At the end of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers, the aging physician Eugenus reflects on the ways in which the lives of British and Romano-British peoples stand at the close of an era. The protagonist, Aquila, is looking into the night, wondering whether the victory over the encroaching Saxons will hold. Aquila is right: we know, with the author, that the Romano-British way of life is doomed. It is a story set no more than fifty or a hundred years, say, before the start of Wordhoard, with that painful first story of grubby accommodation and oppression.

Eugenus’ lines are therefore a vaticinium ex eventu: Sutcliff can see – as Aquila and Eugenus cannot – the Osrics and Edwins, the Augustines and Bedes as well as the Great Heathen Army, the Normans, and the wars in Europe of C20th…

“It may be that the night will close over us in the end, but I believe that morning will come again.

Morning always grows again out of the darkness that maybe not for the people who saw the sun go down. We are the Lantern Bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning to carry what light we can forward into the darkness and the wind.”

She is writing in a world that has seen appalling hardship; Eugenus is speaking words of comfort but knowing that the peace will likely not last.

But they are words of comfort and hope beyond the trite “tomorrow is another day;” Aquila and Ambrosius and Ness and Artos, the future King Arthur, are looking for a time ahead of peace and stability, knowing it may not be theirs to see: like Moses gazing into a promised land he will not set foot in.

In the difficult incident where Aquila chooses to help an injured Saxon (skirting spoilers here) we see the first glimmer of a new Britain made of Roman, Briton, Saxon, Pict – and people whose ties to Britain were only half conceived when Sutcliff wrote. She sees a possibility of unity, of a loyalty bigger than tribalism. Hers is not the magical transcendence of Lewis but more like the charge of Cooper’s Merlin that after the grim times of the two World Wars “the world is yours and it is up to you.

We are at a similar point now – a time upon us, maybe, or looming, where resentments are revived, nationalism is violently imposed – but Eugenus (a name suggesting “Good People”) reminds Sutcliff’s first readers – and us – of the importance of the basic relationships: Ninnias, the pottering herbalist monk, and Eugenus, the Roman doctor, are no magic patriarch Merlin, but advisers alone. It is worth noting that Sutcliff does not give us Merlin to contemplate, and that Ninnias has a gentle and largely unheroic gospel to proclaim: hope comes from humanity for post-war Sutcliff and for the last remnant of Roman Britain.

Up to us, then, to remember aright, to read the signs well, to act as best we can. It is not the apocalyptic Son of Man we conjure (who could?) or a Merlin to stride in to save us, but peace and compassion that we need to work for ourselves.

A thought for Armistice Day and Martinmas?

Worm in the Well

William Mayne again, and some thoughts on my latest reading.

I’ve just read Mayne’s retelling of the worm legend that has a vivid version in the singalong the Lambton Worm.

To get the Lambton song out of the way, here it is in all its glory with Bryan Ferry sounding to my mind like an escapee from a Steeleye Span tribute band and here are the lyrics. Perhaps the hectic version by Alan Price catches the C19th popular tone best… I don’t know. It was a staple song in the Co Durham school where I taught in the late 80s. My own best memory of the song was reading the lyrics to one of my reception children at the Gateshead Garden Festival (see the clip here: the worm appears at about 7′ 30″) and having to show him the word “hoy,” when he said “Is that a real word, like? That you can write down?”

It’s not the Lambtons, however, and certainly not the song, that I want to think about, but Mayne’s retelling and my reaction. I’ve already recorded how my understanding of the relationships in his Earthfasts was changed by knowing Mayne’s story, and how alert I was to ambiguities in those relationships in my adult reading that I was unaware of as a younger reader.  I was, therefore, alert for the worm story to be, in Mayne’s hands, a sort of sub-Freudian exploration of the denial of the phallic leading to confrontation and resolution.

I was wrong.

In The Worm in the Well, Mayne takes the worm in a different direction.  Two boys struggle to find justice in their place as young heirs to unequal fortunes in Feudal England, and the bitterness of their rivalry spills into the next generation and changes even the metaphysics of their world. People are sewn away into tapestries; swords and loves are lost and found; the constant commentary of the nurse (precursor to Blackadder’s Nursie, successor to C S Lewis’ Batta in Till We Have Faces and the Giant Nurse in The Silver Chair – yes, Patsy Byrne again in the BBC version) and the knowing and notknowing presence of the witch Granny Shaftoe thread through and dominate everything.

The book has some wonderful ideas: the Worm that grows more monstrous and rapacious with each rejection; the recurring tragedy of wrong choices presented like a folk tale; the brilliant depiction of a world view where magic is possible and monsters stare like heraldic beasts. Mayne has a stunningly good turn of language to describe the natural world too: “The waters of the pool went down clear into deep darkness;” “The trees scraped at the greying sky;” or “Overhead the clouds rolled together; below, the greenwood filled with darkness, blacker than nature.” There is a menace in his psychogeography throughout.

Mayne has, of course (and thanks to Nick Campbell for this lead) looked at the awful worm elsewhere. Nick C shares, in his blog post on Mayne’s other worm tale, A Game of Dark, my reticence to deal with the biography and in A Game of Dark we have another medieval worm: a stinking menace the protagonist needs to kill (although the echoes for me are with A Monster Calls). I suppose what I want to do is set to rest my disquiet at how his personal story might affect his themes, and to praise his bold, vivid glorying in the countryside.

When Alan, the inheritor of a manor and of the negative emotional history of his father, comes back from the Crusades, he finds his fief hushed, unloved and out of kilter, “insulated from the clamour of heaven.” His cry is a summons, an anthem of rewilding:

“This is my land and I order it to become noisy like the real countryside. The wind must blow, and of the river rage; the sheep must shout and the meadows rave; wild beasts must run, and the clouds must rive; men must ride and children riot.”

If I can get that biography out of my head, I hear a powerful voice telling important stories of reconciliation and renewal. Do Mayne’s flaws deafen me to his message?


No, not the satirical resistance of Led by Donkeys who have worked so hard to expose the bizarre corners of Brexit – nor yet Puzzle, the duped innocent whose impersonation of Aslan in The Last Battle is key to the destruction of Narnia. No, this is just to record how depressing it is on a wet Saturday in November to see a sequel to the Wonky Donkey book, in which his daughter is cute and has long eyelashes.

Just to record it? Perhaps not: perhaps it is more accurate to say that this brief post is a plosive against both books. The Wonky Donkey book (I’m not linking to it) is a series of word plays about an animal where “shortcomings” in mobility, eyesight &c are hilariously (allegedly) explored. Pity the child who walks with an aid and whose teacher reads this. The sequel does try, in that the daughter of the Wonky Donkey does at least stray into smelling as bad as her father – but why the long eyelashes and the cuteness? I want to say to the author (again, no link) “Did you have to?”

I am not always a great fan of the new wave of woke lit for children, which, it seems to me, is patchy in quality and often a bit sermonising – but can’t we do better than these dreadful donkeys? And if the defence is that they are “meant to be funny,” doesn’t that allow for a whole tranche of ableist or sexist humour to be legitimised?

Or is it that I am cold and wet, and fail to see the humour in the absurdity of these stories?

Carnival chaos

To recap some of my thoughts about Hallowe’en. The use of such conquering fear of the dark activities seems to me pretty obvious:

winter nights enlarge/The number of their hours

and we can make the best of it by smiling at the dark. Thomas Campion‘s lyrics have it just right, and youthful revels have their place in the honey love of the closing-in evenings.

The pro and con tensions in part arise from the abuses these revels engender. “Psychos” and “Slutty Vampires” sit uncomfortably with my English folk-horror. Yet they’re not wholly American: Trick or Treat at least has an element of bargaining amid the demanding money with menaces, unlike much of its ancestor, Mischief Night, whose joys seem vengeful or gleefully malign. A door latch has a drawing pin attached to it with dog poo, so the unwary person who pricks his thumb goes at once to suck it… a sooty chicken is induced to cause havoc at a WI meeting…

Yes, these are both occurrences from North Yorkshire I’ve been told about.  They are the same Carnival as the Big Skeleton, the Little Skeleton and the Dog Skeleton go in for as they riot their way home in Funnybones, or the menacing pumpkin head that gets its comeuppance in the story of the hopping pumpkin  who meets an ignominious end with a goat (this is a link to a longer text than the one I tell).  But the Carnival is there because we are at a sort of seasonal fault-line, where summer’s lease is up and the dark is at the door.

There is a sense for me that this big change is the Autumn answer to May Day. The nights close in, the socialisation is indoors, defined, more visible, with the freedoms of warmer weather lost or at least traded for friends and firesides.  When C S Lewis envisages this in the hearts of his heroes in That Hideous Strength they think of

…stiff grass, hen-roosts, dark places in the middle of woods, graves. Then of the Sun’s dying, the Earth gripped, suffocated, in airless cold, the black sky lit only with stars.

No mischief or carnival here s we stare into the dark.  Mischief, however, is close friends with these shadows and darkness, of the almost-known, the footsteps partly recognised. It is the younger sibling of more menace, and this is partly why it is disquieting: does it licence the bully, the vandal? In looking into the shadows, does it, as Kathleen Raine so evocatively puts it:

Let in the dark,

Let in the dead…

(Northumbrian Sequence IV is cited in extenso here in my post about poetry and spirituality)?

It seems to me that this week or so – Hallowe’en to Remembrance/Martinmas – is a real blending of a gleeful naughtiness, the swede or pumpkin lantern and the restlessness of wind and dark, wet evenings, as the chaos of Carnival mimics and mocks – and presages – the chaos and pain of the storms of winter and death, “þis andwearde lif manna on eorðan” “Talis vita hominum praesens in terris…”

So when we smile at the shadows when we look at books for (and with) children, how do we approach death and disaster?  The too-brief nod recently to the BBC adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials asks about the Beeb’s decisions to show it pre-watershed. We might similarly ask about Erlbruch’s Death, Duck and Tulip, that strange and lovely meditation on the role of death in our lives – or Thummler’s Sheets, or McCaughrean’s Where the World Ends, or Ness’ A Monster Calls…  In fact, although the list isn’t endless, there are plenty of books that offer wonderful and painful insights as they look at death and pain and loss.

The good writer who perceives a good story need not shy away from the issues; the reader who comes to these texts comes prepared for challenge, maybe for tears – but trusts the writer to deliver something that will bring them safely to shore. Raine puts it well when she suggests that in our innocence it is still within us to

bind in human form
A living power so great,
A living impulse great and wild

and (for me the subtlest line)

Have pity on the raven’s cry




Forest School or Outdoor Learning

A local school recently tweeted that at Forest School the children had “learnt about bioaccumulation through a game with foxes and mice.” Similarly today the Brookes undergraduates in Early Childhood and Education Studies learned how to make a standing-up giant, paint on trees, and how to pace a storytelling session and what to do when the sun is in your eyes.

I don’t begrudge anyone their learning, obviously – here, or in the woods around a school, or on a walk in the Botanic Garden or (as we did a year ago) on a trip with our MA students around local parks, looking at design and purpose. Bioaccumulation is a good thing to know about; linking the wind in the trees with the listening skills vital for acquisition of skills in phonics is good, too; the practical skills of painting with mud, the health and safety aspects of transporting large logs, the content and context of telling a story about a Hallowe’en pumpkin – these are useful in their place. They will all be even more useful when applied, reflected on, maybe even when they supply material for assessed work.



But a purist voice in my ear asks are these Forest School?  What makes Outdoor learning – even learning in a wood – Forest School?   For me the tension is around how I “teach about Forest School,” when I find that the easiest thing to do is show activities that might occur in Forest School, which tends to mean we do adult (i.e. me) led activities, when some of the best times I’ve had with children in Forest School have been tree-climbing, den-making : things that children have chosen and devised. Should I be making opportunities for my (mostly young) adult learners just to sit, or climb, or muck about? Is mucking about a part of the curriculum?

Perhaps rather than trying for a false dichotomy here, we might look at curriculum as something richer than frameworks for learning, or even intent,  implementation, and impact.  What might curriculum be, if the Forest is not an extra-curricular activity?  If we look at the Oxfordshire local outdoor centre, Hill End, and their statement on Forest School there is much to ponder. This seems to me to be at the heart of their thinking:

Forest School sessions are practical and primarily child led. The emphasis is on the development of self-esteem, communication and social skills, personal responsibility and citizenship. These skills feedback positively into other areas of work in schools and settings. When embedded in the setting’s curriculum Forest School enriches and links to all areas of development and learning.

and to move from the windswept smiles of the undergraduates this morning and this afternoon to look at this in a bit of detail, two phrases stick out for me: practical and primarily child led and [t]hese skills feedback positively into other areas of work in schools and settings. In other words one of the markers of Forest School is the child-initiated activity, and another is that skills, rather than primarily content are what feed back into school.

Does this invalidate the experience in which the educator follows the learners’ interests? No, but what has given me pause for thought was the first year student whose commentsIMG_1091.JPG this morning  showed her perspicacity. In distinguishing (as she did) between “fun” and “engagement” she laid bare one of the most important issues facing outdoor education that follows something of the Forest School ideal. Primarily child-led, but a powerful element in enriching school-based learning. Not every student can do this so early in their course; not every teacher or pedagogic critic can do it either.

Curriculum is not a simple set of stepping stones of skills or a navigable maze of knowledge, although knowledge and skills are certainly there, but a complex mix of both – and more: it is only really understood where context is also explicitly planned for and understood.

And this is where the mistakes of some of my students emerge: they confuse engagement with fun, and both with notions of child-led exploration. Too easy to think about “getting children” to build a den, rather than letting them do it. Getting rather than letting, as if value comes with adult input.

And maybe I get confused too: in trying to sell Forest School, do I go for fun over engagement, my planning over student enthusiasm, and in the words of Francis Thompson, “miss the many-splendoured thing”?

Starting out

Just a quick thought for the students on two of the three modules I’m teaching this semester, based on the relationship between the cat and the rabbit in the wonderful Up The Mountain. My comments here might be something to follow up, but are in no way important for what follows here. I hope this works for the three modules* but maybe in different ways: I have to say that from the outset I’m writing this really for the first years: for “my” Ed Studies students, and then for the first year Outdoor Learning people in Early Childhood.

img_9968The model that the book Up The Mountain explores is one of friendship and apprenticeship. The author wrote it in memory of her grandmother “who loved nature and books” – and that pretty much sums up my attitude to this semester’s teaching: warmth, love of Nature, love of books. 

However, if this were all, I think I would be wondering if this was worth a degree. Just as sometimes I look at CPD that people report as inspirational and think “that was a day’s worth?” I worry that coming out of the undergraduate process thinking that one or two tutors were nice people and that being outside is lovely is just too weak. Of course, in the CDP example and the undergraduate one, this précis is too wishy-washy to be a decent overview of what anyone has learn, but what do I want students to do when starting out in  Higher Education?  I find myself as old Mrs Badger, watching the little cat explore, and grow – and pass on his delight to the (even littler) rabbit who joins his journey.  Perhaps the imagery doesn’t extend too far, a delight though the book is.

But to move away from metaphor, let’s take Doodles, the therapy dog whose work is described in Cheryl Drabble’s book and her blog. Why use a book like this in the Introduction to Education Studies? Well, because it describes and uses the disciplines of Education Studies in a compassionate and engaged context. Real children and young people, along with their educators, have encountered and appear to benefit from a different way of working. How do we know this works?  Do we define curriculum in such a way that the experience of education has room for “cute, fluffy, handsome, pretty and furry”?**

We will, of course, read about the uses and abuses of cherrypicking educational practices and about the ways theory can and can’t be used – from Developmentally Appropriate Practice to looking at models of (dis)advantage – but Cheryl Drabbles’ dog allows us to ask big questions through a practical lens.  For example:

  • Should schools be therapeutic spaces – or should the task of learning itself be enough to raise self-esteem and motivate? How does “belonging” fit with one’s identity as a learner – or an educator (thanks, Jon, for the timely reminder on this last point as I prepare a class on the Sociology of Education)?
  • If a dog is right for one school, should all schools get one? How might  practice in a school where pupils have significant needs for physical and/or cognitive support be different from other schools? Should they be seen as different?
  • What is the role of the professional as an autonomous worker? How do educational institutions work as teams – and (see above) how does belonging and having a voice in a team look in practice?
  • What does the documentation of a National Curriculum have to say about what society might aspire for? Does this aspiration close doors or open them?

All this from a small dog?

We might, by moving beyond the text itself into exploring what we mean by distinguishing between research and news media, ask

  • What makes an argument valid?
  • Does “it works for us” clinch an argument, validate a practice?
  • How does research work in a messy world of so many variables?

All this in twelve weeks?

No, and no. We (the students and I) are beginning to pose these questions, just as we are beginning to put together the skills the students will need for the next few years and beyond.  And of course it’s not Doodles – or even Cheryl Drabble’s book about him and his impact on her school – that gives us these things. We are using the idea of a therapy dog, and what people have said about therapy dogs (and mutatis mutandis the experiences we are having outdoors in the other modules and what people write about being outdoors) as ways of starting to explore the Big Questions both in the abstract and the concrete. We are also starting to look at the conventions that Higher Education (sort of) seeks to impose on its neophytes.  So – to end with practical questions – if we are using (as many students are) the e-version of the book, how are you going to reference a quotation from it? How might you summarise some of Drabble’s conclusions?


*The three modules are: the first year module Introduction to the Study of Education and the first and second/third year modules Young Children’s Outdoor Learning. Doodles makes his appearance especially in the first of these.

**Drabble, C (2019) Introducing a School Dog: a practical guide. London: Jessica Kingsley.  Drabble (2019:98)


It’s National Poetry Day and I’m clearing old woody clippings from an allotment that is, thanks to Rosa, coming back to life like something in Frances Hodgson Burnett. As with yesterday’s digging, I am accompanied by a robin. It is friendly enough to allow me to photograph it from close up. I love its jet-jewel eye and the way its chest moves as a bubbling song comes from somewhere in its tiny body. I love its daring proximity – it flies so close at one point, a wing brushes my leg.

Its closeness and seeming trust mean I am able to photograph it – but miss the Mafiosi magpies who swoop and bicker close by, and am nowhere near fast enough for the dive of a sparrowhawk as it twists into the trees, after some luckless songbird. After the robin? My little friend?

The theme of this poetry day is truth, and I do wonder how truth exhibits itself – or is exhibited in Nature Writing. There are the monumental and disturbing images from Underland, and the small but detailed work of taxonomy and the science of magnifiers; there is the work from Peter Fiennes on woodland, and the research from Mat about language and landscape – and then there is this robin, and the magpies and the hawk. Guardian nature writing; CaedmonGilbert White; Edgelands and the Shell Country Alphabet: they all bring something to the kaleidoscape that seeks to explore and explain and act as advocate. There is a cloud of witnesses here.

But to think about truth in Nature Writing (why those upper case letters?) and a short poem I was brought back – by that killer robin, terror of the worms I was turning over, and by the sparrowhawk that set the wrens in ear-achingly shrill panic – to the ambiguity of our gaze. The robin as my friend – or as belligerent defender of her/his turf? Sparrowhawk as dangerous thief – or as a beautiful trajectory on an autumn day?

And that gave me the poem for today, a marvel in concise, painterly imagery from Anne Stevenson, and a sharp reminder of the way our truth, our human truth is only ours, not universal:

Gannets Diving

The sea is dark
by virtue of its white lips;
the gannets, white,
by virtue of their dark wings.

Gannet into sea.

Cross the white bolt
with the dark bride.

Act of your name, Lord,
though it does not appear so
to you in the speared fish.



The sparrowhawk didn’t get the robin, by the way.