A few months ago I was in a shop selling second hand goods — quite a novelty in our part of Italy — and as usual I made a beeline for the books. They were almost all in Italian apart from one, the intriguingly titled Thoughts of a Clodhopper, which the owner gave to me free of charge!
It turned out to be an inspirational treasure trove of beautiful writing. I have no idea why it ended up in that little shop all those miles from home, but I’m glad it did.
In this slender volume the writer, Ernest Ballard, shares his thoughts about simple living, love of the land and the real location of true values. It is a lovely little book, but this is the part that interested me most:
“I desire to explain why I try to write at all. It is because at times an irresistible force compels me: I cannot rest until I have made the attempt to crystallize such thoughts — but then I am faced with an utter incapacity to find words to convey clearly what I want to say. And if… these few fragments of thought that the soil has taught me, give those who honour me by reading them any pleasure, and possibly help them to see greater beauty and understand a little more of the mysteries of life, then to my readers I dedicate this effort and my rewards will indeed be great.”
I have searched for Mr Ballard online (the book was published at least 45 years ago I think) but there is no trace of him. And yet the fact that he bothered to follow the “irrestible force” and set his thoughts on paper has led me to enjoy what he has to say and to share it with others online. It’s ironic really, as he is not greatly in favour of technology, but I think he would understand.
I own another slim book, bought at a local market from a fed-up looking lady standing alone at a stall decorated with green and brown woodland scenes and acorns. In front of her was a pile of pristine books, seemingly untouched since the market had opened several hours before. I went over to try and cheer her up and to buy a copy. The book was called Casentino: I Mestieri d’un Tempo (Casentino — the Crafts of a Bygone Age) and like the Clodhopper book, was not written by a professional author, but by an ‘ordinary’ man — Ademo Rossi — who wanted to document local crafts that were dying out so that the younger generation would have a record of their heritage. In the book he interviews local old people about how they used to scrape a living in this rather isolated Tuscan valley. We learn of knife grinders, charcoal burners and even — my personal favourite — pine nut collectors. ( Pinottolaio if you are interested!)
Ademo describes in the introduction how hard he found the writing at first but bit by bit, he managed to put together the stories of seventeen different local crafts. “It was a beautiful experience,” he writes, “because people welcomed what I was doing and nobody held back their stories and that too gave me courage.” Because he stuck with it, these old people’s stories are now on the record.
Just Nine Pages
My final example of how important it is to just write, to tell your story, is a personal one. One day quite a few years ago now, I got a letter from my aunt who wanted to send me a document that she had been left. It was a simple typewritten few pages called My Life by John Cameron.
It was written by my great grandfather and was just nine typewritten pages. My great aunt Kata had typed at the end: “The ‘Life’ is as Dada wrote it (in pencil on the pages of a penny exercise book) except that I have paragraphed it for easier reading.” This touched me deeply. That he had expressed himself in his little notebook, just so that he wouldn’t be forgotten. So that his life and that of his family was on paper. And so much was between the lines in what he wrote, and all the more powerful for it: “My third son , Alexander Angus Ewen was a clerk in the Engineering Department of the Post Office, and a Territorial, but he was not allowed to leave his work on the outbreak of war in 1914. In 1915, however, he was permitted to join his regiment, the 4thBn. Cameron Highlanders, and went to France in 1916 as Sergeant. He had been at Invergordon for nearly a year as Drill Sergeant and then at York and Portsmouth. He was killed about 7 a.m. on the 21st September, 1918. He was a very fine lad of 23 years, upright in all his actions.”
So when you are feeling a bit down, maybe have a touch of writer’s block or think it’s just not worth writing anything as no-one will ever read it, remember these three people and what they did — the fact that they bothered to record their thoughts and feelings — and let it inspire you to keep going. After all, you never know who will read it!
If you enjoyed this, you might like Big is Massively Overrated.