Jack Mckeever interviews author William Blyghton about his debut novel, The House by the Marsh
William Blyghton’s debut novel, The House by the Marsh, is not only a profound exploration of ageing and the experiences that one gains in the process, it’s ultimately an analysis of acceptance of the human condition. Blyghton is a man who delights in writing, but also in the opportunity to explore the almost taboo subjects of death, loneliness, old age and relationships. Despite this subject matter, in his responses it’s his humble but assured reasoning which comes to light – approachable but always reflective, strong but never severe – and thus, the deeper musings within his novel suddenly seem warmer and more relatable.
One of the most philosophical and candid themes running throughout The House by the Marsh is the sense of and adaption to loneliness by its central character, William. One of the most important distinctions to make between those forms is that of ‘loneliness’ and ‘being alone’. “There is loneliness and there is solitude. Some people choose solitude, but few choose loneliness, which carries with it the sense of unwanted isolation and abandonment,” says Blyghton. “And loneliness is not simply being alone. We are all alone, we are born alone, we die alone and at times we simply are alone even in the midst of others. But for most of the time, we are ‘alone with’, which is to say that we are always moving towards and away from others, and it seems that we need both – being with and being alone.”
Some people choose solitude, but few, choose loneliness.
The phrase that William uses as the foundation for his exploration of loneliness is that it is ‘a frightening chasm’, a chasm that induces the all too familiar concept of ‘a small madness’ that those who have lost loved ones often experience. Grief, in this respect, is still treated as something of a taboo subject – just as madness is – but in Blyghton’s view, it’s the insatiable search for happiness that makes it so hard for humans to approach both the subject of death and grief.
Blyghton relates this to current healthcare discussions in the UK, and the epidemic of loneliness experienced by elderly people and highlighted by the media in recent years. “Our loved ones are sent to hospital to die, and as a consequence, each year, thousands of people die alone, without family or friends beside them,” he says. “We assume that the ‘professionals’ will take care of them, but how can they? Their task is to keep people alive not to companion them in dying, and anyway they are stretched too thin.”
If death and loneliness put a measurable strain on society and individuals, then it is perhaps our cultural unwillingness to examine what it is to die, or be alone, that adds to those pressures. “We do not want to be contaminated by someone else’s grief,” says Blyghton. “’It’ll get better’, we say. But it doesn’t. And why should it? When you lose someone you love, they remain lost. The task is not to get over it but to find a place for it.”
When you lose someone you love, they remain lost. The task is not to get over it but to find a place for it.
It’s through William that Blyghton portrays vividly the notion of one becoming at relative ease with their situation following a loss. Although William never truly recovers from the impact of both his sister and wife’s deaths, in time notions of companionship shapeshift and become refreshing to him again. “After hiding away, he sees Jennifer and wants to love her – no, needs to love her – and be loved again. Just that. Of course, it’s a fantasy. And then it passes William finds something much more wonderful; deep friendship, loving kindness, sweet companionship.”
In an interview with the Guardian in 2014, John Cacioppo, a psychologist and neuroscientist based at the University of Chicago, proposed that a retiree settling down away from their family and loved ones will find loneliness inevitable. Conversely, in The House by the Marsh, protagonist William finds some sort of solace in the village to which he moves, despite the fact he became further removed from his children. I asked him how much of an impact he thinks this distance has on William in the novel, and whether having his family nearer would have helped curtail the loneliness?
“William’s loneliness was inside him, deep rooted, and it would not have mattered if his children had been close by or far away. He would still have had to cope with it – as he had always done in his life,” says Blyghton. “For William, the deep wound is not loneliness itself, but ‘anxiety,’ the fear that if he finds love it will be taken from him. Because of this, he keeps himself somewhat apart, even from his children, until Mary brings him love that is so simple he can ‘accept’ it. And it is only towards the end of his life, when he is forced to abandon himself – the final act of abandonment – that he finds this.”
In the novel, amidst an evident concern for the implications of Brexit and looming (somewhat uncontrollable) climate change, William seems to believe that future generations will have an interdependence and grasp of togetherness like none that have come before them. Does Blyghton himself have any hope?
“I notice that young people choose ‘being with’, collaboration, sharing, being in touch. I notice that some at least have aspirations that require that they be part of something, perhaps to ‘make a difference’. Almost certainly, the difficulties that they will have to face up to will require collaborative action across boundaries, either to find solutions or to care for each other in catastrophe. Raw competition is unsuited for this. Finding how to care and how to ‘be with’ is essential.”
Happiness is insatiable and requires feeding, but sorrow is humble and requires only acceptance.
I close the interview by drawing on Blyghton’s assertion in the novel that ‘Happiness is insatiable and requires feeding, but sorrow is humble and requires only acceptance’, and ask whether the acceptance of sorrow is itself a gateway to happiness. Blyghton’s answer is characteristically poetic and poignant. “That’s right. You’ve got it. Acceptance is the door to understanding and equanimity. Happiness, in the form that we now express it is caught up with ‘having,’ which is why it is insatiable. It sets us apart. Sorrow is full of compassion for oneself and for others. It brings us together. It allows Love to speak.”
Jack Mckeever is a journalist and blogger.