Paul Cheney: How close did you feel to Bach when following in his footsteps?
Horatio Clare: Intrigued at the outset, if somewhat distant. Absolutely right next to him at the end. He went from being a fleshy, slightly chopsy fellow in a painting to a young man, vigorous, hungry for action, drink, sex and music – the kind of writer, at a certain stage, any of us might recognise.
PC: You had companions on the walk, do you think walking alone would have given you a different perspective on Bach’s journey?
HC: Unquestionably. You might get a lot closer to his spirit (assuming it still walks the earth, sometimes!) but you would be much further from his work, from his time. One of my companions was Richard Andrews, one of those artist-crafts people you sometimes find in Broadcasting House, making the finest-sounding radio in the world, among other things. The other, our chief, was the producer Lindsay Kemp, who, given his expertise, personal passion for the subject and the period’s music, his huge erudition and scholarship and his engagement with the routes and towns of the walk, must be one of the world’s leading experts in this time and these places of Bach’s life. I doubt I would have made much of a fist of it without Lindsay’s help, prompting and ideas. I am not a musician: Richard is an astonishingly accomplished one; Lindsay one of that tiny corps, whom I had never met before – Radio 3 music producers. It was like walking with the SAS of music, history and technology. Sometimes I felt Bach’s presence alongside us, listening to the jokes and the speculation, and laughing when Lindsay got us lost.
PC: Do you think that the landscape has changed much in the years since Bach walked it and you followed?
HC: In its contours barely at all. The shapes of the Harz mountains must be the same, and the long horizons, and the low heaves and undulations of what are now great agribusiness fields were all there in J.S. Bach’s time, much more wooded. The wide forests and deep woodlands he saw we saw in fragments. We found maturing oak trees he almost certainly walked under. But his landscape, in the long aftermath of the 30 years war, had been depopulated by conflict and plague, the woods less managed and engaged with than they had been (than they needed to be, for the locals’ sake); it was a constellation of Duchies and outposts both splintered and twinkling, the late afternoon of the Holy Roman Empire. This was 1705. A century later comes Napoleon and everything is changed. And of course we have done away with a lot of the hedges and whacked up a great many mighty wind turbines. The programme you really want to hear and read about is J.S. Bach’s walk in our footsteps in 2019! I think he would have been delighted, amazed and a little terrified.
PC: How different is the German countryside to the British countryside?
HC: In its small parts, the kind of ten square mile lens of land you can see and feel when you walk, very similar. There are surely parts of Lincolnshire, Gloucestershire, Rutland and even South Wales you could pull together to replicate Bach’s terrain. But the great beech woods, the sandy soils, the very high wide skies, the relative absence of aeroplanes and, on our route, large roads (or rather the ease with which you can escape roads and their noise) is quite different there. Germany is the America of Europe. Although Britain has a lot more birds species, Germany is much, much bigger. You can feel the space everywhere and see it: back gardens, rooms, the gaps between towns are all bigger. I do love Germany.
PC: Winter is obviously your toughest season, but what season do you look forward to the most?
HC: Oh great question! Thank you! Well, mum says however you feel about any of them you always find you are ready for the next season when it comes. I get that, though she is such an observer and so sewn into the rhythms of nature that she sees changes and onsets before anyone except her neighbours – all sheep farmers. I adore September and October. The Ethiopians, on the Julian calendar, have an extra month, Pagume, between August and September. The Little Summer of St Martin, where we are now (Nov 11), Indian summer, the festive period at the start of November (All Souls and the Days of the Dead) are all intoxicating times – such colours, such smells. The merry month of May is my other particular favourite. Shakespeare has a line about the uncertain glories of an April day – by May they are brightening into certainty, and I love them. But really, the truth is, just give me eternal summer…
PC: Do you have the same deep-rooted fear of this approaching winter that you had last time?
HC: No. I have a prickle of furtive apprehension, but I am not dwelling on it. Staying busy really helps.
PC: More importantly, do you have the treatments that will help you now?
HC: This sort of conversation is amazingly helpful. The book has put me in a position of quiet but public therapy – I am having many DM conversations and tweeted exchanges with people who are around the same place, or in much harder places than I am. It’s deeply moving and certainly very therapeutic. Helping each other humans can get through anything, as we know. But yes, I am taking vitamin B complex daily; I am consciously running hard for trains, carrying bags, knowing I need to keep exercise going. I am eating a lot more vegan and vegetarian food – I don’t know if it helps, but I like it, and oily fish and omega threes will be the next thing. And vitamin D is my secret weapon. Not deployed yet, but soon. Also a friend showed me a lamp that you can switch to a bright lightbox type lamp – not expensive at John Lewis, he said, so I am thinking about that…
PC: What advice would give to those facing similar demons as you this winter approaches?
HC: Everything I outline above is thought to help – statistically, it does work. Alongside that you may need counselling. The NHS can help but they need a long lead time. They would much rather you booked in now for Feb/March (when you might really need it) than turn up then, feeling suicidal, and be told the wait was six weeks.
PC: Can you suggest ways of using the natural world that others can try in beating Seasonal Affected Disorder?
HC: Get a good coat, good shoes, or whatever you use in winter, defo a soft scarf, and something for your head – hat, hood, bandana. Don’t put everything on at the start, necessarily. The Royal Marines, going for a yomp, say ‘start cold’ (you’re going to warm up) and however horrid it looks out there, get into it, every day, a mile or even half a mile (I am very lazy). Go slow enough that you don’t miss a bird or a squirrel. Spot things. Look at the clouds – how many different skies the British horizons can incorporate at once, when the weather is changeable. You will feel better – physically immediately, mentally soon, even if not for long. It works.
PC: As Matt Haig says, we need people who we are near to who are totally non-judgemental. Apart from Rebecca, do you have others that you can turn to at your most vulnerable times?
HC: I am 45. I have a dumb phone – smartphones are the enemy of happiness – and a laptop. In all of my decades I have made friends I can turn to, but when the walls come in there are certain people – on our street, in town (Hebden) in London, San Francisco, Edinburgh, Liverpool and online (one, Kartika Panwar, I have never actually met) who I can always, always talk to. I thank God for them.
PC: Do you have a location near where you live that you can go to in your darkest moments that brings peace?
HC: Anywhere on the moors is terrific, whatever the weather. The Packhorse (formerly The Ridge, opened in 1610) up by Widdop reservoir and Walshaw Moor is a banker. The road over Blackstone Edge is wonderful (my mum says the landscape there looks like a section of the border between Iran and Turkey! And she should know) and anywhere and everywhere in Wales, my heart’s home.
PC: How does that particular place help you?
HC: Well the obvious place is the Cwmdu valley, where I come from. It reminds me that I grew up in the most beautiful place in the world, that it will always be part of me, and if I have the luck to be buried there, then I will always be part of it. Unfortunately, I am a travel writer, so burial at sea, consumption by hippopotamus or scattered through a plane-wreck are all possibilities, but we live in hope.
PC: Has the process of writing this book helped in the healing process?
HC: Hugely. In more ways than I can say.
PC: How are you health wise now?
HC: For a smoker and a drinker, absolutely tip-top! Thank you for asking. I am running around a lot at the moment, which is terrific. I rarely if ever get depressed in Wales because I help with the farm. If you’re in action you’re less in your own head.
PC: You have written all sorts of different genres of books, but what genre do you prefer writing in?
HC: Travel is hard to beat, but I love dialogue and character, and jokes above all, so when a children’s book is going well that’s a hard feeling to beat.
PC: Is the editing process different with Little Toller and Elliot & Thompson?
HC: Not really.
PC: Did you write both books together, or were they written at different times?
HC: They are a series of two, Bach recording a week of last autumn and The Light in the Dark the months before and after. I wrote them more or less at the same time.
PC: Do you have a favourite place to write?
HC: No! I am sitting on the concourse at Manchester Piccadilly as I write this – a good bench and lots going on around me. It really doesn’t matter – though my absolute favourite is in the back of a Land Cruiser, stopped, ideally somewhere like Madagascar, waiting for a ferry or the tide to fall – and you’re writing in a good notebook with a friendly pen. That rocks.
PC: Do you have another book (or should I perhaps say books) in the pipeline?
HC: Three. A children’s book, Aubrey and the Terrible Spiders, third of a trilogy. A book of monologues by figures from the myth and history of Pembrokeshire castles, and a big bang of a travel book, which I am not going to tell you about!
PC: Which author(s) do you turn to for inspiration?
HC: A.A. Gill, Jan Morris. Zadie Smith. Auden. Macneice, Gunn, Coleridge, Shelley, Dylan and R S Thomas, Niall Griffiths, Rob the Macfarlane, Sarah Hall – god, she’s amazing – Joan Didion. I could go on… and on…
PC: If you were to recommend three books, what would they be?
HC: A.A. Gill is Away by A.A. Gill, Quite Early One Morning: Radio Scripts by Dylan Thomas and Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion.
PC: What book are you currently reading?
HC: Battleship Yamato: Of War, Beauty and Irony by Jan Morris.
This interview was first published on the NB Magazine website