Ta da! This is the next book I am in.
Ta da! This is the next book I am in.
An invitation if you are a local-ish writer or reader and would like to come for some reading and discussion of the first few chapters of the book I am working on, my follow up to Killing Hapless Ally (March, 2016, Patrician Press).
The Life of Almost is a re-working of Great Expectations, with its protagonist, Almost, roughly modelled on Pip. It has a predominantly Welsh setting, much of it being in Pembrokeshire. As such, it draws on the stories I have been listening to my whole life and so I have adapted these for the book. Stories of sailors, the strange dangers of the sea and those who love in it and on it; dark events at steam fairs; predicaments at village shows; kelp, barnacles, tough salty men, the cree of the curlew and the dead across the estuary and of how gentry moved in and spoiled all. Stories of beatings known about but hidden in plain sight; curses and vendettas; strange harpists, madness, mutism; poltergeists who threw pictures from walls and plants from windowsills and vases from above the fireplace. People who went away and never came back: stories, stories, stories. Shootings, hangings, disappearances. My idea of a picnic could still revolve around sitting by graves describing the dreadful manner in which relatives died, except I desist because I’m the mother of three young boys and I think my upbringing was definitely weird and I’m sure the kids think I’m quite peculiar, already.
So, you know roughly the story arc if you know Great Expectations, I’ve told you a little of the settings, but there’s more to it. Because, as Almost takes you through stories of his world – as he tells them to Catherine, who opens the first chapter, so tired of life – you come to realise that he is not entirely of this world and not entirely of this time: he is something more protean and unconfined; a storyteller who can shift substance in an extraordinary way and who is not compromised by, shall we say, temporal and ordinal rules…I hope, when it finds its home, that you will find the book darkly funny, maybe a bit shocking in places and that you’ll enjoy what I have done with my favourite book, Great Expectations, such as reworked Jaggers into a nasty (Ben Jonson’s) ‘Volpone’, basking in his gold somewhere off a great motorway and given you many elements of the supernatural. I did something a bit radical the other day and incorporated, euphemistically, some of the Brexit scoundrels – they are part of why Catherine, who begins the book, is so jaded and sad and thus why she has Almost come to visit. And, you know, one might question: is Almost really there at all? Or is he created by others when….they need him. Oooohhhh.
Because I stand by this and know it to be true: a story can save your life.
Like a copy of Killing Hapless Ally? Order from Waterstones, your local bookshop (Ex Libris and Mr B’s have copies in our area), the Patrician Press website or Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Killing-Hapless-Ally-Anna-Vaught-ebook/dp/B01CA5F21Y/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1468239225&sr=1-1
This bold, unique novel is a first-rate example of the innovative and original approach exemplifying the contemporary small press scene.
These eighteen poems are, excepting the first one (which is already accepted for publication), in very draft form and are the basis of a poetry pamphlet I am currently calling Thalassa-Môr. It gets its title because, although it’s about countryside I know, difficult things that have happened, my family and other much loved people and events, I have also threaded through it elements from Greek literature and from Welsh. The title of the first poem is from The Odyssey; ‘Rhiannon’ lower down refers, albeit obliquely, to characters in the Mabinogion. I have also woven in stories from my grandmother and from other elderly storytellers whose auspices and provenance I couldn’t grasp as a child. Was I related to them? I wasn’t and am not exactly sure. The storyteller was the important thing. Anyway, these poems (plus some others) in a much more polished form will be going in different directions in the summer – so fingers crossed. NB: the layout that pops up on wordpress is not how they are set out in my ms, so some of the verses aren’t quite preserved and the left spine is uneven. This is an anomaly I haven’t fixed yet.
Do feel free to comment on the drafts at the bottom of the text. Anna x
‘Cast out, my broken comrades’
St Justinian at dawn; the boat,
Its clenched hull scowling,
As braced against the swell,
Collected errant figures – all
Adrift, so lost on land, and sad.
We reached out, emptied souls,
To Ramsey Sound; the island
Siren-called us, brought us home
To sea: to stay afloat a while
And find our shipwrecked selves.
It wasn’t in the landing of our craft,
Against the crashing deck of shore,
But somewhere in between the rock
And rock, that melancholy came to rest –
And tumbled down through navy depths
And we were free, unbroken: still.
This poem is published in Anthology of the Sea by The Emma Press, October, 2016.
‘My heart unbroken, then, by fish- frozen sea.’
‘Oh never fill your heart with trawlermen!’
My Nanny told, then told: ‘You want
a man with both feet on the ground –
a man with roughened nails, from
dirt and labour on the land,
not brined and drenched through by the Sea.’
But Nanny never knew the sound
of oilskin slipped on clover bank;
of danger in the stolen hull,
of silver, limned above your head,
while thwart hands toiled through the night,
and washed me up and brought me home.
I wouldn’t learn: I dreamed of pearls, full fathom five;
I sang of gales, the tang of salt,
the storied depths of sea and sea –
limb-frozen journeys, far from home
With yellow light on midnight crests.
But Nanny told, then told, ‘You want
a man with bone-dry shoes, inland;
your sailors leave you high and dry,
they catch and throw and pack in ice
the keenest heart that you can toss.’
But Nanny never knew the song
of siren journeys way out there,
Of labour stoked by heat and loss –
She didn’t feel the azure pull,
the mermaid kiss, the tongues that spoke;
she died a desiccated ideath, in clod
that choked, while primrose mocked.
Still, out at sea, I rocked and bobbed:
we drew the finest catch that day.
Madonna of the Cleddau
The sea coast was too far for you;
To keep inland was your advice,
Away from Jack Tar, foreign folk:
Stay cloistered on this estuary.
Madonna of the Cleddau, come:
Square jaw, dark eyes and, counterpoint,
Retroussé nose and powdered cheeks:
And born of earth, not briny downs.
You birthed eleven, stood back up,
With apron on and sleeves rolled high,
Delivered livestock, lipstick on,
With plaintive songs of field delight.
But, round the wall, the sea began,
Spoke not to you: you had no thought
To jump and best a warmer wave;
A voyage out was lost on you.
What did you care for them or theirs?
Madonna’s night world of the quay
Had supernatural force: the owls,
The rustle of the hawk, black elms,
The screech and call and elsewhere sound.
Such pale wings drew on navy sky
As you looked out across the flats
And thought that this was world enough,
The kelp, the wrack was only stench.
I’ve seen it now, your home; your hearth:
The summer quay was bunting dressed,
The village pub all polished up,
No gossip, snarling by the bar;
A ‘Country Living’ August snap,
All cleansed of snuff or pewter cup,
Sent gentry, as you might have said.
And rag and bone man, gone to dust.
Madonna of the Cleddau, mine:
I sing to you from farther shores:
I wish that you had gone to sea –
We could have basked there, you and I.
It never changed, waves’ thunderous moods
Could not be altered, made anew.
I look at Cresswell now and wish
The sea would roar and cry and break
The weeded walls, the altered beds,
Bring wrack and shells to grace the stones
Where mortar tidily restrains.
When did I
I went out early, tiger-clad, for bravery’s sake
To try the sea. Its bite was worse than mine –
It told harsh words and mumbles spat a briny sound
Of fury’s heart. And I was spent, so roared no more.
Returns a sea echo
Had I not been mute, still yet, as Milton might,
I should have cried to miss a mirror in every mind –
Not to have glimpsed the swallow, bright,
Such cresting clarion call and bravest hunter’s horn.
I might, I say, have wished to be alone,
Caressing so the dampening blossom now –
Finger tipped to velvet wings at dusk,
Unbound by duty, or amaranthine depths
To sit on quiet rosy evenings, darkness settling by
In bowing woods, with harebells pealing close.
For stillness made replete what things I saw –
And bosom sentiment was only that
Such contemplation of this hour was wasted not:
The honour was replete.
But very now, then up the churchyard path
A fox came, sharp; the beech tree whispered thanks
Thus honour was in being quiet,
Reverent in this storied landscape, still.
Myfanwy, I loved
Mfanwy, as you were: bay window, a side light and a black background.
Then as you were again: middle room – direct front light. I was specific.
Mfanwy – I was precise; exacting with the fall of dark and bright: I wrote it down.
Mfanwy, as I hoped you were. But you smiled and sailed away, sassy girl.
I sat for hours as the shadows fell, knowing what night must still portend: my craft.
I drew a nail across a pane and scratched your name, invisible to others as
the evening settled in. I knew that morning brought a monogram in window frost
for you to see and I to know: I showed you how its feathered lines and confidence
spoke truth to us – that you could stay. The frost had crept along the span
to show you how this foolish clot had said the most that could be said
and then I spoke – and ruined all. A foolish joke: my love; my word –
Mfanwy, stay. Mfanwy, do not sail away.
I tried to draw another length to keep you here: pellucid worlds for us to share,
yet how I knew what I had done. You cared not yet for crystal casts,
the shapes recorded day by day. The metaphor for heavenly plan
was lost for you in my thwart hands – and so I scratched and tried to show
a simple script, its blazon – you. I fell and fell and no-one knew.
Oh sassy girl, why should you stay or want a watcher of the skies,
a gabbling fool, like me? Why, no.
Mfanwy, stay. Mfanwy, do not sail away.
If I should fall, then say to me the reason clouds form as they are,
why ice should seed along a scratch, why I should love my six point star.
I do not know or care to see the smiles that fall in brazen line,
but innocence and clearest eye embolden me to make her mine.
I speak of love and quiet worlds, the county town on winter nights:
the sweets of honey bees, a view of ruby sky and amber lights –
of unctuous syrup mixed with snow, auroras made of rosy glow,
My Borealis blood-red sheen – if I should fall, then make me know.
When I am not and you are here, beholden to this dusty room,
be gentle with the tenuous forms of memory; do not grieve too soon.
Consider this – why should we be, ephemeral and urgent? How?
And speak to me with confidence, declaim for me on cliff or prow.
In nature’s fragile frame I see a world that lives beyond the hill,
Beyond the log pile, salt and shed; behind our eyes when we lie still.
And when I fall, then say to me you read its language, pure and keen –
And set my records on my desk and light my lamp: make them be seen.
‘Always there were uncles’ (Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales)
I longed not to talk to him, the schoolmaster;
He was always old, even as a boy, Llewhellin.
His eyes blorted thick, his voice rasped:
Never a pretty thing was he.
But I misses him now, you see, that old man
Cresting the corners of the foxgloved lanes –
Standing at Walton West, scowling at the tankers
Bound for Milford from great bright places
He hadn’t seen and didn’t want.
And I misses the silent pouring of tea
And the picking of apples from his headland-wizened trees;
the storied estuary, century feuds and nodding campion.
And I cry when I scent, alone, the violet patch, dug up,
Where I found him. And he was gone, eyes closed and young.
In this drear place, I see my family loved
In celandines and mugwort garlands drawn;
I do not not know what tears or mossy lies
They fought so hard to keep from being said
Llewhellins, thick and fast and tired and gone,
Their stories drawn in stone or footstep sand.
Still to be sad
In the old shop on the harbour walk I saw a note: ‘Be Mine:
were you that girl I saw on the sand, turning to face me
against the gale? I think you saw me and I want to know.’
It was there for weeks, that note, rusting in the sun,
And brushed by arms of the boys running from the beach
for ice cream and the papers for bored parents.
And weeks more it hung, unnoticed, torn;
down in shreds it was, a girl would never see.
But a girl had never seen. She’d been looking instead
over the shoulder of the keen bright boy
to the man who broke her heart: a challenge –
find me, save me. Do not let me now walk out into the sea.
But in the keening of the wind and
the straining of the gale, all turned away
And she was gone and the slips of note removed,
for something clean and tidy and not sad.
Druidstone Haven. A sonnet
We climbed the downward spiral of the trail
To best the shedding fingers of the cliff,
I’d promised you, oh love, I could not fail
I’d prove to you against our lovers’ tiff,
That there was treasure to be found that day –
Albescent moons to cradle in your hand –
Sea urchins fine, a little world to say:
Echinocardium, wanting to be grand.
But my world was not yours, you did not care
To hold the little lanterns in your palm –
The hollow globe within the greatest fair,
You did not care if such should come to harm.
So cracked the sea potato on the tide:
I knew, although I smiled, my love had died.
‘Girl, get the grave bag from by the back door!’
‘I’m doing it now, in a minute!’
‘But have you got there the water in the milk bottle,
the scrubber and the cloth and the scissors,
they’re rusty but will do to trim?’
‘Yes, yes, I see them now.’
‘But have you got them, have you? We musn’t forget
and mustn’t leave the bag at home and mustn’t take it
to the graves half full, is it done now, is it all and are you sure?’
‘Yes, I am sure.’
The bag was bundled and the car was roared and the dead were glad
of a well-kept stone and the brambles trimmed and no-one cursed,
like they did, all did, in life, and the door was keyed and the grave bag was refilled
and sat just as it should, and the life was endless not altered,
even in this loud new world.
Rounding the headland at St Brides and sighting the small churchyard,
Cariad, you were aware, weren’t you now, that things were changed that day?
You saw us with the girl, cousin by marriage, I think she was,
And all was well because she was not you. You were, weren’t you now,
The same age and the same beauty and the same dimension, even, roughly now,
And all so different because she was not you. And daddy said, I know he did,
‘Ah, my lovely girl, my cariad, look at your lovely golden hair
And your blue eyes and the light foot and a tumble of a laugh’ –
But that was not for you, but for your cousin, by marriage I think she was,
And she was fair and pretty and you with your welter of a laugh
And your thin voice and your pinched nose and you my shameless,
shameful little girl, mine but not mine and yapping now
as we rounded the headland at St Brides. Sing to the sailors, girl,
cry for the mermaids if you see them there, but in this dark world
where cliffs heap up and the boy drowns and the wrack fills,
think always that none of this cares for you, but for her, cariad.
Lewis, who went away
When I was a kid, Lewis took his own life.
I heard them say he took it, but where it went,
I couldn’t say or wasn’t told. Perhaps it had
been drained, in the sloop, with all his pints,
or thrown gladly off Stack Rocks with a shout
that he married well and was a man they liked,
but I don’t know. For once, though I was very young,
I saw a look from out the corner of his eye as he shipped
off, went laughing with the pot boys and his girl:
that look it said, I think, that Lewis wanted rescuing,
but no-one came, as the sea foam danced in Cardigan Bay.
The Auger shell, unbroken, in the palm,
still yet, such tenor of this hour upon this tide,
I wait at Nolton, looking out to sea:
you do not come. I nurse the shell,
its whorls and tidy chambers tell
of secrets and of things I cannot know;
the grains of sand, or filament of carapace
swept up inside its little maze,
its rooms, its tidy cap, once came from elsewhere,
elsewhere on this tide, I’ll never know. And you,
I wait for, still, looking out to sea. I hear you laugh
and cannot say from where it came, but seabirds circle low.
I throw the shell where anemone and spider crab
have made their home – more life reclaims it now,
as your laugh is lost to me, in warm thrift and gorse
and the tenor of this hour upon the tide.
My mother taught at Wiston school,
Her hands were lithe, her mind so sharp,
Her friend Rhiannon worshipped her
And plucked her name upon the harp
Which sat all gold, in sight of all,
Rhiannon’s talons told mother’s fall –
She plucked a death upon the strings,
Her dainty nails scratched their goal:
‘Your mother will have feet, not wings
And with their clay, they’ll crush her soul –
Oh read The Mabinogion, dear,
You pretty pretty little child –
For you shall be my daughter fair,
my son Avaggdu’s ugly – wild –
the thick and thwart upon his brow
why should she have while I’ve not got?
Your mother taught at Wiston school
and so I tell you, she shall not.’
She plucked and plucked and screamed her rage
now mother’s clad in primrose dell,
But I can’t go and see her now,
Rhiannon keeps me in a cage
And sings to me of dulcet love
And all the things I cannot gauge:
Avaggdu cries for he’s not loved
And spits upon upon sweet mother’s grave.
The Famished House
‘Around here, the trees suck air and, at night,
when the last shriek of the plump and pretty-breasted curlew
s drawn from its throat, and when the strand-line treasure
is dulled and shredded against the rock, even in fair weather,
well then: that is the time that the houses take their fill.’
‘Nanny, is it true?’ ‘ Oh yes. Around here, when the moss
spawns bad, it creeps across your foot if you slowly move,
so be sure to move quite fast, when the twilight stalks,
then that is the time that the houses take their fill.’
‘Nanny, is it true?’ ‘Oh yes. When the jewel sky
and the lapping wing, have beat their very blood
into the hour, take heed; the tidiest stones
we built such with, will stretch up so to bark at silly men,
the silliest from away, for we shall know
what is to come, as groaning, crafted stone leans in
to kiss a sleeping face and staunch, in wild rebellion, dear,
the men that wrest it proudly from the ground.’
‘Today we will go inland dear, to see the rhododendron bloom,
Away from sea scent, sunset shell; away from me, away from you.’
We travelled for hours on little tracks, their way being marked with showy prime,
It was, at first, of some delight, but then my love spoke of his crime:
‘So stay here, love, forever held, unless you scent the estuary,
And I fly high, to England bold, away from you, away from me.’
Ah dear, you underestimate my knowledge of this mazèd land,
You did not hear the laughing breeze, dead mammy’s come and with her hand
She’ll pen you up, beside the Rhos, and I will run forever free,
I’ll not stay here, forever held, not stay with you but live for me –
An orient boat will rescue me, blown on dead daddy’s pretty curse
And rhododendron casket blooms will strip your life and end my verse.
Here is a funny little pamphlet I started writing for The Emma Press submissions window before Christmas. However, illness and a stay in hospital meant I missed the deadline. Knowing this, there were kind enough to extend it for me – but I found I couldn’t complete it as I was still recovering. Now, other projects (like the launch of my novel Killing Hapless Ally in just a few weeks and the fact that I’m working on the next novel, the working title of which is The Life of Almost and the raising of three nippers and running a business and and and…) have to take priority, but I’ll write more to give to The Emma Press and they are kindly publishing me in the poetry Anthology of the Sea in October. Here is the unfinished pamphlet, in draft form and with definitely a few dashes that should be an em. It is about finding ways to lift depression. I have used a variety of forms in the pamphlet, so we have poems on Snowflake Bentley (one of my abiding heroes and on the backburner for a book), recipes, the use of a poem and a short story. But these are all real things to me. The pamphlet wasn’t intended as a short self-help book; more just a series of observations, a hand to hold and an illustration of what I do and have done in the hope that this might be helpful to someone. x
Well hello there. I am a quite ordinary person, so don’t be alarmed at the fact that I’m about to delve into a slew of rather ripe facts — or be startled by the familiarity of my greeting. I, like you, am a reader. I’m a reader of all sorts. But my reading has shattering and cosmic proportions for me because, frankly, I couldn’t do without the books: they have saved my life; they continue to do so — with brave and colourful glory; full of words, orient and on fire. I’m someone who has spent much time battling demons and wrestling dead but refusing to lie down relatives. Someone who has been sometimes too frightened to go out. There’s depression for you. There. Look at that now, see? (as my maternal grandmother used to say): that’s what anxiety does for you. As a child and teenager, I was heartily committed to rituals; before I went out, I used to recite the first lines of The Secret Garden four times. I really don’t recommend this route. A book isn’t a talisman or an insurance. But oh do I know about the books and their importance!
Did you notice the word ‘orient’ there? I realise that it probably doesn’t quite go, but that’s because I have a tendency to use obsolete, obsolescent or (putting it more gently) uncommon variants of words. And orient, to a seventeenth-century reader, might have meant rich. Blame the books, in which I live. It’s wonderful to play with words and to enjoy your language. Why not? And there are other things besides the books. Depression puts a dark glass between you and the world. It is, as the great Dorothy Rowe described it, a prison. I felt it for years like this; the world was there and I was here and the two could not meet. I tried to put my hand -that didn’t work. When you can’t get past the dark things that disable you, the books will help, but so do other things — other articles. That’s why I called this essay ‘Articles of Faith’. When you feel like you are drowning, you need a life raft; something to hang onto — there are your articles of faith. Books, yes — a poem; a novel — but also a flower, observed in minute detail, the weather patterns, miraculous and shifting and full of numinous detail as you consider hoar frost, colour to surround yourself with and colour to dress yourself with, food and drawing on the simple pleasures of its preparation — in the crushing of a cardamom there is much to encourage and comfort you — fire, be it a candle or a fire in your grate and the last one is not really an article at all, but the acceptance of a friend — someone who loves you because you are you and with whom you don’t have to apologise or pretend to be someone else.
Come on a short journey with me because I want to tell you how I, friable, frequently ill and often terribly lonely in a crowded room, animate and populate my world with what I read. And maybe it will give you hope, inspiration and company. Because I got better and I didn’t see through a glass darkly anymore, but with open eyes at a rush of colour.
I can’t write about all poems because they are legion, so let me pick one. A favourite. It is Louis MacNeice’s ‘Meeting Point’, which I have always thought was a magisterial coming together of the ordinary and the the extraordinary; of quotidian rhythm and something magical, just out of reach and only inchoately grasped. Can you climb into it and see what happens?
Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs)
Time was away and somewhere else.
And they were neither up nor down;
The stream’s music did not stop
Flowing through heather, limpid brown,
Although they sat in a coffee shop
And they were neither up nor down.
The bell was silent in the air
Holding its inverted poise –
Between the clang and clang a flower,
A brazen calyx of no noise:
The bell was silent in the air.
The camels crossed the miles of sand
That stretched around the cups and plates;
The desert was their own, they planned
To portion out the stars and dates:
The camels crossed the miles of sand.
Time was away and somewhere else.
The waiter did not come, the clock
Forgot them and the radio waltz
Came out like water from a rock:
Time was away and somewhere else.
Her fingers flicked away the ash
That bloomed again in tropic trees:
Not caring if the markets crash
When they had forests such as these,
Her fingers flicked away the ash.
God or whatever means the Good
Be praised that time can stop like this,
That what the heart has understood
Can verify in the body’s peace
God or whatever means the Good.
Time was away and she was here
And life no longer what it was,
The bell was silent in the air
And all the room one glow because
Time was away and she was here.
When I read this poem, I am caught up by its concept of the loved ones part of but isolated in happiness from the world; they are separate while they participate in daily activity and while they do so, it is as if, elsewhere, something else is affected by her actions — the fingers flicking away the ash and the tropic trees. Something absorbing, supernatural and cosmic happens in the poem. If you feel sad or if you find anxiety about your daily life is skewing your experience of the beauty around you, anchoring yourself in a poem might help. Is there, beyond or daily our even bland experience, something extraordinary and connecting us to a myriad things? You’ll see that ‘God or whatever
means the Good’ is a phrase used. For you, faith may be about your church; your mosque or synagogue; here the notion if broader — diffuse. It is there, just not grasped; it is not less wondrous because of that and so you might find something in this poem to cheer you and give you solace. It’s about the transformative power of love, too — its possibilities and the idea of time being suspended. I think we may feel this in love, but also in finding something that absorbs us, whatever that is.
As for the structure of the poem: how might that make you feel better? Read it aloud and test it on your pulse. What does it do to you? For me, the ‘time was away’ refrain is comforting in its repetition, both of words but also of rhythm. You don’t need to know about metrical feet or consult a dictionary of literary terms to hear this and feel it. Here’s an idea. Learn the poem. Learn any poem. By heart. Then, when you feel your mood slump or you feel scared, pull it out and hear it in your head, mouth it quietly or say it loudly and clearly. As I said before, it’s not that a poem is a talisman, but why not let it be an anchor? Every time you encounter it, you might something new or notice you read it or say it slightly differently. You may see the characters of ‘Meeting Point’ in your mind’s eye, observing at a discreet distance. Or maybe they are you and a loved one, or you in a situation you would like to be in, finding a situation when ‘time was away’ and there is ‘a brazen calyx of no noise’ — when the bell is silent, held in stasis, miraculously, by the ‘ calyx’; sepals of the flower forming a whorl around the bud, which is a fascinating description of the bell. Pick any poem you like; let it be a cure.
How would I pick a single flower? Impossible! So I am going to choose the flowers I know and love best. First of all, consider the rose. I prefer a pink or a soft yellow rose; if a crimson rose lifts your spirit, then that shall be your rose. So, sometimes when I have felt so at sea that I haven’t known what to do or how to interact with others, I start by observing something in detail. A rose in bloom is an excellent. choice. Look at it. Really look at it. The calyx again. What do you see? It is a little world, its centre wrapped in damask petals, whorls and soft edges, at its most beautiful when it is full blown, yet at that moment soon to drop its petals. But that should not make us sad, for tend it and it will bloom again. Watch it from a bud. Every day its tight petals unfurl just a little as it reveals itself to you.
Sometimes, when I have felt sad, confused or particularly anxious, I just go and spend time with the plants and — this is the key thing — observe them in as much detail as I can. So say it was time for honeysuckle in the garden or in a hedgerow. I might gently cup a flower in my hand and raise its gentle head to my face, as I am lounging there in its sweetness. Look at those fuchsia or carmine curves; the alabaster or honey-coloured partners; the sweet, viscous texture of them. Another little world.
Something to eat
In my habit of banishing depression by observing detail and absorbing myself in the minutiae of some or other craft, I might issue the following instructions to myself:
Take as many potatoes as you can eat.
As many carrots as you can eat.
As much green cabbage, spinach or robust, greens as you can eat; make it a butchy brassica, though.
If I feel like I want to run away or cannot get a purchase on the world, I might really look at these funny vegetables. They’re plain, aren’t they? But when was the last time (don’t laugh but bear with me, here) you looked at a carrot and noticed its different textures, or smelled the earth on a potato or felt the tiny, tiny little coruscation on a brassica, noticing that, like the carrot wasn’t just orange, the greens weren’t just green. There were a partial paintbox: isn’t that amazing? Bottle green, Windsor green, fern, olive: verdant and viridescent. But when you have finished really looking at what you have in your hand, cook the lot, peeling the potatoes if you’re up to it. I suppose you could cook them all together, if you time it right. Cook them until they are well done, then drain, mash roughly and chop up the greens further if need be. Mix, then pile the lot into a bowl and season very generously with balsamic vinegar, or plain old malt, sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper. A fried or couple of poached eggs on top would be good. Or grate some cheese — whichever you fancy and even a dog-end that has been hanging around in the fridge; give it a couple of minutes’ heat and it is transformed. This potato and green collation should serve one. Eat in bed or maybe under a blanket somewhere. Eat it and know that you are being kind to yourself, and I say that not in a fey or saccharine way, but as someone who knows what it is and how it feels to wish to be obliterated; to feel so sad, so bitter that you wish to be annihilated. At the heart of depression lies, in my experience, a sort of self loathing where you think you should be rubbed out because you are a Bad Thing. A Worse Thing than anyone else. I am not saying that, if you cook a potato, you will fix yourself — more that if you still your chatter and really think about what you are doing and what you have in your hand, then perhaps much of what arrests you so brutally can be stilled and will dissipate. I am bound to say, however, that the NHS is a beautiful thing — and I am living proof that help is out there: the right help for you. But eat up your mash first.
And here is another simple recipe.. I am, largely, a lover of vegetables, grains and the like. But, as my friends have observed, I do roast a lot of chickens. You may shy away from cooking a chicken with stuffing in it. Maybe this is because you’re concerned about getting them both at the right temperature and fretting about it. But hey: there is another way. You just put hot stuffing in the chicken. Makes it less fiddly to ensure that both are properly hot and cooked through and it’s also kind of sexy and Earth-Mothery to produce this big pan of golden stuffing and bird and just dole it out. I think it’s good for us to serve up something bountiful that was child’s play to make. So here… Take a proper chicken- which is to say an organic (and free range) bird. Put it upside down (thus, breast side down) in a large roasting tin, having rubbed it with olive oil and salt and pepper. Now cook about 500g of couscous and, when done — but barely thus — add a tablespoon of olive oil, a teaspoon of crushed red chilli, lots of freshly ground black pepper, a good pinch of sea salt flakes, a handful of fresh parsley, roughly chopped, a finely chopped garlic clove and the zest of a lemon. While you are doing all this, pause, pause, pause, Smell everything, taste the acrid bite of the garlic and, before you squeeze the juice of the lemon over the chicken just before you put it in the oven, take the lemon between your palms and roll it, roll it, roll it. It will feel warm and you will be, temporarily, elsewhere, as the oils begin to release just a little onto your hands. The oven should be on 200 and you roast the chicken on its back for half an hour, then you turn it over and cook it until its juices run clear when you pierce the bit where the thigh meets the breast.
I am not joking when I say that on one occasion I used this gap in hands-on cooking requirements to allow myself a mighty great cry about something that had always made me sad. Familiar story: unwanted child; cruel to the point of feral much older sibling; told I was a waste of space. Believed it for years and years. Yell. Scream. Cry. I looked it…IT…in the face and found that I was still functioning and, what was more, was required to turn the chicken over. Like, NOW. I needed a steady hand and eyes that weren’t frosted with tears to do it. And I found that I felt better.
When the chicken is done (clear juices where the breast meets the thigh — so approximately an hour after you have turned it), you will find that there will be plenty of stuffing to fill the bird and go around it, so you get some couscous which is soaked in all the delicious juices and very soft, and some which has crisped and caramelised in the heat. You could serve some green vegetables alongside, but I’m not sure I could really be bothered. One idea is to roast some green beans with olive oil and chopped cherry tomatoes plus a couple of garlic cloves (which you then squish into the ad hoc sauce that’s produced) and lots of black pepper.
I do believe, now, after years of talking treatments, that much of what you do is down to self care and, for me, self care, means having something in the oven. It smells of home, of plenty and of good within. And should the old black dog come to visit for a while, you could try and see that he is accompanied by the timely arrival of an enormous slow cooker. So here’s a thought: if you are stuck in the doldrums (for to be becalmed sounds lovely but it actually means that temporarily you cannot go further: I digress), invest in a slow cooker. A great big one. And try these. All serve six with leftovers. All these are based on the simple principle of setting the cooker to low and leaving it on overnight. When you are feeling sad or listless or even at your wits’ end, you probably won’t feel like eating, or perhaps you eat too much of the wrong thing which I know, from experience, is its own vicious cycle, so going through the mechanics of putting things together to go into the oven, or assembling things for a great big dish, may provide solace because they are productive and the end is so much more than the means.
For a simple pasta sauce, a good couple of tablespoons of decent olive oil, two cans of plum tomatoes, which you crush in your hands as you go. Then add a tin of anchovies, soaked a little perhaps, two handfuls of pitted green olives, lots of freshly ground black pepper, a tablespoon of capers, a heaped tablespoon of tomato purée, three finely minced garlic cloves, half a fresh red chilli, finely sliced (I don’t decide because I am tough like that). Into that go three handfuls of fresh or frozen mixed peppers and about 500g minced beef, preferably organic. Stir and that’s it. I just stand there chucking it in because that seems to befit this style of cooking. Your pasta sauce will be ready by morning — or just leave it cooking all day. Serve with a pasta of your sauce, but if it were me (which it was), that would be spaghetti or linguine.
Failing any of this, make some really good toast with proper butter.
I am an inveterate cloud watcher. I also to stand in the rain and go out early and touch the prickles of hoar frost. I know that, with ice thus under my fingers, an echo of faith and of constancy seems to return. I think that, as with the rhythms of the poem I gave above, its repetition gives home. We have seen it before; it will come again. And yet…each time it does, we might find something new in it — a pattern; a new shape. It is because I like to observe the weather that a great hero of mine is someone called ‘Snowflake Bentley.’
In 1898, a young boy called Wilson Alric Bentley began watching the snow fall around the family farm in Jericho, Vermont; he watched it with an unusual rapt and earnest attention. He thought about its composition, about where it came from – about its auspices in both meteorological terms (although he was likely unaware of that word just yet) and those more divine: how could it be that something so pretty should fall so casually? Was it part of a conversation with God and creator – a dialogue which we could not translate and construe? The young Bentley also watched rainwater, seeing it composed in rivulets and torrents, looked at dew as it settled in exquisite beads and watched as frost formation drew delicate shapes across windows of ferns and feathers on the windows of his farm. But it was with the snow that Bentley was most in love: he wanted to understand how and what it was and to look at it more closely. That journey is the story of The Snowflake Man. Times came and went; others laughed, but Bentley kept on watching the snow – and he remained the devout watcher of the skies until just before his death.
Bentley’s mother understood her boy’s fascination; his father thought him foolish and possibly unmanly for finding some diversions when, on the farm, there was much practical work to be done. That boy wrote, fifty five years later, that everything he was and had ever done, he owed to her – because she saved and showed considerable devious acumen in presenting her son, aged seventeen, with a microscope and then a camera. Over the next few years, Bentley, working alone in the woodshed, developed the science of photomicrography as he learned to connect the camera to the microscope and photograph the tiny snow crystals on his slides. The results were exquisite and remain, to this day, the fullest and most extraordinary collection of stunning snow crystals – of a myriad filigree stars, strange tiny pillars with hexagons at either end; things possessed of an inchoate beauty and, as Bentley wrote, “no two snowflakes are alike.” When Bentley wasn’t photographing and cataloguing the snow crystals, he made fine studies of the frost formations and patterns of dew. looking at its beads strung along spiders’ webs; tying down a grasshopper atop a blossom overnight so that he could photograph the creature bejewelled with the dew. All this he did while remaining a farmer, playing his trumpet, providing holidays to city folk of slender means: he quietly became a world authority on snow crystal formation and, through his articles and published copies of his photomicrographs, became known as ‘Snowflake Bentley’,or sometimes just ‘The Snowflake Man’. He saw and entertained worlds others merely glanced at: he was a humble, absorbed genius.
Sometimes, when the black dog is howling behind the door, I imagine what his life might have been like as he sat for fifty winters, alone, in silent thought and study. It explores intriguing questions: who were the three impressive women in his life – one ‘Mina,’ for whom he once scratched ‘Window frost monogram, Mina’, a beautiful but timid declaration of love to the girl the neighbours called ‘sassy’? The story ponders how does an individual can sustain, over a lifetime, a brilliant interest in something others –even his own father– called foolish? Bentley saw in the snow crystals a numinous, spiritual quality: he saw them as a metaphor for heavenly life. I unfurl, for myself, a tale of a boy mocked, an interest passionately abided by, of loneliness and love lost and found and celebrates in its story that it is Bentley who is also a metaphor – for those who were laughed at, chided or mocked for what they believed: the Snowflake Man never gave up.
I do think that depression, as the great psychologist Dorothy Rowe described it, is a prison. But I also know that we are both prisoner and the jailed person: we hold they key. So when I feel that sense of confinement, I hold Bentley’s story in the palm of my hand like a tiny book and they story gets bigger in front of my eyes and I see someone who was fascinated by the world around him and who did not give up in in his pursuance of an understanding of it because his delight was so much. A Sisyphus of snow and ice.
How beautiful it is to see
The eye trained on a telling shape –
Which seems to say, “I am the first
You are the last, to see me in my perfect form,
The only man to sit and wait
For what this moment must become.”
The snowflake falls; he catches it
On worsted cloth of deepest black:
It takes a place – but not alone,
For, ferried from beloved sky,
The crystal specimens collude
To give a pattern to a world
Through Vermont’s still and patient man.
For fifty years he sits and holds
The architecture through his glass:
Dendritic crystal, needle fine,
A bullet, hexagon or flower.
He does not mind if they should laugh
At Sisyphus in snow and ice.
So all is well, but glances ask:
The man with camera, microscope —
With evanescence in his heart,
Is he lonely, sat out there,
With slide and board for hours and hours?
A splint of broom to hold each one –
The snowflake man who gathers up
Each tiny plan to hold it dear:
It will not come again to us.
The horae, hours of prayer or joy,
But not with words, this silent man:
His goddesses the six point stars:
He sits and worships, reverent still,
A lucent world and what it tells.
He checks the hoar frost and the glass
To see the curlicues of line —
The ivy leaf or comfrey stem,
The miracles of build that come.
He does not care to go, for now,
Beyond the cloth, the hands that serve
To show us all a myriad frames
Which coalesce within his grasp.
How beautiful it is to see
The eye trained on a telling shape
Which seems to say “I am the first,
You are the best to see me in my perfect form.”
If I should fall, then say to me the reason clouds form as they are,
Why ice should seed along a scratch, why I should love my six point star.
I do not know or care to see the smiles that fall in brazen line,
But innocence and clearest eye embolden me to make her mine.
I speak of love and quiet worlds, of Jericho on winter nights:
The sweets of patient maple taps, a sugar house and amber lights
Of unctuous syrup mixed with snow, auroras made of rosy glow,
My borealis blood red sheen – if I should fall, then make me know.
When I am not and you are here, beholden to this dusty room,
Be gentle with the tenuous forms; please do not break the splint of broom,
But hold the snowflakes page by page, arranged as I have left them now;
Consider this – why should they be, ephemeral and urgent? How?
In nature’s fragile crystal frame I see a world beyond the hill,
Beyond the log pile, brook and shed; behind our eyes when we lie still.
And when I fall, then say to me you read its language, pure and keen —
And set my records on my desk and light my lamp: make them be seen.
A loved one
In my childhood, I internalised a notion of being the wrong kind of kid because that’s what I was always being told. So sometimes I spoke to a litter of imaginary friends, gleaned from books or bands and sometimes, as I got older, I tried to stand back from myself and make myself into another character, with another name, observing all the way. Along the way I learned what I needed in friendship: understanding; humour; rebellion. Background or age were—and remain—an utter irrelevance and, so, when I was thirteen my best friend was a quirky eighty year old Irish great grandmother. There was nothing I could do or say that would shock her. And she is here in this story along with a characterisation of me.
Flora was a funny kind of kid; struggled with friendships in school, in the way at home. Never going to be one, as she was often told, to set the world on fire. Hmm. She struggled with that one because, of course, like more than would care to admit it, she wanted to set the world on fire; to be conspicuously brilliant at something, (modest, though) known to be kind, intuitive, creative. Well, and pretty, too. Shy throughout, she would smile at other people—older people- but it never really occurred to her that she might engage them in conversation.
Flora, I suppose, was damned by faint praise.
“All that matters is that you try hard.”
“I know you’re not really determined, but we’re still proud of you.”
Lovely, but somehow missing the spot, she felt.
Rhoda lived down the row. She was about eighty, with a soft, kind face but, Flora sensed, girders of steel. Rhoda had had a tough life, widowed two years ago and had lost a child in adulthood, too. There was something resilient about her; joyful, even. One day she asked Flora in. The girl had always smiled at her, but never chatted. That shyness thing again. One day, though, she was just kicking about in the garden, disconsolate, after a bad week at school which nothing seemed to cure, when Rhoda asked her to come and help. Flowers needed moving but Rhoda had stiffened up.
Flora felt that she wouldn’t know what to say to Rhoda, but also understood that she must lend a hand. So flowers were moved to a better spot; clumps of irises and opium poppies were divided: Flora discovered that she knew a bit about this from having watched her father at work. Not instruction; just osmosis. The next week, clematis and honeysuckle cut back, under Rhoda’s watchful eye. Flora saw to her own delight, though, that she knew about finding a strong shoot and where to cut. Getting ready for Spring.
Flora found that she relaxed and began to chat. Squabbles with her more articulate, popular, profoundly cooler schoolmates began to recede with snipping, tidying, mud and the abundant cakes and cups of tea that Rhoda produced. The girl began to chat to Rhoda — about her parents, school, not being particularly good at anything. Rhoda listened; gave her the occasional pat on the arm and said simply: “You will find your voice and, you know, when you get to my age, you’ll see that none of the things you worried about ever came to much.”
Flora is older now, more sure of herself; Rhoda is a little unsteady on her feet. But the visits are kept up and assuaging the loneliness cuts both ways. Sometimes the least likely person might be a peculiar girl’s best friend — when it matters most.