Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Curiouser and curiouser

by Bill Kirton

It’s easy enough to imagine how Stone Age people started making their stuff. Ugg probably stood on a stone, cut his foot, swore, felt sorry for himself but at some point made the connection between the flint being sharp and therefore just the thing to shave with – so stone tools were born. What isn’t so easy is to conjure up how Bronze Age people started doing whatever you have to do to make bronze. It isn’t as if their equivalent of the media started saying it was the dawn of a new era – the Bronze Age – which made everybody want to be trendy so they all got bronze-making stuff from their Wal-Mart. It needs heating and pouring and things.

And then, when the Iron Age arrived, it was even more complex because at least with copper, it flowed when it was heated and it was a nice colour so you could see it, but iron ore looks like rubbish, and there’s no melting and flowing and prettiness. And yet they somehow knew or found out that if you added it to a mixture of tin and copper and lead (I think – I don’t have to be meticulous with my research for musings such as this) it made it all less brittle, you could hammer it into shape, shrink it onto wheels to make tyres, and the ingredients were all nearby anyway so there was no need to spend hours stuck in traffic jams on the trade routes to get copper.

So what has this got to do with anything? Well, recently, I was listening to a podcast of a great BBC programme as I was riding my bike. It’s called In Our Time and it deals with all sorts of subjects and is proof that dumbing down hasn’t yet penetrated every corner of life. They were talking about the Iron Age and there are so many mysteries about how some things came about that it made me wish I could go back and see what was happening.

And that in turn made me think of these celeb questionnaires which ask questions like ‘What was the best kiss of your life?’, ‘How would you like to die?’ and ‘If you could go back or forward in time, what period would you like to visit?’ I could answer the first two easily, but for the third, there’d be too many possibilities. Even if you just restrict it to travelling back in time, there are so many things to witness, to learn, to marvel at. We could see who had the idea of riding horses and how they set about doing it, watch people daubing stuff on cave walls, find out just how sophisticated the Greeks and Romans were and what Stonehenge was really for. Then going the other way, we’d meet extra-terrestrials, see babies being born with their iphones and ipads already charged and wired into their brains – all sorts of stuff.

And what it all boils down to is that, while everyone lists the same sort of characteristics when it comes to writers – a way with words, good observational skills, the ability to empathise, a vivid imagination – they don’t use the word ‘curiosity’ nearly as frequently. While we remain curious, we’re still alive, we still engage with our surroundings and with other people. I can’t imagine a state in which being curious about something wasn’t part of the equation. Books telling people ‘How to write’ should always encourage readers to ask ‘What?’, ‘Who?’, ‘When?’, ‘Where?’, ‘How?’.

And perhaps most of all, ‘Why?’ – because it’s usually the hardest of all to answer.


Jean Henry Mead said...

I agree, Bill. When I taught in the Poetry in the Schools Program, I stresed that students use their imaginations, which, unfortunately, have been dulled or dumbed down by television and video games.

Bill Kirton said...

Yes, Jean. The nice thing, though, is that when we get them to move outside their routines and let their imaginations loose, they themselves are pleasantly surprised at the results. I suppose the trick is making them realise it's worth doing without having us to stimulate them.