Jeanette Winterson: I didn’t believe in ghosts… until I started living with them

Jeanette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson: 'I don’t know if you have experienced a ghost sulking – it’s like a child trying to be quiet while doing everything to get your attention' - Jonė Reed

Scroll through the article to watch Winterson telling her own ghost stories

I bought a small Georgian house, built in the 1780s – just before the French Revolution. The house is in an old part of London – so old that it lies outside the ancient city walls. Those walls are long gone. The house is still here. And so am I. For now.

I ask myself, when I am dead, would I haunt this house? I am fond of it, so perhaps a return would be permitted? And if I don’t approve of what the new people have done to it – I can create a disturbance.

The house, and others like it, was not built for anyone grand. This part of town was where poor people lived.

Jack the Ripper hunted around here – and later, the Kray twins, drinking at a pub that had a special licence to stay open all night.

Samuel Pepys, diarist of the Plague, chronicler of the Great Fire of London, wrote about Spitalfields – the name itself pointing backwards to the leper hospital in medieval times. That site became the vast fruit and veg market roaring into life at 4am every morning except Sunday. In fact, my own house used to belong to an oranges importer. There was really no choice but to buy it.

The market is gone now, relocated to make way for corporate offices and boutique shops. No wonder ghosts get upset.

My first ghost was unexpected.

It took me two years to make the house habitable. It had a Dangerous Structure Notice on it when I bought it. The front façade was propped, and the shopfront was bricked up, to stop the building collapsing. But inside, the fireplaces were all there, and most of the original panelling, and wide floorboards that I polished to a deep, satisfying shine.

My carpenter found the original shopfront panels wrapped in sacking in the basement – we put it all back – and the Listed Building status means that no one can take it away again. The ground floor and basement have a separate entrance – the first shop there opened in 1805, during the Napoleonic Wars, and I like it that we were selling onions the size of cannonballs back then.

The basement, though, was low and mean and had to be dug out by hand. Vibration would have brought the house down. Digging with pickaxes and shovels, the first thing we found was the skeleton of a dead cat with a charm round its foot. Cats were often buried alive in the footings of new buildings, to ward off… what?

The next thing we found was a walled-up vault. This vault was far older than the house. The bricks were slight, irregular, hand-made, crumbling with damp. It’s likely that this part of the building dates back to the 1600s, before the Plague and the Great Fire of London, and it might have been someone’s cesspit, or it might have been used to bury infected bodies. We weren’t going to find out by digging deeper.

The upper part of the vault – if you can imagine an upper part in a basement – would be useful for storage, the rest got a limecrete floor over it. Then, with a serviceable, solid door fitted into the recess, we forgot about it.

I fashioned a tiny bedroom and bathroom, down there in the basement – subterranean and silent, but carpeted and cosy, with the original prison-bar air grill on to the street over my head creating a light well, while the muffled noises of street life, above, were comforting. I like darkness and quiet for sleeping – so a basement is perfect.

In any case, good friends of mine needed to borrow the house itself while their own place was being renovated – and what did I need except a bed for the night?

On one such night, in one such bed, and deeply asleep, I was awakened by the sound of clattering footsteps coming down the wooden stairs into my room. Struggling from sleep, I called out, ‘Vicky?’ as my mind reached for the obvious: my friend from upstairs had come down for something.

There was no reply.

I lay still, listening. Nothing.

Jeanette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson: 'Visualise a flight of steep, straight stairs leading up from the front door to the kitchen area, and a small, panelled dining room off it...' - Jonė Reed

Then, just as I was about to fall back to sleep, I felt a hand take my hand – my hand that was outside of the bed covers, dangling down on the same side as the door to the vault. But wait, this wasn’t someone holding my hand; no, this was someone taking my pulse. Three fingers on my wrist. Cold fingers. And I don’t know why I did this, but I said, ‘I am alive.’

At that, the hand let go of my hand, there was a rush of air, and the sound of the same rapid footsteps, this time going back up the stairs.

In the morning I asked Vicky if she had come down in the night – a ridiculous idea, since it would have meant exiting on to the street from her quarters and re-entering through the separate door. She told me that she had heard banging from the ground floor occasionally but had assumed it was coming from next door.

Sound can be deceiving. Yes, it can, but not when it clatters down a staircase to take your pulse.

It was always my intention to restore the shop space and start trading from there again, and when my friends were able to go to their own home, that’s what I did.

Once the shop was bustle and busyness, there were no more basement disturbances. The ghosts moved upstairs. To me.

I want you to visualise a flight of steep, straight stairs leading up from the front door to the kitchen area, and a small, panelled dining room off it. Then, the stairs reappear between these rooms and take us, on a tight wind, to a set of rooms, one to the right and one to the left, with a little room in between that would have been the slop room for the two families living either side. Above these rooms is the attic where I sleep now. Bathrooms were a much later (1950s) addition, built in a tower in the backyard.

It is the second floor that concerns us – and in particular, the corner room with its double aspect. The corner room would have been the more desirable accommodation when the house was a rooming house. To begin with, I developed the distinct impression that I was not alone in that room.

When I sat down by the fire to read, I was convinced that the chair opposite me was occupied. This was not unpleasant, but it was strange. The personage, I thought, was female. Walk into the room, and it seemed empty, in the expectant way that rooms can be empty, as if they are waiting for you to join them. Sit down, settle down, and within a half-hour or so you would not be alone.

Jeanette Winterson
'The place is low-lit at night, there are always candles, and I had the fireplace grates fitted with flame gas fires' - Jonė Reed

A friend of mine came to stay while I was away. When I returned, she asked me, a little awkwardly, if I had noticed anything unusual in the parlour. I said nothing – a sure way to get someone to say more – and she confessed that she had seen a woman in a grey dress.

That was more than I had seen, but I have never ‘seen’ a ghost, only felt their emphatic presence. I do want to stress this; there is no vagueness about it. Ghosts are intangible but they are not vague.

Over the years – and we are talking 30 years or so now – my ghosts have come and gone. I rented the house to a cheerful, no-nonsense New Yorker called Lisa for a while, and she was not haunted – or if she was, she dealt with it.

When Lisa left, I returned the house to the spartan state that suits me – no clutter, a few simple pieces of good furniture. It’s a luxury only possible when you don’t live in a place all the time, or with kids or cats. Or dogs. The cats and dogs and God knows what in my other home make any haunting impossible. There’s too damn much going on.

Ghosts seem to like a quiet life – at least for themselves. Spitalfields is ghost-friendly. The place is low-lit at night, there are always candles, and I had the fireplace grates fitted with flame gas fires. So, in the evening, in the winter, the wood panelling glows, and the floorboards shine, and there is no TV, only the quiet sound of me and a book.

The corner room soon became occupied – this time by a noisy and cross male, who banged the fire-irons, opened and shut the door, fiddled with the lights, and unforgivably, stomped up to the attic to sit heavily on my bed. I hate to be disturbed at night.

Only the other evening – just before I finished writing this – I was staying at the house when there was a terrific thump on the bed headboard followed by a tremendous racket in the corner room. I shouted at whoever it is – pointing out that I needed to get a good night’s sleep. The entity retreated into sulky silence.

I don’t know if you have experienced a ghost sulking – it’s like a child trying to be quiet while doing everything to get your attention.

These days, when I enter or leave the house, I greet the ghosts cheerfully, welcoming them, requesting that they behave well – they are my tenants, after all. I understand that they prefer to be out and about at night – but I ask that they do so without involving me. The radio still switches itself on in the kitchen from time to time – but not before 8am, which is decent of them. Ghosts, it seems, are delighted with electricity. Certainly, they manipulate it – lights going on and off, and the radio stunt is a classic.

Jeanette Winterson
'The radio switches itself on from time to time' - Jonė Reed

And once, just once, I had the oddest experience.

It was soon after my dear friend, the writer Ruth Rendell had died. Ruth herself came to believe in ghosts, late in life, after an unpleasant experience in a Cuban hotel – after that she took the line that it is buildings themselves that trap and release the energy, rather than that ghosts ‘visit’. I was thinking about Ruth, sadly, as I was waiting for my laptop to get itself together. For a single second Ruth’s smiling face flashed across the screen.

It was a photograph – and I have that photograph – so yes, it is in the computer – but I hadn’t been looking at it, nor had I searched for it, or done anything at all that might have made it appear out of its folder.

I never felt Ruth’s presence again after that, though many times I walked past her house in London, after her son sold it, and I wondered if she was there.

Standing outside her place, I longed for her to open the door, as she used to do, country music playing in the background. Her big smile. It was that big smile I saw on my screen.

I realised later that the appearance was within the 40-day mourning period observed by different faiths and cultures – Islam, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox – with Jews it is 30 days. Perhaps, that’s some sense of the time it takes for a soul truly to depart this place. Death, after all, is an eviction. But what about the ghosts with whom I have no direct relationship? The ghosts in my London house?

Maybe Ruth is right, and the house-ghosts are contained by, and released by, the building itself, and after a time they disappear for ever. There are no explanations in the real sense of that word. We just don’t know.

All the ghost-hunting TV shows, with their measuring kits and resident psychics, they tell us no more than we can know ourselves, via our own senses. I don’t understand it, I am not sure that I believe it, but I go on experiencing it. I doubt I have heard the last of my ghosts…

Abridged extract from Night Side of the River: Ghost Stories, by Jeanette Winterson, a collection of short stories, interspersed with the author’s own encounters with the supernatural ( from which these experiences are taken).Out on 5 October (£18.99, Vintage); pre-order your copy from 

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