In Russell Hoban’s extraordinary post-nuclear novel Riddley Walker, there are characters known as ‘connection men’, storytellers whose job it is to try and piece things together, reinforce the codes that bind their small communities, and at the same time make sense of the chaotic and brutal world around them.
Early in the story young Riddley becomes a connection man, inheriting the office from his father who has been killed in an accident. As he approaches his debut, he reaches anxiously for the thoughts that will coalesce into something meaningful for his audience.
This morning I feel like Riddley. Writing a blog, or anything else for that matter, is an exercise in making those connections, joining together often apparently random thoughts until something meaningful reveals itself. Ideas in isolation tend not carry any great significance. It’s only when they stand in relation to other ideas, when connections are made between them, that real meaning emerges.
But today I can’t make the connections. I got back after a 24-hour trip to London early yesterday evening, then played at the session in the pub, and now I feel tired and fogged. I have the thoughts, a jumble of them, but I can’t conjure a unifying theme from them.
The thoughts are as follows. One, the continuing horror in Syria and my impulsive email last week to everyone in my address book, asking them to sign the Avaaz petition. Two, the question of whether signing a petition is really just a sop to our consciences or whether it can actually make a difference. Three, Avaaz itself, an international online community of several million members, headed by a team of activists, and its apparent ability to make its voice heard in high places (see the photograph on the front page of today’s UK edition of the Huffington Post, for example).
Four, Brian Cox (the pretty one), glossing over earth’s prospects in a couple of billion years’ time when the sun becomes a red giant and swells to a thousand times its current size prior to dying – ‘dim’ I think he said, meaning we’ll be burnt to a crisp.
Five, the Society of Authors’ Reading for Pleasure campaign which I mentioned last week, and my own experiences of visiting over 50 secondary school libraries during the 18-month period when my two young adult novels came out: some were places of warmth and energy and joy, others were wastelands, and all directly reflected the attitudes of their guardians.
And six, the book I’m currently reading in preparation for an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August. A Train in Winter, by the biographer and human rights writer Caroline Moorehead, it’s about the women of the French resistance, Jewish and non-Jewish, who were rounded up and deported to the Nazi death camps in Poland, and how those few that survived did so because of the relationships they forged among themselves.
So perhaps conscience is the theme, or at least a theme. The courage of these ordinary Frenchwomen beggars belief, the risks they ran as organisers, information gatherers and disseminators, couriers, providers of safe haven; the fortitude with which they bore their own imprisonment and torture, not to mention the torture and execution of their husbands and brothers and sons. What fuelled that inner resource? A deep sense of moral outrage and contempt for the German occupiers, most likely. I imagine the Syrian opposition fighters draw their strength from a similar place.
More mundanely, there’s the librarian who needs somewhere to find the grit to battle with a disinterested school administration for the resources to realise something they believe in. Then there are people like me who suspect that they’re really cowards and pray they’ll never be put to the test, but feel their consciences pricked enough by events to want, at least, to make their voices heard via an online petition.
As for the sun … well, that’s a connection too far for me today, its eventual death surely beyond even Brian Cox’s conscience. But it does leave me thinking that good connection men must live by their consciences. And to be a good writer, whatever the subject, means being a good connection man.