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:

Eyes as Clean as the Cold Sky

A first trip to Otmoor

The quotation that forms the title comes from Evening: Zero Weather, a poem by Thomas Merton commemorating these chill days after Christmas (text here). His view – a land without wildlife, where liturgy is a refuge and a celebration after hard physical work – was not what I experienced. He and his monastic brethren are

…sunken in our adoration,

And plunge down, down into the fathoms of our secret joy

That swims with undefinable fire.

And we will never see the copper sunset

Linger a moment, like an echo on the frozen hill…

Thomas Merton, Evening: Zero Weather

For our trip to the Otmoor Nature Reserve it was very different. We came in haste from the busy centre of Oxford through the twisty lanes and down to Otmoor, to throw back our hoods and watch the copper sunset and to see if we might get to watch the starlings and their drifting, balletic murmuration. We weren’t late, and more people came after us, some armed with sandwiches and massive-lensed cameras. In general we stood quiet, watching the other birds over the reeds and in the trees.

The light was itself a revelation. The deeper golds and the encroaching blues were like something from a medieval stained glass window, lit from within – but in contrast to the enclosure of a building, we were engulfed in light and space spreading wider and wider.

And as it faded, our expectation grew. A Marsh Harrier grazes the tops of the reedbeds; a Heron flies over much higher; a flock of Lapwings tumbles hastily into the reeds, and one Dunnock spends a good five minutes rather eccentrically hopping between my boots and the brambles. And then, in ones and twos and then in larger groups, joining together or catching up with one in front, came the starlings. Thousands of them: rank on rank.

Just as a church often has a big congregation watching and a smaller number of active agents as singers and celebrants, in contrast here, the observers were few – maybe twenty of us? – and the celebrants we watched were many. Some birding is detailed, organised and serious – this is a good website to indicate what’s going on – but some is excited but familial, even jolly in a hushed sort of way. I’m not sure where Maggie and I were in this spectrum, but I do know that, amateur that I am, I was immensely moved.

The swirls and sudden plunges of each group were beautiful in themselves, like cloths shaken in the wind (Julian of Norwich’s image of sorrow as men shakyn a cloth in the wynde but we also talk of an exaltation of larks). All those animals moving to their rest. Do they pick somewhere different every night? Are they opportunistic? I wonder about that Harrier – could it grab from this abundance of life? Then I remember seeing a video of a Peregrine stooping, and I think of that marvellous appreciation of the hunting bird by J A Baker. All sorts of expectations and delights are tumbled in me, my own internal murmuration.

So the birds are rushing for shelter against predators and a chill night to come, and we are standing watching them – and it is dazzling. Why do we find this beautiful? The rich colours like they were being distilled to wintry essence, the rush of the birds (and their singing in the reeds that sounded like running water), the way the last of the sun catches in the ditches: there was an overload of beauty – but can we talk of this? Can there be too much?

Perhaps the simplicity of Mary Oliver is a way forward:

But mostly I stand in the dark field,

in the middle of the world, breathing

in and out. Life so far doesn’t have any other name

but breath and light, wind and rain.

If there’s a temple, I haven’t found it yet.

I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass

and the weeds.

Mary Oliver: What Is There Beyond Knowing

I wish this were me, silent as I watch the crowds pass and gather over the fenny land beyond the trees and are then lost, but I bring too many words with me, I am already berating myself for my poor natural history knowledge; already, with photo after photo thinking of social media, of this blog. Percolating up, I remember Baker, but am also thinking of the Thomas Merton poem because I am pondering how this experience ties in with spirituality and I feel myself caught, somehow, between the intensity of nature and the anchoring of a moving encounter in something formal, regular. It is only when I come to write some notes that I realise how different this evening has been, inside-out and outside-in, from something enclosed, measured and organised. I am glad of the challenge. To use phrases from the Merton poem, the zero days before Lent are not just for huddling away, but for looking up, looking outwards, with eyes as clean as the cold sky.

Research Shows

There is a deliberate ambiguity in this choice of title. I am aware of the journalistic shorthand that tells us that “studies suggest x…” or (to my mind even worse since COVID-19 seems to have required us all to be experts in epidemiology) “science tell us…” and while I wish in the age of URLs and sidebars of info we could have links to open-access versions of what is being reported, I see what a BBC report, for example, might need to achieve: a quick, digestible bit of news. This is not, however, a model for students learning how to put an academic essay together.

Take, for example, the essay which uses a BBC report on an OfSTED report. Still fairly responsible: but these are utter killers for first-year Education students. In the example I’m citing – and I see this or similar often enough for it not to be an identifiable case – the reporter has maybe 1000 words to make a complex argument simple enough to be followable and interesting enough to make a reader want to follow it. Will schools be open in January? Private Eye might encapsulate this as “We don’t know.” Poor behaviour is not taken seriously enough in schools. We might explore who says this, why, and what the underlying factors might be. How do we get students to explore this kind of text?

The temptation for the student is that might see a piece of fairly authoritative reporting and think “that sounds good: this is the way I’ll go,” and that isn’t unreasonable – but is dangerously close to the student who cones to an essay and thinks “Ah, I know about this: what authoritative-sounding sources are there that I can use to back up my argument?” Fast food essay writing.

The title’s other meaning suggests it is about asking that students work out some of what their essay might entail by intelligent reading that might take them off and away from their expectation of “doing what the tutor asks.” In other words, in Education (and Early Childhood) Studies, this is about looking at what a tutor sets and moving away from the grey area between “what is s/he asking?” and “what can I get away with doing?” A good essay should never be about this. The problem is that sometimes “Studies suggest” and “Research shows” actually indicate that the student really wants to write “I read somewhere” as if that were good enough. The double edge of the blog post title is that “Lack of research shows, too.” Part of it is knowing where to stop – how much is enough reading? – and part of it is about knowing how to use the reading you have done. Jane Godfrey in How to use your reading in your essays advises

Don’t be tempted to just type your essay title straight into an online search engine in the hope that something useful will come up. First think about what type of information and material you need – this will result in finding more appropriate sources more quickly.

How to Use Your Reading in Your Essays p13

Think about where you need to go and how to get there. Where you need to go for this class, for that essay – and what tools you need. Where do go for this year, for this second semester – and look back at what you have learned, what you enjoy, what you’re good at. They may not be all one thing, of course. This then is about reading wisely – but that is a complex set of skills and attitudes in itself: is a maze within a maze. It would be easy to make this into a muddled rant about the old term of “reading for a degree,” and or echo the Professor in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in saying “I wonder what they do teach them at these schools.”

What I suspect is left for Y1 in Higher Education is often the challenge of increasing independent work. For next week, I’d like you to…. and I don’t think I’m alone in seeing laptop lids go down at this very common start of the rite of dismissal. And yet I am taking over a very well-respected module this semester and find that the previous tutors set really quite a big chunk of reading every week. With a bit of juggling I have kept this approach, and for next week is already settled – but one of the additions I’ve made is to put a midway “Reading Review” into the schedule. Not a test, probably not even a quiz per se, but a way of saying “This way through the maze.”

How much is enough reading? Well, that’s going to be the big question. I have co-marked and moderated on this module for enough years already to know that the script of “what authoritative-sounding sources are there that I can use to back up my argument?” is still a mental tool students can be tempted to use, and if we’re not careful this becomes: find the argument, then find the sources, then nick the quotes and away we go. So as well as set reading on the weekly schedule I have begun to rank the texts by essential and recommended. I just have to keep reminding myself that this is one module out of four, a mass of work in different themes and at different paces.

But this ranking itself has taught me something. How long ago did I read that – and what did I make of it when I first met it? Is that really the text they need? So what began as a reshelving exercise in my own bays in a mythical e-library becomes something much bigger: a self-evaluation of the reading I am setting the students. I may be only adding one book this time (Twitter followers might guess which it is, or click here) but the rest takes me back to at the very least my MA classes in 1998(ish) and then the kid-in-a-sweetshop days as a new lecturer at Oxford Brookes; how do I instill that same wow factor in the reading I suggest/propose/impose?

Because, in the end, that is the thing that will move students beyond doing what I ask into sharing my enthusiasm.