The Great Below

living the feeling life

1 Comment

Parallel Lives?

My mother’s wedding on 9th February 1952 was almost derailed by the death of King George VI a few days earlier. My parents were to be married in church, even though neither was religious and they were not well-off (my father had to sell his bicycle to pay for the marriage licence.) The only blight on the occasion so far had been the refusal of my dad’s father to attend; he and my grandmother had divorced acrimoniously and her new husband was to be the wedding photographer.

The wedding went ahead and despite the chill February weather, the rain held off. My mother had made her own dress in cream satin damask and was extremely proud of it’s 22-inch waist; my sister and I outgrew it for dressing-up by our early teens. The cake was one of those postwar affairs composed largely of ersatz cardboard tiers, as sugar, butter and many other staples were still rationed, seven years after the end of the war.

Their planned honeymoon – a modest couple of days driving around the South East of England in a borrowed car – did have to be postponed, as virtually everything was closed for mourning until the king’s state funeral a week later.

Like many young women of the time, my mother identified strongly with the new Queen, although by the time of my parents’s marriage Elizabeth had been married for five years and aready had two children. There must have been something incredibly encouraging and exciting about the idea of someone your age – a woman! – ascending to the throne. Maybe it signalled a new era for women, who after their equal participation in the workforce during wartime had been relegated once again to hearth and home.

However, it would be decades before women had anything like equal status in law, let alone in real life: until the mid-seventies, a woman could not open a bank account in her own name, and until 1982 could legally be refused service in a pub.

My mother was a keen follower of fashion – always telling me which styles were currently ‘in’ or ‘out’, about which I could have cared less – and often made her own, and later our, clothes. The young Queen’s ever-changing, glamorous though modest, outfits must have brought a dash of brightness to the bleak postwar gloom of 1950s England. The coronation, a year later, would be a spectacular visual event.

The early years of my parents’ marriage, living in a tiny one-room flat in West London, were perhaps their better times together, although even then cracks were showing as my father devoted himself to work and studying for a night-school degree, leaving my mother often alone and at a loose end. By the end of the decade, much against my mother’s better judgement, they also had a child – me – and my sister was on the way. We moved out of London to a newly built house in the suburbs.

It was there, I think, that depression really took hold of my mother and would continue to stalk her for most of her life. She had never wanted to be a mother, and at one point had almost begun a promising career as a designer, which faltered when her much older boss, with whom she was having an affair, left her and broke her heart. Now, stuck with two small children in a place where she knew no-one, with no family support, and with my father’s attention clearly wandering, she must have wondered how it had come to this.

Meanwhile the Queen’s life carried on in the background – a busy working woman, living in palaces with a fleet of staff, travelling around the world, raising her children somewhat at arm’s length. What on earth did these two women have in common? And yet – like many of her generation – my mother continued to think of Elizabeth as a fellow-traveller and kind of role model. Answering the phone, she always put on a slightly posh accent – “Helleuw?” – and we joked that she was imitating Her Maj.

The monarchy was a sort-of unstated backdrop to our lives. As a family we watched the not-quite ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary about the Royal Family at home with great interest, and at school I did a project about the Investiture of the Prince of Wales. My mother continued in this vein – whilst not exactly following the royals avidly, she always knew what the Queen was up to, whereas to me they have long been a mostly benign irrelevance, and my son would abolish them forthwith.

For many people, this week’s wall-to-wall media coverage, and the re-hashing (some might say re-writing) of seventy years of history to rebrand the Queen as a sort of grandmother-figure to us, have inevitably focussed thoughts on our own parents. My mother’s life was not one either of personal fulfilment or wordly influence, and her death ten years ago – aged 85 and lost to Alzheimers – was a quite different affair. But she lived, as it were, alongside the Queen for more than eight decades, through often very turbulent times and events, and framed by a rapidly-changing social and emotional landscape.

This week feels like the final echo of my mother’s journey as a twentieth-century woman.


All forgotten

Me and Katharine

I keep this framed photo of my mother and me on the mantelpiece, because in it we look like a happy, close pair – even our scarves are in harmony! But the truth of our relationship was far more complicated and, for me at least, often painful because I didn’t feel emotionally supported or ‘seen’ for who I was. This was in part down to my mother’s ongoing struggle with clinical depression, her anger and disappointment with life, which hung over all of us like an unpredictable storm cloud and prevented a true sense of security or trust developing.

I was never able to talk to her about our relationship while she was alive, even though it must often have made her miserable too: she would always interpret it as an attack, and either get angry or withdraw into coldness. In some way, knowing her emotional fragility, I also wanted to protect her from the truth of my feelings, so I never really expressed the full extent of them.

When she died eight years ago our relationship had begun to heal, thanks to her gradual drift into Alzheimer’s disease, which made everything much simpler between us. At the end, even though she no longer really knew who I was, I was able to just tell her I loved her, and she responded in kind. In some ways dementia felt like a tremendous gift to us both.

But close relationships don’t stop when a person dies. I’m not talking about life after death, which I don’t think I believe in, but the way someone continues to live on inside you and the attempt to understand and work things out with them persists, albeit unilaterally. For me, this came about through writing my book In the Wars (yet to be published) where I stopped looking at my mother through the lens of my own experience, and instead tried to imagine how life had been for her, from her point of view. In this I was very much aided by some of her own writing – diaries, poetry, fiction, letters – which helped me to discover the woman she had been apart from, and as well as, my mother.

Towards the end of writing the book, I had so far re-habilitated her in my own eyes, that I was beginning to doubt the truth of my own experience: had I somehow created or imagined a problem between us that didn’t exist? But no, I had lived it my whole life: the unhappiness, the miscommunication, the narcissism of mental illness.  Through writing I had discovered a different woman – a passionate, intelligent and creative person, who had somehow got lost in her own melancholy and the choices life foisted on her. It was this, combined with her own denial of her feelings, instilled in her by a wartime childhood, that made her unable to be a good mother. I understood her better, but this understanding didn’t diminish my own experience as her child.

To balance the picture I wrote a chapter from my own perspective, using my own old diaries in which I gave vent to my difficulties with our relationship. “When I read about how other people feel about their mothers I can’t relate to it.” I was in therapy on and off over many years, trying to heal the emptiness inside me that came from not feeling truly accepted. It was painful going back into those feelings, but necessary to acknowledge them if the story were to be complete.

And now something has been laid to rest. I don’t feel that pain any more, just sadness that my mother didn’t manage to break out of the (sometimes self-inflicted) cage she was trapped in and live a brilliant, fulfilling life…or even a mundanely content one. And sad that she and I, who were so alike in many ways and had so much in common in our way of seeing the world, never managed to find a way of expressing that through friendship and mutual support. Not that is, until in her final years she became more like my child than a parent, and we were at last able to connect.

Writing this book has both been my gift to her and given me so much in return: I’ve set us both free.


In the Wars

For almost four years I’ve been working on a book about my mother, provisionally titled In the Wars. It tells the story of her life – born in the shadow of one world war, growing up in another, being a woman in the 1950s, the pressures of marriage and motherhood, suffering depression and dementia in her later years.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll have read some parts of my journey as I discovered my mother’s inner life through her own writing, trying to understand what happened to this vibrant, intelligent, passionate young woman to bring her to a place of so much pain. And I know that in writing the book, I’ve healed much of the pain her suffering caused me – if only I could tell her that.

Yesterday, with a mixture of trepidation and hope, I sent the final version of the book off to my agent. I have no idea about the state of publishing under lockdown. Of course there are no book launches, literary festivals, public events other than online, but at least we can all keep reading. It may even be that book sales have increased as people have more time at home to fill.

This hiatus from ‘normal’ life should have been the perfect time to crack on with either new or long-term creative projects. For some people this has been true, but many others have found that the formlessness and lack of real connection are enemies of being productive. ‘Torporific’, one musician friend described it. When the usual structures disappear, there are suddenly so many small decisions to be made every day that the self-discipline to devote a portion of it to creative endeavours has been hard to find. Not to mention the throb of underlying anxiety – as humans we don’t do very well with the unknown, with loss and change, even though these are essentially the ingredients of life.

In the event, I got the book finished at just around the time I estimated it would be done, not through any regular writing structure but in short bursts as the mood took me. It was a question of almost completely re-writing an already finished (and rejected) manuscript, in order to change the focus and incorporate all the new material I had come across. I think and hope that it is now a much better book, though whether it will ever see the light of a bookshop shelf who knows?

My mother was in many ways an ordinary person, but her life story was representative of very many women’s lives in the twentieth century: a history of trauma, the stifling of emotions, the constraints on women’s choices, the inadequacy of mental health care. We were all brought up by those women, as mothers and grandmothers, so what happened to them is significant for us. I do hope her story, which is also my story, will resonate with you as well. Watch this space!



Surviving a crisis

With all the talk of the current situation being ‘unprecedented’, and much like a war, I’ve been thinking a lot about what my parents lived through during WW2. We are facing six months or more of disruption to our usual, privileged lives, but for Britons in 1939, there were six years of restrictions, deprivations and danger ahead. It would take even longer for their way of life to recover to anything resembling normality, with food rationing and some travel restrictions continuing into the 1950s.

It began with the blackout – “general darkening as a permanent condition” –  imposed just before the declaration of war. From dusk onwards all windows had to be covered with heavy fabric, cardboard or black paint to stop any light escaping and attracting enemy bombers. Streetlamps and car headlights were dimmed; shops and theatres were no longer illuminated; no fireworks were permitted, and torches had to be scrupulously angled downward. The exception was of course the moon, which shone as brightly as ever, turning the city into one big target. The stars were also clearly visible in the night sky – when it was not lit up by the glow of fires from bombed buildings, that is.

The Blitz started in September 1940, and within days my mother’s home was seriously damaged  by a time bomb which fell at the end of the garden. When it exploded, it took with it seven bomb-disposal men who were working desperately on defusing it, and demolished several nearby houses. My mother was thirteen at the time and felt as if her world had ended; I don’t think she ever felt truly safe again. After being allowed home, the family spent many nights in the damp and often freezing Andersen shelter in their garden, and the rest of the time slept downstairs huddled all together. At least 32,000 people were killed in London during nine months of relentless nightly attacks, and bombs continued to fall throughout the war, including the terrifying V1 and V2 unmanned rockets.

Shortly afterwards my mother’s school also suffered major damage, and was forced to drastically scale back classes. For the next two years, she went in only part-time, sometimes just to collect homework or sit exams. During Air Raids lessons were held in the school shelter, and they also took over part of a local primary school, sharing classroom hours with the younger children. Needless to say, my mother’s education suffered greatly – she became disaffected and rebellious, and ended up being expelled for going ice-skating when she should have been in a ‘prep’ class. A bright and intellectually curious young woman, her prospects were utterly thwarted by the war.

Food rationing began early in 1940, partly in reponse to hoarding and to increasing shortages caused by the war at sea. Much like today, over half of Britain’s food was imported from elsewhere, and the sinking of so many merchant ships severely disrupted imports. It began with butter, sugar and bacon and as the war progressed more and more items had to be bought with ‘coupons’, including clothing and even soap. Other things simply became gradually unobtainable.Vegetables and fruit were not rationed but hard to get, and people were encouraged to grow their own as much as possible, to “dig for victory”. My mother recalled the disappointment of cutting open her one permitted weekly egg, only to find it was bad.

The list of things that gradually became scarce over the years included metal for saucepans, cutlery and razor blades; wood for making furniture, toys, musical instruments and matches; candles and batteries; any kind of ceramic or glass; rubber for wellington boots, baby teats and condoms; paper, pencils, paint, cosmetics, soap and shoe-polish. Petrol was reserved for official use only and even phone calls were rationed to three minutes, if you were lucky enough to have access to a telephone.

Everything was saved, re-used, or cleverly adapted to some other purpose, and people became extremely ingenious and resourceful, as they still are today in poorer countries. It’s little wonder that many of the wartime generation went to their graves with secret stashes of ‘pieces of string too short to use’ and the like. Drowning in possessions as we are today, it seems appealing to live in a more basic way with only what you really need; the reality is that it took up a lot of time and effort, and was frequently uncomfortable, inefficient and depressing.

Listening to comments from some of the older generation on today’s crisis, their message is that we need to “just pull together and get on with it.” and that is indeed what they were taught to do, and what probably got them through. People bombed out of their homes were given shelter by others, community spirit became essential in a world without resources. My mother was desperate to be useful, and furious that she was not allowed to go out on fire patrol with her father and sister: “They wouldn’t let me go. They say I’m too young. POOH! It does make me feel fed up. If only I was a bit older then I might be able to do something to help. Too young for this! Too young for that! I think it’s a DARN SHAME.” Strong language for a well-brought up young woman.

I have tremendous admiration for the courage and stoicism everyone displayed in coping with the ongoing adversity. But there were high costs in terms of mental health – most people learned to suppress their ‘negative’ emotions to the extent that they hardly realised they had feelings. Depression, PTSD, grief – all were hardly recognised, and even less frequently expressed. We’re only now beginning to find our way out of this emotional lock box and to realise that to be human is to feel, and perhaps above all to feel for others.



“Darling Maddy,..”

All this week I’ve been immersed in re-reading a huge pile of letters from my mother, which she wrote to me when I was travelling or living abroad in my late teens and twenties. I had thrown them out, but somehow she managed to retrieve them from the rubbish and I found them this summer.

Whenever I went away – travelling in India and the USA, or living in France and Chicago, and at university in Liverpool – I wrote long letters home about my experiences, and my mother (and occasionally my father) wrote regularly to me, sending their mail to Postes Restantes in different towns, or care of friends, not always certain they would reach me.

International telephone calls were prohibitively expensive in those days and I usually didn’t have access to a phone in any case. I remember trying for days to call home from India one Christmas, trudging to the local telephone exchange only to be repeatedly told that “the lines are down”. Or I would stand in a draughty phone box somewhere feeding coins in at an alarming rate, which made trying to have any kind of relaxed conversation almost impossible.

I was slightly dreading tackling this pile of letters, which I needed to re-read because I’m writing a book about my mother. My hope was that amongst what I assumed would be a rather uninteresting catalogue of ‘news from home’ there would be some personal reflections, some clues to my mother’s state of mind which I could use, as I have done with her diaries and personal writings.

In the event what I found was something much more precious – abundant evidence of her love for me. The letters are long and chatty, full of anecdotes and musings and often funny and expressive. True, they contain a wealth of detail about elderly relatives, friends and their offspring, the state of the garden and practical issues, all of which at the time I probably greeted with a big yawn, but which now paint a vivid picture for me of her day-to-day life while I was absent. She also writes about books she has read, films and plays she has seen, what has given her joy, what has troubled her.

The letters often respond in detail to mine (most of which she kept, of course); it feels like watching my life unfolding from her point of view. She is interested, sympathetic, advisory (with apologies – “Oh Mum!”), and wisely philosophical. Much the same, really, as I am with my son in our endless phone conversations – since no-one writes letters any more – trying to help and guide him without overstepping the mark.

My mother was a good and often entertaining writer – her tone is mostly bright and cheerful, in the spirit of ‘keeping everything nice’, but also genuinely searching for what good she can offer me. As the years  pass and we both grow older, more of her unhappiness creeps in. Both she and my father suffer increasingly from pain and illness. She speaks of feeling empty and without purpose, especially once my sister has left home, and makes self-deprecatory comments about having done little with her life. She is clear-eyed about how hard being a mother was for her, though ultimately seems not to regret it.

I had a very complicated relationship with my mother. She was often depressed, angry, bitter about her life and her marriage, and with the solipcism of youth I took it all personally; I knew she hadn’t wanted children and extrapolated from that that she didn’t love us. But from her letters I see a very different side of the story – she tells me how much she misses our conversations, that I am always in her mind, that she was so thrilled to have a phone call from me she is “on a high”. I am her precious daughter, for whom she wants only happiness, success, health, love.

I’m realising how like her I am, and how well we might have supported and empathised with each other; in short, that we could have been better friends. Sadly, when we were together, these positive aspects of our relationship were mostly hidden, to me at least. My mother was unable to be anywhere near as open, as accepting, as emotionally available in person as she was on the page. Reading the letters it’s important for me to remember that the negatives also existed, to the extent that they often outweighed and overwhelmed our love for each other. As someone once said of human psychology – “The bigger the front, the bigger the back.” Nevertheless, I am grateful to my mother’s hoarding instincts for this chance to redress the balance of our relationship a little more towards happiness.




Love and work 1947

Woman’s Hour recently ran a feature on romantic relationships at work. Some companies are apparenty so worried about legal issues arising from workplace romances that they ban them outright. But as people spend most of their days at work, and often share interests or inclinations with those they meet there, it’s not surprising that it is also a place where many find love.

When my mother was twenty, she got a job in a design and engineering company in West London. She was taken on as secretary to a man in his forties, married with two school-age children, and at some point during the three years she worked there, they became lovers. Looking at it in hindsight, we might consider this relationship to be inappropriate, or even an abuse of power, but for my mother it was her first, and possibly only, experience of falling deeply in love.

I always knew about this man – that he had been married (my mother said unhappily), that he had eventually left her and gone to Australia, that she had been heartbroken. But recently I found a ‘short story’ that my mother had written some time later, after briefly meeting up with him again, that revealed the intensity of her feelings for him – a passion of mind, body and soul. Two years later, she was still devastated and grieving at the loss of this love, and very much attached to him in her heart, though fully aware that he would never be hers: “Oh dear God what shall I do, what shall I do – will I never be free, will the chain always be with me?”

So was he also in love with her, as she believed, or taking advantage of the beautiful, intelligent and besotted young woman he saw every day? Maybe it was something in between. Divorce was less common in those days, and he must also have been painfully conscious of the huge age gap between them, which clearly didn’t matter to her. He resolved the situation by taking a job halfway round the world and moving there with his family.

Before he left, he wrote my mother a glowing reference, which she, of course, typed up. By this time, she was no mere secretary, but ‘Chief Assistant of the Experimental and Research Department’. He notes that she “posseses an intelligence far above the average” and that “with an outstanding talent in draughtsmanship and a natural flair for modern design” she is “well-equipped for work in the experimental field.” It goes on in this vein for a while. At twenty-one, she might have seemed to have a glowing future ahead of her, but she left the firm at the same time as him, and returned to more mediocre clerical jobs.

Perhaps this in the end was the greater loss. Love fades and sexual intensity mellows, but in her pain, she perhaps gave up the opportunity to pursue a fulfilling career and I think she felt forever frustrated and thwarted. Still on the rebound, she went on to marry my father – a pragmatic, but in the end not very happy, choice – and to become a depressed and disappointed wife and mother. Never again was she really able to shine in her own right.

But despite the sad outcome, I can’t be sorry that at least for a period in her life, she knew what it was to feel passion and deep connection for someone, however doomed the affair. If, as Tennyson writes, it is “better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”, then at least she had that.




Age of anxiety?

We live in anxious times, I think most people would agree. Nothing is predictable and potential catastrophes loom whichever way you look. The people in charge either don’t seem to have much idea what they are doing, or seem like cynical crooks. But maybe that’s nothing new?

When I was looking through my mother’s papers, I came across a neatly handwritten draft ‘letter’ that begins very alarmingly: “Tonight I sat down seriously to think whether it would not be the best thing to do to take my life and the life of my children.” Needless to say – being one of those children – I dropped this as though it were on fire at first, and it was a while before I found the courage to read on.

I knew my mother had suffered severe depression on and off throughout my lifetime, and that she had sometimes been suicidal – when we were quite small, she used to threaten to put her head in the gas oven, or lock herself in her bedroom with pills while my sister pleaded with her to come out. But in this letter she was threatening to take us with her – a thought that had never occurred to me in all my terror that she might abandon us.

She continues “I know the verdict of the world would be ‘of unsound mind’. My mind is not unsound, I am not mad. But I no longer know how to go on living.” It transpires that she had just watched a Panorama programme about the nuclear arms race, and its seeming unstoppability. This was in 1968 – my mother was then forty, and had already lived through one ‘hideous war’ as she put it. Her parents had survived two, including my grandfather spending four years as a stretcher bearer on the Western Front.

She had seen the devastation caused by the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The new nuclear weapons were 1000 times more destructive, capable of wiping out hundreds of millions of innocent people, yet the leaders talked about them as if they were merely a game of strategy. “What can I do about people like this – madmen – with such enormous power over my life?”

My mother seemed utterly convinced that the world would be wiped out by nuclear war in her lifetime. Well it wasn’t, and somehow we manage to continue living quite comfortably (or perhaps unthinkingly) with the continuing threat of this kind of warfare, worrying only briefly when powerful world leaders rattle their nuclear sabres at each other. So far, the ‘mutually assured destruction’ theory – that if one side uses nuclear weapons, that’s the end of everything – has held, but it’s no surprise that the acronym for this concept is MAD.

I know that the extreme level of my mother’s fear was of course related to her depression, as well as contributing to it. “What can I do? I know the answer is – nothing. I have to try to live my hopeless life through.” Traumatised as a child by the Blitz bombings of London (and also I believe re-traumatised by her experience of giving birth), she felt paralysed by terror and a sense of futility. She couldn’t even see the point in protesting, since the anti-nuclear marches were ignored, or protesters dismissed as ‘cranks’. “I feel so impotent to do anything to stop the bomb falling that everything else is senseless and useless.”

And no doubt some of this fear transmitted itself to us, despite her decision to “tell them (us) to ignore it – forget about it – until it drops.” Perhaps humans have always feared annihilation – it’s hardwired into us to screen the world for potential danger. Awareness of our own future mortality – however much we try to ignore it in our death-denying society – only contributes to the level of alarm. And out imaginations, which have allowed us to create the most marvellous life for ouselves, also sets out a perpetual series of ‘what-ifs?’ for us to worry about.

But I think we do our young people no favours in continually telling them that the world is terrible place, that we have ruined it for them and that they may have aln abysmal future. What they need most is energy and hope, a sense of positivity that there can be better way to live, and that it is achievable despite all appearances. As parents and elders we must be careful not to unwittingly transmit our own fear of death – which as we grow older becomes stronger – to the generation who are starting out in their lives, but to have faith in them that they will undboutedly find a way forward. Indeed they already are.

Time bomb

On 14th September 1940, her sister’s birthday, my mother Katharine recorded in her ‘Schoolgirl diary’ that just after tea “the sirens went off.” A week earlier had seen the start of the London Blitz – a relentless campaign of destruction by Hitler’s bombers which pounded the city night after night for nine months. The war, which until then had been largely fought in continental Europe, out on the high seas or up in the skies, had hit home.

My mother’s family lived in West London, close to Heston Aerodrome from where in 1938 Prime Minster Neville Chamberlain had flown to Munich to meet with Adolf Hitler, returning to declare that he had secured ‘Peace for our time.’ It was a brief stay of execution; less than a year later Britain and France would declare war on Germany. During the war Heston became an operational base for Spitfires and Hurricane Bombers, rendering it a frequent target of aerial attack.

Catching up with her diary a few days later, Katharine tells us that “Three bombs were dropped very near us. Our house was damaged”. The family had been evacuated in the middle of the night to a nearby ‘canteen’ as it was not safe to go down to their own Anderson shelter – the half-buried, corrugated-iron structure like a pig arc that her father had installed at the end of the garden the previous year, when war was looming. They couldn’t return to their house because a high-explosive time bomb had fallen “under the concrete round Hens house” and lay there waiting to go off.

The next day, while my mother was at school, the time bomb exploded, damaging houses all around. Her family were at last allowed home to clear the mess and board up the blown-out windows – my mother accidentally cutting her finger on broken glass. “It’s horrible living in the house like this.” she writes. Shortly afterwards, the children and their mother went to stay with a relative in the countryside at Woburn Sands while their father stayed in London, going to his job in the tax office while trying to patch up the house and protect it from further damage.

For my mother, aged thirteen, this was the end of her childhood. Even though war had been declared a year before, things had been relatively quiet until now. Katharine’s diary for 1940, started with vigour on January 1st but as usual gradually thinning out, had up to then contained the typical entries of a school child – “Went to my music lesson”, “Bought a 2d chocolate bar”, “Iris was off school with spots” and quite often “Nothing much happened today.” From that point on, the diaries continue recording her attempt to live an every day, normal schoolgirl life amid the chaos, but most entries are peppered with comments such as “Sirens went at 7.30. Heard a lot of gunfire.”  “We had a bad three-hour raid this afternoon” “Did not go down to the shelter tonight as it was not too noisy.”

What Katharine didn’t know at the time, and possibly not until much later, is that when the time bomb exploded under the hen-house, it took with it seven men from the bomb-disposal squad who were trying to defuse it, blasting them all to smithereens. For weeks afterwards, my grandfather was still picking fragments of skull and human flesh out of the garden hedges; it must have been a grim reminder of the three years he spent as a stretcher bearer on the Western Front during World War 1, tending to terribly wounded and dying men on the battlefield. How must he have felt, having lived through that ghastly war, to be caught in the middle of this new horror?

The house was made habitable and the family moved back in, but would they ever feel properly safe again? Not my mother, of that I’m sure. It would not be until mid-May 1941 that I again find a day in which “Nothing much happened”, by which time it must have come as a blessed relief.



All about my mother – part 2

my motherI’m writing this in a lovely flat lent to me by friends to work in. It’s set in a former mental asylum in Wales – an impressive gothic stone structure surrounded by well-tended grounds dotted with octagonal wooden gazebos, with views all around of the distant green mountains. In it’s nineteenth century heyday, this place housed a community of over a thousand patients – ranging from the seriously insane to people with epilepsy and more than likely several ‘fallen women’. A beautiful place with a sad history, and a great environment to re-engage with writing about my mother’s depression.

Summer is not a good time for writing, I’ve discovered that time and again. My head is simply not in a place of concentration – sometimes I even find it hard to read. But as autumn sets in and that ‘new school year’ feeling brings freshness and resolve, I can pick up this blog and my book again. I like to think that fallow time is not wasted – it’s a space to let things settle and to explore what else needs to be considered.

One outcome of this summer ‘break’ was the chance to go through some boxes of papers that we had stored in my sister’s garage eight years ago, while clearing out my mother’s house when she moved into a nursing home. There wasn’t time to sort out much of it then, as we needed to sell the house quickly to pay for the care fees, so we simply gathered anything vaguely interesting and put it away for later. It got buried for a while under the accumulated junk of modern life, but finally this summer I persuaded my sister to retrieve the – now slightly damp – boxes for me to investigate.

I hadn’t been certain that there would be anything of use to me, but what I found proved to be a revelation. My mother never really kept regular diaries – except for three years during the war when she was a schoolgirl – but she did from time to time write down her feelings and experiences on scraps of paper, often in scribbled pencil. She wrote from the heart, with scant punctuation, as one would a diary – and yet some of these pieces I’m sure were intended as short stories, as there are occasional notes showing that she intended to expand a certain section or give more detail at a later stage. Pages are missing or badly stained, or written on a shaky train – sometimes the handwriting  is just indecipherable, so reading them has been a process of guesswork at times.

While occasionally descending into romantic cliche (she was a great reader of fiction and had clearly absorbed some of its tropes) her writing has amazing freshness and immediacy – it made me feel almost breathless at times with the powerful emotions both expressed and reflected in her description of the landscapes around her. In these writings she describes a painful affair with her married boss – the love of her life – as well as a later romantic encounter on the beach of Nice with a penniless drifter, when she travelled to the South of France as a young woman. There are sad reflections on her marriage to my father (‘the story of the marriage that died’ – although they did stay together) and some very troubling pieces from her later years of depression.

What interests me is that these are what she decided to keep – there must have been more, as I know she attended a creative writing class for a time, but very little evidence of that exists. My guess is that these pieces express the most vivid and deeply-felt times of her life, and were also probably the best writing, writing she could well have been proud of. What a pity she didn’t do more.

All this has reinforced for me that the purpose of my writing this book is to find out ‘what happened?’ This young vibrant, creative woman, passionate in love, full of promise – where did she go? Somehow she got buried inside the mother I knew who was sad, angry, embittered, lonely, unable to break out. I feel a great need to honour and reclaim that young woman, to explore her life and understand the challenges she faced, and perhaps finally to set her – and myself – free.




What is depression? A recent BBC programme with Alastair Campbell, a longtime sufferer, delved into possible reasons and new treatments for this very human condition, though it was rather inconclusive. What the programme showed very well, however, was what it was like when the ‘black dog’ suddenly hit – seemingly irrespective of what was outwardly happening in Campbell’s life.  There was a window in the stairwell at his home looking out over the garden, by which he gauged his state of mind – on bad days, he felt unable to raise the blind and face the world, let alone shave and exercise.

If you have never experienced depression – and many people don’t – it must be hard to imagine what it feels like. Even when you have been depressed and are now feeling better, the two states seem to have almost nothing in common; it’s a bit like trying to recall the pain of childbirth – you know that it really hurt but you can no longer quite imagine it. Campbell described his depression as being ‘unplugged from life’: unable to experience joy, love, or comfort even at the heart of his loving family. It’s clear that depression can affect anyone, no matter how much they seem to have in their lives from the outside.

I chose the above image – and all such illustrations have an inevitable whiff of cliche about them – because when I am depressed the principle feeling is of extreme existential loneliness. I continue to function, and might even seem outwardly to be having a busy and social time; I understand objectively that I am loved and have many good things my life, but it’s as though I can’t feel or touch them. It often seems that I have discovered, or remembered, the bitter truth of life – that there is no point to anything and we are all ultimately on our own. One way I have found to endure is to be extra kind to myself and try to remind myself that ‘this too will pass.’ And, usually within a few weeks, it does.

I’m lucky. I’ve know many people who suffer far more extreme depression than me – my mother for a start, who struggled with severe suicidal bouts throughout her life. Other friends have had varying encounters with depression – bi-polar swings, reactive depression brought on through grief and trauma, drug and alcohol addiction in an effort to cope, or having to live with persisent dysthymia or ‘low mood’. Some have chosen to take their lives when, like Virginia Woolf, they simply could not face going into the darkness again.

For me, these relatively short periods of depression come and go in my life with no obvious pattern – although having just come through such a spell, I recall that I have often experienced springtime depression in the past. It feels so ironic, when nature is bursting into life and people are taking advantage of the warmer weather to enjoy themselves, that I can go into a kind of mental and physical shut-down. The wind goes out of my sails, I can’t find motivation to do anything except lie on the sofa, or see any point to life apart from just getting through it. There’s a grim sense of injustice, too, and incomprehension, that other people are able to feel so differently to me – from where do they get their energy, their joy in life, their goddam happiness? Why can’t I find some of that in myself?

Where depression is concerned, although there are certain common manifestations,  there are probably as many causes as there are people. This article explains that it is most likely a combination of genetic susceptibility,  brain chemistry, life experiences and who knows what other factors such as insufficient gut bacteria or systemic inflammation – the latest suspects in the search for an answer. Different things work – or don’t work – for different people. I have never chosen to take anti-depressants, on the basis that by the time they start to be effective – often a few weeks or months – I will probably have started to feel better anyway. Perhaps taking them could protect me from the tendency to periodically ‘crash’, but I’m not sure the side effects are worth it. My mother had electric shock therapy, a popular treatment in the 1960s which is still in use today, and although it temporarily helped her mood, it left her with post-traumatic stress. There’s no perfect answer.

Fortunately we are much better now at talking openly about mental health and emotions, and there’s no longer so much shame in ‘not coping’, or seeking help. The mere fact of telling someone (or in the case of television, everyone!) how bad you feel can be an enormous relief, and for me is often the beginning of turning things around.