Juliet Nicolson

Beyond SAD

It would suit Horatio Clare, whose depression during the darkest months goes far beyond seasonal affective disorder

Beyond SAD
Text settings

The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal

Horatio Clare

Elliott & Thompson, pp. 208, £

As travel writer, nature writer, memory retriever and, I would add, prose-poet of mesmerising lyricism, Horatio Clare is a celebrant and observer of what is lovely, less lovely and sometimes, thankfully, absurd in the world.

But Clare has come to fear winter. Recently the season has sapped his emotional and creative energy, masking his joy in living things, rarely in mankind but in everything that might alert him to the vibrancy and beauty of a wintry countryside. He has not always felt this way, but over the past few years, life in the north of England — amid the increasing absence of light, the claustrophobia of the Yorkshire moors and the relentless black rain that ‘makes you feel as if you are living in a tunnel under the sea’ — has led him to wrestle with something more challenging than persistent seasonal affective disorder. For a while now Clare has suffered from an engulfing depression that dominates almost every day of the coldest, darkest months of the year.

Writing this winter journal has become his ‘refuge’. At times expansive, at others paring the language back as if in winter-speak, some of Clare’s daily entries are just a sentence or two long as he tracks the incremental shifts from summer heat and the fading light of autumn to the inevitability of the cold, short winter days, ‘grey as glumness’. This coming season, however, will be different, as Clare pledges to ‘embrace this winter like a summer’. The result is an enthralling book of beauty and pain, tenderness and imaginative absorption.

Clare cannot choose to hibernate during the winter months. He teaches creative writing at John Moores University in Liverpool, to which he commutes from Yorkshire by train several times a week, energising, reassuring and inspiring his students. Occasionally when his train home is cancelled due to the harshness of the weather he spends the night in a frighteningly awful Edwardian hotel that serves fish ‘you could club a cat with’. At home he also has responsibilities, living with the ‘life-changer, life-enhancer’ Rebecca and the two sons aged five and 16 that they share between them.

Despite the temptation to withdraw, there are other people with whom he must engage. There are neighbours, friends and his gutsy, stalwart, sheep-farming mother who still manages the Welsh farm where Clare grew up, a childhood he described in his elegiac memoir Running for the Hills. In their different ways these people give him purpose, remaining loving, patient, joke-full throughout his most entangled moments of despair.

At times Clare copes, succeeding in subduing persistent anxieties about money and about his own creativity that steal away his sleep in the depths of the night. Christmas becomes a day of magic and wonder, a day ‘wrapped in an old sock and a myth’, seen through the innocent eyes of a child. At other times, Clare trembles on the edge. Some thugs have set their brutal dogs on his mother’s precious sheep. In the car on his way to Wales as he rushes to comfort her, he anticipates, rightly, a scene of Hardyesque diabolism. Suddenly he is overwhelmed with rage ‘a howling violent thing exploding’ in the pit of him.

There is something ancient and visceral about this book, in which birth and love and death form part of an unadorned rhythm of the passing days. The loyalty of close family and the enduring, sustaining power of love are at the heart of what matters: motherhood, fatherhood, and the love of parents for children and for each other. The account of a new father’s sense of astonishment and humility at the arrival of his first child is as transcendent as any description of childbirth I know; and the subsequent account of a baby’s first few days of life ‘a world of pure expression, beyond the limits of language’ is equally moving.

The stark, wintry landscape evoked in Clare’s luminous prose — those ‘days as bright as a magpie’s cackle’— is magnified by the influence of other nature writers, Emily Brontë, Wallace Stevens, Louis MacNeice and Patrick Kavanagh among them. The Venerable Bede’s beautiful allegory for the transitoriness of existence is here too, when a frozen winter sparrow momentarily flies through an open window into a warm, lighted room, returning to darkness through another.

This is a deeply personal book, a story of one man’s journey through the winter months, struggling with his own anxieties, and also one that addresses our own deepest fears and insecurities. If Clare does not emerge from the winter with his original pledge wholly intact, the final resolution that he embraces, as the snow and ice begin to melt, is testament to his resilience and a universal enticement to approach the winter months joyfully and fear-free.