Here is a funny little pamphlet I started writing for The Emma Press submissions window before Christmas. However, illness and a stay in hospital meant I missed the deadline. Knowing this, there were kind enough to extend it for me – but I found I couldn’t complete it as I was still recovering. Now, other projects (like the launch of my novel Killing Hapless Ally in just a few weeks and the fact that I’m working on the next novel, the working title of which is The Life of Almost and the raising of three nippers and running a business and and and…) have to take priority, but I’ll write more to give to The Emma Press and they are kindly publishing me in the poetry Anthology of the Sea in October. Here is the unfinished pamphlet, in draft form and with definitely a few dashes that should be an em. It is about finding ways to lift depression. I have used a variety of forms in the pamphlet, so we have poems on Snowflake Bentley (one of my abiding heroes and on the backburner for a book), recipes, the use of a poem and a short story. But these are all real things to me. The pamphlet wasn’t intended as a short self-help book; more just a series of observations, a hand to hold and an illustration of what I do and have done in the hope that this might be helpful to someone. x
Well hello there. I am a quite ordinary person, so don’t be alarmed at the fact that I’m about to delve into a slew of rather ripe facts — or be startled by the familiarity of my greeting. I, like you, am a reader. I’m a reader of all sorts. But my reading has shattering and cosmic proportions for me because, frankly, I couldn’t do without the books: they have saved my life; they continue to do so — with brave and colourful glory; full of words, orient and on fire. I’m someone who has spent much time battling demons and wrestling dead but refusing to lie down relatives. Someone who has been sometimes too frightened to go out. There’s depression for you. There. Look at that now, see? (as my maternal grandmother used to say): that’s what anxiety does for you. As a child and teenager, I was heartily committed to rituals; before I went out, I used to recite the first lines of The Secret Garden four times. I really don’t recommend this route. A book isn’t a talisman or an insurance. But oh do I know about the books and their importance!
Did you notice the word ‘orient’ there? I realise that it probably doesn’t quite go, but that’s because I have a tendency to use obsolete, obsolescent or (putting it more gently) uncommon variants of words. And orient, to a seventeenth-century reader, might have meant rich. Blame the books, in which I live. It’s wonderful to play with words and to enjoy your language. Why not? And there are other things besides the books. Depression puts a dark glass between you and the world. It is, as the great Dorothy Rowe described it, a prison. I felt it for years like this; the world was there and I was here and the two could not meet. I tried to put my hand -that didn’t work. When you can’t get past the dark things that disable you, the books will help, but so do other things — other articles. That’s why I called this essay ‘Articles of Faith’. When you feel like you are drowning, you need a life raft; something to hang onto — there are your articles of faith. Books, yes — a poem; a novel — but also a flower, observed in minute detail, the weather patterns, miraculous and shifting and full of numinous detail as you consider hoar frost, colour to surround yourself with and colour to dress yourself with, food and drawing on the simple pleasures of its preparation — in the crushing of a cardamom there is much to encourage and comfort you — fire, be it a candle or a fire in your grate and the last one is not really an article at all, but the acceptance of a friend — someone who loves you because you are you and with whom you don’t have to apologise or pretend to be someone else.
Come on a short journey with me because I want to tell you how I, friable, frequently ill and often terribly lonely in a crowded room, animate and populate my world with what I read. And maybe it will give you hope, inspiration and company. Because I got better and I didn’t see through a glass darkly anymore, but with open eyes at a rush of colour.
I can’t write about all poems because they are legion, so let me pick one. A favourite. It is Louis MacNeice’s ‘Meeting Point’, which I have always thought was a magisterial coming together of the ordinary and the the extraordinary; of quotidian rhythm and something magical, just out of reach and only inchoately grasped. Can you climb into it and see what happens?
Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs)
Time was away and somewhere else.
And they were neither up nor down;
The stream’s music did not stop
Flowing through heather, limpid brown,
Although they sat in a coffee shop
And they were neither up nor down.
The bell was silent in the air
Holding its inverted poise –
Between the clang and clang a flower,
A brazen calyx of no noise:
The bell was silent in the air.
The camels crossed the miles of sand
That stretched around the cups and plates;
The desert was their own, they planned
To portion out the stars and dates:
The camels crossed the miles of sand.
Time was away and somewhere else.
The waiter did not come, the clock
Forgot them and the radio waltz
Came out like water from a rock:
Time was away and somewhere else.
Her fingers flicked away the ash
That bloomed again in tropic trees:
Not caring if the markets crash
When they had forests such as these,
Her fingers flicked away the ash.
God or whatever means the Good
Be praised that time can stop like this,
That what the heart has understood
Can verify in the body’s peace
God or whatever means the Good.
Time was away and she was here
And life no longer what it was,
The bell was silent in the air
And all the room one glow because
Time was away and she was here.
When I read this poem, I am caught up by its concept of the loved ones part of but isolated in happiness from the world; they are separate while they participate in daily activity and while they do so, it is as if, elsewhere, something else is affected by her actions — the fingers flicking away the ash and the tropic trees. Something absorbing, supernatural and cosmic happens in the poem. If you feel sad or if you find anxiety about your daily life is skewing your experience of the beauty around you, anchoring yourself in a poem might help. Is there, beyond or daily our even bland experience, something extraordinary and connecting us to a myriad things? You’ll see that ‘God or whatever
means the Good’ is a phrase used. For you, faith may be about your church; your mosque or synagogue; here the notion if broader — diffuse. It is there, just not grasped; it is not less wondrous because of that and so you might find something in this poem to cheer you and give you solace. It’s about the transformative power of love, too — its possibilities and the idea of time being suspended. I think we may feel this in love, but also in finding something that absorbs us, whatever that is.
As for the structure of the poem: how might that make you feel better? Read it aloud and test it on your pulse. What does it do to you? For me, the ‘time was away’ refrain is comforting in its repetition, both of words but also of rhythm. You don’t need to know about metrical feet or consult a dictionary of literary terms to hear this and feel it. Here’s an idea. Learn the poem. Learn any poem. By heart. Then, when you feel your mood slump or you feel scared, pull it out and hear it in your head, mouth it quietly or say it loudly and clearly. As I said before, it’s not that a poem is a talisman, but why not let it be an anchor? Every time you encounter it, you might something new or notice you read it or say it slightly differently. You may see the characters of ‘Meeting Point’ in your mind’s eye, observing at a discreet distance. Or maybe they are you and a loved one, or you in a situation you would like to be in, finding a situation when ‘time was away’ and there is ‘a brazen calyx of no noise’ — when the bell is silent, held in stasis, miraculously, by the ‘ calyx’; sepals of the flower forming a whorl around the bud, which is a fascinating description of the bell. Pick any poem you like; let it be a cure.
How would I pick a single flower? Impossible! So I am going to choose the flowers I know and love best. First of all, consider the rose. I prefer a pink or a soft yellow rose; if a crimson rose lifts your spirit, then that shall be your rose. So, sometimes when I have felt so at sea that I haven’t known what to do or how to interact with others, I start by observing something in detail. A rose in bloom is an excellent. choice. Look at it. Really look at it. The calyx again. What do you see? It is a little world, its centre wrapped in damask petals, whorls and soft edges, at its most beautiful when it is full blown, yet at that moment soon to drop its petals. But that should not make us sad, for tend it and it will bloom again. Watch it from a bud. Every day its tight petals unfurl just a little as it reveals itself to you.
Sometimes, when I have felt sad, confused or particularly anxious, I just go and spend time with the plants and — this is the key thing — observe them in as much detail as I can. So say it was time for honeysuckle in the garden or in a hedgerow. I might gently cup a flower in my hand and raise its gentle head to my face, as I am lounging there in its sweetness. Look at those fuchsia or carmine curves; the alabaster or honey-coloured partners; the sweet, viscous texture of them. Another little world.
Something to eat
In my habit of banishing depression by observing detail and absorbing myself in the minutiae of some or other craft, I might issue the following instructions to myself:
Take as many potatoes as you can eat.
As many carrots as you can eat.
As much green cabbage, spinach or robust, greens as you can eat; make it a butchy brassica, though.
If I feel like I want to run away or cannot get a purchase on the world, I might really look at these funny vegetables. They’re plain, aren’t they? But when was the last time (don’t laugh but bear with me, here) you looked at a carrot and noticed its different textures, or smelled the earth on a potato or felt the tiny, tiny little coruscation on a brassica, noticing that, like the carrot wasn’t just orange, the greens weren’t just green. There were a partial paintbox: isn’t that amazing? Bottle green, Windsor green, fern, olive: verdant and viridescent. But when you have finished really looking at what you have in your hand, cook the lot, peeling the potatoes if you’re up to it. I suppose you could cook them all together, if you time it right. Cook them until they are well done, then drain, mash roughly and chop up the greens further if need be. Mix, then pile the lot into a bowl and season very generously with balsamic vinegar, or plain old malt, sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper. A fried or couple of poached eggs on top would be good. Or grate some cheese — whichever you fancy and even a dog-end that has been hanging around in the fridge; give it a couple of minutes’ heat and it is transformed. This potato and green collation should serve one. Eat in bed or maybe under a blanket somewhere. Eat it and know that you are being kind to yourself, and I say that not in a fey or saccharine way, but as someone who knows what it is and how it feels to wish to be obliterated; to feel so sad, so bitter that you wish to be annihilated. At the heart of depression lies, in my experience, a sort of self loathing where you think you should be rubbed out because you are a Bad Thing. A Worse Thing than anyone else. I am not saying that, if you cook a potato, you will fix yourself — more that if you still your chatter and really think about what you are doing and what you have in your hand, then perhaps much of what arrests you so brutally can be stilled and will dissipate. I am bound to say, however, that the NHS is a beautiful thing — and I am living proof that help is out there: the right help for you. But eat up your mash first.
And here is another simple recipe.. I am, largely, a lover of vegetables, grains and the like. But, as my friends have observed, I do roast a lot of chickens. You may shy away from cooking a chicken with stuffing in it. Maybe this is because you’re concerned about getting them both at the right temperature and fretting about it. But hey: there is another way. You just put hot stuffing in the chicken. Makes it less fiddly to ensure that both are properly hot and cooked through and it’s also kind of sexy and Earth-Mothery to produce this big pan of golden stuffing and bird and just dole it out. I think it’s good for us to serve up something bountiful that was child’s play to make. So here… Take a proper chicken- which is to say an organic (and free range) bird. Put it upside down (thus, breast side down) in a large roasting tin, having rubbed it with olive oil and salt and pepper. Now cook about 500g of couscous and, when done — but barely thus — add a tablespoon of olive oil, a teaspoon of crushed red chilli, lots of freshly ground black pepper, a good pinch of sea salt flakes, a handful of fresh parsley, roughly chopped, a finely chopped garlic clove and the zest of a lemon. While you are doing all this, pause, pause, pause, Smell everything, taste the acrid bite of the garlic and, before you squeeze the juice of the lemon over the chicken just before you put it in the oven, take the lemon between your palms and roll it, roll it, roll it. It will feel warm and you will be, temporarily, elsewhere, as the oils begin to release just a little onto your hands. The oven should be on 200 and you roast the chicken on its back for half an hour, then you turn it over and cook it until its juices run clear when you pierce the bit where the thigh meets the breast.
I am not joking when I say that on one occasion I used this gap in hands-on cooking requirements to allow myself a mighty great cry about something that had always made me sad. Familiar story: unwanted child; cruel to the point of feral much older sibling; told I was a waste of space. Believed it for years and years. Yell. Scream. Cry. I looked it…IT…in the face and found that I was still functioning and, what was more, was required to turn the chicken over. Like, NOW. I needed a steady hand and eyes that weren’t frosted with tears to do it. And I found that I felt better.
When the chicken is done (clear juices where the breast meets the thigh — so approximately an hour after you have turned it), you will find that there will be plenty of stuffing to fill the bird and go around it, so you get some couscous which is soaked in all the delicious juices and very soft, and some which has crisped and caramelised in the heat. You could serve some green vegetables alongside, but I’m not sure I could really be bothered. One idea is to roast some green beans with olive oil and chopped cherry tomatoes plus a couple of garlic cloves (which you then squish into the ad hoc sauce that’s produced) and lots of black pepper.
I do believe, now, after years of talking treatments, that much of what you do is down to self care and, for me, self care, means having something in the oven. It smells of home, of plenty and of good within. And should the old black dog come to visit for a while, you could try and see that he is accompanied by the timely arrival of an enormous slow cooker. So here’s a thought: if you are stuck in the doldrums (for to be becalmed sounds lovely but it actually means that temporarily you cannot go further: I digress), invest in a slow cooker. A great big one. And try these. All serve six with leftovers. All these are based on the simple principle of setting the cooker to low and leaving it on overnight. When you are feeling sad or listless or even at your wits’ end, you probably won’t feel like eating, or perhaps you eat too much of the wrong thing which I know, from experience, is its own vicious cycle, so going through the mechanics of putting things together to go into the oven, or assembling things for a great big dish, may provide solace because they are productive and the end is so much more than the means.
For a simple pasta sauce, a good couple of tablespoons of decent olive oil, two cans of plum tomatoes, which you crush in your hands as you go. Then add a tin of anchovies, soaked a little perhaps, two handfuls of pitted green olives, lots of freshly ground black pepper, a tablespoon of capers, a heaped tablespoon of tomato purée, three finely minced garlic cloves, half a fresh red chilli, finely sliced (I don’t decide because I am tough like that). Into that go three handfuls of fresh or frozen mixed peppers and about 500g minced beef, preferably organic. Stir and that’s it. I just stand there chucking it in because that seems to befit this style of cooking. Your pasta sauce will be ready by morning — or just leave it cooking all day. Serve with a pasta of your sauce, but if it were me (which it was), that would be spaghetti or linguine.
Failing any of this, make some really good toast with proper butter.
I am an inveterate cloud watcher. I also to stand in the rain and go out early and touch the prickles of hoar frost. I know that, with ice thus under my fingers, an echo of faith and of constancy seems to return. I think that, as with the rhythms of the poem I gave above, its repetition gives home. We have seen it before; it will come again. And yet…each time it does, we might find something new in it — a pattern; a new shape. It is because I like to observe the weather that a great hero of mine is someone called ‘Snowflake Bentley.’
In 1898, a young boy called Wilson Alric Bentley began watching the snow fall around the family farm in Jericho, Vermont; he watched it with an unusual rapt and earnest attention. He thought about its composition, about where it came from – about its auspices in both meteorological terms (although he was likely unaware of that word just yet) and those more divine: how could it be that something so pretty should fall so casually? Was it part of a conversation with God and creator – a dialogue which we could not translate and construe? The young Bentley also watched rainwater, seeing it composed in rivulets and torrents, looked at dew as it settled in exquisite beads and watched as frost formation drew delicate shapes across windows of ferns and feathers on the windows of his farm. But it was with the snow that Bentley was most in love: he wanted to understand how and what it was and to look at it more closely. That journey is the story of The Snowflake Man. Times came and went; others laughed, but Bentley kept on watching the snow – and he remained the devout watcher of the skies until just before his death.
Bentley’s mother understood her boy’s fascination; his father thought him foolish and possibly unmanly for finding some diversions when, on the farm, there was much practical work to be done. That boy wrote, fifty five years later, that everything he was and had ever done, he owed to her – because she saved and showed considerable devious acumen in presenting her son, aged seventeen, with a microscope and then a camera. Over the next few years, Bentley, working alone in the woodshed, developed the science of photomicrography as he learned to connect the camera to the microscope and photograph the tiny snow crystals on his slides. The results were exquisite and remain, to this day, the fullest and most extraordinary collection of stunning snow crystals – of a myriad filigree stars, strange tiny pillars with hexagons at either end; things possessed of an inchoate beauty and, as Bentley wrote, “no two snowflakes are alike.” When Bentley wasn’t photographing and cataloguing the snow crystals, he made fine studies of the frost formations and patterns of dew. looking at its beads strung along spiders’ webs; tying down a grasshopper atop a blossom overnight so that he could photograph the creature bejewelled with the dew. All this he did while remaining a farmer, playing his trumpet, providing holidays to city folk of slender means: he quietly became a world authority on snow crystal formation and, through his articles and published copies of his photomicrographs, became known as ‘Snowflake Bentley’,or sometimes just ‘The Snowflake Man’. He saw and entertained worlds others merely glanced at: he was a humble, absorbed genius.
Sometimes, when the black dog is howling behind the door, I imagine what his life might have been like as he sat for fifty winters, alone, in silent thought and study. It explores intriguing questions: who were the three impressive women in his life – one ‘Mina,’ for whom he once scratched ‘Window frost monogram, Mina’, a beautiful but timid declaration of love to the girl the neighbours called ‘sassy’? The story ponders how does an individual can sustain, over a lifetime, a brilliant interest in something others –even his own father– called foolish? Bentley saw in the snow crystals a numinous, spiritual quality: he saw them as a metaphor for heavenly life. I unfurl, for myself, a tale of a boy mocked, an interest passionately abided by, of loneliness and love lost and found and celebrates in its story that it is Bentley who is also a metaphor – for those who were laughed at, chided or mocked for what they believed: the Snowflake Man never gave up.
I do think that depression, as the great psychologist Dorothy Rowe described it, is a prison. But I also know that we are both prisoner and the jailed person: we hold they key. So when I feel that sense of confinement, I hold Bentley’s story in the palm of my hand like a tiny book and they story gets bigger in front of my eyes and I see someone who was fascinated by the world around him and who did not give up in in his pursuance of an understanding of it because his delight was so much. A Sisyphus of snow and ice.
How beautiful it is to see
The eye trained on a telling shape –
Which seems to say, “I am the first
You are the last, to see me in my perfect form,
The only man to sit and wait
For what this moment must become.”
The snowflake falls; he catches it
On worsted cloth of deepest black:
It takes a place – but not alone,
For, ferried from beloved sky,
The crystal specimens collude
To give a pattern to a world
Through Vermont’s still and patient man.
For fifty years he sits and holds
The architecture through his glass:
Dendritic crystal, needle fine,
A bullet, hexagon or flower.
He does not mind if they should laugh
At Sisyphus in snow and ice.
So all is well, but glances ask:
The man with camera, microscope —
With evanescence in his heart,
Is he lonely, sat out there,
With slide and board for hours and hours?
A splint of broom to hold each one –
The snowflake man who gathers up
Each tiny plan to hold it dear:
It will not come again to us.
The horae, hours of prayer or joy,
But not with words, this silent man:
His goddesses the six point stars:
He sits and worships, reverent still,
A lucent world and what it tells.
He checks the hoar frost and the glass
To see the curlicues of line —
The ivy leaf or comfrey stem,
The miracles of build that come.
He does not care to go, for now,
Beyond the cloth, the hands that serve
To show us all a myriad frames
Which coalesce within his grasp.
How beautiful it is to see
The eye trained on a telling shape
Which seems to say “I am the first,
You are the best to see me in my perfect form.”
If I should fall, then say to me the reason clouds form as they are,
Why ice should seed along a scratch, why I should love my six point star.
I do not know or care to see the smiles that fall in brazen line,
But innocence and clearest eye embolden me to make her mine.
I speak of love and quiet worlds, of Jericho on winter nights:
The sweets of patient maple taps, a sugar house and amber lights
Of unctuous syrup mixed with snow, auroras made of rosy glow,
My borealis blood red sheen – if I should fall, then make me know.
When I am not and you are here, beholden to this dusty room,
Be gentle with the tenuous forms; please do not break the splint of broom,
But hold the snowflakes page by page, arranged as I have left them now;
Consider this – why should they be, ephemeral and urgent? How?
In nature’s fragile crystal frame I see a world beyond the hill,
Beyond the log pile, brook and shed; behind our eyes when we lie still.
And when I fall, then say to me you read its language, pure and keen —
And set my records on my desk and light my lamp: make them be seen.
A loved one
In my childhood, I internalised a notion of being the wrong kind of kid because that’s what I was always being told. So sometimes I spoke to a litter of imaginary friends, gleaned from books or bands and sometimes, as I got older, I tried to stand back from myself and make myself into another character, with another name, observing all the way. Along the way I learned what I needed in friendship: understanding; humour; rebellion. Background or age were—and remain—an utter irrelevance and, so, when I was thirteen my best friend was a quirky eighty year old Irish great grandmother. There was nothing I could do or say that would shock her. And she is here in this story along with a characterisation of me.
Flora was a funny kind of kid; struggled with friendships in school, in the way at home. Never going to be one, as she was often told, to set the world on fire. Hmm. She struggled with that one because, of course, like more than would care to admit it, she wanted to set the world on fire; to be conspicuously brilliant at something, (modest, though) known to be kind, intuitive, creative. Well, and pretty, too. Shy throughout, she would smile at other people—older people- but it never really occurred to her that she might engage them in conversation.
Flora, I suppose, was damned by faint praise.
“All that matters is that you try hard.”
“I know you’re not really determined, but we’re still proud of you.”
Lovely, but somehow missing the spot, she felt.
Rhoda lived down the row. She was about eighty, with a soft, kind face but, Flora sensed, girders of steel. Rhoda had had a tough life, widowed two years ago and had lost a child in adulthood, too. There was something resilient about her; joyful, even. One day she asked Flora in. The girl had always smiled at her, but never chatted. That shyness thing again. One day, though, she was just kicking about in the garden, disconsolate, after a bad week at school which nothing seemed to cure, when Rhoda asked her to come and help. Flowers needed moving but Rhoda had stiffened up.
Flora felt that she wouldn’t know what to say to Rhoda, but also understood that she must lend a hand. So flowers were moved to a better spot; clumps of irises and opium poppies were divided: Flora discovered that she knew a bit about this from having watched her father at work. Not instruction; just osmosis. The next week, clematis and honeysuckle cut back, under Rhoda’s watchful eye. Flora saw to her own delight, though, that she knew about finding a strong shoot and where to cut. Getting ready for Spring.
Flora found that she relaxed and began to chat. Squabbles with her more articulate, popular, profoundly cooler schoolmates began to recede with snipping, tidying, mud and the abundant cakes and cups of tea that Rhoda produced. The girl began to chat to Rhoda — about her parents, school, not being particularly good at anything. Rhoda listened; gave her the occasional pat on the arm and said simply: “You will find your voice and, you know, when you get to my age, you’ll see that none of the things you worried about ever came to much.”
Flora is older now, more sure of herself; Rhoda is a little unsteady on her feet. But the visits are kept up and assuaging the loneliness cuts both ways. Sometimes the least likely person might be a peculiar girl’s best friend — when it matters most.