The Babe Leaps Up

babe leaps up
Baby Grace leaping up in her mothers arms in an office at The Reader

Been reading – very slowly – Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality here all week and not got very far. You’ll find the whole poem here. But I’m only up to this bit;

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!
—But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone;
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Today I’ve got a piece in the Comment section of The Observer about why we need a reading revolution. In it, I remember seeing a baby, one of those gorgeous chunky one-year-olds, leaping up in his mother’s arms on a doorstep in North Birkenhead and thinking ‘that baby will never read Wordsworth’. That thought (or was it a feeling?) helped propel me into creating The Reader.

But why, in a hard life, and that baby’s was almost certainly going to be a hard life, would Wordsworth matter at all? Why not concentrate on housing and vegetables? Of course, we need those things but as Rose Schneiderman famously said, we need bread and roses. And we need them at the same time. Humans have inner lives and those inner lives have profound effect on our ability to  renew roofs and grow vegetables, to create a sour-dough bakery in an area down-on-its-uppers, to develop a rose-growing business out of a wasteland.

Poetry matters because we might have forgotten, as Gillian Clarke writes in Miracle on St Davids Day, that we have anything to say. Of a mute labouring man in a mental health ward, moved to speech by poetry, she writes;

Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech and that once he had something to say.

What we, in the our time, call ‘mental health’ or ’emotional experience’ is really about inner being, the most complicated, uncharted, rewarding and dangerous parts of human experience. I wish we had other names for this stuff. Our present vocabulary feels as unhelpful as grunts would be in working out the impact of black holes on the development of the universe. For one thing, calling it ‘mental health’ allows a good  half of the population to think it is nothing to do with them. But everyone has inner life, emotional experience. Our ability to understand and learn from it is a vital part of our human survival kit, as the psychotherapist Wilfred Bion writes;

If a person cannot ‘think’ with his thoughts, that is to say that he has thoughts but lacks the apparatus of ‘thinking’ which enables him to use his thoughts, to think them as it were, then the personality is incapable of learning from experience. This failure is serious. Failure to eat, drink or breathe properly has disastrous consequences for life itself. Failure to use emotional experience produces a comparable disaster in the development of the personality.

W.R.Bion, Learning From Experience

The World Health Organisation tells us that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. We are failing to learn from our own emotional experience partly because we do not have the language to think about it; at best we talk about this stuff in terms of ‘mental health’. But we should be speaking of  ‘human experience’.

That’s why we need great literature – Wordsworth, Kate Beaton, George Herbert, George Eliot, George Saunders, Frank O’Hara, Frank O’Connor, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Anton Chekov, Jeanette Winterson, Tolstoi, Dave McKee, Shirley Hughes, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Jon Klassen, Marilynne Robinson and all the rest of them.

We need great literature and we need to relate to it in a different way. Our current way organising education so often turns it into dead stuff, despite the best efforts of good teachers. Great literature isn’t dead, it is just waiting for readers to make contact. Pupils who are being taught there are correct answers are not readers, they are exam-passers.

As a young mature student of twenty-five, the previously benefits-living single mother of a five-year old child, I first read Wordsworth  in the summer between first and second year when I was thinking of  dropping out of my university course due to class-dislocation. My goodness, but I felt unhappy and out-of-place.I can remember, across a lifetime now, the shock of recognition I felt when I first read these words;

—But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone;
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Though I felt massively excited by these lines, I did not ‘understand’ a word.

I did not know what  the ‘Tree’ was.
I did not know whether the ‘single field’ was real or not.
I did not know why it was a ‘pansy’.

Not knowing doesn’t matter.

Being moved, being touched, being excited in ways you don’t understand is what matters. It leaves you in a place where you can ask questions. And why is asking questions good? Because that’s how we learn!

I did not know what ‘the visionary gleam’ was but I knew I knew about its absence.
I did not know what ‘the glory’ was, nor ‘the dream’ neither, but I knew I missed them both.
The words spoke to some feeling I had and did not understand.
The feeling was about ‘something that is gone’.

There is no amount of on-curriculum study that would have made any of this clearer to me – I had to absorb the questions and realise, over years, that they were clues to hard-to-reach parts of my self. I’ve been reading this poem for thirty-six years. It still works, I still don’t understand it, it still gets me to ask questions!

What we’ve found  in sixteen years of Shared Reading is that  working out feelings and language with other people is easier than doing it on your own. I am grateful to the University curriculum for making me read Wordsworth and I’ve tried to translate that into Shared Reading (don’t just read what you already know and like). Without that looming second-year course on Romantics I’d never have read Wordsworth of my own volition, because it was too far, it seemed from my own experience. But that’s the thing about great writing, it is never far from your own experience. That’s what makes it great.

‘This is for everyone’ made me feel patriotic for the first time ever

I recognised  the Great Britain of the Olympic opening ceremony in a way I hadn’t expected. I recognised a country I  live in and I loved feeling proud of that country. I don’t think that has ever happened to me before, certainly  not on a National Occasion, though once, returning to England after a month in the Cyclades, I  was moved to tears by the greenness of England.

‘Did you love it because it was by Frank?’ asked my husband. He meant ‘Would you have loved the same thing if someone else had been the writer?’

‘No, I loved it because  I love –  feel – a lot of what Frank thinks…’

I don’t remember exactly when Frank Cottrell Boyce told me  he was working on  the Olympics’ Opening Ceremony as the writer on Danny Boyle’s  creative team, only that it was on  a train from Chester  to London, not my usual route, and that he got on at Crewe, not his usual starting place, and that we met in one of those between-compartment-spaces as we both searched for somewhere pick up  signal on the  notoriously poor-coverage Crewe-Stafford section of the track.  I’m not much of a sports fan and to me the Olympics meant little more than a couple of weeks of reduced eye-contact and increased grunting from the males of my family. So I was glad for Frank, but not  very excited by his news, and neither could I imagine what it meant for him as a writer – I mean,  how do you write a ceremony? I imagined troops of synchronised twirlers with  ribbons ( I stopped watching those ceremonies  round about Tokyo).

Since then,  Frankie, the  first and the most devoted Writer-Patron at The Reader Organisation, has let little slip, though we have met several times on the London train, coming or going, as we lay waste our powers in the Capital. Several times he has been, with hindsight, incredibly disciplined:  ‘I can’t tell you a thing. It’s Top Secret.’ ( That should have given me a clue about the Bond element but I was  still mainly   imagining ribbon twirlers). One time a conversation about Shakespeare had  him twisting like a  caught fish on a line and I thought to myself, ‘Blimey – they are  building the opening ceremony on The Tempest! How brilliant!’

Last time we met – which must have been at the inauguration dinner for his Professorship of Reading at Liverpool Hope University, he said something like, ‘It’s all  books.’  I imagined giant books opening but it didn’t seem Olympic so I filed the comment away and we continued our  talked about developing reading  for pleasure in schools….and I sat down to watch the opening ceremony last night feeling curious but expecting boredom or disappointment. I have no patriotism bone, or I live in another country or in my own head, and I don’t like formal shows. They ain’t natural.

Frank, on the other hand, is natural. He’s also a great writer.

I first met Frank  when we chose his novel, Millions, as our Liverpool Reads book in 2005. I’d read the novel, in the lovely original hardback edition with the golden cover, with my son Ben, the summer he left school. At 18, anyone might have thought he was a little old for  Millions, but no – and neither was I –  we started reading it aloud to each other on the motorail train down to the South of France and had to strictly ration ourselves  to a chapter a day. It is a wonderful book, profound and ordinary and funny, which is what Frank is absolutely brilliant at. Profound, ordinary and funny and utterly believing. And there’s the  rub. It was what comes from that  – from believing – that gave this ceremony/performance the  funny, generous,  small-scale, magnificent feeling that I recognised as my country.  It was knowing and witty but it was never cynical or merely clever. In his address, as the ceremony got underway, Danny Boyle said what might have seemed to some a strange thing; ‘I don’t believe in God but I believe in the people who do – this is their show, they really are the best of us.’  I thought of Frank when I read those words in the paper this morning, because all Frank’s work is about believing. In Millions, the power of belief actually changes actual reality.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, Patron of The Reader Organisation, with his novel, Millions

I should have realised, when  Frank  kept keeping his mouth shut on all those trains, that he and the rest of the creative team  would be cooking up something  massively imaginative for everyone. He did tell me it was  going to be massive but I was still thinking ordinary Olympic ceremonies, the unreal worldly realism of   ribbon twirling and uniformed masses marching in time. I should have known there would be none of that. Drumming in time, yes. Dancing, yes. Fond history including Votes for Women (and I was glad to read this morning that at this Games, for the first time ever, all participating countries are fielding women athletes)  and believing music,  Jerusalem and Nimrod and a wonderfully powerful and very quiet  Abide With Me, yes.  What we got was  music, poetry, story and belief.  I loved the sight of  300 apparently sick children jumping joyfully on beds. I loved  the twee pastoral scenes with real sheep and geese and those magnificent carthorses,  crazy Glastonbury Tor and the lovely English Oak atop it. I was hugely moved by the raising of  the industrial northern chimneys,  my chimneys, for I lived in Hyde, Lancashire as a child, and remembered skylines full of those great belchers.  I loved the factory-hands, the  huge numbers of individuals moving only more or less together,  and who were allowed to be individuals, even in the mechanised industrial revolution scenes. I loved  the hammering  Pandemonium of Paradise Lost,  the Blakean furnaces heating up the molten metal into heavenly golden rings. Above all I loved that it was a literary ceremony! It was all about books! The Olympic cauldron  was out of Dante’s Paradiso, surely? the whole of everything comes together in one enormous flower-like fire?

I prefer  the C.H. Sission translation, published by Oxford University Press in the World’s Classics series.

I saw gathered there in the depths of it,

Bound up by love into a single volume,

all the leaves scattered through the Universe;

Substance and accidents and their relations,

But yet fused together in such a manner

That what I am talking of  is a simple light

At this high point my imagination failed;

But already my desire and my will

Were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
By the love which moves the sun and the other stars.

Perhaps most of all I loved the appearance of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, with the message ‘This is for everyone’ in lights behind him. Why did I find that so hugely moving?

The decision to let the future, represented by those 7 apparently anonymous young athletes, light the fire in the Olympic cauldron avoided a single celebrity handover, and cleverly prevented splitting the nation into Beckhamites and Redgravites, but will also have been an image of  the collaborative creative process  in which Frank, Danny and their colleagues have been engaged. I remember seeing the pair of them on stage at a filmfest, discussing the making of Millions before a screening of the film. Any advice for young film-makers, someone in the audience asked. Yes, said Danny: pick your team, get a band together, have good mates.

‘And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make’ sang Sir Paul, the lyrics totally overcoming my mild irritation that such a hammy  old trouper should be closing the show. It was a like the perfectly positioned quotation that sets a tone around everything else that has been written. Love and belief, belief and love, with Frank Cottrell Boyce at  the writer’s keyboard, of course they were the key words. The show made me glad to be British – a phrase I never thought to use. Thanks, Frank.