Wholeheartedly for the Ideal: George Herbert, The Elixir

Albertine and Hops .JPG
Flourishing: Albertine Rose and Golden Hop, 1 June

On Saturday I’ll be leading a day of Shared Reading at the Ashoka Headquarters on Old Ford Road,  Bethnall Green, London. You can sign up for it here. We’ll be reading parts of Jeanette Winterson’s powerful memoir and meditation on inner life, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, and some poems by a favourite poet of hers, and mine, George Herbert.  I’m interested in seeing how ancient and modern languages for what we call ‘mental health’ or George Herbert called his ‘soul’, can fit together.

Today I’m reading ‘The Elixir’  by George Herbert,

As usual, I start from the uncomfortable position of being someone who doesn’t have a religion, faced with trying to understand a message from someone who does.  I have to translate Herbert’s ‘God’ into something I can understand.

This morning I’m thinking about the  place of Shared Reading at Calderstones – so sorry if my reading is peculiarly biased towards my own obsession. I’ll try to think outside my box as well as from deep within it!

The Elixir

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.
When I begin reading I have to read a couple of times to get into a non-sing song mind-set, and start concentrating deeply on the words.  for someone like me., with no God, what can the first lines, ‘Teach me, my God and King/ In all things Thee to see’
If I think of ‘God ‘ as  highest aspiration, best endeavour, an ideal, then I can begin to read the line as about learning to concentrate, the development of a sort of devotion to seeing the best that can be. For Calderstones, I’m thinking, how can I keep Shared Reading at the forefront of my mind, while developing businesses, a shop, the heritage centre?
In our time we have to find a way of re-understanding what ‘King’ might mean as well as ‘God’. I imagine a boss that I could really look up to, someone who was my leader,  and whom I would obey, utterly admirable, commanding respect. If I try to transfer to translate that thought to an ideal of set of ideals, then I feel I can read the poem’s opening as about demanding from myself a commitment to seeing and doing and being the best that can be. The poem begins with the word ‘teach’: in this endeavour I am, and need to see myself as a learner.  This boss is asking everything of me and I don’t know how to do it! Or am I asking my boss to ask everything of me? ‘Teach me, my God and King’.
The second couplet in that first verse is about the creation of habits. It is incredibly hard to do everything well, or even not badly. To aim for ‘anything’ (by implication, everything) is a massive ambition, and dedication. No wonder you have keep learning it every day, every time you do something.
Having a ‘God and King’, Herbert seems in  happier position than me,  because there is teaching, not just learning. Having a teacher can be a marvelous thing: learning by yourself alone is hard. I wonder if there is any way I can use those ideals, that sense of ‘the best it could possibly be’, to teach me? I’d have to keep them in mind, which is hard to do, as the days  unfold so busily.
I look at the next stanza:
Not rudely, as a beast,
         To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
         And give it his perfection.
First, there’s an odd thing happening with pronouns here in the third and fourth line. I’m not sure if it is important. But come back to that – start with the beast!  hhmm, keeping the good, the best, the ideal of anything in mind and not running ‘into an action’… oh dear, yes. I recognise this problem.
Now I like beasts and am in favour of them and think humans underestimate them. But I do think that humans have, or seem to have, more consciousness of a particular sort. This is our special quality – we  are conscious, we have language and forethought and we seek meaning.  Why then, do I so heartily recognise the rushing into action without thought Herbert describes here?
Is the poem asking me to develop extra consciousness, to be more conscious and more dedicated to consciousness than I have been?
I begin to think about the word ‘prepossest’ but I’m late – how frustrating – and my time is up – more tomorrow.

Meaning Seeking Creatures: Jeanette Winterson and George Herbert

Aliums in the rain at Calderstones, 30 May 

A short post this morning as I’m on the 6.05 from Lime Street and it’s wobbly on this Virgin Pendolino. I can’t be looking at the screen for long.

In preparation for my Sparks series reading day on Saturday (see previous posts) I’m rereading Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. 

Jeanette was adopted into a Pentecostal family and grew up with daily religious activity and  summer Gospel-tent crusades. By the time she left home to live in a car at sixteen her belief in all that had completely left her: in its place, English Literature A-Z in Accrington Public Library.

The early part of the book takes a cool-eyed but sometimes not unaffectionate look at that religious life. Winterson is particularly good on the effects of King James Bible language on uneducated people , including herself, but the powerful influence goes deeper than language:

I saw a lot of working class men and women – myself included – living a deeper, more thoughtful life than would have been possible without the church. These were not educated people; Bible study worked their brains. They met after work in noisy discussion. The sense of belonging to something big, something important, lent unity and meaning.

A meaningless life for a human being has none of the dignity of animal unselfconsciousness; we cannot simply eat, sleep, hunt and reproduce – we are meaning seeking creatures. The Western world has done away with religion but not with our religious impulses; we seem to need some higher purpose, some point to our lives – money and leisure, social progress, are just not enough.

With the imminent development and opening of The Reader’s HQ and home at Calderstones, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the difficult question of why The Reader is no longer only about reading. When I read this paragraph, it touched that nerve and seemed to offer a clue. I wondered, as I read this, whether meaning and community (or ‘meaning and unity’ as Jeanette calls it here) have not been the invisible, underlying purposes of The Reader since I founded it in 1997. Yesterday, trying and think my way around this with some colleagues, I remembered the wonderful quotation from Saul Bellow’s novel, Herzog, which Sarah Coley and I used  as the linchpin for the  editorial in the very first issue of The Reader magazine:

The people who come evening classes are only ostensibly after culture. Their great need, their hunger, is for good sense, clarity, truth – even an atom of it. People are dying – it is no metaphor – for lack of something real to carry home when day is done.

I have realised many times in the last twenty years that The Reader is not simply about literature. If that was the case, it would be no different to English Departments in Universities across the world. Shared Reading groups are not like seminars, and nor are they Book Clubs. they create conditions in which all kinds of people might find, or create, ‘something real to take home when day is done’.

Many shared Reading groups will resemble the Bible study groups Jeanette describes, particularly when she writes, ‘the sense of belonging to something big, something important, lent unity and meaning.’

I’m interested in what she means when she writes of ‘religious impulses’,

we seem to need some higher purpose, some point to our lives – money and leisure, social progress, are just not enough

Jeanette becomes an adult who provides for herself – money and leisure, houses and a career as a writer – and these things, as the book goes on, are clearly  ‘just not enough’. She studied English Literature at Oxford. George Herbert became a key influence, a most beloved poet. under the skin of their personal biographies there is a familial connection.

The sense of life as an unfolding ‘yes’ is strong in the first half of the book. The religious impulse – is that the impulse to higher purpose, to meaning, to beyond-the-self? – is in many ways addressed for Winterson by reading and writing. Mixed up in that religious impulse is individual story, individual trauma, personal mess.  The second half the book is going to open some of that up.

Looking forward to reading more on my journey home.

Forgive today’s typos and lack of proof reading. Train wobbles.


Reading for Recovery

(This lovely thing came from etsy and I haven’t bought it yet!)il_340x270.643330957_5clq

Once upon a time, there was a man, call him Joe, who had started out his adult life as an eighteen-year-old in a teacher training college, with a cheerful conviction that he’d be ok and life was fun and he was going to enjoy it. He enjoyed the student bar. But now Joe was 47, and that conviction about life being for living (Drinking! Bars! Pubs!) felt shaky, maybe even broken, Certainly rusty and not actually any use to him in the Anytown Drug and Alcohol Centre in which he now found himself.

Joe had had an interesting range of jobs over the years – he had been a teacher, and then a (commission-based) financial advisor, and a tyre shop manager (yipes, the paperwork, the messy, messy paperwork) and a butcher’s assistant (good eating) and man who worked in DIY superstore (nailed it!) and he been latterly a security guard on derelict council office site, at last Joe had been unemployed. There were other times in between all this but they were long blanks of dreamless sleep lasting days or months. In his twenties and thirties Joe had had a wife and  children and a home, with a big garden where he had grown vegetables and he had wellies and dogs and played golf sometimes and went fishing and he had a toolbox and he could put up shelves and build a loft extension with the best of them.

But as time went on, the drinking took up more and more room in his life so there wasn’t room or time in the day for his job (whatever it happened to be at that particular time), or for his toolbox which was actually stolen from his car in a pub car park, or for going fishing with his son, Johnny. And it seemed as if there wasn’t really room in his head for his children because they drifted away from him. And one day his wife left his stuff in the garden and changed the locks and called the police on him, and there was the divorce and he lost the house and lived with a mate but then he suddenly woke up one morning under a bridge by the canal. The man next to him under the cardboard stank badly of piss and rot, and Joe thought, as he watched the ripples on the canal, ‘I don’t want to smell like that. I am a man who is sleeping rough under a bridge, with half a bottle of vodka in my pocket, but once I was teacher and I haven’t seen any of my kids for over a year and what if one of them walked past me now?’ And so he rolled up the cardboard, and drank the vodka and threw the bottle into the canal and went to see a doctor, who referred him to the Anytown Drug and Alcohol Service.

Where, over the next six months, Joe began to recover: with medical and psychiatric help, he got off the drink and he attended sessions of mindfulness and meditation, he tried the AA and had some counselling, and he found the fellowship of other people in recovery inspiring and helpful and one day he wrote a letter to his son, Johnny, and two months later they met up for a coffee. Johnny wasn’t that keen on meeting because Joe had done some very bad things when he was at his worst, though, of course, he had no memory of most of them, but Johnny hadn’t forgotten and Johnny wasn’t able to forgive his father, particularly for the way he had treated Mum. So after the coffee, which passed off quite well, Joe thought, Johnny went back to university and Joe went back to his bedsit, and they didn’t meet again for quite a long time.

Joe lives in a block of social housing at the back of the canal. He doesn’t have any friends because for years his friends were drinking mates and he doesn’t want to see them anymore. He doesn’t see his family because they have all been badly hurt by Joe-the-demon drinker. He doesn’t have the confidence to apply for a job so he hasn’t got any colleagues. That’s why he only meets people more or less in recovery from addictions or people who provide services to people with addictions. They mainly talk about recovering from addiction, or about people who are doing well at that, or people who have fallen back into bad places and who its best not to see any more because they smell of alcohol. Sometimes he tries Internet dating but when he meets the women they don’t seem to take to him, or if they do, he can’t quite take to them, and anyway, it can’t last because he can’t go to bars. He misses his wife and kids. He can’t remember whole chunks of their lives or his own. There’s a refrain from a Bob Dylan song going through his mind most of the time:

Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand
And rivers that ran through every day,
I must have been mad, I never knew what I had
Til I threw it all away…
I threw it all away

He’s 47. He’s not going to get it back.

At the Canalside D+A Centre, they have a shared reading group and one of the counsellors says to Joe, ‘Why don’t you give it a try?’ Joe remembers he used to like reading years ago in that other life before his life collapsed under that pile of cardboard under the bridge. He has nothing to do on Friday mornings. He gives it a go.

In the group they are reading a story about a couple of men on some sort of expedition. It’s a story by Rudyard Kipling. It’s hard to concentrate but the woman reads it well, and after she’s been reading for a while they all start talking about it. Why did he do that? Did whatisname say something? Can you trust the other fellow? Have you ever been that scared? Joe doesn’t say anything but a guy he’s seen in AA asks him if he wants to help him get the cups and they make the teas and coffees and have a smoke together and the bloke says ‘ It’s good, you’ll get into it…’
‘Good story,’ says Joe. ‘I like Kipling – The Jungle BookIf, all that.’

The words feel like vomit. He can’t believe they are coming out of him. Truth is he’s forgotten that he had ever known or even heard of Kipling or that such a thing as The Jungle Book or If existed. He feels a weird sensation, like something gently cracking open, like light coming in. Kipling, yes, The Jungle Book. If. ‘You’ll be a man my son.’ Ouch. He turns his mind to the coffee cups.

They go back in and the woman asks if anyone else wants to read. Frankie starts reading, hesitant, but it’s ok. I could do that, Joe thinks. The story is about two friends who don’t trust each other. Joe thinks back to a bit of his life he can remember, something that happened with one of his friends. He doesn’t like to remember that thing. He turns away from the scene playing out in his head and back to the story. The story is hard to follow – ‘I’m out of practice,’ he jokes and someone else laughs and says ‘I haven’t got a effin clue, mate.’

Frankie continues to read from The Man Who Would Be King. Joe drifts in and out, his mind awhirl. ‘Awhirl.’ He thinks to himself ‘Awhirl and sober, haven’t felt like that for a long time.’

For 15 years The Reader has been developing an outreach model, creating warm, welcoming spaces in which people can come together and experience being part of a community-like-family. We sit in a circle, usually round a table, sharing a book by reading it aloud. The atmosphere is both social and personal, kind, as if we were kin. We share our human experiences through the book.
‘I read about others,’ says one group member,’ but I learn about myself.’
‘For two hours a week,’ says a man, call him Joe, who has lost wife, children, home and job and is struggling to remain in recovery.  ‘I have meaning in my life. More please!’

We’re raising money to build our International Centre for Shared Reading at Calderstones. Give Joe somewhere to go  to come back to life. Please donate what you can.


Regeneration: New Life Stirring at The Mansion House

South windows, spring 2012
Calderstones Mansion House, south windows, Spring 2012

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On Friday 12th and Saturday 13th of April, The Reader Organisation opened the doors of the Mansion House (in Liverpool’s Calderstones Park) to the public for the first time in forty years. We had more than 1200 visitors, from new babies to nonageniarians, and many pushchairs, wheelchairs, bikes and scooters, 20-odd dogs, including the unaccompanied chocolate labrador who bounded in at top speed,  did a fast and chaos-causing circuit of all the open rooms on the ground floor – hall, drawing room, the kids camp creative, the garden stage and then back out the front door, without stopping to make eye contact with anyone. That dog was concentrating. When I told Brian (Nellibobs), about the labby, he said, ‘That  was an angel come to bless the place.’  Thorough, fast, a little crazy, utterly concentrated, and very chocolatey…yes, sounds like a Reader angel…

We want to talk to  everyone who is interested in our plan to develop an International Centre for Reading and Wellbeing here at Calderstones, and these two open days  are the opening stage of our consultation process.

Everyone was delighted to have the building open, and it was  lovely to meet people who said, I have been walking past this building for 30 years… or who  had held their wedding receptions here thirty, forty, fifty and more years ago – people brought photos and wedding albums, and one lady brought the receipt for her do – cost over £30! We asked everyone to write down memories of the building, and filled two big noticeboards…One man’s great great grandfather was Head Coachman here. We’ll publish all these memories once transcribed. And nearby, we filled a wall with wishes bunting – asking our visitors what would you like to see happen here?

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We took more than £800 on our book and cake stalls, and Chris Catterall (TROs Business Brain) asked me to record for posterity The Reader’s first shop (some of us have been wanting to open a shop for a long long time.) So here it is:

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People were waiting on the step when we opened at 10.00am on Friday  and they kept coming – here are people entering  late on Saturday afternoon – that’s the front door to the right of the picture. Below are scenes from Camp Creative where the stories kept going all day. Notice the mysterious picture on the mantlepiece…

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On the Garden stage people remembered seeing pierrots and clowns, talent shows and brass bands and performing dogs… and people volunteered their skills and talents – in retail, business analysis, flower arranging, adult education, cooking, drama. And paranormal investigations!  (The Mansion was owned by the McIver family who founded the famous Cunard Line, so we’re bound to have a few interesting ghost stories…)2013-04-12 14.22.17

2013-04-12 12.07.21One of our future readers slept through the whole thing… and many old friends travelled from Wirral to see us and recall the early days of Get Into Reading – here’s Brenda with her daughter and grandson…

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Late on Saturday, I was delighted to meet three old friends from the 1970’s feminist commune days – Sue, Naomi and Nina. We lived together with other women and our children at No.2 Sunnyside, a lovely 1840’s house on the perimeter of Princes Park. It’s very similar to the Mansion House in style, though a bit smaller. The Reader Organisation owes a lot to  things I learned as the youngest member of Lysistrata, which gave me the chance to become a do-er.  Strange sense of  some sort of  completion, to walk around the yet-to-be-made thing that is the Mansion House with these women who had so much influence on my 20 year old self.  ‘Say  not the struggle naught availeth’, as Liverpool-born poet  Arthur Hugh Clough wrote.

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At finally, at the end of Friday, we’d created so much heat and dust that we set the fire alarm off, just after the public had gone. Shivering on the  assembly point, we were led in a very Readerly Harlem shake by our own resident dancer, the delightfully flexible Criminal Justice Projects Manager, Amanda Brown. It ain’t over, as they say…