In Conversation with Horatio Clare / Catherine Wilkinson

[The following is an extract from an interview with Horatio Clare featured in Issue Thirteen, published this September – Ed.]

Horatio Clares work ignites a wanderlust. An evocative writer to accompany on expedition – he is perceptive, passionate, charming and disarming, displays a huge affinity for the natural world, empathy for mankind, and an endearing humility, a vulnerability. Often amusing too. He has a conflicted relationship with borders, is fascinated with frontiers rich in creatures flourishing in sanctum as well as human stories in the margins. He roots for the truffle of a tale, switches vantage points – for example concluding A Single Swallow’s odyssey from the perspective of the bird itself.

‘One of me does not make a what? … [Aristotle said it first, he proclaims] I built the sky, if you believe the Austrians. I stole the fire from heaven and pulled thorns from the head of Christ – how else did I get my blood-red cheek? … In Britain I do not make a summer; in France I do not make a spring’.

In Truant, Horatio observes that he is interested in the ‘edges of things’. Edges, borders, margins, whether psychological or geographic, are the essence of his roaming and his work. With previous forays into the terrain of mental health, his new book, Heavy Light, navigates psychosis. Always lucid – even when soaring in mania or swirling into delusion, clawing his way out and negotiating the schism he encountered between psychology and psychiatry – in conversation, he conveys the same searing honesty and joy that he advises we all need to bring, whatever the subject matter, to the craft of writing.

Catherine Wilkinson: In our communications prior to publication, you flagged that the cover was most striking and yes, it is stunning. You mention in the book that the chough is your ‘totem’ bird, so what was your thinking behind the motif of the bird of prey? Is it the goshawk you encounter in the early stages of hypomania?

Horatio Clare: Actually, I think it is a red kite. We chose the image primarily for the glaring yellow eye. The colour of sunrise linked with the nature of the light that epitomised the hypomania. And the intensity of the hawk’s slightly manic gaze fit, as did the wildness of the raptor. All matched the mood of the highs of the first sections of the book.

CW: The opposite to my wondering then! In that it was to capture the intensity of the mania. I had thought, perhaps, it was because whilst you see the goshawk in a larch wood when roaming the landscape in an elevated state of mind, it was an encounter to which, ‘uniquely in this fantasy period’, you ascribed no mystic significance, viewing it as ‘a privilege to encounter and only that’. A symbol of a flinty reality through the chaos if you will. You described him most powerfully: ‘winter emperor’ … to whom you pay ‘an obeisance’, ‘an utterness about him’ … ‘compounded might and beauty’.

The title, Heavy Light, invokes both burden and a sense of hope, and I thought might follow on from your winter journal, The Light in the Dark, which in part addressed your seasonal affective experiences…

HC: Whereas it references again the blaze of light surrounding the mania. I felt in a state of luminosity, enlightenment, that I was privy to ideas. It was all-consuming. I mention ‘madness is like a sunrise of the self’. A flood of light. I was infused by, almost emanating, light. It was as if I was made by light – and yet its intensity was just too heavy for me and those close to me to bear.

CW: Van Gogh considered orange the colour of insanity, I guess that would fit the sunrise spectrum as well…

HC: And he would know! I had forgotten, I could have included how I did often think of Van Gogh – his awful, tragic, incarceration – and specific paintings created by him in the garden of his asylum – of trees in browns and oranges.

CW: This leads me to ask, I hope not insensitively, as to whether there were positive aspects to the mania … at least there were some highs … and you mention in the book a couple of friends said you seemed, in some ways, very happy, very sunny. Indeed, the first sections of the book are written in a rapid, staccato manner which conveys so effectively the exuberant state, a sometimes child-like glee, at points quasi-spy thriller.

HC: All deliberate, and true. And though cathartic, to an extent, to write – hard to edit, re-read. There were aspects to it that were incredibly engaging and consuming. It was thrilling and exciting, so engrossing that I never wanted to sleep. And yes, one of my friends says in the book that it struck him how happy I was, like a child absolutely absorbed in a game. It was not positive at all, in any objective external way, but being inside it was often a wild and fizzing adventure.

CW: After meeting the goshawk and as you gazed at the night sky, you experienced a ‘hypersensitivity as though the sheaths have peeled off [your] wiring’. You wanted to be a poet – to be ‘allowed to walk the woods at night, to commune with the dead’, ‘be with the beck and stars’, ‘speak in tongues’. Creatively speaking then, how did you find the mania? Recognising the danger of glamourising such struggles – with the opium-addict poets, claims as to heightened experiences and inspiration, W. H. Auden and his ‘don’t take away my devils’ et al – is there any aspect you could actually miss? The crusading? Do you now feel subdued to any extent?

HC: Interesting. And no! There is no aspect I would miss on any level. Not a single shard. Far from prompting any form of creativity, for me, the mania involved an entire diversion of my creativity. All my creative energy was sucked into my delusions. All stolen. Kidnapped. Deformed. A creative wall. I produced no work in this period. I was jammed. I did not write until I was in hospital when I began a diary. I can normally write in various states or moods. If I am low or depressed that gives a certain quality to my writing, I am able to be especially suspicious or critical of it. My best writing however, comes from a place of contentment, a place in nature – a calm sort of high is what drives my pen. So as to mania and creativity, I would concur with Jeanette Winterson – in Why be Happy when you could be Normal? – that madness does not inspire, but that creativity is the means by which one defeats madness. Creativity was a slow ladder out of it all.

CW: Linking to your comment as to your writing ideally coming from an alignment with nature, you write in the book that the delusions also functioned as ‘a brake, a map, a comforting pattern’. Could you clarify as to those contours and the ritualistic aspects?

HC: I think Samuel Beckett said habit is a screen between the ego and the universe. The obsessive rituals – the arranging of cigarette butts in a star formation, a runic tribute system of coins etc – were basically something to do, attempts to hold the madness at bay. A sort of self-manufactured therapeutic activity which, yes, gave some momentary respite. And to the extent the actions were practical – clearing café tables for example – made me feel that I was still walking in pace with the world, to a degree. And circling back to the highs of the mania, there was often joy. But it also explains the intense irritability, my irritation, that went with it – because if others cannot comprehend your joy, if it is not reflected, it does not compute, and such failure to compute caused me frustration, anger.

CW: Happily no longer in need of medication, you impressed strongly your fear as to its creative consequences – the ‘chemical cosh’, ‘chemical coma’ – was it your experience that you could work a little on the second medication, the aripiprazole, not at all on the first, the anti-psychotic, quetiapine, and that you dreaded the ‘cognitive dulling’ of the proposed long-term lithium [reported as ‘a deadening screen between the user and the world’]?

HC: I had a very bad reaction to quetiapine. [In Heavy Light, Horatio documents nausea, spiralling vision, distorted hearing, dizziness, groggy legs, sweat-drenched and feverish sleep, syrupy thoughts.] Yet it did arrest the psychosis. In one or two days if not hours. So in terms of crisis treatment, it was absolutely necessary and worked. On the recommended medium-term medication, aripiprazole, I could write, but it felt chemically mediated. When I first took the pill, I felt cocooned, swaddled, then after a few hours I became a bit hyper, jiggled. I needed to write but was dissatisfied with the blunted product. [In HL, Horatio comments that he felt his writing at certain medicated junctures was, variously, ‘over-blown’, ‘lurid’, ‘opaque’, ebullient, stuffed, with ‘a hurried veneer’]. Only once I was off the meds did my father remark [not knowing this was the case] that a piece of work actually sounded like me again. I should say individual reactions obviously vary. For some people it is fine as well as necessary. Health, particularly mental health, cannot be addressed in swathes. I am a believer in effective medication, just limited, specific – and in conjunction with intensive therapy. There was some sound advice, from Robert Macfarlane, which I mention in the book, along the lines of take the time that needs to be taken. What is important is that you get the help you personally and specifically need. It will be different for everyone. For me and for many, the crucial thing was talking therapy – as to what happened to you. The point is to treat causes, if you are going to move forward, not merely symptoms, which is what medication is very good at.

CW: For others, not necessarily why you fell down a hole but how to equip yourself to climb out of it. Robert Macfarlane also gave an inspiring parallel in the book about how, out mountaineering, if you get lost, you can retrace your own footprints through the snow – because the compacted snow of your tracks melts at a slower rate. He suggests that in your healing, you are following your own raised footprints back to find yourself.

HC: To a wiser more progressive form of myself I think.

CW: You clearly did an enormous amount of research for the book and are fluent in the medical terminology. You talk of presenting as sane – reminiscent of The Madness of King George when he laments he has forgotten how to seem. People managing autism talk of the need to mask… How much do you see the stress of the façade required for functioning in society as a factor?

HC: Stress in general was certainly a big factor. I’m something of an egoist, a perfectionist. I had produced two books in a year. My father was terminally ill. I was juggling multiple challenges. The engine was racing much too fast; I was trying to be everywhere at once and all things to all people. There was a huge amount of giving, but I was taking, too, crudely and selfishly, in dope and booze and selfishness. I hope I have realised, in simple terms, that I need to balance what I give and what I take in life. [In HL Horatio refers to psychosis as an escape from things you cannot bear.]

CW: In a Radio 4 interview after you came out of hospital, you mentioned you wished to address any remaining taboo as to sectioning and that to an extent, you were nervous about the consequences of a ‘coming out’. If press coverage is an indicator, responses seem positive and kind. It has been the case I hope?

HC: Tremendous reactions. I think the stigma around mental health is, if not gone, hugely reduced. Particularly in pandemic times. The Covid crisis has at least deepened the national conversation on how to address mental health. Ideas that we are all on a continuum of well-being, of the need for nature, rest, the arts – it all now seems ubiquitous and obvious.

CW: One person commented on social media that he had never really comprehended delusion before, basically did not believe it could be genuine, but your account had enlightened him. Your work is achieving its goals I believe. On a related note though, I would be interested in your view: I agree mental health issues are much less stigmatised now, yet still wonder if we have a tendency to latch onto a physical cause as a somehow more palatable explanation for an issue – for example, a physical trauma or blow to the head, a specific gene, that throat / ear infections can trigger OCD, a urinary tract infection or a TB drug can cause delusions… in your case, that it was an external factor, cannabis-induced psychosis. Is all this symptomatic, do you think, of a residual wish for an illness not to be attributed to a mental cause or some threshold as to coping?

HC: I think people now realise physical and mental health are inextricable, I think the division is coming to be seen as artificial. A breakdown is a physical crisis, and also, as one of my correspondents put it, a spiritual crisis. If depression is a sign that there are things wrong in your life, things that need changing, breakdown is also on that line – we are multi-dimensional beings. When we breakdown, all those dimensions are in trouble. To heal, we need simple, powerful things: a sense of pace and perspective, healthy relationships, time off and in nature, good food, exercise, a sense of productivity and hope. The most progressive psychiatrists and most psychologists are very clear about the best ways forward. There is no mystery here – but there is a dire need for urgent, wholesale change of the standard treatments available, so that everyone has the opportunities currently only available to the wealthy and post-code fortunate.

CW: I think you’re right. Moreover you comment in the book that the specific workings of medication upon the brain are still not really known. This area is still so very new, my son is due to study neuroscience – chosen because it is the last frontier of science and, apparently, we, mankind, or rather, cutting-edge scientists, know more about the sea and space than we do about the brain.

CW: Turning more specifically to The Lonely Crowd’s forthcoming non-fiction psycho-geography theme. Entirely on point, in Heavy Light, you say: I grew up in hills. They made me and they continue to make my work.’ Can you elaborate a little?

The following (and preceding) sections of this conversation will be published in Issue 13 of The Lonely Crowd this September – however, the interview concludes as follows:

CW: Your writing and teaching is rich with quotes and influences. As we look at travel together with sense or spirit of place, I recollect vintage Van Der Post: ‘the story is like the wind, it comes from a far-off place, but we feel it’. Do you have a quote which might give your essence in this context? Or another I love – with the sort of feel for which I aim – Jean Cocteau in Le Testament d’Orphée: ‘I have sea foam in my veins, I understand the language of the waves.’ 

Horatio: I often think of Wales as a small coat, a small coat made of deep pockets. It’s infinite. And I rummage in the pockets, which are also the rest of the world.

Horatio Clare’s books include Heavy Light: A Journey through Madness, Mania & Healing (2021); Something of his Art: Walking to Lübeck with JS Bach; The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal; Icebreaker; Myths and Legends of the Brecon Beacons; Orison for a Curlew; Down to the Sea in Ships; A Single Swallow; Sicily: Through Writers’ Eyes; Truant: Notes from the Slippery Slope; and Running for the Hills.

You can follow Catherine Wilkinson on twitter here. Author photograph by James Bedford. Book photographs by Catherine Wilkinson.