Going to bed with Jeanette Winterson

I’ve never read any of Jeanette Winterson’s fiction, a shocking admission for someone who (against all the evidence) considers himself mildly well-read. That there are – I hope –  still years ahead in my life to read Jeanette Winterson, ironically, may be thanks to her anyway.

In February 2008 I tried to end my life. My cat was in the garage with me. I did not know that when I sealed the doors and turned on the engine. My cat was scratching my face, scratching my face, scratching my face.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, by Jeanette Winterson.

In February 2012 I thought my life had ended. My intelligence told me that that was ridiculous, but my heart thought it anyway. Which is truer, in any case? The mind’s truth, or the heart’s truth? I’d gone through a chain of circumstances, dismal and not very interesting to relate, stuff we all go through, the same old divorce and bereavement, moving house, a long time job ending, loss of the stable things in my life – or the things I thought were stable. I’d kept my footing as the ground shifted under my feet, that solid ground which, like the earth itself in an earthquake zone, had seemed as if it couldn’t move. Then it had moved. I stumbled and drunkenly danced while buildings crashed around me and my middle ear  kept me upright, just about, and in my hubris I thought that I had survived it all, and without needing anyone’s help. So I went off to housesit in a rambling old French farmhouse in Tarn and Garonne, two months with many visitors but without anyone to share the day to day with. I am resourceful, I thought. Bring it on. I hadn’t thought that I would be bringing my demons with me to share my life. I didn’t even know, then, that there were such things as demons. That was then.

I did not want to vacate life. I loved life. I love life. Life is too precious to me not to live it fully. I thought, if I cannot live fully I must die.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, by Jeanette Winterson.

What broke me was something trivial, not even cataclysmic. Two months in a French autumn, beginning with hot summery weather and ending in a proper brume mist. The vent d’antan blew, the strange wind that blows across that part of France for weeks on end and drives even the local people mad. The house was quiet, dusty, empty, full of old Agatha Christie paperbacks and the smell of woodsmoke. All I heard for the last few weeks of my stay was that Wind of Autumn, that even drives the local people mad, and far-off gunshots in the woods, the hunters and their baying dogs, killing deer and wild boars and birds. The Internet, I learned, is no substitute for people. I’d walk up to the main road and look at the cars going by and never stopping, on the long straight roman road between Cahors and Agen, and then I’d walk back to the house and shut the door, and lock the door, and turn on the lights.

I had a sense of myself as a haunted house. I never knew when the invisible thing would strike – and it was like a blow, a kind of winding in the chest or stomach. When I felt it I would cry out at the force of it.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, by Jeanette Winterson.

So I came home for Christmas, and fell in love, and then out of it again in quick succession, as if someone had dropped a hat. In the New Year I came back to the cottage in the hills where I live. And it all broke over me like a tidal wave, like the big wave that nearly drowned me at the age of about five, on a beach in the West of Ireland. It was over my head and I was floundering. Everything hit me at once : death, divorce, unemployment, being alone in another cold and dusty house. It was a rip tide pulling me under, dragging me off the shingle beach into the cold sea.

Trains arrived. Train doors opened. I could not board. Humiliated, I cancelled events, arrangements, never able to say why. Sometimes I didn’t go out for days, get dressed for days, sometimes I wandered round the big garden in my pyjamas, sometimes I ate, sometimes not all, or you could see me on the grass with a tin of cold baked beans. The familiar sights of misery.

Why Be Happy When  You Could Be Normal, by Jeanette Winterson.

And the banality of misery too. I couldn’t cook, and I love to cook and I love to eat. I stopped wanting to. All I ate, all I could eat, was a single MacDonald’s every day after swimming. And an orange juice. It kept me alive. All I could do, apart from work, was swim. If I was drowning in my own thoughts, at least I could swim in real water, push my body through the blue chlorine, stand under the shower and hold my breath and feel the water running over my closed eyelids and stop thinking. Wash it all away. I lost two stone in two months. I couldn’t talk. I went to Greece with a friend in April and did not say two connected sentences in six days. The sea was too cold to swim in, but I felt the sun on my face, the sun on my face. The sun shone on my face.

The mornings were the worst. I looked on the Internet at depression and saw that they always are. I threw myself into restoring the cottage, and every single morning, when it hit, I had to force myself to get out of bed, pull on my paint-stiffened clothes, pick up the brush or the drill or the trowel and go to work. The house was freezing and dirty and in chaos. Get on the tools, I’d say out loud, echoing something my brother Toby used to say when he was alive. Get on the tools. Some mornings just getting out of bed was as much as I could do. But I always did it. Get on the tools. Slowly the house took shape. I recovered, slowly. The winter lingered and threw icy rain in my face and then one day it was Spring again.

A lovely friend recommended a book to me. It was called Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, by Jeanette Winterson. Maybe that friend saved my life. Jeanette Winterson writes brilliantly  about being adopted, about Accrington, about getting in the world’s face and saying here I am, you might have not wanted me but here I am anyway, motherfuckers. She was abandoned, lost and found, almost as soon as she came into the world. I’m luckier than her. But she was no madder than I was.

In the longest chapter, The Night Sea Voyage, she describes going mad for a while. My friends never failed me and when I could talk I did talk to them. But often I could not. Language left me. I was in the place before I had any language. The abandoned place. She asks her mother, or someone, ‘Where were you?’  The gulf between what she had to deal with and what I had to deal with made me laugh, almost, in daylight hours. But the daylight hours weren’t the problem. And logic and reason won’t get you started on recovering, brother. They can’t help you. Logic and reason are  never up the front when it kicks off.

Jeanette Winterson’s description of depression was like a voice speaking to me out of my own insides. Not that I was mad. But I felt mad for a whiIe. My mother was gone too.  Friends were there, helping if they knew, helping if they didn’t know just by being friends. I would go to bed with Jeanette Winterson’s book and when I woke, as I always woke, gasping for air at 3 a.m., I would open it at the chapter called The Night Sea Voyage and read it and then I could sleep. I kept the book on top of the blankets so I could just reach out, in the dark, and feel it was there. Some nights I just had to feel the book in the dark and then I could sleep. She knew what I was going through. Going to bed with Jeanette Winterson saved my life.

Things are so much better now that I can’t really believe that they were bad. But I think they must have been. The truth is that I can hardly remember those months. I got rid of a lot of books and ever since then I have been looking for one particular book, or another particular book, or another, and can’t remember getting rid of it, though I must have. (If anyone sees a copy of Currinary Cooking, by Pat Chapman, or the Tin Roof Blowdown, by James Lee Burke, in a shop, with my name inside, can you please buy it and send it back to me?) It’s all a blur. I don’t know what I said and what I did. I must have done up the house, because it’s lovely now, and with  a lot less books in it. I kept Jeanette’s book. I had borrowed the book from my friend and that was the one I used to hold in the dark. I began to  think I could never give it back, so I ordered another, and when it came, I gave my friend’s book back to her. I don’t know if I thanked her. I meant to.

Jeanette Winterson puts the madness outside herself, quite far on in the Night Sea Voyage. It takes the form of a creature, ugly and unloved and destructive, but one that responds to love and anger and attention and denial, and no wonder, because it is part of herself and all of us. Going mad takes time. Getting sane takes time, she writes, and she comes to an accommodation with the creature, by which I take it that the creature will always be with her. I sit here now, a different man who is really the same man, and I think of what one of Dylan Thomas’s friends said to him, just before that fatal weekend when they lost him: Never forget, (those monsters) do go away, they do go away. What I found the hardest thing was that the monster, the creature, the demons were all within, and you could only come to an accommodation with them. That side’s yours, and this side’s mine. It seemed to work and it still seems to, nearly a year on. It all takes time. How wrong I was, though, to think that you can do it on your own.

Hold on, hold on, hold on…

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, by Jeanette Winterson.

Everything in italics is from Jeanette Winterson’s book and is her copyright, of course; apart from the thirteen italicised words in paragraph three, which are from another writer entirely.