In the course of doing his job, my son visits many countries. Often, all he sees is the inside of airports, offices and hotels, but, if he has a few hours to spare, he always tries to bring back a present. In consequence, I am the appreciative owner of a wide variety of gifts from diverse parts of the world. They include a dressing-gown of old gold silk, beautifully embroidered in blues and reds, from China, and a compelling kingfisher-swallowing-catch, made of pieces of scrap metal, from South Africa.
Before he came to visit this weekend, I had barely registered that his most recent trip away had been to the United Arab Emirates and he told me that in fact he had spent barely forty-eight hours there. Nevertheless, he managed to carve out a few minutes to discover and purchase a very fine pair of brass lamps. Shaped not unlike miners’ lamps, they are decorated with cut-outs, and designed to take household candles.
When I saw them, I was immediately reminded of the smoky corridors and dusky but splendidly-furnished lamp-lit private rooms of the King in One Thousand and One Nights to whom Scheherazade spun her nightly tale, each time leaving the King spellbound until she resumed her narrative the next evening. This is an art that has been somewhat lost to modern storytelling, though it was, of course, practised to perfection by Dickens and other famous Victorian writers who serialised their work in newspapers and magazines. I’ve read that Dickens and Thackeray were often still scribbling frantically while a boy from the magazine in question waited for copy on the other side of the door. I’d love to be able to write a crime novel in this fashion, but I suspect that it would be beyond my powers. I wonder if these writers plotted each work out in its entirety, or just made it up as they went along? And, if the latter, how did they manage to avoid the litany of inconsistencies and anachronisms that I have to iron out of my own novels once the first draft has been completed?
As for Scheherazade, what an example of a very clever woman, refined, charming, witty, knowledgeable across the disciplines and multi-talented! But her most remarkable skill was in her storytelling!