Marcel Krueger reviews Horatio Clare’s experience of a haunting winter.
Horatio Clare, The Light in the Dark – A Winter Journal (Elliott & Thompson, 2018), 202pp.
Earlier this year, in a piece about John Cheever and his journals, Dustin Illingworth wrote the following: ‘There is something feckless about a writer’s journals. They are a specialist’s document, and those who parse their pages are like grooming baboons, searching for fleas.’
There is some truth in that, insofar as writer’s journals, especially because of their fragmented nature, often lend themselves to more scrutiny than a finished novel or non-fiction book. But on the other hand, I personally enjoy journals as they, sometimes ostensibly, provide a rough and somewhat unedited view of the thought and creation process of writers and artists. I was therefore delighted about the chance of reading Horatio Clare’s latest work,The Light in the Dark – A Winter Journal. I as a landlubber hold his two saltwater yarns Down to the Sea in Ships and Icebreaker and their wonderful prose in high regard, and was therefore really keen to see what his approach to the fragmented nature of journals would turn out like.
This winter journal is even rawer than I expected, though. As the title might suggest, the book charts Clare’s life through the winter of 2017/18, from October to March, combining observations of nature and society adapting to the season with a long hard look at Clare himself and his fight against depression throughout the dark months. The entries cover a wide variety of themes and places, ranging from the farm of Clare’s mother in Wales over Italy and Hebden Bridge (where Clare and his family live) to his work as lecturer in Liverpool, and, of course, the sea:
The migration to the winter coast made sense, then. In turmoil we are drawn to water, to space, to the high places and the wider views. […] The sea has a power to draw out and rearrange our anxieties in simpler patterns; on the coast paths and the empty beaches I found a deep untangling. There is this in winter, too, in its reductions and parings, simplicity.
The themes are loosely connected by Clare’s increasing despair as the dark months drag on and the solace he finds in nature, interspersed with general observations of the affects of winter on humanity, and how other artists approached it. There are delightful quotes sprinkled throughout, by the Venerable Bede, Philip Larkin, Emily and Anne Brontë. Clare charts both the human fascination with winter and the challenge it brings to keeping a positive outlook against the creeping despair, both for him personally and for others before him.
This being a journal, some of the entries are somewhat tangled and jump around between themes and places quite a lot, which means that sometimes thoughts are merely recorded where I wished for a longer dissection and the settings change often: in a few pages we move from lovely observations of hotel life in winter in Liverpool to the hills above Hebden Bridge, zooms in on two older gentlemen in a cafe in town and then back to Liverpool. But Clare tells us from the beginning that his record of winter is, even more so than his other books perhaps, also an outlet for him personally: ‘This diary is a refuge, a thing to do, something to put work and time into, a defence against the hopelessness.’
Like in all of Clare’s books, he skillfully mixes a sometimes romantic view of the world with a clear and hard look at reality: climate change, suicide, peer pressure, manifested in poignant passages like the following,about his Liverpool students:
How dare anyone call them snowflakes – they are mighty. The pressures they face are unprecedented, their prospects of stimulating, rewarding, validating work seems tenous at best: how will they compete against an automated future, in which the fortunate few will earn millions, and millions will be dismissed as unfortunate?
Sometimes, Horatio Clare’s journal to me also seems like one of the first records of a winter that will never be as dark and cold for future generations. As I write this, central Europe experiences another too-warm autumn with temperatures of almost 30 degrees Celsius throughout; and while many are posting Instagram stories with smileys that have hearts about the fact that they can walk their dogs in t-shirts, we should be acutely aware that now, at the end of October, we should be out there in a woolen jacket, breath steaming from our lips in the evening cold, frost in the air with the certainty that death is coming, and winter. Books like The Light in the Dark are also extremely important in recording the cathartic experience of making it through the darkness.
This book then is, like the best first-person contemporary non-fiction publications, an unflinching look at both the author himself and his chosen topic. Reading this book for me was not looking for Illingworth’s fleas, but instead developing a definite comradeship with the author. This is a melancholic and sometimes sad personal journey to the end of the night with all its horror and beauty. But not a hopeless one.
Marcel Krueger is a German writer and translator living in Ireland who writes about places, their history and the journeys in between. His articles and essays have been published in the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, Slow Travel Berlin, and CNN Travel, amongst others. Marcel also works as the Books Editor of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, and his latest book Babushka’s Journey: The Dark Road to Stalin’s Wartime Camps (I.B. Tauris, 2017) explores the wartime experiences of his grandmother and her journey to Russia in 1945 through a travel memoir. More info about Marcel can be found at www.kingofpain.org