A Jollier Crew?

The Skull Beneath the Skin

Bodley MS Rawl D 403, woodcut 3

The last couple of months – well, since the summer, really, I have had this grin daily before my eyes. He’s not the pleasantest of sights: that almost reptilian spine… that grin… but in this (?) C16th woodcut he certainly seems to be enjoying his role at the foot of the Apocalyptic Son of Man more than the Bridgettine brother he is attacking. And here’s where we take off from this image – into the ways in which the zygomatic muscles pull the face into a smile, widening the mouth in something of the way the jaws go. The smile is present in the skull – sort of.

De Lisle Psalter, England (East Anglia), c. 1308 – c. 1340, Arundel MS 83, f. 127v

This is T S Eliot‘s notion that I have discussed before, when thinking about Funnybones. It gives a smile to the Three Dead in the medieval legend (well explored by the British Library here – but do check out the plain daft expression of the revenant, far right). There just seems a suspicion that the dead have a good time being dead – and it all seems down to That Grin. Ignore the worms, the rotting grave clothes; the menace is underscored by the manic possibilities that these figures are having fun. The C13th – C14th story is more moral than this: the memento mori, however it comes, is a stark reminder to ground oneself, to make a good and pious life before going to join these creatures. In this they are reminiscent of the disgruntled undead urging Jack, the American Werewolf in London, to “do the right thing” and end the curse of the werewolf.

The Danse Macabre of Saint-Saëns is much more of a celebration, a wild dance by night, out of control, perhaps, but fun? Yes, I think so, and the comic operetta of Gilbert and Sullivan, Ruddigore, picks up the theme: dance, enjoyment and return to the grave as the day dawns, beginning with the line that I have used for a title:

We spectres are a jollier crew than you, perhaps, suppose.

In this (cheesy but entertaining) animated version of the ghostly Sir Roderic Murgatroyd’s song, the airy glee is evident, as “with a mop and a mow” the ghosts take their luckless descendant (it’s complicated) to show him their revels. Perhaps this version is closer to the stage productions – but I digress.

Jack Pelutsky’s poem is driven on by the ghoulish subject – the dominating theme throughout the collection, and a clever use of of just-slightly-over-the-top phrasing: the spirits work their will… they flex their fleshless knees…a soft susurrous sound. Alliteration really does a lot of work here, and very effective it is, too. This is a poem for performance. It isn’t a simple response to When the Night Wind Howls from Ruddigore, however: note the wintry graveyard, which might suggest to today’s reader The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the insubstantiality of these undulating spectres as they shimmer in the moonlight:

In a snow-enshrouded graveyard

gripped by winter’s bitter chill,

not a single soul is stirring,

all is silent, all is still

till a distant bell tolls midnight

and the spirits work their will.

For emerging from their coffins

Arnold Lobel’s Thirteen Skeletons

buried deep beneath the snow,

thirteen bony apparitions

now commence their spectral show,

and they gather in the moonlight

undulating as they go.

And they’ll dance in their bones,

in their bare bare bones,

with the click and the clack

and the chatter and the chack

and the clatter and the chatter

of their bare bare bones.

They shake their flimsy shoulders

and they flex their fleshless knees

and they nod their skulls in greeting

in the penetrating breeze

as they form an eerie circle

near the gnarled and twisted trees.

They link their spindly fingers

as they promenade around

casting otherworldly shadows

on the silver-mantled ground

and their footfalls in the snowdrift

make a soft, susurrous sound.

And they dance in their bones,

in their bare bare bones,

with the click and the clack

and the chatter and the chack

and the clatter and the chatter

of their bare bare bones.

The thirteen grinning skeletons

continue on their way

as to strains of soundless music

they begin to swing and sway

and they circle ever faster

in their ghastly roundelay.

Faster, faster ever faster

and yet faster now they race,

winding, whirling, ever swirling

in the frenzy of their pace

and they shimmer in the moonlight

as they spin themselves through space.

And they dance in their bones,

in their bare bare bones,

with the click and the clack

and the chatter and the chack

and the clatter and the chatter

of their bare bare bones.

Then as quickly as it started 

their nocturnal dance is done

for the bell that is their signal

loudly tolls the hour of one

and they bow to one another 

in their bony unison.

Then they vanish to their coffins

by their ghostly thoroughfare

and the emptiness of silence

once more fills the frosted air

and the snows that mask their footprints

show no sign that they were there.

But they danced in their bones,

in their bare bare bones,

with the click and the clack

and the chatter and the chack

and the clatter and the chatter

of their bare bare bones.

Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Arnold Lobel [NB: in the book this is stanza’d, something I am miserably bad at replicating]

Just in W S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s collaboration, music and words contain pastiche and musical and literary nods to other work, in Prelutsky and Lobel’s Dance of the Thirteen Skeletons in the collection Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep we are into the Danse Macabre in a big way: the graveyard, the distant bell, those clattering onomatopoeias. And in the artwork, a cascade of skeletons, sudden insights into their joyous dance, and – to bring is back to the start of this post – the grin.

It is a scene that has also been represented by poets of the calibre of Sylvia Plath. Here her grim insights seem to extend beyond the grave, to point to the futility of our passing lives:

Down among strict roots and rocks,
eclipsed beneath blind lid of land
goes the grass-embroidered box.

Arranged in sheets of ice, the fond
skeleton still craves to have
fever from the world behind.

Hands reach back to relics of
nippled moons, extinct and cold,
frozen in designs of love.

At twelve, each skull is aureoled
with recollection’s ticking thorns
winding up the raveled mold.

Needles nag like unicorns,
assault a sleeping virgin’s shroud
till her stubborn body burns.

Lured by brigands in the blood,
shanks of bone now resurrect,
inveigled to forsake the sod.

Eloping from their slabs, abstract
couples court by milk of moon:
sheer silver blurs their phantom act.

Luminous, the town of stone
anticipates the warning sound
of cockcrow crying up the dawn.

With kiss of cinders, ghosts descend,
compelled to deadlock underground.

For Plath, while they are very human, the dead are not so jolly. That line “recollections ticking thorns” is particularly harsh, as if these ghosts are seduced into a nighttime of regret before turning back to their graveyards and the deadlock of their afterlife domesticity.

Revels, lust, delight and regret: the task seems to be that of humanising the skeleton-revenant – but how can we humanise what is already human? I suggest that we do so by seeing our common experiences, that the dead are not something other than us, but simply part of what it is to be human: to exchange the shimmering abstract for an earthier monster, we have to acknowledge that this thing of darkness is already ours.

Meȝelmas Mone

A Quick Review of the new retelling of Gawain…

“The story could not be more simple or more perplexing” writes Peter Bradshaw in his review of The Green Knight, and this is as true of the new film as it is of the romance found in MD Cotton Nero A.x., Art 3. Here we are nearly at Michaelmas, a special time for me as I reflect on forty years of being married, and also the season when I think again and again of Gawain, and Garner, and the challenges of those trips up to the Peaks, and so this is well timed for me, even though The Green Knight has been much delayed, at last we get to see the new film.

It presents a game of colours and shadows that intrigues, delights (for the most part) and challenges: the costumes were fantasy-wonderful – the peculiar crown was a particular favourite of mine. The scenery was mostly well researched: if the forests were a bit Forestry Commission, the high moors looked wonderfully bleak – was that actually Thor’s cave in one scene? Maybe it was an odd way to get from St Winifrede’s Well to Lud’s Church, but in Oxford we get used to scenes of people crossing one quad into an entirely different college. Loads of fog, and silhouettes of the lost traveller while crows caw and perspectives shift. The Green Chapel – over-lush for Christmas, but teeming with a Spring promise of greenery – was everything one might imagine of Lud’s Church painted in mythic colours. While it is a retelling rather than a cinema version of the poem (but yes, there is a very quick flash of the MS at one point) it maintains much of the tension and the ambiguity, and sticks with one of the poem’s principal dilemmas: how does Gawain prove himself when he is so out of his depth? Yes, I did like it.

But there are holes in the film – some deliberate (unless I missed it, we are not given many names other than Gawain and his girlfriend: is this all in Gawain’s head, some sort of Mantel-like psychodrama?); some…well, I’m not sure. A lack of reveal about the witchiness of the plot was odd – and although the ‘magic’ of the women was brilliantly portrayed, I was unsure why we were left to infer quite what they were up to, with Gawain’s mother in on it all, and a creepy Morgana an olde auncien wyf for sure, unintroduced, wandering around Castle Bertilak. And are those ettins, the giants that sort of added atmosphere but not much else? And what was the fox there for? What was St Winifred doing there? A sort of nod to a topography of Gawain’s journey, or a quick footnote on the folklore of the headless? Lots of questions – and it won’t be a hard task to sit and watch it again – but did we really need quite such a dim and draughty pile for Camelot?

Ah yes, Camelot. It was a bold move to set distant castles on hilltops, and some times looking rather (let’s be generous) storybook – but once one of us had humphed “It’s only a model,” and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (that excellent parody of Medieval Mud and All imagery) had been mentioned, it took some time to recover.

Recover we did. Bertilak goes off hunting and so does Lady Bertilak, openly sexually assertive towards Gawain, and a sight more explicit than the poem – and she is given the best speech in the whole film, a quick mini-keynote on what the imagery of Green might signify. Then the kiss of Lord Bertilak to Gawain was just long enough, just suggestive enough to make you think that the Bertilaks are well aware of each other’s game. Gawain (well played by Dev Patel from young and lost in his first scene to old and lost in a scene towards the end) is caught between ‘real’ goodness and the fake goodness of simply keeping up the Christian chivalric code. How does this play out?

Bradshaw and I agree on how successful the atmosphere of “shroomy toxicity and inexplicable moral grandeur” is: the second half, with all that wet-dream (or whatever) tension and the might-be visions of eschewing the Green Knight’s blow is a genuine tour de force. I’m going to avoid spoilers – but the end is every bit as ambiguous as the end of the poem, and I have to say completely won me over. It’s only a game, the King tells us – but what kind of a game are we playing?

Little Trees

…and the people who live with them.

I often think about the big beech tree (bottom right and below) by our front gate: its looming presence in wet weather; the leaves in the autumn; the squirrels, pigeons, whitefly… I worry about it in the high winds, and glory in it in the spring. I am also aware of the smaller trees that have come to be part of my life, and am always grateful for the life chances that allow me to go to the allotment and pick apples and damsons (fewer this year, after a surprise, cruel, late frost). And then there are my smallest trees: a bonsai ficus (top left) I bought at a student market and am nursing back to health, the little oak (centre) I have trimmed and wired for a few years, the seedling red oak (bottom left) I found on the allotment this year and didn’t have the heart to hoe up but replanted and brought home.

It’s as if my desire to feel trees as a healing presence is played out in large scale and small.

And then a pair of books come up for me to read, the first simply a chance find in a charity shop from a To Be Read list. Timothée de Fombelle’s Toby Alone and its “sequel” (really part 2), Toby and the Secrets of the Tree. Toby is one and half millimetres tall and his world, at least at the start, is a tree from topmost leaves to where it sinks into the soil. Small people – from Lilliput to Borrowers, from Hobberdy Dick to Hobbits – are nothing new, but de Fombelle is daring in making his characters so small. Daring, too, in then taking the ecosystem of the tree they live in and describing it in terms of landscape.

At the bottom of the Tree, before it comes into contact with the earth, the wood from the Trunk rises up to form high mountain ridges.

Needle rocks, bottomless precipices…the surface of the bark is crumbled, like rippling curtain folds. Moss forests cling to the peaks, trapping snowflakes in winter. the valley passes are blocked by ivy creepers. It makes for a dangerous, impassable terrain.

Timothée de Fombelle: Toby and the Secrets of the Tree Ch 3: Someone Returns
The Crater from Toby Alone, illus François Place

It is the scale that boggles the mind. The Tree is at once a massive entity and a vulnerable one, a stage on which the cleverly Dickensian drama of lost children and choices based on mistakes, and a body around which a drama unfolds like a hospital soap opera. The smallness of Toby and the rest of the Tree and Grass people allows this to be played out wonderfully clearly. The technology of living a (sort of) human life at the scale de Fombelle describes is passed over in many places, made much of elsewhere: the terrifying soldier ants and destructive weevils underline the issue of scale; cigarettes, prison door keys, carts, boots are accepted parts of this society. The author works hard to make these transitions unobtrusive. Essentially this is a meditation on power and corruption and ecocide and resistance: a competent political thriller and romance but very much in miniscule. So is the setting on a tree merely a backdrop?

Toby’s tree is a presence as much as a setting, and its fate is the matter of both books. Ruthless, populist entrepreneur Mitch digs sordid housing projects at the cost of the Tree’s health – and therefore at the cost of the society he is claiming to protect. Toby’s father is a marginalised and then persecuted scientist intent on protecting his world by exposing what’s going on (I am reminded of the HS2 project as I read Toby’s adventures, but then think that Toby’s Tree is just one; we have seen woodland after woodland, thousands of trees cut down – the emotive word is wilfully, and tonight it seems right). Friendship, loyalty, rivalry and love – these may be the strands which move the story along, but the politics of violence are violence not only to the people who live on and at the foot of the Tree but also to the Tree itself: ecocide as a sort of suicide.

I am therefore reminded of the protestors’ occupation of the massive tree in Powers’ The Overstory:

He has seen monster trees for weeks, but never one like this. Mimas: wider across than his great-great-great-grandfather’s old farmhouse. Here, as sundown blankets them, the feel is primeval, darshan, a face-to-face intro to divinity. The tree runs straight up like a chimney butte and neglects to stop. From underneath, it could be Yggdrasil, the World Tree, with its roots in the underworld and crown in the world above.

Richard Powers: The Overstory: Trunk

And there is the connection: The World Tree. The Tree that Toby inhabits in the de Fombelle books is a world, to start with, just the one tree. Ravaged Mimas, the doomed chestnuts, the rewilded back yard with its pine tree,the Brazilian forest where all is fringe and braid and pleat, scales and spines are diverse but more interconnected in The Overstory, although it takes tree-years for the humans to grasp this, and then only some of them, and even then only imperfectly.

With that connection comes an answer to the riddle of scale: De Fombelle’s millimetre-high hero is related to his environment in much the same scale as the humans in The Overstory are related to the forests, the priestly tulip trees, the baobabs and quiver trees they inhabit or protest over or study. Toby is tiny to us, even tinier to the Tree, in the same way as we are tiny to the ancient forests of the human world – and what De Fombelle allows us to see is one tree in its fragility and complexity and then look up and ask: if that is one tree, what then is a forest? What mission might we be on, if Toby’s adventure is to save his Tree? Looking into Toby’s world is like contemplating the sudden shift in focus with a camera: new ideas come into view, new oportunities to see our place in the world. As Toby’s father Sim claims, Nature is a magician; as my perspective shifts from Toby to the trees in The Overstory and back again, I wonder how often I overlook the magic, that face-to-face intro to divinity.

Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives…

Do you think this world is only an entertainment for you?

Mary Oliver, Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives

The beech (I don’t feel I can call it “my” beech), like Mary Oliver’s Black Walnut

swings through another year

of sun and leaping winds,

of leaves and bounding fruit

and I am all of a sudden, looking at it entirely differently.

Re-reading Narnia

Almost a microblog, this – a notification that my friend Chris Lovegrove (with whom I collaborated on a read-though of the Snow Spider stories: see this example from Chris, and this from me) is giving notice of a read-through, in publication order, of the Chronicles of Narnia, starting in November, under the title Narniathon21. He is incredibly well read and thoughtful: it will be a wonder.

I come back to C S Lewis on my blog fairly often, but not always to Narnia, although the present scambling and unquiet time sends me back to Puddleglum more often than not if I catch the news. Perhaps I need to ponder why I have not come back to Narnia more often or in more depth.

Whatever the answer, I am looking forward to Chris’ look, book by book, at everyone from Lucy to Tirian, from Jadis to Shift, from Calormen to Stable Hill. And maybe confronting my discomfort.

Examination Committees and Beyond

Jumplings

This week I have been watching seabirds, looking in particular for jumplings, those hair-raising young guillemots plunging from their nests on the cliffs. The Isle of May blog makes a great show of the guillemot dive: check it out here.

St Abb’s Head: seabirds

When I’ve written about Graduation before I have been aware of the uncertainties around what graduating actually does. Here I suggested the work the student has done allows their standing to be recognised. The academic exercises, successfully completed, bring about a recognition that this person or that has done the job they set out to do, but I also pointed out there is more than this. It is about belonging.

If, as I have suggested before, this is about

our ability and willingness to make meaningful connections with others, and under favourable conditions, to do so in a way that improves a situation or makes the world a better place

Bellous, J (2019) An inclusive spiritual education. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality https://doi-org.oxfordbrookes.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/1364436X.2019.1675603

then we are engaged in a spiritual practice when we graduate our students. It may not feel like it during an Examination Committee, or even listening to the (sometimes) not sparkling celebrity speaker, but we do also participate in representing part of the project the students have joined us in.

As David Lodge, in discussing Finals writes that even the word

implies that nothing of importance can happen after it.

David Lodge: Changing Places

So what do we do when we graduate students? Are we watching set them sail? Is all this ceremony just the waving of hankies on the quai? [Cue: picture of quaiside]…

Victoria Harbour, Dunbar

I have friends leaving their posts at Brookes this summer who will leave after a quick drink and a present, but I am conscious of the wistfulness of these passages of time, of Alcuin missing the Sacra Iuventus… Should we say goodbye with more ceremony? With less, but more intimacy? Something that says “you still belong”? What does that belonging consist of? What survives beyond the handing-back of the hired gown, the shelving of the retirement gift?

It is a leaving home experience to some extent, but in both cases it has an important difference: If, as the saying goes, home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in, then the leave-taking of graduation and retirement are different in that there is no necessary return. The last pay slip (electronic or otherwise), the outcome of the final examination committee – and then what?

Pastoral and management roles cease to have meaning. Là ! C’est fini pour Antigone. I have used Anouilh before and won’t labour the point; the things that most mean we belong become threadbare, almost meaningless. Or at least the structural, institutional things do.

But belonging is subtler than the Alumni email, sweeter, even than the gift at retirement: it is a net of memory and relationship that can go beyond the BA photo, the rose bush or signed book. To finish, then, here is a thought or two from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow.

Many people become extremely dependent on a daily “fix” of superficial contacts…

And (a little later) he tells us that, beyond the validation of one’s own sense of self brought about by these smaller, casual congenial interactions, it is the deeper friendship that has the greater power:

There are few things as enjoyable as freely sharing one’s most secret feelings and thoughts with another person. Even though this sounds like a commonplace, it in fact requires concentrated attention, openness and sensitivity.

Csikszentmihalyi: Flow: Enjoying Friends

So that is what we might prepare for on both leave-takings: I am not suggesting that university courses or jobs should be a sort of dating service (although sometimes it is!) but that the favourable connections I mentioned earlier need to be stressed. For graduands and people approaching retirement alike, when we make that guillemot-like leap from the cliff, we need to prepare by acknowledging the emotional connections and think about how to sustain them – and institutions (and their members?) maybe need to think beyond the check-out.

Plenty of important stuff is, we’d hope, still to come: what we take with us – again, we’d hope – is our friendships. Maybe even here

What will survive of us is love.

People of the Sea

GOE, and catche a falling starre…Teach me to heare Mermen singing

I think that the first mer-character I really remember was a mer-boy who either rescues Rupert the Bear or who is rescued by the smartly-dressed ursine adventurer. Looking at various stories in which the merboy figures, I can’t say for certain which it was – I remember the putto-like character, the rocky shore, a sea-serpent…. All rather untamed, compared with the donkeys-and-pier seaside I knew in Cleethorpes, but somewhat like bits of Dorset. For me at the time, seaside was not a place of uncanny encounters, but I did recognise that such meetings, on a chilly shore, make for a great read. Katharine Briggs has some good stories of Merrows and seal-people scattered through her books but she does warn that

The mermaids are perhaps of the most ambivalent character. The very sight of them at sea is death to sailors, and it is their habit to decoy people under water, but at times they are benevolent …

K M Briggs: “Forgotten gods and Nature Spirits” in The Fairies in Tradition and Literature.

Human fear of drowning and perhaps a fear of the disruption to a society of a sort of seductive sexuality make the mermaid seem a dangerous creature. Note, however, that Briggs refers here to maids, to dangerous aquatic females – but she is aware, too, of male people of the sea.

While thinking of Mermen, it is worth turning to Walter Map, whose work De Nugis Curialium contains the story of Nicholas Pipe, described as

A true man with no hint of the inhuman in any of his limbs and with no defect in any of his five senses, he had been given, beyond his humanity, the aptitudes of a fish.

Illusions and Resurrections
selected from Walter Map’s De nugis curialium
translated and adapted by M. T. Anderson

but tellingly also less than a human and united with the fishes. (see this edition for all sorts of name-dropping, snarky comments and so on from Walter Map – and occasional folktales and horror stories). It strikes me that what Pipe is, is a creature, like many supernatural creatures, able to move between the accepted world and the unknown. In the book People of the Sea a seal inland worries islanders that it might be something more than a seal. That ambiguity is the stuff of the uncanny.

People of the Sea requires a bit of explanation. I’d seen merpeople in Narnia, read the Little Mermaid with its chilling message about hopeless love, and then was bought David Thomson’s rich and bleak The People of the Sea one Christmas in the early 80s. Here Thomson recounts the classic Selchie Tale of the seal-woman who raises a land family (in this case under duress) before returning to the sea. It’s a haunting tale that gets a beautiful modern retelling in the film Song of the Sea (Trailer here), and a different exploration around sibling bereavement in Brahmachari and Ray’s Corey’s Rock. (NB, I have explored Corey’s Rock before: link here). There are versions of Selchie tales of all sorts, told in almost orientalised contexts in David Thomson’s book, attesting to the power of these ambiguous creatures, and relationships between land people and magic sea people – and earthly seals too, hunted with respect but not sentimentality.

And the latest voices and images to attest to that power belong to Ian Eagleton and James Mayhew. Again drowning is a key dramatic element, and the story draws on Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid – or perhaps the Disney version*. No Prince to be rescued here, but a scruffy-but-nice Fisherman called Ernest; no manipulative Sea-Witch, but a jealous ruler, Pelagios, Nen’s father, a gloriously imperious, almost gilded merman straight from an eighteenth-century fireplace.

The characters are “between worlds” (a phrase I picked up from the BBC series on the influence of Irish music and this piece by Michael O’Suilleabhain), like the unicorn Findhorn in Alan Garner’s magnificent and threatening fantasy Elidor (a great blog report here). Findhorn walks in high places and yet meets his end in the lap of a virgin not in a glorious, flowery tapestry but on a demolition site in 60s Manchester. Nen, in sharp contrast, lives in deep places, but finds fulfilment in the gaze of a lonely fisherman on a coast of rocks and cottages, and his father begins to wonder whether the two worlds are as different as he had thought.

Just as I like the way James Mayhew depicts the anguished hauteur of Pelagios – and while I promised not to think of Disney, it does match, if not exceed, the wrath of Triton in The Little Mermaid – the eye contact between the merman Nen and his lonely fisherman Ernest is also charmingly warm. The images stand in opposition to each other. The sighing ocean and the violent waves, are calmed by the merman’s song tender and brimming with courage – and Pelagios’ doubts over the human world abate like the storm, so that Nen and his (a little word but worth noting) fisherman are on a rock laughing and dreaming about the future.

It is here that the despair of Andersen is passed over, and the subtexts of abuse and grief from the Selchie stories of the Gaelic islands are rewritten. More tales could be told – maybe should be told – about Nen and Ernest as they grow and share their lives. We are not in the world of the uncanny – or with John Donne in the world of fantastic improbability as in the headquote – but in a world of acceptance.

*[And as an aside, I have to say that, tempting though it might be to read this (and write about Ian and James’ book) as a queering of Disney, I’m largely going to leave Uncle Walt to others.]

Endosperm and Scandicus

…and liddle lamzy divey, as the song goes. Words baffle, words elucidate, words induct you into a club – or exclude you. Consider this opening sentence to chapter one of a book I was looking at last night:

The vascular plants, or tracheophytes, which possess specialised conducting system include four phyla of the plant kingdom: 1, Psilopsida (chiefly fossils); 2, Lycopsida (clubmosses); 3, Sphenopsida (horsetails) and 4. Pteropsida (ferns, gymnosperms or cone-bearing seed plants, and angiosperms or flower-bearing seed plants).

Abraham Fahn: Plant Anatomy, second ed. (1974)

Does it invite? Intrigue? How much there can I read (if reading is decoding)? How much of this can I read (if reading includes understanding)? I suppose I am thinking about this because I have been reading the book I ought now to call Clements and Tobin (“I hope you all did the reading from Clements and Tobin this week? Good.”), Understanding and Teaching Primary English, with its detailed account of all sorts of aspects of reading in Early Years and Primary education and (key to my point here) the holistic, contextualised and meaningful reading experiences which convince children of the purpose and pleasure behind reading.

What I miss from Fahn is that contextualising element. It’s not his fault: I have plunged in medias res with trying to learn technical building-blocks terms from an advanced book. In other words, as Maggie gently pointed out to me “I do have some more basic books if you like.”

A bit of Greek is my way in, but leads to more and more questions. Psilopsida are naked forms (and I now see the term is no longer used); are Lycopsida wolf-shaped – but why? Sphenopsida are wedge-shaped forms (yes, I’m looking them up by now) but what gives Pteropsida their winged shapes? I enter a maze of definitions and four paths open in front of me – my only guides the indices of books and a bit of etymology. Gymnosperms I knew both parts to, and could work out, but find at this point that I do not understand why they are gymnos, why naked; and I do not (yet?) understand what vessel or container holds the seed for an angiosperm. What does endo- mean in endosperm? A further level of comprehension is needed, more knowledge to understand what these things do, to understand why we have called them what we have. I am learning the words on this first page of chapter one like I learned the details of W S Gilbert lyrics (still not sure what dimity is here, in the Pirates of Penzance) or like, as an unlatinate child, I learned the Credo. In the right place, at the right time (and with the right people to support and inspire) these strange utterances have their own power. No wonder magic is often brought to life in spells, in words in a particular context.

Heaney, in his wonderful poem In Illo Tempore (text here) attests to the power of language: The verbs/ assumed us. We adored. And we lifted our eyes to the nouns… It is this power that provides me with motivation, just as the experience of being able to explore with my Vygotskian more knowledgeable peer (i.e. my Maggie!) gives context to my wondering. But as I think about how I dig about for meanings in an unfamiliar context, I think again about how I fight shy of the technical terms I am more used to.

I have no idea if a scandicus is a term in plant anatomy – maybe putting it in the title of this blog was just a bit naughty – but it is a term in in chant notation. We could start with a list of words a bit like Fahn does, and, like the intended readers of his Plant Anatomy, a beginner in chant could learn quilisma, pressus, podatus and the rest. The Liber Usualis, a sort of compendium of resources for western Church chant, takes this approach. In a similar way, a young altar server might learn responses and prayers and be drawn into the cadences of the text of the Mass (see Heaney, above), or – a more everyday experience in early learning – the glory of the names of dinosaurs (and I do love this list). However, the nomina nuda do not tell us much, unless you delve into word derivation. A passage from the Liber Usualis such as this:

Scandicus and climacus: these groups may be made up of three, four or five, or more notes…Not to be confused with the Scandicus, [the salicus] can be recognised by the vertical episema placed under one of the notes.

Liber Usualis, 1959

is as inscrutable without a guide as are Lycopsida and Pteropsida, Amygdalodon or Riojasaurus.

What does a reader need? One thing my dive into plants this week has shown me again is that we are all, if we let ourselves, learning to read. There is a power and a joy in reading a text or reading a landscape that for me is enhanced by an enriched vocabulary and a facility for diving into detail. So what the support do we need, whatever our age? Well, to look again (in conclusion) to a lesson straight out of Mat and James’s book, we need Margaret Meek‘s human connection, someone to read with us, to tread the path with us, pointing out this feature of a plant, or singing along with us or appreciating the teeth of a large therapod.

Waking Early

There is, of course, the wonderful poem by Mary Oliver, praising the chance warming of the earth by the sun that I cited in the post Texts for Difficult Times: to ease us with warm touching,/ to hold us in the great hands of light… and when I woke at 04:40, (far too) early today I could have wished I’d had learned the poem.

And in the opening scene of Anouilh’s Antigone, the eponymous protagonist almost deceives us into thinking she has just been out exploring the glories of the early dawn:

Dans les champs, c’était tout mouillée, et cela attendait. Tout attendait. Je faisais un bruit énorme toute seule sur la route et j’étais gênée parce que je savais bien que ce n’était pas moi qu’on attendait…

It was cold – sandals, t-shirt, trousers weren’t quite enough. And damp, with mud from the May rains, with dew in the long grass. And oddly noisy. Antigone might have been aware of the noise she made, but I was aware of passing traffic, the waste disposal truck in the Old Road Campus and all the other hums and buzzes the buildings make. And then, in the shadow of the dip towards the brook, the sound of birds and water.

There really are few things as precious as the quiet morning where the running water and the songbirds are an obbligato to the experience. Is this because they signify food and water somewhere deep in my brain? I am struck by the question that looks bigger and bigger the more I look at it: why do we find these things beautiful?

Antigone is right: this wasn’t a show waiting for me to take my seat, and while we might take delight that the happy birds are singing their Te Deums (the reference is first to Mrs Oldknow, but I think Lucy Boston is referring to this Maytime hymn), their cries are for territory, for food, for sex.

Oh, but hang on a minute: does that mean that birds being birds isn’t exactly what they should be doing? And if you see any sort of purpose or numinous element to a dawn chorus, does it need to be imposed on the birds actually supplying the music? Mary Oliver, Gerard Manley Hopkins (maybe) have it right: to glory in these things, simply to see

…all around us

this country

of original fire

Mary Oliver: Humpbacks

On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Binsey Poplars

might involve us using these as image, symbol, metaphor – but the thisness of the birds and the brook really doesn’t need me to be there. Mary Oliver is almost brutal in her version of this message:

…there is still

somewhere deep within you

a beast shouting that the earth

is exactly what it wanted –

each pond with its blazing lilies

is a prayer heard and answered

lavishly,

every morning,

whether or not

you have ever dared to be happy,

whether or not

you have ever dared to pray.

Mary Oliver: Morning Poem

And from a theological standpoint, I can’t impose on the crows, the woodpecker, the thrushes my human-shaped pieties. The Te Deum of a bird is to be a bird. So to end here is Roger Deakin’s account of his own waking early, and hearing the birds around his Suffolk house:

It is actually quite noisy with birdsong here, all concentrated into a mile of hedgerows – full, wide, dense hedges like the ramparts of a castle. A kind of maze of them surrounds the little friend, and the birds love them for making nests. So there is great competition amongst all the birds for space, for a few square yards of territory, and do they sing longer and louder and more lustily… And for a bird the most important aspect of household management is singing. Perching as high up as you can and singing for as long and as hard as you can.

Roger Deakin’s “Notes from Walnut Tree Farm:” May

Do I Deserve Sicily?

Quoniam placuerunt servis tuis lapides ejus

It is hugely tempting to fill a blog that I’ve given headings like this with photos of holidays and trips I have had. Ruins I have visited, cities I have met and loved. Let me get some out of the way.

It may give the impression I have seen all sorts of wonders all round the world but I am not really very well travelled: unlike my dad whose Moominpappa-like Misspent Youth included trips in the Merchant Navy to Japan, South Africa and all sorts of places, my furthest trips have been to the Gambia for work, and holidays in Europe. And yet for some people this is a lot of travelling: my Mum saw France, but no further, and for some, finance or responsibilities or fear of flying put journeys out of reach. For nearly twenty years – as a young dad – I didn’t have a current passport.

So when I see the suggestion that people need or deserve a holiday abroad I can’t help but baulk at the idea. It’s not the air miles and pollution, although that does worry me increasingly (and I do like trains anyway: waking up on the train to Provence to see a field of sunflowers was as amazing, in its way, as the romance of Paris in the early morning after the Nuit Blanche trip on ferry and train from Victoria in the 70s). No, it’s not even the “Bali or Brighton” divide: I think its the notion of deserving something or needing it being confused with wanting something very badly or having your expectations denied. “You can’t have that wish” is something we find alien to our mindset – although in a not-so-distant-past it is a recurring response to Little Bear‘s wishes.

So I’ve wandered (rather aimlessly) through some of the literature on desert – starting from the ideas of “deserving degrees” – and came across this, very much off my usual track:

It may simply be the folly of the gods, to make us act out for one another, for their amusement, when ultimately little is accomplished…Whether in our conjugal relations, our political systems, our commercial interactions, even in our cultivation of art and science, there is illusion and deception

Kevin Hoover in Copp, D., & Sobel, D. (2000). What We Owe to Each Other

And perhaps that “acting out” is really the key to the problem. As George MacDonald puts it – or rather how C S Lewis in the mouth of MacDonald puts it:

There is always something they prefer to joy—that is, to reality. Ye see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends. Ye call it the Sulks. But in adult life it has a hundred fine names—Achilles’ wrath and Coriolanus’ grandeur, Revenge and Injured Merit and Self- Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride.’

C S Lewis, The Great Divorce

In other words, we are keen to say we need and deserve in order to grandstand our desires; we would choose unhappiness as a lever to get what we want. It is caricatured in the anonymous ditty

Madam Dill

Is very ill

And nothing will improve her.

Until she sees

The Tuileries

And waddles through the Louvre.

But often it is an illusion. This isn’t about help when someone is physically or mentally ill, but I think we have to see that Madam Dill does not need her trip to Paris any more than this pundit or that feels anything more serious than serious disappointment when they cannot get to their favourite quaiside taverna. I may (to come to my subtitle) love the very stones of Villeneuve lez Avignon and be sad not to see them, but we deceive ourselves by thinking that this disappointment is something the cosmos has engineered to rob us of our rights. We might find some balm by visiting our places of significance, from the pub for a pint onwards, but I suspect that in many cases this is not the same as desiring them fervently. Lockdown in COVID times has heightened some of my needs and wishes to almost silly levels, and I do really miss my friends, my family, some amazing places I had planned to see this year – but I have to recognise that somewhere in my “I want it very badly” is just “I’ll scream and scream and scream until I’m sick” – and while the lack makes me sad, I am not likely in all honesty to be able to say “I deserve…”

Firth of Forth

So to conclude, and maybe to cheer me up, are some places of significance – I won’t embarrass anyone by putting people – that I do want to see really badly at the moment. Here is the Firth of Forth, all flat sands and rock pools and Eiders, a place (and people) I associate with freedom and quiet and love.

Or – and these last two are no surprise if you have followed my journeys at all – that I have to include as places that mean a lot to me, the Tors in the Cheshire borderlands, and that Monreale-like face in the rocks at Ludchurch.

Greening the Jolly Springtime

I was up early this morning; I ran out of sleep in the way that you might finish a cup of tea: just like an empty cup with no more tea to drink, there was no more sleep to be had. I went for a walk, listening to the birds doing the Me-Me-Me of the Dawn Chorus, and came home to read Morning Prayer and some Mary Oliver – her Morning Poem with its wonderful imagery:

if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead–
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging–

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted

Mary Oliver, Morning Poem

And so I can start with her challenge to dare to be happy, and with it, for this Earth Day season, come the Edgelands wood bluebells and ransoms and the warming days I turned to a couple of years ago in the singing of James Taylor and his praise of May:

Yes the winter was bitter and long

So the spring’ll be sweet

Come along with a rhythm and a song

Watch creation repeat.

When I blogged that quotation I had, of course, no idea about how bitter and long the next winter, 2020/21, was to be even though, as I said then, lyrics alone don’t cut it.

And they still don’t: the jolly springtime needs humanity to think of itself differently, to act differently. On my walk today I traced where I think a development has marked out cutting through the wood. Trees will be felled, birds displaced. The wood used to have foxes; I don’t see them any more. Will the owls survive? I did have a magical trudge this morning, watching the light broaden but hearing also the growing rumble of traffic. I came home and read Mary Oliver and all her prophetic acceptance of a natural world of lilies and ponds and rising light, and (to cite another of her poems) willing myself to

Pay attention.

Be astonished

Tell about it.

Mary Oliver, “Sometimes”

But as well as the world outside the study door, there are ways in which spring creeps over the windowsill – notably for this blog post the depictions of spring in children’s literature. Most recently Scallywag Press have sent me some corkers: Rob Ramsden and Antoinette Portis to add to a collection of books exploring “nature” in a very particular way, one that is written in big letters in Lent and Easter, in the changing season that is Spring.

Rob Ramsden’s three books with Scallywag are a joy: a simple text, some bright, flat illustrations of a couple of children in the outdoors beaming with delight as the seed grows, puzzling over the green pumpkin, sad as the sunflower dies, scared of the bee – and I must say that the simple shapes of Rob’s children are wonderful, a brilliant evocation of young children’s body language… There is a beautiful, plain honesty about the stories in all three books.

As with her book Hey, Water (that I’ve commented on here) Portis’ A New Green Day – another Scallywag triumph – is something different. The design is delightfully tricky, almost a set of simple riddles (“says mud” comes on the page after the gnomic statement from Mud; the picture is a puzzle of eight muddy feet; “says night” on a sky full of stars above muted rooftops after night’s proclamation that it is the black coat slipped around Earth’s shoulders – and the next phrase the engine of the summer dark belongs to the cricket… The reader has to turn from recto to verso to get the sense of the mud, the night, the cricket – or the shadow, tadpole…)

A New Green Day, Antoinette Portis

We turn the page for the answer – and as we go through the book, the day turns too. The comma in the long, long sentence of the stream becomes the tadpole.

It feels a bit like the reveal when we go down to see the ponds in the Lye Valleythis is where they should be : yes! And there are the tadpoles, the wrigglers, the punctuation of water in the ponds of the fen, the promise of summer, and hence of another spring. The life that continues its cycle comforts not only because it suggests there will be frogs, but that there will be the other things about spring too: blossom; greening leaves; fledgling robins. We look, in this time of pestilence, for a resumption, maybe even more than a redemption or a resurrection.

I have celebrated the re-opening of bookshops by going down the hill to Blackwells and buying some more: What did the Tree See? tracing the life of an oak from seedling to senescence and into a new generation, and Fox: A Circle of Life Story, which also looks at the life-after-life of a fox’s body and the continuation of the fox in the cubs in the woods…

The dramatic car accident scene in Fox is not the end, and the picture above moves into a sort of symbolism as the family are looking for (and not seeing?) a fox – a new fox – disappear into the woods – we are shown a pretty all-encompassing circle of life. Few punches are pulled on the decomposition of the fox (although if you’ve ever smelled a dead fox you will be glad this book is not a scratch-and-sniff text!) and even the insouciance of the surviving cubs who carry on playing. No anthropomorphism here.

There is a slow drama where the reader is asked to see several things at once in What did the Tree See? We watch the tree grow and grow old, but over its shoulder, if you like, we see a bay colonised by humans over a millennium: trees give way to settlement by humans; transport changes. There is an oblique anthropomorphism here: the tree itself is the first-person narrator, through the whole thousand years. The ending, however, is remarkably similar (if we ignore the plainly non-fiction section at the end): a jay drops an acorn, and we are invited to think “What will it see?” The cycle – we are invited to believe – continues.

So where have I wandered off to in this magic wood? Why is all this about spring? Well, partly because the one thing all these books have is that the magic is earthy, real change and growth walk hand-in-hand with old age and death. Rob Ramsden’s characters face the cycle with the seeds of sunflower and pumpkin; we are invited with Antoinette Portis to turn the pages and thus to turn the day; with Guillain and Usher, with Thomas and Egnéus we may see two different lives, but the short-lived fox and the ancient oak also have a message: the wheel keeps turning. We must hope, and pray and work that it will.