The battle of hearts and minds


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Category: International 29 Nov 15


On a nippy November afternoon, I arrived in the small town of Chester. A taxi ride of 20 minutes took me to Hawarden in Wales. The driver stopped just outside what looked like a small manor house. I had arrived in Gladstone's Library, founded by the Victorian statesman and politician William Ewart Gladstone.

I had come to stay in a place with its curved stairwell, crimson drawing room warmed by a fire, high ceilings and of course, the library that felt like a set for a grand home out of Jane Austen's Emma. I looked out of my tiny window from my tiny, chilly room and found it overlooked an old church and closer to me, the graveyard where the crosses glistened white, and the willows gushed and hissed like a mesh of ocean and rustling trees in the dark, and looked playful with sunlight in the mornings.

I set up my laptop solitude of the stunning Gladstone library, looking out at a garden amidst the theology section—in fact, all the books donated by the British Prime Minister (who not only started the world's first presidential library, but more impressively, despite delivering 20 budgets and being a four-time prime minister managed to read a book a day all his adult life)—felt other-worldly.

Looking upward at the intricately carved walls and stairs, at the beautifully bound books, I felt my heart expand. There were places like these in the world, gentle spaces where people read and wrote in a historical home.

When I figured out the Internet, the world came rushing in in a torrent on my phone and laptop. The news, blogs, commentary, social media was all about the anxiety of containing terror, anxiety over the refugees, over double standards of world media that ostensibly didn't make a big deal about terror in areas like Beirut.

I began my few days at the residential library with some trepidation. It was not just the wheezing of the wind in the graveyard behind me, the chill which I initially felt keenly—I’m not good in the countryside. I feel like there may be an axe murderer about. I thrive in the buzz of a city. But now, I wanted so much for the terror not to interfere with the beauty of this still untouched, still kind world.

Initially I hovered on the fringes of the writing group that invited me and supported me here for over a year. I soon discovered that that was the point. We were here to write. We met at mealtimes. We were on our own. To walk, to write in our bedrooms, in the library or in the crimson drawing room.

I understood then that it was not loneliness I feared but absolute freedom where I wasn’t part of a ‘group’. I finally gave myself permission to write in bed, under the covers, in the library, to take a break around the quaint village where people were welcoming and displayed dog food in the windows, well because that’s what you do in the country.

I was only there for about four days, but everyday something happened while I walked with some of the writing group in the forest, explored abandoned mills, tripped across streams, climbed over stiles, past flocks of sheep, past people with large dogs coated with glossy hair that bounded around them, almost expecting Jane Eyre to appear in billowing black skirts on the heath as darkness fell in the skies and fields.

Some of us began to talk to one another on our walks. I mean really talk, beyond the small chit-chat. There is nothing like being in the middle of nowhere to quietly get to know people, walk through sludge, grass and trees, smudged with yellow sunlight, pebbles on the track. I realised that nobody in life escapes sorrow, an ache, or wound that can eviscerate you.

The memory of tears came amidst laughter and with that, empathy and respect. We did have something in common. We each carried our burdens. We saw the humanity in one another.

We all desperately want to be good writers. We love books. You can feel part of any group if you recognise that every individual is struggling, while maintaining your unique identity. And that is the cornerstone of a free world.

On the way back on the train, I heard the most extraordinary announcement in the toilet. It said, “please don't flush cloth, used sweaters, or hopes and dreams down this toilet.” It was obviously made up by a whimsical Brit for travellers when the world felt solid. It brought home painfully to me that humour while travelling on trains and planes could soon be a thing of the past.

Back in London my flatmate told me that after the Paris attacks London felt deserted. People were no longer looking up. Our bags were searched at the Guardian offices, a first. They were more rigorously searched in galleries and libraries. Policemen loitered at traffic lights. They weren’t smiling. Sudden noises, like a crane, or a truck screeching to a halt made people jump.

London was on high alert. Brussels had virtually shut down. India remembered attacks. We need to be able to be otherworldly sometimes, to dream, to muse, to be free. The real battle is achieving the balance required by humans to belong, to have purpose in life, and to be free.

This made me think of the young jihadis, the US, Belgians and British youth who had blown themselves up. They were desperate to belong somewhere. France can bomb Syria to smithereens. Russia can join in. So can the British. But bombing would never change the battle of hearts and minds that the world is losing.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur