If ‘Drinking for England’ and ‘Feltham Sings’, boiled down to their respective essence, are ‘Alcoholism: The Musical’ and ‘Borstal: The Musical’, then it must have been immediately apparent to Simon Armitage and Brian Hill from the outset that ‘The Not Dead’ would require a different approach. Let’s face it, ‘PTSD: The Musical’ or ‘Survivors’ Guilt: The Musical’ was never going to be an option.
‘The Not Dead’ features three key interview subjects. Cliff served in Malaya in the 1950s, his younger counterparts Eddie and Rob in Bosnia and Iraq respectively. All saw violence, did violence, and had violence done to them. All came back where some of the men they served alongside didn’t. All, more to the point, came back changed men, either physically, mentally or both.
Decades separate their stories but similarities quickly emerge: working class backgrounds; basic training as something easy or even enjoyable; the eventual depersonalisation of the individual so that holding a gun seems the norm, ditto firing it; the experience of killing without enmity; and the difficulty in readjusting to civilian life afterwards. Particularly the latter. The nightmares, the negative effect on relationships, substance abuse as an emotional crutch.
Psychiatry was quick to diagnose Eddie and Rob: post-traumatic stress disorder. Cliff lived longer with the fall out before medical understanding and support networks caught up with him. Years of his GP denying their was any underlying issue. Years of one’s self-worth taking a battering. And when he finally approached the Royal College of Psychiatry and received a referral, the response from his specialist was bleak: he would have to cope with it as best he could. “So that’s what I’m doing,” he concludes with astounding pragmatism: “coping.”
But for all that Eddie and Rob have been able to put a name to their illness more quickly than Cliff did, it’s by no means made things easier for them. Eddie’s saviour is his wife (to whom the most poignant of Armitage’s poems for the film – the deceptively titled ‘Manhunt’ – is gifted); Rob self-anaethetises with drink and drugs. Some days he can’t face going out.
All three men are quietly mesmerising in their interview footage. Cliff, old school in suit and tie, is formal and precise in his diction. He calmly recounts killing a Malayan soldier who had shot one of his comrades. The understated description will leave you reeling. Then, moments later, Cliff reflects “I’ve got him to meet again soon” – the juxtaposition of regret at another’s death and acceptance of his own mortality is shattering. I had to pause the documentary here while I stopped crying.
Eddie, quite softly spoken for such an imposing figure, chooses his words as carefully as Cliff. There is a world of painful experience in the weighing up of every word he uses. Rob’s recollections are a little more freeform, but punctuated by moments of silent reflection. Watching him, you get the feeling that he’s often back there, mind whirling. When he discusses being under fire, or even the waiting for the next attack, the comparison he uses is being mugged or in a car crash – that sense of hyper-realism where the adrenalin of a “fight or flight” response kicks in: “imagine that 24-7,” he concludes; “that’s what it’s like.”
Distilling their individual stories, Armitage created not just a suite of poems and lyrics as per his previous collaborations with Hill, but a book-length sequence. ‘The Not Dead’ is the only Armitage/Hill documentary thus far that has resulted in an accompanying publication. Curiously only two poems from it are reprinted in ‘Paper Aeroplane’, his Selected Poems that was published last year. (Some other pieces reappear in the Bloodaxe anthology ‘The Hundred Years War’.)
Obviously, only a handful of the work Armitage produced could find its way into the film, but the poems which feature are perfectly sculpted to each participant. And their readings are phenomenal. I can’t even begin to imagine what each man went through in not only having his worst moments distilled into short stark lines via the conduit of someone else’s imagination (no matter how sympathetic that imagination) but then reading those lines – reflectively and with gravitas – on camera. Armitage, in interview, has called it bravery. I agree.