by Horatio Clare
(Chatto & Windus. 352pp)
“Winter is hard,” says Horatio Clare. The 48-year-old travel writer is locked down in Hebden Bridge, where he shares a small house with his partner, Rebecca, and their sixyear-old son. Above the valley, the Yorkshire hills are cloaked in snow. The white slopes are soft echoes of the Austrian ski resort where Clare “went mad” on a family holiday in April 2019.
His brilliant new memoir, Heavy Light, is a terrifying account of this psychotic break. In the opening pages Clare recalls the seeds of paranoid fantasy beginning to germinate when he was at Manchester airport. Surrounded by cameras, scanners and conveyor belts he sensed: “conspiracy waiting like a gun under a coat”. By the time he arrived in Innsbruck, he was convinced he was a major player in a covert international conflict.
While his son wobbled down the beginner slopes, Clare felt the icy awareness of elite soldiers moving unseen across the mountains, “training their crosshairs on us and each other, wargaming, overseeing, awaiting orders, protecting and menacing.” To maintain international peace, Clare believed his job was to ensure he drank equal amounts of alcohol with tourists and hotel staff of all nationalities. Like a child lost in play, he followed “covert assault courses”, running barefoot across “murderous rock”, making wild snow angels on the banks of a black stream and vomiting red wine into the pristine snow.
Back at the hotel, he locked himself into a bathroom and began throwing things around. He launched into a “horrible, explicit” diatribe about Rebecca to her teenage son (from a previous relationship). Still gripped by mania once home in Hebden Bridge, Clare went on to leave Rebecca, realising he was destined to marry Kylie Minogue, then faked his own death by crashing his car into a reservoir and fleeing naked into the night. He was eventually sectioned and spent nineteen days in a psychiatric unit before he began to shake himself free of his blockbuster delusions.
I once imagined that the details of a psychotic break would be vague or lost after recovery, as with alcohol-induced blackouts. But Clare describes and analyses the experience with excruciating clarity.
Speaking softly and carefully via Zoom, he tells me that putting the “thriller plot” of his psychosis on paper was relatively easy: “But recalling how I hurt those around me? That was very painful.
This is quite a peeled book. On the first page I write about “flinching in horror and shame” about the pain I caused. I felt very strongly that I needed to write about the position that Rebecca was in. About the kindness of my friends, my family and the police who treated us with such compassion. As a romantic writer, I prefer to come from a position of praise and amazement.”
Fans of Clare’s previous memoirs, travel books and nature writing will know the truth of this. He has never shied away from uncomfortable shadow truths of human experience, and always finds the balancing moments of transcendence. He’s a writer who has heard the “burbling ache” of ancient mystery in the cries of muddy-brown wading birds in Orison for a Curlew (2015), and hymned the “rolling dream” of the desolate life of sailors working on container ships in Down to the Sea in Ships (2014).
His award-winning debut, Running for the Hills (2006) was a hymn to the upland farm in the Brecon Beacons where his parents’ marriage disintegrated in the 1970s. Robert and Jenny Clare had attempted to downshift from their hectic lives as journalists in London. But while Jenny became committed to the (often brutal and bloody) cycles of sheep farming, Robert was drawn back to the buzz of metropolitan life. Little Horatio was raised in a home full of books and without a television; his later childhood punctuated by “long slogs” up and down the M4 between his father’s cerebral urban world and his mother’s earthy lifestyle.
In an essay on memoir, he explained that his motivation for writing the book – which included excerpts from Robert’s and Jenny’s letters and diaries – was motivated by a childhood fear that he had been, in some way, responsible for the divorce. Of course, he learned that was not the case. But his research also “capsized the narrative I had grown up with – that my father had left us; in different ways, it seemed, Mum had also left him. The conflict between reason and romance was not embodied in one and set against the other. It was present in both, equally.”
It’s lovely to hear that the memoir – which initially left his parents feeling “horribly exposed” – eventually brought the family closer together. But today I’m curious about the impact of this split on Clare’s mental health. Is it possible that shuttling between two different – but equally true and thrilling – narratives gave his mind permission to run different versions of the same reality?
“Hmm,” he mulls gently. “It’s possible.” In Heavy Light he bravely acknowledges that, before his “crack up” he had “lived lies and dissatisfactions and worries for years.” But he feels sure the crucial damage done to his brain was caused by the marijuana he began smoking as a teenager, because “it made colours brighter, music richer.” He was smoking it outside the airport before taking the flight to Austria.
It’s lovely to hear that the memoir – which initially left his parents feeling “horribly exposed” – eventually brought the family closer together
He tells me that: “Everybody I met in the hospital had used cannabis. It was the common denominator.” He says one of the hardest things people in his situation have to deal with is “the extent to which you are complicit in your own madness. I wish I hadn’t given it any fuel at all.”
This isn’t the first time cannabis-induced derangement has featured in Clare’s work. In a 2019 essay on “Writing and Madness” for the Royal Literary Fund he gave a full account of the drug’s disruptive impact on his life:
“Caution, aged sixteen, for cannabis. Conviction for arson (a dispute with the Daily Mail group, my first employer); multiple convictions for taking without consent (a milk float), a Nissan Terrano 2 (a night run from Newcastle to Skegness attempting to save a relationship) and a 300-tonne crane barge, the ironically named Robin Hood; escorted onto a plane by the NYPD (verbal caution for making threats to a romantic rival); another caution for possession of cannabis in Soho; arrest in Gibraltar (released without charge – in the midst of mania I abandoned passport and wallet on a roof); a beating from the Guardia Civil in Spain (following swallows for a book I wandered onto a missile base near La Línea). Then more than a decade of responsible and productive citizenship, embracing periods of mild mania (fuelled by or fuelling illicit sex and cannabis use) and depression, linked to seasonal affective disorder and cyclothymia, a diagnosis I received in France in 2015, having been arrested (no charge) and taken to hospital by French police at the behest of my partner, who was alarmed by an evidently manic phase, exacerbated by fine wine, hash and heat.”
Today he tells me that, while he believes illegal chemicals altered his relationship with reality, he has no faith in the legal chemicals he was prescribed to help him recover. He didn’t take the pills and, despite the “ups and downs” and seasonal cycles which make “summer easier and winter more difficult,” he still feels relatively stable two years later.
But he tells me that Rebecca still talks about being “gaslit” by the crisis teams who repeatedly told her I wasn’t a danger to myself.” The closing pages of Heavy Light find Clare making an impassioned plea for better mental health services in a country where mounting numbers of people are reaching crisis point only to be met by “the over-prescription and mis-prescription of drugs” and a “shortage of therapists and therapies.”
Clare is wincingly aware that his “posh voice” and articulate advocates helped him get better treatment than those less fortunate. He hopes that his book will help “lift the taboos around sectioning. It needs to be discussed. Two years ago, I was in a very lonely place. It was a frightening journey for everyone. But I had to write about it because it’s a human experience and not an uncommon one. I wish I hadn’t had it. But, having had it, I needed to report from a great, silent unknown country.”
Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail