Home is not what it used to be. You don’t have to cast your mind far to land on a time when a house was still considered a necessity, not simply an asset. Virginia Woolf called it: we all need room of our own. Without it, we can swing in a pendulum of craving security and evading the trauma of uncertainty.
Trauma is a subject that interests Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett. The writer, columnist and co-author of The Vagenda has never been one to shy away from difficult subjects, drawn to the stories of the overlooked and under-represented. Cosslett has channelled issues close to her heart in her debut novel, The Tyranny of Lost Things. This is a book about many things – the psychology of trauma, the importance of home, hippie communes and the sexual revolution – but the lasting impression is of a rich and gritty love letter to London.
Wilma: You capture the significance of lost things throughout the book, including London. Why is that?
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett: I wanted to capture a moment at which I felt London was shifting, and 2011 really felt like a turning point in the city. It was the year before the Olympics and all the regeneration: some of it great, some of it pushing prices up. You had the riots and the student protests. London started to become somewhere that people who had known and loved it no longer recognised.
I’m also interested in the symbolism of objects. The Surrealist Magritte and Tracey Emin use objects as a way of referencing memories and I wanted to use that as a device to weave throughout the book. The main character, Harmony has had a very peripatetic, unstable childhood. After they leave the commune she was born into, her mum moves Harmony from one place to another, often leaving everything behind. And so objects become an anchor to her.
One of your character’s quotes Francis Bacon in living ‘between the gutter and The Ritz’. The class divide is always there in the background, willing its way into discussion.
When I returned to London [having been born there and moved away] I encountered wealth in a completely new way. Before you encounter it, you conceptually know it exists, but then you come into contact with it and the contrast is so stark. You meet rich people, you befriend some of them. Lucia [a character] is a reference to the ruling class. The people who dominate politics and media, send their kids to the same schools and are educated at Oxbridge. She has a certain amount of capital but not cultural capital. She’s desperate to be seen as cool and so she plays up to a camp version of poshness I’m sure most of us have encountered. But she is a sympathetic character. As the book goes on, you realise that she has her own burdens to carry.
Then there’s the main character, Harmony from a transient hippie background and who oscillates between craving stability and being repulsed by it.
It’s that perpetual idea of selling out that hippies have always talked about it. To use a Dylan metaphor, Harmony’s making up her mind on whether to go electric. She doesn’t know who she is. She’s a flawed character who is young and naïve. Considering my personal left-wing politics, Harmony is in some ways conservative with a small ‘c’. A big part of her wants a nice, normal family and stable home life.
Lucia’s mother delivers the killer lines ‘I didn’t feel especially liberated… a lot of the time I felt rather used. But turning it down wasn’t really the done thing’. I was glad to see misogyny within communes wasn’t glossed over.
I’ve always been interested in the 60s and 70s and was aware that the sexual revolution wasn’t so much of a revolution in terms of women’s rights. There was a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies under the guise of sexual liberation. In the book, Lucia is raped and neither she or Harmony quite know whether to use the word. Harmony is also choked during sex, which has happened to several people I know. An increasing effect of porn, perhaps. So I wanted to ask the question: how much have we really moved on?
There’s a sense that being a woman still feels difficult and dangerous, perhaps it’s just that the goalposts have shifted?
I wrote the book before #MeToo and ‘Cat Person’, but some of my characters are grappling with similar struggles. From mine and my friends’ experiences, it took us a long time to appreciate kindness as a desirable trait in men. Now it’s the first thing I ask. We’re told from a young age that if a guy pulls your hair it means he likes you. Harmony is a traumatised person and because of that has a lack of affect, so things in the book don’t effect her in the way a person who hasn’t experienced trauma might be.
Even though the book is very funny, trauma does seem to be the prevailing protagonist.
I have experience of trauma myself and developed PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] after I was attacked in 2010 whilst walking home from a party. Five years later my boyfriend and I got caught up in the Paris attacks. We were stuck in a nearby bar for many hours not knowing if the attackers were still in the area. That frightening experience brought the PTSD back. I’m fascinated by the psychological mechanisms of trauma and learning about it helped me to get better. Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD, it’s selective. When your fight or flight responses kick in, memories aren’t processed properly so that part of your brain ceases to distinguish between past and present. I wanted to explore this topic in a literary way, as I hadn’t read anything that did.
There’s such intense and personal horror in trauma.
It’s horror at its core. A friend of mine arrived early on to the scene at Grenfell and she was saying that for a long time, she would smell smoke and wet herself. And sometimes she would look up and see a building on fire, that wasn’t on fire. This is something that so many people must have experienced but we only recently have a word for it.
There's no greater baptism of fire than Germaine Greer calling you a 'shit feminist' in a national magazine when you're 25
How does this experience compare to the last book you co-wrote?
It feels more personal, more of a creative endeavour. I had a lot of fun writing The Vagenda – we pissed ourselves laughing the whole way through. Holly [Baxter, co-author] and I started it with a few friends and thought no one would read it, we certainly had no idea it would go viral. We launched the site in February and had a book deal by September.
So not much time to take stock of the situation?
Holly and I didn’t have media jobs or any connection to the industry and so we had quite a counter-cultural, anti-establishment ethos, completely unfiltered. Some of the things we said were awful! But we didn’t have to answer to anyone, we were just two dickheads in our flat in Kentish Town. I didn’t know I’d be on The Today Programme, going head-to-head with the editor of Cosmopolitan within a week of the site launching.
Now that you do occupy a space in the media, how do you view that period?
When I look back I think ‘I was fucking 24’ and I kind of admire my balls [at taking on women’s magazines]. I don’t have anywhere near as much bravery now as I did then. We were sticking two fingers up at the lot of them… and they got their revenge with the book reviews.
Back in the day this place would have been squatted in. That is, until the Tory party made it illegal
Has that experience helped you to overcome any debut novel nerves?
There’s no greater baptism of fire than Germaine Greer calling you a ‘shit feminist’ in a national magazine when you’re 25! I can laugh at it now but at the time it was a total mindfuck. I am a little nervous but peoples’ responses to fiction is very different to writing a tits-out, two-fingers up polemic. And if you write a polemic, people are going to be polemic right back at you.
Ending back on The Tyranny of Lost Things: I loved how the urban commune where the book is set represents a bittersweet utopia, experienced in London for a fleeting time.
Despite being cool and rebellious, what was inspiring about sub cultures was that they were really about finding your people and sharing experiences based on similar values. What’s sad about these former communes that have disintegrated and divided into expensive flats, is that the dream of collective and compassionate living died with them. There’s a great building in Kentish Town that back in the day would have been squatted in. That is, until the Tory party made it illegal.
Join Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett to discuss The Tyranny of Lost Things with author Emma Jane Unsworth.
Date: 03rd July 2018
Location: Waterstones, Gower Street London