing he’d written was ‘In four years’ time I will be 80. I find this terribly exciting!’ He didn’t get there. But he did get to 76, minus about an hour – which was pretty good, considering what he’d gone through, with the illness.”