At the end of January I got the flu. I spent three days in bed with a fever, I hadn’t been that ill since we lived in Shoreditch. That was six years ago and I was floored by the swine flu.
We had a mezzanine in that flat and the only way to get up there was a rackety ladder. I was too ill to climb up the ladder and slept on the sofa downstairs. The flat was tiny, a small studio with a mezzanine, three narrow flights of stairs up and next to a train line.
I thought about that flat as I was laying in bed in January. I thought about how glad I was not to be living in Shoreditch where people from the bar downstairs sometimes made it difficult to get to the front door, where the cars and buses rattling by shook my whole nervous system until I started getting panicky in crowded places.
Before this winter’s fever got really tedious I started looking at my flu as a way of resetting myself. I did some mental rewinding and I downloaded The Lord of the Rings to my Kindle. I obsessed over the books when I was a teenager. I obsessed over the films. For a short period in high school I tried to dress like an elf.
What makes the books so special is that J.R.R Tolkien, this fusty old expert on Anglo-Saxon, had spent years creating a world, languages and his own mythology. You feel fully confident in the world and in the story because Tolkien made sure the stories rest on a solid foundation. There are hints of even more depth, of stories he has created, but decides not to tell the reader.
Reading the books was like catching up with old friends. Around the same time things started kicking off in the US and I was turning from my Twitter feed to Gandalf and Frodo having this conversation in the Shire.
‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s father died when he was three. His mother died when he was twelve. His guardian made him choose between finishing his studies and marrying Edith Bratt, the love of his life. The objection was that Edith was older and a protestant. If Tolkien wanted to graduate from Oxford he had to break off all contact with Edith until he turned 21. He waited three years and on his 21st birthday he wrote Edith a letter. The couple got engaged in January 1913. The following year Tolkien enlisted in the army, he fought at the Somme, he was wounded, several of his friends from school died in the war.
The story has a happy ending. John Tolkien married Edith Bratt, they had four children. Tolkien became an expert in Anglo-Saxon and was a popular lecturer at Leeds and then Oxford where he became a professor and hung out with C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings. He wrote the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings and plenty of other stories. He invented languages. His love story about Beren, a human, and the elven princess Lúthien, was inspired by his love for his wife. When Edith died he had the name Lúthien engraved on her tombstone, he followed her 21 months later.
His generation went through a lot. They helped lay the foundations for the slightly more compassionate society we created after the Second World War. I guess that’s a long time ago, I guess we’ve started to forget. But we can be inspired by what some people who lived through the horrors did with their lives and then decide what to do with the time that is given to us.
All photos from the amazing British Library Archive on Flickr.