Why Imagination Needs Exercise

The Arts


By their nature writers are traditionally outsiders who refuse to settle, either physically in one place, or mentally. The author JG Ballard was famously described as ‘He doesn’t care where he lives, because he lives inside his head’.

This year I’ll be putting that theory to the test. As we have to move out of our London home for the summer, I’ll be staying in Lithuania, Barcelona, Romania, Turkey and wherever I can find friends.

I’m always struck by the way Londoners remain a private, interior people while in Europe one is often forced into the company of others, where community events take precedence over, say, watching TV alone.

Is this why the writing style of magical realism never gained much traction in the UK? I seem to be daily confronted by fairy tales, ghosts, myths and figures from fables in Southern Europe. Yesterday the city was filled with skeletons, demons, angels, embodiments of the sun and moon, dragons and roller-skating bats. There were no franchised costumes, no characters from TV or films, just ancient archetypes. I wasn’t in a small village but in the centre of a city. I passed a shop inside which everyone, young and old, was dancing. My neighbourhood kids have swordfights with branches. In London I don’t see kids anywhere; they’re inside with their PS4s.

And yet Dr Who, Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes are ubiquitous. The difference is that they’re sold to us as ready-made products. In Britain art and drama are have almost been completely pushed off the curriculum by the sciences. The fantastical is something that exists in prepackaged form. My niece, a teacher, laments the difficulty of getting children to use their imagination, and says it’s heartbreaking watching them try to find quiet spaces where they can think. Often they simply don’t know how to respond to stimulus. Artistic exercise involves looking at the world around you with a careful observant eye and asking ‘What if?’

The problem is that it needs silence, space and calm in which to develop. And in a country like Britain, where technology supplies us with the 24-hour tinnitus of media chatter, it’s hard to find room to think.

5 comments on “Why Imagination Needs Exercise”

  1. Jo W says:

    Hey Chris,moving out for the summer? Have you lost the roof to the gales or are you cashing in on tourism? ;-). I know what you mean about finding a quiet place to sit and think or read. I’ve always had trouble with screening out noise,no matter how soft. It was a big problem back in schooldays finding a quiet place for homework in a flat that had five people living in and daily visitors. But my sons never seemed to have any trouble,as they would play their ‘music’ so loudly that I couldn’t concentrate! I have been grateful for a long time,to whoever invented earplugs. 🙂

  2. admin says:

    Ah, earplugs! I have an upstairs neighbour whose child appears to have just learned how to pogo.
    I’m moving out because we have to have our floor rebuilt, and are taking the opportunity to rebuild the flat. As my parter says; ‘So it should see you out.’

  3. Jo W says:

    Does that mean you’re having a walk in bath installed as well as a stairlift? 🙂

  4. Vivienne says:

    Creativity is harder than most of us realise. I remember a summer holiday when I was a teenager and there seemed to be quite large number of younger children and I became an unofficial babysitter. I would just tell them fairy stories: Red Riding Hood and so on, but for first time listeners there was much to be taken into account, rather than for granted and I began to realise the importance of getting these stories across as best I could. Grimms’ tales have just been adjudged pretty old: we should hold onto as many traditions as possible in the face of the tweet.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    It started a long time ago. In 1963 I tried to get a group of 9/10 year olds to write a play. They insisted on a western knock off and they’d only had tv for a few years. They lived in a tiny town with deserty country outside their doors. More than half were First Nations. I was discouraged.
    I used to make up stories while I walked to the school bus and when I was going to sleep. I still do.

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