The Winter’s Tale Day 10: A State Visit, Old Friends or an Affair?

Myrtle in the back garden – literally buzzing with bees – you can’t see them but there are hundreds 11 July 2018

If you are new to this group, welcome – it’s a  reading of Shakespeare’s great play about a man who wrecks his own life and lives with the consequences.  And life  in various ways mends itself and comes back to him.

Look up The Winter’s Tale in the search box to get the feel of how we’re  reading and what’s been happening. Find a text of the play here.

Last time, we were reading the moment when Hermione takes on the challenge of persuading Polixenes to stay longer. We’re in Act 1 Scene 2.  Leontes has failed to persuade Polixenes to stay a little longer and  has asked his Queen, Hermione, to try to win him. This she has done, by entreaty, gentle word play, perhaps a little flirting. We’re going to have to decide how much flirting…And we have to remember Leontes, standing near but not in the conversation, watching it unfold.

As the not-so-State-visit of the Unmentionable has unfolded before our eyes this last few days, I couldn’t help remember the play, these moments of strange cross-over between public and state affairs and the private. Look at photos of various bits of hand-holding.

But, back to the text! Let’s just read the next section:


Your guest, then, madam:
To be your prisoner should import offending;
Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.


Not your gaoler, then,
But your kind hostess. Come, I’ll question you
Of my lord’s tricks and yours when you were boys:
You were pretty lordings then?


We were, fair queen,
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
And to be boy eternal.


Was not my lord
The verier wag o’ the two?


We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,
And bleat the one at the other: what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream’d
That any did. Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne’er been higher rear’d
With stronger blood, we should have answer’d heaven
Boldly ‘not guilty;’ the imposition clear’d
Hereditary ours.

By this we gather
You have tripp’d since.

O my most sacred lady!
Temptations have since then been born to’s; for
In those unfledged days was my wife a girl;
Your precious self had then not cross’d the eyes
Of my young play-fellow.

Grace to boot!
Of this make no conclusion, lest you say
Your queen and I are devils: yet go on;
The offences we have made you do we’ll answer,
If you first sinn’d with us and that with us
You did continue fault and that you slipp’d not
With any but with us.

Is he won yet?

He’ll stay my lord.

At my request he would not.

A good example of thinking about how much you might read ahead in a Shared Reading session. I’m the world’s slowest reader, except where I need to speed up in order to show or experience the run of the action. That’s what I’d do here, speed up – because I want my group to know where we are heading – that terrible, childish, petulant line ‘At my request he would not.’

This is the point at which Leontes  really begins to lose himself and his grip on reality.

I want the serious reality of this terrible moment live in the room before we go slowly through more verbal play from Polixenes. I want to get this moment in the room, because it sets an emotional tone and kind of background to what we are going to read.  So, as in a poem, we’re reading  not just a linear narrative but back and forth, up and down the ines.

A question someone asked me recently: how do you know  when to glide over and not be too bothered about not understanding things and when to slow down and work at it?

Let’s read the opening again:


Your guest, then, madam:
To be your prisoner should import offending;
Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.

This is a moment of slightly complex or hard to easily get language that anyone might think – what? Not sure what he’s just said.  I’d glide here –  the first line contains the real meaning: he’s going to stay.  but just for interest, what does the next bit, which takes three lines, mean?

The word ‘import’ is an odd one here –  one of the reasons an ear unfamiliar with Shakespearean language would or might be  put off…but it just means, bring in, doesn’t it? Hhhm, not quite. Import as in suggest?  To be a  prisoner suggests you’ve committed an offence, that’s the import of it. I’m going to look the verb up in the good old Etymological Dictionary.

early 15c., “signify, show, bear or convey in meaning,” from Latin importare “bring in, convey, bring in from abroad,” from assimilated form of in- “into, in” (from PIE root *en “in”) + portare “to carry,” from PIE root *per-(2) “to lead, pass over.”

So that is  why Polixenes speaks of  a crime Hermione might punish: prisoner signifies offence.

And the next bit? A bit of harmless flirting, harmless wit, wordplay…

Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.

meaning – harder for me to commit a crime against you, than you to punish it.

But if you were looking for a hidden meaning (as Leontes, watching, may be – look at him! ) it might mean, I’d never do anything against you, but you could hurt me. It might mean that. Might not. We’ll have to wait and see. Is Leontes waiting to see?

Whatever it is, Hermione floats over this and turns the subject and lays down a line:


Not your gaoler, then,
But your kind hostess. Come, I’ll question you
Of my lord’s tricks and yours when you were boys:
You were pretty lordings then?

She’s saying: I’m your hostess. That’s it. Nothing more. Tell me about your childhoods, your boyhood friendship.

I wonder about Leontes, what is he doing right now? What do we see on his face?  – is this another ‘not a jar o’the clock behind what lady she her lord?’ – is she deliberately appeasing him? And that word ‘come’ implies a turning away – if you’ve got to be Hermione, on a stage, physical, are you  moving at that point? Are  yo taking Polixenes arm? Holding your hand out?

Oh dear times up, more next time.

Silas Marner Day 41: George Eliot and George Saunders: Live Human Being


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It’s not human, but it’s sure a live presence: unidentified plant, Zakynthos, July 2018

Long time since I read and wrote on Silas Marner.  (See that previous post here )I’ve been away from my routine, such as it is,  and latterly I’ve been even further away – having a long swim and lot of sleep and reading in  lovely Zakynthos, which I found a land of  great plants, generous hospitality and welcome, fine courgettes and  the cooking of courgettes.

I asked our host, Demetrios, why Zakynthos has two names (sometimes Zakynthos, sometimes Zante) and he replied, Let’s start with the bigger picture… Why does  Greece have two names? Hellas (as the Greeks call it) and Greece (from the Latin, as the Romans called it…) Ah, there was time there for slow answers.

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Courgette Balls, home-made  by Maria at Dopia’s House,  Vasilikos, Zakynthos

I didn’t do much apart from read and swim and in the cool evenings walk to Dopia’s House for fine home  cooking and a visit to the one of the  three village shops. But I did think, when I get back, I will re-establish my daily reading and writing practice. So here we go.

I look back and see I last read and wrote about Silas Marner on the 30th April.  Hoooo.  That’s not good.

Silas was in my mind because before I went on holiday a much-respected colleague told me she was reading Silas Marner, but she didn’t say ‘reading’, she said ‘getting through’, which made me think she was finding it hard going, and when I asked her, she said she was…Which made me think ‘most people would find it hard going’.  Which made me think, ‘how could it not be like that?’ And it’s such a wonderful book –  what a shame to be put off by the slow opening chapters, or the ongoing problem of it being hard-to-get-through.

Reading aloud with others would help, because one of the hard-to-get through things is the  length and complexity of sentences. That is made easier by the slowness and added concentration of reading aloud. Another – the long-ago-ness.  Shared Reading would help share the strangeness – you’d ask each other questions about hand-loom weavers and poultices and the like. Another, things to do with tone. Tone is still hard to get right in reading aloud, but it is more likely to be got right by your voice when voiced than when read silently.

In my experience, when you are reading something hard-to-get-through in your head two things happen – you drift away from the hard sentences and don’t absorb them, and you lose sense of the longer rhythms of meaning which are often about tone of voice.  Recently, have I had this experience with George Saunders  prize-winning novel, Lincoln in The Bardo.

I like to think of myself as George Saunder’s greatest fan, so it’s not easy to admit I found that novel hard going.  I was, like my colleague, getting through it, because I wanted to, because I love George Saunders, because it is his first full-length novel and I wanted it to be great. I wanted to love it. I didn’t want to give up on it. I wanted to get it!  But I couldn’t concentrate enough to make it come to life.

So I was delightful to I find Audible has a brilliant recording, with many great voices.  And that got me into it.  The recording  fails a little in that it records all the  historical research notes, which in a written text you’d pass over, and they got in the way during my listening… but even so, listening  broke the book open for me, and got the tone and voices in my head.  So I was sorry to see so many disappointed and perplexed reviews on the Audible page –  this is just not a good a starting place for getting to know George Saunders.  Disappointed readers/listeners: start with  the short story collections – I’ve written about them, in passing, before:  Pastoralia, Tenth of December.

I’m going to have some downtime in August when I will be having an operation on my foot. Have been stockpiling things to read, and will add Lincoln In The Bardo to that pile, as I think it is time for a re-read.

But meanwhile, back to Silas. Last time I was writing about George Eliot as a kind of pre-psychology psychologist, working out how human minds work. Thinking about Nancy Lammeter and  her husband Godfrey Cass. We’d been reading about Godfrey’s desire to adopt  Eppie (his own child, though no one but he knows it), and his inability to imagine Silas’ feelings;

It seemed an eminently appropriate thing to Godfrey, for reasons that were known only to himself; and by a common fallacy, he imagined the measure would be easy because he had private motives for desiring it. This was rather a coarse mode of estimating Silas’s relation to Eppie; but we must remember that many of the impressions which Godfrey was likely to gather concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means; and he had not had the opportunity, even if he had had the power, of entering intimately into all that was exceptional in the weaver’s experience. It was only the want of adequate knowledge that could have made it possible for Godfrey deliberately to entertain an unfeeling project: his natural kindness had outlived that blighting time of cruel wishes, and Nancy’s praise of him as a husband was not founded entirely on a wilful illusion.

This is interesting, isn’t it?  We’d probably be naturally inclined to want to cross Godfrey off – to  set him up as a no-good-nik, and take no notice of  his inner workings. But that, George Eliot feels, would be a mistake; her big premise is, it’s better to try to understand people we are not naturally sympathetic to.

What do we learn here?  Godfrey, as posh person, doesn’t have an opportunity to realise poor people have feelings in the same way he has:

we must remember that many of the impressions which Godfrey was likely to gather concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means

Some radical education would be needed to overcome this  natural seeming state of social affairs. Godfrey doesn’t know these people, doesn’t mix with them, doesnt meet them, talk to them.

It’s all very well, for me as a twenty-first century middle class  Guardian-reader, being outraged that a posh landed gentry type didn’t know what it meant to be one of his own villagers. But then I think back to before The Reader and ask myself how much time I actually spent with homeless multiply addicted young men living with psychosis before I began reading in hostels and rehabs?  I  give the pseudonym  ‘Jay’ to one of those young men…I  would theoretically have known  that Jay has feelings like me, but I’d never have  been close to Jay, never seen him moved to tears or being loving to another person, only seen him as a threatening  presence  in a deserted car park. Never saw him have his feelings. Not to my credit, but true. I had not gathered the impressions – him asking me for change at the car park exit frightened me – which could have helped me overcome my fears of Jay. Without getting to know him, how could I really know him?

Now I look at this choice of word, ‘adequate’, thinking of myself or other modern versions of this Cass problem.

It was only the want of adequate knowledge that could have made it possible for Godfrey deliberately to entertain an unfeeling project:

Think of fear of refugees, fear of  others, fear of those not like us… what is ‘adequate knowledge’ in such situations, where people are not seeing others as fully human. Very few of us would be ‘deliberately unfeeling’ if we knew (‘adequately’) what it meant to be other person.  ‘Adequate’ – it’s not a lot of knowledge.  It’s enough to make us feel. But  perhaps we are becoming too kind to Godfrey?  Here’s a real corrective;

his natural kindness had outlived that blighting time of cruel wishes, and Nancy’s praise of him as a husband was not founded entirely on a wilful illusion.

How complex he is!  He has  had a ‘blighting time of cruel wishes’  – that person who did not  own up to nor  take responsibility for his first wife and his own child – that was Godfrey. Who suffered the blight? The cruelty? Yes – his dead wife, yes, his abandoned child. But also  – prehaps – he, himself?

As well as that cruelty, there is in Godfrey, ‘natural kindness’.  That’s real, too, though how  I am to hold the two things (  ‘cruel wishes’ and ‘natural kindness’ ) in balance is a real and very life-like question.  Despite the kindness, I’m still worried about the now past time of cruelty.  And that worry is extended by the  added comment on Nancy.

Nancy’s praise of him as a husband was not founded entirely on a wilful illusion.

He is naturally kind, when not pressed by more terrible needs. Nancy is  not entirely tricking herself. Oh, but the presence of that ‘wilful illusion’, even as a partial negative!

Being a live human is complicated business.

Is that why I love George Saunders despite sometimes not getting it and not getting through it? Yesterday I re-read his short story ‘The Falls’. ( It’s in Pastoralia.) Highly recommended for some live human being.




Silas Marner Day 25: literature makes history disappear

Inlua flourishing in the Old English Garden at Calderstones, 7 July

This morning, after my days with mind-bending Traherne, I’m returning to the solidity of Silas Marner. I’ve been reading Silas very slowly here (search ‘Silas Marner) intermittently for a few months, and have this is my twenty-fifth session on it.  Writing ‘Silas Marner Day 25’ in the title of this post made me think about the reality of such a reading in a group: on a weekly basis, that’s half a year!  But a Shared Reading session would cover more ground than I do here, wouldn’t it?  Yes, probably.  But not necessarily. Slowing down is key part of Shared Reading and why would you want to rush this?

But there’s a hard balance between  deep thinking, or what might be called personal reflection, and the story. ‘Get on with story!’ said Terry, a young man living in a hostel, in one of my early groups. We were reading Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce and had stopped to talk about life after death. Terry was so frustrated  by the diversion of our  talk that he picked the book up and started trying to read the next chapter. Terry couldn’t read. But his desperation for ‘what happens next’ provoked him into a serious attempt.

Everyone feels that need for continuing the narrative and it is easy to agree to the forward pull.  I don’t myself plan in advance what I am going to stop and talk about  in a Shared Reading session, I just read and see what happens, see how the mood and the meaning take me. But I stop a lot. I would hardly make any progress with the story. So many sentences offer the opportunity of  meaningful thought, and that’s what I want to bring about in my groups.

So here we are at the opening of chapter fourteen. Molly has brought her child to Raveloe, Godfrey Cass has denied (to himself)  his  paternity, the child has ended up with Silas, and Silas wants to keep it.

There was a pauper’s burial that week in Raveloe, and up Kench Yard at Batherley it was known that the dark-haired woman with the fair child, who had lately come to lodge there, was gone away again. That was all the express note taken that Molly had disappeared from the eyes of men. But the unwept death which, to the general lot, seemed as trivial as the summer-shed leaf, was charged with the force of destiny to certain human lives that we know of, shaping their joys and sorrows even to the end.

Would you stop here, so close to the beginning of the chapter, with everyone only just settling to their tea and biscuits? I would. I want to think about  people who might disappear from view and no one notice. I want to think about the ‘unwept death’.  And I want to think are we really as different from the Victorians as we think we are? That couldn’t happen now, could it – that a woman and child would have no social connectors? That a woman could appear as a lodger or a tenant for a short while and then disappear? that no note would be taken when two humans disappear ‘from the eyes of men’? Worse than that, it could not still be the case that such a death might seem  ‘as trivial as the summer-shed leaf’, could it?

For me, in leading a Shared Reading group who are reading this book, a key aim would be to make links with the human experience, so that we wouldn’t think of the characters, the author, as somehow different to ourselves. I want to make making links between ‘now’ and ‘then’. A key aim in my leadership of the group is to make Raveloe, and the entire world of Silas Marner deeply recognisable, here and now. I perform or call for translations into our  own language. Do we still have pauper’s burials now we have the welfare state? We do, and they are called public health funerals.

A question I might want to ask to slow things down is:What is moving in those opening lines, which bit is most like poetry?  I hop someone will find the word ‘unwept’, and we will have the chance to talk about the prefix ‘un’ – it gives us the verb, ‘wept’, but it takes it away. It makes us feel the loss of no one to cry for her.

Now I read on:

Silas Marner’s determination to keep the “tramp’s child” was matter of hardly less surprise and iterated talk in the village than the robbery of his money. That softening of feeling towards him which dated from his misfortune, that merging of suspicion and dislike in a rather contemptuous pity for him as lone and crazy, was now accompanied with a more active sympathy, especially amongst the women. Notable mothers, who knew what it was to keep children “whole and sweet”; lazy mothers, who knew what it was to be interrupted in folding their arms and scratching their elbows by the mischievous propensities of children just firm on their legs, were equally interested in conjecturing how a lone man would manage with a two-year-old child on his hands, and were equally ready with their suggestions: the notable chiefly telling him what he had better do, and the lazy ones being emphatic in telling him what he would never be able to do.

Lots of stuff here!  Oh dear, how ever will we finish this book, with me wanting to stop every ten lines. But really – worth noticing two human psychology things here, way before the discipline, through the  practice and writing of William James, was born. George Eliot is brilliant at noticing and recording how humans work.

In this paragraph, first how groups change their behaviour, second how individuals take a positive or negative stance. Taking the first of these first. Silas was an outcast; people began to ‘soften’ towards him when he was robbed. the village had got to the point where it had merged ‘suspicion and dislike in a rather contemptuous pity for him as lone and crazy’.

No one would call that sympathy, yet George Eliot nearly does. She refers back to this state when she says it was  ‘now accompanied with a more active sympathy’. Does ‘more active’ imply that the previous state of feeling  towards him was an inactive sympathy? Can contemptuous pity change into  more active sympathy? If so, hurray! We need to understand how and why.  What is pity? What is sympathy? ( I look them up in the  online etymological dictionary – they are deeply connected at root) How do we distinguish those things, and how – why – do they merge into each other?

These are useful  social questions for a group of humans to ask, in a world where ‘diseases of despair’ , as The Times calls them this morning are rising at such an alarming rate.

The next  point is about a distinction between ‘notable’ or ‘lazy’ mothers – a distinction bound to get some people’s backs up.  I’m sure I am a lazy one and have nothing to  protect on that score. But leave motherhood aside for a moment – because it’s painful to be critcised there, for many.  Aren’t lots of humans, let us say at work, ‘notable’ or ‘lazy’? Isn’t that a  natural bell curve distribution in any field?

What’s interesting is how George Eliot jumps to the nub of things in a way that contemporary psychology would  recognise. The ‘notable’ believe things can be done. Those who are ‘lazy’ believe things can’t be done.  What I love is how both groups are united in the slightly malicious pleasure they take in imagining a man dealing with a two-year old child. That conversation is taking place right now as a  real  twenty-first century woman plans a weekend away with her girlfriends. ‘Let’s see how he gets on.’ Well, we will. Silas is becoming a single parent dad, which not what we think of when we think of a Victorian stereotype.


Just finished: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


I’d heard  good things about this novel from various sources but it was  seeing Barack Obama’s recommendation that tipped me into buying it – on  my  Kindle on the way to the  airport. But I wished I had a paper book version, as I wanted to move back and forth in the novel, reread, go back over sections… that’s not so easy  in a kindle reading.

All the same, a  terrific read,  full of anguish, horror – how could it not be, most of the story  coming from the southern slave states…but also great humanity, bravery: Cora, the  slave who escapes and runs and runs, epitomises the powerful  will to survive and find freedom. The book takes the metaphor of the underground railroad – a network of people  willing to help escaping slaves make their way to the north –  and turns it into a reality, a real railroad, really underground, by which Cora is able to cross what I think was both time and space – and take the reader  through many experiences of  many black people. So you read many horrors and much inhumanity and sheer lazy stupidity  but also moments of great strength, love and beauty. I was particularly moved by the account of communal life on the Valentine farm:

Work needn’t be suffering, it could unite folks. A bright child like Chester might thrive and prosper, as Molly and her friends did. A mother raise her daughter with love and kindness. A beautiful soul like Caesar could be anything he wanted here, all of them could be: own a spread, be a schoolteacher, fight for coloured rights. In her Georgia misery, she had pictured freedom and it had not looked like this. Freedom was a community labouring for something lovely and rare.

Here Cora finds a library  and  reads the lives of all black people:

Cora read the accounts of slaves who had been born in chains and learned their letters. Of Africans who had been stolen, torn from their homes and families, and described the miseries of their bondage and then their hair-raising escapes. She recognised their stories as her own. They were the stories of all the coloured people she had ever known, the stories of black people yet to be born, the foundations of their triumphs.

People had put all that down on paper in tiny rooms.

I thanked Colson  Whitehead for putting all that down on paper.

I’ll be buying a paper book version as soon as I get home and reading it again.

Silas Marner Day 14: False hope, real shock


Albertine Rose Buds and the Sky at 6.00am, 4 June

I had a marvellous day of reading yesterday at  the Ashoka Headquarters on Old Ford Road,  Bethnall Green, London. twelve of us spent the day 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.  It was  really pleasing at the end of the day to hear several group members talking about going off right now to find a bookshop where they could buy Winterson’s book. I think everyone enjoyed an intense reading experience and the personal reflection and reality thrown up by the Herbert poems and Jeanette’s memoir. I really began to think: we need a weekend of this, not just a day.

Thanks to all participants – I really enjoyed reading in your company! Thanks also to Ashoka, for hosting and to Camilla for staying with us and participating in such a lively and engaged way. Thanks to colleagues at The Reader who made it happen.

I’ll be doing a version of the day (same reading materials, though something different will happen because there will be different people present) here in Liverpool on 15th June.

Reading some Silas Marner today. Use the search box to find the back issues which lead us to this point. We’re in chapter three and learning about Godfrey Cass, who at twenty-six and with a bad life mistake controlling his future, is growing bitter.

The yoke a man creates for himself by wrong-doing will breed hate in the kindliest nature; and the good-humoured, affectionate-hearted Godfrey Cass was fast becoming a bitter man, visited by cruel wishes, that seemed to enter, and depart, and enter again, like demons who had found in him a ready-garnished home.

What’s the story? He got involved with woman who is an addict, and ‘a movement  of compunction’ prompted him to marry her (we presume she has had a child). Now he can’t marry the only person who could him  become a better man (Nancy Lammeter).  The mix of kindness, good humour, affectionate-heartedness and the thing that is not mentioned here – is  weakness or stupidity or bad luck? –  has created the second half of the sentence – bitter, cruel and demons.  this is a man who can’t now stand face to face with himself, so must be distracted and amused:

What was he to do this evening to pass the time? He might as well go to the Rainbow, and hear the talk about the cock-fighting: everybody was there, and what else was there to be done? Though, for his own part, he did not care a button for cock-fighting.

Chapter four opens with a  bit of horse dealing, and goes on to the death of Wildfire. I’m reading on, getting through the story, aiming for whatever the ‘what matters’ is, wherever it is looming up. Here’s Dunstan having sold, then lost the horse, walking home, a little inebriated by his flask of brandy, finding himself out side Silas Marner’s cottage, knowing the rumours of money in there. In he goes, no Silas… and Dunstan  takes the two bags of gold. I’m reading fast, reading through plot. It’s the story, and I’m following it but it is not asking me to think – it’s just pulling me along.

If we were reading aloud in a group now, I’d be going as fast as possible, checking everyone was with me but just  getting  on with  it. No need to stop and talk. I’m at the end of the chapter, and turn the page into the next. But now we are in stop, talk  and think territory right away. why has Silas felt o.k. about leaving his cottage unlocked while he was out on an errand?:

The sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction, and for this reason it often subsists after such a change in the conditions as might have been expected to suggest alarm. The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened, is, in this logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent. A man will tell you that he has worked in a mine for forty years unhurt by an accident as a reason why he should apprehend no danger, though the roof is beginning to sink; and it is often observable, that the older a man gets, the more difficult it is to him to retain a believing conception of his own death. This influence of habit was necessarily strong in a man whose life was so monotonous as Marner’s– who saw no new people and heard of no new events to keep alive in him the idea of the unexpected and the changeful; and it explains simply enough, why his mind could be at ease, though he had left his house and his treasure more defenceless than usual.

I would ask people to think about habits, what happens when nothing happens, why we think the expanse of time where  nothing has happened  affects our thinking about whether something will. But I would be here for hours, I want to get on and reach the conclusion of this movement. And here it comes:

He rose and placed his candle unsuspectingly on the floor near his loom, swept away the sand without noticing any change, and removed the bricks. The sight of the empty hole made his heart leap violently, but the belief that his gold was gone could not come at once–only terror, and the eager effort to put an end to the terror. He passed his trembling hand all about the hole, trying to think it possible that his eyes had deceived him; then he held the candle in the hole and examined it curiously, trembling more and more. At last he shook so violently that he let fall the candle, and lifted his hands to his head, trying to steady himself, that he might think. Had he put his gold somewhere else, by a sudden resolution last night, and then forgotten it? A man falling into dark waters seeks a momentary footing even on sliding stones; and Silas, by acting as if he believed in false hopes, warded off the moment of despair. He searched in every corner, he turned his bed over, and shook it, and kneaded it; he looked in his brick oven where he laid his sticks. When there was no other place to be searched, he kneeled down again and felt once more all round the hole. There was no untried refuge left for a moment’s shelter from the terrible truth.

I’m interested in this sentence, ‘A man falling into dark waters seeks a momentary footing even on sliding stones; and Silas, by acting as if he believed in false hopes, warded off the moment of despair.’ The metaphor is such a terrible one – the man is about to drown – the sliding moving river-bed stones are no comfort at all, and I can imagine my feet on them, trying to find a footing, hoping, hoping. But in Silas’ case it is more than hoping , it is ‘by acting as if he believed in false hopes’. There’s a huge self-protecting trick playing out – he knows the hopes are false, but he’ll act as if he doesn’t, in order to gain some time before that shock has to hit him and collapse his world.  That’s a self-protective human reaction to terrible shock. I fear for him as he braves it.

More of chapter five tomorrow.


Silas Marner Day 13: an intense stream of complex information

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Delightful dark red Geranium in the old bath 29 May

Continuing my slow reading of George Eliot’s Silas Marner. You’ll find a whole e-text here and previous posts can be found by typing ‘Silas Marner’ into the search box. We’re in chapter three, and I’m picking up where I left off yesterday, in a paragraph beginning ‘With that, Dunstan slammed the door behind him.’

We’d been talking about the interesting matter of different types of human difficulty: is a wealthy, educated person better off than a poor uneducated person when tragedy of pain strikes? And I suppose behind that, there are other questions: What is human culture for? What really would make us ‘better off’? Why learn to read?

After I had finished daily practice yesterday I looked up a post I wrote a  month or so ago about meeting with Paul Sinton-Hewitt, founder of Parkrun. I googled running and reading and found my post  listed below one featuring actor Will Smith speaking on that same subject. What’s reading for, according to Smith? Solving your problems he tells the kids. I completely agree!

Reading does lots of things but its key function – from Will and my points of view – is the transmission of  complex information. If you are interested in this idea read Joseph Gold’s book, The Story Species.  One day when I have more  time for writing than just this daily practice hour, I will write about this great book here. (Have I already done so? I find a few references to the book but no extended writing…)

One of the reasons that reading George Eliot is like a  marathon, difficult but great to do, is that she is par excellence the novelist transmitting the most intense stream of complex information.

This is not ‘entertainment’, not ‘escapism’. It’s not fun and it’s hard to even use the word ‘pleasure’. But it is – for me – enthralling, absorbing, rewarding.

This is ideas, it is thinking, based on observation of real life. If it came in a different format it would be called ‘science’. But it comes in ‘story’ format, which is not routinely understood to be a way of transmitting complex information.

Literature is really a tool for making more of  life, and that ‘more’ is to do with extending consciousness.  Watch her do it here. She’s talking about  well-to-do men, like Squire Cass and his  sons, men for whom you might not easily immediately feel pity.  Translate to modern day ? These guys live in a  big house somewhere in Hampshire or outside Clitheroe and may have made their money in the money industries. Perhaps have a small yacht somewhere on the south coast, maybe a cottage at Dartmouth or in Norfolk. They were dark pink trousers and  striped shirts and straw hats in summer, attend Chelsea Flower Show and go to Glyndebourne.  You (by which I mean I) don’t find it easy to imagine their sorrows.

Read aloud, slowly, maybe one clause at a time:

The lives of those rural forefathers, whom we are apt to think very prosaic figures–men whose only work was to ride round their land, getting heavier and heavier in their saddles, and who passed the rest of their days in the half-listless gratification of senses dulled by monotony–had a certain pathos in them nevertheless. Calamities came to them too, and their early errors carried hard consequences: perhaps the love of some sweet maiden, the image of purity, order, and calm, had opened their eyes to the vision of a life in which the days would not seem too long, even without rioting; but the maiden was lost, and the vision passed away, and then what was left to them, especially when they had become too heavy for the hunt, or for carrying a gun over the furrows, but to drink and get merry, or to drink and get angry, so that they might be independent of variety, and say over again with eager emphasis the things they had said already any time that twelvemonth? Assuredly, among these flushed and dull-eyed men there were some whom–thanks to their native human-kindness–even riot could never drive into brutality; men who, when their cheeks were fresh, had felt the keen point of sorrow or remorse, had been pierced by the reeds they leaned on, or had lightly put their limbs in fetters from which no struggle could loose them; and under these sad circumstances, common to us all, their thoughts could find no resting-place outside the ever-trodden round of their own petty history.

I start paying full attention at ‘calamities came to them too, and their early errors carried hard consequences’.  It is too easy to see the red trousers and the striped shirt and not see the human inside them. For everyone ‘early errors’ carry ‘hard consequences’ I don’t tend to remember that when looking st someone who seems successful in worldly terms and has a bit of a braying voice. It’s interesting too to see the ‘calamities’ might be very ordinary – missed the right girl.

perhaps the love of some sweet maiden, the image of purity, order, and calm, had opened their eyes to the vision of a life in which the days would not seem too long, even without rioting; but the maiden was lost, and the vision passed away

I’m remembering that this happened to Silas, and that it was painful when I experienced it as part of his story: why should it be any less so here? What is lost is not just the maiden, but the kind of life she might have helped the man achieve. and without such a life, somehow made good by love, and woman, by domesticity… what life for a single man with money in his pocket?

and then what was left to them, especially when they had become too heavy for the hunt, or for carrying a gun over the furrows, but to drink and get merry, or to drink and get angry, so that they might be independent of variety, and say over again with eager emphasis the things they had said already any time that twelvemonth?

Drink. Routine, Habit. These men are in the same pattern as Silas – except he is not a drinker, and he is not rich – oh, but he is! He is a miser, he hoards his money and  enjoys nightly ‘revelry’ with it, in the same way  Squire Cass might enjoy nights in the pub, plenty of wine. Like Silas, such beings are trapped in a mechanical life, where they ‘say over again with eager emphasis the things they had said already any time that twelvemonth’.

Assuredly, among these flushed and dull-eyed men there were some whom–thanks to their native human-kindness–even riot could never drive into brutality; men who, when their cheeks were fresh, had felt the keen point of sorrow or remorse, had been pierced by the reeds they leaned on, or had lightly put their limbs in fetters from which no struggle could loose them; and under these sad circumstances, common to us all, their thoughts could find no resting-place outside the ever-trodden round of their own petty history.

Like Silas, some of these men could never be brutal, they have ‘native human-kindness’. These were men who when young

had felt the keen point of sorrow or remorse, had been pierced by the reeds they leaned on, or had lightly put their limbs in fetters from which no struggle could loose them;

Not sure what this means. Have to stop and read and reread. I understand that  such men might have ‘felt the keen point of sorrow or remorse’ but I am not certain as the the next two clauses: are they elaborations of that first clause or are they additional  examples of how a life is shaped? when I look at the clause, ‘had been pierced by the reeds they leaned on’, I think of Silas Marner in Lantern Yard. He had leaned on the church community , he had leaned on its elders and his friend and fiance: they all proved to be ‘reeds’ – that’s to say thin stalks incapable of providing support. The reeds broke and pierced him. People he had relied on and built his life around finally hurt and  perhaps mortally injured him.

But what about the next bit?

or had lightly put their limbs in fetters from which no struggle could loose them

I wonder if this is about things like addictions, bad marriages, debt? When we are young we undertake acts willingly which may become habits – ‘fetters from which no struggle could loose them.’

This is a great stopping place for a Shared Reading group, where we could all contribute some worked example from our life. George Eliot is strict in her analysis – these are common human problems. The very nature of them may  mean we don’t want to acknowledge them. But she insists ‘common to us all’.

under these sad circumstances, common to us all, their thoughts could find no resting-place outside the ever-trodden round of their own petty history.

I’m interested in the facts that like Silas, such people are trapped in a kind of loom – we enter it, it is around us, we work at it, weaving the cloth of  our life with these repetitive, mechanical thought habits: Never works out for me, he/she/it is no good, life’s unfair, people don’t like me, I always have bad luck, odds are stacked, I’m no good, they are out to stop me.

I think literature exists to help us get out of the self-created-machine-brain. As one of our group members said  long ago, ‘I read about others but I learn about myself.’

Way over time again, and too long. Lack of discipline. Will attempt to correct tomorrow. Poem tomorrow.

Silas Marner Day 10: Dog Days and Revelry

sun on wall
Golden light reflected from a window onto the back garden wall

Continuing my slow reading of George Eliot’s Silas Marner. You’ll find a whole e-text here and previous posts can be found by typing ‘Silas Marner’ into the search box.

We are at the end of  chapter two, and reading a paragraph that begins,

This is the history of Silas Marner, until the fifteenth year after he came to Raveloe. The livelong day he sat in his loom, his ear filled with its monotony, his eyes bent close down on the slow growth of sameness in the brownish web, his muscles moving with such even repetition that their pause seemed almost as much a constraint as the holding of his breath. But at night came his revelry: at night he closed his shutters, and made fast his doors, and drew forth his gold.

By day, for fifteen years, Silas’ lives as a machine, ‘his muscles moving with such even repetition that their pause seemed almost as much a constraint as the holding of his breath’. By night, something else happens: he comes to life.

I stop to think about the passage of fifteen years. In a period of time like that a major portion of a human life passes. I taught English in Continuing Education at the university for fifteen years. It was long enough for my underlying rhythm-watcher to feel: this is it, my life. (I’m thinking of Derek Mahon’s poem ‘Dog Days’. (And yes, that is the whle poem. A great poem for a shared Reading group.) Of course I didn’t know it was a fifteen year period at the time, that only became apparent at the end, when things changed. During what will later turn out to be fifteen year period, it feels as if you are in the thick of ordinary and you don’t imagine anything will happen to disrupt the habit of life.

And all this time,  Silas’ life was two-sided, like a coin. By day, part-machine part-machine operator, by night, ‘revelry’!

What an amazing word to have chosen to describe the flip-side of his being. It is so human, so physical, companionable.  I look it up here. Yes, joy, merriment, lively pleasure, even rebellion. It is as if all Silas’ human being goes into the relationship with the coins. He loves them with every bit of his humanity, as if they were human:

He loved the guineas best, but he would not change the silver–the crowns and half-crowns that were his own earnings, begotten by his labour; he loved them all. He spread them out in heaps and bathed his hands in them; then he counted them and set them up in regular piles, and felt their rounded outline between his thumb and fingers, and thought fondly of the guineas that were only half-earned by the work in his loom, as if they had been unborn children–thought of the guineas that were coming slowly through the coming years, through all his life, which spread far away before him, the end quite hidden by countless days of weaving.

Like the broken water pot we saw in the previous paragraph, the coins have faces, and seem like persons. Coins he doesn’t yet own are like ‘unborn children’ to him. This is  an immense love. Strange that while George Eliot is  spinning a wonderful fairy tale (for that is what it feels like here, isn’t it?) she’s also telling us something profound about the human need to love and to have, to live, our humanity, even when it seems to have gone.

I am thinking about being in a Shared Reading group with a man in a hostel, a street man, a man who smelled and had matted hair. I cannot remember what we were reading, but the man spoke about losing his sense of himself at a very precise point: he knew when it happened: he or his life-force had made a decision. He said ‘I threw my passport and my ISA away and I thought; he’s gone now.’

I was forced by his moving speech to recognise that I had not thought of this man as the same as me, because of his smell and his matted hair. Did I need to be told this man once had a passport and a savings bond to realise he was as human, as living, as complex, as I was?  I am grateful to say that reading with this man compelled me to realise my fellowship (to use a George Eliot word) with him. As we read on together that day, I thought about how it would be to be him, not seen as human on the streets most of the day. Seen as dirty, seen as matted, seen as smelly, seen as bad teeth. But not seen, by most of us, a fellow-creature.  I imagined him with a beggars notice: Yes! I once had an ISA just like you!

Yesterday at five pm as I walked from the Cunard Building on Liverpool Waterfront to Lime Street Station, a mile perhaps through the city centre, I passed three such men, each living in his own doorway. One lay stretched out on a piece of cardboard deeply engrossed in a book. Another had taken off his shoes and was massaging his left foot, as anyone might. Further on, round the side of Marks and Spencer, three battered-looking women were sitting on the pavement in a patch of sunlight drinking from cans, two of them arguing. Each time, I had to think: these are people like me. And in the back of my mind: what are you going to do about this, Jane? I tell myself someone else is doing something, but that doesnt seem a good answer.

Though The Reader has for many years read in hostels and rehabs, and I think we have done some good work there, I can’t help feeling our efforts would be best directed at the children who are growing up into lives of trouble and difficulty.  The problems that get most people to the streets are psychological, spiritual, inner. If the gold had been tins of lager… if Silas had turned at night to whisky…

But I’ve drifted far  from the text – get me back to it!

No wonder his thoughts were still with his loom and his money when he made his journeys through the fields and the lanes to fetch and carry home his work, so that his steps never wandered to the hedge-banks and the lane-side in search of the once familiar herbs: these too belonged to the past, from which his life had shrunk away, like a rivulet that has sunk far down from the grassy fringe of its old breadth into a little shivering thread, that cuts a groove for itself in the barren sand.

So here’s a life that has shrunk from its ‘old breadth into a little shivering thread.’ There were once other activities, the herbs, the healing, but these are quite lost. Thing about a river though, is that it can shrink and come back to fullness. Funny to contrast that ‘little shivering thread’ of Silas’ current life with ‘revelry’ we’ve seen him enjoy with his coins ? Or is it? Is the night-time ‘revelry’ the flip-side of the  inhuman empty life of day? Are the two connected? If the coins were crack, he’d be thoroughly enjoying himself, reveling. But however much he reveled, his life would still be shrunken.

But to press on: a change is going to come for Silas:

But about the Christmas of that fifteenth year, a second great change came over Marner’s life, and his history became blent in a singular manner with the life of his neighbours.

More tomorrow.

What to read in a Shared Reading group: Eating fruit with Denise Levertov

garden at evening
Front garden, evening 23 May

Today I’m hoping to finish my reading of , O Taste and See’,  a short poem by Denise Levertov.  I say short – I’ve been here three days, so no promises – it takes what it takes. You’ll find the earlier posts on this poem by using the search box and typing ‘O Taste and See’. You’ll find the whole poem here.

Yesterday I’d got a point of thinking about the miracle of being a  living creature: our bodies taking in food and oxygen to fuel the processes of living: literally, transformation.  I’m going to pick up here:


into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

I wonder now  where I am in this poem – still exiting the subway?

Standing at a kerb-edge, waiting to cross, risking my life by crossing the street?

The food, the oxygen, becomes flesh, and flesh must die. Therefore as soon as she writes the word ‘flesh’,  without the grace of comma’s pause, Levertov must also write ‘our/deaths’. I say no comma, but I wonder here about the line ending – always a good thing to notice in modern poetry because it is one of the few structural devices the poet has  in their toolkit. See how she uses it! We see the thought, logical, compelling, emerge across the gap of the line ending. If we have flesh it therefore follows we have death.

And does our death happen in the midst of life as we are crossing the street? is that why she writes it like that?

Now suddenly the poem jumps from thinking about death to plums, to quince. I look back at the other piece of fruit, the tangerine. Now I feel I am standing outside a subway exit in New York near a street fruit stall. All this is happening in my head.

I wonder if the plums are a quick glance at William Carlos Williams’ poem, This Is Just To Say. I think Levertov knew him ( I don’t look that up because I am trying to stay concentrated on the poem). But those delicious plums are in my mind now! (‘so sweet and so cold!’). That Williams poem is about unashamedly enjoying the eating of fruit. Which…

…and now I’m thinking of the ‘orchard’ and the story of Eden, of  Milton’s Paradise Lost, enters my mind. The lines I remember of the moment of the fall – Book 9 – when Eve takes the fruit:

So saying, her rash hand in evil hour 
Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck’d, she ate:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.

I look back to Levertov:

plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

I don’t think it is an  accident that Levertov uses the same verb as Milton. As with the Wordsworth at the beginning, I believe these fragments of  other poets’ language are in Levertov’s head and imagination, in her store cupboard of  lines. They bang around in there and become our own: we use them. I use them in my real life, I quote them to myself. If you are a poet you use them in your poetry. But I’ll come back to this in a moment. Let me just finish reading.

Connecting hunger to ‘being’  Levertov  seems to believe that we were built to pluck that fruit, we were made with bodies that get hungry, and must eat to survive.  And, like Williams, not just to eat but also to enjoy.  This is an argument with or a response to Milton.

I notice that ‘being’ gets a line-ending. That’s a kind of pause, a kind of emphasis. Read it out, get the rhythm of it.

You have the pause at the line end,  then you get ‘hungry’. This is a new thought, not part of Milton’s  mindset at all. It’s as if, as with the Wordsworth thought (‘the world is too much with us’), she is in conversation with those thoughts/poems. She feels able to speak up, respond, say something. It isn’t rashness, says Levertov to Milton, as if they were both here in the present tense, it is hunger.  All the same, that final verb, ‘plucking’, is loaded with meanings, with echoes. Yet Levertov asserts, eat the goddam plums! Be in the world, be here, be physical, be a body, be a transformation, be alive.


I want to go back now to the problem of the fact that Denise Levertov is a highly educated poet, working in a tradition which she knows well – Wordsworth, Genesis, Milton, the Psalms, William Carlos Williams.  She knows all that well enough to have the language of those poems in her head as if they were natural to her. Indeed they have become natural to her – just as a simple chord progression CFG is natural to any  guitarist, just as an English  gardener would look for something to underplant roses, just as a cook might naturally think of  cooking chicken with rosemary and lemon and pine-nuts.

You don’t have to know  music theory, the history of English gardens or the molecular science of taste to appreciate lovely planting, musical flow or good chicken. For someone who has never experienced the chords C F and G the thing would be to have the experience, not to have the knowledge that those are the names of those chords. So that is why The Reader’s basic pedagogy is about shared experience: we share our reading, we experience it together. If you have facts, put them to one side, they get in the way of the poetic, the literary experience. (See my post against footnotes here.)

But part of the problem here, for a Shared Reading group leader is that some of the fibres of this particular poem are made from the other poems. those aren’t just ‘allusions’, they aren’t just footnotes. Part of the experience of the poem is the echo of Wordsworth, of William Carlos Williams, of Milton.

If you didn’t hear those echoes at all, you’d still have an experience of the poem, but some of the poem would be missing. It would be as if , for some reason, your ears just couldn’t hear the F chord, or your taste buds couldn’t pick up the rosemary.  It’s not a killer, but a workaround would be good.

For me,  if I  was taking this poem to a group (and I hope one day I will) the workaround would be to bring the Wordsworth sonnet, and the Williams, and a fragment of the Milton. I wouldn’t stay on them long, but they’d be there to take away, or maybe the group would want to read one or more of them another time. For today, we’d just have them there and look at them in passing. They are there to be a sort of additional flavour in the Levertov dish.

For reading this short poem I’d need a whole session – at least an hour maybe an hour and half, maybe two hours (I love a two-hour session, which always seems to me the time needed to really complete some small piece of reading).

So I’d perhaps have this as a poem-only session in the week after the completion of a novel or long story. That way  this poem could pick up some of the ideas in the novel – thinking of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Assistant, which could be great with this.  But there would be many others. So many stories have come out of  the garden, the fruit, the fall, the need to be in the world, of it and not of it at once.

Tomorrow,   we’re turning back to Silas Marner


If You Want Escapism, Look Away Now

garden 5 may
Spring in the Front Garden, 5 May

Yesterday I mentioned Marilynne Robinson’s  Home and Joshua Ferris’ The Unnamed as examples of novels which are the  kind of book I want to read. Not entertainment, and definitely not escapism. In fact, these two are the opposite, coming as close to life as it gets. Are they great books? I’m very alive while reading them, and that feels great! If the hairs stand up on the back your neck, said Les Murray, that’s poetry. That’s a sort of definition.

People often ask me about what we mean by ‘great books’ at The Reader. ‘Great’ is a relative and malleable word. Great as they may be, no books can easily be pressed on people who don’t want to read them (hence the sad state of our  national literary education). So is it a canon? If so, it’s a  very elastic one, decided week by week by whoever has the leadership of each group.

Our work is about passing on our love of literature, and trying to demonstrate that pwerful literature about real life  is compelling  and opens new areas of  self (and good fun, too, a lot of the time – there’s plenty of laughing in Shared Reading). It’s not so easy to create such meaning with books that are mainly there for entertainment or escapism – no offence to them, but most murders, romances, spies, thrillers, shopping or porn stories have a different purpose. They might be ‘well written’ but it is not about ‘well written’ in the end. It’s not about technique, or ‘achingly beautiful prose’ (a phrase which makes me put down a book immediately),  it’s about opening up the actual experience of human beings. If that’s happening, it might be a good book for a Shared Reading group.

We use the word ‘great’ to raise a flag for trying hard stuff.  A walk in the local park is good,  and beyond that, hillwalking is terrific but a trip to Everest is a completely different thing. Yet a walk in the park will be a hard task for someone who hasn’t been out in years. And walking in the Dales might be a doddle to someone who does it every weekend. Is Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 a great book?  Is War and Peace ? Is E.H. Young’s Miss Mole? What about Hamlet? Are they the same kind of ‘great’ ? No! They are all good in different ways.

I grew up with adults who were  looking away. Alcohol put up reality crash barriers and felt good. Pub not sorrow. Pub a laugh! Pub not bills, not money worries. Pub borrow a few bob! Pub not dull by yourselfness. Pub jokes and laughing. Sing songs! Pub paarrty ! Or drink at home!  Off licence, miniature whisky if broke. Cans of lager. Smoke dope, smoke, smoke, smoke.

This led to death, as all life does, but what I saw was that pub joy ran out while life itself ran on to the bitter end. I wanted to learn how to live differently. So the underlying flavour of my reading got serious. I’ve written about my book-turning-point, Doris Lessing’s Shikasta, elsewhere. After that came the novels of George Eliot, through my third-year university reading with Brian Nellist.

Daniel Deronda clarified things for me. I was in my mid-twenties and at a stage where decisions about the kind of person I wanted to be, the kind of  life I wanted to live were more or less consciously pressing on me.  I saw my self and my own existential problems in Gwendolen Harleth and in Daniel  Deronda. They are very different people, but there I was in both of them…it’s a book about choices and purpose in life.

When I first read the book my mother was in her late forties and it was clear her life was coming to an end. It was a long frightening time, that approach to death. Daniel Deronda shone light on lots of things I hadn’t known how to look at, think about. The predicament of Gwendolen Harleth, forced to learn by the uncontrollable consequences of  her own behaviour, terrified me into thinking seriously about the way in which I made choices.

I grew to love George Eliot and read everything she’d written, including, while I was writing my Ph.D. the nine volumes of her Complete Letters. This was (and still is)  like having a parent who teaches you stuff. George Eliot helped me  to grow up.

She can be hard to read – she has a rhythm that is long-sentenced and she uses complex syntax to work out complex things about human experience. Some people find the tone ponderous. I don’t. For me it is like spending time with a very clever person who knows a lot more than me. I have to keep saying, ‘Say that again!’ and I don’t understand it all, but I love being with her because I learn things.

Here’s Gwendolen (still a very young woman) at the end of the book, realising the man she loves has a bigger purpose in life than looking after her. You can’t read this stuff fast. Read it like a poem, slow and aloud.

That was the sort of crisis which was at this moment beginning in Gwendolen’s small life: she was for the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement, for the first time being dislodged from her supremacy in her own world, and getting a sense that her horizon was but a dipping onward of an existence with which her own was revolving. All the troubles of her wifehood and widowhood had still left her with the implicit impression which had accompanied her from childhood, that whatever surrounded her was somehow specially for her, and it was because of this that no personal jealousy had been roused in her relation to Deronda: she could not spontaneously think of him as rightfully belonging to others more than to her. But here had come a shock which went deeper than personal jealousy—something spiritual and vaguely tremendous that thrust her away, and yet quelled all her anger into self-humiliation.

I wouldnt start (as I did) in the deep end with Daniel Deronda. I’d start with Silas Marner. If you read it at school and hated it (so many people did!) please give it another go. Perhaps I’ll have a look at it tomorrow.

Just finished: One of The Boys, by Daniel Magariel


Yesterday a day full of  addiction and hope.

I visited the wise Karen Biggs, CEO of Phoenix Futures, one of  the UK’s leading addiction/housing charities. We’ve done some great work with Phoenix over the years, and it’s always a joy to spend time with the energetic heart and brain that is Karen.

Later in the day I spent time talking to playwright Sonya Hale, a truly remarkable woman. Sonya became an addict in her early twenties, and was street homeless for a decade. Much later she changed her life, partly through meeting the charity Clean Break.  She won the Synergy Theatre’s national prison writing competition with her play, Glory Whispers. She spoke to me of  the pain of losing her son, when her addiction became unmanageable, and he went to live with his Dad, and how that finally helped her confront her addiction and get into recovery. The interview will be published in The Reader magazine at a later date.

It was a long chat with Sonya. We’ve a lot of common and I’m always interested in learning how people live and why they sometimes learn to change.  I feel as if something new has entered my bloodstream and I’ll be processing the  conversation for weeks ahead.

On the  train on the way  down to London I finished (a two-sitting book) Daniel Magariel’s One of The Boys. I think I found this through a recommendation on twitter by the exceptionally emotionally intelligent writer, @carysbray. It also came with a blurb from my top-rated author, George Saunders. Those are two very remarkable writers, so I ordered my copy. I thought Karen or others at Phoenix might be interested in it so I when I arrived at her office in Elephant and Castle, I gave my copy to Karen Biggs.

green wall
The wonderful green wall at Elephant and Castle

It’s slight in terms of pages, a novella, but it is enormous in its content and concentrated experience, not unlike my two-hour conversation with Sonya. I felt I had been reading for a week, not two one-hour sessions. Reading with eyes glued to the page, full-pelt, non-stop. Told through the eyes of a child, the younger of two in a family where the father is a drug-user and is a manipulative, violent man, it’s a slice of real time, an immersion in an experience you might not want to know about. It’s not an easy read but its a real good one, with exceptionally careful writing about emotions.

The story is almost all about ‘the boys’, the father and his two sons; we don’t see the mother much and we don’t know her story,  but the scene where she dances ‘salt and pepper shaker’ had a grim and utterly real  graveyard humour. Apart from that, I did not laugh. I found the book frightening and true to life. Like Frank Alpine in Malamud’s The Assistant, when he is reading Crime and Punishment, I had the crazy feeling I was reading about myself.

When you have parents who do not parent you, you live a cycle of  caring for them when they need looking after, craving their attention when they don’t and then suffering when they don’t look after themselves, or when they turn on you. All that is carefully detailed here, in under 170 pages.

Every care worker, every social worker or children’s home assistant, every teacher, should read this book.

Scrub that, it’s a big problem with wide  ramifications. Everyone should read it.

Neither of  my parents were straightforwardly ‘like’ the parents in this book but there are certain underlying resemblances, the bone structure of addiction remaining the same whatever the flesh looks like. An addict is not a grown up, is not responsible, is broken, is ill. As the child you carry a lot of weight for them. You think their thoughts, feel their feelings. As a result you never really know where your own emotions begin and your parents’ end. That’s what most struck the chimes here.

After a particularly bad night, where the father and younger son (‘we’ in the quotation  below) have attacked and threatened to kill the older son, the younger struggles with guilt, anger and loneliness:

That night after we had cleaned up and dragged the coffee table to the Dumpster, my father called him into his room. I listened outside the door as he told my brother that he should never have contacted our mom. That we’d felt betrayed and did not know what else to do. “I would never hurt you,” my father said. “We only meant to scare you. Please forgive me. Do you forgive me?” Then he said, “Thank you, I forgive you, too. Can I have a hug?” The bed squeaked as my father scooted closer, I guessed, because a moment later he said, “Put your arms around me, son.”

I stepped outside to the park.

Overhead the moon was hidden. Clouds were backlit at their feathery edges. A strong wind from the east, from the Sandias, swept over the grass. I winced at the thought of today. My father turned us against each other – it was his method of control. And I’d fallen for it again. Any remorse I had for the Polaroids now felt false. I had let down my brother just as I had my mom. I was so disappointed in myself and I swore then that I would never again choose my father. I never again wanted to harm anyone I loved. I was on my brother’s side now. He was my brother for life. I’d been lucky today that he had not been not more seriously hurt.
A flock of birds came to rest on a nearby pinon tree, populating its limbs like leaves. and though I could hardly see them, hear them, I was happy for their quiet company and hoped they would not leave me soon.

Frightening, touching and educative – highly recommended.