New Year, Same Old


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

I am content to follow to its source

Every event in action or in thought;

Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!

When such as I cast out remorse

So great a sweetness flows into the breast

We must laugh and we must sing,

We are blest by everything,

Everything we look upon is blest.

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

Making bread with grandson Chester
Making bread at Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We must laugh and we must sing,

We are blest by everything,

Everything we look upon is blest.

10 years of Get Into Reading

By Jane Davis

Last week saw 250 people gather in Wallasey Town Hall to celebrate 10 years of  Get Into Reading, with tea and cakes, readings and testimonials and a massive Readerly Raffle with fine book prizes…

So I’ve been thinking about the past 10 years from the sudden perspective an anniversary brings. I wrote about this in The Reader magazine recently, and for those of you who don’t yet subscribe, I’m reprinting the piece here.

That Which Makes Me Man

In my editorial in The Reader No.11, ten years ago, I wrote about reading ‘Crossing The Bar’ by Tennyson, with beginner readers of poetry:

In both groups, as I read the poem aloud, someone began to cry. I offered to stop, to change the poem, do something else. In both cases, the reader moved to tears said ‘No, carry on. I want to read it.’

Those two groups were the first Get Into Reading groups, which I ran in community education centres in Birkenhead during the summer of 2002. My idea had been to try to take the kind of work I had been doing inside the University out into the wide world – that is, reading the great books of literature as if there were no body of literary criticism, as if my students and I were simply humans who had found a piece of writing on a bus and picked it up out of sheer interest. ‘Great books out of the University’ was my motto. When I looked back at it, I saw that that editorial began with a quotation which seemed to point at a terrible truth:

Poetry? Kill me now!

                        Bart Simpson

I don’t know where I read that more people in the UK write poetry than read it, but I bet it’s true, just as Bart’s sentiment strikes home because you know you’ve felt it and so have lots of other people, especially young guys with skateboards, and, at the risk of sounding like someone who shares DNA with Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education here in the UK, I blame the way we are taught. On this point, actually, I probably go further than Mr Gove.

Say it is true that more people write poetry than read it. I find that supposition very heartening. It means that people feel a need for poetry, a need so powerful that they are willing to take pen to paper, put finger to keyboard, and to pull words up out of silence and into writing. That is a deeply creative act, however well or badly done.

Sadly, most such writing will inevitably be badly done, as most such writers do not think that their need for words will be helped by reading the great poetry of the past two thousand years. This is a waste. Writing is at least a craft and at best a great art. Anyone who does it (however badly) is doing it but, as with baking or oil painting, not everyone who does it achieves good results. Really doing it well, in all crafts, indeed in any creative endeavour, requires practice: learning from experience and from the experience of great masters is how people get better.

Most people who write poetry – in desperation, battered by fate, moved by the hugest experiences of human life – do not think of learning how to do it better. They just need some words right now. If the words help and excite them, then the writer may be led on to more writing, and in a positive feedback loop, they may begin to love writing so much that they will want to learn more about it. Loving doing something almost invariably leads to learning more about it, though the learning, being experiential, may be hard for us to recognise as learning. Great bikers love their bikes and know how to build, ride and fix them. The leather-clad, loud, biker convoy carries experts. Great bakers don’t just manage to knock out a few flattish scones – they learn from the masters of the tradition and come up with delightful gooseberry savarins. Very good musicians go to even better musicians and learn from the masters. It’s a kind of loving.

If bikers and bakers and bass players see the need to learn, why don’t all those people who are moved to write poetry read poetry?

The answer is that people have been immunised against poetry by bad education. I am using poet Les Murray’s words here, from his poem ‘The Instrument’ , first published in The Reader No 2:

Who reads poetry? Not our intellectuals;

They want to control it…

…Not poor schoolkids

Furtively farting as they get immunized against it

Mass education may have worked when we were simply trying to make factory hands literate to read the safety instructions, or get pre-calculator clerks to know their multiplication tables off by heart, and it still works in a Zumba class (if everyone wants to be there), but we have failed to create a mass education which educates individuals for the hard sad task of being human. This is partly caused by the failure of people working in the Humanities to recognise the human value of their subjects. Among the many downsides of this is the two-thousand years’ worth of literature mouldering unread in the stacks of closing libraries.

All of which is to say, when those readers were moved to tears by ‘Crossing The Bar’, I knew that I had stumbled into something important, though I had no idea what it was at the time. I knew it was to be my work, though I had no vision of The Reader Organisation becoming what it now is (an independent charity creating thousands of reading sessions every year, with sixty-three full-time staff and eighty volunteers, a social enterprise turning over £1.3m last year). I had no ambition except to get more reading of great literature to happen. I think I did understand explicitly what I had previously felt implicitly, that reading can give any of us access to feelings and thoughts we have, we suffer, but may not usefully know. Ten years on, with more than 330 Get Into Reading groups run every week by The Reader Organisation and hundreds more by people we have trained on our Read to Lead courses, I am pleased to report that the single most surprising thing about what happens in those reading groups is the utter delight arising from, and serious attention given to, poetry. People love reading poetry.

Last week I helped run a day of sessions for a group of people who have been doing our Read to Lead course. Several of the people on the course had been sent along by an NHS Drug and Alcohol Service. This day’s work was as moving and powerful as anything I experienced in the early days of Get into Reading. As part of the course, our students were to select a poem of their own choice to read in a shared reading group with their colleagues – a chance to put what they had been learning into practice. All the chosen poems were impressive – for example, Thom Gunn’s ‘Human Condition’ or Alexander Pope’s ‘Solitude’ – and to read them in such company was a powerful experience. A few years ago some of these people would have been living lives dominated by drugs and/or alcohol, some of them homeless, others separated from people they love. These hard experiences are perhaps only extreme versions of all human lives, but because they are at the far edge of experience, they help bring into sharp focus the power of literature in a life. ‘Now it is fog’ begins the tremendous Thom Gunn poem, and I look around the table and wonder in which fogs we have all been walking.

Now it is fog. I walk

Contained within my coat;

No castle more cut off

By reason of its moat:

Only the sentry’s cough,

The mercenaries’ talk.

The street lamps, visible,

Drop no light on the ground,

But press beams painfully

In a yard of fog around.

I am condemned to be

An individual.

The poems addressed a complex and interconnected range of thoughts and feelings anyone might have about being a human, having a life to live; being with, or without, companionship. And it took one of The Reader Organisation’s young apprentices, newly out of foster-care and attempting to set up her life without the help of a family, to suggest that there was no coat, no castle, no moat. ‘These are what you put on, to protect yourself, and yet they cut you off,’ she said.

It seems almost miraculous to me that ten years on, I and so many colleagues should be outside of University, outside Continuing Education and outside the School of English where The Reader began, and that we should be reading, day in and day out, great literature with people who are not doing a course but simply trying to live their lives. That we should be reading with drug addicts and ex-alcoholics; with people in recovery and people in Care; those in deep physical or mental suffering; that we should be reading with psychiatrists and firefighters; with occupational therapists and mothers whose children have been taken away from them; with people who are profoundly deaf (we ‘read aloud’ through sign language) and with trainee teachers; with people at work and people living with dementia, and people in prison or on probation; that we should be developing community-readers’ apprenticeships for care-leavers who may have little formal education and are about as far from a university English degree as it is possible to be. And that so many of these people should then want to learn how to pass on this reading revolution to others.

A supporter goes to visit a group in London and emails me that Lois, who was once a volunteer and who is now a staff member, is reading Hamlet with her group. A colleague writes me how she has loved reading and been hugely moved by Mrs Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. At my own group at a Drug and Alcohol service in Chester, we are about to start on Kipling’s Kim. In prison, Al is finding that Ray Bradbury and George Saunders go down well, and at Forum Housing a housing officer is reading Silas Marner with her tenants’ group. Not all groups will be reading literature of this quality all the time: we start from where we can start and we work our way into the greatest books, if that seems to be working for the people with whom we read. My colleague Angela Macmillan’s wonderful A Little, Aloud anthologies contain all kinds of good things for adults and children to taste and try. Brian Nellist’s new poetry selection, Minted: Practical Poems for Life has 50 great things he wouldn’t want a reader not to know.

Who’d have guessed when I walked, quaking with nerves, into that community education centre in Birkenhead, that all this would come about? That in Aarhus, Denmark, in Melbourne, Australia and in deepest Cornwall, and Easterhouse Glasgow, in Belfast’s Hydebankwood Prison, people would be getting together to share reading every week, and to open together the wonderful storehouse of literature, and by reading personally, making the most powerful of inner and outer connections. As Thom Gunn writes:

I am my one touchstone.

This is a test more hard

Than any ever known.

And thus I keep my guard

On that which makes me man.

We read aloud and test what we read against what we personally know. We share that testing conversation as much as we wish to share, and the rest we do in our inner privacy, and thus individually and collectively, getting into reading together, we remake our humanity, humanities. It is a kind of loving.

100 Books to Maketh A Woman no 9 ‘Practical Criticism’ by I.A.Richards

The art of knowing where we are wherever, as mental travellers, we may go is the main subject of the book…

I’ve been reading what is – or was – in academic literary circles, an extremely  well-known book, I.A. Richards’ Practical Criticism and discovering that it is one of the books that has shaped me. This is where some of the ideas I solidified into ‘Get Into Reading’ originated and so I’m reading and  laughing in recognition of this text-based DNA like someone meeting a long-lost long-longed-for relative: so this is where it came from, that concentration on the words of the text itself, that sense of entering, inhabiting the text.

I’ve never read it before and yet it’s a key life text for me, its ideas are in me, are part of me.

This is one of the powers books have – the power of holding and spreading ideas, and they do it in symbiosis with people.  I was influenced by people who were influenced by this book.

I’m remembering two teachers : Ken Moss was Head of English at Liverpool Community College when I did A levels there in the late 1970’s, and his Practical Criticism class was my favourite thing in the college week. Tony Barley taught me on Practice of Criticism when I was first year undergraduate in the School of English at Liverpool – 2.00pm on Thursdays. What I was learning in both these classes, with engaged, enthusiastic teachers, was how to read, how to concentrate on and creatively enter a text.

They were two very different men but they shared a practice. And yet the practice, though rigorous, allowed flex room for individuality. There was nothing doctrinaire about it, and that was what I loved. It was real and happening now, it was responsive, alive. It did not feel like a ‘lesson’, though there were moments in both classes where I knew I was learning, and sometimes when I knew I was being taught. ‘Being taught’ is pretty much out of fashion now as a pedagogical idea but anyone who has been taught, when they wanted to learn, by a master or mistress of an art or science, will know that it is  one of the deepest and  most powerful human experiences, possibly on a par with  love or the existence of a new baby.

Certainly in Ken Moss’s or Tony Barley’s class, something like magic would happen. You began with marks on a page and ended with a lived experience. The poems (it was usually, but not always, poems we read) expanded under our concentrated gaze, came alive, filled the room and my headspace. I can remember where I was sitting in the classroom when I read my first Shakespeare Sonnet with Ken Moss, ‘They that have the power to hurt and will do none’, Sonnet 94:

They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others, but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself, it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.

We spent two hours as a class working our way through – or into – the poem. It’s a complex, shifting, mental, emotional model of being uncertain about someone else. Is this person  hurting (going to hurt) me? You can’t paraphrase it because it keeps moving, as our thoughts do. You have to enter it and  experience those  mental twists and turns. At the end of the class I knew I had had an experience that had changed the lights for me. That there could be so much in fourteen lines and that I could have  been part of  the process that  dug it all out!  It was like falling in love –  I  wanted to read and read more poems in this way. Luckily, as well as  our weekly Practical Criticism sessions, Ken was also teaching us to read Hopkins’  The Wreck of The Deutschland and Shakespeare’s King Lear. That year of study for A level was one of the most intellectually joyful and exhilarating of my life.

I never thought of this close reading process, as some people did, as ‘tearing it apart’. That seemed far too destructive a metaphor for what we were doing. We were investigating it, yes, putting it under some sort of microscope but we didn’t have to destroy it to do that, on the contrary, though we didn’t have the technical equipment to provide the metaphor in the 1970’s, it was more like what we now know as whole body scanning. It always offended me when people called it ‘tearing it apart’.  For we were actually building up. It was a process I’d liken more to making music – there is technique, and that’s vital, and you do break  pieces down, and rehearse them over and over, until you’ve got it, but only ever as part of a bigger building up process. We had to get inside the lived experience of the  poem itself. We had to be it. Reading like this was always a creative process, a new making.

I realise as I write that I am hitting up against  a perennial difficulty for us in The Reader Organisation: the problem of trying to describe what happens when people experience a Get Into Reading group. It’s like, as poet Les Murray says of poetry, like sex. Hard to define, and  covering a very large spectrum, but you know it whenever you experience it.

But to return to I.A.Richards. When this book was first published in 1929, very few people read English at University, and most of those few were very well-educated public school pupils. Richards conducted a series of experiments, asking  those who attended his Cambridge lectures to read and then write about a selection of poems about which they knew nothing (neither the author nor historical context – they had  no context, only the poem). Without reputation or history, most of the respondents foundered, and in a way that I found (as someone who taught University level Practical Criticism in the 1980’s) amazingly familiar. But that  is not the big interesting thing about Richards’ book. No, the big thing  is his overpowering  sense of the value and underestimated importance of response to poetry.

In the Introduction he writes;

My second aim is more ambitious and requires more explanation. It forms part of a general attempt to modify our  procedure in certain forms of discussion. There are subjects – mathematics, physics and the descriptive sciences supply some of them – which can be discussed in terms of verifiable facts and hypotheses. There are other subjects – the concrete affairs of commerce, law organisation and police work – which can be handled by rules of thumb and generally accepted conventions. But in between is the vast corpus of problems, assumptions, adumbrations, fictions, prejudices, tenets; the sphere of random beliefs and hopeful guesses; the whole world, in brief of abstract opinion and disputation about matters of feeling. To this world belongs everything about which  civilised man cares most. I need only instance ethics, metaphysics,morals, religion, aesthetics, and the discussions surrounding liberty, nationality, justice, love, truth, faith and knowledge to make this plain. As a subject-matter for discussion, poetry is a central and typical denizen of this world. it is so both by its own nature and by the type of  discussion with which it is traditionally associated. It serves,therefore, as an eminently suitable bait for anyone who wishes to trap the current opinions and responses in this middle field for the purpose of examining and comparing them, and with a view to advancing our knowledge of what may be called the natural history of human opinions and feelings.

I was knocked out by that wonderful list – the vast corpus of the  middle ground between the facts of science and the rules of thumb of practical experience. That body is the body of what we ‘think’ but that verb – as Richards’ list shows! – is far too small for all the human activity that goes on under its name. It is, in fact, our inner life, and  those parts of it we are willing or able to share with others. Poetry gives us access to  and language for this sphere in a way that little else does.

The other big thing that Richards’ begins to do is to make the connection with psychology. In discussing the writings of the students ( he terms these writings ‘protocols’ maybe using the word in the sense of ‘draft’ ) he begins to see that people, their personality, their experience – cannot be  separated from their reading. (Of course they can be separated, if you make reading, as so often in formal literary learning, a formality. Set up hoops and watch the students jump. But here, because students were thrown back upon themselves, they had no  professional equipment with which to disguise themselves, and so can only -mostly- read as people) This personalisation is the beginning of a new field on intellectual inquiry, Richards guesses;

The indispensable instrument for this inquiry is psychology. I am anxious to meet as far as may be the objection that may be brought by some psychologists, and these the best, that the protocols do not supply enough evidence for us really to be able to make out the motives of the writers and that therefore the whole investigation is superficial. But the beginning of every research ought to be superficial, and to find something to investigate that is accessible and detachable is one of the chief difficulties of psychology, I believe the chief merit of the experi- ment here made is that it gives us this. Had I wished to plumb the depths of these writers’ Unconscious, where I am quite willing to agree the real motives of their likings and dislikings would be found, I should have devised something like a branch of psychoanalytic technique for the purpose. But it was clear that little progress would be made if we attempted to drag too deep a plough. However, even as it is, enough strange material is turned up.

His motive is literary and pedagogical, not psychological or psychoanalytic, but  he rightly wants to make a strong a connection between the two modes of inquiry. ‘Literature’ is never just an aesthetic thing in itself. Besides, I think, Richards is arguing for  literature, particularly poetry and our responses to it, as way of understanding what it is to be a human being.

Navigation, in fact the art of knowing where we are wherever, as mental travellers, we may go is the main subject of the book. To discuss poetry and the ways in which it may be approached, appreciated and judged is, of course, its prime purpose. But poetry itself is a mode of communication. What it communicates and how it does so and the worth of what is communicated form the subject-matter of criticism. It follows that criticism itself is very largely, though not wholly, an exercise in navigation. It is all the more surprising then that no treatise on the art and science of intellectual and emotional navigation has yet been written ; for logic, which might appear to cover part of this field, in actuality hardly touches it. That the one and only goal of all critical endeavours, of all interpretation, appreciation, exhortation, praise or abuse, is improvement in communication may seem an exaggeration. But in practice it is so. The whole apparatus of critical rules and principles is a means to the attainment of finer, more precise, more discriminating communication. There is, it is true, a valuation side to criticism. When we have solved, completely, the communication problem, when we have got, perfectly, the experience, the mental condition relevant to the poem, we have still to judge it, still to decide upon its worth. But the later question nearly always settles itself ; or rather, our own inmost nature and the nature of the world in which we live decide it for us. Our prime endeavour must be to get the relevant mental condition and then see what happens. If we cannot then decide whether it is good or bad, it is doubtful whether any principles, however refined and subtle, can help us much. Without the capacity to get the experience they cannot help us at all. This is still clearer if we consider the use of critical maxims in teaching. Value cannot be demonstrated except through the communication of what is valuable.

In 1929, under the influence still of Matthew Arnold, literary criticism felt much if its task was to judge whether something was good or bad. The protocols are funniest when the writers take on this task with only their straight faces to cover their ignorance. (Thus one very self-assured reader writes, “The impression received was one of the self-satisfaction of the author (I do not say ” poet “) : a spinster devoted to good works, and sentimentally inclined, or perhaps Wordsworth.”). That fashion is less overtly with us these days and anyway is based on different ideas of what ‘good’ might  be. But it seems to me that  our first act as a reader is still too often to judge: much of what we practice in Get Into Reading is the patience of holding off, waiting, reading a bit more. Learning to read more slowly is learning to read more fully. Richards’ sense of the necessity for this fullness in the face of an acceleratingly developing technical world is powerfully apposite to our current situation and fantastically useful reminder of why, humanly,  literature matters.

Not that anyone who has been reading this blog would need such a reminder. But there are very few of  you! That a book like this should be languishing so totally out of fashion, almost utterly unused, unbuilt-upon is a  dire indictment of the state of English Literature.

You can glance at it here but I’d advise getting hold of a paper copy. Read it and let’s meet sometime, somewhere, to discuss it. It is a manifesto of sorts. And god knows, we need one.

On Habit

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between different meanings of the word  ‘habit’. offers 11 (slightly Americanised) different takes :

  1. an acquired behaviour pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary: the habit of looking both ways before crossing the street.
  2. customary practice or use: Daily bathing is an American habit.
  3. a particular practice, custom, or usage: the habit of shaking hands.
  4. a dominant or regular disposition or tendency; prevailing character or quality: She has a habit of looking at the bright side of things.
  5. addiction, especially to narcotics (often preceded by the ).
  6. mental character or disposition: a habit of mind.
  7. characteristic bodily or physical condition.
  8. the characteristic form, aspect, mode of growth, etc., of an organism: a twining habit.
  9. the characteristic crystalline form of a mineral.
  10. garb of a particular rank, profession, religious order, etc.: a monk’s habit.
  11. the attire worn by a rider of a saddle horse.

It is meaning numbers 1-8 that most concern me, though when I looked up the history of the word, (Online Etymology Dictionary) I was interested to see that it was early connected to the Monk’s habit from the Latin, habitus “condition, demeanour, appearance, dress,” and that made me think that, of course, the special habit worn by Christian monks in the 13 century was not just a form of dress but an outside marker to the habits of the wearer  – appearance as a form of being.

Thinking about this sent me looking for poems about habits ( got some? let me know please via comments) and I found this, from Gerard Manley Hopkins, which touches on the habitual daily practice, the habit of one’s body and the connection of this, for GMH  to the habit of a priest:

The Habit of Perfection

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

I’m interested in the way habits of the body (silence, for example) begin as sensory practice, but build to inner reality in this poem. Hard for Hopkins, who loved the beauty of the world so much, to force himself into this  retreated blank of sense! Yet through  not hearing, not speaking, not seeing, he finds  music, eloquence and sight… Something in me (as no doubt something in Hopkins) shies away from this rejection of sensory. Balance up your sense of him by reading this poem alongside one of his madly-loving-the-world poems, such as Pied Beauty.

I’m taking delight in gardening at the moment ( yes, despite the weather) mainly thanks to Emma, who has been clearing back the overgrown stuff for me, and it’s the plant-related meaning that has been pulling me toward these thoughts. In plants ‘habit’ is still deeply connected to that very early meaning  – that how a thing looks/lives is what it is  – for example, a plantswoman might tell you that the Hardy Geranium, ‘Anne Folkard’ has ‘a lovely trailing habit’.  But what your plantswoman would also mean is that ‘Anne Folkard’ is lovely and trailing. She grows in her characteristic, habitual way.

While I’ve been thinking about the habits of certain plants, I’ve started wondering how the word connects to our more common usage of the word, as in good or bad habits, or, leaving moral judgements aside, just plain things you do, characteristic behaviours. (And as my own habits, good and bad are of enormous and frustrating interest to me, I’m signing up for wayoflifeapp and will report back on how I get on with it).

The habit of a plant  – its general form or mode of growth – is both how it grows and essentially, from one point of view, what it is. The word ‘habit’ seems to exist at that point where something that is not fixed – but rather, growing – becomes fixed.  That’s an interesting place.  Does Jane Davis have a habit in the same way Geranium ‘Ann Folkard’ does?

This usage of the word points to Nietzsche’s thought that ‘we become what we are’. I’ve always liked the two sides of that aphorism, which seems to determine us even as it denies determinism. As a human individual in process of growing, or as a member of a family, that is surely often how it feels.  People grow into themselves.

It’s been surprising to me to realise that some of  the habits and practices I unconsciously built into the Get Into Reading model come from things I learned as a child. My mother, divorcing in the mid-1960s, aged about thirty and with four children  – the oldest, me, not yet 10, the youngest a babe in arms – took a pub, because it seemed a good way of earning a living with the kids on the premises. Childcare, work and social life all wrapped up! Our pub was Parliament Place, just off Liverpool’s Upper Parliament Street, in Liverpool 8.

That’s my little sister in the centre of the group of girls on the far pavement, and that’s our pub on the corner, the pub with no name, affectionately know to its friends as The Little House. My sister says the two tiny tots in the back of the mini pick-up are our brothers. Where was I?  In the long hot summer of 1968…I’d be 12. I had a job in the Arab grocery shop round the corner in Stanhope Street. That shop man, name forgotten, let’s call him Ali, cooked a fine mutton and potato stew which he used to share with me. It tasted unlike anything I’d ever eaten. I’m thinking as I write, cumin? Coriander? I worked there and on a cooked meat stall in St John’s market. Later, but not much later, it might even have been later that year, Saturdays consisted of walking down into town and hanging out in the International Section of Central Library or the Walker Art Gallery.

There were kids behind the doors in our street who didn’t go out until they were five and had to be sent to school. Florrie Bird, aged nine and going on forty, would sell you her granny, they said, for sixpence. Patsy Flanagan was one day a teenage girl in our street and then the next a bruised prostitute on the corner of Hope Street, with dead, drunk or narcotised, eyes. We lived, in that two bedroom flat above the pub, with mice, scabies, lice, fleas. Our Mum drank heavily into the night – what times! what lock-ins! what parties !  -and fought with Tony, and became, in a couple of years, addicted to alcohol. They were the worst of times, and yet while we lived them, they seemed the best of times.

I think she felt free, after her divorce, and enjoyed the sense that she was good at something. And she was: in the pub, there were huge social differences and yet a rough equality before the law and, usually, a social tact which meant that people’s deficiencies were overlooked or turned into bearable jokes. Wit in conversation was prized above all, along with any kind of storytelling, good singing or comedy, and, though we laughed at it, snappy dressing was also a talent. But everyone, even those with no social offerings, had a place here. Barry, in his filthy coat, always had that corner by the door of the bar. Margaret and June drank port and lemon disapprovingly in the parlour. Chinese Jim, Paddy and Molly, the Lucas boys with their acne and greasy hair, handsome Bo, Ace and Jimmy in sharkskin suits. It’s a small pub on a corner in a very small street and was a local for I guess about sixty households, many of whom even then were still connected to the  sea, the Port of Liverpool, the docks, and lived within a couple of hundred metres walk. And we had the itinerant drinking wanderers and occasional repertory actors from the old Everyman. People knew each other’s habits.

Occasionally the social order broke down and a fight would erupt and I’d wake up to that excitement, scuffling and shouting, tables and chairs scraping the floor, banging over, then the pub door slamming. One night I looked out of my top floor garret window to see two men squaring up to each other, circled by everyone else. One of these guys took off his jacket and handed it back, then put a hand to his head and removed a toupee and handed that back, before dancing forwards, stepping sideways, fists up. Everyone laughed at the toupee-lift but Gerry was too angry to hear them.

If someone had a talent, whatever it was, it was appreciated; poker, stolen goods, even lying. Sailor John might recite John Donne or a Shakespeare sonnet. A drunken old actor would do us a great Shakespeare soliloquy, or Marv could do a Johnny Cash. All offerings received with gracious pleasure by your host, my mother, Betty, a lovely barmaid landlady, welcoming and witty.  There were boundaries about nastiness and violence: Prue and Margaret, posh old birds both of them, who had fallen or drunk themselves down into very hard times, were welcome when relatively sober and restrained, but when they got pissed and snooty, lording it over everyone and shouting  ‘Ignorant uneducated people!’  or yelling at Mum’s boyfriend Tony, ‘You’re nothing but a kept man!’  they were barred out. Violent men were tolerated to a point, in that we might  all be scared of Ronnie, but  people would eventually team up to eject him. Most of the time my mother created an atmosphere in which these disparate people would accept and enjoy themselves and each other. Her recipe for life was written into me as habit: ‘enjoy it’.

The single-minded pursuit of pleasure is often the sign that someone is on the run from pain. My mother’s determination to be happy soon tipped over into not taking on the challenges of real life, which, after all, is a very tough one and needs solutions more creative and complex than whisky.   I spent a large part of my early adult life unlearning a lot of blot-it-out stuff I learned at my mother’s side in the pub. But when what was left of Betty was cross-fertilised with my experiences in the literature tutorials of Mr Brian Nellist (learn by loving things, learn by appreciating), and the mind-set of my husband Phil, with his insistent demand that reading should be about finding what moves you, then – wonderfully – the new created thing, this gracious species that is the Get into Reading model, was generated. Pub, and pulpit, and personal. I’ll talk about pulpit  bit another time.

Meanwhile, for this habit of pleasure in the shared human, I thank you, Mum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then comes the killer,

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he goes further,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Dombey and Son here.

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Bleak House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Charley your brother?”

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

“Are there any more of you besides Charley?”

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

“Where is Charley now?”

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

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

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

“O, here’s Charley!” said the boy.

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

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

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

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

“Over thirteen, sir,” replied the child.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And when did mother die? Poor mother!”

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

“And do you often go out?”

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

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

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

“No-o!” said Tom, stoutly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you kept him after all?”

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

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

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

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Green Philosophy – How To Think Seriously About The Planet – by Roger Scruton

Part One – In which New Victorian ReaderJane cautiously opens the book

I am a little afraid of Roger Scruton. He seems a class enemy on two fronts – a Tory of the hunting persuasion, and an intellectual I’ve not read before.

But there it is: I’m reading this book because politics as I have known it (gut-feeling, blood-lines, genetic predisposition) is changing. The old class-based political loyalties are dissolving, because the old classes are being reshaped: when my grandchildren look back at this time they’ll see a period of huge social and political change. I’m swimming in that fluxy sea now, quite uncertainly, and I think, I’m swimming alongside a lot of other uncertain people. It’s hard to know for sure about that because the people who speak most loudly about politics are the people who are most interested in politics – a small minority, way over there, on a little sandbank, mostly shouting the same stuff they seem to have been shouting for years.

And over here in the mist, the vast majority of us mutter disconnectedly, tossed about by the weather and our feelings, not knowing what to think.

Support entrepreneurs? I would

Social justice? Yes.

Save the polar bears? Naturally, who wouldn’t?

Scroungers off our backs? It’s only fair but…

Preserve the NHS? Of course I want to

Extra taxes? Not at the moment, thanks

National curriculum? No, it’s ruining us

Higher standards? You bet

Sustainable economy? Yes but …

The problem is that everything is so complicated: saving the polar bears may mean giving up on central heating or cars. I’d willing pay more tax for better schools but do I believe I’d get better schools – however much money was going in – without a revolution in education? I have no way of thinking through these complicated and increasingly interconnected matters.

So I thought I would read the occasional political book to see if it helped. About two years ago I read Big Society by Jesse Norman. I thought there were some useful ideas in it, cooperatives and friendly societies and Mutuals, memories of early and discarded socialist ideas, Big Society being made up of lots of interest groups e.g. The Guides and Alcoholics Anonymous. As opposed to Big State – enforced knot-learning for all through the National Curriculum, Anti-drinking campaigns run through the NHS.

But I can’t help thinking, how does all this fit with the freedom and tax-breaks which I assume are what the Tory party is really about. As I write that, though, I am thinking also of rich Labourites, Blue Mandelson. Or is that old class prejudice? How do I know?

I only know that we are both individuals and social creatures –and the ancient oppositions seem unhelpful. Also that when I went canvassing on Woodchurch Estate in Birkenhead, a woman in her pyjamas with a baby on her hip told me she didn’t know how to vote and would be scared to try. Her teenage daughter pleaded with her – ‘They’ve told us at school, Mum, it’s important, I’ll come with you.’ I found myself thinking like any good Victorian, the place to start is universal free education.

So I’m thinking to challenge myself by reading outside of my comfort zone. Politics. Recommendations please.

Roger Scruton’s book appeared and it seemed, like Jesse Norman’s, to be in a small way, blurring some boundaries. OK, so he appears in hunting regalia. I followed the hunt on bicycle and foot as a child in rural Cheshire so I have an anachronistic peasant-like fondness for the horses and the red jackets. Should we kill foxes by chasing them in this brutal way then letting dogs savage them to death? I don’t know. I put fox-hunting in a mental compartment called ‘ I don’t have to decide this one.’

And it’s not just hunting. A lot of things are in there. One of them is ‘the planet’. Yes, it’s a roomy compartment.

One of the problems I have reading this book is trust. As I read, I believe some things Scruton tells me, but others echo with the rebuffs I can imagine an opponent chucking back at him as untrue. So, for example in Chapter 3, The Search for Salvation, page 77 Scruton tells me,

‘Conservatives see politics as an agenda-free brokering of rival interests, whose goal is peace.’

If that were really the case, politics as a kind of consensus-building, I’d be quite interested in it. But is it true? The sentence seems to offer an understanding of conservatism radically different to anything I could have imagined. (I’d still be thinking in the language my dock-labouring Grandfather; that Tories support the interests of Toffs over those of the working man. The working man? Does that mean me, a woman with a Ph.D. and a bloody big house in the Wirral? Or is it that I believe that supporting the interests of the working man -whoever he is, and do I include working white fascists in Eltham, South London, say? – Are their interests in my interests? Do these categories work at all?)

Chapter 4, Radical Precaution, has some good stuff. First off – and I loved this – risk assessment is natural, an evolutionary tool – it is what humans do all the time. We balance one possibility against another. As Scruton says, ‘playing with dirt involves the risk of disease, but by forbidding children to play with dirt, we make them more vulnerable to disease’. The risk-sensible adult knows that you must let children get dirty. And you also must teach them to wash their hands.

But formalising risk may be risky. He’s strong on the dangers of the Precautionary Principle as it appears in bureaucratic life:

A European directive issued in response to the slight risk that meat from sick animals might enter the food chain insists that no abattoir can function without the presence of a qualified vet. Qualified vets are expensive in Britain; hence all small abattoirs had to close. When Foot and Mouth disease broke out in 2001 it was not, as in the past, confined to the local source of the outbreak, but carried around the country by animals travelling a hundred miles or ore to the nearest legal abattoir. Some 7 million animals were slaughtered in the attempt to confine the disease, and the cost to the economy was £8 billion. Such was the short-term cost of an edict that considered only one fairly insignificant risk among the many that cohabit in the management of livestock.

Time’s up – I must go to Morrisons for food. More hard labour on this next week.