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When I tell people that Julie has gone back into hospital, they’re often very dismayed and shocked. I can understand that, though I wish I could explain that by the time an admission to hospital takes place, it comes as something of a relief to everyone concerned. The worst time is the time nobody else sees: the time immediately before admission, when the crisis is building, and we’re descending into chaos.

I try to keep normal life going as long as possible, even if it’s just going through the motions. This is because often we do pull back from the brink, and it’s easier to get back to normal if you’ve kept the engine running. So often Julie has hardly missed a day at college, and I’ve hardly missed a day at work, and nobody is any the wiser, even though the most appalling scenes are being enacted in our bathroom, and we’ve spent half the night in A&E.

But sometimes the crisis does gain the upper hand, and you find yourself going over the cliff edge. And actually once you’ve let go and committed to falling, free fall is quite a pleasant sensation. (Just as long as you don’t think too much about what’s going to happen at the bottom.). Just before you let go is a horrible feeling: everything is starting to disintegrate under the pressure, you miss out on sleep and exercise and eventually you know you’re losing. I know I’m feeling the strain when I start doing things I never normally do: putting my keys down in the wrong place and spending half an hour hunting for them, or snapping at someone at work. For a day or two, going to the hospital and letting somebody else take over the job of caring for Julie is a secret relief.

Of course hospital is not an easy solution and not a viable long term one. Acute psychiatric wards can be tough environments, even when they try to be comfortable and welcoming: impossible to disguise the amount of human suffering they contain. This is Julie’s first stay in an adult ward, and there are new norms and protocols to adjust to. Everyone seems so much older than her; everyone seems to smoke. Visiting there after a long day at work is a strain, and Julie is missing out on college. But they try to relieve distress, it’s a place of safety, and the initial plan is for her to come home again very soon.

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Amateur Photographer is 130 years old. Yes, you read that right: an astonishing 130 years, starting in 1884 when you have to wonder just how many amateur photographers actually existed. As part of their celebration they published a two page spread of covers, picking out one from every year of publication.

Of course it took thirty or forty years for photographs to appear on the cover at all: it is only after the first world war that the whole of the front cover was consistently given over to a single stand-out image. And for the next forty years the pictures rotated round the standards of birds, pets, celebrity, cute children and landscape: eclectic, silly and wholesome. It was only in 1963, the year before I was born, that the women start to appear. Then pretty much every cover features a woman, the monomania of the next thirty years. At first pictures of the female face, but as the sixties wear on, more and more of the female figure appears – more and more female flesh. By the seventies, women pose in swimsuits, corsets, lingerie. 1994 hits a new low with a young woman posing suggestively with a snooker cue, but then finally the run breaks. The women vanish and for the last twenty years the covers are largely a parade of chunky pictures of cameras.

My generation grew up in a world saturated with female flesh used to sell everything from cameras to cars to newspapers. Being born in the sixties I was unconscious that it had ever been different. That world has largely gone, ditched as it became obvious that it no longer sold, in a world in which women also buy cameras and cars and newspapers. The astonishing thing is that it lasted until 1994 (and beyond). By the time I was an undergraduate in the eighties, feminism was beginning to seem irrelevant, a force that was no longer needed in a world in which men and women were now equal. And yet at the same time if you walked into any newsagent the shelves were groaning with magazines like Amateur Photographer, middle of the road magazines using pictures of semi-naked women as bait to catch sales.

The time line of magazine covers gives a fascinating glimpse into a little piece of social history. Amateur Photographer was warming up to the idea that sex sells, and doing its bit to make a generation of young women feel uncomfortable going into a corner shop, at just the same time that my school teachers were telling us that women had nothing left to complain about. And once sexy covers became normal it took a lot more than a few women expressing outrage to take them off the shelves again. The changes that finally took the women off the front cover of Amateur Photographer were probably too numerous to count: millions of individual decisions about what makes one magazine more attractive than another, made by men and women from week to week, probably unconscious of the steady drift in public opinion. A steady drift caused by so many things: by women’s greater earning power, by it becoming normal to hear a female point of view, by a growing consensus that using female nudity to sell magazines wasn’t “just a bit of fun”. One year commercial necessity put near naked women on the front cover, then one year it took them off again.

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For the last few months there has been some quiet activity going on in the background of our lives here: a hall booked, a band engaged, and invitations sent out. Last weekend it finally happened: our family had a party.

We are not the kind of people who have a lot of parties. We’re quiet, and even before Julie got sick we would rather have had teeth pulled than arrange a big event. But when Julie got sick, we became very very unsociable indeed. We just didn’t have the time or the energy to talk to people, or even begin to explain what was happening to us, or how terrible we felt about it. We could scarcely get to work, or look after ourselves, let alone share a cup of coffee or send a Christmas card. It was only very imaginative and very determined friends that managed to keep in touch.

It’s been five long years and for the last couple of years we’ve gradually started to dig ourselves out of our shell. We lost some friends during the bad years, but adversity meant that we made some new ones that have become much dearer to us. We’ve recognised how vital friendships are, and that different friendships have brought us different things, the value of which is not always obvious at first. Sure some people shared our grief and pain, but we’ve also learnt to appreciate the people who didn’t really get it, but still stopped to talk to us, and offered help. We’ve got better at talking, and better (and bolder) at talking specifically about mental illness. We’ve also learnt to incorporate a near-permanent state of crisis into our life and carry on regardless.

This year, I decided I wanted to have a party to celebrate everything we have achieved, and to mark the fact that we have survived (so far) and that we do have such good friends. At one point, feeling very unwell and forced to have an operation, I almost called it off, but I’m so glad I didn’t.

It was a fantastic party: everybody was on good form, the food was great (not my cooking, but caterers!), the music was brilliant. People came from great distances, everyone stayed until midnight, people brought out guitars and jammed with the band, teenagers fell in love. The next day we just sat around and dissected it endlessly, reliving the funny moments and the nice moments, while other people sent us dozens of emails to say what a good time they’d had.

It was a brilliant night – a night to remember. Now when I look back on these years I won’t just be remembering the rubbish bits, I’ll be able to say, “Do you remember when we had that party?”. And we did it all by ourselves.

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So I come back from a week away in Portugal to find the family in a sad state. Joe has worked really hard to make sure that everything is provided, but it’s clear I’ve been missed. Everyone looks exhausted and joyless, and Julie has self harmed repeatedly.

There’s a certain pleasure to being Mary Poppins when your children are young: setting the table, tidying up the toy box, bringing out the sunshine. It’s nice to feel that you can make everyone happy, soothe tears, resolve arguments. But it’s not something you want to be doing for adults. You want to be able to come back and hear all the amazing things they’ve been doing in your absence, be glad to see one another, but not find that you have to pick up all the pieces of their lives for them again.

I enjoyed my holiday: it was good for me to take a break, even though I missed the family while I was away. It gave me a chance to look at the rest of the family in perspective, to think about what they need from me, and why I appear to be so essential to them. And whether that is a good thing.

Surely someone has written a song about this.

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I’m going on holiday. I’m going on my own. It’s not as good as going with family or friends but it’s better than having no holiday at all! I wasn’t well enough to go with everyone else in the summer so now I am stealing away for a week in the late autumn sun.

The most difficult decision is not what clothes to take but which camera. I love my photography, I love that feeling of seeing reality in front of me in a new and deeper way. Taking photos often feels a lot like writing poems: trying to capture the essence of the subject succinctly and keep everything else that is irrelevant out of the frame or out of focus. I find it impossible to take good photos with other people around – it’s too distracting – so if I’m going to have to holiday on my own I’d better take the opportunity to dig out the camera.

So Portugal here we come!

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If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, it’s easy to go a bit on automatic, even if it’s something glorious. So sometimes when I go on my lunchtime walk round the Botanic Gardens I try experiencing it in a different way. Like taking my ears for a walk.

Trees have very distinctive sounds. The poplar trees at the entrance gate of the Botanic Gardens make this incredible sparkling rushing sound, like the sea. It can be heard hundreds of yards away and close to it is almost deafening. Why does no one else notice them shouting? There are other trees in the garden that are almost completely silent: the majestic sequoias seem severely mute even in the highest wind. Horse chestnuts are another mute surprise, but they are all sick with the leaf miner. Beeches and hornbeams both make pleasant murmuring sounds, and tucked away in another corner of the garden I find a catalpa tree sweetly rustling. Bamboos of course make a soundscape all of their own, whispering, squeaking and mysteriously knocking.

It is a tactile time of year too, full of fruits and seed heads that are knobbly, spiked, furry. I touch them surreptitiously (is one allowed to touch the plants?). I find one flower whose seed heads are like tiny velvet purses.

Scent, not so much, except some of the more exotic limes whose sweet scented flowers still linger, and the hot spicy scents of the herb border. The tropical glasshouses are another matter: still a riot of sweet and earthy smells as everything competes for space and attention.

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Jane Eyre: how I hated that book! For two years we slaved over it at school, reading and rereading it, our set text for O level. It’s strangeness, it’s originality, it’s rich vocabulary, all ground into dust. I can still remember the horror, when we read it aloud round the class and I was handed the midsummer night scene in which Jane and Rochester finally declare their love to one another. I was fifteen: I was scarlet, mumbling the Victorian endearments.

It was thirty years before I could bring myself to read it again. I had remembered the plot, there are still a few passages I remember word for word (“Reader, I married him.”). I had forgotten what an odd-ball Jane is, and what a bully Rochester can be. But I was surprised at what I had misremembered.

Everyone remembers the madwoman in the attic: Rochester’s first wife. Bronte’s nightmare depiction of madness is still haunting, still buried somewhere deep in our collective unconscious. The lunatic, shut away from sight, raving and dangerous.

But though that image had remained vivid, I had misunderstood it. According to Rochester, “it is not because she is mad I hate her.” He hates his wife, he declares, because she has “a nature the most gross, impure, depraved I ever saw”. Had Jane gone mad, he claims, he would care for her tenderly. The madness is an inconvenience, preventing him legally divorcing from a monster. His wife’s former “vices” are rather vague, mixed up with the discovery that her mother was “a Creole”. We are left with the distinct impression that the first Mrs Rochester’s sin was not so much to be secretly mad as secretly black. “Her family wished to secure me because I was of a good race” says Rochester smugly, and Bronte does not bother to discuss this.

It may have been obvious to Victorian audiences – comfortable in their notions of racial superiority – that Rochester’s West Indian marriage was “impossible”, even before his wife went mad. But all that remains to modern audiences is the raving lunatic with her hideous strength and low cunning. In endless dramatisations of the book, this is all that appears on screen: any undercurrents of racism are written out. Perhaps they, like the book’s religious fervour, are too unsettling.

Myths about mental illness are strangely persistent. Downton Abbey, written recently, screened last year, rehashed the Rochester plot line: a character, under pressure to marry his girlfriend, reluctantly reveals the existence of a wife in an asylum from whom he cannot divorce. There is not even a fig leaf of “incompatibility” here: it is clear we are meant to sympathise with this man’s plight. He is, after all, a good chap, and clearly the mentally ill are unlovable and not fully human.

Give me Charlotte Bronte any day. An old unreconstructed racist she may have been, but she did try to give Rochester a better reason to hate his wife than her descent into illness. As Jane herself says: “It is cruel – she cannot help being mad.”

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