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Writing – Health – Life
States of not knowing 

A Very Strange Book Review

This is a bonus newsletter that came about after Tamsin Rosewell of the wonderful Kenilworth Books and I had a rather interesting conversation. Well I think so at least. It's hard to explain in a few words, so here it is...
Publisher Walker Books sent a review copy of Orpheus to bookseller Tamsin Rosewell; she has spent a lot of time championing both my work and that of Julian too, so it seemed like a good idea to get her a review copy. However, her response was more complex than perhaps the review we were hoping for. Tamsin has undergone 19 operations and procedures in the last 8 years to reconstruct her pelvic bone, replace hip joints, reconstruct her left shoulder, repair a damaged spine, remove infected bone and arrest avascular necrosis – and she’s consumed a truly vast amount of morphine over that time too. Orpheus is a complex narrative that takes place in various planes of existence – the characters endure the physical and mental trauma of war, but also journey down into the morphine-fuelled imagery of an underworld, in which we hear the lone, lyrical voice of Orpheus. Tamsin and I thought it would be interesting to explore this book in the context of both my interest in the relationship between illness and creativity, and her experience of opium-soaked understanding of reality and dreams. It is an unusual way of talking about a book, but in this case a wholly appropriate one. 
(TR): You created the verse narrative of Orpheus in this novel; he is a shifting sort of soul, who travels long distances in time and exists through other people.  He has a strange half-existence and his lone voice seems to echo. If I’m looking through his eyes at his world, what does it look like? What is that landscape he sees, what are the colours? Are there caverns measureless to man with sunless seas; or are they the colossal caves, filled with airy spirits of John Martin’s art? I’m curious to know what the world looks like to Orpheus. 
The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum, John Martin, 1822.  John Martin is one of those artists of whom recent restorations have brought out the truly hallucinogenic glory of their colour work.
(MS) John Martin, maybe, but for me rather more like John Piper or Mervyn Peake. Otherworldly, but very much of here. Imagine: you’re a couple of thousand years old, you have become a mythical figure, a character in everyone’s (well, some people’s) collective unconscious. This is a lonely if privileged place to be. You see through people across all of the intervening time - thus it is very hard to see the world simply, as one person in their own time does, rather it vibrates with a mass of colour and energy of everything that has been on each spot, in each building, hovering around each person who’s walked through that landscape.
John Piper - Interior of Coventry Cathedral, 1940
John Piper - Interior of Coventry Cathedral, 1940
‘Head by Firelight’, by Mervyn Peake
(TR) Everything you’ve said there makes me think of Coventry Cathedral, from the bomb ruined, burned buildings now scattered on top of thousands of years of history, to the art of John Piper. I’m now imagining him looking like one of John Hutton’s towering, skeletal and tattered angels in the south window. 
(MS) Yes, that’s just right. A perfect image. Meanwhile, don’t your rather disturbing yet beautiful (if I have understood) experiences of morphine not open the world, its layers, so you can’t look at anything ‘simply’ anymore? Has it changed the way you see the world, even if not literally, with your eyes, how you see it with your heart?
Jon Hutton's strange angels in Coventry Cathedral, photo by Tamsin.
Jon Hutton's strange angels in Coventry Cathedral, photo by Tamsin.
(TR) I think it has changed the way I perceive myself, rather than the way I perceive the world. And I’m not sure whether it is the opium alkaloids that change you, or whether it is the experience of being ill that changes you (possibly it is both!), but I’m very aware of the difference now between me existing physically, and me existing discarnate. My physical body is now very damaged, it is badly broken and has titanium, medically engineered plastic and porcelain holding the basic movement together; I now think of myself as primarily a brain, and the rest of me is an auxiliary part of that. I’m aware of the pain and the lack of mobility, but I am distanced from it, because it is happening in that subordinate part of me that is the physical part. Morphine does that to you – it distances you from pain and physical location; you can still feel the pain, but it is over there, on the other side of the room, and you are over here, where it is more warm and comfortable. The problem is that while it distances you from the pain, it distances you everything, and everyone, else as well. On opiates you exist in a place that is not really accessible to a physical human. So I’ve spent very long periods of time feeling like I’m in the same room as friends and family, sitting next to them even, but separated by faintly green glass through which I cannot quite make myself understood. And that is something that I saw in Orpheus – living in a morphine-soaked world is a very solitary existence. 
(MS) Well, I relate totally to that. I’ve just completed a blog post for someone on how being ill distances you. It’s strange though, I always felt a little removed from the real world, even from my own family. I now live remotely on a mountain with just my wife for company, and am happy with that, so perhaps it was always a part of my nature, but I strongly feel that being chronically ill for a number of years has removed me to a slightly different place, from where I frequently feel that I am not seeing the same world as other people. It comes back to that sense of how we communicate with each other. Is it ever close to the truth? And from where would Orpheus be watching us, were he here?
(TR) On that note, where does Orpheus’ world exist? For most of history the afterworld was perceived as below us, not above. Much of the book takes place in the under land, sometimes in our own world, in underground shelters and in craters left by bombs, and sometimes somewhere else entirely. Were there particular places you were thinking of when you wrote those verses? Are they places you’ve been physically, or states of mind? 
(MS) I think it exists in places that are not accessible to us mortals. He can step in and out of time, and in and out of people, and places. But yes, this is a book about the underworld, which means our unconscious mind as much as the afterlife. As you point out, it makes more sense to the primitive mind to place the afterworld under our feet, in the ground, since that is where bodies end up. The book very much starts in London, and the vast subterranean world there but I hope the reader soon feels the shift to a more metaphorical landscape, of the underworld of the mind, of dreams, fantasies etc.
(TR) That’s interesting – I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I think I read it as Coventry at first, which also has a damaged above-ground and things like honeycomb networks of catacombs below ground. I was fascinated by the connect/disconnect between Harry and Orpheus; it seemed that Harry was completely aware of Orpheus’ existence and connection to himself, and yet he also pushed it out of his mind and tried to cling to his physical existence above ground. 
(MS) Yes, I see why you would have Coventry in mind; that makes sense. But Julian and I rooted the story in London, even locating specific V2 strikes to put into the book, the results of which can be seen to this day. When you know what to look for, for example, a row of Victorian houses with a sudden gap, or modern architectural interruption, you can be fairly sure that’s the location of a bomb site. It must have been an extraordinary time and one wonders what dreams people had during those nights. Have your dreams changed now? Does it come and go? Do you feel there was a you before your illness and your use of morphine, and one after?
(TR) I remember more of my dreams, they seem closer than before too. Dreams have a way of dissolving in daylight, but mine seem now to hover around my head longer. There is definitely a me of ten years ago and a me after 19 operations’ worth of drugs! That scale of damage to bone and muscle is permanent, even when you heal and have learned to walk again, you move differently, your sleep patterns are different and your body gets physically tired more easily. But the drugs too cause permanent damage I think; even when you have recovered you cannot shift the memory of addiction. And opium is a very false friend. Many people when they first have it feel all nice and floaty. But over the longer term it becomes unpredictable. I’d take liquid morphine having no idea whether I’d spend 24 hours in a restful haze, or spend 24 hours shaking and unable to sleep. There were times too when I’d lie there with my body numb and weightless but my mind racing watching an endless tumble of words and images. Even when I haven’t had strong drugs for six months or a year, things still trigger opium-induced experiences occasionally. I had some pretty weird dreams while I was reading this book! I was very wary of writing a ‘review’ of it because I thought my own experience of what it was about might mean nothing at all to anyone else (unless they too have consumed more opiates than Thomas de Quincy!) Large amounts of green in an image or a landscape also still trigger odd experiences. One of the street names for opium during the opium wars was ‘Emerald City’ because it does make the world appear green – rather that everything that is green becomes very vivid emerald green, and the rest of the world sinks into a slightly sepia-tinted black and white photograph. I tried to read Ottoline at Sea by Chris Riddell, which has these green optical illusion pages, I only got a few chapters in and slipped into a very deep sleep-paralysis from which neither my husband nor son could wake me, so I ended up in hospital! I never finished the book (sorry Chris – I’m sure it is fab.)  
1st edition cover design for The Emerald City of Oz, L Frank Baum. The land of Oz is a morphine-fulled dream if ever there was one, as Tamsin has pointed out on twitter.
Oh look, what can those be but poppies, on Dorothy's journey to Emerald City. And where does opium come from..?
(MS): My god, that is extraordinary, to be so physically affected by a book. I’ll come back to that in a bit, but one thing to say is that no one is the person they were 19 years before. Well, I doubt it. I often think about that when writing. You can only write the book that the person who you are today can write. Not the writer you were before, not the writer you will be in a few years’ time. Yet all these people will be there, somewhere in you. It’s a like having a conversation with versions of yourself.
(TR): So that being said, there were three of you working on this: you, your brother Julian, and Alexis Deacon, as well as editors and art directors at Walker. I’m really curious about how written or illustrated dream sequences can be so clearly recognisable and universal, when our dreams are the only place in which we are entirely alone. Like most of your readers, you and I have never met, and yet you can write something in the half-light of a drug and trauma-fuelled dream, and I can tell you about stumbling through my own poppy fields, and somehow we both understand the experiences. So we really cannot assume that the workings of each human mind is sealed off from the rest. Against all logic, there is a universal language and imagery of dreams.
(MS) Well, now, this is the big question, perhaps of my life, certainly of my writing life. I remember an argument I had around thirty years ago with my flatmate’s girlfriend. I argued that we could never truly, really know what anyone else was feeling/thinking, through language. I argued that even by the time one learns to speak, even the simplest word, such as ‘mother’, doesn’t mean exactly the same thing to two people, raised in different families, in different places, in different times. Multiplying the slight difference in meaning for all words in a sentence and we very soon exponentially drift away from the other person’s meaning, of a true understanding. She looked at me like I was mentally ill. Ah well. But this is why writers write. We are essentially very confused people. If we could say what we wanted to in a sentence, we’d just write a sentence. But we can’t, so we stumble towards it in 90,000 words or whatever, and hope we get somewhere close. And yet, and yet, it works, somehow. This is why books and stories exist - the power to jump across the divide from one person to another, from writer to reader, is what underlies it - the imagination and empathy are what enable it. Even between people who might appear to be very different, from different countries or times. It’s a remarkable act of magic, and it's one that, although from good intentions, we are at risk of undermining at the moment, as various parties retreat inside their castles and claim ‘you cannot know my experience’. The fact that writing works proves this is not the case, no matter how imperfectly.
(TR) I agree – and actually rather than creating a divide by writing about other people in other societies, it strikes me (reading what you’ve just written) that this is another reason for the book industry to have more diverse voices and enable people to access more worlds. I think that way we learn our similarities rather than perpetually observe our differences. I think the mistake is in assuming that a class or a race are one thing. To be working class, or to be Moroccan for example, is not one uniform thing. All Moroccans and all people who would identify as working class don’t have the same life experiences or the same views on stuff. They don’t have the same interests, or the same family circumstances either. And of course on top of that, many of us are from mixed race, mixed faith families – so would I be ‘qualified’ to write about Moroccan Jews? I’m half Moroccan but I’ve never been there, it isn’t a culture I was brought up with even though it is my heritage. The world is far more complex than ‘only x can write about x’. I also think that in the book industry we have a huge taboo in talking about quality. We have never found the language to say ‘This book is good, yeah, its ok, you’ll probably quite enjoy it… but THIS book is by a hugely experienced writer, a true master and it is extraordinary.’ So we have debut novelists (and I don’t begrudge anyone a debut) and really accomplished, seasoned and experienced writers, being presented as equals. And as a bookseller that troubles me. If a book is badly researched, patronising and basically total shit, then yes, by all means call that author out for it. But other than that, I think our great writers should be allowed to explore where they will and be allowed to travel freely. 
(MS): I can only say I agree with everything you’ve just said!
(TR). So, why verse? Why did you choose to have those sequences in verse not in prose, and separated, not illustrated? The way that those pages are bordered in the book makes them oddly silent too: air-tight and sound proof. I’m interested in why you chose that form and that presentation. 
(MS) Verse, for many reasons. Practical ones: first, we wanted a companion narrative to the one Julian wrote in diary that would immediately be something different, to the eye as well as the ear. Second, Orpheus didn’t have ‘as much’ to say, technically, narratively, but we wanted his pages to bulk to close to Harry’s pages. Thirdly, I was in a very low period with my illness and couldn’t have written for long periods it would take to write prose of equivalent pages. I could only write in short bursts, and my thinking was very loose and slippy. I tried to let it do what it wanted and let my messed up mind just go where it wanted and that I hope suited the verse, and the dreamlike nature of O’s voice. When I first became ill and found I was losing my mental faculties a little, it was scary. To be a writer and forget even simple words, or to start a sentence and not know what you were saying when you got to the end, or to transpose words, in a sentence, or to forget how to parse sometimes even a simple sentence, things you have known since you were seven, is terrifying. In the end, I have tried to work with these failings, and use them, rather than fight against them, in my writing. I have no choice anyway. 

As for the way they look, that was down to Ben, the wonderful Art Director at Walker. And it was also a function of necessity, of how much art they could afford to pay Alexis to do.
(MS) I wanted to ask you more about the way you see colour. You said the blues in the book are hard to look at sometimes. As I hinted at above, it reminds me of something that Siri Hustvedt talks about in her memoir of a mysterious, undiagnosed, illness, The Shaking Woman, where she explains how certain colours cause her physical pain to look at. Since and maybe even before she became ill, she finds certain colours (green I think) almost impossible to look at, as if in some synaesthetic way the colour is tied to physical unease or pain. How is it for you?
(TR) I think like music, colour is important to some people and less so to others. I love colour; I want to wear colour and I really appreciate beautiful colours. Colour is so important in my life. I notice that as a bookseller I rush to the books in which the illustrator is a wonderful colourist. Whenever I look at James Mayhew, Brita Teckentrup, or the O’Hara sisters’ work, my heart sings. There are other illustrators who use colour but just don’t seem to understand it in the same way that I think someone like James Mayhew understands it; and I don’t think this is a subjective thing because colour is a discipline and a science. We have many great illustrators working today, but very few who I would call great colourists. But green has caused me huge problems – I can only suppose that this is common neurological damage caused by opium alkaloids. It is obviously universal enough for the drug to be nicknamed Emerald City. Normally we associate green with peacefulness and well-being, but it is also quite an aggressive and very intrusive colour, it reaches out for you and assaults you – it is a life force, and urgent sort of colour that demands attention and engulfs you. I think that what is eerie in Alexis’ images is the very refined colour palate; it reminds me of the world through opium-tinted glasses, which is all green and in which no other colour exists. But that fits the book and all its themes perfectly. And if it was green, rather than blue, of course I would probably have only got a few chapters in..!
The Firebird painted by James Mayhew. Tamsin is exactly right about his use of colour.
(MS) I don't have these issues with the perception of colour, but I am reminded by your description of the force of green of John Boorman's The Emerald Forest and perhaps even more by various sequences in his Excalibur where green has an unsettling power. That's a film about conflict, so maybe it's time we talked about war...
Nigel Terry as Arthur in John Boorman's Excalibur
Nigel Terry as Arthur in John Boorman's Excalibur, 1981, which contains various scenes of shimmering greens.
(TR) Yes, war. This story unfolds against a backdrop of war and destruction on a global scale. And yet it is in essence about the small world of an intricate relationship between two brothers. War is an odd state. I found the short time I worked in the MoD extremely difficult, all around me were people who needed to see and be part of conflict. And they were idolising great War leaders of the past, Field Marshall Allanbrooke stands guard outside; and there is definitely still an element of the ‘glory of war’ in our language and imagery even though we know perfectly well the full horror. I wondered if you felt that there is something about catastrophic conflict that is as addictive to humans as opium. Much of the world’s great art and literature has been born out of war and violence. We talk the talk of wanting peace but actually I think conflict fascinates us. 
(MS) Reading work on trauma by modern pioneers such as Bessel van der Kolk, it seems that people who have been traumatized by war can only often feel alive again by repeating the traumatic experience, or a proxy of it at least. If you have read and believe in generational experience, in how we pass, through epigenetics and societal/family language, our trauma down to the future, then it seems obvious that we will need many generations of peace before we can all leave that trauma behind, and with it, the need to discuss war, to play fight, to create art about it, and so on. I was in two minds about writing about war again (after The Foreshadowing and WW1) I felt horribly the pornographic appeal we use and feel when writing about war. Yet what are we meant to do? We have to write about things that grip us. The way we seem to need to transfer warfare into all aspects of life is quite another thing - I read this week an article that proves what many of us have felt about the ‘war on cancer’ motif - that it is potentially damaging, and actually makes it harder for some to recover, makes it more scary, and so on. It also makes it the ‘weakness’ of the victim if they are unable to ‘beat’ ‘their disease’, something I have come to feel very strongly about since I am unable to even name, let alone beat the disease that I have. Is it my fault? For being too weak? Some doctors would let you think so.

I did not need a metaphor,
for what I saw was this:
a weed. Just a weed,
pushing its way through piles of broken bricks, and then I knew that yes, perhaps,
we are making a new world; and when we’re done,
– nature will make a gentler one.


Copyright © 2019 Marcus Sedgwick, All rights reserved.

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