I did not come from a family of storytellers. Although my father was inventive, poetic, adorable, and loving he was not chatty. Getting him to talk was like trying to pry opened a time capsule with a tulip.
My mother was always willing to talk about the past, but most of her stories were about her siblings, her parents, and growing up in Canada.
For stories on a Grand Scale, I had to look elsewhere.
Which was not difficult, because “elsewhere” for me was old films and books. And it was from them that I learned about the two major events that I always wished I could have experienced personally.
Let’s start with World War II.
I am absolutely certain that even before I saw the MGM movie Mrs. Miniver, I had perceived Londoners during the Blitz as brave, resilient, indomitable and resolute. I knew that people crowded down into the underground to wait for bombing raids to end, and that while there, they listened to concerts, fell in love, knitted socks, slept, and persevered.
To me, the idea of those brave Brits going about their day-to-day affairs was a lesson in nobility. Yes, there is war. Yes, there is evil. Yes, death hovers overhead like a thug with a crowbar. But … one must keep his chin up, his spirits elevated, and his courage in tact.
I have a wonderful book of photographs called “The Hulton Getty Picture Collection – 1940s.” On the front cover is a man in a white jacket carrying a basket filled with bottles of fresh milk. The caption reads, “While firemen damp down the smouldering ruins behind him, a milkman picks his way through rubble to deliver the morning’s supply. Churchill’s words to Hitler voice the feeling of many Londoners: ‘You do your worst – and we will do our best’.”
This, in contrast to the many movies and books – often science fiction like Godzilla and War of the Worlds – in which Americans (usually New Yorkers), similarly under attack, are portrayed as hysterical wimps who step on the faces of their fallen brethren (usually children) while stampeding to escape.
Having neither friend nor neighbor who seemed inclined to claw out my eyes at the first hint of danger, these images did not sit well with me.
September 11, 2001 proved my instincts right and my fellow citizens as resilient, calm, and brave as any Brit during any Blitz. There is no need to recount stories here of how New Yorkers responded on that day, as every anniversary brings countless recollections of courage, generosity, and resolve. We Americans had been given our own test of valor, and in Mayor Rudy Giuliani, we had our Winston
During the days, weeks and months that followed, my London Blitz envy finally disappeared. We, too, were capable of magnificence.
That was one of the two events I wished that I could have experienced. The other involved books. Not books found on contemporary bookshelves. Serialized books by the likes of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
These wildly popular authors published their novels chapter-by-chapter, leaving readers panting after the next installment with anxiety, hope, and dread. What will happen to David Copperfield? Can Sherlock Holmes really be dead? Who stole The Moonstone diamond? Each segment ended with a cliffhanger; readers hung their hearts and souls on the fates of fictional events; and the books sold, sold, sold.
But all of this occurred in Victorian England over a 150 years ago, and only in my imagination were people still clammoring to pay a shilling for the latest chapter of their favorite tale. I was sadly certain that I would never observe such keen anticipation for the written word in my own lifetime.
I was wrong, of course.
I had not anticipated J. K. Rowling.
The emergence of her seven novels about a wonderful wizard boy named Harry Potter was as exciting as a trip in a Time Machine to the mid-1800s. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire. Harry Potter and The Deathly Hollows. I loved watching people camp outside bookstores. I loved the midnight store-openings and book parties. I loved that youngsters dressed up as Harry, Ron, Hermione, or Professor Dumbledore. I loved the revelry and passion.
That words, stories … fiction … could dominate world news. This world. The one I am living in. The world of today. That fantasy novels could affect lives, inspire loyalty, and create a love of literature … the mere idea of it, let alone that it was true, brought and still brings joy to my heart.
The Blitz and September 11th.
Victorian novels and Harry Potter.
Each was a once in a lifetime occurence.
Greatness and great events are as rare as genius and as precious as a pure heart. Admiring them from afar is better than having no experience of them at all.
How much sweeter it is, though, to have had the great good fortune of being intimately acquainted with both.