Horatio Clare’s winter journal prompts John Lewis-stempel to conclude that the sharp bite of the year’s dark months is a thing of the past
‘Bits are as brilliant as sun on frosted snow– but heaven knows, we’re all miserable in winter ’
Memoir The Light in the Dark Horatio Clare (Elliott & Thompson, £12.99)
Winter ain’t what it used to be. i don’t mean it’s now warmer by degrees due to global warming (or not), rather that our physical experience of the season has changed. Winter used to hurt. When our clothes were thin and ragged. When people were obliged to be out toiling in field and wood. Shakespeare mentions it over and over, the hurt of Winter. in King Lear, there’s that ever-haunting line of edgar: ‘Still through the hawthorn blows the cold wind.’
in the past, we feared Winter —and it demands that capital as a mark of respect—because it came culling with an ice-sickle. in the lines of John Dryden’s libretto: See’st thou not how stiff and wondrous old Far unfit to bear the bitter cold I can scarcely move or draw my breath? Let me, let me freeze again to
the Anglo-saxons counted age in winters survived. today, people claim they enjoy Winter, but what they really mean is they enjoy a flirt with the natural elements before resorting to their true loves of oil-fired central heating and non-seasonal fruit from Waitrose.
in 2018, for almost all of us, Winter is merely a state of mind, which leads us to Horatio Clare’s new book, a seasonal diary detailing his battle against the bleak-season blues. ‘Last winter,’ he tells us, ‘i thought i would go mad with depression.’ His diary, begun in late summer and in optimism, is meant as ‘a torch’ raised against the coming of the dark at year’s end.
Yes, we’re in misery-memoir land again, this time with over- stuffed trains, ‘black rains’, looming moors—mr Clare lives in Hebden, North Yorkshire, and commutes to Liverpool to teach creative writing. i do not wish to sound unduly negative—bits of this book are as brilliant as sun on frosted snow—but heaven knows, we’re all miserable in Winter, to paraphrase that latterday Northern God, Morrissey.
thus Mr Clare suffers, inter alia: inarticulacy, a sense of suffocation, lassitude, the gobbling of honey on toast and the resort to Googling all manner of improbable mortal ills. (Memo to memoirists: all people are miserable in the same way.)
Anticlimactically, the psychiatric nurse he visits suggests as a cure not anti-depressants or couch, but fish oil. Or St John’s Wort. She advises that we are all ‘cyclothymic’ to some degree.
then, there’s the uxoriouness towards his partner, online teacher Rebecca (breathlessly: ‘But how to describe Rebecca…’), and much indulgent ado about their young son, Aubrey—and, indeed, almost everybody he encounters, including Rebecca’s cousin Matthew (‘the most powerful speaker’). People are space-fillers, lightly drawn. We are promised Nature observations, but they are few beyond ‘delighted’ morning calls of seagulls or notes on the weather.
And then, suddenly, the pages of pallid inconsequence part and Mr Clare recounts moments of his 1980s childhood on a sheep farm in the Brecon Beacons, with cold galvanised gates, trapped ewes eating the fleeces off each other’s backs, the farm like a ship trapped in ice, the Christmas goose cooked with its head on, the rector with the ‘something of the druid about him’ and the good-looking girl in church the boys—author included—come to see, and the reader is firmly put in mind of Dylan thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales.
His mother, 70-something, continues to run sheep in those far-off Welsh hills, in a draughty house that requires the wearing of two coats inside, let alone outside. it’s a place in which masked men come in the night to dig out badger sows for baiting games with dogs. there, Winter properly hurts, because she lives in the past. these best fragments will enter your being and never melt.
Winter is bracing yet beautiful today, when few experience the bitter cold of the author’s childhood