Partnership, Obedience and Trust

I think the Oxford Reading Spree went well. There were notable stars, of course, and followed some way behind by a man looking like a grizzled version of Basil Brush, rabble-rousing rather than really presenting a case on parents and partnerships and how that might sometimes involve a loss of power for the professional. Me voila, along with many – but alas, not all – the speakers.  It has been immensely gratifying to read praise from serving teachers such as Kiran, here.  Yes, it really does mean a lot.

What I want to return to is the notion of parents as school agents. I know I was pressing my case too hard in my talk on Saturday – but equally I now see there were people in the audience who do, in fact, keep children in at playtime if the child’s reading record has not been filled in. All I think I could do is point out the ambiguities in both doing this and not doing it – something I had been planning to do until I read Sue Cowley’s reflections on school absence. She has moved the argument on from my moans about whether this action or that in the teaching of reading is in the best interests of the child, in the light of the news that Jon Platt, who in effect queried the use of the word “regular” in “regular attendance,” and whether a school has a right to determine what “regular” means.

I find myself caught. Head teachers sometimes seem like dreadful killjoys – “You know it’s a trend, the Head’s thinking of banning it” – and maybe sometimes they are, seeking an even sailing rather than any choppiness, conformity and compliance rather than real partnership. However, does the perceived need for a big holiday somehow overrule the professional judgement as to what why a child might be in school – still less the organisational complexity of a curriculum in which children may or may not be there for this or that piece of learning? The tensions are – or seem – very either/or in the matter of term-time holidays. As Sue acerbically sums it up, ” your personal circumstances have ceased to matter.” Holidays, healthy packed lunches, uniform, whether you have the time to fill in a reading record, whether your shared reading with a child is about Charlie and Lola, or Smash Hits, or Biff and Chip, whether… Oh, enough.  It comes down to the idea that somehow the parents (“the most important job in the world, and it’s left to amateurs”) can have a right to disagree with a professional. Sometimes they do. Sometimes the school makes a mess of the message the team is trying to convey. Been there, on both “sides,” and am always struck, as I look back at the highs and lows of parent-teacher relationships by the dilemma: Does a school demand obedience, or does it inspire (or work to inspire) trust?

In this case, tonight, I think Sue is right: this parent and teacher playground bundle is the wrong battle. Fighting about school term holidays or absenteeism during SATs seems a bit of a distract-and-redirect, if the stories are to be believed (I’m not doubting them) about teacher recruitment, low morale, chronic funding. There are worse ogres to fight than a (perhaps) over zealous head or (perhaps) a belligerent parent. These everyday squabbles need to be seen for what they are, or at least could be: the school-by-school, sometimes family-by-family storming and forming of relationships. We have other dragons hatching, and we will need all the strength we can muster, all the friends we can get.


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Come and Join the Dance

This weekend I will be doing something – I am so nervous I can’t really talk it up, although the event itself will be marvellous – at the Oxford Reading Spree about reading in the EYFS. I could

  • fulminate about phonics
  • chide people on child-initiated learning
  • do other things on how to share books in group time that could have an alliterative title, but I can’t be bothered.

but in fact what I’m going to talk about is parental partnership and particularly about books.

Gillian Morrow and Nigel Malin, in the heady days of reasonably funded Early Years, proposed a model of parents and professionals working together. They suggested that partnership “which is often depicted in terms of a hierarchy of levels, for example from non-participation to partnership and control” can sometimes be seen by professionals “as a matter of ‘giving’” – and I wonder whether this means a giving but with the right to take back. Power really remains with the setting, and the role of the educator is to make up for parental deficiencies.  In Morrow and Malin’s more dynamic model, we see this undergoing changes. Most teachers will, I think, recognise that  changes in relationship between parent and professional are not necessarily easy, but their research is primarily into parents’ decision-making through committees, and one of the workers’ responses to the increased empowerment is telling:

…one of the good things has been becoming a lot less precious about your professional status. People on the Parents’ Committee respect you not because of your job role but because of their relationship with you

I return to this as I think about reading.

How well do we act as advocates for reading? How easy is it to fall back on institutional lines of power?

I have recently heard (but now cannot trace) the story of the school that threatened a child with detention if the parents didn’t read with the child three times in a week; I remember a parent’s anger at reading in the child’s reading record a telling-off for not keeping the reading record up-to-date…  These are indicative of a power relationship in which a home-school agreement is for the parents to agree to comply. They/we comply with what the school deems fitting. This is, I think assumed in the legislation, which states that a home-school agreement must contain “the responsibilities which the parents of such pupils are expected to discharge in connection with the education of their children” – assumed, I think, that it is the school that sets those expectations. This seems to me a far cry from the EYFS statement that

[c]hildren learn and develop well in enabling environments, in which their experiences respond to their individual needs and there is a strong partnership between practitioners and parents and/or carers…

So what is this strong partnership – and especially when we are talking about fostering literacy in EYFS – what does the professional have to do? Assume or require compliance? Or become the dancer, inviting parent and child to join? And if the latter, how much does the professional need to understand that long story from the first, cuddly book-sharing to the child making their own choices in a library?

This is what I will be exploring, all in 20 mins, on Saturday. No pressure, then.



Gillian Morrow  & Nigel Malin, (2004) Parents and professionals working together: turning the rhetoric into reality  Early Years Volume 24, 2004 – Issue 2, Pages 163-177






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Memory, Narrative and a Reader

First off, note the title, gentle reader: I am going to avoid the notion of “the Reader.” I simply don’t know what those words mean, although I can see they are a convention for “anyone who picks words off a page, screen, clay tablet, &c.” And I am not talking about the named and nameless writers and readers who have gone before me over 8000 and more years, from unnamed composers of lists and spells through Aeschylus (neatly explored here)  to Baudelaire (“Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere!”). This is a blog post – as I’m afraid they all are these days –  about me, a personal snippet of a pale reflection of Francis Spufford’s The Child that Books Built. I have begun this sketchy narrative before.

A reader. Nine, ten, as I said before. His first read of Narnia is still in his mind, as is Batman. He is read Clive King at school (22 Letters) and on TV (Stig of the Dump), likewise Rosemary Sutcliff,  and Moomins, Green Knowe, Elidor come into his reading life (enough of the third person: it’s getting tedious), sorry.  The children’s librarian in Harlow suggests I try The Hobbit after one of the Sutcliff books – possibly The Shield Ring. She gets special permission, when I finish Lord of the Rings, for me to borrow the LPs of Wagner from the adult library. This much, at least, is in praise of a woman whose name I do not know, whose task was to take an interest in young people’s reading.

I suggested in an earlier post that the rupture of my reading brought me to read and re-read Tolkien because he represented something bookish, grown-up and at the same time a continuation of my “top Junior” reading. Hollindale’s keen eye spots, in Catherine Storr’s use of “childish” a word that makes her sound apologetic. Perhaps when I got to secondary school in Burnley  I was apologetic for my earlier childhood, unable to frame myself as a reader as convincingly as I had in Harlow. My reading was wide, or at least quirky, and my clumsy medievalism, founded on a family view of English Catholicism, starts here, as does my reading of Buddhism through the seriously strange writings of Lobsang Rampa: my dad’s influence both times. My mum bought me adult C S Lewis and we read Daphne du Maurier or listened to dramatisations on the radio. I read her Dennis Wheatley stories of demonic rituals and posh people – and the appendices to Lord of the Rings. So I was still reading new stuff when we moved again, back to North London. So much for story, now to some thinking.

What has often struck me is the fact that I had big pockets of my childhood that appear fragmented or unrecognised. Burnley is vivid, with Gilbert and Sullivan, lots of Church, wild countryside and (at the time) troubling explorations of sex. Harlow had retreated into a time I couldn’t quite remember.  It was as if I had lost the thread of the narrative, skipped a chapter so that it didn’t make sense. I loved the windy hills, I ogled the harp in a music shop in Blackburn, but as an adult  couldn’t quite put these into place. This is where I am struggling at the moment: not the very idea of why I love children’s literature, but why the rediscovery of books from my own past reading are such a revelation. What memories return.

The Shield Ring gives me a clue to harps and wild hills: what astonished me is that I had forgotten my love for the heroes Bjorn the Harper and Frytha through whose eyes we see so much of Lake Land. So – although this really does need to go on and on – I’ll stop with Hollindale’s idea of what childness might do in an author’s purpose. “The past child as a living agent in the adult self” is acknowledged in some authors as part of why they write. Authors from Garner and Sutcliff are explicit about this; it can be guessed (only guessed, I think) in a wistfulness for a past time in Tolkien. I wonder however whether this is also present me for as I read again books I loved before we moved north: they awake for me a real and steady set of pictures of my “middle childhood,” brief years from eight to ten, and they do so because the literature, the text (not the interpretation) remain constant, there for me to discover, at an opportune moment, ideas, story lines, phrases, characters “that I had loved long since and lost awhile.”


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What gives me pleasure in reading?

This post, as I begin it, is an instant “Save Draft,” since it will take a lot of unpicking. Even as I write I see the CLIP Carnegie Kate Greenaway list is out with Tidy, Wolves of Currumpaw and Wild Animals of the North in there. Popularity, pleasure, professional judgement come together. Complex stuff.

Do I read because something is popular?

Not always, but sometimes I have to, if only to keep up to date with other people’s ideas or trends in production. A Hello Kitty version of Red Riding Hood recently stands out as a low point. I persevered with Harry Potter because I thought I should, and was glad I did.

Do I read children’s books for pleasure?

For my own pleasure, as well as the pleasure of sharing? I get pleasure from the innocence – whether knowing or otherwise on the author’s part – which  I can see even if I don’t really participate in it. Granted , as Hollindale so gnomically says “ours is the age of Lord of the Flies,” where even the bear-protagonist of Jon Klassen is vengeful and murderous, there is in much children’s literature a lightness that is engaging.

I like the simplicity, whether (again) knowing or unknowing. The foxy-looking gentleman leading Jemima Puddleduck astray; the bromance (an anachronistic term) of Esca and Marcus Flavius Aquila;  the inversion of roles in the Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig: they are tricksy, or challenging, funny and poignant but simple in the storytelling in some way I haven’t yet teased out, somehow.  I know I am in danger here of seeming as if I like the descent into liking the easy read, and I will only protest (using Julien Benda’s phrase (revisited by Hollindale) Le Trahison Des Clercs, the way that intellectuals do not stay true to their “calling”) that it is the subtlety and playfulness of the design and language that I find attractive, not the easiness.  There’s so much more to say on this, but this will do for now.

I get pleasure from good design, from inventive use of colour, interesting cadences in prose, from irony and jokiness. I get pleasure – and did as a child – at the knowing wink towards the world of the adult in the Moomins (I like it less in Dahl). I suppose I get pleasure in the play of ideas: it’s a bit like reading poetry, where rhythm and cadence and imagery and word choice and the appreciation of all of them together makes for the biggest part of my pleasure in reading. Look at these lines from R S Thomas for example:

What is the Christmas without
snow? We need it
as bread of a cold
climate, ermine to trim

our sins with, a brief
sleeve for charity’s
scarecrow to wear its heart
on, bold as a robin.

My pleasure comes from appreciation of the shared experiences, but also from the way the words are placed, with care and attention, the slipperiness of simile and metaphor, of sacrament and observation.

And I get pleasure from the debate I have with colleagues about something we delight in together. Children’s literature is one of the reasons I came to Brookes, with my original work title of “Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies, Communication, Language and Literacy. ” It is a joy to find that discussion still alive in the last years of my work.

Professional Judgment comes in somewhere?

Because of my job and my chosen area of research (now here’s a circular argument bowling down the hill of criticism!) , yes.

I can cite two voices in announcing the prize lists today :

There are journeys to be made, friendships to discover, characters to fall in love with and worlds to truly immerse oneself in.
Questions of identity, friendship and responsibility, both to others and to the natural world, are key themes this year. It is also hugely heartening to see our shortlisted writers and illustrators tackling potentially difficult and big ideas…

And I like those descriptions of the values that professionals see in books. I’d like my students to appreciate these views.

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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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