VIRUS: NEVER WASTE A GOOD CRISIS

coronavirus crisis

Many of us – those who have never been soldiers, or lived through wars or hurricanes or tsunamis – have not seen darker days than these.

How do we get through it?

Everyone has inner resources, but some people have more than others. In some people, it will bring out the worst; but from others, we will see the very best.

Many years ago, when I first learned to write fiction, it was drummed into me again and again by my teachers; put your characters in a crisis.

Because you only learn what people are really made of when you put them under stress.

As in fiction, so in life.

We will all find out what we are made of right now.

So, what is it we need, what will give us the ability not only to survive, but to survive in a way that makes people say, when it’s all over:

I wish I had been like them.

 

coronavirus crisis

I was an ambulance officer for thirteen years. From the start, one of the things that was clear to me, watching emergency doctors and other medics battling to save people’s lives, or police dealing with violent and chaotic situations, was that some were better at it than others.

The ones who did it best, and also suffered the least stress from the job, had one common characteristic. Yes, they were team players, and they genuinely cared about others. But they were also tough. Tough on the inside.

What made them that way?

Seemed to me it was their sense of humour.

No, they didn’t make knock-knock jokes at car crashes. Nor was their humour offensive, because there is nothing in the least bit funny about people suffering and dying.

They just knew when to use humour to mitigate the worst of situations and help others around them cope.

If you have ever seen Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, you’ll already understand this. The movie is about an Italian Jew who is sent to Auschwitz in WW2 with his son. He persuades him that it is all just a funny game to help him survive the horror of it.

At the end, when the Germans are slaughtering everyone, he hides him from the guards, but afterwards he himself is captured. As a soldier marches Benigni around the corner to execute him, he looks over his shoulder and manages a wink and an outrageous funny walk for the boy, to make him laugh and keep him calm.

The film was based on the experiences of Rubino Romeo Salmoni, who later wrote: “I came out of Auschwitz alive, I have a wonderful family, I celebrated my golden wedding anniversary, I have 12 splendid grandchildren – I think I can say I ruined Hitler’s plan for me.”

Another example: it’s no secret that I am not a fan of Ronald Regan, either as an actor or as a politician. But the one thing I do admire him for is his demeanour after he was shot by John Hinckley Jnr in 1981. As he was wheeled into the operating room, facing death from catastrophic internal bleeding, he removed his oxygen mask and said to the waiting doctors: “Please tell me you’re all Republicans.”

A last example, from fiction: one of the most searing anti-war novels ever published was Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Heller’s writing showed that laughter can be more powerful than a swimming pool of tears. His central character, a pilot in WW2, goes to his commander and asks to be relieved from duty.

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.

“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.

“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.

“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”

“And what difference does that make?”

Anthropologists tell us that humans used laughter to communicate, millions of years before we developed language. Babies as young as 17 days old have been observed laughing. Even children born blind and deaf know how to do it.

It’s basic to our nature. Laughing in the midst of stress helps us cope and there are physiological reasons for that.

In 2011 the American Heart Association conducted a study testing the effect of laughter on 79 participants. They found that fifteen minutes of laughter lowered blood pressure readings in every one of them.

An added bonus: when you laugh you also activate T-cells, the specialized immune system cells that help ward off sickness while also reducing stress hormone levels.

It’s how we cope.

The one creation I am most proud of in my own working life is DI Charlie George, because he reflects everything I admired while working with emergency responders. Charlie’s a team player, but his dark and gritty sense of humour, in dealing with the daily horrors of working in a murder squad, sets him apart and makes him an heroic figure.

It’s what makes him tough. It’s how he survives.

I’ll never meet most of you reading this, and I’ll never understand what you’re going through right now. But like our heroes, in life and in fiction, try and find reason to smile; not because things are funny right now, but because they’re really not.

That’s heroic. And it will help you get through.

And if you can’t laugh, try singing on the balcony, like they do in Italy. I tried it last night, and my voice is so bad, someone threw a toilet roll at me.

You see? Every cloud has a silver lining.

Stay well. Things will get better.

Until next week.

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VIRUS: WHAT FICTION TEACHES US ABOUT FEAR

We are all living through a disaster story right now.

We don’t want to. We don’t like it. But we don’t have any choice.

Like me, you’re probably very worried. We all have people we love, and some of them may be vulnerable right now. We’re all facing an uncertain present and an even more uncertain future.

But if it’s any comfort, this is a well-trodden path we’re all on. 

Human beings have been surviving all manner of disasters, great and small, since we started walking upright – and then we made up stories about what happened, to use as road maps in the future.

So what can fiction teach us about fear – in fact, how is fiction going to help us in any way?

Because it is what fiction is for.

Times like these – it’s the very reason stories exist.

 

photo: “Hope after terror.” – C. Puisney

Stories, from Superman to Cinderella, Hunger Games to Hannibal Lecter, are our collective wisdom. It’s why we read them and watch them and listen to them. 

You see, fiction isn’t about things that never happened. As I wrote last week, plot is just a device. The real story is about you and me, and discovering together what we are really like inside.

And we only ever learn anything about ourselves in a crisis.

Every day, somewhere in the world, there are people fighting to survive some sort of personal threat; it could be a war, a divorce or – as is happening right now – a virus.

You and I have been thrust into the middle of this. There is no way to refuse the call. Our particular story will be what we do between now, this unexpected beginning, and The End.

And that story will count for something.

We all have had parents or grandparents who lived through even darker days than these. When I was a little boy, my mother used to tell me how she and her neighbours sat in an underground station in London during the Blitz, singing songs to keep up each other’s spirits while the bombs fell and the ground shook. (Much the same way Italians are serenading each other right now, from their balconies above the deserted piazzas .) Every morning she woke up wondering if this was the day she would be a widow at eighteen, or be homeless – or both.

My old man remembered sitting shivering on Juno Beach on D-Day+1, with a cold can of baked beans, thinking: this is the last time I’ll ever see the sun come up.

My grandmother would sometimes mutter under her breath about her brother-in-law, who got himself listed ‘unfit for duty’ and instead stayed home and made a handsome profit on the black market.  

Theirs were stories about heroism and fear and survival and now such reminiscences form the backdrop to countless novels and movies about those same terrible times.

Very soon, we may all have stories a little like theirs.

There will be hoarders and profiteers; there will be communities pulling together; there will be doctors and nurses fighting on the front line and people going out of their way to help others who can’t help themselves.

And when the story finally ends – and hopefully our time of danger will not last anywhere near as long as that terrible war – we will all have learned something about ourselves.

Did we secure seven thousand bottles of hand sanitizer so we could sell them on eBay at a ridiculous profit – or did we give the food we just bought from the supermarket to the old lady who got knocked over in the stampede in the aisles?

When people write novels about the Coronavirus Epidemic of 2020 – and they will – will you be the inspiration for one of the villains or one of the heroes of the story?

We are only at the end of the first act right now. There will be many more crises and black moments to come,as in any blockbuster.

But there will be a morning after. Take comfort in that. This is not for ever. Every story has to end.

So stay safe. Be kind and be brave. And try to be not only the hero in your own story – but in someone else’s.

Until next week.

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WHY ARE THERE BOOKS – AND WHY DO WE NEED THEM?

COLIN FALCONER STORYTELLER

Like kids all over the world, my daughters loved me reading them a story every night before they went to sleep.

“Tell me a story.”

My eldest daughter loved James Herriot’s stories about a vet in the Yorkshire Dales. (Ironically, she married a guy who grew up just a few miles down the road from Herriot.) My youngest loved stories about a not very good witch called Pongwiffy. (Fortunately she has not yet dated a warlock …but stay tuned.)

From when we are children to almost our last breath, many of us are addicted to stories; crime fiction, historical fiction, or any kind of fiction, in books, on the television, in movies.

So when did humans first start saying: “Tell me a story?”

And why are stories so crucial to us, not only as individuals, but to the whole human race?

 

COLIN FALCONER STORYTELLER

Graphic novels have been around forever. The first one started with someone scrawling some figures on a cave wall, thousands of years ago.

Audio books are as old as humans themselves. The first one was heard around a campfire, while some Neanderthals were roasting a brontosaurus steak, the storyteller dressed in animal skins.

In the millennia since, stories have been variously carved, scratched, printed or inked onto wood or parchment, silk or bark or palm leaf, stone and clay.

These days books – in some cases, the very same stories – are now recorded digitally.

The medium has changed – or rather, it has multiplied – but whether it’s an audio-book or a play or a movie or an eBook or a hardback novel, it’s all just a way to provide the very thing that all human beings crave: tell me a story.

Psychologists now tell us our brains are wired for story.

Originally, stories evolved as a way to teach younger members of a tribe notions of morality, about good and bad. Nothing much has changed. Because every story, intentionally or not, has a purpose – a message.

Depending on the message, stories can instill tolerance or breed cynicism – or even hate.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped end slavery in the US by showing many whites that black people were human beings, just like them. It brought them to vivid life … in a story. Conversely, the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation inflamed racism and helped resurrect the all but defunct Ku Klux Klan.

In the fifties and sixties John Wayne told us one story about the Plains Indians of North America; more recently, Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves took the same subject and told us quite another story with quite a different message about the ‘wild west’.

Some people think stories are just entertainment. They’re not.

From Cinderella to Pretty Woman; Silence of the Lambs to Red Riding Hood; Jack and the Beanstalk to The Hunger Games, even the simplest of stories has a message. They explain the world to us and they shape our view of it.

The Cinderella story, the one that says dreams can come true, can be found in almost every culture, and has existed for thousands of years.

We might scoff at such happy endings and say that’s not how life is; but psychologists have now found that believing the lie moves us to try and make that lie true, at last some of the time.

Because stories matter. They shape us individually and as a society. People who read fiction easily outperform non-fiction readers when testing empathic response. That’s why it’s important to read to kids from quite an early age. A five-year-old, for example, can follow the thoughts of an imaginary character. A three-year-old can’t.

In other words, about the age a kid learns to tie their own shoes they learn to walk a mile in someone else’s.

And empathy is the single most important human quality we need if we are to survive on this planet together. It is the glue that keeps us together.

Crudely put, an empathic person would not – could not – massacre people in a mosque in Christchurch or mow them down in a van on Westminster Bridge.

And in these days of coronavirus, trolling and hate speech, we need stories that talk about the best we can be, and we need them more than ever.

Humans don’t make up stories; our stories make us.

And that is why there are books.

The End.

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WHO MURDERED AGATHA CHRISTIE?

At quarter to ten on the evening of Friday, December 3, 1926, an up and coming crime writer left her home in Berkshire, England, saying she was going out for a drive.

She first went upstairs to kiss her sleeping daughter, Rosalind, then got into her Morris Cowley and left.

The next morning the car was found several miles away – abandoned.

Where was she?

She left behind a letter, addressed to the local constable, saying she feared for her life.

So – had she been murdered?

To add to the intrigue, the writer’s mother had died just a few months earlier and she was said to be severely depressed. There was a lake called Silent Pool just a quarter of a mile from where her car was found. A character in one of her books had drowned there.

So – must be suicide then.

The police started dredging the lake. Fifteen thousand volunteers joined the search of the surrounding countryside. 

The writer’s name? You might have heard of her. It was Agatha Christie.

And now the plot thickens…

photo: violetriga

The police discovered that Agatha’s husband, Archie, a handsome fighter pilot and war hero, had been having an affair with a woman named Nancy Neele. He had told Agatha he was going to spend the weekend with Nancy at their love nest in Surrey.

He had asked for a divorce, but she had refused to give him one.

Was this the reason she feared for her life?

Had he murdered his wife so he could marry his mistress?

The police started following him, even tapped his phone.

Or perhaps, you know, the butler did it?

The police investigated further. The family didn’t have a butler. Damn.

For eleven days in 1926, all England was abuzz with the mystery of what had happened to the woman who was to become the greatest mystery writer in literary history.

What had happened to Agatha Christie?

The story made the front page of the New York Times. The British Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, demanded answers. Even celebrated crime writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers got involved; Doyle took one of Agatha’s discarded gloves to a medium; Sayers spent days inspecting the scene of the crime and then announced that she had now enough material to write another book.

A typical writer.

If Agatha was dead – where was her body?

Her body was still breathing and sitting in a cane chair reading magazines in Yorkshire.

In fact Agatha’s brother-in-law, Campbell, had already told the police that Agatha had written to him the week before she disappeared, saying she was going to a spa in Yorkshire. But the police didn’t believe him – they thought it was a red herring.

In the denouement, it was revealed that he was right after all. She had checked in – disappointingly not under the name Miss Marple – but the name Theresa Neele – the same surname as her husband’s paramour.

Like any good crime writer, she had even left clues; she had placed an advertisement in the London Times saying Mrs. Theresa Neele’s relatives could find her at the Hydro in Harrogate.

But the Poirots at Scotland Yard missed that.

Finally, some of the spa’s other guests compared the photographs in the newspaper with their own Mrs Neele, gathered everyone in the dining room, and solved the case.

It seemed that after she had dumped her car, she had simply walked into town and caught a train to London. Once there, she did a little retail therapy, posted the letter to Archie and took the train to Yorkshire.

Elementary my dear Watson.

When the press got wind of the fact that Mrs. Agatha Christie was not dead in a ditch but had been relaxing for eleven days at a spa, they were outraged. They demanded answers; why had she done it?

She refused to say.

In fact, she kept silent about the whole episode her entire life. Her most enduring mystery died with her, unsolved.

The official line was that she had amnesia brought on by grief over her mother’s death, or that she was in a fugue state, a rare psychogenic condition brought on by trauma and depression.

Another theory was that her devious writer’s mind contrived the whole affair to ruin her husband’s dirty weekend.

No! I believe the real culprit is right here in this room, I say, pointing my finger accusingly at Agatha herself, and that she did it to boost sales of her new book, ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’!

* The rest of the cast gasp, in horror at the deviousness of the plot and in admiration of my brilliant detective work. *

If I’m right, and it was all an elaborate publicity stunt, then it was a stroke of genius, because Ms Christie went on to sell around a billion copies of her eighty novels in English, and another billion in 103 other languages. (I didn’t know there were that many languages.)

She and Archie were divorced in 1928 and Agatha later married archaeologist Max Mallowan, 15 years her junior. (She reportedly said that the great thing about marrying an archaeologist was that the older she got, the more interested he was in her.)

She finally died in 1975, aged 86, from natural causes.

At least that’s what she wants us all to think.

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Love great crime stories?

.Dripping with authenticity. Packed full of characters you genuinely care about . . . I didn’t read the last few chapters, I devoured them. An absolute triumph‘ M. W. CRAVEN
_____________

Charlie loves surprises. But not this one.

A schoolgirl is found dead in a park in North London and DI Charlie George is not short of suspects – is it her stepfather? Is it a sex crime? Is it race-related?

Charlie finally thinks he has it sorted, with his killer bang to rights. But then his lawyer gets him free on a technicality.

And that’s just the start of his troubles.

He’s been a cop all his life, he thought he’d seen everything . . . But Charlie soon realises, he hasn’t seen anything yet.

READ MORE ABOUT ‘INNOCENCE DIES’

Colin Falconer

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THE BEST 43 OPENING LINES IN NOVEL WRITING HISTORY

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover.

A good cover may make us pick the book up and think about buying it.

But it’s the first lines are crucial in helping us decide whether we are going to keep reading or not.

For my own part, I’ve read plenty of good books whose first lines I don’t remember.

I even tore out the first three pages of one of my favorite novels – The Poisonwood Bible – when I came to re-read it. That prologue was so dreary I almost gave up on the book that first time. Thankfully, I persisted.

You can never underestimate the power of a good opening line.

Here are 43 of the best in Literature: Read More …

THE 27TH LETTER OF THE ALPHABET

Can you name the 27th letter of the alphabet?

Well, of course not, there are only 26 letters in the alphabet.

But not always; once there were 27. (Well, 29, but we’ll get to that later.)

The letter we’re talking about here is the ampersand: today it’s mainly used in company names, like Barnes & Noble, or in abbreviations like R&R.

It’s an unusual little critter. Where did it come from?

In the first century, Roman scribes wrote in cursive text, so when they wrote ‘et’ – the Latin word for ‘and’ – they linked the two letters. Over time, this was adopted in the English language as well. ‘And’ became both a word and a letter.

The name for this symbol – “ampersand” – came centuries later. In the early nineteenth century, schoolchildren reciting the alphabet still finished with ‘&’.

But you can’t finish ‘X,Y, Z, and.’ How could they sing that on Sesame Street? It doesn’t rhyme.

So instead, they said – because this is oh so much easier – ‘X, Y, Z and, per se, and.’

Per se, in Latin, means ‘by itself.’ So the students, or the Muppets, or whoever, were actually singing: ‘X, Y, Z and, by itself, “and.” ’ (Wouldn’t you have loved to have been in kindie back then?)

Over the course of a few decades, ‘and per se and’ became – “ampersand.”

Okay, so that’s sorted. But what about letters 28 and 29?

Well old English was first written in the futhorc runic alphabet of the Anglo-Saxons.

Christian missionaries later introduced the Latin alphabet which replaced it, and, for a time, the alphabet included letters of both languages.

But two of them fell into disuse.

One was a letter called ‘thorn’ which represented the ‘the’ sound.

Because the symbol for ‘thorn’ and the symbol for ‘y’ look nearly identical in medieval English blackletter, the two were mistakenly substituted for each other.

This is why you see signs pointing the way to “Ye Olde Curiosity Shop” in mock Tudor villages in England; we didn’t change the actual sound for ‘the’ over the years, just the symbol we used to spell it.

The other letter that was dropped was “wynn,” which represented the “uu” sound which became, as you probably guessed, a “w”. Yes, a double U.

So there you have it. Now you know your ampersand, thorn, wynn – won’t you sing along with me?

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Colin Falconer

 

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