If you had breath for
no more than 99 words, what would they be?
It was this question which came to mind when a whiplash injury left me suddenly unable to read or write comfortably, sometimes to talk, for more than a few minutes. My hectic schedule making television documentaries stopped short and I found myself entering a strange period of enforced retreat. Words began to seem extraordinarily precious.
The effects of the injury crystallized a disillusion I was already beginning to feel before it happened, a weariness with the volume and speed of unwanted incoming messages – spam, junk, spin, empty promises. I could hear Robert Wyatt:
‘We get so out of touch
Words take the place of meaning.’
Once on a filming trip to South Africa I went down with a high fever. Alone in the hotel room I felt miles from home and fearful. On a long-distance call, my friend Harry Underhill suggested that I imagine inviting anyone I felt could help. The imagined group that gathered in my room that night got me through until the fever subsided next morning.
On this long-haul recovery I began thinking about the voices I love – writers, artists, musicians and thinkers who choose words with the greatest of care because they know their value can be limitless. On bad days, particularly, I tried to imagine whose voice I would most want to hear.
Before all this, I had made films about the art and history of Islam. It came back to me now that, according to the Qu’ran, the Creator – and all of creation – can be expressed in 99 names. Maybe 99 words could be enough? question formed itself: If you had breath for no more than 99 words, what would they be? The suggestion of last words was not intended to be morbid but rather a device for choosing 99 essential words. For symmetry I decided to collect 99 responses.
I thought this would take maybe a year or so and fill the time until I had recovered enough to go back to work. A few months after I began, however, it emerged that I have a rare genetic condition underlying and exacerbating the effects of the injury. The question became more significant to me – reading and working onscreen are as difficult now as when I started.
Working without a deadline then has been
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a necessity for me – and for many contributors too. I know this request presented something of a challenge. Nevertheless the responses arrived: letters, faxes, emails, phone calls, sometimes months after I sent my question and often with an uncanny sense of timing. Invariably their 99 words were exactly what I needed to hear at that
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moment. Unexpected latecomers brought the total to 101 and two people working with contributors gave their words too.
Nelson Mandela was one of the first I approached in 2004. I was given a free hand to choose his words, provided they would not be used for profit. Scilla Elworthy had just set up Peace Direct, a British charity supporting and publicising conflict resolution worldwide – a process built on the power of words. Thanks to the generosity of all the contributors and to the efforts of Brendan Walsh and the team at DLT, the royalties of 99 pence from the sale of each book will go to Peace Direct.
Seven years later, the collection is complete. If not for the patient collaboration and tireless support in every way of Janice Gardner, it might have taken another seven. I’m immensely grateful to her, to Claire de Boursac and Miriam Wandless for their onscreen work and to Margaret Busby for her encouragement, especially at the start. I would also like to thank the friends, family and neighbours who have given their time to help me contact contributors and translate their words.
The requesting and receiving of pieces has been a lifeline for me during a time of great change and uncertainty. Each arrival has been an unexpected birthday. This is a very personal anthology, but at the same time I’m hoping that the book will be a gift for anyone else who finds themselves, for whatever reason, lost for the words they need.
99 words is dedicated to the memory of those contributors who didn’t live to see it finished: Adrian Mitchell, Nuala O’Faolain and Kazuo Ohno.