If there is an afterwards. The trouble with mental conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is that the majority of people have never experienced it and I do think coming secondhand to these things is difficult. How could you imagine any of the huge experiences in life if you have never come through them? How does any writer ever cope with stuff like childbirth, grief, sex? Yet our experience of such things is always unique.
I have used all my experience in my books and yes, secondhand and with observation many other people's experience too and I suppose that's what I writer does and that's what makes it so exhausting.
So should I be sorry for all the things I have gone through? How could I be when hopefully it changes and enriches my writing but the cost has been huge and almost killed me.
My agent said that one of the men in Nobody's Child, my book which is out at the moment is good. He has come back from the first world war with PTSD, of course it wasn't called such at the beginning but the reason that I write about it with confidence is that I've been through it. I know what's like when you cannot walk downstairs, when you look up at staircases and think you can never go up them, when your bed is the only place you feel safe, when the world is huge and full of terrors and you have panic attacks even in your own home which you thought was your defence against the world.
I know what it's like when your physical symptoms agonise you night and day and where the only place you feel anything positive is in your dreams. And that isn't necessarily typical. Many people have no refuge in their dreams.
In my new book The Guardian Angel the main bloke in it ( I hate the word hero) he's just an ordinary kid when he goes to prison for fighting with and inadvertently killing another lad or was it inadvertent, since he hated him? The reader is left to decide which I think is only fair. Being born under the sign of Libra, even though I claim to hate such daft ideas, I have a balanced view or like to think I do of life.
I didn't know when I began writing that he was going to be a convict, I didn't know there would be a series of letters between Zeb and Alice, who owns the sweetshop in Stanhope. It was only when I read about what prison life was like then and it was so horrific ( this is in 1855 ) that I actually had to water it down to get what I wanted which was the idea that this man could actually start again.
Up to now I haven't been in prison, except two visits to launch books of somebody else and this was women in prison but I have no doubt that it is still a horrific experience. Back then people were hanged, transported, starved, beaten and died and nobody seemed to care very much.
Durham prison is just up the road from me so I used what I read from there and it was so awful that I couldn't imagine people doing such things to others. They still do of course, we live in a stone age, no matter how we believe that we are civilised. We abuse one another, kill one another, steal in all kinds of ways.
Hundreds of millions of people have no clean water. The most basic of human rights I would have thought. We lived in a ghastly horrible place in a ghastly horrible mess.
Writers try to interpret this. I found it very difficult writing about Zeb and his prison experience, what was left of him as a human being when he got out. He didn't understand freedom, he had forgotten kindness. He was only alive because he was very young when he went in. You can say what you like about fortitude in such instances but it's sheer bloody genes which ensures most things and so he came out alive but a mere scrap of a human being.
He is saved by other people and mostly by Alice Lee, the sweetshop owner, who is a decent woman among all the idiots around her. If it hadn't been for Alice Zeb would have chucked himself in the river and the river is so convenient in Durham.
He leaves behind him his friend, Eli, the rat and as Zeb says later, 'Rats are better than men.' Eli in some ways is the best person in book. He doesn't betray anybody, he doesn't kill anybody, he would steal bread if he had to but Zeb shares. When I think about this book I think about Eli, sharing Zeb's bed in a tiny prison sell, and listening when Zeb pours out his woes. Eli sits there polishing his whiskers, no doubt grateful not to be a ghastly shitty little person as we all are.