Morning Incense…Paradise Lost off-piste

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Welsh Poppies greeting the Sun

These sunny mornings I can’t bear to read and write and am instead out in the garden, watering, propping, pruning and thinking of some lines from Paradise Lost (sorry to jump so far ahead, this is from Book 9

Now, when as sacred light began to dawn
In Eden on the humid flowers, that breathed
Their morning incense, when all things that breathe
From the Earth’s great altar send up silent praise
To the Creator, and his nostrils fill
With grateful smell, forth came the human pair,
And joined their vocal worship to the quire
Of creatures wanting voice; that done, partake
The season, prime for sweetest scents and airs;
Then com’mune how that day they best may ply
Their growing work—for much their work outgrew
The hands’ dispatch of two gardening so wide:
And Eve first to her husband thus began:—
“Adam, well may we labour still to dress
This Garden, still to tend plant, herb, and flower,
Our pleasant task enjoined; but, till more hands
Aid us, the work under our labour grows,
Luxurious by restraint: what we by day
Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind,
One night or two with wanton growth derides,
Tending to wild.

Someone asked me at the weekend what I would do if I didn’t work at The Reader, and I replied that I would garden, imagining not working  as retirement. If I had to have another job? I’d like a junk-shop or to work in small town general auction house. but if I didn’t  work at all? I’d be gardening.  Mine is a smallish plot –  I mean, compared to people with an acre or so – two gardens, one back, one from, each measuring  – according to my old notes 10 metres wide by 18 long.  You have to go through the house to get from one to the other,  we’re a terrace and there’s no side gate.  No greenhouse (I did have one once but West Kirby’s wild winter winds blew it flat) so everything is bought in or needs to be easily propagated.  I do roses (lovely Albertine, mainly) from cuttings and  any other things you can stick in the ground to sprout roots. I grow perennials, lots of geraniums,  Bowles Mauve wallflowers, poppies… but mainly I grow couch grass.  It is a natural for my sandy soil and I can’t defeat it – the opposite in fact: it often defeats me. Still a garden is agreat teacher, as Gertrude Jekyll said:

A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.

(I got this quote from the twitter account of a gardener I follow –  Alison Levey (

I go out in the sunny morning and so exactly what Milton describes:

Now, when as sacred light began to dawn
In Eden on the humid flowers, that breathed
Their morning incense, when all things that breathe
From the Earth’s great altar send up silent praise
To the Creator, and his nostrils fill
With grateful smell, forth came the human pair,
And joined their vocal worship to the quire
Of creatures wanting voice; that done, partake
The season, prime for sweetest scents and airs;
Then com’mune how that day they best may ply
Their growing work—

I breathe, and look and  feel grateful and glad, and work out what needs doing next. It’s all tending to wild, and the couch grass is rampant, and though I can’t love that, and no, not those red lily beetles either,  I do love the assertion of nature, the force and energy of the planet and the plants, even though

the work under our labour grows,
Luxurious by restraint: what we by day
Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind,
One night or two with wanton growth derides,
Tending to wild.

Goodbye, Philip Roth and all that manly stuff…

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Unknown tree with blossom – what can it be? Calderstones Park, May 22

In The Times obituary for Philip Roth this morning, hundreds of words about sex, masturbation, bad marriages, the grump he was and thumbnails of various not so great Roth novels I’ve not read. And then a passing mention of , but no words about, American Pastoral, the novel that made me realise Philip Roth was a great writer. Mingled yarn thoughts arise about our lives and our judgements.

Roth was  of a generation which  perhaps in retrospect was rightly anxious about the changing place of women in the  human universe. Contraception in the form of a pill under women’s own control changed everything. Those guys were right to be worried: Mrs wasn’t going to stay home and cooks gefilte fish from now on. Philip Roth said his mother, who worked as a secretary ‘raised housekeeping to an art form’.  There were generations of women behind that art form (an art form I’ve not practised much, though increasingly begin to value. Need to think about this another time). But in the 1950s, 1960s, the patriarchy,  as we called it when I was a radical young feminist in 1976 though now I think we might have called it  human biology or history, was beginning to teeter towards extinction. Whatever it was that left women and children in the cave or picking berries when men went hunting, it really couldn’t, or simply didn’t, begin to change until women had control of their own reproduction. Now, there are Dads changing nappies everywhere, non-gendered pronouns (how I longed for them in my mid-twenties!) women running a few bits of  the army and banks, men in high heels and lipstick and yet – to my mind, unfortunately – more woman-violating pornography  than ever before. We’re in the thick of revolution and it’s not over yet.  But, back to Philip Roth.

It was the maleness that put me off: I could never face Portnoy’s Complaint, though I heard it was funny.  That obsessed-but-begrudging enslavement to women was an unhappy part of those great  New York Jewish writers – Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud – who came just before Roth. They had some good stuff, oh, lovely caring humane books, but you had to hurry past all that not so good weirdness about wanting but fearing  the wanting of women. Roth always seemed even more like that. Until I read American Pastoral.

I don’t make a political judgement about this anymore.  I  see the colours and think I think, that’s what they are/were. That was true about them. And I  look for the good stuff. As you might do with a person. Our bad stuff is there, and you have to take it on sometimes, but a lot of the time you have to work round it or take no notice. You look for the good, notice the good.

The good in American Pastoral?  Big. Sad. Painful. Sprawling, and  perhaps, as The Times obituarist says, ‘seemingly careless of the fundamentals of organisation’, though I didn’t notice that.  This novel kept me up at night when I first read it. I woke my husband saying, ‘listen to this sentence… he’s writing like George Eliot.’

‘No, he’s not’ said partner and went back to sleep.

But there was something magnificent, grand, going on. It was  a sort of modern american rewrite of Paradise Lost. Everything starts off fine and then goes horribly wrong. Then you get the thistles and  bringing forth children in labour and the tower of Babel.

page from AP

Angry, disappointed, moved, Philip Roth writes out the loss of paradise he lived through, the loss of the American Dream he grew up in, the loss, of commerce as a decent thing, the loss of cities as civilised places, the loss of heroes, the loss of family.  It’s a panoramic vision, a sorrowful book full of good stuff. See how he drops the tank but comes on his ‘own ten toes’? That’s a boxer’s stance. He may not be in an armoured vehicle but he’s still fighting.  Because can you forget ‘being right or wrong about people’?  Mingled yarn, mingled yarn. A great book, separating out some strands of colour and getting us to notice them.




The Winter’s Tale Day 8: That Jar o’ the Clock and the Questioning

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Cow Parsley in Calderstones Park


If you are new to this reading of Shakespeare’s great play, find earlier posts by typing ‘winter’s tale’ into the search box. Find the entire text here. Or, as if you’d just arrived at a Shared Reading group for the first time, just jump in. It’s mainly happening in the moment. Think of reading Shakespeare as some time with the most human of thinkers, this carefully observant psychotherapist, the great listener. He hears so much in a single moment, in the movement of the hand of a clock…

Hermione, Queen of Sicillia has been charged by her husband, Leontes, to persuade their visitor, his childhood friend, King Polixenes of  Bohemia, to stay a bit longer.  She’s doing her best. We pick her up in mid-flow:

To tell, he longs to see his son, were strong:
But let him say so then, and let him go;
But let him swear so, and he shall not stay,
We’ll thwack him hence with distaffs.
Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week. When at Bohemia
You take my lord, I’ll give him my commission
To let him there a month behind the gest
Prefix’d for’s parting: yet, good deed, Leontes,
I love thee not a jar o’ the clock behind
What lady-she her lord. You’ll stay?

On stage  Hermione’s own son is present – Mamillius, aged about eight or nine.  He’s a much-loved boy. It’s natural perhaps that Hermione  thinks a longing to go home after a nine month state visit might be prompted by missing your boy.  But Polixenes hasn’t said that at all.  That’s Hermione’s own thought, she’s so moved herself – it’s an excuse she’d be glad to hear.

I ask myself now, what kind of Mum thinks the most powerful thing she can think of  is missing her child? I don’t answer that question, just ask it.

And what’s a distaff, someone might ask.  Hmm, something about women, about the female side of a family? We’ll have to look it up. So we do and we find or remember ,or someone in our group will know, that a distaff is the spindle used in spinning, a deeply  female bit of kit. It’s a bit  like saying I’ll hit him over the head with my handbag, comic but also serious at some level about womanliness, about woman power. Charged by her husband to make this old friend stay longer, Hermione is using charm, wit, her femininity. When she makes the distaff joke others will be (gently) laughing. So, having got a laugh, she homes in with a realistic ask:

Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week.

The word ‘royal’ is good there, just after her pantomime-style joke  – pulling herself back a respectful distance, acknowledging Polixenes still a king, despite her feminine power. And a week – it’s hardly anything after a nine month stay. It’s a ‘borrow’ she offers to pay back with high-rate  interest:

Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week. When at Bohemia
You take my lord, I’ll give him my commission
To let him there a month behind the gest
Prefix’d for’s parting:

A week for a month? Irresistible bargain. Yet she pulls herself up now, as if she fears she may have gone too far.

yet, good deed, Leontes,
I love thee not a jar o’ the clock behind
What lady-she her lord.

it’s worth reading this whole speech of  Hermione’s through at a rush to get the gist of it and feel the movements of her mind as she powers through her  ask of Polixenes. In that context, this last section – an aside to her husband – seems worried to me.

We might want to stay here for some time thinking about a ‘jar o’ the clock’, seeing a hand move,  asecond-hand, or the moment when a minute hand actually moves.  That jars. We might need to think about  old-fashioned mechanical clockwork clocks. Did they really have clocks in Shakespeare’s time? I think of a sundial, or the hourglass, but not clocks. Over to wikipedia I go.

The first mechanical clocks, employing the verge escapement mechanism with a foliot or balance wheel timekeeper, were invented in Europe at around the start of the 14th century, and became the standard timekeeping device until the pendulum clock was invented in 1656. The invention of the mainspring in the early 15th century allowed portable clocks to be built, evolving into the first pocketwatches by the 17th century, but these were not very accurate until the balance spring was added to the balance wheel in the mid 17th century.

and later, still in the same article, I find the Queen Elizabeth 1 was given a wrist watch by Robert Dudley.  Lovely. That’s a poem for someone to write. So mechanical clocks, yes.

Do we want to think about the word ‘jar’?  A jar o the clock. A moment when something changes, moves. time has moved on; we are in a new moment. Has something now clicked? Does Hermione turn to her husband at that moment?  Why would you say something like that, in public? Does it jar?

Let’s replay it in my own vernacular:

Leontes – aren’t you going to ask him? Hermione – of course!   persuades persuades to now vail , jokes about good reason to go (your son)  offers the swap – a week for a month,  then ‘but Leontes, I really do love you!’ and then, to Polixenes, brightly, hopefully ‘ You’ll stay?’

What kind of husband has to be reassured of his wife’s love in public when she is flirting (is it flirting? persuading? playing? teasing?) with his best friend?

A lot of questions must be raised about the likely relationships between these three.  Let’s say we agree that she’s only playfully teasing in order to get Polixenes to do what Leontes wants… but now I am bothered about Leontes asking her to do that. Is it just that Leontes knows she’s a good talker?  Is it because he needs her help with this kind of thing? Is he a bad talker? Does he think Polixenes will be more easily persuaded by Hermione?

Under what circumstances would you say to your beloved, go on, you ask… ?

If I try to imagine that, I think it would only happen when I was sure the beloved would  have more sway than me.  And perhaps I might not like that feeling – that my beloved has more sway than me, with my best friend.  I might be quite wrong to have that anxiety. But it was me who asked the beloved to do it. Is this test of some sort?

What is Leontes’ state of mind when he passes the responsibility for securing Polixenes longer stay to  Hermione? It’s always horrible when you fail to persuade someone to something, especially in public. Is he humiliated? We can ask – should ask – all the questions we can think of… we turn the little three-D model one way and then another. We look at it all in one light, and then change the light. How does it look now?  You cn stay here a long time, thinking. But as the play know, only unfolding time will give the answers. And those answers  may only provoke more  questions.  The questions are the thing!


Stop Getting Sold Stuff, Start Asking Questions


I’m still reading The World-Ending Fire, The Essential Wendell Berry.  This morning it was a very short essay, ‘In Defense of Literacy’, written in 1970, when literacy was in a better state than it is now. Even so, the writing, so to speak, was on the wall. It’s more or less over now. We’re losing it. Got a fight on.

Of course, there are noble exceptions. I was also reading George Saunders this morning. Probably the best writer alive in the  English-speaking world, I think I read that somewhere around the time  he was winning the Book prize with Lincoln in the Bardo – ha hard read, not a starting place. You gotta take the language,  the slippery argot, dangerous internal monologues, the manic self-talk, the truths. The swearing. But if you can stand the  rude, the real, the revealing, George is your man. Read his short stories in the collections Civil War Land in Bad Decline,  PastoraliaThe Tenth of December.  Read ‘Sea Oak’.  Read ‘Pastoralia’.

But to return to Wendell Berry. He quotes Edwin Muir’s, ‘The Island’ , a poem I’ve not read but will find later today, and mentions Thoreau and Ezra Pound, writing of them,

These men spoke of a truth that no society can afford to shirk for long: we are dependent, for understanding, and for consolation and hope, upon what we learn of ourselves from songs and stories. This has always been so, and it will not change.

What touched me here was Berry’s imperturbable belief in the necessity of song and story, a necessity which demands survival, ‘this has always been so, and it will not change.’  It is not always easy to see necessity, to spot it, to identify its pressures and demands, though they are there, pressing.  (Read The Sirian Experiments by Doris Lessing).  I read again. It is our dependency that ‘will not change’ in Berry’s careful sentences.  What happens to us when we don’t have the stuff we depend on? We get sick, we don’t work right.

Berry’s short essay warns that practical language, the quick, slick language of selling you stuff, including books, language ‘to be read once and thrown away’, won’t feed us. There are no nutrients!  For that we need a richer diet, ‘works that have proved worthy of devoted attention’.

This used to be the basis of Eng. Lit courses and one way the guys who ran them justified their selections.  I met a few really heart-wise men in my English degree days and I’m glad of them,  but also (to use the language of Mr Saunders) I found some of those guys were lazy copiers who just did what everyone else did. Some of those people were not brave.  Some could not think. Some did not love literature. Some seemed to have no hearts! For an antidote to all that dead academic Eng Lit stuff  (which unfortunately is still alive and kicking the reality of reading out of class)  you need Joseph Gold’s The Story Species, which I’ve also been rereading lately. He talks about his early life in Eng Lit departments:

I began by asking questions about Literature, this certain form of language, half a century ago. They  fell on ears so deaf that I gave up asking for a couple of decades.

What is story? What role does Literature play in human evolution and in individual lives? What role do transferred words play in the biological and social life of readers? How is the product of reading stored in the body of the reader? What has taken place in the event that you take a novel off the shelf, read it and return it? where does the power of a book lie?


Ah, time up, got to go to have a swim, no time to proffread. forgive my pselling mitaskes.

Just Started: Wendell Berry, The World-Ending Fire


I’ve been reading Wendell Berry for thirty years. Because I am narrow-minded, I often read the same things by Wendell Berry over and over again.

The poem, ‘The Slip’, which offers perspective and hope  at times of loss, and which has been of practical spirit-use to me many times, would certainly be on the list if I was only allowed ten poems on a desert island.

In prose I’ve read his essay ‘The Loss of the University’ scores of times, absorbing and re-absorbing its information. I read that essay in Standing On Earth, a book every reader should own, just for that essay. Oh, let’s change everything, please. In the contemporary university, he writes,

Literature ceases to be the meeting ground of all readers of the common tongue and becomes only the occasion of a deafening clatter about literature. Teachers and students read the great songs and stories to learn about them, not to learn from them.

That simple distinction  between ‘about’ and ‘from’ has been reverberating in my mind and actions ever since I first it. Over and over, I read.

I have bought Standing on Earth ten times and given it away to others.

My friend gave me this new collection – the essential Wendell Berry, edited by Paul Kingsnorth – for Christmas. Last night  – aching from my weekend of hard gardening –  I picked it up from the bedside table and began to read the first piece in the book, ‘A Native Hill’. I seemed to have read it before but when I checked it wasn’t in Standing on Earth.  I think I might have read it at Christmas, but  forgotten to write about it.  Writing helps memory.  How good it is to have a friend to push me out of my narrow, repetitive reading habits.

The essay is about the decision to return to Kentucky, to the place of Berry’s birth,  and live there for the rest of his life.  Berry wanted to be a writer. Where should a writer be in the USA? Why NYC, of course.  And having got there and found the literary world, and a job at NY university, Berry changed his mind and  headed back home, a move seen by some as perhaps a perverse decision and a poor career move. But back home, and a home he had chosen, as in commitment, as marriage, as planting, he found himself rooted deeper than ever before.

I began more seriously than ever to learn the names of things – the wild plants and animals, the natural processes, the local places – and to articulate my observations and memories. My language increased and strengthened, and sent my mind into the place like a live root system. And so what has become the usual order of things reversed itself with me; my mind became the root of my life rather than its sublimation. I came to see myself as growing out of the earth like other native animals and plants. I saw my body and my daily motions as brief coherences and articulations of energy of the place, which would fall back into it like leaves in the autumn.

I don’t have time to read this paragraph today. Except to note that I was profoundly moved by the thought of  ‘brief coherences’ of daily action, by those ‘articulations of energy’.

That, I thought is why I long to be able to steady into habit instead of being chaotic. That is why  I love gardening. I may do it in an unstructured way, but it  this growing world has lots of its own rhythms, rhythms of season and structure, colour and habit, which seem to pull me into a kind of order, too.

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Euphorbia Martinii

Not writing but breathing…

I had intended to read and write about Paradise Lost this morning but instead have spent the first lovely hours in my own garden, enjoying the dew and the fleeting apple blossom, the blackbirds, robins and blue tits, a grey squirrel, a great predatory-looking seagull with a clump of something in his razor beak, and this lovely tiny thing (that’s a forget-me-not she’s sitting on), a mint moth. And the apple blossom has made me think of Herrick’s poem, Gather Ye Rosebuds, which I have in mind, by heart.

It’s a morning for gardening and so after reading this joyful creation, I will set to, digging out another huge, well-set shrubby root, this time an ancient Forsythia. I have learned in the past couple of weeks, in my back, shoulders, arms and legs, what ‘well-rooted’ really means. Much more than I would have thought. To be well-rooted is to be very secure indeed.

Reading at Work: Janet’s Repentence

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One of the great rhodoendrons in Calderstones Park at the moment –  the colour comination of  orangey pink with the grey green leaves is very satisfying

Yesterday was a senior team awayday. We clear our diaries and go to the house of one of us for a day of  asking questions, sketching answes, making plans.  It’s time out, time to think. We began, as we often begin our meetings, by reading together for half an hour.

One of my teammates had been reading The Guardian article on meetings, and we  were a little alarmed because she’d used the Harvard Business Review meeting cost calculator  to work out exactly how much our  day away from the office was costing us.  Yes, good to know, we conceded nervously. Better be worth it, then.

In a context of  value for money how come reading together for half an hour, or perhaps even  as much as forty-five minutes, is good value? The Guardian article offers  mindfulness as a possible way to  help people become calm and productive and gives some examples of  that practice in use.  Shared Reading is similar (usually calming, often feels meditative) but because it is shared, and because it is words (ie consciousness) you get some thing else, too.

We are reading Janet’s Repentence by George Eliot. We often have only a scant half hour every two weeks, so we’ve been reading it pretty slowly.  We seem to read just enough to give us something to connect through – a page or less each time. Yesterday we read  a tiny section from Chapter 8, where My Tryan is visiting Mr Jerome to ask for his support on what is going to be a difficult public occasion. The Jerome’s little granddaughter Lizzie makes a surprise appearance:

It is a pretty surprise, when one visits an elderly couple, to see a little figure enter in a white frock with a blond head as smooth as satin, round blue eyes, and a cheek like an apple blossom. A toddling little girl is a centre of common feeling which makes the most dissimilar people understand each other; and Mr. Tryan looked at Lizzie with that quiet pleasure which is always genuine.

‘Here we are, here we are!’ said proud grandpapa. ‘You didn’t think we’d got such a little gell as this, did you, Mr. Tryan? Why, it seems but th’ other day since her mother was just such another. This is our little Lizzie, this is. Come an’ shake hands wi’ Mr. Tryan, Lizzie; come.’

We stopped to talk about the  sentence about the toddling little girl: we all recognised what George Eliot calls the ‘centre of common feeling’ – we’d all seen it a hundred times on family occasions.  That ‘centre of common feeling’ makes ‘the most dissimilar people understand each other’.

We stayed here for most of our reading time, thinking on what this means in practice. We  talked about families and children and dogs and difficulties. In what sense do we ‘understand’ each other in the presence of a beloved child? This is understanding of the heart, some meaning that doesn’t often get put into words, isn’t it?

As we spoke, the book itself became for us – on our costs-a-lot-of-time business away day – what the little girl is in the adult conversation –  ‘a centre of common feeling’.  for any team trying to work together that’s an invaluable bit of equipment.

A little later, watching Liverpool  beat Roma on aggregate and win a place in the European Cup Final 2018,  I sat in The Dovey in a room full of people singing to a TV screen and to each other and thought  here’s the match, LFC, a centre of common feeling of a  different sort, more primal, less personally revealing and involving no sharing of thought, only the heart-beat of the singing and the adrenalin of mock battle. Which was pretty good! We love the footy and  our team, but do we love it as much for its powers as a conduit for our feelings of connectedness as we do for the footwork?  Those feelings  were powerful last night. Come on, Red Men!