“You have to go away to come again,” goes an old wives saying here in Blighty.
Those warm hostesses you always love – grannies, aunties, WI types who make fresh scones, battleaxes with huge hide-and-seek houses left over from their family days – they would say it to you as you trailed disconsolately over the threshold, and away home, with no return fixture planned.
This is what they meant: the place you have been is sweeter because it is not a constant.
We have to have a day-to-day existence, level ground against which the nice stuff rises. The humdrum, if you will. And from that level ground rises the fearsome, too.
We have this thing at school to teach stories. It’s called a story mountain.
It is a diagrammatic representation of how a story works, a joke-high thing which just springs out of a flat surround like some rhino’s tusk. It explains the formula of a story: the way man has kept his fellows rapt since prehistory.
We start at the bottom with a setting and characters, making our listener comfortable and orienting them. And then, expertly, as we gain altitude, we throw in details which make our listener puzzled, or uneasy; inconsistency, jarring dissonance which rivets us to the plot. We add more and more uncertainty and complexity as we near the top.
And at the top all hell lets loose.
It’s the climax of the story; the worst point, the farthest away from resolution; in a dragon’s tummy, or near madness in a haunted house at the dead of night. The skilful writer has ratcheted up tension to an only-just-bearable degree: and this is the catharsis.
That word. Aristotle coined it, surrounded as he was by a sophisticated culture which used story and drama expertly.Things are so dramatic, so tense, so unbearable that the story acts as a wire scourer: it cleanses us, even though we are just observers.
The journey down the mountain is all about timing: how and when to resolve the conflict you have created, how to release the tension by degrees to maximise the release in the audience. And as you reach the other side and ground level once more, there is happy-ever-after to meet you: or occasionally, unhappy-ever-after.
Stories are satisfying because you can control them. You can achieve catharsis without a ragged un-end. Is one of the worst things in life a tragedy without a resolution?
Through my mind that question has been running, ever since I woke up at about 2am one night in January, knowing before any doctor told us a thing, before any scan or check-up, that my mother had a brain tumour.
We are almost at the far foot of that mountain now. We have been through the growing tension, those details no-one ever want to face: my mother the day they told her the possible complications, the packing of a case for a major operation on the head. We have had a story mountain which did not end with an operation, but grew higher as complications set in and nothing seemed to be happening, and we feared our mother forgotten.
And then we were at the top: my mother, who had been able to speak perfectly well after the op, only able to string a few words together, on oxygen, and tabled for an urgent craniotomy; the second in a month.
The tension was hard. Because we knew there are sometimes stories with unhappy ragged endings: and I know some of you out there have experienced them.
But in this story, the tension was resolved, and my mother got better and began to speak again. And yesterday, she returned home.
And there was I, battling with lethargic GPs and fathomless hospital admin systems to get the right help to the right place at the right time.
Maddie walked into the kitchen at about half past five to find a mother with wild staring eyes and hair standing on end. The battles were telling on me. I may be a Spartan in any negotiation I undertake, but even Spartans have their moments.
I hugged Maddie, and found I couldn’t let go. She didn’t seem to mind. She realised straight away how I was feeling, with that ancient skill the majority of women possess.
We had tea. We resolved to walk the dog. But first, Felix and she disappeared upstairs.
When they reappeared, they had recreated one of my favourite stress-relieving sketches from a favourite comedy duo, The Mighty Boosh. I explained about it here.
Each child had a towel turban on their head, and they had typed out the script along with a picture of one of my favourite funny symbols,Philip The Kitten. They acted it for me, there, in front of the fridge.
And at that moment, I felt I might have come close to the bottom of that mountain.