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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I have spent time looking closely at another of my Christmas acquisitions, the OS Great British Colouring Map this morning. Engrossing. It strikes me that, like any book, it is capable of a range of responses, from the “Meh” when a nephew or goddaughter receives it from a well-meaning adult because said young person is doing geography GCSE (the aunt or godfather possibly displaying the fact that they do not understand geography or GCSEs) to the more exacting interaction. In the latter, it would be possible to get out the colouring pencils in the precise colour range for A Roads, buildings, &c in the correct scale series, or, more iconoclastically, in purples and fluorescent oranges, to redraw OS Britain in some sort of “mindful colouring” activity. Either would take ages.

From OS Colouring Map

From OS Colouring Map

I don’t know if I will ever put pencil to the beautiful, thick pages. This quick snap cannot do justice to this detailed and thoughtful book production.

Did I say “detailed”?  What I love most is the lack of some details I might normally come to rely on: no words, no contour lines disturb the clinical outlines. Is that York Minster, so small? Where are the city walls? And in Conwy – which I have visited once, in 1976 – what do I make of this detail, or that? What is that structure just along from what I think must be the station, opposite the castle, across the estuary? Or what can I see in a flat, monochrome Wensleydale that I might miss on the coloured and labelled “full” map? I would never find huge Shining Tor if it had been included, much less the hidden Thursbitch or Ludchurch. I realise (at a deeper level than I had already understood) how much an OS map is an interpretation tool, an artefact that suggests and guides. Perhaps when I struggled with Digimaps in the summer that this was my basic problem: I was looking for answers when all I could hope for was signs.

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Manuscripts: a brief thought on autoethnography

I’ve been given Christopher de Hamel’s beauty of a book, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts for Christmas, and today I sat in bed listening to de Hamel and Andrew Marr enthusing about the more notable MSS de Hamel discusses.

The greater part of me is enthralled by the book, by the challenge of a not insignificant work, and by coming back to something I used to know well. Part of me, however, is a little wistful: I have had late medieval Books of Hours, chant books, portiforia in my hands, known or guessed their provenance, struggled with their handwriting.  It was a world I loved, playing M R James as I looked at the Bridgettines of Syon Abbey-  although I knew it a bit even at the time, I was without the obsessive commitment needed for the role. I describe myself as a “lapsed medievalist,” and I guess this will have to do.

So now, for the most part, I am the kid outside the sweet shop, looking at the barley sugars through the window…

…with the exception of the work on Gawain that’s come my way this year. I find that the past stuff on late medieval literature and spirituality is carrying me a long way into the sentient landscape project, picking up the crumbs that Alan Garner has dropped with a sharper eye than I would have done if I had not had those years of experience with the Syon MSS.

A final thought (for now) on making sense of my stumbling study: the way I looked at “my” manuscript (MS Rawl D 403) [when I finally packed away the reproduction I have and got on with training to be a teacher] was that I might come back to it. However, I wonder if that confuses scholarship in its widest sense with doctoral study, which is a a part of the scholarly project. Maybe the Liber Mortis et Vite never really left me; maybe I can dredge from those twenty-something enthusiasms skills and understanding I can still use. I used to dream in Syon; now I belong as much to the myths of quest and learning from my mistakes that are in Boneland, and Ludchurch. It feels all about synthesis of these different parts tonight.

Maybe a thought for my study in 2017…


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A thought for the solstice

The Winter Solstice today is exciting people, understandably, to think of times improving. New dawns, new springs – and there is hope, I know: but we must remember that 2016 saw the rolling of boulders that will continue to crash around our ears for years to come. Quite apart from entertainers, lyricists and prophets whose voices we lost this year (I think instantly now of Leonard Cohen), more perilously we awoke þursen of intolerance, plutocracy and fascism that I cannot see being put to rest in my lifetime. I am not at all sure 2016 is the darkest time.


Here (once again) is that icon of geological patience.

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The Fire and the Knife and the Peak Experience

This blog post is fascinating, and this looks, from the lovely website, to be a great example. It would not be my intention to do down a setting so clearly that states:

…we pride ourselves on helping your little adventurers be the best they can be. Part of this shared journey involves providing appropriate risks for them to face, encouraging them to learn how to overcome them independently.

At the same time I return to the principal idea in the blog post, staring from its headline photo and title: “Our Forest School sessions have revolved around using a variety of different tools for different purposes.”  My issue is the one I raised on this blog about what Outdoor Learning is for. The farming and teaching background at Welton Free Rangers gives it a particular, and very rich slant on countryside appreciation. Their sessions are described as having “revolved around using a variety of different tools for different purposes.” In other words there is a purpose behind the sessions.

I’m not wanting to quibble here, but simply to add (for my students, whose essays on risk in Early Years are due this week) a query about the more dramatic elements of Forest School: knives, fires and the like.  Are they the essential element to Forest School? “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” … What do we ask children to do when we take them outside? do we take children out for peak experiences or something more subtle? Or is it that the week-by-week experience builds into something less instantaneous but just as momentous?  I worry that when we talk about knives and fire we diminish the slower learning that for me is at the heart of being outdoors.  “Red Fox” (Ed Harding) makes it very clear that at Welton Free Rangers time is on their side, but is spent wisely. The last lines are lyrical:

By providing the time and space for them to experience failure, to experience losing their balance, they learn to get back up, to try again, and to succeed. They will grow up stronger, and safer for it. Come on everyone. Let’s get risky.

Let the reader understand: risk is often experienced over a longer term than the immediate hazard, and the benefits are deeper than simply mastery of a tool.


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Return to…

A return to Garner country is demanded. I will confess here what Mat already knows: I dream of Ludchurch and spend a lot of sleep time in Thursbitch.

It is unfulfilled business, I guess, that takes me back. While these chaps seem to have done the things we might have I am left feeling that there is more to do, more to say. Is this because I am looking for a “safe” way of looking at the experiences we had, a tame Analytic Autoethnography (Anderson, Journal of Contemporary Ethnograph, 2006: thanks to Jon Reid for the source)? Am I just fighting shy of the overwhelmingly evocative? Would categories and Digimaps tame our experience? A lengthy quotation follows, although I would discourage this in a student essay:

Evocative autoethnographers have argued that  narrative fidelity to and compelling description of subjective emotional experiences create an emotional resonance with the reader that is the key goal of their scholarship. The genre of auto ethnographic writing that they have developed shared postmodern sensibilities—especially the skepticism toward representation of “the other” and misgivings regarding generalizing theoretical discourse. Evocative autoethnography requires considerable narrative and expressive skills..

and these are skills beyond me, or maybe the hugeness of the experience simply dwarfs my skills.

It is as if (clumsy extended metaphor alert) I foolishly took up a challenge and find the Big Thing (Garner’s translation of þurs)  bigger and more humbling than I had expected, and the Gawain quest provides a suitable framework.



In the comfort of Camelot the quest was achievable, but in Thursbitch I found something- a project, an attraction, a something that cannot be reduced to analysis. I note Garner talks about the bigness of the þurs…  So this brings me to the ambiguity of the relationship between Thursbitch and Gradbach. In Ludchurch we met up with the big, slow awesomeness of the Green Knight, but just because it is big, is this Thing the þurs? My instant reaction is to say that if Ludchurch is safe, Thursbitch is danger, the Valley of the Living Dread in Erica Wagner’s tricksy phrase,  and for me maybe Ludchurch is (as I’ve said before) masculine, and Thursbitch, feminine: Sarastro and the Queen of the Night.  Lost on the moor, in the fog, lost in the folklore, and in some hinterland of Jung and Freud… Two different big things – lots of different big things – in my mind. Continue reading

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Contains Cannibalism and Barry Manilow

This was my “trigger warning” for our Becoming a Reader class this week in which we rounded off our work on traditional tales with a rendition of The Story of the Grandmother – and the meeting at the crossroads with Bzou, the werewolf –  and a look at how culture informs our reading of a text, for which we used Copacabana.

I rather like this session: “What’s a ‘showgirl’?” “What do we understand by a ‘dress cut down to there’?” and just who did shoot who[m]?  It allows me to present the work of Hilary Janks and Mary Roche not just as ways to look at children’s reading but also at us as adults becoming readers. I am fortunate to be able to explore this further with Mat in his Reading for Pleasure MA module tonight.

Janks makes a powerful point – or set of points – here:

“…decoding is often equated with reading and is associated with functional or basic literacy….The interrogation of texts, reading against the text, is tied to critical literacy and implies that readers recognise texts as selective versions of the world; they are not subjected to them and they can imagine how texts can be transformed to represent a different set of interests.”

and if I had one wish for our third year students, or maybe even just a wish arising from this module, it would be that their time at Brookes  has allowed them to develop just this critical literacy –  that policy, just like Garner or Shakespeare or the EPPE review, can only ever present selective versions of the world. I’m not asking for cynicism, or a world in which the principal graduate attribute is becoming a Radio 4 listener – but for an engagement with ideas which asks about viewpoint and opinion and world view in a critical way.

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The Back of a Shadow

We have been looking at fatherhood and (not quite a coincidence) looking at the work of Alan Garner, and for me they came together here, in Ludchurch.




I am not going to draft out a whole history of Lud, or Ludd, or delve into the speculation the Internet loves of sun-worship and pre-Christian themes in some kind of Ur-Gawain, tempting though they are, but in trying to make sense of Ludchurch in the Garner landscapes I need at least to find a place for  Lud.

There is a useful site here for the Gawain literature, and a good ME text here.  From these I have picked out some of the points about the Green Knight.

Half etayn in erde I hope þat he were…

For wonder of his hwe men hade,
Set in his semblaunt sene;
He ferde as freke were fade,
And oueral enker-grene.

An Ettin, the other kind of giant from a þurs but clearly from the green world of magic, “he carried himself in hostile fashion,” or “as a Fay-man fell he passed.” Not someone to tangle with, his holyn bobbe in one hand, an axe in the other. The scene is about colour and movement and threat – while Ludchurch, although “oueral enker-grene” is enclosed, and (when we visited, and when the Man visits in Boneland) silent -a cultic space, not an agent.

The location of the Green Chapel has been discussed by others, including Alan Garner, and with more re-reading after visiting Ludchurch  I am drawn to its cliffs and rocks and  “knokled knarrez with knorned stonez.”    In Gawain it is a place of an evil cult, maybe more than an echo of un-Christian practice.

Here my[gh]t aboute mydny[gh]t
Þe dele his matynnes telle!
‘Now iwysse,’ quoþ Wowayn, ‘wysty is here;
Þis oritore is vgly, with erbez ouergrowen;
Wel bisemez þe wy[gh]e wruxled in grene
Dele here his deuocioun on þe deuelez wyse.
Now I fele hit is þe fende, in my fyue wyttez,
Þat hatz stoken me þis steuen to strye me here.
Þis is a chapel of meschaunce, þat chekke hit bytyde!
Hit is þe corsedest kyrk þat euer I com inne!’

But in this place, and from the encounter with the half-Ettin Bertilak -and through the magic of the powerful Morgan –

(“Þe maystrés of Merlyn”…”Weldez non so hy[gh]e hawtesse
Þat ho ne con make ful tame–“)

– Gawain learns his lesson.

Do we meet in the Green Man a father principally as instructor and law-giver?  And where does this father “sit”? I began to speculate on the landscape way back in my research proposal in 2010; perhaps I was too glib to write earlier about ” the world of the dad, not the desert of the Patriarch”? To move into my present concern for Alan Garner’s real-and-mythic landscape, how does an author concerned with real places manage their mythology while keeping them recognisable, in some sense “true”?


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