Margaret Innes

New Worlds: Reading, Writing and the Imagination

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A Love Letter to Sartre’s Nausea

On our bookshelves is a very battered copy of the green Penguin Twentieth Century Classics edition of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, translated by Robert Baldick. On the inside covers, front and back, is a letter written by someone unknown to me. A letter written to accompany the book when it was given to the woman it’s addressed to. I’ve changed the names to Anne and Joseph just in case some strange twist of fate brings to their notice the fact that I’m publishing this letter between them or if anyone out there knows them. For those reading, the dedication in this edition is To The Beaver. Other than for the names and one illegible scratching out, this is an exact transcription including the spelling mistakes.

Dear Anne,

Notice firstly who (what?) Satre dedicates this book to. ???

You once said you doubted your existence. This feeling we have shared, once I even thought myself as a figment of my own imagination thus cancelling myself out (an explanation to this is, I hope, not required here.) You ‘pinched’ me out of that dream.

This book, Well I found it interesting to say the least & I feel (if it is possible for me to do such a thing) that the less said the better.

If you do read this book I have found it more effective in situations of unknown crowd company. for example a bus or train. 

                                                                        (see back cover)

I’m not telling you to read this book, that would be un-existential, giving you this book is un-existential …..

Perhaps you could relate some of Monsieur Roquentin’s experience to Meg’s  ???

I sit on the wall watching people as if I am a fly. ( You also whispered something about being on the ‘EDGE’ )

Sometimes the fly will coment & be noticed, but merely as that, a fly not a living organism. Some will say a fly is not intelligent, a fly has no consciousness. What are these things?? It does not matter if we squash the fly on the wall. If I squashed a fly on the wall today and no one else knew or saw the body. Did it exist?

“Some of these days

You’ll miss me honey”



I’ve asked myself, is this the kind of letter you write when you are young (or maybe not so young) and drunk or stoned and deeply troubled with existential angst and unrequited or even requited love? A lot of it seems very, very appropriate for a novel which is all about asking if there is meaning in life. Its content curiously matches the subject of Sartre’s most important non-fiction book, his philosophical work Being and Nothingness. You might even say it got to the heart of his work, in its own words.

This letter comes with a book that has an unknown provenance. We have no idea how it ended up on our shelves. Neither of us remembers buying it and it has no price other than the printed English and New Zealand prices on the back cover. My husband works at the Lifeline Bookfair and if it had been donated there, it couldn’t have been sold. It’s in such bad condition, policy says it would have been thrown into the recycling. So perhaps he brought it home for us to read and the letter came with it, just as it once went to Anne.

So somehow this letter has fallen into our lives as a random piece of writing about being and nothingness, love and despair and loneliness, something that is unexpectedly poetic in places. I’m putting it out there because it moved me, because it is such a strange happenstance that we should find and read something so personal in such a place, and because it seems to have been written from the heart. It’s a small prose poem by an unknown writer touching on things most fundamental to many of us.9

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Ian Hamish and Ukraine: A blog

This is a story about how unexpectedly one morning I opened my email to be asked if I would moderate a comment on my blog Stepping into Eternity: Stories of my Family where I wrote about my uncle, Ian Innes-Sim. A Terry Joyce in England had written Hello, I am doing some research into Ian Innes-Sim as he was recorded as being part of the 2nd Rayleigh Scouts. Can you help? I said I could, we exchanged emails and out of that exchange comes this blog.

Terry’s researches revealed that as a scout in May 1937, at almost fifteen, my uncle was part of a three man team that won the Local Junior Marathon. Later in July of that year he was a Patrol Leader who went to the World Jubilee in Holland where he would have seen Robert Baden-Powell give his farewell speech. Then in July of 1939 he joined the SS Test Bank as an apprentice marine engineer, following in his father’s profession, at the start perhaps of hopefully a good life. Barely two months later in September of that same year World War 2 was declared, and three and half years after that in January 1943 my uncle, as an apprentice in the Merchant Marine, died at the age of twenty when the ship he was on, the Oakbank on voyage in the south Atlantic, was torpedoed and sunk. He and the captain were rescued by the U-boat that sank them, but both died when that vessel was itself sunk by the Allied forces. I am very sure the shock of my uncle’s death began the slow unwinding leading to my grandmother’s own death five years later. I do know from my mother how very proud she was of her son’s scouting achievements. He has no known grave and I only have one photograph of him, possibly taken when he joined the Merchant Marine and which is attached.

I sent a copy of this picture to Terry, and he replied with an image of the logbook from the 2nd Rayleigh Scouts from 1924 -1944 recording the names of the scouts who fell in action during WW2. It was a simple typewritten list of nine names, six from the RAF, one from the Army, another from the Fleet Air Arm and my uncle from the Merchant navy. There is a note written on the bottom of the page in green ink: ‘They were strong & beautiful in their lives and are an everlasting example to us.’ Terry had also sent the link to a YouTube video of the jamboree in 1937 and considering what was to happen, it’s poignant to watch. Who knows what the fate was of so many of those young men in the film, my uncle among them? My uncle is commemorated on Tower Hill Memorial, which is maintained in perpetuity, as it says, by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. How many of his fellow scouts’ names ended up on memorials around the world as well?

While I write this story of loss and grief, I think of a news item I saw just a few days ago, young men in Ukraine manning checkpoints against the Russian invasion. They were university students, like my uncle just twenty or in their late teens, given three days training, and then sent with a gun to protect the capital, the nation. There was other reports of young Ukrainian men and women, also new soldiers, getting married in the midst of war in their uniforms, hugging each other before fighting. According to news reports, many of the soldiers in the Russian army are conscripts, young men also, some with only a few months training, who did not know where they were being sent or who they were expected to fight and kill. I think of a Ukrainian woman giving sunflower seeds to one of these young men so when he died the bright yellow flowers might grow from his body in the nation’s soil. I think also of the maternity hospital in Mariupol bombed, a pregnant woman rescued and taken to another hospital where both she and her child died. She had begged the doctors to save her child’s life.

William Blake wrote in one of his poems, “The strongest poison ever known came from Caesar’s laurel crown.” Everything that is happening in Ukraine now is proof of that line. When both the young Ukrainian or the Russians soldiers die in combat, it’s likely their names will end up on memorials in their countries just as my uncle’s and certainly numbers of his fellow scouts did after WW2. When the civilians die in the shelling, just as the soldiers have died fighting, it will again be for the delusions of power and egotism of leaders like Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and his inner circle. Again it will be everyone else who will suffer the ongoing grief. I am asking myself why the delusions of men like Putin have to cost so much in other people’s lives, not just once but over the generations. Who will be accountable for this and why is it still happening now, why it can’t be stopped? The best place to ask these questions would be in the criminal court in The Hague, should Putin and his inner circle ever end up there to answer for their war crimes.

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8 Radiation Therapy Blues

During my first radiotherapy session, the PA system in the radiation room was playing Elton John’s Bennie and the Jets. Later it was Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love and in between any number of songs I didn’t recognise. Sometimes there was silence. Lying on a hard bed, hands above my head holding onto handles, being radiated with high energy rays, was an uncomfortable but also, puzzlingly, an out of body experience. A friend of mine who had gone through the same treatment said she would imagine she was on a beach and the whirr of the equipment was the sound of the surf. Because I was asked to hold my breath at certain times, I found myself concentrating on my breathing. The radiation therapists would position a small screen in front of my eyes. It showed a blue bar about two thirds of the way up and a yellow bar that moved up and down with my breathing. When asked to hold my breath I had to put the yellow bar into the blue bar so it turned green.

While this sounds mind numbing, it was the only thing I could concentrate on while I was lying there being radiated. For their own safety, the therapists had to leave the room while the radiation was being done. I was there alone with the sound of the machine, and either silence or whatever music was playing. It was a little like floating in some extra-terrestrial no-man’s-land, not quite like the star child in 2001: A Space Odyssey but still an experience that disconnected me from myself. The worst of it was the passivity. I just had to lie there and I couldn’t move. ‘Stop wriggling,’ I was once told by one of therapists and she was quite right. For this therapy to work, I had to stay still for the rays to find their right mark. If I had an itch on my nose or in the middle of my back, it was just too bad. It was bliss to get up, put on my blue gown, genuinely thank the therapists, who were all skilled professionals and very pleasant throughout, and leave.

There is a ship’s bell next to the nurses’ desk in Radiation Oncology. When your treatment is finished, it’s tradition to ring it. I gave the bell a good clang twice on Monday, had my photograph taken by one of the nurses, saw everyone applaud (also the tradition), thanked everyone, left my thank you card with the nurses and went out into the waiting area where my partner was waiting. We weren’t quite free yet, I had to see the medical oncologist. As she had been for every appointment I had had with her, she was stylishly dressed, competent, professional, thorough. She was pleased with my test results, advised me to keep walking, and made an appointment for me to see her four months later.

Then we were free, escaping out to the car park, dispensing with our masks once in the car and on the road home, seven months after the sonologist had said to me during my scan, ‘I’ll just get the radiologist.’ Even my hair is growing back though I can still clearly see the shape of my scalp. Little spikelets cover the top of my head like a fine, soft, and very close crew cut. My hair is darker than it was, which is a bonus though I would never recommend chemotherapy as a treatment for grey hair.

So for now it’s done. Thanks to all the readers of this blog for your generous and kind comments, all the feedback, and the friendship. It’s been a privilege to share the experience with you all and the most wonderful support throughout. My strongest hope is that you only ever have to read about cancer treatment and if you do have or even have had this experience, give you all my best wishes for a complete recovery. Thanks again to all the medical staff who were fantastic. And thanks to Medicare, which is so important for the nation’s wellbeing.

That closes this blog. The next one, I hope, will be on the subject of something wholly cheerful and happy. Best wishes to all.