Reading at Work: Great Literature (with Pooh)

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Three Great Books for Reading at Work

Last week I spent a rare and lovely couple of hours reading with colleagues who are working on The Reader’s Shared Reading North West team.  This is a huge piece of work, funded in part by NESTA, to test and learn from that test practice, about scaling Shared Reading. The team have tough targets to meet and a lot of responsibility: their work is helping shape the future of The Reader. They  must find volunteers to lead Shared Reading groups,  recruit them, train them, help them set up and then move on to the next batch  of recruits. We don’t have the right tools yet – they are in development, too, so all  in all, it’s  a tough gig. A number of the team have  been with the organisation a good while: they’ve seen plenty of changes.  I’d brought a few things with me that I thought they might enjoy or find  helpful.

First, the  wonderful, scary and uplifting ‘I am Henry Finch’ (by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz), which I’d chosen because I’d just discovered it and was desperate to share, but also because it is a book about the power of thought.

finch1

Life was simple with finches – every day the same mind-numbing routine chatter, though with the odd (we try to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t happen) terrible bit:

finch2.jpg

 

Reading at work is a wonderful thing. Suddenly the book exists in another dimension. In home life you’d almost certainly be reading this with a child, whereas here I was, sitting round a boardroom table with  eight adults in the middle of a serious and difficult work project.

Good Morning Good Morning Good Morning say the Finches, trying to remain normal at all times.  But Henry’s experience of the Beast changes normal forever. All of this is a work story, and you can make the beast whatever beastly thing is troubling you. We particularly enjoyed  the Finches  traditional reaction to the Beast, so recognisable.

finch3

The next part of the programme was chosen for an even closer affinity to working life. This is the chapter in The House at Poo Corner  by A.A. Milne, when  Poo and Piglet go to visit Owl on a blusterous day, Owls tree falls down and they are all trapped, sidewise, inside what was once Owl’s house.

Sounds like one of those working days, doesn’t it? With  everything where it wasn’t, someone must act but before someone can act, someone must think. Thinking takes place. Scary. Poo asks Owl,

“Could you fly up to the letter-box with Piglet on your back?” he asked.

“No,” said Piglet quickly. “He couldn’t.”

Owl explained about the Necessary Dorsal Muscles…

“Because you see, Owl, if we could get Piglet into the letter-box, he might squeeze through the place where the letters come, and climb down the tree and run for help.”

Piglet said hurriedly that he had been getting bigger lately, and couldn’t possibly, much as he wold like to, and Owl said that he had had his letter-box made bigger lately in case  he got bigger letters, so perhaps Piglet might…

Change management! Poor old Piglet’s job description is changing before our eyes. We now need you to be hoisted up  by a bit of string and to…

I’d thought we’d all enjoy a laugh and small-scale recognition of  the way problems  often emerge (unexpectedly! Who knew the house would go sideways!) and how solving them rarely feels great – usually feels more seat-of-the-pants terrifying.  Which we did.  But the thing that was really striking was the distance between the actual experience of the task (escape from Owl’s blown down house) which is  worrying and  tentative and could go badly wrong, to the  account of it given later, by Poo, in a laudatory song, generously ascribing the original idea to Piglet himself:

Then Piglet (PIGLET) thought a thing:
“Courage!” he said. “There’s always hope.
I want a thinnish piece of rope.
Or, if there isn’t any bring
A thickish piece of string.

So to the letter-box he rose,
While Pooh and Owl said “Oh!”
and “Hum!”
And where the letters always come
(Called “LETTERS ONLY”) Piglet sqoze
His head and then his toes.

Great Myths of the workplace! Yet it was Piglet, who, trembling and blinching, did indeed go up on that piece of string.

By the time we’d read  these two works of Great Literature, our brains and hearts were primed for something serious.

I’d brought ‘Once Only’ by Denise Levertov, because I’d just read it, and because I thought we might want something serious as well and because it didn’t connect to work, to our tasks, only to being human. I’d thought, it will be good to have some time being simply human together.  I don’t have time to write about it today, but here it is and I’ll pick up here next time.

Once Only

All which, because it was
flame and song and granted us
joy, we thought we’d do, be, revisit,
turns out to have been what it was
that once, only; every initiation
did not begin
a series, a build-up: the marvelous
did happen in our lives, our stories
are not drab with its absense: but don’t
expect now to return for more.  Whatever more
there will be will be
unique as those were unique. Try
to acknowledge the next
song in its body-halo of flames as utterly
present, as now or never.

‘Once Only’ By Denise Levertov, from COLLECTED EARLIER POEMS 1940-1960, copyright ©1957 by Denise Levertov. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

The Winter’s Tale Day 6: Is Something Up?

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Euphorbia  ‘Black Pearl’ springing into beauty, March 26

Last time, we’d got a little way into Act 1 Scene ii, with Leontes, King of Sicilia,  trying to persuade his childhood friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, who has been on an extended visit to the court of  Sicilia, to stay longer. Polixenes seems pretty set on leaving.

In my opening sessions I’d noticed some words which had given me  cause for concern – ‘if the King had no heir’  in particular – but nothing has yet happened to make  these more than  very slight, almost sub-atomic alarms.  All seems well.

I’d want to pick up the reading and get another goodish rush at it and get some rhythm going, even at the expense of meaning – wait, wait. The meaning  will come eventually. Just get the feel.

 

LEONTES
Stay your thanks a while;
And pay them when you part.
POLIXENES
Sir, that’s to-morrow.
I am question’d by my fears, of what may chance
Or breed upon our absence; that may blow
No sneaping winds at home, to make us say
‘This is put forth too truly:’ besides, I have stay’d
To tire your royalty.
LEONTES
We are tougher, brother,
Than you can put us to’t.
POLIXENES
No longer stay.
LEONTES
One seven-night longer.
POLIXENES
Very sooth, to-morrow.
LEONTES
We’ll part the time between’s then; and in that
I’ll no gainsaying.
POLIXENES
Press me not, beseech you, so.
There is no tongue that moves, none, none i’ the world,
So soon as yours could win me: so it should now,
Were there necessity in your request, although
‘Twere needful I denied it. My affairs
Do even drag me homeward: which to hinder
Were in your love a whip to me; my stay
To you a charge and trouble: to save both,
Farewell, our brother.
LEONTES
Tongue-tied, our queen?
speak you.

I’d ask my group to imagine two old boyhood friends in a slight argument – are we seeing a  bit of arm-wrestling? I get that from Leontes lines, ‘We are tougher, brother,/Than you can put us to’t.’ This feels slightly aggressive,  perhaps mildly so, but I don’t think you’d mention your toughness if you weren’t feeling a little the need for it. but I’m rushing ahead!

When Polixenes explains why he must leave, he first gives a reasonable political reason:

I am question’d by my fears, of what may chance
Or breed upon our absence; that may blow
No sneaping winds at home, to make us say
‘This is put forth too truly:’

A literal translation into contemporary English might read: I’m worried about what could be going on at home. ‘Sneap’ means rebuke so  I think that second part must mean, ‘am worried that something may happen which would make me think that hints I should return to govern my  country may  have been true…’ Slight worry, what if it had a basis in fact?

So far, so sensible.  But then he adds what might be a throwaway politeness: ‘besides I have stay’d/ To tire your royalty.’

Is it throwaway?  Leontes now responds with his ‘I am tough’ thought.

Has Polixenes really tired him? Is something wrong? Are they -while all seems fine of the surface – really beginning to tire? to fall out? Now the arm-wrestling really does begin:

POLIXENES
No longer stay.
LEONTES
One seven-night longer.
POLIXENES
Very sooth, to-morrow.
LEONTES
We’ll part the time between’s then; and in that
I’ll no gainsaying.
POLIXENES
Press me not, beseech you, so.

Let them be  playing – arm-wrestling, playing table tennis, play boxing. Just while we imagine it. Get the feeling of that back-and-forth into the room. But now the rhythm changes as Polixenes seems to think more seriously about  what or who might persuade him to stay:

There is no tongue that moves, none, none i’ the world,
So soon as yours could win me: so it should now,
Were there necessity in your request, although
‘Twere needful I denied it. My affairs
Do even drag me homeward: which to hinder
Were in your love a whip to me; my stay
To you a charge and trouble: to save both,
Farewell, our brother.

There seems the possibility of real love in this belief that there  is no tongue that could win him ‘so soon as yours’. That’s one bit of what Polixenes says. But what follows: a second thought which remembers the business of being King : ‘Were there necessity in your request, although/’Twere needful I denied it. ‘

I think that means that  if Leontes has a good reason to plead with him to stay, he would, even though  he needs to go home.

I notice that there are mixed feelings here: that the feelings move thick and fast – are they really close friends? Could any thing cause them to fall out?  Does Leontes really want  Polixenes to stay? I look more closely at the language:

My affairs
Do even drag me homeward: which to hinder
Were in your love a whip to me; my stay
To you a charge and trouble:

Polixenes does not want to go, his business, affairs of state, are what drag him away. Hindering that movement makes an act of love painful – Leontes may  think he is keeping him   out  of love, but staying is hurting Polixenes.  Is it true that his staying is to Leontes a ‘charge and trouble’ ? Is that  a thing we say – I’m putting you to trouble? Or is it a get-out?

All these microscopically slow reading decisions must be made in a flexible way – we’ve got to be able to change our minds later as things unfold. As in life we do.That’s one of the great things about reading Shakespeare: it requires this practise of flexible attention.

And now, suddenly, Leontes, apparently out of the blue turns to his wife, Hermione, who so far we’ve not noticed:

LEONTES
Tongue-tied, our queen?
speak you.

Again, a slight air of menace or up-for-a-fight? Why not, ‘Hermione? Cn you persuade him?’ Leontes words feel abrupt. Surely if we’d said ‘tongue tied, Jane?’ in ordinary colloquial language we’d mean – I’d expect you to have something to say on this’. It’s a small-scale accusation.

You might think this is too slow as a way of reading. Are we really going to discuss every word, intonation, possibility?  I hope we are! Because this is what makes the reading our own, rather than what someone else says it is. We work out what it means, word by word,  inch by inch.  We do the work.

As in life we do. In real life we have sometimes to pick up deep and extended meanings from small words. Judging someone’s character in a trial or in a job interview or on a first date or by their email… each word may hint something. May, or may not. We do well to read them carefully, always remembering we might be wrong.

I’d ask my group now to reread this scene so far, all of it, in one reading, then to think again: what just happened, and what do you think of these two men? Then we’d  note in pencil what we thought, ready to rub it out, if necessary, as time unfolds. Actually what happens in life – speakig for myself anyway – is that we write in pen. Awfully hard to rub out later, when you change your mind!

 

Paradise Lost 18: Flag-Waving As An Antidote to Fear

daffodils 25 march
Spring Flowers 25 March

You may have heard Ian Mackellen and others in a R4 adaptation  of Paradise Lost  by the poet Michael Symmonds Roberts.  If not, find it here.  I haven’t listened yet but  like MSR’s poetry so am looking forward to hearing what he has done with this great poem.

What I am doing with it is reading it, a few lines at a time, often in a weekly instalments.

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

You’ll find a good online text here.

Last time, we’d got to the point where Satan was rousing his rebel army, with ‘semblance of worth, not substance’ and I’d been thinking about  mass psychology and how humans are so roused, by  loud empty noise from assertive types. As the standard is raised, those fallen angels all start jumping up, wanting to be in the band. Of course, I’m thinking of fascism and other flag waving. Could be any of us, getting up there, wanting to join.  Which makes me think about the responsibility to educate ourselves and each other and our children.

To get going today I’m reading this chunk, aloud, slow, and finding the rhythm by going for punctuation, not line endings. (There’s an ellipted -missed-out- pronoun, ‘he’ in the opening line here, after ‘strait’) :

Then strait commands that at the warlike sound
Of Trumpets loud and Clarions be upreard
His mighty Standard; that proud honour claim’d
Azazel as his right, a Cherube tall:
Who forthwith from the glittering Staff unfurld [ 535 ]
Th’ Imperial Ensign, which full high advanc’t
Shon like a Meteor streaming to the Wind
With Gemms and Golden lustre rich imblaz’d,
Seraphic arms and Trophies: all the while
Sonorous mettal blowing Martial sounds: [ 540 ]
At which the universal Host upsent
A shout that tore Hells Concave, and beyond
Frighted the Reign of Chaos and old Night.

Hhm,  a piece of epic spectacle, rich with trumpets and flags to rouse emotion, which it does. The fallen angels assert their waking to action by a mighty shout and then :

All in a moment through the gloom were seen
Ten thousand Banners rise into the Air [ 545 ]
With Orient Colours waving: with them rose
A Forest huge of Spears: and thronging Helms
Appear’d, and serried shields in thick array
Of depth immeasurable: Anon they move
In perfect Phalanx to the Dorian mood [ 550 ]
Of Flutes and soft Recorders; such as rais’d
To hight of noblest temper Hero’s old
Arming to Battel, and in stead of rage
Deliberate valour breath’d, firm and unmov’d
With dread of death to flight or foul retreat, [ 555 ]
Nor wanting power to mitigate and swage
With solemn touches, troubl’d thoughts, and chase
Anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain
From mortal or immortal minds.

This is interesting – instead of rage, they are moved by ‘deliberate valour’. Which maybe undercuts my sense that this is emotional? But no, I don’t think so.  Unlike the Barbarian hordes, screaming out  of the northern mist,  raging, these are the ordered and choreographed ranks modern armies. Yet this careful and controlled movement is only allowed because of the emotion – we join in, we sublimate ourselves to the mass. And what kind of emotion is it? It is the fear of pain.

Deliberate valour breath’d, firm and unmov’d
With dread of death to flight or foul retreat, [ 555 ]
Nor wanting power to mitigate and swage
With solemn touches, troubl’d thoughts, and chase
Anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain
From mortal or immortal minds.

It is the emotion of assertion against pain, against ‘anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain’. What an astonishing line of poetry, with those ‘ands’ repeating and repeating, as if you’d never be able to banish those feelings.and look where the emotive barbarian horde action has gone – into the word ‘ chase’!  Those massed ranks, moving in complete inhuman mechanistic motion are an emotional reaction, while they move stiffly, deliberate with their arms held high, are chasing ‘anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain’.

I see, among other horrors,  the Nazis and the Red Army, but does Milton see Oliver Cromwell’s army?

Thus they
Breathing united force with fixed thought [ 560 ]
Mov’d on in silence to soft Pipes that charm’d
Thir painful steps o’re the burnt soyle; and now
Advanc’t in view, they stand, a horrid Front
Of dreadful length and dazling Arms, in guise
Of Warriers old with order’d Spear and Shield, [ 565 ]
Awaiting what command thir mighty Chief
Had to impose: He through the armed Files
Darts his experienc’t eye, and soon traverse
The whole Battalion views, thir order due,
Thir visages and stature as of Gods, [ 570 ]
Thir number last he summs.

‘Breathing united force with fixed thought’ –  certainly Milton had the picture of a well-trained, mechanised army in mind. they become one obedient creature. Breathing as one.  Thinking as one. How do we know Milton does not admire this army?  The word ‘charm’d’.  They are actually suffering  foul and permanent burning here as they walk over the ground of hell, but they don’t know that, being ‘charm’d’.

And now his heart
Distends with pride, and hardning in his strength
Glories: For never since created man,
Met such imbodied force, as nam’d with these
Could merit more then that small infantry [ 575 ]
Warr’d on by Cranes: though all the Giant brood
Of Phlegra with th’ Heroic Race were joyn’d
That fought at Theb’s and Ilium, on each side
Mixt with auxiliar Gods; and what resounds
In Fable or Romance of Uthers Son [ 580 ]
Begirt with British and Armoric Knights;
And all who since, Baptiz’d or Infidel
Jousted in Aspramont or Montalban,
Damasco, or Marocco, or Trebisond,
Or whom Biserta sent from Afric shore [ 585 ]
When Charlemain with all his Peerage fell
By Fontarabbia.

Another list of things I don’t know about and could look up and might look up if I had but world enough and time. But I don’t. The Dartmouth edition has all the footnotes. But I’m just reading the main clause:

And now his heart
Distends with pride, and hardning in his strength
Glories

Pride comes both before and after the fall. He can’t get away from it. Look at the clever human analysis: physical thing, heart, distended and  made strong, hardens.  It’s emotional.  Ouch. The rigidity of  pride. The glory of those flag-waving,  weapon parading marches. And while  I note that nothing in human history has matched this army, it’s the next bit I’m interested in. Tho’ am afraid will have to read this next week, as the garden, in sunlight, beckons.

Thus far these beyond
Compare of mortal prowess, yet observ’d
Thir dread commander: he above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent [ 590 ]
Stood like a Towr; his form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear’d
Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th’ excess
Of Glory obscur’d: As when the Sun new ris’n
Looks through the Horizontal misty Air [ 595 ]
Shorn of his Beams, or from behind the Moon
In dim Eclips disastrous twilight sheds
On half the Nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes Monarchs. Dark’n’d so, yet shon
Above them all th’ Arch Angel: but his face [ 600 ]
Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold [ 605 ]
The fellows of his crime, the followers rather
(Far other once beheld in bliss) condemn’d
For ever now to have thir lot in pain,
Millions of Spirits for his fault amerc’t
Of Heav’n, and from Eternal Splendors flung [ 610 ]
For his revolt, yet faithfull how they stood,
Thir Glory witherd.

 

Trying to Get Better at my Handiwork

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Hhm, you’re going to have to undo this one…

Confidence, trust, belief. These are core necessaries for a creative life, even a crazy destructive one with life-threatening flaws. When Billie Holiday was singing, when Jimi Hendrix played, they had confidence, trust, belief in their handiwork. It was off stage, when not performing, that they crumbled. They felt bad when not in the creative moment. Perhaps, I don’t know,  they also felt bad in the creative moment but if so, something else was also present which overpowered the bad feeling and made them – watch them perform – feel great.

Members of Shared Reading groups often report ‘increased confidence’  but I ask  myself what is meant by that? It feels like the  word itself hides a wooly concept that I can’t quite bring into focus. When I look it up in the Etymological Dictionary I learn that word originally had to do with trusting another person and only  later became about trusting oneself:

c. 1400, “assurance or belief in the good will, veracity, etc. of another,” from Old French confidence or directly from Latin confidentia, from confidentem (nominative confidens) “firmly trusting, bold,” present participle of confidere “to have full trust or reliance,” from assimilated form of com, here probably an intensive prefix (see com-), + fidere “to trust” (from PIE root *bheidh- “to trust, confide, persuade”).

From mid-15c. as “reliance on one’s own powers, resources, or circumstances, self-assurance.”

Interesting to see that the three words I started with are all here. These things are about a stance in relation to experience: when we  have little trust and don’t believe good will happen then it is hard to face the problems life throws at us with confidence. But if we start with “assurance or belief in the good will, veracity, etc. of another,” then we are  more likely to develop “reliance on one’s own powers, resources, or circumstances, self-assurance.”.  It can work the other way: learning to trust yourself can lead to learning to trust others.

Whatever ‘confidence’ is, or stands for, it is vital for resilience, for  the ability to keep going in the face of failure, defeat, hard knocks. How to I know? I know from my own mistakes and down-falls.  And so as not to go too deeply, too publicly, into the really terrible mistakes,  I turn your attention to my handiwork. My crochet. Which is a metaphor for other more important handiwork: relationship with family, friends, work. Myself. Human makings. And, as my mentor said, oh dear.

But first, let’s read a poem.  I’ve written about George Herbert’s Elixir here before (search The Elixir  or George Herbert in the box to the right) but it’s always worth re-reading. Remember, I’m not a Christian and I have to translate whatever GH means into something I can understand. The key problem for me at the outset is  to make ‘my God and King’ into something real.  I mentally cross Herbert’s words out and think ‘teach me blurry x shaped hole that means fine, whole, overwhelmingly powerful force for good  in the universe’ Not as concise as Herbert’s formulation, I think you’ll agree. Much simpler if I could just use the word ‘God’.

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.

Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.

All may of Thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture—”for Thy sake”—
Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.

The lines I wanted to think about today are:

Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.

I like this reminder that very small, apparently insignificant things count and become good, or even great, when done well or with loving good will.  The room is fine but so is the action of sweeping. But I notice now that the first word of this poem is its key word, ‘teach’. You have to learn this stuff! It don’t come natural. That’s certainly true for me.

And now I’m thinking about how, in the beginning,  learning is completely natural…

Baby: watching everything, trying  and failing, observing, copying, trying, failing, trying again, experimenting, trying again.

Adult: not trying and not learning.

What on earth has happened? We lose the willingness to make mistakes, and for a variety of reasons.

To return to my crochet.

Hmm. When my mentor held the square(ish) artefact pictured above in her outstretched fingers and examined my work with a critical eye I was transported to the many appalling lessons in Domestic Science (cookery, needlework) I endured or caused havoc in  between the ages of the 11-15.  They were always telling me I’d have to undo it.

Whatever I’d done, to be frank with you, it was usually a mess.  I didn’t mind the mess, but I hated being told off for it and I resented scruffy the look of my handiwork in their hands, criticised, misunderstood, unloved.  Of course, even then, the handiwork was a metaphor, wasn’t it, for me?

When my mentor stretched out the holey mess of my crochet,  I knew what she was going to say, as my stomach churned in memory of school,  but I also felt pleased, even glad. Yes, she was right, I would have to undo it  and do it again.  It was, I had to concede, pretty bad.  I had pulled the wool over my own eyes by telling myself in a childish way that it wouldn’t matter, but as soon as I saw her holding it, I knew it did matter and that I would have to do it again.  This is confidence.

Where did the confidence come from?  This is a confidence I had never had at school, which meant I could not learn at school and no one could teach me (a couple of  English teachers excepted). I think it came from  knowing I have in the past tried to fix things and sometimes succeeded (and not just this, other, more serious things).

Also, from knowing that the mistake wasnt a serious one – it’s only crochet!

Also, that as my mentor said, she’d learned from experience, blankets generally work out.

Also, that I can live with making things that are slightly wonky. (I’m the opposite of a perfectionist and find  ‘it’ll do’ is mostly a life-enhancing motto).

I had confidence because I  could bear the shame of making a mess of it, because it wasn’t serious and because I  believed I could probably more or less fix it.

But what if it had been more serious – if my mentor had been  finding gaping holes in the way I run The Reader?  Or the way I’ve brought my children up, or care for my  relatives?  The shame of not having done something well in those cases is tightly bound up in my sense of self and of self-achievement, in my own estimation of who I am. It’s hard to take criticism when it seems to get to the heart of you.

But why? Don’t I still need to learn ?

The holes need unpicking.  You have to start again.  And that’s  where confidence, trust, belief matter.  To accept the criticism – there really is a hole there and it really does matter – you have to have the confidence that  you can have a go at getting it fixed. When the hole is in your self, sometimes that is hard to believe.

At those times, I like to read  The Slip by Wendell Berry  – particularly  these lines:

Where the imperfect has departed, the perfect
begins its struggle to return.

I do believe in the possibility of ‘the perfect’, and I keep trying to clear the imperfect (yes, yes, often very imperfectly in the more serious areas) to make way for something better. In this case, a better, though far-from-perfect and not-quite-square:

crochet 1

The Winter’s Tale Day 5: Shaking Up The Kaleidoscope

kaleidoscope
Shifting possibilities of the Kaleidoscope

I starting reading Shakespeare here  (i) because I miss reading Shakespeare (ii) as a way of reminding people who run Shared Reading groups that Shakespeare can and should be read  and (iii) to celebrate ten years of the Shakespeare Reading group which  currently meets in Birkenhead library.

I started reading The Winter’s Tale because it is  my favourite play. Why? Because it is the story of a life that for no accountable reason  gets broken – breaks itself – and then has wait a  long time to get going again. This is my subject matter, a very real, very normal sort of  story, and I imagine lots of people will recognise its  outline.

Find a full text here. Search  for previous posting using the search box to the right and enter The Winter’s Tale.

We’re at scene ii.

SCENE II. A room of state in the same.

Enter LEONTES, HERMIONE, MAMILLIUS, POLIXENES, CAMILLO, and Attendants

In a group, I’d begin by a longish read through, which we’re going to miss here, which is a shame.  There’s a great rhythm to this scene, and you need to feel some of that, the back and forth between people, the switching from formal to informal, from State Occasion to personal aside.

You might want to have a video/online performance to  watch too. I’d save that for after you’ve done your own reading: I want my readers to know they can make decisions about how to put on the play, how to realise its meaning,  before accepting someone else’s version. Though, having done that, it’s great to see how other minds do animate the words. The Winter’s Tale is on at Shakespeare’s Globe later this year : plan your trip!

So explain to your group that you are not going to stop every minute, that there’ll be things which are incomprehensible, that we’re just trying to get the drift, that we’ll come back.  Your main job is to reassure people that they are going to enjoy it once it gets going, and they don’t need to worry.

I’d read down to the moment Polixenes agrees to stay (sorry this text has no line numbers!):

POLIXENES
Your guest, then, madam:
To be your prisoner should import offending;
Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.
HERMIONE
Not your gaoler, then,
But your kind hostess.

This gives us a good run and chance to feel the rhythm even if  we don’t get a lot of the meaning. We can go back.

I’d notice the stage directions – it is a room of state. This is perhaps to be set up as a state occasion. I’d ask my group to think about ways to make a set – we’ll keep coming back to this, because I want to imagine we are putting this play on, and that helps at times when we are trying to understand that a character is saying – so we’ll talk about  using a  traditional ‘shakespearian’ style or modern, and perhaps about what any of us might have experienced that is a bit like a state visit. When Aunty Barbara came over from Australia…planned for years, and too long in the happening.

Finally, I’d want to do something about the names – they are particularly off-putting in this play –  so maybe make a list to keep track of who is who and  what they are to anybody else. You won’t need it for a more than a couple of weeks.

Polixenes, then is the visiting King, the King of Bohemia.  When he begins he sets off in the most pompous language of the play:

POLIXENES
Nine changes of the watery star hath been
The shepherd’s note since we have left our throne
Without a burthen: time as long again
Would be find up, my brother, with our thanks;
And yet we should, for perpetuity,
Go hence in debt: and therefore, like a cipher,
Yet standing in rich place, I multiply
With one ‘We thank you’ many thousands moe
That go before it.
LEONTES
Stay your thanks a while;
And pay them when you part.

Your books will have notes. It’s a good idea to use them – sparingly. But someone will be able to read the note and tell everyone that ‘the watery star’ means the moon. Take your time here, in Polixenes opening lines, because you want everyone in the group to think : this was incomprehensible but actually I do understand it. Use the punctuation as clues for stopping/units of possible sense.

Nine changes of the watery star hath been
The shepherd’s note since we have left our throne
Without a burthen:

literally translate: nine changes of the moon have been noted by  shepherds since I left my country:

time as long again
Would be find up, my brother, with our thanks;
And yet we should, for perpetuity,
Go hence in debt:

I could spend  nine months saying ‘thank you’ but still leave in your debt (I can’t thank you enough! a group member might offer)

and therefore, like a cipher,
Yet standing in rich place, I multiply
With one ‘We thank you’ many thousands moe
That go before it.

‘Cipher’ is interesting (look it up here) and this is a joke about zeros on the end of numbers,  weirdly, zero makes  the number more.  But I also find the idea of nothing or zero  a bit worrying too. Is he nothing?  Can anyone be nothing? But that is a fleeting thought, before we are on to the rest of the meaning and the ordinary… Leontes responding rather tersely, as if interrupting,

LEONTES
Stay your thanks a while;
And pay them when you part.

I might use this moment to try to get some play with the words, to see how  timing matters, how tone of voice. I might ask group members to read with different speeds of cross-over between the two actors, asking Leontes to respond kindly, aggressively, casually, carelessly, formally.

I multiply
With one ‘We thank you’ many thousands moe
That go before it.
LEONTES
Stay your thanks a while;
And pay them when you part.

All these possibilities  must be available to us as we read. And it is that, the tumbling kaleidoscope of possibility that makes reading Shakespeare so rewarding. Thousands of possibilities and the opportunity to use your mind on as many of them as you like.

Silas Marner Day 39: Truth, Lies & Life before psychology was invented

muscari
Muscari March 18

The women in Silas Marner  (full text here) are humans who struggle under the  difficulty of not being emancipated in different ways: Eppie’s drug-addicted mother Molly, the scrub-polish-make-bake-and-run-your-household-like-an-army Dolly Winthrop, and here, Nancy Lammeter. She is somewhat educated, but for no purpose, and having  no children, her days are emptier than  her childed sister’s, her  consciousness left to ruminate on  what seem at first to be the smallest  and least significant of things.

What I get interested in here, as I read about Nancy, is how the author, George Eliot, an exceptionally well (self) educated woman of immense intelligence imagines the movements of the human mind. This is psychology before William James, before Freud.

Watch the way we go in and in:

Her mind not being courted by a great variety of subjects, she filled the vacant moments by living inwardly, again and again, through all her remembered experience, especially through the fifteen years of her married time, in which her life and its significance had been doubled.

Nancy’s like a  woman in prison, imprisoned in her life. There is no stimulation, only repetitive reflection on her ‘remembered experience’. But what else is there for her mind to dwell on? Having little external stimulation, she must live ‘inwardly’. The only subject matter of  depth she has is her relationship with her husband.  At First we have no idea what Nancy is going to think about.  Only very gladually do we  dig down the the realiy of what is bothering her.

She recalled the small details, the words, tones, and looks, in the critical scenes which had opened a new epoch for her by giving her a deeper insight into the relations and trials of life, or which had called on her for some little effort of forbearance, or of painful adherence to an imagined or real duty– asking herself continually whether she had been in any respect blamable.

She won’t say – Nancy won’t think, won’t put into words – whatever it is we are talking about. we’re going roundthe houses.

At the same time as George Eliot is observing this action of a mind turned in on itself, she’s also noting that this is a kind of norm. This is likely, in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, to be the lot of a middle class woman: inwardness, self-judging, obsessive, the mind pacing like a caged polar bear, in its too-small arena:

This excessive rumination and self-questioning is perhaps a morbid habit inevitable to a mind of much moral sensibility when shut out from its due share of outward activity and of practical claims on its affections–inevitable to a noble-hearted, childless woman, when her lot is narrow.

Later, George Eliot will pick up this idea in the persons of other women  – the Aunts’ Glegg in Mill on the Floss, obsessed with the designs of their china and muslin, the only choices they have really had, Romola, who comes to massive life  through calls from without in a national tragedy in the novel of her name, Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. For an under-occupied childless man of a similar class there was study, Darwinian collecting, politics, horses, gambling or  other dissipations. For a woman? The mind turning in on itself:

“I can do so little–have I done it all well?” is the perpetually recurring thought; and there are no voices calling her away from that soliloquy, no peremptory demands to divert energy from vain regret or superfluous scruple.

I notice now that George Eliot doesn’t seem quite to be talking about Nancy.  She has looked up from the story, from the character  she’s writing about, to  think on a more generalised level about laws of being.  She’s taken an example, but drawing a wider conclusion. ‘And there are no voices calling her away from that soliloquy’  The pronoun ‘her’ in that sentence is not simply referring to Nancy.

But now we turn back to Nancy, and see some of the precise and particular moments of Nancy’s particular experience, and uncover something painful and hard to admit:

There was one main thread of painful experience in Nancy’s married life, and on it hung certain deeply-felt scenes, which were the oftenest revived in retrospect. The short dialogue with Priscilla in the garden had determined the current of retrospect in that frequent direction this particular Sunday afternoon. The first wandering of her thought from the text, which she still attempted dutifully to follow with her eyes and silent lips, was into an imaginary enlargement of the defence she had set up for her husband against Priscilla’s implied blame. The vindication of the loved object is the best balm affection can find for its wounds:–“A man must have so much on his mind,” is the belief by which a wife often supports a cheerful face under rough answers and unfeeling words. And Nancy’s deepest wounds had all come from the perception that the absence of children from their hearth was dwelt on in her husband’s mind as a privation to which he could not reconcile himself.

Oh dear.  Her sister finds fault with Godfrey because Godfrey is not happy about having no children – that was the conversation in the garden. I wonder, does he blame Nancy? ‘The vindication of the loved object is the best balm affection can find for its wounds’ Sounds like  she is wounded, and wounded by the loved object – Godfrey – she now defends. He cannot ‘reconcile’ himself to no children. How does that make her feel?

But of course we, unlike Nancy,  know that one of the drivers for Godfrey’s inability to reconcile himself is the fact that he has a child, a child he  cannot acknowledge, and that child lives with Silas Marner, in the village outside Godfrey’s house. Godfrey  has seen his daughter every week at church for the last ten, twelve, fourteen years.

Nancy, imagining and feeling her way through this complex  and  not entirely known emotional situation, has only part of the story.  She makes excuses for her husband but retains  great control over her own emotional life:

Yet sweet Nancy might have been expected to feel still more keenly the denial of a blessing to which she had looked forward with all the varied expectations and preparations, solemn and prettily trivial, which fill the mind of a loving woman when she expects to become a mother. Was there not a drawer filled with the neat work of her hands, all unworn and untouched, just as she had arranged it there fourteen years ago–just, but for one little dress, which had been made the burial-dress? But under this immediate personal trial Nancy was so firmly unmurmuring, that years ago she had suddenly renounced the habit of visiting this drawer, lest she should in this way be cherishing a longing for what was not given.

Did I not notice it before or have I only just learned that Nancy had indeed had a baby but  that baby had died?

I  read back and realise that this is the first I’ve heard of Nancy’s lost baby. Here is the  information, packed away in the drawer, at the centre of the emotional  problem. There was a burial dress, and that burial dress memory is the clue to Nancy’s loss and her somewhat rigid reaction to it:

years ago she had suddenly renounced the habit of visiting this drawer, lest she should in this way be cherishing a longing for what was not given –

She is religious, and desires to do and be right. Other children have not been ‘given’, and she believes it would be wrong of her to long for them. Therefore she denies herself  the possible comfort of looking at the baby clothes.  This is sad and possibly self-damamging.

I find myself thinking back to Silas’ trauma and wondering  what connections may lie between these two very different people. Silas’ cutting himself off feels much more animalistic – he retreated to a cave to lick his wounds and got stuck there, licking,  for ever, til Eppie wandered into his life.  Nancy’s response to her trauma seems more controlled but is it? ‘years ago she had suddenly renounced the habit’ –  is that control or a desperate measure to prevent pain?

Now, having opened the drawer with  the baby clothes in it, we get to see the lost baby and other potential children, too, as the problem at the centre of the problem is slowly revealed: a years’ experienced psychotherapist could not have done it better:

Perhaps it was this very severity towards any indulgence of what she held to be sinful regret in herself, that made her shrink from applying her own standard to her husband. “It is very different– it is much worse for a man to be disappointed in that way: a woman can always be satisfied with devoting herself to her husband, but a man wants something that will make him look forward more–and sitting by the fire is so much duller to him than to a woman.”

And always, when Nancy reached this point in her meditations–trying, with predetermined sympathy, to see everything as Godfrey saw it– there came a renewal of self-questioning. _Had_ she done everything in her power to lighten Godfrey’s privation? Had she really been right in the resistance which had cost her so much pain six years ago, and again four years ago–the resistance to her husband’s wish that they should adopt a child?

Now, like the lost baby, we find another layer of secret pain – the marital battle over adoption. Godfrey has wanted to adopt and she has resisted that idea. Twice. He longs for a child.  That she knows.  Of course she questions herself. Has she done what she can to make him happy? Everything but agree to adoption.

The question for Nancy, as she meditates over her Bible, is  did she really do her duty by refusing to adopt a child when her husband told her he wanted to do so?

    Had she really been right in the resistance which had cost her so much pain six years ago, and again four years ago–the resistance to her husband’s wish that they should adopt a child? Adoption was more remote from the ideas and habits of that time than of our own; still Nancy had her opinion on it. It was as necessary to her mind to have an opinion on all topics, not exclusively masculine, that had come under her notice, as for her to have a precisely marked place for every article of her personal property: and her opinions were always principles to be unwaveringly acted on. They were firm, not because of their basis, but because she held them with a tenacity inseparable from her mental action. On all the duties and proprieties of life, from filial behaviour to the arrangements of the evening toilette, pretty Nancy Lammeter, by the time she was three-and-twenty, had her unalterable little code, and had formed every one of her habits in strict accordance with that code.

When we read the first sentence we are reading  in Nancy’s own voice,

  Had she really been right in the resistance which had cost her so much pain six years ago, and again four years ago–the resistance to her husband’s wish that they should adopt a child?

But then something odd happens, and we suddenly find ourselves  seeing Nancy’s decision from outside herself. Dutiful she may be, by she’s also rigid, perhaps life-denyingly so:

Adoption was more remote from the ideas and habits of that time than of our own; still Nancy had her opinion on it. It was as necessary to her mind to have an opinion on all topics, not exclusively masculine, that had come under her notice, as for her to have a precisely marked place for every article of her personal property: and her opinions were always principles to be unwaveringly acted on.

George Eliot finds something appalling in this:  ‘opinion’, ‘precisely’ ‘every’ ‘unwaveringly’; all these words colour the sentences above and show us that Nancy is  limiting her self and her possible reactions by her inflexible sticking to what come down to  – not thoughts, not feelings but opinions. How  thin ‘opinions’ feel as a basis for life.

They were firm, not because of their basis, but because she held them with a tenacity inseparable from her mental action. On all the duties and proprieties of life, from filial behaviour to the arrangements of the evening toilette, pretty Nancy Lammeter, by the time she was three-and-twenty, had her unalterable little code, and had formed every one of her habits in strict accordance with that code.

Some terrible words alert me to a judgement being made by author: tenacity (which might in other circumstances be a good thing) pretty (again, could be good but here point to something merely external and at odds with the inflexible inner Nancy…) and finally, damningly, little. ‘Her unalterable  little code’. There’s something appalling to George Eliot in the coming together in one person of  girlish prettiness and rigid tenacity and smallness of mind. It’s a type of being that she will return to many times in her work over  the years of her writing life, most notably in Rosamund Vincy in Middlemarch.

Is it partly the result of the subjugation of women?  How can you grow fully rounded when  the space around you is so powerfully restricted? Yet if there is power there… and it displays itself in mental rigidity,  an inability to grow, or to change with circumstance.

pretty Nancy Lammeter, by the time she was three-and-twenty, had her unalterable little code, and had formed every one of her habits in strict accordance with that code.

that the setting out of your dressing table should be ordered in the same way as your  thoughts on adoption – I’ve always thought this and so I stick to it – is a damning indictment.  or is it an indictment?  Is it simply an investigation into  a particular person?

More next week.

The Winter’s Tale Day 4: That’s The Spirit

 

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Bamboo in the  Woods at Calderstones Park, March 2018

Last week or the week before  Loubyjo  reminded me that it was 10 years since the Shakespeare Reading group had started  in the old Lauries office which used to house Get Into Reading. Ten years!

I don’t know how long it is since Louise took  that Shakespeare group over, or when Bernie decided she had done her stint…but congratulations to Bernie, who ran it for years and to Louise, who has run it for years ,and to Marion who has run it with Louise for years… This is one of the best things to come out of  The Reader…and what I would have hoped for, if I’d had the imagination to hope in that way, when I started.

I started the group  – I think – because I wanted to tell people that you could read Shakespeare in Shared Reading – it doesn’t have to be a short story and poem.

It does have to be  great literature.

The  form that the literature comes in (let me list some forms: nineteenth century novel in tiny weekly installments for two years, Shakespeare play for six months, one-off poem, one-off short story, one-off short story followed by ‘matching’ or ‘non-matching’ poem, modern novel, essay, Homer’s Odyssey for  two years, one-off incomprehensible contemporary poem) the form it comes in REALLY DOESN’T MATTER.

I’m shouting because one of the things that has gone wrong with  the growth of Shared Reading is that many people tell me  Shared Reading is reading a short story with matching poem.  No,  no, no.  You don’t have to match a poem. You could read any poem.  You don’t have to read a poem at all. Just read a chapter of War and Peace or a short story on its own.  Or you can only read a poem. I mean if you were going to read Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’ you’d have to read it over two or three weeks. You couldn’t tag it on to a short story as a match. The short story and poem format means there is loads of stuff you can’t read! That can’t be right.

In the first group I read a short story, ‘Schwartz’, by Russell Hoban (find it in The Moment Under the Moment, a collection of  essays and other things). And I read ‘Crossing The Bar’. They do not ‘match’.  I just liked them both and was worried we might finish ‘Schwartz’ before the time was up (actually, I think it might have taken two weeks).

Because teaching, as we do on Read to Lead,  in three days is a sledgehammer activity,  and because we have the wonderful A Little Aloud series, for years some people have come away with the idea that Shared Reading = reading a short story with a matching poem. No. No. No.

That can be done. Yes. But as in all things it is not the form that counts, it’s the spirit. The form is important because it is a way of having, of being, the spirit. But you can have empty forms.  Don’t go for form. Go for spirit. I don’t think it is possible to have empty spirit.

Read great stuff. Moving,  powerful, human stuff that gets you feeling and thinking. And for me, if I was teaching,  sledgehammering, I’d say always be aiming to get to Shakespeare in the end.

Here’s the end of the opening scene of The Winter’s Tale:

 

CAMILLO
Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia.
They were trained together in their childhoods; and
there rooted betwixt them then such an affection,
which cannot choose but branch now. Since their
more mature dignities and royal necessities made
separation of their society, their encounters,
though not personal, have been royally attorneyed
with interchange of gifts, letters, loving
embassies; that they have seemed to be together,
though absent, shook hands, as over a vast, and
embraced, as it were, from the ends of opposed
winds. The heavens continue their loves!
ARCHIDAMUS
I think there is not in the world either malice or
matter to alter it. You have an unspeakable
comfort of your young prince Mamillius: it is a
gentleman of the greatest promise that ever came
into my note.
CAMILLO
I very well agree with you in the hopes of him: it
is a gallant child; one that indeed physics the
subject, makes old hearts fresh: they that went on
crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to
see him a man.
ARCHIDAMUS
Would they else be content to die?
CAMILLO
Yes; if there were no other excuse why they should
desire to live.
ARCHIDAMUS
If the king had no son, they would desire to live
on crutches till he had one.
Exeunt

Camillos speaks of the grown-up Kings’ boyhoods’ and  Archidamus  speaks of Mamillius, son of Sicillia, son of King Leontes. Funny little bit of  stagey business this –  two civil servants chatting before the big newsworthy public occasion, exchanging pleasantries but also giving clues to audience.  Last time I wrote about this play noticed some of the frightening language in Camillo’s speech about the Kings, now  I notice Archidamus’  underlying worry  about matter or malice. Can anything alter the  state of friendship between these two childhood friends? And for Mamillius, we have ‘promise’, ‘hopes’ and, says Camillo,

…a gallant child; one that indeed physics the
subject, makes old hearts fresh: they that went on
crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to
see him a man.

We live for the possibility held by the unfolding future, which we experience in a child. The child changes time, ‘makes old hearts fresh’ and gives the old a powerful desire to live. We want – me with my grandchildren, Camillo with his King’s son – to live ‘ to see him a man.’ That investment in the future is powerful. Otherwise,  Archidamus wonders, might we desire to die?

What else is there to live for? Camillo leaves open the possibility that there might be  other reasons, but he can’t think of any:

Yes; if there were no other excuse why they should
desire to live.

The play is not yet started ,yet we are already in the thick of its subject matter, even though we don’t yet know what that subject matter is… it is living, it is reasons to stay alive, it is death, it is loss of children.

While the two opening actors seem to speak lightly, merely socially, almost  meaninglessly, yet they  have set out the play for us in advance, and Archidamus now  puts the finishing touch to it:

If the king had no son, they would desire to live
on crutches till he had one.

A child gives you a reason to live, but no child also gives you a reason: you ‘ve got to let enough time pass to get one. This  is primogeniture: the King must have an heir! If he hasn’t got one, we’ve got to keep going until he does.  And so we will… Looking back at the opening of this piece, I see that I was bemoaning not having the imagination to hope for a future that has unfolded in real life.

This is what I love about Shakespeare. The form – two servants come into a room and start a preamble – turns out to be a  piece of life. A piece that might not yet have come into existence, but real nonetheless. The form holds the spirit. Spirit’s the thing. Forms change.

Don’t follow rules. Except sometimes when you need to.  Run a Shared Reading group by following D.H. Lawrence’s  rule:  ‘We must balance as we go’.