A Blog Post by Nasir Ali Hussain
I came from that generation that grew up in the seventies and eighties. We often had young teachers who had come through the counterculture of the ’60s. These ex hippies retained something of the spirit of the ’60s. They encouraged us to dream, telling us that Middle Earth was just as real as planet Earth. Later on, us kids born in the late 60s and early 70’s were known as Generation X.
I can trace my personal relationship to ‘story’ from programmes like Pipkins, Playschool, Fingerbobs and Playaway. It all probably started with The Wizard Of Oz. The year was 1976. I know this because we had a pram in the front passage waiting for the birth of my youngest brother, whom my mother had gone to deliver at the hospital. I remember replaying the scene when Dorothy, The Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion are at the cliff’s edge of the Witch’s castle debating about who should go first.
I also remember the Welldon Park First School library in 1978. I was six years old, or thereabouts, and the place was like a hub of magic and adventure for me. I loved the bright sense of colour of the room and the equally colourful story books in the place. I used to get bored very easily as a child. I now realise that my joy of books and storytelling comes from appreciating the power of stories. The incredible way that a good yarn can spirit away the willing to amazing places; regardless of how drab or less than appealing their personal circumstances might be. With stories I was as far away from boredom as as cloud is from the sea. And, when things were humdrum or upsetting at home, I had that portal of escape. Then there were the storytelling sessions in class. Here, usually at 3 o’clock, one of our teachers would read to us. I remember them well. Mrs Pettifer in Year 2. She was middle aged looking and wore stern granny glasses. Miss Davis in Year 3. I had a massive crush on her at the time. I’ve had a massive crush on someone or other every year since then, but Miss Davis, with her cat-green eyes and short brown hair was the first. That was between 1978 and 1979. And in Year 4 my class teacher was Mrs Bryatt. She was a hard on the outside, soft on the inside South African with a short bob cut, not unlike the one Princess Diana had when she was introduced to the world in 1981. We were read stories about Anansi The Spider, Simon and The Witch and others as we sat cross-legged on the floor. All the teachers were marvellous readers and did spot on voices and characterisations.
In 1979, my older brother, one of my younger brothers and I joined Roxeth Library. I discovered reading in an independent sense at this point.
The books that drew me most were those that had anything to do with fantasy adventure and those that featured ghouls, vampires and spectres. I could not get enough of that stuff. The books which I remember most from that period between 1981 to 1986 are the wonderfully illustrated Ruth Manning Sanders collections i.e ‘Book Of Wizards, Book Of Giants, Books of Witches, Book Of Dragons, The 1001 Arabian Nights, The Narnia Chronicles by C.S Lewis, Ghost anthologies by Aidan Chambers, the Captain Cobweb series by Gordon Bushell and Simon and the Witch. By 1985 my tastes had matured and expanded and I remember being awestruck and moved by All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and Rats by James Herbert. But I want to make special mention of two slim books by The Bombay Parsi writer Farrukh Dhondy. They impacted me in a way few books have done before or since. I read them in 1984. One was called ‘East End At Your Feet’ and the other was called ‘Come to Mecca’. These books were masterful in their detailing of life for young Asians and West Indians who were coming of age in mid 1970s inner London and were an immense catalyst to me. I was totally in awe of what I read. I saw my life and the lives of a lot of people I knew in those pages. Those two books from 1976 and 1978 still blow me away in their power and faithfulness to the reality of the time.
For as long as I can remember I always saw faces in the patterns of wardrobes, clouds and curtains; and I always fancied I saw sentient shadows in the dark. Often my imagination would become unfriendly and overpower me with thoughts of terror. If I had seen a horror film on the TV I refused to go upstairs to the bathroom alone. My ‘fear’ became a running joke among my brothers and cousins and made my parents irate with me on several occasions. Just the atmosphere of those late night horror films shown on Friday nights on BBC 2 back in the Autumn of 1981, was enough to turn me into the biggest coward you ever saw. I was an intriguing character as a kid as I would swing from being a crazy, fun loving extrovert to needing to spend time alone upstairs for extended periods. I would sit with the door closed and read or listen to music on the radio. I was always enchanted by good storytelling, and also was very taken with Bollywood cinema. I had an encyclopedic knowledge of them and was pretty obsessed with them from 1982 to 1984. By 1886 I had stopped watching them altogether, which was a shame as watching those films with my mum, grandma and the rest of the family was a kind of glue that bonded us together and when I lost interest in them it wasn’t long before my mother stopped renting them.
I always had a problem with escapism and day dreaming and I always loved and respected the power of language. I was not great in school. My teachers were frustrated. They said I was ‘capable’ and had ‘ability’ but was far too easily distracted, talked all the time and was far more interested in playing the class clown than I was in learning.
My memory of my childhood is eerily strong; especially from the years 1979 to 1993. Then it all starts to get a bit sketchy and holes in time begin to appear. People walk past me in the street who don’t recognise me, but with whom I chatted with in 1982/83 or know vicariously in some way through my older brother’s social circle. And I carry an inordinate amount of knowledge of them. How and why this is, I don’t know. But it’s like my memory is holding on to all this bric-a-brac for a reason and demanding that I use this data.
In my opinion I think there are five features to be found in a writer or lover of ‘the story’. One or more, and in some cases all of these features, apply to the writer.
Firstly, a sense, in some way, of personal displacement, which makes them see things as a bit of an outsider hence the observation and sticking in the mind of things that others may see as mundane and trivial. Secondly, a sense, or even a need for, escape.
Thirdly, a joy of the potential and effects of language. Fourthly, the idea that ‘story’ tells us something not only about how life works, but that at its highest level, a well-told story imparts to us something about the nature and meaning of life.
And fifthly, the simple need of the writer to see and record- like angels of witness. This could be seen as a form of madness even; where you do not feel whole unless you write as some form of personal attestation. I like to think of this writerly urge as ‘the demands of memory.’
I think when some, or all of these elements come together, a kind of compulsion is created. A compulsion that means you will, sooner or later, feel the demand to write- because you need to record and express. All of the above points have been pulsing within me for as long as I can remember.
English was the only class in school that I was consistently good at, perhaps because it was the only class in which I was consistently interested in.
I’m almost fifty years old now and people and experiences have come and gone through my life like taxis at a cab stand. And yet, books and and the various formats of storytelling- like film and music- have been the one immutable constant. That and my alienating habit of disengaging with the responsibilities of real life for the dreamy fancies of imagination.
When I was a teenager I silently told myself that one day I would write books. When I was in university I told one or two people that I would write novels. When I was in law school, throwing my future away for the incredible social life I suddenly found there, I told the people I was friends with that being a lawyer was not my real ambition. I told them that I was writing a book. No such book however existed, except perhaps within the pages of my mind. All I had was a vague idea. When I was working in various law firms as a legal executive I found myself making notes on scraps of paper for stories and characters every chance I got.
When I met Simon at the Callan School Of English in London we both found we had a shared love of ‘the story’, but whilst I had yet to write anything of value or substance, Simon had a script optioned. He described it as the first great British Road movie and it was called ‘Lizard Point.’ I read it and was impressed and realised I had a long way to go before I could call myself a writer. We worked on a film together called ‘HeadCleaner.’ The film and the story of it are both on our blog, so I won’t discuss them any further here. However, a discussion with Tamlyn about the fallout between me and Simon had him laughingly tell me that I should write about it. I sat on the train home and started the first draft of HeadCleaner on the Victoria Line. For the first time both the words and the story flowed and within a few days I had my first story. This was in the late Summer of 2002. By the end of 2003 I had a sequel called ‘Poles Apart’ and a follow up penned after that which I called ‘It Went Down As It Went Up.’ Lack of confidence, and a rejection note from the one editor I submitted it to, crippled my confidence to a kind of literary polio, and I did not write again for some time. But, after a while, I started to make notes and write again. I could not stop the habit of looking at people and things that happened with the eyes of a writer and I still got a kick out of clever sentences and good story constructions.
There was also a time, around ten years back, when I resigned myself to the notion that I would manage and run businesses and not write again. So I stopped plotting novels in my head and ceased to see scenes from stories that resided inside me. I no longer sought out certain kinds of people and situations in terms of conversion fuel for stories. However mental habits die hard; and after around two years of normality my imagination made a comeback and everybody and everything was still processed in my mind as a story, whether I liked it or not. And then I lost my business running and developing English language schools for an international franchise. I had been working in that industry for many years and when it all abruptly collapsed I not only lost my livelihood but also lost my definition of myself. I felt like I had lost everything and could not get a job for ages. I felt like I had failed in life. However, my desire to write again began to return and I found myself more pleased with what I was churning out on the PC and becoming more committed to the art of story craft. I also rediscovered my self-worth again and stopped feeling like someone who had failed in life and fallen far short of his potential because I felt at my best when I was writing.
When all is said and done, I think that I, like others who are writers or fancy themselves as writers, write out of a sense of compulsion. It is just something that they must do because writing is an intrinsic part of who they are and sooner or later we have to come back to ourselves and be who we are and do what we feel we must do. I write because the desire to read and write stories has been the one thing that has always been there in my life. The one enthusiasm that has never gone away- and in fact become stronger with time. When I have been hurt or lost in life, story has made sense of the confusion. I find that the people who I have truly connected with, and with whom I have attained a mutual understanding with, have also been people with the same compulsion to enjoy and tell stories. They see life and people and all that goes on within it as a story and try to contextualise and recontextualise with the writer’s eye.
I suspect that writing is, in some instances, a form of madness. A madness where you are incredibly objective in your perception and observation for the sake of literary integrity. And yet, you are also conversly, impossibly subjective in the way you see your own personal relationship to everything. I also believe that writing is a form of transcendence where, a bit like a committed method actor, you temporarily leave your body and go to inhabit a world that lives only in your mind’s eye. I write because whenever I do, I feel better about myself and a wave of satisfaction washes over me in some abstract validation.
I write because it helps me taste life twice. Often, when I write, I feel like the dungeon master in Dungeons And Dragons; a kind of demigod who gets to see life in a very unique way and where everything in the world can be beautiful depending on my thoughts. A school bell sounds irritating at 9 am. But the same bell sounds melodious at 3.30 p.m.
And lastly I write, because like anyone who wants to produce art, I not only want to hold up a mirror to the world so that it can see itself through my eyes, but I also want to live, in some way, forever. Because after all, when everything is said and done, art endures whilst we do not.
By Nasir Ali Hussain Copyright June 2021