That best part of a good man’s life



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.

Learning to write: Edith Wharton’s  Hudson River Bracketed 

Edith Wharton’s novels can be astonishingly revealing of human behaviour at the absolutely micro level – Wallace Stegner, whom I recommended here in a previous post must have learned something from her.

This was one I hadn’t read and so picked up in an Oxfam bookshop just before setting off for my reading and writing sabbatical. It’s a lovely thing when you have an author you trust enough to think ‘Something by you will be worth reading. It’s 500 pages but it will be worth carrying in my book suitcase.’



And so it was.

Hudson River Bracketed is an architectural style, the style of a grand, largely unused, American house which plays a key part in the novel. It’s as if an English novel of the 1920s were to be called Oxford-Redbrick-Semi. Or Miners Two-bed and No Inside Loo. It’s partly a novel about the way that class, education and experience shape a life, and more than that, it is about how those things, plus reading, sex and money make or unmake an artist, and specifically a writer. And more specifically a male writer, from the west of America, born about 1900. Meet Vance (short for Advance) Weston:

By the time he was nineteen Vance Weston had graduated from the college of Euphoria, Illinois, where his parents had lived, had spent a week in Chicago, invented a new religion, and edited for a few months a college magazine called Getting There, to which he had contributed several love poems and a series of iconoclastic essays.

One of Vance’s difficulties is learning how to trust or judge what he experiences, and the opening sentence gives us a clue about that, pitching ‘a week in Chicago’ against ‘invented a new religion’ without blinking.  You decide, Edith Wharton seems to be silently saying, what kind of young man this is…and yes, he is naive, excite able, foolish, inexperienced and has big ideas and a even bigger feelings. Should we laugh at him? Yes, a bit. But not everyone invents a new religion by the time they are nineteen, and it might be worth sticking around to see what else this guy does.

It’s a long stick-around, standing by this young man as he learns some hard Edith Wharton-ish lessons about the way complications build up and may  hamper, break or ruin the potential of a life.

In the last third of the novel I began to feel that the  trajectory might be  the unbearable downward curve at speed that is The House of Mirth (also by Edith Wharton, and surely that has got to be on my list of 100 books to build a woman? Think I need to re-read it. What a great book. My husband is currently reading a book called Why Humans Like To Cry and I was thinking The House of Mirth would be a good example of that… but is ‘like’ the right word? Surely, ‘need’  might be better…) But this is not The House of Mirth, Vance is man, and that doesn’t make all the difference, but it does make a difference.

This would be a book to read perhaps alongside or following D.H. Lawrence Sons and Lovers. It would make a very good  novel for a shared reading group, because it has short chapters, is episodic and is full of serious things to talk about…especially, how selfish does a higher purpose make a person? What is selfishness and how does it sit alongside our  need for  others, for love and  social being?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and from the noisome pestilence.

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

his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.

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

nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness;

nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

New Year, Same Old


I don’t remember if I actually set out last New Year with any resolutions – in my second half century I am finally beginning to understand the hard fact that  there is no new start – but if I had formulated any aims for 2012 they would have been the same old resolutions I’ve been making and failing to achieve for decades : read every day, write every day, walk every day, don’t eat too much, think more, be kinder. When I’m in a self-confident, self-forgiving mood, which is a great deal of the time,  the apparently inevitable return of the same old problems doesn’t bother me too much:  any human life is  a work in progress, and an organic work at that, so I allow plenty of leeway and don’t make myself suffer unnecessarily. Or as  W.B.Yeats more eloquently says in Dialogue of Self and Soul;

I am content to follow to its source

Every event in action or in thought;

Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!

When such as I cast out remorse

So great a sweetness flows into the breast

We must laugh and we must sing,

We are blest by everything,

Everything we look upon is blest.

Hhmhm, but no.  I can’t go that far – neither the measuring nor the forgiving. I love the brio of that third line  but I don’t believe in it, not for me. I cannot ‘measure the lot’  partly because I fear I would not  be able to  ‘forgive myself the lot!’ But  I would like that sweetness, and I enjoy the feeling, when it comes, of being ‘blest by everything,/everything we look upon is blest.’  I get that feeling a lot when I go outside and walk in the woods or on the beach – which is an easy hit if I can stretch the hours of daylight to accommodate it. Harder is finding time with my two grandsons, hours away in Cambridge and London. How lovely it was to spend time with them over Christmas. That’s my mother-in-law Sheila in the background, 85 years old and doing the washing up, as she always does on any family occasion.

Making bread with grandson Chester
Making bread at Christmas

As someone who has grown out of  what sometimes seems to have been a completely chaotic family, drenched at many levels in human failure, that simple feeling of ‘blest’ in a moment like the one in the photograph can be hard to accept.

But do I mean accept? I don’t think so: I accept it very, very gladly.

I mean something more like: it is hard to hang on to the knowledge that  there will be good, simple and lovely, and that it can arise from pain, and worse. I mean it is hard to believe in the possibilities of ‘blest’. Not that I don’t, just that it is hard, almost unnatural.

Two books I have been reading  have made me think about this these last few days. The second is the excellent Vintage Classics anthology,  Dickens At Christmas – where I’m reading The Haunted Man, a  long short story Brian Nellist has been recommending to me for months. I haven’t finished this yet, so I’ll come back to it. The first book that made me think about this was my Boxing Day read, Wonder by R.J. Palacio (Bodley Head)

I thought I wouldn’t like it – too American, too modern, too fashionable… but I was wrong on all counts. This is America at  its naive best,  the believing, decent, humane America of Little Women or It’s A Wonderful Life. Or to push it a bit, it’s a child’s version of dear wonderful George Saunders who is taking humane and decent and refashioning it for our hard-hearted times. But more of George another day (though don’t wait, rush over to The New Yorker and read  his exceedingly moving story The 10th of December: go now! )

But I’ll turn back to Wonder. It took me half an hours concentrated reading to get into it, and then  I was away. I read half the book on Christmas night and the rest on Boxing Day morning. Hankies are definitely required and more than once.

This is a family survival story. Auggie has a rare genetic disorder that means his face is extremely badly deformed. ‘I won’t describe what I look like,’ he tells us on page one. ‘Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.’ Most humans flinch when they see him.  Auggie has been home-schooled,  mainly because  he has spent most of his life  in hospital having operations, but partly, we assume,  because his parents have held off the  dreaded moment of  letting him enter the outside-family-world. They always knew how hard it was going to be. But now his parents are suggesting that, aged 10, he should  go to school. The novel tells how  Auggie, his parents and his, sister Via, her boyfriend Justin and Auggie’s peers and teachers survive this difficult year.  It’s harrowing but massively uplifting and the  two things are subtly intertwined : you are not reading propaganda on how to live with disability, you are reading a meditation on good and evil in the universe. Always an interesting place to be.

I won’t tell the story. I just want to point out the novel’s  tremendous emotional and psychological powers. The story is told from numerous points of view and R.J. Palacio is good at uncovering multiple meanings through many layers of experience. She is smart, intellectually and emotionally and  you sense a lot of serious adult reading has helped her to build up the layers she so carefully lays open for us. Here’s Auggie’s sister’s boyfriend, Justin.

Doesn’t that make the universe one giant lottery, then? you purchase ticket when you are born, and it’s all just random whether you get a good ticket or a bad ticket, it’s all just luck.

my head swirls on this, but then softer thoughts soothe, a like a flattened third on a major chord. no, no, it’s not all random, if it really was all random, the universe would abandon us completely. and the universe doesn’t. it takes care of its most fragile creations in ways we can’t see. like with parents who adore you blindly. and a big sister who feels guilty for being human over you. and a little gravelly-voiced kid whose friends have left him over you. and even a pink-haired girl who carries your picture in her wallet. maybe it is a lottery, but the universe makes it all even out in the end . the universe takes care of all its little birds.

I thought of  the New Testament, and I’d bet a pound that  R.J. Palacio was doing the same when she wrote that sentence. (Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. Matthew 10.29 ) But I wondered hard, as I read, as the book had asked me to, is this true or false? I thought also of Dickens, writing in Bleak House, ‘the universe makes a rather indifferent parent’  – Dickens,  that neglected child who knew with every ounce of his human body that if anyone was going to love and care for the neglected it was going to have to be another human being.  I know children who have harder lives than anyone would like to imagine here, now, in England. Is the Universe going to look after them?  It is easy to reach  for apparent realism of  ‘probably not’ and then stumble on to unbelief.  You need to take that extra leap of faith a great writer like Dickens always takes. Probably not the universe, but Mr Jarndyce or Aunt Betsy or little Dorrit, or some human soul will.

This thoughtful novel doesn’t take any easy routes, and so we find that Justin has done his growing up in a very different family:

My mom and dad got divorced when I was four and they pretty much hate each other. i grew up spending half of the week in my dad’s apartment in chelsea and the other half in my mom’s place in brooklyn heights. i have a half brother who’s five years older than me and barely knows I exist. for as long as i can remember i’ve felt like my parents could hardly wait for me to be old enough to take care of myself. ‘you can go to the store by yourself.’ ‘here’s the key to the apartment.’ it’s funny how there’s a word like overprotective to describe some parents, but no word that means the opposite. what word do you use to describe parents that don’t protect enough? underprotective? neglectful? self-involved? lame? all of the above?

Olivia’s family tell each other ‘i love you’ all the time.

I can’t remember the last time anyone in my family said that to me.

By the time I go home, my tics have all stopped.

Love is like the  Higgs Boson, isn’t it? You gotta look for it to find it. And if you don’t believe, you don’t look. First principle – believe. Round we go again. Make the same old resolution to keep looking,  be a believer.

Books are one way of learning to believe against the harder offers of one’s sometimes brutal direct experience.  You get someone else’s brutal direct experience and while it’s not your story, if it’s a half decent book, you recognise it. And the book may hold possibilities of which you hadn’t dreamed. This book is more than half decent. It’s good. Probably better if you find an intelligent and somewhat troubled child to read it to, but it surely can stand alone, however old you are. Read it and weep. You’ll be made to think and you’ll laugh too  –  that’s the wonder of it.

We must laugh and we must sing,

We are blest by everything,

Everything we look upon is blest.

Bleak House

I am re-reading Dickens’ Bleak House, a novel of nearly 1000 pages.  Has one life got room for more than one reading of such a huge book? Set aside an hour in the coming week to have ataster session and see for yourself why I think it does.How did I get into it first time around? Someone passed it on.

In 1985 the BBC did a fine eight-episode adaptation of Bleak House, even now worth getting the DVD. To buy it would be to purchase some genius casting. As I write, more than 25 years later I can recall some of facial expressions of Denholm Elliot the hunch of his shoulders, his flinching as the troubled, insanely kind Jarndyce, Also the woman who played Esther Summerson – Suzanne Burden -I can see the careful stillness of her face, holding all emotion back, yet suffering it, nonetheless.  These and other great actors  (Diana Rigg, Charlie Drake, T.P. McKenna) interpreted the novel for me in that, my first experience of it. When we read to a child this is essentially what we are doing, though usually in a lower key, using the human person to pass on additional information, which adds to the experience of the story.  The actor, the reader, ‘reads’ for you, and that reading is not just about decoding but about translating into human experience.

I was prompted to read the novel by this TV series, which is a good outcome for an adaptation, and for anyone reading stories to children or adults. And how many times have I read it since? I wish I was ordered, and had kept a series of notebooks detailing every book I have ever read, as some careful readers do. It would be good to look back with certainty. But as I have not kept such a record, I’ll have to guess, and I’d guess I may have read the novel perhaps three or four times. And not exactly ‘read’ in the usual sense, because these all but the first of these readings will have been reading in order to teach, and that’s a more concentrated form of reading than most of us practice most of the time. It is a way of reading which has underpinned the development of Get Into Reading, of what we at The Reader Organisation called ‘shared reading’.

But first reading? I know I was obsessed with Schubert’s Quintet in C, and for a long time associated the fast, terrible movement with the pain of Lady Dedlock’s being, as it were, on the run. I remember someone talking to me about ‘the problem’ of Esther’s narrative – a problem I had not myself noticed. I recall being uncomfortable with the trick played by Mr Jarndyce on Esther at the end of the book. But mainly, what I can recall is the compelling, pounding speed at which I had to read it.  It was obsessive.  Later readings were different. At this stage I had not ‘taught’ a novel. Taught is the wrong word which is why I felt the need to wrap it in inverted commas. And yet it was teaching too.  When would it be that I began to teach an evening class for what was then the Departmental of Extramural Studies, possibly called ‘Introduction to Victorian Literature’. 1986? 1987? It’s all so cloudy back there, but it is possible that I taught Bleak House as part of a twenty week evening course, if not in 1986, sometime before1990.  In the early days of that sort of teaching I’d have allocated three two hour sessions to a novel ( a huge amount of time compared to the 50 mins you’d get in a University tutorial), but by the end of my  life in the University  it would have been ten sessions.  Twenty hours. And it would still have felt rushed. I have never read Bleak House in Get Into Reading – though one of my groups did set sail with Our Mutual Friend ( I left the group before it was finished) and I’d imagine it might take about a year or 18 months.

Is it worth spending that much time on one thing, when the universe is so packed with so many interesting things to read, look at, do?

I’ve just finished Chapter 16, Bell Yard, about page 250. This is  the length of a longish contemporary novel, and yet in Bleak House we are only just getting going.  It is a wonderfully full, leisurely look at the world, which in this chapter has just brought Dickens and his readers to a point of incredible realism and seriousness.But no use me talking about it – try reading some:

Story so far: a huge ancient court case going in Chancery, Jarndyce v Jarndyce has ruined many people, and killed some of them.  The current Jarndyce wishes to bring it all to a stop by creating relationships of love and trust among the plaintiffs. He takes in, to his home, Bleak House, the three young  ‘wards of court’ involved in the suit. Meanwhile we have seen chancery, a stately home Chesney Wold, the foul room of a poverty –stricken man addicted to opium, the inside of a lawyers office, a rag and bone shop, a lot of different people known by or known to all the characters. That it so far.  In Chapter 16, Jarndyce has taken the young ward to visit the home of a follower (what we might call a private detective/bailiff) who has died. Here, and not for the first time in this novel, we meet ordinary, terrible poverty. I give you a biggish chunk, so you can get the flavour, and maybe develop a taste for it:

I tapped at the door, and a little shrill voice inside said, “We are locked in. Mrs Blinder’s got the key!”

I applied the key on hearing this, and opened the door. In a poor room with a sloping ceiling, and containing very little furniture, was a mite of a boy, some five or six years old, nursing and hushing a heavy child of eighteen months. There was no fire, though the weather was cold; both children were wrapped in some poor shawls and tippets, as a substitute. Their clothing was not so warm, however, but that their noses looked red and pinched, and their small figures shrunken, as the boy walked up and down, nursing and hushing the child with its head on his shoulder.

“Who has locked you up here alone?” we naturally asked.

“Charley,” said the boy, standing still to gaze at us.

“Is Charley your brother?”

“No. She’s my sister, Charlotte. Father called her Charley.”

“Are there any more of you besides Charley?”

“Me,” said the boy, “and Emma,” patting the limp bonnet of the child he was nursing. “And Charley.”

“Where is Charley now?”

“Out a washing,” said the boy, beginning to walk up and down again, and taking the nankeen bonnet much too near the bedstead, by trying to gaze at us at the same time.

We were looking at one another, and at these two children, when there came into the room a very little girl, childish in figure but shrewd and older-looking in the face — pretty-faced too — wearing a womanly sort of bonnet much too large for her, and drying her bare arms on a womanly sort of apron. Her fingers were white and wrinkled with washing, and the soapsuds were yet smoking which she wiped off her arms. But for this, she might have been a child, playing at washing, and imitating a poor workingwoman with a quick observation of the truth.

She had come running from some place in the neighbourhood, and had made all the haste she could. Consequently, though she was very light, she was out of breath, and could not speak at first, as she stood panting, and wiping her arms, and looking quietly at us.

“O, here’s Charley!” said the boy.

The child he was nursing, stretched forth its arms, and cried out to be taken by Charley. The little girl took it, in a womanly sort of manner belonging to the apron and the bonnet, and stood looking at us over the burden that clung to her most affectionately.

“Is it possible,” whispered my Guardian as we put a chair for the little creature, and got her to sit down with her load: the boy keeping close to her, holding to her apron, “that this child works for the rest? Look at this! For God’s sake, look at this!”

It was a thing to look at. The three children close together, and two of them relying solely on the third, and the third so young and yet with an air of age and steadiness that sat so strangely on the childish figure.

“Charley, Charley!” said my Guardian. “How old are you?”

“Over thirteen, sir,” replied the child.

“O! What a great age,” said my Guardian. “What a great age, Charley!”

I cannot describe the tenderness with which he spoke to her; half playfully, yet all the more compassionately and mournfully.

“And do you live alone here with these babies, Charley?” said my Guardian.

“Yes, sir,” returned the child, looking up into his face with perfect confidence, “since father died.”

“And how do you live, Charley? O! Charley,” said my Guardian, turning his face away for a moment, “how do you live?”

“Since father died, sir, I’ve gone out to work. I’m out washing to-day.”

“God help you, Charley!” said my Guardian. “You’re not tall enough to reach the tub!”

“In pattens I am, sir,” she said quickly. “I’ve got a high pair as belonged to mother.”

“And when did mother die? Poor mother!”

“Mother died, just after Emma was born,” said the child, glancing at the face upon her bosom. “Then, father said I was to be as good a mother to her as I could. And so I tried. And so I worked at home, and did cleaning and nursing and washing, for a long time before I began to go out. And that’s how I know how; don’t you see, sir?”

“And do you often go out?”

“As often as I can,” said Charley, opening her eyes, and smiling, “because of earning sixpences and shillings!”

“And do you always lock the babies up when you go out?”

“To keep ’em safe, sir, don’t you see?” said Charley. “Mrs Blinder comes up now and then, and Mr Gridley comes up sometimes, and perhaps I can run in sometimes, and they can play you know, and Tom an’t afraid of being locked up, are you, Tom?”

“No-o!” said Tom, stoutly.

“When it comes on dark, the lamps are lighted down in the court, and they show up here quite bright — almost quite bright. Don’t they, Tom?”

“Yes, Charley,” said Tom, “almost quite bright.”

“Then he’s as good as gold,” said the little creature — O, in such a motherly, womanly way! “And when Emma’s tired, he puts her to bed. And when he’s tired, he goes to bed himself. And when I come home and light the candle, and has a bit of supper, he sits up again and has it with me. Don’t you, Tom?”

“O, yes, Charley!” said Tom. “That I do!” And either in this glimpse of the great pleasure of his life, or in gratitude and love for Charley, who was all in all to him, he laid his face among the scanty folds of her frock, and passed from laughing into crying.

It was the first time since our entry, that a tear had been shed among these children. The little orphan girl had spoken of their father, and their mother, as if all that sorrow were subdued by the necessity of taking courage, and by her childish importance in being able to work, and by her bustling busy way. But, now, when Tom cried; although she sat quite tranquil, looking quietly at us, and did not by any movement disturb a hair of the head of either of her little charges; I saw two silent tears fall down her face.

I stood at the window with Ada, pretending to look at the housetops, and the blackened stack of chimneys, and the poor plants, and the birds in little cages belonging to the neighbours, when I found that Mrs Blinder, from the shop below, had come in (perhaps it had taken her all this time to get up-stairs) and was talking to my Guardian.

“It’s not much to forgive ’em the rent, sir,” she said: “who could take it from them!”

“Well, well!” said my Guardian to us two. “It is enough that the time will come when this good woman will find that it was much, and that forasmuch as she did it unto the least of these— This child,” he added, after a few moments, “could she possibly continue this?”

“Really, sir, I think she might,” said Mrs Blinder, getting her heavy breath by painful degrees. “She’s as handy as it’s possible to be. Bless you, sir, the way she tended them two children, after the mother died, was the talk of the yard! And it was a wonder to see her with him after he was took ill, it really was! ‘Mrs Blinder,’ he said to me the very last he spoke — he was lying there — ‘Mrs Blinder, whatever my calling may have been, I see a angel sitting in this room last night along with my child, and I trust her to Our Father!’”

“He had no other calling?” said my Guardian.

“No, sir,” returned Mrs Blinder, “he was nothing but a follerer. When he first came to lodge here, I didn’t know what he was, and I confess that when I found out I gave him notice. It wasn’t liked in the yard. It wasn’t approved by the other lodgers. It is not a genteel calling,” said Mrs Blinder, “and most people do object to it. Mr Gridley objected to it, very strong; and he is a good lodger, though his temper has been hard tried.”

“So you gave him notice?” said my Guardian.

“So I gave him notice,” said Mrs Blinder. “But really when the time came, and I knew no other ill of him, I was in doubts. He was punctual and diligent; he did what he had to do, sir,” said Mrs Blinder, unconsciously fixing Mr Skimpole with her eye; “and it’s something, in this world, even to do that.”

“So you kept him after all?”

“Why, I said that if he could arrange with Mr Gridley, I could arrange it with the other lodgers, and should not so much mind its being liked or disliked in the yard. Mr Gridley gave his consent gruff — but gave it. He was always gruff with him, but he has been kind to the children since. A person is never known till a person is proved.”

“Have many people been kind to the children?” asked Mr Jarndyce.

“Upon the whole, not so bad, sir,” said Mrs Blinder; “but, certainly not so many as would have been, if their father’s calling had been different. Mr Coavins gave a guinea, and the follerers made up a little purse. Some neighbours in the yard, that had always joked and tapped their shoulders when he went by, came forward with a little subscription, and — in general — not so bad. Similarly with Charlotte. Some people won’t employ her, because she was a follerer’s child; some people that do employ her, cast it at her; some make a merit of having her to work for them, with that and all her drawbacks upon her: and perhaps pay her less and put upon her more. But she’s patienter than others would be, and is clever too, and always willing, up to the full mark of her strength and over. So I should say, in general, not so bad, sir, but might be better.”

Buy Bleak House from The Reader Organisation’s shop here

The Mouse and His Child – Social Enterprise Novel

I have re-read one of my top 5 favourite books of all time: The Mouse and His Child, by Russell Hoban. It ends with a great vision of a brilliant social enterprise, well worth a read by any those of you who are thinking of tapping up the Big Society bank for a project. The business lesson here is: you gotta walk it before you talk it.

The re-reading has confirmed the book’s place in my personal biblio-cosmology: it’s a significant star, bright, moving, and full of meaning for me. All that and it’s funny, too, as you can see in chapter four, when the Caws of Art travelling theatre troupe perform ‘The Last Visible Dog’ and we see Samuel Beckett both mocked and adored.

 Crow flung wide his broad wings like a black cloak. ‘What doesn’t it mean!’ he said. ‘There’s no end to it – it just goes on and on until it mean anything and everything, depending on who you are and what your last visible dog is.’

‘ “Beyond the last visible dog,” ‘said the mouse child to his father. ‘Where is that, I wonder?’

‘I don’t know,’ said the father, ‘but those words touch something in me – something half remembered, half forgotten – that escapes me just as it seems almost clear.’

I first came across the novel when my daughter brought home one of the those catalogues children used to bring home from school – books that were going to be for sale. This would probably be in the early 1980’s, and the book had this same yellow cover in those days, so maybe this, pictured, is the actual one? It says ‘Reprinted in 1983’ and that would have made my daughter 9 years old, a good age for reading this novel. I remember reading it to her, and later to my son, and later still, to a class studying ‘The Novel’ in the Continuing Education programme at Liverpool University. I read extracts from it, with parts of If This Is a Man by Primo Levi, to sixth-formers studying war literature on University study days; it was on the menu when inducting a new intake of staff at The Reader, and when we set up a staff shared reading group it was the first novel we read. Just recently I’ve read it in my weekly reading group with a Drug and Alcohol Service – the first novel we have read (next is going to be Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury), following a range of short stories and poems. I might have read this book 8 or 10 times.

On the first page of my paperback copy, Russell Hoban (who died last year) writes;

 Having once been set in motion, we cannot wind up our own clockwork again. But we can make toys whose stillness can be rewound to new motion, toys whose stillness is never final until the clockwork is destroyed…Each toy insisting on its one idea, its one action. Assembled with or without thought by human hands and eyes and minds that put, whether they wanted to or not, some yes or no, some why? or why not? into the toys. Something was put into them.

Toys? He means novels, surely? I seem to remember reading somewhere that Hoban did not like being known as a writer of children’s books ( he wrote the magnificent Frances series, as well as this and other great children’s books, e.g. Mole Family Christmas, another of my favourites, about a fat man in a red suit…), and certainly, his adult fiction deserves more recognition, but this quotation shows why he is such a wonderful children’s writer: he is utterly unpatronising. Perhaps we could just call him a wonderful writer? Some of his books can be read to or by children. But all the same, the books we call his children’s books are very much for adults. It feels as though, with all his jokes and obsessions, he’s mainly writing, as the best children’s writers always are, for himself as a reader.

Russell Hoban was very interested in what it is that was put into us, whatever that is: ‘some yes or no, some why? or why not?’ In one of his greatest books, Riddley Walker, Hoban talks about this thing that is in us, looking out of our eye-holes.

‘You know Riddley theres some thing in us it don’t have no name.’

I said, ‘What thing is that?’

She said ‘Its some kind of thing it aint us but yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals. Maybe you don’t take no notis of it only some time. Say you get woak up suddn in the middl of the nite. 1 minim youre a sleap and the next youre on your feel with a speer in your han. Wel it wernt you put that speer in your han it were that other thing whats looking out from your eye hoals. It aint you nor it don’t even know your name. Its in us lorn an loan an sheltering how it can.’

This a writer concerned with what Marilynne Robinson calls ‘soul’. I’m going to call it that, too.

The Mouse and His Child is a soul book, and doesn’t have any false dichotomy about this world and others: it’s a spiritual and a material journey, they ain’t separate. It’s a book about coming home, about what home is, and how it becomes home. In the beginning, something is lost – one day you are on the counter in the toyshop, watching imposing but snooty clockwork elephant walk up and down in front of a fine doll’s house, next, everything disappears as you are packed into a box to become a Christmas present. And then you are somewhere else, and eventually broken and found in a dustbin by a tramp who gets you working again – more or less – and sets you down on a road saying ‘ Be tramps.’ So our story – like so many great human stories – begins with the loss of paradise and the emergence of evil. As they set off on the road, the father mouse says;

 ‘Anything at all might happen, I suppose.’

‘But it won’t, ‘said a soft voice close by. ‘Not this evening, my lads.’

A large rat crept out of the shadows of the girders into the light of the overhead lamps, and stood up suddenly on his hind legs before the mouse and his child. He wore a greasy scrap of silk paisley tied with a dirty string in the manner of a dressing gown, and he smelled of darkness, of stale and mouldy things, and garbage. He was there all at once and with a look of tenure, as if he had been waiting always just beyond their field of vision, and once let in would never go away.

The poetry of that last sentence is adult poetry, the poetry of danger, of inevitability, of war, and evil, even behind it’s opaque language of the Nazis and the camps (for yes, they are here, in the background shading of the book). Would a nine-year old-child understand it? No, I don’t think so, not even if they asked you to explain the word ‘ tenure’. Should they read or hear such a sentence? Oh yes indeed, it needs logging away in the back of the mind, for future use.

Would a child psychoanalyst like this book? I’d expect them at least to recognise it. The clockwork of the story allows Russell Hoban to model, through the toys and animals, the movements and stillnesses of our being, as children may do with play. Anyone who has struggled with their life should like it, for every major character in the story has something seriously wrong with them, is broken, or corrupt, or getting by, or self-deluding, or labouring under some tremendous tragedy. The seal, for example, who originally balanced a ball on the end of her nose, (and who in my film of this book, would be played by Marilyn Monroe), gets along by hanging out with a series of males who give her shelter or a good time. She had lived with Muskrat for a while;

Muskrat looked at the key. ‘Of course,’ he said, as he wound it, ‘I remember now: Key times Winding equals Go. She had just such a key in her back.’

‘Who?’ said the father.

‘The tin seal,’ said Muskrat.

‘The seal!’ said the child. ‘Did she have a platform on her nose?’

‘No,’ said Muskrat. ‘There was only a metal rod that turned, and that was how she used to wind up string for me. Many a cosy evening we spent that way. Charming young lady!’ He smiled, lapsing into a silent reverie… ‘She had been travelling with a rabbit flea circus, but the whole concern broke up not far from here. A fox ate the rabbit, the fleas joined the fox, and the seal came to stay with me.’

So, just like real life, then. And just like real life, breakages and flaws don’t have to determine us, they also offer ways in which characters may become their best selves: we don’t get over our failings, so much as learn, as Sam Beckett intimated, to live with them better. And as well as what we know about, things we know not of affect us: out-of-character things happen to and through us, despite ourselves. So Frog, with his fake charms and fortune-telling, turns out to tell true fortunes despite himself.

The frog, as far as he himself knew, had never accurately predicted the future in his entire life. He told fortunes for profit, just as he sold charms and cures, surveyed territories, and performed weddings. The weddings were at least legal, since he was a legitimate justice of the peace; the surveys were more or less exact; the cures occasionally healed; the charms worked as hard as their wearers; and in the matter of fortunes he had learned long ago to say whatever best suited the occasion and the customer. The mouse child wanted a family and house, and Frog desired to please him; therefore he went through the motion of the oriental divination, preparing the while to see in the future a mama, a sister, and a beautiful house.

So the frog intended, but as he looked at the coin and the seeds, he found himself unable to speak the words he had planned. He had practised the seed and coin oracle many times, but never before had he experienced anything like what was happening to him now. All else beyond the pattern in the snow departed from his vision; his ears hummed, and all other sounds vanished, leaving him alone with the voice of his mind and the dark seeds dancing in the stillness of their mystic changes.

‘You have broken the circle,’ he said, ‘and a straight line of great force emerges. Follow it.’

I started this post thinking about the fabulous social enterprise that is built by the end of the book and look! I have wandered into soul journey territory. But perhaps they are close to the same thing. We all need home, love, action and finally, to become (more or less) self-winding. The mouse and his child, the elephant, the seal, uncle Frog and all the other broken crew of adventurers keep going until they find their own home and pull together a patchwork family. They know what others need, and are able to provide it. What they have been through together is what helps them to create a great work-for-good by the end of the book.

If Virginia Woolf was a tulip, this is the kind of tulip she would be (though perhaps the colour is a bit vulgar for her?)

The Social Animal by David Brooks ( Short Books)

It’s not short. It’s not a novel. It’s not perfect. But  hugely recommended and I’d love to hear  what people think of it.This book is compellingly interesting and even when skipping parts I never wanted to stop reading.

It’s a popular socio/science book but it’s more than that  – and approaching a novel, crossed with a database of interesting facts, crossed with an argument that facts ain’t it. And not just a novel but a novel of Tolstoyan, George Eliotesque proportions. As a novel it’s not good enough, but it’s not good enough on the grandest of scales, and a great effort is always worth this reader’s time. I loved it for that great effort to think something new about  all our old human stuff.

The sub-title  ‘a story of how success happens’ would have put me off , because I wouldn’t have said I am interested in ‘success’. And yet I bought it because I read somewhere that David Cameron and the Cabinet are reading it and I thought, rather irritably, I would see what they were  up to. When my husband saw me with it he said ‘I’ve already bought you that on the kindle because I knew you’d be interested in it.’

 That’s one problem with the kindle – you can’t see its books lying around.

So David Brooks has tried to write about what we know about being human from a scientific/brain scanning/psychology/business book point of view. And he has had the brilliant formal idea of  setting that info  within two life stories, the stories of Erica and Harold.

It’s a great idea, this clashing together of two forms and it worked well enough to  keep me reading to the very end and more than that,  to make me cry at the end, as if I were reading a novel.

Of course a greater novelist would have done it better. But when I tried to think of which greater novelist, only Tolstoy and George Eliot came to mind. Mr Brooks – that is one helluva compliment. There is no one  out there now who could do this.

Why not ?

I think that is something to do with the main intellectual content of this book, the scale of the project, the idealism.  Most contemporary novelists can’t do it because of what we  culturally believe, how we are, at the moment. You’d have to have some pretty large beliefs, sensibilities, a kind of free flowing willingness to think in different departments…a novelist  would need to be interested (as Marilynne Robinson is) in the very  small scale human, and also the grandest scale universal. But MR is working on a different level – deeper, deeper.  And so far she has not  been interested in what I’ll call the outside world. The master is Tolstoy. But who else? Who now?

There is a really moving account of thinking  in the chapter called Learning, around page 94. Everyone who has to write should read this.  Harold is learning to do creative thinking ( which this book might call emergent thinking – emergence, a wonderful concept that the  book explains very well).  David Brooks wrote this book in the same sort of way the Harold writes his essay. Sometimes that feels very exciting, sometimes clunky. The book is an experiment, and I like that.

The chapter on learning is a great tale for teachers and also for young people who are by and large not learning to write in deep language. We are losing our minds as we lose our language. The need to put the unthought  into  order, at the level of the word, the clause, the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter brings us FORM. That is the act of creation that written language offers. Brooks brilliantly captures that process – this is novelistic writing. Wonderful!

This brief note doesn’t do the book justice but it would take me half a day to write a decent account of what’s good so  take this as a flag wave that says ‘ Try this’. It is, in a funny, hidden, unconscious (?) way a sort of religious book. It’s in that field, though mostly not in that language. ‘Virtue’ might have been a better word than ‘success’. ‘The Social Animal, a story of why virtue matters’  would have been a less marketable title, but more truthful.

BTW – good that David Cameron and the Cabinet have been reading it. It has some very good ideas.