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Review: Heavy Light is a bravely brilliant and brilliantly brave book

14 Mar 2021 5 minute read
Heavy Light

Jon Gower

When the writer Horatio Clare was sectioned for his own safety in a hospital ward in Wakefield it was a staging post perhaps prefigured on a journey familiar to his many readers who have charted the highs and lows of his mental health.  Clare is a ferociously gifted writer who wears his heart on this sleeve and uses the pulsing stuff of his peregrinating life as source material. So the autobiographical Truant chronicled with typical verbal vim and vigour the effects of cannabis on him and his wide circle of friends while The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal shone a torch on the subject of seasonal depression.  That doesn’t make this account of his careering behaviour and crashing mental states any easier to read, especially when the details are presented in such forensic detail and we see the legion tolls his mania took on his family.

On a holiday in the Italian Alps he checks the hotel basement for bombs and registers secret signals from fellow guests, whom he believes to actually be a nest of imagined soldiers and spies all involved in a big global machine in which Clare is a crucial cog. Meanwhile his partner Rebecca does her best to keeps things calm and Horatio out of jail.

When they arrive back in Yorkshire he is assessed in hospital before spending a manic Christmas at one remove from his family, trying to reduce his intake of drugs and drink. The crisis team meant to help him let him down and eventually the Halifax and Calder Valley police have to intervene and do so with a workaday compassion. In the secure ward he confronts his situation with the steeliness of properly examining a locked door.


“But I needed this breakdown. I have lived lies and dissatisfactions and worries for years.  I am glad I broke down, cracked up and lost it.  Thank God really.  It was probably this or death.”

At just about the same time Horatio was sectioned the same thing happened to my brother, Alun, and I found myself reading reports about the place where he was held, aghast at the relative ease with which inmates could avail themselves of ligatures, despite all precautions.  Therefore some of this world is known to me, too painfully so, but that’s from the outside looking in, often with a sense of paralysing hopelessness. Clare, on the other hand has seen it from the inside, listening to the day long soundtrack of pool balls clacking in a place where doling out the pills seems to be the easy option and one taken all too often.  Clare rails against this, vowing not to be zombified by Lithium, even weaning himself off the aripiprazole he’s been prescribed and then studiously lying about it.

It’s a book of two halves. The first is disarmingly personal and painful to read, as, for instance, we witness the hospital regime of having someone shine  a light in your eyes once an hour throughout the night to make sure you’re still alive. We meet Jason, tormented by his sex drive and Zack ‘a thin, bowed figure like a goblin from the background of a Giotto’ who has a masturbation compulsion.  Then there is the menacing Big Man and his Sidekick Boy as well as former boxer Alan, in his sixties, who took too much speed. Some of the inmates leave after 28 days but others, ‘head bent under the yellow light’ ‘will be here, doing this, feeling this way, a year from now.’ Many of them have the real killer feeling that ‘there is no way back to normality for us. There is only a treacherous chemical bridge to a facismile of it in the future.’


The second half of Heavy Light is a serious investigation of the system, as Clare visits cash-strapped town halls and sees how austerity contributes to the gathering storm of mental health need. He sees the conflict between the Mental Health Act and Human Rights legislation and tells us that the NHS spent £ 12.2 billion on mental health in 2018-19, or more than the gross domestic products of at least seventy developing countries.  He meets a poet who suggests that a manic high can be seen as a creative state and Brexiteer MP Andrea Jenkyns whose cronyist answer to how politicians can help deal with the mental health pandemic is simply have tea with the minister. Most intriguingly, and importantly Clare explores new treatments that avoid the grip of big pharma, from simply deprescribing to something called Open Dialogue which uses drugs as a last resort and reports stunning results, up ‘to ten times better than those of conventional, drug-based psychiatry.’

Towards the end of the book Clare suggests that ‘The person I am and will be was partly made and remade in Wakefield. Even years hence this ward will be part of me.  Some part of me will never quite leave it, will never quite want to leave it, perhaps.’

Just as George Orwell’s time in destitution exposed poverty when he was Down and Out in London and Paris so too does Horatio Clare’s bravely brilliant and brilliantly brave book expose the failings of the mental health system, even as it intimates hope. In this it reminds one of a very different book, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring which not only showed the problem of pesticides but acted as a clarion call, a wake up shout, as it suggested how we might, with the right resolve, just about save the situation.  Hopefully the shining of a Heavy Light might do the same.

You can buy Heavy Light here. 

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