Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

99 Words for Christmas

Delighted, today, to receive in the post my copy of 99 Words – the anthology Liz Gray has compiled by asking ninety-nine people ‘If you had breath for only 99 words, what would they be?

Liz was left, after an accident, unable to speak or write for more than a few minutes at a time. She started to realise how precious words are, and how we waste them. Eventually she had the idea of asking people what they would say if they had just under a hundred words left.

The result is a delightful little book full of wisdom, delight in the world, philosophy and playfulness. Contributors range from public figures like Desmond Tutu and Tony Benn to writers like Ursula LeGuin, Russell Hoban, Maggie Gee and Ben Okri (not that any of these are ‘like’ one another – but that’s part of the book’s charm). There are peace activists and Buddhist meditation teachers, musicians, actors, a ‘welfare funerals officer’, whatever that is, an astrologer, a fairground historian, a calligrapher and so on and on. Not on and on forever, though: only 99 of them! (Or actually 101 because a couple turned up unexpectedly that were too good to omit.)

And among them all is me, for some reason I don’t quite understand. I got this email out of the blue about a year ago, putting the basic premise to me and asking me to contribute. I agreed – it seemed interesting – and then forgot all about it. Then, as happens, came another email, telling me the deadline was nearly here. Help! I felt I would like to contribute a poem – that’s what I hope I do best – about something important. I looked through my unpublished recent-ish work, looking for short poems. Aha! There was a poem written – with tears in my eyes, I admit – when my daughter was pregnant.

Someone had just told me that at that number of days, the baby would be the size of an apple-pip, and the poem had just poured out. I put the poem, minus title, onto a page and clicked the ‘word count’ button, without much hope. Unbelievable: it was exactly 99 words! And it was about the most important subject I could have chosen: love, new birth, someone who will go on in the world (hopefully) long after I’m gone.

Amazingly, Ursula LeGuin says she had the same experience: she checked a poem she wanted to use, and lo and behold, it was 99 words long! Amazed by the coincidence, she says ‘I feel like an Augur or something.’ There must be a touch of magic about the whole business. Anyway, 99p from each copy sold goes to the charity PeaceDirect, to support local peacemakers in war zones. So click that button, or go to that bookshop, and buy, buy, buy!

Merry Christmas! and a Happy New Year to you.