About the man

Summer twenty three years ago, the man asked me for directions on a flooded street. I was living and working in Kolkata at the time. November twenty three years ago, I said goodbye to the man. It seemed like, whatever we thought, it could not work. I was too broken, we lived in different countries and many other things. Twenty two years ago I married the man. He is Dixie Delicious here (he is from Georgia), Santa Maria is my late mother who, in my psychological experience was, in death, as in life, a peril to me. I am Alison. It was all broken – you can see. But it didn’t matter then and it does not now. This is an extract from my first book, now out of print, but which I will be bringing back in a different form.

The Man

There was a man on the other side of the street, wading through water happily and going in the opposite direction and he called across to her, ‘Excuse me, can you tell me the way I could get to the Blue Sky Café?’

  Alison was startled because he had chosen a sentence with  pleasing internal rhymes (though its tetrameter was imperfect) and momentarily thought she might have imagined the man. She said, ‘Go straight ahead to the corner and you’ll see it there.’ To have attempted the beckoning symmetry of meter really would have been a shade too far. Anyway, what she should have said was, ‘Turn round and go straight ahead and you’ll see it there’ because the man whirled, lost in the watery street. Thus the ability to give inaccurate directions for the simplest of journeys was a point he raised with her later that day when they met on the same side of the street. And still he followed her (with his own directions), alter ego, embolus, itch and all to Albion and the funny old house and came to visit a while and then never left. 

And she told the man, ‘I forgive you for the broken tetrameter.’ 

And he said, ‘Your directions suck and why didn’t you just point to the signpost?’ 

And she said, ‘Signposts and I have a difficult history.’ 

His name was Dixie Delicious. 

Alison met him, as if in a story, stumbling across a book by a familiar author in an unfamiliar place―and this was, truly, how it was, after the day in the flooded street in Kolkata, Eric Newby, and the very wrong directions which turned out, in a funny sort of way, to be the right ones. Dixie Delicious had a calm eye; he didn’t wake in the night, sitting bolt upright, like Alison did. He had faith: he had it in the palm of his hand and the heel of his shoe and she looked at it and saw possibility and she followed him, just as he followed her.  Sometimes, they fell over one another and laughed as they travelled on. And in another city, Alison watched him go out and imagined what he saw, single and indivisible: this was how it went. 

Benares, Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities. It was not his city, but she sensed he felt at home there. He sat by the river at dawn and a multitude was there, bathing and praying and offering up what they could. Look at him. Look at how still he is. How does he do that? The sun hit the water and he watched them quietly, not able to offer a libation, yet content to watch and bless vicariously. He bought tea and set it by her bed. Then, later, mangoes, limes, tomatoes, onions and some olive oil from an ayurvedic medicine shop so that he could make a dressing of sorts. He begged a small hillock of salt; his eyes said he hoped she would be proud of what he had done. On the balcony of the room, the light was dazzling. There, he assembled the breakfast for her, and called her out from her room. With his call, though, she sat at ease; he smoothed her hair, put on her hat for her and gave her what he had made. They said little as they ate and watched the sun, still in its ascent. The colour of the Ganges changed from white and gold to the more familiar muddy brown. Now, he stood up and told her that, from now on, he would stop running, stop travelling away from and start travelling to a destination. Whenever he put one foot in front of the other, it would be with her. She understood and that was that. There were smiles of complicity.

 ‘Stay with me.’ 

‘I don’t know if I can. I am broken; was never made properly—and there is more than one of me.’ 

‘And you think any of that bothers me?’ 

In the lanes below, the monkeys chattered. They could smell the food he had prepared and were ready to steal. He spoke a prayer. The heat of the day was becoming pressing already and the yoghurt sellers a little further along the street were doing a good trade from their trestles full of clay cups, filled with the cool, sour yoghurt.

‘And again and again, I don’t care who you are and if you are more than one,’ he said. 

‘What about my dead mother? Dead Santa Maria?’

 ‘We’ll ignore her.’ 

‘And Brother who Might as Well have been Dead?’

 ‘If he Might as Well have been Dead, does it matter? He’s nixed anyway, isn’t he?’

 ‘I hurt myself.’

 ‘I’ll stanch the blood or maybe just tie you up to stop you doing it.’

‘That sounds alluring,’ said Alison. Then, ‘What about God who was―or should I say is Dead if He ever Existed?’ 

And Dixie Delicious said, ‘He is alive. He was down by the river.’ 

When he was ten, Dixie Delicious happened to be in an elevator in a hotel in Dallas, Texas. In walked a tall man; the boy looked at the man’s shoes. From there, it was a long way up, but look he did. The boy saw that it was Johnny Cash. No, he must be wrong. But hang on; Johnny Cash must have had to ride in an elevator some time, so the boy looked again. He nudged his little brother, ‘Curtis: I think it’s Johnny Cash.’ Maybe the man heard him, maybe not. But he bent low and smiled a warm, wide smile and said, ‘Helllllllo boys.’

The child was star-struck and cannot remember if he said hello back; little brother was possibly unmoved, being too young and green to comprehend that Johnny Cash was not to be seen riding in an elevator with you any day of the week. Cash was, like him, a Southern man. Little links kind of went in deep: faith and difficulty and broken things and joy. And riding in that elevator. Alison noticed that Dixie Delicious would listen and feel at home; saw that Cash was flawed, powerful and weak. He had struggled with addiction and the darkest of insecurities; had gone on a journey from the Arkansas mud to a meeting with a luminary or a President. Cash had faith that was angry and brave and music that haunted even when it jangled. So our boy shared and, for a quiet moment, he picked ‘Down there by the train’ with its invocation to meet him if you had travelled the low road; if, broken and sinning, you had passed the same way. 

‘Could that be so? That my friends and I don’t have to do this alone?’ 

There are some times when the puzzles and the headaches just drift away: the meeting of the man, the thought of the young Dixie Delicious and the notion that now the man who was THE ONE—who could not be otherwise—had a faith that was flawed and wanting and made sense, now that was like moisture on Alison’s parched and callow soul and for a while it washed away her feeling of the absurdity and booted those who created it out of the door. It was temporary, but it was beautiful while it lasted: it was utterly beautiful, and she had the tiniest of notions that one day it would come back. One fine day when golden light breaks through the mist and, as in the song, Judas Iscariot, betrayer of Jesus, carries John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln; when rifts are healed and the person who hated you forgives you. 

Tear-drops fell like summer tempests and Alison, glimpsing the world through another’s eyes, (sometime while listening to Johnny Cash) sensed possibility and found it both gorgeous and painful. But we must carry on, hankie applied, and tell you that when Dixie Delicious followed Alison there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth from both families once everyone began to understand that he might be staying. For issuing from tomorrow, come today and other people, when time is no longer away. 

Dead Santa Maria was there, inviting them all out, smilingly, winningly, ‘Come and see my bitch daughter. Look what she’s done now.’ 

One of the neighbours came out from her house with Dead Santa Maria and shrieked, ‘What the fuck are you doing marrying your holiday romance?’ and there was stony silence from all members of both families, probably for the same reason. The words shotgun wedding hung heavy in the air and over in Georgia the furiously Anglophile family of Dixie Delicious went off ‘yonder’ a bit. Alison dutifully tried to win over them, despite her not being a good church-going girl from below the Mason-Dixon Line. She might by now have been Oxbridge and able to read Greek and Latin, but she was still a liability of big emotions, with a tendency to curse, an untidy Anglo-Cymric background, two dead parents and a Brother who Might as Well have been Dead. In normal families, older siblings didn’t usually leave the younger ones out in a dark and shadowy wood to be eaten by wolves, and normal people didn’t discuss violent and splashing death over tea. Did they? 

‘It’s okay,’ laughed Dixie Delicious. ‘My family is entirely dysfunctional, too.’

‘What about the way the dead are present all the time? That there’s little distinction between who’s dead and who’s not? In my case, who’s real and who’s not? Santa Maria is now Dead Santa Maria, but it hasn’t made any difference!’ 

‘Ah, maybe not that bit, although my mother insists that being dead is no excuse, but that’s because she’s a steel magnolia.’

The best piece of publishing advice ever?

Photo by Nitin Arya on Pexels.com

Here it is.

Think of all your creative endeavours as ONE BIG PROJECT.

In other words, do not pin your hopes on one book. Actually, do not pin all your hopes on the query, the acquisition of an agent or an indie publisher sans agent who will stick with you; do not pin all your hopes on the success of said book, a linear and clearly burgeoning career and further books following on from that and, PLEASE, do not pin your self-worth of any of the things I just described OR sit around thinking that if you don’t have recognition it isn’t worth it; you’re no good. (I have done all of these things until someone gave me the advice and then I tweaked my thought and began to feel better.)

Now, it may be that you are lucky enough to find artistic and commercial success quickly, to find and develop a niche for yourself and to be able to form/be given a team around you with which you can nurture your talent. I KNOW that a good number of writers are in this position, but I would bet that the vast majority of writers are not.

My seventh and eighth books have just been placed. Well, seven years ago I hadn’t started a book, so I know I have the ability to be prolific. BUT MY GOD. There have been some wonderful adventures in that time and I have made some brilliant friends and discovered many wonderful things to read, but until I tweaked my thought I would feel really wounded by two episodes of bad treatment that seemed to come from nowhere, the exasperation of waiting and ghosting, of publishers not wanting a second book from me (see waiting again) and of books that weren’t good enough to take forward. I have yet to have a breakthrough book in that I have not been particularly visible yet in not having been with a major publisher. And yet and yet.

The one big project. If you think of it as a series of creative endeavours, things begin to look different. Two books have led on to two years’ teaching, university teaching and workshops. I have pitched and written features and columns for national and industry press and kept a focus on mental health and wellbeing; as a result of that focus, I have been asked to take on further columns and workshops and to speak to university students about imaginative routes to publication and lots more. Because I have written all of my books – and particularly in the past three years – managing additional needs for my family and then my son was very ill for three years, and because I was teaching all that time, I have been asked to speak to MA students on time and on productivity; I have written a new book on gentle productivity and just set up a literary prize for carers. Do you see how all these things are connected, and that I might argue I can likely do them better because I wrote in hardcore circumstances and have not had a smooth path? Like I said, no breakout book, publishers not wanting further work and, at one point, my agent removing rights from a publisher. Rocky!

So, if you are feeling blue, look at the possibilities of what you might do to make YOUR one big creative project. Writing in other forms and genres? Offering copywriting and editing, mentoring, gradually accruing some teaching, doing an online discussion group, making an online themed retreat – just for starters! Don’t make it only about one book or about your books. When you shift your thought and begin to hustle and then to jostle sideways, things begin to look very different.

Will you write and tell me how you got on?

Anna.

Her Winter Song

Earlier this year, I wrote, very quickly, a long short story or short novella. I gift it now as the evenings draw in; it is an early draft, but not something I plan to develop now or which would be publishable.

(Please note all text copyright, Anna Vaught, 2022)

A tale of terrible things, lost hearts, ghosts, immortals and White Horses for The Winter Solstice and Christmas

Below the White Horse of Whitebury lies Briddle or Bridewell Spring. According to the tale, when the clock (in – ) strikes midnight, the White Horse comes down to drink from the spring.

Mysterious Britain, Janet and Colin Bord

Come taste my fire

And drink, drink this all

As the spirit of solstice

            Will you all enthral.

            Drink, drink my darling

            Of life and of heart

Here is  sweet feasting

And you shall be part.

The following account was found in 2020 as the round barrow near the White Horse above the village of Stowton was excavated following research begun by the late Professor Richard Stourbridge, of St John’s College, Cambridge. It was wrapped and placed there by someone known only as The Man, who had identified it as a record of the place and what happened there.

1.

I do not apologise for what I have done

All this happened a long time ago. I do not set down the story, my story, to make you understand my motivation or absolve me of the awful sins you are sure I have committed, but merely to set down a record, as in former days I would have done in the driest of my academic research.

            You might have done the same, you who is reading this, uncovering it in years to come if our village is terribly disturbed and the Winter Song comes to an end.  In the county of Wiltshire, there are thirteen White Horses, carved on the chalk uplands. Eight are visible. Once upon a time, these were all connected and so much more. But not only that. I live in a beautiful village; I am inordinately proud of it, but it is not where I am from – which I scarcely remember. I do not remember much of my earlier life, which seems so insubstantial now that I live in something so rich and strange and always, always will. I had an old life, when I was a fellow in Archaeology at St John’s College, Cambridge, but how pale that seems now. How very pale: the taupe of the Cam, the flatlands of The Backs, the fens. I look back and see a man, in the summer term, in a punt. In charge, the Dean of the college and off we go, Clare College, Kings and onward until, heaving the boat onto an upper reach, we are at Grantchester Meadows. I tell you this now: a memory of a summer’s day and it is a dream. Only that: a paltry dream.

            The Winter Solstice approaches: a fine time. You could tell this story now or save it for Christmas. We do not light our village for Christmas and the old church has other purposes now. Stowton, in the county of Wiltshire, nearly enveloped by The Plain, is abundantly populated and brighter than you could imagine.

            Let us begin. Forgive me, or not. I do not care and that I do not makes me happy.

                                                                        2.

The Man

I saw The Man again today.

            On previous days he had avoided my gaze but now he looked at me

As before, I was walking on the Downs above the village of Stowton, along chalk paths by the White Horse. My curiosity got the better of me. I asked him if this was a place he often sat and he told me yes. I told him I was in the area to rest – Wiltshire was a county, with its plains, handsome downs, and of course sites of interest – which I had always admired – and furthermore to begin writing a book about the iron age fort here, segueing in some way into an account of the White Horse cut into the hillside in this area on the edge of Salisbury Plain. I had not been confident about what I was doing; any outline was ridiculously vague and an insult to academic pride, but my spirits had been revived in the last few days by recent and unusual discoveries that had been excavated in the area by my former colleague in the Anthropology Department of Cambridge University. I had just read some papers which had come to light at my college.

Let me offer you a sketch of this place. The original Iron Age hillfort defences were built at Stowton Camp over 2000 years ago. These earthworks protected a settlement containing round houses, granaries, stores, and workshops. The design and construction showed the effectiveness of the hillfort to its enemies. The site was excavated in the 18th century. However, three thousand years earlier a Neolithic long barrow existed on this hill, and later excavations in the 19th century uncovered human skeletons and cremations. Today, this extensive chalk grassland supports herb and grass species that provide a habitat for a diverse range of insects, including the rare Adonis Blue butterfly and the scarce forester moth. The White Horse is visible from afar and is a famous local landscape and yet for many years local people avoid the area. Local records suggest that the horse was originally cut in the late 1600s, probably to commemorate the supposed Battle of Ethandun, thought to have taken place at Stowton Camp in AD 878. Bones had been found in a previously unexcavated area near the horse and while they were not recent, neither were they iron age, as the original inhabitants of the camp on the top of these plains. However, Professor Ruchard Stourbridge, this colleague at the university, a fellow archeologist with an interest in fields of Biology Anthropology, had discussed in detail his beliefs – dismissed by most scholars – that not all the structures and marks in this area were iron age, but connected with the White Horse and pagan festivity. He also contested that the White Horse was much, much older, suggesting further that many of the horses in the area were also more ancient than previous research had suggested, because Wiltshire is rich in these designs: there are thirteen in the county although eight are fully or partially grown over. The last significant excavations within the fort had taken place in the 18th century by Jeffrey Whitaker, a local schoolmaster, uncovered quern stones, pottery, and Roman and Saxon coins. Also found were ‘nearly a cartload’ of large pebbles, probably sling stones kept ready on the ramparts to throw at any attackers. More recent were those by this former colleague of mine at Cambridge, Professor Richard Stourbridge. He had not finished his work, but he had written to friends in the Senior Common Room about the bones and two bracelets he had found, however, and then shortly afterwards, left the university summarily. As I say, the paper he had partially written had now come into my hands and stimulated my interest.

Stourbridge had written, then, to say that he had had an epiphany out there on the plain, looking back across the green swards of Wiltshire, that university life was constraining him; he saw it now; admitted it to himself and he was sorry. It must have been a great loss to at least one department because he had been a brilliant man and had never been afraid of censure from his colleagues for his interests in what some of them derided as simple folklore. Whether he took up further academic positions elsewhere I did not know, but I had wondered if he retreated into a new life just as I had sometimes longed to do myself. I might have been described as a fine scholar, but there was little time to travel or see things beyond the university, I had few I would call close friends – or even friends – and I had no talent for teaching. That autumn, as I walked along The Backs in front of Clare College, I had been consumed by these thoughts, found myself unexpectedly in tears, and it was then I had decided to apply for a short sabbatical, a leave of absence really. I had recently finished a book, my two graduate students could be supervised by someone else, and I had no teaching until the Lent term.

So here I was. I was jaded, tired of life. Getting old and having failed to marry. The one time I thought I might, I did not have the courage to ask her to marry me and we grew apart. Or rather, she married someone else, and quickly. Now, I was in the area to rest, take a short holiday but as I said, my interest had also been piqued by Stourbridge’s investigations. I knew that I was depressed and sometimes terribly ill at ease; I could not force my rational mind to free my imagination of images and ideas I did not want in my head. I asked for a short sabbatical from the university on the grounds of health – and it was granted.

As I said, now here I was. I had asked in the village pub, a singularly unfriendly though civil place with carved vine leaves on the lintels – it was called The White Horse you will not be surprised to learn –  and been told that they had met Stourbridge, that he told them he had decided his excavations were, after all, fruitless, and that they had, as a courtesy, gone up to the hillside and covered up the areas where he had dug to preserve the land; there was a fine show of rare fritallaries and harebells and he had seemed oblivious to such delicacies. The men at the bar laughed about that and outside heard someone spit onto the ground. He had never mentioned if he had seen the scarce forester moth or the Adonis blue butterfly which populated the uplands. I wondered if this had been true – I would have assumed, from what I knew of him, that he’d have been sensitive to landscape and all it contained, but assumptions are often wrong, of course. Because, of course, Stourbridge had suddenly quit the university, leaving a research paper incomplete and colleagues and students in the lurch, so perhaps he had been in ill health, but further along than I had been. It was odd. Odd but I decided to take it as a warning, or rather, one warning: the wrong one, as you will come to know. Back then, I thought the men at the bar were uncouth; rough and uneducated, but I was wrong about that too.

But I was telling you about The Man, looking out across the plain by the White Horse.I was already less sure than I used to be – of myself and of everything – and I confess, I was rattled by The Man’s eyes; flaming. In my younger days I would have walked on. But there are things I had seen from the corner of my eye; perhaps even shadows in the recess of my mind which I did not invite in.

The Man told me he came here often. I am socially extremely gauche, so it was my inclination to start talking in the deep silences; he held me in his gaze and said nothing. I fully embarrassed myself as he might have known all of this anyway. I spoke about how local records from 1742 suggest that the horse was originally cut in the late 17th century, probably to commemorate the supposed Battle of Ethandun, thought to have taken place at Stowton Camp in AD 878. In the 17th century it had become popular to commemorate these supposed Saxon battle victories over the pagan Danes with White Horses, in celebration of the belief that the Saxons had brought Christianity to Britain.  The last recorded scouring took place in 1853. In the late 1950s, the horse was preserved by covering it in white-painted concrete and…I was trotting out details and perhaps you, as reader, are being lost and then…

Here he cut me off.

He said, ‘You have a story you want to tell, but everyone has a story they do not wish to tell. Here is mine. But if you hear the strike of the farrier’s hammer but know there is none in the village, or the blacksmith’s hammer, when one is long-gone, leave here quickly. And if you hear hoof taps and see no horse sounding out those taps. I am sorry for your loss: it is too late, and you must stay here with me in this perpetual dusk. Soon, though your heart will no longer beat, you will live on. You will be in . You hear The Winter Song. As I said, I am sorry for your loss and that you are…’

Here he tailed off and looked over to the White Horse; it was quite dark by this time, and I remember that spots of rain hit the pulse on my wrist and made me jump. I said, ‘I am still listening, so do continue if you can?’

The Man took a deep breath: ‘I am sorry. You should leave.’ But as he said this, I saw a smile play around his lips.

Then, I should have got up and walked away. I ought to have left the village.

I tell you now that I used to be a sceptical man, a scholar. I did not believe in spectres and the uncanny of the sort he seemed to be describing. There was much else I did not believe in – I confess that I did not believe in love – not of the sort that could sway you and turn your mind about. I am not sure that I was particularly kind and I know I was not happy. Now, I am different. I made him tell his story

            The Man began to talk again, for a long time, and, this time, I fell silent and allowed him the rhythms and hollows  of his story. It was the 1st of December and, as I recall, there were Christmas trees already lit even though Advent had just begun. I was a traditionalist and always remembered that my mother told me it was vulgar to put up a Christmas tree so early, but I rather liked it and had always felt sad about the rigid traditions in our family home. On the journey from Bath to Whitebury, I enjoyed seeing the lit trees and there had been a particularly fine one at Broadstone on Avon Station, not long before I pulled into Whitebury Station. I saw them in front rooms on the taxi ride from Whitebury to Stowton, but in the village there were none and no lights in the windows. The silence was eerie and the dark, falling now as we pulled into the village, deeply dark and suddenly into my mind came these lines of Milton’s Comus. I had had the fortune to see it performed in Ludlow Castle its original venue some years previously, but now I shivered as the words came to my lips:

Come, let us our rights begin;

‘T is only daylight that makes sin,

Which these dun shades will ne’er report.

Hail, goddess of nocturnal sport,

Dark-veiled Cotytto, to whom the secret flame

Of midnight torches burns! mysterious dame,

That ne’er art called but when the dragon womb

Of Stygian darkness spets her thickest gloom,

And makes one blot of all the air!

Stay thy cloudy ebon chair,

Wherein thou ridest with Hecat’

The next part of this story is about The Man. We will return to my part in this later. The man had shivered too, and do you know, though I was fascinated by him, I could not tell if it was fear or pleasure, or cold. Or all.

Before the gods that made the gods

Had seen their sunrise pass,

The White Horse of the White Horse Vale

Was cut out of the grass

G.K. Chesterton, from The Ballad of the White Horse, 1911.

                                                                        3.

                                                                        An account of Stowton

‘I came,’ began The Man, ‘from a village near here, Brattes Tun. People talked about Stowtun and said it was odd, never went there unless it was essential – and really, it was not – but I was headstrong and just thought I was more imaginative and less judgmental than the people around me in this part of the county. There’s something about these dips and hollows below the plain which makes people sour and jealous of their neighbours. I have never understood it. People went into the village, of course; tradesmen, others. The village school had closed down because of numbers and, anyway, many preferred to educate their children at home and in small groups in the village hall. My father had been a headteacher and I remember him saying that when the inspectors went in, as they did occasionally, they found the children to be extraordinarily astute and wise beyond their years. The pristine curriculum material handed over from a cupboard had been well prepared and really beyond the expectations of home education.

            My father is gone now.’ He smirked. It was repellent. I did not love my own father particularly, but I should not then have smiled at his demise.

            He saw me looking at him and altered his expression.

            ‘I had come in to work on kitchens because there was a particular fashion for cupboards with many shelves and built-in racks. That was the odd thing: they all wanted their kitchens to be the same and not really in a style that was fashionable, but it was good and reliable work. Here was another strange thing: I liked the village, its oddity – you could feel it. But it was quiet. There was a steep and up and down walk to Stowton Church, which I liked and sometimes I would go there in my dinner hour or after work. To tell the truth, it was mostly after work because I didn’t want to go home. There was a rushing stream next to you as you climbed down and below you as you went up. And there was a spring I saw. I asked about it, when I was in the houses or mending other things in their gardens, the similar fences, or a last job: the fire pits they liked in their gardens. I did not ask about that. I know now. The spring, which the villagers called The Bride’s Spring, was dedicated to St. Bridget. Now, I asked my father about that because he was interested in local history. He said St. Brigid’s Day is linked to the Celtic festival of Imbolc, heralding the return of spring on the first of February and he told me that the Celtic Goddess Bríd was regarded as a goddess of healing and the ancient Celts acknowledged her on this day as the day that signaled renewal, new growth, and escape from darkness.

            But I was telling you that I used to walk there, alongside, and above it. Grace, my wife…I. I had known her a long time and I loved her but…I had not been faithful to her. I am ashamed to tell you, but it is part of the story. I found our home life constraining and dull. Now, she was ill and at first, I tried hard to look after her, but in this I had lapsed. I know I must sound like a dreadful person to you, but I have paid for it repeatedly. She would cry and say I was dreadful, and I had not ever cared for her. She’d say I was not looking after her now and, in those moments, I would detest her, though I knew it was true and so, as she became more and more ill, I would renew my efforts to help her get better.’

‘It was a belief very strongly and generally held by the ancients — of

whose wisdom in these matters I have had such experience as induces

me to place confidence in their assertions — that by enacting certain

processes, which to us moderns have something of a barbaric

complexion, a very remarkable enlightenment of the spiritual faculties in

man may be attained: that, for example, by absorbing the personalities of

a certain number of his fellow-creatures, an individual may gain a

complete ascendancy over those orders of spiritual beings which control

the elemental forces of our universe’

M.R. James. ‘Lost Hearts’, 1895

                                                                        4.

                                                            But, would you be missed, Sir?

The Man paused for a while, and he asked me if I would be staying in the village long; if I would be there for The Winter Solstice. At that stage, I was unsure.

            ‘I can tell you are curious,’ he said. ‘I think you will stay and then you will stay some more.’

            I told him I had responsibilities at the university, and he asked a strange thing. ‘But truly, will they miss you, Sir? I do not think they will. And I wonder who you will meet in the village. Things will change your mind and she will make you feel so important.’

            ‘She?’

            ‘Can’t you hear her now? Her Song comes up from the valley. Her winter Song and she is making it stronger and stronger. We are not far off the old solstice, I mean St Lucy’s Day. Sir, the thirteenth, and the new of the twenty first. On your Christmas Day – that is presuming you are a Christian, Sir’ – and here a wan and faintly unpleasant smile played on The Man’s lips – we love the darkness here, too. She likes to acknowledge the old and the new ways; says she is generous in remembering the old times.’ Again, the strange smile.

            ‘Who – you say she and her as if I might know who she is?’

            ‘The Woman. I hear her in my head all the time, and I hear them around me whispering because of what we have done.’

            Here he began to cry, and I rifled in my pockets for a handkerchief.

            He was right: I was curious. And whether you think it’s not to my credit, my desire to know more was greater than my sympathy for The Man; if it should distress him to carry on. Perhaps it was just an academic reserve I had cultivated over the years; something to which I defaulted and made me cold: I was detached when collating evidence or being presented with facts – or even a story. More accurately, I had come to care less about my fellow human beings. I told you, I was not particularly kind and I know I was not, then, particularly happy. I encouraged him to wipe his eyes and nose and invited him to keep my handkerchief. After a while, The Man continued.

‘In the darkest times of Grace’s illness, I was working in Stowtun and off the centre of the village, where the lane heads to the church, was a red-brick cottage. It had, like the others, an immaculate garden, with an extensive herb patch and a fire pit, which I mentioned before. This was where The Woman lived. Her clothes were odd. I am not well travelled like people I have met – perhaps like you, Sir, butI could see she was old fashioned with a long skirt and a lace collar. Some would have said, if I had told you about her prim shoes, that she sounded dowdy. But you should have seen her.’

            Here he paused and breathed deeply, and I saw his eyes glitter though the sky was so darkened. He said again, ‘But you should have seen her.’

            I am not very experienced with women, and, after heartbreak, I decided I would just stay a bachelor, but I could imagine. Even me: there are those people – and you do not meet them very often – who could light your way, confuse you, dazzle you. There is something in their eye and the confidence of their walk, their sway. I asked him, surprised at my boldness, if this was how it had been.

            ‘Yes,’ he said and down came the tears.

            When he had settled, I encouraged him to talk more.

            ‘She had long hair like autumn – the colour of a copper beech leaf, it was extraordinary, and from time to time she twisted it behind her neck so it it fell like rope behind her. Her skin was pale and her eyes – I am not sure, even now. Violet, I think, though…not always so, as you will see from people in this place.’

            ‘What do you mean – about their eyes?’

            ‘That…there is change; instability’ – and as he said this, I thought I felt something at my elbow, but dismissed it. This was a good yarn from a troubled man, and I told myself just to remember that. He continued, brushing tenderly at his sleeve as if he, too, felt something at his elbow. I remember that then, I shivered, as I had done when I had come into the darkness of the village a few days before.

            He continued his story.

            ‘She led me into her house, her strange kitchen, cramped but vital, and this was where I would be doing further carpentry work. They were, as I told you, very particular about their kitchens. Here was a little different, though, because she had a wall of cupboards and these were divided up into many sections and there were two long shelves which struck me as particularly strange – they were like those of a ship’s galley, with slots and holders for cups and bottles. It was this which had become unsteady with frequent use – for what, I thought? – and I was to remake. People in the village were very impressed by my skill. It was not often you saw such a fine craftsman and one so amenable to particular needs. I confess, I was flattered. She smiled and those eyes glittered again. But I was not fine. I – forgive me – I wanted her. She kept looking at me so that I was uncomfortable and, because she knew it, that she was making me restless and uncomfortable, I wanted her more. She knew that too. I imagined others had stood in this place. I knew I had been unhappy; that I was bored and tired. I wanted to love Grace, I had always wanted to truly desire her and my duty to her depressed me, despite myself and knowing I should not, I smiled back at The Woman and held her gaze: I cannot say how long it was but I recall – at least I think I do – that the light outside shifted slightly; that blue became more navy.

            I worked all morning on the galley shelves, planing wood and routing. Then she asked me to paint them, although that was not usually part of my job, and I did. There was more work. Deep drawers and repairs to doors; all on the ground floor of the red-bricked house.

            The following day, and the day after that, planing, adjusting, and fitting until it was all done.

            Often while I worked, The Woman watched me and sometimes talked about the village and what a fine, fine place it was. How she had been there a long time. At one point, I recall I felt dizzy and that she fanned me with something. It is hard to recall…but I do know that it smelled of something sweet. The Woman said, ‘Oh, that is Orris root. Some say it is used against evil spirits – for personal protection. But that is not why I am using it now, of course not’ and she looked away and on her beautiful face there was a grand smirk, and here was the awful, awful irony of it: her expression was repellent. And yet I wanted her more and found it delightful. I was ashamed.

Grace asked me about the day and before I knew it and because I felt guilty, I said, ‘Come with me and meet her. I mean, The Woman I’m working for. I think you will like her,’

She said, ‘Oh no, I don’t think I want to go out to Stowton’ but later – because I encouraged her; it was all because I felt guilty: she was ill and I had been thinking about what The Woman would be like in bed. With Grace, and I might as well say this aloud now and if you don’t mind, Sir…’

Here I interrupted him and told him he did not need to call me Sir. I was an old-fashioned and not very worldly man, but even to me this was stiff and too formal. ‘You may call me Michael’ and he said, ‘But I hardly know you and you seem…just from your vocabulary much better educated and a different class from me so I would feel uncomfortable, Sir’ and I thought this was odder, but dropped the matter. So, The Man continued,

‘I was talking about Grace. She was a plain woman, Sir, but I thought her face didn’t curdle milk, as my father used to say. But she did not have much to say or, I had thought, much to do. You must be a man of the world so…I mean she was cold in bed. She was not interested in that side of things whereas, although I tried to push the feelings down, I was. I found other women. I didn’t think she would realise. But I felt guilty about that, too, though not guilty enough to stop and when she was ill I was prompted by that guilt to always do better by her. So, I thought a trip out to Stowton, strange as it was, and meeting this unusual woman might be interesting for her.

Unfortunately for me, I was right.’ Again, a smile, so oddly out of place, played about his lips.

The Man had a pipe with him which he lit and sucked hard on now. It reminded me of my great grandfather, whom I had known only briefly. His clothes reminded me of him, too. Next to me was, I thought, a man out of time.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky.

And an old White Horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

T.S.Eliot Journey of the Magi, 1927

5.

A new and dangerous softness

The Man took up his story after a time of sucking hard on his pipe, and looking across the valley, east to Salisbury Plain and west towards Bath and the lovely valley that contained the River Avon and the Kennet and Avon canal, travelling side by side into Bristol, where it ended its journey from Reading. I recalled that Stourbridge had walked its length during the Long Vac.

‘Grace continued her treatment at the big hospital in the city. Poor thing, but I confess to you now, Sir, that when she was being given treatments and I waited outside on the hard bench, I felt, sometimes, in a new softness – like I was sitting on a soft pillow. It is hard to explain quite what it was like.

            When Grace came to find me in the waiting room she said, ‘Oh did you miss me?’ but her eyes were cold. I had not been thinking of her.

            She had to rest that day, but I had work in the village to continue for The Woman and for other villagers, so I left her. Before I did so, I asked her, as I had before, if she would like to come and walk by the White Horse with me and I also told her that there was a person in the village she might enjoy meeting; an unusual woman for whom I was working. She did not agree. Grace had few friends because she was so rigid in how she wanted people to be, and this had always been a problem for me.’

            I was becoming bored with his tales of marriage. There was a bigger, deeper story here. I said, ‘But as you told me, she agreed to come to the village. I think that is the next part of the story.’

            He paused. ‘Will you walk with me, Sir. It’s surely getting too cold for you and the paths are difficult in the dark. I had not expected to come so long, and I did not bring my lamp.’

            I agreed but had noted the word ‘lamp’ thinking how stiff and old-fashioned he was. I had thought he was younger than me, but now he seemed so much older and like my late father, perhaps, stubborn and wedded to old words, I didn’t know. As we walked between the ridges of the earthworks, past the barrow that Stourbridge had been excavating, he asked me if I knew why the village got its name. I said I did not. Then he told me that it had perhaps not always been called Stowton, though he could not say when it might have changed. Perhaps it had been, then, a different place. He told me he had problems with his memory so that, sometimes, he forgot where he had come from or where he had been born or, in fact, if the village had once been called something else though he thought it might have been.

            I found this all so strange, and I was feeling very tired. I remember that this night in December was particularly cold and, as we accessed the lane from the ridgeway down into the village, I tried to rouse myself by running my fingers along the plants in the hedgerows as we walked; at one point, there was a ditch and the beginning of frost on the tall yarrow spikes caught my eye: white and silver; opalescent, suddenly, even in this darkness – and strangely jagged on my fingertips. He said, ‘Stowtun means a holy enclosed place’ and I thought about this. I knew that Stow was often associated with the name of a Saint. Why would the place name not contain Bridget, which was the name of the church here – and a well-known saint, you might have thought? I had seen this in Stourbridge’s notes plus his query on the oddity of there not being a sign outside this place and its always being locked. Stourbridge was a church man, of course. I thought of the more general ‘enclosure’ and then how, in a more specialized and extended sense, it meant (Christian) burial-ground – a church-site. Tun was less interesting, just a place, a settlement. I felt the frost prick at my fingers and then felt the blood as I caught the fingers of a dog rose. The Man stopped and breathed heavily, and I had come out of my ruminations on place names and their meanings. He said, ‘Be careful’ and quickly handed me the handkerchief I had already passed to him, winding it round my fingers, a little too forward for me. ‘Keep it well stanched,’ he said firmly.

            It was strange of course. Then he said, ‘Stowton means to us a holy enclosed place and this lane we are on is called The Drag. You said you were at a university, so I imagine you are interested in these things.’

            ‘From the Old Norse meaning to drag. It referred originally to boats being dragged and I wondered if this is something to do with Viking occupation in this area, a boat burning for victory as here there was no river or isthmus to pull boats across – I realised how little I actually knew about this area – and The Man said this, the hairs on the back of my neck, my arms, standing up straight and I heard my blood pulsing and him saying, ‘Shhh Sir’ and it must have been to that because I was not speaking then; he said: ‘On no: it comes from ghost Sir. A spirit, or not so much a ghost but a revenant – such as the reanimated of the deceased inside the burial mound. You saw one near us, by the White Horse. I think you did, Sir? But it is not only that, not only that at all.’

            I was silent. I pulled the handkerchief tightly around my fingers.

            He accompanied me to my lodging in the village and said he was likely to be near the White Horse any night that week if I would enjoy talking more.

            As I lay in bed, unable to sleep, I heard midnight from the clock tower of St Bridget’s and tapping and in my dream that night I heard a Song like buzzing about my ears and saw a cloud of red hair – like Rossetti’s Proserpine, she who was the goddess of the underworld.

And I saw, and behold a White Horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer. … And I looked, and beheld a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.

Revelation, 6, from verses 1-8

6.

I had made love to a woman once

The next day, at first, I had felt exceedingly tired, perhaps unwell. Having read through Stourbridge’s notes in the morning, over an unappetising breakfast at the guest house where I was the only guest, I returned to my room. I could not be sure, but it seemed as though someone had been there. I had nothing to steal, nothing of any value and nothing was in disarray. Only this: when I opened the drawers where I had stored my clothes and the wardrobe where I’d hung up a rain jacket and a smart jacket – for what reason I do not know; also, I had brought my college gown such as I’d have worn in Hall – as if it were needed here. I had been so tired when I left, too. Distracted. I looked at these things now and ran my fingers over them and felt, I did not know how then, a warm and barely perceptible press of fingers had been there, feeling, noting.

I sat on the bed and though I would have been deeply embarrassed, ashamed, ever to share this with anyone, now, as I look back, I am not. I am the opposite of ashamed. I was aroused and this was new. I had always thought of myself as lukewarm. I had made love to a woman once, but after a while she drifted away and told me I was cold and so I was too nervous to try again and, after all, she was right. But now, as I sat on the bed in my lodging, thinking of that imperceptible and warm press on my clothes, I was different. I should have thought that I had been invaded. No-one should have entered the room or touched my things, but if I had taken it up with the couple who ran this guest house, how could I have proved it? I said nothing.

I felt pleasure and something dark that was beguiling me.

Later that day, I walked down towards the church and looked at the Bridewell springs bubbling. I dipped my hand in. As I did so, I caught sight of something; someone. The flap of a dress, a long dress, in the trees to one side of the church. Of red. It was gone. Now, I climbed up a footpath behind the church that was narrow and muddy. I stumbled and now the flap of the dress and the red came into view. A woman in the churchyard called good morning and told me to be careful because people fell on that narrow path. Flame hair. I knew who she was, and I felt that she knew I did, too.

            ‘Thank you.’

            ‘You are welcome. I hope you are enjoying your stay in Stowton and please, as I said, be careful on that path and as you go up to meet your friend.’

            ‘He’s not -’ I began, but she turned her back and somehow, I knew she was smiling.

From a ledger in the Parish Church. Repairs to the steps to Bridewell Springs have been completed but a note has been placed in the parish circular advising parishioners to take care. The church will remain locked other than for festivities and will be open for 24 hours on The Winter Solstice

It was not signed by a priest, as you might usually expect; the handwriting was beautiful copperplate.

They saw a lady upon a beautiful White Horse, of steady and stately pace; and she was clothed in a garment of gold brocade.

From, The Mabinogion, Geraint the Son of Erbim, 11th and 12 centuries

6. A dream

I had another dream that night I saw a lady. And she was Rhiannon of The Mabinogion; she was La Belle Dame Sans Merci: she was unknown and familiar all at once, and sometimes she was of extraordinary beauty and sometimes vicious and at the corners of her mouth there was blood. She rode a white horse towards the sea and islands, and then I saw the islands were not islands but raised areas and round and long barrows in the county of Wiltshire. I knew it was Wiltshire because I saw the Stowton White Horse, Stonehenge, The Avenue, Avebury in autumn as the long tree roots snaked round the stones and in winter when the snowdrops first pushed up. Then there was blood on the stones and the snowdrops were streaked with carmine, a hideous hybrid plant. Now, the lady, The Woman, emerged from West Kennet Long Barrow and danced a dance to The Winter Solstice and sang her Winter Song and she was on top of Silbury Hill looking out across the county.

Then, I woke, shouting, in a fever: something soft on my brow. It might have been fingers or my down comforter.

The Italian Renaissance scholar, Marsilio Ficino (himself the son of a physician) had recommended that human blood could act not just as a specific curative, but as a kind of elixir of life. The elderly might, he suggested, restore their vitality by sucking directly from a vein in the arm of some healthy youth. Towards the end of the 17th century, we find a Franciscan monk making a kind of jam or marmalade from human blood (“stir it to a batter with a knife…pound it…through a sieve of finest silk”). From The Lancet, 2008

The specifications clearly imply a desire to use the human body as a kind of elixir of life…

The Lancet, 2008, on German chemist Johann Schroeder

7.

Presences

The Man spoke on. I was making notes, though not successful ones, as I surveyed the area around The White Horse. He began to tell me how he felt sorry for Grace, felt guilty and he had brought her to Stowton to meet The Woman. Disconcertingly for him, The Woman embraced Grace warmly and he saw his wife respond in kind. She had never been so for him. The two walked out and his wife looked back at him.

            ‘In her eyes something new. In the face of The Woman, satisfaction. I attended to my work and then…well I became curious about the house. I saw picture frames full of Blue Adonis butterflies and rare moths and artfully pressed harebells and fritillaries – all the delicate and special things of our home, Sir. But then a horrible curiosity came over me. It felt forbidden, but I couldn’t help it. Sir, I looked in the drawers and those cupboards I was not mending, and I found things. I found knives and old books of arcane text and surgeons’ knives. I could not help myself, I turned about, could not resist it. There were books of spells and incantations and powders in little vials and I walked outside and was wild. I thought about the fire pits in the garden and the braziers up on the lower ridge, above the Bridewell spring near the church and suddenly it was like I was in a trance. I whirled about and as I did so, I saw I was not alone. The Woman had not come back and neither had Grace and there was no body near me, but instead presences of those who had gone; and as I looked up I saw a face of one in the parlour door, grey with hands stretched out in a mode of abject terror, desperate for help and I whirled about again and there was another at the window, and I felt them all around me, crying for witness, people through time, Sir, even before mine. I balled my fists as hard as I could and pressed them into my eyes and even then they could see me and they extolled me to bear witness. I did not know then who they were and suddenly, everything was gone and The Woman was back with Grace, who looked as well as I had seen her in a long time.

Grace looked at me: ‘We had a lovely walk and I have been shown the springs, the pretty church and we walked on a ridge below the White Horse. I have seen that so many times from my house, looked across the valley, but you never brought me to see it,’ said my wife.

‘You never said you wanted to.’

‘Oh did she not?’ said The Woman and smiled. ‘You seem flustered’

‘I…’

‘Did something bother you while you were working?’

‘No, of course not. I am just tired. Not feeling so well today.’

‘Well, ha!’ said my wife, too sharply, I thought.

‘Oh dear man, dear man. You should not bother about disturbances. I myself do not care for them at all’ and her lovely face lit up with a radiant smile of the purest evil.

Late in the evening the strange horses came.

By then we had made our covenant with silence,

But in the first few days it was so still

We listened to our breathing and were afraid.

Edwin Muir, ‘The Horses’, 1956

 8.

Oddities. Wonderful oddities, but a warning to the curious

I am sure you want to know about the oddities in the village. Are you curious? I should warn you. Remember that! I learned first of many of these things from The Man, but most unfolded as I explored myself. I began to feel my tiredness lifting. It was the 13th of December. A clear and frosty day and I looked up at the downs in first light and it was amethyst behind The White Horse and the ridges along the hillsides held their hollows in a rosy glow. I recall that this day, I walked along the back lanes of the village, to the church and back and I noticed, not for the first time, that everyone knew one another. That is not so odd in a village, even in the most modern times, but I felt a ready intimacy between them. I could see that fires were lit in the houses and what is more that I could see and smell smoke rising from gardens at the back of the house and I knew then it was the fire pits that the villagers had.

            The firepits kept them warm, you see and kept them happy. Nourished them. Ha!

            Then I walked up the horse, after a plain but satisfying breakfast at my lodgings. Once more, I sensed that someone had been in my room and once more I was filled not with threat but a sense of languorous pleasure that was new to me.

            From somewhere I heard a cry, and I should have run to it. Was someone hurt and no-one else had heard? But I did not run. Instead, I sat on the bed and watched the lovely amethyst and rosy glow. At my leisure I walked towards the hill and up I went, pausing to look at the old terraces, made by farmers thousands of years ago and then, up at the horse. Until I smelled pipe smoke and saw The Man. Today was St Lucy’s Day, The Winter Solstice in the old Julian calendar. Now, I could see that the smoke was not just from The Man’s pipe, but from small braziers placed in the ditches around the horse and the barrow. Coals and scraps of wood were smoldering and looked to have been all night. As I watched, I saw that next to The Man was a sack of wood and a barrow and that he was responsible for the braziers. As I approached, he said, ‘They have had me here all night and will again for the bigger celebrations. It is part of my work, my punishment and my privilege.’

            At this something brushed past me, and I heard a sound in my ear then a tapping at the braziers. The Man said, ‘Don’t mind them, Sir. It is a consequence of what we do.’

‘For if a ghost may send a foot or an arm or a leg to harry one person, he can dispatch his back-bone or his liver or his heart to upset other human beings simultaneously in a sectional haunting at once economically efficient and terrifying.’

The Imperishable Ghost,  Dorothy Scarborough, 1921

8.

Burning

The Man now fell silent as he moved about between the braziers keeping them alive but burning low. He must have struggled with the heavy wood, up the long lane, The Drag, to the hill fort, the horse. He began to speak about Grace, his wife; he said, ‘She was becoming more distant; alone in her illness: I was feeling lonely. Although Grace and I did not have that sort of relationship, I was still glad of her body next to mine in the morning and I wanted her to get better and to talk to me, but then sometimes I had a dreadful thought – and I can say it to you know because what does it matter – I thought it would not be so bad if I lost her because I could begin again and there would be no shame.

I went to Stowton, lost in these thoughts of how it might be. I had been making and mending some of the strange additions to their cabinetry. The dips and hollows and places for little vials. In The White Horse, I drank some beer and they brought me bread and cheese; it was all made in the village – their food was simple because they wished to bring nothing in. The Woman came in and spoke in a low voice to the landlord and the three men at the bar who pressed in and smiled and then she crossed the room to me. She smiled at me, Sir. She brushed my cheek and I reddened. She said nothing but held my eye.

Work finished, I walked to her house; she knew I would.

She was sitting there mending butterflies. I see you pause. Perhaps you have seen the lovely Blue Adonis butterfly near the horse? It is rare, but thrives here and when they die, she preserves them, with other precious specimens from the chalklands. You could see them in her house. I sat, watched, then began to join in. I thought I heard a stifled sob from somewhere about the house, or perhaps a laugh, something low and feral. It was not a happy laugh. There are lots of laughs in the village that are not happy; desperate; hysterical, but always held in check, I didn’t know how then, but then I came to notice the inhabitants of Stowton shh them or gently bat them away with a hand.

Well. She certainly smiled and looked up at me, handing me pins to pierce the Blue Adonis specimens and mount them in their box frames. Then she pierced my thumb with a pin and drew me towards her, rubbing the drops of blood into the table and smiling. She licked her fingers, then she pulled me towards her and kissed me deeply. Her body was warm, her fingers a lovely warm and strong press’ – as he told me this I remembered the lingering presences on my clothes in my lodging – ‘but Oh Sir, I kissed her back and her kiss was as cold as the winter water in the Bridewell spring and she knew it and laughed as I responded and she also knew that I could taste the metallic tang of my own blood on her lips, her tongue. I could not have resisted her; I could not. And when I left Stowton, The Woman said, ‘Give my love to your wife. Won’t you’ and it was a command.

Whilst the girl stood still, half smiling, with her hands clasped over her heart, the boy, a thin shape, with black hair and ragged clothing, raised his arms in the air with an appearance of menace and of unappeasable hunger and longing.warm as sunlit earth and as cold as the tomb. I realised I was scared and drew back

M.R James, ‘Lost Hearts’, 1895

9.

Heat and cold and parti-coloured things

‘The guilt I felt’ said The Man, ‘as heat and cold and voices and touches from elsewhere, well it was tremendous, but nothing could stop it.’

            I went home; my wife was there. She looked a little better, I thought. She knew what I had done. And my wife; she had done the same thing. She sat there, some colour in her face and told me she knew about the other woman and she knew about The Woman and regretted to inform me that she had made love to her first.

Grace said, ‘My dear, her kiss was as warm as sunlit earth and as cold as the tomb: I have been frightened by so much all my life, but then I was not afraid and will never be again. And I will be both warm and cold and I can live in Stowton. The Woman has promised me all this.’

But then she turned a glare on me and said, ‘But when I live in Stowton, I will not live with you.’

There was a cackle and a cry; an indigo shadow passing the window of our home, a modest one storey dwelling. I had always hated it it plainness. I had hated my wife hers. Now I was paying for it all.

Wynter wakeneth al my care,

Nou this leves waxeth bare;

Ofte I sike ant mourne sare

When hit cometh in my thoght

Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.

BL Harley MS. 2253

10.

Church services and devotions

I had felt embarrassed by The Man at this point and, to be honest, I felt it distasteful that he had told me this story. I returned to my room and wrote up some notes, then scratched them out because they were insubstantial. I read Stourbridge’s: human remains; a femur; most definitely not iron age; evidence of burning near the round barrow and further back, the same; there were braziers placed at one end of the level plain behind the escarpment.’ He had added, in a most unscholarly way, ‘The atmosphere was chilling, and I had the distinct impression I was being watched, which I attributed to some local simpleton. These villages are frequently suspicious of the outside world and I did not get the impression that many left to make better for themselves or that they were well educated.’

My mind was now whirling from the decadence of The Man’s story, though you may say I was not blameless in the thoughts I had had. I walked to The White Horse and they were more vocal than usual, the landlord telling me they enjoyed this warm-up to the solstice and some of them would be going to the church. ‘For Compline, Sir’ – to which there was much guffawing. I smiled, to be polite, but did not laugh too. They began telling stories- when people visit and move away again, that is odd that they do not stay in touch. Laughing about putting flowers in the church, attending to the mysterious fire pits The Man had spoken of. I felt it began to get ugly.

It did.

The laughter stopped. ‘Been listening to the stories from The Man? He’s an odd one. We give him lots of jobs to see him straight.’

‘Oh yes, He set off early with all the wood from Wilkins’ Farm and will be sweating by The Solstice.’

‘Don’t you love winter, Sir. Its beauty. Nothing can compare. We want it always to be winter here and maybe some time it will always be, but regretfully we need the warmth for the crops.’

‘Yes we like to be self-sufficient.’

The Woman came in and everyone fell silent as her beautiful and cold face broke into a dreadful smirk and she turned the headlamp gaze on me.’ Something rang in my ears and brushed my hands and I heard the people shh and a couple swat with their hands as if they were swatting wasps in the height of summer on a day better and cleaner and truer than this, all this I thought. Now, the people in The White Horse smiled and laughed; they shook hands, though not with me, and some kissed languorously. It was wretched. Slowly they licked their lips. Something rose in me. I screeched at them, ‘You wretches, you beasts’ but of course they were these things and happily so and what could I do.

Once, early in the morning, Beelzebub arose,

With care his sweet person adorning,

He put on his Sunday clothes.

‘The Devil’s Walk’, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1812

11.

Ghosts

I walked out with them laughing behind me, climbed up although it was dark, feeling hands brushing about my ankles. I truly thought of them as hands now. They were desperate but somehow, I did not feel sorry for them. I have already begun to show you that though I felt disgust at the lecherous and unbroken behaviour of the people in The White Horse, I am not sure I ever cared greatly for others’ suffering. Perhaps I was always a good, a practical and ready fit for the village of Stowton. I walked sideways and up and stumbled. Below me, I saw that the church had been opened and could see some people going to it, lights on, but dimly twinkling. It was late now. I knew I was not alone.

            The Woman.

            She was there. Walking, but she only looked at me. She walked ahead, behind, to one side: I was not sure. Sometimes I thought she was in all places at once. Wild eyes and a broad smile. Still things wreathed, swirled around my ankles, calves and she said something in strange words, then I heard her call, from somewhere, ‘Go away. Stop complaining. Go your rest. You are wretches. This is not your world now. ‘

She was suddenly beside me, rubbing my arms. I was shivering. Stupidly, I had left my overcoat in the pub. Her hands were colder than my cold flesh as she rubbed me deliciously warm. She was wearing a long coat, soft fur, old fashioned, white, and from a deep pocket she brought out a narrow flask and said, ‘Dear Sir. You are so cold, and I am worried you could fall; please drink this. The wind whips up here and we are used to it, so we are prepared.’

I cannot remember exactly the order in which it happened, but I know that the lights in the church below grew brighter, seeming to be right in front of me, dazzling, I felt her batting her hands behind her and, once, it was as if she was peelings things off me that coiled around my ankles, my calves, thighs. Long and flexible fingers. Cold, cold fingers. Blue; cyanotic. I don’t know how I knew they were blue. The lip of the warm flask was on my mouth and I drank, before I knew what I was doing. It was a rich wine, an unusual taste, and spiced. Glorious. There was a bitter aftertaste, but even this had a velvet depth on my palate, in my throat, my chest, if such a paradox can be imagined. Now, my head was befuddled; for a while I did not know where I was and thought that I might be dreaming, back in the lodgings; clawing to come away or crying to dream again, I did not know. Again, she was behind, around, holding me, pulling that cloud of red hair, refulgent even in the darkness, its own fire. Then I knew that we were walking up the hill, above the ancient crop terraces, the spits of chalk and, below, the crop fields were rippling, just visible.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘You will learn to see things, tiny things, movements, even in the darkness. I love the winter. I wish that it would always be winter. Suddenly I was aware of a prickling at my fingertips: the edges of yarrow, seed pods, haws, and hips, piqued by the settling frost: hard edges, soft textures. We were on the escarpment, then by the horse and she was pulling me along and telling me the horse would soon run, ‘Won’t you my darling, my sweetheart’ and she smoothed the chalk brow of that still horse and pulled me to her. I craved more of that rich sweet wine, and she laughed and filled my mouth, chanting, and singing, I did not know what. She said, ‘Too late, too late’ and we made love, or she made love to me, the greatest loving of my life so I carry it with me now, on the chalk path, with the expansive views of the valley and where the trefoil shines in summer though I could feel its dormant strands and tendrils and I knew not how that could be, either. She said, ‘Ah,’ and we ran down The Drag as if we were flying and crossed to the church, taking a drink at the Bridewell Springs. ‘It is,’ she laughed, ‘As if I am your bride, now.’

We paused outside the church.

She took me inside. On the altar, sat two of the villagers from the pub. They were drinking and I smelled the delicious, sweet wine. There was nothing of Jesus in that church.

The Man was there, strewing the aisles with weeds. He said, ‘You drank then? And did you feel?’ He said, ‘I hate it, but I also love it. She made me drink the wine and I so wanted it. It was punishment, in part, for betraying Grace, my wife. They may all be evil here, but they have respect for some things.’ They all laughed.

‘Will you’ whispered the woman in my ear, ‘join me in song and drink some more wine?’ I wished to say not but could not. ‘It is my Winter Song’

Come taste my fire

And drink, drink this all

As the spirit of solstice

            Will you enthral.

            Drink drink my darling

            Of life and of heart

Here is 

And you shall be part

Oh reader, it was dangerous and glorious. We desecrated that church. While we did, there was scratching at the door and scraping at lower windows and then, in the nave, above the font I saw something entirely terrible. Faces at the window above. Above Jesus and his disciples, the lamb, there were awful faces, rising from the gloom outside and, like in an old story which was once read by the Praelector by the fire at Christmas in Senior Common Room at St John’s College, I could now see their horrible hands across their chests as they mouthed unintelligible things at me, at The Woman, at the people brightly gallivanting in the church.

‘They cannot come in,’ she said and laughed. ‘This is a holy place!’

‘Who are they?’

‘Poor fool, have you not guessed?’

Now I saw The Man. ‘They want their hearts back. They want to be alive. I am sure you felt them, on the escarpment and while you walked. Writhing around your legs. They are an irritation but sometimes I feel sorry for them. Look in the font.’

The church had been warm, oddly so on this winter night. The stone of the font carved all around with dragons and now, I saw, decorated with seed pods and small dead things and all the natural vestiges of winter, well it was warm, impossibly so. ‘Ah, that is , too,’ she laughed. ‘I hold it in me. I hold everything in me and, as I begin my Winter Song on St Lucy’s Day, The Winter Song becomes louder and louder as more of us sing it and as I add more verses. On the twenty first we shall sing all night. You have helped me; helped us all. In those pretty cabinets you made and repaired, with all their compartments, we place the things we need to make this delicious wine. Herbs; dead desiccant things; spices. The villagers roast portions in their fire pits which, through delicacy, they would not mix indoors with their food. We may be monsters, Sir, but we have our standards and we are epicures. Before that, though, we drink from their veins while they are quick but nearly dead – when The Woman has command of them. It is the elixir of life. Its own fine wine.’

At this, there was much laughing…

The figures at the windows scratched louder and one reared up and released his hands and now I recognised the figure. It was old Stourbridge. He looked directly at me, his hands above his head. There was a gaping and awful hole where his heart had been and parts of his body that looked misshapen, as if he were without scaffolding: a body made of ragged silk and a melting face with an expression of abject fear upon it. He tried to call my name, but no sound ensued and what was odd was this. When The Woman told me how they killed him, over-curious, and arrogant, and took his heart and some bonds to heat and grind and put into the sweet wine of which I had just drunk, I was not horrified. I have already told you; I have been proud of my honesty in this respect, that I had never cared much about others at the best of times, but now I did not care at all. I felt The Woman stroked my back, I understood that The Man, though punished for his infidelities to which Grace his wife was not a willing accomplice – in the village it scarcely mattered as lechery and a luxuriant life were part of its beating and callous heart, even The Man though he felt cursed and had warned me to stay away, and hated this life, still loved it and was drawn forever to The Woman. She who had smelled my blood when I caught my hand in the prickly winter plants, she who had made love to me and who now gave me more rich sweet wine from the font which with She controlled and I knew it was full of the spices and herbs which the villagers collected and of ground bones and roasted hearts: from those who had strayed into the village and been lost. It took just a little, I somehow understood, and the wine gave me knowledge. It told me that Stourbridge had been right: there were bones and old entrails – had he dug further – under the round barrow on the plain by the horse: this was where they secreted the parts they did not want. Because they were clever, they could always make a case for why people had disappeared and took care to make it people about whom few cared, for such is the state of the human race.

Well now, I tell you. The human race. Pitiful things. There was one more thing I learned.  was gathering for the solstice and then they would worship by the White Horse among the ditches and terraces and encircle the burial chamber and every feature of this beautiful, and blasted land. The Winter Song got longer and stronger and, through the wine, and the imbibing of the dried hearts of others, we cheated death, and were made immortal. A dark and syncretic power overarching: call her Epona, Earth, Mother Goddess or just call her the very devil, it does not matter She was ours; I now understood and was thrilled. She had made us all immortal. The Man had been made immortal against his will, which was why he suffered his melancholy and brooded, looking out across the long plain from the White Horse. There was something else and, that night, as I looked at myself, the same but so radically different, in the mirror at my guesthouse, I saw it in myself too. The eyes. I had hazel eyes, but as I watched their colour darkened and shifted. I knew this was because of those whom I had imbibed; I had eaten them, and I might in future drink, too. To be true, I found the instability alluring and, of course, before I lay down to a sleep of pleasurable and horrific dreams – the last pulses of my conscience, I suppose – I looked at myself again. Now they were blue. The same had been true of the people in the church; of the villagers; within them the last vestiges of the , consumed and lost-hearted.

It indeed appeared to Reason as if[10] desire was cast out, but the Devil’s account is, that the Messiah fell, and formed a heaven of what he stole from the abyss.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The Voice of the Devil, William Blake, 1790.

12.

Nourishments

I said to her, ‘How many have you killed and eaten?’ and she kissed me hard. There was one more thing. The church clock struck midnight and she said, ‘Listen’. I heard rustling, a kind of tearing noise and then the sound of hoof taps, galloping at first, then a trot. Splashing. She led me into the churchyard, standing on a grave and dancing and showed me the White Horse drinking at the Bridewell springs. ‘Every night, at midnight he hears the church clock strike and uncouples himself from the hill. He is thirsty, and especially so at this time of year. He is my darling and very old, as I am, as many of us are here and you have noticed the language, the odd formality of The Man. Ah a Victorian. He will never lose his upright character and his deference, and you will always be Sir to him. The time slips and loops make this village so extraordinary, don’t you think?’

            I had to agree. She led me to the White Horse, kissed him and climbed on his back, rode him about the fields and bridleways and back up to the top of the hill, red and white in the early hours. Do you know that when the Winter Song is at its zenith, all the horses that can, in the county of Wiltshire, so uncouple and come to drink at the Bridewell springs?

            The Man was there. ‘I would,’ he said, ‘have told you this part of the story, but it is yours now.

Wynter Wakeneth al my Care

[MS. Harl. 2253. f. 49r]

Wynter wakeneth al my care,

Nou this leves waxeth bare.

Ofte y sike ant mourne sare

When hit cometh in my thoht

Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.

Anonymous, c. 1300

13.

Approaching a wonderful short day

Oh these days.

            Delirious short days and long, long nights. That is the exquisite irony of all this, for as The Winter Solstice tells us of nights shortening and days lengthening, what we pray for is darkness.

            Rich aphotic pools of it. Oh.

As we approached the solstice, more wine was made, braziers smoldered day and night, our festivity. I ate little but drank and loved most and the psychic portions of those we consumed writhed around my legs, the things The Man had once been frightened of, I batted my hands behind me to push them away and once I said, ‘Boo’ to poor old Stourbridge. We all hear Her Winter Song lengthening. Many are buried under the barrow, but not only there. In the full graves of those no-one misses and in the deepest ridges of the escarpment. Tidily and resolutely done after a bloody butchering, a drink – then beautiful housekeeping and sweet wine.

Come taste my fire

And drink, drink this all

As spirit of solstice

            Will you now enthral.

            Drink drink my darling

            Of life and of heart

Here is 

And you shall be part

Imbibe it my sweet ones

And drink from a vein,

Take deepest pleasure

From others’ small pain.

Grow in the winter

The best of the year

Grow in your foulness

Your goddess is here.

And as it grew dark, by four o’clock in the afternoon and we had made love all day, each with each, we ascended to the top together and sat and sang quietly in the darkness, held hands, pinched thumbs and as we walked up The Drag, embraced the beautiful forms of nature on the shortest day and in the sharp cold. We licked leaves, touched the feathers of yarrow, felt the texture of bark and, when our fingers were pricked by the briars, we let one another sip the precious drops. I remembered The Man binding my hand and thought that perhaps it was, as with all else, an awakening in him of some wretched conscience. He was never, in the years after this in which I knew him, quite without it and was the least popular person in the village. I was, myself, extremely popular and enjoyed the vanity of this. In The White Horse I would enact grotesque parodies of my teaching days and the villagers would play along, pretending to be my colleagues, or particularly stupid students. It had always been a fetish of mine to have my college gown with me when I travelled and so I wore it then and entertained them.

But as I was saying, up we went. On the way we had drunk from the Bridewell spring which seemed to be its own enchantment. Revived, we sat and listened to The Woman speak in a language or languages I did not know and yet I understood everything she said. And then we would sing. There were many verses now

Come taste my fire

And drink, drink this all

As spirit of solstice

            Will you now enthral.

            Drink drink my darling

            Of life and of heart

Here is 

And you shall be part

Imbibe it my sweet ones

And drink from a vein,

Take deepest pleasure

From others’ small pain.

Grow in the winter

The best of the year

Grow in your foulness

Your goddess is here.

Be still my children

And then we shall ride

Ride on forever

And never have died.

Warmth in our bodies

From sugared dark wine

A Winter Song lengthens

And shall you entwine

And on it went, countless verses, evolving, growing stronger. At midnight in the longest night, we would hear the rustle of the horse and run with it to the Bridewell Spring, and, on this night, it was not alone: the other horses in the county, far, far more ancient than you realise and before that I knew, gathered together. They are solid, glowing white. We ride them throughout the night and we are strong, so strong.

Now I fele hit is þe fende, in my fyue wytte3,

Þat hat3 stoken me þis steuen, to strye me here;

It is most cursed kirk that ever I entered.”

Þis is a chapel of meschaunce, þat chekke hit by-tyde,

Hit is þe corsedest kyrk, þat euer i com inne!

(Now I feel it is the fiend -the devil -in my five wits that has covenanted with me so that he may destroy me. This is a chapel of misfortune—evil betide it! It is the most cursed church that ever I came in)

Gawain and the Green Knight, late 14th-century

14.

I am happy

I am a devil, and I am happy

Perhaps you thought, as you began to read, that this was, above all, the tale of The Man, but now you see it is not. It is just as much my own story. This is where I now live, in Stowton, beneath the hill, the White Horse and the plains which tower above me. I walk on them and love them, and I have little need of anything else. Sometimes I meet The Man there. Occasionally, something in my heart allows me to feel sorry for him and recollect the day when I first met him, but generally I do not. My eternal heart is happy, and it is cold. I do not care to see his pangs of conscience, while I greet the clouds of gregarious Adonis butterflies with joy. The Man and I pass the time of day, I sometimes doff my hat at the place where my old colleague’s guts and bones are buried and sometimes I smile at that. Would he have taken professional pride to know that, rather than just worm food, he was part of the spell and story of something beautiful and everlasting? Would knowing that it was so dreadful have quelled any pride? He must have been frightened in his last moments, but so be it. What a fitting burial for an archeologist and one interested in this place that he should be interred in the site below the iron age tumulus and near our gorgeous loci  of worship in the deep night. How glorious.

            I shall ask him, when I see him holding his hands across his chest again. Perhaps he is even part of me. I recall that he had piercing blue eyes and sometimes these are my eyes, too.

And how glorious for me, too. I believe in the love that twists and turns your mind. As I told you, I used to be a sceptical man, but now I am changed.

The village looks up at the old settlement and has turned its back on the world as The Woman begins her Winter Song and the fading light of solstice glances off the horse, before the light is gone and the horse stretches, ready for its daily refreshment.. A laugh rises up, perhaps a cry, then the smell of sweet and heated wine fills the street. How delicious! Someone new and I must ask from where. At midnight, as the clock at Stowton church strikes, the horse will uncouple itself from the hill and come down to the spring to drink. I will never leave here and, like Stowtun, I have turned my back on the world and my cold eternal heart is glad.

Before I left my post at Cambridge University, I handed in no further information to complete the research work of the missing Stourbridge; instead, I wrote a paper on the thirteen White Horses carved on the glorious uplands in the county of Wiltshire. It was my firm hope that something might, in future years, come of it. Of those thirteen horses, only eight are visible and I impressed on my former department the importance of having a complete record of these horses and for undergrowth to be cleared and the horses recut and scoured. They are a vital part of England’s history, I said. It seemed wrong that such a superb job was done of retaining earthworks in the county, yet the horses were neglected or entirely forgotten; I amassed the evidence for early dates for these creatures and explained how some of the horses were originally beaked and likely dragons. My paper was not innocent and not only of scholarship. I wanted to know what might, one day, ensue if all the horses could be free and if other villages could have the tremendous opportunity, irritations of the psychic portions of those necessary to their nourishment notwithstanding, to live a life as we do here. But most of all, it felt right, moral even – when looked at from a certain point of view – that each horse should be free and, like our Stowton beast, be able to drink at the local spring or water course. How parched they must be!

Oh, how fine our Magick. How beautiful is the Winter Song above all? How evil and yet how terribly beautiful.

The sky is red tonight. It is late. I hear hoof taps and I am replete. Look into my eyes if you like. They are cold but even in this darkness, do you see their changing colour? Is it not fine?

Updates, updates!

Very soon I shall be able to share further details about a forthcoming book we have yet to announce and share information and hopefully excitement about the…journey of another book!

So, for now. If you have been reading Ravished, which came out two weeks ago, let me know what you think!

Ravished – Reflex Press, and ed. D Borrowdale

Then, in February, the Italian translation of my 2020 novel, Saving Lucia, will be out. Cover as soon as we can.

Bluemoose, 2020, ed L Webb; trans. Cristina Cigognini 8tto edizione

In March, my memoir is out; twelve linking essays…

Reflex Press, ed D Borrowdale

Then, in September, you have my new novel, The Zebra and Lord Jones. We don’t have a cover yet, but here is the series of paintings which I saw and…up came an idea. Zebra is out in the UK/Commonwealth (excl. Canada) in September 2023 and is currently on submission in the US.

Weight, Carel Victor Morlais; Escape of the Zebra from the Zoo during an Air Raid; Manchester Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/escape-of-the-zebra-from-the-zoo-during-an-air-raid-206376

Then finally, in October, and no details allowed but I *think* we are announcing in earlyish November, is my first book about writing. That’s all I can say. During the year, I will also be writing my column for Mslexia – here was the first –

Mslexia autumn 2022
Part one of ‘The Voyage Out’, Mslexia, autumn, 2022

Then, I have just written for The Society of Authors here https://societyofauthors.org/News/Blogs/SoA-Blog/October-2022/A-new-approach-and-a-literary-prize-for-the-writer all about the Curae, a new literary prize for carers, which opens to submissions in two categories in January, 2023.

Back soon, with more news and, also, website redevelopment!

On figuring things out and answering things back

Parents of children and young people with additional needs which present in behaviour that may hard for others to understand – perhaps because their offspring or those in their care are autistic, or there are mental health problems, mental illness or a developmental or learning disorder of some kind – may have to listen to a lot of comments from others. Those comments come from family, friends, strangers and also from health professionals and teaching staff. I thought it might be helpful to get a few things off my chest and, also, let you know I feel it too.

We are all on the spectrum! NO WE ARE NOT

How can he be autistic? He’s so empathic. THIS IS A COMPLETELY OUTMODED AND IGNORANT THING TO SAY ABOUT AUTISM

Autism is a mental illness. NO IT IS NOT. IT IS A NEURODEVELOPMENTAL DISORDER

Do you think he/she is like this because you are too soft with him/her? I AM A LOVING PARENT. WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE AND HOW?

I really didn’t like that at all. He/she should learn to control his/her rages. It’s really bad behaviour. THAT IS AN UNKIND THING TO SAY. IT IS HORRIBLE FOR THEM TOO – WORSE IN FACT. MAY I SUGGEST SOMETHING MORE COMPASSIONATE?

They must not let their peers go past them! IT IS NOT A RACE AND NOT ALL YOUNG PEOPLE CAN DO THINGS AT THE SAME TIME

If you cannot manage school, how will you manage university or a job? How will anyone write you a reference? NOT EVERYONE CAN COPE IN A MAINSTREAM SETTING AND PERHAPS THE PROBLEM IS NOT ENTIRELY THE YOUNG PERSON?

When I was young/starting out as a teacher/health visitor, we never saw these sorts of things? HMMM. BECAUSE THEY WERE NOT THERE OR JUST BECAUSE YOU DID NOT SEE THEM BECAUSE OUR KNOWLEDGE HAS DEVELOPED? ALSO DON’T SAY THIS TO A PARENT OR CARER WHO IS TRYING THE BEST THEY CAN.

It is a short post, but I am in such pain. I thought to write it just in case it helped someone else to brew up and get rid of some righteous anger – and maybe feel a little less alone.

Love, ever,

Anna x

Where there’s shit, there’s gold

On writing, sadness, self-worth and opportunity

This is for my grandmother.

Where there’s shit there’s gold.

This is a personal essay: how the inside of my head works and what that has to do with my writing you and with yours. It’s the first – and far longest – of a series of essays for you. It’s partly about my nan and I promise that its content is relevant to the feeling and use of this book, so stay with me, but you pop off and get a cup of tea and a snowball [1]if you need because this essay is perhaps a little intense. Remember what I said to some of you (and I have said it a lot) about working with what you have and finding your voice? The essay has those things at its heart, too.

Where there’s shit there’s gold

This saying, which you may either like or not, is a favourite one of mine: it reminds me – reminds us – that in tough times, when we are laid low, we need to look for the bright spots; to look for the treasure in the mire. I use this phrase today in a variety of contexts, but because we are talking about writing, and this essay is about writing, including in the context of chronic health problems and difficult stuff, I will look specifically at what this means in that arena.

The saying, by the way, is from my late grandmother, and I must ask you to say it with a South Wales accent and slightly theatrically and to know that she was a working-class woman of limited education and literacy who had a huge number of children, a husband she was not keen on and a tough life. So, if she could say this about finding gold in shit, then I insist that I can. This essay is partly in her honour, because she was well loved, but had little or no opportunity to follow dreams, such as writing romantic novels or being on the stage: I could have been on Broadway, some people said to me. I take great pleasure that my literary agency is right there on Broadway and that I am her granddaughter doing it partly for her. I am not exactly dazzling anyone as yet, but give me time: give me boldness, people to treasure that and not crush me, and I will pass it on to you, hundredfold.

But back to the essay on shit and gold.

I carry with me the confusion and weight of complex trauma. My nights were sometimes punctuated with fear as a child – and this explains why I am to this day such an avid reader, for it was always in books that I found solace and company – and I evolved into teenage years when I was part carer (for ill and dying parents), part wild child and eldritch child all over. That is, I felt separate and odd but could not embrace the very weird of me and could not for a long time. Books always accepted me in times of intense loneliness and strain; I ran to them when I dying to tell the outside world that those who were held up as pillars of society were also responsible for demeaning me, subjecting me to slaps, punches and kicks in the sides and the loss of handfuls of hair. And I say I was dying to tell the world, when what I really mean is that I thought I deserved it, was told that everyone else would think I had deserved it and so had colluded; moreover, there were lovely times too, so those lovely things seemed to give credence to the fact I deserved or sometimes, even, that I had imagined it. You see how confusing that must have been. I do not remember a time when I did not carry around the intense pain of this and I want to say that I do not, even after good therapeutic care (though extremely late in the day) believe that all sickness can be healed, even that of the mind. We do not all get well, and, in a way, I became freer when I stopped trying to. I understood I had to live with it and that trauma response had hammered in several responses and appeared to be the reason I was prone to periods of depression, generalised anxiety, dissociation, panic, and OCD. That was not even the whole adventure.

As I became an adult, I still read and read, then taught, read, and mothered and was a mentor and volunteer and read some more, but I did not dare write until I picked up a sharpie and scrawled a title about five years ago. This will sound ridiculous: something lit up. I cannot explain why it happened just then. Did I finally see the gold? I was angry and inspired and crying all at once and, in five years, I had written seven and three quarters books, pitched another parenting book and here I am doing this. That is eight and three quarters. I was told, by the more gaslighting end of the industry, to present as if I had struggled to get published because this was a good story for a woman of a certain age (which meant, I think, an older-than-twenty-five-year-old debut) and it reinforced a narrative that was helpful. Think about that. Not that it supported women, but that it was a helpful marketing tool. In the end, I railed, and things changed there, too: more excitement, energy and crying: more being livid. Why? Because it was untrue, and the real story was that I did not start writing. The point was that, during a long early period I had felt nothing, a weirdo, someone who was tolerated and someone of extraordinarily little talent. It was hard for kinder and more expansive minds to puncture this, though wonderful insightful people did try. In short, I was hard-wired to feel like a failure, scared of exposure and I did not have a voice. But it came. When it did, it was like a torrent and I can feel it raging, a river in spate, right now: I can feel it in tender and tingling hands and wrists, my eyes are sparkling, and you could detonate a small bomb next to me and I would carry on tapping away. Once I started writing, I could not stop and until my toes curl up, I absolutely promise you now that I will not. As I said, I took a long time to start.

Stay with me: I promise this is relevant to the thrust of this essayt and to so much more I want to write!

Let me tell you a bit more about the path I had been on before I put pen to paper.

I have, over many years, been introduced as ‘the crazy one’, ‘the mad one,’ ‘the nutter’ and, best of all, ‘the weird one I was telling you about’ – thereby revealing that they have been talking about your peculiarities behind your back. I used to get terribly upset about this. It is because I have been described in this way my entire life and, despite parts of my brain wanting just to be me, weirdo, the other parts yearned for acceptance. This is not a comfortable thing. However, what does fitting in mean? If it means suppressing your character, oddities, imagination, beliefs, and those things that make you you, then this is sad. You should be you. Certainly, you ought to reflect on others’ responses and needs; check your language and outlook are broad and inclusive – and you ought to self-reflect, because from that stems greater kindness to others. However, if you have earnestly done those things, then come as you are. Because, other than that attention to kindness, detail, and community, FUCK OFF, basically. Weird is great.

Also, weird might be your voice. Your art. It is mine. Trauma and heavy reliance on the world of the imagination do tend to set you a bit apart. That could kill you. It almost killed me twice.

So, I am thinking I have grown into my weird self a bit better. I think I might have raised slightly weird children. One of my offspring was described critically as ‘weird’ by a teacher on parents’ evening and it was not meant in a positive way. So, I quietly said, ‘And with that I am going to leave and maybe we can talk again later while we consider what might be positive about being weird?’

Then I put him in a story because I like a bit of revenge every now and then.

Because of things that happened to me, I made a few unusual but creative choices: I had a catalogue of imaginary friends well into my teens. This is precisely because I was beaten and scared and gaslit. I made myself into Frida from ABBA because I liked her red hair – my parents had ABBA albums – and my best friend was Agnetha who had awesome counselling skills. Dolly Parton was another gem in the catalogue (or gold in the shit?), because she was my imaginary mother and big sister. In my late teens, I used to go out with Albert Camus. When I was sixteen, my best friend was eighty-eight. She got me. She was weird too and liked bird skulls, tarot and Irish myths and legends. She was a storyteller; God rest her soul. I think that, as with my grandmother, her voice is melded with mine; the one that comes out in writing. I would not have had that had I not been a bit odd. I also wonder if, because I felt lonely and afraid to say things, I listened more. To morbid family stories and myth and legend on both sides. Tales, apocrypha and skewerings that were way too gory to be brought up over sausages and mash. And yet and yet.

A child at my youngest’s primary school recently said to me, ‘My mum says you’re weird, but I really like you.’ Think about that sentence. You do not know the half of it, love. There was another time when someone said to me (I remember it; I was outside the school office, attempting to partially conceal myself behind the bin while trying to hoick my tights up), ‘You are clinically insane.’ That was someone’s ma too, but directly to me. I was dumbfounded on this occasion because she was smiling, and I was a bit stuck on the word ‘clinically’ because as far as I knew she was an interior designer. It might have been the fact I was partially concealed behind the bin that prompted the comment, but more likely a sense, after having made various observations and tours of me, of having to express a dislike of something…off; odd; eldritch. To spit it out; like, if you thought you had put a chocolate in your mouth and realised it was a rock or some poo. I had started writing by this point though, so, instead of suppressing tears at her laughing, callous comment, I decided I might have her exit pursued by a bear in something. So, this is another thing. When I found the gold, it did not take away the shit, then or now, but it also helped me find recourse so that I could recover: now, I could take revenge from having (a version of) the mouth that spawned those words heartily eaten by an evil pie-maker in my short story volume, Famished.  Do you think me awful? I really do find it a relief from tension and unkindness to write someone out and occasionally have them in the wrong place when the kraken rises.

And yes, maybe I do look ‘clinically insane’ to some people.

I dress in a funny mixture of Victoriana and sports kit and my tattoo is in Latin. I carry my chickens about, crooning to them. I was reading Dostoevsky to them the other day, although they prefer Flaubert, and the shorter prose, at that. Do you see where I am going with this? Because of my past and because of the problems I have had and will likely always have, I spot inspiration in unexpected places, and my oddity, born I believe of necessity and separation from the healthy mass, looks for conversations in unusual places. I cannot wait to start a conversation with the man who whispers and gurgles to his rooks, the lady who has a tiny glittering altar outside her house or the man who crosses the road every time he sees the local priest. I have a theory, which is that maybe, if you are a bit odd, you notice more. And maybe – even more radically – you notice people who might be a bit marginalised but with whom you could have a great chat and suddenly everyone there is having a better day. You do that because you have been so hurt and so lonely and feel it to your core and it makes you more responsive to others.

What do you think? That is the point and it took me years to figure it out: what do you think? (You superb weirdo.)

I think, then, that my grandmother’s saying was right. There have been long days and nights, with cortisol firing and flashbacks; frightening recurrent dreams and in the day, I ordered and reordered like a talisman and thus OCD came to stay, with all its persistent, intrusive thoughts: as a primary school child, I would have to go and tell a person a bad thought I had about them to stop the bad thing happening to them. It was not even a bad thought, just words that occurred and had not even coalesced into a pattern. Either way, this is not normal behaviour by any stretch. Not the intrusive thought, but its persistence and the fact that I really did believe that if not surrendered to source, calamity would befall. Somewhere, embedded in my psyche, were the words of my mother repeated early and thus lodged; I did not know how to tease them out. I had been led to believe that I was a burden, that I was the calamity and that I was the bringer of harm. Where is the gold in that shit? There was none; not then. But one day, I realised that all along I had believed in the transformative power of words; I had just believed in it the wrong way and had yet to connect this kind of magical thinking with the magic I felt wrapped up inside books, sucking on words, transported. That was the gold, and it also came later, when I found my voice. Not only because I had spectacular anecdotes, but because I was quite capable of being in my imagination and creating something, inhabiting it passionately. I had learned that exceedingly early and, five years ago, when I found my voice, it was what helped me make books: all that mental health adventure and the horrible events which preceded and accompanied it all, now that was threaded through narratives and made richly coloured.

My thinking goes rat a tat rat a tat all day long; allusive; solving problems with quotations; snatches of song if need be. It is how I manage things but also, I am always making stories and seeing links. I wish I had had the confidence to write books earlier – but it is all coming out now. That is because of the weird I am, you see. It is liberated. And partly because of the shit: I take the worst moments from dissociative episodes I have had, and images, rhythms, and repetitions I recall and feel from the psychotic episode I had before one of my breakdowns. I am not – please do not misunderstand me – saying that suffering is a path to art, because I have always found that trite and offensive. But I could not escape, and I had no-one to tell. And I could not get better – I am not better – so I have tried to mold it and form it into something I can share with others.

Here is the thing: we are all a patchwork of oddities, and everyone really is an outsider in their questing and difficult experience. We all hurt, and we all have emotional problems. How much better to channel those into something creative which might absorb and bring pleasures to others, than to suck that pain in, yet turn it outwards by planting it on others, manipulating and gaslighting them instead as a displacement activity because you hurt inside. So, find your weird. Explore it in writing, as I have done and will continue to do. Ultimately, just be you: perfect and as you were meant to be, memento mori, spoon collecting, fancy dress you. Perfect you in pain, not fixed, sick, screwed up and shat on, but indescribably beautiful and incandescently talented.

Remember: where there’s shit there’s gold. That gold is your work.

That gold is also, my darling, YOU.


[1] I realised, while writing the essay, that this word caused confusion. Your snowball in its finest incarnation is made by Tunnocks and it’s a generous-sized and chocolate-covered marshmallow garnished with coconut threads.

For you. If you want to write and get it published; if you are tired, unwell, stretched or broken-hearted. This is for YOU

I took a long time to be published; by that I mean, I took a long time to start writing. I didn’t have the confidence. Now I have, it’s like a torrent. I am six years in. When the occasional person decides to be a bit snarky about the seven books I have written in that time, I tend to explain that they were in my head for decades and that’s why everything is as it is now. My bravehearts, do your own thing; believe in your work first and foremost and do not apologise for the way in which you work, whether it be ‘too fast’ or ‘too slow’. Here is my first bit of love for you all and it is about productivity – but perhaps not in the way you might expect. Also, being gentle on yourself and always working with what you have.

So, let’s go on this adventure together. For a start, you work with what you have. That is, it’s lovely to have an office or a dedicated room, but if circumstances demand that you write at your kitchen table, or on your lap wherever you are, so be it. If you wait for those perfect circumstances, you will never start, so yes: always go with what you have. I write at the kitchen table and am frequently interrupted. I go with it and use headphones for busy times. Remember that genius exists in the finest library, but also at a scruffy kitchen table. Also, if you think you must assemble ideal conditions – that is, ideal emotional or psychological conditions – before you write or continue writing, then I do believe that is deferring your creativity to fate. You may feel down, sad or that heavy weight of grief that comes after the first pains which you think will kill you. My darlings, I am so, so sorry. But you know, you can write in rage and sadness, too. Maybe not yet, but you will. Sometimes, little bits of story unfurl within the sad story of you and yours; cling to them, because they are still there and precious. Think I don’t know? I am writing this now, to you: after a second very broken night, this little story unfurled while I was on the phone to care providers and emergency staff because I have a very unwell eldest. I find it heartbreaking sometimes and after years it seems a solution is not within our grasp, but within those feelings, I try to draw something else out. Today, this morning, so tired, it was for you. Take it.

It may seem that, with difficulties in our daily life, for those we care for or, or with ourselves, we cannot create, but that is not so. Here is more about me: I manage several long-standing mental health problems and I have been recovering from Long Covid (I think we are getting to know each a bit better, right?) – and I am not writing from a position of privilege, telling you sweet things. I am aiming to comfort you, so that you might follow a dream and, hopefully, get paid for it, too – but we will come back to the latter.

What about the adage of writing every day? That real writers write every day. Well lovely if this is you, but it cannot be everyone. I cannot do it. If you are poorly or managing any combination of circumstances, or just because it doesn’t work for you, then you cannot do it. This does not mean you cannot produce a book. Again, go with what is available to you because, again, if you think it is only possible with (perceived) ideal circumstances, then you may never get started or find your progress is stymied because you are feeling anxiety about your lack. Look, instead, at what there is. Thought. Cogitation. Reading. Listening. Man, you’ve been busy. So, you may not have committed words to the page, but a process is still ongoing. Pondering is the writing, too. Don’t forget that now. (I dedicate this last sentence to my fantastic agent who had to remind me about this and specifically in the context of pondering the plot. Ahem.)

This point follows on from the last. You may not write every day – as in get words down on a page – but try to inhabit the world of your book. What might that mean? Perhaps, that you mull over its characters and plot, read, think about it all on your commute, go for a walk and just let it sit and let your mind freewheel and see what springs up; that you keep reading; that you look over edits – your own or someone else’s – and maybe you could do bits of admin if the urge is that strong. Do your page numbers, check SPAG or write an acknowledgements page: these things can be lovely little boosts and make you feel your book is evolving into an actual THING. Think of the work and the writing as not only being the writing down, but also of the rumination while you are having a bath, or resting, say. If you do that, you may find your attitude to it shifts and you realise you’re further along than you thought.

A little exercise to do right now. If you don’t have a dream…Grab anything (if it were me, it would be a not very fancy exercise book and a felt pen, I expect). Now, scribble down in any way it comes to you some thoughts about the kind of book you want to write. What would it explore? What themes are in it? Where is it? Not what you think you ought to be writing, but what you dream of doing because you need to test it on your pulse. It must make you feel excited. That will focus the mind. You could also think about what your dream is in publishing: again, consider what you really want. Shall I tell you mine? It’s to write books that you can see in bookshops, have at least one of them made into a film and empower as many people as I possibly can along the way. That’s what this book is. I also want primarily to be a novelist, but with other short fiction, features, and non-fiction texts. To build a portfolio of varied books. In terms of industry, I want to be with industry professionals who are supportive, open and flexible. Over six years this has not consistently been the case and, with my everyday concerns, I found it startling and then eviscerating. We will return to looking after and working with this side of things  later as it is all part of the picture.

BUT

Most of all I am going to get totally lost in what I am writing – and we are back to testing on your pulse. This is where everything starts.
I have a second exercise too. I said, work with what you have. Well, what do you have and how can you make it better for yourself? Never mind the conditions in which you think you ought to be writing; never mind what you have surmised everyone else is doing. Where can you work, how can you make it a nicer environment for you – which includes things that are soothing if you are prone to anxiety or those troubling MY WORD MY WRITING IS SHIT WHO AM I KIDDING thoughts which may bubble up as you work. I have essential oils and fake peonies in a vase and music to the rescue on the kitchen table or a desk in my bedroom. Think also about you: reflect on your assets, your reading, life experience, the way you see the world, your dialect, accent, phrases specific to you: all that richness and beauty that you are. Think about where you have been – yes, even if it was in your imagination – your sufferings and joys and know that with all the stories and the myriad experiences you have, you are extraordinary. And don’t tell me you are ordinary, because no-one is that, especially not you. In reflecting honestly on what you have, your vision becomes clearer, I think. Your vision of who and what you are as a writer; if you can feel reassured that you don’t need the glittering education, (readers, I went to Cambridge, albeit from a not very good comprehensive and was sure that everyone there had had a better previous education than me and I still met lots of people – forgive me – who were exam-smart but dumb as soup),or  the MA or MFA (although there are many lovely reasons for doing one). I do not have a room of my own, but I have a table I gussy up and earplugs. And I know who I am. I have found my voice. I hope you can hear it speaking to you as I encourage you or remind you to find yours.

Next three books and a new literary prize!

So, it’s going to be a busy ten months or so. This week, UK rights of my new novel, The Zebra and Lord Jones, sold to the brilliant small publisher, Renard. http://renardpress.com/

Ta da! I will stay in touch to bring you Zebra news as it happens over the next few months.

THIS September (29th) my second volume of short fiction is published by the excellent small press, Reflex.https://www.reflex.press/ If you want, you can pre-order through the (subscription) newsletter, or at bookshops – such as, https://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/ravished-a-series-of-reflections-on-age,anna-vaught-9781914114106?term=ravished+anna

And then…we just announced publication month (date tbc) of my memoir, These Envoys of Beauty from the same publisher. March, 2023 – you can read about it here https://www.reflex.press/these-envoys-of-beauty-by-anna-vaught/ and here is the just-revealed cover:

And finally, I have started a new literary prize, just for carers; it’s free to enter and you can do so from January, 2023: have a look! https://thecuraeprize.uk/ and here is the Bookseller coverage: https://www.thebookseller.com/news/vaught-to-launch-curae-literary-award-for-writers-who-are-carers#:~:text=Author%20Anna%20Vaught%20is%20launching,for%20submissions%20in%20January%202023.

That’s it for now.

Love, as ever,

Anna x

Author burnout

It may be that you saw a recent slew of articles in the industry press on burnout in the publishing industry. I then did my best to dovetail with pieces in The Bookseller on this – you can read what I had to say here:

https://www.thebookseller.com/comment/under-pressure-the-authors-perspectiv

Here is the first paragraph of my article:

First let us define burnout. The World Health Organisation, which classified it in 2019, conceptualises the syndrome as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It has three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy. When it comes to authors and this definition, it’s important to remember that our workplace is often our home, and the site of a multi-strand freelance career, which can make things harder, rather than easier; I personally have experienced all these feelings over the past three years while launching two books in lockdown, being unwell, home-schooling, teaching online, and being a carer. Writing can make for quite an isolating as well as an overwhelming life, especially in times of strife.

So there is a definition.

Then, I was able to suggest some things we might do to support ourselves, but in a short piece I could not offer much detail. So that’s what I want to do now. If you are feeling rotten, exhausted, what might you do?

  1. First line of defence – and I am not a medical or mental health professional, but these are things I know: if you feel you are in crisis and you are frightened, remember that The Samaritans are there twenty four hours and here is a link. There are ways to access help beyond calling and these are outlined here: https://www.samaritans.org You may be aware of the text line SHOUT but here: https://giveusashout.org/ – this is twenty four hour text support. I also offer you this next page, because there are further resources and it also lists urgent mental health care routes in your area: https://www.nhs.uk/nhs-services/mental-health-services/where-to-get-urgent-help-for-mental-health/ Promise me you will not ever be embarrassed about being scared, feeling vulnerable or needing help? Human beings get ill; they have tipping points. Here are some starting points if things have got very bad and you don’t know what to do. Emotions are massive unwieldy things for a start, no-one is invulnerable and it is estimated that, at any one time, one in four people in the UK is coping with a mental health problem. It may be that you are overwhelmed and exhausted and what you need are rest and pals and respite; or it could be that this needs input. I think it’s important to say that it need not be your call: I have been in and out of mental health care for decades and this is something I would say. On two occasions I got extremely ill and because I had things to do, kids to look after, classes to teach, I did not ask for help soon enough: it resulted in people needing to advocate for me because I fell apart and could not verbalise what was going on. For me, that’s bad! So yes: promise me that you will take action and not feel embarrassed, that someone else’s need is greater or that you ought to toughen up or you’re probably okay really. Bravery is actually asking for help. Now, in more specific terms, that is, in terms of being an author, what might you do? I am going to have to approach this one rather broadly, because being an author may mean that you are first querying work, that you are more established, or that you have stalled. That’s a lot of situations. Some things that I have done, because of feeling awful, have included everything on this bullet list…
  2. Evolve a group of writers at similar stages. Your tribe. It can be online: put the call out on twitter and do not be shy. You could have a writing support group through twitter DMs or WhatsApp, say, considering which option feels best. When people are very down or overwhelmed, the tap tap and pressure to keep up in an online group can be too much, so you could all set some parameters for what is helpful.
  3. Compare and despair. Look: I regularly see people with the opportunities and exposure with one book and after one book (and no other writing) that I have yet to access after many articles, pieces in the national press, a column in the industry press and seven books either published or coming to press. Is it fair? Well no, you could say not, but it’s common, just as it’s common in life. If you are expecting parity of this sort, you’ve come to the wrong industry! Possibly the wrong planet! So you can allow resentment to curdle here or you can smile (I KNOW it is hard) and understand that everyone has a different route in writing and publishing. You do not know what will happen further down the line after a magnificent debut with full voltage exposure, just as you do not really know what else is going on in that person’s life. Be generous and also be kind to yourself. As I said, compare and despair. Plough your own furrow here. If you reiterate to yourself how unfair it is, you will suffer creatively and become – which I know, because it happened to me – less buoyant and more vulnerable. It is hard, but focus on you.
  4. Now, people may write, oh take a break. But that is predicated on privilege and, frequently, ableism, and the assumption that we can all get out for a run, or a weekend away. I have tried to rethink this, so it is the case of finding time and support in your mind supported by, as far as possible, being in and honouring your body as best you can (which you are also not going to beat yourself up about right?) How might you repeat helpful things to yourself, praise yourself? How might you develop that quality of rest? Think about that and do it. Write it down if need be. Because of the serious challenges my family and I have had to face over the past few years, I have had to recalibrate and rethink the notion of success. So, for example, while other families were putting their amazing holiday pictures on socials, I was focusing on the maxim, ‘Everybody fed, nobody dead’ at Bookworm Towers. Do the same with your writing. It takes courage to put your creative work out there, for example: never stop reminding yourself of that. As treats, be very kind to yourself in your head. If I do this, it is like a tiny holiday and it makes me feel less tired. It all helps.
  5. It is trite as hell, but live in the moment as much as you can to minimise panic and overwhelm. You can never BE in the future, up ahead, and the past is a different country: it was and there’s nothing you can do about it now. Focus on right now: what you can do, in this moment, to make yourself feel better. Because I have had a very ill offspring, I have had to do that. I didn’t at first, but exhaustion claimed me. Things are scarier when you are always anticipating and, in my experience, getting too stuck in anticipation leads to catastrophising. Feel free to disagree.
  6. Try using the Kaizen method – google it but there are a number of books (around £2-3 second-hand; I just checked) – where you think about making very small positive changes – VERY small – to change your attitude or practice. That could be a simple to-do list you set down for writing goals; a small piece of industry research. The point is small. It’s all you need to keep moving.
  7. If you are burning out or think you have burned out because of others’ unkindness in the industry – cutting to the chase here, in seven years I have encountered a handful of shockers – take it to your tribe (point 2, above) and don’t be shy about joining and telling a union. In my case Society of Authors – such as here https://societyofauthors.org/advice There is a range of guides, but you can also call and write to them about a specific matter. Something that caused me a great deal of upset led me to ask for help and they replied in considerable detail to everything and also outlined how a professional complaint might be made. My point here is two-fold: don’t suffer alone and, also reclaim some power – which brings me to the next point…
  8. Rejection happens at all stages, whether you are first querying or a few books in. Some have an easier road of it than others but, as in point 3, compare and despair. So know that this is normal and natural. It is actually ghosting and being ignored – from first queries to full books sent to commissioning editors by your agent – which floors me. I got extremely low about this. Talk about it, but look at what you can do – because this is disappointing and feels disempowering, yes? (And I should say, cope with rejection by always being working on something else, at however tentative a stage.) What I have done now in response to the ghosting is to set deadlines in my mind and then move on. In some cases. I have begun, very politely, to ask for deadlines when I have queried independently. For agency work, I’ve asked that we do the same. It has been a way of reclaiming some power.
  9. Don’t see patterns where there are none. It is very easy to assume that because it has been tough, it will always be tough; even to connect other areas of your life where you have screwed up and connect that to feeling terrible as an author. But life is not a place where everything happens for a reason; it is full of happenstance and changes, small and radical, and tomorrow can be different from today. That is easy to forget, isn’t it? I believe that human beings mess most things up and I am absolutely sure that most creative projects fail – because creative endeavour is full of risk. I would say, start each day – each moment – afresh and then it is easier to spot opportunities; to be as positive as you can be. This is something I have been practising in order to feel lighter.
  10. Reading. I am a reader before I am a writer. I think of reading as my saviour, so if you are burned out, increase or vary your reading and into your life will come new forms of beauty, new worlds and new ideas. And do you know, I talk a lot about gentle productivity, so I want to emphasise that it is in play here: you are also working – writing – when you are reading, even though you don’t notice it. Nourishing your imagination, your core; relaxing into it and finding a myriad ways of looking at the world.

With much love and remember that you are not alone,

Anna xxx

And so begins a quiet period…

Hello everyone,

First of all, I hope that we will be able to give you news on placement for my new novel The Zebra and Lord Jones at the end of this month and hopefully there will be some lovely press announcements about that. This is a book I have done with my literary agency, Wolf Literary in NYC. Then, I am about to get my edits on Ravished, which is my new collection of short fiction – if you like, you can pre-order now: https://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/ravished-a-series-of-reflections-on-age,anna-vaught-9781914114106?term=ravished+anna Here she is below – and here is a little more detail in this link: https://www.reflex.press/ravished-by-anna-vaught/ Ravished is a book on which I am working independently with this wonderful small publisher.

Then, I have finished my memoir, These Envoys of Beauty, also to be published with Reflex – this will be out next spring. More detail nearer the time. Beyond this, a novella, Her Winter Song is also out on independent submission and we will see, and, of course, I am still hoping to fully crowdfund for my first book about writing, The Alchemy. If you like, you could pledge here. https://unbound.com/books/the-alchemy/?utm_campaign=the-alchemy&utm_medium=AuthorSocial&utm_source=AuthorActiv

Beyond this, Italian rights have recently sold on my 2020 novel, Saving Lucia – so more news on that when I have it.

At the end of the month I start a year’s teaching with Jericho Writers on their novel in a year course. I hope I will be able to bring interest to what they offer; also to motivate, and provide a compassionate and safe-feeling environment for my mentees in which, frankly, to pursue their dreams. On top of this I will continue a small amount of secondary level teaching and one volunteer component which is for exam year Ukrainian students in our area.

The stuff about dreams, though: I realise – and it took me some time to realise it because I held stubbornly to certain beliefs – that, because of the demands on me at home and in particular because one of my sons has additional needs that have not been met by professionals over a long period, I have to retreat somewhat. I cannot keep being out there plugging myself on social media and, in addition, I think that I have worked so hard on writing that is close to no longer being a joy. I cannot let that happen. I am very, very tired and, even with an eventful life to date, nothing comes close in terms of awfulness to seeing my son suffer like this. So I am just going to be doing some gentle writing for pleasure for the time being, not submitting, no great plans – and I am going to have to rely on others to promote my work, share my work and help me break through more. If I don’t? Well, I have done my best in the circumstances – which include having some industry incidents which left me baffled and very unsure of myself – and I need to focus on healing and quiet times. I have done my best as a parent in truly challenging circumstances, trying to keep a family of five afloat without adequate professional input. Plus in six and a half years, I have placed 7 books with two more a going concern: it worries me I don’t feel proud of that. Now you see what I mean about healing; something has gone very wrong with my perception and I have very substantially moved the goalposts.
So here is to things getting better, helping others, fewer distractions, different hopes – at least for the time being – and getting back to more reading. Also, in building greater confidence in knowing that my own voice is good enough; interesting even: of value. That is what I would tell you. In this deep sadness, I am having trouble telling it to myself.

I will write soon my darlings.

Anna xxx