Silas Marner Day 41: George Eliot and George Saunders: Live Human Being


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It’s not human, but it’s sure a live presence: unidentified plant, Zakynthos, July 2018

Long time since I read and wrote on Silas Marner.  (See that previous post here )I’ve been away from my routine, such as it is,  and latterly I’ve been even further away – having a long swim and lot of sleep and reading in  lovely Zakynthos, which I found a land of  great plants, generous hospitality and welcome, fine courgettes and  the cooking of courgettes.

I asked our host, Demetrios, why Zakynthos has two names (sometimes Zakynthos, sometimes Zante) and he replied, Let’s start with the bigger picture… Why does  Greece have two names? Hellas (as the Greeks call it) and Greece (from the Latin, as the Romans called it…) Ah, there was time there for slow answers.

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Courgette Balls, home-made  by Maria at Dopia’s House,  Vasilikos, Zakynthos

I didn’t do much apart from read and swim and in the cool evenings walk to Dopia’s House for fine home  cooking and a visit to the one of the  three village shops. But I did think, when I get back, I will re-establish my daily reading and writing practice. So here we go.

I look back and see I last read and wrote about Silas Marner on the 30th April.  Hoooo.  That’s not good.

Silas was in my mind because before I went on holiday a much-respected colleague told me she was reading Silas Marner, but she didn’t say ‘reading’, she said ‘getting through’, which made me think she was finding it hard going, and when I asked her, she said she was…Which made me think ‘most people would find it hard going’.  Which made me think, ‘how could it not be like that?’ And it’s such a wonderful book –  what a shame to be put off by the slow opening chapters, or the ongoing problem of it being hard-to-get-through.

Reading aloud with others would help, because one of the hard-to-get through things is the  length and complexity of sentences. That is made easier by the slowness and added concentration of reading aloud. Another – the long-ago-ness.  Shared Reading would help share the strangeness – you’d ask each other questions about hand-loom weavers and poultices and the like. Another, things to do with tone. Tone is still hard to get right in reading aloud, but it is more likely to be got right by your voice when voiced than when read silently.

In my experience, when you are reading something hard-to-get-through in your head two things happen – you drift away from the hard sentences and don’t absorb them, and you lose sense of the longer rhythms of meaning which are often about tone of voice.  Recently, have I had this experience with George Saunders  prize-winning novel, Lincoln in The Bardo.

I like to think of myself as George Saunder’s greatest fan, so it’s not easy to admit I found that novel hard going.  I was, like my colleague, getting through it, because I wanted to, because I love George Saunders, because it is his first full-length novel and I wanted it to be great. I wanted to love it. I didn’t want to give up on it. I wanted to get it!  But I couldn’t concentrate enough to make it come to life.

So I was delightful to I find Audible has a brilliant recording, with many great voices.  And that got me into it.  The recording  fails a little in that it records all the  historical research notes, which in a written text you’d pass over, and they got in the way during my listening… but even so, listening  broke the book open for me, and got the tone and voices in my head.  So I was sorry to see so many disappointed and perplexed reviews on the Audible page –  this is just not a good a starting place for getting to know George Saunders.  Disappointed readers/listeners: start with  the short story collections – I’ve written about them, in passing, before:  Pastoralia, Tenth of December.

I’m going to have some downtime in August when I will be having an operation on my foot. Have been stockpiling things to read, and will add Lincoln In The Bardo to that pile, as I think it is time for a re-read.

But meanwhile, back to Silas. Last time I was writing about George Eliot as a kind of pre-psychology psychologist, working out how human minds work. Thinking about Nancy Lammeter and  her husband Godfrey Cass. We’d been reading about Godfrey’s desire to adopt  Eppie (his own child, though no one but he knows it), and his inability to imagine Silas’ feelings;

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 is interesting, isn’t it?  We’d probably be naturally inclined to want to cross Godfrey off – to  set him up as a no-good-nik, and take no notice of  his inner workings. But that, George Eliot feels, would be a mistake; her big premise is, it’s better to try to understand people we are not naturally sympathetic to.

What do we learn here?  Godfrey, as posh person, doesn’t have an opportunity to realise poor people have feelings in the same way he has:

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

Some radical education would be needed to overcome this  natural seeming state of social affairs. Godfrey doesn’t know these people, doesn’t mix with them, doesnt meet them, talk to them.

It’s all very well, for me as a twenty-first century middle class  Guardian-reader, being outraged that a posh landed gentry type didn’t know what it meant to be one of his own villagers. But then I think back to before The Reader and ask myself how much time I actually spent with homeless multiply addicted young men living with psychosis before I began reading in hostels and rehabs?  I  give the pseudonym  ‘Jay’ to one of those young men…I  would theoretically have known  that Jay has feelings like me, but I’d never have  been close to Jay, never seen him moved to tears or being loving to another person, only seen him as a threatening  presence  in a deserted car park. Never saw him have his feelings. Not to my credit, but true. I had not gathered the impressions – him asking me for change at the car park exit frightened me – which could have helped me overcome my fears of Jay. Without getting to know him, how could I really know him?

Now I look at this choice of word, ‘adequate’, thinking of myself or other modern versions of this Cass problem.

It was only the want of adequate knowledge that could have made it possible for Godfrey deliberately to entertain an unfeeling project:

Think of fear of refugees, fear of  others, fear of those not like us… what is ‘adequate knowledge’ in such situations, where people are not seeing others as fully human. Very few of us would be ‘deliberately unfeeling’ if we knew (‘adequately’) what it meant to be other person.  ‘Adequate’ – it’s not a lot of knowledge.  It’s enough to make us feel. But  perhaps we are becoming too kind to Godfrey?  Here’s a real corrective;

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.

How complex he is!  He has  had a ‘blighting time of cruel wishes’  – that person who did not  own up to nor  take responsibility for his first wife and his own child – that was Godfrey. Who suffered the blight? The cruelty? Yes – his dead wife, yes, his abandoned child. But also  – prehaps – he, himself?

As well as that cruelty, there is in Godfrey, ‘natural kindness’.  That’s real, too, though how  I am to hold the two things (  ‘cruel wishes’ and ‘natural kindness’ ) in balance is a real and very life-like question.  Despite the kindness, I’m still worried about the now past time of cruelty.  And that worry is extended by the  added comment on Nancy.

Nancy’s praise of him as a husband was not founded entirely on a wilful illusion.

He is naturally kind, when not pressed by more terrible needs. Nancy is  not entirely tricking herself. Oh, but the presence of that ‘wilful illusion’, even as a partial negative!

Being a live human is complicated business.

Is that why I love George Saunders despite sometimes not getting it and not getting through it? Yesterday I re-read his short story ‘The Falls’. ( It’s in Pastoralia.) Highly recommended for some live human being.




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.




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.




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 4: That’s The Spirit


Bamboo in the  Woods at Calderstones Park, March 2018

Last week or the week before  Loubyjo  reminded me that it was 10 years since the Shakespeare Reading group had started  in the old Lauries office which used to house Get Into Reading. Ten years!

I don’t know how long it is since Louise took  that Shakespeare group over, or when Bernie decided she had done her stint…but congratulations to Bernie, who ran it for years and to Louise, who has run it for years ,and to Marion who has run it with Louise for years… This is one of the best things to come out of  The Reader…and what I would have hoped for, if I’d had the imagination to hope in that way, when I started.

I started the group  – I think – because I wanted to tell people that you could read Shakespeare in Shared Reading – it doesn’t have to be a short story and poem.

It does have to be  great literature.

The  form that the literature comes in (let me list some forms: nineteenth century novel in tiny weekly installments for two years, Shakespeare play for six months, one-off poem, one-off short story, one-off short story followed by ‘matching’ or ‘non-matching’ poem, modern novel, essay, Homer’s Odyssey for  two years, one-off incomprehensible contemporary poem) the form it comes in REALLY DOESN’T MATTER.

I’m shouting because one of the things that has gone wrong with  the growth of Shared Reading is that many people tell me  Shared Reading is reading a short story with matching poem.  No,  no, no.  You don’t have to match a poem. You could read any poem.  You don’t have to read a poem at all. Just read a chapter of War and Peace or a short story on its own.  Or you can only read a poem. I mean if you were going to read Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’ you’d have to read it over two or three weeks. You couldn’t tag it on to a short story as a match. The short story and poem format means there is loads of stuff you can’t read! That can’t be right.

In the first group I read a short story, ‘Schwartz’, by Russell Hoban (find it in The Moment Under the Moment, a collection of  essays and other things). And I read ‘Crossing The Bar’. They do not ‘match’.  I just liked them both and was worried we might finish ‘Schwartz’ before the time was up (actually, I think it might have taken two weeks).

Because teaching, as we do on Read to Lead,  in three days is a sledgehammer activity,  and because we have the wonderful A Little Aloud series, for years some people have come away with the idea that Shared Reading = reading a short story with a matching poem. No. No. No.

That can be done. Yes. But as in all things it is not the form that counts, it’s the spirit. The form is important because it is a way of having, of being, the spirit. But you can have empty forms.  Don’t go for form. Go for spirit. I don’t think it is possible to have empty spirit.

Read great stuff. Moving,  powerful, human stuff that gets you feeling and thinking. And for me, if I was teaching,  sledgehammering, I’d say always be aiming to get to Shakespeare in the end.

Here’s the end of the opening scene of The Winter’s Tale:


Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia.
They were trained together in their childhoods; and
there rooted betwixt them then such an affection,
which cannot choose but branch now. Since their
more mature dignities and royal necessities made
separation of their society, their encounters,
though not personal, have been royally attorneyed
with interchange of gifts, letters, loving
embassies; that they have seemed to be together,
though absent, shook hands, as over a vast, and
embraced, as it were, from the ends of opposed
winds. The heavens continue their loves!
I think there is not in the world either malice or
matter to alter it. You have an unspeakable
comfort of your young prince Mamillius: it is a
gentleman of the greatest promise that ever came
into my note.
I very well agree with you in the hopes of him: it
is a gallant child; one that indeed physics the
subject, makes old hearts fresh: they that went on
crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to
see him a man.
Would they else be content to die?
Yes; if there were no other excuse why they should
desire to live.
If the king had no son, they would desire to live
on crutches till he had one.

Camillos speaks of the grown-up Kings’ boyhoods’ and  Archidamus  speaks of Mamillius, son of Sicillia, son of King Leontes. Funny little bit of  stagey business this –  two civil servants chatting before the big newsworthy public occasion, exchanging pleasantries but also giving clues to audience.  Last time I wrote about this play noticed some of the frightening language in Camillo’s speech about the Kings, now  I notice Archidamus’  underlying worry  about matter or malice. Can anything alter the  state of friendship between these two childhood friends? And for Mamillius, we have ‘promise’, ‘hopes’ and, says Camillo,

…a gallant child; one that indeed physics the
subject, makes old hearts fresh: they that went on
crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to
see him a man.

We live for the possibility held by the unfolding future, which we experience in a child. The child changes time, ‘makes old hearts fresh’ and gives the old a powerful desire to live. We want – me with my grandchildren, Camillo with his King’s son – to live ‘ to see him a man.’ That investment in the future is powerful. Otherwise,  Archidamus wonders, might we desire to die?

What else is there to live for? Camillo leaves open the possibility that there might be  other reasons, but he can’t think of any:

Yes; if there were no other excuse why they should
desire to live.

The play is not yet started ,yet we are already in the thick of its subject matter, even though we don’t yet know what that subject matter is… it is living, it is reasons to stay alive, it is death, it is loss of children.

While the two opening actors seem to speak lightly, merely socially, almost  meaninglessly, yet they  have set out the play for us in advance, and Archidamus now  puts the finishing touch to it:

If the king had no son, they would desire to live
on crutches till he had one.

A child gives you a reason to live, but no child also gives you a reason: you ‘ve got to let enough time pass to get one. This  is primogeniture: the King must have an heir! If he hasn’t got one, we’ve got to keep going until he does.  And so we will… Looking back at the opening of this piece, I see that I was bemoaning not having the imagination to hope for a future that has unfolded in real life.

This is what I love about Shakespeare. The form – two servants come into a room and start a preamble – turns out to be a  piece of life. A piece that might not yet have come into existence, but real nonetheless. The form holds the spirit. Spirit’s the thing. Forms change.

Don’t follow rules. Except sometimes when you need to.  Run a Shared Reading group by following D.H. Lawrence’s  rule:  ‘We must balance as we go’.



Splitting The World Open: Celebrating International Women’s Day With A Poem

women's press (2)Sometime in the late seventies I bought an anthology of women’s poetry,  The World Split Open, edited by Louise Bernikow, published by The Women’s Press. That’s an easy sentence  to write in 2018  but it might have been nearly impossibly fifty years ago in the year of  the world’s youth revolution, 1968.  Earlier this week I opened The Faber Book of C20 Verse, edited  by J.Heath-Stubbs and D. Wright (1953), to find that only 6 of the more than 90 poets included were  women.  At University in the 1980’s a teacher, a man, told me that women weren’t concentrated enough for poetry.  I think that was a pretty widespread view.

Ah, the dear old Women’s Press. How I loved that little  iron, its logo.

I’d go to a bookshop and look for Womens Press books then choose from amongst them, books I knew might be of interest to me.  Virago was a women’s publisher, too, but The Women’s Press list was odder, more homemade, less corporate, more extreme. And all that seemed summed in that little steam-iron logo.

I was trying to become myself as a young adult, and that self was a woman writer and reader. I wanted books  to help me build my self up.  I wanted role models. But I hardly remember any of those books now (Gaining Ground, a novel by Joan Barfoot, notable exception.) But this excellent anthology of poetry has been  with me through nearly forty years reading.  I’ve just had to buy another copy, as the first literally fell to pieces in my  hand.

I had two books of poetry by women. This, and the Penguin Book of Women Poets. That was  it.


Looking her up, I see Louise Bernikow is still going strong, writing and talking about women (also dogs).    Looking at the book’s cover now, I remember that it made me uncomfortable. That women in the photograph looks a bit  too masculine, I don’t know what the two metal balls are doing there and I can’t figure out the perspective. The cover may have unsettled me, but the contents inspired. Realising that Queen Elizabeth I, the centre of the Elizabethan age, an age of great poetry, was herself a poet delighted me.





The Doubt of Future Foes
The doubt of future foes exiles my present joy,
And wit me warns to shun such snares as threaten mine annoy;
For falsehood now doth flow, and subjects’ faith doth ebb,
Which should not be if reason ruled or wisdom weaved the web.
But clouds of joys untried do cloak aspiring minds,
Which turn to rain of late repent by changed course of winds.
The top of hope supposed the root upreared shall be,
And fruitless all their grafted guile, as shortly ye shall see.
The dazzled eyes with pride, which great ambition blinds,
Shall be unsealed by worthy wights whose foresight falsehood finds.
The daughter of debate that discord aye doth sow
Shall reap no gain where former rule still peace hath taught to know.
No foreign banished wight shall anchor in this port;
Our realm brooks not seditious sects, let them elsewhere resort.
My rusty sword through rest shall first his edge employ
To poll their tops that seek such change or gape for future joy.
Yes, the sonnet is long-distance interesting in the psychological cost of political trouble, but I didn’t connect with it: there’s was nothing here to latch onto my own experience at that time.  But this fragment, written with a diamond on her window at Woodstock, where she was being held prisoner,  seemed to zap through time, connecting her to me:

Much suspected by me,
Nothing proved can be,
Quoth Elizabeth prisoner.

It wasn’t so much the words, as the act of graffitti, of being moved in a strange way to write. I could almost feel that diamond in my fingers as I scratched.



I was glad to meet Aphra Behn in this anthology, the first English women to make her living from writing.  I never really liked her poetry but I liked her, her drinking in taverns and brawling with the lads. And I remember later  getting involved in her novel, Oorinoko, which perhaps I’ll read again.



Love in Fantastic Triumph sat,
Whilst Bleeding Hearts around him flowed,
For whom Fresh pains he did Create,
And strange Tyrannic power he showed;
From thy Bright Eyes he took his fire,
Which round about, in sport he hurled;
But ’twas from mine he took desire
Enough to undo the Amorous World.
From me he took his sighs and tears,
From thee his Pride and Cruelty;
From me his Languishments and Fears,
And every Killing Dart from thee;
Thus thou and I, the God have armed,
And set him up a Deity;
But my poor Heart alone is harmed,
Whilst thine the Victor is, and free.

Emily Bronte, Anne Bradstreet, Sylvvia Plath are names that come to mindwhen I try to remember the anthohlogy but I don’t remember reading the poem from which the book’s title is taken.

What would happen if one woman told the truth about
        her life?
     The world would split open

Muriel Ruksayer’s words are famous – you’ll find them embroidered on Pinterest and made into posters. You’ll find the poem they come from, honouring the German artist Kathe Kollwitz here. Worth reading on this International Women’s Day.

And for growing humans everywhere, my poem of the day, Denise Levertov’s The Metier Of Blossoming.

I’ll be celebrating International Women’s Day  by visiting Greater Manchester Mental Health Trust , to talk and read with women in the Forensic Unit there. I’ll be taking Levertov’s Metier with me.





You never understood/ that it ain’t no good/you shouldn’t let other people/ get your kicks for you


calderstones morning 18 oct 1.JPG
Early morning near the playground at Calderstones, 18 October

Yesterday, among other things, I started reading The Buried Life, by Matthew Arnold. I could have started by giving you some facts about  Matthew Arnold –  his dates, or bits of history that might set a context for the poem or the man or his situation – MA was a depressive, MA lived at a time when faith in God was disintegrating, MA was unhappy at Oxford (I’ve just made that last one up).


None of that, true or untrue,  would have made the reality of the poem stronger and  actually, it would have taken away from the poem. One of the rules of Shared Reading is – Do Not Do Background. That’s substituting facts for direct  experience:  letting other people get your kicks for you

Of course rules need breaking sometimes, and I leave that to your judgement, but  97 times out of 100: no background, please!

Why? I can see there’s an argument for saying  that biography, social context, facts about the type of mead people drank, or when glass windows were invented, Mums, Dads and siblings and the political system all feed in to whatever a writer can write… but most of it is irrelevant to the direct experience of the poem.

But the direct experience is what we sometimes want to avoid because direct is  hard, like writing or doing your fifty lengths in the pool or teaching your kids discipline. I speak from personal experience. But after more than forty years of hard reading I am willing to risk the difficulty.  I have a long backlog of practice that tells me the direct experience is worth having.

But I can clearly remember the feeling at school and as a university and post-grad student, of wanting to avoid true engagement with the poem.  Of wanting to get round it or find a short-cut. I remember a feeling of dread and avoidance which was to do with facing the unknown, facing the task of creation, with only my own resources to get me through. That feeling of dread was to do with the work of it, having to make the huge effort of imagination and summon the  will which is needed to bring the inert poem flat on the page back to life. Taking responsibility for that  for act of re-creation.

The temptation to let someone else do that creative work for me was  very strong because my confidence was under-developed. F.R. Leavis  understands T.S. Eliot, I’d think,  let him  do the work and I’ll just say what he says. But this was me standing at the edge of the swimming bath hopping from one foot to another, afraid to jump in.  The experience of reading a poem can’t be done for you, and no amount of knowing the water temperature or when the pool was constructed or why it was in fashion to  have  marbled tiles will make any difference: you’ve always got to get into the water if you want to swim. Talking about what ‘Victorians’ knew isn’t helpful. The poem is its own thing, existing in its own force-field, free of time, if it is still a working poem. More to say on this another day.

Here’s it is, let’s read it all through then I’ll go back to where we had got up to yesterday
The Buried Life
Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!                                                     5
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,                                                        10
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.
Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?                                                      15
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved                                                                        20
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!
But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?                                   25
Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!
Fate, which foresaw                                                                                        30
How frivolous a baby man would be—
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity—
That it might keep from his capricious play                                              35
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;                                                    40
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.
But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,                                       45
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;                                                  50
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,                                     55
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—                                    60
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do                                                  65
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!
And then we will no more be rack’d
With inward striving, and demand
Of all the thousand nothings of the hour
Their stupefying power;                                                                                 70
Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call!
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey                                              75
A melancholy into all our day.
Only—but this is rare—
When a belovèd hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,                                                                            80
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.                                                        85
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.                                 90
And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.                                            95
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

Yesterday we’d got  to stanza two and had read  up to line 15. We’d seen Matthew Arnold  looking to his beloved;

Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?                                                      15
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved                                                                        20
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!

Yesterday, I’d got caught up with the words ‘even’ and ‘indeed’, and that had led me on to  think about the poem’s rhythm. Now I’m looking also at the rhymes, which are plentiful but not always patterned. In this second stanza we start with rhyming couplets (two lines which rhyme, one coming straight after the other: weak/speak, reveal/feel, conceal’d/reveal’d).

Me: Rhyming couplets – what are they like?

(I don’t want to make a definitive statement here, I want you to feel  the reality – get in the water and splash about the tell me what it feels like!).

You:  They are strong.

Me:  Yes I agree – Alas! is even love too weak/ To unlock the heart, and let it speak? – Can you say more? Why do they seem strong?

You: They kind of finish – they are rounded off. It’s as if  the thought is completed.

Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?

Someone Else:  Yes, completed  in one way, but  it’s a question and there isn’t an answer! So in another way, it’s not complete.

Me:  Ok, so we’ve got a rhyming couplet where the rhymes are powerful and seem to  bring a conclusion, yet we’ve also got a question…

Someone Else: Well two questions, actually

You: Both with rhyming couplets! Conclusion  not concluded!

Someone else: Left hanging – and that’s the completeness of his thought  though isn’t it – he thinks ‘even  love can’t do it’, but they it’s like he adds, ‘can it?’

You: so the finish of the rhyme is undercut by the question mark?

Me:  You’re doing that yourself now!

You: But no rhyme! this time!

Me: Shall we go on? Look at this…

I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved                                                                        20
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!

You:  Hey up, Jane we’re out of time

Me: Oh blast! More tomorrow. Going for a swim now.

Not a Victorian Dad Thing: ‘The Toys’ by Coventry Patmore

Greengage (and fairy lights) enjoying a stiff August breeze, August 2 

Yesterday I finished reading Coventry Patmore’s ‘Magna est Veritas’, and realised that I’d been unconsciously thinking of ‘The Toys’ while reading. So here is that poem:

The Toys

My little Son, who look’d from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,
Having my law the seventh time disobey’d,
I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.
Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep,
I visited his bed,
But found him slumbering deep,
With darken’d eyelids, and their lashes yet
From his late sobbing wet.
And I, with moan,
Kissing away his tears, left others of my own;
For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.
So when that night I pray’d
To God, I wept, and said:
Ah, when at last we lie with tranced breath,
Not vexing Thee in death,
And Thou rememberest of what toys
We made our joys,
How weakly understood
Thy great commanded good,
Then, fatherly not less
Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay,
Thou’lt leave Thy wrath, and say,
“I will be sorry for their childishness.”

Here’s a poem that confounds conventional stereotypes about Victorian fathers.

The first sentence  tells us what’s happened:

My little Son, who look’d from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,
Having my law the seventh time disobey’d,
I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.

I’d want to go  very slowly through these opening lines  and get my group to think about the order of  the various bits of information here. First, we are set down right in front of the child, ‘my little Son’, where the adjective ‘little’ seems almost an endearment as well as a descriptor.

Then we see him in a wider, more extended context:

…who look’d from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,

This child, is normally well-behaved, ‘thoughtful’ and easy to parent,  he ‘moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise.’ Does the father treat him as an adult? and could that be part of the problem – was he expecting too much? No childishness?

I realise as I am reading that this feels like overhearing a confession or a counselling session. The father is remembering and thinking about this painful incident, but he’s not just telling the story of the incident. He is telling us his feelings about what happened. There’s much love, tenderness, in the first two lines as he  recounts how much he loves the child and how good the child is normally. Which makes the next part so much the more painful:

Having my law the seventh time disobey’d,
I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.

The father has a law – rules, we might call them, or, these days,  boundaries. But there is huge authority in that word law, and it does make me think (I know we are not there yet but I know it is coming, having read the poem through a couple of times) God The Father.

The child has tried his father’s patience and seven times. That’s quite a lot of times that your child has stepped over the boundary.  I imagine some small child-crime – pushing the sibling off the slide – once, three times – I’m getting pretty angry. Seven times?  Getting very cross indeed…But  is that ‘seven’ an echo of something? It must be a reference to the Bible:

(Romans 12:14-21)

21Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? 22Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

We no longer think it right to strike children, but in Patmore’s day that would have been not simply socially acceptable  but considered the right way to enforce disciple – it was in my childhood and  in my own children’s childhoods. But as bad as the  blow, possibly worse, is the emotional pain of rejection –  it’s the father who did the rejecting –  in the name of parental authority – but he suffers it now :

I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.

We get to a key pain here for the father – the word ‘unkiss’d ‘ seems to raise the memory, ghostly presence, of the mother. That mother, ‘who was patient’, would  not have done this or let it happen, and is dead. ‘Being dead’  – that’s an odd way to put it. It feels raw.

Thre’s a kind of paraphrase I want to make:  ‘his motherbeing dead, I  hit the child and sent him away unkindly, unkissed. She’d never have let that happen.’

We are likely  to think of the poem at first as showing us a classic stern Victorian father stereotype but what we’re getting here is actually a different kind of classic: difficulty of the single parent, having to be both father and mother, having to set a boundary, stick to it and pull back when a line is crossed.  It’s hard that the little clause, ‘who was patient’, is  set in  the middle of that line about death, that patience is unavailable. The father has not been patient; certainly not to seventy times seven.

It’s so recognisable – every parent must have had this experience or something like it at some point.

But I want to think for a moment about that ‘recognisable’. ‘Relevance’ is another of those troubling matters which are not easy to resolve with a rule of thumb or principle. Does what you take to a  group of people who are  – or are about to become – a Shared Reading group have to be ‘relevant’ ?  Do you only take ‘The Toys’ to a group of parents?  For a group of men who like fishing, do you only take a fishing magazine? And for those who follow the Kardashians or Love Island what should you be taking?

But most groups aren’t made up of  single issue members: fathers or fishing fans or Kardashian followers, people with a fear of horses, single parents or  those who only live in odd-numbered houses. All those people might well attend the same group. So catering for a specific interest group, or what one assumes is a specific interest  or single issue group (people who live round here, people with no qualifications, people engaged with mental health services)  is rarely the best way to go.  ‘People who live round here’ are all different individuals  and  yet also share some underlying human experience which is not necessarily ‘living round here’. The ‘underlying human’ is more powerful, in my experience, than the ‘connected by our living round here’. Good poems will work well with most people.

There are exceptions. I wouldn’t in the first instance think of reading ‘The Toys’ with a parent in prison for  abusing a child. As a man at Reader event once said to me, poems are like poems, they can go off, they can  hurt people. But that is not to say that I wouldn’t think of reading the poem later, when we had been reading together long enough, when we trusted one another, if it seemed as if it might help. Read in The Reader magazine about my colleague Megg, reading Charles Bukowski’s poem, ‘Bluebird’ in Send prison -sorry can’t remember which issue.

And of course, you do not know, you never know, the individual private experience of members of your group, who might have been abused by parents  or others, or have been perpetrators or sufferers of domestic violence.

Most people know quite a lot about most human experiences, wherever they live, whatever their educational experience, whether or not they work, live with a chronic illness or are in recovery from addiction. Poems will touch a spot in someone in your group. That  isn’t a  thing to be too afraid of –  though be a bit afraid, because it helps keep your mind on the likely responses – that is what poems do. That is what they are for, to find, activate  and connect the underlying human experience.

Almost everyone can relate to ‘The Toys’ because it is about feeling guilty after a bad mistake. That’s a human thing, not just  a Victorian dad thing.

Finish reading ‘The Toys’ tomorrow