Today is my birthday. I am sixty five years old with more stories to tell than listeners to hear them. Is this unusual? Not at all; we are all storytellers and we learned to tell stories by listening to the stories of others and making them our own. When I was very young, every afternoon, I ‘Listened With Mother’. The soothing, cultured tones of the announcer, Daphne Oxenford, asked me “….are you sitting comfortably?” to which I nodded mutely at the radio. She went on “…then I’ll begin.” She told wonderful stories about Andy Pandy, the Flowerpot Men and Muffin the Mule. Ironically the first airing of the show was on my birthday, but two years before I was born. It ended with: “Goodbye now, ’til tomorrow. Goodbye.” at which I wept inconsolably.
As we grow older, we encounter more and more complex stories — in literature, film, visual art and music, also in our own myopic stumblings through the labyrinth of existence — that give us a richer and more subtle grasp of human emotions and of our own inner world in all its chaos, unpredictability and disorder. We follow news, real and fake and the wiser among us have learned to tell the difference. We used new, strange words to frame our thoughts – the adjective ‘post-truth’ being the ‘word of the year’ last year. It means that objective fact has given way to and is less influential in shaping public opinion than feelings and emotional appeal. ‘I saw it on Facebook, so it must be true’ means that I have freely decided that I want to live in some post-truth world.
I spoke with a friend a while ago who told me, unblushingly, that he had stopped reading fiction altogether, concentrating on biography instead. At first, I thought that he had reduced the inner life of his imagination to something disappointingly two-dimensional and monochrome until I realised that he was able to reach into a different reality, actual circumstance, happenstance and context clothed with meaning, overlaying it with his own emotional veneer – a satisfying, vicarious journey.
This year, I shall listen to a lot of music and read a lot of stories, the real and the imagined, and I’ll think about what the stories I encounter mean for my own life and lives of those I love. In that way, I will not be alone with an empty self; I will be enriched, and, much more importantly, there will be enhanced possibilities of real communication with others. As C S Lewis put it: “we read to know we are not alone.”