Travelling in Spain, and battling through Paul Preston’s recent book on the civil war, “The Spanish Holocaust”, I was relieved to be given Liz Gray’s book “You have breath for no more than 99 words. What would they be?” Maybe the contrast in the subject material made Gray’s little book all the more enticing and it seemed to fit nicely with Tim Cock’s recent blog on Wittgenstein’s “language-games”.
Liz Gray suffered a ‘whiplash’ injury which led to reading, writing and speech difficulties, hence the stimulus for the book. She invited 99 contributors, with the hint of last words in “breath for no more than 99” not necessarily morbid but a device to extract language. Notable responders included Nelson Mandela, Yoko Ono, Ben Okri and Tony Benn, but I had the feeling that all contributors were equally notable when I finished.
This is a book to indulge in over many sessions. I loved the translations from Rumi, had never realised how lovely and inspiring the last 99 words of “The Origin of the Species” are (submitted by geneticist Steve Jones) and got weepy at film-maker Sally Potter’s 99 words about her dying mother.
It was hard to select examples but here are two.
Firstly Helen Bamber, a director of the Helen Bamber Foundation which works with survivors of conflict and violence.
“People often ask me why I have spent most of my life concerned with the consequences of conflict and violence. The simple answer is “why not”. The honest answer is difficult. It is about the suffering of refugees. It is about the short life of compassion, how quickly it is born and how quickly it dies. It is about the stranger to whom we owe nothing. It is about how our society will be judged and how we discover our humanity. It is finding our reward through the eyes of those to whom we owe nothing. It is about love.”
And I also like the Franz Kafka lines, submitted by Harry Underhill, mediator, hydrologist and Quaker:
You do not need to leave your room
Remain sitting at your table and listen
Do not even listen
Do not even wait
Simply be quite still and solitary
The world will freely offer itself to you and be unmasked
It has no choice
It will roll in ecstasy at your feet
Get a copy – great reading and royalties from each book go to Peace Direct. Guaranteed to open your heart. And try to think what your 99 words might be.
Read alternately with a rooibos tea and a local verdello!
– David Butler