Wisdom in the Old of yesterday; Lessons for the Young of today


I’ve recently returned to an old hobby of mine: actively looking for rare books on topics of interest, and savouring them like you would a delicious slice of exuberant cake.

This week’s find is a beautiful 1948 edition of How Long the Night by Lina Haag.

I’ve just finished the harrowing tale and am conscious of the shivers that run through me as I turn each page. We hear of human beings who are towers of strength to Lina; human beings who lose heart, but ‘break faith, never.’

I might be fetched at any moment for interrogation.

I experience a physical reaction to the story not only because of the truth in this tale but because of the repetition of stories and struggles – similar, thought not the same – that I hear every time I turn on the news.

 

Serendipity and The Writing Life

Serendipity often occurs when we’re in writing mode.

When you’re in that deep place of the story. Doing the shopping, selecting lettuce, or fish, for dinner and the narrator’s voice is running through your mind. And that exact verb that you were hunting for rings loudly in your ears.

Out for a walk, suddenly you see someone who looks like they could be in your novel. Or you hear a phrase that is perfect. Somebody refers to a place that features in a scene you’ve just written.

Last week I spent the morning writing a chapter of my novel which is set in 1938 and took a break to meet a friend for coffee. Actually, it was lunch. In a pub where we often meet. For food. For coffee. For chats.  But last week was different. A simple change in how they served coffee had me smiling all week.

I can’t tell you how wonderful it was – and astonishing, really – when I was served my coffee in the cup you see pictured below. Yes. 1938. 

Writers may be custodians of memory, the guardians of stories, and, as William Zinsser says, ‘writing has no new discoveries to spring on us. We’re in no danger of reading in our morning newspaper that breakthrough has been made in how to write a clear English sentence.’

But still, the magic is there, and if we are open enough, so is the serendipity.

It’s these moments, these simple coffee cup moments that keep us writing, even when the story is tough.

Reading, Considering, and Ownership of stories…

I’ve spent a lot of time since my last post in November considering our perception of and ownership of stories, and history. These considerations of mine have stemmed, in part, from my reading habits a selection of which I list below – – and, of course, recommend not as a ‘best of’ but more of a ‘thought-ful’.

Working backwards we have the book I finished this morning: Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. I loved how the multi-stranded stories unfolded and unfurled, the humour and the tragedy of everyday life.

Then we have the marvelous War by Janne Teller – I have passed this on to my teenager daughter to read and I’m thinking that it could – should? – be read throughout schools across Europe. It speaks of real experiences of refugees but re-imagined in a world where people of Great Britain are trying desperately to make it to the only peaceful place: the Middle East.

Accompanied by strangely intriguing and disturbing illustrations, it has really stayed in my mind. Take this short extract…

The Vegetarian by Han Kang has sat on my shelf for some time so I was glad to get some space to read it. And devour it – pardon the link with the themes of the book here! – I did. Astonishing, unsettling, and terribly moving. It touched on many of the themes that I had been reading – ownership, agency, humanity.

And before that, I had a marathon read about the Spanish Civil War, leading into World War 2 and beyond…but what The Frozen Heart really tackles is that question of how war changes people, and what people will do in order to survive. And what stories they tell; and how they tell them.

And for a change of scene, I re-read an old favourite. Jane Eyre. 

And I noticed, then, that all of these authors are women. And I smiled to myself. And thought of what I might read next….Perhaps an article or a short story, from the New Yorker, or nearer to home, Idler or one of the three novels below that are on my bedside table…