A Shift in the Cafe


beech on menlove
Beech Tree, Calderstones, August 31

Yesterday I didn’t wake up in time to read or write and had to dash off towards Calderstones where I was taking a shift in The Reader Cafe.  I  enjoyed it, though wasn’t much help – a  hindrance really –  but the people who work in the Cafe were welcoming and forgiving and so were almost all of the customers.  I was there to understand what it’s like to actually work in the Cafe and to feel the constraints and problems from the inside.

And I remembered a little of my old life, which closed up when I was twenty-six and in  my second year at University. That was the last time I worked in a Cafe, Bar or Restaurant. But from age twelve  (when I washed glasses and occasionally served in my mum’s pub, off Upper Parliament Street, Liverpool 8) to the age of  twenty six, waitressing, barmaiding was how I earned  my money. There you are, face to face with your regulars and strangers, being  human and providing a service. That ten-year apprenticeship served me well. I remembered Rowena, who was  the senior waitress in one of the  Berni inns I worked in. How ancient she seemed  to seventeen year old, that married woman of at least forty. What a stickler she was for doing everything right, and  yet, though one part of me was a grumpy  teenager  irritated at  being pulled up and prodded into shape by her, how I enjoyed the buzz of the shifts I worked with her because she was so very good at it.  You got great tips when you worked with Rowena. I must have learned something about being lazy and being  good at doing things, though I  didn’t know I was learning it at the time.

The behaviour model of Shared Reading  comes from that profession. As a server in the cafe, as a bar worker, you learn to talk to anyone and to put them at ease, to help set out the parameters of where you are and what the customs of the house might be whether it’s silver service, or a lock-in with country and western. You’re doing a job, but are also being yourself and making a relationship with the person standing or sitting before you.  You take responsibility for making that relationship and make the human transaction possible. In one Berni Inn a man very ordered a steak,  giving me very precise details of how he wanted it medium rare, and cut into one inch bite-size chunks. I took the order, silently castigating him for being a demanding, lazy, fussy customer.  When I brought the steak to him I realised  the man only had one arm. The pain of knowing my own silent unkindness to him and  the plain painful reality of his request burns still. Was that learning? I don’t know – I’m still a lazy learner,  and I still prejudge people, though I know now I  really shouldn’t.  And if anyone ever asked me now for a steak cut into bite-size chunks…I have learned that particular lesson.

It was a quiet day, Monica told me, and the couple of rushes (dog-walkers 8.30-9.30, lunch time from 12.00 on) were really not rushes she said , just seemed so to me, struggling in what seemed slo-mo to  spot where ‘flat white’  lives on the till’s computer screen. Nina helped me with very patiently, and Monica gave quiet hints and suggestions, running the shift with calm and assurance. We  had a laugh renaming the sandwich genres (‘Plain’ e.g just ham, and ‘Not So Plain’  e.g. Chicken pesto salad)  and  talked about the possibility of bookish names for our menu items. Standing from 8.00 til 1.00 wasnt as bad as I thought it might be, and today Dave will tell me how much the till was out and I’ll know what my mistakes cost. I don’t think I thought a thought about other than lattes, cappuccinos, sausage rolls, smoked  salmon and poached eggs crossed my mind – life in the hospitality industry says be here now.

Once my shift was over, I went for walk round the park to think over my to do list for the rest of the day. It was only 1.00pm! Still half a day to go!  I walked under the beech trees that back onto Menlove Avenue and thought of  this great passage from Herman Hesse, which I don’t have time to read with you this morning.

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.
Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.
A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.
A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live. When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.
A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.
So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.

Hermann Hesse Trees: Reflections and Poems

I guess the connection was thinking of young Jane, learning  the art of the being with people in the pubs, bars, Berni Inns, cafes.

I think about  all our growth rings.  I walk back to the office and my to do list and my next meeting.  I  think of George Herbert,  wishing he was a tree. And perhaps will read that tomorrow.








Silas Marner Day 8: What are human beings for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time’s up. Poem tomorrow.


Silas Marner Day 6: Feeling Nothing in a New Land

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

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

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

Chapter Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Times up.

If You Want Escapism, Look Away Now

garden 5 may
Spring in the Front Garden, 5 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Slight Glitch and Shakey

Morning, readers. Today I’ve changed my site format and that’s done something odd with my photos in previous posts. Hope to sort this double vision soon. Advice gratefully received.

But don’t want to let that glitch interrupt my morning reading and writing.

I am still thinking about Thursday’s meeting with Sonya Hale, and about Daniel Magariel’s novel, One of The Boys, (see yesterday’s post) and about the deep resonances and ancient feelings that meeting and that novel provoked into life. For that reason, this poem by William Shakespeare caught my attention this morning. I must have read it before but I really don’t remember it. Why not? Today it is full of meanings. If you are new to Shakespeare read it aloud. Read it aloud anyway.

Sonnet 110
Alas, ’tis true I have gone here and there
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new.
Most true it is that I have look’d on truth
Askance and strangely: but, by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays prov’d thee my best of love.
Now all is done, have what shall have no end!
Mine appetite, I never more will grind
On newer proof, to try an older friend,
A god in love, to whom I am confin’d.
Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
Even to thy pure and most most loving breast.
I felt a delight in the opening line. There is nothing like recognition for provoking pleasure, even when it is recognition of having made a fool of yourself.
As I read on  the poem seems to be about having been unfaithful yet it didn’t feel to me only about sexual fidelity.
The shame of the opening is about having been disloyal to yourself. And ‘Here and there’ made me think of things Sonya said about the moving about from town to town when she was street homeless.  There is real, sad recognition (as much as guilt) in  ‘made myself a motley to the view’. (‘Motley’ is the name given to clothing worn by fools). It’s not only the humiliation of that idiocy but the shame of having done it to myself.
By the time I got to line 3, ‘Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear’, I was thinking about old mistakes and infidelities, not to my beloved, but to my better self. The violence of ‘gored’ gave me pause to reflect on the self-injury of bad thinking.
Alas, ’tis true I have gone here and there
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new.
Now I read the next four lines together, another  little lump of thought:
Most true it is that I have look’d on truth
Askance and strangely: but, by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays prov’d thee my best of love.
Is Shakespeare is responding to something another person has said – in a row, perhaps?  ‘You’ve looked on truth askance and strangely!!’ Thus he begins ‘Most true it is…’ but going off after others, or dishonesties, or cheating  or whatever he means by ‘these blenches‘ , it  ‘gave my heart another youth/and worse essays prov’d thee my best of love.’ Thus, out of bad something good may come? I realised you were the one for me!
The ‘askance and strangely’ is resonant of the ways in which, when you are not able to be true, all things are twisted. In Magariel’s novel, the father’s love for his sons is a twisted ‘askance’ version of something which is more like ownership. Will he one day go into recovery and see what he has done to his sons?
Now all is done, have what shall have no end!
Mine appetite, I never more will grind
On newer proof, to try an older friend,
A god in love, to whom I am confin’d.
Shakespeare’s saying he’s never going to go off with someone else, never again! I’m back, forever. Would you believe him? Well, no, I wouldn’t, much as I often don’t believe myself when I promise myself I’m going to keep my room tidy.  What? After all these decades of chaos? You’re really going to change?
No, this is the return of a philanderer. Don’t give him welcome. As my friend Shelley once memorably said, ‘Chuck him, love, he’s a loser.’
But say I overrode these thoughts and feelings about the top-level  experience of the poem, the  unfaithful lover, and  went to something under the  lines, something about not being true, not necessarily about love or sexual relationship.
There are many ways in which a person can be unfaithful. Because of my conversation with Sonya, because of Magariel’s book  I’ve been thinking about the way in which one is required to practice faithfulness to a true ideal (I want to be a decent person, I want to be responsible and honest). How many times in that long effort have I ‘gone here and there/ And made myself a motley to the view’?  if you a re not going to get stuck at that point, you absolutely need to believe there is a place to which to return.
Thinking of Daniel Magariel’s book; the addicted parent may try to clean up, to get sober, to become  good parent (in another book!). The boys may grow up and want to learn to be decent men, not easy after growing up with a Dad like that. But these desires for change can and do happen even after we have ‘sold cheap what is most dear/made old offences of affections new.’
Believing in hope and change, you’d have to find a way to say ‘welcome back’ to the sinner that repenteth, wouldn’t you? When that sinner is yourself, when the offences are against your self, the only place you have to come back to is your self. I see the poem is ‘about’  a lover returning after shenanigans with others, and I read that at one level, as if it were a story I can lend myself to. But to understand it, and to feel it, I have to make the underlying connection with my own experience. So  I read as myself, returning to myself, after messing up again.  It would be good to be welcoming, pure, loving.
Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
Even to thy pure and most most loving breast.
And that makes me think of Derek Walcott’s poem, Love After Love.
Excuse me, I need to tidy my room.

Just finished: One of The Boys, by Daniel Magariel


Yesterday a day full of  addiction and hope.

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

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

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

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

green wall
The wonderful green wall at Elephant and Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stepped outside to the park.

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

Frightening, touching and educative – highly recommended.

Early experiences in Shared Reading: Crossing the Bar


Today’s poem is an important one for me because, quite aside from its moving power in its own right,  it characterises my move from University English to Shared Reading and The Reader.

I don’t say, as I nearly did,  my move from the University to  the real world, because a University is as real as anything else, and is certainly part of ‘the world’  –  in fact you might say, the world is too much in them, to borrow and change a line from Wordsworth.

Before, during and after University  I  was a personal reader, and for that I have to thank my outsider status and the Women’s Movement of the 1970s. ‘The personal is political’ was one of our slogans  a key thought for me, and I took it with me when I moved away from the radical feminism from which I had gained so much. ( ‘War is Menstrual Envy’ was another slogan that I loved, for some reason particularly annoying my very few male friends).

I don’t remember ‘the personal is political’ being applied to book-reading in the Women’s movement – there was a lot of heavy political theory there, as everywhere. But we read everything women had written, novels, poetry in order to try to build up a sense of a womens’ tradition. Through novels and poetry I got the personal experience of women, and at interview for University the exasperated inquisitor  asked me crossly, ‘Haven’t you read any books by men?’

Being a ‘personal reader’  in a University English department in the period 1980-2002 was no mean feat. People were trying to make literature part of the social and political sciences, to make it inhuman, de-personalised (and therefore perhaps budgetarily defensible, not a softee humanities thing  but hard as science, a brother to theoretical physics or plastics engineering). They were not happy times and I’m afraid the effect still lingers. I was lucky in that my teacher at University, Mr Brian Nellist  (I had others, but he was The One, and you can meet him here) was an old-fashioned non-theoretical reader, and he encouraged me to be one myself, and to read as myself, rather than always in terms of women and men. Though by then, I had stopped being motivated by gender inequality. Perhaps need to think more about that another time.

I did not have a Theory of Reading. I did not want to be self-conscious about my reading,  I just wanted to read literature and see what happened, what I could learn, what touched me, what I cared about.  Brian encouraged me, both as my third year tutor and as my Ph.D supervisor to to do that, finding out stuff that was useful and interesting to me. Essentially, he laid out this huge buffet of literature and said let’s walk up and down this, and see what strikes your fancy.

Even so, what happened was at a formal distance. I’d like to think more about what that means another time.

But to the poem. When I first began to have the idea of taking ‘great literature out of the university and into the hands of people who need it’ (not a snappy slogan but mine own) I had no idea of the power of the stuff I was going to unleash. Despite reading personally myself since I was child, and despite having chosen pieces that I thought most adults would find moving, I wasn’t prepared for tears. In nearly twenty years in the University, I had never seen anyone moved to tears by a poem.

In the very first shared reading groups, which were called ‘Get Into Reading’ (there were two, on different days of the week, one at Ganneys Meadow Early Years Centre, on Woodchurch Estate, and one at the Community College on Laird Street, Birkenhead. Both mixed, open community groups) and before that, before 2000, in the prototype experimental groups I ran before the Get Into Reading , which took place in St Cath’s Hospital Birkenhead and in Waterstones, Bold Street, Liverpool,  I read this poem.

Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 In each group as I read, someone was moved to tears. In Waterstones’ after work reading group, a nurse who had come straight from Arrow Park hospital filled up with tears as I read. She said it was the line, ‘But such a tide as moving seems asleep’, which had got to her, because her Dad had died  when she was a teenager, and when he was alive they used to walk sometimes along the riverside and the tide…poetic image and reality had crashed together for her. Nothing has ever put it into words, she said, as if seeing ‘ it’ in words had caused the release of tears.

There are things you need to know (what a bar is, how it functions, what a pilot is in harbour terms…) to understand the poem but like all great poems, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know them. The music of the poem will carry most listeners far.

What is interesting to me as I look at it this morning is how Tennyson, writing about death, (all the people who cried in those early groups spoke of someone they loved who had died: the poem seemed to speak to them of particular deaths) is actually writing about, anticipating, his own death. Yet the poem reads – sounds – like an elegy for another. Or perhaps it simply touches all death by thinking of one particular one.

The ‘one clear call’ of the opening line is open to much interpretation. People in Shared Reading groups have said to me over the years, that it might be any kind of sign, just something that reminds you of mortality. The ‘call’ is now but the death is in the future;

And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea

As I read these lines, they are coloured for me by the people I have read the poem with over many years –  the nurse (cannot remember her name) and Dorrie at Ganneys Meadow and a young woman with blond hair in the Laird Street group, and others. I think also of my own death – so much closer  now that when I read the poem in Ganneys Meadow, and the need for ‘no moaning’ seems more real and more pressing. Of course, ‘moaning of the bar’  in purely linguistic terms may be the noise made by waves  crashing against ‘the bar’ – the sandbar built up by currents in a harbour mouth or estuary… but is anything in a poem ever purely linguistic?  A word in a language  is like a bundle of sticks, a bundle of meanings (whose thought is this, please?). We put the sticks in the bundle according to our experience, memory. So I may  partly think of waves crashing far out in the  estuary, partly of my own complaining, partly of the sobbing of a bereaved friend.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

The poem, for all its sadness, is a brave one. ‘when I put out to sea’ does not feel like the end but rather a beginning.  It is a brave setting out on adventure, however terrifying.  The fact that the first two stanzas are one sentence seems to matter – there is no full stop after sea, but thethought caries on, after the line ending, after the ending of the stanza. and the second stanza is full of comfort.

But it is time to stop! oh dear. More tomorrow.