The Greatest Story Never Told?

Assalamu alaikum.

My Year 9 English teacher was a man named David James. (That was the year they started calling Year 9 Year 9, incidentally. I’d been in Year 2 only months earlier.) I was inclined to like him because he had the same name as a young, upcoming goalkeeper at Watford, who’d been touted for big things.

Anyway, like any good goalkeeper (just ask Peter Schmeichel), David-James-the-English-teacher didn’t mince his words. He seemed rather fond of literature (fortunate, that); coaxed his inaugural Year 9 students into the inaugural Year 9 play (‘The Machine Gunners‘ by Robert Westall); and declared that everybody had at least one novel in them.

Of course, he was referring to ones life story.

Well, the phrase “You haven’t lived!” is perhaps better used on a thirteen-year-old than on most, and sure enough my novel (we were all forced to write one) was accordingly lifeless. Not that I based it on my own life – I seem to recall it was some sort of man-on-the-run story, though I have no memory of where he was running to or what he was running from. And no, Sigmund, none of this is allegorical!

I suspect Mr James was not licking his lips at the prospect of having to read sixty-odd books that all began with the formula, “I was born in [-------] on the [--]th of [-------] 197[-]…” but was hoping rather to see some application of his students’ own experiences in their creative writing. In my case, he would have deduced that nothing particularly interesting had ever happened to me (and he would have been largely correct!)

But let’s assume for a moment that JK Rowling has never disarmed a wizard by shouting “EXPELLIARMUS!” at the top of her voice, and that Jules Verne might not have made it to the centre of the earth before writing his novel. In that case, it must be possible to write about things that fall within the realm of possibility (however improbable) but are quite outside of ones own experience.

In my case, these days at least, whenever I try to think of something beyond “unlikely”, my imagination begins to play lift music and the elevator itself grinds to a halt. I prefer the workmanlike route (the staircase, if you will). It’s extremely familiar and even if I do have to stop for a breath here and there, I’m not likely to get stuck for long. I sometimes toy with the idea of going for something more extravagant, but I’m too much of a simpleton-surrounded-by-modernity to get away with it. Anything I wrote wouldn’t even survive a quick pass round my far more scientifically advanced family (heck, I’m the only one of three brothers-in-law without one of them eye-phone thingies).

So, for me it’s all about characters (see my ‘Mr Bateman’ article if you need convincing): how they behave, the lessons they learn and teach one another, and, more ambitiously, what they try to teach the reader.

Imam Munieb is a case in point. As a good friend commented in a recent email to me,

I really like the character of the Imam Munieb, I wish we had more Imams like him, unfortunately I cannot think of even one Imam that comes close to Imam Munieb’s personality. Maybe our community need more Imam Muniebs.

Anyone reading the first few chapters of the book, however, might well consider this an absurd opinion. The Imam Munieb who we meet at the beginning of the book is far, far removed from the Imam Munieb to whom we wave goodbye at the conclusion. So what is so likeable about his character?

Imam Munieb in mid-positive-influence of Saleem

Well – and for the umpteenth time I apologise for not giving much away here! – for me, it’s because Imam Munieb is willing to undergo a change. He puts his trust in God and is prepared to follow wherever this road takes him. He even seems prepared to risk an element of criticism and ridicule for his actions.

Is this a message for the reader? Yes. But authors read their own books too!

In truth, all the good you find in Imam Munieb’s character is nothing less than a rallying call to myself and anyone who might read the book. It is not autobiographical in the way I might have understood David-James-the-English-teacher to mean back in Year 9 (i.e. me with a different name) but the hunches, feelings and aspirations of the Imam are well grounded in my experience (the difference being that, for the Imam, the limit is my imagination; for me, the limit is my action!)

I have no doubt this is a great deal closer to what Mr James would have liked us to make of our life stories all of those twenty years ago; make it a riveting read, and all the better if you can foster some reflection and purpose at the same time.

So, what of David James’ own life? Well, from the clues I have been able to gather, he made a very successful journey into storytelling (I found some particularly gushing reviews on the Internet) so he must certainly be a master of pulling together his own (and other people’s) experiences to wow an audience.

As for the David James who appears to have had less of an influence on my life: well, he got a transfer to Liverpool FC at the end of Year 9, shortly after the performance of that inaugural play I mentioned. Oh, and he went on to play for England a few (fifty-three) times too.  More importantly, he’s something of a writer himself!

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