Depending on dinner

Here is something I wrote for submission to a journal, and which was not subsequently accepted. It’s about horror; in the everyday: at mealtimes, in fact. If you’ve read my first book, Killing Hapless Ally, you will have seen that I was sometimes terrified by food as a child. Because of the spirit in which it was cooked and the hands which served it. Sometimes that food was plain terrifying – as in my paternal grandmother’s pickles in the pantry. She disliked most people, had very big hands and once burned all my father’s books; parents think kids don’t notice or overhear, but they do: I was scared of the big hands and the eyeball pickled eggs because I knew those hands were book burning tools. At home, the most beautiful cakes; but the hands that made them were brutal as well as pretty.

Don’t think I’m frightened of food. I’m not. I cook a great deal and for lots of people; I might eat out. But then sometimes up comes a thought – eros, thanatos, trifle, we’ll call it. And yes, it’s scary.

Have a look at this strange little piece and tell me what you think about its content.

cherry

Depending on Dinner

‘What an awful thing life is, isn’t it? It’s like soup with lots of hairs floating on the surface. You have to eat it nonetheless.’

Gustave Flaubert

Boy-child went out for dinner with Mother; a bonding exercise. Childhoods don’t come around every day, though gluttony does and he thought of that like a disease; like something his family couldn’t help. Shovelling it in; nibbling and tasting. He remembered his parents holding mangoes up to the light, comparing the (what was it?) Dussehri mango with the Sindhri. Are they ripe, just so. Oh darling, let me cut you off a sliver.

Ugh. She fed it to him, that amber worm.

Oh. Perfect.

The boy had been repelled as he heard them snaffling and laughing like reptiles in the undergrowth for bugs. Or city foxes tearing at the bins and triumphant over a carcass.

Imperfect. Disgusting.

Now he read to her. Flaubert. Darling, listen. Large platters of cream, that trembled at the slightest jarring of the table. Oh yes, oh yes. Do you remember our wedding feast, my own Madame Bovary. He heard them making that reptile or city fox noise again, though it sounded this time as though they were on the floor.

So.

His parents were disgusting. They were good people. But they were disgusting. So were his grandparents. All gluttons, Shovelling it in. Salivating and all gross in their delight.

Now here he was, out with Mother on a gustatory bonding exercise. It was said to be a cosy little place. Novel, Thai Tapas they called it. Which meant small portions of Thai food. Novel. But  the boy was not excited to go in. He was scared, too. He’d not tried Thai food and thought tapas sounded Spanish and, he recalled now, all his experience of Spanish food was an omelette heavy with vegetables and a slice of manchego cheese that his turophile grandmother had made him try with olives. Now, the hybrid seemed mysterious, if not just a touch menacing. Menacing began to overtake mysterious and the boy quaked.

But still, brave boy, a glimmer of courage in there, too. Thank you Mother.

But what could there be to lose? Memories, now vaunting, were uncomfortable.

            At Grandmother’s house, as the affineur had swept forward bearing an old wooden board with little bits on it, he’d worried. That was because Grandmother expected him to try and he didn’t always want to; he didn’t want to disappoint her. The olives he’d liked; the cheese tasted of saddle and the hair of beasts in heat. He shuddered at this memory. Now how, he wondered, have they combined such things with Thai food? Thai food, Mother had explained, was sweet and sour and you couldn’t taste the anchovies in the fish sauce, but you did get whacked by a deep savoury flavour. And there was a smack of chillies. It was a flavour which could quickly become addictive. On, she went, as mothers do, about the aniseed taste of Thai basil and the lovely lemony smack you got too. And the boy’s anxiety began, surely and slowly, to increase. With it, a sense that he was becoming a man, or something, big and old too soon. His childhood slipping from him with smacks of rude taste.

Hot beasts in heat.

Crumbly white cheese.

Some sort of omelette.

Things lemony that whacked you and things that could be addictive

Aniseed. Wasn’t that like liquorice?

Another horrid memory. He felt ill, poor boy, but who to tell? His father had been cooking steak, waiting on his mother. He had a book open and read as he fried. The boy could smell the tang of black peppercorns and he knew the blood would be seeping soon onto the plates. Darling. Barthes on steak. Do you remember Mythologies from university? Rare steak is said to be saignant (when it calls the arterial flow from the animal’s throat. Oh yes, I remember. You read it over a steak dinner then. Steak tartare. My first time. I was a tartare virgin and you’d showed me the way. Oh. The clash of the pan had subsided. Yes my love. The germinating states of matter…a magic spell he says. The blood mash and the glair of eggs.

They were on the floor again. Thrashing. Beasts in heat.

He tried to think of bland foods. A boiled egg, Porridge and a banana. Plain toast.

Thai Tapas. The boy was trembling, but he was compelled to plod on.

Mash. Glair. Sweet. Sour. A sauce made of old fish but they’d disguised the fish because you could always taste fish and surely that was not trustworthy? It was a deception. What else was in there that added flavour, but which you couldn’t clearly identify? His other (slightly kinder) grandmother spoke sometimes about her love of offal, which disgusted him. Wobbly things; glands; greasy things. Hearts with the ends of tubes still visible; things you weed through. Stuff that boiled and fried and fugged up your kitchen with animal stench. Was it all chopped up, or milked and puréed and added to the Thai Tapas? Tripe like a wet blanket you could do nothing but die screaming in.

They tried squid.

Little prawn toasts.

Wriggling, once alive things.

I feel ill. There is something seriously wrong with me and no-one will come.

Things like ammonites. No more fossil collecting. Now that is disgusting too.

This restaurant. Very expensive for tiny things no bigger than the smallest paper bag of pocket money sweets you could imbibe for seventy pence, but costing six pounds and more, He felt he had to eat. The squid: texture of shoe. The prawn toast: where it hadn’t crackled in the frying, there was bread mush, looking like his baby sister’s fat toe skins after bath: mushy baby toes. He wanted to cry out. Boiled skin; flayed stuff. Jesus lashed. Mary crying. How? Why? And no-one will come.

Now he remembered the nightimes. Sometimes I am afraid to close my eyes at night for fear of falling. I shall fall and fall and not get up and it must be like dying or not dying and everyone thinking you had but you could not say. If I swallow, I can die. And I will fall. I’ve seen the pipes and the tubes of a human body and they are not well organised and choking could happen to anybody because nobody always knows what to do. A madness, a laughing illness could happen to you, however brave or clever or so well that you defeated a big illness. But he must not show his mother. And what if all this got back to Grandmother? She would be disappointed and trace it back to the wooden board when she had swept in, Maître Fromager, and make me tell her I did not like the manchego cheese.

He thought again of bloody steak, mango slivers, rolling parents. Laughing, oblivious, quoting.. And on and on. And when the pad thai came, again in tapas portions, he ate a mouthful and went rigid, aghast also at the thought he might expectorate six pounds eighty’s worth of noodles. Time was money and money was time, his dad said.

I need to go home.

Why? Don’t be ridiculous. Also people are looking.

I am going to choke.

You’ll be fine.

What if I die?

Of course you won’t die.

Why not? People definitely die of choking or it wouldn’t be on the telly.

Well…

So you can’t say it never happens.

Listen darling you must stop being so odd and understand that food is one of the great pleasures of life. A normal thing. What on earth has made you so uptight? You’re really not like anyone else in the family. I just don’t understand.

And he was also thinking, Take me back, I want to stay a child. Please let me. And, I hate you. You don’t see it, rolling on the floor and frying and slavering and your horrid mango slivers like a yellow corpse slip up to the light. I hate you. You don’t, you cannot understand me and you won’t try.

            More food came.

            And what is in here? In the Spanish-Thai muddle? All the things they might have mixed in or used to flavour it. Spanish omelette and heart and that nasty cheese that’s like beasts in heat and melting straw and rotting things and you said there were anchovies in it and things that tasted of lemon, but you didn’t say they were lemon. I can’t trust any of it.

And the boy ran.

Mother caught him, as mothers do. Admonishing, saying she simply could not see what the problem was. It wasn’t as though he was ill. Sighed and paid the bill, apologising to the manager. Over forty pounds for tiny things and indistinguishables and babies’ bath toes and bits of organ and weird cheese. And the memory of his grandmother looking disappointed in that way she had. He wasn’t like her friend’s grandson who would try anything and like it, too. Dear, dear. Boys today and I blame the mothers and if she had been my daughter I would have taught her how to raise a braver son.

And on and on. Crying into the storm all the journey home. Frightened to sleep for a death crevasse, all littered with manchego and nasty odoriferous hauntings, which opened beneath his feet with each falling to sleep jump. Rigid then until overcome, at four a.m. and too tired, too immutable with fright, to go to school the next day. And still scrambled egg arrived. This will make you strong. Like hell it will, viscous nasty thing made by the hands of beasts in heat.

Keep it quiet. Keep the house battened down. It’s hard to explain, this multi-layered suffering. If you took a food metaphor to deconstruct it—and you may know that planked or slated deconstructed food is all the rage just now—you could envision it like a trifle. On the bottom, there’s the sponge and that’s feeling guilty about being born and being a burden to your mother; the sherry soaked into the sponge is the shame drenched on you by (worst) grandmother because you’re not brave, not a trier, not pleasing or (alongside it) masculine enough like other grandsons. Then you’ve fruit. The fruit, first of all, depends on your poshness. Posh folk add kiwi fruit; the chavs, tinned strawberries—that’s what he’d heard them say about other people’s parents—no matter, though, the metaphor works either way: the pieces of fruit are the odds and ends of bad dreams and chunks of scorn and the lumber of certain failures, past and to come. The custard: cannot get out from the fruit: it’s viscous, like aortic blood in a bloody steak, or the gloop they drain out from the corpses before they flush; it’s death, being trapped. Ah, the cream, now what is that? It’s claustrophobia. You’re in a classroom, with the popular kids, and they’re pelting you on the back of your neck with the contents of their pencil cases and you don’t turn round. You’re told this won’t last forever, but you’re not sure because you were also reassured that choking wouldn’t happen and it did to that man on the telly and you know your mum was bullied in school and she still hates the school run with your primary age brother because of the cool girls she isn’t. So the cream. Gloop. Look, a swamp. It’s going to get you. Or is it quicksand, or the worst sort of snow or pus and infection and it’s seeping into you and you’re boy in bits but no-one knows. And there, in bed at night, or in the classroom being pelted on the back of the neck with fine-liners and protractors and somebody’s foul tooth-marked mouth-guard, that’s all there is.

Trifle kills. So do Thai Tapas. And Grandma, affineur, with her hateful tidbits. And when you fall to sleep, there’s the crevasse. And that’s what loss is. Going mad. Disease. Eventually disease will make you ill. And then there’s stuff you’re clawing at; can’t catch. Abhorrent  taste in your mouth all the while.

The boy sat sat rigid all night, for two nights: didn’t go to school. The doctor was called, but the boy wasn’t an emergency just yet. He gagged on egg and full fat carbonated and little tiny bites and even milky things that Mother was taught to get into him, somehow. And on the third day, overcome again by the tiredness, he slept and slept all day and half the night and when, at last he woke, he sipped with a straw and would never thereafter eat anything. Though he drank and gagged, but drank because he had to. No good toast, or pizza or roast or pasta things. Just fluid, with his straw, under control and bland, so no beasts on heat and that was that. And he wasn’t a child any more, though he looked like one.

His parents weren’t letting up on their own feasts.

Darling, look. Let’s make a salad. Do you remember Dido in The Aeneid? Yes, how could I forget? You were the one who read it to me, lulled me to sleep. She spoke about the lettuce and the long huge-bellied gourd. They were laughing as they crushed the foul garlic in the pestle and mortar, wrenching parsley from the ground and foul red onions. Laughing.

And on. And on. Slurp. Sip. What is wrong with him? Wrong until he was taller man-boy, then old man, being pumped and drained, too late to chew or bite; all gone. Anyway, childhood gone; all swallowed up by the fear-thing. The fear-thing you see out of the corner of your eye. That you try not to see. So you have a bun; a consoling cup of tea; a chat. And you hope it all, life—like this tale, really—is a metaphor for something greater, then discover it isn’t.

Yes, there were cups of tea, he could manage tea, but still he went toes up. Ill, mad, eyes not seeing and no-one came. He wasn’t dry for lack of fluid but his gums were violet and teeth pretty for lack of use; deep gorges around his lips for sucking life through straws.

At the wake, the glacé cherries winked from the top of the trifle, adorning the cream, custard, fruit and sherry-soaked sponge; a late addition for festivity’s sake. It wasn’t a kind wink. For cherries are little ruby fucker-devils; you could suffocate in a sponge; if the gin-poor had had more money, they’d have been expunged by sherry; custard and cream: get your foot wrong, and slurp, like a swamp and you’re under.

That poor boy.

Oh well, we tried, said his even older mother to his even older father. But he was nothing like us, was he? In the end, it was like a disease in our family, so I had to turn away, for my own preservation. Your own sweet preservation, darling. I must say—and I’m quoting Kierkegaard though obviously you’d know that—that it’s a shame how some men’s lusts are dull and sluggish, their passions sleepy. Oh I know, my love. That was him.

Now parcel up the rest of the food. You and I will have a midnight feast.

Advertisements

The boy who stole my life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘To my brother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

For writers starting out. Do comment, discuss and contribute your thoughts!

I know there are a lot of people out there writing books and a lot of people submitting said books at the moment. I know or have met people who now have stunning commercial success, writers who are agented but yet to have their first book sold, those who work with the small presses and who are not agented, those who are what we might call a hybrid (I am thinking this is likely to be me) – by which I mean agented but also finding publication routes on their own, perhaps with a small press, those who are disconsolate because everything is a flat rejection or they have received no answer at all and those – including recent MA in Creative Writing students – who are, for various reasons, too scared to submit at all. That’s just for starters.

It might come quickly; it could take years. I do think the key thing is not to take rejection personally (while accepting that, maybe, you need to write a different book if nobody at all is biting); also, if you are floored by rejection and delay and disappointment, then this might not be for you. And that, OF COURSE, is fine. Because there is a life beyond writing.

Here’s where I am. I started writing a book, Killing Hapless Ally, a novel, which originally began life as a memoir, in July of 2014; by the 1st of May, 2015 it had a publisher and it was published in March 2016 by the small press, Patrician. I only sent this manuscript to five agents; two rejected it, three didn’t reply at all. I read an article about the press in ‘Mslexia’ magazine and I liked the sound of it, corresponded with its charismatic founder and there we go. I was, I should add, realistic about how visible the book would be, but I have relished the experience and, ever since, the bonds I have made with its readers. Is it a bestseller? Good God no, but it has been important to its readers and the engagement I have had with them has been life changing. With Patrician, to whom I now feel rather bonded, I also published a poem in Anthology of Refugees and Peacemakers (just back from an event at Essex Book Festival on that) and will be co-editor of next year’s anthology, My Europe and editor of its Tempest, which is a book, by various authors, on (Trump) America. And my poetry has been published by the brilliant indie Emma Press, too.

Way leads on to way.

Meanwhile, I spread my wings and wrote another book, a novella, The Life of Almost. I began sending this out before Christmas 2016. I’m a quick worker, apparently. Two agent rejections (one the day I sent it!), three small press rejections (but read on for that and for more on agents), waiting on two further presses and an agent so still out on submissions. BUT during this process, another agent had read a section from Killing Hapless Ally and admired my writing; said agent asked me to send what I was currently working on (as in, The Life of Almost) in partial then in full; told me they thought I was a brilliant writer but that this book was not, though they admired much about it, for them. To their taste, for example, it needed more pace. But I had also told them about my plans for the next book (I actually have four more books sketched out: is that crazy sounding?) and the agent asked me to send them the full manuscript for that as soon as it was ready because they absolutely loved its concept. This was my third text, Passerines.

Meanwhile, one of the other agents told me (having read three chapters of Almost) about how they loved my writing style. That there was much to like; it was innovative and compelling but in the end the book was not right for them. Keep sending! And of the three small presses who rejected me, one said that though they would not be taking this one, they were confident it would be placed and would I send them future work? The other told me there was some lovely writing and they were impressed, but that this text was simply too innovative for them and, on that basis, they would simply not be able to shift enough copies to make it financially viable. I do know that the small presses – whom I adore and champion, by the way – are often those who DO champion the innovative book, but clearly that is not always the case.

So you see, there’s a lot of encouragement in that pile, just as there is a lot of rejection. The rejection is part of the experience and of the learning.

I have almost finished my third novel. So that’s three books – from the first word, I mean – in three years and this is not my day job. I run a a company, teach, have three young boys and I’m a volunteer and mental health advocate, too.  I don’t have a great deal of time so I’ve got to want to do this.

Do you? Take your time and don’t give up.

I may not have hit a super stellar advance just yet and obviously I may never, but I am playing a long game. May those who find later books go back and read my first, for example. We are three years in and I have met so many fascinating people, read hundreds of books – I read a great deal anyway, but I am so much more alive to different presses and sources of reading; it has been such an adventure. I’ve made a film about mental health, presented at a literary festival, had a packed book launch at a wonderful bookshop, spoken to, had dinner with, corresponded with, interviewed and had my work read by – it is happening now – writers whom I admire. I’ve also published poetry and articles and guest blogged. To boot, I think I am a better teacher because I am a better reader and writer and what is more I am able to share my work with students. Right now, I am commissioning those in years 10-13 to write for the two anthologies I have mentioned and, through my company, I felt inspired to set up a year-long bursary so that I could help someone who had had – this is the icing on the cake for me – long term mental health problems (as I have had myself) to evolve and complete a creative writing project.

So that’s where I am now. In the peculiar position of having one book out on subs and another being waited for and…without giving too much away…being discussed. At the weekend I had an offer of publication for my second book, but I am taking my time.

And now I have to make the tea because the kids keep coming in and rooting through the cupboards. Not having the time forces me to write when and as I can and I mull at other times, which I also regard as working. If you wait for your perfect writing environment or space or time, it may never happen. So why not write something tonight and get started – even if it’s just a paragraph?

Do tell me about your experience and about how you are getting on.

Anna.

Killing Hapless Ally: Patrician Press (2016)

The Life of Almost (TBA!) and Passerines (ditto)

Not the Booker, 2016

So…if you have read and liked my debut novel, Killing Hapless Ally, and it meant something to you; if it made you laugh; you thought it had weight; if it made you fall madly in love with Albert Camus or understand what mental health problems or mental illness might be like (my publisher makes it clear at the beginning of the book that I drew on many episodes in my own life; if you like semi colons, Dolly Parton, poetry and laughing at the dark things…go on, vote for it. The article that follows is from ‘The Guardian’ and below is the link you need to click on, register with ‘The Guardian’, then offer your vote. Actually, there should be two votes, but you need only comment on one of the books.

And look at all those indies! What follows, then, is from ‘The Guardian’; just underneath it, I’ve copied my votes.

**********************************************

 

Not the Booker prize (very) longlist 2016: votes, please!

If you felt this year’s Man Booker selection was not broad enough, get a load of ours. And help decide which books make the shortlist

Composite: Authors Julian Barnes, Don DeLillo, Kei Miller, Sarah Perry, China Miéville and Lionel Shriver
A very small sample of the authors on our longlist … (clockwise from top left) … Julian Barnes, Don DeLillo, Kei Miller, Sarah Perry, China Miéville and Lionel Shriver. Composite: Alamy/Rex/Getty Images/Graham Turner/Graeme Robertson/Sarah Lee for The Guardian

Last week the Man Booker longlist was announced. A little surprising, right?

OK, I’m happy to admit that the main prize has a few things going for it. But I always feel that its longlist is just as notable for its omissions as the books that are chosen. This year was no exception. A few good books sometimes sneak on there – but dozens more don’t make it. And you know what? The Booker’s so-called longlist isn’t even that long. Not like the Not the Booker. As you will see below, our list really is long.

There are well over 100 books, making 2016 a record year already. So thank you to everyone who has contributed so far. And I hope you stick around as the real work begins. Because we somehow have to whittle this mighty list down to a manageable half-dozen books.

And how do we do that? We vote! If you want to take part, all you have to do is choose two books from the longlist, from two different publishers, and accompany those votes with a short review of at least one of your chosen books. It would also be very helpful if you included the word “vote”.

The review should be something over 100 words long, although as our glorious and shining Terms and Conditions state, we won’t be counting that carefully. Just make it look like you care.

It’s that simple. So let’s get voting. You’ve got just over a week. The deadline is 23.59 on 14 August 2016. The contenders are:

Megan Abbott– You Will Know Me (Picador)
Lesley Allen – The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir (Twenty7)
Deborah Andrews – Walking the Lights (Freight Books)
Louis Armand – The Combinations (Equus)
Kate Armstrong – The Storyteller (Holland House)
Jason Arnopp – The Last Days of Jack Sparks (Orbit)
Jenn Ashworth – Fell (Sceptre)
Chris Bachelder – The Throwback Special (WW Norton & Company)
Jo Baker – A Country Road, A Tree (Doubleday)
Julian Barnes – The Noise of Time (Jonathan Cape)
Shirley Barrett – Rush Oh! (Little, Brown)
Kevin Barry – Beatlebone (Doubleday)
Louise Beech – The Mountain in My Shoe (Orenda)
Claire-Louise Bennett – Pond (Fitzcarraldo)
Bill Beverly – Dodgers (No Exit Press)
Lochlan Bloom – The Wave (Dead Ink)
Lisa Blower – Sitting Ducks (Fair Acre)
Megan Bradbury – Everyone Is Watching (Picador)
Caroline Brothers – The Memory Stones (Bloomsbury)
Liam Brown – Wild Life (Legend Press)
Rowan Hisayo Buchanon – Harmless Like You (Sceptre)
Tom Bullough – Addlands (Granta)
Paul Burston – The Black Path (Accent Press Ltd)
Jackie Buxton – Glass Houses (Urbane Publications)
Louise Candlish – The Swimming Pool (Penguin)
Joanna Cannon – The Trouble With Goats and Sheep (The Borough Press)
Emma Chapman – The Last Photograph (Picador)
Anna Chilvers – Tainted Love (Bluemoose)
Dan Clements – What Will Remain (Silvertail)
Clár Ni Chonghaile – Fractured (Legend Press)
Chris Cleave – Everyone Brave Is Forgiven (Sceptre)
Emma Cline – The Girls (Chatto & Windus)
Paul MM Cooper – River of Ink (Bloomsbury)
Mark Connors – Stickleback (Armley Press)
Isabel Costello – Paris Mon Amour (Canelo)
Jack Cox – Dodge Rose (Dalkey Archive Press)
Justin Cronin – The City of Mirrors (Orion)
Rachel Cusk – Transit (Jonathan Cape)
Shelley Day – The Confession of Stella Moon (Contraband)
Don DeLillo – Zero K (Picador)
Ruth Dugdall – Nowhere Girl (Legend Press)
Sophie Duffy – Bright Stars (Legend Press)
Ken Edwards – Country Life (Unthank Books)
Jo Ely – Stone Seeds (Urbane Publications)
Guillermo Erades – Back to Moscow (Scribner UK)
Pamela Erens – Eleven Hours (Atlantic Books)
Lyn G Farrell – The Wacky Man (Legend Press)
Julia Forster – What a Way to Go (Atlantic Books)
Harry Gallon – The Shapes Of Dogs’ Eyes (Dead Ink)
Ruth Gilligan – Nine Folds Make A Paper Swan (Atlantic Books)
Jules Grant – We Go Around in the Night and Are Consumed By Fire (Myriad)
Guinevere Glasfurd – The Words in My Hand (Two Roads)
Garth Greenwell – What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giraux)
David John Griffin – Infinite Rooms (Urbane Publications)
Michael Grothaus – Epiphany Jones (Orenda Books)
Lee Harrison – The Bastard Wonderland (Wrecking Ball Press)
Adam Haslett – Imagine Me Gone (Little Brown and Company)
Noah Hawley – Before the Fall (Hodder & Stoughton)
Matt Hill – Graft (Angry Robot)
Catherine Hokin – Blood and Roses (Yolk Publishing)
Anna Hope – The Ballroom (Doubleday)
Michael Hughes – The Countenance Divine (John Murray)
Dave Hutchinson – Europe at Midnight (Solaris)
Amanda Jennings – In Her Wake (Orenda Books)
Elnathan John – Born on a Tuesday (Cassava Republic)
Anjali Joseph – The Living (Fourth Estate)
Avril Joy – Sometimes a River Song (Linen Press)
Mireille Juchau – The World Without Us (Bloomsbury)
James Kelman – Dirt Road (Canongate)
Claire King – Everything Love Is (Bloomsbury)
Hannah Kohler – The Outside Lands (Picador)
John Lake – Amy and the Fox (Armley Press)
Jem Lester – Shtum (Orion)
Ashley Lister – Raven and Skull (Caffeine Nights Publishing)
Carol Lovekin – Ghostbird (Honno Welsh Women’s Press)
PK Lynch – Armadillos (Legend Press)
Martin MacInnes – Infinite Ground (Atlantic Books)
Kevin MacNeil – The Brilliant and Forever (Polygon)
Seraphina Madsen – Dodge and Burn (Dodo Ink)
Brooke Maganti – The Turning Tide (W&N)
Ayisha Malik – Sophia Khan is Not Obliged (Twenty7)
Michael J Malone – Bad Samaritan (Contraband)
Iain Maloney – The Waves Burn Bright (Freight Books)
Sarah Ladipo Manyika – Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (Cassava Republic Press)
Alex Marwood – The Darkest Secret (Sphere)
Colum McCann – Thirteen Ways of Looking (Bloomsbury)
Tiffany McDaniel – The Summer That Melted Everything (Scribe)
Ian McGuire – The North Water (Scribner UK)
Elizabeth McKenzie – The Portable Veblen (Penguin Press)
Wyl Menmuir – The Many (Salt)
Sarah Meyrick – Knowing Anna (SPCK Publishing)
Dan Micklethwaite – The Less Than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote(Bluemoose)
China Miéville – This Census Taker (Del Rey Books)
Kei Miller – Augustown (W&N)
Alan Moore – Jerusalem (Liveright and Knockabout)
Alison Moore – Death and the Seaside (Salt)
Claire Morrall – When the Floods Came (Sceptre)
Yelena Moskovich – The Natashas (Serpent’s Tail)
Sarah Moss – The Tidal Zone (Granta Books)
Sylvain Neuvel – Sleeping Giants (Del Rey Books)
Carl Neville – Resolution Way (Repeater Books)
Suzy Norman – Duff (Patrician Press)
Claire North – The Sudden Appearance of Hope (Orbit)
Barney Norris – Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain (Doubleday)
Edna O’Brien – The Little Red Chairs (Faber & Faber)
Paraic O’Donnell – The Maker of Swans (W&N)
Maggie O’Farrell – This Must Be the Place (Tinder Press)
Harry Parker – Anatomy of a Soldier (Faber & Faber)
Sarah Perry – The Essex Serpent (Serpent’s Tail)
Cherry Potts – The Dowry Blade (Arachne Press)
Laura Powell – The Unforgotten (Freight Books)
Christopher Priest – The Gradual (Gollancz)
Lucy Ribchester – The Amber Shadows (Simon & Schuster UK)
Mary-Jane Riley – After She Fell (Killer Reads)
Adam Roberts – The Thing Itself (Gollancz)
Lou Rowan – A Mystery’s No Problem (Equus)
Amanda Saint – As If I Were a River (Urbane Publications)
James Sallis – Willnot (No Exit Press)
David Savill – They Are Trying to Break Your Heart (Bloomsbury)
Anakana Schofield – Martin John (And Other Stories)
Helen Sedgwick – The Comet Seekers (Harvill Secker)
Lionel Shriver – The Mandibles (The Borough Press)
Karin Slaughter – The Kept Woman (Century)
Ethyl Smith – Changed Times (ThunderPoint Publishing)
Francis Spufford – Golden Hill (Faber & Faber)
Sarayu Srivatsa – If You Look For Me I Am Not Here (Bluemoose)
Elizabeth Strout – My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking)
Emma Claire Sweeney – Owl Song at Dawn (Legend Press)
M Suddain – Hunters and Collectors (Jonathan Cape)
Graham Swift – Mothering Sunday (Scribner UK)
David Szalay – All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)
Jonathan Taylor – Melissa (Salt Publishing)
William Thacker – Lingua Franca (Legend Press)
Yusuf Toropov – Jihadi: A Love Story (Orenda Books)
Anna Vaught – Killing Hapless Alley (Patrician Press)
Dan Vyleta – Smoke (W&N)
Natasha Walter – A Quiet Life (The Borough Press)
Simon Wan – Love and a Dozen Roast Potatoes (Urbane Publications)
Eleanor Wasserberg – Foxlowe (Harper Collins)
Jemma Wayne – Chains of Sand (Legend Press)
Aliya Whitely – The Arrival of the Missives (Unsung Stories)
Chis Whitaker – Tall Oaks (Twenty7)
Hugo Wilcken – The Reflection (Melville House UK)
Matt Wilven – The Blackbird Singularity (Legend Press)
Charlotte Wood – The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin)
James Yorkston – Three Craws (Freight Books)

I’ll be back here on 15 August to post the results – and no doubt feeling slightly frazzled from all the counting. Let’s go!

 

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/aug/02/not-the-booker-prize-very-longlist-2016-votes-please#comment-80656904

***********************************

And here are my two votes:

annaVaught

My two votes. PK Lynch’s Armadillos (Legend). Aggie’s voice clear as a bell and has stayed with me; excellent, sustained narrative. Admittedly I did find elements of this difficult to read because of experiences I share with Aggie, but I am glad I kept going. One of the biggest compliments I can give to this book is that she has (and I want to qualify that I am a huge Faulkner fan and of Southern literature in general plus it’s my second home and I’m married to A Georgia Boy!) pulled off the voice, the vocabulary and the nuance, which is no mean feat and something I have seen done poorly elsewhere. The settings are haunting and there are elements of joy and humour in the blackness. It reminded me of a book that is too little known – Erskine Cauldwell’s God’s Little Acre – with its grisly portrayal of the characters PK has as ‘subs’. I think Armadillos is a skilfully written book and its prose is spare but allusive. At least, that is how it seemed to me! I felt I knew all along what the ending would be. Knew it inchoately. Didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the story at all. A familiar -oh yes- and beautiful book.

Book two. Duff by Suzy Norman (Patrician Press). Skilfully done; restrained prose; funny; love the journey and the landscape – its sweep of places, visited and remembered. It is sweet, sad and moving. I felt the rhythms of Dylan Thomas, prose and poetry, moving within it.

I’d love to discuss both these books with their authors. Both are debut novelists. Right, I am off to read A Country Road, A Tree, Solar Bones, The Blackbird Singularity and Sometimes a River Song…I am only sorry I cannot nominate more books. It has, for example, been such a brilliant year for smaller presses!

Anna

********************************************

 

 

 

 

 

No shame; no stigma. An event for you.

I realise this is very much a UK and west country event, but if you are in the area, do please come! Or let me just show you what I’m up to. x

For the BOA fringe this year, I am hosting an evening at The Three Horseshoes pub, Frome Road, Bradford on Avon Wiltshire. It’s called ‘No shame; no stigma’ and its focus is mental health. That’s a key theme of my debut novel, Killing Hapless Ally, which was published in March this year and has been featuring in the national press. I have also written a series of articles around its key themes for various publications and stepped up my engagement in mental health campaigning and advocacy. A subject close to my heart, this.

Do please come along. I’d love it. Thursday 7th July, from 8 pm. I will be speaking frankly. Ask me anything! Also, some readings from the book and, with the book as a starting point, a lively extended discussion about mental health, well-being, anxiety, depression and other tricky things. What it means to be ill; what it means to be well, maybe. The language we use and that which is unhelpful. How we challenge taboo. All sorts. Being me, I am not straying away from dark humour  (and the novel is a black comedy rooted in real events) so I hope it will be entertaining for you too. And it’s free. Buy a drink at the bar and come through to the marquee. We’ll stay until we get chucked out. Copies of my book, Killing Hapless Ally, are on sale locally at Ex Libris and Mr B’s in Bath, but you could also order from Amazon, Waterstones and so on, or get a copy from me on the night

No shame; no stigma. 

Do come.

Anna x

Here’s the link to buy at Amazon. https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=killing+hapless+ally

 

 

http://www.fringeboa.co.uk/

Darkly Funny and Courageous: Killing Hapless Ally

This bold, unique novel is a first-rate example of the innovative and original approach exemplifying the contemporary small press scene.

Source: Darkly Funny and Courageous: Killing Hapless Ally

Talking to your children about mental health; helping your children cope with your mental health problems

 

TALKING TO YOUR CHILDREN ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH; HELPING YOUR CHILDREN COPE WITH YOUR MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS.

This text contains some frank descriptions, a swear word and a hint of humour in unsettling places.

Here is an extract from my new novel, Killing Hapless Ally. And in it, I drew very much on my own experience of managing my mental health problems as a mother. In this bit, there are three sons to be cared for and this is how it went when I was once quite unwell and my husband and I struggled to manage until — because for the first time in my life I really opened up — a community of friends swept in. It was this — the honesty of it all, I think — that was a key element in my getting better. Here, in the novel, when the protagonist struggles to hold herself up and doesn’t entirely know what day it is, are three young men, seasoned by fire and the determination of their parents’ love.

‘There was no choice but to let the exigencies of motherhood force Alison to cope. But today, everything was back to front and the wrong colours; clothes were in the incorrect place; there were two packed lunches in one bag and she was crying and her knees were buckling as she came apart. It is a testament to these children that they went off and out, knowing that they were loved. And knowing you are loved is all, perhaps. Not feeling guilty; dirty; too responsible too soon, or with a head full of macabre images and angels howling.

“Bye Mum.”

The boys’ eyes were like saucers.’

The ‘boys’ here recall what I remember, just a few years back, of seeing my two boys go out into the world, with their mother very distressed at home (the third was six months old and so I partly fictionalised the text because he was pre-verbal!). Like anyone who has had mental health problems, I have worried about how seeing their mother so upset and so poorly has affected the boys. But I want to say something about this. It’s not that knowing — and seeing — I am being frank; my boys have seen some pretty raw things — a parent at rock bottom is exactly ideal, but you see they have watched me get better, too. They have a sense, they tell me, that I am strong because they have seen me battle and seen me get better. Of the two, it’s the battle they respect the most, apparently. On Mother’s Day this year my eldest, who is nearly fifteen, made me a home-made card listing the reasons I was ‘Greatest Mum in the World’, and he noted that I always ‘took on’ illness and the problems I had had and that he thought this was amazing. No cupcakes; spendy holidays; kit. Just, ‘Mum. You are amazing. You have had all these problems and you have never given up.’ If you are a mum, reading this, worrying, let it be known that I am giving you a HUGE virtual hug RIGHT NOW. And also commenting that sometimes I feel I learn more from my kids than they do from me. Ever feel that way?

We have given the boys information so that they are informed without being over-burdened with facts, answered questions and told them things about mental health and about how and why (insofar as we know) things can go wrong. Certainly, the older two, who are at secondary now, will learn a bit about moods and feelings and where to ask for help in PSHE, but (as well as being their mum and an author I have always worked with secondary age students and also been a PSHE teacher) mental health is still not addressed fully, I would say, in the national curriculum. In our daily lives, it still attracts some pretty horrid vocabulary and whispered voices. Sometimes — I think of ‘Daily Mail’ headlines and the careless lexis of all kinds of people (including teachers) about ‘psychos’, ‘nutters’ and, most recently, ‘going schiz’ to describe a child’s misbehaviour in class, all of which infuriate me — and I wonder if there is still a hefty element of wishing the crazy people ’round the bend’. That screened place, which, in years gone by, was eclipsed from view after the straight drive swept off in its bend to the psychiatric hospital. And by the way, I am not suggesting that we should be, forever, sharing and emoting left, right and centre; emotional continence and discipline have their place; on the other hand, by demonising ‘bad’ emotions we teach nothing of any real value to our offspring. And when people – or when we – need help and support because things have gone wrong with our minds, moods and emotions, we need to be able to have open dialogue about it just as we might about our physical health; I know that we can create a context for that as we speak to our children.

As parents we have a responsibility to talk to children so that they are not frightened if they know someone — and I want to say that one in four people will have a mental health problem — who is experiencing difficulty and so that they are properly compassionate to others and to themselves. I would want my boys to see the reality of who people who have mental health problems or mental illness actually are: they are us; they are you; they are me. Shame and stigma are destructive and while they obfuscate, they cause more problems and more misunderstanding and, perhaps, cause people not to seek the help they need. Because there isn’t really a they; there’s only an us.

Let me tell you what happened to me.

When I was a child, I knew that, in sections of my large family, things had gone awry. Strange things happened and I had glimpsed into them and listened in, furtively, on private, grown-up conversations. I was forever thinking about some terrible things that might be happening behind the silent screens, behind the whispers, but being entirely kept in the dark about them made them more terrible for me, because my imagination and limited knowledge built them into things of gargantuan proportions. For example, I had an aunt who hadn’t got out of bed for some years and her condition was referred to as overwork, yet I caught snatches of conversation about ‘nervous breakdowns’ and heard one of the neighbours say she was a ‘mental case’; sometimes I heard screaming and then recalled it in nightmares; I knew that at least two of my cousins had disappeared and was hastily told they had brain tumours (I know — a strange things to be saying to a young kid; but you see this must have been considered a better explanation than the real trauma); again, earwigging, I came to understand that they had taken their own lives, and sort of wondered where they had put them. It was my family’s epic-fail mythology, on both sides, but particularly in my late father’s, that all was well and that you didn’t tell for shame. A mythology that the sadness wasn’t, anyway, palpable. Because, of course, it was. As a child I sucked it up and felt sick; it was there on the table with bangers and mash when no-one spoke but sat, as Auden had it, ‘in a place beyond glum.’

No-one spoke about what was going on; I had to over-hear the accounts of wife-beating, of a gold-digger marrying the terminally ill aunt who was the person I loved most in the world; of why another aunt had to be sedated for the vast journey across Somerset; of why the aunt who didn’t get out of bed occasionally threw furniture at visitors. Even as a young kid, I knew she must have been so distressed because I was left in the car outside willing myself to think of something else. ‘Bang!’ That’ll be the bedside table. I was told to shut up when I asked. Because everyone was so dead keen on stifling things, it almost killed me when my father cried at said married-to-a-gold-digger aunt’s funeral. And he was furious with me that I had seen it and belted me for it because his shame was so great. I am aware that my family was dysfunctional, but because they were such pillars of the community — and had apparently joined the middle classes now — there was no-one to tell because, as I wrote in my novel, ‘Who would believe you?’ Ah, keeping up appearances does a lot of damage, does it not?

I could also witness, within my own home, familial mood swings that, to me, were terrifying and I do believe that the secrecy and lack of articulation made me into a frightened child and probably adult, too. Because my family (albeit ineptly) covered it up, it felt worse; moreover I was always taught that moods, and PMT and adolescence and passion and crying apart from alone were signs of the most hideous weakness; at least two of my cousins suffered from eating disorders: no-one called them that; despite the fact that they appeared to be wasting away and there was one cousin whose scratches from self-harming I could clearly see. I feel and see this all so clearly now and I know that I desperately wanted to talk to someone about it all.  When you become a parent, maybe you feel more acutely for your child self? And this child self needed to be told that she was okay and coping and she wishes that there had been someone to say, ‘It isn’t you, kid’ or ‘Mental health problems and mental illness are not weakness’ or ‘Your family’s suppression of anything that looks shameful is actually the unhealthy part and totally sucks because the problems are so clearly there.’ And I needed that talk about it because also, as a small child, I began to develop problems myself, in my topsy-turvy, back-to-front world.

My black comedy, sort of bildungsroman of a novel explores the ways in which a child develops problems of some dimensions, has not a soul to tell, is traumatised by many key events in her childhood and is very fearful and full of self-loathing; she scratches and pounds upon herself and uses her imagination to populate a world which, to her, makes no sense. This kid also develops an alter ego who turns nasty. What can I say? I was a funny little girl, but I survived with my unorthodox means. Unfortunately, I also had years of mental health problems — OCD, panic attacks, generalised anxiety disorder, self-harming, extremely poor coping skills in the face of stress, periods of depression — and I thought that I was a ghastly person who had brought terrible things upon her family and, possibly, on others too; an individual whose presence was always deleterious to those around her.  I believe that, at the heart of depression (I am with the Australian psychologist Dorothy Rowe on this one),there is a sense one is a bad person, a wicked person; this, unsurprisingly, colours all events that happen to one, making a person feel responsible for things they were not, finding pattens of failure and let-downs and things they can’t do and shouldn’t have entertained. That was me and it took me a long time and many false starts to get better; it was a combination of culling a few people, dead and alive, I am afraid (you’ll have to read the book!), surrounding myself with a good community of friends and getting the appropriate therapeutic support after other systems didn’t work. It was CAT (cognitive analytic therapy) delivered with stupendous skill and compassion that did it and when this worked I want to tell you that things were a different colour and that I fell on the floor, cataleptic with relief. THAT is what skilled support delivered for me and my heart bleeds to think that others cannot access it because they do not have a supportive GP, because they feel they cannot advocate for themselves, because funding is such that the help is sparse — which is the reality in the UK — or because they have always harboured a sense of shame (thus cannot tell anyone) or never received any useful knowledge or information and find themselves stymied by fear: what is happening?  Had I been able to ask and tell as a child, would things have been different? I think it likely, although I am no health professional, that they would.

Let me return to that quotation from the beginning of this article.

‘It is a testament to these children that they went off and out, knowing that they were loved. And knowing you are loved is all, perhaps. Not feeling guilty; dirty; too responsible too soon, or with a head full of macabre images and angels howling.’

If children feel loved and if they have some knowledge, but not too much, of what is happening, I think the situation is more manageable for them. I would say that we need to speak frankly and answer all questions — and find out some answers when we don’t — because mental health is still not given the focus it needs. I should like to think that things are changing gradually. Recent books and the excellent work of mental health campaigners and advocates, many of whom are prolific on twitter, and groups with a good presence on social media, such as ‘Respect Yourself’ and ‘Young Minds’ are resources for younger people in distress themselves or trying to cope with that of a parent. Mind and Saneline are terrific and I think Matt Haig’s recent book, Reasons to Stay Alive was a sensible and gentle resource which will, in its way, and for a broad age demographic, help to comfort and de-stigmatise; I am a huge fan of everything that Dorothy Rowe (see above) ever writes and I think that Juno Dawson’s recent book Mind Your Head is an excellent guide to mental health for young people. And there’s us — the parents, many of whom, like me, will have suffered or be suffering from mental health problems or perhaps a thoroughly debilitating mental illness.

Something I do is to make sure — and I will always do this for as long as I can — that I give top priority to those people who have given my children a sense of safety and fun and in whom they can trust; for me, this has also meant those who knew how hard things had been for me sometimes and who didn’t walk away. I have been very careful to ensure the children can go and talk to some of my friends because, as I like to say, family is a flexible construct and sometimes, as I have learned over and over, family cripples you if it can’t look something scary in the face or if its sense of shame is so heavy as to weigh down your very soul and the world you walk through. And sometimes family fucks off in a crisis because it doesn’t like unpleasantness. So I’ve been practical and I hope our boys feel they have a loving community around them and that a shorthand exists because these friends don’t judge and know that people are people and that we can talk and break through problems with open arms and through open conversations. And, yes, that it’s an us.

The open conversation and the consoling warmth of an extended hand: they would be good for everyone, wouldn’t they?

Please feel free to comment on what you have read. x