BILLY, ME & YOU Reviews

FINALLY the official publication date for my graphic novel has arrived and what better way to celebrate than with a bunch of wonderful write ups and reviews and…to see it parked on the Highlights stand at Foyles flagship branch in Charing Cross…I have laid out the reviews in full here in chronological order, with links to where they appeared.

Here are the reviews….
Page 45 A fantastic comic shop in Nottingham, but more than that…A HUGE resource exists on their website, especially useful for anyone wanting to find out more about the graphic novel with lots of more autobiographical titles in stock. You can order books from them online. Here’s the write up by Jonathan Rigby. 

19 October 2011
Jonathan Rigby
Billy, Me & You (£12-99, Myriad) by Nicola Streeten…

The most profoundly moving graphic novel I personally have ever read bar none. Tears were rolling down my face continuously whilst I read it (yes, on the bloody tram again!), and for a good twenty minutes afterwards. Upon finishing it I was actually shaking and felt physically sick. Indeed, even as I start to type this review I can feel the tears welling up once more.
An autobiographical story about the death of a young child is clearly difficult subject matter to tackle, and I don’t doubt a considerable part of my immediate personal reaction to it, is due to recently becoming a Dad to the beautiful Isabella, who seemingly every day manages to steal another little piece of my heart that I didn’t even know existed prior to that moment.
I therefore admire Nicola Streeten massively just simply for having the courage to create this work, which describes the heartbreaking death of her first child Billy aged two during heart surgery, a mere ten days after his condition was diagnosed. I admire her even more for creating a work which is not simply an outpouring of her grief, but instead an acutely insightful look into the nature of such a loss, and an equally insightful portrayal of the reactions of the world around her to it.
Firstly, I simply can’t imagine what it must be like to experience the loss that Nicola did. Even now, just thinking about such a thing happening to my daughter is causing my hands to shake as I type and my eyes to prickle again. Her clarity in explaining the sequence of events and her initial emotional turmoil is just astonishing and so very touching. From there we then move onto her and her partner John’s attempts to come to terms with what has happened, and just exactly how their lives have been so completely shattered in such a devastatingly short space of time. The black and white photograph of some of Billy’s toys, left where he last played with them, taken by John and included here, is unbelievably powerful in this context.
I do suspect anyone who has been through the loss of a loved one, even an older person as my wife has relatively recently with the loss of her much beloved father from cancer, will identify completely with the extreme range of emotional experiences Nicola and John endured. But there is actually also a considerable amount of humour in this section of the work, as we are frequently treated to her thoughts in response to the comments of others, which range from the truly caring to the completely unhelpful, and indeed the occasionally utterly bizarre and inane. Their comments – not her thoughts, I probably should just clarify! It’s an odd thing to find yourself chuckling whilst crying, but I did so on several occasions as Nicola’s thought bubbles uncannily reproduced my wife’s own thoughts in several similar social encounters with, on the face of it, entirely well meaning individuals who seemingly just managed to continually make matters worse with their attempts at consoling her.
When I read Phoebe Potts’ graphic memoir about infertility GOOD EGGS, I found myself struggling to have compassion for her, despite my wife and I going through a similar ordeal ourselves, albeit with a happier outcome as we were eventually blessed with Isabella, simply because I (and also my wife) couldn’t warm to Phoebe remotely as she portrayed herself in that work. Here though, much like Rosalind Penfold’s DRAGONSLIPPERS, which tells the autobiographical story of an abusive relationship, I found myself in complete empathy with Nicola, simply because of the matter of fact portrayal of her story, which has the important quality of feeling like it has been written with a desire to help others who might be experiencing such a horror, as opposed to GOOD EGGS, which feels to me more like Phoebe Potts just wanted to write a comic all about herself and was using her infertility as subject matter to that end. Probably a harsh statement, but in writing an autobiographical work, it’s as important to be clear about why you’re writing it, as in the presentation of the material, in my opinion. At no point in BILLY, ME & YOU did I ever feel that Nicola was attempting to elicit sympathy from the reader. Rather I felt, much like Rosalind achieves with DRAGONSLIPPERS, that there is a genuine sense of the author wanting to reach out to others similarly afflicted and say “You are not alone. Nothing I say can actually make things better for you personally, but I do understand what you are going through.”
I don’t doubt that writing this work some thirteen years on (plus also having been fortunate enough to have another child, and her depiction of the inevitable emotional turmoil the arrival of her daughter Sally engendered in her and John is again in equal parts illuminating and moving) has been a cathartic experience. It’s just I genuinely think achieving such a catharsis wasn’t her primary motivation in doing so. Nor I’m sure was writing a comic about herself.
This caring approach is not the only thing Nicola shares with Rosalind’s DRAGONSLIPPERS, as she also chooses to employ a relatively simplistic, dare I say it, primitive art style here. Now I have no idea whether Nicola is actually as accomplished an artist as Rosalind is (click here – four down, left – for her portrait of Stephen in his ‘distressed’ leather trenchcoat overlooking the Trent in suitably regal manner); I’m sure she probably is, but I think her choice of art style for this work is inspired, as the illustrations have a childlike feel to them which really helps ground the work and lets the emotional content roar off the pages, and I do also think when you are dealing with such serious subject matter as this, that picking a less ‘serious’ art style really does help.
This is a work you should read. It’s not an easy read, but you should read it nonetheless. This is probably one of the very few works out there, like Brick’s painfully honest account of his struggles with depression in DEPRESSO, that not only has the power to heal,  but also the power to inform people how best to practically help and support someone suffering such from overwhelming emotional trauma.
LINK (To purchase)

And a mention in Herald Scotland

Graphic novels
Reviewed by Teddy Jamieson

Graphic novels shake off the superheroes

16 Oct 2011
Everything is possible now.
You can talk about love and loss, desire and grief. You can tell stories about God and Islam. You can quote JG Ballard and Heaven 17 and rant about class war and neoliberalism. You can do any of these things in graphic novels today and publishers – big publishers, small publishers – will let you.
And yet some people are still happy with superheroes.
Dan Clowes, surprisingly enough, is one of them. Clowes is something of a legend in American indie comic circles, the author of Ghost World and the wonderfully Lynchian Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron. He’s also a regular New Yorker contributor. So he’s not the most obvious candidate to play around with superhero tropes. But that’s exactly what he does in The Death Ray. The result, admittedly, doesn’t really resemble the latest issue of Captain America. Instead it’s an arthouse take on the subject. Imagine if Todd Solondz had directed Kick-Ass – the result might have been something like The Death Ray. This is a dark, nasty slice of nihilism played out in faded pop art colour. It’s a fable about power and the abuse of power, and argues that one inevitably leads to the other.
Does that sound fun? Ah no. It feels pretty redundant, truth be told. That’s partly to do with Clowes’s nihistic tendencies feeling a little too familiar by now (yeah, yeah, we get the message. We’re all miserable, selfish, greedy idiotic bags of meat, thanks for sharing). And partly it’s because he’s hardly the first to explore the inherent fascistic tendencies of superheroes. Others (Frank Miller and Alan Moore) have done it better (and with a Hollywood pizzazz too). More than that, it feels such thin soil to plough, especially when compared to the deep, loamy furrows to be found in Clowes’s fellow countryman Craig Thompson’s new book, Habibi.
Those are metaphorical loamy furrows, it should be said. Habibi, an epic of more than 600 pages of exquisitely drawn storytelling, is set in the desert. The richness comes in the words and images, as two refugee child slaves fight for existence in a world that might be yesterday or might be tomorrow, one that’s steeped in the Bible and the Koran, in the Tales Of The Arabian Nights and in fears of environmental destruction. Dodola and Zam, the kids in question, are blown from empty sands to harem to factory, while Thompson examines love in all its forms – sensual and spiritual. The book’s publisher, Faber, has done it justice. As a result Habibi is both bravura storytelling and objet d’art in itself.
Not that you need the signifiers of quality to be quality of course. Billy, Me & You comes in a plain yellow wraparound cover and, if you open it up, Nicola Streeten’s drawings are at first glance crude and unsophisticated (no borders etched out in Arabic script here). But once you start to read, you can see it’s not so much crude as raw, a red-eyed, fist-in-the-gut account of how Streeten and her partner (and their friends and family) dealt with – or didn’t – the death of their two-year-old son Billy after heart surgery.
“So this was grief,” she writes. “A thing with a life of its own – controlling and distorting our understanding of the world – turning the innocent gestures of kind people who loved us into malicious acts of spite.” Yes, it’s a busy, messy piece of work but then so are the emotions on display. What’s most remarkable is that it will make you laugh. And then there are moments that will tear your heart open.
As I said, everything is possible now. Even translations of dark sci-fi fables by French documentary-makers. Sandcastle, written by said documentary-maker Frederik Peeters and illustrated adeptly by Pierre Oscar Levy, is as dark as The Death Ray but it’s a cooler, more disturbing thing. A group of people find themselves trapped on a beach. Every time they try to walk away they run into an invisible barrier, and the longer they stay the older they get. Half an hour equals a year here. Toddlers become adults, adults become addled. Death is coming at a gallop. What is there to do? Nothing but fight and love and cry and tell stories.
You could say the same of the people who turn up in artist Laura Oldfield Ford’s Savage Messiah. They’re the Common People of Pulp’s lyric, who’ve watched their lives slide out of view and who know there’s nothing left to do but dance and drink and … well, you know how that goes. Savage Messiah is a gather-up of Oldfield Ford’s psychogeographical fanzines that collage black-and-white photocopied photographs of decaying bits of London with her own pencilled drawings of people she meets – the punks and skins, the squatters and shell-suited working class who live in the bits of the capital city that have yet to be reclaimed by the moneyed middle classes – The Westway, the Lea Valley, Hackney Wick; all the places where pound shops sit next to brutalist tower blocks, where poverty is passed in a diet of bad food, bad pills, bad sex, punk gigs, raves and rucks.
Oldfield Ford is Iain Sinclair in smudged make-up, drifting around the fag-end of London life in a punky derive soundtracked by Einsturzende Neubaten and Throbbing Gristle to chronicle the lives to be found there. The lives overlooked by money and power. Her own included.
It’s a book pulsing with anger and class politics, disgusted with the “millennial mediocrity” of modern London, its flashy empty promises, its bare minimum-wage opportunities. This is a marginal book in every way, a clotted, gritty book about clotted, gritty places, but not blind to the beauty you can find there, however ephemeral: “9.45. Traverse the precarious point where Marleybone Road becomes The Westway. Slope down a subway of violet tassellations, little tiles glowing like amethysts beneath a film of grime.”
There are no superheroes in Oldfield Ford’s London. But there is something heroic about it too. Fight the power!
The Death Ray By Daniel Clowes, Jonathan Cape, £14.99
By Craig Thompson, Faber & Faber, £20
Billy, Me & You, By Nicola Streeten, Myriad Editions, £12.99
By Frederik Peeters & Pierre Oscar Levy,
Self Made Hero, £14.99
Savage Messiah, By Laura Oldfield Ford, Verso, £19.99

    21 October 2011

    The revolution starts here

    Last night, we gathered in a fantastic house close to the British Museum for the launch of Nicola Streeten’s graphic memoir, Billy, Me and You, a frank reflection on the aftermath of losing her two year old son. Her unflinching examination of her and her partner’s ways of dealing with this terrible tragedy, from suicidal thoughts to angry judgement of others’ inadequate responses, may sound like a harrowing read but Streeten’s honesty at revealing some of her less generous thoughts, along with her sense of humour, manage to keep this sensitive material far from grim, while remaining extremely moving. In the words of The Guardian, it is quite a feat.
    And that is another reason to rejoice at the success of this project. Despite much recent progress in the way comics are perceived in the UK, we still have a long way to go. Like the music business in the late seventies, the mainstream press and publishing world still seem stuck on the idea that the virtuoso artistry of the package outweighs its content. It took punk rock, much of which has stood the test of time and has gone on to be a huge influence, to explode that myth. I see this book in the same revolutionary vein, its artwork not seeking to soothe the reader with beautiful images, but rewarding with its raw emotion, and an ultimately uplifting message, those who can look beyond esthetic orthodoxy . Bands like The Ramones and The Clash were denigrated as poor musicians by the establishment, but their legacy still carries more power and energy than anything any supergoup ever produced.
    This is brave step in the right direction, helping to bring about a shift in attitude. UK readers and publishers will eventually understand that Sequential Art is more than a series of illustrations arranged pleasingly on a page, but words and pictures combined to convey stories, ideas or feelings, that transcend the sum of their parts.

    Comics are more than pretty pictures!

    24 October 2011
    Andy Oliver
    Broken Frontier
    Nicola Streeten’s memoir of grief and recovery is an incisively perceptive examination of social conventions in the face of bereavement.

    When Nicola Streeten’s son Billy was just two years old he was diagnosed with heart problems that would lead to his death, following surgery, just ten days later. Thirteen years later, Streeten returned to diaries she had written at the time to create a graphic novel account of her life immediately following that traumatic event, written from what is described as a “healed” perspective. Originally serialised in her small press comicLiquorice MagazineMyriad Editions have now collected Billy, Me & You as a complete graphic novel, with the initially surprising, but ultimately justified, tagline of “a dead baby story that is funny.”

    The small press has always been an outlet that allows us to experience comics work that we might never get to see in a commercial arena. Fortunately, of late, more publishers are becoming aware of the potential, viable audience out there for self-published material that previously would have reached only a very limited readership. With Billy, Me & You, those small press origins are reflected both stylistically and in terms of presentation; embodying that raw frankness that is often such an intrinsic part of autobiographical self-published work.

    In just the first few pages, set in the unimaginable hours directly after Billy’s death, Streeten establishes a rapport with the readership that is never lost throughout the entirety of this graphic diary. From the outset she employs an often brutal candour regarding the grieving process and the reactions of those around her and her partner John. Much like some of the real life “characters” in the book there will, no doubt, be those readers who find this openness either unbearably painful or even somewhat uncomfortable in its straightforwardness. They shouldn’t, because it’s through this refreshing honesty and integrity of approach that Streeten communicates so effectively with her audience.

    As the book progresses through the weeks and months of grieving, daily struggles with acceptance and the realities of loss on this level, the reader begins to realise just what a unique comics reading experience Billy, Me & You is. You may find yourself moved to the point of tears at the heart-rending poignancy of one section, only to find yourself laughing out loud at another of Streeten’s acute assessments of human foibles a few scant pages later. Indeed Billy, Me & You is as much about our own reactions to death, and the clumsiness of our social conventions regarding that one great leveller, as it is about Nicola, John and Billy’s story. Streeten’s anecdotal accounts of the often awkward, and sometimes quite bizarre, reactions of friends and colleagues to events will surely make most readers look inwards and confront some uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our coping mechanisms in these circumstances.

    Visually, Streeten’s illustrative style has a cartoony humanism that is equally at home conveying both the dark humour she employs so effectively and those moments of absorbing pathos that the book often swings between. The occasional insertion of photographic imagery is also jarringly efficient in reminding the reader that Billy, Me & You is not a work of fiction. I doubt I will be the only reviewer who refers to the photographs of Billy’s toys, left abandoned where he last played with them, as a haunting moment that will stay with the readers long after they have filed the book away on their bookshelves.

    Every so often a graphic novel comes along that shakes you up from a jaded malaise and makes you remember that comics are a medium that has the power to share experience and express emotion like no other. Incisively perceptive, uncompromisingly observant and keenly insightful, Billy, Me & You is not just an astonishing piece of comics material in its own right but also an ambassador for the criminally overlooked work of the small press.

    25 October 2011
    Forbidden Planet

    Sixteen years ago, 19th September 1995, Nicola Streeten and her partner John lost their first child, Billy, aged just two years old. He died following heart surgery for problems that were diagnosed just two days earlier.
    That’s the starting point for Billy, Me & You. The very first image is of Nicola and John walking out of the Royal Brompton, Billy’s things in their hands…..
    Streeten kept a diary through the days and years following Billy’s death, a diary she’s now transformed into this graphic novel, this memoir, this look at surviving the worst imaginable thing that can happen to parents.
    Billy, Me & You is described, at one point on the press release as a book that “will be relevant to anyone who has experienced the loss of someone they love“.
    But that’s too limiting. This has a universal, empathetic appeal. For me, it captures all the fear and horror of being a parent, that inescapable, utterly ridiculous fear of losing your child, and the contemplation of the unimaginable vacuum that such a tragic and horrific event would leave. It isn’t limited to those who’ve lost someone they love, not at all, it’s a universal fear, given reality and a profound truth in Streeten’s words and pictures.
    In truth though, we have no idea. We simply can’t imagine what it would be like. We can contemplate all we like, but thankfully, few of us will ever suffer this.
    All the way through this, I selfishly kept thinking, “thank god, thank god this wasn’t us, how would I cope, how could I possibly cope?“. A terribly selfish thing to think. But I read it and realised Streeten wouldn’t see it like that. I like to think I’d be one of the people she met, the people she awarded marks to based on their responses, who’d just stand there shocked and worried that the best I could ever come up with in situations like this was a pitiful “I’m so sorry…..”
    Her diary entries are so enlightening, so simply true. This is so very real, and you can feel it on every page. The movement through the years of abject grief, of recrimination, of guilt, of questioning, and every other possible emotion and action in between is captured in these 200 pages so very well.
    To say it’s moving really undervalues Billy, Me & You. It is, of course, how could it not be, given the subject matter. But it’s so much more than that. For a start it’s a page turner, a single sitting read, a truly satisfying journey undertaken with the author. You share in every emotion on display, from the depths of grief, up to the anger, the hopelessness, even into the ridiculous situations Streeton sometimes finds herself in, the ridiculous people she meets along the way.
    There’s moments of quiet reflection, catharsis, psychiatrist sessions, “dead baby clubs”, memories of the event, near madness, intense guilt, terrible sadness. It’s all here, an avalanche of emotions and moments, all tied together in Streeton’s narrative. There’s a scattershot feel to it all, and quite rightly so, it just emphasises the unreality of the terrible events and the experience is one of sharing headspace with Streeton throughout.
    How she does it is amazing, but there are even plentiful moments of comedy all the way through Billy, Me & You, moments where the insanity of the world takes hold and there’s nothing left to do but laugh along.
    Streeten’s artwork is rough, you can clearly see that. But it suits the story she’s telling in the manner she’s telling it. The emotional intensity comes through her art, and its openess and roughness is endearing, welcoming, personal and real.
    In the end, this is a hugely personal memoir that serves so many purposes. Most of all, it makes us move beyond trite clichés and see things as they really were for Streeten and John. We learn so much, we feel the sadness, the rage, the impotence, the despair. But we also see the moments of absurdity, the funny stuff that happens along the way to the healing Streeton talks of.
    And strange as it seems with such a subject, it’s a hugely entertaining book. I think Streeten would be happy with that. And she should be. This is entertaining, original, thought provoking stuff.
    Billy, Me & You is published by Myriad Editions on the 27th October.
    26 October 2011
    Runs the monthly Nottingham book club at Broadway
    I’ve read this book repeatedly since it landed through my letter box. I’ve cried, laughed and often found myself nodding in agreement while thinking ‘that’s so true’.

    Billy, Nicola Streeten’s beautiful little boy, was just two years old when he died following heart surgery for problems that were diagnosed only ten days earlier. She kept a diary at the time and thirteen years later began to translate her notes into this graphic novel.

    It begins with a sketch of Nicola and her husband John leaving the hospital on 19 September 1995 carrying Billy’s property in a few bags. Over the following pages she describes how she could only cry in front of John or the psychologist, and how she incorporated daily crying into her journey home. Nicola then confronts the limits of public grieving and begins to mark everyone’s responses to her grief out of 10.

    She also draws more emotionally harrowing scenes where both she and John become frightened by this huge sense of emptiness that has suddenly hollowed out their lives. They are lost for a while as they try to find reasons to blame themselves for what has happened and even contemplate suicide.

    Every now and then Nicola pauses for a moment of reflection in a series of self-portraits where she talks about what made them laugh, helped them to heal and wryly acknowledges the arrogance of grief.

    The drawings appear deceptively simple but they are subtly complex. For example, there’s a scene where Nicola and John go to a group session at the hospital. Here Nicola has framed the page with a gradually fading circle of dark grey around a central clear point and placed the nurse and the hospital psychologist in it, this creates a sense of detachment and feels like they’ve come into view through a fog of pain. That dense fog of pain rests in the centre of the room on the following pages symbolically keeping others’ grief at the outer edge of their own. Then when it’s Nicola and John’s turn to speak she reverses the effect so that they become the detached focus through another’s fog of pain. Simple, yet painfully expressive.

    Photography is also used to powerful effect: a shot of the last toys that Billy played with, the places that they went to while they waited for his operation to be over, and a discarded pine table that became a project for them both soon after Billy’s death.

    Billy, Me & You is extraordinarily unflinching and honest as Nicola reflects on the grieving process with compassion, humour and humility. You cannot help but respond to the deeply human insights that she sketches on each page; the fragility of life expressed through a vase of sunflowers, the reality that there is no time limit for grief and that moments of guilt, especially as the fog of pain begins to lift, can strike like a knife in the heart at the most unexpected times.

    This is a novel that will resonate with anyone who has experienced the devastating loss of someone they love. It’s completely unique as it graphically draws on the past to demonstrate that a future is possible as time eases the grief. That understanding and acceptance can be illuminated in the darkest moments, and that you will always keep the precious memories of your loved ones with you wherever your future lies.

    Score 5/5

    Published by Myriad Editions

    IBSN:  9780956559944 £12.99

    BILLY, ME & YOU Launch Party

    Corinne Pearlman very kindly agreed to host the launch party for Myriad Edition’s ‘Billy, Me & You’ at her home literally next door to the British Museum. It was a splendid evening, with many dear friends and family rocking up. It was a rich mix of people, friends very new from the comics world and some from way back, including those I haven’t seen for a couple of decades!
    What made it perfect was the documentation by the talented photographer, Patrick Dodds. Below is a selection of portraits and shots he took during the evening. Visit his website to see more of his work

    Frieze Art Fair 2011 – Highlights

    John, Sally and I got the train down to the Frieze Art Fair for the penultimate day…Thank you Sally for the photography, and for moaning slightly less than when you were 7, as we looked at the art. Aha is that The Saturday Guardian Family Section I’m reading?…see what I’ve done here?
    ok at the bottom of this post I am including the article…or you can read it online here
    I have also been reading JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye as homework for the Broadway Book Club in Nottingham run by the effervescent Pam Mcllroy aka Pam Reader. Next meeting is 27 Oct. It is the third time I have read this book. I think last time was about 25 years ago. The thing is, I still think it’s brilliant. I had forgotten the death of Holden’s brother hanging around in the background of the story. Anyway, this week I’ve been finding myself “getting a bang” out of things.
    We arrived in Regent’s Park and I just quickly sat on this penis bench to finish the article…I “got a bang” out of that.

    The title of this piece is A Star, coincidently the grade Sally was awarded just the day before for her mock maths GCSE …parental pride moment…Go Sally!

    A Gavin Turk and then on we went, into the tents…First thing inside was to take a break at the cafe.

    John and I were inspired by the use of corregated plastic as we presently have a double/secondary glazing challenge at the Chapel. We all liked the lighting too.
    A detail of Michael Landy’s Thomas Dane Gallery, brilliant credit card eating machine. Audience can donate a credit card for it to destroy as it draws a picture in return. I’m still currently engrossed in credit card abuse, so I had non to spare. One thing we all liked were the signs dotted around the place, part of an intallation project by Laure Prouvost.

    At a certain point in the day, we had to admit that even John hadn’t been stopped by any fashion students  asking if they may photo him. Luckily we had previously discussed a strategy for if this should happen…Sally would pose as a fashion student and ask us….

    Here’s a detail of a Jake and Dinos Chapman piece, White Cube
    And here’s the chair they’ve used in the installation…WE’VE GOT A CHAIR LIKE THAT!
    We love this work by Lucia Nogueira, Anthony Reynolds Gallery...particularly pertinent as John gave a talk on “hats” last week as part of a Lincoln Art Programme, symposium, Tomato Tomato

    Exhausted…. there were spaces to nap..
    And so we headed home…..and below is the interview that was in today’s Guardian Family Section

    • The Guardian,
    • Saturday 15 October 2011

    Coping with the death of a child

    Nicola Streeten tells Jon Henley why she wrote a graphic novel, Billy, Me & You, about the death of her young son
    Nicola Streeten
    Nicola Streeten: ‘It’s no longer upsetting to talk about him.
    But he is locked in that moment, locked with us in that time’ 
    Photograph: Teri Pengilley for the Guardian

    Billy Edwin Plowman Streeten died on 19 September 1995, aged two years and two months. That’s where we have to begin. No point trying to fudge things. It is, anyway, the reason this article is being written. Or at least, not Billy’s death itself, but the way people – family, friends, strangers, colleagues, his parents above all – dealt with it.
    “It’s OK,” says Nicola Streeten, Billy’s mother. “Honestly, it’s completely fine. It was 16 years ago. We’re all right with it now. We realised then we were going through something huge, something absolutely massive, but we knew that eventually it would transform itself into something else, and it has. It’s OK. Really.”
    Part of that monstrous experience has been transformed into a remarkable book, Billy, Me & You, published this month. A graphic novel, or more accurately a graphic memoir, drawn from the diary that Nicola kept, it is searchingly honest, and desperately sad at times. At others, it is genuinely very funny. Quite a feat.

    “My motivation,” Nicola says, “was to tell a story people couldn’t put down. Not just about me, but questioning people’s responses, society’s response, to trauma and grief. I wanted the laughing and the crying. Not a misery memoir, a book for people who’ve had shit thrown at them. It may be cathartic for some, but for me it was a work of art. Not therapy.”
    It would have been different if she’d done it at the time. We’re at her friend and editor’s house next to the British Museum in London. Nicola, 48 now, talks fast and laughs often. The day we meet is, by coincidence, the anniversary of Billy’s death; she and his father, her husband John, 58, have come to London from their Lincolnshire home and had their annual commemorative lunch together. (By the same token, they place a small notice in the Guardian every 19 September: “Our equivalent of putting flowers on his grave.”)
    “We’re not at all religious,” Nicola says. “We couldn’t do God. So we kind of invented our own superstitious belief system. And part of that is, every year, we come to London for lunch on the day he died, and John puts the in memoriam in the paper.” But 16 years ago today, they were walking out of the Royal Brompton hospital, clutching their dead son’s possessions.
    Billy was born when Nicola was 30. The couple were living in Crouch End, London; she teaching English as a foreign language, he an established artist. “It’s the greatest thing that can happen, when your baby’s born,” she says. “We just wanted to enjoy having a child. We shared the childcare from the start. Thank God – that meant we’d both had a fair innings.”
    All Billy’s early tests had been fine; he was a normal baby. “Always on the bottom line of the graphs,” Nicola says, “but he never dropped off. We thought the doctors were being fussy. You never really know, though, do you, when it’s your first? You’re never really sure.”
    When he was one, Billy got pneumonia and had to go to hospital for intravenous antibiotics. He recovered, but a shadow on his lung didn’t clear. “Over the next year, they ran every test,” says Nicola. “Cystic fibrosis, cancer, heart, the lot. And he was running around, fine. You could never have told.”
    Eventually, a consultant at the Whittington hospital concluded it was asthma. That winter, Billy got ill a lot; coughs, colds, trips to the hospital, lots of medicine. In the summer, just after his second birthday in early July, the family booked a holiday cottage in Orkney. There Billy got really ill. “The doctor told us he needed an air ambulance, to Aberdeen,” Nicola says. “Billy couldn’t believe his luck: a helicopter!”
    Back in London, his case was transferred to the Royal Brompton. There, suddenly, the experts announced: this isn’t asthma, this is heart-related. Three congenital deformities; Billy was suffering from pulmonary hypertension.
    By early September, Nicola says: “They gave us our options. They could operate, in which case there was a 30% chance of success. They could try for a heart and lung transplant; not recommended. Or they could do nothing, in which case Billy would eventually die, slowly and painfully, because he would end up not being able to breathe.”
    The options weren’t really options. “In any case, we’d latched on to the word ‘success’,” says Nicola. “Crazy, because you’d never get in a plane that had a 30% chance of landing safely. We all moved into the hospital, 10 days before. It was going to be a 15-hour op. In the evening, we went to the cinema. There were no mobile phones, of course, so I borrowed my sister’s pager. I was looking at it all through the film.”
    Back at the hospital, Nicola and John were told the operation had been a success. Billy was in intensive care. “We were to go and get a good night’s sleep and have a leisurely breakfast,” Nicola says. “Then the next morning, when we got out of the lift, there were nurses running in the corridor. They put us in a waiting room. They said: ‘We’re so sorry.’ And we – extraordinary, isn’t it? – we said: ‘Thank you.'”
    The scene after that moment, Nicola and John leaving the hospital, forms the opening page of Billy, Me & You. The book offers acutely observed snapshots of the couple through the decade and a half that follows: their savage grief, deep despair, dreams of suicide; the wildly differing reactions of those around them; Billy’s funeral; their return to work and, gradually, something resembling normality; group and individual therapy; the birth of their daughter Sally; the move to Lincolnshire; Nicola’s new career as an illustrator. It ends with a publisher taking a serious interest in Billy’s story.
    The sum is probably more revealing – and certainly more affecting – about the experience of loss and grief than most self-help books. There are instants of crushing realisation (“Shall we go for dinner?” “A bit short notice for a babysitter … Oh yes!”) and of crucifying guilt (“Is it because I walked under ladders on purpose? Had an abortion when I was younger? Punishment from a God I don’t believe in?”).
    Moments of dreadful self-doubt, too (“I’m not a mother … But I’m not nota mother … What am I?”); hopeless self-pity (“Nobody said anything to me about Billy … all day long”) and rage (“You want to put a bench in the park in Billy’s name? So I can sit there and watch everyone else’s alive children? Are you completely insensitive – or just an idiot?”) And moments of absurdity (Billy will be going to the crematorium, the funeral director tells them in hushed and Victorian tones, on the front seat of what we call “a hearsette”).
    Nobody really tells you, says Nicola, about “the awful arrogance of grief. My capacity for intolerance, that was an eye-opener. I think you just felt like you have a … a licence to be foul to people. There we were, in the middle of this lovely north London suburban life, all parks and mortgages and good schools and organic food and pensions, and I just got so angry with everyone’s obsession with all this bourgeois, crappy stuff. Didn’t they realise how unimportant it all was, compared with what we’d been through?”
    The couple spent a year, Nicola says, “very consciously working on it. Just hanging on … Grief and death affect everyone differently, of course. I was seriously worried that John might kill himself, really. We started therapy. I think we both knew very soon that our whole outlook on the world had changed. And then two years later, in 1997, Sally came along. There was life, after this. And things started to pick up.”
    But there’s no limit to the extent of human awkwardness around death. Especially the death of a child. “My own pet hate,” says Nicola, “is when people say, ‘Oh yeah, John and Nicola – their baby died.’ Because Billy was a four-year block of my life: the thinking about him, the pregnancy, the two years he was alive, the solid year or more of grieving … That doesn’t feel like a baby, it really doesn’t.”
    Struck by the different ways people reacted to her news, she started judging their responses, sometimes silently awarding marks out of 10. The worst, she says, were those who refused, for whatever reason, to acknowledge what had happened. “It could have been worse,” was bad; “Oh, really? My friend’s baby died too,” and “I can just imagine what you’re going through,” were pretty much the pits. Marginally better was “Would you like to come to dinner?” and “You must have another baby.” Best of all was: “I’m so sorry.”
    An avid diary-keeper as a teenager, Nicola began writing one again soon after Billy died. She’s glad she did, if only because returning to those journals 13 years later, when she began working with her teenage daughter Sally on the magazine stories that would eventually become Billy, Me & You, she realised the tricks that memory plays.
    “I cried every day, for a year,” she says. “In my memory, I only cried once. But it’s in my diaries, written down. Every day. I cried every single day, for a year. Looking back now, it’s clear we were pretty much mental for about five years.” (She didn’t cry once while she was working on this book, though: “It’s the most pleasurable thing I’ve done, about the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.”)
    So what is Billy for her, today? There is a fair chance, had he lived, that he’d be starting his first term at university. “He’s there,” she says, “if he comes up. It’s no longer upsetting to talk about him. But he is locked in that moment, locked with us in that time. I can’t really project him into the future like that.”
    John and Nicola have a cabinet of “old stuff” at home; a kind of informal archive. There’s a favourite bib of Billy’s; Nicola’s diaries; a milk bottle melted in some long-forgotten sterilisation process; Billy’s death certificate; Nicola’s successful pregnancy test; a letter published, two days after Billy died, in the Guardian’s Private Lives section, from a woman who had lost her baby daughter at three days. The reply that Nicola wrote, concluded: “There is nothing to say for the emptiness inside you, except that time will make the pain less acute.”
    In any case, says Nicola, Sally is their focus now: “We wouldn’t want her to be overshadowed by a dead brother, whom she never met. Billy is a memory. But having this book, now, as a product of all that we went through … That’s nice.”
     Billy, Me & You by Nicola Streeten is published by Myriad Editions, £11.99. To order a copy for £9.59 with free UK p&p, go or call 0330 333 6846