Caught by the River

Where I'm Calling From: Religious Melancholy

Martha Sprackland | 14th October 2016

marthatrain Words and pictures: Martha Sprackland

London St Pancras – Paris Gare du Nord
I’m on an evening Eurostar train from London to Paris, the first leg of a twenty-two-hour no-fly journey to Madrid, where I’ll be living for the next two months. As I write this I find myself eyeing up my fellow passengers in the carriage, wondering about their lives. It’s too early in the day, just about, for the glut of channel-commuters, the international-dealmakers and service-industry workers who cross under the water that separates us from the mainland (a liminal space that has become stranger and more politicised in the last two years – is it really too much of a leap to imagine a near-future dystopia in which the mouth of the tunnel is bricked up?). It’s the wrong day of the week for the fin de semaine romantics and minibreakers. There’s a family of German tourists laughing over their digital snaps of the Lakes, sharing a blue-and-white bag of Grasmere gingerbread whose packaging and spicy smell is so nostalgic to me I almost consider asking them for a piece. Two round-faced men just shy of middle age, their pastel and pattern shirts and ties buttoned uncomfortably, clank their cans of 1664 convivially and nod across the aisle at me with a sort of boisterous, chummy approval when I snap open a beer of my own. Behind me to the right a young man has collapsed his angular body away into a tiny space, his long legs folded up against the tray-table like a tidy stepladder as he dextrously manipulates the touchpad of his MacBook with two hands, like a pianist. The only other passenger is a sleeping woman who was out like a light the second we pulled away from St Pancras, headphones on, arms folded, her jumper balled against the window as a pillow. I briefly think she’s the only one that might be on a similar trajectory, though on closer inspection I see her bag is sleek and small, not hefty long-term luggage like the blue holdall I’ve got stashed at the end of the carriage. I turn away from the brightly lit carriage and watch my own pale face hovering in the darkness of the tunnel under the sea.

Paris Austerlitz – Toulouse Matabiau
Crossing Paris on the back of a motorbike taxi, unbalanced by my massive luggage, might be one of the most exhilarating/terrifying things I’ve ever done. It seems a real-life miracle that I reach Austerlitz alive and without any French tarmac embedded in my elbows. As I settle into my backwards-facing, part-reclining seat where I’ll sleep, I hope [note added on arrival – that ‘hope’, in retrospect, was laughable], for the next seven hours on the slow sleeper to the south of France, I’m thinking about what it is to give up on things, to renounce, to ‘drop out’, to find yourself from one month to the next post-marriage, jobless and officially ‘of no fixed abode’. People do it. They journey to far-flung places for spiritual or emotional succour. They make pilgrimages. They build isolated cabins. In the past, these people were religious zealots and hermits, those for whom a life in the stream of society was untenable or undesirable. That might’ve been me, then, too. Just as what we now call ‘depression’ was called, simply, ‘melancholia’, and angry or anxious women were assigned ‘hysteria’, those with what we now call an obsessive–compulsive disorder, like me, were given a diagnosis of the wonderfully named ‘religious melancholy’. Now, that’s interesting. I’ve always seen a link between the rituals of my compulsions and the rituals of organised religion. The prayers and mantras, the gestures and rituals, the feeling that by enacting these rituals we are assuring ourselves of something. Safe passage. Luck. Forgiveness.

Toulouse Matabiau – Barcelona Sants
It’s seven a.m., and I’m sitting at a table in Toulouse station waiting for my connection. Everything’s shut, it’s dark outside, and I left my book on the sleeper train. Lots of French people look very disappointed in me for ordering from the little coffee shop, at what is clearly a mad and wrong and inexcusable hour, a broccoli quiche for my breakfast. I pull my blue bag around on its little wheels and create a sort of barrier with it and the table, a little fortress in which I huddle into my jumper, unslept, unwashed, arms aching, nothing to read. I rest my head on my forearm and block the world out for a little while.

On the speedy TGV I perk up, make a friend, get a cup of Lipton tea (continental Europe has its downsides, I know – I’m resigned to two months of disappointing brew) scribble some notes. The OED has a hermit as ‘a person living in solitude as a religious discipline’ (or, sweetly, ‘a hummingbird found in the shady lower layers of tropical forests, foraging along a regular route’). The Middle English word hermit comes to us, via Old French and Latin, from the Greek word ἔρημος, meaning ‘desert’, uninhabited. I’ve just zipped the Greek word through Google Translate, which often throws up interesting synonyms and dual meanings. ἔρημος gives back desolate, bleak, lonesome, forlorn, derelict, waste, wild. I hope Madrid will be kinder to me than that. And, as you might imagine, I’m not leaving in order to pursue a life of asceticism. But there is an element of ‘You must change your life’ (to steal from Rilke).

Barcelona Sants – Madrid Atocha
I’ve vowed to stop smoking, draft poems every day, find a good jogging route, go to galleries. I’m going to explore the Manzanares river that flows through the city, and write about that. I’ll take my makeup off properly every night. Keep good accounts. These are the kind of promise you make yourself on a blistering bastard of a hangover, the I’m-never-drinking-agains with a shelf-life shorter than the day. I’ve an idea of how long all these rules will last. Still, I have hope for it. It’s to be a sort of recovery, this trip; a rehabilitation, tonic, salve. I need to write, and – swerving, I hope, a selfhelpism – to unbury myself from the piled up ills I’ve let accumulate overhead. Madrid has long been my bolthole. I first lived there in my late teens, itching for independence. When things go wrong the first thing I do is pack my passport. I’ve never been sure how healthy that is.

‘Freed’ (in my case – I’m lucky – voluntarily) from the diurnal constraints of the nine-to-five, I spent this summer feral, at festival after festival, with the cast of artists, musicians, writers, makers, dreamers and doers who come together under Caught by the River’s banner. It saved me, that run of hot months. It was the crashmat that stopped me from breaking any bones when I hit the ground after the marriage ended. Now the summer’s over, and I’m standing in the bar on the fast train into Atocha, drinking a Mahou, scribbling in my notebook and watching as the landscape starts to slow outside the train window, olive trees and endless sand and the colossal hard blue sky that makes me feel eighteen again…


Read the previous instalment of ‘Where I’m Calling From’ here

Martha Sprackland on Caught by the River/on Twitter