Do less, better: Seclusion and society in the new normal

Are you surprised to find that coming out of lockdown presents just as much cause for uncertainty as entering into it? It’s little wonder. We have all endured our own private journeys, and we are yet to find out not only what the new world looks like but the person we will be within it.

2020 was a watershed moment. We hitherto existed in a world typified by action. Even if at times that action was passive in nature – scrolling, browsing, consuming – there is no doubt we have been expected to be on.

And the constant struggle with on-ness hasn’t dissipated, even as 35.9% have been forced out of their offices and 11.2 million people have been furloughed. The state of ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’, as psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott understood it (Josh Cohen, Not Working. Granta, 2018, p. 80), is ingrained into us. Very rarely do we ever just stop.

But over the last year we have been extended a rare opportunity to at least sample it. While work may still attempt to go on, and while many are in fact busier than ever, there’s never been a time in living memory where so much of the world’s machinery has ground to a halt. Of course, the great pain and salvation of the modern era is that we can move much of this action into the 24/7 online realm. Though many of us are now fully fledged ‘digital nomads’, we are still hyperconnected like never before.

Yet physically, we don’t need to be here or there. We have been permitted to sink into our (perhaps natural) slovenly states unapologetically. And to such a degree that, now as we prepare to walk out into the new horizon, many are expressing a fear about having to step up to their former energy levels which were perhaps always out of balance for them.

It’s not uncommon to hear people on radio phone-ins, read columnists or observe others expressing the revelation that quite frankly they enjoyed having an excuse not to ‘do’. Not to see people, not to have to attend events or go out for dinner or drinks every night. Even those things we might genuinely enjoy can become onerous under expectation.

For all its cruelties, the pandemic has given us a great opportunity to journey inwards, explore our relationships with ourselves and with others, and in turn we have developed more tolerance for sensitivity than ever before. We recognise the struggles in others because they are the ones we are facing; though all of our circumstances may be different, they are all fundamentally the same: that of the fragmented, messy, vulnerable human seeking something stable.

Could it be that the thing we are actually scared of losing is that mutual unspoken level of compassion that has prevailed? Are we afraid that we will have to resort to making excuses for why we choose to say ‘no’ because the truth – that we simply don’t want to – isn’t good enough?

Malaise has been the symptom of 2020-21’s enforced lockdowns, but perhaps it’s just the human condition. Perhaps more times than not we simply don’t want to do but rather be, because ‘being’ allows us a chance to listen to and sit with our warring inner selves rather than trying to mask them by constantly leaving the house and throwing ourselves into the midst of distracting activity.

The stability we have always sought has often been projected onto the exterior: the comforting familiarity of jobs, shopping, events, holidays. But lockdown has allowed us to try finding it inside ourselves – even while our internal selves are inevitably in chaos.

My own experience with the solitude induced by the pandemic was at first a joy at having more time on my hands, which I promptly squandered. Then it was fluctuating periods of restlessness and relaxation. Halfway through the third stint I was scratching at the walls. It was the crisis point of my own lockdown narrative, where even though I had always been happy to spend time alone, the truth of who I was and what I am truly afraid of was unmistakable; I had to face up to the only other person I was incarcerated with: myself.

In such a state, it’s hard to truly internalise the fact that resolution must inevitably come, even if you know it to be logically true. Nothing lasts – not pain nor happiness; only change is certain, and the coorindates of that are never fixed. Getting the heart on board that good times will again come is difficult because it means having to cycle through your internal judgements and fears all the same. There is no shortcut to resolution. No one to hold your hand through the fire you must inevitably pass through. But that is what makes solitude a transformative process.

Some of those still not finished with the solitude that the pandemic had to deal out are finding themselves reassessing their life choices. Should they change jobs to enjoy more of a work-life balance, or become a nomad and travel the world? Along the faultlines of any major upheaval, at the brink of life and death, we are forced to challenge our notions of what success – or rather meaning – is in life. Is it working 40+ hours a week? Climbing the career ladder? Raising a family or rather raising a family in your mind, nurturing your own private passions so that you cultivate within yourself a place of support? Perhaps meaning goes beyond you and yours and extends to doing what you can for others who can’t help themselves?

It’s perhaps fitting that the film Nomadland – a work of fiction yet starring real-life nomads and their stories – has already garnered a large swathe of media attention at such a time. It offers us the opportunity to slip into a role we really wish we could inhabit. We’ve already glimpsed behind the curtain this last year, now many want to see more.

Nomads and hermits – those quietly existing on the fringes of society – have always fascinated me. Though not subscribing to any religion, the pathway of a nun or monk has always appealed to me, living a life of solitude, marked by their devotion to something higher than themselves.

Of course, while this seems noble, in laypersons a desire to live a secluded life on one’s own terms is often considered selfish and viewed with suspicion. But I believe the desire to stop, to simply retreat into the self and find comfort there in bed with our own contradictions, very soon morphs into a reflection on the bigger issues that otherwise don’t seem worthy of our time and attention – until of course we find ourselves at the end of our road. It’s no wonder some of the biggest contributions to our culture come from some of the biggest idlers of all time – Charles Bukowski, Albert Einstein, John Lennon.

Time for oneself gives rise to reflection which in turn gives rise to a greater desire to live in harmony with our environment, greater personal responsibility and compassion for the human condition and all of its failures.

A recent BBC 4 documentary, Brotherhood, exploring the lives of monks at Leicestershire’s Mount St Bernard Abbey beautifully illustrated the push/pull of doing and being. Much of the monk’s day is spent in prayer and also finding ways to raise money (in this instance creating a Trappist brewery on site to replace their non-profit making dairy farm) – but it is also spent in a relative state of physical inertia. Much of the doing takes place internally.

I was minded by the words of one of the elder monks who said, ‘living in the presence of God, I don’t say prayers anymore. My life is a prayer.’ It’s an ethos that for me summarises the sweet spot between doing and being. If you can dedicate your life and behaviour to compassion, not fighting – to simply being who you are – then you reach a point where you no longer need to strive, you embody it, you are in perpetual internal communion with yourself and therefore the world around you. This spiritual recompense feels more profitable and fundamental than, say, defining your life as striving to pay off a mortgage.

It’s not that those who want to hang on to solitude that bit longer wish to remove themselves from society. Far from it, I believe more often than not they want to feel more at ease within it rather than simply ground down by it. Monks spend a lot of time alone, but in a cloister with their brethren, underpinned by the presence of God. Community is just as vital as solitude. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the Monty Python sketch of the community of hermits living only paces away from each other and willingly engaging in ‘idle chitchat’. We don’t wish to renounce others, simply to have more time for ourselves to do the things that build us up rather than deplete us.

So, as we begin to rebuild a society for the future, in whose image will we make it – and ourselves? Will we decide to stay loyal to our always-on culture, or will we give ourselves more time to hold hands with the people we know we are within?

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Only connect: loneliness in lockdown, before and after

As we close in on the one-year anniversary since social distancing measures were introduced, most of us would agree we have experienced a collective loneliness on a scale and depth hitherto unimagined and unfelt in our lifetime. From children ostracised from their peers, to individuals of all ages living alone or separate from loved ones, and the older generations many of whom were already living with chronic loneliness pre-Covid. Even in this age of hyperconnectedness, we have all had a crash course in the effect loneliness can wreak on mental health thanks to the great leveller that is Covid-19.

As someone who is habitually alone, it took a while for me to understand that I too wasn’t spared. The term ‘lonely’ had never quite resonated with me; it seemed too simplistic and even facile. It wasn’t until I took part in a voluntary communal forum where participants have the opportunity to discuss issues they are struggling with that I understood although many of us were grappling with diverse anxieties, the majority were overshadowed by a cloud of loneliness.

I was particularly struck by one particular topic, as a middle-aged woman explained that being isolated was her first taste of regret at not having children. No doubt many of us have been faced with this question: would I be happier with the buffer of a family to protect me? Her fears were assuaged when several participants affirmed parenthood is by no means a guarantee against loneliness – at any age. As one woman put it so succinctly: to be a parent is to suffer a continual sense of loss. It is the loss of each stage that went before; and the loss of the child you have nurtured as they shift into the adult they will become.

Another woman felt so alone trying to hold her family together while her child battled with mental illness and her husband consumed himself with work. Who was looking out for her? Who was trying to keep her together? Well, that was her job too.

If you’ve read my last blog post, you’ll know I’m working on a novel. Loss and loneliness ripple under the surface of it, though I hadn’t fully realised this until recently, and the pandemic has given me plenty of room to think about my characters from different angles.

My protagonist, Erin, is in a perpetual state of self-imposed loneliness which she has misconstrued as introversion, not fully comprehending how two-dimensional her life has become without others in it. As a wise woman once said, even introverts need someone to be distanced from.

In contrast, her sister Annie is the gravitational force holding everything together. She is on the cusp of experiencing the loss of her child to adulthood; a loss and crisis Erin is able to predict having made it her aim in life to distance herself as much as possible from others. It is Erin’s job to show Annie just how much she stands to lose from diverting her own attention into her family. Yet it is Annie’s job to make Erin realise that she must find something outside of herself to put her attention on if she is to develop any meaningful connection in life.

It is with some relief I have never been a mother, but I have studied the dynamics of parenthood and loss from afar and feel that for all its benefits it must be one of the most painful experiences in life, and one that unlike most other concerns never runs its course. Maybe to come to terms with my own sadness at being lost to adulthood, it is something I wanted to explore in my novel – the way this loss is experienced by both child and parent.

Although Annie is yet to put herself first, she is nevertheless already acutely aware of her loneliness. The way I see it, her’s is a mother’s loneliness, of someone who must simply go on being: strong, nurturing and in control. Who always puts themselves second to preserve the greater integrity of their family. Yet Erin’s short-sightedness fails to acknowledge that Annie could have an emotional intelligence all of her own that exists beyond simply being a barometer of her family’s emotions, all because she (like many mothers) doesn’t express it outwardly.

Both are stunted in their emotional expression, conceptualised in the cold and aloof figure of their own mother, now something of a family relic, divested of any real voice or influence in her old age, yet all the same exerting a kind of trauma that both daughters are doomed to keep playing out.

It is easy to underplay the role of mothers and even make comedy out of their neuroticism and daily slips we roll our eyes at. You know: the roll call of names before they settle on the right one; the exasperation as they tidy around us constantly. You can see it in Pam’s vulnerability in Bridget Jones’ Diary when she says, “I do realise what I’m like sometimes. It doesn’t help that you and Bridget have your lovely grown-up club of two and always say, ‘What’s silly old Mummy gone and done this time?'”

But we never ask where it comes from. From being so switched on mothers risk subsuming part of themselves to sustain their families? My lack of experience notwithstanding, it seems to me the pain of being a mother must surely leave very visible scars if only we were thoughtful enough to recognise them. But we very rarely do.

Loneliness and loss can strike in any relationship of course, whether familial, platonic or romantic. In fact, sometimes our relationships with others are the loneliest place to be.

How do we know what loneliness is? For me, it feels like I’m stuck in an underground warren of tunnels, none of which ever deliver you up to the surface, to the greeting of air and sunlight and faces. It is when you are so beyond your own salvation but no look of comprehension and compassion is returned.

Loneliness does indeed seem to come from a place of loss – of not being able to reach another. It’s a breakdown of contact whether emotional, verbal or physical, but usually all. You can live side by side with someone, but if they don’t see you for who you are, or what you have endured – are enduring – you feel robbed of your senses. Attempts to connect become numbed. It is little wonder those who lose their sight or vision are prone to loneliness and mental health disorders such as depression. A 2009 study found adults under 70 were 5% more likely to experience depression with each drop in ‘incremental hearing ability’.

Being lonely in any kind of relationship is basically the internal you screaming to be heard. So do you need someone else to hear you to be cured of your loneliness? Maybe not. From my own experience, it can be lonelier to be trapped in a situation where communication has broken down for whatever reason than to be alone, simply because you have less freedom to give vent to your feelings; for your words to tumble out honestly and decorate your walls in their unedited outrage and joy. In instances like this, you may be physically alone, but at the very least being open and honest – even if heard by no one but you – yields a kind of relief as the barrier between communication and acknowledgement melts. So often when you are trapped in an uncommunicative space with another, you never actually have the room to express yourself even to yourself.

As E.M Forster put it so succinctly in Howard’s End, the key to a more harmonious humanity and contract with the self is to “only connect”:

“Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

So does it stand to reason that if we are lonely in a relationship dynamic, then the other person is too? How would we know without asking. But if questions aren’t asked and emotional expression curtailed, you can probably assume the answer is yes.

I can’t let this topic pass with reference to the character Leo Fish’s monologue in a hugely underrated film directed by Jodie Foster, Home for the Holidays, which takes place when a dysfunctional American family gets together for Thanksgiving.

Leo is the mysterious outsider introduced to the family. When his love interest and the film’s protagonist Claudia asks, “When you go home, do you look around and wonder ‘who are these people? Where did I even come from?’”, Leo responds:

“Oh sure. Par, par, bogey, bogey, par, par. That’s what I get all summer.

“My dad plays golf, and I ask him, ‘how’s your game dad?’ And he tells me his latest round was, ‘Par, par, bogey, bogey, par, par, son.’ Like I’m picturing every hole. I don’t even know how to play golf. I don’t even know what kind of expression to put on my face. I swear to God I want to scream…

“But… I just smile… Because I figure he wants to scream too.”

‘Par, par, bogey, bogey, par, par, son’ has increasingly become my mantra when I feel the drawbridge of communications close, in the same way a yogi might salute ‘Namaste’ and get on with their day.

In essence, if you’re screaming inside, chances are the other person is too.

That’s not to denigrate others simply because they don’t understand you. As Leo points out, we are just as out of step with them. It is painful to hear it from someone you love, just as it is to admit it. Instead, we should seek to experience the kind of love which is beyond language and communication. To develop unconditional compassion.

…and respectful honesty in our exchanges. A lofty aim maybe, but let’s face it, no good ever came from keeping schtum either.

A friend recently lent me a novel called Dear Mrs Bird, set in WWII London. The similarities between the collective experience we are going through now – albeit with much less physical and mental trauma – and then are startling. Still, it’s clear to see the pandemic has forced a number of our vulnerabilities and fears to the surface and I think we should all feel a sense of relief in that. In the same way that the book’s protagonist Emmy seeks to make plain and soothe the internal suffering of a nation – specifically the women on the home front – in the face of the ‘buck up’ culture of British stoicism, we should be prepared to embrace our more complex sides if we want to be happier and more connected to each other. Yet for all our last 100 years of modern psychotherapy and for all our newfound eagerness to ‘open up’, we all still struggle with believing we are permitted to feel this way.

The heartening news is nowadays GPs are turning to ‘social prescribing’ to cure loneliness. A great leap forwards in understanding many roots of mental illness but by no means a panacea. The way I understand it, loneliness is simultaneously a disease we can treat the symptoms of, but not one we can cure. Loneliness is endemic in the human condition. Sooner or later we must all face our loneliness in facing ourselves; the only person we come into this world with and the only person we will leave it with. Connecting with others is what makes us a social species. But when you boil right down to it, we must connect first and foremost with ourselves if we want to be able to accept rather than fear that gnawing loneliness within us once the laptop cameras turn off, when the light goes out. We must do what we can to take responsibility for our own happiness and aspire to live in fragments no longer.

Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

Liminality, character and identity in 2020

Blackpool prom tide out

For the past year, I have been chipping away at a novel I am writing, and after a while of dissecting my subject I realised one of the major themes I wanted to explore is liminal spaces. A subject which seems as relevant for discussion now as ever.

“A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, a season of waiting, and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us.” (1)

Liminality crops up a lot in critical theory because so many artists are obsessed with those gaps between definitions. It can be a source of immense creativity; think androgyny, fluid boundaries of sexuality, time, space and the carnivalesque. It is the intersection of tradition; the space where expression is free, if we let it be. As such, it’s a great place to play.

The liminal space I explore in my story is the town I grew up in: Blackpool. To me, our seaside town is the ultimate liminal space. Before the pandemic, it was a town of stag and hen dos; the place which not so long ago had the highest teenage pregnancy rate; a town of rich entertainment history which has largely been forgotten as those generations become muted.

Before that, it was a resort hugely popular for working class holidays during Lancashire Wakes Weeks. And prior to that it was the place where Victorians came to take in the sea air. But it was something before that too and before that and before that. However, we have scant history to work from because its identity really came to the fore thanks to the industrial revolution and rise of the railways.

I have heard Blackpool discussed in so many guises, but they are all so extreme: faded grandeur, ailing seaside resort, area of deprivation. These are terms the locals are all too familiar with. To the point that they don’t just become identifiers of the place; they become by extension part of your identity too. But the problem with all this layering of labels, especially during the past forty years since the town’s decline has been especially marked, is that no one on the inside is sure what its identity is.

You could say, it occupies a liminal space.

This becomes more self-explanatory when you understand its unusual context.

In my opinion, even the most obvious icons of Blackpool’s culture continually occupy a liminal space. Fairground rides that suspend you in the air. Entertainment that traverses the fine line between tragedy and comedy. Clowns that wear two faces. Fortune tellers who stand between the present and the future. Piers stretching out into the sea that are onshore yet off. Rocks that lie in the littoral zone purporting to be of a lost town or civilisation.

We are also the place that caters to political party conferences one week and the world’s largest magic convention the next. The place where pigeon fanciers and punks convene. We have always attracted the people on the fringes, the transient population, and I think that is because we are both a physical extremity (out on a limb at the end of the M55) and a place of mythical status. We can be whatever you want us to be, all things to all people. Our identity is fluid.

Elements of this used to bother me. I didn’t understand where the council’s plans for regeneration fit with the history I knew and the way I experienced the town for myself. But now I think I’m starting to understand. I suppose I was worried that throwing up the kinds of glass and aluminium structures you find in any town or city would rob us of our ‘identity’. That it would change us by overwriting some previous definition of ourselves. But I see it’s probably not even possible, for better or worse, because Blackpool is the archetypal liminal space. The more it evolves, the more its identity becomes muddled, which is probably what makes it a place of richness. Let’s not forget the most interesting identities are the ones which defy definition.I think that’s why we find it such a magical place too. Many people from all walks stored their dreams here, even if they didn’t always deliver.

In my story, the physical liminal space I am seeking to step into isn’t just the town itself, it is, more specifically, the geographical littoral zone between the highest water mark and the furthest reaches of the tide. The place where two groups of rocks are situated: Pennystone Rock and Carlin Rock.

But as with any hero’s journey, the liminal space for novelists and readers also exists within the self; that which was previously unknown, unseen or unacknowledged about the protagonist’s character is drawn out through the story’s developments. In actual fact, novel writing or any kind of story occupies a liminal space in itself: the uncomfortable in-between stage before what author and readers will know can be known.

This past year has been crucially interesting because Blackpool will have to redefine itself once again. But beyond that, leaping from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic, you could say 2020 itself is the archetypal liminal space:

“During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.” (2)

We have seen those members of society who were once operating at the fringes – undervalued – become the key workers upon whom we depend. Delivery personnel, care givers (largely women), supermarket workers… By inversion (a classic trope of the liminal space), those we once placed more highly as a society became redundant overnight. Personalities, celebrities, the higher classes. They have had to reinvent themselves to survive in this the ultimate year of liminality: 2020.

No doubt we have all also undergone our own hero’s journeys over the past year, perhaps triggered by this momentous event on a global scale. I know I have. However, my journey into the unknown began in Autumn 2019, before anyone knew about the pandemic. But even at that point I knew I was standing at the edge of a threshold. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew my scenery, while being exactly the same, had shifted. I believe we know when we are on the edge of the precipice even if we can’t see it. We can feel the updraft of the gulf of change beneath our feet.

Of course, the liminal space is supposed to be uncomfortable. That’s because it is a waiting, a transition that will ultimately leave you changed. But perhaps we can also find liminal spaces sources of relief. It’s during periods in my life such as these that I look to learn more about the inherent disorder of life, and increasingly quantum physics, whose beautiful chaos is a revitalising example of the liminality of something we often view as unchangeable and fixed: science. The potential for alternate realities, of something being and not being at the same time, grants, I suppose, a sweetness that nothing can ever be known with any kind of certainty:

“Like Quantum Mechanics, liminal reality is also characterized by ‘spooky action’ that defies rationality. And yet, somewhere deep in the mysterious code of it all, the chaotic seeds of what comes next are present and operating.” (3)





Between authorship and readership: the British Library’s Harry Potter exhibition

It’s fair to say the Harry Potter books were something of a success. And what greater honour to be attributed them than to be the subject of an exhibition at the British Library – next door to the inspiration for Platform 9 ¾, and within one mile of the publishing house that finally gave one JK Rowling a shot. When you think about it, it all seems the natural conclusion to a most spectacular story.

Despite it being two decades since Potter first made waves, wandering (or rather crawling, as is the pace set by the hordes of visitors) round the exhibition brings the magic to life once again, more than ten years after the publication of the final instalment.

What made it all the more real for me was that the exhibition seemed not just an indulgence of the series’ many fans but a more holistic exploration of the book’s origins and evolution. Some of the most illuminating aspects were how this exhibition exposed not just the writer’s process but the book’s assumption to a station wholly distinct from reader and author’s influence.

Greeting the visitors on arrival is the typed synopsis – a piece in which the vacancy of expectation is palpable. It is pared back and somewhat mundane, and brings home that feeling of a writer’s worst nightmare – having to translate into cold, hard seriffed characters the work of five years’ worth of dreaming, slog and ‘snatched’ hours, as Rowling later tells it.

Any writer who has ever pursued a book deal knows the agony of writing a synopsis – the condensed, marketable form of the very thing you’ve spent years crafting just as it is. For a writer, the aim is to make a novel good enough to sell itself. Still, for the time-poor publisher that handy introduction is a necessary evil. And you can feel a kind of absence – or naivety – in Rowling’s.

The synopsis is one of the most telling pieces from the collection for me and it beautifully bookends the exhibit along with one of the very last pieces on display – the annotated first edition of the Philosopher’s Stone which was auctioned off for charity.

On the very first page of this edition, Rowling makes it clear that, try as she might, she will never be able to explain the real magic that came about in the penning of this novel. It’s a neat way of closing the exhibition and speaks volumes about the writing process. That no matter how momentous a book, no matter how many readers’ lives it touches, a part of it remains always with the author.

In her biro’d notes she writes that for all the memories she can insert in between the lines, the act is in the end futile because the story of the book’s creation is actually written into every page, yet legible only to her. This solitary piece of possession, or retention, is perhaps important for her to assert when it comes to a book that has been subject to so many adaptations, imaginings, illustrations and interpretations. The truly bewitching thing about memory and writing, after all, is that it reveals itself in different guises over and over. With every turn of the page no doubt a new recollection is uncovered.

Curiously, on the morning of my visit to the exhibition, an interesting discussion was taking place on Radio 4’s Start the Week as I gathered my belongings in the basement of the King’s Cross Travelodge. As the show’s guests delved into the nuances of the brain and personality, they spoke about how the process of recollection is really only a recall of the last time we remembered that specific event. And that with each visit to the memory vaults we shape our recollections once more before filing them away again. Memories are also considered to have a stronger, longer lasting impact when they’re first lived as emotional experiences.

No doubt the upheaval of plotting and writing a series as big as Harry Potter culminated in many emotional memories for Rowling, not least as she battled through 12 rejection slips, living in penury, raising a young family and the death of her mother. But by this token, even the history of its writing, those indelible memories etched into the page and visible only to her, are changeable shapeshifters. At the end of the day, the only thing which endures is that set out in black ink on recycled wood pulp.

After I first read a Harry Potter book I was enchanted, like most. But I was never one of the most ardent fans. I found it enjoyable, more so as the series gathered in intensity, and it proved to be a communal point of interest amongst friends.

Journeying through the exhibition, however, I appreciated the books so much more. The richness of Rowling’s reservoir of inspiration was awe-inspiring, and it taught me far more about magic in the wider context of literature and culture, not to mention the depth of research she put into the books, than I could have known before.

The inclusion of a few original MS attempts that dead-ended (such as the alternative beginning and many cut scenes) only served to magnify how distanced the reader will always be from the author’s process. In terms of understanding the process of story concept to magnum opus, it’s the equivalent of shining a laser beam on the Sistine Chapel.

And, then again, vice versa.

As the annotations on the first page of that private lender’s copy show, the author doesn’t hold all the cards and, for most writers, it is mere fluke knowing what will or won’t strike a chord with the readership. As Rowling points out, most people tell her they didn’t like the first chapter, and that they had to persevere with it to get to the real meat of the story. It turns out, even the things we most want to share can be the hardest hurdles to clear. But it isn’t impossible. It’s difficult to remember whether I was in that boat when I first cracked the spine on the Philosopher’s Stone way back in the late 90s. But then again, I was reluctant to enjoy the books at all and eventually read them just to quiet a friend. But, somehow, something magical happened…

War of words: what The Reformation taught us about language

War of words what The Reformation taught us about language - Wendy Woodhead copywriter

Those of us who work with words for a living often overlook the battering this tool has taken through the ages. The way it has been honed and crafted by the upheavals of man. All for us to use as a handy medium for selling whatever it is we have to trade on: information, stories, ideology, dreams…

This weekend I decided to retrace the footsteps of my postgraduate study in late medieval literature. Back in 2012, I had finally saved enough to take a year out and study at Manchester for the pure enjoyment of it. My area of interest was religious texts, specifically personal books of devotion and manuals for living and dying by which had come to take on huge import.

So, with the John Rylands Library still practically on my doorstep, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see their current display on The Reformation.

For anyone in the vicinity of Manchester, there’s still chance to catch this modest exhibit which runs until 4 March. It takes you through some defining texts of a moment in history that was shaped by the written word. After German monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses against Catholic indulgences on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, nothing would be the same.

A literature and not a linguistic student at heart, what I loved studying during my masters was the relationship between the incorporeal construct of language and its physical, corporeal entity. Both on the level of transmuting God’s word into a written text, but also the doctrine that the Word of God was made flesh in the body of Christ.

By extension, it seemed to me that there was an acceptable and unacceptable way that language should be used in the middle ages, especially when it came to communicating scripture. The written word and, moreover, the act of writing straddled the boundary between piety and sin.

However, as any writer, marketer, journalist and politician know, one of the biggest problems with language is that it is unfixed, changeable, open to interpretation. So to try to impose a correct and incorrect way to use it is clearly going to be fraught with tension.

Today, we’ve grown quite used to the fact that language is there to be moulded – that it is a way of assessing the cultural and political changes happening around us daily. We forgive Presidents their covfefes, while text-speak long ago normalised abbreviations.

Emojis? They go one step further. In fact, even Luther acknowledged the use of images to say more than words. He recommended illustrations be used alongside biblical passages, adding yet another layer of interpretation, easily understood across literacy and language barriers.

You see, back in the middle ages, a standardised Queen’s English as we think of it today didn’t exist. The bible was in Latin and had undergone various translations, a process which had, it came to be considered, introduced various errors. Few laypersons except the aristocracy and scholars understood Latin, and as such the priest’s role was an intermediary between the layperson and God. This meant that the system was open to abuse – which Luther railed against in his initial attack on indulgences.

Indulgences, such as the one included in the exhibition, were a type of written pardon for the sins of one still living or believed to be trapped in purgatory. Priests sold these documents of salvation for a pretty penny. Hence, Luther’s distrust. He believed this was a corruption of the Catholic faith for extortion – that no one can intercede on behalf of another, certainly not in exchange for money, and that the only contract worth valuing is that between individual and God. For which in our secular, modern world we could read as the relationship our readers establish first-hand with our words.

As a consequence, Luther believed heads of state should be head of their country’s faith, which is where Henry VIII comes in. Though he initially decried the idea of translating the bible into a common language, he did like the idea of being above the law of Rome. Although many had to die first, including William Tyndale who is credited with first translating the bible into early modern English, Henry eventually authorised The Great Bible, published in 1539. A copy was placed in every church.

Today, we take for granted how being able to read something for ourselves is a massive leap towards independence. And it’s little wonder that this marked a major shift in literature towards an emphasis on what is known as the empirical self, or the subjective narrator.

However, it’s a political gamble too. Can anyone deny the power of words? This reminds me of that Arthur Scargill quote, “My father still reads the dictionary every day. He says your life depends on your power to master words.”

In short: knowledge is power (not such a coincidence that this humanist sentiment is attributed to the Renaissance statesman Francis Bacon).

What happens when you allow for the possibility that there is more than one truth or interpretation is that power is gradually stripped from those who hitherto held it. Thus, conflict inevitably ensues.

Who hasn’t experienced that moment when your intended meaning is misconstrued, whether through a lapse in body language, or a neglected comma in a piece of prose. When you lose some control over your authorship. It’s not uncommon for politicians or even marketers to use the ‘wrong’ choice of words and later be punished by their audience for it.

While nowadays the words we use are less likely to cause civil division as in the early 16th century, its more pressing concern is what it leads to in its immediacy – such as a lost customer or less invested reader – and on a personal level, what it reveals about us. After all, language is one of the most defining tools of humankind, and over the years we have sought to use it to express ourselves in one form or another. And it is considered to subconsciously unveil our own unspoken or unrealised beliefs too.

When we write, we often forget that language is not only borne of personal ideology, it is also subject to it. We cannot control what happens when we unleash our words into the world. The Reformation exhibition at the Rylands is an artful case in point.

Prefaced with a letter from Luther to a friend in Germany, he confides his personal struggles with a bout of depression, which almost led him to despair. And bookending the close of the exhibition sits the tome of The Great Bible – a literal manifestation of Luther’s revolutionary ideology made flesh. The Word of God piecing itself back together after having torn itself apart.

At any one time, the impact of our words can range from weak and unconvincing to persuasive and destructive. But language as a whole is also regenerative, and as resilient as we who constructed it.