Trying not to drown
Updated: Sep 23
Today is World Alzheimer's Day (21 September 2020). As part of raising awareness, we review Afloat by Nigel Baines, 'a memoir about Mum, dementia and trying not to drown'.
Afloat is a graphic novel that the author has self-published and, because of his career in publishing and graphic design, it is a highly professional, as well as a deeply personal, piece of work.
Nigel was brought up in Grantham, Lincolnshire, as was, of course, the town's most famous daughter, Margaret Thatcher. Lady Thatcher went on to develop dementia herself. You may recall how her story was made into the film Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep in the title role.
Afloat is part social as well as family history, and it's told with great wit and imagination. The story begins with a Christmas morning when Nigel awakes to remember that his mother is not in her bungalow but in hospital after breaking her hip. This is the first time he has ever woken up on Christmas morning alone.
'Christmas is peculiar,' he writes, 'the one time of year when your six-year-old self is right alongside you. I can still recall that feeling as you wake in the dark to see a vague silhouette of boxes, and as your eyes adjust each box becomes more defined. Each box is a surprise waiting to come. Surprises these days don't seem to come so well gift-wrapped.'
The pictures, and the story which he weaves through them, illustrate Mum's character as she and the family cope with her growing confusion. She is seen through the lens of a child and adult with tender affection.
His home town is also depicted with fond attention to detail. Readers will resonate with his recollections of his brick 'back to backs' neighbourhood, his father's working life, the football matches they went to together and the seaside holidays they enjoyed, as he reflects on the changing face of Britain throughout the decades.
He notes how Grantham changed as Mrs Thatcher 'got to work dismantling the unions [and] the world started to change quickly. People stopped buying cranes and big machines from Grantham.'
His mother was also changing, at first almost imperceptibly… but the disease gathered pace. At one stage he recognises: 'My Mum had a clear long-term memory. That seemed to be safe from the disease. But she couldn't find her present self. She couldn't remember what had happened five minutes ago. The past memories were there, but there was no anchor for them in the present.'
The graphic novel format is well suited to the task of retrieving his own memories and reflecting on what was happening to his mother's mind and memories. 'Graphic novels seem the ideal form for illness narratives,' he told me.
The novel was self-published in 2019 as his final project for a Masters degree in Authorial Illustration. It's created with a light and humorous touch but with such depth as well.
I hope Afloat goes far and wide and it will undoubtedly amuse people as well as move them along the way. It is only available from his website. It costs £10 plus packing and postage. Click here to buy.