Ask for The More

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Thistles in an olive grove. ‘A tough life needs a tough language’  J Winterson

For Jo, the Crossing Sweeper

I’m thinking ‘Why Great Literature?’ and I am thinking of Jo, the Crossing Sweeper. Jo, orphan street-boy, at the heart of Dickens’ great novel Bleak House.

Great, great I say, despite the fact that it’s patchy and there’s stuff I don’t like in it. Great because it tries for the biggest of pictures, top to bottom, the whole shebang, and it ties everyone together in one flailing mess and says, we’re all in it together.

‘I don’t know nothing,’ says Jo. No one looks after him, and he has to look out for himself as best he can. He can’t read or write. There isn’t a happy ending.

Great, I say, because it makes me cry when Jo dies, when Esther faces her smallpox-marked face in the mirror for the first time, when I feel the piteous waste of Lady Dedlock’s life.  Great because ridiculous Sir Leicester Dedlock does love that woman and is human, not merely a cut-and-paste stereotype, as I might have wanted him to be, so I could more easily class-hate him, when, after his stroke and having learned of her running away, he writes on a slate, ‘full forgiveness’.

The stuff I don’t like – I’ll not go into it – I ignore. Because I want the great. I am hungry for the great, for that which is more than me, bigger than me, better than me. If I only read books which encompassed what I already know and like, what would be the point? The point – for me – is growth, is to be the more. When I founded The Reader it was to take books which offer ‘more’, books often referred to as ‘great literature’, to people who didn’t already have it.

Sounds very nineteenth century – posh ladies taking religious tracts to the poor –  as here in Chapter 8 of Bleak House, ‘In The Bricklayers Cottage’:

I was glad when we came to the brickmaker’s house, though it was one of a cluster of wretched hovels in a brick-field, with pigsties close to the broken windows and miserable little gardens before the doors growing nothing but stagnant pools. Here and there an old tub was put to catch the droppings of rain-water from a roof, or they were banked up with mud into a little pond like a large dirt- pie. At the doors and windows some men and women lounged or prowled about, and took little notice of us except to laugh to one another or to say something as we passed about gentlefolks minding their own business and not troubling their heads and muddying their shoes with coming to look after other people’s.

Mrs. Pardiggle, leading the way with a great show of moral determination and talking with much volubility about the untidy habits of the people (though I doubted if the best of us could have been tidy in such a place), conducted us into a cottage at the farthest corner, the ground-floor room of which we nearly filled. Besides ourselves, there were in this damp, offensive room a woman with a black eye, nursing a poor little gasping baby by the fire; a man, all stained with clay and mud and looking very dissipated, lying at full length on the ground, smoking a pipe; a powerful young man fastening a collar on a dog; and a bold girl doing some kind of washing in very dirty water. They all looked up at us as we came in, and the woman seemed to turn her face towards the fire as if to hide her bruised eye; nobody gave us any welcome.

“Well, my friends,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, but her voice had not a friendly sound, I thought; it was much too businesslike and systematic. “How do you do, all of you? I am here again. I told you, you couldn’t tire me, you know. I am fond of hard work, and am true to my word.”

“There an’t,” growled the man on the floor, whose head rested on his hand as he stared at us, “any more on you to come in, is there?”

“No, my friend,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, seating herself on one stool and knocking down another. “We are all here.”

“Because I thought there warn’t enough of you, perhaps?” said the man, with his pipe between his lips as he looked round upon us.

The young man and the girl both laughed. Two friends of the young man, whom we had attracted to the doorway and who stood there with their hands in their pockets, echoed the laugh noisily.

“You can’t tire me, good people,” said Mrs. Pardiggle to these latter. “I enjoy hard work, and the harder you make mine, the better I like it.”

“Then make it easy for her!” growled the man upon the floor. “I wants it done, and over. I wants a end of these liberties took with my place. I wants an end of being drawed like a badger. Now you’re a-going to poll-pry and question according to custom – I know what you’re a-going to be up to. Well! You haven’t got no occasion to be up to it. I’ll save you the trouble. Is my daughter a-washin? Yes, she is a-washin. Look at the water. Smell it! That’s wot we drinks. How do you like it, and what do you think of gin instead! An’t my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty – it’s nat’rally dirty, and it’s nat’rally onwholesome; and we’ve had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them, and for us besides. Have I read the little book wot you left? No, I an’t read the little book wot you left. There an’t nobody here as knows how to read it; and if there wos, it wouldn’t be suitable to me. It’s a book fit for a babby, and I’m not a babby. If you was to leave me a doll, I shouldn’t nuss it. How have I been conducting of myself? Why, I’ve been drunk for three days; and I’da been drunk four if I’da had the money. Don’t I never mean for to go to church? No, I don’t never mean for to go to church. I shouldn’t be expected there, if I did; the beadle’s too gen-teel for me. And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I give it her; and if she says I didn’t, she’s a Lie!”

He had pulled his pipe out of his mouth to say all this, and he now turned over on his other side and smoked again. Mrs. Pardiggle, who had been regarding him through her spectacles with a forcible composure, calculated, I could not help thinking, to increase his antagonism, pulled out a good book as if it were a constable’s staff and took the whole family into custody. I mean into religious custody, of course; but she really did it as if she were an inexorable moral policeman carrying them all off to a station- house.

Ada and I were very uncomfortable. We both felt intrusive and out of place, and we both thought that Mrs. Pardiggle would have got on infinitely better if she had not had such a mechanical way of taking possession of people. The children sulked and stared; the family took no notice of us whatever, except when the young man made the dog bark, which he usually did when Mrs. Pardiggle was most emphatic. We both felt painfully sensible that between us and these people there was an iron barrier which could not be removed by our new friend. By whom or how it could be removed, we did not know, but we knew that. Even what she read and said seemed to us to be ill-chosen for such auditors, if it had been imparted ever so modestly and with ever so much tact. As to the little book to which the man on the floor had referred, we acquired a knowledge of it afterwards, and Mr. Jarndyce said he doubted if Robinson Crusoe could have read it, though he had had no other on his desolate island.

We were much relieved, under these circumstances, when Mrs. Pardiggle left off.

The man on the floor, then turning his bead round again, said morosely, “Well! You’ve done, have you?”

“For to-day, I have, my friend. But I am never fatigued. I shall come to you again in your regular order,” returned Mrs. Pardiggle with demonstrative cheerfulness.

“So long as you goes now,” said he, folding his arms and shutting his eyes with an oath, “you may do wot you like!”

Mrs. Pardiggle accordingly rose and made a little vortex in the confined room from which the pipe itself very narrowly escaped. Taking one of her young family in each hand, and telling the others to follow closely, and expressing her hope that the brickmaker and all his house would be improved when she saw them next, she then proceeded to another cottage. I hope it is not unkind in me to say that she certainly did make, in this as in everything else, a show that was not conciliatory of doing charity by wholesale and of dealing in it to a large extent.

She supposed that we were following her, but as soon as the space was left clear, we approached the woman sitting by the fire to ask if the baby were ill.

She only looked at it as it lay on her lap. We had observed before that when she looked at it she covered her discoloured eye with her hand, as though she wished to separate any association with noise and violence and ill treatment from the poor little child.

Ada, whose gentle heart was moved by its appearance, bent down to touch its little face. As she did so, I saw what happened and drew her back. The child died.

“Oh, Esther!” cried Ada, sinking on her knees beside it. “Look here! Oh, Esther, my love, the little thing! The suffering, quiet, pretty little thing! I am so sorry for it. I am so sorry for the mother. I never saw a sight so pitiful as this before! Oh, baby, baby!”

Such compassion, such gentleness, as that with which she bent down weeping and put her hand upon the mother’s might have softened any mother’s heart that ever beat. The woman at first gazed at her in astonishment and then burst into tears.

Presently I took the light burden from her lap, did what I could to make the baby’s rest the prettier and gentler, laid it on a shelf, and covered it with my own handkerchief. We tried to comfort the mother, and we whispered to her what Our Saviour said of children. She answered nothing, but sat weeping – weeping very much.

When I turned, I found that the young man had taken out the dog and was standing at the door looking in upon us with dry eyes, but quiet. The girl was quiet too and sat in a corner looking on the ground. The man had risen. He still smoked his pipe with an air of defiance, but he was silent.

An ugly woman, very poorly clothed, hurried in while I was glancing at them, and coming straight up to the mother, said, “Jenny! Jenny!” The mother rose on being so addressed and fell upon the woman’s neck.

She also had upon her face and arms the marks of ill usage. She had no kind of grace about her, but the grace of sympathy; but when she condoled with the woman, and her own tears fell, she wanted no beauty. I say condoled, but her only words were “Jenny! Jenny!” All the rest was in the tone in which she said them.

I thought it very touching to see these two women, coarse and shabby and beaten, so united; to see what they could be to one another; to see how they felt for one another, how the heart of each to each was softened by the hard trials of their lives. I think the best side of such people is almost hidden from us. What the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and God.

We felt it better to withdraw and leave them uninterrupted. We stole out quietly and without notice from any one except the man. He was leaning against the wall near the door, and finding that there was scarcely room for us to pass, went out before us. He seemed to want to hide that he did this on our account, but we perceived that he did, and thanked him. He made no answer.

Ada was so full of grief all the way home, and Richard, whom we found at home, was so distressed to see her in tears (though he said to me, when she was not present, how beautiful it was too!), that we arranged to return at night with some little comforts and repeat our visit at the brick-maker’s house. We said as little as we could to Mr. Jarndyce, but the wind changed directly.

Ah, the danger of becoming Mrs Pardiggle, with her tracts for babbies. I wanted to avoid that, because the drunk man who gives his wife a black eye is certainly not a babby. What would he recognise, I wonder, what book would work for him? Or perhaps clean water would be a better starting place?

In the first group I read a short story, ‘Schwartz’, by Russell Hoban. Read it – it’s hard to find, but seek it secondhand in an out of print collection of Hoban oddments called The Moment Under The Moment. I took a poem along with in case things went pear-shaped and the poem was ‘Crossing The Bar’ by Tennyson. The poem exploded with reality and there were tears. From my point of view, all was well. After a few weeks, Frank, an ex-welder from Birkenhead said to me, ‘Jane, when are you going to bring out the good stuff?’

The good stuff?

‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘What the posh-nobs have – Shakespeare, Tolstoy, all that.’

Frank thought I was holding back, which in a sense I was, but soon after he made his request we started reading Othello in that group. Couldn’t recommend it more highly. Lots to talk about and more than that – new thoughts, or old thoughts, put into words for the first time. ‘Put out the light, and then put out the light…’

I’ll read Iago, said a woman in the group, one week when I begged for help with the reading, I was married to that bastard for twenty seven years.


Then there’s Jay (not his real name), a twelve year old boy in a foster placement, unable to read or write. Well, he’s not on the streets like Dickens’ Jo, is he? He’s not bouncing from pillar to post. We have a social care system, we have Ritalin, don’t we?

What do you usually do, Jay?

Go down the shops, hang out.

We were working on a summer project in which we were reading The Unforgotten Coat and making a Guide to Our City.

What’s a guidebook? asks Jay.

A book about what people could do here, what they might want to see, where they might want to go.

Here? Said Jay, incredulous.  S’just alkies, innit?

Why shouldn’t Jay have Great Literature, works of art, that will make his experience bigger? Given a choice (which he isn’t, because his family and me and you, that’s to say, society and education, have all failed him and he has no choices, especially not about reading) but say he had achoice, at the moment he wouldn’t choose to read anything.

So I’m not thinking about choice, I’m thinking about primitive modelling: I love reading books, copy me. If that’s what I’m doing, it matters that the books are ones I genuinely love. Why? Jay will feel the love, and like the Bricklayer’s family, he’ll smell  the fake if I don’t.  But I must choose something I love that Jay might get interested in – it’s no use me taking him Bleak House or Othello first off. Yet it can’t be a book for a babby, because Jay is no babby. I’ll take picture books probably, but complex ones, so a twelve year old with violent and desperate experiences of life won’t feel insulted. But I’m not taking a World of Warfare comic, because Jay probably already knows about them. And yet no one has ever read to him and school he’s been out of the classroom a more than in it. So I started with I Want My Hat Back, great pictures, totally witty, a story of terrifying murderous rage, with more emotions than a psychologist’s office.


Who decides what is ‘great’?  The person having the experience, of course.

So much depends on the Reader Leader, who must try to choose something that will offer a great experience to their group members. You choose beyond your comfort zone, for yourself, but with your group in mind, because way beyond any format, any type of reading, any structure, is the truly recognisable reality of something new happening as we read. Do you love it? Does it take you somewhere you haven’t been? That’s it. That’s the more.




Shelter from the Storm

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Wet bougainvillea, fallen trumpet vine, marble floor, Zakynthos, 26 June

While England bakes, Zakynthos bathes…

Storm started yesterday and has been going for more than 24 hours – feel like a character in Wide Sargasso Sea, though can’t actually remember if there is a monsoon-like storm in that book. It’s the heat and tropical greenery that is reminding me of the atmosphere of a novel I’ve not read for 40 years. Maybe also the shutters, which make the house dark.

Yesterday evening the electricity went off for a few hours and our kindly host walked round from his house to check we were ok. Sure, it’s just a storm, I said, ‘No, no, is no storm,’ he assured me. ‘Just a little rain…’ The thunder sounded like Greek Gods throwing mountains in the dark of the night. This morning he brought us that most English of gifts, an umbrella.

Like all people living on small islands, these Zakynthiots understand rough weather. The tiny white church on the rocky promontory on the far side of the bay was built, our host tells us, for sailors to head for when the seas were rough. Did those storm-tossed sailors pray there or find shelter from the storm, or are they the same thing? Light-house, bunk-house, sanctuary.

With rain driving in through the shutters before breakfast, we watched an episode of The Leftovers. That’s a holiday for you! A stunning box-set in bed, with Greek coffee. Stunning, as in hit on forehead with hammer.

Also watched an interview with Tom Perrotta, the author of the novel from which the series has grown. Tom co-developed the scripts with  Damon Lindelof  of Lost fame. They make a great team, if the first one and a half series of The Leftovers is anything to go by. I didn’t know about Tom Perrotta before I stumbled across the series by googling ‘best box sets for 2018’, in preparation for my holiday, but I am glad I’ve found him. Comes from the Syracuse school of writing and has been around a long time. In the interview Tom says he hopes people who find the story through the TV series will go on to read the novel.

Say but the word, Tom. After ordering his entire oeuvre online via Amazon, all now waiting for me when I get home, I cooked eggs which I bought up on the hillside yesterday in a tiny everything-sold-here-Super Market.

Giant inflatable pink flamingo pool-floats, anti-mosquito plugs, UHT milk, Buckfast Wine (Bucky! Here! Those monks have something to answer for…) drain plungers, jars of touristic honey, jars of marmite, The Harvard Business Review at nearly E17 a pop and many, many books by Victoria Coren, all in Italian. What more could a holidaying tourist want? Oh, billions of stuffed soft toys in green velour. This shop is one of the world centres for stuffed soft toys in green velour. The other centres are all the other Super Markets in the Vasilikos area of Zakynthos.

The HBR I could not bring myself to buy in the Super Market

The eggs were of fine quality, and had seemed an anomaly in that Super Market, small and farmyard dirty, they had been collected from the olive grove outside, where some of the olive trees had trunks a couple of metres round. I thought, those olives must have been planted by the Venetians four hundred years ago. Across the way a little from the Super Market, Dopia’s House sold home-cooked food including possibly the best Zucchini Balls civilisation has ever known. These, like the soft toys, were green and roundish and of variable size, but to my mind, a better buy than the velour turtles. (Only later did I read the sign helpfully placed by the Dopia House family. My ‘guess the age of the trees’ was way out).

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But to return to Tom Perrotta and The Leftovers.  My fellow viewer and I watch an episode and turn to stare at each other in the opposite of a high-five, clutching hands, our eyes locked in shared amazement or mock terror. How they can make a box set that is so painful!

And later I ask myself – why am I looking for this stuff, un-answerable questions, in novels and poetry and boxsets? Is this what I read for? And mostly, it is. I want literature (and stories I may find in other media) to help me formulate these questions even if no answers are forthcoming: What are we? Why are we? How are we?

I don’t want escapism. Or if I do, I want to escape the storm by being somewhere where I can see the storm, really know it. I want lighthouse, bunk-house and sanctuary. I want stories, novels, poems, plays, box-sets to give me language and thoughts and lives about this difficult and troubling real life I live. What I am loving about The Leftovers is its unremitting insistence: there are storms and there are moments of calm, there is terror and there is love. And that’s all, folks!

There’s not much writing like this going on anywhere, and I’m happy to find it in any format. When can we watch the next episode?

And when can I have my next installment of Dopia’s Courgette Balls?

Currently reading : 

Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean,  The Humourist by Russell Kane





Once contraception became reliable, all human life changed – and what’s that got to do with Poetry and Social Enterprise?

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Some sort of ornamental grass living life to full just outside the Japanese Garden at Calderstones, 17 October

Yesterday I went off on one, in a mild way, I hope, about women, woman, womanliness, being female, making a female shape in a world that has been, until very recently, rather male. I was asking myself if Shared Reading was a thing that a woman would make in the world, as opposed to say rugby football, which I bet was invented by a man or men. I was being a bit nervous of my own line of thought  because some women love rugby and some men love Shared Reading  and some women and men love both rugby and Shared Reading. I don’t think huge generalisations are generally helpful,  as humans are more varied and individual than such generalisations allow. I ought to be connecting this to  my reading of  Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions, but my morning reading hour is not long enough for that.

Why did I start thinking about this?  First, I was thinking about the Women in Social Enterprise 100 (WISE 100) and  about the disparity between number of women leaders in normal life (not many)  and in the Social Enterprise sector (many). Then I started to wonder whether Shared Reading was a ‘female’ product – and if so why?

I don’t think feelings are the province solely of women – feelings are a key piece of  human equipment for living, like lips or lungs.  Because  of the way we’ve split human survival work up,  in general, men have gone more for action and women for relationship/emotional mapping/support though this generalisation of the female/male split  is belied by exceptions such as women warriors and  male contemplative monks. But that was in the millennia  before birth control:  once contraception became reliable and widespread, all human life changed.

Poetry has always been a place where exceptions find a home –  from Sappho to Sharon Olds, women have found a place for strong voices there, and men have found a place for feeling.

This poem by Matthew Arnold is a key text for Shared Reading because it holds a massive underlying truth: whatever we look like on the surface, there is something else in us, out of sight. Sometimes we don’t know what that is, where it is, or why it is making us weep.

If I was taking this to a Shared Reading group, I’d set aside the whole session, maybe two sessions for it. I’d read the whole poem through, telling people to just go with it without understanding it all and just to try to get the sense of the different movements of the poem in the first instance.

So, a read through:

The Buried Life
Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.
Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!
But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?
Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!
Fate, which foresaw
How frivolous a baby man would be—
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity—
That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.
But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!
And then we will no more be rack’d
With inward striving, and demand
Of all the thousand nothings of the hour
Their stupefying power;
Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call!
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.
Only—but this is rare—
When a belovèd hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.
And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

Now I’d be asking my group to go back to the beginning and to try to situate it – how did this poem get started? What was happening? Where did it come from? Where are we? If we were making a film of this poem, what wold the scene look like, where is it and who is  there?

Read the opening again:

Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.

People will suggest various readings but someone in any group will begin to see this as a pair of lovers, sham-arguing or teasing each other. Encourage that person! Yes, it’s just light-hearted banter:


and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!

Why, I wonder (and in my group, I’d be wondering this aloud)  does the pronoun switch between the plural (‘our’, ‘we’, ‘we’, ‘we’, ‘we’) and the singular (‘mine’, ‘I’, ‘thy’ ,’thy’,’thy’,’thy’) so much?

What would it be like to feel be using those pronouns – you, me, us –  in a conversation  where we were  massively distressed?

So many questions have to be asked to get the poem into our imaginations – what is a ‘nameless sadness’ – what  does it feel like? Why or how does it stroke so suddenly?The poem gets serious very suddenly. We’re in light loving play chat and then we’re out of our depth, and drowning, in that nameless sadness. And the fact there is still the possibility of light heartedness doesn’t help. That experience exists elsewhere and Matthew Arnold seems almost angry as he acknowledges, yes, it is possible to laugh it off:

Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!

To anyone who has been depressed ( funny word – we experience it now as if it were now a medical condition, like Chicken Pox, but it is a word about feeling: to be pressed down) to anyone who has been pressed down by a sad nameless feeling, the poem will be a jarring remembrance of a painful experience. For some readers it is liberating to find someone else getting the experience into words.

This first movement, section, stanza, ends with Arnold turning to his beloved and looking into her eyes in order to ‘read there, love! thy inmost soul’.  It is as if he hopes to read some message of hope or understanding or any match of any sort: are we connected? Do you know me? They gaze.

Now we get the break in the stanza, a space between the verses (what’s happening now in the room? He is sitting on the couch staring into her eyes, her face, she’s looking back but  nothing’s happening, he can’t find it, whatever it is… ) the  white space between the stanzas comes to an end, and

Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?

No amount of someone loving you will reach that place where feeling exerts its power. Can we get feelings into words? Even lovers – the closest relationship humans  probably have – cannot jump the gap.

I ask myself  what is the word ‘indeed’ doing there? I read the four lines again to feel if it has a place in the rhythm.

Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?

As I read, I feel the word ‘even’ is linked to the ‘indeed’ in some way.  The first of these four lines is shorter than those which follow. I start to look at the poem’s metre. The lines seem to  alternate – not in a fixed pattern between lines with five stresses and lines with four. Let’s look back to the beginning:

Where  /  = a strong beat and  –  = a less strong beat
Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
/           /           –     /       –      /       –       /          –        /
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
/       /        –        /          –       /        –       /

Metre is a funny thing to talk about in Shared Reading because it’s technical, like talking about 4/4 time in music when you’ve been listening to The Beatles.  It’s not the normal  conversation you’d have but nevertheless, 4/4 time is  there and may be worth noticing. So with poetry,  metre underpins and makes meaning.  It’s worth noticing even if you don’t understand anything about it.  Try tapping.  Are some of the taps strong and others less strong? In the lines above I felt that  both ‘light’ and ‘flows’ were strong taps, whereas  ‘our’ didn’t seem so.   There’s  no law about this, you have to feel it in your body.  That can be hard to do at first, but it’s (call me  weird) good fun.

More to say on what metre does the meaning, but that’s for tomorrow. I’ve gone over my time.

(A good book for this stuff, which I’ve had since it came out in 1996 is John Lennard’s  The Poetry Handbook. Looks like it is expensive and hard to come by secondhand,  but worth seeking out. )


A moment’s silence

albertine at dusk.JPG
Albertine at dusk, 4 June

I wrote yesterday’s post before I had seen the news of the London Bridge attack.

I don’t know why it makes a difference that I know that bit of London very well – it’s near The Globe, where I’ve been a lot, I love Borough Market despite its outrageously high prices: I go there to buy Mrs King’s Pork Pie for Brian Nellist whenever I can, and I’ve often got off the tube at London Bridge when visiting the offices of the Guys and St Thomas Charity Trust.

In Bethnall Green, on Saturday as I left the Ashoka offices and walked to Liverpool Street  Station,  it was sunny, the parks were full of  people: toddlers, weight-lifting men, collapsed-on-the-grass-drunk men, women in shorts, in headscarves, in burkas, in bikinis, babies carefully placed in the shade, old people on benches, young men playing football, families having picnics, girls dancing. There was a joyful, sunny, civil mood: walking up Brick Lane I stopped for street food, the pavements thick with visitors from everywhere. East London on holiday and all the world there.

This is not a place to think about the human problem unfolding before our eyes. Only to be sorry.

Short post today  as out early to catch a train to Sheffield top meet Reader colleagues who work in prisons and other justice settings.



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.

Getting to know Denise Levertov

The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov waiting for me to open it

One of the largest and most transformative reading experiences I’ve had was reading the Complete Letters of George Eliot when writing my Ph.D. You don’t often see the Letters for sale at a price anyone would be able to afford and you’d probably need a university library to find them on the shelves, so a good way to get at a short version of them is through her husband John Cross’s biography, which is based on extracts from the Letters. (You can read Cross on Project Gutenberg). I’d read the Cross biography, but wanted to look something up in more detail so I went to seek them out and there they were, thousands of letters, in nine fat brown volumes. I started reading and realised I could feel George Eliot’s (or rather Marian Evans’) presence in them, and not just the bits John Cross had selected, but all of her: her kindness to friends, and her irritability, her toothaches, mistakes in love, her dogs, family problems, travel, thinking, music, anger with a friend who borrowed money for a cab from her servant, her continuing toothache,  her unwillingness to back the founding of Girton College, her singing, her loves,  more toothache… she was all here and across time: the young teenager, the struggling young woman, the world-famous writer. I wanted to devote some months to the sweep of the lot – I wanted to get to know her.

There are not many experiences like that in a reading life but a ‘collected poems’ may be of the same order. Realising a few weeks ago that I love the two poems by Denise Levertov that I know well (‘Variation on a Theme by Rilke’, and the poem I read here a few days ago, ‘The Metier of Blossoming’) I thought I would buy her Collected Poems, and get to know her better. The book now sits beside me, a thousand pages deep. I thought I would add my readings in Levertov’s Collected Poems to the projects underway on this blog. ‘Poem of The Day’ will continue and will often use the Oxford Book of English Verse, the slow reading of Silas Marner will continue a couple of times a week, and now getting to know Denise Levertov will be added. I’m not going to read the book chronologically, at least not at the beginning. I’m going to flip through and find things that make me want to dive deeper.

There is the old problem of reproducing works in copyright…a problem I will try to solve, but meanwhile for today I’ve found a link to a poem I’d like to read.

‘O Taste and See’ by Denise Levertov – read the entire poem here.  There is other stuff on that page – don’t read it, or not yet. Just read the poem: this is Levertov’s gift to us, let’s not  let someone else get in the way of the  direct exchange the poet offers.

Read it, read it slowly,  read it aloud and read it a couple of times. Here I read the opening  seven lines:

The world is
not with us enough
O taste and see

the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,

I a sort of excitement in the first couple of stanzas,  but they present me with an interesting problem as someone who leads Shared Reading groups.

Levertov’s lines draw on other lines, from other poems and from the Bible, which I recognise, but which I’m not sure that my reading group members will recognise. What am I going to do about that? Regular readers og this blog wil lknow my antipathy towards World of Footnotes.

My first task is to read the poem as myself. I need to come to it clean, without thoughts of other readers or their needs, I need to experience the poem myself. Later, I’ll work out what to do about this – if anything – in my group. My first duty is to read well for myself, because the reading I can make happen in my group will be based on that.

Those two  first lines are a sort of joke, a conversational response, almost banter. I think of Wordsworth in Levertov’s mind: as well-known as a family member, chuntering on in the way he does, and I remember his poem. What she has written is a kind of chiming for someone who has the Wordsworth poem in their head already and it makes me laugh slightly. I love Wordsworth, so what’s making me laugh? The fact that she knows him so well and he is in her head as she meditates on the subway Bible poster and that she is arguing with him. I don’t need to remember the whole of Wordsworth’s poem (though I print it here) the first line will do.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn
I do not  know the Old Testament in the same way that I know Wordsworth, but I bet that ‘O taste and see’ is from the Psalms.
But I don’t want to get caught up on the references. I read the whole of Levertov’s poem through again, and do not look up the Psalm, though I will do that later. Levertov takes the Wordsworth thought about our mechanical, exchange-relation to the world and casually turns it. Nah, William, it’s the other way round. ‘The world is/ not with us enough’. She’s changing the nature of the word ‘ world’,  which is being  influenced by ‘O taste and see’. The world is a thing or series of things we might know by our senses.
Next comes a leap of thought, taking me suddenly into no joke seriousness :
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,
I like the bold type, as if taken directly from the poster. I notice the repetition of ‘meaning’, where the second meaning changes the first.
The lines areasking,What does ‘The Lord’ mean to someone who doesn’t believe in ‘The Lord’?
That’s me: I do not yet know enough about Denise Levertov to know if it is also her. I haven’t looked her up on Wikipedia, didn’t read the book’s intro – though I might, later. But from the two poems of hers I do know well, I know  she’s somehow religious. She describes the numinous, the spiritual. I hate all these words, ‘religious’, ‘numinous’, spiritual’, loaded with their dead-to-me meanings. Yet now, reading again,  I notice that Levertov isn’t letting herself be distracted by those feelings , in fact she is remaking the vocabulary and remaking it so that it is full of new meaning:
If ‘The Lord’ is a kind of code for real experience, she says, it is code for ‘all that lives/to the imaginations tongue.’
Wow – now I’m out of my depth, and feel the deeps below, above me. This is the best of the experience of  poetry. Hurrah! I’ve got years of reading this huge lovely book ahead. But for today, frustratingly, time’s up.

Silas Marner Day 8: What are human beings for?

Very new pine cones in Japanese Garden at Calderstones Park May 2017

I’m returning to Silas Marner today for my daily reading practice. We’re in chapter two and starting at the paragraph that begins ‘About this time an incident happened…’

You can catch up by using the search box to find posts tagged ‘Silas Marner’.  Here George Eliot is showing us how Silas, traumatised by a terrible experience, and having settled far from the site of that trauma, is settling into a  cut-off, solitary, state of suspended animation where we’ve seen only the ‘bright faces’ of gold coins seem to make him happy:

One day, taking a pair of shoes to be mended, he saw the cobbler’s wife seated by the fire, suffering from the terrible symptoms of heart-disease and dropsy, which he had witnessed as the precursors of his mother’s death. He felt a rush of pity at the mingled sight and remembrance, and, recalling the relief his mother had found from a simple preparation of foxglove, he promised Sally Oates to bring her something that would ease her, since the doctor did her no good. In this office of charity, Silas felt, for the first time since he had come to Raveloe, a sense of unity between his past and present life, which might have been the beginning of his rescue from the insect-like existence into which his nature had shrunk.

First we want to notice that the cobbler’s wife reminds Silas of his mother. We don’t know much about her but we learned earlier that she and Silas were very close, and she had taught him herbal remedies, and he had loved collected the herbs long ago.  This connection may be a knitting up: ‘in this office of charity, Silas felt, for the first time since coming to Raveloe, a sense of unity between his past and present life…’

Yesterday, at work, I spent some time thinking about principles underlying Shared Reading and one of the things I thought about, suggested by a colleague, was that the Reader Leader must always get to ‘what counts’ in a piece of literature.  I was struck by the simplicity of the phrase  ‘what counts’ and also by the impossibility of defining it. It relies on the instinct of the Reader Leader: she or he must know ‘what counts’.

In this respect the movement of Shared Reading is very different to say  Girlguiding or The Scouts or the slow food movement or Parkrun. It is possible to quantify what makes a good camp or slow experience or a Parkrun run. It is not possible to  say – in the abstract, in general – ‘what counts’ in a piece of literature.  Yet I write that sentence and am really not at all sure if it is true. It may be possible but difficult. I may be being lazy.

Certainly ‘what counts’ is not – sorry, aesthetes – ‘achingly beautiful prose’ nor  anything else that is purely about the ways in which literature may be beautiful . (I have nothing against beauty, in fact, I am for it, as I hope my photos of plants show). But in literature beauty is a second-level consideration. The understanding of human experience comes first. Finding ‘what counts’ requires the reader to check their own life experience and to recognise key moments in their experience and the experience of others (the others that feature in the literature, either as characters or as the author, the poet).

In a novel by a great novelist, many things ‘count’. Here, in today’s reading, what counts is the act of kindness and the sense of unity between past and present . A discussion of the heart-helping properties of foxglove and its relation to modern heart disease pharmaceuticals may start up in a Shared Reading group, and the Reader Leader would almost certainly let that run, because it’s interesting and people in the group might have stuff to share about it, or about their other medications, or health situations etc. But the bit you’ve absolutely got to get to is

a sense of unity between his past and present life, which might have been the beginning of his rescue

Silas has closed down. He no longer lives a full human existence. That counts more than  a discussion of the healing properties of foxglove. In a Shared Reading group I might be balancing my sense of ‘what counts’ with the conversational offerings of a man who  is recovering from major heart surgery. That man, his story, his contribution is  very important. I must bring his voice into the circle of attention. But at some point – as a general rule, and there are always exceptions – I must take the responsibility of getting to ‘what counts’ not only amongst group members but also in the text.

Perhaps I would link these two pressing matters – asking something like ‘did you feel a different person before it happened?’ – which might offer way back to the text.  I must find that way. That’s my job, as the Reader Leader.

The question I want to get to here is: why is it important that our lives are whole? For surely it does matter that we do not have a great gash separating us into before and after, that love and energetic engagement with others should survive our traumas? A human being is not an insect. As a reader, I want silas to come back to human  life.

We don’t know enough about insects, of course, and for thousands of years humans have told themselves we’re special and to be seen as distinct from all other life-forms. That seems an increasingly untenable position, but say we were able to accept what George Eliot might  have understood as the difference between a man and an insect…that difference might be love, consciousness, creativity.

What are human beings for? This was an  evolutionary and spiritual  question Doris Lessing asked me long ago on a train at Lime Street Station. I had no idea of an answer then, but now I think  that  those three words – love, consciousness, creativity –  would do for a start.

Silas needs to be rescued from a mechanical  existence into human life. What a big word that is: rescue. It doesn’t look as though it can come from within.  In The Winter’s Tale,  Hermione, wherever she has been for the past sixteen years, cannot come back to life unaided, she is a statue until Paulina cries ‘Music, awake her; strike!’  Following that sound,  Hermione moves, but she does not, cannot speak until Paulina says ‘Our Perdita is found!’ Perdita, the lost baby, whose loss was the partial reason for the original traumatic break.

The successful knitting up of trauma –  healing the gap of before the bad thing and after it – often depends on something outside the sufferer. Here in Silas’ case, the possibility of reconnecting with his old self through the practice of herbalism might have done it, but, as you’ll see when you read the next paragraphs, that possibility is blighted by the villagers ignorance and mild and not even unkindly meant allegations of something like witchcraft.  An avenue for potential regeneration is thus  closed off.

Time’s up. Poem tomorrow.


Silas Marner Day 6: Feeling Nothing in a New Land

fruit blossom.JPG
Apple or Pear tree in Calderstones Park, looking ‘lazy with neglected plenty’

I’m continuing my reading of Silas Marner today. You’ll find a full text here. Search previous posts looking for the tag ‘Silas Marner’.

What’s happened so far (in under thirty words): Silas – a hand-loom weaver – has been unfairly accused and cast out by his city community, now lives in country village Raveloe, where he is an object of suspicion.

Chapter Two

Even people whose lives have been made various by learning, sometimes find it hard to keep a fast hold on their habitual views of life, on their faith in the Invisible, nay, on the sense that their past joys and sorrows are a real experience, when they are suddenly transported to a new land, where the beings around them know nothing of their history, and share none of their ideas– where their mother earth shows another lap, and human life has other forms than those on which their souls have been nourished.

I think one of the reasons many people find George Eliot hard to read is that there isn’t much padding, every sentence is generally doing something important. You have to keep concentrating. It’s like highwire walking – every step is important and you must keep your confidence up.  Here at the opening of Chapter Two the  first sentence asks us to do a lot of imagining. I’m going to take it slowly, bit by bit.

‘Even people whose lives have been made various by learning…’ In Chapter One I had noticed that education was a key part of the thinking about how human minds work, why sometimes people seek magical or superstitious explanations and what a hard thin life does to the imagination. Now comes this sentence which seems to pick up that thought and continue a conversation the author has been having. Beginning the sentence with ‘even’ places it in  full flow, as it were, as if responding to something that has already been said. What is that which  is already understood? It is that Silas – while full of feeling and with a gift for herbal medicine – has  no formal learning, doesn’t know anything beyond his own experience, can’t think widely, is narrow. People ‘whose lives have been made various by learning’ have expanded their horizons and their imagining selves. But even such people

sometimes find it hard to keep a fast hold on their habitual views of life, on their faith in the Invisible, nay, on the sense that their past joys and sorrows are a real experience, when they are suddenly transported to a new land

I thought immediately of refugees, because of our current world problem, because of ‘suddenly transported to a new land’. I also thought of what George Eliot would have  been imagining as she wrote those words. Of course, there were refugees in 1860 (and her great last novel, Daniel Deronda, is about European Jewish settlers in London and the founding of the Jewish state.) I thought more personally of Marian Evans ( as the author was called in her non-writing life) falling in love with a married man, and deciding to throw everything over in living with him, and escaping to the Continent in order to avoid gossip and opprobrium. She was cast out by a wider society and by her own family. suddenly, after days of hectic couch travel you are in Switerzerland, and no longer have anything or anyone you previously knew. A person finding themselves in that position, might well find it ‘hard to keep a fast hold on their habitual views of life, on their faith in the Invisible, nay, on the sense that their past joys and sorrows are a real experience.’  Of course, for arian, there was even so, the joy of loving and being loved by her life partner, George Henry Lewes.

The implied comparison is coming. If an educated person, with lots of experience to draw on, can feel so badly dislocated, how much harder must it be for Silas?

And what could be more unlike that Lantern Yard world than the world in Raveloe?–orchards looking lazy with neglected plenty; the large church in the wide churchyard, which men gazed at lounging at their own doors in service-time; the purple-faced farmers jogging along the lanes or turning in at the Rainbow; homesteads, where men supped heavily and slept in the light of the evening hearth, and where women seemed to be laying up a stock of linen for the life to come.

Raveloe is another world compared to the hard northern town from Silas has had  to escape. It seems another time, earlier, pastoral, pre-industrial revolution, almost in the paradisal golden age. There is ‘church’ here, but like everything else it seems pretty laid-back (men lounge at their doors rather than go there), an there’s plenty of eating and drinking, and a profound love of linen! and then this demanding sentence:

There were no lips in Raveloe from which a word could fall that would stir Silas Marner’s benumbed faith to a sense of pain.

No one here believes as he believed? No one here is a person whose speech can affect him? He is cut off from his past, from the people who made his world and his faith real. He is not feeling anything. He’s gone into something like a state of suspended animation.

I’m drawing on my own experience for imagination here. I remember when I lost faith with the feminist commune I lived in during my early twenties. That losing of faith seemed a massive jarring wrench from one kind of life and set of beliefs to another. It had been – or my involvement in it had been – sect-like. Then I changed my mind. If I was in my new world, it didn’t jar or hurt but if I met one of my erstwhile sisters  on the street, or saw her approaching in the supermarket, then great pain, agitation, sense of the brokenness. Of course you don’t want that painful ripped apart feeling. I avoided seeing those women for a very long time. In Raveloe, Silas doesn’t have to remember, doesn’t have to think doesn’t have to feel.

I am also remembering  the Gillian Clarke poem ‘Miracle on St David’s Day’ which I wrote about here.

a woman
sits not listening, not seeing, not feeling.
In her neat clothes, the woman is absent

This is Silas. He has mechanical work to do, inside the safe space of his loom. Nothing reminds him of the past. And why would you want the numbness to wear off? Why not go on, numb to pain?  The people here don’t seem to need God in the same way the town people did, their country lives are more generously filled, ‘orchards looking lazy with neglected plenty’. And the women’s  desire  for stocks of linen means that Silas can stay at his loom for ever if he wants.

I’m thinking back yesterday to The Winter’s Tale, and Hermione in a similar state of suspended animation. A human who has entered such a state of lock-down perhaps needs an external power to break it open, because  if you’ve closed down because of great pain, and close down is mechanism that saves you feeling great hurt, how would you ever get out of it by yourself?

I think if I had to decide one big question for my life it would be: ‘how do people change?’ What needs to happen to bring change about? All this lies ahead.

Times up.

Silas Marner Day 5: Getting Into It, and Getting Out Again

blossom in park
A tree with blossom I haven’t been able to identify. Calderstones Park 9  May

I’m reading Silas Marner …we’re at the end of Chapter 1.  If you want to join this Shared Reading  from the beginning search for the tag  ‘Silas Marner’. You’ll find an online version here.

Yesterday I ended my hour of reading practice with a thought about the relation of feelings to thought and my sense that a distance between feeling and what we are able to think, is one of things that cause many people to suffer mental/inner/spiritual distress. ‘We have our feelings but we can’t match them up with what we believe about reality.’ What we think is often of poor quality and many times downright wrong (speaking for myself at least) but what we feel is, however possibly misdirected, a genuine and direct personal experience. Yesterday’s reading reminded me of a thought from psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion which I have been turning over in my mind for a good number of years. It seems related to what happens in Shared Reading:

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 key word in that first sentence must be ‘with’ – Bion’s suggestion is that there are things (as it were, objects) we call ‘thoughts’ and there is an action which may be performed with them (verb) which we call ‘thinking’. There are things you can do something with. Sometimes we don’t do it. Stuff gets stuck.

The thought jolts into a new perspective when we get to the fourth sentence – ‘failure to use emotional experience produces a comparable disaster in the development of the personality’ – and thoughts and emotion are understood to be part of the same biological system. They are like eating and breathing part of our survival kit. Not using feeling and thought, the action of thinking, can damage, even kill, us.

I want to use an example of something from real life. Say you have a child who has been part of a badly functioning family. Child is suffers at hands of parents, is taken away by social workers, placed in foster care. Lives with ten, fifteen sets of foster carers as things continue to go wrong, child is distressed, uncontrollable. Foster carers can’t cope for long. Child gets moved a lot. many broken relationships. By the time I meet him aged twelve this child has a mass of huge emotional experience, like a tangle of threads, ripped out telephone wires, lumps of stuff, broken bottles, smashed hopes… child has more of this inner debris than most adults will accumulate in a lifetime. Child has emotional experience but he cannot use it because he cannot think his thoughts. He doesn’t have a good story to explain his feelings. He is very unlikely to be able to face the truth (mum and dad were a mess/ill/couldn’t help me). This child is (emotionally) starving, he is unable to ‘use’ his emotional experience. He’s had the experience, but as T.S.Eliot says, ‘missed the meaning’.

I turn back to Silas. Yesterday we saw that Silas had feelings but no way of thinking about what was happening to him as he was falsely accused and cast out by his social group, the sect in Lantern Yard.  Numb and unable to ‘think’, Silas seems to enter a state of frozen animation, losing his fiance, was well as his wider community:

Marner went home, and for a whole day sat alone, stunned by despair,
without any impulse to go to Sarah and attempt to win her belief in
his innocence. The second day he took refuge from benumbing
unbelief, by getting into his loom and working away as usual; and
before many hours were past, the minister and one of the deacons
came to him with the message from Sarah, that she held her
engagement to him at an end. Silas received the message mutely, and
then turned away from the messengers to work at his loom again. In
little more than a month from that time, Sarah was married to
William Dane; and not long afterwards it was known to the brethren
in Lantern Yard that Silas Marner had departed from the town.

I ask myself what it would be like to sit for a whole day, ‘stunned by despair’. I think ‘stunned’ indicates absence of the ability to think, perhaps the needful absence of feeling. Trying to imagine his state, I recall Emily Dickinson’s poem;

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –

In terms of preserving himself, his love, Silas cannot act and does not seem to feel. He is ‘without any impulse to go to Sarah and attempt to win her belief in
his innocence’. That impulse might eventually take the form of a thought but it would start as a feeling – I love her, she loves me, I need her, she’ll love me – but there is no feeling. Silas is a dead man walking. The only thing he can do is his work. The mechanical labour of the hand-loom is like a safe place for him. I was struck by George Eliot calling it ‘a refuge’ and that he gets into it.

Mechanical labour is a comfort when you feel bad – how many people furiously clean their kitchen in the middle of a domestic row? Cleaning the stove! Wire  wool! Bleach that sink! I don’t think these are only my habits. there is a need to let some other rhythm take over. For Silas, letting the loom take over is a refuge. It makes a clacking noise. There is a rhythm to it.  The problem is, of course, that temporary refuges we create in our distress – the child running away, glue sniffing, our adult drugs or silences – while they begin as  things we get into to escape, become things we can’t get out of. The refuge becomes a prison.

This is what Bion calls ‘a disaster in the development of the personality’ equivalent to the failure to breathe or eat. George Eliot has set us up with a story of a man whose life is completely smashed up, which sits alongside The Winters’ Tale as one of the great stories of human breakage and repair. Why on earth any school curriculum inventors, examination setters, ever thought this was a suitable book for twelve-year-olds I cannot imagine. They ruined George Eliot for several generations of readers.

I said that Bion’s thought seems connected to what happens in Shared Reading. This is a thought I’ll try to come back to another day. But I think before going on to Chapter Two I’ll have a poetry day tomorrow. Something delightful.


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.