Kent and the Frozen North

Myth and Reality in younger gay fiction

And of course I could start by demanding of myself a definition of “younger,” “gay” and “fiction,” but in reality I’m going to look at two (set of) texts that have crossed my path recently: the Heartstopper books and Ian Eagleton’s reworking of the Snow Queen, The Woodcutter and The Snow Prince. The first world, I’m going to suppose*, sets a boy-meets-boy story in an everyday neighbourhood, somewhere south of the London sprawl (the text almost tells us: Rochester) where unhappy teenagers discuss their issues over social media; in The Woodcutter and The Snow Prince, Woodcutter Kai’s village is the low-tech/high magic setting for a a boy-meets-boy story, too – but seeing both stories side by side, I am struck by the question: what makes the fairy tale world work differently?

The versions at the back of our minds as we read traditional tales/fairy stories have probably got a moral, even if we aren’t wholly aware of it. Cinderella and her glass slipper that is the symbol of her fragile steps into courtly life; the Little Red Hen and her energetic self-reliance; Beauty and the Beast, Puss in Boots and all these others ask the modern adult reader to look deeper and to see quite what models of childhood, and society in general, are being employed. In the selections we have readily available today such as Pullman’s selection of Grimm or most recently Neil Philip’s Watkins Book of English Folktales, messages often seem to me pretty clear: status brings happiness (by and large); marriage makes you happy; a wary eye and an opportunity at the right moment may change your life.

I am joining a debate here about the role of texts in children’s literature that has its roots in the improving books of the early nineteenth century – and earlier – see below – which set the role of the author and the adult choosing the book as fundamentally about instructing children in making choices adult society will approve of. Mercilessly lampooned by Saki in his short story The Storyteller, and by Hilaire Belloc in his Cautionary Tales for Children, understanding where this basic objective sits in relation to gay fiction is important in grasping the reason for the vitriol that seeks to silence gay voices. In addition it also helps to understand why and how we tell stories.

It seems to me that Traditional Tales are rarely unchanged, but are altered in big ways or little. Often telling stories involves retelling old ones, looking at them and saying “how does this apply to my life/the lives of the children with whom I read?”. This can be a blatant reworking where the ‘message’ of an earlier story is skewed (The Little Mermaid would be a case in point, where the mermaid in the earliest story by Hans Cristian Andersen is left working out her salvation across the centuries, unlike Uncle Walt’s version where the mermaid gets her man). Traditional tales have always been subject to the movements of tradition: the contexts in which stories are told are subject to change, just as the vision of the setting changes too. More subtly the ideas and themes are reworked to allow a modern audience access to ideas and characters. Some of this is enlightening, revealing new insights into old stories or telling us something about different audiences. Conjoining myth and reality works, for example, for Joseph Coelho in his poem/novel The Boy Lost in the Maze, as it did in the 1950s for Mary Renault – but this is not what either Ian or Alice are attempting. Indeed, one of the immediate strengths of Ian’s book is that the young man, Kai, is already part of a mythic landscape, The Frozen North. Like his previous reworking of Hans Cristian Andersen, which I discussed here, Ian has set the story so that the principal human character, Kai is involved in a life far away from that of many of the intended readers. This allows the dynamic between the Prince and the Woodcutter to remain absolutely centre stage, as in any true stripped-to-the-bone fairy story.

Of course, this paring down might have come to us from the early collectors. As Angela Carter points out in her introduction to the Virago Book of Fairy Tales, the editorial fingers are already at work as the first collectors transcribe – and, I suppose, before, as people telling stories to collectors might think “I can’t say that” or “they wouldn’t want that one.” Verbatim transcription cannot have been easy, and editing has been seen as like putting tinsel on a dinosaur. Class has been redefined, or become a subtext, sexual content suppressed or been tinselled into symbolism. So we have little glimpses of topography where maybe there was an origin legend or a clear location (see my post here on Tom Tit Tot), but the paring down for outsiders leaves us an unreal city, an any-old-castle, the universal wood. Ian Eagleton and Davide Ortu’s Faraway Forest is the Universal Wood as it stretches up into that other mythic place: The Frozen North.

Davide Ortu's illustration of Kai and the Snow Prince: the journey to the Prince's castle.

If I say that among the “immediate strengths” of Woodcutter is this mythic landscape, the same is true in reverse for the Heartstopper books. A different paring down to essentials is required here. An immediate plunge into a world of bullying, of negotiating the safe places in school, or of being late for Maths allows the reader access without the leap of imagination: fountain pens leaking, and who gets to be in the Rugby team are recognisable landmarks. “You know this place” is really where the bare illustrations and text take us. We are less clear about Kai and his world, but that’s because we are on a different path; Eagleton and Ortu take us to the magic Frozen North and again we say “we know this place” – but in a different way of knowing.

Family life, in the traditional tale, no matter whence its provenance, is never more than one step away from disaster, suggests Angela Carter and this is in some ways because the sparseness of the story – narrative, setting, character – is echoed in the death that often sets the principal character at odds with their world (Cinderella) or off to seek their fortune (Puss in Boots). With Kai, it is his community’s own fearful “old wives tales” about the Prince that are the thing he will need to come to terms with. Often the hero or heroine will have a difficulty to conquer: the family collapses, or disperses, but we are rarely given much in the way of description to aid our imagination, and remains hand-crafted. I suspect that this “bring your own furniture” sparseness is what allows the devourer of the traditional tale to say with Phillip Pullman, remembering his childhood reading “I want to be in this story with them.”

So I have to be clear I’m not setting out to compare texts in a crude way: both approaches have strengths. But I am struck by how a reader has to make a different set of strategies work in the two different authorial approaches. Are we actually facing here examples of text-to-life and life-to-text reading? Is this true of traditional tales and “real life” dramas? Are traditional tales “real”? What purpose do they serve?

In the debate between Dawkins (who has claimed Fairy Tales have a pernicious effect) and Pullman, the creator of one of the most beautiful, complex sets of fantasy worlds remembers that when he was playing out his fantasies, his mind

…was feeling a little scrap – a tiny, fluttering, tattered, cheaply printed, torn-off scrap – of heroism…Exhilaration, heroism, despair, resolution, triumph, noble renunciation, sacrifice: in acting these out, we experience them in miniature or, as it were, in safety.

Philip Pullman “Imaginary Friends” in Daemon Voices

Is this the effect story has on childhood imagination? That it teaches by inviting experience-at-a-distance, by getting the audience to enter into its world? That there is a long standing thread of moral didacticism in children’s literature is uncontested. John Newberry’s Pretty Little Pocket Book (cited in extenso in Patricia Demers’ From Instruction to Delight), has incidents in a child’s life followed by a “rule ” or a “moral:” learn to capture every moment as you play marbles; play at being king and reflect on your own imperfections. Similarly we see a thread of this with Cinderella. What do Cinders and her fairy godmother/ghostly mother allow us to learn in a text-to-life connection that really works? Not how to get your Prince or even how to better your abusive family. It is not a handbook of rules for interaction, but has a more general message: if Red Riding Hood says keep your wits about you, Cinderella tells us persistence wins through. Stories need looking at critically as well as with joy and awe. To do that we can employ the tools of retelling. As Angela Carter expresses a desire to validate my claim to a fair share of the future by staking my claim to my share of the past, we need, like the early tellers and audiences of fairy tales, to know the power and the limits of the tale. LGBTQ+ retellings have their own place in staking a claim for part of the community of readers, and Ian Eagleton’s Kai comes up with his own.

Literacy, Margaret Meek proposes in “On Being Literate” helps us to think about something by giving us the words to do it with and a wider range of examples, in stories especially, of how people behave…” (p47) and Kai’s encounter with the magic of his Snow Prince raises a question that is in some ways the queerest question of all:

“Perhaps his grandmother’s stories weren’t entirely true after all?”

Charlie from Heartstopper on his 'phone, looking worried or shocked.

No, Ian, Kai, Nen and the rest: perhaps the wrath of Pelagios stirring up a storm in the sea is unfounded; perhaps the grandmother’s warnings too need consigning to history; perhaps there is companionship, and love and trust and affection, a place where “old wives tales” do not have currency. The doubt Kai experiences turns the whole magic realm on its head… He is in a fairy story and in his story he even manages to turn fairy stories on their heads. This is what I mean by the “different way of knowing:” the independent life of the traditional tale allows the teller – such Ian, such as Disney – to edit and reshape. The transmission gives the teller that license, and to challenge the reader to think and think again. Are all stories valid?

Writers want readers who are prepared to engage with their ideas and to adventure with them in their writing. Habitual readers go to writers for reading lessons as ways of reflecting on experience. together they keep on creating texts, confident that they will, together, solve the puzzle of how should this go…How do writers deflect cynicism and ignorance?

Margaret Meek: On Being Literate, pp163-4.

And all of a sudden I am back in the world of teenage boys texting into the small hours, a world of who is in and who’s out in the small jealousies and hatreds of school life. Like Ian Eagleton and Davide Ortu, Alice Oseman has turned school romance and school friendship stories on their heads, with happy endings rather than tragedy. She tells a story set in the every day, but maybe the two worlds aren’t so different after all. Angela Carter at one point suggests that the domestic situation is often at the heart of the fairy story – but as Neil Philip in his The Cinderella Story suggests, we often need

to recover the sense of surprise and the sense of danger in a tale with which we may be wearily familiar…a way of understanding and confronting our profoundest desires and fears…

The Cinderella Story, Introduction: p2

With Ian and Davide, we find, if we read carefully enough, that the profound desire for love and affection can even pull the rug from under the storyteller.

*I do have some misgivings about the narrative of the various love stories in Heartstopper, which, despite dealing with complexities of acceptance and love and mental health, seem sometimes limited. Not to say I didn’t enjoy them, but they have their own sparseness, or maybe coyness about the realities of adolescent males.

Uncorking a Global Brainquake

Thoughts on Noxious Twitter

Now, I wouldn’t want to play down the monstrosity of Chemical Warfare railed against by Adrian Mitchell, or indeed to connect modern notions of mental health with the now threadbare ideas of irrational destruction in his use of the word madness, but ideas in this poem struck me as a good allegory on how Augist went for me with a smaller engagement with Twitter. While I will acknowledge (see below) some of its benefits, I also need to be clear that some of what I see is akin to what Mitchell calls bottled madness.

We all really hate manufacturing madness

But if we didn’t make madness in bottles

We wouldn’t know how to be sane.

Adrian Mitchell: Open Day at Porton

Twitter is very often a useful tool, a support for learning, a source of inspiration, and I’m not going to indulge in a game* of Ain’t It Awful? In this month where at least to start off with I limited myself (more or less) to hearts and maybe a Tweet or two in open Twitter once a day, I have had time to read and appreciate: this account of a mountain thunderstorm is one of those exemplary pieces. But this is not the whole content of Twitter. James Durran talks at one point about “sneery, in-crowd obnoxiousness,” and it only takes a few clicks to move beyond this into much nastier in-fighting. I’ve seen some appalling behaviour that to my mind should at the very least call into question whether the Teachers Standards should be invoked against people belittling or bullying other professionals: if you wouldn’t allow that behaviour to go unchallenged or unrebuked in a staff room, it has no place in professional dialogue on social media. It is as if we seek the global brainquake, as if the seeking of it affirms our place in the world.

Jeff at Rock Edge.

It would be odd of me to use social media to say social media is a Bad Thing – after all this blog relies on Twitter for traffic on items like my piece on Nen and the Lonely Fisherman. If I felt Twitter was not for me I hope I would simply, quietly, close my accounts and go away. I’m not sure. I have tried the “Look at me I’m leaving Twitter” only to find that, when I wanted it, coming back (during Lent, for example) I simply felt foolish. FOMO seems a major driver for why I am on Twitter and why little by little this month I have come back: a comment here, all the photos of the lovely Jeff (here’s another) who has been with us. I launched off on a rant on the 20th about the Guardian’s adverts for private schools and then thought: Why am I playing this game? And then on 24th August I start a hare about school uniforms and then think What on earth will this add to anybody’s life? Drip by drip from the bottle of madness, or, to change metaphor, I wobble along the tricky line between joining in and attention-seeking. I feel like I am back in the playground of my Junior Phase in Essex: will you play with me? Maybe I am better off posting photos of a trip to London or Lyme Regis, or commenting on the soapwort at the site of a Victorian laundry at the head of the Lye Valley. One thing I am realising is that I would not be missed here, or on Twitter or Facebook or Goodreads, and that’s mostly because people who actually are interested in the same things as I am, or even are interested in what I have to say, often contact me in other ways too. Old-fashioned it might be, but they ‘phone me up, or in more recent style email or WhatsApp me to attract my attention. Who knows? Maybe in September and October I will get to see some Real People! That’s not to say that Twitter is false or utterly shallow, just that the authenticity of reactions and relationships is differently calibrated on Facebook and Twitter, the internet’s version of sticking a post-it on a a noticeboard in the hopes that someone special will see it. Do you know who retweeted me yesterday? To misuse an image of Thomas Merton we are – I am – shooting, round after round into the dark.

So do I give it up? Or how might I fit a valve to my using the media at my disposal?

That reminds me: I have a postcard to send that I picked up at the British Museum Becket exhibition.

Saponaria at the Lye Valley

*I do find the characterisation of some forms of adult activity described by Eric Berne illuminating as I read Twitter, Ain’t It Awful being one of them, Let’s You And Him Fight being another. This website has a good, brief categorisation.

Gateways

Here we are at the start of September, the start of the English academic year. “You only have three days left at Nursery,” I overheard a mum say last weekend, “and then you’ll be at big school.” Perhaps that deserves capitals and I should have put Big School: the large institution, the institution for people who are grown up enough. In common parlance it means Primary School, and for most children hearing that term it will mean the Reception Class in that school. If they are lucky – and it shouldn’t be a matter of luck – those four or a year five year olds will experience a curriculum in which the demands of year one impinge but do not dominate. The experience of Big School will reflect previous Foundation Stage learning, but may also have elements of adult-framed learning (including socialisation) that will continue for many years.

Many years? Well, this weekend sees the (COVID-delayed) doctoral degree ceremony for my friend and mentor Julie Fisher. I am pretty sure she will be remembered in the history of education for the book Starting from the Child, which lays out principles for learning and teaching the the early years which have been adopted by so many. The book I am turning to, however, is her illuminating celebration on the Oxfordshire Adult-Child Interaction Project, Interacting or Interfering. In it she makes an impassioned plea for communication skills to be seen as the heart of good early years practice. She explains that interactions need to matter to practitioners as they:

  • Build warm relationships
  • Get to know and understand children better
  • Model language
  • Model thinking
  • Scaffold, affirm and consolidate children’s learning
  • Extend children’s knowledge and understanding.

This is the heart of the research findings and at the heart of what one might expect to see the adults engaged in whatever kind of setting you visit, but I find myself pondering, as I revisit this book to start my year teaching in Higher Education (and my work as a governor at a local school), how far these criterai can be applied outside the precious time of the Foundation Stage. In other words, when I read the chapter Questions that Work and Questions that Don’t, how can I challenge myself about questions and discussion in the classroom in which I am working with those whose course will take them into practice in the early years.

How do we build relationships with students from their first days in University? How do we model rather than correct language and thinking, so as to consolidate learning rather than prepare for assignments?

One of the problems is that of the position of the lecturer; the very word carries with it a history of teacher-as-expert, something that can both open up effective thinking about a topic and close it down. Guess what’s in my head is something that can feel unavoidable when the tutor has read the texts, been in the practice of an early years classroom, taught this before. Questions can be what Julie Fisher (and others) categorise as “known questions.” The challenge her take-down of pointless questioning is answered as she discusses listening to children’s answers.

Considering how many questions educators ask, one would think they would be very practiced at listening to answers. Bt research has shown that the hardest thing for someone asking a question to do is to listen to the answer they receive. It seems to be particularly difficult for educators, who all too often ask a question with the answer they want to hear already in their mind. This closes them to the range of possible answers they might hear, or stops them from receiving an unexpected answer with interest…

Fisher, Interacting or Interfering? p153

I think the key here is interest. If we look at the Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage in England, the four Overarching Principles seem clearly to me to point to a relationship, and I cannot conceive of a genuine relationship in which an Early Years practitioner values a child as

  • Unique;
  • Learning to be strong through positive relationships;
  • In enabling environments with support from adults;
  • Allowed/supported to develop at an appropriate rate [My precis],

without a genuine interest in what the child is thinking. Did you like that book? How can we make sure that tower doesn’t fall over? “in response to their fascinations” is how Development Matters puts it.

Let’s move then from what one Secretary of State patronisingly called the happy chaos of sandpit and water tray to the business of Higher Education. It must be more important, more cerebral, less involved with experimentation and more with doing the work and understanding it, right?

Clearly this isn’t a question, and the answer I expect is obvious. I think the Foundation Stage practitioner and the university tutor (and workplace managers and coworkers, I think) can step up to their role with the list Julie Fisher proposes (excerpted here, with learner’s substituting for child’s: read the book if you want to go further into this!). Here she asks that the practitioner:

  • Shows a desire to get to know the [learner] better…
  • Is attentive both physically and mentally;
  • Is respectful of and responsive to the [learner’s] ideas and opinions;
  • Takes a pleasurable interest in the [learner’s] thinking and ideas;
  • Is sensitive to the [learner’s] level of interest and involvement.
Pedestrian gate through shadows into brightly lit field
Gateway to Raleigh Park

I really want to sell the undergraduate project, the work they will be involved in for the next three or more years, to this year’s cohort of entrants – but I wonder if the repair to the teaching and learning contract is yet in place. How can we teach in response to the “fascinations” of Early Years, when part of our job is to talk deadlines and reading lists, and for some students the need to complete the school/college based requirements has dominated their previous learning? And when we think, not of the day-to-day negotiation of the lecturer/student relationship, but of the first few weeks, that first gateway of hope, a second of bewilderment, a third of socialisation, leaving home, attachments, and in here where is the lecturer (not to mention pastoral staff) in this?

This view crystallises for me the walk I took when I was pondering leaving my post as Programme Lead in the Oxford Brookes School of Education. I walked down through Raleigh Park to catch the bus on Westminster Way. In that respect it felt like an ending – but an ending that was also a beginning.

Our graduands for Saturday are beginning something new. To change the metaphor from gate to building (in line with the Foundaion Stage), what we have given the undergraduate students is simply a foundation. And as Julie encouragingly writes in another of her books:

Foundations take longer to create than buildings… The higher the building , the firmer the foundations have to be.

Julie Fisher (ed) Foundations of Learning

Patience. Attentiveness. Professional judgement. I hope this is what we have given our students leaving Brookes; I hope this what we can offer those joining us at the end of this month. But it is hope? No: this is what I plan to do, not some vague hope.

Dawn Men?

“He was a Primitive, and he lived cavily in a Cave…”

Pithecanthropus, Homo Erectus, Eoanthropus: they have a call almost as sharp as the names of dinosaurs so beloved of four year-olds in the sandpit, and as Chris Stringer points out the names largely arise from the intellectual history of the last two centuries: Colin Renfrew skillfully traces these in terms of the technologies available to early archaeologists and tells us the story of the names and their importance..

Alongside the adult histories are the books and other media trying either to explain these scientific discoveries, or to use Early Man [hold on: I’m coming to this] as a lens to look at something in our own time: there’s list at the end of this blog, with some links. I exclude my favourite of this genre – at least, my favourite until I met Rosemary Sutcliff’s Warrior Scarlet – Clive King’s great The 22 Letters, because it is set even closer to our own time, but again the thread is technological advances (navigation; horse riding, the beginnings of simple alphabet) saving society.

Like many of my generation, my first exposure to “the Stone Age” must have been the Flintstones, where the characters showed us an idealised American society with its 1960s technology and its (largely white) working class society where the material culture represented both the current US but with Stone Age adaptation – the record player where the needle was a bird was one of my favourites. A Stone Age as the lens for exploring the follies of our own age has been visited a number of times: Mitchell and Webb’s Bronze Orientation training is a personal favourite, and uses modern language to great effect. The puns in the Flintstones fulfilled a similar purpose and were, as one source puts it, relentless.

When it came out I was not allowed to see One Million Years B.C. – the B.C. says it all for me – although it seems to me now to be both ridiculous and at the same time the foundation text for Clan of the Cave Bear.

I’ve just finished the important – but to my mind flawed – blockbuster by Jean M Auel. She has done her homework to a remarkable degree, and uses insights from present day hunter-gatherer cultures (or the remnants of them) to reconstruct a possible way of living and believing for the Clan of the Cave Bear, the bow-legged, brow-ridged people with whom Ayla, the straight-legged, blonde and linguistically agile Homo Sapiens lives for most of the book,. We must, I think, identify the Clan as Homo Neanderthalensis – but this is where I stumble. There is a not-so-hidden ideology in so resolutely emphasising the whiteness of the principal character, the orphaned so very white. Of course, Auel is working with presuppositions of her time, and trying, too, to emphasise that this is just the beginning of the dominance of Homo Sapiens over (a loaded word, too?) Neanderthals, seen here as Ayla outclassing her Neantherthal foster family. The race to what Steven Mithen refers to as “cognitive fluidity” is won by Sapiens, and using the tools for the job are part of a set of use and tool development and (Mithen would argue) abilities to read and exploit diverse environments and social situations.

Lye Valley: an 8000 year-old habitat

“The Neanderthals were a proto-species, an embryonic light that flickered in evolutionary time, but was not strong enough to stand across epochs,” as Adam Rutherford puts it, and the Shaman, the Mog-Ur of the Clan of the Cave Bear, is led to foresee a similar end to his people. So fair enough: taller, smarter (her language games and abstract mathematics show us this, but we see it also in her intuition and, because of the stance of the author, a certain moral primacy in her standing up to the abusive male Broud, a truly hateful character): but does she need to be so white?

Auel is making a number of points about personal development, liberation, belonging. So much so, in many ways, that the story is interwoven with descriptions of tribal customs, technological practices, herbal medicine. Although we are a long stretch of time from Elaine Morgan’s “nothing to do with apples” vision of the Fall, Clan of the Cave Bear does explore the complex interplay between assumed or observed experience and religion; the ways in which reproduction and the role of men are explored as Ayla figures out that conception and childbirth are less about the spiritual power of a totem and more about mating is intriguing, (sort of) believable… although it did remind me of the conversations about birth control when the sukebind is in bloom in Cold Comfort Farm.

Hemp Agrimony on the Neolithic Fen at the Lye Valley

And this brings me to the first real point in this rambling: just as Stella Gibbons is exploring the follies of her own time by setting her novel in a “near future,” Jean Auel is exploring her own time by looking to a time when Homo Sapiens – “the Others” – are making inroads into the lands and cultures of the Neanderthals. How will mixed Sapiens/Neanderthals be accepted? How will the power struggle play out? What part will technological innovation play?

To turn to a book on a similar theme – less well-known these days – Kathleen Fidler’s 1968 novel The Boy with the Bronze Axe – we find the incomer Tenko and his superior technology (including boat-handling) a source of triumph (the graphic whale-hunt which ends with a final blow from the bronze axe Tenko carries) and facing crises of acceptance and ecological peril. Though this is set later than Auel, we meet here a recurrent theme: the interplay of culture and technology as a society faces new challenges.

Raymond Briggs: Ug. Interesting to see that Ug comes up in the Library Catalogue at Brookes with “UG and external systems : language, brain and computation” rather than the Raymond Briggs book…

As children’s literature mourns Raymond Briggs’ recent death, I cannot ignore Ug, the stone-age boy whose imagination challenges the comic status quo of stone trousers and bedclothes, &c. He is a divergent thinker (a bit like [but oh! so unlike!] Auel’s Ayla), suggesting “what if” improvements to his family’s life: fields to stop the animals running away when you hunt them, fruit juice… Just as his stone-dominated life frustrates Ug – tennis played with stone bats, a game of football where the goal looks rather like Stonehenge – the technology of modern youth puzzles Ug’s parents, his mother in particular, – and the humour of this is also a satire on present day shifts in technology and problem solving. The narrator’s comment as Ug and his dad drag a dead dinosaur back to the cave is worth pondering:

No one living in the stone age would know he was living in the stone age. He would believe he has living in the modern age. Today we believe we are living in the modern age. Time will tell.

Time does tell, too. Auel and Fidler create technologically competent cultures, and using indicators of technology helps mark a time-span for a narrative, as in the fight over the iron dagger in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Warrior Scarlet, or (later in human history) the arrival of changes in material design in Sun Horse Moon Horse. Ug and his dad are figuring out that soft trousers need backs as well as fronts, and Steven Mithen makes the real life comment about the shaping of flints, and how what looks like a crude way of shaping lumps of rock, is actually a unique set of problem-solving activities for every flint knapped*.

The knowingness of the Flintstones and Clan of the Cave Bear is the disjuncture between the lives we live, and the lives lived then (whenever “then” was). For Fred, Wilma and the gang, an incongruous dinosaur is used as a quarry digger, they have foot-powered cars, and the problematic social situations that they encounter are used as satire mirror the society of post war suburban America. While the tone and context for Ayla is different, there is a similarity in that her struggles with sexism, with power, with belonging and identity are more solemn, the Clan of the Cave Bear asks the audience to think about our current society, and the social and technological aspects of progress.

Why does this way of looking at The Past have such power?

I think the technology serves a number of purposes, in the wide spread of the genre of historical fiction: it fixes the time scale, and gives a flavour of the past. When Rudyard Kipling looks at the first alphabet in his wildly inaccurate comic Just So story How the First Letter was Written, he gives a flavour of his own vision of society: a loving dad taking pains to indulge his daughter.

ONCE upon a most early time was a Neolithic man. He was not a Jute or an Angle, or even a Dravidian, which he might well have been, Best Beloved, but never mind why. He was a Primitive, and he lived cavily in a Cave, and he wore very few clothes, and he couldn’t read and he couldn’t write and he didn’t want to… 

Kipling’s characters – I suspect underpinned with his view of “primitive” cultures elsewhere in the world – are described by their shortcomings. Even the pictograms the little girl sends go horribly, violently (comically?) wrong. Advance is prophesied, and in the sequel to the the first letter, “How the Alphabet was Made” Taffimai does make progress, and in the poem/parallel with Kipling’s time is described with great tenderness. However, it is worth remembering that her tribe are comic characters like Ug’s people; in the story of How the First Letter was Written the “silly primitives” are really all about misunderstanding and slapstick in the mud. The Dawn Men are stumbling around in the half-light.

Three sets of texts that stand out against this running theme of technological advance would be the great disquisition on place and story that is Boneland, the brilliant adventures of Torak in Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother sequence and Peter Dickinson’s The Kin. In the first, we do not need to understand all at once the refugium in which the Palaeolithic (?) Man lives – in fact, our distance from understanding deepens the mystery of The Man and his relationship to Colin – and in the second there seems to me a skilful avoidance of any sense of the clans “going somewhere” with their fish traps, or boats. The third, while dealing with the issues of progress and human development looks honestly at the young people finding their place in a world after their own lives have been shattered. The last of these is so complex it would deserve its own post: suffice to say that Dickinson’s view of human development admits the shadows of moral corruption but looks at linguistic and psychological (and spiritual) development far more keenly that it does at what tool is used and by whom.

But there is often some sense of progress in these technological markers in stories set so far back in time, and in Briggs’ Ug, the eponymous boy genius is in opposition to his parents, notably his mother. Is this a reworking of Briggs’ own childhood? Again, it is language that provides much of the comedy: Ug’s mother objecting to “nice” and “soft” is telling. The parallel with our present time challenges us: is imagination leading us as adults to say, with Ug’s parents, that progress is all very well but. The ending is particularly telling: the child with imagination has grown up and after the death of his parents (their graves are in a corner of the cave) he is a painter on the walls of his cave, the artist with vision but frustrated and alone. He ends with this querulous speech:

I wish it wasn’t the Stone Age. I wish the Stone Age would end. Things must get better…It can’t always be like this…People will have nice, soft, warm trousers…one day…perhaps…in the future. Things will get better.. Won’t they?

Perhaps this is about hope, and the struggle for development, and the characters at the centre of all these books stand for a human urge to use the imagination. Ayla is seeing, dimly, a world where personal liberation is possible; Torak is looking for freedom, for belonging in the face of hatred and evil; the Man finds acceptance as his stories are passed on – and Ug? The ending of Ug’s story is ambiguous, maybe even tragic: things will get better as ideas are listened to. But the last image, of adult Ug alone in his cave does not afford more than a glimmer of hope: do people listen?

To finish, and as a sort of answer, I’m staying with The Puddleman, another Briggs book from the early 2000s, Tom – very much in change of his grandfather – gets a ride in his grandfather’s shoulders:

“I can see for you,” he claims – but the last thing the boy Tom says is in criticism of the older generation: “You can’t see anything. “

I can see for you.

+++

Please note, as some reviewers have failed to do, that Briggs’ Ug Boy Genius of the Stone Age and His Search for Soft Trousers is a comic look at technology… Perhaps it doesn’t fit with the other books; it certainly leads me off into the Briggs digression.

___

Appendix: Not so much a list of books consulted (although they all were!) as a note to self of where I might take this next. More from Elaine Morgan than a quick quotation; a look at Stig of the Dump; Dickinson’s The Kin. The last of these certainly.
Auel    Jean MClan of the Cave Bear
Briggs.RaymondUg, Boy Genius of the Stone Age
de Waal          FransOur Inner Ape
DickinsonPeterThe Kin
FidlerKathleenThe Boy with the Bronze Axe
GarnerAlanBoneland
KingCliveStig of the Dump The 22 Letters
KiplingRudyardJust So Stories
Mithen:StevenThe Singing Neanderthals Prehistory of the Mind
Morgan           ElaineThe Descent of Woman
PaverMichelleTorak books
PryorFrancisHome
RutherfordAdamA Brief History of Everyone who Ever Lived
StringerChrisHomo Britannicus 
SutcliffRosemaryWarrior Scarlet Sun Horse Moon Horse

Lovely

Further thoughts on Enid Blyton and Alan Garner

Having written about Blyton this month I started Peter Fiennes’ excellent book Footnotes, the opening chapter of which takes us to Dorset with its pleasant pastures and the clouded hills, and I feel I need to have a rethink. His staunch defence – amid a no-holds-barred exploration of her life – makes me at least want to add on some of his ideas about the ways in which Blyton writes. Although he is aware of her shortcomings, Fiennes likes Blyton, and puts her in context: immensely popular, a great manager of her own “brand,” with a love of nature and adventure that meant she was influential and lasting. With the prejudices of her time (a polite circumlocution for her attitudes to race and class), ambiguously portrayed or even attacked by her children, she nevertheless conjured her stories and teased at our childish longings. I have tried, since reading this chapter in Footnotes, to like her. I still can’t – but I can understand something more of her.

I chose the title for this blog because Fiennes gleefully points out how Blyton uses the adjective so much in what he calls her lumpen prose. However, rather then simply criticising her, he has this brilliant insight:

The simple fact is that Enid writes in archetypes; another word would be cliches. She had no interest in writing with the evocative precision about specific places. It is certainly hard to pin them down in her writings… Enid preferred to write her books and live her life on the surface. And to keep things vague. But even if it is hard to locate specific places, here in the Isle of Purbeck, the truth is that everything inside an Enid Blyton book is instantly recognizable. She takes the world and makes it less confusing, kneading her ingredients into something manageable, safe, tidy and above all familiar.

Peter Fiennes Footnotes, Ch 1.

This is, of course why comparison with Garner doesn’t work. His interest is all to do with evocative precision about specific places; that’s what Garner does. In Arboreal, for example, his essay on the Alder Bog (note: the boggy woodland will re-emerge in Treacle Walker), is much more than a history: it is biography, autoethnography, where ‘he,’ the protagonist, has renewed the tamed wild. Garner has cleared the mess of derelict woodland, and from it has brought a poetic insight reminiscent of Hopkins, an historical sense of place like that of Kipling’s Tree Song, but earthier, deeper, more powerful. There is a love of the land and the language here that is worth more than repeating: it is worth celebrating:

Archaeologists came and trowelled one of the Bronze Age barrows near the house. With burnt bone they found the turves that built the burial mound and in them the pollen of the plants that lived then: willow, hazel, ivy, ash; alder, lime, elm, pine and oak; moss, fern, bracken, heather, sedge, and gorse; meadowsweet, vetch, daisy, buttercup; spelt, grass, corn spurrey, wheat; dandelion, chickweed and fat hen. Four thousand years ago the wild was cleared and gone. All was fields, farms, crops, cattle, order; rule: an open world.

The dead men in the ground had worked the same land.

Garner: The Common Dean: The Edge.

I could want to sing that litany of plants.

Nearer the Sky

The Ridings, Headington

I was thinking and writing on St George’s Day of the hymn/school assembly song “When a Knight Won his Spurs,” and the moral ogres and dragons it prompts us to battle. Another of this genre is “Glad that I Live am I,” which M sang to me as we walked Jeff the Dog this morning. This site gives various versions, none matching the comforting wham-bam-plunk of a school assembly. Nostalgia and spirituality is a different blog post, but some of these versions really don’t work for me, and none of them take me back to Blandford Infants.

These are the words.

Glad that I live am I;
That the sky is blue;
Glad for the country lanes
And the fall of dew

After the sun the rain,
After the rain the sun;
This is the way of life,
Till the work be done.

All that we need to do,
Be we low or high,
Is to see that we grow,
Nearer the sky.

Do I mean “genre”? Perhaps for me they stick together just as the choices my teachers in State education made: vaguely religious lyrics urging a sort of morality in which we draw our understanding from the country lanes. No, it doesn’t make them bad lyrics. Yes, we sang “Praise my Soul the King of Heaven” and stuff too, but these stick in my head because of the odd mixture of woolly romantic nature appreciation and aspiration: Ladybird British Wild Flowers and an optimism I now see the twentieth century never really lived up to. They were all certainly different from Sundays, where as Roman Catholics we were still immersed in a vision of the Mass that Heaney (so to speak) celebrates. My dad can still sing a wonderful marching-band version of the music for the Easter rite of sprinkling Holy Water; I can still manage a lot of Compline with its Salva nos Domine vigilantes. This is a good source. And maybe this explains why knights winning their spurs and country lanes seemed something of an oddity to me. If Glad That I Live Am I was odd then, I think of it as more mainstream now: being outdoors is about wellbeing; the locus amoenus (a quick link here) being the locus salubris. Enough marking; enough screen time all round: when I post this blog I’m off for a run in the jolly springtime.

Perhaps the oddness resides in the nature of children’s spirituality. Perhaps closer to what I see in this mixture of ideals and imagery is Tony Eaude’s idea that spirituality is elusive, contested, as I explored some time back, something more basic, and wider, than religious faith or commitment. This would admit Lizette Reese’s final idea of growing nearer the sky, so that it becomes a metaphor rather than a child’s wish to grown nearer to heaven. I originally thought it was about growing taller. It may have that physical element, but there is more than that. As I’ve said before

It’s powerful stuff, all that wishing, all that desire for freedom

all that desire for growing nearer the sky.

Scrambling Up the Hill

Or Going Mad in Thursbitch

Someone on Twitter once sort of challenged me – or I provoked myself – to write as if Enid Blyton had strayed into Garner Country, or if Alan Garner had tried to write in the style of La Blyton. “Wot larx,” I thought – and although parody is not really something I can do very easily, I thought a quick go would be OK. After all, the Weirdstone begins with two children going on holiday, doesn’t it? How hard can this be?

Actually, it’s really difficult. Blyton, although occasionally mocked and frequently criticised – Joyce Grenfell is merciless – was hugely popular and does attempt a child’s-eye drama, but she has such a different point of view from what we see of Alan Garner, from use of language to views of landscape, that I am reminded of Wittgenstein’s often quoted ‘If a lion could speak, we could not understand him’ – see, for example this blog post. Would an Alan Garner world be comprehensible to Enid Blyton?

And yet, poorly little Joe in Treacle Walker might (possibly with a sigh) tear himself away from his Knockout comic to read some escape with spies and danger if such a thing seemed exciting, and The Mountain of Adventure might have gone in a more Aikenesque or Garnerish direction. Garner’s Mossocks might stand for Blyton’s Evans, and we are, after all, in a misty, hilly landscape…

I am being cheeky here.

Where the task becomes impossible is evident from my subtitle. Imagine the tragedy, the earthiness, the spirituality of Thursbitch being reduced to a tale of spies and scientists up in the hills… or (more fairly) to keep to Garner’s earlier work, aimed more at a young readership, Selina Place in Weirdstone or Gomrath being tamed into simply an unpleasant figure with a big house on the Cheshire plain? It is where this taming would be necessary that the parody becomes worthless.

Witness:

Brambles were waiting for them on the other side, but they tore themselves free and ran as best they could through the scrub and matted fringe of the wood.

Garner: Weirdstone Ch 16: The Wood of Radnor

which might have come from either author, whereas

In [Roland’s] narrow angle of vision there was nothing but mountains; peaks, crags, ice and black rock stabbed upwards. The porch seemed to be at the top of a cliff, or a knife-backed ridge. Roland had the sensation of a sheer drop behind him in tge room.

Garner: Elidor Ch 14: The High Places

That sheer drop is astonishing landscape painting, the view through the letterbox that seeps into the everyday, and the image, a little further on, of the lance-carrying men “with the beauty of steel,” riding stags in the shadow-light completes this, a short but utterly brilliant fantasy scene. There is little place in Blyton’s mystery novels even for “Athens in the woods of Warwickshire,” and there is a lack of nuance and transcendence in her more magical writing that sets her apart from Garner. I cannot escape the idea of “lack,” but at its simplest, these are worlds and words far, far from each other. We might as well begin a Blyton adventure in Llareggub, with Dylan Thomas.

Now that would be a parodist’s challenge.

What Dragons?

Smaug the Magnificent by Tolkein.

I’m starting – and won’t finish – this on St George’s Day. But while I’ve written about dragons before here, and on St George’s Day, too. And as is often the case, I’m spurred into action by a remark elsewhere – in this case Martin Flatman’s comment on Twitter that suggested we should have a St George to fight bots. A clever thought: some internet warrior whose job is to deal with the time and emotion devouring interjections into our e-life. But what are our foes? How do we counter them? Let’s look at some dragons.

Lizard by Tove Jansson: curled round shining garnets.
“A giant lizard…like a hideous dragon guarding its beautiful treasure.”

Notice that it isn’t a dragon. As Tolkien suggests of a wider range of literature, dragons, real dragons, essential both to the machinery and the ideas of a poem or tale, are actually rare…There are massive brontosaurus-like creatures (the magnificently irascible Edward the Booble), and this lizard like a dragon, but of all the fantasies Tove Jansson conjures up, traditional creatures such as dragons hardly figure. We may have plants eyeing up Snork Maidens, and knitting ghosts, and the howling fire of the Comet’s nuclear blast – but no dragons.

“No dragons” makes me think of Thor Nogson, whose failure to confront his fear makes him so much a figure I recognise.

Then there is the sorry figure of the dying dragon whose form luckless, soulless Eustace inhabits/inherits much to his regret in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, that uncomfortable fantasy of redemption and repentance at the heart of the Pilgrimage of Perfection (or the earlier Pilgrimage of the Life of Man or maybe Pilgrim’s Progress?), and the awesome (in the earlier sense of the world) dragons in Earthsea [Cue at least one fantastic, menacing, serpentine LeGuin dragon from the artwork of Charles Vess: compare and contrast with poor Eustace].

Pauline Baynes: Eustace as a Dragon bewails his fate
Charles Vass’s sinuous dragon at the start of The Books of Earthsea.

And nearer to my heart are the Knight and the Dragon, trying so hard to live up to the myth of who they are meant to be in Tomie de Paola’s parable of reconciliation and self-realisation, and the very modern, urban and urbane Franklin, in Jen Campbell and Katie Hartnett’s Franklin’s Flying Bookshop. Dragons have changed, been tamed (or come closer at any rate to us). Franklin seems a long way from Orm Embar.

“Luna and Franklin feel like they are made out of stories.”

Few of these – and I know they are self-selected (where, for example, would I put the greedy and self-centred dragon from The Paper Bag Princess?) – are the dragons we would fight. These last two in particular play with the terror, the aggression and turn it on its head.

So far, so predictable, perhaps. Beyond those texts, behind my understanding of what a dragon might be, is this song that I loved so much in school assembly. Martin Simpson performed a gentle, thoughtful version of When a Knight Won His Spurs, linked here.

“Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed
Against the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed,” the song goes. These monsters that attack us, that with the current war in Ukraine seem closer than ever – and, it is noticeable, the war is fought most fiercely in the ruins of cities – but is also fought with anger and misinformation on the web. And not only this war, but the miry lies of governments, our own self-deception. I no longer wield a “sword of youth” but I still fight to set free the power of truth in myself. It’s never an easy task.

So with this simple song from my childhood we might be back to where we might need to fight dragons. Maybe this is the place.

So dragons from the past in Western literature stand as images of aggression, greed especially, and are a species apart. They are (often) merciless, or with their own way of thinking: symbols of our inability to think ourselves into the minds of others. The battle here is with an enemy we don’t understand – maybe one that is set not to understand us.

This is where Martin Flatman’s remark becomes clearer and cleverer: how do we stand against the slow acid attack on our ideas or our spaces in the maze of the Internet or in real life: intrusive, poisoning, interrupting. How would a St George deal with them? Perhaps it s not the clumnsy sword-weilding that deals with them; you wouldn’t use a sword to bash away flies after all. Simply saying “don’t” to bots (and their fleshier imps, the trolls) is like saying “Thou shalt not,” as Pullman suggests in his surprising praise of Jesus as storyteller: Thou shalt and thou shalt not are easily ignored and soon forgotten; but Once upon a time lasts forever. We need stories of hope, stories that laugh at the invading, venomous half-truth. I am holding out, not so much for a hero, but for a Teller of Tales.

A Roll of Honour for 1st March

A bit of a tortuous introduction to a simple theme. I was looking for a Name Day for Jono, our daughter’s partner, and was a bit stuck for a Saint Jonathan. It turns out – with a bit of a wobble – that Jonathan, the son of King Saul and confidant of the man who will become King David, is commemorated on 1st March. I rather suspect that Jonathan, son of Saul is commemorated here in a confusion with Saint David, the fierce and energetic patron saint of Wales, but the story of David and Jonathan refers to the early kingship struggles in Israel, and to the mutual friendship between the two. I also see that Jonathan is commemorated as one of the patron saints of friendship in some Churches. 

Emmett and Caleb

So today is today. The feast of St David of Wales and (very much in its shadow), a commemoration of Saint (?) Jonathan, and although John the Beloved Disciple and a choir of others might join him, it strikes me as a day one might celebrate friendship. We are a long day from the International Day of Friendship, the world looks awful, I am coughing and coughing: we need our friends… So here is a quick roll-call, not much more, of some Significant Male Friendships in (mostly) young people’s literature.

  • In High Fantasy the obvious Tolkien friends might be Frodo and Sam – but what about Legolas and Gimli? Sparrowhawk in A Wizard of Earthsea has Vetch; their true names are Ged and Estarriol, which I cannot omit because of how the latter name rolls around in the mind, echoing the stars, or Tolkien’s Estel. 
  • Historical fiction takes me to Dara and Lubhrin the Heart-Brothers in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sun Horse, Moon Horse, and to Vortrix and Drem, to Artos and Bedwyr, to the tragic story of Randall and Bevis (I have discussed close male friendships in Sutcliff before) – but to other friendships, too – maybe to Thomas Becket and King Henry, for example. Not all friendships go well. Perhaps I unfairly stretch out of “children’s literature” with Sword at Sunset and with MydansThomas anyway
  • Other fiction must include Ratty and Mole, of course, Ping and Tolly, and the friendships that begin so awkwardly for Eustace (not a boy one could easily take to, himself) in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair: with Reepicheep and Puddleglum. And there is no forgetting Snufkin and Moomintroll, life-affirming and heartbreaking all at once.
  • Picture Books? Well, if I exclude Nen and the Lonely Fisherman it’s only because the significance of this male friendship seems to me to be much more romantic than many encounters, although almost its contemporary, Emmett and Caleb, provides a poignant example of ambiguity. The ambiguity of text is a thread for a labyrinth of half-meanings and unstated feelings going back to the story of Jonathan and David after all, and maybe its time to acknowledge the subtleties of such tales. But back to those passionate, wild child younger friends: how about Bernard and Alfie? How many Bernards did my children meet up with, or for how many of their friends were my children the Bernard? Rambunctious, up for a laugh, just on the edge of “naughtiness.” Whose house were they in when all the children took mattresses off the beds and used them to toboggan down the stairs? Who encouraged a young visitor to write her name on our bookcase?
Bernard throws the crayons

In fiction as in real life we meet friends on the edge of tragedy, comrades in arms and united in more gentle fellowship. We meet friends whose devotion to each other is deep and sustaining; comic; brotherly; on the cusp of romantic (and sometimes a coded version of this), so many invitations to adventure, to joy, to wholeness. Happy feast day, friends. 

Thich Nhat Hahn

The man who brought Mindfulness to the west, Thich Nhat Hahn, has died. Biographies, ceremonies and tributes are already coming in on Social Media. The passages that follow are really all that I want to say from my own perspective.

His most immediate message is this simple verse:

Breathing in, I calm my body,

Breathing out I smile.

Rejoicing in this present moment

I know this is a wonderful moment.

Here he is in his core work The Miracle of Mindfulness:

Recognition without judgement. Feelings, whether of compassion or irritation, should be welcomed, recognized and treated on an absolutely equal basis; because both are ourselves. The tangerine I am eating is me. The mustard greens I am planting are me. I plant with all my heart and mind. I \clean the teapot with the kind of attention I would have were I giving the baby Buddha or Jesus a bath. Nothing should be treated more carefully than anything else. In mindfulness, compassion, irritation, mustard green plant and teapot are all sacred.

Thich Nhat Hahn  Miracle of Mindfulness.

and here he is on death:

I asked the leaf whether it was scared because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, “No. During the spring and summer I was very alive. I worked hard and helped nourish the tree, and much of me is in the tree. Please do not say I am just this form, because the firm of leaf is only a part of me. I am the whole tree. I know I am already inside the tree, and when I go back into the soil I will continue to nourish the tree. That’s why I do not worry. As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and I will tell her “I will see you again very soon.”

Thich Nhat Hahn: The Heart of Understanding.

My post on Mindfulness is here; and here is Maria Popova’s Brainpickings saying a lot more, and rather better, on love. And here from a Glasgow Mindfulness page is his message in his own calligraphy: