Just finished: One of The Boys, by Daniel Magariel

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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.

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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.

The Babe Leaps Up

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

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

Oh evil day! if I were sullen
While Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm:—
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!
—But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone;
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

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

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

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

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

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

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

W.R.Bion, Learning From Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not knowing doesn’t matter.

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

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

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

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

A Poem to Hold You Up

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A fine structure for life

Herman Hesse writes of solitary trees:

They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

How hard it is, sometimes, to have the gift of life. Most of the Universe,  astronomers tell us is nothing. Nature doesn’t abhor a vacuum, it mostly is one. Only  in the rarest  flecks of the universe  is something, is matter. We are tiny bits of that matter and we have what seems even rarer, consciousness and self-awareness. It is the greatest, shortest, most spectacular and powerful, rare thing:  the chance to be alive and become yourself, your life. And yet how hard it is to endure the struggle that  Herman Hesse describes here, in the struggle of  solitary, individual trees to be themselves;

they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.

This is a task all humans take on, more or less consciously. Unlike trees (I speak in  trepidation, not certain of my ground here,  for who knows what mystery there is in trees…)  we have conscious minds and that brings us a mighty  burden as well as  great power. Sometimes it feels as if having a  mind, by which I mean a self-conscious centre of consciousness, is like have a  super-powered roaring engine strapped onto our body, an engine that makes us buzz around like a balloon flying round with air coming out of it at speed,  high-powered, but with no controller, no purpose.

Trees, I am sure, do not ever feel like that.

I myself hardly ever feel like that these days, but when I think back to the hard years of my teens, my twenties, my thirties and, sorry to say, my forties, my blurry memories of that long period of becoming my self (no, not finished yet but going now at a different pace, and going in a particular way, which wasn’t the case then) I cannot imagine weathering some of those  storms, winters which went on for what seemed a decade, without George Herbert. For some of us becoming what we are often feels impossibly difficult. George Herbert seemed to stand beside me offering an arm while I tried to stand upright.

During a period of years when I had no idea how to  make anything of my life –  that possibility wasn’t even on the map, so  I didn’t  think about it –  I walked the dog every morning,  wrote poems, and read poems. The poems I read in the hardest of those winters were religious because they opened a space in which it was possible to recognise my shape, and they offered a structured language for the experience I was living through. All the ‘Affliction’ poems were leaning posts for me. They helped shape me for the future, they held me up. Now they are part of me, in my bones.

Affliction 1

When first thou didst entice to thee my heart,
I thought the service brave;
So many joys I writ down for my part,
Besides what I might have
Out of my stock of natural delights,
Augmented with thy gracious benefits.

I looked on thy furniture so fine,
And made it fine to me;
Thy glorious household-stuff did me entwine,
And ‘tice me unto thee.
Such stars I counted mine: both heav’n and earth;

Paid me my wages in a world of mirth.

What pleasures could I want, whose King I serv’d,
Where joys my fellows were?
Thus argu’d into hopes, my thoughts reserv’d
No place for grief or fear.
Therefore my sudden soul caught at the place,

And made her youth and fierceness seek thy face.

At first thou gav’st me milk and sweetnesses;
I had my wish and way;
My days were straw’d with flow’rs and happiness;
There was no month but May.
But with my years sorrow did twist and grow,
And made a party unawares for woe

My flesh began unto my soul in pain,

Sicknesses cleave my bones;
Consuming agues dwell in ev’ry vein,
And tune my breath to groans.
Sorrow was all my soul; I scarce believ’d,

Till grief did tell me roundly, that I liv’d.

When I got health, thou took’st away my life,
And more, for my friends die;
My mirth and edge was lost, a blunted knife
Was of more use than I.
Thus thin and lean without a fence or friend,

I was blown through with ev’ry storm and wind.

Whereas my birth and spirit rather took
The way that takes the town;
Thou didst betray me to a ling’ring book,
And wrap me in a gown.
I was entangled in the world of strife,

Before I had the power to change my life.

Yet, for I threaten’d oft the siege to raise,
Not simp’ring all mine age,
Thou often didst with academic praise
Melt and dissolve my rage.
I took thy sweet’ned pill, till I came where

I could not go away, nor persevere.

Yet lest perchance I should too happy be
In my unhappiness,
Turning my purge to food, thou throwest me
Into more sicknesses.
Thus doth thy power cross-bias me, not making

Thine own gift good, yet me from my ways taking.

Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
None of my books will show;
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree,
For sure then I should grow
To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust

Her household to me, and I should be just.

Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek;
In weakness must be stout;
Well, I will change the service, and go seek
Some other master out.
Ah my dear God! though I am clean forgot,

Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

No time, this morning to read through the whole poem, but only to point to a few lines that still touch my with their truth:

…a blunted knife
Was of more use than I.
Thus thin and lean without a fence or friend,

I was blown through with ev’ry storm and wind.

Why did it help me to read these lines?  When you are  not in good shape (see good shape in picture above and compare to  when your life is out of joint) not being ‘of use’ is one of the burdens. And a knife is dangerous – sometimes a blunt knife more dangerous than a sharp one. Then he turns sideways and you see – oddly, brilliantly – ‘without a fence’  is he cast out? Yes. Is he unprotected? Yes. Is he stick thin? Yes. Does the slightest thing set him off? Yes. Is he easily blown about  by  any wind? Yes.

Recognise it all ? Yes.  I love the  time  he arrives at the tree-thought, right now, as if the poem is living through terrible real-time:

None of my books will show;
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree,
For sure then I should grow
To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust

Her household to me, and I should be just.

Now. Now Now. Can’t get out of it. He treads water. ‘I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree.’ But the imagination of being a tree  is a tiny, tiny moment of change. A tree is not a bit of thin lath in a fence. A tree is not a blunted knife. The lovely hope that a bird might  nest in him, some living creature might ‘trust’ him, is a possible future.  But George Herbert doesn’t get there in this poem, which is written  in medias res, in the absolute thick of it. The last stanza is frustrated, stuck, going round in circles;

Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek;

In weakness must be stout;

He knows intellectually what he is supposed to do – be stout – but, angrily, childishly, frustratedly, can’t do that;

Well, I will change the service, and go seek

Some other master out.

Bah! Give up!And then, a bigger, more difficult problem and a restating of it as GH’s own responsibility:

Ah my dear God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

Does it matter what God (read ‘life’) is doing to him? No. The responsibility rests with he who is living that life. Got to go with the flow, got to act with it.

Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

How do I love thee? Ah life, let me count the ways. Wake up, count blessings, look at a tree, a bird, a baby. There is an infinite universe of nothing. Then there is this, this spark of life, this us. Painful, worth having.  Keep going.

Primary feelings

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The author aged ten, with inefficient hairband, plus pearls

Turned the Oxford Book of English Verse page from William Blake (see yesterday’s post) to find myself in Robbie Burns country.  I stopped for a moment to wonder if ‘Address to the Unco  Guid’ was the poem for me today – no, too long, but what a great last couple of lines – looking at others, judging them, from the outside, Burns tells the  rigidly righteous, is no good;

What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.

It’s brilliantly realistic that  even ‘what’s done’ we can’t fully know – the outside, visible bit of someone else’s actions. And then the caution – we absolutely can’t know ‘what’s resisted.’ We don’t know and can’t imagine someone else’s inner battles.

Then I stopped to enjoy ‘John Anderson, my Jo’ and  though I think it is a love song (my Jo = my beloved, sweetheart) I thought of long friendship and some of the hills I have climbed (not literally, think we’ve only done that once, Beeston Hill, with some German students) with my old friend Angie, and how now,

Now we maun totter down, John,
And hand in hand we’ll go…

Hand in hand, dear old friend, tottering down. Lovely. I passed right over ‘The Silver Tassie’  with the  thought ‘drinking song, not interested’ – though as to that,  when I looked more closely it is also a  man going to war love  song, so maybe worth reading another day, but for now my eye been caught by ‘The Banks o’ Doon’ and I know already, without reading, that’s the poem for today. Why? I know it so well, almost off by heart.

Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon
How ye can bloom so fresh and fair
How can ye chant ye little birds
And I sae weary fu’ o’ care
Thou’lt break my heart, thou warbling bird
That wantons thro’ the flowering thorn
Thou minds me o’ departed joys
Departed never to return

Aft hae I rov’d by bonnie Doon
To see the rose and woodbine twine
And ilka bird sang o’ its love
And fondly sae did I o’ mine
Wi’ lightsome heart I pu’d a rose
Fu’ sweet upon its thorny tree
But my false lover stole my rose
But ah! She left the thorn wi’ me

Like ‘Jerusalem’ this one has been with me a  very long time. I learned it as a song in Eastham Village Primary School, where singing was one of the weekly lessons. We had a  school songbook in which other favourites of mine were  Hearts of Oak, Greensleeves,  The Skye Boat Song…But this was my top favourite. Now I must ask myself, why? Most the language was incomprehensible.  I was nine or ten. I didn’t know anything about love or broken hearts.

I remember knowing it was partly about landscape – I think I knew , certainly know now as I try to remember what knowing the words of this lyric meant, that it was about place and heart, and that place was lovely and loveliness made the song/me sad.

Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon
How ye can bloom so fresh and fair?
How can ye chant ye little birds
And I sae weary fu’ o’ care?

The side by side-ness of  the outside lovely world ‘so fresh and fair’ and the inside world of me ‘ I sae weary ful of care’,  is the main thing. Seeing light against darkness,  joy right up against sorrow casts  strong  emphasis on both states. What interests me remembering this is what was there in me then as a ten-year old that responded so powerfully to this split? I do not think  I was unhappy  – not more unhappy than anyone else suffering the humiliations and sorrows of childhood at that time. Did the song touch  parts of my experience that were not yet in my consciousness ?

My parents had recently divorced, we had moved many times, Eastham Village  was my fifth primary school in as many years. Was I ‘weary and ful o care?’ My mum was ill, and struggling as a single parent with four children, was beginning the drinking that would  lead to her alcoholism. How much did I realise of all that?  Not very much. It wouold be another two years – aeons in child-time – before it began to get to me enough to make me run away from home. But was the song  speaking to that growing  unhappiness ?

When we are very unhappy, things of joy seem to hurt us. I seem to remember (aware I could be making most of this up!) that I knew the sound of those birds, and that birdsong contains a sadness, or provokes it, late Spring birdsong  does sometime pierce that heart –

How can ye chant ye little birds
And I sae weary fu’ o’ care?

How? how? asks the poet , as if unable to hold together the co-existence of joy with his sorrow. How can there even be other-than-this?

How ye can bloom so fresh and fair?
How can ye chant ye little birds…?

I’m thinking of Wordsworth lines ‘a timely utterance gave that thought relief/and I again am strong’ – Tintern Abbey isn’t it?  I think finding ways of express otherwise unexpressed feelings is a key to some sort of equilibrium. Not that I became a balanced teenager. But I did survive my childhood and adolescence with something intact or strong enough to keep growing.

‘The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts’ George Eliot writes, at the end of Middlemarch.  Small things such  as giving children a way of enjoying songs and poems and stories that hold or express feelings  might  make a difference to  our growing child mental health problems. Certainly, things might have been much worse with me if I had not had this and other poems in my soul repertoire.

 

A few more daffodils & the ‘d’ word

C6UBW9zWgAA6Mv8.jpgphoto from @liverpoolparks

Robert Herrick ‘To Daffodils’

I love Robert Herrick.  I love ‘To Anthea, who may command him anything’ and I love ‘So Good Luck Came’, ‘To The virgins to Make Much of Time’, ‘Corinna’s Gone a-Maying’ – we’ll come to that in May – and many, many others. What do I love? Herrick’s brilliantly balanced between loving this world and knowing how short a date it has.

But his poem ‘To Daffodils’ I have passed by many times, not really noticing it, not reading it, because I’d glance-read it and assumed I’d got it. After all, it is very short. But today, I’m stopping to read.

Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain’d his noon.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We die
As your hours do, and dry
Away,
Like to the summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
Ne’er to be found again.

 

On Saturday my friend Angie (A Little Aloud Angie, yes) told me the daffodils planted along the roadside and in tubs in Hoylake (the next little town along from us) were spectacular and  that it was worth going to Hoylake just to see them. That evening we were going to the pictures (don’t ask) and I drove  a roundabout route, via Hoylake, to see them. They were magnificent, fluttering, dancing, yes like stars, and seemingly never-ending. Well done, Hoylake!

We were nearly late for the film but I wanted to take Angie’s advice because I knew I next time I tried to look they’d be gone. Like almost everything the nature, they do come and go very quickly. This is a thing you know more intensely as you get older because time speeds up as years pass. Does anyone remember that moving interview between Melvin Bragg and the dying Denis Potter, in which Mr Potter speaks of the joy of still being alive and being able to see this year’s blossom, ‘the blossomest blossom ever’?

Well that’s what Robert Herrick is talking about. ‘We weep to see/you haste away so soon’ because we see our own hastening mirrored in yours. ‘Time’s ah running out’, as Captain Beefheart says.  Interesting that Herrick repeats the verb ‘haste’ in the day’s ‘hasting’ – as if everything now were moving at a tremendous time speed.

Let’s get to the end, he’s saying, then we’ll go. ‘We’ll go with you along.’ There’s an implication of being made to go along? of being unwilling?  Let’s get to the end of the day, then we’ll go. But what is the end of the day for a human? ‘Stay, stay,’ the poet cries, trying to  slow time down. In the first stanza, I know Herrick is really talking about himself (and me) but he covers it with daffodils as if it might only be about the passing of a flower’s quick life.

But the second stanza takes away any pretence.

We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We, daffodils, all, any material thing has short time, short spring, has growth heading to decay.  ‘We die’, says Herrick  boldly, baldly, giving the thought the whole short line. what I was surprised by was not that, but ‘Ne’er to be found again.’ No  rising on the last day, no  after life. Or if there is, not relevant here.  Though, now I look back, he mentions ‘praying together’ in the first stanza. Still, it’s this life he’s mourning here.
This morning as I was reading, I thought, I want to get ready to die (no, I’m not dying, any more than I have been, as far as I know. All’s well.). I just have a sense that I want to get ready to do it. I want to make it part of my life. Don’t want to be taken by surprise, unable to do it well. Then I saw the poem.
A poem like this is a tiny practice for dying. And thus also for living.
And a timely reminder: go and see the daffodils. Go now. Do not waste any more time, love it all, enjoy it all: daffodils, Anthea, Herrick,  Hoylake, Dear Friends. Oh, happy day, we’re still here and so are the daffodils.

Infant Joy, Infant Sorrow

 

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Redeemable: A memoir of darkness and hope, by Erwin James, Bloomsbury

Erwin James is a Guardian columnist and author, a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust and a Patron of The Reader. Redeemable, his memoir, builds on and expands what we know of him through his two collections of essays, A Life Inside: A Prisoner’s Notebook and The Home Stretch: From Prison to Parole. Erwin is a convicted murderer who spent twenty years in prison before his release in 2004. You can read his remarkable essay on the power of reading  in The Reader magazine, number 54.

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Though I knew it would be a sad, hard book, I had been longing to read Redeemable, because Erwin is a remarkable man, and because ‘how do people change? ’ has been one of my key obsessions for thirty years. As I write these life-size numbers – twenty years, thirty years – I feel both how long and how short are these lives I am reading and thinking about.

I read the book over three days, nights and early mornings this week. The first reading session gave me nightmares. That’s not a very comfortable recommendation for a book, but don’t be put off. There are particular reasons why I would be moved to nightmares by Erwin’s story. The remorselessly crazy of helter-skelter of a family dominated by unacknowledged pain, dogged by poverty, and knocked about by hunger and alcohol brought alive many memories of my own childhood. And for all the brute reality of memory and fact, there’s something blank, which I found as frightening as anything else, this blank numbness, recalling William Empson’s  poem, ‘Let It Go’;

It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange.
The more things happen to you the more you can’t
Tell or remember even what they were.

The contradictions cover such a range.
The talk would talk and go so far aslant.
You don’t want madhouse and the whole thing there.

It is as if, even now, after all this thinking and sifting and remembering, Erwin cannot fathom his father, whom he loved, loved, loved. But why, after his wife’s death, did Erwin Snr continually abandon his children? Why did he beat his little son? It’s as if Erwin has, in the end, simply to let it go, ‘the contradictions cover such a range’.  There are no answers and no time for answers in the first two-thirds of the book, which feels a rushing headlong descent towards the newspaper clipping that gives the bare, public details of Erwin’s trial for double murder.

Erwin mentions reading Crime and Punishment in prison many years later, and I felt as I read, that the world of Redeemable was lit by the same feverish pained misery as Dostoevsky’s novel.  So, as a  twelve-year-old, Erwin is living in children’s home when he gets into a fight at school and runs away, from Ilkley to Shipley, an eight mile walk, to the place  he thinks his father is living. His father’s girlfriend won’t let him stay and sends him on to Aunt Bridie’s house.

She told me where my aunt Bridie’s house was and said that Maw (Erwin’s much loved grandmother) was staying with her and my uncle Jake. Bursting with excitement I sped off to find them. The house was at the top of the estate, the very roughest part where houses had windows missing and holes in front doors. When I arrived I banged on the door as loud as I could.

As soon as she saw me Aunt Bridie threw her arms around me and hugged me tight. ‘Maw, look,’ she called to the living room. ‘It’s wee Erwin!’

I cried with joy when I saw Maw and rushed to her, grabbing hold of her and sobbing into her arms. ‘Oh, son,’ she said, ‘look at the size of you!’ I hadn’t seen her since a few weeks after the crash (in which Erwin’s mother was killed) more than five years earlier. She looked very old and not at all well. She had a great blue and black bruise on the left side of her face. ‘Don’t worry son,’ she said when I stared. ‘I just fell doon the stairs when I was tired.’ I could smell alcohol on her breath. Around the room I saw empty beer and wine bottles and realised that Maw, Aunt Bridie and Uncle Jake were all drunk.

The police picked me up in Shipley town centre two days later and after a couple of hours in the police station I was taken back to the Home.

And so it goes on, the unstoppable blur of drunken faces, robberies and runnings-off that make up this child-and-early-adulthood.

At one point in the week, Redeemable is in my mind as I watch a young mother playing with her three-month-old baby. The mother is holding the baby about ten inches away from her face, completely focusing the child’s attention. The mother smiles and talks, nodding, making deep contact. ‘Aren’t you a lovely one, you are, aren’t you?’ She pauses, waits patiently, holds the child, and continues to nod and smile. In response, the baby smiles and coos, almost, you’d say, speaks back. They talk to one another, communing, communicating for ten, fifteen minutes as I watch. I’m thinking of Wordsworth’s Prelude where in Book 2, the babe ‘nursed in his mother’s arms…doth gather passion from his mother’s eye.’  Wordsworth observed, as psychologists and baby-watchers have done, that the baby recognises its feelings in the faces of others, and gradually learns through language to name those feelings.  Language is what we use to communicate between inside our wordless, feeling-driven selves and the outside world of everyone else. Language is what we have to help us become part of humanity. Language and role-models, as William Blake knew. His poems Infant Joy and Infant Sorrow give us the psychology in two tiny nutshells.

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Erwin, like many children who fall into the Care system and later into prison, doesn’t have much in the way of role-models (though he loves reading and writing and, a school failure, loves English). He learns what his family teaches him: to love without hope of love returned, to drink as a way to escape the pain of being unbeloved, and to hurt others as he has been hurt. Care teaches him nothing but that he is a criminal. It is only when he is convicted and  meets the patient, one might even say loving, psychologist, Joan Branton, that you feel the human exchange, the eye contact, the focus, the shared language of feelings begin to enter his consciousness. He is no baby: he is twenty–eight years old.

But Joan gives him time, conversation, books, including Crime and Punishment. ‘What have you done to yourself?’ Sonia the prostitute asks Raskolnikov the murderer in one of that novel’s culminating moments. This is one of the questions Joan invites Erwin to consider.

The book is testimony to the possibility of redemption, to the work of some of those working in the prison system and to Erwin James’ creation for himself an inner life, a set of values and a belief, learned from Joan, that we are redeemable. ‘There is always a way back,’ she tells him, ‘if you want it badly enough and are prepared to work hard enough.’

Highly recommended, but it is a hard read.  Have tissues and time to recover. Then send some books to prisoners or support the work of The Reader in prisons and other criminal justice settings.

The Reader’s Shared Reading model gives people in prison an opportunity to think about their lives and the lives of others through the medium of literature. We run shared reading groups in a number of criminal justice settings across the UK. We are glad to have recently won the first ever public tender for a shared reading contract, which will provide shared reading in all Northern Ireland Prisons.

 

That best part of a good man’s life

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A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

Another recommendation via Angie Macmillan. Recommended so heavily, in fact, that she posted it through my door the night before I was leaving for my sabbatical. I’m sorry to report my prejudices put me off before I had even opened the book. I thought the cover made it look, as a dragged-up David Walliams might say,  like a ladies book; a lightweight, slightly romantic family saga… And yet Angie had said, worth reading, you might like it. Even so, it went to the bottom of the pile and I read other things. Until I ran out of them.

And of course, Angie was right; the cover was an irrelevant (to me) marketing tool and my prejudices were, as usual, quite unhelpful.

This was a terrific novel, powerfully real and deeply moving. Hurray and very, very well done, Carys Bray. Not many contemporary writers take on religious faith as a subject. But this story of a devout Mormon family living through an immense trauma offers a lot of human depth.

You’ll think of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, if you’ve read it, because there’s a powerful portrait of a closely-knit  religious community that looks very odd to most people who are not part of it.  There’s initially a kind of spectator laughter about the weirdness of it all, which made me think the book was going to be cynical, but emphatically, it is not that. Winterson’s book is about a fight for survival but she’s an only child, and there’s only one real centre of consciousness, which – as the world it describes wants to destroy it –  must, for survival’s sake, stand outside.

That makes a difference. A Song for Issy Bradley is a family story, and it is partly about the interconnections of love within a struggling family. As Tolstoy tells us, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. These people may be members of a sect we don’t know much about, which at first makes them look pretty different, but they are eventually just people like us, and the ways in which the tragedy they live through plays out across and through their individual and collective consciousness is what makes the novel compelling. It’s not about Mormons, so much as a book about emotional aftermath and ongoing life.

Phil and I took turns to read this aloud. There were times where one or both of us were moved to tears, and the reading became utterly compelling. There were some parts that felt painfully close to the bone – scenes in the hospital and the undertakers, an incident that might be a rape. This was not a light read. But, as in life, there are moments of glorious hilarity which will get you through, to say nothing of playground football, Mr Rimmer’s Pioneer Wagon and the exceptionally wonderful teenage party scene which worryingly begins ‘no one had touched Zippy since Issy died.’ There are also moments of deep, sensible realism, such as this, where Jacob, aged 7, realises that humans have to learn to bear pain,

He wanted to tell Dad a story in the car but he wasn’t brave enough. The story is true, at least that’s what Sister Anderson said. It’s about one of the apostles who kept rabbits when he was a little boy. One day, when the apostle was seven, his favourite rabbit escaped. He looked for the rabbit but he couldn’t find it. Then he said a prayer and immediately a picture came into his mind and he went to the exact spot he had imagined and found the rabbit. This showed that Heavenly Father responds to the small, simple prayers of everyone.

Jacob thinks about the rabbit story and what Dad said about answers to prayers in the car. There should be stories where the answer is no. There should be stories where children pray for lost rabbits that never turn up and then people might get used to it an know what to do next: he doesn’t know.

A Song for Issy Bradley is one such story – there is a great big ‘no’ at its centre, where ‘death closes all.’

And yet, that great gaping hole can be combatted by the powerful ‘yes’ of ordinary, real life, those ‘little, nameless acts of kindness and of love’ as Wordsworth called them: trying to love each other and living on through it, so that finally we are not merely surviving, but also, sometimes, singing. Thank you, Carys.