Nell Gifford and her sister Clover Stroud

Clover Stroud is surrounded by the usual organised chaos on which she thrives when we hook up. Her husband Pete is away working in the US for seven weeks, so the task of looking after their five children, numerous animals, pets, horses, friends, lunchboxes and of course her writing, is down to her.

She’s just got them all off to work, school and preschool respectively, and her kitchen is littered with the detritus of their departure. “This how I like it though. Neatness has its own pressures,” which is such a Clover thing to say.

But just as we are about to get stuck into discussing her new book My Wild and Sleepless Nights and her appearance at Thame Arts and Literature Festival tomorrow, there’s a knock at her front door. “Sorry about that,” she says re-emerging a few minutes later: “It was someone with a pony.”

Lester and Clover…. with a horse… and a dog… in their Cotswold kitchen

Of course it was. Anyone who follows Clover on Instagram will know she lives in a bucolic idyll near Faringdon in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by countryside, children and her beloved horses. And yet while My Wild and Sleepless Nights celebrates motherhood in all its messy, sticky glory, it also examines the darker side; the boredom, exhaustion and self doubt encompassed in being a mother.

She began writing the book after having Lester, her youngest, who is now four, often getting up at 5am to carve out time to write: “I became fascinated with the images of motherhood on social media. It seemed so competitive, people seemed so perfect or groovy or cliquey, rather than us all winging it together. And it made me question how I felt about motherhood and I decided to be really honest about it.”

“I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t struggle with motherhood in some way however they portray themselves”

Clover is never anything but searingly honest. Anyone who read her brilliant and difficult last book The Wild Other about her traumatic childhood, will understand that this is her way – to bare all and then stand back and watch how you react.

My Wild and Sleepless Nights is no different and she doesn’t hold back. “The feedback has been mainly one of relief from so many woman that someone is actually saying it how it is – talking about the darkness and the loneliness and the alienation and the violent thoughts you can have and the anger and the desperation, as well as the overwhelming love. I was just trying to explode the myth of motherhood mainly because I couldn’t find anyone else who had, or which matched my version.

“So yes it’s about the squitchy, squidgy yumminess but also about the bone crushing exhaustion and repetition. Because I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t struggle with motherhood in some way however they portray themselves.

“In my mother’s generation they had gin and valium to cope. We have social media to take us down a rabbit hole. But it is so frustrating. last weekend I made a delicious home-made chicken pie and the kids wouldn’t eat it. It can be soul destroying.

“I hope my children and anyone who reads it realises that this book only comes from a place of absolute love”

Which does beg the question about her own large family. “I think it’s my endless desire to take my life to the edge and to feel everything, to take things to an extreme and to fill my plate as high as possible. But I’m also aware as I deal with it that having children is the best and worse thing that can happen to you, and that I’m going to miss it when it’s over.

And I hope my children and anyone who reads this book realises that it only comes from a place of absolute love. Just love.”

Clover’s children

And then she laughs: “Although at the moment they are completely disinterested in what I do for a living.”

My Wild and Sleepless Nights is not just about babies either, it’s about motherhood all the way up, her oldest child Jimmy having now finished university.

“I think lots of people get really hysterical about teenagers and their behaviour. So the book is also about teens and adolescents and championing them rather than sharpening our knives, because they are so rewarding and wonderful in so many ways.

“And yes they rebel, but that’s normal, certainly as normal as having sleepless nights when you have a baby or toddler tantrums. It doesn’t mean they don’t have values.

“And then there is a pause. “Besides, I was worse.”

Amidst all of this, Clover is also grieving deeply for the loss of her beloved sister Nell Gifford, the founder of Giffords Circus.

So is the book she’s currently writing about Nell? “It’s more about me than Nell. It’s about how to deal with grief, how to get through and keep going and yes, about death. It’s about how to survive and bear such unendurable loss. It’s about losing my sister.

Nell and Clover

“Because to me she wasn’t Nell Gifford, she was my sister. A lot of people had a sense of what she was like, which had very little to do with what she was actually like, and how complex she was, and how her outward persona was different to her private life.”

Nell died of cancer in 2019 aged 46. Clover and Nell were extraordinarily close, perhaps because of their rather dysfunctional childhood, so her death has devastated Clover and continues to do so.

“I have had a lot of loss in my life,” Clover says, “so the next book is about living with that darkness and thinking about that what loss has done to me and alchemising that into something more beautiful, as well as how it has shaped my life.”

“I wish I’d talked to Nell more about death, but by the time I brought it up it was too late; she was too close, she was looking at it right in the face, And she died with so much courage”

Has writing it down helped? “I haven’t found it cathartic actually. I thought it would be quite therapeutic but in writing it down I have to recreate it in my head so it’s been quite a painful process and does have an immediate rawness to it.”

And then Clover draws breath and adds: “But there are very few people my age who haven’t experienced grief and loss and yet we just don’t talk about it. People are scared by death I suppose. And I think it’s a conversation we need to have.

“Because grief is so disorientating and terrifying, and you have so many unanswered questions. How can you go on without them? Why should you?

Clover Stroud ©Paul+Clarke copy

“I wish I’d talked to Nell more about death and what she thought and felt about it, but by the time I brought it up it was too late, she was too close, she was looking at it right in the face. And she died with so much courage.

“But I’d liked to have asked how I’d know she was still there and where to find her, to find out where she has gone and what to do when I miss her, how to connect with her. I wish I knew the answers.

“at the moment grief is like an occupation. Its very demanding and very lonely”

“But then I think your relationship with someone can continue after their death. I just miss her.”

Clover and Nell

“We had a really tempestuous relationship though and argued like cat and dog so that sometimes we couldn’t talk to each other. But we were really, really, really close and really understood each other.

“So at the moment grief is like an occupation. Its very demanding and very lonely, but the kids force you to keep going even when you don’t feel like it. I’m just finding my way.”

And then Clover remembers that we are actually here to discuss her appearance tomorrow at the Thame Arts and Literature Festival (TAL) where she is being interviewed by the lovely Kerry Potter, and perks up.

“I know the festival is virtual this year, but I can’t wait. I love TAL – I think it’s my favourite literary festival. It’s always a complete joy so it will be exciting to do it slightly differently and the idea that people can watch it from all around the world is really inspiring.”

And with that our time is up. Her next book awaits, her children will be back soon and the extraordinary world of Clover Stroud will continue turning, keeping us all enthralled as it does.

To book tickets to see Clover Stroud tomorrow (Saturday) at 1.30pm at TAL go to https://talfestival.org/2020/07/21/clover-stroud/

To find out more about Clover Stroud go to https://www.cloverstroud.com

TAL runs until Sunday night. Go to https://talfestival.org to find out more.

My Wild and Sleepless Nights and The Wild Other are available from all good bookshops.

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