Earlier this week, Gloria Spielman wrote about finding fellow writers on the Internet and the University of the Ghetto. Her most recent book, Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
One of the upshots of all the reading and thinking I did for Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, was that I ended up doing a lot of thinking about something I’d never thought that much about before – silence and its power.
It never used to be like this. I wasn’t always on a quest for quiet. An only child, I yearned for noise, for hustle and bustle, a busy house with lots of people and their comings and goings. Who the hell needed quiet? Quiet was boring, unnerving, depressing, threatening even. A void to be filled. So, on went the TV the second I came home, the radio in the kitchen, a favourite tape, anything, as long as there was noise. Anyway, how could you do homework with no music? I had a friend at elementary school, who came from an odd family. They were odd as they had no TV. I remember thinking. What do they do for noise? It must be terrible, all that quiet. (Ironically, we are bringing up five children without a TV, but that’s a tale for another day.)
It seems I wasn’t alone. The world is full of intentional background noise: TVs no one is really watching, radios no one is really listening to and why? Just to break the silence, that’s why. Silence can be scary, sometimes lonely and it forces us to turn inward and gives us space to think. Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes not.
I’m not sure when exactly this craving for noise became a craving for silence but one day there it was. At some point I realized I could no longer remember the last time I’d turned the radio on at home, or while driving. Silence no longer bothered, noise did. With me, it was mainly a writer thing. ‘How do you expect me to listen to those voices in my head with all that racket?’ So, that’s what they mean by “I can’t hear myself think!” I started noticing how much more relaxed I was when things were quiet. I started noticing that quiet brought with it feelings of serenity, peace and relaxation.
All well and good, at home where you can turn the TV, radio or your iPod on or off as the fancy takes you but it’s another thing in the public sphere. No one thinks it unreasonable. We’ve recognized the right not to have cigarette smoke blown into our faces. There are laws against that, so why does the commercial world seem to think it has every right to indulge in acoustic abuse. They just don’t let up, do they? It’s that insidious worm – Muzak. It’s everywhere. Shops, the mall, pool changing rooms restaurants and cafes.
At first, I just suffered without a word. I didn’t like to ask. British reserve and embarrassment, I guess. I mean, isn’t it grumpy old crankies who don’t want the music on? Music is cool. Not so cool to want it off. There are times I’d like to do the writer with laptop in café thing but so far every local café has told me they’re not allowed to turn off the music, even if you’re the only customer. “Company Policy,” they tell me. “We can turn it down but we can’t turn it off. Sorry.”
One waitress confessed, “I’d love to turn it off but if management found out I’ll be in trouble.” The pool is the only Muzak free zone I can think of, but I’ll pass on taking my laptop for a swim. Perhaps, one day, I’ll start a campaign for freedom from forced music in public places but until then me and my laptop stay home.
As I finish writing this, it’s almost time to start my Shabbat cooking. I’ll be listening to Shabbat by The Family Wach while I chop, slice and stir. Here’s a taste.
Did I say I didn’t like music? Oh no. There’s a time for everything.
On Monday, Gloria Spielman wrote about the University of the Ghetto. Her most recent book, Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
It all started back in March 1999. We’d just got our very first home internet connection and I was setting off to navigate cyberspace and figure out what exactly was out there in that World Wide Web thing that everyone was going on about. These were the days of the Netscape browser and dial-up internet, which hogged the phone line and meant that you could either surf or make a phone call but not at the same time. My husband had assured me that the internet would help my writing. I was about to discover he was right.
I’d been trying my hand at writing, but what to do with my efforts? Were they any good? How bad were they really? And how would I know? Perhaps I ought to take up flower arranging instead? I should probably have someone read my work, but who? I knew no other writers, neither pre- nor post-published. On the other hand, perhaps it was all for the best as who wants to be sitting face to face with a person as they tell you, as we say in cockney, that your work is, a load of codswallop. So, the path of least resistance looked very inviting and I tucked those manuscripts away in my filing cabinet and the dust began to settle.
But now there was this thing called the Internet. It seemed quite clear that Arthur Clarke had been right after all and advanced technology was most certainly indistinguishable from magic. A click of the mouse and everything I wanted to know was now at the tips of my fingers, email lists, writer’s boards and forums, ask any question and it shall be answered instantly. Magic, definitely.
One day I saw an email on a writers list that a new critique group was starting up and open to new members. Time to fish out those old manuscripts. I sent off an email saying I would like to join. I was accepted. It was December 1999. One of our members was a published writer, there to point us in the right direction and the rest of us were just beginning to feel our way in the world of books and writing.
We introduced ourselves and began to share our writings. The last person who’d looked at my creative writing had been my high school English teacher. And I’d never ever given anyone writing advice. I learned on the job. Gently we encouraged each other to kill our darlings, cut the verbiage, rethink the story arc. And thankfully no mention of cobblers. Most importantly we encouraged each other to never ever to give up. Soon we were sharing much more than writing. Grumbles and gripes, joys and giggles. Some weeks none of us submitted a thing but still we talked and laughed. Babies were born, marriages celebrated, jobs lost and gained, the grumbles and gripes shared many words written and lots of laughs. We had no rules, none whatsoever. Anyone could submit anything at any time. When one of us was on a roll we all helped. Whatever was needed. As Verlie says, “I always love those on a roll times when the whole group lights up to celebrate one writing obsessed mind on fire.”
My friends helped me in other ways. These days I have a Kindle and so many books can be accessed on the internet. But in those earlier days, living in Israel, an English reading addict and writer could have gone nuts with trying to get their book fix. I did. My friends knew this and came to my rescue. I never asked, but, it happened that I would come home to an email, saying, ‘We had a bit of a clear-out, went to a garage sale. Just got back from the post office. There’s a box of books on their way to you.” Or, “just got this year’s Writers Market. I’m putting last year’s in the mail.”
I had joked that one day we would have our very own bookshelf. It was just a joke. But then our first member had her book published, then another and another. Today we have over two dozen books to our name. That shelf is starting to fill up. I even dedicated my first book to the group, along with my mother and my husband. Twelve years later and it’s a very different writing life.
Oh, and just one thing. Did I mention I’ve never actually met any of my friends face to face? Or even spoken on the phone: A pretty old-fashioned way of communicating when you think of it. Sometimes I think we’re not unlike Helene Hanff, Frank Doel and the staff of, 84 Charing Cross Road. Thomas Lask, writing in The New York Times about Hanff’s book, said, “Here is a charmer: a 19th-century book in a 20th century world.” Perhaps one day, we’ll be a 20th century book in a 21st century world. It is all down to the written word and that internet thing.
When I’m back in London there’s a building I like to visit. If you’re an art lover and you’ve been to London you may know the place. It’s the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End. But it’s not the art that I go for, it’s the building itself or rather its new-old addition – the former Whitechapel Library.
The original gallery building opened in in London’s East End in 1901. It seemed like an odd location. The neighbourhood was dodgy. Outsiders were scared to set foot in the area. In his book People of the Abyss, the writer Jack London tells of the horrified reactions of people when, in 1902, he told them he was planning on living there for a while. “You don’t want to live down there!” they said alarmed.” London fared no better with the good folks at Thomas Cook and Son, an English travel company that sent intrepid travelers all over the world and refused to take him a stone’s throw away to the East End. You can’t do it you know,” they told him “It is so – ahem – unusual. Consult the police.”
Fortunately this was also the age of philanthropists with the winning combination of a zeal for social reform and deep pockets. Samuel Augustus Barnett, a social reformer and clergyman who’d moved to the East End, believed that the poor folks, native born and immigrants, in the crowded Whitechapel tenements deserved a library no less than Londoners in wealthier areas. He persuaded John Passmore Edwards, another social reformer, to dig into his wallet and fund a library for the residents of Whitechapel. The library opened in 1892. And what a library it was.
They called it The University of the Ghetto and it acquired legendary status. The area was home to vast numbers of poor Jewish immigrants with a thirst for knowledge. Because of Jewish borrowers the library built up the largest collection of Jewish and Yiddish literature in any British library. It was a refuge and meeting place for all-sorts: radical thinkers, school children, dockers, office workers and down and outs. They browsed the shelves and sat at the wooden tables in the reading room. And the list of writers and artists who got their start at number 77 Whitechapel High Street was long.
But times change. When it came time for me to join the library it was the late 1960s and the writing was already on the wall for the Jewish East End. The Jews had started moving on to pastures suburban. The generation of writers, artists, scholars, scientists, doctors and lawyers who’d got their start at the library had made their way in the world. At age five I knew nothing of the legions of readers that had gone before me. But the day I stepped over the threshold of number 77 Whitechapel High St and walked past the glazed tile picture of the old Whitechapel Haymarket, the library worked its magic. Number 77 became my second home. I asked to be taken to the library at every opportunity. When I was old enough I disappeared there for hours. You name it, I’ve read it. My favourite was Jewish literature. Like thousands before me, I sat at the wooden tables alongside all sorts.
Back home one university vacation, I returned to the library only to discover that Jewish literature had disappeared. The dwindling Jewish community had taken its toll and the books had been moved to the basement. “Not much call for them anymore I’m afraid,” the librarian told me. “Would you like to see them?” she asked. Of course I did. The caretaker opened a door and led me down dark stairs into the library basement. It was a Jewish bibliophile’s paradise. I wandered the shelves of books and yellowing old newspapers in Yiddish and English. Many I’d read, some I’d been meaning to read, some held no real interest and others were in Yiddish which I barely read, but still each book was somebody’s world. How many worlds were dumped here underneath the feet of the pedestrians of Whitechapel High St?
From time to time I would visit my books. It was wonderful down there in the basement. Just me and my books. Occasionally a member of the library staff would pop their heads in to check on me. In time, the library sold off the books to university libraries. I bought some. Today they sit on my shelves. Occasionally, when I have writers’ block I’ll open one, just the smell of the old paper with its patina of thumbprints of generations of Jewish immigrants is enough to ignite the imagination again.
In August 2005, Whitechapel Library closed its doors after 113 years. It reopened a tube station away as the Idea Store, a fabulous 4 storey building with thousands more books, a café, free internet, a crèche and even a dance studio. I do believe Passmore Edwards would have approved.
The old building was bought by the Whitechapel Gallery next door. In 2009 it reopened as part of the Gallery after a massive renovation. Not long after, I went to check on the old girl. The Haymarket was gone. The original stair case and balustrade up to the reading room remained. There was not a trace of the old dark basement. Instead of books, you’ll find brightly lit toilets and a baby changing room. Up the in old reading room, the doors and windows looked just the same. And those old wooden tables were just as I remembered. I got chatting to the young woman at the front desk. I mentioned I’d come to see the old library. “Funny, we’ve had a few people like you wanting to see the old library. Must have been a special place.”
I popped in again last month. Up in the old reading room on the first floor I shared my memories with the Gallery archivist. He told me: “Some people come here and say they just want to stroke the tables.” Makes sense to me.
Check back all week for more posts from Gloria Spielman. Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime just received a silver medal in the 2011 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards.