Hilton Dawson: The book that taught me that everybody has a story to tell

Journal columnist Hilton Dawson wishes he could be in Dublin for Twlfth Night - and here's why

Hilton Dawson
Hilton Dawson

I’d like to be in Dublin tonight, this Twelfth Night.

I’d go there with others to celebrate that great writer James Joyce and his short story ‘The Dead’; now more than a century old, set on this night in the city.

Joyce is supposed to be a ‘difficult’ writer but if it’s read well the poetry and music, the humour of even his most ‘difficult’ work comes easily through. In any case ‘The Dead’ is a very accessible story and it’s also been made into a great film.

Put simply ‘The Dead’ is a simple tale of a chap who goes to a dinner party to celebrate the end of Christmas with family and friends. While he’s there he makes a bit of a fool of himself and on the way out he finds his wife on the stairs, listening, transfixed, by a traditional song ‘The Lass of Aughrim’ as it’s sung by one of the guests.

Later on, when they’re alone he asks her about the song and for the first time hears of her wrenching grief at the death of the sick young man who sang it. She tells him “I think he died for me”.

Exhausted, she falls uneasily asleep and her husband has a sudden insight, an epiphany, wondering that some young man, a mere ‘clerk from the gasworks’ experienced greater love in his short life than had he in all his mature, married years.

This beautiful story ends with snow falling across Ireland as a symbol of the inevitable equality which faces us all.

I think it’s the finest thing I have read.

Indeed, considering the vast tomes I have ploughed through I sometimes reflect that I could have done without most of them if I had only read ‘The Dead.’ Like all the best books it’s a touchstone for the important things; something to go back to, for an exquisite reminder that it’s people who matter, everybody matters, everybody’s equal and that everybody has a story to tell.

Originally this was Joyce’s wife, Nora Barnacle’s story. It seems oddly appropriate that the film of ‘The Dead’ was the last one directed by John Huston and that it features a towering, poignant performance by his daughter Anjelica.

The film itself is almost 30 years old so the DVD probably sells cheaply these days – a good buy- even as we start settling the Christmas bills.

I won’t be in Dublin tonight because like lots of others it’s back to work today after a very pleasant break. This morning it will be my privilege to lead a funeral ceremony for a gentleman from Northumberland; with the help of his friends and some favourite music we’ll tell the story of another unique, extraordinary human being.

This week marks my second anniversary as a civil funeral celebrant. One of the end products of every funeral is a written script retained by families as a keepsake and after two years my own copies are mounting up.

While I don’t think these qualify as ‘literature’ they are actually important family and social history documents which give an insight into the lives of people in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. My personal New Year’s Resolution is in future to seek family permission to place my copies in the Northumberland County Archives.

Later on, in much happier circumstances I’ll be meeting with a lady of 89 and her daughters to talk about her own life story and how we might present this at the beginning of a family party.

This is a new venture and I’m really looking forward to it. I think it will be a fascinating, joyous experience providing a variety of ways to enable people to express the important things

In between these two big events there’s a meeting with two of the long-serving members of the armed forces who have joined our new political party.

This is an intriguing development which we speculate may have something to do with a principled yet pragmatic approach to getting things done. It will be fascinating to discover more.

Five days old and 2015 is well under way.

No doubt we’ll soon have some snow.

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.

“Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end upon all the living and the dead.”

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