On Saturday I’ll be leading a day of Shared Reading at the Ashoka Headquarters on Old Ford Road, Bethnall Green, London. You can sign up for it here. We’ll be reading parts of Jeanette Winterson’s powerful memoir and meditation on inner life, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, and some poems by a favourite poet of hers, and mine, George Herbert. I’m interested in seeing how ancient and modern languages for what we call ‘mental health’ or George Herbert called his ‘soul’, can fit together.
Today I’m reading ‘The Elixir’ by George Herbert,
As usual, I start from the uncomfortable position of being someone who doesn’t have a religion, faced with trying to understand a message from someone who does. I have to translate Herbert’s ‘God’ into something I can understand.
This morning I’m thinking about the place of Shared Reading at Calderstones – so sorry if my reading is peculiarly biased towards my own obsession. I’ll try to think outside my box as well as from deep within it!
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.
When I begin reading I have to read a couple of times to get into a non-sing song mind-set, and start concentrating deeply on the words. for someone like me., with no God, what can the first lines, ‘Teach me, my God and King/ In all things Thee to see’
If I think of ‘God ‘ as highest aspiration, best endeavour, an ideal, then I can begin to read the line as about learning to concentrate, the development of a sort of devotion to seeing the best that can be. For Calderstones, I’m thinking, how can I keep Shared Reading at the forefront of my mind, while developing businesses, a shop, the heritage centre?
In our time we have to find a way of re-understanding what ‘King’ might mean as well as ‘God’. I imagine a boss that I could really look up to, someone who was my leader, and whom I would obey, utterly admirable, commanding respect. If I try to transfer to translate that thought to an ideal of set of ideals, then I feel I can read the poem’s opening as about demanding from myself a commitment to seeing and doing and being the best that can be. The poem begins with the word ‘teach’: in this endeavour I am, and need to see myself as a learner. This boss is asking everything of me and I don’t know how to do it! Or am I asking my boss to ask everything of me? ‘Teach me, my God and King’.
The second couplet in that first verse is about the creation of habits. It is incredibly hard to do everything well, or even not badly. To aim for ‘anything’ (by implication, everything) is a massive ambition, and dedication. No wonder you have keep learning it every day, every time you do something.
Having a ‘God and King’, Herbert seems in happier position than me, because there is teaching, not just learning. Having a teacher can be a marvelous thing: learning by yourself alone is hard. I wonder if there is any way I can use those ideals, that sense of ‘the best it could possibly be’, to teach me? I’d have to keep them in mind, which is hard to do, as the days unfold so busily.
I look at the next stanza:
Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.
First, there’s an odd thing happening with pronouns here in the third and fourth line. I’m not sure if it is important. But come back to that – start with the beast! hhmm, keeping the good, the best, the ideal of anything in mind and not running ‘into an action’… oh dear, yes. I recognise this problem.
Now I like beasts and am in favour of them and think humans underestimate them. But I do think that humans have, or seem to have, more consciousness of a particular sort. This is our special quality – we are conscious, we have language and forethought and we seek meaning. Why then, do I so heartily recognise the rushing into action without thought Herbert describes here?
Is the poem asking me to develop extra consciousness, to be more conscious and more dedicated to consciousness than I have been?
I begin to think about the word ‘prepossest’ but I’m late – how frustrating – and my time is up – more tomorrow.
A short post this morning as I’m on the 6.05 from Lime Street and it’s wobbly on this Virgin Pendolino. I can’t be looking at the screen for long.
In preparation for my Sparks series reading day on Saturday (see previous posts) I’m rereading Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal.
Jeanette was adopted into a Pentecostal family and grew up with daily religious activity and summer Gospel-tent crusades. By the time she left home to live in a car at sixteen her belief in all that had completely left her: in its place, English Literature A-Z in Accrington Public Library.
The early part of the book takes a cool-eyed but sometimes not unaffectionate look at that religious life. Winterson is particularly good on the effects of King James Bible language on uneducated people , including herself, but the powerful influence goes deeper than language:
I saw a lot of working class men and women – myself included – living a deeper, more thoughtful life than would have been possible without the church. These were not educated people; Bible study worked their brains. They met after work in noisy discussion. The sense of belonging to something big, something important, lent unity and meaning.
A meaningless life for a human being has none of the dignity of animal unselfconsciousness; we cannot simply eat, sleep, hunt and reproduce – we are meaning seeking creatures. The Western world has done away with religion but not with our religious impulses; we seem to need some higher purpose, some point to our lives – money and leisure, social progress, are just not enough.
With the imminent development and opening of The Reader’s HQ and home at Calderstones, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the difficult question of why The Reader is no longer only about reading. When I read this paragraph, it touched that nerve and seemed to offer a clue. I wondered, as I read this, whether meaning and community (or ‘meaning and unity’ as Jeanette calls it here) have not been the invisible, underlying purposes of The Reader since I founded it in 1997. Yesterday, trying and think my way around this with some colleagues, I remembered the wonderful quotation from Saul Bellow’s novel, Herzog, which Sarah Coley and I used as the linchpin for the editorial in the very first issue of The Reader magazine:
The people who come evening classes are only ostensibly after culture. Their great need, their hunger, is for good sense, clarity, truth – even an atom of it. People are dying – it is no metaphor – for lack of something real to carry home when day is done.
I have realised many times in the last twenty years that The Reader is not simply about literature. If that was the case, it would be no different to English Departments in Universities across the world. Shared Reading groups are not like seminars, and nor are they Book Clubs. they create conditions in which all kinds of people might find, or create, ‘something real to take home when day is done’.
Many shared Reading groups will resemble the Bible study groups Jeanette describes, particularly when she writes, ‘the sense of belonging to something big, something important, lent unity and meaning.’
I’m interested in what she means when she writes of ‘religious impulses’,
we seem to need some higher purpose, some point to our lives – money and leisure, social progress, are just not enough
Jeanette becomes an adult who provides for herself – money and leisure, houses and a career as a writer – and these things, as the book goes on, are clearly ‘just not enough’. She studied English Literature at Oxford. George Herbert became a key influence, a most beloved poet. under the skin of their personal biographies there is a familial connection.
The sense of life as an unfolding ‘yes’ is strong in the first half of the book. The religious impulse – is that the impulse to higher purpose, to meaning, to beyond-the-self? – is in many ways addressed for Winterson by reading and writing. Mixed up in that religious impulse is individual story, individual trauma, personal mess. The second half the book is going to open some of that up.
Looking forward to reading more on my journey home.
Forgive today’s typos and lack of proof reading. Train wobbles.
I don’t know who created the management theory that time is elastic, and that you can fit in whatever you want to fit in, but it’s not true. It is true that time changes as we experience it, but there are still only 24 hours in a day, 168 in a week. but there are two types of time: there is time-experience which speeds up or slows down depending on the amount of flow-concentration-energy you are putting into whatever is happening, and there is clock time, which ticks on whatever is happening.
Three thoughts I’ve picked up on this topic which have been helpful have been (i) how slowly time would go if you were sitting on a hot stove (thanks Gay Hendricks in The Big Leap) (ii) how you’d find time to deal to deal with a flood in your house, whatever was happening at work (thanks Laura Vanderkam at TED). These thoughts are both about priorities and pain – it hurts if you don’t attend to either of them, and so they shoot to the top of the list of priorities. Time management isn’t about time so much as what matters most. You can’t do everything. Unless perhaps your name is Tim Ferris but even then… from Tim Ferris I picked up the third thought: (iii) it matters how you start your day. I used to know this once, but somehow over the last twenty years had forgotten. Writing this blog every day is helping me remember. I’m giving an hour a day to reading, and writing about a poem. That’s seven hours reading I wasn’t previously doing. This choice has made me happy (and only a little bit late on a couple of occasions).
Perhaps some of our inability to manage time comes from the refusal to accept the necessity of choice, and the subsequent inability then to act on such (unmade, perhaps unacknowledged) choices. Time management might be more helpfully called choice management. No poem does the simple sums about time, life and choices better than this, from A. E. Housman:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
Believe me, this is a scary poem to read when you are sixty-one! That middle stanza is remorseless.
I do hope to live beyond 70, but everything now frankly feels a blessing: I know quite people of my age who have died. So I’ll stick bravely with Housman’s computation and recast it for myself: Now, of my threescore years and ten, / Sixty-one will not come again… only leaves me nine more! Ouch and aieee! Why the hell would I be doing anything that wasn’t vitally important to me? Have I seen the cherry blossom?
I run out into the garden for another look.
Last time I read this poem was in an NHS addiction service centre, sometime in the last ten years. I thought then it was a bit of a risky poem to take, given quite a lot of us in the room were over 50, and I guessed that like me, quite a few people might feel (a little) frightened by the poem, after all we’d all wasted quite a lot of time one way or another. But I thought you might only be a little frightened by the poem. And indeed, there’s something so tender and quiet in its tone, something so strong in its resolve, that no one was scared, and everyone agreed they would go for a walk and look for cherry blossom this week. Does making that choice affect one’s chances of recovery? I think every strong choice affects one’s chances.
I find the poem’s sums strengthening. You could ignore or not notice the first stanza, yeah, yeah, blossoms, again, so what. It’s a normal verse about normal blossom. you are in a normal state of mind as you read it. But the killer second stanza, quite unexpected – yet not really unexpected, is it? Because the key thing about cherry blossom is its transience, it’s there and gone. Fifty chances to see it? That’s not enough!
‘Fifty springs are little room’ and I sure as hell don’t have fifty ahead of me. Maybe twenty, maybe none for all I know. Therefore I finish writing a little early today, so I can get to Calderstones Park before I need to be in the office. I will go walk around and see the blossom. What could be more important?
See the late, great Denis Potter, two months before his death, discuss this blossom with Melvyn Bragg, here.
March has been a difficult month on almost every front, but I don’t want to describe or even list any of those difficulties.
Instead, after a particularly difficult day yesterday, in which I felt a lot of feelings I did not wish to feel, including – rare one for me – rage, and in which the good that happened (Teamwork, time with Megg, euphorbias, Carys Bray, my dear and loving husband) all seemed overshadowed by bad stuff, I woke up with these words in my mind;
Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
These words come from the Bible, Letter to Phillipians 4:8, but I first got them from Iris Murdoch, in her strange, wonderful and difficult book, Metaphysics As A Guide To Morals. She’s talking about what you can do if you don’t have religion to assist with difficulties of living, and writes about filling your mind up, deliberately, with good things.
The book came out in 1992 and I think I first read it then or the following year. Soon after that I was in the thick of the hardest time of my life and in my desperation I found her advice helpful. I particularly found the quotation from Philippians helpful and what’s more, it seemed to stick. I used it like a mantra but it also gave me something active to do. When bad stuff came into my head I would recite, ‘whatever is good…whatever is honest…whatever is just…’ and the very presence of such words, and the thoughts associated with them, seemed to help me. As one of our readers in a special project where volunteers read with children in extremely difficult situations said, ‘when Jess reads with me it makes all the bad memories go away and good memories come in…’ I know that feeling well.
So, whatever is good, think on these things.The habit is a useful one. It also works with poetry.
Well, grandchildren – all babies! – are good and make me feel great joy. I think on them, and see them whenever I can. Birdsong is heartening at this time of year. Dogs rarely fail to delight me (you know who you are, you dogs who don’t delight). Euphorbias display such energy that I find they restore my faith in life, and the small pink viburnum (don’t know what variety it is and need to know because I want one in my garden) on the right of the gate into the walled gardens at Calderstones Park is currently providing daily inner restoration through its gentle colour therapy. I do think on these things.
An unequivocal good has been changing my morning routine so that I read and write about my reading every day before I go to work. There is never enough time but even the smallest amount of it seems to do me some good. After years of ‘no time to write’ and reading while falling asleep, it feels a breakthrough. This change is the result of a chance meeting with a kind stranger on a train the day Bearhunt blew away. That’s how it happens isn’t it?
I’ve been reading Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality for the past three mornings. The whole poem is here. But I’ve been reading a few lines each day. Yesterday we got to the point where Wordsworth, feeling some ‘glory’ is lost from life, finds something ‘glorious’ in the world and tells himself
Oh evil day! if I were sullen
While Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm:—
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!
The word ‘sullen’ seems to do for bad feeling what ‘whatever is good’ does for good. It puts it in my mind. It’s foul. And then I see it, hiding behind ‘sullen’, ‘Oh evil day’ as if Wordsworth first feels the evil before he has identified where/what it is. Evil emanating from my sullenness. Ouch. Thinking bad things is not good. Is that how ‘evil’ starts?
Instead of continuing with his feeling (‘sullen’) he lets it go, looks around, looks for good and sees it;
…Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm:
I love that line, ‘the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm’ and it is an important one for me, but I am out of time and need to carry on tomorrow.
Since visiting Thoronet Abbeye, a ruined Cistercian Monastery in France, I have become mildly obsessed with the idea of a building providing form for, holding, a way of life.
Of course we all do this all the time in the décor of our own homes, which, however much or little we think about them, reflect who and what we are and how we live. My study is a mess because I hardly use it, simply rushing in and out, dumping things and scrabbling for stuff I can’t find. Before the advent of The Reader Organisation, when I used it all the time for writing, it was better (usually).
Thoronet, built in the 12th or 13th century, creates spirit from stone or stone from spirit (wouldn’t Russell Hoban have loved that? Read his short story, Shwartz). The whole building is a musical instrument, a sort of acoustic amplifier creating a tremendous long echo, which the monks used as a discipline, developing within it a plainsong which was slow, harmonious, layered. An evening concert there, hearing and feeling the building at work was a mightily powerful experience.
As it says, quite rightly, on Wikipedia;
The abbey is fundamentally connected to its site, and is an exceptional example of spirituality and philosophy transformed into architecture. It is distinguished, like other Cistercian abbeys, by its purity, harmony, and lack of decoration or ornament.
After the concert we went back by day to walk around the site and see the building in its physical setting. I was struck by how far from the world it feels even now, and how many more times further away from anywhere it must have been in the 12th century. People chose to come to this remote place, and to hack rock from the ground in order to build this instrument-building so that they might feel and sing and live in a certain way. The community they built here is an attempt to change, indeed to re-create the human world from scratch, in accordance with a set of beliefs. And I wondered, is everything we make like that?
So, back home, thinking about buildings, I’m asking myself whether our public and institutional buildings reflect us in the same way? I look at McKinsey’s London offices and yes, that is McKinsey. Same for the British Gas Boardroom, where SBT invited The Reader Organisation’s Managing Director, Chris Catterall, and myself to pitch for investment. I look at NESTA’s home and I think to myself – yes, that’s more or less NESTA. I look at Springwood Heath Primary School and again, that is pretty much Springwood. Then I look at some other learning or idea or health institutions. I don’t want to name them. You will find them everywhere. But, oh dear.
Is this poverty of spirit in our communal buildings about lack of money? I am remembering in my churlish way the utter quality of the toilet doors in Portcullis House, Westminster. Centuries of forests and thousands of public pounds went into them. Why do MPs and their admin teams deserve such superior shutters when patients in an inpatient mental health unit at Anyborough Hospital will have warping and wobbly-locked mdf closures? The toilet doors have in both cases been built and installed by belief as much as budget.
Can you make something good out of not much, if you believe in what you are doing? If what you are doing is not ‘getting cheapest possible doors’ but ‘building a decently secured toilet’. Isn’t it about ethos as much as economy?
As someone who has created patchwork quilts from scraps for the past 25 years, who has cooked a pan of Scouse out of what was in the kitchen that night and fed it to (my hero) Marilynne Robinson, who has furnished her homes from junk shops and auctions and Oxfam, of course I’d say yes. You do it on a wing and a prayer, or by love, or in time and by being creative. You do it above all by believing you can do it and that it matters how you do it.
We are going to make a very lovely thing at Calderstones Mansion and a lot of it is going to be made out of belief. And if we were not The Reader Organisation, but any group of socially-minded enterprising people who had the opportunity re-making this place, would it still be a good idea to put reading at the heart of that project?
We will be making a bistro and a shop, and a gallery, perhaps a dog walking service, a dance studio, certainly bedrooms for our residential courses and Reading Weekends, and we’ll be creating a venue on the Garden Stage, there will be a library and a second-hand bookshop, we’ll do weddings and we’ve already done a Christening and a Community lunch… and what, you might say, what does reading have to do with any of that?
The enterprises we are going to make here are going to ensure the building is economically viable. Our first responsibility is to keep the roof on and the decay at bay. But if a reading billionaire* gave us thousands of millions of pounds, we’d still want to set up the enterprises because of the non-cash value they are going to create by providing interesting and useful volunteering and jobs. And then we’d want those volunteers and staff members to read together, because the biggest thing we want to make at Calderstones is a community, a community that holds all kinds of people and passions together. And what holds a people together ? Sharing stories.
Until very recently, throughout human history, groups of people have held themselves together through a book – the Torah, the New Testament, the Koran. These religious books held and still hold bodies of stories and poetry and thought which define a people. Many types of human community have grown from these texts, from the Sufi circle to the parish church to the Cistercian monastery to the Blue Mosque.
We are a plural organization – we have not one book but many. At The Reader Organisation all staff members run or attend a weekly shared reading group. We do this so that we never lose sight of the basis of our organizational existence: reading together. Recently I was at Calderstones Mansion House with the Friday morning group (part of a research project being conducted by colleagues at University of Liverpool, funded through the AHRC). We were reading the extract from Jane Eyre in my old friend Angie Macmillan’s anthology A Little Aloud. We spent two hours reading and talking about half a dozen pages. I completely forgot about my pressing and complicated work as Director of this organisation – it was like living in another medium, another universe, for two hours, free of gravity and diving deep into language, meditating on the ranges and possibilities of meanings with my reading companions, drawing on our own life-forged understandings.
That is an intimate experience to share with a group of people. It’s about expressing and hammering out personal belief, in concert with others. This is why we believe at The Reader that shared reading is community glue. Slow book talk, deep language talk, over long time, let us know each other.
What we want to make at Calderstones is a model of a reading community, where whatever else is going on, people will be connected by a huge body of reading experiences. Let the building have many bookshelves, reading corners, kindle power sockets. Let it be a Thoronet for readers.
*Dear Reading Billionaire, even so we’d still like some money
On Friday 12th and Saturday 13th of April, The Reader Organisation opened the doors of the Mansion House (in Liverpool’s Calderstones Park) to the public for the first time in forty years. We had more than 1200 visitors, from new babies to nonageniarians, and many pushchairs, wheelchairs, bikes and scooters, 20-odd dogs, including the unaccompanied chocolate labrador who bounded in at top speed, did a fast and chaos-causing circuit of all the open rooms on the ground floor – hall, drawing room, the kids camp creative, the garden stage and then back out the front door, without stopping to make eye contact with anyone. That dog was concentrating. When I told Brian (Nellibobs), about the labby, he said, ‘That was an angel come to bless the place.’ Thorough, fast, a little crazy, utterly concentrated, and very chocolatey…yes, sounds like a Reader angel…
We want to talk to everyone who is interested in our plan to develop an International Centre for Reading and Wellbeing here at Calderstones, and these two open days are the opening stage of our consultation process.
Everyone was delighted to have the building open, and it was lovely to meet people who said, I have been walking past this building for 30 years… or who had held their wedding receptions here thirty, forty, fifty and more years ago – people brought photos and wedding albums, and one lady brought the receipt for her do – cost over £30! We asked everyone to write down memories of the building, and filled two big noticeboards…One man’s great great grandfather was Head Coachman here. We’ll publish all these memories once transcribed. And nearby, we filled a wall with wishes bunting – asking our visitors what would you like to see happen here?
We took more than £800 on our book and cake stalls, and Chris Catterall (TROs Business Brain) asked me to record for posterity The Reader’s first shop (some of us have been wanting to open a shop for a long long time.) So here it is:
People were waiting on the step when we opened at 10.00am on Friday and they kept coming – here are people entering late on Saturday afternoon – that’s the front door to the right of the picture. Below are scenes from Camp Creative where the stories kept going all day. Notice the mysterious picture on the mantlepiece…
On the Garden stage people remembered seeing pierrots and clowns, talent shows and brass bands and performing dogs… and people volunteered their skills and talents – in retail, business analysis, flower arranging, adult education, cooking, drama. And paranormal investigations! (The Mansion was owned by the McIver family who founded the famous Cunard Line, so we’re bound to have a few interesting ghost stories…)
One of our future readers slept through the whole thing… and many old friends travelled from Wirral to see us and recall the early days of Get Into Reading – here’s Brenda with her daughter and grandson…
Late on Saturday, I was delighted to meet three old friends from the 1970’s feminist commune days – Sue, Naomi and Nina. We lived together with other women and our children at No.2 Sunnyside, a lovely 1840’s house on the perimeter of Princes Park. It’s very similar to the Mansion House in style, though a bit smaller. The Reader Organisation owes a lot to things I learned as the youngest member of Lysistrata, which gave me the chance to become a do-er. Strange sense of some sort of completion, to walk around the yet-to-be-made thing that is the Mansion House with these women who had so much influence on my 20 year old self. ‘Say not the struggle naught availeth’, as Liverpool-born poet Arthur Hugh Clough wrote.
At finally, at the end of Friday, we’d created so much heat and dust that we set the fire alarm off, just after the public had gone. Shivering on the assembly point, we were led in a very Readerly Harlem shake by our own resident dancer, the delightfully flexible Criminal Justice Projects Manager, Amanda Brown. It ain’t over, as they say…