In ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’, the 2012 BBC Radio 4 series and accompanying book by former British Museum director Dr Neil MacGregor, we hear objects speak on a grand scale. As listeners and readers, we are invited to get to know objects from ancient civilisations and more contemporary cultures – pots, textiles, a bell, an axe, statues, chessmen, a roof tile – and ‘make our own connections, construct our own history of the world.’
Circled by the tea and coffee mugs of the group of writers round the table last Saturday at the Ilkley Literature Festival are objects, not in fact dissimilar to those chosen by Dr McGregor, each waiting a voice: keys on a brass fob in the form of a ‘2’, a silver dish for sugared almonds engraved with ‘Toronto Canada 1920, a lustreware teacup, Wainwright’s ‘A Guide to the Eastern Fells’.
The workshop leader, OCA creative writing tutor Csilla Toldy, invites us to choose just one of them and use our senses to get to know it. We explore with our fingers, we gaze, we twist, we bend our faces downwards, making the acquaintance of a small cactus planted in a B&B-sized tawny orange marmalade jar, a giant paper clip from Greece and a piece of flint shaped like a Dachshund picked up on a Norfolk beach. With our new knowledge, we write a day in the life of our chosen object. There is, as there always seems to be when writers work together, that instant of shared amazement that once again we have found words.
We find, too, our mood of the moment in the words we write and they infuse themselves into the objects. There is the bottle of watermelon-scented nail varnish, fed up with sitting dusty on the dressing table and desperate to go dancing. Here is an apple, looking down from the tree at the boys walking towards it up the hill and trembling at the mention of a pie. On the moor, a sprig of heather takes a dim view of a party of walkers as the light of a new day dawns. In a quiet sitting room, a woman sees the 90 years of her life unfold before her as she drinks tea.
Voices found, it’s time to move onto narrative and dialogue by listing 10 objects and weaving a story around them. Imagine, says Csilla, that all the objects belong to one person. Give the person a gender and a name and put them into a room. Think about why the objects are in the room and give each of them a story.
In our modest setting – a church hall with a view of Ilkley Moor – the objects allow us our voices. Within half an hour, there are the beginnings of poems and short stories, an idea for a radio play, a setting for a children’s story. It is a morning of the discoveries that writers must make and make again: that objects help us show rather than tell, and that characters take on a life of their own and do things their creators would not expect.
But always there is a small doubt. Do all objects speak? Or do some keep their lips sealed, refusing to divulge their secrets?
The Ilkley Literature Festival continues until 20 October.