Friday 15 November 2013

Ideas come from Looking Glass Land

I was sitting in my upstairs writing-room (the spare bedroom) when I saw one of our cats trot purposefully down my opposite neighbour’s drive and disappear into the hedge.

I found myself wondering what tales a cat could tell.  For they lead lives very different to ours. They barely even inhabit the same house. From down there on the floor, the kitchen looks utterly different. (Try it.)  The functions of objects are not the same for my cats and me.  I don’t sleep on the table, and neither should they. But they do. 

I’ve never felt desperate to lose myself in the garage. I'm not interested in what’s going on under the kitchen sink.  When I go out the back or front door, I don’t tense and look carefully about for enemies. I have no idea what my cats get up to when they go out, but I suspect it’s adventurous and epic, with dangers everywhere.  Cats who can go outdoors are never bored.  And what must it be like to climb trees the way they do?  We were pruning the apple tree a few weeks back, and I realised how very much higher it feels at the top of the ladder than it seems from the ground; and how very different the garden looks from up there.

Do you remember how it was all the black kitten’s fault that Alice went through the Looking Glass?  It simply wouldn’t fold its arms properly, and she held it up to the mirror 

that it might see how sulky it was –

‘and if you’re not good directly,’ she added, ‘I’ll put you through the Looking Glass-House…

‘Now… I’ll tell you all my ideas about the Looking-glass House.  First, there’s the room you can see through the glass – that’s just the same as our drawing room, only the things go the other way.  I can see all of it when I get upon a chair – all but the bit just behind the fireplace.  Oh!  I do so wish I could see that bit.  I want so much to know whether they’ve a fire in the winter: you never can tell, you know, unless our fire smokes, and then smoke comes up in that room too – but that may be only pretence, to make it look as if they had a fire. Well then, the books are something like our books, only the words go the wrong way; I know that, because I’ve held up one of our books to the glass, and then they hold one up in the other room.’

Stop for a moment and just reflect (sorry!) on Alice’s chatter.  She's clearly been thinking about that looking glass for quite a while, and she's come up with the convincingly child-like (and extremely creepy) notion that the people in it are different from us - and that they may be deliberately deceiving us.  It's not Alice's own reflection who holds up the book in the mirror, but a mysterious ‘they’ - and this is a very good piece of observation. The looking glass is on the high mantelpiece. Alice, as a little girl, is not tall enough to see herself in it: if she holds a book up over her head she can see only the reflected book and not the person holding it, who might therefore be... anyone...?

Alice continues:  ‘You can see just a little peep of the passage in Looking-glass House, if you leave the door of our drawing room wide open: and it’s very like our passage as far as you can see, only you know it may be quite different on beyond.’

And, of course, it is.  ‘What could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but all the rest was as different as possible.  For instance, the pictures on the wall next the fireplace seemed to be all alive, and the very clock on the chimney piece…had got the face of a little old man, and grinned at her.’

Adults as well as children often ask writers the dreaded question, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’  It’s so very difficult to answer, because a lot of the time, we simply don’t  know. But I’ve evolved an answer. Fittingly, it’s in the shape of a story.  Some years ago on a book tour I stayed in a Manchester hotel, and my room overlooked the windows of a derelict building across the street.  Because I'm a storyteller, I immediately imagined a face in one of the broken windows, looking back at me.  Whose might it be?  A ghost?  A fugitive?  A murderer? A drug-smuggler?  Somebody from the past?  An alternative me?  Any one of those choices would lead to a different story.  

To be a storyteller - or a reader - is to see the world from someone else's point of view.  Ideas come from that hop across the street, that quantum jump that takes you out of yourself into a different place, a place from which you see the world at a fresh, different, slewed angle. 

 © Katherine Langrish


  1. This brought to mind Paul Gallico's "Jennie", which I absolutely loved as a child. He gets right into a cat's eye view of the world and it's fascinating.

  2. What a magical thought! And you're so right. Things would be different for a cat. I remember reading Alice as a child and wondering myself about life beyond the mirror. Clearly, Lewis Carroll thought the same way you do.