If you had someone who guided and inspired you as a child you were lucky, particularly if that someone was your father, mother or a sibling.
Hands up. I’m not the brightest candle in the box, clearly so, because it’s taken me more than half a century to realise the profound influence that written words have had on my development.
Why has this taken me so long? Why now, after bringing up a family of my own, moving on to a second marriage and changing my career to one very different from my lifelong employment, have I experienced this revelation?
Please understand this piece is not about religion. My opinion of organised religion is fodder for a different rant. The words I’m referring to were written mainly, but not exclusively, by lay people who knew how to express the essence of what is necessary or desirable to live a happy and fulfilled life and avoid some of its pitfalls.
In our cynical times inspirational texts are all too often the province of religious cranks, charlatans and cynical manipulators. It has become intellectually cool to deride wise words, in particular any that were once venerated but have become tarnished by association with the standards of less enlightened times.
To be clear, by wise words I mean for example Kipling’s ‘If’ or the mysterious, often misattributed, Desiderata. There is also one Shakespearean passage in particular which is the target of so much intellectual flak that anyone wishing to be taken seriously in literary circles hardly dares mention it today. But nobody takes me seriously, so I shall. I’m referring to the speech in Hamlet in which Polonius gives advice to his son Laertes.
My own dad was lost at sea. Mother remarried twice. Both those relationships were based around the licenced trade. My parents ran pubs and clubs, so I saw little of them – certainly we shared little ‘quality time'. I have no siblings and I made no lasting friendships because of frequent home moves. Eventually I left home – or rather home left me – at sixteen. I chose to remain and live in lodgings in order to continue my electrical apprenticeship when my parents again moved on. I always read a lot, quite widely. I can see now that I brought myself up, more or less, with the help of the words of writers I had come to respect and trust.
No doubt there was some utter rubbish in the stuff I read over the years (I blame on that my inability to avoid puns) but there were also wise words in abundance. It has taken me the better part of a lifetime and the effort of attempting to become a writer myself to make me recognise the true importance of those wise words.
Sometimes I say playfully that I’m a man of my words. That’s self-indulgent rhetoric, for in truth what I am was fashioned from the words of others.
So if you’re down, or lonely, or if the world doesn’t understand, take heart and take refuge in great writing. Never feel ashamed to seek support from wise words.