Minding My Business: Wendell Berry’s take on Literature, Ray Dalio’s Principles and William Stafford’s Ritual To Read To Each Other

The Reader R Black

It’s all business at the moment.

I’m gearing up for a new financial year, a new planning year, a new make-the-organisation-again year at The Reader and I am working on organisational thinking things, which also require writing  and reading but not of this readerly-blog-sort. Most of my early morning time is being spent on business books and organisational thinking. Some of that organisational thinking  needs poetry, and a poem  I often turn to at work is William Stafford’s ‘A Ritual To Read To Each Other‘.

There are many copies of the poem on the internet and I’m using the one at  The Poetry Foundation.

Trying to translate everything I learn from my life in literature  into my work as the Founder and Director of The Reader is a difficult task but surely, it is the task for me? If The Reader isn’t made out of reading I don’t know what is.

If The Reader’s mission is a reading revolution, what is the post-revolutionary world? A world informed by, shaped by, made new by what we can learn from reading great books. It’s easy to say ‘a world’, but so much harder to make one. In a small way, I want to make that world at The Reader.

Before the advent of The Reader (the organisation, the movement and Calderstones all started with The Reader magazine, which is twenty-one this Spring)  the main thing I had to make from my engagement with literature was myself. There were ripple effects  on my students, too, I believe, but those ripples were much  harder to judge than the effect of literature on me, which I know from inside. Making a self is a lifetime task, as reading and tussling with T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets has taught me:

And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious.

At some point long ago, when I still worked in a university, I read Wendell Berry’s essay, ‘The Loss of The University’  ( find it in the collection of essays Standing on Earth) and realised what was wrong with literary studies. I don’t have the book here at home (it’s in the office) so cannot check the quotation, but essentially  Wendell Berry argues that literary scholars teach students to learn about works of literature rather than from them.  I’d not been an ‘about’ student or teacher, but I’d never put my instinct on this into words until I saw the words Wendell Berry used. That was key moment of shocked recognition. Now I carry that formulation with me : don’t learn about it, learn from it. You get the literary, rather than the historical, experience that way.

I want to use what I have learned from forty years of reading literature to make a good organisation that does good work, and works well.

But the difficulties of organisation-making are immense. Since I’ve been working on The Reader I have developed a massive respect for anyone who gets any kind of business /organisation/ project off the ground. A garden centre, a new building,  a plane ticket, the Olympics. Because  everything is so complicated, compromises must always be made – plastic bottles or glass bottles? –  and short-cuts must be taken, but which short-cut is a readerly organisation willing to take? You’ve deadlines to meet: will you cut out the day’s reading or your one-to-one with a sadly troubled colleague or will you miss the  bid deadline and potential income? (Clue: cut the one that will still be do-able tomorrow).

Let’s take a straightforwardly contentious issue: what’s fair in  terms of pay? This is a massive unsolvable problem and for years I’ve been tempted towards a simple solution: pay everyone the same! But that’s not fair, because some people put in more than others, some shoulder more responsiblility, some are highly valued in the outside-world-markets of skills. And, yes,  the organisation must exist within the terms of the outside world, even as  things I have learned in my life in literature tell me to build a new and better world. So it’s always a case of  compromise and adjust, work out  what’s the nearest thing to fair that fits the situation and meets legislation. Or you can just copy what most people/other organisations do.

This is what William Stafford might mean when he talks about ‘a pattern  that others made’:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the
and following the wrong god home we may miss
           our star.

These patterns that others made – from payscales to  maternity leave entitlements to meeting agendas to dresscode – are everywhere and are the norm in the world. They may cause massive loss of  potential and misdirection. For William Stafford this all begins at a personal, individual level. Do we know each other? Do you know the kind of person I am?

I wonder about ‘kind’ here: does it mean ‘type’, or almost ‘species’ ?

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
How well do you have to know someone to know the ‘kind of person’ they are? I try using the phrase  – Jane is the kind of person who thinks everyone getting the same amount of money is the answer to pay inequality/thinks eating together at work matters/would like to have a communal song every morning/always wants people to have another chance, right up to the wire/thinks you can use great literature to help build an organisation/will change her mind.
This is not very deep or very personal – most people  I work with  will know most of the above, though have to admit, have not had the courage to mention my longing for a song.  And there are other  things I haven’t added to this list, for reasons  of reputation. But do we even mostly know stuff at this level, openly ? Is it openly acknowledged?  Possibly not because look how quickly, in the next stanza, things fall apart.  (and the stuff I haven’t mentioned – how open might I or my colleagues be about that?)
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of
storming out to play through the broken dike.
We start off at quite a superficial level, possibly (‘if’) not knowing the kind of person we’re talking to and then we hit the word ‘betrayal’. This isn’t merely superficial ‘kind of’ knowing, is it?  What we know or are willing to have known matters.
The betrayal is only ‘in the mind’  – you don’t say it or let it be seen –  but  still, a betrayal is a big thing.
Like the shrug –  you’d think it was not  much. You’re just letting something go, can’t fix everything, can’t get everything right.  Next thing you know, the ‘fragile sequence’ is broken.
What is that ‘fragile sequence’? It’s certainly connected to ‘god’ and ‘home’ : perhaps it’s something to do with how we behave or how we be our (whatever they are) selves? Pehaps it is the civil contract of being adult with each other? For when the fragile sequence breaks, it’s our more primitive selves that come to the fore:
sending with shouts the horrible errors of
storming out to play through the broken dike.
Small things lead to big. Bit of a shrug,  then someone is in a mess and suffering the patterns of behaviour laid down in childhood – the shouting, the storming, the trauma.
These thoughts  were already with me when I read Ray Dalio’s Principles over the Christmas break, have been, because of this and other works of literature, with me for years. When I started reading Principles there was the same kind of recognition  I had had with the Wendell Berry all those years ago. Dalio’s a money man, a markets analyst and he runs one of the most successful companies in the world. What could he have to offer The Reader, to old pay-everyone-the-same-Jane?
Principles begins with the kind of person Ray Dalio is – he wants us to know  that before we get into business together.  The book is in two halves – parts 1&2 about Ray and the kind of man he is and what he believes about life, and  then part 3, work principles.
His basic  message for me is life is evolution:  live, suffer, work out what went wrong, try to fix it.
I believe that everything that happens comes about because of cause-effect relationships that repeat and evolve over time. At the big bang, all the laws and forces of the universe were created and propelled forward, interacting with each other over time like a complex series of machines that work together: the strucuture of the galaxies, the make-up of Earth’s geography and ecosystems, our economies and markets, and each one of us. Individually we are machines made up of different machines – our circulatory systems, our nervous systems, and so on – that produce our thoughts, our dreams, our emotions, and every other aspect of our distinct personalities. All these machine are evolving together to produce the reality we encounter every day.
It’s a trouble for me that Ray Dalio uses the word ‘machine’ in exactly the same way that it is a trouble for me that George Herbert uses the word ‘God’.  I have to use my translating mechanism in both cases, and in  exactly the same way – don’t get hung up on it. Just accept he’s different (the kind of person he is) and that he still has a lot to offer me. What has the most to offer? His analytic skills  and willingness to arrive at truth are remarkable.
See Ray Dalio’s TED talk  here.



WISE 100 : what women (and men) may bring to Social Enterprise

strong woman.jpg

Very pleased yesterday (but sorry I’m behind the times, it was announced on the 12th and I missed both the announcement and the party!) to find I have been listed in the WISE 100, a list of 100 women working in Social Enterprise.

All lists are silly, I might say in another mood, but this was one I was glad to have made, not so much for myself as for my work at The Reader, not a women-only organisation though many  of our readers are women. And many of The Reader’s staff members and volunteers are women.  And all of  our leadership group at The Reader are (currently) women.

This interests me, as in my twenties I spent some time living in a women-only commune and strongly identified as a feminist. Being that feminist helped me become a woman in my own right and I’d recommend some feminism for all beginner-women – you want to be able to knock your own nails in, lift  heavy things, play in your own band, fight your corner, learn to knit, read books by women, stand on your own two feet, know your own experience and live without a lover for as long as necessary.

These days I wouldn’t describe myself as a feminist, though I still get bothered about the problems of a male world view as the norm and the  resulting problems women (and some men) face.  And though I wouldn’t use the word (or any sort of  classification ending in ‘ist’) for myself, yet I have built or accidentally stumbled into or attracted a woman-only senior leadership team. If I was a man this would be called ‘unconscious bias’ (you pick people like yourself whether you mean to or not). It is more practical than that, I hope.

As someone who has struggled to get toddlers and pushchairs and bags of shopping on and off the bus, if I were a designer I’d design buses and pushchairs and shopping bags to work differently. If I were the Prime Minister, parents of new babies would be issued with 3 camo-boiler suits and  encouraged to wear them until after their children start school. What time and energy that would save, what smears, what slarts would go  unnoticed.  How quickly you could get dressed each day. Maybe the babies and children  could also  have the same kind of  overalls! Dirt-hiding, food-concealing, coveralls – just pull ’em on and start the day. Massive savings to the economy/new industry developed in the design and manufacture of the suits.  Get them made from some self-composting green fabric and we have an eco-solution to the problem of some laughing child chucking  mushy weetabix at you at 7.10 a.m. Etc.

Ok,  but I do know the practical problems posed by pushchairs and shopping and buses and getting up in the morning . As someone who has had children and a job, I’m naturally trying to design work differently.  There are five of us in  The Reader’s Director Group: we all take advantage of flexible working, and the majority of us are not full-time.  (I haven’t worked in the camo-boilersuits yet but give me time). At The Reader, since our staffers started having children, we’ve had a bias towards making a sympathetic environment for working parents.  As Benedict cries in Much Ado , ‘The world must be peopled!’  We’ve also tried to make a flexible  working environment for those of us who live with physical and mental health conditions. These are basic matters, which any  organisation dependent on people must face, and which help us retain brilliant staffers, if we  can get it right.  Utilise what we’ve got. Make the most of our talents. Create workarounds.

CC cooking lunch
Chris, our ex-MD, one of The Reader men, cooking Friday lunch  in the basement of our first-ever office. Shared Eating has always been important at The Reader. Think this was Chilli  con Carne.

But does this  go further? I mean, into the actual work of The Reader?

Is Shared Reading, and the reading and Social Enterprise community we are building at Calderstones, influenced by woman-experience?  Thinking of some of the men I have worked with over the years, I know it is not just a woman thing.  Ah, this is all  too complicated for an hour’s thinking.

These are horribly crude generalisations, but I’ll go on with them for a moment.

I’m thinking about feeling and access to  the emotions, and whether – generally, roughly, crudely speaking – women are  closer to their own feelings, and to expressing them, than men. That’s not necessarily a given, it is just the way we’ve worked it over the last  few million years. Some of us got muscles and hunted meat for weeks on end, others stayed on the trail, picked the daily  berries and roots, looked after the children and held the tribe together.

Of course this is not fixed – it is learned and cultural,  but learned and cultural  is a powerful inhibitor. Yet, what is learned and cultural may be changed, is changeable. I think Shared Reading helps to change it, both for men who don’t speak much of their emotions, and for women who struggle with them, too.

There are three elements here :

  • feelings themselves as they exist in our hearts, guts, brains – wherever they are
  • consciousness of feelings or the willingness to allow consciousness
  • the ability to get feelings into words.

Of course this process is dependent on getting emotion into the reading room.  That’s not an easy ask –  much easier to stay with talking about the ‘characters’, the ‘poet’, the ‘Victorians’ ‘Shakespeare’s time’ and other distancing measures.  But  this is a mistake. Dangerous as it may seem, we have to make feeling happen.

This morning I have been back-searching the blog to see if I’ve written about Matthew Arnold’s poem  ‘The Buried Life’, which came to mind because Helen commented yesterday  on my absence here for the past two weeks saying ‘we’re all human, wander off our line and back on to it’.

It was the idea of everyone having a line they were on (or off) that reminded me of ‘The Buried Life’.

While I was searching I came upon an old post, from 2012, back in the days when we still called Shared Reading ‘Get Into Reading’.  It’s about what can go wrong (or is it right?) in a Shared Reading session and I think it is worth a  look because it talks about one of the key  things about Shared Reading: the need to get emotion into the room. (‘Trust and the Risk of Reading’,  find it here).

Feel as if I have wandered into dangerous and spouty territory today.

Here’s The Buried Life, by Matthew Arnold, which I’ll start reading tomorrow.

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


Things being Brilliant at Kew

border at kew.JPG
Agapanthus and Echinacea  in  The Broad Walk Border at Kew

Yesterday I went to Kew Gardens to attend the People’s Postcode Lottery Gathering 2017 – imagine a family and friends  party on a large-scale, with third cousins from every part of the  country and others flying in from much farther flung places, catch-up chats, meeting new people, delightful sausage rolls, very hot in the conservatory – phew –  and instead of the bouncy castle,  an inspirational speaker in the form of  Jonathan Peach to remind everyone to be the best version of themselves they could be, ‘every day is a best pants  day’.  That certainly gave me something to think about, and  this morning I surveyed my underwear drawer with new eyes.

I had set out early from my friends’ place in Highbury by overground train, intending to arrive early – the gathering was to start  about 11.00, and Kew Gardens  opens at 10.00. I’ve never been there before so was hoping I’d get an hours walk in before the day started to enjoy the Great Broad Walk Border. And so I did! Imagine you are an LFC supporter visiting Anfield for the first time, or a clothes maniac at British Fashion Week. That’s how this gardener felt at Kew,  drunk on it,  physically light-headed, overwhelmed with  delight.

Talk about inspiration. The word must be about fresh spirit –  I look it up in the Etymological Dictionary. Yes – inhaling, breathing in, being breathed into…I felt the great work of Kew inspiring me like lovely  great heady lungfuls of air.

I haven’t managed to do for my garden what this blog has helped me do for reading and writing –  developing (an almost) daily practice. My poor garden, love it as I do, suffers from lack of my loving time and attention – I’m so intermittent! But  seeing those borders –  the art of horticulture at the height of  energetic excellence – hugely encouraged me.

I don’t expect Jonathan Peach got out for a walk during the day,  but if he had, he’d have seen something being brilliant, made by the brilliance of a very dedicated team: I saw  lots of staff and volunteers working. But I also thought about the people I couldn’t see right now – the planners and plantsmen and women, the marketeers and accountants, the cleaners,  who had made ‘Kew’ happen. The Walk was big enough not to seem busy, but there were plenty of visitors at 10.10am. Gorgeous to see how many small children were enjoying the flowers.

I loved the plans/180 drawings that allowed me to  read the names of everything in each section of the border. I imagined someone working on the plans and later when Jonathan spoke about ‘right to left’ thinking, I remembered those plans.

kew plan
Plan of one section of the Great Broad Walk Borders

I remembered in my early twenties reading a short story by Virginia Woolf, ‘Kew Gardens’.  You’ll find it here. I remembered the blank puzzlement the story provoked, and when I reread it  this morning,  I felt some of that again. I read  everything Virginia Woolf ever wrote in my early twenties – she was a woman writer! I wanted a role model! But she was so posh! I don’t know if I realised that at the time, how class-bound she was… how far-off and other-world. She was writing about worlds I had  never imagined, never seen. Kew Gardens! And those people strolling. Somehow this connects to the odd sense of relief I had when I visited D.H. Lawrence’s childhood home in Bestwood – the two up two down terrace was just like the house my grandparents  had lived in, at  Eldon Terrace, Neston.  I can remember  a strong feeling of  connection –  he knows about my life. Not a feeling I usually seek in literature – at least not in that top level  way, we worethe same boots  kind of way.  This is something to think about another day.

When I reread the story this morning I  thought, she has caught some of that sense of life-connection between the flowers, the snail, the people, as if the people are part of the life of the gardens, moving in and  through them:

The figures of these men and women straggled past the flower-bed with a curiously irregular movement not unlike that of the white and blue butterflies who crossed the turf in zig-zag flights from bed to bed. The man was about six inches in front of the woman, strolling carelessly, while she bore on with greater purpose, only turning her head now and then to see that the children were not too far behind. The man kept this distance in front of the woman purposely, though perhaps unconsciously, for he wished to go on with his thoughts.

I liked very much the lens moving from close up minutiae to expanded horizon, like the almost scientific observation of the snail:

In the oval flower bed the snail, whose shell had been stained red, blue, and yellow for the space of two minutes or so, now appeared to be moving very slightly in its shell, and next began to labour over the crumbs of loose earth which broke away and rolled down as it passed over them. It appeared to have a definite goal in front of it, differing in this respect from the singular high stepping angular green insect who attempted to cross in front of it, and waited for a second with its antennæ trembling as if in deliberation, and then stepped off as rapidly and strangely in the opposite direction. Brown cliffs with deep green lakes in the hollows, flat, blade-like trees that waved from root to tip, round boulders of grey stone, vast crumpled surfaces of a thin crackling texture–all these objects lay across the snail’s progress between one stalk and another to his goal. Before he had decided whether to circumvent the arched tent of a dead leaf or to breast it there came past the bed the feet of other human beings.

And the procession of passers-by is still there –  first these Americans, then this grandfather and the three little girls, now two  nannies with  blond  babies in buggies, now an Indian family taking many pictures, here a serious photographer very close to the Coneflowers,  there an old lady reading on a  recessed bench, and now me, on my way to the Gathering…

I’d mentioned Pope yesterday and Clare  responded to remind me both of  Virginia Woolf and  the wonderful dog Diogenes in Dickens’ Dombey and Son. That  made me think I might sometime read  things about dogs here…meanwhile  I enjoyed the statue of the White Greyhound of Richmond, and here he is, outside the Palm House:

dog at kew.JPG

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


Since visiting Thoronet Abbeye, a ruined Cistercian Monastery in France, I have become mildly obsessed with the idea of a building providing form for, holding, a way of life.

Of course we all do this all the time in the décor of our own homes, which, however much or little we think about them, reflect who and what we are and how we live. My study is a mess because I hardly use it, simply rushing in and out, dumping things and scrabbling for stuff I can’t find. Before the advent of The Reader Organisation, when I used it all the time for writing, it was better (usually).

Thoronet, built in the 12th or 13th century, creates spirit from stone or stone from spirit (wouldn’t Russell Hoban have loved that? Read his short story, Shwartz). The whole building is a musical instrument, a sort of acoustic amplifier creating a tremendous long echo, which the monks used as a discipline, developing within it a plainsong which was slow, harmonious, layered. An evening concert there, hearing and feeling the building at work was a mightily powerful experience.

As it says, quite rightly, on Wikipedia;

 The abbey is fundamentally connected to its site, and is an exceptional example of spirituality and philosophy transformed into architecture. It is distinguished, like other Cistercian abbeys, by its purity, harmony, and lack of decoration or ornament.

After the concert we went back by day to walk around the site and see the building in its physical setting. I was struck by how far from the world it feels even now, and how many more times further away from anywhere it must have been in the 12th century. People chose to come to this remote place, and to hack rock from the ground in order to build this instrument-building so that they might feel and sing and  live in a certain way. The community they built here is an attempt to change, indeed to re-create the human world from scratch, in accordance with a set of beliefs. And I wondered, is everything we make like that?

So, back home, thinking about buildings, I’m asking myself whether our public and institutional buildings reflect us in the same way? I look at  McKinsey’s London offices  and yes, that is McKinsey. Same for the British Gas Boardroom, where SBT invited The Reader Organisation’s Managing Director, Chris Catterall, and myself to pitch for investment. I look at NESTA’s home and I think to myself – yes, that’s more or less NESTA. I look at Springwood Heath Primary School  and again, that is pretty much Springwood. Then I look at some other learning or idea or health institutions. I don’t want to name them. You will find them everywhere. But, oh dear.

Is this poverty of spirit in our communal buildings about lack of money? I am remembering in my churlish way the utter quality of the toilet doors in Portcullis House, Westminster. Centuries of forests and thousands of public pounds went into them. Why do MPs and their admin teams deserve such superior shutters when patients in an inpatient mental health unit at Anyborough Hospital will have warping and wobbly-locked mdf closures? The toilet doors have in both cases been built and installed by belief as much as budget.

Can you make something good out of not much, if you believe in what you are doing? If what you are doing is not ‘getting cheapest possible doors’ but ‘building a decently secured toilet’. Isn’t it about ethos as much as economy?

As someone who has created patchwork quilts from scraps for the past 25 years, who has cooked a pan of Scouse out of what was in the kitchen that night and fed it to (my hero) Marilynne Robinson, who has furnished her homes from junk shops and auctions and Oxfam, of course I’d say yes. You do it on a wing and a prayer, or by love, or  in time and by being  creative. You do it above all by believing you can do it and that it matters how you do it.


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


We are going to make a very lovely thing  at Calderstones Mansion and a lot of it is going to be made out of belief. And if we were not The Reader Organisation, but any group of socially-minded enterprising people who had the opportunity  re-making this place, would it still be a good idea to put reading at the heart of that project?

We will be making a bistro and a shop, and a gallery, perhaps a dog walking service, a dance studio, certainly bedrooms for our residential courses and Reading Weekends, and we’ll be creating a venue on the Garden Stage, there will be a library and a second-hand bookshop, we’ll do weddings and we’ve already done a Christening and a Community lunch… and what, you might say, what does reading have to do with any of that?

The enterprises we are going to make here are going to ensure the building is economically viable. Our first responsibility is to keep the roof on and the decay at bay. But if a reading billionaire* gave us thousands of millions of pounds, we’d still want to set up the enterprises because of the non-cash value they are going to create by providing interesting and useful volunteering and jobs. And then we’d want those volunteers and staff members to read together, because the biggest thing we want to make at Calderstones is a community, a community that holds all kinds of people and passions together. And what holds a people together ? Sharing stories.

Until very recently, throughout human history, groups of people have held themselves together through a book – the Torah, the New Testament, the Koran. These religious books held and still hold bodies of stories and poetry and thought which define a people. Many types of human community have grown from these texts, from the Sufi circle to the parish church to the Cistercian monastery to the Blue Mosque.

We are a plural organization – we have not one book but many. At The Reader Organisation all staff members run or attend a weekly shared reading group. We do this so that we never lose sight of the basis of our organizational existence: reading together. Recently  I was at Calderstones Mansion House with the Friday morning group (part of a research project being conducted by colleagues at University of Liverpool, funded through the AHRC). We were reading the extract from Jane Eyre in my old friend Angie Macmillan’s anthology A Little Aloud.  We spent two hours reading and talking about half a dozen pages. I completely forgot about my  pressing and complicated work as Director of this organisation – it was like living in another medium, another universe, for two hours, free of gravity and diving deep into language, meditating on the ranges and possibilities of meanings with my reading companions, drawing on our own life-forged  understandings.

That is an intimate experience to share with a group of people.  It’s about expressing and hammering out personal belief, in concert with others. This is why we believe at The Reader that shared reading is community glue. Slow book talk, deep language talk, over long time, let us know each other.

What we want to make at Calderstones is a model of a reading community, where whatever else is going on, people will be connected by a huge body of reading experiences. Let the building have many bookshelves, reading corners, kindle power sockets. Let it be a Thoronet for readers.

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


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

The economy, human feeling and the cost/value of ‘English’

Ex-banker and Fund Management guru Nicola Horlick,  famous for being Director of a city bank at 28, has been featured in an article in The Times Magazine (12.05.12), under the heading ‘What I’ve Learnt.’ Nicola is about to open a restaurant, Georgina’s, in remembrance of her daughter Georgina, who died of leukaemia in 1998, aged 12.

I’m no fan of celebrity gossip but I had been mildly interested in Nicola Horlick for years because it seemed she had broken through one of the glass ceilings, and because she’d done it while having six children. All right, I know, incredibly privileged background, very wealthy, nannies etc., etc., but we all need models and she’d been spectacularly successful in a very male world and so I’d been mildly interested. Would I have bought a biography of her? No. Would I stop to read a short article in the magazine while having my morning coffee? Yes. Especially under the heading ‘What I’ve Learnt’ because I am interested in what anybody thinks are the major lessons of life. Nicola says,

I don’t need or want a lot of the money I’ve made. Throughout my career, I’ve given away about 25 per cent of everything I make. It’s very important to help others. The reason my daughter survived for ten years after she was diagnosed with leukaemia was because of all the work other people had done supporting medical charities.

I’m immediately thinking, could NH become one of The Reader Organisation’s philanthropists? One or two people have given us large sums of money which we have spent on – for example – our Apprentice for Life programme.  I’m thinking 25% is quite a lot to give away. And selfishly, I’m thinking, she won’t want to give it to The Reader because it will all be going to cancer charities. (Which is, of course, a good thing, but  ‘good’ is so difficult to see clearly in such a multidimensional world. All the same, I have to acknowledge 25% is good, better than I manage, wherever it goes).

I’m also wondering if NH is a Christian, because not many people give away about 25% of what they earn. And behind that, I’m fleetingly wondering if she is a Christian, what do Christians think about making money out of money, but that’s a thought I have to pass over quickly. It might make me go mad. The place where ideals and the world meet is a tough and complex junction.

I’ll work till I drop. What I do interests me too much…I’m incapable of sitting still. I can’t go on beach holidays or watch TV without doing Sudoku or knitting.

I like this and feel for her non-stop liveliness. Life’s very short. Don’t waste it watching TV. If watching, knit. Sew. Sudoku. If on beach read, swim.

And then comes the killer,

I’m quite negative about the UK economy. The fixes are very long term – they’re about educating people properly and encouraging them to do the right kind of degree so we can go out and compete in the world – which means more maths and science and less English and media studies. If I were in charge, I’d bring in a fee system where you paid £3,000 a year to study engineering and £15,000 a year to do English.

Because of my anomalous position (outside the world of academic English, a teacher dedicated to getting people to read great books and to making sure everyone understands the human value of Shakespeare, The Divine Comedy and George Eliot) I read this last couple of sentences in a sweat. She’s right! We’re wasting our money on English! We need people who invent things, people who can make stuff, we need practical visionaries!

My unconscious picks up the refrain and I dream about someone physically making books, then wake at 6.05 a.m. with Nicola’s remarks about ‘English’ still in my mind. Her assumption is that while there is an economic value in Engineering, there is none in English. So go ahead, pay £15,000 for a self-indulgent 3 years of me-time if you’ve got the money. But the country, the economy, needs engineers, they make things happen. They make money. But Nicola, we have to ask, is more money what we want our economy to produce? You say yourself you don’t need or want all you’ve earned. Why can’t we begin to think about ‘the economy’ differently? I am an entrepreneur who has built a Social Enterprise, employing 60+ people, turning over £1m+, out of ‘English’. Out of, essentially, an idea. The idea? The stuff in ‘English’ is humanly valuable and we’re currently wasting it.

In the same issue of The Times Magazine there is an article by Rhys Blakely about Stanford University, there on the edge of the future, at Silicon Valley (‘They call it the billionaire factory: welcome to Silicon Valley’s feeder school’). So what are the brightest, richest people of the world studying at Stanford? More than 25% of undergraduates are studying Engineering, and more than half its graduate students. And alongside Engineering? Entrepreneurship. But is this taking us where we want to go? Blakely writes,

A scathing critique has come from Peter Thiel, the contrarian tech investor who made a fortune out of PayPal and was the first outsider to back Facebook. Thiel studied at Stanford and occasionally teaches there, but his venture capital firm, Founders Fund, has published an arch online manifesto with the subtitle, ‘We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” He believes the tech boom has delivered plenty of dinky gadgets but no solution to America’s job crisis; no silver bullet for climate change; no answer to global poverty; no cure for cancer. His conclusion? “You have dizzying change where there is no progress.”

As the great SF writers have always known, we ain’t going to solve the world’s problems through technology: read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 this week. It is about our world and why humanity ought to be taught in every department of every University, and why the way to do that is to get people to read books. The text you need alongside 451 is Wendell Berry’s essay ‘The Loss of the University’ (Standing on Earth, Golgonooza Press 1991). Read it and weep. No – rather, read it and sign up for the educational revolution. Berry asserts that ‘the thing being made in a University is humanity …responsible heirs and members of human culture.’

And he goes further,

The common denominator has to be larger than either career preparation or preparation for citizenship. Underlying the idea of a university – the bringing together, the combining into one, of all the disciplines – is the idea that good work and good citizenship are the inevitable by-products of making a good – that is, a fully developed – human being.

I reread Nicola Horlick’s article and think, her sense of the problem is right: we need people who can reinvent the economy, creative, practical thinkers. But she is wrong in that despite saying education is the long-term fix, she is too short-sighted. If ‘the economy’ is to survive we also need creative practical thinkers who can envisage a world economy based on human needs. Those people won’t necessarily come through cheap engineering courses. We need thinkers who can work across and between subject boundaries, blurring their career paths, to see the much bigger, world-sized, picture, people who can think  about the micro-level too, about what all this means for struggling individual lives. Read George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda to experience a really bright human doing just that.

I realise it’s not really Nicola I am mad at: it’s ‘English’. Because ‘creative thinkers’ could be got from ‘English’. The whole point of ‘English’ (which I’d prefer to call ‘literature’) is to get an education which connects your mind with all the greatest minds of the past. What happens after that?  You apply your now expanded mind to various problems – to the ecological problems involved running Marks and Spencer, to be human cost  involved in running an efficient Fire Service or to the complex balancings required of the CEO of an NHS Trust, to the ethics of running a bank, running a country.

But ‘English’ doesn’t recognise any of that. ‘English’ for all the years I have been involved in my love-hate relationship with it, has snootily cocked it’s nose in the air and claimed to have nothing to do with anything practical (that’s for the new universities, surely?). It is enough that there should Professors professing, students being taught to regurgitate the opinions of said professors’ pointless books, as if the academic discipline itself were the subject. As if the sports pages were the sport. No, no, no. But let me not be mad.

Wendell Berry says this in a much more measured way than I can manage,

Our language and literature cease to be seen as occurring in the world, and begin to be seen as occurring within their university department and within themselves. Literature ceases to be the meeting ground of all readers of the common tongue and becomes only the occasion of a deafening clatter about literature. Teachers and students read the great songs and stories to learn about them, not to learn from them. The texts are tracked as by the passing of an army of ants, but the power of the songs and stories to affect life is still little acknowledged, apparently because it is little felt.

When did you last hear someone in an English department talk about feelings?  Literature is real and practical. It is something we do, not something to be studied at a distance, and it is something to be done with our more of our human liveliness at work than in any other discipline. I’m so mad at ‘English’ for not living up to this, for not having self-belief. Fancy allowing yourself to become completely worthless!

So much to be done, so little time to do it in. As Nicola says, the first step is education. That is why I set up The Reader Organisation, to get great books out of the university and into the hands of people who need them.

But now I am starting to think we must go much, much further. We have got to re-think public education and make it new, make it better. Remember John Holt? Read Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine. Hear Frank Cottrell Boyce talk about pleasure as the deepest form of human attention (Inaugural Professorial Lecture at Liverpool Hope University, May 2012, to be published in The Reader magazine). We need an educational revolution to bring this about, because our broken modelled-on-factories schools, working en masse, with children going through the machine, can’t do it. Tinkering with the system isn’t going to do it. Education is personal and it must be personal or it isn’t education. That is why I want to set up a school. That is why I am looking for a philanthropist to back it.

(Above: Chester, 9 months, with a book. He’s just as interested in books as he is with building blocks, practical engineering, dust, animals, people, the washing machine, food…)

If we got genuine education right in schools many people would go into Engineering. (And they would go into dance and heart-surgery and city planning and transport and molecular biology and cancer research, too.) They would not be afraid of the gorgeous satisfaction of hard deep engaging work, work of the sort Nicola enjoys, and which I count as one of the three great pleasures of being human (food, sex, and work and not necessarily in that order). If we got basic education right, there would be no need to control it with price fixing, as Nicola suggests; it would self-regulate. And along with al the other useful, important areas of work, some students would go into Literature. There they would read and wonder and be moved by texts such as Dickens’ Dombey and Son.  Later, these students of literature would, as readers, take that great novel into City boardroom reading sessions, where our future bankers (because even in the new Jerusalem we’re going to need someone to mind the money) will remember the great example of Nicola Horlick who broke the glass ceiling in a male world but said,

‘A child dying is the worst thing that can happen to you. You can never recover. The distance of time only increases the pain. It’s a strange feeling moving on, when they’re stuck there, frozen in time.’

Nicola, that most serious part of life is the business of literature. Read The Winter’s Tale, and see how the loss of Perdita and Mamillius scar their parents. Or read  Dombey and Son, it isn’t about you, but it will certainly be about some parts of life you know, for the pain of losing a child is a big part of its subject. As is being a very successful business person, and the difficult relation between business and family. Here is young Paul, (the ‘Son’ of the book’s title) very ill, preparing to leave his boarding school, and thinking of the spaces and gaps that will be left when he is gone. Being ill, he is no longer required to attend lessons, and thus is free to think.

Having nothing to learn now, he thought of this frequently; though not so often as he might have done, if he had had fewer things to think of. But he had a great many; and was always thinking, all day long.

First, there was Florence coming to the party. Florence would see that the boys were fond of him; and that would make her happy. This was his great theme. Let Florence once be sure that they were gentle and good to him, and that he had become a little favourite among them, and then the would always think of the time he had passed there, without being very sorry. Florence might be all the happier too for that, perhaps, when he came back.

When he came back! Fifty times a day, his noiseless little feet went up the stairs to his own room, as he collected every book, and scrap, and trifle that belonged to him, and put them all together there, down to the minutest thing, for taking home! There was no shade of coming back on little Paul; no preparation for it, or other reference to it, grew out of anything he thought or did, except this slight one in connexion with his sister. On the contrary, he had to think of everything familiar to him, in his contemplative moods and in his wanderings about the house, as being to be parted with; and hence the many things he had to think of, all day long.

He had to peep into those rooms upstairs, and think how solitary they would be when he was gone, and wonder through how many silent days, weeks, months, and years, they would continue just as grave and undisturbed. He had to think—would any other child (old-fashioned, like himself) stray there at any time, to whom the same grotesque distortions of pattern and furniture would manifest themselves; and would anybody tell that boy of little Dombey, who had been there once? He had to think of a portrait on the stairs, which always looked earnestly after him as he went away, eyeing it over his shoulder; and which, when he passed it in the company of anyone, still seemed to gaze at him, and not at his companion. He had much to think of, in association with a print that hung up in another place, where, in the centre of a wondering group, one figure that he knew, a figure with a light about its head—benignant, mild, and merciful—stood pointing upward.

At his own bedroom window, there were crowds of thoughts that mixed with these, and came on, one upon another, like the rolling waves. Where those wild birds lived, that were always hovering out at sea in troubled weather; where the clouds rose and first began; whence the wind issued on its rushing flight, and where it stopped; whether the spot where he and Florence had so often sat, and watched, and talked about these things, could ever be exactly as it used to be without them; whether it could ever be the same to Florence, if he were in some distant place, and she were sitting there alone.

He had to think, too, of Mr Toots, and Mr Feeder, B.A., of all the boys; and of Doctor Blimber, Mrs Blimber, and Miss Blimber; of home, and of his aunt and Miss Tox; of his father; Dombey and Son, Walter with the poor old Uncle who had got the money he wanted, and that gruff-voiced Captain with the iron hand. Besides all this, he had a number of little visits to pay, in the course of the day; to the schoolroom, to Doctor Blimber’s study, to Mrs Blimber’s private apartment, to Miss Blimber’s, and to the dog. For he was free of the whole house now, to range it as he chose; and, in his desire to part with everybody on affectionate terms, he attended, in his way, to them all. Sometimes he found places in books for Briggs, who was always losing them; sometimes he looked up words in dictionaries for other young gentlemen who were in extremity; sometimes he held skeins of silk for Mrs Blimber to wind; sometimes he put Cornelia’s desk to rights; sometimes he would even creep into the Doctor’s study, and, sitting on the carpet near his learned feet, turn the globes softly, and go round the world, or take a flight among the far-off stars.

In those days immediately before the holidays, in short, when the other young gentlemen were labouring for dear life through a general resumption of the studies of the whole half-year, Paul was such a privileged pupil as had never been seen in that house before. He could hardly believe it himself; but his liberty lasted from hour to hour, and from day to day; and little Dombey was caressed by everyone. Doctor Blimber was so particular about him, that he requested Johnson to retire from the dinner-table one day, for having thoughtlessly spoken to him as ‘poor little Dombey;’ which Paul thought rather hard and severe, though he had flushed at the moment, and wondered why Johnson should pity him. It was the more questionable justice, Paul thought, in the Doctor, from his having certainly overheard that great authority give his assent on the previous evening, to the proposition (stated by Mrs Blimber) that poor dear little Dombey was more old-fashioned than ever. And now it was that Paul began to think it must surely be old-fashioned to be very thin, and light, and easily tired, and soon disposed to lie down anywhere and rest; for he couldn’t help feeling that these were more and more his habits every day.

Read Dombey and Son here.

If you would like to support the reading revolution by making a donation to the work of The Reader Organisation, visit our Apprentices page at charitygiving or contact me via this blog’s comments.

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?)