Local writer and storyteller, George Murphy interviews local characters and personalities
The latest interview features writer and broadcaster, Horatio Clare. I caught up with him at a local hostelry to hear his views on issues including mental health, farming, travel, SAD, music, world affairs and life in Hebden Bridge. Here's what other people have written about his books:
Running for the Hills: "So beautifully written that you almost hold your breath." Daily Mail
Down to the Sea in Ships: "Magnificent." Robert Macfarlane
Something of his Art: "Horatio Clare has the voice of a great storyteller." Michael Morpurgo
Heavy Light: " … a record of the bravest, most intrepid journey that any human being can ever make." Richard Coles
Horatio Clare Q&A
Horatio, you were a producer at the BBC when you wrote Running for the Hills, a story about growing up on a sheep farm in Wales. The book won the Somerset Maugham award in 2007. Did its critical success and your own self-assessment prompt you to make writing your primary occupation?
I loved working at BBC Radio making arts programmes: imagine being asked to commission and broadcast the best and most interesting writers from around the world, from Nobel Prize-winners to the just starting out. I loved the people I worked with and what we did: it was joyous. But there came a moment when I realised that if was going to be a writer I would have to leave. I was young, with no family responsibilities, and so I jumped. I did not know Running was going to be a hit when I left, only that if I did not go then I never would.
The early chapters of your memoir feature your parents' flight from London to become farmers in Wales, just before you were born. What were the challenges of piecing together their love story and their struggle to survive in an often harsh environment?
Most of the writing came bouncing out; it was a terrific story that wanted to be told. The hard part was balancing the desire to tell it with the lives of the people I was writing about. During a particularly vexed patch, dealing with my parents' divorce when I was 7, feeling I was invading their privacy and exposing us all, I talked to a wise friend. He said, 'But all we're asking is that you give a true account of yourself.' It does not sound much but it was like a light coming on. When I teach that line to students now they sometimes experience the same feeling of freedom and purpose it gave me. You can't tell everyone's truth, but if you tell yours, and if you tell it with love, and a sense of seeking to understand, you can draw out of pain and struggle something which is also beautiful and true.
You studied English at York, and then worked as a barman in London. You've said that your time there made you realise you wanted to write about other people?
I lived and worked in a Chelsea pub, an environment full of stories, a place richer than any novel I could have written. The butler, the jockey, the millionaire, my great friend the plumber, the drinkers, the artists, the solider / gem dealer: they were an amazing and fascinating crew, all led by our landlady, who had fled Yugoslavia after an affair with another general's daughter, and who saw right through us all, and saw the best in us. I was 25 and I knew I wanted to write about them; about ordinary extraordinary people. I started then, and I'm still doing it.
Towards the end of Down to the Sea in Ships (2014), you wrote that you went to sea to see ships and oceans but saw much more of men. Can you explain to readers about the journeys you took and how you gathered material for the book?
I travelled with container ships from Felixstowe to Los Angeles via Suez, China and the Pacific, and from Antwerp to Montreal in winter. There was no reason to expect that Maersk, a 24 billion-dollar company, would be interested in my offer to be their 'writer in residence' but their head of comms turned out to be a remarkable man who said, 'Go where you want, and write what you want, we won't stop you.' He actually believed that the world would be better served by a truthful book about seafarers and seafaring than by another piece of PR.
I doubt his successors at Maersk or any other giant corporation think that way now. But it was a golden chance to travel with the men (and one woman, our chef on the second ship) who actually turn the world, and to see the great oceans, and the true vastness of the planet, and to learn something of how seafarers work and live and think. The supply chain defines the world's ways of life and it is made up of resolute, thoughtful, often lonely, hugely skilful people, most of them men, and most of them far, far away from home, who live lives of unseen sacrifice on behalf of their families and us all. And it all takes place in the mightiest environment on earth. And so it was extraordinary to be able to go with them, to ask questions, watch, listen, try not to get in their way, and write it all down.
When writing your book, were you motivated to explain the importance of cargo loaded ships crossing the oceans to landlubbers like me?
We all understand the role and the dedication and the strength of people we learned to call 'essential workers' a little better now than we did before the pandemic. But the sea has almost no oversight, feeble unions (relative to the power of the shipping companies), and few if any journalists, and so what happens there is mostly invisible and unheard.
Scandalously, seafarers were not even designated as essential workers in many countries for most of 2020, while they were risking their lives to keep us all fed. To Britain's credit, this country was one of the first to do so. I didn't set out with any intention to proselytise on behalf of seafarers but I hope you cannot read the book without seeing that we owe them for almost everything we have. They deserve stronger unions, more oversight, and an international overhaul of the immoral 'flags of convenience' system, which effectively allows shipping corporations to avoid responsibility for what happens on their vessels.
In Writing the Road to War on Radio 4, you met and interviewed women and children who were fleeing from the Ukraine following the Russian invasion. I've noticed that some locals have supported refugees from that conflict and I understand that you have also been involved?
My family and our guests and all of us in Calderdale owe a huge thank you to the Homes for Ukraine team at Calderdale Council, who have done absolutely everything to help people displaced by the attack on Ukraine. You would expect the Calder Valley and Hebden Bridge to be hugely giving and welcoming but it is just beautiful to see it. We all hope and believe that the links people have made between here and Ukraine will benefit us all, and our children, in myriad unforeseeable ways, now and in the future. To give a tiny example – I visited a primary school yesterday where two classes were palpably lifted and enriched by Ukrainian pupils. In Islam a guest is a gift from God. Britain strikes me as a country desperately in need of gifts… but at present the government seems set on demonising them. At least they have been blocked from sending them to Rwanda, thanks to the Supreme Court.
Your mother was a reviewer of children's books and you have become a children's writer. Have you got a favourite children's author?
When I was a child I especially loved Denys Watkins Pitchford, pen-name 'BB', who wrote better about nature than pretty well anyone – his Wild Lone, a story of a fox, is as entrancing now as when I first read it.
The Light in the Dark (2018) is a journal set during one Pennine winter. What did you learn about SAD in northern climes and did writing your journal help you?
The Light in the Dark is a joyful book in a sidelong way. Being asked to look at winter as a writer, to see beauty in the moments of days and nights, to record the comedy and love and tenderness of family life, and to learn about how light, time and season affect us was transformative. I had no idea what Seasonal Affective Disorder was before I wrote the book; it is much more discussed and better understood now than it was then, just five years ago. Writing it was a pleasure because there is such magic in winter, both fierce and gentle, and magnificently so in Hebden's dark months. Observing and writing about Hebden, from our freezing luminous nights, to the gritters, the farmers, the visitors and the residents - including the town pigeons - was often very moving. (Watching the Christmas Eve carols in the square, the pigeons looked like little dirty angels.) The book changed the way I see winter, and how I tackle it. It speaks to people too, which is immensely gratifying. Every year readers write to say it helps.
Heavy Light came out in 2021. You are an established travel writer, but now you were describing a journey into madness, and some of that occurred in these valleys. It must also have been terrifying for you, and for your family and friends?
A breakdown of any kind is fairly terrifying for the sufferer, and dreadful for family and friends. We were lucky in that Hebden is an incredibly kind and understanding place, accepting, wide-angled and sympathetic. I was especially lucky in that my family were mighty and our friends extremely kind and utterly supportive.
You went into hospital in Wakefield. You blamed your illness on pressure of work, and cannabis?
Those were the triggers, but not the underlying cause. The vital thing I learned is that we are all on a spectrum, which runs from the entirely healthy to the very ill, and all of us can move along it, in either direction, depending on our circumstances, life events and underlying conditions. The breakdown brought good things, in the end: my family and I worked through pressures which had been building to an intolerable pitch; we are all closer and stronger as a result. We found out what really matters to us, and I think we have all flowered together since, despite the hell we went through then. I had a lot of therapy, and was lucky that it was effective. The book seems to have had a wide and positive effect, and that is as much down to my family as it is to me. Heavy Light is a tribute to the truly wonderful people who work in public services, both inside and alongside our floundering mental health system, who get up every day and fight underfunding, political incompetence and an obsolete psychiatric framework on behalf of the most vulnerable.
The second part of Heavy Light includes your research into treatments for psychosis and mental distress more widely. Could you explain what you have discovered when talking to medical professionals and others for your book and the subsequent radio series?
You can hear Is Psychiatry Working? on BBC Sounds; my co-presenter, Femi Oyebode, is a former Hebden resident and one of the most esteemed psychiatrists in the country. The basics are: We have not had a real breakthrough in psychiatric treatment since chlorpromazine in the late 1950s. The diagnoses we currently use in mental health are ways of describing conditions: they are concepts: they do not relate to actual physical things that we can point to, like a broken bone. So some sufferers and families take huge comfort, meaning and healthful consequences from a diagnosis, a label; others do not, and for them, rejecting a label works: whichever way works for you is the right way. Medication can be a life-saver, but over-prescription is a curse. There is no disagreement about what works: the minimum medication a person needs, carefully monitored (which may only be in crisis, or may be long term), therapy, changed circumstances, diet, exercise, expert and consistent clinical oversight. The problem is, you will be extremely lucky if all of those elements line up: a particular failing in the system is continuity of care; it just isn't there. There is an internationally-recognised framework for recovery: CHIME, standing for Connectedness, Hope, Identity, Meaning and Empowerment, and there are therapies, like Open Dialogue, which have astonishing success rates. Since Heavy Light came out, and making Is Psychiatry Working? I have learned enough to fill a book. Although I was ready to move on from mental health, the book insisted on being written. It's called The Traveller's Guide to Mental Health, it is based on interviews with experts at the forefront of their fields, and it comes out with Penguin next year.
When I started interviewing locals I asked readers to send in some questions I might use. Here's some from fans of Desert Island Discs:
What's your favourite piece of music?
Bach's cello suites
What luxuries would you need on a desert island?
This summer I went on holiday with my son and my ex, my partner, my ex's ex, his partner, their daughter, and my ex and her ex's son, and his girlfriend. We had such a joyful time. So that's my luxury – my entire patchwork family.
Which book would you save from the waves?
Quite Early One Morning – Dylan Thomas' radio broadcasts. Perfect prose poetry.
Thank you for taking part, Horatio. One last request, can you please describe your next writing project?
I am in the copy edit of The Traveller's Guide to Mental Health and working on We Came By Sea, which is about the real stories of refugees and migrants in need and the people who help them in Calais, Dover and Britain. Exactly as I found in the mental health system, it turns out that a lot of what we are told about immigration, and about how the British people (as opposed to the current government) think about it and deal with it, is just wrong. We are a much kinder, more generous, wiser, braver, more open and accepting country than you might imagine, especially if you judge us by the nonsense that appears in the press, the poison that comes from the hard right and the insanity that is government policy.
This is an awful time in many ways, but change starts with the dire need for change: things can and will be better, starting with competent government. My books are about hope, really, because they are written in praise of people who give hope. In We Came By Sea, the first is a security guard, standing in the dark, in freezing Dover rain, waiting for a boatload of people to be brought ashore. I asked him why he was there and he said, 'I came down here to see if these people are being treated properly. And they are. Really well. We can be proud - we're looking after them.'
Which gives hope, doesn't it?