From Alderley to Arkudah

When William Mayne’s Vendale appears in Earthfasts it is largely a recognisable place, a Dales market town, but with features from the Lakes, the high Pennines: it is a composite of a number of places. Emmerdale is maybe one valley away one way; Wharfedale is another. De Fombelle‘s Scottish Highlands in Vango, the wonderfully named Everland, is similarly more-or-less fictional. In both these works the authors move the reader from one imagined place to another skilfully.  Skillfully, in that the atmosphere of a place is beautifully captured – but maybe at the expense of accuracy.

But does that matter, except to a pedant like me? I am not sure that de Fombelle is really interested in the clerical dress of the Church of Scotland, for example, but I am sure he wants the reader to be with Ethel in her horseback chase after the lost sheep and the horror with which she finds her neighbours are hunting a human, not a deer. The rush of the story needs setting and landscapes, and I hold it up by quibbling. Vango is set in real as well as half-real places: so much so I feel it is in a parallel universe. What is worth speculating on, I think, is how de Fombelle makes the choices between accuracy and setting.  The author creates a powerful fantasy that is atmospheric enough to makes us believe in a hidden monastery in the Aeolian Islands as much as a life of marginalised young people in the Paris rooftops. Fantasy, adventure, real and imagined landscapes all are presented together in a jumble. His own travels enrich de Fombelle’s writing.

Garner, rooted in his land and its past, however, offers a different challenge: fantasy in a “real” (I’ll come back to this) landscape. In doing so, he offers up for appreciation a topography of Staffordshire and Cheshire and Derbyshire –  his corner of the world – that I am trying to explore in textual and actual exploration. Solvitur ambulando: de Fombelle has his Zeppelin; Garner has his walking boots.  Visits are vital, Garner seems to say, reading is important. Get out the map, prepare your research tools. This is underlined in Rob Macfarlane’s essay The Gifts of Reading which, like so much of his writing makes me want to put my boots on, take my kettle and a sleeping bag and walk off. His description of the “famously ornate style” of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “hopschloss” across a doomed Europe struck me as a good connection with Garner:

Almost everything in his prose leads to something else (path to path, culture to culture, word to word)and this abundance of connection is itself a kind of offering up, or giving away. You feel, as a reader, passionately- perhaps even at times oppressively – hosted: Read this! Look here! Listen to that! Walk this way!

This is where the “reality” persists: we walk a geographically recognisable path through the adventures of Colin and Susan in Weirdstone and Gomrath; we have that path snatched away from us in Boneland. We are challenged to walk this way, and that, and that again (to use Garner’s own story, to go this way and that as lead by the Wizard, by Seven Firs and Goldenstone) to accept the Man in Boneland as the metaphor for the story of the area, as the first teller of the Garner Ur-Myth, in the Garner landscape. A deeper read, time spent reading the topography and archaeology (Read this! Look here!) of this small, magic area, and I am still challenged to accept the Garner philosophy of story and landscape. Ludchurch is an ancient cultic site before Gawain learns his lesson: Alderley is a place to encounter the uncanny before its landscaping for the visitors from Manchester.

So how “real” is all of this? What do I mean by “real”?

I mean, at one level, that I have been there. It is as de Fombelle’s Paris: I can see the bones of the authors’ settings. I do not need the streets to be named exactly, but more or less, this is Paris, this is Cat’s Tor…  At another level, something is impelling me to look at Ludchurch and Alderley and Thursbitch in a different way. His meticulous scholarship tells me there are interpreters’ paths to follow, with James Dakeyne and Frederick Hackwood and Robert Plot, and geologists and archaeologists: this is at once a verifiable landscape and its own stage set on which Garner has placed not only his characters – Colin, Sal, Jack, the Man – but a maze of metaphor for us to pass with them.  If it was easy for Macfarlane to forget, in the midst of his time in China that

literature might be there to thrill, perplex or amaze,

Alan Garner’s landscapes are there to tell us that “dreaming in Ludcruck,” telling the myth of a place, is at once to be playing with history and geography – and astronomy and archaeology- and yet is nevertheless a “true story.” He goes way beyond de Fombelle in playing with visitabke settings, and it is enough for now to ask why.  The sonorous beginning to Garner’s 2010 lecture gives the best clue as to his intent:

the uniquely human quality: our ability to derive a sense of belonging through oral tradition, to create relationships with place through story.

and maybe that is as far as I can get tonight.

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The kettle for his tea boiled over

I haven’t been able to source the story in which Oscar Wilde is reported as having once said that ” the Bible begins with a man and woman naked in a garden and ends with startling revelations,” but it serves as a warning for those that wish to précis any complex work. “Two blokes fight over a woman and then bond. One of them dies and the one left questions everything” (Gilgamesh). “Arrogant posh boy is shamed in magical-realism bed-hopping drama” (Gawain). “Home from university, privileged guy embarks on a killing spree.” (Hamlet). They don’t work. So I am wary of a précis of William Mayne’s Earthfasts; this is Young Adult fiction before the genre; fantasy fiction with (as I read it) subtexts galore. Mayne is not alone in this landscape-and-legend venture, and some of the complexities arise, maybe, from the innovative aspects of the book; some of them arise (and this will be my main theme) as the legacy of his tarnished reputation. That euphemism is insufficient, but will do for now.

Earthfasts begins with the intense but unequal friendship of two teenage boys in a small Pennine town. David leads, with his “grave way…of deliberating and then pronouncing.” (page 24 in the Puffin 1976 edition I have in front of me). His father is the local doctor, and even his swearing “sounded respectable and necessary.” (25). Keith has deeper roots in the valley (it is Keith who defines the eponymous Earthfasts (75), whose father knows the local policeman (91), whose mother (165) is related to Farmer Watson) and in the story itself. He is marginalised a little in the intellectual journey of secondary education (67, 109), but remains the sensitive heart of the friendship. The class distinction between the two boys is present but not overdone. As the story develops Keith becomes the protagonist- sort of: David’s absence and return hang over the final section. Their age is hinted at but not made explicit: the concepts they play with, the homework they do, their independence, suggest to me they are perhaps 17, but I’m willing to rethink this. The narrative concerns the discovery of an eighteenth-century drummer boy, Nellie Jack John Cherry, the invasion of the modern world by other phenomena (a boggart, moving standing stones, giants, a herd of swine) culminating in a confusing, menacing encounter with King Arthur. There is some landscape writing of a very high order (63, 73), there are moments of horror ( 143ff: for me the creepiest writing in the story) and ingenious plot devices such as the inextinguishable candle (e.g. 170ff): flashes of inspired writing.

William Mayne was a prolific children’s writer, able to command a wide readership. His reputation plummeted with his conviction for sex with under-age girls, to the point where critics have asked whether his books should be read at all.  Part of the argument – and not the part I’m concerned with here – moves into the territory around people like Eric Gill, whose artwork is still admired, even to being a focus of religious devotion, despite his systematic abuse of girls. This is, for many people, a complex argument: how can sublime religious art be suppressed, or how can we continue to admire the output of a monster? I want to look at this in a slightly different way: Mayne’s book, Earthfasts, is not of this order anyway: the structure is weak at times, the ending feels rushed, and the ways in which the small town reconciles itself with a year of paranormal experiences are imperfectly set out.

“Earthfasts begins with two teenage boys’ close friendship and ends up with one of them in a bath with another boy.” I read Earthfasts as a curious mixture of fantasy novel and closed gay text. First published in 1966, this is understandable: the youth with whom David finally bonds (“Tha’s reet mucky,” says middle-class David in Nellie Jack John’s own argot, as they bath together, 186) is first unearthed as David and Keith explore a buried, insistent drumming; the candle the drummer leaves is hypnotic and compulsive (see below); there are persistent references to touch and physicality (“He was trembling all over and so was Keith. They stood clinging to each other…”, 14, with other passages passim, e.g. 17, 22, 34, 98, 117). It is a far cry, of course, from Patrick Ness’ More Than This, where one of the pivots for the story is a selfie of the protagonist in bed with his boyfriend but it seems to me that, once seen, it is inescapable. I’m not sure if it needs saying, but I am happy with all of this, so far, text or subtext.

Once seen. I have the haziest of memories of my first reading, but I think it was flushed with nostalgia, and that I read it in Enfield when we’d moved from Burnley. I didn’t read the relationship between the Earthfast boys as any more than a friendship when I was first reading it (I’m not sure “homosocial” was a word in the sixties, and I wouldn’t have met it or understood it anyway at twelve or thirteen), despite identifying with David and Keith in more than the common ground of the Pennines. I remember being disappointed by the TV series when I watched (and abandoned) it in the 90s. However, the possible other reading struck me on this next, much later reading, which I did because of the work we’re doing on Garner. This could be because I was too close to it, or because I didn’t understand the idea of subtext, or – and this is my disquiet- because it is knowing something about the sexuality of the author alerts me to reading his stories differently. Lady Muck, for example, is about temptation not resisted, and recurring in Earthfasts is compulsion and destruction. Look, for example, at how Keith, after David’s disappearance, is drawn to the same hypnotic experience with the candle in the tin:

The candle called him twice a day after that, at odd times. He grew used to it. The first three or four times he started up and went to whether the tin was, but the call died as he did so. Then he knew the feeling as it came, and let it wash over him. He had to, in fact, because once he was in the bus, and another time in church and the third time in assembly…By standing still he could outlast it, but the usual way of overcoming was no good. Whilst the urge was on him he could not think of anything else… (146-7).

So my question is: am I now reading a book written for younger readers not only with adult eyes but with an informed perspective that encourages me to read intentions where there are none? The irrational world that breaks into the village with the disruption the pigs introduce is dangerous and destructive carnival (96), but is it any more than that? Keith’s long-past kissing of a girl at primary school (65) is a poignant image but in the context of sharing the “erect and undimmed” candle with David, is it a sign of more desired, or missed? Are all of these subtexts for (another anachronistic term) gay adolescence, or for the darker themes of a different illicit sexuality?  Is the reader-critic entitled to ignore these as too extreme, in much the same way as this blog title suggests that not every incident teems with hidden, sexual meaning?

How much is a text, escaping from the writer, simply a text? Does its harking-back to the author (Auden, Wilde, Shakespeare, the Gawain-poet) and their context really inform our understanding?  Am I in danger of it distorting rather than informing my critical reading?
Reading Earthfasts with a jaundiced eye, I am unsure. I worry I could simply be a new Mr Meyerburg from Cold Comfort Farm.

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Green Thoughts: time and space in Thursbitch and Boneland

It is interesting to speculate on the role of a complex author such as Alan Garner and whether he can be counted a “green writer” – or whether that kind of nomenclature is at all useful. He is not writing the polemic of George Monbiot, whose  lyrical, engaged prose in work like his Feral has an explicit moral tone. In critiquing (p215) a Wildlife Trust’s management plan, for example, Monbiot writes

“…invasive and undesirable species are native trees such as rowan, sallow, birch and hawthorn, returning to their natural habitat… [A]t great expense, it sustains the ambiance of a nuclear winter.”

Powerful advocacy. We might, however, contrast Garner’s use of trees at the moving death of the eighteenth-century protagonist in the final scene at the end of Thursbitch:

“If I’m to rest tonight in this flowery valley, tell them to put me in my own fold, so as I’m close to you. Then, tell them, put at me head a pipe of hornbeam, for sweetness, a pipe of holly, for sadness; a pipe of oak, for wildness. Then when the wind blows it must play.”

They are writing for different purposes, of course. Monbiot, to state the baldest argument, has a concern for place and the future, while Garner’s project is place and the past. Jack Turner seeks a resting place and finds it at the intersection of myth, legend and a mystical experience of the powers that shape his cultic space. The end of Boneland offers a similar set of images, of story at the heart of land and belonging. The modern protagonist Colin walks free of his nightmares (to some extent) and the Paleolisthic Man rests, his story passed on. Garner is even bold enough to cite the rhythmic refrain from the local story of the sleeping knights as the past and present protagonists become one, walking

…by Seven Firs and Goldenstone and Stormy Point to Saddlebole

where he (who? Colin, the Man?) see “a new story, a Dream.” Where – or more precisely when – are we in these last, beautiful rags of prose in the book? Whenever we are, we are [at] the heart of the human story, with sacred cutting of stone and Jodrell Bank. There is no simple catechism of how we might be kind to the earth, but we are at the heart of how and where we belong. This is where Garner’s “greenness” resides, where his inspiration rises like a spring on a hillside.

Lyotard (I am not an expert) suggests that the Oikeion, the “belonging to the dwelling place,” is “a relation with something that is inscribed at the origin in all minds, souls or psychic apparatuses” (in the brief but incredibly dense section “Ecology as Discourse of the Secluded” in The Green Studies Reader, ed Laurence Coupe, p135). While I can see that Lyotard is going in a very different direction in looking at the oikeion as a motivating relationship in literature, it strikes me that this brief quotation might be a way of looking at Garner as an ecological writer. That it not to say that we should choose a title like “Green Writer” and shoehorn someone we admire into a role we choose for them, but that it points to exactly the deeper relationship with the world, the deep ecology that we see in Thursbitch and Boneland. Time is a crucial part of this.

When Sal, the modern-day protagonist in Thursbitch, surveys the ruined farm at Thursbitch, she says plainly “The stones belong but the house doesn’t. What’s here is much older.” The house is a ruin, much as Sal is, and affects her so deeply that even in the challenges of her deteriorating condition, it remains powerfully in her memory. In the same way the Man, the pre-Sapiens hominin, tells the first story of his “dream in Ludcruck” in Boneland and thus passes to modern humans, to the early Cheshire people, his story,and gifts for the future  his song

To dance in Ludcruck to cut the rock and to keep the sun from death.

Story (song, dream) help us pass out of a linear view of place into something else, something that loosely is called Heritage (however that term is used and abused by the tourist industry these days).

Garner is concerned with belonging in time and space, and the non-linear peculiarities of his stories only serve to point out how difficult it is to come to terms with. Place is powerful not only because of our use (or abuse) of it, but because of our intimate relationship with it, inextricably linked to our experience of time. Nails grow at the same rate as tectonic plates shift. Sal sees Jack Turner and he sees her. Is she Sal at the end, or Jack’s wife Nan? Characters and objects move through spaces and time in a very fluid way: myths represent themselves in the Owl Service, historical episodes and artefacts merge and confuse in Red Shift, in the earlier works Weirdstone and Gomrath, Garner plays with story and legend and language in ways that even the powerful adult third episode in the trilogy, Boneland, only half resolve. He is acutely aware of how inhabiting a landscape places the writer – maybe the reader – in a place but not necessarily in time. As he ends his meditation on the alder copse in Arboreal, “the dead men in the ground had worked the same land.”

 

 

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Born Among Knives and Scissors

I have begun this post three times and deleted each one. All I want to do is make some sense in a confusing time, and while solvitur ambulando is a great motto, maybe I can write it out, instead.

Over and over I come back to Auden and his line “Nothing now can come to any good.” It seems a good place to start in a dark time, politically, socially: there seems more hate, more deceit, more cruelty around than I can wade through. So then I read Larkin: “to sit with bricks around you/While the winds of heaven ball…” I read Merton, too, who gave me the title of this post, and come back again to his raw and angry Captives:

It is the bulls’ day. The citizens

Build themselves each hour another god

and fry a fatter idol out of mud…

and I could so easily think that the news, and the voices of Twitter’s educational bullies, and single-issue political big mouths were everything. It is too easy: this is my Enough is Enough. Too easy to be swept up into it all, the sniping, the half truths, the pain, the awful, awful killings. It would be easy, too,  to see religiosity, where piety deliberately separates from other concerns, as the refuge. Captives does not end in alienation, however, but in a sort of nostalgia:

May language perish from  my tongue

If I do not remember thee, O Sion , city of vision,

Whose heights have windows finer than the firmament…

I come back to the medieval adage  Sit pax in cella, fores autem plurima bella, let there be peace in your cell, even if outside there are many wars.

But, my God, even that is hard.

My recent reading of the great story of the Tombs of Atuan, and the ways, powerfully depicted by Ursula Le Guin, show how religion can dissemble and cloak structures of power and violence: the confusing Labyrinth under the crumbling temple, where devouring, negative archetypes dominate.  Le Guin seems to me to be at her most Jungian, and this passage from Man and his Symbols brings me back to my own disquiet about how things feel this week:

The dark side of the Self is the most dangerous thing of all…It can cause people to “spin” megalomaniac or other delusory fantasies that can catch them up and “possess” them. A person in this state thinks with mounting excitement that he has grasped the great cosmic riddles; he therefore loses all touch with human reality. A reliable symptom of this condition is the loss of one’s sense of humour and of human contacts.

Not a bad description of the lone attacker or the tight-knit group of killers – or of the wicked demagoguery of supposed allies. Not a bad warning, too, of how despair separates us, disunites us, weakens us. The loss of humanity in isolation.  I need my cell for peace – but I also need friends, and human, physical contact, and smiles and people to smile at. And I thank God I have them.

 

 

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Stranger Visitors

Five years ago we lost Maurice Sendak, or at least we lost his continuing ability to create. It was an amazing, richly endowed talent. In this post from BrainPickings, for instance, we are presented with his anarchic, triumphant pair, Jack and Guy – it was the eagle-eyed Mat who first pointed out the illustration of Trump Tower in it to me – whose carnival through the chaos of modern times has lots to tell us about how to live well. For me, it is his pictures of the outside breaking in – the Goblins and the menacing sunflowers in Outside Over There – that always make me wonder about the complexities of breaking-in from outside in stories. What is so bad about things breaking in?

Two texts, then, quickly, about monsters calling. The first is this:

The Strange Visitor I knew from my son’s telling of it, but here is the text from a general sharing site:

Once upon a time there was a house in the middle of a deep, dark forest, and in the middle of a deep, dark night, the only sound you could here was the creak of a rocking chair, and the clacking of knitting needles.

A woman sat in a rocking chair, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting.

She was lonely.

“How I wish I had some company!”

And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of great big feet, which sat down by the fire.

The woman sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, and in came a pair of skinny skinny legs, which sat down on the feet.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of great round knees, which sat down on the skinny skinny legs.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of thin thin thighs, which sat down on the great round knees.And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of huge huge hips, which sat down on the thin thin thighs.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a teeny tiny waist, which sat down on the huge huge hips.

The old woman kept on knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, and in came a pair of big broad shoulders, which sat down on the teeny tiny waist.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of teeny tiny arms, which sat down on the big broad shoulders.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of great big hands, which sat down on the teeny tiny arms.  Still, she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, and in came a pair of scrawny scrawny neck, which sat down on the big broad shoulders.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in rolled a huge huge head, which sat down on the scrawny scrawny neck.

And the mysterious visitor sat there, and looked at the woman.

And the woman looked at her visitor, and then she said, “And how did you get such great big feet?”

Much tramping, much tramping

“And how did you get such skinny skinny legs?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such great round knees?”

Much praying, much praying.

“And how did you get such thin thin thighs?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such huge huge hips?”

Much sitting, much sitting.

“And how did you get such a teeny tiny waist?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such broad broad shoulders?”

Much sweeping, much sweeping.

“And how did you get such small small arms?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such huge huge hands?”

Much grabbing, much grabbing

“And how did you get such a small small neck?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such a huge huge head?”

Much thinking, much thinking.

“And what have you come for?”

For you !

and the Tailypo, which occurs on a number of sites, but of these sites, this is perhaps the richest – certainly one I would treat with care, despite its name, if working with children.  I think this telling from the Galdones’ book, is the closest to my own version, because I got it from them! Both stories are real shockers, designed to scare: the uncanny interrupts the solitary life.

As Sarah Maitland vividly puts it in her essay in Arboreal, the demigod Pan is “seldom found in the bright courts of Olympus…”  – but she still places him “deep in the ancient wood [where] he will still drive even the innocent -hearted to irrational, senseless, panicked fear.”  But the question is, for me, what is the significance of the outside-coming-in motif from Tailypo and The Strange Visitor? It is again the Green Knight and Long Lankin: the challenge, the threat, Beware the Moss, Beware the Moor.  The breaking-in brings redemption for Gawain, but wholesale death in the folk tales I’m citing and in Long Lankin. What happens when we go out is our conscious exploration of the anything-may-happen world, but what does that imply for our own world? How comfortable do we want it to be? How comfortable can we keep it? These are the fundamentals of the current political debates in UK and US, the appeal of a controlled past of known certainties (if such a thing every really existed), of comfort and “meetable” challenge. The riddle – not exactly a new one –  is something like “How do we want our world? How should we live in it?” When we “attempt to unriddle the world” as Susan Cooper suggests, we often think in terms of quest, of going out, something I have written about here, but the quest in Gawain begins at home, the quest in A Monster Calls is about the breaking-in to the life-half-lived of chaos, with truth in its wake.  Is our dream of a comfortable life irrevocably gone? Or only to be bought at the price of strong and stable and (unacceptably conformist) control? What is the risk of letting in the dark and the dead? Learn or be destroyed?

So I’m ending on a different tack, another BrainPickings post, where we are greeted by other views from the genius Sendak. “Dipping into yourself” to find the wonder for children is important, as Sendak points out in his interview with Studs Terkel (linked in BrainPickings), being “foolish and silly…but you tell the truth in some way.” Even in 1970 he describes us as “ringed round by liars.” These monsters impinge to challenge or destroy perhaps: truth, “seeing what we shall see, hearing what we shall hear,” – even dressed in fantasy – is our way to conquer. And since this has turned into a sermon, let’s finish with the hymn that taught the 7-year-old me about how fantasy and life meet: When a Knight Won His Spurs. 

 

 

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Medieval MSS

If ever there was a book that tempted me to regret the professional path I took away from manuscripts and monastic history, it was this one: Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts . Today, a blog post is both a delight and a cause of just a small twinge of jealousy: Lisa Fagin Davis on the New Bedford Book of Hours. Not only does she go to town on this lovely MS with erudition and enthusiasm, she writes with a lightness of touch that, even if I weren’t a lapsed medievalist, I would find enviable.

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Susan Cooper

Here, to start us off, is Susan Cooper at Pembroke College last week.

I really can’t better it – how could I? – and it was so well put together it would be hard to take any one thing and say “this (and not that) was the best bit.” Maybe just watching her in action here in the JRR Tolkien lecture is enough.

I almost wish I could take time, however, to write on some of her more gnomic  statements:

When I began, children’s literature wasn’t literature.

…the human race invented myth because they needed it.

In a world off fleeting image and fake news, people need more than ever the truth that lies at the heart of fantasy..

But perhaps her best line – which also gave us her title – was simply this shock that good fantasy writing can give:

The catch of the breath, the lifting of the heart.

 

 

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Visual Methodology of Politics?

 


Or of education? Two pictures which, posted side by side, say a lot about the ways politicians manage – or don’t manage – their image when they are with children. One shows David Cameron seemingly failing to engage with a child; the other shows Jeremy Corbyn engaged with a well-known and lively text. I am presenting them here as examples to be discussed: what demonstrates engagement? How do they exemplify the educational process?

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Note, for example, that the politicians are both sitting down; look at their facial expressions. Look at the ways in which Corbyn is able to use eye contact – dare I say it “like a real teacher” whereas side by side gives Cameron no real way of engagement.

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Sitting back gives Corbyn the advantage of looking at ease; Cameron leaning forward may be an attempt to look engaged, but the girl undermines this, and the Cameron pose is made to look pleading.

The two poses might be seen as typical of the successful and unsuccessful new teacher: demonstrating how to read for pleasure, for example, or lost in the attempt to interest a child in an activity. Irrespective of who the adults are, they are trying to show involvement in education.

What message do they give about what education is?

As I post and edit this, Theresa May is on the TV talking to apprentices in a toothpaste factory. To end, therefore, I want to think about this deeply unflattering picture (at the bottom of this post)  of The Prime Minister. Theresa May is pulling a face that may look disgusted – but this needs to sound a note of caution. She is, I think, immersed in the activity. Emotional engagement may mean joining in all sorts of conversations with children, and the picture itself gives no clue as to what she is talking about. Is she feigning fear? Is she caught as she looks surprised? It’s not the best of pictures, but actually might be evidence of her really trying to connect with the children.

As the next few weeks roll on, we need to use sone criticality when images of politicians are used to promote some message about children’s services or education: we need to remember the decisions made by the politicians, their agents, the photographers and editors. What message is intended? Is it successful or not- and why?

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Lists and Canons

As I write the title I am aware of the ways both “lists” and “canon” (or at any rate “cannon”) have military connections. There is also a certain sense of struggle or battle  when meeting the kind of lists that come my way. I am referring to the “Hundred Books to Read Before You Die” (HBTRBYD) variety. Here is one, the Fifteen Best Children’s Books of All Time.  Yes, Of All Time.

Little White Horses, Hobbits, Boys in Dresses  and Velveteen Rabbits are all in place, along with Pippi Longstocking and the Philosopher’s Stone (I may be wrong about this one). I really like Francis Spufford’s The Boy that Books Built, although I wasn’t at all sure why that was there. Perhaps the writer’s lists got muddled, and that was the reference tome. I would have preferred the new Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature as a guide, but maybe I am misreading the Spufford and it really is “for children” rather than “about childhood” (for a lengthy argument on targets and destinations for older young readers, I’m sure the eloquent and energetic Patrick Ness will give anyone a run for their money, but my mind changed on this – or at least any certainty I had blown up –  when I read The Case of Peter Pan, or, The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction).  It’s interesting to note how age-skewed these are, although there is some material published in this millennium. I rather suspect there has been a quota system applied, about date of publication, translated or not, maybe even something about “target gender” or some other such idea.

The Bestness has to apply in all sorts of areas.

The Best of All Time has a canonical feel to it.

HBTRBYD is like that. Maybe it’s the intimation of mortality does it.

And here is another, the Top Ten Books About Trees. Because I feel a lot of sympathy for this thoughtful list – and indeed for the project of literature and landscape, I felt I could use this one to explore the idea of a list and a canon. Ignore the fact that the writer is in part writing a plug for her own book, The Long, Long Life of Trees: her motive is subsumed into the choices she makes, and in any case her book does look good. Here is Fiona Stafford’s list, shorn (pleached? pruned?) of her evaluative comments.

Howards End by EM Forster
Meetings With Remarkable Trees by Thomas Pakenham
The Dead by James Joyce
Outline by Paul Nash
Dante’s Inferno
Sylva by John Evelyn
Whispers in the Graveyard by Theresa Breslin
Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery by John Clare
The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
Apple Acre by Adrian Bell

And of course my removing her comments really removes the point of the article: the list is nothing without the critical commentary. What is Dante doing there? What does Apple Acre have that Wild Life in a Southern Country doesn’t have? Where are the books that are on my desk (somewhere) even now as I type: the rich Arboreal, or the enlightening poetry collection Into the Forest or the quirky Gossip from the Forest?  The chapters from Landscape and Memory? The Robert Macfarlane? Rob Cowen? The point of the articles, from Telegraph to Guardian is not that they are canonical, but that they stimulate debate.  You, dear writer, can dress it how you like, but I may not agree that Emile and the Detectives is one of the best children’s books of all time, although I remember it fondly. You might equally howl at my suggestion that we replace it with The Owl Service (a commentary website here) or More Than This or a graphic work such as Nimona.  These are your choices, I have mine. Trying to make it into something with should and must (and death) is sensationalist.

The debate is what this is about. The danger comes, I think, when it is couched in terms of what you must read. HBTRBYD works on the premise there is an implicit failure in your not having read The Great Gatsby (“The BAE across the Bay” as my daughter described it on the bus to me this morning)  or The Glass Bead Game. Tick, I win: I have read more than you.  There might be arguments, of course, for literary works that are the building blocks of one’s cultural capital, although endless quizzes on the computer don’t seem to be able to come up with a decent answer, and shifting cultural experiences make this a Protean task to say the least (“What book of the Odyssey does Proteus come from, Swarbrick?”) . These arguments seem to me to be ones in which we do see a piece of literature as a building block: no Milton without the King James Bible, no Lord of the Rings without Beowulf, no Matilda without Oliver Twist &c., &c., and I have said enough about Alan Garner whose breadcrumbs of harking-back to other myths and landscapes through all his writings are almost a pedagogic approach in themselves. No Thursbitch without Gilgamesh?

So is there a difference between a list and a canon? At a basic level, no: a canon is just a list. However, the idea of a canon as somehow a required list, a hallowed thing in itself, makes me worried, especially when we come to thinking about children in school. “I think Y6 will love this” is a good day’s trek for Michelle Paver‘s young shaman/hunter Torak away from “They must have read this before Y7 or before University.” Several contributors to the Oxford Reading Spree gave us lists of books that had inspired them, but what was noticeable was that no-one (unless I saw the whole thing through rose-tinted specs) told us what children must read. These were lists, not a canon: an invitation, not a rule.

So what purpose do these lists really serve? They can do one of three things: one, the HBTRBYD method, is to score points like first year undergraduates did to me, to my near-compete despair, in 1976/77; the next is to stimulate debate about what might be on this list or that; the last is to stimulate the reader to move into a new area, pick up a new book. Whispers in the Graveyard sounds worth a look; what’s A Boy and a Bear in a Boat like? I can then make up my own mind about what quality looks like – and the more I read, the better my guess about that might be.

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Biblioparakolouthesis

This is a quick post, prompted by the observation of people’s behaviour on Twitter – no, not the self-righteous “I’m right because I know everything” stuff about phonics or why Early Years has it wrong or why Secondary Schools are something out of Dickens: all of this is getting tired and lacklustre, ossified opinions led by mansplainers. And since I am given to mansplaining myself, I am avoiding it here in particular. Or trying to.

No, the practice I’m picking up on is following other people’s reading – bookstalking, if we want something more anglosaxon than the title of this post. At the moment I am watching Mat read through The Dark is Rising and report inspirational phrase by inspirational phrase on Twitter; I have similarly seen other people’s reading on Goodreads. Some of them are “my” Brookes Education  students and honestly it fills my heart with joy.

I love this ambiguous relationship between text, reader and the community of readers. In many periods, reading has been a communal activity, either through reading out loud or through the distribution of books in a community; it must have helped create a sense of common enthusiasm, or at least a ground for debate and opinion.  It is wonderful to watch this happening in a Primary class; it was inspiring at the Oxford Reading Spree – and continues to be so, since the event was such a springboard for people to talk to one another; it is great to see people challenging, suggesting and discussing, too, at the Spree and the afterwards – but perhaps what I’m enjoying is simply watching the steps through the forest, seeing phrases I had missed in previous reading or thinking “that looks worth reading.” Not so much “Booktalk” and “Book-stalk.”

Reading, I often forget, is essentially community-based communicative activity, and the community around children’s literature is generous, committed, patient. We are not so far from the communal reading of the middle ages after all.

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