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?

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

A quiet life. I think that’s where I’m heading

I’ve always been quiet; I am merely accidentally loud. I love activity, but become extremely stressed and tired out by noise when it is clamouring for my attention and when it is a noise competing with other noises.

I have always been melancholy; I look the opposite!

A while ago, if you read it, I wrote about an epiphany I had in Nando’s – here it is again: https://annavaughtwrites.com/2022/02/25/an-epiphany-and-some-things-i-want-to-say/

I’ve been thinking about all this again – and the noise and the melancholy – because I need to reflect on changes I feel I must make. These are really changes in my thought and, because writing and reading are at the core of what I do, some of those changes may impact on that, or rather my perception of it. You see, after the past intense years of my eldest son being terribly ill and the total failure of multiple agencies to help him and us, while I was already managing chronic illness, I am a bit tired.

I wrote before about how I don’t have the strength to pitch articles now. I may do the occasional one with someone I already know, with whom I have worked perhaps, but that’s it. Also, I will continue doing as much of the recommended push for The Alchemy, which I am crowdfunding for – https://unbound.com/books/the-alchemy/?utm_campaign=thealchemy&utm_medium=AuthorSocial&utm_source=AuthorActiv …but what does not work and what I cannot do, I shall not berate myself for. Everything else: I will meet deadlines for forthcoming books, greet good news for future work with love and enthusiasm, but other than that, I need to start relying on others a bit more (not to mention avoiding those who have been unsupportive or unkind; I cannot make everyone like me, can I?) Because the asking, pitching, getting involved in a lot of things is, I’ve discovered, too much for me. Everything I have learned about the book business has been through twitter, but I can’t constantly hawk my work in the way I have been. I thought that was what sold books; it isn’t: it’s a good team of people behind you with strategic planning and you, being your bookish self, as part of that.

I was reflecting, as I looked at Instagram briefly this morning, that, even if I were to be invited to do exciting book events all over the country or abroad – I am not proud to admit that I get awful pangs of jealousy and might have beens as I see many doing such things – how could I? The kids need me, because when one is long-term ill and there’s no professional support – we are talking years here – it has an impact on everyone. And I am managing pain and mental health stuff, as usual; waves of fatigue. I’ve been pushing myself too hard, haven’t I.

So yes, time to rely on others a bit more. There are plenty of lovely book folk about and some of the bad experiences I have had are put to bed while we focus on what comes next.

I think the key here: take your time and find good folk and work with them. Don’t try to do too much and don’t expect too much of yourself if your life is already complex.

Books – the reading and the writing are a joy: don’t lose that in the clamour.

Sometimes a quiet life is where it’s at.

x This is me, looking at you – in case you need quiet, too.

THESE ENVOYS OF BEAUTY

For this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and by kind permission with the publisher of my forthcoming memoir, I offer you part of the opening section of that book. Please note the trigger warning and that this book is still in an editorial stage, to be published Spring 2023. Text is copyright. Here is the publisher’s link to the book:

https://www.reflex.press/these-envoys-of-beauty-by-anna-vaught/

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A collection of interconnected essays on the natural world and its detailed and passionate observance over decades in the context of trauma and mental illness.

Trigger warning. Please be aware that this book is about personal experience and includes accounts of or references to mental ill health, OCD, self-harming, suicide, depression, anxiety, dissociation, and derealisation. Also, to violence and cruelty within a family. Importantly, some of these experiences were lived through by a child so please read mindfully.

TO go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities , how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty and light the universe with their admonishing smile. (Ralph Waldo Emerson. From Nature, Chapter One[1].)

A note on the text.

All epigraphs are from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay ‘Nature’, as is the title of the book (shown in the first longer epigraph), I have included botanical names for all plants and trees because they are so beautiful and I thought readers might enjoy seeing them, too. As a kid, I loved to learn them and would roll the names around in my mouth. Like sweeties. Only – arguably – Latin is better for you in the mouth than butterscotch.

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Introduction.

So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes

There are twelve essays in These Envoys of Beauty, and each looks at some element – or elements – in the natural world and what it has meant to me. When I say that, I mean in terms of how I look at it, how I feel, how that has changed but, for the scope of this book, what any of it has to do with trauma and its management. Let me explain.

I grew up very rurally, raised by a Welsh family on the Somerset-Wiltshire border, but I have habitually spent a great deal of time in West Wales, particularly Pembrokeshire, because that is where most of my family is from. I now live in West Wiltshire. Open land, woods, riverbanks were and are my world. I am also sure that they are how I survived – not better, but intact.

What I show you in this book rests on formative incidents as a child and adolescent: bookish, nerdy, and socially awkward (all of which I still am, only I do not mind now). I spent as much time outside as I possibly could and was always scrambling about somewhere, up trees, in ditches, into rivers and streams and home to look things up and, sometimes, preserve specimens in books or a flower press – or found antique treasures in pillboxes and tins. That is still me today. If you had looked in my primary school books or those in the early years of secondary school, what I wanted to be when I grew up was a botanist. I would spend hours out there and, afterwards, hours in there, looking at my guides and drawing plants and animals – a particularly tame wren on the dog roses; a tree mallow with its flowers open to the sun, looking happy. Lavatera arborea: I loved the rhythm of those words as a child and would linger there now.

            I was raised on the crest of a hill, with orchards and old woods behind me and the fields below me and to one side; the river Frome in the valley, near to where it meets the Avon. The Wiltshire sign was below our house but parallel with a lower wall and I was always delighted that where I lived straddled two counties. I must have thought this was unique, back then. Or forbidden: that you had to live in one place or another, not in two. Then, the time in Wales: St Brides Bay, Cardigan Bay, the islands – Ramsey, Skomer and Skokholm – and the water lands; the Daugleddau estuary where my grandmother had once lived, where part of it ended at Cresswell Quay. There were other places that felt like a home, too – Cardiff Bay, the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains and I have always felt more Welsh than English, because I was raised by Welsh people in England. I feel that within me, and I like the way the two things tangle, itself a story for another book.

In many ways I was so lucky, and I am very aware of the privilege of growing up in these places. This is one story: bluebells, wild garlic, wood aconites, red campion, mud, and flood and feeling the lichen and moss and stone stiles.

Photo by Vlad Kovriga on Pexels.com

But there is a second story.

I did not understand the dynamics of my immediate family, that I was blessed in where I lived made me think it was terrible to confess it, and I am not sure who I could tell. There was deep weirdness, death, unspoken illness, and psychiatric problems the nature of which I did not understand in my father’s family and, since the day he died, when I was eighteen, I have not seen them: they cut me off, just like that, my world there and everything that it brought into my imagination at first, had disappeared. I did not understand at first that its best bits could live on in that imagination, lively and fresh, though wrought by that deep weirdness. Then, my parents and sibling. I did not understand and still do not and, because I have explored it elsewhere and it is not the main thrust of the book – though you can see and infer much, reading through – I will not do so. But there were events which still, as I write, make me feel unsettled. My mouth becomes dry, and I feel that I am under threat. I do not expect to get better from this. It is all because of my mother. She was a splendid woman and I loved her, really, against my will. Because although there were streaks of that splendidness with me, what I was given and what I was left with was the sense that I was evil, the bringer of harm, a blot, a brat, a harlot, a slut, a terrible, selfish thing. This, she would always tell me, even when I was very small, was what everyone else thought too. I did not know any different.

She would slap me, pull my hair, kick me when I had fallen and scratch at my ears, but mostly it was the words. The confusion lay, as I say, because I grew up in a beautiful place. I could see that, empirically, but I knew it, hard, because my parents had come from large working class rural families, and had made the ascent, they would say, to the middle classes, or were very much on the way. It makes sense that they should want to remind me of blessings. But, you see, my mother also repeatedly told me I did not deserve it. She was ill a great deal and I remember feeling sick and shivering at the tension in the house. She took the time to tell me that I had made her worse. Then, when I was thirteen, my father became ill. The descent was slow at first, then rapid and dizzying. I did my best to help them both, to care for them, while feeling that I was burden and blot and then came the day that I was told I had hastened his death. I had always worried I was capable of this. Now it had come true.

At night, I would recite Latin names from plant books like mantras and talismans. I had awful ruminating and intrusive thoughts. I would feel a bad thought about someone ushering in – not something I felt, but a collocation of words in my head; a fit of diction, that was all. But by the time I was seven or eight, it was so entrenched that I was a bringer of harm that I decided I had to expel the words so as not to make the bad thing happen. I would have to go and tell that person, always an adult, a dinner lady, a teacher, the school caretaker, the vicar. What they thought I cannot imagine, but I do not remember reassurance ever being given.

By my late teens I had developed severe anxiety, depression. I first tried to take my own life when I was fifteen and again when I was nineteen. On the first of those occasions, my mother would not take me to hospital but instead said I should go to my room. I did not tell anyone this until after the birth of my first child, when I was dreadfully unwell and being looked after by a consultant psychiatrist in outpatients and a kindly GP. This is the first time I have written about it. I don’t know whether she hoped I would die – I had taken a considerable amount of paracetamol – or if it was simply too much for her to think about. I did not understand then, and I still don’t and will never have the opportunity to ask. Both my parents were dead by the time I became an adult.

From the age of twenty one I have been in and out of care – such as is available – and, ever since my teens, I have had difficult periods, of varying length and intensity, where I don’t know where or quite who I am; where my edges are. It is exhausting. It was never talked about by my parents, and they did not try to help me. My mother said mental health problems were an indulgence. She said moods were a myth, especially moods in teenagers, a licence for bad behaviour. PMT, she said, was made up. People who were mentally ill were those who had failed to control themselves. I don’t know why she said these things, but I feel now, looking back, that there was such burning life in her which had been thwarted. Moreover, mental illness – and severe mental illness – was rife on both sides of my family and I wonder if neither of my parents could bear to accept it within our family home. They rejected it because they were frightened and wanted to retain control and function; in doing so, they created something that was dysfunctional. Any one of us can be ill – and any one of us can have things go wrong with our mind.

I remember that it often felt so cold in our house, though a fire was often lit. I remember the day when my mother bought lamps as a development from the days of big light. I felt like we had arrived, and I loved the soft pools of light which fell on the floor and then, wonders, beside my bed. But you see that softness did not last and it was cosmetic. I looked outside.

Oh, there was a lot more than I feel I can tell which went on, but you can infer as we go because the point of this book is not degradation and terror, but joy and survival. Of course, I learned a good deal from some – not all! – of my therapy received sporadically over the decades of adulthood, but all that time, today, this afternoon, it was my connection with the natural world (and my reading[2]) and all things in it which shored me up. On my worst days, I cannot go far, so I am just outside, but I am listening intently. I am a rural girl, but I am observing wherever I go.

Photo by Mihai Benu021ba on Pexels.com

In this book, stay with me as I try to show you the world I explored, what it meant to me then, and now. The essays are not chronological, but dart back and forth between them and within, memories and ideas associating and cohering. I do not mean to mythologise nature, because it is also full of facts and yet it illuminates, calms, and makes things intelligible. Sometimes I feel it as a metaphor, sometimes just as a sense or a reminder or prod – in the hard lines of something or the delicate feather of rime – to think about something with a different attitude. Also, even when it is small about me, I perceive space; that’s how it was for me as a child.

‘We constantly refer back to the natural world to try and discover who we are. Nature is the most potent source of metaphors to describe and explain our behaviour and feelings,’ notes Richard Mabey in Nature Cure[3] and that is true, I think. When I was very young, and I would run out, or just stand and stare, I would look to plants and trees to help me explain to myself a bewildering world. There was something else, encapsulated by Wilson A. Bentley, known as ‘The Snowflake Man,’ who studied the snow and published many extraordinary photomicrographs of snowflakes. Bentley saw the snowflakes, as he observed them from Jericho, in Vermont, as a metaphor for all things beautiful on earth, but also ‘The snow crystals…come to us not only to reveal the wondrous beauty of the minute in Nature, but to teach us that all earthly beauty is transient and must soon fade away. But though the beauty of the snow is evanescent, like the beauties of the autumn, as of the evening sky, it fades, but to come again.’[4]

I want to reiterate. Nature has not been my cure. It has been my inspiration, teacher, and companion.

I am not better, but I have never been alone.

Photo by David Roberts on Pexels.com

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Essays, Lectures and Poems, ed. Robert D. Richardson, Bantam 1990, 2007. ‘Nature’ was written in 1836

[2] If you like, you can read an account of reading, the imagination and survival in an essay I wrote for Trauma. An Anthology of Writing about Art and Mental Health, Dodo Ink, ed Mills and Cuell, 2021); it also uses some sections from my first book, which was a work of autobiographical fiction.

[3] Nature Cure, Richard Mabey, Chatto & Windus, 2005, Little Toller, 2021, p. 32

[4] Quoted in The Snowflake Man, a Biography of Wilson A. Bentley, Duncan Blanchard, Macdonald and Woodward Publishing Company. 1998.


A New Year Newsletter

Here is what I am up to next year. Or rather, here is what I can tell you so far. Now look, readers and writers: things have got most tricky at Bookworm Towers. It happens. But, you see, never feel that if life is difficult, if you experience illness or are bereft, your creativity will wither alongside. Take heart; nurture it and believe in it. Make things. That is what I am continuing to do. In the midst of sadness I am writing another book.

What’s coming? In April, you can read my new novel, Saving Lucia. Here she is above. The book that started with a chance sighting of that photo above – the one where the elderly lady is feeding the birds, so very tenderly. She was the Honourable Violet Gibson and, in April 1926, she went to Rome and tried to kill Mussolini, She shot him in the nose. She got closer than anyone else. Lady Gibson was knocked to the ground, put in prison and, eventually, deported; thereafter, she was certified insane and spent the rest of her life in St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton. Later, a fellow patient was Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce. What if…and do you see the other women above? That’s Blanche, Queen of the Hysterics at the Salpetriere and that’s Monsieur Charcot demonstrating what happens under hypnosis. She is most remarkably responsive. To her right is Bertha Pappenheim, a prominent Jewish social worker, whose institute was razed by the Nazis. It was not until twenty years after her death that she was also revealed to be ‘Anna O’, in Freud and Breuer’s On Hysteria. These women have an extraordinary story to tell you, so stick around. The book is published on April the 24th, but Bluemoose Books is starting a subscription service, where it will be available to subscribers from (I gather) late February. Follow all news here: https://bluemoosebooks.com/ Saving Lucia is part of Bluemoose’s all women catalogue for 2020.

Below is a gallery of images pertinent to what I have been writing about; from a bookshop of towering shelves, an old asylum window, Victorian portraits (the first one has a memento mori which has been added subsequently, but I liked it!), a devil, a baptism in 17th century Virginia, shades of grief, my late grandmother’s house on the Cleddau in Pembrokeshire (the setting for two books now), the holy well of St Non’s near St David’s and Walton West church on St Brides’ Bay in Pembrokeshire, fictionalised in the book I have just sent to my agent…(see below)…

In June, I have an essay in Dodo Ink’s Trauma: Art as a Response to Mental Health; it’s called ‘In Order to Live’ and is about reading and the imagination in my life, kid up, in the face of trauma. Reading as survival, in fact. http://www.dodoink.com/blog and – details when they are up – I also have some weird fiction in a new anthology by Unsung Stories; it’s a really interesting concept and one very important to me: weird fiction exploring mental health themes but also hopeful uplift on these themes. You will see!

In September, my first short story collection is out. Here.

famished cover-c (1)

This is already available for pre-order as part of Influx Press’s subscription service. https://www.influxpress.com/famished Hit the subscription button.

‘In this dark and toothsome collection, Anna Vaught enters a strange world of apocryphal feasts and disturbing banquets. Famished explores the perils of selfish sensuality and trifle while child rearing, phantom sweetshop owners, the revolting use of sherbet in occult rituals, homicide by seaside rock, and the perversion of Thai Tapas. Once, that is, you’ve been bled dry from fluted cups by pretty incorporeals and learned about consuming pride in the hungriest of stately homes. Famished: eighteen stories to whet your appetite and ruin your dinner.’ Oooh and ugh.

Ah but that is not all my bravehearts. I have also, thus is the way these things work, submitted a second novel – witchery in mid 17th-century Somerset and Virginia called The Revelations of Celia Masters – and a second short story collection called Ravished. And if there is news, you will be the first to hear it.

AND

I have written my first magical realism and handed my work in to the literary agency who this year signed me: Mackenzie Wolf, NYC and one of the best girls in the world, my agent Kate Johnson. I think I am allowed to say that this is called The Zebra and Lord Jones. I have been asked by a few people why I am with an American agency. This is partly because we are an Anglo-American crew at Bookworm Towers and I try to split my time as much as I can, partly because they also have a presence here and partly because of my literary interests and ambitions and where. And because of Kate. The best girl. I am desperate to tell you more about this book, set in Wales, London and Ethiopia during WWII – but I cannot. x

When we have had a meeting about it, I will tell you more about a thing which I am over the moon to be able to do: for September 2020 I am offering at least partial fee remission for an MFA (in creative writing) for a student from a disadvantaged background. I have asked if there can be a focus on someone whose life has been circumscribed by mental illness. This is because mine has been – and that’s really why I wrote a novel, Saving Lucia (back to top) about this theme, too. And I am building a writing retreat and teaching room in my garden. I do mean I am building it. With a bit of help, When I am up and running, I will tell you all.

Oh, there will be a lot to share. We will bring you events and news on Saving Lucia – here she is again and note the four windows and the bird on this beautiful cover, below – and I shall share them here and on social media and tell you about everything else that is happening. Saving Lucia is my third book, with the first two Killing Hapless Ally and The Life of Almost no longer with their original publisher and on the move. We will bring you news on this all in good time; you can find copies floating about though!

I have chosen my FREE READ for 2020. I usually do four a year, but 2020 sees all this work on top of my day job (I am an English teacher, tutor and mentor for young people) and extra care for my two eldest boys who are in exam years and have additional needs. This is going to be a rollercoaster year, isn’t it?

I hope we get to meet and I wish you a Happy 2020 and much wonderful reading, perhaps writing. Oh – and I mentioned that I was writing a new book. Here is how it started. The image is of me with the two Shirley Jackson books which are the biggest influence on what I am writing at the moment. It’s called We All Live in a House on Fire -and have a Welsh cake for knowing that the title comes from Tennessee Williams’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. And I can’t tell you anything about what I am writing either. Except that I am a third of the way through and very excited. It’s strange how ideas bubble up. I was upset one night and couldn’t sleep. I started re-reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle and there we were. By 4.a.m. I had started writing chapter 2. I anticipate that I will have finished this new novel by the end of March. I write quickly; it’s just how I roll. I have written all my books in 3-4 months, but I wrote my two short story collections in three crazy weeks a pop. Everyone is different and, anyway, I’d say it’s not the writing that takes the time, it’s the editing. Imagine that, when your book goes to your editor – aside of what you have done yourself – it’s about half-way there. But you may feel differently!

But for now, it’s all about Saving Lucia. I hope you like it xxx

What I am up to!

I thought, as I am about to go into hiding for a bit, that I ought to update my writing news. This isn’t my day job, but my goodness there’s a lot happening with me, books and writing.

Before Christmas, we hope to give you information on events for the launch of my new novel, Saving Lucia. This is an extraordinary adventure, starring Violet Gibson, the Irish Aristocrat who tried to assassinate Mussolini in 1926…Isn’t this a beautiful cover? Note the bird. It’s a passerine. Note the four lit windows. I LOVE IT and pretty soon will tell you why it has this design and whose windows they are.

savingluciaCOVER

We have been working on final edits and book has now gone to proof. I hope that I might see you at London or Bath launches in April and there will be events during the year.

This is a very busy year for me. In addition to teaching, tutoring and mentoring young people, I am also a volunteer and I need to see my two eldest boys through exam years and also…in September…my first volume of short stories is out. You can even pre-order now as part of the subscription service from Influx: https://www.influxpress.com/famished

It’s wonderful to see such different cover styles; this brilliant edible plate that gets weirder the more you look at it. 18 stories: weird fiction, bit punky, lots of Welsh, terrible feasts, gothic pop shops, killer sweets and some funny bits of consumption. It’s very different to Saving Lucia, but I will be so interested to see people make comparisons and find links. Because, there are some. To discuss later, I hope. And next year, we will bring you details of launches and maybe lascivious lunches and oooh.

famished cover-c (1)

I have an essay – a memoir piece – called ‘In Order to Live’ in April’s Dodo Ink Anthology, Trauma: Art as a Response to Mental Health and towards summer, you can see my weird fiction, ‘House’, in a new anthology from Unsung Stories. I hope that, during the year, I will have the opportunity to write further pieces connected with the two books I have out next year.

Alongside all this, I have a further short story collection on submission – ‘Ravished’ – and another novel, The Revelations of Celia Masters, which is historical fiction, waiting to be read. And I am working with my agent, Kate Johnson of Mackenzie Wolf http://www.mwlit.com/ on other things. She is in actual fact the best agent in the world. You might have noticed me tweeting questions about all kinds of things from zebra feet to The Holy Grail. I tell you no more about why. But I can say that what I am working on is Magical Realism and I was lucky enough to have a brilliant beta reader for this that I’d love to name…but will embarrass at a later date. I am small fry compared to the folk this chap has worked with!

As to my first two books, Killing Hapless Ally and The Life of Almost, these are on the move so not with their original publisher and we will give you news on these all in good time.

You know, I have only been writing for four years and next week I am going to be handing in my seventh book. I just rocked up, daft and loud as I am; I assumed that I could not do this, though I have spent my life around books. Reader, writer, doubter: I was wrong. Publishing and writing have, I know, got a way to go in terms of access and possibility. We hear about gatekeepers and you have to understand why. But I also want to say, consider this: is the gatekeeper YOU, mired in so much self doubt that you cannot move? Doubt is normal and healthy and proves you are self-reflective. You will be a better writer because of it.

If, over the coming years, I can encourage you to get the books you want to write out into the world, then you tell me, okay?

Here’s a picture of me so you recognise me. One of my kids took it; no filters; nothing fancy.

Hello.

annapic

Anna. x

On writing, on difficulty and sadness, but also the magic of reading and making a new story. Yeah: I AM EXCITED, ALRIGHT x

So, I want to tell you how it feels to be writing what I am writing at the moment. It’s a strange time, because it is also a time of waiting. News of my first short story collection is out and I am receiving edits for my third novel, which is out next April. I have just written some notes for the latter – Saving Lucia, Bluemoose – and some thoughts on cover images; not, that is, what the cover image is to be, but concepts and thoughts I might want to be represented there. There is a further volume of short stories to be read (that is on submission), I have a novel waiting to be sent, and I have been gathering in time for my ongoing project; a new novel, the idea for which began germinating in spring when, quite by chance, I saw a newspaper article for autumn 1940 about London zoo…I can share some details, but not many. I want to tell you what I have been doing and how exciting it has felt, as well as delineate a few of its low points. kit

 

  1. Yesterday I wrote a new chapter. In that I vividly imagined myself in St Nicholas’s Church in Deptford. Here lies Christopher (Kit) Marlowe, a huge favourite of mine, buried in an unmarked grave in 1593 and with a commemorative plaque: its plangent quotation from Dr Faustus made me shiver. Now, I hadn’t actually intended to visit Marlowe, but one of the young characters from the book goes to visit the grave of his father in the churchyard there and his mother tells him, not for the first time, about Kit Marlowe and his untimely death in a Deptford Tavern. There is a great deal in this novel about memory and grief and suddenly, with another shiver, I began to make some connections with the poet and playwright and some of the themes in the book. I can share those with you at some later date. Also that St Nicholas’s church turns out to have been badly damaged by an incendiary bomb on the very night the (true) event on which this novel turns occurred.
  2. I realised, after sensible advice, that in this book, I had to stretch out the action and give it room; I made it first as a novella, but it didn’t work because it was too rushed. I had to allow more time for relationships between characters to develop and that the plot was not tight enough. I’d say that the two biggest flaws in my writing (your view may be different if you read my work) are that I over-express ideas because I love luxuriating in language and consequently a perfectly respectable idea gets lost underneath clusters of these over-expressed phrases which would be HIDEOUS for a reader. The second thing is that I describe too much  – particularly about sensual detail, texture, landscape and the nature of a place – and advance the plot too little. I am learning to be flexible on all this. I have to be! I am not precious about my work, but I do tend to be stubborn about keeping long, poly-clausal sentences because I personally love them; sentences of many clauses held together by a range of punctuation. Work in progress, that one. I also have a really irritating habit of using archaisms and I’ve also had a couple of bitchy reviews about having to read my books with a dictionary on the side. I thought that sounded great, but again, work in progress! You want to be you, but you don’t want to irritate your readers, either. Is that a good maxim, do you think?
  3. I am not a very confident person. Tricky background and so on; lots of truly unhelpful thoughts. I fake it; propel myself into a room. The teaching background has helped in this way. However, I am easy to crush (there’s an antidote or two to that, though). Now, I was told only the other day (and not for the first time) by a member of my extended family – sorry folks; I know you didn’t mean it like this, but it hurts – that when my next book comes out, it’s really hoped that no-one knows we are related. And someone else asked me to tell them what happens in what I am writing and what I am editing, then said, ‘Well I won’t be reading any of that. I don’t think I’d like that at all.’ People, I would rather stick pins in my eyes than say this to a member of my family, but it is not meant to hurt; it’s an expression of disapproval or a lack of interest because if I wrote it, it can’t possibly be good – or it will contain stuff that people would rather not associate with. What can I say? Sometimes we are swatted back to our earliest pathology. Sometimes, when people say such things, I am afraid that I hear my mother’s voice mocking and criticising: it is full of horrid triggers and can spin me into dissociation if I am having trouble coping more generally. (And I don’t mean this in term of criticism of my work by readers, because that is part of the process.) BUT my bravehearts, I want to say that although I had a jolly good cry the other day, by teatime I was in Ethiopia meeting a Grevy’s zebra, by late evening, I was watching Haile Selassie get his photo taken on Brighton Pier (when he was in exile) and by late at night I was back in Deptford again, by way of the Cleddau Estuary and I thought, oh book, oh reading, writing, imagination, (forgive the pink doughnut and the sprinkles, which truly don’t go with the plaque of Kit Marlowe and the sombre comments…no: fuck it. I LIKE pink doughnuts and sprinkles so…), oh book, oh reading, writing, imagination,

    woman holding donut with sprinkles
    Photo by Karley Saagi on Pexels.com
  4. Writing a book is a daunting prospect. Here’s something that really helps me. It’s something Hilary Mantel said. That she ‘will do a little scene…then another little scene and try not to think of the enormity of the task ahead.’ That’s very much how I am getting this current book written. I know that, when I have written this post, and before (or after) I have cooked tea for the kids and sorted out domestics and helped with an English homework, I will be writing a ‘little scene’ about some evacuees arriving on St Brides Bay in Pembrokeshire in 1939. I know that there is one particular lad called Ernest (he’s the boy from Deptford, if you remember that I was there, in the churchyard, regarding Kit Marlowe!) and that he is lodged with a family that I have based on what I know of that of a distant cousin of my maternal grandmother’s, she whose stories have, my whole life, affected by imagination so much. I have been imagining him all day, though: his life, the times, the details of the very stones and the sea wall around places I know well. So, when I come to write this scene, it will seem at least partly familiar. As if it were a figment of memory that has come forth, filling out a story for me. Again, that feels like magic; a gift.
  5. I hope that, whatever you are writing and despite its ups and downs and the ups and downs of your life, you find solace and happiness as you are absorbed in the rich world that you are creating: something that did not exist before you made it. I hope that it is also so with your reading. Anna x

    books in shelf
    Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

WRITING. Ten thoughts on the last four years! (PS don’t tell me off for not really having a twitter break; it’s automatic from my site. x)

I am off social media until November or so as I am working on edits for my next book (novel, Saving Lucia, which is out in April) and doing a rewrite – and expansion – of another book. Head is down because I’m balancing this with teaching and a brood of offspring and…well, you know. Anyway, if you reply to me on twitter or FB, I won’t see it, but I hope you find these thoughts encouraging or interesting. They are not only about me, but about what I have learned and seen, since I started writing in 2014.

quotes by lemn sissay
Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

  1. Don’t ever assume that writing is not for you. There are many reasons why you might. In my case, I thought, ‘Oh I’ve left it too late’ and other lame things related, in my case, to self esteem, which has, I will tell you frankly (and as I have written about elsewhere), been radically affected by a tricky background and a daily management of sometimes scary mental health stuff. And I am not going to sugar coat issues of structural inequality; it’s there – let’s look for ways to overcome it as we support each other.  Writing, if you want to do it and can make a good shot at it, IS FOR YOU.
  2. Related to this, I bet pretty much everyone feels like an outsider or has that old chestnut, imposter syndrome. I am constantly sure I am about to make a massive fool of myself, but if I do, I do it with a full heart. Make sense? Would you rather be mightily arrogant and therefore, I would argue, less able to self reflect, less delicate in your observations, perhaps less kind to others, because you NOTICE LESS – and maybe you are thus a lesser writer? Because don’t you need doubt in order to write well?
  3. There could well be some mighty cock ups. You don’t need to hear the ins and outs of what has gone wrong for me, but you might be heftily let down by someone, have a book that is not promoted, simply not be valued or find yourself actually gaslit by someone you work on a book with, in some capacity. This is not the end; it is part of learning, of amassing (sorry, but I do love swearing) the twats in one useful corner (or rather the people who were twats to you) and, though beaten, you can get back up. The writing community is large and welcoming, everyone has disasters sooner or later, far as I can tell, every writer has bad track in common (that is, a book that tanked, but bear in mind that this is more subtle than it looks because much also depends on the provenance of that book) and so lift your sights.
  4. Do not wait for ideal circumstances. Room of your own? I should cocoa; no chance in my house. To be happier, thinner, less busy, add anything…NOOOO. If you want to do it, start right now. YEAH. THIS AFTERNOON. Even it’s just scribbles or a few lines; or a chapter; or the whole first draft vomited onto the page. It will be dreadful, it will be your shit first draft, but it will also be the germ of something that is not. Or lead on to another piece of writing that is so much better in the first place.
  5. You do not have to write every day. Well, if you feel you do you do. But don’t feel that you can’t write a book if you can’t write every day. Write when you can. Also, don’t wait for inspiration. Start writing and inspiration will come; if it doesn’t, take a break. Try later.

    brown notebook in between of a type writer and gray and black camera
    Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
  6. Read. It’s your greatest teacher. Why not read from a genre you haven’t tried before? Or perhaps read a book that seems too long or too difficult. Try works in translation, novellas, poetry, a play.  All time periods if you like. Get to know the brilliant small presses there are. Try non-fiction as well as fiction.
  7. Your writing and all the shit first drafts that got crossed out or maybe the books – it happens – that didn’t make it: it’s all an apprenticeship. You are learning. While I have been writing, though, I’ve been learning about the industry, because that seemed to me to be something I ought to do. Plus I was interested because I like to learn now things work. By the industry, I mean learning about small presses and big publishers, agents, independent and big booksellers, international markets, editors, marketing and book PR. Also, connect with people. I am a funny mix; I’m naturally quite shy and need to hide, preferably under a duvet with a book, after a big social event, because my tank runneth dry. Nonetheless, I love talking to people and learning about what they do; chatting to people who love reading is a joy of my life but it is also a great way of learning what’s going on.
  8. Pay it forward. Help others. I am a great believer in communities; they are the mainstay, I think, of our world. If you get a break, try and help someone else to. Or just try anyway.
  9. When you come to submit – and this is based on manuscripts I have seen and conversations I’ve had with people more knowledgeable than I am – be you, but be mindful of the fact that agents and small publishers get many, many submissions and so as well as being you, you’ve got to be you pitching up having done the groundwork. Craft your approach really well; make your query personal to them and really do your homework – on their catalogue, say; or be aware – and tell them – of a recent wish list they published or an interview they gave where they mentioned a book they’d love to see and you think you might pique an interest. Likewise, if you are submitting to an indie press, then you really should have read some of the books on that catalogue, otherwise why are you submitting to them if you don’t really know what they publish? If you’re submitting in a particular genre you need to be aware of that genre at market. And follow the submissions guidelines always and without exception.
  10. This might be a testy one, but I stand by it. I have found the best use of your time while waiting for rejections – or hits! – is to be working on something new. I’ve heard people say that they cannot start another book until they know about the one that they have submitted, but you might be waiting many months. This may or may not have happened to you and it sucks and it isn’t really good enough, but here are two things that happened to me. First, I wrote something to time for an agent who then rejected it with a form letter after many a cheery back and forth and I never heard from them again. I thought THIS IS IT (how naive was I?) and didn’t work on anything else. Then I stalled because I was upset. Also, I haven’t, compared with some of you extraordinary indomitable people out there, submitted that widely. But I would say that about 30% or so of the people I submitted to, including big agencies who promise they take notice of the slush pile, never replied. I had a no reply after a full manuscript request. Submission is testing; rejection after rejection is testing. There will be low points. So I say, don’t wait to clear your decks before you start another book. Get cracking. This, by the way, is one reason I’ve managed (nearly!) 7 in four years and I am not a full time writer by any means: I am always writing a book. And the writing can be planning, researching, daydreaming in the bath, reading, mind-mapping: all this is your book writing, be reassured. x

    books in shelf
    Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

On creative writing: this is for you, GCSE students.

This is especially for my cousin, Gareth. and one of my own boys, Isaac; year 11, both. But I can take this off if you just died of embarrassment. No, I will.

So. You have to write a creative piece somewhere in your two English language exams. You might be writing a descriptive piece or a story. What are some useful tips to help you manage this in an exam? You will probably have done lots of creative writing in primary and possibly less at secondary and, frankly – you did want me to be frank, yes? – creative writing may not get much space plus, unless your teacher is a copious reader or maybe also a writer, it is hard to teach. So here are some pointers because there are plenty of people out there who feel stuck on this one and think, ‘It’s not my thing.’

NOT SO FAST.

 

Right. Choice of tasks; do one. You’ll get story/writing titles, probably a first line and maybe also a last line of a story and, depending on the board, you might get given a picture or photograph to use as stimulus. The exam may ask you to write a ‘story’; it may also simply say ‘write about’ (in which case you could do a narrative, descriptive OR reflective piece) but you need to crack on in prose – continuous writing – even if you were to include a poem in there.

Before we start, what about your nuts and bolts?

  1. Check your high frequency punctuation errors: capital letters; clauses (parts of sentences) separated by commas (ask me if you don’t know what I am on about). Promise me you will not commit CRIMES AGAINST APOSTROPHES? I’d rather not see them at all then see them plastered everywhere there is an s. Simple plurals do not have them. You use them before the s if you’re showing possession and after the s if you’re showing possession by more than one person. You use them in contraction where the missing letter or letters are – do not becomes don’t. CHECK THIS OUT: IT’S meaning it is has an apostrophe BUT ITS meaning something that belongs to IT does not. Ever. Neither do his, hers, theirs, whose or ours.
  2. Check your homophone spelling errors. Touched on them there. Words that sound the same but are spelled differently. So who’s/whose or they’re/their/there. Go online and google LIST OF HOMOPHONES and print it and stick it up somewhere. It’s one of the things that makes you look less literate fast. Too/to and also near homophones, like off/of. AAAAARGHHHH. Wait. What’s this? homophones
  3. High frequency spelling errors. A lot is two words; definite has a FINITE in it. Necessary is like you in the old school uniform there: it has one collar and two socks. Do you get it? Again, google COMMON SPELLING ERRORS, print off and observe.
  4. Please check for errors. Are there words missing? Do you have a sentence which doesn’t make sense? Plan five minutes and check five minutes WITHOUT EXCEPTION. The plan can be simply a list of the main ideas you want to cover, but make one because your writing will be better. And remember, in your plan, that if it’s going to be a story, you need to aim for a beginning, a middle and an end. Plot that out.
  5. NOW CREATIVE CONTENT. Be bold and brave in your choice of words and language and do not panic about using 27 metaphors and similes but, instead, focus on using a beautifully chosen verb. Use adjectives and adverbs judiciously and word combinations in unexpected ways.
  6. Dialogue. It enlivens a piece of writing so practise writing it and be sure you know how speech punctuation ought to be handled. Check with your English teacher if you are using a computer on this because you could use italics for speech if need be.
  7. Look at these pictures. Imagine that you can feel their texture. Really imagine that. 

     

    Well now, that’s what you are aiming to do in a descriptive piece or story. You want to magic up the texture of that place and how it feels, looks, smells and tastes. Bring it alive.

  8. Perspective. You might think of where you are; above or within. Up in the air or below; to one side and unobserved by others. Perhaps you’re not even supposed to be there. OOOOH. Your perspective – the place from where you are seeing events and things – radically changes how you and your reader observe or experience things. Also, shift it within your description or narrative. Like a camera angle, moving from a wide angle observation of a crowd scene to a zoom in on one particular detail or person; their thoughts, feelings – what you read in their face as you look very carefully at them.
  9. Vary your line length. So, you might have a small number of very short paragraphs – perhaps of one line each, contrasting with your longer paragraphs. You might do this with the first and last line. It might actually be the same sentence; say, an intriguing rhetorical question.
  10. And finally, have faith in your imagination. Here is a great piece of ongoing homework. Be more observant. People watch wherever you are. Discreetly, mind. Notice how extraordinary the everyday is; observe and watch and think about how you could weave and extend a story or a piece of descriptive writing from a conversation you overheard or an unexpected encounter you saw. and go forth, storyteller.story

On reading, making worlds, growing up: on survival.

To ease me into writing a piece for the new Dodo Ink anthology, Trauma: Art as a Response to Mental Health (here – out January, 2020: http://www.dodoink.com/blog/2019/2/13/dodo-ink-announces-a-new-anthology) I’ve been looking at my first book, Killing Hapless Ally*. This was an autobiographical novel; breathless, not without challenge to read and less than you’d think to write because it came after the life-changing therapy, not before it while the need was pressing in on me. Or when I was nuts and didn’t know who I was. Seeing literary figures in landscapes. Couldn’t compute at all that my fingers were my own extremity. Not then, after.

Killing Hapless Ally was the story of how a frightened little girl developed self defence strategies through pattern, colour and through a binding association with certain people in the public eye who looked kind, perhaps kick-arse and pretty or with a certain kind of powerful glamour (Frida from Abba,  Dolly Parton, Shirley Bassey). These people became imaginary friends when the protagonist (well, she was me, so that’s okay to the people in reviews who didn’t like her!) was tiny; alongside them, a groups of authors and both real and imagined characters from books, or the books’ authors. Thus Albert Camus and, with quite astonishing contrast, Mary Anning the fossil collector of Lyme Regis. As a child and teenager I could see them and hear them: that’s how potent my imagination was. It’s like that now, actually. And, like miniature me, reading is a bedrock. It is has always been there, books consumed as if I’d die without them. Problems solved through the worlds encountered in books and beautiful language there, mouthed, sucked as soother for its mnemonic qualities and to stay alive, calm and in company. Which reminds me, something by me on poetry and mental health here:

https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/writers/advice/971/dedicated-genre-advice/writing-poetry/

Now, my sweet husband says it’s genius, this crazy old imagination of mine. I say, it’s because I was lonely and scared as fuck for years and years. And no-one knew. There was no-one to tell because my mother had so influenced how I saw myself and so shaped how I thought other people saw me, that I was both ashamed and thought I was a mad and bad thing who jolly well should be suffering. I didn’t dare tell anyone what went on. My earliest memory is when I was three and I felt a pop of excitement because it was unseasonably warm, the faces of the celandines were open to the sun and I had on a funny outfit of some sort. A colourful mish-mash. Readers: I am always a colourful mish-mash! It was my birthday. I felt happy, warmth on my back. Then my heart plummeted – the same feeling I get now when people say certain things to me or I am confronted by certain situations – and I was scared again. It was often an amorphous fear. It wasn’t necessarily – remember I was tiny  so I cannot remember it with a detailed veracity –  fear of my mother’s beatings, but more of the dread possibility of something happening and things being said and everyone knowing who or what I was. It has taken me decades to get out from under that woman and, more to the point, to get out from under the belief that I am a nasty little thing and everyone knows it and always will. My father and much older sibling could have done something to alleviate it – it was hardly invisible within the family home. I do remember my father removing my mother from me, handfuls of my hair in her hands; I have no recall of anyone holding me, cuddling me and, as mother of three and carer for two more myself now, I’ve got some pretty strong opinions on that.

Ah – all these difficult feelings. And, do you know, I cannot fully explain it but feeling like bad egg eldritch child led me to develop a sort of alter ego as a more palatable version of myself. Except that it all went a bit wrong and took many years and a lot of therapy to disentangle. That’s the Ally to to my Alison. The killing…well, it’s metaphorical. But let me tell you I took a few other people out at the same time. Actually, when I threw Ally out of a very high window in a site of special psychiatric interest, Albert Camus at my back willing me on with the rest of my long-loved posse, she landed on my mother, whom I’d thrown first. Again, not literal. Sloughing off of the selves, being given permission to do it and God Bless Wiltshire Recovery team because, without them, I’d be dead.

Here’s me, tiny kid.

‘The girl is standing on a soft bank in a spring breeze as the laundry blows high above her there in the orchard. The breeze blows cold, but there are currents of warmth about her legs as the day decides whether it will whip or kiss. She is wearing a long, chunky necklace that she had made of wooden Galt beads, a pink hand-knitted jumper and a pair of knickers. It’s the kind of outfit difficult to carry off once you’re a big girl. But sitting now, legs akimbo on the bank, she sees the faces of the yellow celandines open to the sun, the hedge full of primroses beyond the whirling laundry and she is happy. She knows she can bury her face in the violet patch and lounge there with their sweetness. That is, for a short while, because this child knows that after such delicacy come penalties and consequences.

Dozing now, in the day that is definitely kissing not whipping, the girl feels something against her elbow. She doesn’t open her eyes at first, but now she feels it shuffling towards her cupped palm: it is a thought—insistent; warm; compelling. Here came a voice now and the voice screeched, ‘Alison! Down here now and finish getting dressed! Hopeless dirty little child!’ (That was her mother.)

But also, the thought again, curled up in her palm: ‘Don’t worry, be a Hapless Ally whenever you need to. Make something new: to cover up you!’

The little thought in the palm continues to nuzzle; it won’t give up and so Alison suspends disbelief and decides that there might be an alternative to feeling skin-off vulnerable; unwanted. Now she had a new name to put in her pocket. She didn’t know what ‘hapless’ meant yet, but she figured it sounded clumsy; clunky and less of something―and yet useful. The funny thing was that it came to fit: right, like a well done sum. It was a red letter day: an invisible amorphous thing in the hand had given her a moniker.

 

But back to the things I am going to be writing about in the Dodo Ink anthology. I am thinking about how reading was a source of sustenance to me at an early age; a retreat and a way into new worlds and new possibilities. Even though I did not feel I could access such places, I never gave up hope that I could, one day. And my imagination ran wild, so that I constantly invented stories wherever I went, colouring things in. I was looking at Killing Hapless Ally and really struggled to pick a section because so much of it is about literary worlds. In addition to the books, I had a colour table and miniature books of rules that I had made in order to impose some order, I think, upon my world. I wonder if, looking back, the ruminating thoughts as a child, the phrases I had to repeat for safety and the constant careful settling of the items on the colour table where the roots of OCD for me. I can tell you, I no longer have that. I still have periods of depression but they do not last as long; I still struggle with a kind of hyper-vigilance at night, born in childhood, I would imagine, where I am watchful because I do not feel safe. There was more than one reason for that, too. I also have dissociative episodes which are scary as I don’t always know where I am and feel entirely separate from myself. Those seem to be triggered by events and people which remind me of my worst fears from childhood – largely centred on being sure that I was a terrible thing, a blot on the world: and everybody knows. Oh, but I read and I read. And now, I write too. I could get you a book in six weeks now**, that’s how my imagination is. It took me so long to write a novel – not to write it – I have written all my books in a few weeks; to get round to writing one –  and I was so scared to do it. Well, not any more my bravehearts.

Now, Killing Hapless Ally is on the move; when it lands in a new home, I will tell you about it. And I’ve got loads of books coming and being read and next year is a BUMPER YEAR with two books out and I am ridiculously excited and and and. Shh now, Alison. Here, for you are some extracts from Killing Hapless Ally. An entire scattershot chapter on mis-education. But first this; it’s about my father’s peculiar family; Welsh emigrants, they moved for mining and caving to the Mendips where they isolated themselves and thus we have another weird element of my early life. When my mother died – I was orphaned early – my father’s family turned up and compassionately announced I wouldn’t see them again. Then my brother cut off contact. I have mired in the most profound set in dysfunctions (as well as my deep joys of aunts and uncles and cousins who live colourfully across Wales). Oh – I am okay; ultimately, it has made for great stories and an increasingly low tolerance for people who tell a shitload of lies, upholding them to others’ detriment. And you see, this strange isolated Mendip world had its own beauty because my semi-literate grandparent recited poetry – and it was a formative joy of my life. Here is an account, along with a terrifying picture of paternal grandparents and something which could scare you off pickled eggs for life! It’s about words.

Do write and tell me how it is for you, won’t you? x

Off the dark hallway, seeping red cabbage waited for the hard-knuckled hand and downy arm of Grandmother to scoop and slop and lay down with less than love. No-one here would have even noticed whether Alison was just herself or being the more palatable Hapless Ally; besides which, they hated everyone. It was almost a relief for the child. It didn’t matter who she was, did it?

Here, all the skewering and squishing death-stories were told as gentle reminiscence, horrible endings so comforting over an otherwise silent dinner on the huge table by the old range with the clothes on the Sheila Maid hanging overhead. Frequently, in this exposed position on The Hill, the wind would whip up, Grandpa’s chickens screamed like banshees, timbers creaked and doors quavered and smashed shut: perhaps the unquiet souls of the dead, disliking the cheery retellings of their worldly extinction. Grandpa was nearly blind, but compensated verbally with story after story, determinedly still driving his red Morris Minor van to ‘The Hollow’, the next village along, to go bell ringing with his wall-eyed, big-foreheaded friends: if he killed someone on the road, then clearly they should have known to move and anyway, tolling bells stopped for no man. He was a fine poacher and trout tickler and handy with an axe or chainsaw, with no maiming or fatality up to that point. Had he lived longer, propped up by tales of incompetent oncologists, chiropodists with shaky gin-hands and mental asylums, doubtless he would have expired horribly, like his brothers. Disappointingly, he went quietly, not far from The Hill, in an old people’s home, which smelled overpoweringly of wee, talcum powder and the pungent boiled cabbage smell Alison associated with Terry and Helen’s house. The day he chugged off, the grandfather clock kept going, but the staked dahlias wilted and the cats howled into a place behind the pantry door where a dead grandmother must have lurked as she waited to slop and slap the sludgy umber pickles at future despised grandchildren.

Grandpa had never been able to read very much, but he could recite poems by Tennyson and Arnold and the whole of Browning’s ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’. Those were the spellbound, golden moments. And it was hard to imagine Arnold’s ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ told with anything other than a broad North Somerset accent, a bit of a dribble and a touch of snuff on the lip and septum. It wouldn’t have made sense, which Alison remembered years later sitting in a tutorial in Corpus Christi College. The esteemed professor declaimed assorted lines and she thought, ‘Wrong! I don’t know what yer saying!’ It should have gone, ‘And firs grey o’ morning filled eeest,/And the fog rose out Oxxxxus streeem’ and not, ‘And the first grey of morning fill’d the east,/And the fog rose out of the Oxus stream’ in received pronunciation. But, however it was said, here’s the thing: words can heal. They can make you soar, whether read or heard. And you cannot take them away once brought into the world. Sometimes they are good even if a bad person said them; because the words can exist independently of the mouth that uttered them or the horrid geography that spawned them. It is magic.

And it is, oh it is! Here, I leave you with a whole chapter on my peculiar education. And I am off to finish my essay.

The mis-education of Alison

So let us tramp more through the forest of ardour later, and
tell now of Alison’s schooldays. There were a few things
worth the re-telling, but these days are really about The
Books and The Ideas, so forgive the story if we keep the
distinctions between Alma Maters necessarily vague. How
can it be that fourteen years of learning and the rest can
give us so little to crystallise on the page? But let us try.
For Alison—especially Alison wanting time and world to be
herself (whatever that was) and not to spend it as Hapless
Ally—the books performed vital functions, curing, as Larkin
had it in ‘A Study of Reading Habits’, most things you might
go through, but not school: school had to be endured.
Nonetheless, the books were always a vital salve and it is
impossible to describe these days without them.

Certain chapters in The Wind in the Willows had, we have
heard, the function of creating home and hearth; Alison was not sated by the pastoral pleasures of ‘The River Bank’
(although the hamper sounded a fine thing), but the tramp
through ‘The Wild Wood’ was read frequently because the
 place where Mole lay down to hide sounded like the crawl
space where Alison communed with Frida. Looking back,
all the favourite bits were the descriptions of safe havens,
burrows and long corridors where Badger shuffled along
with a candle and carpet slippers that were scuffed and very
down at heel. Alison imagined herself in a tartan flannel
dressing gown, rusticating happily by a fire in a sett in winter.
She stepped gingerly through the descent to Mole End from
the open road; the episode prompted by Mole sitting down,
crying and giving way altogether to his emotions, because
he scented home. Alison had no particular sense of how that
would be (although the colour table and the crawl space
in the wood did a pretty good job), but read and re-read
significant chapters, ruminating on place and on the home
and the welcoming hearth.
Alison grew up in a beautiful place, but a sense of safety
and comfortable enclosure were best achieved through the
pages of a book, so she turned to ‘The Wild Wood’ (knowing
that Mole would escape its dangers in a hollow and with the
aid of Ratty with a stout cudgel), the home of Mr Badger and
the snowy journey through the fields in ‘Dulce Domum’. The
chapters on Toad and ‘The Open Road’ were best avoided
because they contained a Fucking Caravan but there was one
chapter which caused a shiver, without a clear understanding
of its cause. It would make her cry and feel helpless and lonely
as a child and yet she wanted to read it again and again: the world of our subject was never tidy in the way that the world
of, say, Heroic Alice might have been (although, of course
as adults we discover we never can tell: for the glossiest girl
might be inwardly crying, ‘Help me! My bespoke underwear
is holding up my soul!’). Alison’s world, with its itchy palm
and its sufferance was messy and confusing and caused
headaches and head banging. And so she would run for
places: for dug outs or soft meadows, whether in real life or
in books.
Once, after lingering on stories from The Wind in the
Willows, Alison canvassed her classmates on their opinions
of the book and thus it was that a peculiarity arose: none of
them remembered a particular chapter—and this caused her to
wonder whether it had been imagined in a dream by day or
night: ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.’ It wasn’t the notion
of the child otter having wandered off, held safe by the great
creature, the friend and helper, and found again by his father,
but rather that it is about mystery: of something deeply felt
but, faintly, inchoately understood.
On hearing the pipes of Pan, Ratty knows he has found
the place of my song dream and when the moment is passed
Mole, ‘…stood still for a moment, held in thought. As one
wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to
recall it, and can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the
beauty of it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn,
and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard cold waking and all
its penalties.’

To Alison, it was like Caliban who ‘cried to dream again.’ 

She certainly understood cold waking—had many nights of
that, frightened, alone and convinced of appalling sin,
wetting the bed in her fear. Penalties were part of life;
sporadically most of life, and definitely the consequence of
happiness, as she had instinctively known that day in the
orchard, caressed momentarily by deferential celandines and
the warm threads of breeze. Alison would yearn to find this
place and its feeling, of sadness, but also of inscrutability and
throbbing, growing faith. And so into the nearby landscape,
she would run, early and before anyone noticed, to the fields
and the weir. Bounding out so early, unusually chipper and
comical, she might have been Hapless Ally, trying hard for
buoyancy and comedy. But she wasn’t: she was just Alison
and she was looking for something only she could see. Strictly
speaking, running out early was not allowed, but it was
worth the gamble. Yet would she ever find the kindness
of a great creature there? Of a great thing? Hope almost
exhausted, she would lie down in the wet grass and weep
there, knowing that the land retained a memory, sweet and
sad and buried, of something extraordinary there in the sods,
by the pounding of the water. One day. One day.

And so we turn from a tear falling on the grass, to a funny
little girl at school. There, everybody was reading Charlie and
the Chocolate Factory and acting out scenes from it; they were
crazy about it. It didn’t do so much for her. For Alison, the
book added little to her internal inscape but was more use for
the caricature you created to cope: she thought of the nasty, elegant little ballet girls as resembling spoilt, demanding
Veruca Salts. Augustus Gloop was worryingly like Terry
in aspect; Augustus just drank from the river of molten
chocolate rather than imbibing of the multitudinous spotted
dick, tripe and onions and any kind of pie and probably
didn’t watch ‘Countdown’ in a tropically-heated house on
Tyneside. Alison hoped that if she were one of the children,
she’d be Charlie Bucket, a nice kind of kid—and she would
have liked to own a grandparent called Joe. Alison was not
unfamiliar with the concept of relatives who never got out
of bed (although Mad but Nice Andrea tended to wear her
duffel coat in bed, not pyjamas), but for her it would have to
be Frida as your golden ticket companion. Or Helen, before
Cyclamen Terrace, the rain and the short interim before the
brain tumour and bonkers, with the smell of the cabbage
wafting up the stairs, but she was probably being a bit busy
having affairs and smoking in the cool way; sashaying in her
knock-off Chanel suits and cute pillar box hats. Adventures
that never lasted and which they never shared. Alison didn’t
know yet that the bequeathed Albert Camus was the gift that
delivered.
Now, while the peppermint grass in Willy Wonka’s
factory was one to remember as you plucked a blade and
sucked, for her it was a swig of cider in Fantastic Mr. Fox
that provided the correct dosing of comfortable and cosy.
Something about the illustrations of the fox’s lair, with the
table of plenty set out; something about the way Mr and Mrs
Fox were clearly crazy about one another in a truly foxy sort
of way struck a note with her. A note that spoke of hope and possibility. Another from this canon, Danny the Champion of
the World, might be a book for Alison to read securely now
in adulthood and as a mother herself, but as a child the fine
evocation of the joy between father and son was unreadable;
the book scratched and itched, however much you liked the
concept of pheasants being dosed with medicated raisins.
Moreover, they lived in a caravan. And we know about
them. Also, Alison’s father had remarked that Roald Dahl
was known to have disliked children, which placed him on
the same dais as Santa Maria and Alison’s father and she
could never get past the first bit of James and the Giant Peach;
not just because of the ghastly, mutually adoring aunts, but
because of the prefatory blunt description of death. Death, in
Alison’s consciousness, was always a-knocking at the door.
In books she wanted feasts, cosy spaces, secret gardens with
high red walls and gnarled trees; she wanted safe dark rooms
with tall drapes and haven hedgerows of red campion and
honeysuckle. She wanted all that and to be warm, silent and
extremely small. She did not care for a mauling, trampling
or skewering of the parent kind. She could get that at home,
with plenty of gore—particularly over tea at her grandfather’s
house. So what was needed was the comforting detail of
‘Concerning Hobbits’ in The Lord of the Rings (a winter
book), or the straggling but lovely roses of The Secret Garden
(a book to be read in bed, but only when it rained―and in the
autumn).
Back at The Hill (thus interrupting the vital reading
programme) Restless Rhonda, Alison’s cousin, had died mysterious causes while apparently potting on in the shed and
there ensued much shuffling and whispering about the dark,
old house with the creaky gate and the old plum tree that
had been struck again by lightning; at the funeral, no-one
cried, but raised their waxy faces to the altar beyond the waxy
face in the open coffin and sang the hymns quietly through
cold, pinched lips. And in The Place beyond the Sea (which
is to say a corner of South West Wales), cousin Lewis had
died by his own hand, leaving his mother, Mfanwy, turned
inward and mute for decades, looking one way across the old
churchyard where her son lay and the other across the sea
to the islands. The Sound was a place where Alison loved to
be on the boat looking at the whiskered seals, but it became
tinged with the melancholy of a mother, looking out across
the water and thinking of her dead son; local people referred
her to her as ‘Muffled Mfanwy’ as her voice never came
out properly again―for she was stifled by an inexpressible
sorrow. Then Maternal Grandma turned her face to the wall
and Santa Maria responded with an angry bitterness: there
was a late phone call and she said, ‘I am going to watch my
mother die.’
It sounded like a play at the theatre; like Beckett: Theatre of
the Absurd. Alison hadn’t the faintest idea how to comfort her
mother; her carapace was hard and shiny and so hugs would
slide off. Anyway, Alison didn’t really know about hugging;
she saw her relatives extend their hands and brush an arm
stiffly with fingertips, looking into the middle distance. That
must have been their hug. But she saw other people do
something different. Even kiss. To Alison, a kiss was what happened before a man fucked you and what, once, Helen
planted on her forehead, all puffed up with tumour and
morphine in bed.
It had gone like this: ‘Love you, my little one. It could have
been so good, you and me.’
‘Please don’t die, Auntie Helen: what will I do without
you?’
‘You will “lie down”,’ said Helen, between pops of clear
breath, ‘ “where all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone
shop of the heart”. It’s Yeats, you know. You remember?’
‘I know, Auntie; he’s on our bookshelf, although we
haven’t talked to one another yet.’
‘There will be time, my darling.’
‘It doesn’t sound very good, though. The foul rag and bone
shop bit—and in the heart, too.’
‘Au contraire, my little one. It is where you will begin.
Where you must begin. And you will survive and be happy.’
‘I don’t know if I can do either of those things.’
‘But you can. And take the Camus from the shelf before
it’s chucked in the skip when I’ve shuffled off. Terry doesn’t
read French and I wonder—but I love him; I do love him,
pet—whether he thinks the examined life is one best avoided.
Don’t tell anyone I said that. I’ve got to stay at Cyclamen
Terrace now, so you take Albert. Look: isn’t he handsome,
too? Maybe he can look after you now?’
Helen knew. She knew everything about Alison. And she
gave her the knowing look: the one which said, ‘You will
become the girl who did.’

‘One day,’ thought Alison, ‘perhaps I can begin and do
what she described.’
Helen kissed her.
‘What did you just do? What was that thing?’
‘I kissed you. Because I love you. It’s what we do.’
Home was silent. No kisses. No ladders. For reasons that
weren’t explained, Alison was not allowed to attend Maternal
Grandma’s funeral. That being so, the girl, true to form,
wondered if she was implicated in her grandmother’s death
and that was why she should not attend the funeral. It was
frightening and shaming and Santa Maria spat angry tears
when her daughter tried to help.
‘I want to make you feel better. And I thought, if Muffled
Mfanwy was at the funeral, I could help her feel better too.’
‘The best thing for me is to be nowhere near you. I am
grieving for my mother. Go away, you little fuck-wit. Go to
your crawl space.’
Alison shook and felt cold and sick.
‘You, you…know about the crawl space?’
‘We know everything and if you’re not careful, we will cut
it all down.’
‘Did I…did I hurt Grandma?’
‘Probably. How could you do otherwise?’
Thus it was that Alison turned to her Important
Acquaintance with Mary Anning and her treasures: because
she felt she couldn’t be implicated in anything there and quite
liked digging things up. And who could she hurt on the
beach at Lyme Regis?
Mary Anning was the carpenter’s daughter from Lyme Regis, she who collected many fine fossil specimens and
found the first ichthyosaur. Acquaintances now, but the
friendship was coming along, although Alison was always in
the way on the beach. There were some hitches, though:
Mary had a cunning little Jack Russell called Tray and Alison
hated him for his perspicacity. When Mary wasn’t looking,
Tray became a leering little black dog who said, like the itchy
scratchy sometime thought in the palm, ‘Better watch out. It’s
going to get you Alison. Or are you Hapless Ally? Which is
you? Which is better? Wait and see. Woof ha ha woof!’
Alison was desperately clumsy and could do a lot of
damage when Mary was cleaning off major specimens with
all her little tools and brushes, so there were lovers’ tiffs and
consigning to storerooms to cause less damage. But Mary
behaved as if she were fond of her and when Alison closed
her eyes, she would imagine that she and Mary were walking
along the Jurassic coast, towards Golden Cap or Black Ven.
Mary would tell off her foolish friend for knocking over
the ‘curies’, the abbreviation Mary gave to the curiosities, the
fossils she collected.
‘No not like thaaaat (in her gentle and flavourful Dorset
accent), you are just hapless—and go gently through Father’s
shop. Step away before ‘tis broken.’
There were some fine things, tumbled onto the floor by
her clumsy friend. Things that, ‘Ah! Things that could have
reached a pretty penny with the folk in London, if you hadn’t
have been and knocked them on the floor. Ah! Anyone ever
told you were haaapless, Alison?’
Well, that was ironic.

Mary had extraordinary faith in herself. She didn’t care
whether other people were interested or not; she was just
led by her eye along the beach, knowing what was worth
the collect and what was just beef. She told Alison that her
vigorous way had been formed by—a story many folk in
Lyme Regis knew—being hit by lightning as an infant. She
had been under a tree and three women with her had been
struck dead, while the infant Mary survived, thrived and
bloomed. Alison watched her in awe and thought that, if she
were struck by lightning, it would be more as it was in the
Stevie Smith poem, where a girl contemplates how it would
be nice to get hit by lightning and killed while she was just
walking across a field, not that anyone would be bothered.
Alison, struck, would be fried and dead, or all raggedy and
alive and Santa Maria going, ‘What have you done now, you
little maggot? Haven’t I been punished enough?’
Mary Anning was the first and last person Alison could
imagine was pretty in a grubby bonnet, stained by the blue
lias—and a dirty apron over the plainest of grey dresses. And
her little dog, Tray, skipped joyfully behind her, but growled,
skulked and strolled behind Alison, when Mary bent
suddenly to dig. Mary was light on her feet and she had the
great love of her father. There were men, important men,
who loved her too, later. Or at least that was the gossip Alison
would hear, whispered in the sea breeze on the Jurassic Coast.
She thought she wanted to have Mary’s clear and unwavering
gaze, but instead she fell over the rocks and picked up the
wrong stones. And, in the end, Mary dumped her for the
more sophisticated Miss Philpot and that was that.

She shouted as Alison left the workshop, jars tumbling
behind her, ‘You really are haaaaapless. Ha ha ha! Take
thaaaat! Duck now: ‘tis a bezoar!’
Mary had thrown a bezoar—a coprolite—at her: fossilised
dinosaur shit. Another face and voice to mock.
Her mother had bought her the book and now quoted
Charles Dickens on Mary Anning to her, ‘Look: here’s
something that could never apply to you, hahaha: “The
carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself and has
deserved to win it.” Heroic Alice or Mary Anning you will
never be.’
Alison knew that this was a fair observation, but it felt
pointed and, useless palaeontologist that she was and would
ever surely be, the quotation stung. Now, on the bedroom
shelf, Mary was laughing at her throatily from within the
book and her laughter had been joined by the more sedate
chuckle of Miss Philpot and the laughing, goading raised
eyebrow of Santa Maria. Bitches.
‘I wish I had a coprolite to throw! Santa Maria’s right!’
After this humiliation, Alison put the book Mary Anning’s
Treasures to the back of the shelf, behind the Bible full of God
who was Dead if He ever Existed and went back to spending
more time with Frida in the crawl space, while it lasted. Frida
said, ‘Oh ya, fossils and mud. Not good. I’d like to see her
survive a Swedish winter. Bonnets and aprons? Not not hot.
How about ice skating with me? Björn could meet us. He’s
still mad for you and has written ‘Fernando’ in your honour.
You could borrow my fur muff, if you like. Muffs are hot!’

In addition to the friendships, there were many love affairs
over the years. Sunday afternoons, even as a child, would find
Alison’s mouth full of Porphyro’s marvellous jellies and fruits
from ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’. For her, the identification of
the author was a little like that of Pip at the beginning of
Great Expectations, deciphering what his parents might have
looked like from the graphology of the stones. Except Alison
decided who and what John Keats was from the beautiful
ochre leather-covered book, its spine and title pages limned
with fulsome gold. She had a sense of who he was even
before she ventured inside and saw pages featuring the most
winsome picture of John Keats, with a frontispiece of autumn
fruits, putti, roses and waving grasses. The font was
beautifully rounded and the words Keats Poetical Works
looked like they might be edible. Certainly, Keats didn’t look
as if he could build a wall or do anything really manly, but
he was her first blueprint of what a sensitive man might look
like and possibly the first man she fell in love with, aged
ten. Clearly, Alison’s attachment to John Keats (or ‘JK’ as she
liked to call him) was not what you might call a normal first
crush. The shirt was loose at the neck, white and flowing,
and the eyes were intense and sad. There was absolutely
no doubt he would have understood her, unlike her actual
boyfriend Stuart, in school, who touched her chest under a
table in the school library and said, ‘Look your boobies are
developing.’ JK would never have stooped to that. He would
have been too embarrassed and tried euphemism; harked to
The Ancients. But Stuart moved to Barnsley and she went
back to lounging about with Keats and never returned Stuart’s letters. He kept writing, ‘I love you’ and, ‘I bet you’ve
got big boobies now’ and enclosed some black jacks and a
rainbow chew. But what did he know about Greece, urns,
autumn, plants or men in closets with spectacular feasts while
a soft amethyst light was gently falling on their beloved’s
breast? (Or boobie?) But JK wrote, ‘I wish that I were alone
and in your arms or that a thunderbolt would strike me.’
Lines were declaimed with the stroke of a nascent breast
and a hot cheek. They did well to stay hidden while, on
the other side of the sofa, Alison’s parents scowled their way
through ‘Songs of Praise’.
‘Look, dear! Those fuck-wits are miming. Obviously
miming!’
Keats stayed with Alison for some years; her Sunday
afternoon love affair, there by the bookcase, on the scratchy
carpet behind the sofa. Sometimes poor old JK had to stay
entirely in the book because he had something called
consumption and needed his rest and some wet cloths over
his face, but that was part of the romance. Mind you, he
did get a bit demanding, asking her where she had been,
could she alter lines in her letters to him—which she wrote
when she was away in The Fucking Caravan—here and there
so they were warmer and kinder and she got cross once or
twice and told him she wasn’t going to fanny around with
that sort of thing. He would cough and his pupils would
dilate spectacularly and tragically and she would assent to
his requests. Much later on, however, Keats was moved to
the background as someone altogether more manly stepped
forward. Not for this homme a lie down in the afternoon, but a manly growl after lunch, some Gitanes and a Marc.
Step forward Albert Camus and also the story of becoming an
existentialist on a campsite. Not Albert; oh no, no, no: he was
far too cool to be seen in a Fucking Caravan. It was Alison,
trying to translate the world into something that made sense.

We have already shared fateful tales of The Fucking Caravan,
of the entrapment between two alder trees and, on the same
trip, tales of two blacksmiths. However, on that same
‘holiday’, parked up by the Seine and sitting under the
willows for days (with her parents somewhere else; they
didn’t say) Alison began a roaring and extraordinary affair
with Camus. It was a reading summer, between the two
sixth form years. All around was the sense that people were
dropping like flies and the deaths of Dad and Santa Maria
must surely be imminent; she just hoped, ever practical, they
didn’t happen when the two were out in the car, or maybe
driving on to the cross-channel ferry, with everyone hooting
furiously behind them. But the reading: for days on end by
the river: Sartre’s Nausea, Genet’s The Thief, and, best of all,
Camus’s The Plague, The Fall, The Outsider and Selected Essays
and Notebooks. Also, at speed on the journey home, Simone
de Beauvoir’s The Force of Circumstance and, cheerily, A Very
Easy Death. When she got home, Alison devoured Gide’s
Straight is the Gate and Fruits of the Earth: ‘Nathaniel—I will
teach you fervour!’ Fervour: Holy Fuck—what was fervour?
What was lust for life? Were those things somewhere in the
unknowable distance, just visible beyond the bacon grease of The Fucking Caravan? She was intoxicated: dislocated
entirely from her surroundings. The dislocation did not
provide a new or unfamiliar sensation, but this kind of
dislocation was one in which she was on fire and in splendid
company.
‘Come. Come away with me now. Tonight,’ said Albert
Camus.
Now, one could dwell on the literary qualities of Sartre
and Simone de Beauvoir, but the most impressive thing for
an adolescent Alison (she whose constant companions to date
had been imaginary Swedes in a crawl space) was the sense
she gained of Sartre and de Beauvoir’s love affair; that they
wrote and argued and shared and, of course, smoked (like
Helen) in the cool way. And when de Beauvoir wrote about
her love affair with Nelson Algren—not to mention sharing
bricks (bricks: Ooh la la!) of raspberry ice cream with
him—Alison had a peculiar light-headed and heavy-hearted
sensation. It was, we would have to say, the first knowledge
of the erotic. And it hurt, because it didn’t exist in any part
of the real world, where there was just getting off and, for
some girls, an early, clumsy, grasping fuck. When Simone
de Beauvoir wrote of their ‘contingent lovers’; of love affairs,
known about by both but clearly allowable and part of
happen-stance rather than a dedication for a lifetime, it
sounded both painful and delicious. How entirely entrancing
for the teenage Alison that de Beauvoir and Sartre wrote and
expressed an intensely creative life to one another. This was
something Alison could never quite get out of her head. And
when she tried and failed to engage something which might look like it, the stone dropped in her heart and she was scared
to open her hand in case the frightening thought was there,
pressed into the palm, waiting to open. And she was scared of
being herself: Just Alison (as Denis the Lusty Blacksmith had
it), while in her heart remained the appalling leaden feeling
and the acute sense of being separate; eldritch-girl, possibly a
killer; not inclined to the magazines and spontaneity of her
female peers: missing the point always. Wrong and Weird Kid.
She willed herself to live on in a way that was meaningful
and hoped that she would find people to discuss these feelings
with; that she could know someone who understood about
absurdity, existence precedes essence or the frightening
experience Sartre’s Roquentin has when, in Nausea, he
touches a door handle and comes face to face with jarring,
sickening anguish: that anguish lived alongside Alison
permanently. At five, it had started somewhere after Saturday
morning cartoons, as the day unfurled; at sixteen it began
after Weetabix and before the first application of lip-gloss.
‘This I understand: it is when the scenery collapses,’ said
Camus.
He made it sound exciting in his low tone. But it wasn’t
in real terms: at least, not yet; instead, it was terrifying and
yet Alison had a timorous sense that from that terror came
only a beginning. That definitely made sense. Good God:
intellectual heat; the erotic in its most subtle form; a notion
of how to live with hope, when God quite clearly does not
exist and we must travel to the frontiers of our anxiety to
understand where to start. Alison was not asking much in a
man, then.

Ah—but one ready day along came Albert, ready for
action. If you have ever read his peculiar, flat, sparkling, cold
story of Meursault in The Outsider, then there is little to
express. But if not, imagine a wandering, solitary individual,
not inclined or feeling the pressure to act as expected. Not
cruel, but mercenary because appetitive; plainly erotic in
responding to his needs as and when they push forward,
articulate of who and what he is and yet without what would
feel like morality to us. He did not cry when his mother
died; he shot a man on the beach and did not express regret,
only annoyance. For the teenage girl, it hit a nerve. The
description Camus had of his protagonist as a solitary and
wandering individual; as somebody entirely alone and on
the edges of society, now, that was the truest description of
her to date. It was—and there is no other way to say this—a
first orgasm. Not only with the plainness of the character
and Camus’s prose, which Alison gamely attempted in both
French and English, but also because of the man. Let us
describe him. Alison had to get over Meursault first, a man
both in love with the world and separate from it. Camus
told her of how his protagonist was inspired by a stubborn
passion, for the absolute and for truth. His truth remained
a negative truth, but it had its own beauty and without it
there could be no adroit comprehension of ourselves and of
the world; no self-containment. Meursault’s life was that of
a foreigner—a stranger—to the society in which he lived,
and he wandered about on the fringe, in the shadows of
others’ lives: plain, but deeply sensual. Such descriptions made
Meursault enormously attractive to Alison and made her fall more for the man who wrote him into being. Such a telling
of the outsider, the wandering foreigner living and breathing
a negative truth, pierced and had a difficult heat for her
because, of course, that was Alison. We could say she was
Weird Kid—plenty did and probably still do—but L’Etrangère
would sound altogether more arousing, non?
Alison had photocopied a picture of Camus: it was of
him, apparently sitting on a rather lopsided sofa, and leaning
forward with his hands tensed, his mouth slightly open, his
eyebrows raised and his trousers showing his socks as he
inclined towards a co-combatant to advance his argument.
He was so fabulously French; so fabulously exotic because he
came from Algeria, that he carried off the sock thing with
élan; socks were not normally a detail of erotic piquancy.
Camus might have been describing how brilliant it was that
William Faulkner had pulled off the language of high
tragedy; that a man from Mississippi could find language
that was simple enough to be our own and lofty enough
to be tragic. Or perhaps he was dictating something for the
Resistance magazine, ‘Combat’, of which he was the Editor
in Chief. But, to a teenage girl, under his spell, he was also
evincing arguments for ‘Come away with me.’
And, ‘Let me show you.’
Or, ‘Let me show you how to live in the face of despair. Sit
on my knee and we will begin.’
And, occasionally, when the Oran sun roused his temper,
‘Come here now. Stand against this wall. I will take you.’
Was this what Helen had meant, in gifting Alison the
Camus as she lay on her Cyclamen Terrace deathbed? It was a jolly long way from a few drunken fumbles in the dark when
they—the boy-kind—mistook her for someone else.
Albert’s cadences were delicious: he was declaiming
phrases of profound, shattering erotic power to Alison’s ear.
And he had enough style to be vulgar, if he wanted. Camus
had a history of manly pursuits, too: goalie for a prominent
Algiers football team; a fine swimmer and athlete. She had
a sense of his being a consummate man. Funny; brave; a
demon in the bedroom—if you ever got that far, because
what are walls, floors and furniture for? And, unlike JK, he
could have built a wall or changed a tyre. On the occasions
when Alison went to other girls’ bedrooms, she saw they had
pictures of The Cure, or Bono, when he was ragged, young
and angry. She, meanwhile, had a picture of Albert Camus
next to her desk. People said, ‘Who’s that?’ and she said,
‘My godfather.’ The notion felt entirely, naughtily fitting, for
the Camus books, en français, that Alison possessed had been
bequeathed to her, as you learned earlier, by her godmother
Helen, studying Camus at The Sorbonne. Perhaps Helen had
been similarly intoxicated (which made the Terry the Fat
Controller, the unexamined life, Friday-pie thing even more
depressing). So the honorific chimed as fitting. Plus it felt
like Albert leaned over Alison in a proprietary and manly
style. L’Etranger was inscribed with the words ‘Helen Griffiths,
Paris, le 19 Janviér 1962’ and Alison had always hoped that,
in leaving France for Terry, Mammy’s pie and a new life in
Tyneside, Helen was able to say, like Camus’s protagonist
at the point of death, that she knew she had been happy.

She hoped it was like this for Helen especially when the
morphine gave her respite from pain and the unexamined life
downstairs, punctuated by the sickening puffs of air freshener
from the Cyclamen Terrace plug-ins.
Now, in all their years together it never mattered to Alison
that Camus had been dead ten years before she was born: he
was there on her wall now.
Godfather. Most louche, brilliant, gorgeous godfather.
She saw in his Notebooks that he wrote, ‘I loved my mother
with despair. I have always loved her with despair.’ Albert
even understood the paradox of that! It was exactly how she
felt about Santa Maria. And by God (although He was Dead
if He ever Existed) Albert was brave: he would stand in the
face of despair and say that now he was free.

Ah, the growingupsexthing. Alison had hopeless
expectations, really, for while Camus smouldered away
behind her closed eyes, real life was, shall we say, more
a damp inconsequential thing than a smoulder. There was
Johnny in the barn. Always, ‘Let’s go to the barn,’ a bunk
up against a bale: no use there expecting conversations about
Proust. She asked him about books and he said, ‘Why would
anyone want to read boring books?’ But in school, there was
an important dalliance with D.H. Lawrence. It was Sons and
Lovers and she remembered mostly Paul Morel’s loving: not
the bit which was like a communion (with Miriam) but the
bit which was ‘too near a path’ with rather racier Clara. The
evocation of Paul’s mother, however, as he drifts back to her—and drifts to his own future death (as Lawrence himself
had it in his notes on the text), now that was a theme best
avoided during these delicate years. Besides which, no-one
would have got it because at that time boys just wanted to get
you drunk and feel you up in a dark room when the parents
are away. Only in reality, they were feeling up someone else.
Like Heroic Alice. Oh yeah: Heroic was still around; jiggly
tits, cool-thriving and diving and looking on her hapless
(again, ironic, though note lower case) counterpart with scorn.
She had the best clothes and hair; told the kind of jokes boys
liked. When she moved upstairs, the party moved with her,
while Alison stood downstairs thinking about existentialism
and, ‘I’m a misfit and nobody fancies me.’ Alison was
definitely Weird Kid. Good job she had Albert.
Not long after, Alison discovered Sylvia Plath: now there
was someone with an embolus of fear and an itchy, scratchy
little thought in the palm. Alison would act out scenarios
of meeting Ted, based on the diaries she had read; they
would meet, drunk and—again—smouldering (she liked
smouldering) at each other at a party and she would bite his
cheek. The room would hum harder and all was in a brandy
glass whirl; the blood ran down Ted’s face and along Sylvia’s
arm. And oh Lordy: the poetry and the sex. In class, the girls
would say, ‘Uggh! She is mental.’
But Alison would think, ‘Sylvia: oh my God, you’re
gorgeous! Look at you, rocking your fifties swimsuit, your
twin-set and pillbox hat. But you put your head in the oven
and I am so so sorry. You know, I head bang and cut myself and think all kinds of dangerous things. Your father might be
full fathom five, but my parents? Well, they are pillars of the
community. We are a middle class family and that, Sylvia, is
how they get away with it. Everyone’s looking at me Sylvia:
they’re saying they know what I’m like and that’s why my
parents are dying. You say you tried to rock shut? Well so
did I: when I was fourteen I took a big dose of paracetamol
and I tried so hard to die and come up through clear water as
someone else. It’s crazy, isn’t it? I even made a big mug of tea
to go with it and lay down with no note. I told Santa Maria;
didn’t want her to find me, but she said, “Oh well that’s just
typical of you, you little bitch.” I never went to hospital, but
I survived. I was always sore―but I survived. And it was so so
selfish. I’m sorry that you lost Otto so young and that your
mum didn’t understand you and that life went wrong with
your Ted and that you ended up getting a bit obsessed with
bees and water. The day you died, February the eleventh? I
will always remember you…And I think you were a fucking
genius.’
Alison reflected that Sylvia was the new Frida. She
certainly had some unusual imaginary friends. Frida had been
stylish, cheeky and coolly Nordic; she had always known
how to distract. Sylvia was a bit trickier: she wrote in a frenzy,
declaimed that she was a genius of a poet and made jam in
between times. Her diaries and texts were full of compelling
and weird images—mirrors, bees, foot lampshades,
candlesticks, panzer man, eating men like air, Hiroshima ash,
more jam making. She was both whore and domestic
goddess. She was a roarer of a girl in an immaculate twin-set; at once a plain, resourceful woman and, as Alison’s classmates
had it, mental. This wasn’t going to be tidy—plus Frida wafted
about Sweden, had a house in the woods, did a bit of
painting; was calm and quite the yoga buff. Plath was
unutterably, horribly, by her own hand dead in the gas oven
 and poor handsome Ted was getting a rough time at the
hands of the Plath acolytes. But Sylvia had the uncanny
ability to put into words some thing; some concept or anxiety
that Alison was trying to give shape and form so that it was
less frightening; in this case, the words with the tireless hoof
taps that meet you on the road years later.
‘Oh,’ said Alison, ‘the words. How they pierced and how
they pierce today still. I wish that I had a way of muffling
the words when it hurts me to hear them…But they’re
indefatigable! Always.’
Alison dabbled in Beckett too: Waiting for Godot needed to
bide its time, but Happy Days—Winnie buried up to her waist
in a mound of scorched earth in the first act of the play and
her neck in the second half? We were getting somewhere.
Once, in those days, a boy came up to her in a pub and
said, ‘You’re weird. You dress weird. You’ve got crazy hair
and a big nose. You’re really fucking ugly. Heroic Alice said
you were!’
There was a crowd looking on; no-one said anything
either to disagree or agree, so she was trying hard to think of
Denis the Lusty Blacksmith seeing them off with his tongs.
Or, ‘What would Albert Camus do?’ Of course, he would
laugh, in a hot, derisive, Gallic way and the youths would scatter like thistledown, insubstantial in the presence of A
Man. It didn’t work this time: Alison couldn’t summon him
up for circumstance pressed down too hard; she couldn’t even
summon up the alter ego to laugh, ‘Look here’s Hapless: the
better part of me. You’ll like her.’
 And where was Hapless when you needed her? Somehow,
she couldn’t be called up to adhere. Alison thought only that
she was Winnie, in the second part of Happy Days, except
that, unlike the brave and bellicose Winnie, the only word
Alison could say to the boy and the crowd was, ‘Sorry’,
then leave to sit down and punch and scratch herself with
Hapless Ally, who had now sauntered in, apparently quite
independently, and was energetically egging her on. Alison
realised with a horrible prickly jolt that the latter appeared to
be developing a cheerful autonomy: popping out to do things
separately.
‘It is this way that madness lies?’ asked Alison.
‘Oh yes. And Boo!’ sneered Hapless, now skipping off with
a popular boy who thought her lovely. She had that familiar,
‘I’m about to get off with someone, but how about you?’
look. The one that curled about the lips of the girls that could.
Absurd.
After this painful and pivotal incident, Alison considered
whether a relationship with divas might be more germane:
Dolly Parton and Shirley Bassey—heroes to this very day.
Dolly and Shirley will meet you again, later. They are gently
competitive these two: you’d love them for it. Va va voom!

Now, in the growingupdays there were days which, at the
time, gave the promise that they were eternal: these were the
Cambridge days. But the thing with the dreaming spires and
ivory towers is that there are untidy people under the spires
and in the towers. There are archives of beautiful things;
there are, indeed, dreams and the reveries that come with
absorption in something that is brilliant. But there are also
desultory cackles and fingers that point: it is like life and it
is not one thing. Alison always struggled with the question,
‘Did you enjoy university?’ because the answer would have
taken half a day: ‘…well, yes and no and story and anecdote
and dusty shelves and accidentally living in the seventeenth
century so I wasn’t safe crossing the road and oh―the clever
folk and the light on mossy Cambridge stones and college
bells at dusk and exeats and climbing over Magdalene Gate
at three a.m. and suddenly Dad (hereafter Vaguely Dead Dad)
was dead on the bathroom floor at home―and Santa Maria
was blaming me―and bedders and porters and dinner in
hall…and of course some days I unravelled…’
Besides, she had a relationship with three universities in
the end because of the ill-advised research projects that came
in later days. There were Cambridge, Oxford and another
fine institution that we must leave unnamed for reasons of its
name being too painful to write or say aloud and because it
was shit. Life in university days would have been so much
easier if not befuddled by roads less taken and kerfuffle and,
well, very funny turns. The kind of thing where you hear
the beautiful chapel bell ring: it is autumn and dusk. Outside
the city the birds fly low over the fens; there is a faint mist over The Backs. It is fine indeed, but Alison would hear the
mellow tone of the bell and in a second it would be alive and
mocking, pulsing and frightening—as the stones of the old
paths rose up to hit her face and she thought for a moment of
the story called ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, by Charlotte Perkins
Gilman, where madness falls to rise as the patterns on the
wallpaper animate and quietly terrify their watcher. In those
times, it felt like there was another figure, watching her from
rooms on the first floor: it was Hapless Ally again, beginning
once more to detach more confidently: doing her own thing
and laughing at her host. When you are not wholly well, the
very ground you walk on can do that too, chanting mockery
and perhaps spitting venom. And all around, the mists and
mellow fruitfulness abound: but not for you; no, not for you.
You don’t know then that things can be different. Alison
didn’t know it for a very long time.
Books and more books were eaten up at speed as she came
face to face with her extraordinary ignorance and the more
she read the less she came to realise she knew. There were
Latin and Greek to try and understand; the whole canon of literature before the seventeenth century, as the mis-education to date had not even touched on it. Alison had spent a fevered summer in a static caravan (oh the irony) in
Pembrokeshire stuffing her face with books when she saw the
course contents for the first year. In tea breaks, Camus would
visit to discuss the reading; on walks, he would pull her by the
hair and bite her lower lip; taking her into a sea cave, when
‘Time was away’ and when it was, happily, somewhere else.
Sometimes, boy-Dylan Thomas was on the beach, on holiday from Carmarthenshire, but still dipping his hand in the fish-
frozen sea and Albert would say, ‘Oof—he has potential. He is not afraid of paroles. Now that is a man I could tangle with.’
Alison countered with, ‘Where were you Albert, when the
boy shrieked of my ugliness in the pub? When Hapless Ally
joined in? You’re my godfather and you’re supposed to be
there.’
‘I was in the desert. I went away from Oran to think and
took only dates and anise.’
Existence precedes essence could be a right selfish bastard if
it so pleased.
Such sojourns aside, and alone again in the caravan, there
had been a solo introduction to Chaucer, Langland, and The
Gawain Poet—a desperate and busy rush to fill in some gaps.
For the first time Alison read Arnold (although she had heard
it declaimed by Grandfather at The Hill) and Tennyson and
felt a wild urge to get started and also the fear that she did
not know very much. She didn’t. And yet the world inside
her head was the only world she fully inhabited, because there
had lived Frida, JK, Mary Anning and Albert. And those days
were heady and frightening. They were a helter skelter rush
from her parents dropping her off and sighing at the pretty
view of the punts on the Cam, a sudden collapse by her
father, groaning on to her bed in his endgame, Santa Maria’s
admiration of everybody else and then suddenly being alone.
Alison felt that she must make a life there while, at home,
everything was dying. There was nothing for it but to buy a
packet of cigarettes and steel herself to it. Start on the rituals: turn around four times, walk three paces, recite the first lines
of The Secret Garden four times. And do it all quickly.
Indeed, Cambridge looked to her a forever place, although
she must also have known that this was not possible. Alison
felt helpless in the face of a crush on Germaine Greer: she
had never seen this kind of confidence before; plus she had
humour and was most definitely clever-hot. The historian
David Starkey would visit: a severe, surprisingly funny and
brilliant uncle—before he became media Don and everyone
started being nasty to him on Twitter
#inthequietdaysbeforesocialmedia. Upstairs in Divinity College
sat Doctor Llewelyn, who always showed the students at his
own college the exam papers the night before they sat them,
although Alison rather gathered that it might not even have
been all of them, but just the acolytes with whom he shared
flagons of gin and possibly a biscuit. He made good tea,
though; his cleverness was incendiary; he once cried while
reading Dante’s Inferno in lectures and introduced students (or
perhaps the shiny happy students, who were everyone but
Alison, and who already knew of such) to Walt Whitman,
William Empson, and counting with utter concentration in
the observance of rhyme and rhythm. Alison was terrified
of him, though: his intelligence laid her bare, both Alison
and Hapless; both suffering from a poor education and, not,
apparently, the intellect to set that right. Alison would sink,
on Friday afternoons, into the big armchair in Dr
Rabbithole’s parlour because he gave the impression that he
was sympathetic to Weird Kid: he listened intently, offered
sherry (while she noted how disarmingly strong his wrists looked, as he poured) and once said, shortly before finals,
‘You’re brilliant but, for the first time you’re lucid: you must
be scared.’
That was the picture in other rooms and across other quads,
‘You’re clever but we can’t disentangle what you are saying
 or who you are! There are no signposts.’
‘Signposts? Ha! How do you have signposts when the
scenery has collapsed: there are no real landmarks: it’s just a
heap of detritus, now.’
Albert Camus on the wall kept a watch on proceedings,
Godfather with her real-time own father very much having
played his endgame after screaming all night. And Alison’s
night was not always very pretty, with its clangings and
jungle sounds and screeches. Albert could not save her from
it: probably, he thought she had to feel the despair to be free.
Her night said, in resonant voice, over the low tones of
Albert, ‘I am you. I have no signposts. My essays have no
signposts. They are all laughing at me. At you. Dante is
consigning me to the lowest rung; Whitman is telling me to
stay away from his Leaves of Grass; not to “loose the stop from
your throat” but to keep it in there: not to speak.’
In her dream, the poets looked at each other, looked at her
and looked at each other again, the corners of their mouths
contracting into a sneer. Santa Maria stood behind them.
Virgil was refusing to be Alison’s guide; Whitman told her he
was not for her as he loafed upon the grass, ‘For what did you,
aberrant, know of how it is to be lyric with self-reliance?’
‘But I know that I contradict myself and that I definitely contain a multitude—friends others can’t see, alter ego and
all.’
William Empson, looking askance, chimed in, ‘What I
wrote: it is beyond you, so give up now. There is no
ambiguity about what I said, so don’t look for it, worm. Now
go.’
Santa Maria nodded in agreement, laughed and barked,
‘Told you so’ and Alison woke up to the cold world. Still,
holding the feeling of the dream in a pocket or in the palm of
her hand where the bad thought would come, Alison carried
on reading and carried on having desperate and unobtainable
crushes; clever men left her aflutter for three years, regardless
of whether they were gay or not. Maybe they could be turned
with a jiggle of tits and a declension or two. Ah—but not by
her, of course: it would have to be a mighty show of Hapless
Ally and even so, trimmed of too much vivacity because its
excess would have made them stare in this socially articulate
world. While she simply did not have the confidence and the
hauteur of the Heroic Alice-like girls from public schools (or
maybe just those who weren’t repeatedly hearing, ‘I should
have left you in a bucket’) it still sometimes felt just like one
long three-year fuck: from time to time an actual coupling,
but generally just a theoretical one. Lexis, rather than praxis,
as Aristotle might have said if he had written about different
sorts of fuck. And I don’t think he did.
The fractured days were, dreams and hard spites withal,
tremendously, scarily exciting. Exams were managed only
after the little rituals had been performed and even then her
large, looping script was punctuated here and there with the tears she tried to stop up. And as for the excitement, Alison,
melancholy sort as she was, judged that to be a symptom of
its very mutability; the prelude to a universal ‘Fuck off!’ But
how about we just focus on Professor Pobble? For a while, he
looked like a keeper in a mutable world. Ah―but as what?

 

  • My first two books are on the move at the moment and so you cannot buy them. I will update you on this soon. In the meantime, I have some original signed stock for sale. You can message me through contact page stuff on this blog x