The dangers of words


When Boxer was driven from ‘Animal Farm’ in a knacker’s van, the whole family dissolved in tears. I’d been worried that the syllabus at the children’s schools didn’t seem to cover the riches of English literature, so we began a nightly practise of all gathering around the fire, including the two Cavalier King Charles spaniels and a lanky afghan, for nightly reading sessions. ‘Animal Farm’ was a favourite even to those of us who were unaware of its deeper political meaning.

‘David Copperfield’ was another favourite… though I could hardly get past David’s childhood sitting cold and alone in his freezing bedroom terrified of Mr and Miss Murdstone. It reminded me too uncomfortably of a period of my childhood. “Don’t go on reading,” my children begged as the tears streamed down my face. “We’ll get there”, I’d say, mopping my cheeks. Peggotty saved us.
How did she know, I used to wonder when I read ‘David Copperfield’ as a child, that ‘Barkis is willing’, meant he wanted to marry her… ‘Barkis is willing’ must be the most phlegmatic proposal in literature.

The night that silly sweet Dora died was the night my husband was working late, and it was a cold dark winters’ night, just as it was in the book. So we all piled into our big bed, children and me under the duvet, Cavalier King Charles’s and the afghan on top. As we read of Dora slipping away, we all wept, but the coup de grace was the death the same night, of Dora’s spoiled little spaniel, Jip, who lived in a pagoda which was too big and tripped everyone up. Jip had also walked all over the dining table and put his paws in the butter and barked at Traddles, their first dinner guest… So when the man of our house returned, there was just a sodden heap of dogs and people to greet him.

Traddles, of course, was the man whose hair was so irrepressibly unruly, standing upright on his head, that his fiance’s sisters made jokes about keeping a lock of his hair in a book with a heavy clasp to try to keep it flat. Yes, we laughed and cried all through David C.

We laughed through ‘The Wind in the Willows’ too, especially Toad’s adventures and his come-uppance at the hands of the washerwoman. Later, we cried when Hereward the Wake was escaping from William the Conqueror’s army. Fleeing through the fens in the dark, with his great faithful mare swimming behind the boat, he cut her throat and she sank silently into the black waters.

I don’t know whether the children were any the wiser about English literature after those years of reading aloud together, but what fun we had. Reading aloud was the way most people enjoyed their books in times past. One person with a candle could keep the whole room enthralled, and it was only in recent times that silent reading became the norm for every-one. The early saints read their missals and bibles aloud, and it was cause for remark when St Augustine came upon his mentor, Bishop Ambrose, silently reading the words without moving his lips. Augustine was so amazed that he described it in his ‘Confessions’.

Dickens, like Orwell and many another, was a subversive writer. Dickens was trying to change society and arouse compassion by telling stories of injustice and pain. Orwell, on the other hand, was trying to warn us of what was to come. And what he wrote has come to pass.

The cliche that the pen is mightier than the sword is true; words can change people’s minds, open their hearts, give them insight, knowledge and hope, and move them to tears or laughter, while the sword can only silence them.

I have a beautiful coffee table book called ‘Women Who Read are Dangerous’… this could also apply to men of course. But in this instance, the book makes the point that men in the past have resisted the idea of women reading – precisely because men unconsciously realised that reading was subversive, and allowed women to escape, to start thinking for themselves, to explore ideas and reach for larger worlds than the circumscribed one that so many women were forced to inhabit.

Alan Bennett wrote a witty little book called’ The Uncommon Reader’, in which he outlines just this scenario. The reader is the Queen. She stumbles on the travelling library van parked in Buckingham Palace kitchen courtyard when the corgis have run off. Driven by a life-time of in-escapable good manners and a desire to set the librarian at ease, she chooses a book – a very difficult book – but again, propelled by her sense of duty, forces herself to finish it. Returning it, she feels she should seem to have enjoyed it, so the librarian presses another book on her.

Gradually the Queen becomes a dedicated reader… begins to neglect her duties, reads a book in her lap when she should be waving to crowds from the car, doesn’t care what she’s wearing as she’s more interested in finishing her book… and finally decides she wants to find her own voice, and write too. The horrified prime minister points out that this is dangerous and unconstitutional, as the truth would make devastating reading. So she abdicates so that she can write her truth

Writing the truth is what makes a writer’s life so fraught with peril. Writer Stephen King says: “if you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered”. He could just as truthfully have said your days as a member of your family are numbered too, as what is truth to one person is seen as slander, untruth or simply bad taste to others.

Nancy Mitford’s parents, described in ‘The Pursuit of Love’ were upset about their portraits, though James Lees-Milne, a close friend, vouched for the truth of Uncle Mathew and Aunt Sadie – now two of the great comic characters of English literature. James Lees-Milne himself often rued the day he‘d published his fascinating diaries of living through World War Two, as he and his wife encountered cold shoulders and black looks from those who saw the truth differently.

So if reading is seen as dangerous, it is as nothing compared to the dangers of writing. Insipid romances or doctored memoirs may satisfy some writers, but true writers need to write the truth as they see it. It’s a responsibility and a necessity. Which may be why so many writers and journalists end up in prison or worse, both in the past, and sadly, in the present.

Today, many bloggers share that fate too, and risk their lives to write the truth on the internet. And their lives, like other writers, are in danger at this moment in history, because in closed totalitarian societies, words are recognised for what they are… the most powerful weapons in the world. Words are the weapons that can change lives and whole societies. And we bloggers get to play with them.

Food for threadbare gourmets

I love potatoes cooked every which way. This way is a favourite, and this recipe is a refined version of the way I’ve always made what some call crispy potato cakes, and others might call latkes.

To three large potatoes like agria or other type with a high starch content, you need 75grams of melted butter. Grate the potatoes coarsely, dropping them in cold water as you go. I often just scrub them instead of peeling. Drain them and squeeze them as dry as you can. I use several layers of kitchen paper on a clean kitchen towel.

Mix them in a bowl with the melted butter and salt and black pepper just before cooking. Drop spoonfuls into hot oil in a heated heavy frying pan, and keep them warm in the oven as you go. Don’t fry too quickly or the inside won’t be cooked. They taste good with anything, and especially with freshly picked mushrooms from the grass outside my gate, and bacon from happy pigs, for a quick meal. In New Zealand we call this Freedom food…freedom from cruelty etc. etc.

Food for thought

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lot of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently in your head, directly to you.
Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, bringing together people who never knew each other, citizens of different epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic. Carl Sagan


Filed under animals/pets, bloggers, books, cookery/recipes, family

45 responses to “The dangers of words

  1. I love to read anywhere; at home, in the car waiting for hub, out camping, at the beach. If only it were so easy to write as it is to read!


  2. MARGOT ex SLIM SCHOOL pupil k

    Brought back happy memories of when we lived on the Island of Sardinia for 12 months as my hubby was an engineer and was working. Our children were young and I was their teacher for the year. I read Animal Farm to them and also The Borrowers. We made a borrowers house out of a cardboard box. I was most upset that when we returned to England I could not bring it with me 😄.


  3. now that, Valerie, is why you should never again stop writing your words in this blog! Welcome back!


  4. The magic should never stop. It’s funny that when we read aloud, the emphasis and intonations change with different readers so the story may change slightly too. The written word for all the danger it can promote, is also a thing of great beauty in the right hands. We must protest when someone who shares that beauty is imprisoned. Whether written or read, the words need the audience and not the censor.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx


  5. Readers are strange creatures aren’t they? I have read for as long as I can remember, books have sustained me. I keep a book in my car, just in case. I always have a book in my purse, the one I am reading now. I keep journal in my purse too, just to jot down my thoughts.

    I read everything, sometimes for those books I dearly love or the ones that pull something out of me, I keep a place on my shelves so I can read them again and again, sometimes again.

    I suspect books are indeed subversive. There are some though that have been used to engineer entire societies, these have been misused and things have gone terribly wrong.


    • I know what you mean about all those books, I read my favourites again and again, and always find something deeper, richer in them…
      yes, words can free and can enslave…
      ( trying not to think of Mein Kamf) !!!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Juliet

    Valerie, what a rich picture you paint of reading these treasures of English literature to your children. How lucky they were. I always read to my son, and have just read The Secret Garden to my granddaughter. Books may be dangerous, but they can also be the best of friends. I was all set for an Anthropology degree when English literature seduced me completely & I’ve never regretted it.


    • I love that you are back in my life Valerie, I have missed you greatly. Books are a love and passion passed to me by my Father. I have a fire roaring in Chilly Taupo with a book in hand ….bliss.


      • Thank you good friend for your lovely message… it’s so good to be back, and to connect with like minds… like you, in your lovely Taupo, my fire is roaring, and the books are to hand !!


    • Lovely to hear from you Juliet… how lovely to be reading The Secret Garden to your grand daughter … oh yes, I agree books are the best of friends… when I said they can be dangerous, I meant to those who would keep our minds enslaved, or who want to impose a creed upon us.. and for those who write the truth, it is very dangerous in places like Saudi Arabia etc…


  7. Along with ‘freedom food’, we have ‘freedom thought’ in New Zealand, which makes writing a blog a joy. I admire those who blog and write under difficult/dangerous circumstances. The Diary of Anne Frank comes to mind. Would she have been a fearless blogger, I wonder?


  8. “Women who Read are Dangerous” I’ll have to look into that book. I thoroughly enjoyed Bennett’s “The Uncommon Reader”.


  9. Valerie, I would love to reblog this on Books Can Save a Life. Would that be ok? It would be in a couple of days. I just love this post, I have to read it through a few more times. Oh how I loved David Copperfield. And so many good thoughts here….


    • Valorie what a lovely comment,
      So glad you enjoyed the short meander through some favourite books…
      It’s so satisfying sharing good books, isn’t it…
      I’d be very flattered to think you would like to re-blog and of course you may…

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I come from avid readers although it would seem unlikely. My Dad worked in a cement mill and my mother was a seamstress. Those genes got me started early and I’ve learned so much through books. BTW I just love potatoes — any way, any day.


  11. Orwell was looking into a possible future, yes, but describing what he’d seen to exist already. “Homage to Catalonia” in particular, his account of his service in the Spanish Civil War, explains a lot about how he came by the bleak perceptions of “Animal Farm” and “1984”.

    Dickens forced people to realise the damage done by poverty and what we’d now call unrestricted capitalism, but he was deeply conservative on some things – an angry opponent of the idea of votes for women, for example, something that was being argued already in his day by people like the MP and Liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill.


    • Yes, The Spanish Civil War was a landmark f0r so many of Orwell;s generation… I remember my father telling me how the ship he and his brother were on, was impounded in Portsmouth harbour to prevent them all going off to fight… Was fascinated to discover that 1984 was a play on Stalin’s birthday and the year of the rat.. the rat being Stalin..
      I know what you mean about Dickens, a flawed product of his time… but then, aren’t we all !!!.
      A hundred years from now I hope people will be similarly shocked not by sexism, but by our speciesism, and will not be eating animals !


  12. Reading aloud or being read to aloud is, I would say, an essential part of a good education.
    Is it good manners, cowardice or stupidity which makes me avoid putting into my blog – or writing a book about – the juiciest of the idiocies which constantly seem to play themselves out around me?


    • Oh do I know what your mean by your question… I think the answer is common sense prevents you from drawing attention to the idiocies around you..
      Keeping one’s head down is often the only way to survive !!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Oh, how I wish I had someone like you to hold my hand and lead me to these books. To empower me, and introduce me, and read to me. How much more couldn’t I have accomplished. Special people, I needed special people. Valerie!


  14. Jeffrey, thank you for your generous comment, but I have to say you only need your special self ! The books will do the rest for you…Alan Bennett’s little book ” An Uncommon Reader” exactly describes this process !
    Best wishes …


  15. Richard Ebbett

    Valerie What a pleasure it is reading your blog in Ayers Rock whilst enjoying a whisky in the late afternoon heat. Your subject is one that is very dear to you and as always provides great food for thought. Aida was a disappointment – too clever by half- but the Sydney weekend was fun. Up at 5.00 tomorrow to see the sun rise over Ayers Rock.

    Liz sends her love.

    Sent from my iPhone



    • Richard, thank you so much for reading and thinking of me when you are in the middle of such an adventure… sundown and then sunrise at Ayers Rock.. what a thrill… did you get to see Giselle as well as Aida?
      Enjoy the rest of your sojourn in the land of Oz and love to Liz


  16. Dear Valerie,

    It is so good to have you back in the blogging world! ❤

    My husband and I are often reading to each other in the evenings. It is interesting how the word, when spoken aloud – especially between two or more individuals, takes on an even more tangible form. For this purpose, we especially enjoy the Discworld books by the late Terry Pratchett.

    It is true; the word is mightier than the sword. This morning, I just had some interesting insights about this, myself, when remembering how controlling my teachers in primary school were even about how the letters we use should be written.

    When I read the last lines of "The Dangers of Words" it came to my mind how sad it feels that words often are seen as weapons and used as such. It brought to my awareness that in the world we grew up in powerful things often were equated to a weapon, as if the only use of them was to fight a war.

    How good that many of us remember that the source of true writing – as you called it so aptly – is rooted in love. 🙂

    Much love,


    • Steffi, thank you for your interesting thoughts… reading aloud is such a pleasure isn’t it…so many meanings come alive with the spoken word. yes, words can be used for good and evil, as you say… which is what makes them so powerful and so dangerous in the wrong hands and minds,,,

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Love this Valerie, I love the way you’ve shown the impact of reading personally and the way that reading and writing are a force for change in the world 🙂


  18. Pingback: Writing (and reading) can be dangerous « Books Can Save A Life

  19. Wow! What a shift–from the dangers of reading and writing to potatoes!

    Anyway, great and thoughtful post. You bring up tragedies. We don’t write these anymore. They have fallen out of favor. I wanted to be true to my grandmother’s story and end it as a tragedy, but thought better of it. I knew it would put off would-be readers. The truth is her life was not marked by any happy ending. Why, I wonder, are tragedies so taboo in today’s literature when they were so popular in the classics?


    • What an interesting comment, Lorna.. i thought about what yous aid all night, and wonder if writers got away with tragedy in the past because they either wrung out some sort of resolution to the suffering, or created what Greek tragedies were supposed to do – a catharsis.. I can see me re-reading and exloring a lot of books thanks to your comment…


  20. Oh what a lovely recollection, it makes me want to get out my copy of David Copperfield and start reading it to my two, perhaps I shall do just that! Thank you for the inspiration and wonderful stories Valerie.


  21. Claire, how simply lovely to read your enthusiasm and also to find your generous words on Valorie’s pingback…
    With your insights and library I can imagine you having wonderful reading sessions with your children.. they are such precious times…


  22. Third time around, my dear friend! Oh, the memories you stirred up in me. Thank you for coming back! Many, many hugs coming your way.


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