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When I was three or four years old my mother used to get me to sleep by telling me about the animals curled up in their burrows and the birds closing their eyes in their nests. I remember it vividly, the sound of her voice, the sense of her presence at my bedside, the feeling of safety and comfort and drowsiness.
It was barely a story, more of a mantra, but it must have worked because she repeated it night after night and the memory lodged deeply. Later, at boarding school aged eight or nine, I found refuge and solace in the school library and the well-thumbed, cloth-bound novels on its shelves. I think I recognised even then that stories were lifeblood, more than merely a pleasure, a necessity for survival.
The novelist Phillip Pullman has said ‘After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.’ They don’t feature in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but they easily could. I believe they are fundamental to our wellbeing, and that has never been clearer to me than during the last six months.
Most evenings, after eating and catching up with the news, we watch an episode of whatever series we have on the go. Currently it’s the French thriller Le Bureau, based around the activities of the DGSE, the French equivalent of MI6. We look forward to that moment in our day because it transports us for an hour. We lose ourselves completely in the lives, the drama of the characters. After a while they become a thread in our own lives. I often find myself thinking of them as I go to sleep.
Now, during the pandemic, they matter more than ever. At a time when so much of what we take for granted as ‘normal’ life is suspended, these big stories offer us an alternative universe where we can watch another version of reality playing out and find comfort in that, even though the events portrayed may not always be comfortable; the drama in Le Bureau is often intense.
Further, in a world which is presented to us through the media as being so binary—Trump or Biden, Corbyn or Starmer, Britain or Europe and so on—these stories reassure us, through the intricacies of human nature they portray, that duality, accommodating both the black and the white, living with shades of grey, is normal and an essential and healthy part of human experience.
Stories get us in the imagination, the place where heart and mind come together. They have an integrating effect. They comfort us and nourish us and even give us energy. I know from writing this blog that whenever I’m flagging, if I can find a story to tell my energy surges. Now we need them more than ever. They don’t even have to be uplifting, just a reflection of the kind of world the pandemic denies us.
When all around is strange and disordered, stories keep us anchored to some kind of reality, some sense of moral order, in a way that nothing else can.