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 Edward 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.]

Last Words

Not my last words – at least I rather hope not – but to think about those ways in which books come to an end, and particularly some of the books I return to again and again, and how they are brought to a conclusion. This requires a Spoiler Alert here, par excellence: this blog post looks at Winnie the Pooh, Jack Miller, Thomas Cromwell, Lubrin Dhu, Randal of Dean, Adam Young, Lyra Belacqua, Samwise Gamgee and the works which they bring to conclusion: The House at Pooh Corner (yes, this link is to Dorothy Parker’s wicked review); Dark Matter; the Wolf Hall trilogy ending in The Mirror and the Light; Sun Horse, Moon Horse; Knight’s Fee; Good Omens; The His Dark Material trilogy (as it was), ending in The Amber Spyglass; The Lord of the Rings ending in The Return of the King . I have cited Susan Cooper’s end to The Dark is Rising sequence often enough, with the charge that It is up to you leaving space for the forging of a new world of justice. But do all the books I propose here – and they aren’t a Top Ten, just the most striking – have that sense of looking out onto a brave new world?

Well, no. I think the first book whose ending I was aware of was The House at Pooh Corner. The shades of the prison house are beginning to close round Christopher Robin, but Milne gives us a sort of apotheosis:

But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

A A Milne House at Pooh Corner Ch 10 “In which Christopher Robin and Pooh come to an enchanted place
and we leave them there.

I can’t forget the end to Lord of the Rings where the book pivots back to the comfort of family and security after war, to where, when I read the final lines of the massive narrative I felt I knew it had been headed all along: Sam’s search for “locality and peace” as he says…

Well, I’m back.”

J R R Tolkien: The Return of the King: The Grey Havens

There is a problem with all the different endings of LOTR: the film in particular grapples with the complex task of bringing all the endings together. In his text Tolkien manages well, with the possible death of Frodo and Sam (ah, but the eagles, the eagles!), the coronation of Aragorn, the scouring of the Shire and the death of Saruman, the departure of Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf and the others, but ends not with that final parting (the appendices tell us there are more ships going from the Grey Havens long after the end of the narrative proper), a sort of death, another sort of apotheosis, but with Sam coming back to where he has needed to be since first steps beyond the Shire at the start of the story.

Lyra Belacqua, at the end of the first Trilogy, His Dark Materials (and this is, of course, where Pullman gets tricky to comment on: one more book is coming for the second Trilogy) is left facing exactly the opposite to Tolkien’s Sam. She has lost her access to his great love, Will in his own world, and is sitting listening to the bells of her city in the dark of the Botanic Garden:

In that other Oxford where she and Will had kissed goodbye, the bells would be chiming too, and a nightingale would be singing and a little breeze would be stirring the leaves in the Botanic Garden.

“And then what?” said her daemon sleepily. “Build what?”

“The republic of heaven,” said Lyra.

P Pullman, The Amber Spyglass, Ch 38 The Botanic Garden

For sheer rhetorical power it is worth savouring again and again: not a kingdom with structure held together by force of authority, but a nation-state where grace is not given but springs naturally. The phrase republic of heaven is a masterstroke.

Rosemary Sutcliff is a wonderful writer of endings – and there are two coming up, below – but it make me curious as to why I like them, and I can discern a couple of reasons. The speech of Eugenus in The Lantern Bearers has been quoted enough by me, but let me explain the power of a Sutcliff ending by the last day of the protagonist, Lubrin. I have explored this before. There are really two endings to Sun Horse, Moon Horse, really: the departure of Lubrin’s people, and his own death by sacrifice. These double-hits of denouement and close are part of the structure of much storytelling, and here Sutcliff manages both with grace and poignancy.

In the first, Lubrin watches from the ramparts of what we know now as Uffington Castle:

Somewhere, he knew , they would look back, and see the great white mare on the hillside; and then they would not look back again, but keep their faces to the north, following the dream of the distant grazing lands between the mountains and the sea.

There were so few of them, less than two hundred to the youngest child. He wondered how many more would be born on the way, how many would die. How long would it take them to get to the place where they were going. A year? Two years? Half a lifetime? He wondered if they would get there at all. 

The white dust was rising behind them, and the track ran into the trees. 

He watched until he could not see even the dust cloud any more. 

R Sutcliff, Sun Horse Moon Horse ch 12: Song of the Northward Droving

And maybe that would have been enough, but the author makes the ending far grander, with much more emotion in it, as Lubrin moves through the crowd of his captors to the death with which he has bought liberation. There is so much poignancy, so much loss and hope – and so much love for the land in which he has lived – in these final lines:

He knew the high wind-stippled sky above him, and the warm steadfastness of the ground beneath. He knew the harebell growing in the tawny grass, tossing on its thread-slender stem as the wind came by. From somewhere far away in time and place, he knew the weary joy of his people’s home coming to their herding runs between the northern mountains and the sea. 

‘Brother, go free,’ said Cradoc.

He saw the sun-flash on the descending blade.

Ibid. Ch 13: Sun Horse, Moon Horse

The almost unbearably noble “far, far better thing” that Lubrin does is to give himself up so that others – not he – can have a future. Aquila in The Lantern Bearers will continue his struggle so that the shreds of Roman culture can hold together for just a few more years. This is the same folorn hope – in the smae historical context, ore or less – that Sutclff presents us with at the end of Sword at Sunset, where Artos, her fallen, dying Arthur, ends the book with the rounded phrase

There will be more songs – more songs tomorrow, though it is not we who shall sing them.

R Sutcliff, Sword at Sunset Ch 37:The Corn King,

But this is not her only trick to end a powerful narrative. Knight’s Fee is beautiful exploration of significant male friendship, but comes to a climax before the end of the book in a tragic bereavement. The ending is about Randal the protagonist bearing that loss but looking to the future with the corn, the responsibilities that come with holding a manor in Norman England. She might have ended it with Randal’s being given the manor: his painful homecoming shows that Sutcliff is unflinching as a storyteller.

There are multiple endings, too, as all the storylines resolve, in Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens. Armageddon nearly happens – but is averted; celestial and infernal wrath are nearly doled out on the cast – but aren’t; and Adam Young, the innocent-and-yet-not-innocent Antichrist goes off with his dog, nicking an apple as he goes:

 If you want to imagine the future, imagine a boy and his dog and his friends. And a summer that never ends.… Imagine a tuneless whistle, pounding some lockless popular song into insensibility; imagine a figure, half angel, half devil, all human…

Slouching hopefully towards Tadfield.… 

For ever

Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman: Good Omens

Adam is left in an endless summer, like Christopher Robin. Schooling, parental discipline, irascible neighbours are all in the future. In this kind of ending we are not to imagine in any detail what comes next; their situation as it stands is enough.

These amazing endings sometimes are punctuated by swift, brilliant lines, but sometimes it is the situation that provides the drama. Hilary Mantel’s Mirror and the Light was always going to end with the death of her protagonist, but it is the manner of his dying, and the self-reflection that precedes it, that make the ending remarkable. It is poignant but takes its time, as ghosts of allies and enemies come to him like Caesar to Brutus. Singling out a last line is impossible. Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter does a similar thing. In structure it is not unlike the double-hit of Sun Horse Moon Horse, but the tying up of loose ends sets the protagonist in a comfortable, sunny place after the harsh and haunted darkness of the Artic – only to pull the rug away from the reader in the final images.

So do I have a favourite ending? In what sense favourite – and this is where the status of the reader and critic might differ, but even then I’m not sure I can do that. Dispassionately I think the best ending – preceded by my favourite denouement – is the uncovering of Jorge and then the mediation of the aged Adso in The Name of the Rose, a book I haven’t even touched on here. Neither film nor TV adaptation could manage what Eco does. Out of this lot? Best crafted, I think is the ending of Lord of the Rings: well-paced, restrained emotionally and yet full of feeling. The chilling death at the climax of Dark Matter is astonishing – but the final thoughts of the undead in the Arctic darkness as the protagonist writes in the bright, warm West Indies so disturbed me I found it hard to sleep: nowhere is safe is a great message at the end of a horror story. Most emotive, for me, though – and this is much more a personal thing – is the going of the Inceni and the death of Lubrin Dhu in Sun Horse Moon Horse. I see I mention this book very often here – and of course elsewhere in the blog. All those complex relationships, and a weight of hope, and a sad ending, really, for all… The shadows of war hang over so much of her work; this seems to me, from what I’ve read, to be where she puts it best.

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 form 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 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.

Excelsior

Exaltabunt omnia ligna silvarum

Then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice

When the Catholic liturgy describes one particular tree – perhaps it needs an upper-case T – it is notable that it is described in very positive terms: fidelis, nobilis, dulce lignum. Faithful, noble, a sweet wood. In the great C6th hymn of Venantius Fortunatus, the cross, Roman instrument of shameful execution, is turned into something of beauty. The shame of imperial Rome, the curse of Deuteronomy, the paradox of Pauline theology are seen in the context of the good thing these pieces of wood have done. The poem Pange lingua gloriosi proelium certaminis Sing, tongue about the the battle, of the glorious struggle places this tree sola digna, the only worthy one, uncomfortably side by side the images of torture. Far enough in time from the grim reality of the cross, Venantius brilliantly uses the repeated dulcis – sweet – to apply to what later writers call the Instruments of the Passion and to the body of Jesus: sweet iron, sweet wood, a sweet burden. The poet is writing in praise of this particular wood as part of the cult of the Holy Cross: crudely put, we might see this as an advert for the cross whose veneration he is proposing.

When Psalm 95 (or 96 in some versions) suggests a primacy for the God presented in the books of the Faiths of the Book, it bursts its banks towards the end, and the poet pictures a world where the heavens and the earth, the field and the woods, are alive with joy. It is part of that same thread of nature poetry that runs through these songs, perhaps too often missed because of the overlying themes of later exegesis. I have discussed this with another psalm here. I sometimes wonder whether we miss a big idea when ignore these great Biblical bursts of exuberant delight in the natural world, although other poets do well with the vision of the warmer days (often a little later than early April) and the trees in blossom, from Sumer is i-cumen in through to the pastoral lute songs and madrigals of the C16th. Time spent cooped up when blood is nipp’d is more or less over: a time to be liberated from close supervision, from chores and obligations is here. I look up from my typing just now at the (of course, wisely still bare) ash tree in the garden and am reminded of Peter Fiennes’s comment:

The ash is one of nature’s friendliest trees – its Latin name Fraxinus excelsior is a shout of joy and wonder.

P Fiennes “A river runs through it” in Oak and Ash and Thorn

A chill, bright day in Shotover on Easter Monday echoed that and shout – and if the ash is not yet up to budburst, many of the other trees of the wood are awake and rejoicing. Where I had been sitting on my birthday in February is beginning to dapple with light coming through honeysuckle and hazel; cherry and blackthorn are shining with new blossom. The sky is a clear blue. April, chill but bright, is here.

Water

Scallywag Press have sent me some intriguing titles to look through and maybe write about, and I will, in various fora. But this is is spring, varying in its weather; and Lent (as I write this), full of its water imagery: Antionette Portis’ Hey Water seems a good place to start. After all, here in Oxford we have had water-butt-filling rainstorms, dry days so warm as to encourage t-shirts to be discarded… and the end of March, that month that for me is encapsulated in Jobim’s watery theme song: the Waters of March is a wonderful, chaotic evocation of bringing spring rain and floods which “carry sticks, stones, bits of glass, and almost everything and anything” (Wikipedia actually being lyrical for once). And this brings me to the various images and descriptions of water in Portis.

With a picturebook like this it is sometimes easy to fall into the line of describing it as “deceptively simple.” After all, this isn’t the disturbing, rich imagery of Maurice Sendak in Dear Milli or Outside Over There or the detail of a busy page of detail in any one of a hundred beatiful books – say, Castagnoli and Cneut’s The Golden Cage .

Simplicity is not always easily achieved; it requires as much dedication as complexity if it is to succeed. Design is crucial (see Mat Tobin here on another watery glory, The Tale of the Whale ). Portis really has one thing absolutely, beauitfully in her control, and that is balance. What might have been a duller “Look at this – now look at that” has a richness about it that comes from the varying colours and from the ways in which water floods some pages and is minimal in others. “Tear” exemplifies this perfectly: a line of text, a closed eye and a grey, translucent tear has a huge impact where one might have been tempted by all sorts o of distracting commentary. It is followed in the same opening by rain (see above), maybe the wettest page in the book – and my photo here hints, I hope, at this strophe/antistrophe that Portis handles so well.

We see water as snowflakes, fancier than lace, fog hiding the world, steam, clouds… the ubiquity of water is shown through all sorts of forms in which a reader might encounter it or might have seen it in other books. Each opening invites a very basic appreciation of the visual power, and the text skips alomg with it. The illustrations and text are – until the coda of more instructive material at then end – in a dance of images, spare and generous, and text, beautifully plain. All sorts of ways of looking at water are presented – again, like The Waters of March, there is a flow of all sorts of ideas here, all presented with a refreshing simplicity.

But this is not “deceptively simple” in some tricky way that invites us to look here and there for clues, but just that one thing: simple. In reading it now I am reminded of St Francis too, and his portrayal of “Sister Water…”

…la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta.

…who is very useful, humble, precious and chaste.

Canticle of the Creatures

The direct and simple style of Antionette Portis is perfect here for that most varied – and yet most simple – of the building-blocks of life of earth.

An Earlier Life

Jim Crumley’s The Great Wood is full of rich phrases, odd corners of words, just like an established woodland where patches of light fall, water glints, brambles trip. He writes about the symbolic harmony of pine and granite and the space between them, of the bold flourishing of a pine marten fronting up against a human. He describes how your gaze snags wide-eyed on the first trees. He writes of the over-cooked and over-seasoned broth of Victorian invention that too many people swallowed whole. His writing is an enviable marvel.

So it was odd to find a very everyday image so striking tonight.

I had a spell in what now feels like an earlier life…

The Great Wood, ch 5: Sunart

And it has set me thinking (as ever) about reading landscape and reading books as an adult and as a child.

First day at school; Communion; puberty; sex; University; love; marriage, parenthood: all the thresholds. And now in my sixties I look back and think with regret or shame or a grin or a wry smile about them all. And reading: ah yes: I look back and think about Fudge and Speck; Pookie; Orlando; Narnia; King and Sutcliff and Tolkien and Lewis for grown-ups: I’ve written about my own “reading journey” before, and how I have to think consciously of myself as a reader of what we might call ‘children’s books:’ am I now a reader or simply a critic? And how does that play out when I think about my other interest, the landscape of these stories?

Let’s take Shotover, the hill to the east of Oxford where I have been walking recently. I’ve seen a historical angle in tracing the arrival of John Wesley in Oxford in 1720; he will have come over Shotover and past the place that would become my house. It also has moments of other histories: Roman pottery for example, an intersection with a Roman road – and a way to walk for whoever in even earlier times carved out the sunken lane that descends to Wheatley. Maybe Ethelred hunted here; maybe Frideswide or Matilda travelled this way (if not along the Thames). Old Road is an Old Road on either side of the hill.

There was time when I didn’t know Shotover, and I remember my first visit with Stephen and Gerry in maybe 1977 – but I cannot remember a time when such places didn’t hold some power for me. Even way back, in Harrogate, woods and crags, oblique sunlight through pine trees. Then Badbury Rings in Dorset, with the wood where the hillfort enclosed it. Then the huge trees and their green light in Epping Forest where I played my recorder and I swear that a cuckoo answered. Then the Pennines and the little shaws in the hidden cloughs. They are particular places and particular times. There is, when a new place is visited – or (and this is important) when a place is visited with a new eye – a sense of a threshold crossed, an earlier time and a now. The first view of the caldera in Santorini; the sun rising as I sat on the sand in Boggle Hole; the first sight of a face in the rock at Ludchurch. I suppose all I’m saying is that there are places that have the potential to be thresholds to cross, and for me these might also be places of awe and wonder: thin places – or thresholds to the numinous. Cross over into the wood, pass out onto the moor and who knows where you’ll be?

By the very way we describe those significant moments, we acknowledge that place can be the site of a peak experience: Moses’ encounter with the burning bush would be one, now represented in the monastery of St Catherine; Christianity is full of them, from Tabor, the Mountain of the Transfiguration to sites of apparitions such as Knock or the tombs of saints such as Vezelay and if I start from my own traditions here, that is not to deny the call of pilgrimage in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism… People come with expectations fuelled by stories of previous experiences or of the fame of the people buried at the spot. These visits are grand events, full of expectation and ritual. It is as if the expectation of a peak religious or spiritual experience is taught, explained, made important by the story, built up to by the publicity and the journey.

The story is part of the journey; the explanation of the story is part of the experience. This is another threshold: between exegesis and eisegesis; what you take out, what you put in. When as an undergraduate I studied Julian of Norwich and the Cloud of Unknowing I was warned beforehand to read them as spiritual texts before I started on them as academic source material. Even at its crudest, it is not bad advice for anyone who thinks they might be coming up to a threshold: acknowledge what you bring to the act of interpretation. It can be books, it could be a place, and I contend that who I am as a reader or walker allows me to depend on both places I have been before and books I have read. At our last visit to Uffington this time last year my friend Mat and I brought books and a sense of awe. It was a wonderful day, and remembering it has sustained me through the gloomier parts of this year – but I come back to Jim Crumley’s over-cooked and over-seasoned broth: look for the peak experience in landscape and you may not find it; go out simply (never merely) attentive and open-hearted and maybe there is a threshold to cross.

So there was time when I didn’t know Uffington. The fact that this post commemorates my last visit there, just before lockdown was imposed (another earlier life), is a sign of how important this place has become. When Rosemary Sutcliff describes the place in Sun Horse Moon Horse, her vivid description makes her hero Lubrin, I have suggested previously, the stuff of legend. Is it possible that this descriptive power also creates a threshold? Or maybe that the narrative itself is the threshold, into a place full of significance, full of a possibility of transcendence?

The very sky no longer high

Comes down within the reach of all.

John Betjeman: Uffington (The Best of Betjeman, p110)

So does this turn out to be more about terminology than anything? Is a thin place a threshold? Or is a thin place a threshold on which we linger, waiting to be invited or drawn in? Peak experiences are often ones that come at me sideways: Malham Cove was amazing, but I was readied for it by doing a geology component of my geography class at school; I was not at all prepared for the waterfalls at Ystradfellte. But even there, on my weekend training in Forest School, I brought waterfalls from other visits (Janet’s Foss, while I remember Malham; the waterfall in Lewis’ The Last Battle). Where does the wonder come from? Does it, in some paradoxical way, require you to be prepared for the encounter you didn’t look for?

Jim Crumley again:

If you walk the Gleann Einich track from Coylmbridge you are immersed almost at once in a depth of trees such as you will not encounter anywhere else in Scotland – trees to darken a sunny day…

An atmosphere of trees bears down. You look left and right and at first all that happens is that the forest moves past you, tree by tree by tree by tree. You hear your own feet, your own breathing, and these move to to the rhythm of the pibroch in your head.

A foot stamps.

You startle, whirl towards the sound, freeze.

The Great Wood, ch 8; Rothiemurchus

Jim stands looking at – and being observed – by a Roe Deer. This mutual gaze, as powerful as Rob Cowan‘s encounter in Common Ground, differs in the insight gained:

She was trying to tell you something about the worth of stillness in the company of nature, in the company of trees.

Ibid

Stillness, a encounter with nature. Looked for and not looked for.

I

held my breath

as we do

sometimes

to stop time

when something wonderful

has touched us.

Mary Oliver: Snow Geese

I walk into a wood, a known wood if I’m thinking about Shotover, and find something else to discover. I look at the overgrown coppice in Brasenose Wood and I can think of the words of Oliver Rackham about light and seasons and underwood, or the mycelial insights of Merlin Sheldrake, but something else remains. Quiet. Attention. Wonder. I am not just a critic: I drink in the not-quite-there leaves of early spring, and the sound of running water, the possible thickets to explore and the paths I have not walked, when something wonderful has touched us.