Who is the Reader?

I have been reminded today (yesterday as I end this) a couple of times of the ways in which I read and the things I read  before I discovered Tolkien. I met Superman, the Fantastic Four in comics, I watched Top Cat…  But it was also the time of Jackanory, event television for me often, and (whether these fit chronologically I haven’t checked), hearing Mai Zetterling present the Moomins, or John Grant tell Little Nose, or Kenneth Williams camp gloriously through The Land  of Green Ginger suggested to me this book or that to read, to find sequels, follow authors and so on. Lucy Boston came my way because of Jackanory; Elidor remains with me as perhaps the scariest telly I saw as a child. This supplemented the end-of-day class story in the Downs Primary in Essex, the teacher reading to the whole class that still happened in Top Juniors, where I met Clive King’s meticulously researched and exciting Twenty-Two Letters, and Rosemary Sutcliff and, particularly memorably for me, her Shield Wall. I would like to ask Antonio and Elaine and the two Martins what  they remember of them: was it just me? Reading was powerful for me: a motivator to do more, an enrichment of my world.

And so I’m nine, then ten. I don’t make it to the end of Top Juniors at the Downs because just as I turn eleven we move to Burnley. I’ve mentioned this rupture  before; it comes here again because it marked such an end, and such a beginning, in so many things, not least my obsession with the Hobbit and then Lord of the Rings. Did I stick with the vaguely erudite known because so much, so quickly became unfamiliar? Burnley wasn’t Sutcliff’s Buttermere, and a trip to Manchester brought me no closer to Elidor, although I did look. Tolkien it was, then.

Those authors I loved sustained me, and did, I suppose, help me make sense of my world, before the move: I am sharply reminded of my summer of being ten by Raymie Nightingale, all scrapes and freedom on my bike and friendships made and lost. David Benjamin, whose depiction of growing up in the US is framed by his sport, talks of the segregation between adults and children that was part of that life. I recognised it at once in his Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked as well as in Raymie Nightingale.

But this is my challenge. The writer, writing about the child (and, crudely put, for the child: I know the debate is huge) writes about what Hollindale calls “childness.” The child is encouraged, motivated, to make sense of the narrative by interpreting it in terms of their own lives, and vice versa, to make sense of their lives through what they see in the story. A sort of hermeneutic mutuality. But – but – but where do I fit in, the adult reader of the “children’s book”? Is recognition of past experience enough?  Am I a mere intruder? Does the writer “writing back” into their childness somehow expect me to come with them? Possibly: reading Samira and the Skeketons recently reminded me of the horrid thrill of recognising I have a skeleton – so much so, I bought it and shared it with the grandchildren, who love it. Dual audience, where the adult and child are both addressed. But if I am not sharing the story with a child at all, is there any point in talking about dual audience? To push this further, am I a reader or simply a critic?  And is there a difference? I feel like my best image tonight is one of the theologian reading the texts of another religion: a set of maybe enlightening encounters, but also a treading on holy ground. I am encouraged by this, but also warned and full of questions of the position of the researcher.

Well, thanks to Peter Hollindale and Mat Tobin and all the other people whose ideas are running round in my head, it’s nearly 01:15. I still am no nearer a solution.

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Feeling Kinaesthetic?

I remember an energetic lad on the PGCE once who, after my class (on phonics, but I’m not going there) chatted as we went for coffee from the vantage point of walking along the wall. “Yeah,” he said, “I’ve been cooped up all morning in lectures, so I’m feeling a bit kinaesthetic.” Having for some years by then cited the oft-used Sharp, Byrne, Bowker paper with the wonderful title VAK or VAK-uous? Lessons in the trivialisation of learning and the death of scholarship  it was a little irksome: I was relieved to find he was only joking. A quick interjection, but it showed me how much the language of learning styles had entered the classroom. It was as if the quick solution works best not because it is a quick solution to anything, really, but because it is marketable: it has an instant hook to pull in the punters.

In the current resurgence of the debate (if that is what’s happening) I miss my former Brookes colleague, John Geake, who was one of the first to tell me, when I joined the staff here, that such things had no basis in neuroscience.  Today’s blog from Steve Watson, which responds to the jibes from Gibb and the letter from real neuroscientists is therefore something of a rematch. He admits – and I’d agree – that there is a lot of woolly thinking about neuromyths, but what really strikes me is how he points to learning styles as being used as “a symbol of the maleficence of progressive education.” I hadn’t thought of it like that. In his blog Steve goes further, and  poses the big dilemma I want to end with:

When academic colleagues launch a public attack on learning styles, I wonder why they do not take a more critical stance on what is happening in our education systems.

Damn’ right.


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Alan Garner Ipsissima Verba

Three very interesting pieces from/around Alan Garner’s own thinking about this writing:

I will not impinge on them as sources.

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Among the rich threads of thinking in Rick Greene’s latest blog is his account of his own Tolle Lege: I won’t impinge on his post by doing more than pointing to the My God, My God why have you forsaken me? It is a well placed stroke, well written – unlike this, which is just a personal ramble, with no answer.

And I just wanted to add something to that intimation of loss. March is, for me, Theo time, when I remember the little boy who we waited for, and watched grow, and who in the end came and went in a day: born 20th March, died 21st, 2000. We can do the folklore: a child of the eclipse, a child of the vernal equinox. We can do the grief, the anger, the bewilderment.

Today, however, with Lent beginning and the dreadful news of so many children buried in a common grave in Tuam,   it was too confused in my mind to make sense of. I am gobby, and it is unusual that words fail me, but I could not finish my bidding prayer at Mass.  It was a poor show for all those girls, and for the institutional callous indifference, and for all that human loss. How many children were lost, and died sick or frightened, how many mothers lost and angry and disempowered and bewildered? The only consolation- and it is a thin gruel – was that as I stumbled to silence I looked up at the big, modern cross at the back of church and found that silence echoed back. My silence. Theo’s silence. All his brothers and sisters put away like so much landfill, and then (and now) the sisters’ own silence.

So here’s a blog post that goes nowhere, but which I’m going to post tonight. Tomorrow we go – finally – to see a stone carver to ask for a headstone that reflects the sermon at Theo’s funeral, from Bede’s account of the conversion of the North:

Cuius suasioni uerbisque prudentibus alius optimatum regis tribuens assensum, continuo subdidit: ‘Talis,’ inquiens, ‘mihi uidetur, rex, uita hominum praesens in terris, ad conparationem eius, quod nobis incertum est, temporis, quale cum te residente ad caenam cum ducibus ac ministris tuis tempore brumali, accenso quidem foco in medio, et calido effecto caenaculo, furentibus autem foris per omnia turbinibus hiemalium pluuiarum uel niuium, adueniens unus passerum domum citissime peruolauerit; qui cum per unum ostium ingrediens, mox per aliud exierit. Ipso quidem tempore, quo intus est, hiemis tempestate non tangitur, sed tamen paruissimo spatio serenitatis ad momentum excurso, mox de hieme in hiemem regrediens, tuis oculis elabitur. Ita haec uita hominum ad modicum apparet; quid autem sequatur, quidue praecesserit, prorsus ignoramus. Unde si haec noua doctrina certius aliquid attulit, merito esse sequenda uidetur.’

The text – and more – appear in translation and with comment in Eleanor Parker’s wonderful blog. We have asked for a sparrow for the headstone. The image of one sparrow feels like it stands for so many sparrows, in one window and out the other. Talis vita hominum, such is the life of men.

Still no answer.


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Boneland and Thursbitch

As I come away from Twitter this evening I am aware I have started a hare around “favourite” works by Alan Garner. Now, Mat raised a tricky question about “good books” and children’s books in his MA session in which the class explored the Brookes Early Children’s Book Collection, and this evening I feel pulled in all sorts of directions.

What do I “get” from Thursbitch as a novel?

Is there something that takes the edge off Boneland for me?

Is Elidor a better children’s book than Thursbitch is an adults’ one?

In response to Mat’s challenge these are crass questions here, I know, simple responses, not Lit Crit. I’m only going to look at the first one, and “which is best” faced with these two books is a game for the deluded: I have to admit this is just about taste, and that others can defend their own options as robustly.

What I love about adult Garner is his trickery. He deliberately lays trails of myth and language across his known landscape, dragging us (like the unwilling Mobberley farmer in the Alderley Edge foundation myth) around the countryside in search of his deepest roots. This is known territory.  In Boneland- crudely recapped here and with a crystal-clear review from Ursula LeGuin here  – Garner asks what it might be like to grow up having had some ambiguous and dangerous adventure as a pre-teen. But this is not really his motive, it seems to me: in linking a present story with a Mesolithic (or even pre-Sapiens hominid) story in the same place, he is challenging the reader to ask about time, about myth and religion, and therefore about people as storytellers. He draws on his own story, first seen in the Weirdstone and the Moon of Gomrath, but with a real reverence for pre-history, for advanced astronomy, and for the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight, whose denouement is set in the area. Like the Green Knight, Garner offers a challenge to go beyond the comfortable, and does so in a moving and accomplished conclusion to the Weirdstone trilogy.

What I love about adult Garner is his trickery. In Thursbitch, Garner plays again with time – as he has in Elidor, Red Shift and the Owl Service – but here , as in Boneland, his argument is not just with simplistic and linear history but with how past and present are mutually influential. In Boneland, the Man, the shaman of a prehistoric refugium, is anchored in a spirituality that returns him again and again to Ludchurch, which Garner renames Ludcruck. I found myself profoundly moved by the place, on visiting it – and in contrast found Thursbitch no less – well, what? “vigilant”? “sentient”? but markedly less welcoming. It would seem natural, therefore, to like Boneland more than Thursbitch (I had read them both a number of times before the visit). But actually, much as I like (too weak a word) Boneland, and especially the prehistoric sections, I think it’s Thursbitch the novel that takes my prize, even if it’s Ludchurch, the place, the Green Chapel, Ludcruck that has my heart.

What I love about adult Garner is his trickery. He tickles me into action, into deep (as much as close) reading, and thence into  the archaeology of story. In this way the mystical parallels that underpin Thursbitch play out Garner’s own insights into the valley’s potential as a cultic site. In making Jack Turner the jagger or packman key to the story, he is able to pull threads (yes, this is a Garner metaphor) of stories from 4000 BCE Sumeria, astronomy and myth from England and elsewhere, and weave the passing tales of local farmers he knows. In doing so he writes with an authority I do not feel in Strandloper or even Boneland. Can I defend this? Is it simply that in Thursbitch – and arising from Garner’s own evocative commentary on it in a number of places – I can see the trail of reference, half-remembered story, song and ritual?  That I am flattered, or flatter myself?

There is that.

What I find so moving in Thursbitch is the complexity of his meditation on love and death. Sal, terminally ill, finds herself attracted to the place. Her companion, the Jesuit Ian confronts, with her, her impending illness. The barely spoken love they feel is half explored, and ruthlessly, painfully part of their relationship. In the eighteenth century valley, Jack loses his wife to the plague, loses his baby, and nearly loses his soul, too. The dual protagonists come so close in their experience of love and loss they discern one another’s presence in the valley – and in the end, when Sal and Jack meet the end that has been inevitable since their first appearance in the novel, there is some sense of a kindness in the way the Immortals end their sport with the two of them.

So it presses lots of buttons for me: it gets my mind racing, it excites me to think and read (and read and read) beyond the text and then go back for more. It has (and if you have followed this blog before you are maybe tiring of the references) dragged me up to the Tors themselves for (no pun intended, but inescapable nonetheless) a Peak Experience.  Quid multa  dicam? There is a lot more to say – a lot more work for Mat and me (and others) to do, unpicking the landscape and the myth and the story. But this will have to do for now; I think I have written enough to convince myself of my love and admiration for Thursbitch.

But I dream in Ludcruck.


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Difficult Spiritual Experience and Landscape

One of the reasons I suspect beautiful waterfalls and so on are attractive when people (including me) talk about spirituality is that they exalt but do not challenge. The Great Bell Chant by Thich Nhat Hanh  is a wonderful example of a series of pictures and text that mostly show natural beauty –  “the beautiful child appears in the heart of the lotus flower.” [3’23”] – waterfalls from a great height, whales, then Masai leaping, monks walking. But pay attention to the children at around 5’15” and see where they are, what they are doing. Meditation is about truth.  Thick Nhat Hanh has worked with the war refugees from his homeland: Boat People who saw the same crippling suffering we see in the refugees from Syria, from Africa. In the same way, in the Great Bell Chant there are children gleaning from a rubbish tip. This is not comfortable living for people who want to Zen their home – however much I look enviously at their photos of libraries, sunrooms, bathrooms!

In the same way, the film that reduced me to tears last night has an ambiguity: when I sit in a comfortable cinema, watching expensive SFX and carefully coached acting and think about the anger of grief and loss, I spectate a deep – but hugely uncomfortable and potentially damaging –  spiritual experience.  So there’s my disclaimer.  In reading A Monster Calls and seeing the film many people will be challenged.  The critics were ambivalent.   Variety didn’t like it; their advert-heavy review linked here says “we’ve heard the same lesson countless times before in other movies” (I’d disagree, but it shows the tone of their review), others refer to a “cheap tear-jerker” but Rotten Tomatoes is at least somewhat warmer. So it is on the level of the protagonist’s experience rather than the success of the book or film that I want to ask these questions:

Can a spiritual experience be damaging? Can trauma be a spiritual experience?

There are a number of gnomic statements we might at least look at  here: “The best way  out is always through,” “We learn through suffering,” etc.,  and it is Philip Sheldrake in Spirituality and History who really pulls these to pieces for me in considering spirituality in a post-Holocaust era. Spirituality, when it is at its most genuine, confronts pain. The easy inspirational poster draws on the spirituality-laden themes of waves and whales, maybe, but can we tell Patrick Ness’ protagonist Conor these things, as he struggles with his nightmare, facing the ravaging decline of his mother? Will the poster help the war child?

The Monster Calls

The Monster Calls

This is where the earlier editions of A Monster Calls are so powerful: the illustrations (echoed in the film) show a menacing creature, full of earth and storm and history and danger, from the grasping hands of the half-title page and the stalking wildman of the cover. This is a Lud-like demigod, who shows no mercy at one level but in a deeper way is the psychopomp who leads Conor through the death he has to face. And the message this creature brings to suffering Conor is simple beyond a motivational poster’s reach: “If you speak the truth, you will be able to face whatever comes.”

Misappropriated, mishandled, a spiritual experience might well be damaging.  It is open to willful or stupid misinterpretation (as Teresa of Avila discovered); it is open to manipulation even (almost) to the point of murder as Katharina von Hohenzollern discovered; it is open to the demagogue, the cruel, the convincing psychopath.  In this sense, it can be damaging. There is another sense, too, in that someone who is misled might move to convince themselves – to allow themselves to be convinced by that cruel demagogue –  to hurt others, to despise them. And sometimes the urge is simply to give up on them. The Headmistress after Conor attacks his bully sums this last position up in her first words: “I don’t even know what to say.” They reminded me of my tutor’s comment on my weekly test at University when I came back from my mother’s funeral: Forgiven for this week.  He didn’t even know what to say – and maybe neither did I. How does anyone come back from something huge and have something to say? At best, perhaps, we can say that spiritual experience is like any experience: it has a yesterday and a tomorrow.

Or perhaps it has, rather, an inside and an outside: an enclosed and controllable aspect, and the wild, Ent-like, elemental rage Kathleen Raine (whom I quote more here) so vividly depicts in her Northumbrian sequence:

The storm beats on my window-pane,

Night stands at my bed-foot,

Let in the fear,

Let in the pain,

Let in the trees that toss and groan,

Let in the north tonight.

This spiritual experience (of loss, of choice, of change) is going to change the boy Conor forever. He is left (more or less) without a father and without this magic (is that the right word?) spiritual guide: the losses he sustains are huge. The reason this traumatic loss of so much is  – we guess – not going to damage him, is this lesson he learns at the end: “All you have to do is tell the truth.”

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Wish List Time

I’m contemplating a sort of summer school for undergrad students, that might include all sorts of skills and experiences. It might be fun, it would enhance employability… A something in germ, anyway.
It strikes me, however, that this links with a question I see is being asked on Twitter about BSL. Should BSL be taught in schools? Along with my resounding “yes” I’d like to add to this syllabus, which is not so much a criticism of current secondary schooling as a list of things I wish school – or someone – had taught me.

  • CPR and other life-saving
  • Sign language
  • Finance management
  • Car and bike maintenance
  • Cooking
  • Basic house maintenance
  • How to read an advert
  • Fixing stuff
  • Driving

Lots of these are taught in bits and pieces, or depend on initiatives here and there. If you read this you may think of others, maybe even ones explicitly taught in school (one friend suggested punctuation)… But this would make an interesting syllabus, I think.

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A Cold Coming

T S Eliot hits the nail on the head about a peak experience – and the ambiguity of the experience and the lived return – in Journey of the Magi: “It was (you may say) satisfactory,” the narrator reports, but admits that on his return the Magi are “No longer at ease here,  in the old dispensation…”

Here are two readings of the poem:

There are others, of course, and other Epiphany poems, and maybe that is enough said – except to note Samuel Tongue’s exploration of another peak experience, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel in Genesis, which he explored in 2012 in the Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality. Tongue mentions the vividly, violently physical encounter in Michael Symmonds Roberts poem Choreography, and this drew me to think about another earthy set of images in Symmonds Roberts’ Flesh. Here his ecocritical stance emerges powerfully, and resonates with the peak experiences that have echoed through my thinking since October. He writes about

…a shiver

through the wood-bones of my bed,

which makes me stand up

in my dream and climb a hillside

flush with gorse and may.

His poem works from birth and on to environmental tragedy, as Eliot’s encompasses birth and yet wishes for “another death.” However, where Symmonds Roberts goes on to seas too hot for fish and Eliot’s Magi returned to our places I am still wondering about the end of Gawain: he returns home after his peak experience of brave adventure (which ends in being taught a lesson, and encompasses both shame and reconciliation) to tell his tale – and Arthur, trying to make this an act of solidarity (and the author a lesson for all aspiring knights)  it seems to me ritualises it and maybe trivialises it. But Gawain, feeling his scar, says he will never be free of what happened to him, he will wear it always:

And I mot nedez hit were wyle I may last

Perhaps he is

No longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.


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I am intrigued by Oyvind Torseter’s The Hole, a charming but puzzling book by the same author as “My Father’s Arms are a Boat.”  The Hole gets a good exposition here on Brain Pickings from the prolific and insightful Maria Popova. “My Father’s Arms…” similarly gets  a write up here.

I wonder what the eponymous hole might signify? It could be all sorts of things: the hole could be a gap in the protagonist’s life, such as a separation; it could be a lost or unrequited love; it could be that this is a new symbol for depression. However, a hole is also an opportunity, where the light gets in.

“Beware of practising your piety to be seen,” Jesus warns, and whatever your idea of practice, this seems sensible. So this is a quick disclaimer: my mindfulness is not your mindfulness; this was nothing special except for me – but with a Friday mindfulness session coming back at Harcourt, I thought I’d record the way one night’s sitting session went.

Seven o’clock and on the evening I’m thinking of it’s time for the “unguided” sitting, where we sit and sit and at the end of forty minutes a bell is rung. Tonight there is a hint of a looming thunderstorm: the air is close, and it’s overcast. As we sit the light goes.

What is this metaphor? It goes? It fades? The dark increases? I watched it happen and am at a bit of a loss. The shine disappeared from the wooden floor. Colours muted (another metaphor) rather than deepened, it seemed to me. The gradual loss of light was itself so stunningly beautiful – but where does this come from? Why do I find it beautiful?

[Or maybe even asking these questions are unmindful. The light was what it was. I sat. I felt my breathing, the stiffness in my legs. The sitting was the sitting.]

And the hole? The Leonard Cohen line about the cracks being where the light gets in came to me as I pondered Torseter’s imagery last night. A hole can be a gap. A lack can be a desire to change. The gathering shadows in a mindfulness session can be beautiful. The ambiguity is (can I say it?) illuminating.

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New Year

I feel prompted by Rick Greene’s blog – which he self-deprecatingly calls “monkish” –  to move into a fire-gazing mood myself. This is nowhere as good as his and has much less spiritual insight.

I have been gloomy about the prospects for 2017, after 2017. I am not about to retract that, or to cover up this feeling of a bad time just around the corner by suggesting we all huddle against the chill wind and “be excellent to each other.” I listen to shouting mansplaining Twitterers, to uncharitable sniping, to a rising racism and fascism and snarling polarised opinion, and part of me despairs.

But not everything has been bad this year: personal and professional setbacks should be set against the revitalised sense of purpose for my research, and my children’s successes, Maggie’s setbacks propelling us to a bit of a rethink of this stage of our lives, reconnecting with friends… It’s this first, my research, that calls for some attention this evening, just in a personal reflection as a Malbec kicks in.

No, this is not (as my recent posts have been) in praise of Lud, nor a hankering after MSS I am unlikely to revisit. The solo folklorist, the lone scholar, Pangur Ban’s monk, is not me. I am happier being pushed, challenged, learning from others. Is this laziness? Or lack of confidence? Or is it that small departments cannot always provide the clubability I now feel I need? I have bounced so many ideas off Mat and Dave this year, learned so much from colleagues like Elise and Jon, and Mary, and Mike and…and…  Odd to learn all this – or to realise I have learned it –  so late in my career.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky

And so as I set myself, tonight, for another night when I dream of being back in cool evening Gradbach, in Ludchurch (to wake to the day of the denouement of Gawain, with all its new beginnings), I have to say thank you for something I had not dreamed of: friends.

I don’t know what’s coming, I can’t make sense of much of what has happened, but friends, kindness…

Quid sit futurum cras fuge quaerere…

I’m quoting Horace. More Malbec required.

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