Life as a Daughter, a Mother and a Writer
Clover Stroud is a writer and journalist writing for the Daily Mail, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph and Conde Nast Traveller, among others. She lives in Oxfordshire with her husband and five children.
Her memoir, The Wild Other, describes how her idyllic childhood in rural England was shattered when a horrific riding accident left her mother permanently brain-damaged. Just sixteen, she embarked on a journey to find the sense of home that had been so savagely broken. Travelling from gypsy camps in Ireland, to the rodeos of west Texas and then to Russia's war-torn Caucasus, Clover eventually found her way back to England's lyrical Vale of the White Horse.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Clover introduces her book and writes about life as a daughter, a mother and a writer.
Author photo © Paul Clarke
As I pulled the dressing-up box apart, dumping a yellow sequined mini-dress I’d last seen somewhere in the late 1990s beside a pink crushed velvet dress I’d worn at a teenage party, it struck me that I’d been creating last minute costumes for World Book Day for over a decade and a half. By the time my youngest son Lester, who is 8 months old, is doing his GCSEs I’ll have been doing it for almost three decades. At the most recent World Book Day I tried to turn out my four-year-old daughter as Little Bow Peep, an outfit redeemed by a Victorian nightdress hidden at the bottom of the dressing up box and toy sheep I found under Lester’s cot. The last-minute scramble reminded me of trying to dress my now 16 year old as his favourite book character, well over a decade ago. I’ve rarely felt so grateful to any of my children as I did when he explained that no, I didn’t need to stay up until midnight making an elaborate costume, as instead he’d go as Wee Willy Winky, dressed in his sister’s nightdress carrying an enamel candle holder he’d found in the kitchen. I admire his spirit.
There are 16 years between my eldest and youngest child, Jimmy and his youngest brother, Lester, and they bookend Dolly, 13, Evangeline, 4 and Dash, 2. With such a huge age range, it sometimes feels like I’m mothering them twenty four hours a day, since the teenagers give the baby a run for his money when it comes to sleepless nights. Combining nappy rash and breastfeeding with the sometimes white-knuckle ride of being a mother to adolescents is dizzying, exhausting, occasionally completely deranging, and usually delightful, too.
I would not have it any other way. I know that Lester will be my final baby, but his birth last summer brought a rush of sunny optimism into my life. It’s funny because his birth also coincided with another birth. A week before Lester was born, in the heat of July last summer, while 40 weeks pregnant I typed the final line of my memoir, The Wild Other. The birth of a book is often compared to the birth of a baby, and there are certainly parallels in the long labour of love followed by the exhilarating introduction into the world.
Writing while heavily pregnant was occasionally nerve wracking, as there’s nothing like impending childbirth to impose a very real deadline it’s impossible to wriggle out of, but it was exciting too. Perhaps it was appropriate I was so consumed by my role as a mother while creating the book, since the theme of motherhood is something I wrote about, although it’s also about horses and landscape, and coming to terms with grief and sadness. It’s a book about living too, and the life of the emotions: lust, envy, anger, regret, love, pain. Mum’s accident happened when I was 16, and I’m now 41, but it’s something that’s changed the colour and texture of my entire life since then.
This accident inspired me to write The Wild Other. I was 16 when it happened, in the first term of my A-levels, and was an event so brutal and shocking that in the space of a single day my very happy, loving, secure childhood was over. I grew up in the country, and we had a picture perfect life framed by ponies and the endless freedom they gave me. I’m the youngest of five children, and I adored my mother. Her love was luminescent but the accident switched that love off, like a room suddenly plunged into darkness. Like any other morning, Mum had dropped me at school, then gone riding. But that morning was different, because her horse slipped on a strip of concrete hidden in the grass where she was riding, and she took the full impact of the blow on her head. She sustained terrible brain damage, and was in a coma for over three months. When she slowly woke up, it was clear the life we’d had before was completely destroyed. She could not care for herself at all, and had developed complex medical needs, like epilepsy and eczema covering her whole body. Most devastating was the fact she could not communicate at all. She couldn’t speak or write, or sign her most basic needs, like hunger or cold. We tried to look after her at home for two years, but it became clear her medical needs were too intense for us to nurse her, and when I was 18 my father sold our family home and Mum moved into full time nursing care. She existed in a nether world, suspended between life and death for 22 years, until she died in 2013.
Mum’s accident left me in a state of suspended grief, too. I could not mourn a person who was still alive, and yet the mother I had known had vanished. Her love had dazzled, and losing her love was like walking around with a dagger in my heart which I could never pull out. It was agony that never ended.
But rather than retreat from danger, or give up riding, I moved towards the painful place that horses had taken me. I very consciously embraced the danger represented by the horses that had destroyed Mum’s life, and mine too. My first job as a teenager after the accident was galloping racehorses for a trainer, and afterwards I moved to Ireland, travelling across the country in a horse-drawn wagon, buying and selling horses from gypsies. I liked riding at night, the landscape around me flooded with moonlight, and I was never scared of falling off. Straight after university I went to America, talking my way onto a ranch near the Mexican border in Texas, riding bucking horses and learning how to rope and brand. I lived energetically and expansively, having two children in my mid- twenties as soon as I came back from America, then quickly divorcing when the marriage went wrong. I craved strong motion and extreme experience, using my career as a journalist as a passport around the world. For a while I had a lover in the Caucasus mountains, near Chechnya. He was a horseman, of course, and we would ride into the peaks of the high Caucasus together, snow around us, to do pistol practice in the mountains. For two years I lived with half my heart there with him, and half with my young children in Oxford. I craved danger and strong motion; being in the mountains in Russia make my palms prickle with adrenalin, but that felt good, too. Pain felt good, since I found consolation in the fact that it was a strong feeling. Most of all, I wanted to feel alive.
But all this adventure and danger was foreshadowed by my experience of being a mother. As a single mother to two small children in my late twenties, I knew the responsibility that comes with being a parent at a time when most of my friends were a decade off having children. My children were my world, and I felt an atavistic, passionate connection to them.
Now, having remarried and had three more children, we are a gang of seven, which sometimes feels like a huge number. Being a mother of five children is messy, chaotic, very noisy, sometimes stressful, but mostly completely life enhancing, too. Sometimes I have to fight to fit my life as a writer in amongst the demands of the children, but the hours I spend at my desk every day also give me snatched moments of a life that’s completely separate from my family, something I crave, since it means I can stop being Mum for a few hours, and escape into worlds of my own making, which exist in that alchemical place between my mind, my fingers on the keyboard and the screen in front of me.
It’s the same sensation, in fact, I get when I sit on a horse. Once a week, I leave the house to go to the downs nearby to gallop a racehorse along the Ridgeway. It’s exhilarating, exhausting, thrilling, and as the ground rushes past me I feel like I’m galloping through a portal into another world, where time exists only in the moment, and lamentations of past mistakes, or fears for the future, cannot catch me.