Tag Archives: mental illness

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.”

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What’s Passerines about? Here. “What do you know, who has not been mad?” and “Those who are confined have the best imaginations.”

Don’t nick it. It be @copyright Anna Vaught

Passerines. A synopsis

How would it be if four lunatics went on a tremendous adventure, got to taste full liberty, revisit and reshape their pasts, their futures, make us question what we think madness is – and kill Mussolini? That would be extraordinary, wouldn’t it? How would it all be possible? Because, as Violet Gibson, the key protagonist of the book would tell you, those who are confined have the very best imaginations.

This story is grounded in truth but, as historical fiction, it fills in the many gaps by imagining the interior lives of its four female subjects, and lends it a supernatural air in Violet’s invoking of the birds of the air (and with them, the birds of religious texts and iconography) to help her connect with other three (apparently mad) women, and their tortured lives. In 1926, in Rome, Violet Gibson, an aristocrat, tried to kill Mussolini, having previously failed to kill herself. Violet was not the best shot. Mussolini was struck on the nose and though he bled copiously, he lost only a divot of flesh and was soon off, bandaged, to carry on; plans of Il Duce, Mare Nostrum and the creation, he thought, of his Augustan Empire. Meanwhile, Violet was trampled to the ground, taken to prison, placed in a lunatic asylum and then, by the grace of Mussolini (and with copious thanks from the Foreign office, her father the Fifth Baron Ashbourne, and Winston Churchill) she was deported and placed, for the rest of her life, in St Andrew’s Psychiatric hospital in Northampton. She petitioned for release for the rest of her life, but was always refused; many of her own letters remain, unsent (contravening the 1890 Lunacy Act). She died in 1956, was denied the burial she requested and rests in a shabby corner of a a municipal ground. This much is true.

For the last few years of Violet’s life, Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce, was incarcerated at St Andrew’s. She also died there, in 1982, and is buried steps away from Violet, away from the family grave in Zurich: isolated, arguably in death, as in life, like Violet, her records and letters burned or sealed by decree of the keeper of the Joyce flame. Lunatics both, these women. Of course. That must be true, musn’t it?

Meanwhile, not so long ago, Blanche Wittmann dances and crawls like a dog while under the hypnosis of the great neurologist Dr Charcot at the Salpêtrière in Paris. Le tout Paris turns out to see her; she is painted, in a state of hysterical glamour, by the fêted Andre Brouillet and Le Tout Paris turns out to see her. Dr Freud observes and learns and is fascinated, though he comes to a different conclusion; that it is psychiatric, not a disease of the nerves. When Blanche goes back to her room, or rather cell, alongside the other eight thousand mad women at the hospital, the evening continues elsewhere in fine apartments with absinthe and a tinkling piano. Just a little after Blanche, comes Anna O; a woman who retches at water, swerves between languages and tells stories like those of Hans Christian Anderson. She suffers hallucinations of snakes, has paralysis and a persistent choking cough. Anna O becomes a patient of Dr Breuer and, later, a subject in Dr Freud and Dr Breuer’s book, Studies in Hysteria. Blanche never leaves the Salpetriere, but later works in one of the laboratories while, paces away, Marie Curie experiments with pitchblende. At some point, Blanche disappears from records and we do not know where she is buried; Anna O, meanwhile, remains a mystery until, in 1953, twenty years after her death, she is discovered to be Bertha Pappenheim, an Austrian-Jewish pioneer in women’s rights, sometimes referred to as the first social worker. What she has built is later razed by the Nazis. These women are the four majestic feebles (as Lucia Joyce has it) of the story.

The story imagines what their lives were like as patients and how it might have been were all these women to be free and meet and have an adventure together; from the Ireland of Violet’s youth, to Vienna, Paris – a meeting with James Joyce. It is also an alternative history: had Anna O ever been free, a voyager, a scientist; had Bertha found the love she hoped and her work not destroyed; had Lucia written her novel, been able to carry on dancing, as she had been trained to do by Margaret Morris, William Morris’s grand-daughter, had she been able to have the work she was offered at the Gotham Book Mart in New York or to be a tumbleweed at Shakespeare and Co in Paris: had she got out; had Violet been successful in securing the end of life she wanted, a Catholic burial and to change history: had they all been with her, that day, on Campidoglio, in Rome, 1926, and all held a Lebel revolver – and killed Mussolini.

Why Passerines? Because part of Violet’s therapy in the psychiatric hospital was to go outside to feed the birds, of which we have a deeply moving photograph. She communes with them, and the birds of the air make sure, through a kind of magic, that her letters to Blanche and Anna O arrive, just as they stimulate her to thoughts of freedom, possibility and to whisper to Lucia Joyce through the walls of the asylum. Does any of it really happen? We return to the question posed by all the women: “What do you know, who has not been mad?” – and Lucia Joyce, who never got out, lays a passerine on the grave of her friend.

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.

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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

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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

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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

Friendship. Article for ‘At Home’ magazine.

This is by the journalist, author and broadcaster, Wersha Bharadwa. She has been a wonderful source of encouragement to me and this section of her article on friendship – authors reflecting thereon – is reproduced here with her kind permission. Wersha: thank you. xxxx

At Home January

An extract – featuring Albert Camus – from Killing Hapless Ally. This Chapter is called The Mis-education of Alison.

Pre-order from 3rd of February, folks! The ISBN is 978-0-9932388-6-4 and it’s published by the wonderful independent press, Patrician. Killing Hapless Ally is not a book for everyone. It’s densely packed with idea and allusion; it’s dark and (I hope!) comic. But if you like it, take it to your heart and that will make me so happy. It is fiction, but within it, there lies a distillation of what I know, what I have found out and what I have been through. It is about how mental illness takes hold – how it can settle in so young – and about imaginative ways to fight it. And that, lovely readers, is all me. x

NB: there may still be some editorial changes to this copy before I bid it goodbye in a few weeks.

THE FOLLOWING EXTRACT CONTAINS EXPLETIVES. Actually, there’s a hefty amount of creative swearing at various places in this book.

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; weird, 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 Patrice 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 Mersault 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 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. Mersault’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 Mersault 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’étrangère 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. 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 and stand against this wall. I will take you.’

Was this what Helen had meant, 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 boykind—mistook her for someone else. Camus would have taken a bowie knife from his pocket and cut her out of her clothes, grazing her skin and eliciting just a little blood as he went. Later, he would lick the drop of blood off the knife like a wolf.

Albert’s cadences were delicious: he was declaiming phrases of profound, shattering erotic power to Alison’s ear. And by God he had enough style to be vulgar, if he wanted. Camus had a history of manly pursuits, too: goalie for Algiers; 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 Hapless Ally in a proprietary and manly style. L’Étranger was inscribed with the words “Helen Griffiths, Paris, le 19 Janviér 1962” and Alison had always hoped that, in leaving France for Terry, his mother’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, all those years 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.’ Good God. He even understood that. It was exactly how she felt about Santa Maria. And by God (although He is 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

A Review of Dear Stranger (Penguin/Mind, 2015.)

 A short review of Dear Stranger (Penguin/Mind, 2015)

This is a marvellous collection of letters to imaginary people (or not). I think it is a book to keep at hand, for encouragement and,  if you are laid low, there is much consolation in this book. I would like to write about all the letters, but, constrained by time, I have just picked a few of my favourites. Please forgive the odd bit of wandering slightly off topic: on mental health I have much to say for much have I been through!

So, I have taken the following text from Penguin’s own website, which you can find at http://www.penguin.co.uk/books/dear-stranger/9781405922128/

Dear Stranger is a collection of inspirational, honest and heartfelt letters from authors, bloggers and Mind ambassadors to an imagined stranger. Insightful and uplifting, Dear Stranger is a humbling glimpse into different interpretations of happiness, and how despite sometimes seeming unobtainable happiness can, in the smallest of ways, become and achievable goal.

No one should face a mental health problem alone. Whether it’s on a doorstep, on the end of a telephone or online, Mind is there for everyone who is experiencing a mental health problem.

All profits from the sale of this book (at least £3 for every copy sold) will be donated to Mind, a registered charity number 219830.

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‘Dear Stranger is an inspiration’
Stylist

‘An inspirational book’
Sunday Express S Magazine

‘This collection cuts right to the heart of what it means to be happy – and human. . . . Dear Stranger is a thoughtful exploration of happiness, in all its wonderful, often elusive complexity, that all of us can learn something from’
Red Magazine Online

‘An incredibly thought-provoking read’
Sun

‘Beautifully written letters from the heart’
Lady Magazine

Full list of contributors: Fiona Phillips; Martha Roberts; Francesca Martinez; Rachel Joyce; Donal Ryan; Matt Haig; Philippa Rice; Naomi Alderman; Yuval Noah Harari; Ilona Burton; Rowan Coleman; Ellen White; Abbie Ross; Giles Andreae; Conn Iggulden; Seaneen Molloy-Vaughan; Genevieve Taylor; Thomas Harding; Jez Alborough; Caitlin Moran; Blake Morrison; Nicci French; Jo Elworthy; John Lewis-Stempel; Chris Riddell; Tessa Watt; Helen Dunmore; Alain de Botton; Deborah Levy; Kevin Bridges; Marian Keyes; Nicholas Allan; Nick Harkaway; Edward Stourton; Eoin Colfer; Shirley Hughes; Santham Sanghera; Alexandra Fuller; Daniel Levitin; Claire Greaves; Arianna Huffington; Richard Branson; Molly Pearce; Nicholas Pinnock; Tim Smit; Tony Parsons; Dave Chawner; @Sectioned__; Professor Lord Richard Layard;

Now THIS bit is mine.

I found out about this book through some of the people I follow on twitter, particularly Mind and the excellent journalist, Martha Roberts, who also maintains a website http://www.mentalhealthwise.com – a deeply compassionate and compendious source of information, encouragement and solace. I had, in my many periods of illness, found Mind a support. I liked the breadth of contributors to the anthology and relished the notion that this was a book I could keep near me for emergencies, or just feeling flat – or for those times when I have given an unsettling or disturbing feeling, say, ninety seconds to run its physiological course – and it’s still there. Finally, I was editing my debut novel, a synopsis of which you can find at the top of this site: it’s billed as fiction, but oh my, I have drawn heavily on my own experiences and adventures in mental health. I  knew that, to be well-informed in the subject area of my book – and to be able to talk about it – I needed to keep abreast of titles which looked at mental health or mental illness.

So, Matt Haig writes in his letter, ‘Dear twenty-four-year-old me’, that depression draws a line – between what you were before and what you are now; that,

‘It separates lives into eras. It gives you a BC and an AD of your own life.’

I have found this to be true, but also that I have had many eras, since I have been falling into (Matt Haig’s word, here) ravines since childhood. I can summon up that feeling now, of being a kid – a dark and visceral experience: it was a big lump of sadness and I don’t remember being without it, although I do remember times, from late childhood and early adolescence when the sadness altered everything and I felt separate from my contemporaries. There wasn’t anyone I could tell. I don’t say that to sound self-indulgent or tragic; I am being factual. There is a reason that the central character in my debut novel has many imaginary friends into whom the protagonist of the story breathes life.

This is, at first, rather a digression, but his letter prompted me to think about being younger and feeling alone; in the BC period.  Well I know  – because the eldest of my three boys is fourteen and  because I teach teenagers – that parents worry about their offsprings’ access to social media – the films they may see or make on YouTube, what goes on Tumblr and so on. There are, most definitely, some troubling things out there – perhaps most of all the ‘pro’ communities: pro self-harming, mental illness, pro-Ana (anorexia) – and if you looked about you would find a lot of younger people writing about being in such online communities and also about getting away from them. But this is not my main point. As a kid and a teenager, when I was at school, then university, I either didn’t have anyone to tell or, later on, didn’t know who to tell. But those who are alone or FEEL alone, may find lively interchange and friendship through social media. There are twitter groups who hold open MH chats for younger people. Take a look at the tweets of one of my favourites,@Nursewithglasses for information about things; @YoungMindsUK is great for threads to follow and  – whatever your age – @MHChat has a session – which is like a wonderful conversation – on Wednesday night at eight. When I’m thinking, ‘Uh-oh. BC/AD’ that is where I head.

I am looking at twitter now and can see that some younger mental illness sufferers are tweeting from hospital. Some of these people contributed to the book. Ok: now I am crying. I am also writing back to them, sending a DM or tweet saying, ‘Hello – I am thinking of you. I am sending a hug.’ It isn’t my place to say anything else but you see, I was there. I lay down on the floor to die twice – once when I was fourteen and again when I was nineteen. I’m bearing those scars; I know that no-one came, I scraped myself off the floor –  and I’m damned if others should feel so alone. Should I hide any of that? Should I hide what happened in the ‘ravine’; in the ‘BC’?The sort of admission that still, in this day and age, has people avoiding you as if you and what you connote are in some way contagious? No: I should not hide it, because to do so is to do a disservice to those who have yet to recover. No again, because those who have avoided me or told me I was a weakling were, I could say, operating from a place of fear. They saw or could see me as a contaminant. But at least one in four of us may suffer from mental illness at any one time and so I say things to those who are going through the fire – and I mean those people whom I don’t know, but who are reaching out through social media, so I say,

‘I hear you and I understand. You can do this. You can, you can. I am still here. I went to university, I teach, I run a business, I write – my debut novel is out next March – I have three boys. I am doing the mummy stuff and I can dig it. This morning I did something funny and had a custard slice for breakfast.’

And Dear Stranger in its individual letters and as a whole, says something so very comforting and pertinent. It sets the darkness echoing and tells people that they are not alone and that people of all ages and all backgrounds have been affected by mental illness OR that the writers are understanding and sympathetic and want to pass on, in a spirit of generosity, what they know. For me, every day can provide significant challenge and so this book is of great personal support. It reminds me that I am not alone. Or, as Martha Roberts writes in her letter, ‘Dear Woman in Pink’,

‘I want to turn back and say ‘Hi’. I want to talk to you about illness and desperation and to explain that you’re not alone in your sadness. I want to chat to you about humour, and how, even in those bleakest of  bleak times, it’s possible to reawaken a hibernated joy that can serve as a lifeline and a vehicle for recovery.’

What I enjoyed about this book was its breadth, humour and kindness. I loved Martha Roberts’s letter to a person observed near her, drawn through the prism of Martha’s own experience and concluding, ‘This too shall pass.’ Caitlin Moran’s  description of the ‘dark place’ was poignant: it’s a place I know well – where you lie down. When I lay down, first when I was a child, then on the cusp of my adult life, I wished hard to expire; to not be; to never have been. But you see, there was a voice in my head while that wish rattled around and echoed out into the room and the voice said, ‘You should never have been; you are wrong; a waste; an abject failure.’ But that voice was not really my voice: it was a compound of parents – or rather my mother with a acquiescent father – a sibling, teachers who humilated me for being a let down to my publicly-lauded parents, later a partner with whom a relationship went wrong – so it had to be me, didn’t it? How could the others have been wrong? It was me, aberrant, in the face of normal, up and doing other people.

Caitlin Moran’s letter reminds us to question whether the voice is impolite and speaks in a way we would not stand if it spoke thus to a loved one. No? You wouldn’t be so harsh, so damining to another? You wouldn’t try to diminish or even annihilate them? No? Quite. We should learn not to speak thus to ourselves. Moreover, she suggests a pet – making yourself into one – that you enjoy looking after, hence the dachshund called Eric who has been hers for some time. He is well looked after, likes watching musicals and has a jaunty bobble hat and duffle coat. And importantly, she gives you a reminder: depression takes a layer of skin off so that you ‘feel more of the world.’ Flip that: if you feel more of the world, it could be argued that this is a gift. Feeling more; arguably experiencing more, And, yes, I cry straight away when David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ comes on.

‘WE FEEL MORE OF THE WORLD THAN MOST PEOPLE. That’s amazing. That is why we cry with joy when we listen to David Bowie, and are obsessed with the moon, and can stare at the redness of cherry-juice on our finger and imagine a whole world that is cherry-juice-red — with stained glass trees and frosted crimson glass, and tiny bright birds that fly out of scarlet oyster shells. Every day is a fight — the highs are high, and the lows are low. You are rarely lukewarm.’

I remember asking, during one period of support with MHRS (which is the community health rescue service, although I like to think of them as a squad – sort of superheroes) if I could be medicated for lability of mood, because my moods and responses are changeable and dramatic and always have been. The psychologist’s answer was pretty much that I did not, in their opinion, have a mood disorder but also that to medicate would take me away from the highs – to place me somewhere that was ‘lukewarm’ and that this would, ultimately, do me a disservice. That would not be the advice for everyone, but for me, it was just so. I tolerate the lows and I am thinking about an imaginary pet of some sort.

And in our darker moments, when we are ill or, in fact, just contemplating how we might be happy – and Dear Stranger is not just about depression and mental illness it is more broadly about what happiness is and how we might attain it – we could keep this book to hand. I liked Alain de Botton’s reflections on calm and absolutely agreed with what he wrote as, for me, removing agitation is important for happiness and, frankly, so that I stay well. This bit I found most compelling,

One: Panic about Panic.

‘A lot of agitation is caused by an unrealistic sense of how unusual difficulty is. We are oppressed by unhelpful images of how easy it is to achieve and how normal it is to succeed. The stories that officially circulate about what relationships and careers are like tend fatally to downplay the darker realities, leaving many of us not only upset, but upset that we are upset, feeling persecuted as well as miserable.’

He is, like me, a fan of the philosopher, Pascal and thus explains why we should be grateful to Pascal and also to ‘the long line of pessimistic philosophers to which he belongs, for doing us the incalculably great favour of publicly and elegantly rehearsing the facts of life.’

I can see that this may be at odds with what modern life is selling us, but, in my experience, to accept difficulty as normal and to let go of seeming perfection and the rush – the pressure – to try to achieve it, is very liberating. It is not the same as giving up; not a prescription for inaction, but more a prompt to a calmer life because of what falls away. I loathe, as I have written before, the shlock-philosophy and psychobabble of The Secret and the literature from which it stems – that of New Thought. If you desire something good, think of it coming to you and it will, through the laws of attraction. become yours. The same book posits the idea that bad in your life happened because you attracted it and that, if you believe, the bountiful universe will bring its cornucopia to you. This is why otherwise perfectly intelligent people stick a mock-up of a million bucks on their ceilings – because it is an affirmation of their intention. To be rich and therefore to be happy, gestating expectations that are bound to be disappointed and which are often, frankly, mercenary and without a shred of intellectual or spiritual vigour behind them. It seems to me that books such as The Secret play into people’s fears; that those who are dissatisfied or unhappy or want more, just need to think positively and the rewards will come. But one cannot shift everything into a positive (because some things are terrible and to negate that is to diminish our humanity and our experience). Far better to read a prompt to accepting difficulty, even pessimism – and being a right laugh anyway.

Finally, I found Sathnam Sanghera’s letter, which begins, ‘Dear Wolverhampton Asian Goth’, a wonderfully encouraging piece of writing. In fact, this morning I am lending the book to a mum whose son tells her he feels acutely aware of his difference vis-a-vis his school-age peers. Ah, I thought, and turned to this, for her:

‘So much human misery is caused by people trying to fit into holes they don’t belong. Whether it is hiding their sexuality, or hanging out socially with people they don’t even like, or going along with stuff just because of social and family pressure to do so. But you’re already there. It is almost certain that you will not remain as you are, but you already have the courage to be different. You’re decades, and in some cases, a lifetime, ahead of most people.’

All my life I have been troubled by the sense that I am different. I wish I’d had this essay! I am convinced that this fed I into a sense of self-loathing which toppled me deeper into depression. And for years. These days, my attitude is perkier; I’m not afraid of a mighty, ‘Fuck off!’ (albeit in my head) to those who call me quirky, mad, really eccentric, bonkers – because those monikers have not been – and are not always given –  with a knowing and inclusive smile. They are said with a tone or a look that is vaguely derogatory – and, I might say, by those who are terrified of their own sense of difference. And we are back to what Sathnam Sanghera wrote about the misery caused by that. He’s a wise fellow and I’ve loved everything he’s written.

So, do get a copy of the book. As you can see at the top, it is published in aid of Mind. When you read it, may you be reminded of glimpses of happiness: perhaps happiness was fleeting, or maybe it stayed a little longer. May you ‘lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag bone shop of  the heart ‘ (as W.B. Yeats had it in ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’) and find hope and remember that you do have ladders.  If you are ill now, or unhappy, may you find the strength to transfigure that experience into something that makes you stronger, more imaginative – better able to be kind to yourself. And I hope, as I was kindly allowed to quote from Kavanagh’s ‘Prelude’ as an epigraph for my first novel. Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician Press, 2016), that ‘The millstone has become a star.’

Anna x