A few more daffodils & the ‘d’ word

C6UBW9zWgAA6Mv8.jpgphoto from @liverpoolparks

Robert Herrick ‘To Daffodils’

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

But the second stanza takes away any pretence.

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

Hearing the voices, raising the standard


Hard to know what to read and write about today. Still got Lincoln in the Bardo in my mind but want to finish reading the Marvell poem. Also, have a lot of work to do and want to spend some time in the garden and am going to the match later. Can LFC beat Burnley? You know, I can’t stake my reputation on predicting that, despite my respect for – belief in – Mr Klopp.

Ok, LITB first. It’s voices. I’ve started listening to it Audible – Nick Offerman (my hero from Parks and Rec ) reads one of the lead parts, very well. Looking forward to that on my commute.

Re-reading the text  this morning, I was reminded of these lines from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, ‘Burnt Norton’:

Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them.

That’s how it feels to read the book, which builds and  gets faster and heavier as it goes. Voices of the past, in the form of quotations from real and (I imagine) fictional ‘histories’, come at you, and tell us what we’ve known for some time now – no one view or memory is the truth. It was a moonlit night, say several accounts,  there was no moon that night, others contradict.  It’s like reading the Nehls biography of D.H.Lawrence. You see the whole reality through the multifaceted bits that all sorts of people contribute. And then the ‘characters’, like characters in a T.S.Eliot play, or in Becket or in Under Milk Wood, are not characters as we know them in a novel. They are their voices. As the reader, you have to do a lot of the work. Not complaining, I like hard book-work.

Hard but this is George Saunders so there’s also comedy and slapstick and rude bits from farting and poop to  small-scale orgies. There’s wryness, quite a lot of it. But I do not know why people say GS is a satirist. There’s heart here, there’s always heart, and there’s a  sort of disappointment too. Humans! Ha! You silly, bad people. But there is always belief in us, too. As Sian Cain writes in The Guardian, George Saunders makes us love people again. I think of  satirists as making us mock them. I want books that care about humans and  raise the standard. This book does  both.

So, how do we get to love more and mock less? We feel each other’s feelings, we imagine or experience life in someone else’s  life. When two of the book’s  leading presences enter President Lincoln in order to help him change something (I’m not telling you the story here!) a side-effect of their collaboration is  a kind of exchange of self, sympathy, empathy: feeling how if feels to be someone else, to have their particular set of experiences:

Because we were as yet intermingled with one another, traces of Mr Vollman naturally began arising in my mind and traces of me naturally began arising in his.

roger bevans iii

Never having found ourselves in that configuration before –

hans vollman

This effect was an astonishment.

roger bevans iii

I saw, as if for the first time, the great beauty of the things of this world: waterdrops in the woods around us plopped from leaf to ground; the stars were low, blue-white, tentative; the wind-scent bore traces of fire, dryweed, rivermuck; the tssking drybush rattles swelled with a peaking breeze, as some distant cross-creek sleigh-nag tossed its neck-bells.

hans vollman

I saw his Anna’s face, and understood his reluctance to leave her behind.

roger bevans iii

I desired the man-smell and the strong hold of a man.

hans vollman

The end (don’t want to spoil it) asks us to believe that it is possible for one spirit to enter another spirit’s being, thus  changing the course of human history. That’s not the final move of a satirist, that’s the move of a believer. But why wouldn’t a great writer believe this?  Isn’t putting the experiential knowledge of others lives, other centres of consciousness, into our own minds what great writing is for? Isn’t that what writing is for?










Good – and green – in the garden

The single red Camellia trying to get in through the window

I’m just going to concentrate on a few verses of ‘The Garden’ by Andrew Marvell. You’ll find the whole poem here. I found it in the Oxford Book of English Verse.  Like many famous English poems, I read it as an undergraduate at University. But those readings often went over my head – or perhaps heart?  I don’t think I’ve ever read it since.

The Garden

To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flow’rs and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

I have no idea what’s happening in this opening stanza!

I can’t find the tone, and I’m not sure what’s being said. The word ‘vainly’ makes me think that Marvell is going to be talking about things humans get wrong and yet the two parts of the sentence here don’t seem to add up… palm, oak, bays – aren’t they all prizes, don’t you win them in wars and races? Yet later he’s saying ‘all flowers and all trees…’ Hate that feeling of not getting it. I rush on, then restrain myself and go back.

I’m going too fast here and in a kind of reading panic because it’s a famous poem and I don’t understand it. What do we do when we don’t get it? We read it again, more slowly, a little bit at a time. I  take a breath and start again, going for the first chunk of meaning;

To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;

As I read it aloud I realise ‘single’ is a clue here. There’s one kind of thing (lines 1-6) which is to do with ‘single’ and then there’s another kind of thing (lines 7&8) which is to do with ‘all’.

When I’m trying to read I often have to do without knowing and so sketch out a murky  unclear area I don’t yet understand and just leave it there. I often think of that space as ‘x’, as if reading was a bit like math equations, and you have to accept there are lots of parts you don’t know. You mark them as unknowns and then try to work out other bits. Eventually  ‘y’ may reveal ‘x’.

But I do now know that these opening lines  are about the difference between ‘single’ and ‘all’. It’s about taking notice of a the entirety of a garden rather than some special plant, is it?

To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flow’rs and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

But also the difference between ‘uncessant labours’ and ‘repose’. The ‘single/all’ split has made me notice another, which  is the difference between ‘uncessant labours crowned’ and ‘garlands of repose’. And now I notice the difference between ‘crowns’ and ‘garlands’.

Hmm.I’m taking it at face value, but now it strikes me that this poem  may not be about a garden. It’s the word ‘vainly’ that makes me think it’s bigger than that. Can’t do anything with that thought yet.  People strive to win ‘the palm, the oak, or bays.’ They are plants that are signify winning. Winners get a crown  of bays, and those bays are cut from trees. Bays in particular  are often clipped and manicured, as the trees here seem to be;

Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;

The shade of trees  wouldn’t naturally be ‘short and narrow’, it should be long and widely expansive. But these trees seem to be only there for the  comment they can make on human endeavour, which I’m beginning to think  might be a very formal kind of gardening. But is this about any kind of clipped and manicured effort? Say you set yourself  to do something – a winning garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, or writing a  world-class Haiku or magnificent bodybuilding –  something that would result in you being a winner. Would all that unnatural clipping and pruning,  de-naturing the tree (person, thing, activity) under cultivation but also wasting your own time because all other flowers and trees are going, growing, in another direction?) is it about the energy of nature, and the energy of humans trying to do something?
Well, I’m no longer feeling scared and starting  to feel excited. I’m reading!
It’s the ‘prudent’  upbraiding that is bothering me. Why is it prudent?
If I did devote all my garden time and energy to clipping and pruning some prize-winning specimen, wouldn’t the plant itself, by its very nature ‘ upbraid’ me? Perhaps because of its natural tendency to grow wildly? But why would that upbraiding be ‘prudent’? Does prudent mean careful? Is it about money? I go to the dictionary – ‘prudent, acting with or showing care for the future’. From the Latin, provident. I think it is to do with the nature of trees – be they palm oak or bay – or plants (or people? or human endeavours? ). These things have their own energies and growth patterns.

I think this is a poem against a life of clipping bays. Don’t clip and contain natural energy – go with the flow.

Time’s up, more tomorrow.

from Satire III by John Donne

On a huge hill….


Todays poem from the OBEV (ed Gardner, though I also have the other two editions, by  Quiller Couch and Ricks, and I usually use Ricks, but I’ve left it at work) is a portion of John Donne’s  Satire III, titled by Helen Gardner ‘Seek True Religion!’  – just the kind of title to put off half the world, but not me. I have no religion, but I  am, in a way, religious. I like translating religious ideas into things I can understand. On the other hand it looks about 40 lines, so too long for poem of the day – I have only an hour to find it,  read it  and write about it. A passing thought is: I wonder if I might have Poem of the Day as a few lines? But I’m still reading. This is a poem I don’t remember reading before, so I start to read;

Though truth and falsehood be
Near twins, yet truth a little elder is;
Be busy to seek her; believe me this,
He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.

This is already enough poem for a week’s reading. I’m stuck  on the first two lines, wondering how ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’ can be ‘near twins’.  Is it about the fineness of distinctions?  Is it because they deal with the same stuff?  Still the advice is clear: go for truth, ‘He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.’

To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;

I know there is an historical context – the reformation – for this and I don’t know much about it, but I know enough to see Donne is talking about images in religious life – and about both sides in an argument (to make and use images of God or not). Lots of solidity in the uncertainty – ‘may all be bad’, where ‘may’ leaves leeway, while ‘bad’ makes a definite decision. ‘Doubt wisely’.

I’m in now. My own stance – I have no religion – is the ultimate in ‘no images’. I can’t even use the words ‘believe in God’ and yet I am not an atheist. I am religious. I (can’t use the word believe) something in (can’t use the word God)  something. My belief is like an equation with only x for terms. X marks the spot. I’m interesting the stance Donne offers, which is about mind, I think – ‘doubt wisely; in strange way/To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;’

In other words: ask the right questions!

My eye glances ahead and I suddenly  see I have read this before. Not since undergraduate days, and barely remember it but I do remember the lines that are coming, I remember them as if I had never forgotten them

…On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

What I remember is the feeling of  recognition, of knowing: here it is. Here what  is? Truth! So, across a lifetime of reading these words echo back  – you were interested in these lines then – remember? Ye there is  a resistance in me to the lines as I read them this morning – I’m not sure that all truths do need digging out, climbing for – some kinds of truth, even as this, writing a few words about a poem each day, yes, that feels a bit like  toiling up a mountain. But other truths are very clear, as in the flash of the signature on Doris Lessing’s Shikasta. When you see it, you know it.  What is the difference between those kinds of truth, I wonder? In the lines above the bit I want to stop and work at (about must and about must I go) is this;

And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

Thinking of walking up a huge hill,  Moel Famau, say, remembering how necessary it is to follow the contours of the land, shouldering the hill to reach the peak. ‘The hill’s suddenness’ is a great piece of writing, isn’t it?  You turn a bend into some uprisen crag or hump which stops you in your tracks. Fighting it, getting over it, getting round it, coming at it from another angle is what gets you, finally, above it. The hard bits are the bits you might win.

I’m out of time now. If you are going to keep going, just read a sentence, or a clause at a time.

Though truth and falsehood be
Near twins, yet truth a little elder is;
Be busy to seek her; believe me this,
He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.
To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.
Yet strive so that before age, death’s twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.
To will implies delay, therefore now do;
Hard deeds, the body’s pains; hard knowledge too
The mind’s endeavours reach, and mysteries
Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.
Keep the truth which thou hast found; men do not stand
In so ill case, that God hath with his hand
Sign’d kings’ blank charters to kill whom they hate;
Nor are they vicars, but hangmen to fate.
Fool and wretch, wilt thou let thy soul be tied
To man’s laws, by which she shall not be tried
At the last day? Oh, will it then boot thee
To say a Philip, or a Gregory,
A Harry, or a Martin, taught thee this?
Is not this excuse for mere contraries
Equally strong? Cannot both sides say so?
That thou mayest rightly obey power, her bounds know;
Those past, her nature and name is chang’d; to be
Then humble to her is idolatry.
As streams are, power is; those blest flowers that dwell
At the rough stream’s calm head, thrive and do well,
But having left their roots, and themselves given
To the stream’s tyrannous rage, alas, are driven
Through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last, almost
Consum’d in going, in the sea are lost.
So perish souls, which more choose men’s unjust
Power from God claim’d, than God himself to trust.

The Soul and the Body by Sir John Davies

I’m flicking through the pages of my  Oxford Book of English Verse  looking for the Poem of the Day. Here’s one I’ve never read before.  I’ve been hoping to alight on a poem that isn’t filled with the longing for the beloved, and stopped briefly at Davies’ Affliction (‘If aught can teach us aught, Affliction’s looks…’) a poem I have before and read, I think, in a Shared Reading group. But my eye was caught by the title of the poem across the page, and so I started to read. I have to let the word ‘soul’ rest in my mind a little, translating itself into something I can understand.

What does ‘soul’ mean to me? If we were having this discussion over dinner in a restaurant we’d be talking about embodiment and energy, about brain and gut, about the place of  thought and feeling in the body. ‘Soul’ – hhm, I love the word, but I’m not sure wha tit means.

Like me, Davies has to use a lot of negatives to arrive at a positive conception.

But how shall we this union well express?
Nought ties the soul; her subtlety is such,
She moves the body, which she doth possess,
Yet no part toucheth, but by virtue’s touch.

Then dwells she not therein as in a tent;
Nor as a pilot in his ship doth sit;
Nor as the spider in his web is pent;
Nor as the wax retains the print in it;

Nor as a vessel water doth contain;
Nor as one liquor in another shed;
Nor as the heat doth in the fire remain;
Nor as a voice throughout the air is spread.

But as the fair and cheerful morning light
Doth here and there her silver beams impart,
And in an instant doth herself unite
To the transparent air, in all and part;

Still resting whole, when blows the air divide,
Abiding pure, when th’ air is most corrupted,
Throughout the air her beams dispersing wide,
And when the air is tossed, not interrupted:

So doth the piercing soul the body fill,
Being all in all in part diffused,
Indivisible, incorruptible still,
Not forced, encountered, troubled or confused.

And as the sun above the light doth bring,
Though we behold it in the air below,
So from th’ eternal Light the soul doth spring,
Though in the body she her powers do show.

The line where I got interested was ‘Then dwells she not therein as in a tent’ – call me obsessed with our Bearhunt collapse but I suddenly saw that great marquee  filled with, moved by the wind. Letting that sad image go,  ‘tent’ seemed almost biblical ,  I didn’t imagine a little bivouac in the New Forest, no, rather a huge  desert tent was what I saw, where someone might live for years. The line had connected with me, and now I was willing, able, to read on. I understood – got – all the image-thoughts, the scientific examples of the second stanza, and read on into the third, where, once Davies has thought of  the way a vessel contains water, the  examples get more complicated.

The water leads him to think about the way liquids mix, ‘Nor as one liquor in another shed’, and that seems to lead very quickly to next,’Nor as the heat doth in the fire remain’. I saw clear mental images of ink or wine in a glass of water, spreading slowly, and the slow breath of heat in a dying fire: their movements seemed alike. And then suddenly the most powerful thought so far: ‘Nor as a voice throughout the air is spread’. This is the eighth negative analogy, and Davies has been building to it: is the soul (energy, thought, feeling) like a voice in air?  in some sense , yes. And that potential connection allows the leap to the positive image which expands, to take up as much room in the poem as all the negatives:

But as the fair and cheerful morning light
Doth here and there her silver beams impart,
And in an instant doth herself unite
To the transparent air, in all and part;

Still resting whole, when blows the air divide,
Abiding pure, when th’ air is most corrupted,
Throughout the air her beams dispersing wide,
And when the air is tossed, not interrupted:

Reading these two stanzas I see light, morning, I feel air, the breeze, and even smell stench at ‘corrupted’ and all the time I see his point: you can’t divide light and air. Light,

doth herself unite
To the transparent air, in all and part;

The poem suddenly eems like a very clean sum –  x minus x minus x minus x plus y plus y plus  then a great consolidating equals:

So doth the piercing soul the body fill,
Being all in all in part diffused,
Indivisible, incorruptible still,
Not forced, encountered, troubled or confused.

And as the sun above the light doth bring,
Though we behold it in the air below,
So from th’ eternal Light the soul doth spring,
Though in the body she her powers do show.

A wonderful certainty fills the penultimate stanza; the soul’s place and way of being seen quite clearly;

Indivisible, incorruptible still,
Not forced, encountered, troubled or confused.

Would a neuroscientist, a human biologist, a mind and body man of our own age, recognise any truth in this?  I think it would be a good poem to read with those  folks.

The last stanza I sort of ignore. For Sir John Davies it is a matter of godhead. As the sun brings light, ‘Though we behold it in the air below’, so ‘th’ eternal Light’ gives us soul, ‘Though in the body she her powers do show.’

I don’t know. I’m thinking of energy and the cosmos – but not very clearly. Scrub that, I am going to stick with the light and air thought.

Good in the garden. Again.


Ah, the poor blog. Whenever things get busy then down, down, down the to-do list it falls.

Like the dear old garden, couch-grassed-over, cursorily glanced-at in the half-light as I leave the house, ignored as I arrive home at night: I half-forget it  yet feel it on my mind. But, in another sense, my (lack of) commitment to writing is not like  my love-it-when-I’m-out-there relation to the garden, because writing is a struggle and hard to feel pleasure in, whereas gardening, once started, is easy and makes me feel great. But oh, in both cases, the starting is hard.

I did try. Over Christmas I wrote about my book of the year but, at the risk of sounding like a second-year undergraduate, I lost my work. Yes, closed down without saving, or perhaps actively,  in a fit of exasperated distraction, chose not to save. And so hours of thinking and trying to make sentences about Joshua Ferris’ painful and deeply moving novel, The Unnamed,  went into the pale and placeless ether, and much as I love the book, I haven’t had the grit – or is it the time? or is it the energy? –  to go back and rewrite the post. Why? 4 major funding bids and The Reader budget to sort out in January and February. Oh yes, Jane, and why else? Why? I am spending at least an hour a day watching Seinfeld,  to which I became addicted over Christmas. It’s Kramer. And I’ve been making, and eating, marmalade. The making takes several hours per batch, the eating about the same.

Could I use that ‘at least an hour’ of Kramer, those several hours of marmalade, to write, to re-write,  about The Unnamed, which is without doubt, one of the best novels I’ve ever read and certainly the best contemporary novel I’ve read since Marilynne Robinson’s Home? I’ve been reading Grit by Angela Duckworth and have to confess in the light of the thoughts it’s made me have, that I might have rewritten my piece about The Unnamed. But I didn’t, because I let myself be distracted by Kramer and marmalade. I  am an obsessive, but not all the time, not about everything: I’m a monomaniac and a magpie. For  true grit, the kind of grit that makes you the best in your field, you need the single mind. Tim, the hero of the The Unnamed has that kind of habitual dedication to his obsession, walking, and it costs him everything.

I cannot garden in the dark so that lets me off the hook, Kramer-wise. As for weekends, I cannot garden in January – it’s just too monochrome out  there and the many things I have left undone – the broken shed door, the weed-rank pots – stand out like painful truths I don’t want to hear. But yesterday was Spring-like. I stopped off between car and door for the briefest of glances at the red single Camellia… one of the first plants I ever bought, which I planted by digging up a paving slab in the backyard of our first house. When we  moved I dug it out and brought it with me in a pot. It’s maybe twenty-five years old now, perhaps thirty. Lovely  thing, and unusual in that it’s stamens are not golden but red, same colour as the rest of the flower. It is always flowering by Valentines Day, but this year started on the  2nd February.

So having stopped to look, I looked elsewhere and saw lots of good in the garden – primrose, crocus, lovely red leaf buds on a rose, the unfurling Euphorbia.

Taking my Mum to the Garden Centre yesterday afternoon I bought some pale pink primulas to go in the big pot – they look brave. Not counting the Garden Centre time, I did an hours work but felt as good as if I’d had an invigorating afternoon at Enniscrone Seaweed Baths. 

As for writing, I need more grit.

King Baby Rules!

Top Reads 2016

King Baby by Kate Beaton (Walker Books)

The Dear One @BIGpicturebooks put this terrific book in my hand on a recent visit to Walker Books HQ.  I’ve never seen a poor Walker book  so I happily accepted, along with a slice of  the wonderful cake she’d bought in for our meeting.

D, Anton, Cake and books at Walkerctc75zqw8aafxu4

But I didn’t read it until the following weekend when my  family was visiting and I thought, ‘I’ll try it out on Chester.’

Chester is five and has a tiny  baby sister, Agnes.

I’ve only once or twice* seen a book read with such appetite. We stayed there, where we started, on the kitchen floor, reading it once, twice, three times, each time Chester’s eyes seemed held, almost despite himself, to the pages, his body shuddering with small laughter. It was the uneasy, rather adult, laughter of surprised recognition.

Yes, they do adore you!

And yes! Babies do demand a lot of their attention!

And – hmm, yes, the gap of consciousness between me and those misunderstanding adults!

And –  huh – what a lots of mess a baby makes!

And I, mother of two and grandmother of four, was laughing too. That maniacal ego! That  utterly preoccupying determination to be more, oh, I recognised it all right. Six times my offspring over I recognised it.

Kate Beaton has made a tremendous book, a real contender for this reader’s no.1 Book of the Year spot. Especially good for exhausted parents expecting their second baby, but everyone with any kind of  memory of anyone’s early childhood will recognise this all too human, all too fleeting human reality. Top read!


*I have written about one of those reading occasions in The Reader magazine and will reprint it here sometime.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and from the noisome pestilence.

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

his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.

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

nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness;

nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Poem of the Day

Avarice by George Herbert

MONEY, thou bane of bliss, and source of woe,
Whence com’st thou, that thou art so fresh and fine ?
I know thy parentage is base and low:
Man found thee poor and dirty in a mine.

Surely thou didst so little contribute
To this great kingdom, which thou now hast got,
That he was fain, when thou wert destitute,
To dig thee out of thy dark cave and grot.

Then forcing thee, by fire he made thee bright :
Nay, thou hast got the face of man; for we
Have with our stamp and seal transferr’d our right :
Thou art the man, and man but dross to thee.

Man calleth thee his wealth, who made thee rich ;
And while he digs out thee, falls in the ditch.

I spent two weeks in on the Croatian island of Mljet, in a hermit-like seclusion, doing nothing but reading, walking, swimming and spending time with my husband. Ok, we did eat in the Polace harbourside restaurants most days, and our own home made meals consisted of tomatoes and local peppers, salami and goat cheese and beer, bought at the shop. So not not at all frugal, but the period of time had a clarity derived from its stripped down nature. It was a sort of mindlessness holiday. Which we needed because of two very different sadnesses we were carrying with us.

The water on the island (this is the eastern Adriatic) is clean and very clear, causing, on the coast a sharply delightful intake of breath, but in the calm sea-water lakes on the north west side of the island, it’s warm and shallow enough to encourage you to simply drift, floating for half an hour at a time. Something about this drift, in the aqua-green water, surrounded by forested hills and breathing the scent of hot pines,feels to me deeply restorative. And was perhaps felt also by Benedictine monks in the twelfth century, who came to build a now ruined monastery on the tiny islet now known as Santa Maria, set in extreme west of the larger of the two lakes. This place is mildly remote now, but then? I spent some time imagining the quiet of those Benedictine lives, and the power of their plainsong in the ringing acoustic space that is the church.

So then I came home, rested and looking forward to resuming my busy life, with a strong new year resolution feeling about keeping hold of the deep quiet I had enjoyed, of making a place for quiet downtime in my non-holiday life. And the next day, my MacBook Air having a glitchy problem to do with being totally out of memory, I made my way into the city centre, to visit the Applestore in Liverpool One. Was it too sudden a transition? The streets were full of people buying clothes, shouting at their small children, drinking. It looked like an animated Bosche painting and the soundtrack was a blurry cacophony of stupid broken noises. Outside a summertime pub drinkers smoked and their faces seemed monstrous, bulbous, huge-pored, red. Poor boys in black anoraks pushed through the crowds looking like trouble. Fat women wore revealing strapless sundresses. Everyone was obsessed with stuff. It is not good to feel so apart from one’s fellow creatures and I felt repulsion and then something like shame, because why shouldn’t Liverpool be going on just as it always does, just because I’ve been on holiday? I bought an external hard drive and fled. Oh, I did my shopping.

I hate not feeling part of the world. I want to be fond of my fellows. But this was too much, too sudden, too messy and too pointlessly buying. Everything seemed about getting stuff. I know I am part of it. I was in the Applestore like everyone else, getting and spending, as Wordsworth says, and laying waste my powers. I know we cannot all be transported to a rural idyll. I know this world is here to stay and that I want my money as much as the next man, more than some.

But I want more than this, too. I want my peace. I thought while I was away that one of the ways of getting some slow downtime would be to read a poem a day. So this morning – I’d forgotten about town almost as soon as I got back to my garden in West Kirby – I opened my Everyman George Herbert and looked for a poem I did not already know. This was it. I remembered my disgusted feeling. I thought of my own desire for stuff, things, new walking boots, a snorkel, music, a season ticket for Anfield, the Phil, eating out, new clothes…

I particularly like the lines,

Nay, thou hast got the face of man; for we
Have with our stamp and seal transferr’d our right :

Which gave me the strongest sense of having exchanged something of my self for money and stuff. And I like the use of pronouns in the poem – I , we , he… as if they are all pretty much the same – the ancient history of money and stuff, the current state of it… it’s a general human problem and mess, almost a species problem, caused by ‘man’ and over a very long time.

I read it and the question is – how can I live a good life in the world, this world of money and stuff, of shopping and getting, of not having and wanting, and not retire to a Benedictine or some other monastery?

Sunday morning. I spend £4 on going for a swim in West Kirby swimming baths. The water is nothing like the small salt lake on Mljet, but after 30 lengths I feel ok.


Where is Josephine Butler?

Josphine Butler 1869
Josphine Butler 1869

I haven’t discovered yet whether Josephine Butler was in any way connected to one of my old schools (Blackburn House, where I was unhappily a pupil between the ages of 12-15) but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that she had a hand in it. Odd to think that that hand might still in some sense be at work in the world, more than a hundred years after her death. Makes me think of this poem:

We Live In Deeds, Not Years

We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths;
In feelings, not in figures on a dial.
We should count time by heart-throbs. He most lives
Who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best.
And he whose heart beats quickest lives the longest:
Lives in one hour more than in years do some
Whose fat blood sleeps as it slips along their veins.
Life’s but a means unto an end; that end,
Beginning, mean, and end to all things—God.
The dead have all the glory of the world.

Philip James Bailey (1816-1902)

There is a strong Liverpool tradition of powerful women doing extraordinary good in educational and social work (just say for now: Eleanor Rathbone, Bessie Braddock, Kitty Wilkinson) and on the not-infrequent occasions when I waited outside the Headmistress’ study at Blackburn House, I think I might have gazed at pictures of those women and the quiet-looking pinafored Victorian girls they helped or educated. At the Everyman Theatre, as a stage-struck 15-year-old, a play about Bessie Braddock  – with the wonderful Gillian Hanna in the title role – moved me profoundly. As a student at the University of Liverpool I attended lectures in the Eleanor Rathbone building. And as a concert-goer at the Philharmonic or drinker in the Phil I walked past Josephine Butler House – scandalously demolished to make way for a car park.  The names of these women seemed in the air I breathed as I grew up in this broken, creative, poor, angry, rich, dying, living city.

So when, as a nominee in the Addidi Inspiration Awards, I was asked to choose a female historical figure to represent, Josephine Butler seemed the obvious choice. I thought I knew who she was: involved in women’s education, wasn’t she? Did she help to set up Girton College ? Wasn’t she a mate of George Eliot (my own real C19 heroine but let’s leave that for another time)? Didn’t she have a house that used to be by the Phil – or was it a Nurses Home?

It’s odd how a space can be held, like mist in a valley, in one’s mind by someone who isn’t really there. Is that a kind of ghost of Josephine Butler I have in my mind, a thin always more faded presence? I try to find out: Did she found Blackburn House?  I do not know. I thought I knew who she was but actually I know nothing.

To bolster my ignorance a little I turn first to Wikipedia – thinking, I’ll get some references for some books.  And there she nearly is – in that historical account of a girl born in the North Country to an anti-slavery family and marrying an Oxford cleric, and moving to Liverpool when he became the Headmaster of Liverpool College. And there is Brownlow Hill workhouse, which I know became the site of the Metropolitan Cathedral. I know the Brownlow Hill  workhouse! And so I read;

The Butlers had strong radical sympathies, including support for the Union in the American Civil War.

Their only daughter, Evangeline died in 1863.[7] This led Josephine to seek solace by ministering to people with greater pain than her own. Against her friends’ and family’s advice, she began visiting Liverpool‘s Brownlow Hill workhouse which led to her first involvement with prostitutes.

But this all feels like (forgive me, you historians) mere history. I want story. I want her story. I don’t want facts, I want feelings.

And here Wiki’s open-source begins to help me. Under the wiki-sub-heading Further Reading, I see someone has added;

Josephine Butler’s daughter Ava died from a accident with the stairs as when her parents came home she ran down the stairs and died this is why Josephine is the person who started acts. Josephine was making a statement to the parliament and they ignored all her letters and pamflets about women saying they can get an education and a better job and situations in life.

Now this is the beginning of a story. This is (I’m guessing, I’m fictionalising) a Liverpool women (look at the Scouse grammar of ‘a accident’ and note the emotional reality of the detail of running downstairs when her parents came home) moved by the Josephine Butler life in some profound way. Perhaps this is a woman whose life has not been an easy one. Yet she is moved to add to the Josephine Butler page in Wikipedia. That means something.

And now this open-source addition to the wiki page has given me the clue I needed to begin to feel Josephine Butler’s presence in the Universe. This feeling is where I start my thinking about her.

This is a novel I’d like to write. I imagine a sex-worker getting some basic education in a street education project. I imagine a live-wire-link between her and the grieving mother whose child died before her eyes.

Later I follow a link to the Josephine Butler Trust and see this charitable body, based here in Liverpool, discussing how to use money now: what would she want now? To speak about the unspeakable, about human trafficking, the child sex trade. I see that some of her works are still in print and I’m sending for them right now.

I want to hear her own voice. I want to find her. In a fragment in the University of Liverpool Special Collection I hear a stronger echo of her presence… ‘Hundreds of other little girls were being cruelly murdered by neglect or by orphanages throwing them into the hands of the destroyers of the innocent…’ Update the language slightly and you have the Rochdale abuse scandal, here, now.

Click to access h1006JosephineButlerinLiverpool1866-1882.pdf