Tuesday, 10 August 2010

What to look for in winter

In the opening pages of What to Look for in Winter, Candia McWilliam summarises her state of being as she embarks on  the memoir that marks her  first substantial work for 16 years.  She is,  writes McWilliam, six foot tall and afraid of short people.  She is a Scot and an alcoholic.  There is nothing wrong with her eyes, but she is blind. She cannot lose her temper, though circumstances are contriving to make her mad. She exudes marriedness, but she is alone.

So  begins  one of the most extraordinary literary autobiographies of this or any other year.  It opens  amid the author’s sudden and inexplicable blindness, but stretches back into a meditation on her life, a trawl through sadness  via her mother’s suicide, into the alcoholism and  chaos that McWilliam  herself brought  down on two failed marriages.

After periods of despair and near-madness it ends, against all odds,  in a kind of triumph.  Vision has returned – she is no longer dictating to her secretary but writing again for herself, eyes wide open.  McWilliam, still racked by doubt and scarcely-concealed self-loathing,  thankfully remains a large presence among us.

The  story of her recent past is distressing.  In 2006, soon after she was selected as one of the judges of the Booker prize, the author was struck down by blepharospasm, a rare condition brought on by a fault in the brain, that causes the eyelids to close over otherwise healthy eyes.  It was, she thought, untreatable; indeed 20 years ago, sufferers, usually women, were often sectioned under the mental health act and confined for the remainder of their days.

Appalled by  the affect of her illness. McWilliam became “a fat ghost”, an inconvenience,  she thought,  to her family and hid  herself away.  “I look odd and slow and vulnerable,” she writes. “I creep along and hold my eyes up in their itching sockets as people hold spilling glasses of drink above a throng, as though the drinks with their precious realised meniscuses are threatened...  [I]  make involuntary noises and pre-emptive twitches  and sallies with my head, which aches even by the end of a morning as if weighed with lead beans at the back.”

It is her disability, the thing that might have ended her career as a novelist, that paradoxically becomes transforming.  In blindness, McWiliam begins writing again, turning her mind’s eye on to the past, determined to see the truth of her life.  

The revelations are almost unbearably painful and from the beginning we see how her parents failing marriage teed up her own despair.   In a very prim Edinburgh, her father was an inspector of historic buildings, a distant figure, while her mother,  a housewife,  was glamorous,  intelligent, frustrated, lonely and, in the end, just too sad.   

One morning when she was about eight years old, McWilliam awoke to find “mummy”  lying dead beside her in bed: “She had sewn me a pink pillow with grey kittens and pussy willow branches on it to help combat my nightmares ... I do not recall whether her head rested on this pillow at the end.”
Beyond the burden of guilt laid down on the young child, Margaret McWilliam’s death inevitably reordered her daughter’s life.  Her husband re-married; Candia was sent away to a school , and slowly began to assemble the cat’s cradle of  friends, family and step family, that would  provide a safety net when life later threatened to overwhelm her.

Her vulnerability will surprise readers who remember  the impact of her 1989 debut novel, A Case of Knives. McWilliam arrived on the scene young, beautiful and articulate, but even while she was being photographed for the gossip  columns, she  was already plumbing despair.

Her craving for alcohol hardly ceased, from the first taste of advocaat, drunk after a church service.   By the time she had sunk two marriage, and removed herself from her three children, she would down anything, “household cleaners, disinfectant, a substance called Easy-Iron that lends smoothness to laundry, but it is not a smooth drink.”

The book is not  irredeemably black, far from it.   McWilliam is   “a sardonic introvert”, she loves laughter and tumbles out vivid detail in her reminiscences.  Terence Mitchison – a relation of Naomi Mitchison, the author – was McWilliam’s first proper boyfriend. Terence “breathed jokes” and sent them to her colour-coded, brown for medieval jokes, green for rural jokes, pink for jokes to do with empire – “and so on”, through  the colours of the rainbow.   After the relationship cooled, the pair were friends enough to share a barge on the Brecon Beacons canal, where Terence “embroidered his admiral’s cap with the barge’s name, Samuel Whiskers.”

It was through Mitchison she met  Anthony Appiah, the grandson of Sir Stafford Cripps, and nephew of the Queen of Ashanti.  She found herself “building sandcastles with the right-wing philosopher John Casey”  and was “introduced to green Chartreuse by the composer Robin Holloway”. She  played piano duets with Roger Scruton.  For good measure, David Watkin, the architectural historian, taught her to dance the galope.

As she assembled tales like these, McWilliam found the humour, the shafts of light, that must have lightened her darkest moods. Then, after an article about her physical blindness was published in The Times in 2008, she was recommended to a surgeon who had developed a treatment for blepharospasm. Within a matter of weeks, she began the painful, invasive surgery which literally pulled her eyes open for ever more. At the end of What to Look for In Winter the light is pouring in.

McWilliam, still just 55, has led a life of extraordinary richness, that for all her self-destructiveness, remains full of love. The final page of the book movingly acknowledges those people who have been closest and cared for her most. It concludes with a line from Milton, blind and mourning his dead wife: “I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.” For a sardonic introvert, this counts as a happy ending.

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