All posts by Anna Vaught

Swamp Gonna Get You

 

Swamp Gonna Get You

‘Her freaks aren’t real.’

(Jane Bowles on Carson McCullers)

In a small town in Georgia, the Spanish moss cascades from the live oaks, the red earth is soft and warm; the benches are white. At this time of year, though, the grass has begun to parch and, by midday, the frames of the branches are hot to the touch. So, in such, it was good to be in the park with your Kool-Aid, sheltering in what less scorching enclaves you could find and catching the occasional spray from the fountain when a breeze came in your direction. And you want to be there rather than at the strip, with its hot respiring tarmac and its huge Piggly-Wiggly and CVS stores; but even more, you would not want to be on the other side of the town, away from the pretty centre, where green gave way to swamp and the fetid smell caught your nostrils in the summer.

At least that’s what the best ladies who lived on the best street said.

Down by the swamp lived old John Fogle; he stank, said the best ladies; he had, children said, the gift of second sight and, along with his cold, hostile wife and his unfriendly brood of  female offspring, did not like people to stray their way. The children were at school but chose to play together, shunning the company or Missy or Mary Lee or Claudia. Did well in school, though. Top of the class, summa cum laude in the creatives, though the best ladies said these girls would never be scholars. Certainly, the other girls in the class tried to be friendly—the ones, that is, whose mothers had not warned them away from the Fogle girls. The ones with the kinder, more broad minded mothers but also those who wanted to rebel against their mothers—for this was also a town in which mean mindedness and snobbishness tended to run rife. And you heard about the best ladies already.

Today, one young girl was determined. Betty was kind, but also intent on one day getting down to the house and looking more closely at the swamp. And she persisted: “Can’t I come home and play with y’all? Ma says it’s o.k.”

“No. Pa wouldn’t allow it.”

“Why not? I’d be real good.”

“Don’t matter.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. Sump’n. Nothin. Can’t tell.”

This enigmatic last answer was all she needed. So she told her mother that she had

been invited home—and Mother allowed her because she, too, was kind and kind of curious to know about this family and, essentially, believed that they would treat right if treated right. She’d been spat out, too, by the best ladies. Didn’t fit, in gardening club and proper tea. So Betty followed, the girls trying to slough her off.

“Go away. Pa don’t like it!”

“Oh go on. You yella?”

“No. Well, if you’ll go away after.”

But, to the girls’ surprise, John Fogle, who had stood up poker-straight in a menacing way (Betty suddenly shuddering and regretting coming along), said that it would okay as long as she did not stay long. And in went Betty. Sure, the house and its moss-green plot were close to the swamp; you could smell the heavy air. But this place was somehow exotic and beautiful and a breath of fresh air after the tight little corner of town where Betty lived. And the house was tatty, but oddly welcoming and, well, fun. Yes, fun. Like anything could happen. Say…like a hand you couldn’t see, come to rub your back; a gator to rest your feet on; kind time slips where you don’t know when you are. And Betty liked it. Gradually, the girls began to play with their visitor to; chase and hide and go seek and, well, anything that took their fancy. And Betty met their mother who, in a startling and untidy way, was unexpectedly beautiful.

The girl stayed for the evening meal, too. Basic and old fashioned, but substantial, too. And, while no-one said much, Betty realised that she had been accepted. Maybe she would be able to go back. Other folks sucked, with their this and their that; table conversation and hoity toity.

Next day in school, the Fogle girls continued to play together only, but now they looked sideways at her with a hint of a smile. She felt happy. It was, in its way, all rather mysterious. She wondered, too, why John Fogle looked so old: more like a grandfather or even a great grandfather than a father. A tough life? But it seemed so happy there! The best ladies said dwellers in such environs drank bone broth and moonshine, so they looked like Methuselah. Well now. So I expect you, reader, would like to know a few answers, wouldn’t you? Well, the writer Carson McCullers, who came from Columbus, Georgia, wrote that she needed to return to the South from time to time to renew her sense of horror. It’s not that I generalise here, you know, but do you think she had a point? Because John Fogle was not the girl’s’ father and he did have the gift of second sight. The, seer and mystic, was the girls’ great grandfather and he had, for reasons and by folks we cannot name, been preserved for his gifts. And whether he drank bone broth and moonshine, or ate pippins and Chinese pear, he’s still be shining through, oh yes.

Father and grandfather? Gone. To the swamp one day. John Fogle saw what they would become.Told you that old brackish water was fetid. Not just that: it lived and breathed and did what it would do. And John Fogle was its custodian, being no murdering sort himself, exactly. Betty would be just fine because, as I told you, she was kind and looked without arrogance – only with spirit, love and curiosity at the world, in the way child and adult should. The Fogle house was a home of purity and spectral intelligence and out there, on the screened porch when the crickets sang? No finer. And those hoity toity mothers, the best ladies who lived on the best street on the other side of the park? Well, better not go the Fogle way. Swamp gonna get you. And Old John Fogle he gonna push you in and your Sunday glove come floating to the surface

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Feasting and Fasting at the Great House

 

The old house, in the sleepy French village, is tall and dusty looking. Once, it must have been vibrant, but now, bindweed curls around it and ivy reclaims the windows and the stone of the house. It must be hard for the quiet inhabitants to see out. Sometimes, there is post for the house and the postboy makes a swift passage towards the door because the house alarms him. There is a housekeeper, an old crone who will not give you the time of day and, curiously, a gardener—though he never tends to the front gardens, so fallen into disrepair they must be. The villagers wonder whether there are beautiful and well tended lawns and pretty herbals to the rear of the house.

It is said that a lady lives at the house, some say two sisters, and that they never need company. But that this is a house of shadowy presences; a place where melancholy hangs thick in the air. And at night, sometimes—in summer when the top windows of the house are opened—one hears music, from a curious assortment of instruments: flute, cello, but also mandolin and dulcimer. And an inhabitant of the village making his way home could be stopped in his tracks because the music is so extraordinarily beautiful. And even so it sends a shiver up the spine which is not so pleasant. A death song you’re frightened you might not resist. A tune to lead you up the tenebrous dark spiral staircase of the self.

But today is different. People do not come and go readily in this village, but a new person has come, from the city, and he wants to enquire about the tall, great house. He thinks he might like to buy it: a retreat. It has great potential and he knows excellent architects and designers in Paris, where he lives now. He is bold, so he knocks at the door and it is answered. The rumour held true. Two women come to the door, so similar facially it is immediately clear that they are sisters. They are not beautiful, but they are arresting—I am sure you know the quality of which I speak: striking and sensual women, with poise and grace; exquisite manners, too. They seem pleased to see him and—he is surprised to entertain this peculiar thought for a moment—as if they knew he were coming.

Over tea and dainty little cakes, he explains to them what it is he is looking for. They are clearly amused by something but do not elaborate. And to his delight, they indicate quite clearly that, indeed, they were thinking of it, of perhaps finding somewhere smaller because the great house is too much to manage and they realise parts of it are in a poor state of repair. They tell him that they will be in touch, that they have a solicitor in Paris who attends to matters of estate and finance for them, and so the visitor takes his leave. His watched step brags.

So he waits and, sure enough, within weeks he hears from them again. A sum is agreed and the solicitors are instructed. Within two months, he is in the house, removing dust and grime and revealing the lovely house (he thinks) under the crumbling plaster and neglect. He has a lady in Paris and she becomes his wife. So taken with the house is he that he decides to move from Paris; it is a fair trip but he thinks he can make the journey once or twice a week to conduct his business. And during these times, his new wife is left lonely at home. The dream becomes more to his liking than to hers and, eventually, resentment begins to settle in the house.

The new wife sits and sulks; loathes her abode because he carved it. And her new husband. Sees herself deposited there, commodified. In time she rails aloud. After this, there is nowhere she can go. She is not of independent means. To return to her parents would be shame abominable, though she was never loved since cradle days. Her tears are insistent.

And so they come to her. The two sisters who are still there for, of course, they did not move out—just retreated into the deeper recesses of darkness until they saw a purpose. The housekeeper and gardener are there, too. They will never leave because the house is alive: it is a living breathing organism and they, hungry for blood and for dim, mysterious life, are part of its darkness. The house may be trimmed and tidied and made pretty but, underneath, it will not change. And so the young wife is taken to be with them. And when her husband, upstart from Paris, comes back, he will not find her. Eventually the house and its inhabitants will claim him too. For the new wife, it will be kind. Never loved since cradle days, she now finds company and subtle delight. And the satisfaction of this: knowing that his, her husband’s, will not be a quiet taking, for the sin of presuming to buy what belonged for ever to somebody else. For seeing only his own conspicuous consumption. Buying something that was never for sale. And all those who live in the wings of the house and in the fine rear garden will play their music, jangle the gold of our upstart, kiss the new wife and she them, and do what cruel things they must to survive and laugh. You could hear them if you went to this village on a summer night when the music is played. But keep your pride in check.

Cave Venus et Stellas

Cave Venus et Stellas

It is a strange place; a cold street, in which the temperature seems to drop as you round the corner. You feel the breeze cut into you; sometimes you think you must have imagined it, but no: there it is again. A street that looks the same as the last but inescapably and unfortunately, irresistibly different.

The young man, lean and callow, has been called upon to work for the shadowy residents of this street. There, every day, post is delivered, collected from doormats, papers from drives and houses and gardens maintained in apparently pristine condition. And yet, we see no one, telling ourselves only that the street’s inhabitants must keep, exotically, rather bohemian hours than ordinaries.

So, the young man is called to the fifth house on the street, a tall house, as all the others, with imposing gables and a tall, tall chimney stack. He rings the bell and a lady answers, ivory and willowy, with intense blue eyes. She sees him start just a little, as one does when confronted by such intense beauty. “Won’t you come in? So much to do.”

Inside, it is a world away from the modern suburban street, all billowing drapes, vast cabinets of dainty phials and bottles, Venetian mirrors and candelabra. And little cups; so many little cups on narrow shelves. With fluted saucers, Japanese and Chinese designs, lacquer work. His eye is drawn everywhere all at once and she senses this. “Yes: I am quite a collector, as you see.”

“Well, I’m wondering, Miss—is it Miss? (it is)—which jobs you need doing.”

“Ah, yes. But first, won’t you have some tea? Come through.”

The kitchen is through the long narrow hallway with its unusual intricate pattern of hexagonal tiles. The room has a surprisingly vast azure ceiling, upon which are painted many tiny gold stars. He would have thought it exquisite, had it not already begun to make him dizzy just looking at it for a short while. On the floor he thinks, counting quickly, that he sees hexagons, limned with a pretty language he does not know.

She boils water in an old fashioned urn (strange, he thought: why no kettle?); rather too much for tea for two. She makes tea in a lovely, highly polished silver tea pot—again it seems disproportionately large of scale.

“I need more shelves, Long thin shelves for my display. I am such a magpie, as you saw. And shallow cabinets for the walls. Like you could see in an old fashioned apothecary. For my pharmacopeia. Ha! But not so deep and, you know, with drawers. Can you picture what I mean?”

Yes, for the first. That shouldn’t be hard but her second request  would be more difficult. He is too shy to say he cannot translate all her words. But, as he drinks his tea, he feels he wants to please her, so he agrees to start the job the next day. Although really, his other commitments tell him he should wait. It is something about this lady—and she amuses him too, he thinks as he drinks the tea from more of her little cups.

Next day, he begins and, in a day, the narrow shelves are cut and fitted for the rather bare little anteroom off the kitchen. “This will be my dining room,” she says, “You are decorating it for me.”

He drinks more of her tea, even eats some dainty little sandwiches she makes him, and begins work on the cabinets. The work seems to flow from him; oddly, some of his best work to date. Invisible joints and beautifully conceived design. He has surprised himself. But then, standing back from the room, as it begins to come to life with its first fittings, he feels suddenly tired and this she sees.

“Come and sit down. In the kitchen.”

“She looks more beautiful than ever today,” he thinks. But she’s his customer, so he must not say it aloud, though to think he might thrills him. And look at her milk-white tapering fingers; ancient, young: long nails. “Yes, I had better. I had better sit.” He is not himself, while her beauty swirls and fizzes stars.

He sits, closes his eyes for a moment to rest. He feels worse. Looking up at the ceiling and so at the fine golden stars, he becomes dizzier and dizzier.  His extinction deeply pleasurable, before he sees and remembers no more. “Orris root and henbane, my darling” says she, stroking his cadaver and removing the cup and saucer from the still warm hand.

And now. The shadowy inhabitants of the rest of the houses in the street come through interconnecting doors -they are corporeal, after all—and they feast and they drink him dry from the little fluted cups as they sit under the stars. And what they cannot digest, they grind for their medicines  and potions, even a dainty cosmetic for the ghostly pallor, and this they place in the shallow apothecaries’ drawers. Their pharmacopeia. Ha! And thus they retreat to their own homes and the lady with the lovely blue eyes is alone. Until, that is, she crosses her hall to the next visitor who will come to her, while she is floating, as she will be, across the fine encaustic tiles. And the tiles show not hexagons (oh poorly counting man!) but pentagons—no pentangles—and say, in the Latin inscription which our carpenter did not know how to read, “Cave Venus et Stellas.” And if you, too, cannot read this, then you must find out—just in case.

Beta Mummy’s Guide to Life

edison

Right then. Unexpectedly I am pitching a non fiction book while I work on my literary things (that is, while I write book four and wait on book three – the order of which could change in ten minutes); anyway…it’s about parenting and it’s a bit different…

It’s a big hug

It’s rude and irreverent

It’s a takedown for any snarky competitive parenting or mummy groups that have gone cold and evil

It’s all sorts. I am not an expert* but I offer you…

Beta Mummy’s Guide to Life

This is a book that takes you from getting pregnant to hoping they don’t get someone up the duff when they’re sixteen. It’s a book that focuses on letting go of things, too and of paying attention to the ridiculous pressures that parenting can put you under – and I speak of perceived external pressures. Financial and emotional.

AND I SHOULD LIKE YOUR HELP. CONTRIBUTE THROUGH THE COMMENTS SECTION ONLY. And I want rude, funny and out there and anonymous and anyone who has a right go at the woman she thought was giving her a funny look on the school run, will be deleted. I want this book to be cheeky, but cheerful; life-enhancing and joyous.I will publish the comments to the page, but you can ask me not to – although bear in mind I might want to include them in the book, all distinguishing features edited.

I want your very worst anecdotes on parenting at whatever stage.Your funniest material, but if you can, point out what you took from it; what you’d want to pass on to others. So get ready.  ANECDOTES NOT ESSAYS, MY LOVELIES.

Here’s roughly what’s in the book to give you a guide.

Pregnancy. Also Fertility problems

Miscarriage

Afterwards

You

Babies

Difficult feelings ands postnatal depression

Toddlers

Groups

School runs

THEMUMMIES

Whatsapp groups

You’re in, you’re out

Sadness

Prejudice

Sex, lust and rediscovering the erotic

Facts of life

Gender, sexuality and gender identity

Faith and belief

School problems

Finding a mentor – for you or your offspring

Grandparents and extended family

Building a family when you’ve not got one

Community

School refusal

Social media: them

Social media: you

Parties – oh please

Christmas and other festivities

What to do when you can’t cope

Cake wankers and slut muffins

Secondary school

Autonomy

Does it matter? Miscellaneous. This is a sort of ‘fuck it’ chapter.

Conclusion and a big and mighty hug to send you on your way

Disclaimer. All similarity to anyone living, dead or pontificating in a playground right now is pretty much accidental.Warning. Contains frank descriptions of sex, difficulty and rather a lot of swearing, imaginative as it might be.

*Oh yeah. I said I’m not an expert. But I got you this.

Three kids, including a mighty age gap between two and three

One hideous birth; two that were screamy but fine

Eleven miscarriages and rather horrible invasive testing (I found it so – but I’m mighty thankful now)

I had postnatal depression very badly. It took a lot, that. I also have a complex history of mental health problems – OCD, depression, generalised anxiety and I’ve even managed a couple of dissociative episodes on the school run. Which was nice.

School refusal, swot-pants and dyslexia.

Secondary English teacher and one to one tutor

Mental health champion, service user, young people’s mental health advocate and former pastoral tutor, Head of Year 7, transition co-ordinator, GCSE examiner, and PSHE teacher.

Rather a lot of bereavement experience. I was orphaned by 19, lads. I was also a carer in my teens, though not all the time.

I’ve seen and experienced a lot of things that no child or adolescent should – but you can look at my first book, Killing Hapless Ally, for that.

Loving you, I really do,

Beta Mummy. xxxxx

mom-is-in-timeout-funny-quotes

 

 

 

The Life of Almost – some Pembrokeshire settings

Earlier in the year, I pledged a couple of things for the Authors for Grenfell fund-raising drive. Tomorrow I’ve got an author chat and what was once an afternoon tea with it has turned into hanging out at my house and then lunch and a signed copy of my first book, Killing Hapless Ally. Most recent comments on that, by the way, have included “brilliant but patchy”, “this book has changed my life”, “..if this is you how are you still sane?”, “you’d have made the shortlist if the everything was up to the standard of the best passages” and, “reminiscent of Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe.” Are you laughing with me?

BUT ANYWAY

Next weekend I’m off to Pembrokeshire (where lots of my family are, living and dead: read on) because I am picking someone up in St David’s and then I am going to take them on a tour of the settings in The Life of Almost. This novella is out with Patrician Press (nice boutique press; awesome and brave catalogue – possibly foolhardy because they’re so keen on me?), autumn, 2018. It’s a strange tale, starring a flotilla of my relations, and settings, secret places and houses known to me, in which the narrator (previously drowned, aha..) returns to bring happiness and ignite the imagination of someone who is sad and desperately tired of life. He does this by telling the extraordinary story of his life – of sea-boiling mermaid love; lonely dragons on the shore; the Virgin Mary in the corner of the room; murders, crimes, love found and enduring; love torturing and mending – or not, because you can also pick the ending. In it, you’d recognise threads of Great Expectations, a favourite book of mine (indulge me this), not to mention a love affair with the Mabinogion and old Welsh lyrics. I will tell you more as we get closer to publication, but for now, be here with me as you won’t be there at the weekend.

And importantly, I want to make a plug. You will know the appalling things endured by those who were residents at Grenfell Towers. Well, here’s another literary endeavour and it is brilliant. Already 120% funded. I’m so pleased. Have a look and buy it when it’s out.

https://unbound.com/books/grenfell

So, settings in Almost. m making a selection. This is the walk down to Barafundle Bay, accessed, this way, over the headland from Stackpole Quay on the Stackpole Estate (National Trust now). Almost recalls happy times rolling on the beach and out at sea with his mermaid girls, who are so devoted to him – though, all his life, he has been in love with the sour Seren, out at Clandestine House on the Cleddau Estuary. Hmm. Almost is not binary in his sexuality or his gender identity. Oh no no no. I see him as questing and fluid. All things, in this book, take up boundaries and blur or break them.

barafundle

Here. This is Walton West at Church, just above Broad Haven Beach. In the churchyard, so very close to my heart. sixteen relations are buried (and probably more that I’ve yet to clasp to me as my relatives). My grandmother is here and my nanny. Uncles, great uncles and cousins, aunts. Also, some plaques for those interred elsewhere. At least two of the dead are suicides and one, a mother and daughter in law of those who took their own lives, was a figure who has haunted me my whole life and I have fictionalised her as Muffled Myfanwy, both here and in my first book. That’s because she suffered so much, her voice was stifled. When she did speak (I suppose it was selective mutism as I never heard her speak beyond the home), well now it was like a whisper in the breeze. You had to lean in to let it touch your cheek and then you heard and you knew her a little better, perhaps. In The Life of Almost, this character is…by the very particular gifts held by Almost…released. Her throat is loosed; her voice howls into the bright sunlight and she feels safe enough to test love again.

walton

If you want to go and visit, you’re looking, mostly, for a lot of Llewhellins. Now, don’t correct the spelling; this is how my family had it BUT there’s some variation even so – Llewelyn, too, as middle name and surname. I do have another churchyard – this time with my grandfather (Pop) and great grandparents, and this is out at Bethesda, nearer to Tenby. My grandparents’ marriage – they still had thirteen children, ten surviving (one died as a babe) ended acrimoniously and it was said he went and shacked up with a landlady from Tenby, who was a terrible tart and known for it.

I was raised, depending on your point of view, by maudlin, morbid people. And yet…when I think about my family, I find I don’t always differentiate between who’s alive and who’s not. I think that’s because their legends permeate into corners of my life. I am not afraid of darkness. Or graveyards at night. I speak plainly of death and leaving. I was orphaned, anyway, by the end of my teens and that was sad, but by God I’ve learned a few things. And this death in life way of embracing pied beauty, sour beauty, has stood me in good stead. It feels like a Welsh thing and it is thus integral to the book. You’ll wonder sometimes, as I’d ask you to do, who’s alive and who’s dead in The Life of Almost. Also, as in my first book, who’s there, and who a figment in your imagination.

Ah the Virgin Mary. Perfection, sister to Almost, behaves terribly. But in her quiet moments, she visits this place, at St Non’s, on St David’s Head, to see if Our Lady can set her straight. She also spends her days tongue lashing the whores and the ingrates of where they live, but she then, in a fit of piety which is true and real, rushes out to pray for their souls and for her own. And she prays again, to the Virgin, in her own home. At night, Our Lady is illuminated (by Wilko’s solar garden lights, if you’re asking) and below her is the healing well. Ah – also the song, Myfanwy. May her voice and soul flow free.

Now, when Almost begins to tell his tale, he’s out on an unspecified beach, which I’ve imagined directly below the Walton West churchyard I described above. Really, the nearest beaches to this headland would be Little Haven (where my grandmother was born) or Broad Haven, but in my mind’s eye, I saw a particular sea cave. It has been in my mind for as long as I knew what mind was. Pembrokeshire is rich in beautiful caves – I love those at Barafundle – but this was the first I saw and knew as a tiny child. It is on Newgale Beach and you can go right through it to different sections of this spectacular place. I had this in mind, more figuratively: the notion of channels and conduits between worlds, if you would only open your eyes. Or, I suppose, prove an adequate listener to Almost’s story.

And who have we next to the cave? There are some very fine mermaids in the book and you’ll just have to wait and see what they all get up to.

Now here is a beautiful place. These are the woods through which you can walk to Abermawr. Here, they are full of bluebells, though I love this walk in a winter storm, too. But the bluebells are significant because…as I said, I’ve given you two endings to the book. It’s a fantastical story, which also celebrates the tortured love between Seren and Almost. Why does she hate him yet love him? She breaks his heart again and again, this sour suffering beauty. In Great Expectations, Estella is the adopted daughter of Miss Havisham at Satis House. He loves her and eternally. But there were two endings to the book. The original, in which they are parted, and that which was eventually published, in which (though I still feel it bears a shadow of doubt, delicately done) Estella and Pip end up together. I’m not going to tell you why, in my book, Seren hates Almost, save to say it’s something to do with land and sea and freedom and Derian Llewhellin, the escaped convict (spot the Magwitch connection) that Almost helps in the first part of the story. But near the end of the book, this fine bluebell wood is the scene of…an event I struggled to write. Yep. You’ll judge for yourself, now te, whether it is erotic; if I judged it aright.

Abemawr Woods. Beyond them, always, the sea. Coedwigoedd Abermawr. y tu hwnt iddynt, bob amser, y môr.

bluebells

Which brings me to Clandestine House, on the Cleddau. This is Cresswell Quay and is, in fact, the place where my grandmother lived. Cresswell House became Clandestine House and inhabited by the claw-handed spinster, Miss Davies. Ah yes, Elleri Davies. This is a mysterious, changing, respiring house. And, like Seren, Miss Davies is miserable but imaginative. But just like Myfanwy who is oppressed by sorrow, might there not be a way to satisfy the cravings of the land, to comfort the grieving house and to mend hearts?

I do miss you, grandmother.

I will write more in the coming months but, for now, especially for you, Lorna, whom I will meet in St David’s at the weekend, remember that there is no there, there. Trust in Almost, instead. More on which at the weekend. x

st david's

The walk to St David’s

The Summer of Small Things

IMG_9299.JPG

This summer (and this autumn) I have thought of small things. I’ve been looking at microcosms, at the little piece of ivory (I’m quoting Jane Austen) that is my life. I’ve been focused on my community and on my garden – most specifically on its plants and animals of all sizes. On birds and butterflies; insects; bees. Barry the hedgehog (more on him later), Gavin the bat and Wayne the pigeon or, rather Wayne’s descendants (Ditto.) And I’ve been minded to observe other places I know well – and really to look at them properly. That’s why I have a collection of Pembrokeshire sea glass on my window sill and a display of tiny crab, auger and razor shells on the bathroom shelf.

So,

Three chickens.

Three cats.

Three boys.

A little background.

I don’t know about you, but I have experienced the past year as relentless and deeply stressful. Actually, I do know lots of people have felt this way. That’s partly why I’ve just written a piece for the next Patrician Press anthology (My Europe) on how I felt, the day after the Brexit vote, at my youngest lad’s school sports’ day. Traumatised, that’s what. You don’t need me to tell you about Trump, but I’m married to an American and my mother in law cries on the phone about it. So. Were you to look at social media over the past year, you’d have seen many people lamenting the state of the world, writing about armageddon. We’d had three big bereavements and that’s just the tip of what’s been happening for us… So much – and by this summer, I felt I was also struggling with my writing – time, space, skill; meeting then no; full manuscript, long pause, then no. Now, I am not complaining as this is hardly unusual, but it became neccessary to address how I felt: that it had stopped being a joy and had become, instead, about defeat and stress and competition. It had become about working quickly in order to prove that I could catch up for starting late. Well that’s no good, because if it’s like this, it’s nothing. It’s based on false premises; on assumptions; on thinking that anyone’s actually looking. My teaching was going well, but I was unable to see it and I think you can see where this is heading.

By the end of July, I felt consumed by worry and permanently under the weather; I could not enjoy things other than distractedly. I realised I was becoming ill. I had a couple of dissociative episodes. (Read about those elsewhere. Like on the NHS page: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/dissociative-disorders/Pages/Introduction.aspx#Types-of-dissociative-disorder.) One was at the end of the morning school run. Top work. A distracted and unsafe-feeling walk in drizzle was its beginning. They are frightening, but I’ve met them before. Time to find a sympathetic ear and also, while being mindful of what’s going on in the world, and proactive, to understand that I don’t help anyone or any situation by reacting with anxiety. That prolonged stress, however much I call myself an ‘I can do this’ tiger, is a risk for this mind and in a predictable way. And I’ll not be so productive if I go mad again. So you see, I am writing about necessity as well as the choice or responsibility to regard and serve beauty and other living things.

So. Too much in my head, then.

Time, as I recover, to think small. Domestics. Things closer to home. Some of it was really there but not being given enough time and joy; some was new this summer. And I wonder if some of what I describe may sound twee. Can’t help that. But as I describe homespun happiness, let me tell you that, with my background, we are talking about necessity too. And also, with three boys, about calm and about their feeling love and health in their family home. I grew up in a beautiful place, but not once can I look back at my childhood without a feeling of deep discomfort. I’ve written about that widely, for trauma is closely connected with dissociation and, of course, other mental health problems. So I have a notion of how it can be. In the home. It truly helps to think about your immediate environment. Not with competition, but in order to nurture what is already there. And I need to.

So who’s about?

Chickens. Three, as you saw. They are rescue girls. They started coming to live with us when my youngest, now six, was one. He thought they were the funniest things. Now, there is nothing like helping tend something (or someone!) back to life and health. When I collected our first batch of rescue hens, it was a shock. They were half bald; their combs very pale and flopping to one side. That first night they stood still, unsure what to do as darkness fell because they’d been housed under striplights. I lost a few of these first girls quite quickly because they cannot always cope with the bacteria in the ground, owing to poor natural immunity. They have not had a natural life and their peck of dirt. I had a couple I reckon died simply of shock, but we’ve done our best with our girls – the current community (and I’ve plans for more, but no more boys and…probably…no more cats) – are called Cookie, Cocoa and Frostie. Along the way, we’ve also had Cupcake and Florence (where Grandma is from) and, once, a particularly pathetic arrival which my teenage son called, unaccountably, Stacey.

These girls are such a pleasure. They chuckle and crow and coo. It does not take long to nurse them to health and they eat well – scraps, pellets, bugs; mealworms as a treat. They do hilarious things like jump on two rigid little legs for a bunch of grapes bounced up and down on elastic. I’ve made them things – like the ‘pecky log’, the hollows of which I fill with peanut butter. Their bald bits grow back, their eyes brighten and their combs take colour and stand erect. And their eggs are beautiful, too. When I talk to them, they answer back and I pick them up and walk with them. Hens respond well to conversation and to human contact. Well, we all do. Occasionally they escape and I once came home and found all three, in a row, chuckling at the garden gate they could actually have flown over. Then, one of them told me that they were only going so far because they liked living with us. Their personalities are clearly different and my six year old would tell you that Frostie is grumpy, Cocoa is shy and Cookie is confident but has very good manners.

They make me happy. If you are interested in rehoming, here:

http://www.bhwt.org.uk/about-us/

It is a scandal that these poor creatures live in such awful conditions – and don’t be fooled by the ‘enriched cages’ system that came into place as an improvement. It is still –must be – a miserable, compacted, humiliating life. But you can consider doing something about that, though give them space and time.

Insects. I ordered in our firewood early this year, and we set about making log piles here and there over the summer holiday. These make a haven for woodlice and all sorts of creepy crawlies, thereby helping to strengthen and diversify what you have going on in your garden. There’s a place and a need for all these beasties. We also made the decison, earlier in this year, to leave only part of the garden tidy. I don’t know why I didn’t do this before. In the scruffy area around the kids’ trampoline and next to the chicken run, I’ve seeded wildflowers and planted bee mats (which are a biodegradable garden weft that’s full of seeds for plants bees like). You can get these and the seed at any garen centre. Also, seed your own. Shake heads from poppies or whatever crops up there or elsewhere in your garden. So this Summer of Small Things, we’ve been able to peek at bugs and, also, to watch what popped up in scruffy garden. What we planted; what arrived. There’s campion, poppies, foxgloves, scabious; different types of grass; some wheat and even a head or two of barley have popped up too. It’s serendipitous, healthy and it makes me feel calm and productive. And there are are more bees and butterflies about, whereas before it just seemed to be the occasional cabbage white. Now, I see meadow blue. And took joy in a comma.

In addition to the scruffy patch, the youngest and I set about putting in extra lavender and thyme plants for the bees and two buddleia for the butterflies. I’ve fitted in a few small trees here and there (we don’t have a massive garden, but it is stuffed to the gills!) and attached extra bird feeders (NOT above your chicken run, though), ladybird and bee houses (pretty little turquoise ones – did I say how much colour is a boost to my mood?) and I’m making a hedgehog house because we are being visited regularly by a hedgehog we’ve named Barry. Just the other night, Barry turned up with a small hedgehog which the kids think is his very small hedgehog partner but looks more like a babe to me; hedgehogs have their litters (usually) in June and July in case you were wondering. And I was sure to watch the swifts, swallows and house martins. There were nests near by. And to sit outside or lie on the grass at twilight and watch the bats, especially the one (and I do know it’s not necessarily the same one!) the littlee has named Gavin.

I met a student of mine the other day. That is, someone I taught ten years ago. His warmest memory was not nailing A Streetcar Named Desire or UCAS applications or anything, but the fact that he’d remembered what I’d told him about birdsong in one of the digressions that are, I think, a key part of teaching; of life. It was the sound of a wood pigeon on a roof. ‘What is that?’ ‘Don’t you know?’ said I. ‘That’s a wood pigeon and he sang, “My toe bleeds Betty” three times and then an urgent, “Look!”‘

And it’s true. Listen out. We have an old house, tall with three floors and a broad attic. A deep pleasure of mine is to hear a pigeon do his call from the chimney stack and listen to how his call reverberates through the wide chimney and out into the broad fireplace in our sitting room – and I love it. And lest you think I’ve turned into, I don’t know, Kirstie Allsop with my wide chimney and, get me, broad inglenook, let me tell you that, once upon a time, I bought this place, semi-derelict, and it has been done up very slowly. It is quirky and unfinished and full of old rugs and thousands of books and therein is love. My in laws and much extended family think we are living in a house that’s too eccentric and too small and express dislike of it. But wherein did those criteria evolve? There’s warmth; soft beds; loads of stuff to do and cunning places to hang out and hide. Why don’t you come round? I’d love that, really.

If I have any dream about raising my family here, it’s that people come in and get comfortable and chuck their shoes off. If they feel sad, I’ve got lots of blankets and, like I said, places to hide in. And I want the boys to witness that: what you might construct a home of. There’s a cellar under the kitchen (this place used to be a pub), accessed by a dangerous ladder and on the rainy days, we play football in that cellar and I’ve let them, ferrals, graffiti the walls. Because you don’t need all the gubbins you think you do or someone told you you had to factor in because you were…I don’t know…successful…a parent…middle class…Oh – (apologies but I also love cursing) – slightly fuck off. We feel that this house, as it has evolved, looks after us. I used to be swayed by criticism of it. But not any more. Comfort and a feeling that a house welcomes you in are not small things. I was reflecting on that, this summer, too. About the feelings that are engendered in and by a place.

Oh yes – I mentioned Wayne the pigeon. He was a fellow with a bad wing and I nursed him back to health and off he flew. A bit wobbly but he nixed it. Please don’t tell he was thereafter beaten up by the other pigeons. But anyway, when I hear ‘My toe bleeds Betty’ on our chimney stack, I tell the kids that these are likely the descendants of Wayne. The older ones think I’m a mad old git person, but they love it anyway.

Cats. Three rescue. One was a dubious ‘return’ to the animal shelter; the other two car park kittens. Max; Ginger; Daisy. The first is a bit moody and known locally as the Chubmeister because he’s convinced some older residents here and there that he’d benefit from a snack and has become truly portly; the second can do tricks – like jump through a hoop to retrieve a pom pom – and she especially loves glitter pom poms. When you come down in the morning, she’s sitting waiting, with the glitter pom pom. Throw my pompom, person. I derive intense happiness from this silly, tiny thing. Oh and third cat: local teenagers refer to her as ‘Kitler’ because of her unfortunate marking. (No need to elaborate.) And did I say that we once hatched a load of ladybird larvae and, extraordinarily, there’s a crack in the plaster near where we set them free from their little hatchery and they come back and overwinter in that crack, just above my thirteen year old’s bed?

And the summer. Just down to my family in Pembrokeshire. Clifftops and shell collecting; going out on the boats and watching the shadows in the water (jellyfish); my telling them where the basking shark lie and about secret footpaths. Watching the comical puffins off skomer and the porpoises and dolphins in the bay. Waiting expectantly for the seals to come into pup. Bewhiskered old man seals. Rock pools. Telling them to shuffle their feet so as to avoid weever fish.

All these things. Pretty things and being lost in and awed by the natural world. Simultaneously, of course, imperfection and mess and stress. Confusion and moil and toil. Donald Trump on twitter and the profligate disregard he and his family appear to have for others; it makes me cry to see someone so arrogant with such an egregiously limited world view. You can do some things and I could never not petition or challenge, and I cannot ever be the sort of person who can decide not to look. I tried once. I – I’m sorry if this sounds judgemental – felt that I was cruel and vacuous to try to switch off and focus only on self care (as I had been several times advised to do), because why do we exist if not to make lives better for one another? And in looking out, there is purpose for you.

But there are the other things to think about too so that a line can, at some point, be drawn. Your health; the little piece of ivory; the wildlife and animals you can look at, nurse and encourage right beside you. You can be a steward of what’s around you and revel in its beauty too: that’s why there’s a pile of foraged quinces sitting in our fireplace. They are russet and lime green and they smell oriental, as old and time and deeply familar all in one rush.

So yes, The Summer of Small Things. Time to reflect and to move more slowly in a world that had been whirling. It’s a start. And, like I said, come round. Bring seeds. Or buns. Agapanthus seed heads I can hang up for decorations. ‘Please take’ pears from the box down the lane. And Frostie, Cookie and Cocoa are rolling in dust baths but would love it if you have some leftover spaghetti. They think it’s worms and run from each other to secrete their haul before devouring it. Come see.

Anna x

The boy who stole my life

This morning, The Guardian published this extraordinary letter. After I read it, I sat down and cried. It is beautifully written, for a start and, as was noted by literary folk on twitter, the account read like a short story.  Also, I wish I could invite this person over for tea right now and give them a huge hug. This is a deeply painful and confusing set of circumstances and one, I would think, in which it would be hard to find clarity or any form of comfort or redress. I want to say to its writer, though, that reading it, while it upset me, made me feel less alone with my own peculiar circumstances.

I want to say thank you and that I am sorry for what has happened. And yes – do you know that you write beautifully?

By the time I was an adult, I’d lost both parents, all grandparents, my oldest friend and the only person  in the world with whom I felt safe, my godmother. I had a sibling, much older than me. I loved him passionately, but was also scared of him and struggled to articulate why. Three years after my mother died, my sibling disappeared. Refused all communication with me and did not explain why. This carried on for many years and I experienced it as shame and bewilderment; in the end, it was easier to tell myself that I was an only child. I felt sick when I thought of it all; still do. I would hear, third hand or so, that my sibling wanted nothing to do with me because of what a terrible person I was, because of how badly I had treated our parents (I had done my best to nurse them, I hoped, abrupting my childhood, bisecting my adolescence or university career, where I felt separate and strange).

Later, I felt the story shift a little within the family. I suppose it was because it was easier for people to understand, or more palatable. There had been issues between us; an argument. Yes; that was what had happened. It’s the revisionist version of family history. I had tried, before, to raise with my extended family, the matter of events and their impact and, also, of the dark and distressing things which had happened within the family home. The things which led, in part – I am careful to qualify that – to multiple episodes of anxiety and depression. To this day, I still have nightmares about my experienced; some of these nightmares are about my sibling. And when I raised these things, emboldened by finally finding the right therapeutic support for me, I was told, “If ANY of this had happened, I would have known.” As I said, revisionist. But I did not revisit discussion because I didn’t want to cause upset. I could cope and it could have been worse, I reasoned.

When I was about to get married, I tried again to get contact with my sibling again: I wanted him at my wedding, I thought. Wanted him to know; thought he might want to. This time, I had a reply and it left me on the floor – it was all curses and how I was selfish and hadn’t given enough notice (three months, but maybe not enough: I’m not sure!) and no way would he be attending, you selfish little bitch this is typical of you. While I lay on the floor, I thought…well I thought that I would not survive it. I believed – and right here was further endorsement – that I was this terrible person. I had always been told I was, for as long as I could remember. I didn’t know otherwise and could not really understand why this really lovely man downstairs actually wanted to marry me. Still, the revisionism came into play: he’s upset because you didn’t ask him to give you away. That is the accepted version of events, which ignores a decade of refused contact prior to this. Perhaps I did the wrong thing and I cannot ever have been blameless, but it hurts to have a truth told which is not my life; which is a lie. When you’ve worked out it is a lie, mind you. It can be terribly hard to see clearly.

I had three children. Sent pictures. Nothing. Well, one little thing, once, out of the blue with the first child: “Thank you for your photograph. I will put it in an album. Regards.” Nothing subsequent; the first baby is now nearly sixteen. But I kept the note. I’m not really sure why.

And then. Three years ago. He was getting married and suddenly got in touch with all the extended family. With a couple of exceptions, everyone acted as if nothing had happened. His wife to be showered everyone with gifts and wrote to me – all about how much his nephews meant to him and he loved them from a distance; about how I was a special sister to both of them now and would “the boys” like to come and stay with their auntie and uncle? Again, the extended family saw it differently: why don’t you let them? Don’t the boys deserve to know him? Deserve to know their uncle? I really struggled with that, a recasting of a story – as if I had somehow witheld them. He’d never met them. Moreover, if you read the letter which follows below, you might have some notion of the inappropriateness of such a visit. An unsupervised visit. I have seen and felt things which I wish I could unsee and unfeel. Besides which, all the letters were from her.

My sibling rang me and said he would be calling at our house. This was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. He told me what I was to do and was explicit that the only reason for visiting was so his wife to be knew who I was. I rang an aunt and said that I did not want this, that it was not real, but was told not to behave badly and I had to do what my mother would have wanted. They stayed an hour. We lined the boys up for them. He barely spoke to me, talked about his work in a sort of boasting way – he is very wealthy from what I can gather – and they left.  Thereafter, I had further “precious nephews” letters from my sister-in-law and “treats from auntie and uncle”. Tenners on a birthday. Then they dropped the “auntie and uncle”, then the treats; then the birthday cards. I think it took a year for them to get bored.

We had a raft of family bereavements. They were there, leading the funeral procession. He pushed past me, looked through me, refused to speak. There was one occasion, for a beloved relative, where she was the first person I saw. “Thank you for making the journey for our beloved…” she said. I could have said, “Whom you knew for little over a year and who dandled me and loved when I was a tiny child forty years ago…” but I didn’t. It felt like a fantasy; as if nothing made sense. In addition to being transparent – he was looking right through me – to my own sibling, I felt like my life was being stolen, my narrative rewritten. On hearing gushing compliments about the two of them, on this occasion and others, what I felt was anger and shame. I am still getting over it, but I have to accept that they have propelled themselves into the heart of a family, and that is that. There is nothing I can say.

Without the support of my husband, and the one little enclave within my extended family…well thank you. I talk to my friends, too, about bubbles that come up – at children’s parties; in the school holidays – family stuff. I can feel like a social leper. But sensible friends now know to jolt me out of this. It is what it is. Also, I have my husband and my boys in front of me. It serves me well to have someone remind me not to be ungrateful or self-indulgent. And I do believe that family is a flexible construct and can be built; that our friends and our community are part of it. And that’s me, the chubby toddler with a bucket. For years I could not look at pictures of myself for loathing. I’m getting better, because there I am.

When I wrote my first book, a semi autobiographical novel called Killing Hapless Ally, I drew, in the section that follows, on homework I had to do in therapeutic support. I had a crisis – breakdown if you like – five and a half years ago and received extended support CAT under the NHS with people who saved my life. My sibling reappeared just at the end of this support – so I was able to talk it over a little, but not enough, perhaps. In CAT – cognitive analytic (or analytical) therapy – I was asked to write some letters, and the one that follows was to my sibling, here in its original form, before being slightly edited for my book.

But to return to the letter in The Guardian today, just know, if you are its writer or feel upset in reading it or because something that makes you terribly sad has happened in your family, that your story belongs to you. No-one can steal your life. You were there and you can heal or, more realistically, learn to live alongside bereavement or loss of such a painful, contorted sort. Yes, you were there. Tell your own story, make your own revisions, if you like, for your own sake; for that of your future happiness – but also so that you do not admit impediment to the love you give to others.

So here’s the letter, as I gave it to the NHS and pretty much as it went into the book. I should explain that there are references to real people in the letter and yes: I really did have Albert Camus as my imaginary friend! Dixie Delicious (sorry darling) is my husband.

‘To my brother.

Here goes. When I was a child I idolised you. You were like a more fun version of a dad and I would sit on your lap and watch telly or just chat. You spoiled me with sweeties, long walks, playing badminton. I don’t remember having a sense of discomfort about my relationship with you as a child. You would joke with my friends and always come to help entertain my friends at birthday parties, but I do have a memory of being scared of something and I don’t know or cannot articulate of what exactly. It came from the corner of your yellow eye. I know that when I was about ten, something changed – or maybe it was always there but I didn’t see it until I became more, shall we say, sentient, my newly knowing state coinciding with the time you first went off me? I remember what I thought -or rather willed myself to think- were happy visits; day trips. But they were punctuated by anger, weren’t they? You said I was the apple of your eye and that I would always be your precious “little sis.” But there would be the sudden wild anger; exuberance then angry tears, and I didn’t understand. Were you so sad, too? One day, you made the peculiar statement I didn’t know whether to admire or run from. You stopped in the street and said, “I enjoy being a bit of a bastard and kicking people when they are down” and you were all swagger and brilliance. You said, ‘People are all shit. It is the nature of the beast. You can’t trust anyone and no-one will care for you’ and you smiled knowingly as you said it.

That night I discovered the huge porn collection under your bed and couldn’t take my eyes off what I saw. Above your bed was a huge photo of a naked woman, breasts on show, all shiny tabloid and emerging from the sea, her lips parted expectantly. I stayed in that room with you, sleeping at the end of the bed with the giant tits looking on and the porn humming under the bed, easily within reach. I clung to The Wind in the Willows, incongruous in your bedroom. Tits. Being a bastard is fun. Readers’ wives. It is the nature of the beast. No-one will care for you. All people are bastards. Bestial. It is the nature of the beast. None of this cares for you. Oh my precious, precious sister. Raaarrrrrr!

For some time in my teens you stayed away. When you visited I remember you on edge; aggressive; I was nervous around you; you used strange language around me and shaming memories erupt: you would lean closer to me and say, “How are your periods?” or “Have you got a fat fanny?” or ‘Look at your breasts. Your silly little breasts.’ That might have been funny from kin close in age, but when I was thirteen, you were twenty nine and you shuddered in disgust when you saw me and it mortified me and made me ashamed of my changing body all through my adolescence and I would look at myself and be sick and so it was really only my adventures with Albert Camus and jaunt with Denis the Lusty Blacksmith that made me consider the possibility that I wasn’t some kind of, I don’t know, physical outcast: dirty girl: my sex repelling all those around me: Albert and Denis thought I was hot, hot, hot. Of course, the boys in school thought I was persona non grata: eccentricity, oddity and trying too hard tend to have that effect on people. It had to be me, didn’t it? I would have shrivelled up without the hot blacksmith and my imaginary existentialist. Vive La France. And the nightmares I have had for years about you doing the most terrible things to me? I do not know whether they were true, but I know it took me twenty-five years to be able to name the sexual parts of the body because there laid fear and loathing. For me, it’s hard, because my waking and dreaming and my real and imagined encounters are historically a little blurred, but I definitely do not cry to dream again when I dream of you; instead, I wake and cry not to and I’m a lucky girl now because I reach for the hand of Dixie Delicious and what can you do to me now?

Once, Wales, home in our bisected lives, we went for a walk on the beach. Took a young cousin. He was a lippy sod, but very little and his cheek was funny. But to tell him off, you threw this fully clothed little boy into the freshwater stream running down from shingle to sea. Hard compacted sand. Kid too startled to cry. “That’s what you get” you said. How. Why.

I remember your drinking and crazy dancing and wild unexpected swearing and the sense that our parents gave me, expressed quite calmly and not in the white heat of anger, that they preferred you. Oh yeah: I got kind of used to being under sufferance and with a muddled sense that I was shit and you were shinola. I never felt cross; I just felt sad and dug my nails into the palms of my hands. It was things such as this, I think, that made a place for the self harming to start. I felt a kind of rage and frustration – and also, as I grew, disgust at my own body: emerging breasts and all. I recall being thirteen and accidentally bumping a drawer on the wall of a bedroom in your house: it made a mark. You were incandescent with rage: you and mum called me a selfish little bitch, I ran out into the street, somewhere, anywhere. In darkness I came back to stern silent looks. When we left you said, “Next time don’t bring her – that – with you.” I hadn’t meant to cause harm or damage. “You marked his wall. You marked it. It was you, you, you. And you are marked, too!” Mum and dad just told me again how selfish I was and, well, everyone knew that. I felt kind of desperate and just wanted to know if anyone thought differently: it sounds so pathetic! I said, “But his next door neighbours said I was lovely” and mum barked out a laugh and spat, “That’s because they don’t really know you.” I cried silently for two hundred miles home. Santa Maria threw a carton of orange juice, a ‘Club’ biscuit and a bag of crisps into the back seat at some point. Like a bone to the nasty little dog. They did not turn round.

I feel that there’s a kind of spitefulness in you as there was in my mother. And what, as a child I must have, inchoately, begun to think of as true and eternal simply wasn’t. What you said – about us always being together; about you and me having adventures together; taking on the world – well I thought it was possible. I thought that with your thoughts and words you could make a star dance or melt its heart; really your words were hollow – beating on a raggedy old drum. I just didn’t know it yet or I tried not to know it. And what you seemed to be was just a layer covering up resentments, wounds and imagined slights; misogyny, pornography, the self-denial of a functioning alcoholic; a repressed and angry son. Look at me: I have morphed into a cod psychologist: isn’t that just typical of bucket-baby Annie – ha ha ha? I can’t not be your sister, but if you’re Brother who May as Well be Dead, I hardly expect to look on you again -and I will survive: with my most excellent unshamed bazookas, much beloved of my husband. They’re a double D! I just had them measured up. And say I do see you, expert on pulling the wool, on subterfuge, on being the out in the cold injured one, turning up to caress a hearse or wear a mourning suit with gravitas, well I won’t see you. You don’t exist anymore in my head even while you continue to take from me and snarl at me. I wish you only happiness, no harm. So Brother who Might as Well have been Dead, Mummy/Santa Maria and Daddy Daddy, I’m through, oh I’m through.”

Saving Lucia. Why this book?

I have been compiling my notes, bibliography and acknowledgements for the back of Saving Lucia. Writing this book is not a therapeutic exercise, though I know someone will say that! So what follows is (partly) an account of its stimulus and of my interest in this area.

‘Part of the stimulus for writing about mental illness comes from my own jagged experience and from my own shifting notion of what constitutes sanity and who it is defined by. Society? The DSM? Is it culture bound? Sometimes, even an excuse to rid civilisation of its undesirables, whether it be from eugenics, being round the bend, up a curved drive, or having your records burned and your letters unsent so that you can be contained?

My own first novel, Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician Press 2016) draws on many experiences of mental health problems in my own life. I have had many different and multiple tags, from GAD (generalised anxiety disorder) to postnatal depression, to low mood, OCD, clinical depression, mood disorder, and a bipolar II query to other less specific things, such as confusion, a response to complex trauma (this from from a psychotherapist in a talking cure—thank you Bertha Pappenheim!), and a description of poor coping skills in the face of stress. I have experienced symptoms of sustained low mood, auditory hallucinations, frequent nightmares, protracted insomnia and anxiety since childhood. I know what it is to self harm and what might lead you to try and take your own life; I also know what it is to be shamed for problems you did not choose and tried your level best to control. Families have a vital role to play here; were you to be categorised, put away or, through disgust or misunderstanding, denied what is your pressing reality, the outcome could be tragic. The last thing in that list happened to me, but had I been born earlier, I might well have been somewhere different and never got out. And even now, where this choice and admission to hospital may be (it is not always, of course) voluntary, then as the great psychologist Dorothy Rowe puts it in Depression. The Way Out Of Your Prison (Routledge, 2013), the decision to go into hospital is (still) a difficult one because once you start going down this route, it can be hard to get off it. But go elsewhere for my story, or do, please, feel that you can ask me about it @bookwormvaught or at http://www.annavaughtwrites.com if I’ve written a post you might care to comment on.

I will always be drawn to the case of Lucia Joyce. And to the cases of Violet Gibson, Bertha Pappenheim (otherwise known as Freud and Breuer’s Anna O) and Blanche Wittmann.’

 

Anna xxx

Six months of 2017 in books

Last year, I published a list of what I had read during the year. I thought that, this year, I’d get it down in two instalments. As before, I should love to know what others are reading. So do comment or talk to me! I don’t have time to review all these, but when I am done with the current fit of writing, I will try to post a few reviews, with a focus, I hope, on the independent presses. Also, I will update this list as I’ll likely forget something!

I read as much as I can and I read quickly. In snatched hours, in the bath, on the train, little bits of time carved out. But mainly, I go to bed earlier than I would naturally do purely so that I can read. I want to be frank about this. It’s how, as a child and growing up, I coped with anxiety and trauma. I went to bed and built a world. I do believe that with books, you can rebuild your mind and, to this day, it’s what I do.

Why?

Because every day is a conscious attempt to stay well and to manage, as best I can, my mental health: it has broken several times. Okay, many times. But I am back. Then there’s the pleasure of it all and the way my imagination is hotly stimulated. The way that reading, for me, leads on to discussion and friendship. As, I’ve discovered, does writing. Why did I ever think otherwise? And by the way, if you are feeling low or really, properly battling, I am not an expert, but I can tell you which books have soothed me, including the very few non-fiction texts I have read about mental health – though I have to preface that with, proceed with caution because, as I said, I’m no expert, but I CAN share. x

In no particular order, my reading over the past six months…

Dickens: The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Finally got round to it. Also, the second book of his Bleak House (a re-read). I also re-read A Christmas Carol because I was teaching it for GCSE. To support my older children I read Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner and  Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree. Now, this I found this an excellent read and was delighted to find a friend had been reading it, too. Cue – memorable and moving discussion en route to the hustings in Swindon, two days before the general election. WHICH REMINDS ME: the same person has left Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (still haven’t read) and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. Summer reads, then. 

At top speed, for GCSE teaching I re-read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Woman in Black. Which led on to my re-reading of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw in one bit, sitting on the floor, because it was next to The Woman in Black on my sitting room bookshelf. I discovered, through the new OCR English Language and Literature spec, the first poetry collection from Jacob Sam La Rose Breaking Silence (Bloodaxe), which led to some wonderful things. Some of his poems prompted me to revisit one of my favourite modern poets, Tony Harrison. There will have been assorted other reading in here too – going over GCSE (and IGCSE) literature and poetry anthologies and the like; reading for A levels in English Literature and English Language and Literature and the EPQ…but it was Jacob Sam La Rose who was my new discovery.

Edith Sitwell: Fanfare for Elizabeth

Ben Myers: The Gallows Pole and Beastings. Shout out for the independent presses – here, Bluemoose. These are wonderful books. Enormously atmospheric. He’s brilliant, I think, on landscape.

On the subject of indies, from And Other Stories (we have a couple of subscriptions at Bookworm Towers), I am currently reading The Gurugu Pledge by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel (translated by Jethro Soutar), which is stunning, and Joanna Walsh’s Worlds from the Word’s End, a series of sharp and funny stories which make me very jealous too: never have I managed to craft one as she does! I’ve just ordered Hold Tight by Jeffrey Boakye – that’s an Influx Press title. Oh, there are so many indpendent presses – but my favourites – that is, of the ones I’ve explored – The Linen Press, Patrician Press, Galley Beggar, And Other Stories, Influx, Comma Press and Bluemoose. I read from all over, but get some of my greatest pleasure from texts published by risk-taking independent presses. That’s not to say risks aren’t taken by bigger concerns. Why not read both?

Dipped into a favourite book on writing (and close reading), Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. This precipitated both editing and reading (I hope she knows how useful she is!) – in this case, going back to Chekhov’s short stories.

I am about to read Jess Butterworth’s Running on the Roof of the World, Jo Barnard’s Hush Little Baby and Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of my Youth. I love Chauduri’s books. Such restraint, so moving and unmistakeably his. I thought his last book, Odysseus Abroad gently broke a few rules (the rules you read about…) including ‘show don’t tell’ (bit bored with this): oh, he tells beautifully, and I felt the book was wonderfully episodic and that some of these epiosdes would have stood as short stories. More on which when I’ve got round to reading the latest one. Jo Barnard is a lovely lady. Very encouraging to others (including me) and a lean, spare writer at the literary end (what do I know? So kill me now if I have this market appraisal wrong!) of commercial fiction and cool in a hot and crowded market. That is a considerable achievement, in my view. I’d recommend her debut, Precocious. Unsettling and very well judged in tone. Jess is an old friend and I am very excited for her and cannot wait to see what she does in this, her debut, a MG set in India and Tibet, subjects close to her heart, as they are to mine.

For book groups I re-read A Tale of Two Cities, read PD James’s Innocent Blood – do you know, I had never read a P.D. James book – and Gilly McMillian’s What She Knew (which, by the way, is the same book as Burnt Paper Sky – hence the odd furious review by folks who bought the same book twice). Regarding the latter, generally speaking, I seem to fail with psychological thrillers. I read the Amazon reviews and those on Goodreads and generally feel like I haven’t read the same book, in that the ‘twists’ seem obvious to me – you know like in Of Mice and Men, when the foreshadowing smacks you round the face so hard – girl with the red dress/mouse/puppy/Candy’s old mutt/Curley’s wife…Lennie gets shot? Never saw that coming! It’s that kind of experience – and I don’t find them nail biting at all. I’ve been told that this sounds sneering, but it’s only my opinion and a statement of what works for me. Apologies if I’ve denigrated Of Mice and Men (quite like Cannery Row and The Grapes of Wrath, though…) but to me Steinbeck is a pygmy compared with giants like…Faulkner and Wolfe. Oh yes: I have an idea. Why not read – although you won’t sleep afterwards – Ali Land’s striking debut novel, Good Me Bad Me before or after Innocent Blood? Some of the same themes rise up. Criminality. The choices that children and young people make in extremis. (Ali was previously a children’s psychiatric nurse and that gave the book a certain heft for me.) What it might mean…not to feel, or to feel unusual things. I don’t want to give more away. Yes. Do that for a book group.

But back to Southern US literature and…

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, which I will re-read in a little while (I want to write something about her), well, that is brilliant. Is all this meandering discussion awful, do you think?

Which brings to me to…

Of Time and the River and (currently reading) The Web and the Rock. Thomas Wolfe. In my view, a genius and we lost him so young.

Patrician Press launched its Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers and we had a lovely event at the Essex Book Festival; I read everything in it and that led me on to (two indies here) Refugee Tales from Comma Press.

Now, for my own current book, Saving Lucia (or even Passerines – depending on who nabs it…), I’ve been re-reading Joyce, so I’ve had Finnegans Wake and Ulysses to hand. Also lesser known Joyce works – Pomes Penyeach. I’ve been reading up on Joyce, Beckett, Mussolini, the history of psychiatric care (I listed some of this stuff in last year’s post and also it’s in my bibliography at the end of Saving Lucia – one for the future, if you be interested); I read Annabel Abbs’s The Joyce Girl and continued to dip into Frances Stonnor Saunders’s exemplary account of Violet Gibson: The Woman Who Shot Mussolini and Carol Loeb Shloss’s Lucia Joyce. To Dance in the Wake. I’ve been reading articles in The Lancet, articles on Queen of the Hysterics, Blanche Wittmann and accounts of Bertha Pappenheim (there’s a need for a bigger study and, I would say, what exists needs to be translated from the German because she is fascinating!); I also looked (in German) at Bertha’s book of prayers – Gebete and found an English translation of her short stories, The Junk Shop and Other Stories and finally read Florence Nightingale’s posthumously published Cassandra – which Virginia Woolf said was more like screaming than writing. I concur. Also, religious texts, archive work (letters and documents) and miscellaneous articles.

And I think we are there!

Two other things on reading and writing. How good it was to see the Authors for Grenfell auction raise so much and I was pleased to be a tiny part of it. I’ve a tea party coming up – and also a tour of Pembrokeshire, visiting all the settings in my second book, The Life of Almost, which comes out in autumn, 2018 with Patrician Press. Also, in September, for the first time, I have a work experience student and I am so excited. I am still a newbie fiction writer (I put pen to paper in mid July 2014, although I’d been a freelance author before and writing is not my day job) and this kind of thing makes it feel…real. We are going to get a writing project off the ground; she’s going to submit work for publication. She may also help me with editing of and suggestions on two anthologies of which I am co-editor and editor, respectively. Said student (she’s in the upper sixth) is reading the manuscript of my third book – which led to her mum reading it too…which led into a date to discuss it. and, I hope, a super-clever new beta reader. Yay.

I’m sorted on my reading for the next few weeks, the manuscript of Saving Lucia goes out again on the 20th of July  – and in the meantime I wait to hear if others are biting…it is a long process and probably a good education for me, seeing as I rush at everything like it’s my last day. (In my defence, it could be: I’ve had a lot of people die on me, some of them very suddenly: another story – some of which is in my first book Killing Hapless Ally, if you are not freaked out by very dark humour. If you are, don’t read the bits of The Life of Almost concerning a love story in a funeral parlour…)

Other booky things: my two Grenfell offers to fulfil in summer and autumn and archive work in St Andrew’s psychiatric hospital, Northampton.

And reading Horrible Histories in bed when stressed or sad. Oh forgot: I had norovirus so badly I was hospitalised. During that period I read Gren Jenner’s (he’s part of the Horrible Histories telly team) A Million Years in a Day. A jolly diverting read.

AND FINALLY

Quibbles and possible spelling errors spotted in some of the books, above (English teacher forevaaa):

prophesise (prophesy) as verb

disinterested (to mean uninterested) – feel free to argue

past (for passed)

Thursday’s…Friday’s…for simple plurals, not possession

it’s when you mean its (ugh!)

passer bys

me/I/myself I won’t blather on about that because I sound like a twat. BUT in a top selling book for which I’ve shelled out, say, £12, it niggles to see a chapter starting (names changed) “Me and Andrew left France…”

I have been spelling fuchsia wrong my whole life. And cardamom. So I’m a fine one to talk. In my Killing Hapless Ally, Myfanwy twice appeared without the first y. My fault. And I swear as if my life depended on it.

Love,

Anna xxxxx

On Failure. For J.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

That’s Samuel Beckett. From his 1983 prose work, Worstward Ho. It’s funny. Recently, I’m wondering if it’s the new ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, in which case we could have a ‘Fail Better’ gallery – mugs, doormats, handcuffs, you name it. What would Beckett have thought? Probably that it was tomfoolery, but hopefully he would have laughed.

I digress. Why do I begin with this quotation? My late grandmother once said something along the lines of how you had to fail with style and in an interesting way before you could call yourself a grown up. I remembered that. She also said that you have to get quickly off your arse when the devil vomits into your kettle, which was a terrifying jumble of stuff, right there. Could have been Beckett, with a bit of polishing, and less scary Welsh grandma. Anyway, I think that she didn’t take the bit about failure far enough: I think you keep doing it. I’m not saying you actually aim for it, but that you accept it, more, as the natural state of things, just with economies of scale.

Now, I have failed aplenty. I like to recast it so that I failed majestically, heroically, as if I were looking at me from the wings, going, “See what you did there?” (actually, I sort of did that: read my autobiographical novel, Killing Hapless Ally for a load of that) and clapping, like a pissed cheerleader. True, there have been some comical moments of failure: falling off a desk in front of a GCSE class and tearing down an entire wall display of their work, trying to steady myself, in the process; attending meetings with my dress in my knickers; in one accidentally saying ‘sex’ when I meant ‘notes’; talking a bit too excitedly to mums on the school run and seeing them begin to sidle away; very recently saying to a class teacher, ‘Has my son been a bit of a twat?’ when I meant ‘twit’; falling asleep on my first date with my husband and falling over in a perfectly flat field on my second. That sort of thing. I relate these sorts of things to others sometimes, should we be discussing delicious things like, I don’t know, embarrassment, and it might happen that they go, “Noooo…how awful” – and I think, “Do you not do that sort of thing regularly too?” Then I think maybe it’s just me; like a dervish at a particularly stifled funeral. But I’m not so sure. It’s not that others will have done the same things, but, truly, everyday embarrassments and failures: aren’t they normal? Human.

These were not important failures. Just untidy life.

There are bigger things too. Hearts I broke, people I disappointed. The fact that my mother thought I sucked. Some of these things I thought to be my fault, but time and reflection may tell a different story.  Ah what else? Career blips; no career; the PhD I didn’t complete (I won’t tell you the whole story here), the fact that people weren’t very nice to me on my wedding day (again reflection might not point to me here) – oooh loads of stuff. Parenting mistakes; financial ones; soured relationships. Oh get out of here. This isn’t very interesting. It’s more that I want to tell you you’re not alone. But, most of the time, I, you, we did our best, yes? Then there you go.

You can get big bold places, high on failure and not seem to know it. Donald Trump is, in my opinion, a colossal failure as a president. His world view is egregiously limited, his ego needs to be regularly stroked because it must be upheld, like gossamer. Do you think he goes to bed worrying about his failure or reflecting on it? Well, I’ve not been with Donald at bedtime, praise the Lord, but I rather doubt it. And therein lies the crux of the matter. To acknowledge that you misjudge, misprise and misrule; to be compassionate and self-aware enough to know that you failed and to attempt, where you can, to make amends – that is the key thing. When it’s missing, what might that make you? Appetitive; governed by your own wants and a desire to be, err, stroked and told that you are right. Ugh. That makes me want to barf on my shoes. And oh, it makes me cross. I realise I am simplifying about Trump, and that he probably has some latent virtues, but he seemed a decent enough exemplar.

To be human is to err. To err splendiferously. In teaching – and I don’t know why anyone would pretend otherwise – you will misunderstand some of those you are teaching and fail to see their ability, their wants, even, sometimes, the terrible pain they might be in. You will get a lot right, but a lot wrong. In your life, you will accidentally upset friends; say things that reverberate in others’ ears for a very long time. But you did your best and that’s all that can be asked of you. If it’s a failure where you know you have hurt someone and done what you can to fix it and make amends; if you’ve felt guilt and reflected and looked at yourself sternly – painful but necessary – then take that and move forward and not just for yourself. Learn. If it’s a comical failure – like, say, trying (I actually had a conversation about this recently which reduced me to helpless, snorty laughter and tears – and no I am not naming its provenance) a new sexual position, striking the bedside lamp in flagrante and singeing the side of the duvet, please LAUGH. You know what’s not hot? Being joyless and mirthless. You know what’s not sexy? Perfection. Also, it’s bollocks and doesn’t exist.

I had a friend once (note past tense) who said, with passionate confidence, “I don’t know what failure is. I have never failed at anything.” I was in awe of her; I had chronically low self-esteem, was battling depression: I thought she was someone to look up to. How wrong was I? It’s humility and humour; kindness. That’s where it’s at. That’s success. Arrogance is not a success. That is definitely a failure, in my book. Anyway, I don’t see this person anymore. Don’t wish ill, there. This person may be deliriously happy, for all I know. Sharp suited and driven, but maybe not having messy sex in the back of a pick up…or feeding a sad-looking pony an apple…or maybe even comforting another person whose life has unravelled at the seams. What do you think? Am I over-simplifying?

Parenting’s an eye opener for this success/failure malarkey. I have seen other parents chortle at how their child is top of the pecking order or say, without apology, that their child will go a long way and, in the meantime, tends only to be friends with other high achievers. It is bang on to be proud of your child (I have three myself), but a) your child is not an extension through which (she says cattily) you get to swat drippy under-achieving fellow parents (like me) and b) can you HEAR YOURSELF? Pipe down.

Now, I do think that failure is normal. A lot of dreams and career aspirations tank. Of course they do. Marriages or your final sense of acquiring a sense of identity may feel incomplete. In some work – the creative industries – I’d argue that failure is hardwired into your job. Having your work rejected or not even acknowledged. But hey there, frownie, suck it up. It’s normal: fail again, fail better. Carry on.

I do think – and I speak as someone who has had many years of battling mental health problems – that we place too much emphasis on achievement. And not, I might say, always that achievement which is in line with our core values; with what we truly believe and value. If you are driven, then go drive, but maybe know that when you get to the place called THERE, you might well discover that there’s no THERE, THERE (if you follow my meaning). I am not suggesting that we don’t aim for things we would like to do or be, just that it might be healthier and make us happier if we were honest about those things. And – I speak from hard-won experience here – I don’t think it helps to be led by comparison with others. In fact I’d say, “compare and despair”. I know when I do that, the comparison thing, I incline to come off worse and likely to feel awful, physically and mentally. I did kind of tell you at the beginning there that I was an epic failure!

There has been a great deal of study of this of late, but the role of social media and what we absorb and ingest therein can be a problem. I talk to the teenagers I teach about it. Some of them struggle, but find they can’t stay away, frightened to miss out. But that feeling is not unique to those in this demographic and, in fact, I’d argue that younger people are often way more sensible than older people and not just because they are digital natives. Yet I think we all need to be mindful of the fact that what we see is a version of reality; a curated narrative. I love social media for the friends I’ve made and things I’ve been able to learn; the writing project I am currently pursuing came to me through twitter. A picture, a conversation: serendipitous, exciting and joyful. But the braggy, showy stuff can go hang.

Is all this depressing? I’d say no. Stuff up. Let go. Go and rehearse the facts of life in a sober manner and I wonder if you might actually start to giggle. Because the failure provides a much better anecdote and releases you from much stress. Achieve, according to your own lights, but when I go, I just want to be remembered (if you do remember me) as the funny lady who tried every day to be kind. Fell on her arse constantly. Loved Jesus but enjoyed cursing. Embraced paradox and irreverence. And pie. And kittens. And gave a sad-looking pony an apple. You know.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

On you go, then.

Love, Anna x