‘You Are Tennyson’s Mouthpiece’ : a great poem by Dennis Haskell

It’s a short post today as I must get out early to catch the 7.47am London train to meet with some very interesting colleagues, supporters and potential new friends.

Yesterday I was remembering the way Tennyson’s poem, Crossing The Bar, had made me realise how powerful poetry could be once it had escaped the long-distance handling of University teaching and learning. Out of the educational context it was a different beast, dangerously alive!  Of course, it  always was dangerously alive for me as a private reader. And in some lectures and tutorials  something powerful did happen ( I mentioned Brian Nellist, my tutor yesterday. Meet him here, but be careful, it  starts with some strong swearing) but mainly, no… university tutorials were rarely the right place to share those personal experiences that made my private reading of  literature so rewarding. Why? Lots of the students were too young and shy, seemed mortified, dumbstruck, or scared of losing their best ideas to someone else. They made a lot of notes but not much noise. And lots of the tutors were strange-ish folk, and seemed equally socially uneasy, some of them dumbstruck, some terrible show-offs. So University tutorials were not, on the whole, occasions on which  to share one’s deepest thoughts. We kept ourselves to ourselves, or, if you were me, you talked too much and  felt an idiot in a different way.

When I started ‘Get Into Reading’ in 2002, I started with years of adult education teaching  behind me, and behind that, my having grown up in a pub, and having been a barmaid, a waitress. There’s a necessary human ease you have to find in those jobs, and it turns out, if you mix that barmaid and waitress, (not restricted to those professions: could be that kindly physiotherapist or creative midwife quality, or the quality of the man in B+Q who helps you find the spiggot without making you feel an idiot) with really great literature you get the most amazing firework mixture.

Over many years along with my colleagues at The Reader – both  staff and volunteers – I have been amazed by the power of poetry to ‘touch’, ‘strike’, ‘move’, ‘get’ and ‘hit’ people  – these interesting verbs come from readers trying to explain what is happening to them as they read.

A great poem about this effect sits alongside Tennyson’s poem in Phil’s out of print ( buy it on amazon for only 1p!) anthology, All The Days of My Life. That’s one of the great things about this  book – the setting together of different poems so that they form a kind of context for each other.

I didn’t have time to write to ask permission to use it here, so you will have to go Dennis Haskell’s own site. Read it aloud.  Take a tissue. I have  found myself moved to tears when reading this (with the Tennyson poem alongside) in Shared Reading groups. In fact I’ve just cried now, rereading it for the first time in several years.

You’ll find Dennis Haskell’s wonderful poem, ‘One Clear Call’  here. The poem sets out what happens when the human situation really makes the words come alive in all their wild animal power.

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Early experiences in Shared Reading: Crossing the Bar

crossing

Today’s poem is an important one for me because, quite aside from its moving power in its own right,  it characterises my move from University English to Shared Reading and The Reader.

I don’t say, as I nearly did,  my move from the University to  the real world, because a University is as real as anything else, and is certainly part of ‘the world’  –  in fact you might say, the world is too much in them, to borrow and change a line from Wordsworth.

Before, during and after University  I  was a personal reader, and for that I have to thank my outsider status and the Women’s Movement of the 1970s. ‘The personal is political’ was one of our slogans  a key thought for me, and I took it with me when I moved away from the radical feminism from which I had gained so much. ( ‘War is Menstrual Envy’ was another slogan that I loved, for some reason particularly annoying my very few male friends).

I don’t remember ‘the personal is political’ being applied to book-reading in the Women’s movement – there was a lot of heavy political theory there, as everywhere. But we read everything women had written, novels, poetry in order to try to build up a sense of a womens’ tradition. Through novels and poetry I got the personal experience of women, and at interview for University the exasperated inquisitor  asked me crossly, ‘Haven’t you read any books by men?’

Being a ‘personal reader’  in a University English department in the period 1980-2002 was no mean feat. People were trying to make literature part of the social and political sciences, to make it inhuman, de-personalised (and therefore perhaps budgetarily defensible, not a softee humanities thing  but hard as science, a brother to theoretical physics or plastics engineering). They were not happy times and I’m afraid the effect still lingers. I was lucky in that my teacher at University, Mr Brian Nellist  (I had others, but he was The One, and you can meet him here) was an old-fashioned non-theoretical reader, and he encouraged me to be one myself, and to read as myself, rather than always in terms of women and men. Though by then, I had stopped being motivated by gender inequality. Perhaps need to think more about that another time.

I did not have a Theory of Reading. I did not want to be self-conscious about my reading,  I just wanted to read literature and see what happened, what I could learn, what touched me, what I cared about.  Brian encouraged me, both as my third year tutor and as my Ph.D supervisor to to do that, finding out stuff that was useful and interesting to me. Essentially, he laid out this huge buffet of literature and said let’s walk up and down this, and see what strikes your fancy.

Even so, what happened was at a formal distance. I’d like to think more about what that means another time.

But to the poem. When I first began to have the idea of taking ‘great literature out of the university and into the hands of people who need it’ (not a snappy slogan but mine own) I had no idea of the power of the stuff I was going to unleash. Despite reading personally myself since I was child, and despite having chosen pieces that I thought most adults would find moving, I wasn’t prepared for tears. In nearly twenty years in the University, I had never seen anyone moved to tears by a poem.

In the very first shared reading groups, which were called ‘Get Into Reading’ (there were two, on different days of the week, one at Ganneys Meadow Early Years Centre, on Woodchurch Estate, and one at the Community College on Laird Street, Birkenhead. Both mixed, open community groups) and before that, before 2000, in the prototype experimental groups I ran before the Get Into Reading , which took place in St Cath’s Hospital Birkenhead and in Waterstones, Bold Street, Liverpool,  I read this poem.

Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 In each group as I read, someone was moved to tears. In Waterstones’ after work reading group, a nurse who had come straight from Arrow Park hospital filled up with tears as I read. She said it was the line, ‘But such a tide as moving seems asleep’, which had got to her, because her Dad had died  when she was a teenager, and when he was alive they used to walk sometimes along the riverside and the tide…poetic image and reality had crashed together for her. Nothing has ever put it into words, she said, as if seeing ‘ it’ in words had caused the release of tears.

There are things you need to know (what a bar is, how it functions, what a pilot is in harbour terms…) to understand the poem but like all great poems, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know them. The music of the poem will carry most listeners far.

What is interesting to me as I look at it this morning is how Tennyson, writing about death, (all the people who cried in those early groups spoke of someone they loved who had died: the poem seemed to speak to them of particular deaths) is actually writing about, anticipating, his own death. Yet the poem reads – sounds – like an elegy for another. Or perhaps it simply touches all death by thinking of one particular one.

The ‘one clear call’ of the opening line is open to much interpretation. People in Shared Reading groups have said to me over the years, that it might be any kind of sign, just something that reminds you of mortality. The ‘call’ is now but the death is in the future;

And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea

As I read these lines, they are coloured for me by the people I have read the poem with over many years –  the nurse (cannot remember her name) and Dorrie at Ganneys Meadow and a young woman with blond hair in the Laird Street group, and others. I think also of my own death – so much closer  now that when I read the poem in Ganneys Meadow, and the need for ‘no moaning’ seems more real and more pressing. Of course, ‘moaning of the bar’  in purely linguistic terms may be the noise made by waves  crashing against ‘the bar’ – the sandbar built up by currents in a harbour mouth or estuary… but is anything in a poem ever purely linguistic?  A word in a language  is like a bundle of sticks, a bundle of meanings (whose thought is this, please?). We put the sticks in the bundle according to our experience, memory. So I may  partly think of waves crashing far out in the  estuary, partly of my own complaining, partly of the sobbing of a bereaved friend.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

The poem, for all its sadness, is a brave one. ‘when I put out to sea’ does not feel like the end but rather a beginning.  It is a brave setting out on adventure, however terrifying.  The fact that the first two stanzas are one sentence seems to matter – there is no full stop after sea, but thethought caries on, after the line ending, after the ending of the stanza. and the second stanza is full of comfort.

But it is time to stop! oh dear. More tomorrow.

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.

If a library houses books, what kind of building makes a home for readers?

abbaye-tholonet-05-1

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.

 

Marilynne Robinson touching a beech tree in Sefton Park the day I cooked Scouse for her.
Marilynne Robinson touching a beech tree in Sefton Park the day I cooked Scouse for her.

 

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.

Calderstones Mansion House, where we will build the International Centre for Reading and Wellbeing
Calderstones Mansion House, where we will build the International Centre for Reading and Wellbeing

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*Dear Reading Billionaire, even so we’d still like some money

Lifesavers

In June 1983, at the age of 27, I sat in the garden of the Albert pub in Lark Lane with Brian Nellist, who had been my third year tutor at University and told him, ‘I want to teach adults to read.’

My degree, First Class honours, top of my year, was the first success I had had in the world. I was a not-very-mature mature student about to start her adult life.

The day the results came out my ex-partner committed suicide.  I had ended our relationship – which involved a lot of drugs and drink – so as to be able to concentrate on my degree. I was left with a terrible sense that I had to make my life count for something – that the thing I had chosen, ‘literature’, had to pay.

Within 3 years my mother would die of alcoholism. These two deaths were utterly significant in the much later development of The Reader Organisation. They seemed to stack up an equation – what life is, and how you value it, what matters, what things cost.

In the pub garden that sunny day, Brian persuaded me that instead of becoming an adult literacy tutor, I should do a Ph.D. I took his advice and the three years I spent writing my thesis, Visionary Realism: from George Eliot to Doris Lessing laid down the foundations of my adult life. I became a university teacher of literature. My desire to ‘teach adults to read’ stayed stubbornly put, however and I taught Adult Continuing Education for the next 20 years.

I had no ambitions and absolutely no sense that I could affect the world in any way, nor would I want to. I thought the world wasn’t very good, and I didn’t respect it very much.

As I look at memories of what I felt at that time, it seemed that the most important thing was to make a small good world around myself, immediately – in my house, with my family, in classes I taught.

That was the world I could affect. I had to make my own life pay – I felt – for those two lives which, if I had if not actively taken, I had not been able to save. This has always been at the back of my sense of my own adult life and behind my teaching or sharing of literature. Can it help?

For a long time, I wanted to be a writer. Finishing my Ph.D.  had taught me that I could complete things, so for many years each day I got up at 5.00am and wrote. I wrote six novels during this period, none of them publishable, but all important to me: I was remaking the world in images I chose. I wrote stories of people whose lives had been smashed up, whose worlds were broken. And  then I taught literature, part-time, to adults. Being an unpublished novelist was a sad state (though I didn’t care a jot for a long time:  I just had to write), but it served as a sort of preparation for the hard slog that would become The Reader Organisation: I was learning to believe in and to build structures. It was a fifteen-year apprenticeship in not giving up.

During this long and intensely private period of my life a traumatic event took place.  I felt the world, the cosmos, was broken. Literature, in this period, assisted me – as breathing apparatus assists in a major fire. I can remember reading Psalm 91 when I was so frightened that, night after night, I was scared to go to sleep:

          He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.

Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler,

and from the noisome pestilence.

He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust:

his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.

Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;

nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness;

nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.

I did not, do not, ‘believe in god’ in any sense that a person with a formed  religious faith would recognise. Yet I needed those words  – ‘fortress ‘ ‘deliver thee’  ‘snare of the fowler’. The words met me in my place of terror and offered –what? Recognition? Language?

They are ancient words, words to  which people, for more than two thousand years, have turned in their terrors.  Unable to sleep, I took comfort from those countless human beings, and the words to which they had turned. The verses seemed to offer structure, shape, and yes, refuge. I liked reading them aloud. They gave me, in the deepest sense, comfort.  And it was a surprise – I had no idea those poems, The Psalms, were still alive.

Many other books also helped me – the entire works of George Eliot (including the nine volumes of her Letters). Shakespeare. The Assistant by Bernard Malamud. Shikasta and The Sirian Experiments by Doris Lessing.  The works of Russell Hoban. Poetry, starting with Chaucer and going as far as my dear old friend Les Murray’s An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow, and probably further. George Herbert. Paradise Lost. The Prelude and everything else by Wordsworth.  These books gave me back my inner and outer experiences in words and sentences, feelings and thoughts, images, worlds, cosmologies, voices, languages.  They gave me meanings which matched what I already – wordlessly – knew.

The Reader Organisation has grown out of and from the wonderful compost of sadnesses, ruins, breakages, losses and terrors of my own real life and the lives of others I have known.

When I started my mission (‘great books out of the university and into the hands of people who need them’) in 2002, it was with the intent of passing on this strong, life-saving stuff to others.  Having felt the true weight of the trouble many humans, most humans, have to live through, the seriousness of needing some strong help really comes home.  Of course there is lightweight reading, and some people are lucky enough to live on the surface most of the time. Let them continue to bob along happily, reading for pleasure.  But many of us are shipwrecked, drowning. We are reading, like the child Davy in David Copperfield, ‘as if for life’. Is that reading for  pleasure? Is it bibliotherapy? These are not the right words but no matter, so long as they bring us what we need.  We need lifesavers, the great books.

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This blog is based on a talk I gave to colleagues at  The Reader Organisation’s ThinkDay,  July 2013

2013-07-22 16.00.21We combined ThinkDay with Sportsday, as we have a garden at Calderstones Mansion. Picture shows Team A lining up for their innings in a very competitive game of rounders.

Cheap Beans: Food for Thought

Chris Catterall, TRO's managing director, preparing a Reader Lunch, in the Olden Days
Chris Catterall, TRO’s managing director, preparing a Reader Lunch, in the Olden Days

We’ve been recruiting a Hospitality Manager for The Reader Organisation this week and I’ve been thinking a lot about the food/reading analogy. Everyone we interviewed rightly talked about quality being the key to whatever we eventually offer at Calderstones Mansion and elsewhere, and one person spoke about the need to offer something for everyone. We often say of The Reader’s shared reading groups that one size really does fit all: we’ve got a model that works across the human board. Can we do that with the events and food, the venue and shop we’re going to develop at Calderstones Mansion? Candidates we interviewed were also thinking about the people who might come to connect with us at Calderstones, and what they are used to eating and visiting right now.

‘How do you chose what to read in your shared reading groups?’ is the question I am asked most often.

There is very often an implicit anxiety there: are you imposing your cultural values on readers? Are you making people read great literature when really they’d prefer something else?

A shared reading group is like a pop-up restaurant: you may chose from the menu or there may be (often at the beginning of a group) no choice, just one straight offer, one dish. I often take one short story with me to start a new group, just as I did with the very first Get Into Reading group. No choice. But an established group may devise all kinds of ways of  deciding what to read – perhaps raffling the  names of Shakespeare plays….But yes… the menu has always been devised by someone with some particular quality-based thinking behind the choices.

Any foodie will tell you that great food is to do with the quality: the freshness of the ingredients and the skill of the cook. But what individuals like is a different matter because that’s to do with taste, and taste is often to do with habit, with what we’ve learned, with education.

You can produce your slow-cooked organic bacon, fresh herb and molasses home-baked beans, but I may prefer the cheap, mass-produced, low quality ValueBrand I am used to. To me, they are great. I like the taste sensations produced by the saccharin and nitrates. Getting me to try your fancy beans is a matter not of legislation but of tempting me to change my habits, a personal project. (Although if the nitrates are proven to be carcinogenic, there may be legislation in the long run…) So, is leaving me with my ValueBrand beans acceptance of cultural diversity or educational neglect? Does quality matter, or is it merely a question of taste?

My early reading life included acres of probably these days unpalatable Sci-Fi and everything ever written by Agatha Christie. Or Enid Blyton, to take a perhaps more contentious writer. I loved that stuff and no one should have stopped me reading it – even if only because I was enjoying my own imagination, the power of plot, and developing my reading habit. But why did I choose them? Partly because, as people say of mountains, they were there. They were there in the school library and at home. Along with Denis Wheatley and Jean Plaidy and those Dick Frances thrillers about horse racing. I read them all. And the among the unpalatable Sci-Fi were some good books -and the development of a taste which eventually led me to Last and First Men, Shikasta and works like Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy (a long literary story but it was all one journey). But if the little bookcase in our sitting room had contained Dickens as well as Denis Wheatley – would I have read them?

As I write, I am suddenly remembering that an old lady my grandmother cleaned for gave me two beautifully bound, gold-tooled Dickens volumes and I loved them – they looked gorgeous. Our Mutual Friend and, I think, David Copperfield. I tried to read Our Mutual Friend but I couldn’t. It was too hard. I’d have been maybe ten, maybe twelve. I don’t think I ever tried David Copperfield. I wonder now what would have happened if someone had read them to me?

I kept those books for years – may even still have one of them – and I don’t think I ever read them in those particular edtiions (though I read most of Dickens later, as a university student or teacher). Yet I was disposed to love them. I couldn’t digest them; I could barely take a mouthful. I needed the enthusiasm of some lover of Dickens, some believer, to tempt me into trying them. Just as I now tempt people who think they really don’t like Sci-Fi to try, let’s say, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (consider pulp fiction, the literary equivalent of junk food, for so long and in some quarters, still).  Or to try Pastoralia by the magnificent George Saunders. A strange, strong taste, but worth cultivating.

Pastoralia

Meg, Mog and Middlemarch

Photo on 13-09-2013 at 06.14

The Institute of Education’s recent report into Reading for Pleasure  indicates that reading for pleasure between the ages 10-16 affects cognitive power, giving readers better results even in non-language based subjects such as maths. The study allows for socio-economic influences, and seems to point to reading for pleasure as a greater indicator of educational success that whether or not your parents went to university. It looks as if it comes down, causally, down to increased vocabulary. Or is that a outcome of something else?

I was delighted to receive a copy of the draft report from Dr Alice Sullivan, and I’m looking forward to giving it my full attention over the coming weekend. My initial scanning glance set a couple of thoughts off . First, is it about vocabulary – greater power to communicate – or is that a sign of some other, deeper, structural  development? Need to read the paper properly to see what  the researchers are saying. and  secondly,  do we have to call it reading for pleasure? I have reluctantly accepted this misnomer for  years, simply because there seems no other word or phrase for it. But ‘pleasure’ is not good enough. I read pleasure as ‘trip to Alton Towers’ (though have to admit, I’ve never been). But reading is more like ‘expedition to Kilimanjaro’. Would you call that order of experience ‘pleasure’? Pleasure may be in it, but there is also trial, testing, pain, failure, exhilaration, defeat, new start, amazing sights, bleakness, terror, joy etc. Alton Towers is  a cheap simulacrum. So what is the  word for what we do when we read  hard stuff ? And why, uncompelled, would anyone read the hard stuff?

For more than twenty-five years, while I was studying and teaching literature, my job was to read, to think about what I had read, and to talk to people about that. It’s a terrible thing to admit, but I struggled to imagine why readers found it difficult to get into reading complex books, and sometimes thought it a failure of will: they just didn’t really want to. But here I am, wanting to reread George Eliot for the first time in seven or eight years, and finding it difficult to concentrate: hard paragraphs in Middlemarch shout less than the need to sort new staff contracts. I am going to have to devise some regular daily plan for attentive reading, because these days, like most other adults, I haven’t got the concentration at the end of the day.

You might say, why bother? Isn’t the active life as important as the contemplative? Yes, and having founded The Reader Organisation – a great experiment involving people and books – I am choosing the active during this part of my life, and enjoying it, too. All the same I am beginning to feel the need for some element of the contemplative life. It might come from meditation, or study, or prayer or perhaps even as the by-product of a very long walk, but contemplation’s serious thinking, imagining and feeling also arises in the course of reading a complex novel or epic poem. This accosting kind of thought is a natural function of being human: babies and small children are concentrating in this way most of the time – building thought-models of reality.

On the mantelshelf I have two brass cauldrons, about the size of small tangerines, gently dented by three generations of play. They have a minutely serrated rim, which you only become aware of when you pick them up. Holding one now, running my finger around that rim, I re-feel the pleasure I had in those serrations when the cauldrons sat on my grandparents’ mantelpiece. I also feel a sense of the mild fear I had of the legs of the things: sharp fat brass pencil points. Sniffing them, I remember their thin, high-metallic smell and I am back in the living room of my grandparents’ house, where we went after school for tea and stories and toast. We often had the light off, to save electricity. In the dark, the cauldrons shone in the light thrown by the coal fire.

That kind of relation to those cauldrons is what the great human scientist George Eliot is talking about in The Mill on The Floss, when Tom comes home from his boarding school for the first time, and enjoys the vivid return of things that have always been there:

The happiness of seeing the bright light in the parlour at home, as the gig passed noiselessly over the snow-covered bridge; the happiness of passing from the cold air to the warmth and the kisses and the smiles of that familiar hearth, where the pattern of the rug and the grate and the fire-irons were ‘first ideas’ that it was no more possible to criticise than the solidity and extension of matter.

This is hard writing because it requires us to actively participate, not simply to absorb. As modern readers, we generally read too fast: but here you need to read as you would in a book of scientific thinking, Freud or Darwin. You need to concentrate and slow down and come alive to it. Look at that seamless passing from a child’s reported experience, ‘seeing the bright light… the snow-covered bridge… warmth and kisses’ to the complicated thought about the nature of a child’s experience:

the pattern of the rug and the grate and the fire-irons were ‘first ideas’ that it was no more possible to criticise than the solidity and extension of matter.

If you don’t actively follow these words as you read, you will soon be lost. From the description of Tom loving being home, George Eliot brings in a hypothetical general law of human being: what surrounds us in early childhood sets a pattern which lasts into adult life. We may choose other rugs, other fire-irons when we are older, but we are built up out of the feelings that we attached to those early objects and experiences of our childhood:

There is no sense of ease like the ease we felt in those scenes where we were born, where objects became dear to us before we had known the labour of choice, and where the outer world seemed only an extension of our own personality; we accepted and loved it as we accepted our own sense of existence and our own limbs … And there is no better reason for preferring this (particular thing) than that it stirs an early memory; that it is no novelty in my life, speaking to me merely through my present sensibilities to form and color, but the long companion of my existence, that wove itself into my joys when joys were vivid.

There is wonderful sense of what contemporary thinkers would call ‘wellbeing’ here: a sense of a unified life where feelings and objects and time are bound together in one person, through joy. I would never choose to buy these cauldrons in a shop. They do not speak to me ‘through my present sensibilities to form and color’; they are not my style. I love them partly because they are mixed with memories of my grandparents, of the fire, and the toast and their love, of things I felt when my joys ‘were vivid’. They give me that elusive thing: wellbeing.

I am now the grandmother who has these cauldrons on her mantelpiece. My grandson (two years, nine months) is in the bath playing with a plastic tea-set. This is a creative experimental process and Leo is full of earnest concentration as he tries to float the cups and fill them with water, as he watches the water pass effortlessly through a sieve but less effortlessly through a small colander. His favourite word at the moment is ‘more!’ He wants things repeated ad infinitum because he needs to see them many times in order to establish them as realities, strong possibilities, likelihoods in his mind. This is a sort of scientific enquiry.

But it is time to get out. The water is getting cold, his fingers are beginning to shrivel, and the adults want to eat supper in adult peace, after he has gone to bed. None of that matters to Leo. When I suggest ‘out’ he’s still enjoying this fabulous experiment. He cries out in frustration and distress, ‘Not yet! Not yet!’

‘Not yet’ is a language spell that allows him to hold back the reality principle for a moment and continue what he is doing – and sometimes it works. But not now: our needs are more pressing; we want to eat.

He’s furious when I lift him out, screams ‘Not yet! Not yet!’ over and over and finally subsides into body-racking sobs as his mother and I rub him down and get his pyjamas on. When we are in the bedroom, I offer a story and the sobs stop: suddenly everything is different.

We open the book. It’s one of Jan Pienkowski’s Meg and Mog stories. The witch and her cat are making a spell but something is going terribly wrong. There are explosions. ‘Where’s Mog?’ I ask him and he points to the cat. ‘Where’s the cauldron?’ Leo points to the cauldron. ‘What’s Meg putting in the cauldron?’ I ask him and he recites the list of spell ingredients. He is altogether caught up in the discovered world.

In the bath-experiment, Leo was actively manipulating objects and forces – water, gravity, plastic. While part of his intelligence was involved in creating the experiment, part was engaged in observing it and another part in thinking about it. But with the book there is nothing for him to do physically, the concentration is total: all his energy goes into the observing and thinking about what he is observing. The book it is all here: the pictures and words present a created universe with experiments going on (as in George Eliot). What we have to do – our part – is to observe, meditate, reflect. Well, my dear reader, Leo in the bath is a model of a person living a life in the world. You are busy. Things happen, you try to work them out, a lot’s happening at once, some of it incomprehensible. Only part of your mind can ever be on the experience because most of your mind is doing, making, acting. And without the thinking, meditative self it is finally just chaos: we must think.

The book is a selective, ordered model of reality. It is easier to see here: things slow down; we can concentrate on one thing at a time. This may be the key aspect of reading and the reason that the read-aloud, shared reading we have developed over the past 13 years at The Reader Organisation, (whole books read aloud slowly over time in a group) is so powerful. It allows us to be here now, to keep a concentrated mindfulness going. If I were reading Middlemarch in a Get Into Reading group with other concentrated people, I would be getting a lot more out of it than I am on my sleepy own late at night.

The next day when we are lighting the sitting room fire (coal, real fire, sticks and paper), Leo looks up and sees one of the brass cauldrons – notices it for what must be the first time.

‘Cauldron?’ he says, as if to himself.

‘Cauldron,’ he says again as if checking the brass reality with his mental image from the last night’s book. Then again, more confidently, he asserts: ‘Cauldron.’ reaching for it now. I can see he is remembering Meg and Mog. I observe his fingers touch the serrated edge. He looks at the coal and mis-guesses brilliantly ‘Coal-dron’. He’s not right but he is making his world, an active presence, made more active by the book. Making me more active, too: I do not know the etymology of ‘cauldron’. I look it up.

What Leo has done: read a book, thought about it deeply, not really understood it all (because he did not know what a cauldron was in actuality) but he has got from that experience a template, a shape, a map, a set of pointers about life. Going back into life, he is able to recognise something he learned in the book (cauldron). He has been a creative reader and he has experienced a bigger reality because of the book. This is exactly what is happening, albeit in a more complex way, to me as I read George Eliot. That section about Tom coming home in The Mill on the Floss cleared a space in me and filled it with a thought-shape which was later filled out by Leo and cauldron. Books go forwards into our experience as well as backwards: they anticipate things you might know or understand later as well as things you know now, which is why we should all read books that are too hard or too old for us sometimes.

The New Economics Foundation has formulated 5 Ways to Wellbeing. One of them is ‘Take Notice’. Books build our capacity to do that. I must make more time for reading.

 This post is a slightly extended version of an article that appeared in The Reader No.37 (Spring 2010)

 

http://www.thereader.org.uk/

http://www.neweconomics.org/projects/five-ways-well-being

http://www.skyarts.co.uk/video/video-jan-pienkowski-on-the-book-show/