The Winter’s Tale Day 9: Life Under A Time-travelling Magnifying Glass

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Shutters and pines, Zakynthos,  29 June

If you are new to this group, welcome – it’s a  reading of Shakespeare’s great play about a man who wrecks his own life and lives with the consequences.  And life  in various ways mends itself and comes back to him.

Look up The Winter’s Tale in the search box to get the feel of how we’re  reading and what’s been happening. Find a text of the play here.

Last time, we were reading the moment when Hermione takes on the challenge of persuading Polixenes to stay. We’re in Act 1 Scene 2. She’s just said ‘you’ll stay?’…

POLIXENES
No, madam.
HERMIONE
Nay, but you will?
POLIXENES
I may not, verily.

HERMIONE
Verily!
You put me off with limber vows; but I,
Though you would seek to unsphere the
stars with oaths,
Should yet say ‘Sir, no going.’ Verily,
You shall not go: a lady’s ‘Verily’ ‘s
As potent as a lord’s. Will you go yet?
Force me to keep you as a prisoner,
Not like a guest; so you shall pay your fees
When you depart, and save your thanks. How say you?
My prisoner? or my guest? by your dread ‘Verily,’
One of them you shall be.
POLIXENES
Your guest, then, madam:
To be your prisoner should import offending;
Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.
HERMIONE
Not your gaoler, then,
But your kind hostess. Come, I’ll question you
Of my lord’s tricks and yours when you were boys:
You were pretty lordings then?

I’d been thinking about how it felt to be Leontes, having failed to persuade someone to do something (getting Polixenes to extend his visit) and having then to ask someone else (your wife, Hermione) to have ago.  Is there any way that could be ok? I try to imagine my feelings:  if I really, really wanted the person to stay, if I was totally secure with both that person and my spouse?  But there would still be the under-feeling of ‘he wouldn’t stay for me…’ I imagine Leontes watching this plea from Hermione.  I wonder how close he is to her: are they together, standing with their arms around each other? Is he across the room? I see them perhaps starting out close together and later, moving apart. When does that happen?

It starts off pretty straightforward, as if Hermione assumes that Polixenes’ saying no was a form, that really, he will stay. So she’s simple about it; ‘you’ll stay?’ she’s like an English lady in a flowery dress at a garden party: not much can go wrong here.

But when Polixenes continues to refuse what can she do? She chooses teasing; ‘Verily!’

Is that  the moment she moves away from Leontes? Her ‘Verily’ feels as if it is a reaching forward.

That’s a very real moment between friends. ‘I may not, verily’ (serious, grown up person with things to do) ‘Verily!’ (what do you think you are ! talking to me like that! I know you are not a grown-up with serious things to do  even if you seem to be one!) and that gives Hermione her teasing opening to have a go at him.

Her whole argument is a play on ‘verily’ and not so much the word as the way he said it, as if he were a grown-up, a King, affairs of state etc. Hermione offers a little friendly arm-wrestling; verily!

HERMIONE
Verily!
You put me off with limber vows; but I,
Though you would seek to unsphere the stars with oaths,
Should yet say ‘Sir, no going.’ Verily,
You shall not go: a lady’s ‘Verily’ ‘s
As potent as a lord’s. Will you go yet?
Force me to keep you as a prisoner,
Not like a guest; so you shall pay your fees
When you depart, and save your thanks. How say you?
My prisoner? or my guest? by your dread ‘Verily,’
One of them you shall be.

Did I get the idea of arm-wrestling from her word ‘limber’? Not sure what she means by that, but I think I thought she meant ‘strong’. I’m going to look it up here.  Hhm, so, pliant, flexible.  As if, ‘you’ll say anything’ and therefore I can’t take seriously anything you say. From limber, pliant, flexible , Hermione goes to a distant extreme –

but I,
Though you would seek to unsphere the stars with oaths,
Should yet say ‘Sir, no going.’ Verily,
You shall not go: a lady’s ‘Verily’ ‘s
As potent as a lord’s.

She exaggerates, because he’s not trying to unseat the stars with his oaths, he’s merely been gently protesting.  She’s playing – slapping down her own ‘verily’ to match his.  And then, ‘a lady’s ‘Verily’s’ /as potent as a lords.’

Can you take the word ‘potent’ without thinking of something  even mildly sexual?  Or is it only about strength of will! Would you like to try reading that line as a tease? As a bit of flirting?  As an assertion of your feminine power?

What’s happening while she is speaking? Where is she, in relation to Polixenes – and where, still, silent – is Leontes? I imagine her pretty close to Polixenes now, maybe  holding his arm or his hands… certainly this kind of conversation doesn’t take place across a formal state distance.  It’s intimate. It expects to win. But maybe he still needs more arm-twisting? Hermione continues;

Will you go yet?
Force me to keep you as a prisoner,
Not like a guest; so you shall pay your fees
When you depart, and save your thanks. How say you?
My prisoner? or my guest? by your dread ‘Verily,’
One of them you shall be.

That ‘will you go yet’ seems to imply he has made to go, seems as if she might be responding to some movement of his.  I see her putting her arms across him – blocking a possible movement.  Using her arms as  bars, maybe standing, laughing, sure of herself, blocking in his path.

Force me to keep you as a prisoner,
Not like a guest; so you shall pay your fees
When you depart, and save your thanks. How say you?
My prisoner? or my guest? by your dread ‘Verily,’
One of them you shall be.

All  sweet, funny, winning. And then I think of Leontes, watching.  It don’t feel good to imagine being him’! You’d have to be a pretty secure person to watch all this and not feel undermined.  But so far the text doesn’t give us a clue to him (though we saw last time we read, Hermione reassuring him – ‘I love thee not a jar o’the clock behind what lady she her lord’ and that was a little worrying).

I’m aware of different kinds of time going on as we read. The straightforward reading time, where things happen straight consecutive linear unfolding… and the time travel we can do up and down the lines, thinking back and forth in time : looking back, once we’ve heard that key line, ‘I love thee not a jar o’the clock behind what lady she her lord’, we can’t help see what came before it in its light, too. It’s like being in psychoanalysis  or time-travel everything counts and every moment  influences every other moment. It’s all one.  Life is like that but usually we can’t see it, too busy in the moment or  in the past or future, rarely  holding it all in mind at once.

Is it because of Leontes (and where is he as all this happens, where is he positioned on the stage? How close or distant is he?)  that Hermione turns the conversation as soon as she has won Polixenes assent? I’ll stay he says and she replies, tell me about when you and  Leontes were boys…

 

Ask for The More

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Thistles in an olive grove. ‘A tough life needs a tough language’  J Winterson

For Jo, the Crossing Sweeper

I’m thinking ‘Why Great Literature?’ and I am thinking of Jo, the Crossing Sweeper. Jo, orphan street-boy, at the heart of Dickens’ great novel Bleak House.

Great, great I say, despite the fact that it’s patchy and there’s stuff I don’t like in it. Great because it tries for the biggest of pictures, top to bottom, the whole shebang, and it ties everyone together in one flailing mess and says, we’re all in it together.

‘I don’t know nothing,’ says Jo. No one looks after him, and he has to look out for himself as best he can. He can’t read or write. There isn’t a happy ending.

Great, I say, because it makes me cry when Jo dies, when Esther faces her smallpox-marked face in the mirror for the first time, when I feel the piteous waste of Lady Dedlock’s life.  Great because ridiculous Sir Leicester Dedlock does love that woman and is human, not merely a cut-and-paste stereotype, as I might have wanted him to be, so I could more easily class-hate him, when, after his stroke and having learned of her running away, he writes on a slate, ‘full forgiveness’.

The stuff I don’t like – I’ll not go into it – I ignore. Because I want the great. I am hungry for the great, for that which is more than me, bigger than me, better than me. If I only read books which encompassed what I already know and like, what would be the point? The point – for me – is growth, is to be the more. When I founded The Reader it was to take books which offer ‘more’, books often referred to as ‘great literature’, to people who didn’t already have it.

Sounds very nineteenth century – posh ladies taking religious tracts to the poor –  as here in Chapter 8 of Bleak House, ‘In The Bricklayers Cottage’:

I was glad when we came to the brickmaker’s house, though it was one of a cluster of wretched hovels in a brick-field, with pigsties close to the broken windows and miserable little gardens before the doors growing nothing but stagnant pools. Here and there an old tub was put to catch the droppings of rain-water from a roof, or they were banked up with mud into a little pond like a large dirt- pie. At the doors and windows some men and women lounged or prowled about, and took little notice of us except to laugh to one another or to say something as we passed about gentlefolks minding their own business and not troubling their heads and muddying their shoes with coming to look after other people’s.

Mrs. Pardiggle, leading the way with a great show of moral determination and talking with much volubility about the untidy habits of the people (though I doubted if the best of us could have been tidy in such a place), conducted us into a cottage at the farthest corner, the ground-floor room of which we nearly filled. Besides ourselves, there were in this damp, offensive room a woman with a black eye, nursing a poor little gasping baby by the fire; a man, all stained with clay and mud and looking very dissipated, lying at full length on the ground, smoking a pipe; a powerful young man fastening a collar on a dog; and a bold girl doing some kind of washing in very dirty water. They all looked up at us as we came in, and the woman seemed to turn her face towards the fire as if to hide her bruised eye; nobody gave us any welcome.

“Well, my friends,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, but her voice had not a friendly sound, I thought; it was much too businesslike and systematic. “How do you do, all of you? I am here again. I told you, you couldn’t tire me, you know. I am fond of hard work, and am true to my word.”

“There an’t,” growled the man on the floor, whose head rested on his hand as he stared at us, “any more on you to come in, is there?”

“No, my friend,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, seating herself on one stool and knocking down another. “We are all here.”

“Because I thought there warn’t enough of you, perhaps?” said the man, with his pipe between his lips as he looked round upon us.

The young man and the girl both laughed. Two friends of the young man, whom we had attracted to the doorway and who stood there with their hands in their pockets, echoed the laugh noisily.

“You can’t tire me, good people,” said Mrs. Pardiggle to these latter. “I enjoy hard work, and the harder you make mine, the better I like it.”

“Then make it easy for her!” growled the man upon the floor. “I wants it done, and over. I wants a end of these liberties took with my place. I wants an end of being drawed like a badger. Now you’re a-going to poll-pry and question according to custom – I know what you’re a-going to be up to. Well! You haven’t got no occasion to be up to it. I’ll save you the trouble. Is my daughter a-washin? Yes, she is a-washin. Look at the water. Smell it! That’s wot we drinks. How do you like it, and what do you think of gin instead! An’t my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty – it’s nat’rally dirty, and it’s nat’rally onwholesome; and we’ve had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them, and for us besides. Have I read the little book wot you left? No, I an’t read the little book wot you left. There an’t nobody here as knows how to read it; and if there wos, it wouldn’t be suitable to me. It’s a book fit for a babby, and I’m not a babby. If you was to leave me a doll, I shouldn’t nuss it. How have I been conducting of myself? Why, I’ve been drunk for three days; and I’da been drunk four if I’da had the money. Don’t I never mean for to go to church? No, I don’t never mean for to go to church. I shouldn’t be expected there, if I did; the beadle’s too gen-teel for me. And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I give it her; and if she says I didn’t, she’s a Lie!”

He had pulled his pipe out of his mouth to say all this, and he now turned over on his other side and smoked again. Mrs. Pardiggle, who had been regarding him through her spectacles with a forcible composure, calculated, I could not help thinking, to increase his antagonism, pulled out a good book as if it were a constable’s staff and took the whole family into custody. I mean into religious custody, of course; but she really did it as if she were an inexorable moral policeman carrying them all off to a station- house.

Ada and I were very uncomfortable. We both felt intrusive and out of place, and we both thought that Mrs. Pardiggle would have got on infinitely better if she had not had such a mechanical way of taking possession of people. The children sulked and stared; the family took no notice of us whatever, except when the young man made the dog bark, which he usually did when Mrs. Pardiggle was most emphatic. We both felt painfully sensible that between us and these people there was an iron barrier which could not be removed by our new friend. By whom or how it could be removed, we did not know, but we knew that. Even what she read and said seemed to us to be ill-chosen for such auditors, if it had been imparted ever so modestly and with ever so much tact. As to the little book to which the man on the floor had referred, we acquired a knowledge of it afterwards, and Mr. Jarndyce said he doubted if Robinson Crusoe could have read it, though he had had no other on his desolate island.

We were much relieved, under these circumstances, when Mrs. Pardiggle left off.

The man on the floor, then turning his bead round again, said morosely, “Well! You’ve done, have you?”

“For to-day, I have, my friend. But I am never fatigued. I shall come to you again in your regular order,” returned Mrs. Pardiggle with demonstrative cheerfulness.

“So long as you goes now,” said he, folding his arms and shutting his eyes with an oath, “you may do wot you like!”

Mrs. Pardiggle accordingly rose and made a little vortex in the confined room from which the pipe itself very narrowly escaped. Taking one of her young family in each hand, and telling the others to follow closely, and expressing her hope that the brickmaker and all his house would be improved when she saw them next, she then proceeded to another cottage. I hope it is not unkind in me to say that she certainly did make, in this as in everything else, a show that was not conciliatory of doing charity by wholesale and of dealing in it to a large extent.

She supposed that we were following her, but as soon as the space was left clear, we approached the woman sitting by the fire to ask if the baby were ill.

She only looked at it as it lay on her lap. We had observed before that when she looked at it she covered her discoloured eye with her hand, as though she wished to separate any association with noise and violence and ill treatment from the poor little child.

Ada, whose gentle heart was moved by its appearance, bent down to touch its little face. As she did so, I saw what happened and drew her back. The child died.

“Oh, Esther!” cried Ada, sinking on her knees beside it. “Look here! Oh, Esther, my love, the little thing! The suffering, quiet, pretty little thing! I am so sorry for it. I am so sorry for the mother. I never saw a sight so pitiful as this before! Oh, baby, baby!”

Such compassion, such gentleness, as that with which she bent down weeping and put her hand upon the mother’s might have softened any mother’s heart that ever beat. The woman at first gazed at her in astonishment and then burst into tears.

Presently I took the light burden from her lap, did what I could to make the baby’s rest the prettier and gentler, laid it on a shelf, and covered it with my own handkerchief. We tried to comfort the mother, and we whispered to her what Our Saviour said of children. She answered nothing, but sat weeping – weeping very much.

When I turned, I found that the young man had taken out the dog and was standing at the door looking in upon us with dry eyes, but quiet. The girl was quiet too and sat in a corner looking on the ground. The man had risen. He still smoked his pipe with an air of defiance, but he was silent.

An ugly woman, very poorly clothed, hurried in while I was glancing at them, and coming straight up to the mother, said, “Jenny! Jenny!” The mother rose on being so addressed and fell upon the woman’s neck.

She also had upon her face and arms the marks of ill usage. She had no kind of grace about her, but the grace of sympathy; but when she condoled with the woman, and her own tears fell, she wanted no beauty. I say condoled, but her only words were “Jenny! Jenny!” All the rest was in the tone in which she said them.

I thought it very touching to see these two women, coarse and shabby and beaten, so united; to see what they could be to one another; to see how they felt for one another, how the heart of each to each was softened by the hard trials of their lives. I think the best side of such people is almost hidden from us. What the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and God.

We felt it better to withdraw and leave them uninterrupted. We stole out quietly and without notice from any one except the man. He was leaning against the wall near the door, and finding that there was scarcely room for us to pass, went out before us. He seemed to want to hide that he did this on our account, but we perceived that he did, and thanked him. He made no answer.

Ada was so full of grief all the way home, and Richard, whom we found at home, was so distressed to see her in tears (though he said to me, when she was not present, how beautiful it was too!), that we arranged to return at night with some little comforts and repeat our visit at the brick-maker’s house. We said as little as we could to Mr. Jarndyce, but the wind changed directly.

Ah, the danger of becoming Mrs Pardiggle, with her tracts for babbies. I wanted to avoid that, because the drunk man who gives his wife a black eye is certainly not a babby. What would he recognise, I wonder, what book would work for him? Or perhaps clean water would be a better starting place?

In the first group I read a short story, ‘Schwartz’, by Russell Hoban. Read it – it’s hard to find, but seek it secondhand in an out of print collection of Hoban oddments called The Moment Under The Moment. I took a poem along with in case things went pear-shaped and the poem was ‘Crossing The Bar’ by Tennyson. The poem exploded with reality and there were tears. From my point of view, all was well. After a few weeks, Frank, an ex-welder from Birkenhead said to me, ‘Jane, when are you going to bring out the good stuff?’

The good stuff?

‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘What the posh-nobs have – Shakespeare, Tolstoy, all that.’

Frank thought I was holding back, which in a sense I was, but soon after he made his request we started reading Othello in that group. Couldn’t recommend it more highly. Lots to talk about and more than that – new thoughts, or old thoughts, put into words for the first time. ‘Put out the light, and then put out the light…’

I’ll read Iago, said a woman in the group, one week when I begged for help with the reading, I was married to that bastard for twenty seven years.

*

Then there’s Jay (not his real name), a twelve year old boy in a foster placement, unable to read or write. Well, he’s not on the streets like Dickens’ Jo, is he? He’s not bouncing from pillar to post. We have a social care system, we have Ritalin, don’t we?

What do you usually do, Jay?

Go down the shops, hang out.

We were working on a summer project in which we were reading The Unforgotten Coat and making a Guide to Our City.

What’s a guidebook? asks Jay.

A book about what people could do here, what they might want to see, where they might want to go.

Here? Said Jay, incredulous.  S’just alkies, innit?

Why shouldn’t Jay have Great Literature, works of art, that will make his experience bigger? Given a choice (which he isn’t, because his family and me and you, that’s to say, society and education, have all failed him and he has no choices, especially not about reading) but say he had achoice, at the moment he wouldn’t choose to read anything.

So I’m not thinking about choice, I’m thinking about primitive modelling: I love reading books, copy me. If that’s what I’m doing, it matters that the books are ones I genuinely love. Why? Jay will feel the love, and like the Bricklayer’s family, he’ll smell  the fake if I don’t.  But I must choose something I love that Jay might get interested in – it’s no use me taking him Bleak House or Othello first off. Yet it can’t be a book for a babby, because Jay is no babby. I’ll take picture books probably, but complex ones, so a twelve year old with violent and desperate experiences of life won’t feel insulted. But I’m not taking a World of Warfare comic, because Jay probably already knows about them. And yet no one has ever read to him and school he’s been out of the classroom a more than in it. So I started with I Want My Hat Back, great pictures, totally witty, a story of terrifying murderous rage, with more emotions than a psychologist’s office.

*

Who decides what is ‘great’?  The person having the experience, of course.

So much depends on the Reader Leader, who must try to choose something that will offer a great experience to their group members. You choose beyond your comfort zone, for yourself, but with your group in mind, because way beyond any format, any type of reading, any structure, is the truly recognisable reality of something new happening as we read. Do you love it? Does it take you somewhere you haven’t been? That’s it. That’s the more.

 

 

 

Shelter from the Storm

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Wet bougainvillea, fallen trumpet vine, marble floor, Zakynthos, 26 June

While England bakes, Zakynthos bathes…

Storm started yesterday and has been going for more than 24 hours – feel like a character in Wide Sargasso Sea, though can’t actually remember if there is a monsoon-like storm in that book. It’s the heat and tropical greenery that is reminding me of the atmosphere of a novel I’ve not read for 40 years. Maybe also the shutters, which make the house dark.

Yesterday evening the electricity went off for a few hours and our kindly host walked round from his house to check we were ok. Sure, it’s just a storm, I said, ‘No, no, is no storm,’ he assured me. ‘Just a little rain…’ The thunder sounded like Greek Gods throwing mountains in the dark of the night. This morning he brought us that most English of gifts, an umbrella.

Like all people living on small islands, these Zakynthiots understand rough weather. The tiny white church on the rocky promontory on the far side of the bay was built, our host tells us, for sailors to head for when the seas were rough. Did those storm-tossed sailors pray there or find shelter from the storm, or are they the same thing? Light-house, bunk-house, sanctuary.

With rain driving in through the shutters before breakfast, we watched an episode of The Leftovers. That’s a holiday for you! A stunning box-set in bed, with Greek coffee. Stunning, as in hit on forehead with hammer.

Also watched an interview with Tom Perrotta, the author of the novel from which the series has grown. Tom co-developed the scripts with  Damon Lindelof  of Lost fame. They make a great team, if the first one and a half series of The Leftovers is anything to go by. I didn’t know about Tom Perrotta before I stumbled across the series by googling ‘best box sets for 2018’, in preparation for my holiday, but I am glad I’ve found him. Comes from the Syracuse school of writing and has been around a long time. In the interview Tom says he hopes people who find the story through the TV series will go on to read the novel.

Say but the word, Tom. After ordering his entire oeuvre online via Amazon, all now waiting for me when I get home, I cooked eggs which I bought up on the hillside yesterday in a tiny everything-sold-here-Super Market.

Giant inflatable pink flamingo pool-floats, anti-mosquito plugs, UHT milk, Buckfast Wine (Bucky! Here! Those monks have something to answer for…) drain plungers, jars of touristic honey, jars of marmite, The Harvard Business Review at nearly E17 a pop and many, many books by Victoria Coren, all in Italian. What more could a holidaying tourist want? Oh, billions of stuffed soft toys in green velour. This shop is one of the world centres for stuffed soft toys in green velour. The other centres are all the other Super Markets in the Vasilikos area of Zakynthos.

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The HBR I could not bring myself to buy in the Super Market

The eggs were of fine quality, and had seemed an anomaly in that Super Market, small and farmyard dirty, they had been collected from the olive grove outside, where some of the olive trees had trunks a couple of metres round. I thought, those olives must have been planted by the Venetians four hundred years ago. Across the way a little from the Super Market, Dopia’s House sold home-cooked food including possibly the best Zucchini Balls civilisation has ever known. These, like the soft toys, were green and roundish and of variable size, but to my mind, a better buy than the velour turtles. (Only later did I read the sign helpfully placed by the Dopia House family. My ‘guess the age of the trees’ was way out).

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But to return to Tom Perrotta and The Leftovers.  My fellow viewer and I watch an episode and turn to stare at each other in the opposite of a high-five, clutching hands, our eyes locked in shared amazement or mock terror. How they can make a box set that is so painful!

And later I ask myself – why am I looking for this stuff, un-answerable questions, in novels and poetry and boxsets? Is this what I read for? And mostly, it is. I want literature (and stories I may find in other media) to help me formulate these questions even if no answers are forthcoming: What are we? Why are we? How are we?

I don’t want escapism. Or if I do, I want to escape the storm by being somewhere where I can see the storm, really know it. I want lighthouse, bunk-house and sanctuary. I want stories, novels, poems, plays, box-sets to give me language and thoughts and lives about this difficult and troubling real life I live. What I am loving about The Leftovers is its unremitting insistence: there are storms and there are moments of calm, there is terror and there is love. And that’s all, folks!

There’s not much writing like this going on anywhere, and I’m happy to find it in any format. When can we watch the next episode?

And when can I have my next installment of Dopia’s Courgette Balls?

Currently reading : 

Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean,  The Humourist by Russell Kane

 

 

 

 

Morning Incense…Paradise Lost off-piste

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Welsh Poppies greeting the Sun

These sunny mornings I can’t bear to read and write and am instead out in the garden, watering, propping, pruning and thinking of some lines from Paradise Lost (sorry to jump so far ahead, this is from Book 9

Now, when as sacred light began to dawn
In Eden on the humid flowers, that breathed
Their morning incense, when all things that breathe
From the Earth’s great altar send up silent praise
To the Creator, and his nostrils fill
With grateful smell, forth came the human pair,
And joined their vocal worship to the quire
Of creatures wanting voice; that done, partake
The season, prime for sweetest scents and airs;
Then com’mune how that day they best may ply
Their growing work—for much their work outgrew
The hands’ dispatch of two gardening so wide:
And Eve first to her husband thus began:—
“Adam, well may we labour still to dress
This Garden, still to tend plant, herb, and flower,
Our pleasant task enjoined; but, till more hands
Aid us, the work under our labour grows,
Luxurious by restraint: what we by day
Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind,
One night or two with wanton growth derides,
Tending to wild.

Someone asked me at the weekend what I would do if I didn’t work at The Reader, and I replied that I would garden, imagining not working  as retirement. If I had to have another job? I’d like a junk-shop or to work in small town general auction house. but if I didn’t  work at all? I’d be gardening.  Mine is a smallish plot –  I mean, compared to people with an acre or so – two gardens, one back, one from, each measuring  – according to my old notes 10 metres wide by 18 long.  You have to go through the house to get from one to the other,  we’re a terrace and there’s no side gate.  No greenhouse (I did have one once but West Kirby’s wild winter winds blew it flat) so everything is bought in or needs to be easily propagated.  I do roses (lovely Albertine, mainly) from cuttings and  any other things you can stick in the ground to sprout roots. I grow perennials, lots of geraniums,  Bowles Mauve wallflowers, poppies… but mainly I grow couch grass.  It is a natural for my sandy soil and I can’t defeat it – the opposite in fact: it often defeats me. Still a garden is agreat teacher, as Gertrude Jekyll said:

A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.

(I got this quote from the twitter account of a gardener I follow –  Alison Levey (http://www.blackberrygarden.co.uk/).)

I go out in the sunny morning and so exactly what Milton describes:

Now, when as sacred light began to dawn
In Eden on the humid flowers, that breathed
Their morning incense, when all things that breathe
From the Earth’s great altar send up silent praise
To the Creator, and his nostrils fill
With grateful smell, forth came the human pair,
And joined their vocal worship to the quire
Of creatures wanting voice; that done, partake
The season, prime for sweetest scents and airs;
Then com’mune how that day they best may ply
Their growing work—

I breathe, and look and  feel grateful and glad, and work out what needs doing next. It’s all tending to wild, and the couch grass is rampant, and though I can’t love that, and no, not those red lily beetles either,  I do love the assertion of nature, the force and energy of the planet and the plants, even though

the work under our labour grows,
Luxurious by restraint: what we by day
Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind,
One night or two with wanton growth derides,
Tending to wild.

Goodbye, Philip Roth and all that manly stuff…

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Unknown tree with blossom – what can it be? Calderstones Park, May 22

In The Times obituary for Philip Roth this morning, hundreds of words about sex, masturbation, bad marriages, the grump he was and thumbnails of various not so great Roth novels I’ve not read. And then a passing mention of , but no words about, American Pastoral, the novel that made me realise Philip Roth was a great writer. Mingled yarn thoughts arise about our lives and our judgements.

Roth was  of a generation which  perhaps in retrospect was rightly anxious about the changing place of women in the  human universe. Contraception in the form of a pill under women’s own control changed everything. Those guys were right to be worried: Mrs wasn’t going to stay home and cooks gefilte fish from now on. Philip Roth said his mother, who worked as a secretary ‘raised housekeeping to an art form’.  There were generations of women behind that art form (an art form I’ve not practised much, though increasingly begin to value. Need to think about this another time). But in the 1950s, 1960s, the patriarchy,  as we called it when I was a radical young feminist in 1976 though now I think we might have called it  human biology or history, was beginning to teeter towards extinction. Whatever it was that left women and children in the cave or picking berries when men went hunting, it really couldn’t, or simply didn’t, begin to change until women had control of their own reproduction. Now, there are Dads changing nappies everywhere, non-gendered pronouns (how I longed for them in my mid-twenties!) women running a few bits of  the army and banks, men in high heels and lipstick and yet – to my mind, unfortunately – more woman-violating pornography  than ever before. We’re in the thick of revolution and it’s not over yet.  But, back to Philip Roth.

It was the maleness that put me off: I could never face Portnoy’s Complaint, though I heard it was funny.  That obsessed-but-begrudging enslavement to women was an unhappy part of those great  New York Jewish writers – Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud – who came just before Roth. They had some good stuff, oh, lovely caring humane books, but you had to hurry past all that not so good weirdness about wanting but fearing  the wanting of women. Roth always seemed even more like that. Until I read American Pastoral.

I don’t make a political judgement about this anymore.  I  see the colours and think I think, that’s what they are/were. That was true about them. And I  look for the good stuff. As you might do with a person. Our bad stuff is there, and you have to take it on sometimes, but a lot of the time you have to work round it or take no notice. You look for the good, notice the good.

The good in American Pastoral?  Big. Sad. Painful. Sprawling, and  perhaps, as The Times obituarist says, ‘seemingly careless of the fundamentals of organisation’, though I didn’t notice that.  This novel kept me up at night when I first read it. I woke my husband saying, ‘listen to this sentence… he’s writing like George Eliot.’

‘No, he’s not’ said partner and went back to sleep.

But there was something magnificent, grand, going on. It was  a sort of modern american rewrite of Paradise Lost. Everything starts off fine and then goes horribly wrong. Then you get the thistles and  bringing forth children in labour and the tower of Babel.

page from AP

Angry, disappointed, moved, Philip Roth writes out the loss of paradise he lived through, the loss of the American Dream he grew up in, the loss, of commerce as a decent thing, the loss of cities as civilised places, the loss of heroes, the loss of family.  It’s a panoramic vision, a sorrowful book full of good stuff. See how he drops the tank but comes on his ‘own ten toes’? That’s a boxer’s stance. He may not be in an armoured vehicle but he’s still fighting.  Because can you forget ‘being right or wrong about people’?  Mingled yarn, mingled yarn. A great book, separating out some strands of colour and getting us to notice them.

 

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The Winter’s Tale Day 8: That Jar o’ the Clock and the Questioning

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Cow Parsley in Calderstones Park

 

If you are new to this reading of Shakespeare’s great play, find earlier posts by typing ‘winter’s tale’ into the search box. Find the entire text here. Or, as if you’d just arrived at a Shared Reading group for the first time, just jump in. It’s mainly happening in the moment. Think of reading Shakespeare as some time with the most human of thinkers, this carefully observant psychotherapist, the great listener. He hears so much in a single moment, in the movement of the hand of a clock…

Hermione, Queen of Sicillia has been charged by her husband, Leontes, to persuade their visitor, his childhood friend, King Polixenes of  Bohemia, to stay a bit longer.  She’s doing her best. We pick her up in mid-flow:

HERMIONE
To tell, he longs to see his son, were strong:
But let him say so then, and let him go;
But let him swear so, and he shall not stay,
We’ll thwack him hence with distaffs.
Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week. When at Bohemia
You take my lord, I’ll give him my commission
To let him there a month behind the gest
Prefix’d for’s parting: yet, good deed, Leontes,
I love thee not a jar o’ the clock behind
What lady-she her lord. You’ll stay?

On stage  Hermione’s own son is present – Mamillius, aged about eight or nine.  He’s a much-loved boy. It’s natural perhaps that Hermione  thinks a longing to go home after a nine month state visit might be prompted by missing your boy.  But Polixenes hasn’t said that at all.  That’s Hermione’s own thought, she’s so moved herself – it’s an excuse she’d be glad to hear.

I ask myself now, what kind of Mum thinks the most powerful thing she can think of  is missing her child? I don’t answer that question, just ask it.

And what’s a distaff, someone might ask.  Hmm, something about women, about the female side of a family? We’ll have to look it up. So we do and we find or remember ,or someone in our group will know, that a distaff is the spindle used in spinning, a deeply  female bit of kit. It’s a bit  like saying I’ll hit him over the head with my handbag, comic but also serious at some level about womanliness, about woman power. Charged by her husband to make this old friend stay longer, Hermione is using charm, wit, her femininity. When she makes the distaff joke others will be (gently) laughing. So, having got a laugh, she homes in with a realistic ask:

Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week.

The word ‘royal’ is good there, just after her pantomime-style joke  – pulling herself back a respectful distance, acknowledging Polixenes still a king, despite her feminine power. And a week – it’s hardly anything after a nine month stay. It’s a ‘borrow’ she offers to pay back with high-rate  interest:

Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week. When at Bohemia
You take my lord, I’ll give him my commission
To let him there a month behind the gest
Prefix’d for’s parting:

A week for a month? Irresistible bargain. Yet she pulls herself up now, as if she fears she may have gone too far.

yet, good deed, Leontes,
I love thee not a jar o’ the clock behind
What lady-she her lord.

it’s worth reading this whole speech of  Hermione’s through at a rush to get the gist of it and feel the movements of her mind as she powers through her  ask of Polixenes. In that context, this last section – an aside to her husband – seems worried to me.

We might want to stay here for some time thinking about a ‘jar o’ the clock’, seeing a hand move,  asecond-hand, or the moment when a minute hand actually moves.  That jars. We might need to think about  old-fashioned mechanical clockwork clocks. Did they really have clocks in Shakespeare’s time? I think of a sundial, or the hourglass, but not clocks. Over to wikipedia I go.

The first mechanical clocks, employing the verge escapement mechanism with a foliot or balance wheel timekeeper, were invented in Europe at around the start of the 14th century, and became the standard timekeeping device until the pendulum clock was invented in 1656. The invention of the mainspring in the early 15th century allowed portable clocks to be built, evolving into the first pocketwatches by the 17th century, but these were not very accurate until the balance spring was added to the balance wheel in the mid 17th century.

and later, still in the same article, I find the Queen Elizabeth 1 was given a wrist watch by Robert Dudley.  Lovely. That’s a poem for someone to write. So mechanical clocks, yes.

Do we want to think about the word ‘jar’?  A jar o the clock. A moment when something changes, moves. time has moved on; we are in a new moment. Has something now clicked? Does Hermione turn to her husband at that moment?  Why would you say something like that, in public? Does it jar?

Let’s replay it in my own vernacular:

Leontes – aren’t you going to ask him? Hermione – of course!   persuades persuades to now vail , jokes about good reason to go (your son)  offers the swap – a week for a month,  then ‘but Leontes, I really do love you!’ and then, to Polixenes, brightly, hopefully ‘ You’ll stay?’

What kind of husband has to be reassured of his wife’s love in public when she is flirting (is it flirting? persuading? playing? teasing?) with his best friend?

A lot of questions must be raised about the likely relationships between these three.  Let’s say we agree that she’s only playfully teasing in order to get Polixenes to do what Leontes wants… but now I am bothered about Leontes asking her to do that. Is it just that Leontes knows she’s a good talker?  Is it because he needs her help with this kind of thing? Is he a bad talker? Does he think Polixenes will be more easily persuaded by Hermione?

Under what circumstances would you say to your beloved, go on, you ask… ?

If I try to imagine that, I think it would only happen when I was sure the beloved would  have more sway than me.  And perhaps I might not like that feeling – that my beloved has more sway than me, with my best friend.  I might be quite wrong to have that anxiety. But it was me who asked the beloved to do it. Is this test of some sort?

What is Leontes’ state of mind when he passes the responsibility for securing Polixenes longer stay to  Hermione? It’s always horrible when you fail to persuade someone to something, especially in public. Is he humiliated? We can ask – should ask – all the questions we can think of… we turn the little three-D model one way and then another. We look at it all in one light, and then change the light. How does it look now?  You cn stay here a long time, thinking. But as the play know, only unfolding time will give the answers. And those answers  may only provoke more  questions.  The questions are the thing!

 

Stop Getting Sold Stuff, Start Asking Questions

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I’m still reading The World-Ending Fire, The Essential Wendell Berry.  This morning it was a very short essay, ‘In Defense of Literacy’, written in 1970, when literacy was in a better state than it is now. Even so, the writing, so to speak, was on the wall. It’s more or less over now. We’re losing it. Got a fight on.

Of course, there are noble exceptions. I was also reading George Saunders this morning. Probably the best writer alive in the  English-speaking world, I think I read that somewhere around the time  he was winning the Book prize with Lincoln in the Bardo – ha hard read, not a starting place. You gotta take the language,  the slippery argot, dangerous internal monologues, the manic self-talk, the truths. The swearing. But if you can stand the  rude, the real, the revealing, George is your man. Read his short stories in the collections Civil War Land in Bad Decline,  PastoraliaThe Tenth of December.  Read ‘Sea Oak’.  Read ‘Pastoralia’.

But to return to Wendell Berry. He quotes Edwin Muir’s, ‘The Island’ , a poem I’ve not read but will find later today, and mentions Thoreau and Ezra Pound, writing of them,

These men spoke of a truth that no society can afford to shirk for long: we are dependent, for understanding, and for consolation and hope, upon what we learn of ourselves from songs and stories. This has always been so, and it will not change.

What touched me here was Berry’s imperturbable belief in the necessity of song and story, a necessity which demands survival, ‘this has always been so, and it will not change.’  It is not always easy to see necessity, to spot it, to identify its pressures and demands, though they are there, pressing.  (Read The Sirian Experiments by Doris Lessing).  I read again. It is our dependency that ‘will not change’ in Berry’s careful sentences.  What happens to us when we don’t have the stuff we depend on? We get sick, we don’t work right.

Berry’s short essay warns that practical language, the quick, slick language of selling you stuff, including books, language ‘to be read once and thrown away’, won’t feed us. There are no nutrients!  For that we need a richer diet, ‘works that have proved worthy of devoted attention’.

This used to be the basis of Eng. Lit courses and one way the guys who ran them justified their selections.  I met a few really heart-wise men in my English degree days and I’m glad of them,  but also (to use the language of Mr Saunders) I found some of those guys were lazy copiers who just did what everyone else did. Some of those people were not brave.  Some could not think. Some did not love literature. Some seemed to have no hearts! For an antidote to all that dead academic Eng Lit stuff  (which unfortunately is still alive and kicking the reality of reading out of class)  you need Joseph Gold’s The Story Species, which I’ve also been rereading lately. He talks about his early life in Eng Lit departments:

I began by asking questions about Literature, this certain form of language, half a century ago. They  fell on ears so deaf that I gave up asking for a couple of decades.

What is story? What role does Literature play in human evolution and in individual lives? What role do transferred words play in the biological and social life of readers? How is the product of reading stored in the body of the reader? What has taken place in the event that you take a novel off the shelf, read it and return it? where does the power of a book lie?

 

Ah, time up, got to go to have a swim, no time to proffread. forgive my pselling mitaskes.

Just Started: Wendell Berry, The World-Ending Fire

Berry

I’ve been reading Wendell Berry for thirty years. Because I am narrow-minded, I often read the same things by Wendell Berry over and over again.

The poem, ‘The Slip’, which offers perspective and hope  at times of loss, and which has been of practical spirit-use to me many times, would certainly be on the list if I was only allowed ten poems on a desert island.

In prose I’ve read his essay ‘The Loss of the University’ scores of times, absorbing and re-absorbing its information. I read that essay in Standing On Earth, a book every reader should own, just for that essay. Oh, let’s change everything, please. In the contemporary university, he writes,

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.

That simple distinction  between ‘about’ and ‘from’ has been reverberating in my mind and actions ever since I first it. Over and over, I read.

I have bought Standing on Earth ten times and given it away to others.

My friend gave me this new collection – the essential Wendell Berry, edited by Paul Kingsnorth – for Christmas. Last night  – aching from my weekend of hard gardening –  I picked it up from the bedside table and began to read the first piece in the book, ‘A Native Hill’. I seemed to have read it before but when I checked it wasn’t in Standing on Earth.  I think I might have read it at Christmas, but  forgotten to write about it.  Writing helps memory.  How good it is to have a friend to push me out of my narrow, repetitive reading habits.

The essay is about the decision to return to Kentucky, to the place of Berry’s birth,  and live there for the rest of his life.  Berry wanted to be a writer. Where should a writer be in the USA? Why NYC, of course.  And having got there and found the literary world, and a job at NY university, Berry changed his mind and  headed back home, a move seen by some as perhaps a perverse decision and a poor career move. But back home, and a home he had chosen, as in commitment, as marriage, as planting, he found himself rooted deeper than ever before.

I began more seriously than ever to learn the names of things – the wild plants and animals, the natural processes, the local places – and to articulate my observations and memories. My language increased and strengthened, and sent my mind into the place like a live root system. And so what has become the usual order of things reversed itself with me; my mind became the root of my life rather than its sublimation. I came to see myself as growing out of the earth like other native animals and plants. I saw my body and my daily motions as brief coherences and articulations of energy of the place, which would fall back into it like leaves in the autumn.

I don’t have time to read this paragraph today. Except to note that I was profoundly moved by the thought of  ‘brief coherences’ of daily action, by those ‘articulations of energy’.

That, I thought is why I long to be able to steady into habit instead of being chaotic. That is why  I love gardening. I may do it in an unstructured way, but it  this growing world has lots of its own rhythms, rhythms of season and structure, colour and habit, which seem to pull me into a kind of order, too.

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Euphorbia Martinii