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Charlie Gilmour on fatherhood and the cost of writing a memoir

Charlie Gilmour on fatherhood and the cost of writing a memoir

Elizabeth Oldfield speaks to journalist and memoirist Charlie Gilmour. 13/04/2022

Charlie is a journalist and a critically acclaimed memoirist. His memoir, ‘Featherhood’ won all manner of awards. Charlie is the adopted son of David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and Polly Samson, who’s also a writer. Charlie was famously arrested and imprisoned after being photographed swinging from the Cenotaph during the student protests in 2010. His memoir covers his time in prison, his attempts to reconnect with his biological father and his strange and beautiful relationship with an adopted magpie.  

In this episode Charlie speaks about whether it is possible to have an ethical memoir, what we are doing when we consume true stories in society, and what that means for the ways we engage with each other across our differences.

 

 

 You can read a full transcript here:

Elizabeth 

Hello and welcome to a brand new series of The Sacred. I’m Elizabeth Oldfield, and this is a podcast about our deepest values, the stories that shape us, and how we can engage more humanly and fruitfully across our differences. Coming up in this series, we have an amazing roster of guests – I really do love this job. You’ll be able to hear Conservative MP Danny Kruger, nurse and writer Christie Watson, business leader and co–chair of the B corp movement in the UK James Perry, novelist Jenn Ashworth, theare critic and columnist Kate Maltby, and more.   

Earlier this year, a listener shared on Twitter that she’d heard a former Sacred guest on radio news. And rather than writing them off, or making a bunch of assumptions based on their political party or their positioning, this Sacred listener was able to hear the whole complex human person and listened to them in a completely different setting with more openness and empathy. It was manna to my heart and music to my ears because this project is about listening. And I wish I could find a more punchy, sexy, marketable word for it, because it sounds weak and fluffy. But I think it’s secretly magic. It’s informed by the peacebuilding practices of my Christian tradition, which argue that if we turn the other cheek, and seek to stay in conversation, or even relationship with people different from ourselves, even when it’s hard, good things happen. It’s partly motivated by what I see as deepening divisions in society. And my journey to working out what I need to do to make sure that I am in some small way part of the solution, not part of the problem. Saying listening is a spiritual practice sounds grandiose, and it is, this is just a podcast, after all, but it’s my hope that as well as cheering you up on your commute, or as you clean the kitchen, or fold your laundry or cook, and leaving you feeling slightly cleverer and more informed about a world that you might not have previously had access to, it might, just might, just also expand your heart and build your capacity for empathy, a tiny, tiny bit, it certainly has been with mine.   

In this episode, you will hear a conversation I recorded with Charlie Gilmour. Charlie is a journalist and a critically acclaimed memoirist. His memoir, ‘Featherhood’ won all manner of awards, which for a debut writer was very, very impressive. Charlie is the adopted son of David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and Polly Samson, who’s also a writer. And even as I read this, I feel conflicted about telling you that because it must be really annoying to always be introduced by who you are related to, whether you’re the wife of someone or the husband of someone or the child of someone. And I think it’s right to do it anyway because we are storytelling creatures. And the way we make sense of the world is by locating people in the wider constellation of the people who are important to them. We are made up by the sum total of our relationships, I don’t believe theologically in completely isolated individuals. And so whenever we come into public or even in relationship with people, we drag with us all these relationships, and we might as well be transparent about them. But I’m not related to anyone famous and I might also find it really annoying. So I still feel conflicted. Maybe I should stop doing it. Let me know what you think.  

Charlie also might be recognizable to you because he was famously arrested after being photographed swinging from the Centopath during student protests that happened in his early 20s. And he was later imprisoned, originally a 16 month sentence, he served less than that. But his memoir partly covers that time inside. It’s also reflections on reconnecting with his biological father, or trying to, and this strange and beautiful relationship he had with an adopted magpie.   

We spoke about the ground that he covers in that book and reflect together on – Is there such thing as an ethical memoir? What are we doing when we tell true stories, when we consume true stories in society? And what does that mean for the ways we engage with each other across our differences. As usual, there’s a few assorted reflections from me at the end. But that is definitely enough for me for now, I really hope you enjoy listening.   

Charlie, we’re going to miss small talk, warm up, any chit chat and go straight for what I think is one of the deepest biggest questions, but we don’t get to talk about very much, which is what is sacred to you. And you can take it in any direction you like, you can reject the premise, you can express discomfort with it, or maybe something bubbled up for you, do you have a sense of a kind of golden thread or a principle that you’ve been at least attempting to live by? Having sat with it for a little bit, what do you think is sacred for you? 

Charlie  

Well, I was thinking about this, and I don’t really have a god, or a church or a place of worship, but I was thinking about, you know, what, actually, we think of as sacred and what might tick those boxes in my life. And that would be, you know, something mysterious, powerful, something that we should treat with due reverence. And the closest thing that comes to that in my life is probably, you know, nature and the natural world, which is this, you know, vast, often numinous, mysterious, powerful entity, that I believe that we should be treating with reverence. Taking this one step further, and what would sort of constitute worship of nature, you know, wouldn’t be sort of locking it away, would be engaging with it, and sort of seeing our place within it, and as part of it, so, that is probably the closest I can come without a God to the sacred in my own life, and when I sort of think back to, you know, moments in my life where things have felt holy, it has been, you know, in the mountains by a river next to a waterfall, etc, etc, you know, those are the sort of sacred moments. So that is one – one would be nature and then in terms of, you know, sort of value that I try to live by, which is the sort of other part of your, your question, and the first thing that really came to mind was a slight rejection, you know, of the premise, in a way. In something that I tried to make an effort to do as often as I can is to sort of step outside of values in my engagement with the world and try to embrace complexity, because I think, you know, all too often, we judge things within a sort of very narrow moral framework, which is actually quite tedious and boring because life is much, much more interesting and complex than that, you know, sort of a judgement is a full stop. Whereas an engagement with complexity as a sort of continuation of the story, and I think that’s a much, much more interesting way to engage with the world, although it’s very difficult. 

Elizabeth   

I want to just – the first thing to say ahead of this question, as a disclaimer, is I am resolutely unoffendable so you should feel very free to be honest about this. Yeah, it’s quite subtle, I think in your writing, but I do… You seem to be someone who has some hostility or skepticism about organised religion, possibly related to your school? Could you say a little bit more about that? 

Charlie  

Very, very interesting that you say that, because I thought that I’d sort of seeded some Christian imagery and certainly some Christian text and certainly some biblical exegesis throughout the book, you know, it begin with… 

Elizabeth 

It begins with Proverbs.  

Charlie 

Exactly, yeah, yeah. And, you know, the book is a slight unpicking of that, in a way because it begins with this very patriarchal quote from the book of Proverbs, you know, ‘the eye that mocketh his father and despises to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagle shall eat it’. And, you know, the sort of book is, is then you know, about in one sense, the, the harm that can be done when you place too much emphasis on the father in your own life, and that’s obviously, you know, it’s slightly different from what the book of Proverbs probably meant, but it feels connected.  

Elizabeth 

Yeah.  

Charlie 

That yes, you’re completely right, you know, I did go to a very religious school. Sort of high Anglican, with a magnificent chapel attached, and Chapel attendance was, you know, compulsory, Wednesdays and Saturdays and sometimes Sundays. And, you know, sort of thinking about this, when the Father from school wrote to me about the book, and, you know, sort of thinking about my sort of, you know, somewhat tedious, adolescent atheism, and you know, how this poor, very, very nice, kind father had to put up with it and me sort of like refusing to stand up for the hymns and all that stuff. And think that actually, you know, a lot of the time when people have issues with God, or with the Holy Father, you know, these are sort of daddy issues coming out. You know, coming out towards the ultimate father, There’s definitely some of that still in me, but I’m also very, very grateful for that experience. Because you know I read the Bible a lot, actually, I find it a very interesting book to read. I love the imagery.  

Elizabeth   

So I ask guests about the big ideas or the formative kind of atmosphere of their childhood. And it might be helpful for us to work with your childhood in kind of separate chapters, because there is a first six months of your life before conscious memory that nevertheless was extremely formative. And I’d love you to say a little bit – maybe we could start with the character of your dad, because he was a real man. But he’s also this very strong character in the book, which is called Featherhood, because it’s about birds and fathers. So tell me a little bit about your biological father, and who he was and those–  that first season of your life with him. 

Charlie  

So that sort of first season in my life was really, in my mind, at least this sort of fairy tale story. My biological father was this very eccentric, very talented magician, poet, writer called Heathcote, who was quite a bit older than my mum, when they first met, she was in her mid 20s, he must have been in his mid 40s, I’m guessing. And he was a published poet, she worked in publishing, they ended up getting together and she became pregnant with me quite accidentally. And they ended up moving into this sort of old pig farmer’s cottage, in the middle of the woods, in the grounds of a stately home. And by my mum’s account, you know, they, it was this sort of idyllic existence really, sort of like three little bears. After I was born, living in this, this sort of, you know, idyllic cottage in the woods, they had sunk a well, planted fruit trees and nut trees, and he was finding time to write, she was finding time to write. And then, one night completely without warning, my biological father vanished. And my mom woke up, and I was crying and Heathcote wasn’t there. And that was sort of the end of that sort of fairytale story and the beginning of a different story. And it turns out that, you know, Heathcote had had a major nervous breakdown, not the first one had in his life, he had previously been in a mental institution. And, you know, was completely unable to engage with being a father, engage with my mom, and I didn’t really see him again until I was 12 or 13 years old. So that that sort of sums that period up, I think, 

Elizabeth   

In terms of your mum’s story, I guess, she after a period remarried, and you started a new life in Sussex with a man who became your adopted father and a bunch of adopted siblings. Is that kind of – is that season your earliest memories? 

Charlie  

I have no memories of obviously, you know, the sort of previous father but have very, very strong memories of this new life and the sort of man who, you know, I came to call Dad, he legally adopted me as one of his own children. So, you know, he became, you know, in everything but DNA, my father, and yeah, I would say that’s when that’s when memory starts to kick in. But, you know, there’s still this other slightly confusing story about this, you know, unremembered but clearly existing because, you know, all his books are on the shelf and there are pictures of him, previous father, and yes, so, so that’s where memory began, but it’s not where the story began. 

Elizabeth   

And it sounds like from quite early, you felt that question or absence of Heathcote, what are your – what’s your kind of earliest memories of… It feels like it’s a kind of half finished song in your brain as you write about it. 

Charlie  

The real fairy story actually, kind of begins when I was adopted, because it was this, you know, this sort of abandoned child, abandoned mother, and then suddenly my adoptive father, who was this very, very kind and caring man who was a musician, and, you know, brought us into this family, loved and looked after my mother, loved and looked after me. And that really is the actual sort of fairy story is what happened there. But, you know, I think part of the problem is that, you know, we’re basically storytelling animals, and something in our brains cannot bear, you know, an incomplete story, or an unanswered question. And the unanswered question was, you know, who was this man? Who was my father? Where did he go? Why did he disappear? And the problem was that he didn’t ever explain himself, you know, he was just gone. And communications were closed. And that was that. And you know, that sort of unanswered question did eventually go on to become a sort of itch that I had to scratch. And from sort of pre–teens onwards, I started doing my own investigating and trying to track down this man who had been my father, partly, as well, because he sounds like such an interesting character. You know, he was an anarchist, a poet and magician. He had sort of carried out all these exploits, like, you know, he once stole Christmas from Harrods. And there was a performance artist who was going to have sex with a goose. And he shat into his own hand and threw his shit at the performance artist and then ran away with the goose, he sort of set himself on fire outside of girlfriend’s doorstep, either in a sort of magic trick gone wrong, or, you know, setting himself on fire because she just dumped him. So is this sort of  

Elizabeth 

Very vivid character,  

Charlie 

Weird character exactly that, you know, me, you know, somewhat rebellious myself wanted to get to know. And so I sort of got his address off the electoral roll and went in search of him. And it – the meeting didn’t go well, you know, he did not have any of the answers to the questions that I brought to him. And I sort of left in feeling much, much more unbalanced that when I arrived. I arrived, you know, feeling curious and left, you know, really not having benefited from the interaction at all. So it was a story that still was unanswered, you know, there was still this question why, and I’d gone to the man to ask, and he had not been able to say and certainly wasn’t going to take any of the blame on himself. So there was still this, this sort of unanswered question. 

Elizabeth   

Yeah. And it sounds like there were a few of these meetings throughout your teens. And in parallel, you were beginning to discover kind of alcohol and intoxicants. How would you describe what was going on with you, I guess, psychologically, and emotionally during that season? 

Charlie  

I would say that I had a number of these encounters that you know, each one proving to be more upsetting than the last and you know, sort of like a bird bashing its head against a window pane, failing to get through and, you know, doing myself a degree of psychological harm. And, you know, you’re exactly right, I sort of did discover alcohol and drugs at this time, I would say, I became what is classified as a problematic drug abuser, you know, not an addict. One of those sort of coping mechanisms that you think is helping but actually is winding the spring up. More and more and more on that, that sort of all came to a head in my sort of late teens, early 20s in a sort of fairly extreme nervous breakdown of my own that resulted with rate of incarceration. 

Elizabeth   

Yeah, it feels like lots of people have crises in their mental and emotional journeys, but yours happened extremely publicly in this moment of inner kind of pain and substance fueled, manic episode swinging on the flag on the Cenotaph, which became this image of kind of terrible students disrespecting society during those kinds of student protest season. Do you mind me asking about, particularly, I’m always attuned to the way we are storytelling creatures, we tell stories as a society. And it does feel to me like there was a moment – and it’s happened to a few people I’ve spoken to on the podcast – where you as a person becomes an embodiment of something else, and you received death threats, very strange things in the post, right? Your mom and your family – you became this hate figure instantly, overnight? 

Charlie  

Yes, it got quite dark. You know, that’s, I mean, sort of receiving death threats on the internet is almost normal now, just like part of being on the internet for, you know, a great, great many people. But, you know, at the time, it was new and strange and felt incredibly threatening, especially as lots of people are claiming to be, you know, current or former members of the armed forces. And, you know, somehow someone got our address and sends a beautifully gift wrap turd in the post. And, you know, my mum being the, the nearest woman got a lot of it, because, you know, that’s the way it was  

Elizabeth 

She’s the mother 

Charlie 

All her fault – Yeah. That’s the way our society functions a lot of the time. And yes, it was very, very strange, especially, I mean, because I, you know, was not particularly seeing things entirely straight. And, you know, often the sort of thought that everyone is out to get you is, you know, you’re like, Oh, you’re paranoid. That’s not that’s not a well thought. But both things can be true. 

Elizabeth   

You’re not well, and everyone temporarily hates you. 

Charlie  

Yeah, exactly. So yes, that was a very, very, very strange and uncomfortable period, 

Elizabeth   

And traumatic in and of itself for most people, and then amplified by being sent to prison. What was the charge that you were sent on? 

Charlie  

So the charge was violent disorder, which is a public order offence. It’s sort of one below riot I think so… behaviour with intent to cause a harassment, alarm, distress. I think, which the maximum sentence is five years. I received 16 months and ended up doing four of those months in prison and then four on electric curfew and then eight months monitoring by the probation service. And I was not – I was not entirely untypical as a prisoner. You know, the majority of people I met were somewhat disturbed, problems with drugs or alcohol. You know, many of them were in much, much, much worse condition and had had a much, much, much worse, you know, beginning in life than me. But all pretty much receiving the same treatment, which is, you know, locked in a small room, and not particularly helped. You know, there isn’t – there’s no, it’s sort of weird our prison system because it’s sort of, you know, Victorian buildings without much ideology. It’s not a Victorian ideology anymore. Really, it’s just we’re going to keep you here, kind of out of circulation of society where you can’t do crime, but you can still do loads of crime in here. And you’re probably going to come out much more disturbed into society, it’s kind of hard to say exactly what it’s all for. But, yes, the majority of people, including myself come out much more disturbed than they went in. 

Elizabeth   

Yeah, you think – I don’t want to press on a sore place here, so feel free – but I was surprised how little of your book your time in prison took up, it’s four pages, and it sounds dark and brutal, the beautiful letters you got before you went in about rape in prison, and then the cruel treatment of prison guards, and you’re clearly kind of traumatised posture afterwards of walking sideways upstairs to avoid missiles and just the physicality of being in full threat, full defence response at all times. Was it a deliberate decision to keep it quite compressed, you could have written a full memoir about your time in prison, 

Charlie  

I – Yes, it was a deliberate decision, partly because it was quite difficult to write a lot about a lot of that stuff, because, you know, writing it is reliving it. And, you know, while I was writing the book, I was still, you know, spending quite a lot of time just really living it in, as you say, you know, the sort of physical reactions of the body in the mind. But I also wanted it to be a sort of short, sharp shock for the reader as well. And I sort of wanted to try and get the reader to feel that. And, you know, also just didn’t, it wasn’t something I wanted to dominate the book, although, you know, to an extent, the book hinges on this, you know, sort of dark centre, and the sort of emotional world of, of a person who has been through that experience, and then sort of trying to come out the other side of it. And part of that is the sort of, you know, the difference in the way of seeing the world, which at the beginning of the book is, you know, somewhat closed off. And towards the end of the book is much, much more open to, you know, the sort of the wonder of the world that is out there.  

Elizabeth   

It works. I kind of wanted to ask about the writing itself, and maybe to wind back and say, Have you always written – both Heathcote and your mother Polly Sampson are writers, I just saw that your mom’s book last year was you know, very successful, she’s still very live, active novelist. How did you come to embrace that profession? Did you reject it? Was it obvious – talk to me about writing in your life? 

Charlie  

Um, I mean, at school, I was terrible in English classes and I you know, almost flunked, you know, English literature GCSE. And, you know, my mum always encouraged me to write. And it was really actually in prison that I really started taking notes on the world around me, you know, that was really – that was kind of my coping mechanism, was just to write down the events of the day and you know the horror and you know, occasionally the beauty of it too, and the sort of, you know, the human kindnesses that you might see and the generosity you know, which was what I really sort of tried to cling to. And then afterwards, sort of, you know, an attempt at decompression again, you know, encouraged by my mum, was to just expand on those notes, and just try and write it all down as a way of trying to write it out. Which, you know, was useful, but didn’t completely work, you know? Because, you know, there, there are some things that you can’t quite write out. 

Elizabeth 

I need a bit of help with,  

Charlie 

Exactly, yeah, I’m glad that I get to, that’s really probably where it started. The sort of first serious attempt at writing was the writing of this book, you know, this is the first time I’ve actually done serious writing. Probably, and it was, it was a very, very, very steep learning curve. And, you know, I had a brilliant editor, Franklin, who, you know, helped steer me through, because, I mean, one of the things about writing memoir is, you know, we’re really taught not to tell tales. So it’s a very, very, very guilty thing. And, you know, I’m actually generally quite a sort of secretive and paranoid person, and I don’t particularly like letting people in. So that was, you know, one thing to get over 

Elizabeth   

zero to 60, as a writer in terms of picking genre. 

Charlie  

Yeah, yeah. And you know, what I did was I sort of read a lot of other memoirs, just to see what you were allowed to do. And it turns out, you’re allowed to do whatever the hell you want, really. And it might upset people and it might feel wrong, but you can still do it. 

Elizabeth   

Your biological father Heathcote, was a writer and a poet. And as you unravel this story of why he left, and these kind of upsetting meetings, there’s this running refrain about that terrible quote, I think about the enemy of great art being the pram in the hall, not least because it’s so gendered. But you were beginning to write yourself whilst considering possible fatherhood yourself whilst trying to unravel this man who ran away from another family, or ran back and forth from another family before your mum and yourself in search of art and this kind of myth of a lone suffering artist isolated and slightly crazy. As you were writing, how much of that were you trying to excavate and almost exorcise and how much do you just have to sort of integrate some of it? 

Charlie  

Hmm, yeah. So that was sort of Heathcote’s only explanation to my mum, you know, on the telephone was to sort of rant angrily down the phone of her. And she’d say, Why, why, why, and he’d be on repeat that Cyril Connolly quote, which I always get wrong, something like, you know, the most sombre enemy of good art is the pram in the hallway. And, you know, that’s a quote that’s often been at the back of my mind for exactly that reason, not because I felt like it’s something particularly I should live by, but because I was that pram in that hallway. And it’s always sort of prejudiced me a bit against Heathcote’s poems, you know, sort of, you know, was it really worth it to do that one about dolphins? You know, I mean, it’s okay. But… 

Elizabeth   

You did leave me some deep psychological harm! 

Charlie  

I’m actually quite a poor, a poor judge of his writing and his work. So I’m really, you know, I’m pretty prejudiced against him. But yes, you know, sort of I wrote the majority of this book, you know, just after my daughter, my first daughter was born and you know, she was a pram in the hallway and I’d sort of, you know, wake up at five in the morning and creep downstairs past the pram in the hallway and sit at the kitchen table to write and you know, sometimes, you know, be sort of deliriously tired and the keyboard vibrating. That was actually an incredibly enriching and inspiring time. And you know, I think that my preference is this quote of Stephen King, so he says, ‘Life isn’t a support system for art, it’s the other way around.’ You know, I think that’s completely true, you can’t cut yourself off from all sources of inspiration and expect to make good art. And, you know, obviously, you have to disappear to an extent, because you actually can’t write or write poems or really particularly do anything, if you’ve got a toddler climbing all over you, and wanting to watch Octonauts on your writing machine. That, you know, you still have to, you have to disappear, and you have to come back and you have to, you know, top up. Sounds very corny, but you know, you’ve got sort of top up your emotions and the love that you feel for the world. And then you can go back enriched to what you do. You know, and also sort of writing this book, while there was a pram in the hallway felt like exactly what you said, it did feel like, you know, it’s a bit of a like, an overcoming, father overcoming. Yeah. ‘See? It’s not that difficult.’  

Elizabeth   

I love that. So we’ve touched a moment a little bit earlier on, very briefly on some of the public narratives around motherhood and the stories that we tell of like, the always guilty, always failing, always responsible mother. What is your sense of some of the stories that we tell about fatherhood? What are the kind of things and the myths? 

Charlie  

We don’t really have very many expectations of fathers. So we have negative expectations, you know, that’s why I think the majority of single parents are mothers because it’s so easy for fathers to run away, because it’s almost, not quite, but it’s almost expected often. I mean, when I sort of had, you know, my first child, and I’d be sort of, you know, pushing her around in the pram, and people would be like, ‘Oh, well done, mate. You’re doing a great job.’ I get to my partner and say ‘Do people tell you you’re doing a great job when you’re just like, holding the baby?’ She was like, ‘no, they tell me that I’ve underdressed her.’ 

Elizabeth   

Put a hat on that baby – I used to get that a lot in Peckham. 

Charlie  

Yeah. Yeah. Whereas I actually – it was this sort of strange combination of things, I either get like overpraised, for basically just like holding my child. Or the other thing that used to happen, which was very weird would be like, you know, sort of older women would occasionally like reach across the bus aisle and start like jiggling the pram for me in this sort of, like, you know, ‘you poor man, let me take care of this’ sort of thing. And I’ll be like, what, what is going on? This is so weird. Actually, I’m just gonna let you jiggle that pram if that makes you happy, that’s fine 

Elizabeth   

‘I am actually competent, but I’m gonna let you think I’m not.’ Yeah, I think you’re right. And I was reflecting on it. It’s, you know, it’s a book about fatherhood. And it’s strange how absent fathers are in, in many of our myths, and the ones that we tell are the harm caused by absent fathers, angry fathers, and the one that comes up all the time, particularly in I think children’s films, is workaholic fathers. It’s like the plot of almost every Christmas film and hook is a workaholic father, who’s lost the awe and wonder of childhood. Mary Poppins, you know, who can’t see what’s in front of him. That, you know, the woman who wrote Mary Poppins talks about it, that’s why that film is called Saving Mr. Banks. It’s a reintegration of fathers into the heart of the home to see what they have in front of them. That’s the story, which is a good and an important one to tell. But it feels like there must be more richness and more stories about fathers who are good and present, and fun. And also do good work. 

Charlie  

but I think maybe Freud has a lot to answer for on this sort of, you know, this heavy focus. I think maybe we overemphasise the father. I mean, you know, I mean, it’s you know, mothers get a lot of inappropriate blame too for certain psychological conditions. But yeah, I think this sort of – Yeah, the father story is maybe over emphasised. 

Elizabeth   

I want to finish just on a question about memoir, which has had a real revival I think in publishing in the last 10 years, it’s really become a much bigger proportion of the nonfiction that we read. What do you think good memoir does in our public consciousness and our public conversation and maybe what does it cost memoirists to be that raw and exposed? 

Charlie  

You know, I was thinking about this, you know, cuz you, you had this question about, you know, what do you think about the sort of quality of our public conversations and, you know, often, you know, they veer away from complexity towards, you know, very black and white and boring moral judgments that really, you know, which, which means the story escapes, and the human complexity is lost. And I think memoirs do exactly the opposite. You know, they, they sort of, if they’re good, they embrace complexity. And, you know, they let you see other people’s lives and people, you know, doing things that, you know, you could consider bad, you know, sometimes even evil, and, you know, lets you see into those decisions or not decisions, those sort of early life stories that influence those behaviours, and you know, how that all pans out. And I think, you know, they sort of help you have greater understanding and compassion for other human beings. Hopefully, you know, that’s, that’s the sort of, that’s the ultimate goal. Right? And, you know, it’s often very emotionally costly to write those things, you know, sort of one of the questions that often comes up, is, you know, whether it was therapeutic to write the memoir, which I think is kind of a question about ethical consumption, which is like, you know, we obviously know that it was difficult to write this memoir. But did you ultimately feel good in the end? Like, should I feel guilty about consuming this product of suffering? Yeah, that’s like, ‘No, I’m afraid that this was not an organic, free range, egg of a memoir.’ You know, this is battery farm, they were suffering. And I did not feel better afterwards. But that’s not what it’s about. So you know, the therapy happens in a completely different room to the writing, the writing is about, you know, creating a world hopefully, that the reader can step inside and experience for themselves in a world that’s different from their own. Which is literally mind expanding. And that I think, is the very best that memoir can offer. 

Elizabeth   

I think what keeps drawing us back is the flipside of a kind of voyeuristic feeding on someone else’s pain, is a pure and better instinct, which is the human craving for intimacy, right. And the Martin Buber thing of I–thou moments of seeing each other as fully human in the world. And understanding the beauty and bittersweet complexity of someone else’s world of meaning, expands us right, expands our empathy, expands our humanity in a way that when we just present ourselves with very glossy, personal branded social media presences, there’s nothing sacred happening there. Right? There’s nothing – I probably don’t want to write off the whole thing, but it’s unusual. So I really love that reflection on – when I read something, it’s always in the posture of the reader or the consumer. Am I seeking here to expand my understanding of another person and grow in empathy? Or am I just voyeuristically consuming their pain as a form of entertainment? I think some of the kind of true crime, podcasts or entertainment things do. Sorry to end with a thesis. As someone who’s written and been in prison and had challenges with your mental health, what have you learned about what helps us engage across our differences and our disagreements? What helps us to be bridge people? And depolarization people rather than the opposite? 

Charrlie  

I think anything that that you can do just to step outside of your immediate animal emotions, which are, you know, often very, very quick to respond. And, you know, I think that sort of very, very, very basic thing would just be you know, before you respond to another human being, take three breaths, and remember, they are a complex individual with their own complex biography. You know, doing whatever they’re doing from a whole complex, knotted rooted web of reasons. And, you know, hope that they might engage with you on that basis, too, and proceed from there. I mean, good luck putting that into use in your every day. But that’s good. That would be my ideal, I think, yeah 

Elizabeth   

it’s a noble, not impossible thing to at least practice to build our muscle around. Right. Charlie Gilmour, thank you so much for speaking to me on The Sacred. 

Charlie 

Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.  

Elizabeth 

Well, listening back to that, the thing that we didn’t really cover is the thread in the book about Charlie’s relationship with an adopted magpie. And the nature writing really bit of the book, partly because I didn’t really know how to talk about it. But I would encourage you to go read it and to look up that element of the story. However, as various things that are still ringing in my mind from the time that we recorded this, I really wished I pushed him on what he means by living outside of principles and values. It’s actually the only thing that he said through the whole interview that confirmed the stereotype of him that I had in my head. And this is probably a shameful thing to admit, but I hope helpful – I come to most of these conversations with a sort of holding pattern, or a caricature or a type of someone that I’m expecting to meet and actually think we all do that a bit. And then what I’m doing is just becoming more conscious of it and noticing the ways that that changes how I interact with someone and noticing very strongly how few people actually conform to their type in any straightforward way. But the type that I had of Charlie was of this…how do I describe it? Amoral not in a kind of immoral, but amoral as in impatient with society’s mores. Intellectual, upper class male, frankly, might be the curly hair, I think it just gives me Byron vibes. And actually, as I read the book, and listened to Charlie, I think that was very much the kind of man that his biological father was – really resistant to commitment, guarded by this idea of him as a kind of artist, the artistic type, and also by the privilege of his class, to live this really quite eccentric and glamorous–seeming but ultimately, really quite damaging life. Charlie isn’t that. I think that I would have loved to hear more what he meant by living outside of principles and values, because I don’t think it’s quite that but I can’t know.  

Obviously, I expected him to say nature is sacred as someone who speaks a lot in public about birds and nature. And there’s a beauty to that. I really applaud his self–awareness and honesty in saying that his teenage atheism might well have been related to his daddy issues. And it set me on a track of thinking about how we try and explain away other people’s beliefs, by using kind of pop psychology and actually using it on ourselves in the way that Charlie did is really helpful. Because we do begin to see the stories that we’re telling and some of the blocks or some of the reasons that we might be more or less likely to believe certain things, but often in conversations across differences of religion, we use it on other people. And the classic thing is ‘religious people believe in God because it’s a psychological crutch’. Charlie’s saying ‘maybe I rejected God because of a kind of psychological, knee jerk, adolescent reaction to authority’ sort of levels the playing field, in the sense that neither of those things get you anywhere. Yes, we might all have tendencies to believe some things over others, but none of that has any bearing on the truth. And levelling those kinds of accusations at other people is just, I think, unhelpful, or just not massively productive.  

I loved how Charlie spoke about the Bible, and how he reads it and grapples with it. And I wish that was true of more people, maybe I’ll offer if he wants to read it together. And I really loved when he really underlined this idea that we are storytelling animals, that we are narrative creatures who struggle with unfinished threads and are constantly making self–sense of the world through story. The overriding emotion is anger, listening back, that a young man, 21 years old when he went to prison, in the grip of psychological crisis, drugs and alcohol, really quite brutal rejection by his dad, just vulnerable, a vulnerable young man made a stupid mistake, and was hounded and threatened and then locked up. And he was very clear at pointing out that he is not unusual, that many of the people that he was imprisoned with were there because of a similar set of circumstances, only some of which were in their control. And sets of circumstances that many, many people might have reacted to in the same way, had they undergone those circumstances. If I had been in those circumstances, if that had been my story, I might well have ended up in prison as well. And there’s a brutality to it. And, yeah, I increasingly don’t understand what it is we’re trying to do when we put people in prison, at least prisons in the way that we currently set them up.  

The final thing that’s really stuck with me is this idea of memoir, and the role of writers and the relationships that they’re in. And I remember speaking to Rhik Samadder about this quite early on in the podcast, who also wrote a beautiful memoir, about the responsibilities you have to others, whose stories you’re allowed to tell. And the cost of it, of putting your suffering on the page. I loved Charlie’s line that this is not an organic, free range egg of a memoir, you know, you probably should slightly question yourself when you are reading about other people’s suffering. And I do think there is a whole industry based on icky true stories. But yes, that hunger in us to feel less lonely by seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, by seeing someone else. And I’m reminded of the beginning of CS Lewis’s memoirs, ‘Surprised by joy’, which is wonderful. And he says, I’m, you know, this is terribly subjective. I’ll probably never write anything like this again. I feel awkward writing it but I’m spurred on by the fact that I have observed that when we recount on these particular experiences, there’s almost always someone else who says, ‘what – you too? I thought it was just me’, and it makes us feel less alone. Yeah, interesting stuff in there about our low expectations of fathers but I really didn’t feel like I got to the nub of the stories that were telling about father so I want to think more about that. And birds, not in there, very much in the book, read about birds. Thank you for listening. Until next time. 

 


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Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth is host of The Sacred podcast. She was Theos’ Director from August 2011 – July 2021. She appears regularly in the media, including BBC One, Sky News, and the World Service, and writing in The Financial Times.

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Posted 13 April 2022

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