I saw a curious thing reported from the chaos of London last month; it seems that while delis and electronics retailers were being looted all around them, most bookshops were left untouched.
Is it that rioters can’t read? Or do they all have Kindles? (If they didn’t before, apparently they do now – even if they don’t know how to use them.)
Looking at the TV pictures, it’s not much of a stretch to figure these kids can’t or won’t read, unless it’s a manual with lots of pictures on how to break stuff. But I’d bet London to a hurled brick none of them read fiction: or the word I like much better – stories.
With publishing going digital it is sometimes easy to forget that we humans told stories to each other long before there were paperbacks or iPads. We learned about life sitting around a campfire thousands of years before Amazon or Harper Collins.
I am a writer; but I am equally a reader. Books – stories – matter to me, not as an intellectual exercise, but something visceral that has guided me in my relationships and my working life. Wherever I go, Atticus Finch, Yossarian, Nathaniel Blackthorne, Harry Flashman and Huckleberry Finn go too. Picasso said that we use art to explain the world to ourselves, the same way that the Greeks used myth and fable to try and make sense of their place in the world and with the gods. It’s what stories do, intentionally or not.
And the one vital component of every story is a hero and a villain. You cannot have a story without them; and some, like James Bond or Hannibal Lector or Gordon Gekko, become larger than life and take up residence in our deep psyche.
As we have seen in recent times, there are plenty of villains in the world right now and more than enough weak secondary characters among our political and corporate leaders – but precious few heroes, people of courage and decency and toughness. There is little to inspire mankind about David Cameron or Rupert Murdoch. The rioters in Clapham may be scum, but really – is there much difference in the basic mindset of someone who hacks the phone of grieving relatives or steals from an injured and helpless kid’s back pack?
While it was all happening y editor at Corvus sent me a Youtube clip of a gutsy Hackney woman with a walking stick shaming the rioters to their faces. ‘We’re not fighting all together for a cause’, she yelled at them. “You’re just ripping off Footlocker.”
So what should be our common cause? I do not believe that any religious belief or political system will change the way we treat each other. Hardcore religion only breeds fanatics or atheists; political systems, democracy or communism, are always corrupted for personal gain.
It is why I think stories are so important to all of us. Because they work subliminally, they are very powerful in changing how we look at life. They are the way we enshrine our bushido, a way to fix our moral compass when politicians and corporate suits are all looking south.
Perhaps I am being fanciful; a starry-eyed Jerry McGuire in a world full of Bob Sugars. Maybe so – but I had me at hello.
You see, I believe in the power of stories, I have given my life to it. Stories are not about the size of the advance or how many sales we can make on Kindle. They are much more important than that. It doesn’t matter to me that I am not be the best storyteller in the world, or even close, just that I believe it matters. I think all writers matter in this world. Great stories can teach us about hope and courage, and that old fashioned word called personal honour.
Just for the record, my parents were from Hackney. I was born on the Blackhorse Road. I escaped North London so I know no one book will change the world, and it certainly won’t change Broadwater Farm. All the more reason for us to create a wealth of stories that affirm who we are and all that what we can be, both as individuals and as nations. We need heroes right now.
We need them in Croydon and Tottenham; we need them in our Parliaments and in our Senates. We certainly need them on Wall Street and we need somehow to infiltrate them as sleepers into Rupert Murdoch’s business empire.
The thugs in London and Birmingham didn’t steal from the book shops for this reason: there was nothing in there they wanted. I believe our job though, from the humblest story-teller to the greatest, is to make sure that at least there is everything in there that they need.
… And that goes for the vandals on Wall Street too.
There: I have had my Jerry McGuire moment. Go ahead and laugh. But I believe in the book (and the film and the play) and I believe in the people who make them. And I think that if we make common cause, like the lady in Hackney said, we can make a difference. We’re not just here to rip off Footlocker.