Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Mark Hooper

29th December 2022

Every year, we give over all of December (and usually most of January) to a series called ‘Shadows and Reflections’, in which our contributors share highs, lows and oddments from the past 12 months. Today it’s the turn of Mark Hooper.

It’s been a weird year. I think we can all agree on that. 

I started mine by going on a leisurely walk and nearly impaling myself on the broken branch of a tree stump. It might sound like I’m making more of this than it was, but several close friends who work for the NHS later told me I was lucky I hadn’t done myself lasting damage. This is more than a little ironic because, through lockdown, like millions of others, I had made walking my go-to therapy. My friend, the writer Kevin Braddock, pinpoints the importance of walking on ‘grey and empty days’ in his brilliant book Everything Begins With Asking For Help. Not just walking, but all the things that go with it: listening; looking; sensing; breathing; accepting.

I don’t like being plugged in when I go on walks — as Kev notes, listening ‘to whatever’s there’ is part of this process, so I try not to shut it out. But I did find that a soundtrack forced its way into my psyche during those tricky times. Top of my personal playlist (as my Spotify annual summary made abundantly clear) was Fleet Foxes’ Shore, a magnificent, emotional masterpiece that spoke directly to my sense of isolation and yearning for nature. My yearly top ten was entirely made up of tracks from the album, with ‘Featherweight’ (‘May the last long year be forgiven’) the runaway winner. The last time I was this obsessed with an album was a decade before when, ahead of a lengthy trip to visit family in Australia and California, I decided to update my iTunes and it froze, leaving me with only Bowie’s Scary Monsters… to listen to — which I duly did, on repeat, for the best part of a year. (If anyone needs a thesis on ‘Teenage Wildlife’, I’m your man.)

As the year has moved on, so my listening has shifted. I made my own compilations that leant heavily on a certain skewed idea of this country, and its countryside, and our place in it, full of psych folk and pastoral pop from people like Kevin Ayers, Virginia Astley, Matt Deighton, PJ Harvey, Kate Bush, Cornershop, Gwenno and Sir John Betjeman. If that all sounds a little navel-gazing, I also found myself drawn to music that addressed bigger, more timely issues such as Sault, Gabriels and Eddie Chacon — classic, beautiful, soulful songwriting shot through with a sense of unease, disquiet or — in Chacon’s case — something more sanguine, but each offering a message of hope, faith and love through difficult times. 

This weird, existential dread that seems to have enveloped us all in 2022 was also compounded by my own personal circumstances. Having been separated for 18 months, the usual insecurities of freelance life became more amplified. I felt this overwhelming feeling of losing my centre of gravity and of not having solid ground on which to plant my feet (ironic, given how I’d started my year). 

It’s funny how we use these metaphors all the time, and then act surprised when we find ourselves divorced from nature. But, in truth, I found myself most at sea when confronted with the mundanity of modern life. Finding myself all lost in the supermarket, for example, staring into my basket and realising I didn’t really know what I liked, as opposed to what I was used to buying for the family. (When people talk about ‘finding yourself’, they rarely mention Pickled Onion Monster Munch or Bird’s Eye Chicken Pies, do they?) 

Adding to this mood, I found myself dating again for the first time since the 90s. They have apps for it now and everything. Amazingly, despite all the opportunities to embarrass myself, I found it nothing but a positive experience. Possibly because my first date made it very clear she was only interested in socialising after lockdown, I viewed the entire minefield as the chance to make new friends rather than find my soulmate. 

And then I had the worst and the best week of my life. Two dear friends of mine, who had both been work colleagues at the same magazine in the early 2000s, passed away within a few days of each other. I had reconnected with them during lockdown, when they had each told me that they hadn’t been well — one in terms of their physical health, the other their mental health. I don’t want to cause their respective families unnecessary stress, so I’ll just refer to them as M and S. 

Let’s talk about M first. In a way, it’s easier to, however devastating the outcome, for the simple reason that we all knew what was coming. She had been incredibly open about her cancer diagnosis, the highs and lows, the hope and the dejection. And when it came to the last, she made it quite clear that this was it and there would be no coming back. Her bravery was almost intimidating — but that’s the way M was.

Needless to say, when she passed, it brought a disparate group of people back together — three decades of staff from the magazine where we had all worked (her longer than most), raising a glass to the most unifying of all of us. It couldn’t have been a better send-off, full of love and togetherness.

Things with S weren’t quite so great in terms of closure. We had talked a lot over the previous year, mainly via Instagram messages, after a few of her posts had prompted me to get in touch. As summer arrived, it really felt like she’d turned a corner: she’d moved back home, bought a house, started a new relationship. Her posts showed the old S again — all happiness and laughter. But it’s never that simple, is it. Another Instagram message, this time from her new partner, told me that she’d taken her own life. I know I’d done what I could to help her, but it still felt like it wasn’t enough. To make things worse, her funeral took place when I was visiting family in America, so I didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye properly. 

Now for the good bit. Partly thanks to M and S, I also reconnected with one of my oldest and best friends. We had dated in our teens, stayed in touch intermittently, but lost contact in the last few years. When — again on Instagram — I posted tributes to M and S, she got in touch, asking me how I was doing and if I wanted to talk, adding, ‘I’m a psychologist now, I’m good at this’. She was. We talked a lot — about ourselves individually, and about us. We hadn’t realised we were both single again, and it was obvious where this was going. We talked more, we met up, we went on walks. I made more playlists (it had been mixtapes the first time round). It felt like coming home again; at last. 

I think one of the key lessons you gain through life is learning to understand that there are no neat, simple answers. It’s far too messy and full of grey and empty days. Trying to summarise the past year feels trite, so in place of a conclusion, I’ll paraphrase some wise words from my mate Kev:

Go for a walk every day. Take your headphones off. Listen to whatever’s there.