In this blog post, Gavanndra shares with us a bit about the background of her book and how her Masters degree at the Warburg served as a respite during its publication.
I came to the Warburg to hide. I didn’t quite realise this at first. At first my motivations seemed more straightforward.
I discovered the Institute had started offering part-time Masters degrees while idly scrolling through my phone on a jam-packed drive to the coast on a sunny Easter weekend. I felt a flush of excitement as I read about the Cultural, Intellectual and Visual History Masters – magic and Latin, maps and science, Renaissance art and Islamic history – I knew this was what I wanted to do. My husband laughed as I read the details out to him. ’Are you making this up?’ he said. It was like someone had created my perfect course.
I had been working as a journalist for twenty years, editorial jobs at the Daily Mail, Independent on Sunday, Evening Standard and finally as deputy editor at Tatler; and all those years I fantasised about returning to academia. I wanted to do something different with my brain, to put things in it rather than constantly splurging words out of it. I wanted to be able to concentrate again, like I had when I was studying Classics at Cambridge, sitting in the library at Newnham for hours, barely noticing the time pass. I wanted to fill in the gaps in my historical knowledge (the biggest gap was the one that stretched from about 400 AD to 1914). I wanted to read Latin again.
But there was another reason that I wanted to do this Masters, I realised as I explained it to my friends, telling them about Aby Warburg and the boats that brought an incredible library of books from Germany to England one dark night. ‘Yes, that sounds fascinating,’ they’d say. ‘But haven’t you got enough on your plate?’
I was still working as a journalist, mainly writing celebrity profiles, I have two young children, and I was writing a book. Not just any book. It was the most dangerous book I could write, the one I had been too scared to write for many years, but eventually realised it was the only one I could write. My book was about my childhood, its chaos and tragedy. My father was a heroin addict, a drug dealer and a hairdresser; my mother an alcoholic model; I was making my own breakfast at three years old and by the time I was seven I was sitting up with my dad and the aristocratic junkies who populated our sitting room every night, buying drugs, taking drugs; while I waited for them to pass out so I could blow out the candles, stub out the cigarettes, go to bed safe in the knowledge that our house wouldn’t burn down that night. Dad got clean when I was about 9, but then when I was 14 my little sister Candy died in a hotel room in Tunisia before my eyes, I was frozen in terror and grief and my family imploded again: more drugs, philandering, betrayal…I have spent my life trying to come to terms with this personal history. I have deployed various coping methods, some less successful – drinking, taking drugs, forgetting, pretending to be someone else; some more successful – Latin, having therapy, remembering, writing.
My book was so personal and the writing of it had caused so much heart-ache (as well as bringing a strong measure of clarity and peace), that I realised I was scared of how I would feel when it was published, when people read it, when I would have to talk to strangers about it like it was a ‘story’ and not something that had happened to me and had nearly broken me again and again. So, what better place to be on publication than the library at the Warburg, protected by shelves of wise and silent books, no-one would be able to find me there.
I was just finishing my book when I started the degree in September 2019; one day I would be at lectures, the next I would be working on fiddly edits. My publisher, Michael Joseph, is on the Strand, so I would have meetings there about publicity strategies and cover options, and then walk the twenty minutes through Convent Garden up to Woburn Square for a seminar on Machiavelli or a test on deponent verbs. It was busy and sometimes hard to jump from one mode to another. The idea of being able to spend dreamy hours in the library was abandoned. Life was too complicated for that, I was able to devote short bursts of time to study before having to rush back to collect the kids from school, or to another meeting. This is the common experience for anyone trying to combine work, study and family. It is a satisfying, fun and full life, but also break-neck and breathless.
But, by the same token, my strategy was working. I was delighted to be so busy thinking about such interesting new subjects, to be in a place where most people think it might be quite weird to write a book about things that happened in 1989, when you could be writing about things that happened in 1489. And study had saved me once before. For two years after my sister died, I was lost. I partied and I took drugs, often with my dad, seeking oblivion, desperate to forget the things I had seen. During those brief years of sobriety and normality – after dad went to rehab and before Candy died – I’d discovered that I loved to study, I particularly loved subjects that imposed order on chaos; chemistry, which arranged the whole universe in a grid; and Latin with its rules and consistency, every word signalling its purpose, horror and sadness made metrical and beautiful. But I lost this too along the way, too drunk or hungover to look at a book, taking days and days off school, back-chatting the teachers when I was in class. I discovered how badly I had done in my GCSEs on the same holiday I discovered that my father was leaving my mother for a girl who went to the same school as me.
“I was delighted to be so busy thinking about such interesting new subjects, to be in a place where most people think it might be quite weird to write a book about things that happened in 1989, when you could be writing about things that happened in 1489.”
I decided to direct my desperation into study. To work hard, to lose myself in Herodotus and Virgil. It worked, I got into Cambridge and realised I could make a different kind of life for myself. I didn’t have to be a drug dealer like my dad (at one point this seemed like one of my few possible career options).
It sounds horribly trite, but study was my safe place, so it makes total sense that I chose to do a Masters degree at the same time as publishing my memoir. I know how to look after myself.
Of course, we all know this is not how the story ends. My book, The Consequences of Love, came out on May 14th. In all my imaginings about how it would be to publish, how I would feel, never once did I envisage that I would be published in the midst of a global pandemic. So I wasn’t sitting in the Warburg Library, as I had hoped, I was at home, like everyone else. But even during this time, study has offered essential distraction. I was a little sad that I couldn’t do the virtual Latin Palaeography class on the day my book was published, as I had planned, because my publisher had organised a virtual launch party on Zoom. But I haven’t got (so much) time to compulsively check my Amazon rating or who is mentioning me on Twitter, because I have to finish an essay about the transmission of Islamic Alchemy to the West. And fortunately, the paperback is coming out in January 2021, which just happens to overlap with another essay deadline…
Gavanndra Hodge has worked in newspapers and magazines for over twenty years, at the Daily Mail, Independent, ES Magazine and Tatler, where she was deputy editor and acting editor. In 2018 she left Tatler and became a freelance writer, contributing to publications including the Sunday Times, The Times, Telegraph and ES Magazine. She writes a column for The Times LUXX Magazine about how to talk to children about difficult subjects, such as privilege, grief and fairness, and has interviewed many high profile people, most recently Michael Caine, Margot Robbie and Carey Mulligan.