Stop Getting Sold Stuff, Start Asking Questions


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


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.

euphorbia martinii.JPG
Euphorbia Martinii

Not writing but breathing…

I had intended to read and write about Paradise Lost this morning but instead have spent the first lovely hours in my own garden, enjoying the dew and the fleeting apple blossom, the blackbirds, robins and blue tits, a grey squirrel, a great predatory-looking seagull with a clump of something in his razor beak, and this lovely tiny thing (that’s a forget-me-not she’s sitting on), a mint moth. And the apple blossom has made me think of Herrick’s poem, Gather Ye Rosebuds, which I have in mind, by heart.

It’s a morning for gardening and so after reading this joyful creation, I will set to, digging out another huge, well-set shrubby root, this time an ancient Forsythia. I have learned in the past couple of weeks, in my back, shoulders, arms and legs, what ‘well-rooted’ really means. Much more than I would have thought. To be well-rooted is to be very secure indeed.

Reading at Work: Janet’s Repentence

pink rhodo
One of the great rhodoendrons in Calderstones Park at the moment –  the colour comination of  orangey pink with the grey green leaves is very satisfying

Yesterday was a senior team awayday. We clear our diaries and go to the house of one of us for a day of  asking questions, sketching answes, making plans.  It’s time out, time to think. We began, as we often begin our meetings, by reading together for half an hour.

One of my teammates had been reading The Guardian article on meetings, and we  were a little alarmed because she’d used the Harvard Business Review meeting cost calculator  to work out exactly how much our  day away from the office was costing us.  Yes, good to know, we conceded nervously. Better be worth it, then.

In a context of  value for money how come reading together for half an hour, or perhaps even  as much as forty-five minutes, is good value? The Guardian article offers  mindfulness as a possible way to  help people become calm and productive and gives some examples of  that practice in use.  Shared Reading is similar (usually calming, often feels meditative) but because it is shared, and because it is words (ie consciousness) you get some thing else, too.

We are reading Janet’s Repentence by George Eliot. We often have only a scant half hour every two weeks, so we’ve been reading it pretty slowly.  We seem to read just enough to give us something to connect through – a page or less each time. Yesterday we read  a tiny section from Chapter 8, where My Tryan is visiting Mr Jerome to ask for his support on what is going to be a difficult public occasion. The Jerome’s little granddaughter Lizzie makes a surprise appearance:

It is a pretty surprise, when one visits an elderly couple, to see a little figure enter in a white frock with a blond head as smooth as satin, round blue eyes, and a cheek like an apple blossom. A toddling little girl is a centre of common feeling which makes the most dissimilar people understand each other; and Mr. Tryan looked at Lizzie with that quiet pleasure which is always genuine.

‘Here we are, here we are!’ said proud grandpapa. ‘You didn’t think we’d got such a little gell as this, did you, Mr. Tryan? Why, it seems but th’ other day since her mother was just such another. This is our little Lizzie, this is. Come an’ shake hands wi’ Mr. Tryan, Lizzie; come.’

We stopped to talk about the  sentence about the toddling little girl: we all recognised what George Eliot calls the ‘centre of common feeling’ – we’d all seen it a hundred times on family occasions.  That ‘centre of common feeling’ makes ‘the most dissimilar people understand each other’.

We stayed here for most of our reading time, thinking on what this means in practice. We  talked about families and children and dogs and difficulties. In what sense do we ‘understand’ each other in the presence of a beloved child? This is understanding of the heart, some meaning that doesn’t often get put into words, isn’t it?

As we spoke, the book itself became for us – on our costs-a-lot-of-time business away day – what the little girl is in the adult conversation –  ‘a centre of common feeling’.  for any team trying to work together that’s an invaluable bit of equipment.

A little later, watching Liverpool  beat Roma on aggregate and win a place in the European Cup Final 2018,  I sat in The Dovey in a room full of people singing to a TV screen and to each other and thought  here’s the match, LFC, a centre of common feeling of a  different sort, more primal, less personally revealing and involving no sharing of thought, only the heart-beat of the singing and the adrenalin of mock battle. Which was pretty good! We love the footy and  our team, but do we love it as much for its powers as a conduit for our feelings of connectedness as we do for the footwork?  Those feelings  were powerful last night. Come on, Red Men!


The Winter’s Tale Day 7: A Moment in a Marriage   


best viburnum
My favourite Viburnum, (maybe  Carlessii Juddii, look at those rounded leaves),Calderstones Park April 2018

New to this Shakespeare lark?  Here’s the story so far: Leontes, King of Sicilia, married to Hermione, is hosting a visit from his boyhood friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia. They were like twins as boys together. Polixenes, been here 9 months, is now saying he’s got to go. Leontes has been trying to persuade him to stay a little longer, and has made no headway and now turns to Hermione, asking ‘Tongue-tied, our Queen?’ We’re in Act 1 Scene 2. Find the entire text here.

Last time, I’d been reading with microscopic slowness (to mix a metaphor) and was remembering how important it is to read to word by word, look by look, tone by tone. Because all that we uncover, when we read at that slow speed, is happening, at that level, and is real and needs notice taking of it, indeed as much notice as we can bear to give. But it’s also important to read for sprawl.

Sprawl reading is rushing along getting the gist. You especially need to do that in a group where anyone is new to reading to Shakespeare.  But you always need to do it, just as in life you do. Concentrate! Concentrate! Read deep! Then rush ! Rush and  run along…I think a really good reader does both of these, mingling them so fast that it is hard to tell whether we’re stopping one or starting the other. You are balanced between subatomic particle and cosmic view.

So get a  run at it, find the level of ‘story’.  You saw me give the gist at the top of the page. It’s story – get those storyhooks into your readers. But wait up! Slow down – did you say ‘been here nine months’? Go back to microscopic, because someone will undoubtedly have noticed, even if they didn’t know they had noticed, that you said ‘nine months’, and you don’t have to be a Freudian psychoanalyst to know that nine months is an unusual portion of time, generally making us think of pregnancy.

Just saying.  Notice it.

Tongue-tied, our queen?
speak you.
I had thought, sir, to have held my peace until
You have drawn oaths from him not to stay. You, sir,
Charge him too coldly. Tell him, you are sure
All in Bohemia’s well; this satisfaction
The by-gone day proclaim’d: say this to him,
He’s beat from his best ward.
Well said, 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?
No, madam.
Nay, but you will?

We have to wonder how Leontes speaks that ‘tongue-tied’ line. It feels a little aggressive to me. I think we say ‘tongue-tied’ when we want and expect someone to speak and unexpectedly, they are not speaking.  Tongue tied? It means ‘you are unusually quiet!’. it means ‘I was expecting to hear from you.’

We have to begin, because of that phrase, to wonder what kind of man Leontes is.  Just a little worry.  Little, because the moment passes quickly and Hermione doesn’t seem at all phased by it and responds happily enough, and what she says next draws praise from her husband, so perhaps, in noting my anxieties about tongue-tied, I was reading too much into it. I told my breath on that. We’ll note the anxiety and wait to see.

I had thought, sir, to have held my peace until
You have drawn oaths from him not to stay. You, sir,
Charge him too coldly. Tell him, you are sure
All in Bohemia’s well; this satisfaction
The by-gone day proclaim’d: say this to him,
He’s beat from his best ward.
Well said, Hermione.

Did Leontes ‘charge him too coldly?’ There’s an interesting thought. Because imagine this playing out in your kitchen.  You’ve been too cold in the way you asked him, you say to your partner. Would you say that? If it was true, would you say? If it wasn’t true, would you say it? If it was (a bit) true would you say it in a joke? Is she joking?  Could we go back and ask the actor playing Leontes to do his begging and pleading a little coldly…?

I had thought, sir, to have held my peace until
You have drawn oaths from him not to stay. You, sir,
Charge him too coldly.

Yes, she’s joking, as he may have been joking when he said ‘Tongue-tied, our Queen?’ Those ‘sirs’ of hers do something too, don’t they? Do they say, I’m playing! I’m teasing!

Is there something amiss in their marriage? Is there a communication problem? Just observing my reactions and they are, when I read these words, to feel worried.

I would want to stop both the rush of story and the microscopic analysis of voice, tone, word, at this point to ask my readers how they saw it playing out. After all, it is a play.

We are the Director. We stage the play, vision it, get the actors to move and be in the way we see.  So what do we see? How are the three of them standing? Who is near? Is everyone on the court overhearing this?

If this is a public demonstration of both the Kings’ friendship and the marriage of Leontes and Hermione then  every word, every look, every gesture counts. Everyone is watching! Does Hermione touch Leontes, lay a hand on his arm, hold hands, put his arm around her waist? Is she looking at Leontes or Polixenes when she speaks, or from one to the other?

I had thought, sir, to have held my peace until
You have drawn oaths from him not to stay. You, sir,
Charge him too coldly. Tell him, you are sure
All in Bohemia’s well; this satisfaction
The by-gone day proclaim’d: say this to him,
He’s beat from his best ward.
Well said, Hermione.

I’d have her moving toward Leontes as she speaks so that by the time she says ‘You, sir/charge him too coldly…’ she is standing by him, close to him. Her body language is saying  ‘I love you and am loyal to you’.  She can say ‘you charge him too coldly’ because she has protected herself from his anger at hearing that criticism by standing close to him, perhaps  putting herself into his arms. They look at Polixenes together, from a place of safety. She speaks a bit like a ventriloquist. It’s not Hermione who is tongue-tied, we realise, it’s him, Leontes. She stands slightly in front of him, wrapped in his arms and speaks for him, speaks eloquently. When she says ‘say this to him’, I’d have her glancing up at him. She’s won her husband over and navigated a tricky place in the stream of their marriage. And Leontes? He seems happy.

Leave him there for now.


Silas Marner Day 40: Unspeakable Ignorance re Human Character

dark red rhodos
Dark Red Rhododendron in the Azalea walk at Calderstones

Oh, I’ve been having trouble with myself, lost my rhythms and struggling to do anything other than get my daily work at The Reader done – I’ve been busy interviewing new people for roles at The Reader, probably the most important thing I have to do there, preparing for  the AESOP Conference, and then travelling to meet with Flemish colleagues… but also simply lost. rhythms, habits, do not come easily to me and somehow I lost them and now I am struggling to get them back.  Family came to visit. Our old people  have needed time and attention. None  of which stops me writing at 6.00 am but it has stopped me.

Yesterday I said to myself, you’ve got to get it back. You’ve got to. I was angry and used my anger to  dig up and destroy a massive ivy  root I’ve been battling in the garden. I don’t really care why I am like this – my chaotic childhood, oh, I’m sick of hearing about it –  I care about why I can’t consistently be different. I want order!

Yesterday it came to a head and I took myself to task in the garden as a way of fighting it out. I dug and bashed and cursed and sweated and cut my finger and sawed and heaved and jimmied and cursed this tortured thing out of the ground. It’s about as big as a bull’s head. It’s the root of a large-leaved ivy  I planted about twenty years ago.  I planted it! I planted it! I did it myself! Oh, ignorance.


I was filthy and exhausted and had a sore finger. I felt better.  I had a long bath and, as so many times before, agreed to  ‘forgive myself the lot’ as Yeats says, and resolved to try to pick up again. ‘The urge to destroy is also the urge to create…’ as Mikhail Bakunin said.

Books I’ve been reading away from this page include Tara Westover’s Educated. (Yes, lost  the rhythm of recording ‘Just Started’ – need to do a batch lot).  This is book about the awakening of a mind: the story of an end-of-the-world Mormon girl from a mountain in Utah learning to think outside of her family. Last night I read a section where she discusses  being touched by a single line from John Stuart Mill in On the Subjugation of Women. Marvellous section. The sentence: ‘It is a subject on which nothing final can be known’ …Mill writes of ‘women’, and Tara  –  bullied, abused and subjugated as a female  in her family – responds from her deepest, most hidden self.

Blood rushed to my brain. I felt an animating surge of adrenalin, of possibility, of a frontier being pushed outward. Of the nature of women, nothing final can be known. Never had I found such comfort in a void, in the black absence of knowledge. It seemed to say: whatever you are, you are a woman.

this morning when I came to my desk I looked up On The Subjugation of Women, a book I’ve not read in  more than thirty years.  Gosh. It’s very good. I would like to read it again. Saturday Dayschool perhaps, along with some of  George Eliot’s women?

Why that connection? This was one of the sentences that struck me as I browsed:

Of all difficulties which impede the progress of thought, and the formation of well-grounded opinions on life and social arrangements, the greatest is now the unspeakable ignorance and inattention of mankind in respect to the influences which form human character.

I was looking over my last post on Silas Marner, (find a full text of the novel here) and  had been thinking about George Eliot as a mind-mapper, a literary psychologist.  She does exactly what John Stuart Mill thinks is needful to be done. She shines the light of intelligent observation on the ‘influences which form human character’.

We’d been reading about Nancy Cass (nee Lammeter), and her instinctive repugnance to the idea of adoption. The narrative switches adroitly to Godfrey, and the reader understands, with a shock, that Godfrey is thinking of adopting not just any child, but his own child, Eppie, happily adopted by Silas.

Godfrey had from the first specified Eppie, then about twelve years old, as a child suitable for them to adopt. It had never occurred to him that Silas would rather part with his life than with Eppie. Surely the weaver would wish the best to the child he had taken so much trouble with, and would be glad that such good fortune should happen to her: she would always be very grateful to him, and he would be well provided for to the end of his life–provided for as the excellent part he had done by the child deserved. Was it not an appropriate thing for people in a higher station to take a charge off the hands of a man in a lower? It seemed an eminently appropriate thing to Godfrey, for reasons that were known only to himself; and by a common fallacy, he imagined the measure would be easy because he had private motives for desiring it. This was rather a coarse mode of estimating Silas’s relation to Eppie; but we must remember that many of the impressions which Godfrey was likely to gather concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means; and he had not had the opportunity, even if he had had the power, of entering intimately into all that was exceptional in the weaver’s experience. It was only the want of adequate knowledge that could have made it possible for Godfrey deliberately to entertain an unfeeling project: his natural kindness had outlived that blighting time of cruel wishes, and Nancy’s praise of him as a husband was not founded entirely on a wilful illusion.

This becomes an analysis of how Godfrey could make such a callous mistake when George Eliot  looks beyond any desire he might have stated himself, to a general law she observes in many humans. Godfrey thinks,

Was it not an appropriate thing for people in a higher station to take a charge off the hands of a man in a lower?

This is Godfrey’s inner voice, thinking its own thoughts.

Next comes George Eliot’s thought, as she observes her subject:

It seemed an eminently appropriate thing to Godfrey, for reasons that were known only to himself; and by a common fallacy, he imagined the measure would be easy because he had private motives for desiring it.

The ‘common fallacy’ is the law of behaviour, observable over countless subjects: you want something to happen so you think it will be easy to make it happen. (Thinking of myself and the need to develop habits. Want them! Should be easy! Not easy! Failed again!). Now George Eliot turns her attention to the relations between people of different classes and their ability to understand each other.  The tone here (‘we must remember’) is one that includes us, as the reader, with her as the scientific observer.

This was rather a coarse mode of estimating Silas’s relation to Eppie; but we must remember that many of the impressions which Godfrey was likely to gather concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means; and he had not had the opportunity, even if he had had the power, of entering intimately into all that was exceptional in the weaver’s experience.

It’s personally damning of Godfrey as well as damning  our social structures: Godfrey ‘had not had the opportunity, even if he had had the power, of entering intimately into all that was exceptional in the weaver’s experience’.

The lack of power to enter into another’s experience is also self-damaging, I think, Godfrey can’t imagine what it is or means to be Silas, but he is also hidden, disguised from himself, like Tara, like me.

George Eliot believed that women were no different to men in that we are all subject to our experience and education. Men had more of it but, as with Cass here, that more was often also limiting.  How are we to get out of our ignorance and lack of self and experience understanding?  Education, my dears, but education of a particular sort. Education that speaks to us in the places we need it – as John Stuart Mill spoke to Tara Westover.

Joseph Gold writes in The Story Species,

Literature is a form of language that humans have evolved to help  themselves cope with the world they inhabit. Creating and sharing complex stories is an adaptation of language to help humans survive well.

Tara’s story of the voice coming out of the darkness to a place of darkness within her, its meaning as yet unknown, is a wonderful example of  the way in which literature may be the means of education (and survival). Godfrey Cass needs to read more.

As for me? Just got to come here and do it every day.

Reading at Work: Great Literature (with Pooh)

Three Great Books for Reading at Work

Last week I spent a rare and lovely couple of hours reading with colleagues who are working on The Reader’s Shared Reading North West team.  This is a huge piece of work, funded in part by NESTA, to test and learn from that test practice, about scaling Shared Reading. The team have tough targets to meet and a lot of responsibility: their work is helping shape the future of The Reader. They  must find volunteers to lead Shared Reading groups,  recruit them, train them, help them set up and then move on to the next batch  of recruits. We don’t have the right tools yet – they are in development, too, so all  in all, it’s  a tough gig. A number of the team have  been with the organisation a good while: they’ve seen plenty of changes.  I’d brought a few things with me that I thought they might enjoy or find  helpful.

First, the  wonderful, scary and uplifting ‘I am Henry Finch’ (by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz), which I’d chosen because I’d just discovered it and was desperate to share, but also because it is a book about the power of thought.


Life was simple with finches – every day the same mind-numbing routine chatter, though with the odd (we try to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t happen) terrible bit:



Reading at work is a wonderful thing. Suddenly the book exists in another dimension. In home life you’d almost certainly be reading this with a child, whereas here I was, sitting round a boardroom table with  eight adults in the middle of a serious and difficult work project.

Good Morning Good Morning Good Morning say the Finches, trying to remain normal at all times.  But Henry’s experience of the Beast changes normal forever. All of this is a work story, and you can make the beast whatever beastly thing is troubling you. We particularly enjoyed  the Finches  traditional reaction to the Beast, so recognisable.


The next part of the programme was chosen for an even closer affinity to working life. This is the chapter in The House at Poo Corner  by A.A. Milne, when  Poo and Piglet go to visit Owl on a blusterous day, Owls tree falls down and they are all trapped, sidewise, inside what was once Owl’s house.

Sounds like one of those working days, doesn’t it? With  everything where it wasn’t, someone must act but before someone can act, someone must think. Thinking takes place. Scary. Poo asks Owl,

“Could you fly up to the letter-box with Piglet on your back?” he asked.

“No,” said Piglet quickly. “He couldn’t.”

Owl explained about the Necessary Dorsal Muscles…

“Because you see, Owl, if we could get Piglet into the letter-box, he might squeeze through the place where the letters come, and climb down the tree and run for help.”

Piglet said hurriedly that he had been getting bigger lately, and couldn’t possibly, much as he wold like to, and Owl said that he had had his letter-box made bigger lately in case  he got bigger letters, so perhaps Piglet might…

Change management! Poor old Piglet’s job description is changing before our eyes. We now need you to be hoisted up  by a bit of string and to…

I’d thought we’d all enjoy a laugh and small-scale recognition of  the way problems  often emerge (unexpectedly! Who knew the house would go sideways!) and how solving them rarely feels great – usually feels more seat-of-the-pants terrifying.  Which we did.  But the thing that was really striking was the distance between the actual experience of the task (escape from Owl’s blown down house) which is  worrying and  tentative and could go badly wrong, to the  account of it given later, by Poo, in a laudatory song, generously ascribing the original idea to Piglet himself:

Then Piglet (PIGLET) thought a thing:
“Courage!” he said. “There’s always hope.
I want a thinnish piece of rope.
Or, if there isn’t any bring
A thickish piece of string.

So to the letter-box he rose,
While Pooh and Owl said “Oh!”
and “Hum!”
And where the letters always come
(Called “LETTERS ONLY”) Piglet sqoze
His head and then his toes.

Great Myths of the workplace! Yet it was Piglet, who, trembling and blinching, did indeed go up on that piece of string.

By the time we’d read  these two works of Great Literature, our brains and hearts were primed for something serious.

I’d brought ‘Once Only’ by Denise Levertov, because I’d just read it, and because I thought we might want something serious as well and because it didn’t connect to work, to our tasks, only to being human. I’d thought, it will be good to have some time being simply human together.  I don’t have time to write about it today, but here it is and I’ll pick up here next time.

Once Only

All which, because it was
flame and song and granted us
joy, we thought we’d do, be, revisit,
turns out to have been what it was
that once, only; every initiation
did not begin
a series, a build-up: the marvelous
did happen in our lives, our stories
are not drab with its absense: but don’t
expect now to return for more.  Whatever more
there will be will be
unique as those were unique. Try
to acknowledge the next
song in its body-halo of flames as utterly
present, as now or never.

‘Once Only’ By Denise Levertov, from COLLECTED EARLIER POEMS 1940-1960, copyright ©1957 by Denise Levertov. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

The Winter’s Tale Day 6: Is Something Up?

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Euphorbia  ‘Black Pearl’ springing into beauty, March 26

Last time, we’d got a little way into Act 1 Scene ii, with Leontes, King of Sicilia,  trying to persuade his childhood friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, who has been on an extended visit to the court of  Sicilia, to stay longer. Polixenes seems pretty set on leaving.

In my opening sessions I’d noticed some words which had given me  cause for concern – ‘if the King had no heir’  in particular – but nothing has yet happened to make  these more than  very slight, almost sub-atomic alarms.  All seems well.

I’d want to pick up the reading and get another goodish rush at it and get some rhythm going, even at the expense of meaning – wait, wait. The meaning  will come eventually. Just get the feel.


Stay your thanks a while;
And pay them when you part.
Sir, that’s to-morrow.
I am question’d by my fears, of what may chance
Or breed upon our absence; that may blow
No sneaping winds at home, to make us say
‘This is put forth too truly:’ besides, I have stay’d
To tire your royalty.
We are tougher, brother,
Than you can put us to’t.
No longer stay.
One seven-night longer.
Very sooth, to-morrow.
We’ll part the time between’s then; and in that
I’ll no gainsaying.
Press me not, beseech you, so.
There is no tongue that moves, none, none i’ the world,
So soon as yours could win me: so it should now,
Were there necessity in your request, although
‘Twere needful I denied it. My affairs
Do even drag me homeward: which to hinder
Were in your love a whip to me; my stay
To you a charge and trouble: to save both,
Farewell, our brother.
Tongue-tied, our queen?
speak you.

I’d ask my group to imagine two old boyhood friends in a slight argument – are we seeing a  bit of arm-wrestling? I get that from Leontes lines, ‘We are tougher, brother,/Than you can put us to’t.’ This feels slightly aggressive,  perhaps mildly so, but I don’t think you’d mention your toughness if you weren’t feeling a little the need for it. but I’m rushing ahead!

When Polixenes explains why he must leave, he first gives a reasonable political reason:

I am question’d by my fears, of what may chance
Or breed upon our absence; that may blow
No sneaping winds at home, to make us say
‘This is put forth too truly:’

A literal translation into contemporary English might read: I’m worried about what could be going on at home. ‘Sneap’ means rebuke so  I think that second part must mean, ‘am worried that something may happen which would make me think that hints I should return to govern my  country may  have been true…’ Slight worry, what if it had a basis in fact?

So far, so sensible.  But then he adds what might be a throwaway politeness: ‘besides I have stay’d/ To tire your royalty.’

Is it throwaway?  Leontes now responds with his ‘I am tough’ thought.

Has Polixenes really tired him? Is something wrong? Are they -while all seems fine of the surface – really beginning to tire? to fall out? Now the arm-wrestling really does begin:

No longer stay.
One seven-night longer.
Very sooth, to-morrow.
We’ll part the time between’s then; and in that
I’ll no gainsaying.
Press me not, beseech you, so.

Let them be  playing – arm-wrestling, playing table tennis, play boxing. Just while we imagine it. Get the feeling of that back-and-forth into the room. But now the rhythm changes as Polixenes seems to think more seriously about  what or who might persuade him to stay:

There is no tongue that moves, none, none i’ the world,
So soon as yours could win me: so it should now,
Were there necessity in your request, although
‘Twere needful I denied it. My affairs
Do even drag me homeward: which to hinder
Were in your love a whip to me; my stay
To you a charge and trouble: to save both,
Farewell, our brother.

There seems the possibility of real love in this belief that there  is no tongue that could win him ‘so soon as yours’. That’s one bit of what Polixenes says. But what follows: a second thought which remembers the business of being King : ‘Were there necessity in your request, although/’Twere needful I denied it. ‘

I think that means that  if Leontes has a good reason to plead with him to stay, he would, even though  he needs to go home.

I notice that there are mixed feelings here: that the feelings move thick and fast – are they really close friends? Could any thing cause them to fall out?  Does Leontes really want  Polixenes to stay? I look more closely at the language:

My affairs
Do even drag me homeward: which to hinder
Were in your love a whip to me; my stay
To you a charge and trouble:

Polixenes does not want to go, his business, affairs of state, are what drag him away. Hindering that movement makes an act of love painful – Leontes may  think he is keeping him   out  of love, but staying is hurting Polixenes.  Is it true that his staying is to Leontes a ‘charge and trouble’ ? Is that  a thing we say – I’m putting you to trouble? Or is it a get-out?

All these microscopically slow reading decisions must be made in a flexible way – we’ve got to be able to change our minds later as things unfold. As in life we do.That’s one of the great things about reading Shakespeare: it requires this practise of flexible attention.

And now, suddenly, Leontes, apparently out of the blue turns to his wife, Hermione, who so far we’ve not noticed:

Tongue-tied, our queen?
speak you.

Again, a slight air of menace or up-for-a-fight? Why not, ‘Hermione? Cn you persuade him?’ Leontes words feel abrupt. Surely if we’d said ‘tongue tied, Jane?’ in ordinary colloquial language we’d mean – I’d expect you to have something to say on this’. It’s a small-scale accusation.

You might think this is too slow as a way of reading. Are we really going to discuss every word, intonation, possibility?  I hope we are! Because this is what makes the reading our own, rather than what someone else says it is. We work out what it means, word by word,  inch by inch.  We do the work.

As in life we do. In real life we have sometimes to pick up deep and extended meanings from small words. Judging someone’s character in a trial or in a job interview or on a first date or by their email… each word may hint something. May, or may not. We do well to read them carefully, always remembering we might be wrong.

I’d ask my group now to reread this scene so far, all of it, in one reading, then to think again: what just happened, and what do you think of these two men? Then we’d  note in pencil what we thought, ready to rub it out, if necessary, as time unfolds. Actually what happens in life – speakig for myself anyway – is that we write in pen. Awfully hard to rub out later, when you change your mind!


Paradise Lost 18: Flag-Waving As An Antidote to Fear

daffodils 25 march
Spring Flowers 25 March

You may have heard Ian Mackellen and others in a R4 adaptation  of Paradise Lost  by the poet Michael Symmonds Roberts.  If not, find it here.  I haven’t listened yet but  like MSR’s poetry so am looking forward to hearing what he has done with this great poem.

What I am doing with it is reading it, a few lines at a time, often in a weekly instalments.

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

You’ll find a good online text here.

Last time, we’d got to the point where Satan was rousing his rebel army, with ‘semblance of worth, not substance’ and I’d been thinking about  mass psychology and how humans are so roused, by  loud empty noise from assertive types. As the standard is raised, those fallen angels all start jumping up, wanting to be in the band. Of course, I’m thinking of fascism and other flag waving. Could be any of us, getting up there, wanting to join.  Which makes me think about the responsibility to educate ourselves and each other and our children.

To get going today I’m reading this chunk, aloud, slow, and finding the rhythm by going for punctuation, not line endings. (There’s an ellipted -missed-out- pronoun, ‘he’ in the opening line here, after ‘strait’) :

Then strait commands that at the warlike sound
Of Trumpets loud and Clarions be upreard
His mighty Standard; that proud honour claim’d
Azazel as his right, a Cherube tall:
Who forthwith from the glittering Staff unfurld [ 535 ]
Th’ Imperial Ensign, which full high advanc’t
Shon like a Meteor streaming to the Wind
With Gemms and Golden lustre rich imblaz’d,
Seraphic arms and Trophies: all the while
Sonorous mettal blowing Martial sounds: [ 540 ]
At which the universal Host upsent
A shout that tore Hells Concave, and beyond
Frighted the Reign of Chaos and old Night.

Hhm,  a piece of epic spectacle, rich with trumpets and flags to rouse emotion, which it does. The fallen angels assert their waking to action by a mighty shout and then :

All in a moment through the gloom were seen
Ten thousand Banners rise into the Air [ 545 ]
With Orient Colours waving: with them rose
A Forest huge of Spears: and thronging Helms
Appear’d, and serried shields in thick array
Of depth immeasurable: Anon they move
In perfect Phalanx to the Dorian mood [ 550 ]
Of Flutes and soft Recorders; such as rais’d
To hight of noblest temper Hero’s old
Arming to Battel, and in stead of rage
Deliberate valour breath’d, firm and unmov’d
With dread of death to flight or foul retreat, [ 555 ]
Nor wanting power to mitigate and swage
With solemn touches, troubl’d thoughts, and chase
Anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain
From mortal or immortal minds.

This is interesting – instead of rage, they are moved by ‘deliberate valour’. Which maybe undercuts my sense that this is emotional? But no, I don’t think so.  Unlike the Barbarian hordes, screaming out  of the northern mist,  raging, these are the ordered and choreographed ranks modern armies. Yet this careful and controlled movement is only allowed because of the emotion – we join in, we sublimate ourselves to the mass. And what kind of emotion is it? It is the fear of pain.

Deliberate valour breath’d, firm and unmov’d
With dread of death to flight or foul retreat, [ 555 ]
Nor wanting power to mitigate and swage
With solemn touches, troubl’d thoughts, and chase
Anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain
From mortal or immortal minds.

It is the emotion of assertion against pain, against ‘anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain’. What an astonishing line of poetry, with those ‘ands’ repeating and repeating, as if you’d never be able to banish those feelings.and look where the emotive barbarian horde action has gone – into the word ‘ chase’!  Those massed ranks, moving in complete inhuman mechanistic motion are an emotional reaction, while they move stiffly, deliberate with their arms held high, are chasing ‘anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain’.

I see, among other horrors,  the Nazis and the Red Army, but does Milton see Oliver Cromwell’s army?

Thus they
Breathing united force with fixed thought [ 560 ]
Mov’d on in silence to soft Pipes that charm’d
Thir painful steps o’re the burnt soyle; and now
Advanc’t in view, they stand, a horrid Front
Of dreadful length and dazling Arms, in guise
Of Warriers old with order’d Spear and Shield, [ 565 ]
Awaiting what command thir mighty Chief
Had to impose: He through the armed Files
Darts his experienc’t eye, and soon traverse
The whole Battalion views, thir order due,
Thir visages and stature as of Gods, [ 570 ]
Thir number last he summs.

‘Breathing united force with fixed thought’ –  certainly Milton had the picture of a well-trained, mechanised army in mind. they become one obedient creature. Breathing as one.  Thinking as one. How do we know Milton does not admire this army?  The word ‘charm’d’.  They are actually suffering  foul and permanent burning here as they walk over the ground of hell, but they don’t know that, being ‘charm’d’.

And now his heart
Distends with pride, and hardning in his strength
Glories: For never since created man,
Met such imbodied force, as nam’d with these
Could merit more then that small infantry [ 575 ]
Warr’d on by Cranes: though all the Giant brood
Of Phlegra with th’ Heroic Race were joyn’d
That fought at Theb’s and Ilium, on each side
Mixt with auxiliar Gods; and what resounds
In Fable or Romance of Uthers Son [ 580 ]
Begirt with British and Armoric Knights;
And all who since, Baptiz’d or Infidel
Jousted in Aspramont or Montalban,
Damasco, or Marocco, or Trebisond,
Or whom Biserta sent from Afric shore [ 585 ]
When Charlemain with all his Peerage fell
By Fontarabbia.

Another list of things I don’t know about and could look up and might look up if I had but world enough and time. But I don’t. The Dartmouth edition has all the footnotes. But I’m just reading the main clause:

And now his heart
Distends with pride, and hardning in his strength

Pride comes both before and after the fall. He can’t get away from it. Look at the clever human analysis: physical thing, heart, distended and  made strong, hardens.  It’s emotional.  Ouch. The rigidity of  pride. The glory of those flag-waving,  weapon parading marches. And while  I note that nothing in human history has matched this army, it’s the next bit I’m interested in. Tho’ am afraid will have to read this next week, as the garden, in sunlight, beckons.

Thus far these beyond
Compare of mortal prowess, yet observ’d
Thir dread commander: he above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent [ 590 ]
Stood like a Towr; his form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear’d
Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th’ excess
Of Glory obscur’d: As when the Sun new ris’n
Looks through the Horizontal misty Air [ 595 ]
Shorn of his Beams, or from behind the Moon
In dim Eclips disastrous twilight sheds
On half the Nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes Monarchs. Dark’n’d so, yet shon
Above them all th’ Arch Angel: but his face [ 600 ]
Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold [ 605 ]
The fellows of his crime, the followers rather
(Far other once beheld in bliss) condemn’d
For ever now to have thir lot in pain,
Millions of Spirits for his fault amerc’t
Of Heav’n, and from Eternal Splendors flung [ 610 ]
For his revolt, yet faithfull how they stood,
Thir Glory witherd.


Trying to Get Better at my Handiwork

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Hhm, you’re going to have to undo this one…

Confidence, trust, belief. These are core necessaries for a creative life, even a crazy destructive one with life-threatening flaws. When Billie Holiday was singing, when Jimi Hendrix played, they had confidence, trust, belief in their handiwork. It was off stage, when not performing, that they crumbled. They felt bad when not in the creative moment. Perhaps, I don’t know,  they also felt bad in the creative moment but if so, something else was also present which overpowered the bad feeling and made them – watch them perform – feel great.

Members of Shared Reading groups often report ‘increased confidence’  but I ask  myself what is meant by that? It feels like the  word itself hides a wooly concept that I can’t quite bring into focus. When I look it up in the Etymological Dictionary I learn that word originally had to do with trusting another person and only  later became about trusting oneself:

c. 1400, “assurance or belief in the good will, veracity, etc. of another,” from Old French confidence or directly from Latin confidentia, from confidentem (nominative confidens) “firmly trusting, bold,” present participle of confidere “to have full trust or reliance,” from assimilated form of com, here probably an intensive prefix (see com-), + fidere “to trust” (from PIE root *bheidh- “to trust, confide, persuade”).

From mid-15c. as “reliance on one’s own powers, resources, or circumstances, self-assurance.”

Interesting to see that the three words I started with are all here. These things are about a stance in relation to experience: when we  have little trust and don’t believe good will happen then it is hard to face the problems life throws at us with confidence. But if we start with “assurance or belief in the good will, veracity, etc. of another,” then we are  more likely to develop “reliance on one’s own powers, resources, or circumstances, self-assurance.”.  It can work the other way: learning to trust yourself can lead to learning to trust others.

Whatever ‘confidence’ is, or stands for, it is vital for resilience, for  the ability to keep going in the face of failure, defeat, hard knocks. How to I know? I know from my own mistakes and down-falls.  And so as not to go too deeply, too publicly, into the really terrible mistakes,  I turn your attention to my handiwork. My crochet. Which is a metaphor for other more important handiwork: relationship with family, friends, work. Myself. Human makings. And, as my mentor said, oh dear.

But first, let’s read a poem.  I’ve written about George Herbert’s Elixir here before (search The Elixir  or George Herbert in the box to the right) but it’s always worth re-reading. Remember, I’m not a Christian and I have to translate whatever GH means into something I can understand. The key problem for me at the outset is  to make ‘my God and King’ into something real.  I mentally cross Herbert’s words out and think ‘teach me blurry x shaped hole that means fine, whole, overwhelmingly powerful force for good  in the universe’ Not as concise as Herbert’s formulation, I think you’ll agree. Much simpler if I could just use the word ‘God’.

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.

Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.

All may of Thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture—”for Thy sake”—
Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.

The lines I wanted to think about today are:

Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.

I like this reminder that very small, apparently insignificant things count and become good, or even great, when done well or with loving good will.  The room is fine but so is the action of sweeping. But I notice now that the first word of this poem is its key word, ‘teach’. You have to learn this stuff! It don’t come natural. That’s certainly true for me.

And now I’m thinking about how, in the beginning,  learning is completely natural…

Baby: watching everything, trying  and failing, observing, copying, trying, failing, trying again, experimenting, trying again.

Adult: not trying and not learning.

What on earth has happened? We lose the willingness to make mistakes, and for a variety of reasons.

To return to my crochet.

Hmm. When my mentor held the square(ish) artefact pictured above in her outstretched fingers and examined my work with a critical eye I was transported to the many appalling lessons in Domestic Science (cookery, needlework) I endured or caused havoc in  between the ages of the 11-15.  They were always telling me I’d have to undo it.

Whatever I’d done, to be frank with you, it was usually a mess.  I didn’t mind the mess, but I hated being told off for it and I resented scruffy the look of my handiwork in their hands, criticised, misunderstood, unloved.  Of course, even then, the handiwork was a metaphor, wasn’t it, for me?

When my mentor stretched out the holey mess of my crochet,  I knew what she was going to say, as my stomach churned in memory of school,  but I also felt pleased, even glad. Yes, she was right, I would have to undo it  and do it again.  It was, I had to concede, pretty bad.  I had pulled the wool over my own eyes by telling myself in a childish way that it wouldn’t matter, but as soon as I saw her holding it, I knew it did matter and that I would have to do it again.  This is confidence.

Where did the confidence come from?  This is a confidence I had never had at school, which meant I could not learn at school and no one could teach me (a couple of  English teachers excepted). I think it came from  knowing I have in the past tried to fix things and sometimes succeeded (and not just this, other, more serious things).

Also, from knowing that the mistake wasnt a serious one – it’s only crochet!

Also, that as my mentor said, she’d learned from experience, blankets generally work out.

Also, that I can live with making things that are slightly wonky. (I’m the opposite of a perfectionist and find  ‘it’ll do’ is mostly a life-enhancing motto).

I had confidence because I  could bear the shame of making a mess of it, because it wasn’t serious and because I  believed I could probably more or less fix it.

But what if it had been more serious – if my mentor had been  finding gaping holes in the way I run The Reader?  Or the way I’ve brought my children up, or care for my  relatives?  The shame of not having done something well in those cases is tightly bound up in my sense of self and of self-achievement, in my own estimation of who I am. It’s hard to take criticism when it seems to get to the heart of you.

But why? Don’t I still need to learn ?

The holes need unpicking.  You have to start again.  And that’s  where confidence, trust, belief matter.  To accept the criticism – there really is a hole there and it really does matter – you have to have the confidence that  you can have a go at getting it fixed. When the hole is in your self, sometimes that is hard to believe.

At those times, I like to read  The Slip by Wendell Berry  – particularly  these lines:

Where the imperfect has departed, the perfect
begins its struggle to return.

I do believe in the possibility of ‘the perfect’, and I keep trying to clear the imperfect (yes, yes, often very imperfectly in the more serious areas) to make way for something better. In this case, a better, though far-from-perfect and not-quite-square:

crochet 1