Found Things As Inspiration
People often ask me where I find my ideas. It seems glib to say that they find me, but sometimes it really does feel like that.
On a recent trip to a home and garden salvage warehouse I happened upon this beautiful old book. I wasn’t looking for anything like it. In fact, the Well Beloved and I had gone there to barter for a clock as a Valentine’s present to each other. This forgotten book was on a pile of wrapped up garden umbrellas. The leather cover shows years of wear through loving use, its gold tooling almost completely rubbed away. There is no title or author, which is not unusual because it is a bible.
Although the spine has been damaged and there is some foxing and mildew on the pages, the most poignant page of all, perhaps, is still clearly legible. I love the specificity of the inscription: not merely the date of the owner’s birth, but the exact time. “Quarter past six o’clock Tuesday Morning…” This precision gives Jacob Lewis his moment in history, somehow. As if now, now we shall see something! Now young Jacob has arrived! As if the world will have felt a tiny but fundamental shift at the very moment of his birth.
The year was 1835. Lewis is a Welsh name, and Hereford (where the book found me) is on the English border. This political line has been a narrow vein of high pressure for centuries, raised to a bulging artery with the construction of Offa’s Dyke, with the varicose scars of ruined of castles along its length. In 1835 England was still reeling from great losses during the Napoleonic wars. There had been real poverty, hunger and hardship throughout the land. Across the border, the English sought to subjugate the Welsh, raising money through tolls on the ancient drovers’ roads and banning the teaching or even the speaking of their own language in schools. Where did Jacob Lewis sit in all this? Why was his family bible an English one? At the time of his birthday, King William was on the throne. Within two years Queen Victoria would take his place. Had he lived into his sixties he would have seen the coming of a new century and another new monarch, Edward. In his lifetime he would have witnessed the industrial revolution, the development of anaesthesia, the railways, electricity, photography and the motor car. What times!
Such a found thing cannot help but prod the writer’s imagination. Such a personal, historic item propels my thoughts from facts through fable and so to fiction. What did Jacob look like? The type of bible suggests he was not high born but nor was he from a family mired in poverty. Was he a farmer? Did he toil in the fields, turning the red Herefordshire clay to plant crops for a titled landowner, or did he spend his working life tending cider apple trees or regimental rows of hop plants? Did he marry? Did his children survive famine and sickness to grow to adulthood? So many questions, and each one colouring in that blue ink outline of a new person. A person who started as a baby, his birth recorded in careful copperplate, his real life lived and finished over a century before his bible would find its way to me. Before I would read his name and he would be reborn into fiction.
Where shall I take him next? What second life shall I give him? How shall I repay his gift to me? I don’t know yet, but you can be certain he will end up in one of my books.