Caught by the River

The Light in the Dark

Sue Brooks | 5th November 2018

Horatio Clare’s ‘The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal’, newly published by Elliot & Thompson, is a chronicle of living with depression – and a triumph over affliction, says Sue Brooks:

What are the keys to great writing? asks Horatio Clare in a review of Jan Morris’s recent book In My Mind’s Eye: A Thought Diary. “Observation and passionate fascination” is one, he believes, and “reading, rhythm and having something to say” the other. Both are magnificently displayed in Horatio’s new book, also a diary but one with a very different approach to consciousness. He seeks to outwit thoughts which have the power to injure the host’s mind and the minds of those he loves. Thoughts which have reached their peak in the winter months since he moved with his family to the Calder Valley in 2015. The Light in the Dark is a chronicle of living with depression.

Two winters ago he took it by surprise with the help of his son Aubrey, aged three. Together they wrote a book in which Aubrey sets out to kill the Unkillable Monster who is terrorising his father. Fearlessly he engages the help of animals and advances to a showdown and an ending of exquisite joy and wonder. It swept me up and carried me along with the sheer inventiveness of the magic and the irrepressible courage of the hero. It made me laugh – a lot – and cry at the end, like all the best stories. Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot won the Branford Boase Award for the best debut work for children.

But the monster never goes away entirely. Another winter approaches and must be faced. He makes his vows: “I will embrace this winter like a summer. I will pay attention. I will practise looking and looking outwards like an exercise, as though I am training for an expedition. I will not lose touch with nature.”

Unlike the father in The Terrible Yoot, Horatio is not housebound. He teaches Creative Writing at John Moores University in Liverpool, he tutors on short writing courses, he visits schools, he walks the dog, he catches trains. He travels to times past: winter memories of Christmas as a child in Venice with his mother and brother, and to Saint Etienne, aged 18 on his first teaching job. Ecstatic times recalled with intense feeling in a few paragraphs, from which he is shaken awake on the train back from Liverpool by the voices of two ladies discussing death and disease. “Such days”, he writes “die like gilded embers, glowing down.”

Outside term-time, there is the countdown to Christmas 2017 in Hebden, the visits to his mother’s home in the Black Mountains after a horrific revenge attack by badger baiters on her sheep; high drama and sublime beauty, standing in a family group on a snow covered summit –  “a scene hung in memory’s hall as it unfurls. Perhaps the transience of the snow lends it this quality, a needful, fragile, moment-by-moment beauty.” He thanks goodness for such moments. January is waiting and then the long month of February, which has the most diary entries of all.

“Turn your gaze outwards, I keep telling myself. You do not matter; other people matter, the land matters, the sky and the world.” Every page is a testament to this mantra. Depression has not shut down the curiosity and fascination that glitters in other books, nor has it blinded him to the sweetly spontaneous moments of fatherhood. On February 19th on a day of absolute grey stillness, he records “Aubrey and I went walking. We held hands and talked of many things.”  Another day begins…“Aubrey and I declared ourselves very doubtful about walking…” Father and son so perfectly matched with the language – the declaration lets the reader know that this will be a good day; a shared adventure, exactly as it turns out. Apart from Aubrey, “other people”  include Horatio’s partner Rebecca, his stepson Robin, friends in Liverpool, his mother, Edward Thomas, the Brontë sisters, the Adelphi Hotel, and the Friday evening trains from Manchester Victoria into the Pennines, “which are a triumph of human spirit.” Words do not fail him, the imagination does not fail him. He chooses to put work and time into the diary, to look on it as a refuge, and the writing as a salvation.

How does he do it? I return to his suggestion about reading, rhythm and having something to say. In a deeply moving passage about Edward Thomas, a fellow sufferer from recurrent depression and his beautiful poem Swedes, Horatio writes “what attention, what strength of soul, to catch the uplifting moment.” It is almost too painful to think about, but the feeling is there, carried in the words and in the rhythm. Horatio loves language; he has a poet’s or a musician’s ear for the spaces between words. It is a book to be read aloud, I have found, making me even more keenly aware that he is a master of first lines: “27th January. A mist day, a moss day, a day of rain that never quite fell…1st March. Ferocious snow, the road impassable, me in Liverpool and all the weight on Rebecca.”

Sometimes the struggle is overwhelming. “It is like being sealed into a grey snowball which keeps gathering defeats…the working, connecting brain seems to shut down completely, leaving a dirge on an inner monologue that will not shut up.” How many of us are familiar with such days? And then there is a moment of grace, such as the arrival of the train at midnight in Mytholmroyd, long delayed by a suicide on the track, and he catches a sweet exchange, a smile between a young man and two middle-aged ladies. No more than a glimpse, but enough to think “that maybe, just maybe, some deep kindness among us will keep us together.”

There is no end to the irrepressible courage that has made this book possible. It is a triumph over affliction by a great writer and when the light returns and he knows he is coming through, my heart is full and I am cheering.