Little Pete

It is a sort of running gag with me that my Goodreads account ought to have a shelf on it marked “Books Mat Showed Me That Made Me Cry.” Mat has the great gift of seeing a book through and through, welcoming the shadows as well as the sunshine: often he suggests I read a book so moving, so poignant, that when I have finished I have a lump in my throat. It is good, therefore, to move from these wondrous books that wrench the heart, to a very old but certainly gold collection: the Little Pete Stories by Leila Berg. Mat, thank you for these, and for the joy they have brought as I’ve shared them with my granddaughter.

When Pete is disturbed playing at not treading in the cracks in the pavement he rails at the lady in the Bath Chair who has interrupted him:

“You’ve turned me into an elephant!” he cried.

“You don’t look like an elephant,” said the lady who sat in the chair.

“You’ve turned me into an elephant!” Pete shouted. “You’ve made me tread on hundred and millions of lines and now I’m an elephant and I wasn’t going to be an elephant till I got to the top of the hill, so I could run all the way down!”

Leila Berg “Pete and the Letter” (Little Pete Stories ch 7)

There is a knowing wink to the reader here: we all know he isn’t a elephant, any more than his personification of his shadow (which occurs throughout) is someting that is actually “true,” and we also know that Pete understands that he isn’t an elephant, but that he is expressing his dismay at an imaginative game being interrupted. The rational adults who encounter Pete’s anger and impatience usually get round it in some way, and very often this is by their involving him in something – such as posting a letter, the subject of this story – and this strikes me as crucial in Berg’s vision of childhood. Pete is not to be told “don’t shout:” it doesn’t work, although practically every adult tries it; Pete, they discover, is best distracted and redirected, but in a very specific way, in that the adults find ways of engaging him in meaningful activity.

The child’s despair is all encompassing – because he does not know gradations, he feels either in darkest hell or gloriously happy…

As Bettleheim puts it, describing the role of the Happy Ever After of becoming a King or Queen in the finale of a fairy tale:

There is no purpose to being the king or queen of this kingdom other than being the ruler rather than being ruled. To have become a king or queen at the conclusion of the story symbolizes a state of true independence in which the hero feels… secure, satisfied and happy…

Bruno Bettleheim ‘Transcending Infancy with the Help of Fantasy in “The Uses of Enchantment”

Pete is given agency from the start – Berg allows him to express his frustration when he is crossed – and in the denouement of his narratives of crisis, and that leads to the stories’ punchline invariably being about that day being “good.”

He has quite a lot of agency. He is out on his trike on his own, going to the shops, watching builders: this neighbourhood is full of interesting things for a small boy to do. He even gets a lift to buy a notepad from a man on whose car he has been writing with a stick, although in the version I have (1971) he asks his mum, who does check and allows him. The stories thus stand as testament to a childhood I think we rarely see in the UK these days – at least, one that is not recorded. This is the same world as the US childhood depicted in The Sign on Rosie’s Door (from 1′ on in this clip, in the 80th birthday tribute to Maurice Sendak), although Sendak’s is much more social. Pete’s world was described maybe ten years before I experienced it, and the world was changing. I felt sad having to explain this to a seven-year-old when I started on sharing these stories, in much the same way as a discussion of lifts from strangers feels like a necessary introduction to The Elephant and the Bad Baby (lots more to say about that story!).

Pete explores with confidence and copes with the events that thwart his plans. He reacts with an unregulated anger or impatience – and in some ways the best thing about this is how the narrator allows this expression of anger. He has the much-pined-for freedom that is deep in the narrative of nostalgia: in some ways his physical and emotional freedom is the epitome of this version of childhood freedom. It is one I recognise from my own childhood: my own tricycle when I was three or four, the casual interactions with people I knew or at least who knew me: Harrogate; Charlton Marshall and Blandford Forum in Dorset, even before the freedoms of bike-friendly Harlow in Essex when I was eight (two-wheeler by now! – I still have the scars)…

So in Leila Berg’s 1950s we have a small person – just beginning to write (and that and the trike suggest he is four, but I’m happy to be corrected) out and about with adults keeping a regulatory eye but not systematically organised on his explorations. Pete is a lone hero with odd cats and dogs and sticks – and of course his shadow – for company. The interactions with adults are gradually – very gradually – teaching Pete about the world around him. For me the most touching is Pete’s interaction with a builder. It starts with Pete being cross about how people build – up, he thinks, with walls, not down into foundations. But the builder gives him some time:

“Well,” said the man, “if you’ll listen very carefully – and quietly – and lave my spade alone – I’ll explain it to you.” And he wiped his hands on his trousers, for there were feeling rather sore and sticky.

And because Pete could see that what the man was going to tell him would be the truth, he stopped being angry and listened.

Pete and the Whistle.

The man was going to tell him the truth. That is one of the most insightful lines in the book: and if we expect the dance of adult and child regulation to be success, it is at the heart of our parenting and pedagogy.

In The Sign on Rosie’s Door the regulation more or less comes from the group of children; the flock keeps the flock safe, although it is interesting that joining a group and leaving it is very casual. There is freedom here too, freedom for slightly older children, freedom of a different order from Little Pete – freedom from the ties of the adult. The entertaining autobiography of David Benjamin has similar insights, reflecting on Wisconsin (of maybe a slightly older child) from a similar period:

Kids are instinctively feral. Unleash them from school and church and home, as every kid was invariably set loose every summer in the Little-League-less Fifties, and kids will hunt down whatever wild game crawls into their territory.

The summer hunt is an ecstasy of freedom. Suddenly, the last days of May, after a useless morning in class, school ends. The doors open and kids stumble, blinking, into the sun. We hear our first robin sing. We see our first forsythia. We breath chalkless, nunless, heathen air. We break into a run…

David Benjamin ‘Koscal’ in “The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked.”

In the branches and among the stones

Sitting in the garden this morning (such is my practice, especially at the moment in these sunny days at the end of Eastertide) I could hear the birds – mostly blackbirds and belligerent robins, I think – in the trees and bushes: all that singing made me think of the great Pentecost sequence we hear (this year at live-streamed Mass: the Dominican melody and a translation are at the end of this blog post) – and that in turn sent me to check the Latin of the psalm in front of me, Psalm 103 or 104 depending on which version you’re using.

You make springs gush forth in the valleys…

The wild asses quench their thirst.

On their banks dwell the birds of heaven:

From the branches they sing their song.

It is a great hymn to the natural world – I think, sometimes, in a more humanistic age, certainly a post-Romantic one we think less about how much “nature poetry” there is in the Bible. Job is magnificent; the Psalms – as well as having all sorts of other issues and emotions – are a wonder.

However, in this case there is an interesting discrepancy between the Vulgate translation of Psalm 103 (104) and the revised psalter and Grail Translation. It comes down to the Vulgate saying that the birds sing “from the middle of the stones” (De medio petrarum dabunt voces) and the 1945 revision of the Psalms having them in the trees “inter ramos.” My Hebrew really isn’t up to going back to the orginal, but with the help of Bible Hub and a dictionary it seems “among the branches” (mibben ‘opayim) is right.

I will develop this as a less overtly theological reflection in a minute, but my first point is this image of the birds in among the rocks, rather than in the lush vegetation of my allotment or beside the flowing waters that so often are the Biblical image of peace and fecundity. That’s because it strikes me as apt and poignant that this Easter we have been singing in among the rocks, like little birds picking at odd seeds in dry stony places.

I don’t think this is simply a Christian image – or if it is, that’s because that imagery is so deep in our psyche that it is inescapable. There is another side to this in that at a very deep human level we crave the lush, damp woodland, and the fertility that it promises, whether an external grace or the lavish generosity of nature:

each pond with its blazing lilies

is a prayer heard and answered

lavishly, every morning

whether or not

you have ever dared to be happy,

whether or not

you have ever dared to pray

Morning Prayer, Mary Oliver

But this has not been a lush time for many, faced with huge boulders of limitations or tiny pebbles stuck in our shoes. Loudest we have heard (and rightly listened to) narratives of impotent rage in the face of suffering; fierce political rhetoric in the face of duplicity and mismanaged expectations; fear, at the most basic of dying or losing people we love. We have been lucky, here in middle England, to have a hot, sunny spring time to give us joy, but underneath it has been the fear of extinction, of never seeing a dear friend again. When writing to someone recently about the death of our Dean and friend Brian Findlay I used the phrase “losing touch” to someone, and thought what a strange image that is in these non-tactitle days. Then I read Susie Dent on the language of touch, where she acknowledges the double life of these words seems oddly fitting: unbidden, a wish-list of hands I want to hold, people I want to hug flooded in. Stony times of loss and bereavement.

Today, I like the idea that we are little birds picking for seeds in among the stones, so here (for me at least) in this great hymn is one of those seeds. In the Christian context this might be seen as the proper gift of the Holy Spirit: at a very human level and without religious affiliation, this is the gentle breathing of meditation, especially in vv 4, 7 and 8, cooling me when I am het up, comforting, a break in the heat of the day; something that washes, that irrigates. A lush place, cool, private and cleansed beneath the trees (Mary Oliver again). An event or a force (are either of these the right word?) for Compassion.

Tremit Absens

Just having dipped into Paulinus a blog post or two ago, I thought I’d crowbar in a reference to his friend Ausonius. Here he is writing of the way the vineyards of the Moselle are reflected in the river:

…tota natant crispis iuga motibus et tremit absens

pampinus et vitreis vindemia turget in undis…

And again it is Helen Waddell who brought this to a more recent readership, in the Medieval Latin Lyrics and in her novel Peter Abelard. Here it is from the latter, late in the story, where Heloise ( a good brief biography here) , spiritually empty and missing the husband who cast her off is meeting the linchpin character Gilles de Vannes:

“Yet a man’s palate should have no patria.”

“Are you sure, Gilles? I think you used to quote me a lovely line, about a vine. Tremit . . . tremit——”

“What did I tell you? ‘Tremit absens!’

“Trembles the absent vine and swells the grape

In thy clear crystal.””

Although I have given three examples of it before, absence in the literature of Helen Waddell’s medieval world seems to me deserving a little bit more of an explanation today. That she is writing to the most important person in her life is clear – but for my point here it is the line after that is most telling:

A consolatory letter of yours to a friend happened some days since to fall into my hands. My knowledge of the character, and my love of the hand, soon gave me the curiosity to open it. 

The Letters of Peter Abelard and Heloise http://www.gutenberg.org/files/35977/35977-h/35977-h.htm

The letter she refers to is, we assume, the lengthy account of his [sic] disasters: English text here. He complains that his walks are on the inaccessible shore of a sea which is perpetually stormy (a neat piece of psychogeography, I think, or at least a brilliant metaphor): I am at a loss to think how stormy her life was. And then some time after writing this, his autograph copy falls into Heloise’s hands, and in Waddell’s novel, Gilles de Vannes’ is acutely aware of this sudden news.

Gilles, with the small shrewd eyes, the reader (and hence representor of Waddell’s own scholarship) of classical and contemporary poetry and theology. Gilles whose role is to speculate, to guide, to offer food and wine and sympathy and then love for the younger generations who pass through his room. The linchpin of Helen Waddell’s version of the time Heloise and Abelard meet and fall into their life-wrecking relationship. The Canon of Notre Dame who observes all, and at the end of the book finds that he remains moved by the story he has witnessed years before.

And now I need to be honest. Gilles has always seemed to me to be a fictionalised version of the bookish, witty, music-loving character, hard-drinking man whose presence in Magdalen College in the late 70s made Magdalen what it was for me: a genuine Alma Mater. Waddell’s creation Gilles de Vannes predates Brian Findlay, our Dean of Divinity, I know – indeed it was Brian who taught me that Waddell was more than the writer of the novel Peter Abelard; he introduced me to her Medieval Latin Lyrics; he taught me about beer (I was not fond before College); he was accepting and sympathetic with my emotional turmoil; he could – and did – listen and joke and be serious and sarcastic and sing with us or share poems with us all in an evening until we moved out into the quad and off to our (usually several) beds. Go to him for a brief break in some work crisis or broken heart and find “something nourishing” (a nice malt, or a glass of port) pressed into your hand, and talk of Alcuin or a terrible chasuble. O blessed Gilles, as Pierre the Cluniac monk reflects, who always spoke of things and not of sentiment. And then onto why you had really dropped by. A good liturgist, an excellent preacher, a mentor. To sit with Gilles was to sit with Time himself, to whom a thousand years were as yesterday. “Hearing you talk,” he said suddenly and without embarrassment, “is the best thing I have got out of Paris.”

I got to know Brian well in my umpteen years as an undergraduate and graduate student, and it is Gilles who notes that It is hard to forgive one’s god for becoming flesh. For me the biggest gift (but in some ways a road less travelled, a path into the clouds) was the myth of medievalism, a carnival approach typical of Brian, which took in liturgy and music (that harpsichord!), and something much more – erm- Rabelaisian, perfectly pitched at the undergraduate mind. Distinctly complex: a man of stories and shadows who for me – even more than Garner or Cooper – explains why Oxford is the seed bed of British fantasy. Having Brian take me facsimile by facsimile through the palaeographical work on English court hand A.D. 1066 to 1500 when I was a young graduate student was a great time. I do wonder maybe if sitting listening to him – on matters political, musical or spiritual (or in his love for Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor, which encompassed both the last two) – was the best thing I got out of that particular part of Oxford. I certainly owe him a great debt for his throwing open the chapel to students not part of the Foundation Choir: part of why I still open my breviary in the mornings is down to his regular practice of the Office. Tomorrow I will, all being well, say Morning Prayer pro defunctis, although with a heavy heart.

In domum Domini ambilavimus in consensu.

And with him I found my friends. My God, I found my friends, and he was one and they have changed my life.

So tonight I have ‘phoned around and fielded some emails and had dinner and read a story to a granddaughter – yet I am flooded with memory of a time long gone. His beautiful parlour with hundreds of books on the wall is gone, and if our shadows roam the garden gravel still, I do not really think they will come again. So here I am with Waddell’s Gilles himself in remembrance of a glorious time of books, mentorship and piety:

At that memory it seemed to Gilles that he opened a door into an empty house that had been fire-lit once, and now was naked rafters under sky.

Rest in piece, Brian. In the heaven you worked for there is “Mass all day long, with breaks for Benediction in between.” And so at the end even of this, there will, I hope, be an invitation for us to have coffee.

A Gift to be Simple

I seem to be sharing a lot of poetry at the moment. Thanks to the “Singalong” on BBC Radio 3 Breakfast I have been reintroduced to this Shaker song. The Beeb’s version this morning, sung a capella and without harmony by a Shaker congregation, is a wonder. Here are the words.

Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed
To turn, turn will be our delight
‘Til by turning, turning, we come round right.

‘Tis the gift to be gentle, ’tis the gift to be fair,
‘Tis the gift to wake and breathe the morning air;
And ev’ry day to walk in the path we choose,
‘Tis the gift that we pray we may ne’er come to lose.

When true simplicity is gained…

‘Tis the gift to be loving, ’tis the best gift of all,
Like a quiet rain, it blesses where it falls;
And if we have the gift we will truly believe
‘Tis better to give than it is to receive.

When true simplicity is gained…

It occurs in Copeland’s Appalachian Spring, discussed here and played here, but in some ways the simple version is more powerful: the lyrics are a wonder. There are lots of versions even so: Judy Collins; Yo Yo Ma and Alison Krauss, other artists trying their hand at this anthem for simple gifts.

I could say I am back with Strabo watching boys collecting fruit, or with Mary Oliver waking in gratitude, but really I’m back in school assembly, and that raft of all-but-Humanist aspirational songs we used to sing: When a Knight Won His Spurs; Glad that I Live am I (for which I can’t find a version I like). Maybe this one is the best just because of, well, its innate simplicity.

Kindness at a Distance

Turn but a stone and start a wing as Francis Thompson put it: another chance comment on Twitter starts a quick anthology in my mind, just three poems: two from C5th and C6th CE and then one from C9th CE, brought together in Helen Waddell’s Medieval Latin Lyrics. The distances suddenly and recently created – when even the distance of a short bus ride seems impossible – can be painful in our instant-gratification world, and when this dilemma – how to be kind at a distance – came up in the context of Mental Health Awareness week, I thought at once about how people in less connected cultures might have expressed this kindness. Letters are slow, uncertain things in the early Middle Ages, poems only go as letters: no posting a quick quotation on the Internet for poets like the three below. Less connected? Well, differently, perhaps. So here they are:

Here, first is Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers, writing to Rucco, a cleric in Paris:

You at God’s altar stand, His minister,

And Paris lies about you and the Seine:

Around this Breton isle the Ocean swells,

Deep water and one love between us twain.

Wild is the wind, but still thy name is spoken;

Rough is the sea: it sweeps not o’er thy face.

Still runs my love for shelter to its dwelling,

Hither, O heart, to thine abiding place.

Swift as the waves beneath an east wind breaking

Dark as beneath a winter sky the sea,

So to my heart crowd memories awaking,

So dark, O love, my spirit without thee.

https://archive.org/details/mediaevallatinly037687mbp/page/n73/mode/2up

and while I might think Helen Waddell in her translation makes rather a lot of this friendship, the words divisis terris alligat unus amor are key to why I’ve included it: our worlds are split apart, but one love unites. The “love” word can be contested as we translate, and it’s kept coming back to me since writing first of all about the sacredness of friendship and then about the relationships depicted in Emmett and Caleb: what language can any of us use to express affection over a distance?

Paulinus is more robust about his feelings in his poem to Ausonius:

I , through all chances that are given to mortals, 

And through all fates that be, 

So long as this close prison shall contain me, 

Yea, though a world shall sunder me and thee, 

Thee shall I hold, in every fibre woven, 

Not with dumb lips, nor with averted face

Shall I behold thee, in my mind embrace thee, 

Instant and present, thou, in every place. 

Yea, when the prison of this flesh is broken, 

And from the earth I shall have gone my way, 

Wheresoe’er in the wide universe I stay me, 

There shall I bear thee, as I do today. 

Think not the end, that from my body frees me, 

Breaks and unshackles from my love to thee; 

Triumphs the soul above its house in ruin, 

Deathless, begot of immortality. 

Still must she keep her senses and affections, 

Hold them as dear as life itself to be, 

Could she choose death, then might she choose forgetting: 

Living, remembering, to eternity. 

We might tend to look for a reason to express our feelings: “Are you OK?” “Just checking in to see if things are all right…” and this is all to the good – but in times before quick post and even quicker emails friends could not always, it seems to me, waste time on the tentative. Paulinus – and Waddell is clear that his going broke his friend’s heart – has some terrific turns of phrase:

Discernar orbe quolibet

Nec ore longe nec remotum lumine

Tenebo fibris insitum

Videbo corde,

mente complectar pia…

https://archive.org/details/mediaevallatinly037687mbp/page/n47/mode/2up

Maybe if we need to “know how to show kindness at a distance, I guess, at the moment,” as a good friend put it recently, I might make a plea for the explicit act of kindness, and if they send a poem without hope of a return ping on a ‘phone screen, two clerics from a long-gone period at least know how to say how they feel clearly, elegantly. But does this need us to have a real reinvention of our language of affection?

Anthologies can be deceptive: much depends on the selection, and here it is also linked with Waddell’s perception of how she might translate this word, this phrase – or more importantly this relationship, that emotion. So to give a bit of balance to these wonderful poems of love and separation here is kindness-at-a-distance of a tender, everyday kind. A little later than Venantius and Paulinus – more than a little: three centuries later – Walafrid Strabo dedicates his book on gardening with fond remembrance of Abbot Grimold and the monastery school children in the green darkness of the apple trees in the summer garden:

A very paltry gift, of no account,

My father, for a scholar like to thee,

But Strabo sends it to thee with his heart.

So might you sit in the small garden close

In the green darkness of the apple trees

Just where the peach tree casts its broken shade,

And they would gather you the shining fruit

With the soft down on it; all your boys,

Your little laughing boys, your happy school,

And bring huge apples clasped in their two hands

Something the book may have of use to thee.

Read it, my father, prune it of its faults

And strengthen with thy praises what pleases thee.

And may God give thee in thy hands the green

Unwithering palm of everlasting life.

https://archive.org/details/mediaevallatinly037687mbp/page/n125/mode/2up

It is an image not too far away from Margaret McMillan‘s Nursery Garden with its “wholesome memories.” It makes me think of my discussions with friends over the last month, or my Dad sending photos of the three fox cubs that visited last week (update: they were back last night).

Common to all three poems, across all the years between them, and the years between them and us is the one thing I would say in answer to the idea of communicating kindness: it is in communicating that we bring kindness, it is in telling it from the heart that we uncover the weakness in the phrase “social distance:” these three people (six with their audience, loads more readers since then) find it a mere physical distance. And in this communication is the compassionate act – maybe even the self-caring act too, as we share our joys, our hurts and our fond memories.

Now, however, it’s time to go and water the garden.

Dipping for Meanings

I presented the work of Geoffrey Bache Smith earlier this week, and I was wondering about who I might look at among other poets and writers of various kinds that explore their environment. Other poets? OK: I was browsing Mary Oliver’s second volume I came across this poem. No less plangent than Bache Smith in many ways, and with a great, straightforward look at a little bird she saw so long ago. Some thoughts follow, but the poem really does say it without my squawking.

Dipper

Once I saw

in a quick-falling, white-veined stream,

among the leafed islands of the wet rocks,

a small bird, and knew it

from the pages of a book; it was

the dipper, and dipping he was,

as well as, sometimes, on a rock-peak, starting up

the clear, strong pipe of his voice; at this,

there being no words to transcribe, I had to

bend forward, as it were,

into his frame of mind, catching

everything I could in the tone,

cadence, sweetness, and briskness

of his affirmative report.

Though not by words, it was

more than satisfactory way to the

bridge of understanding.  This happened

in Colorado

more than half a century ago –

more certainly, than half my lifetime ago –

and, just as certainly, he has been sleeping for decades

in the leaves besides the stream,

his crumble of white bones, his curl of flesh

comfortable even so.

And still I hear him –  

and whenever I open the ponderous book of riddles

he sits with his black feet hooked to the page,

his eyes cheerful, still burning with water-love –

and thus the world is full of leaves and feathers,

and comfort, and instruction. I do not even remember

your name, great river,

but since that hour I have lived

simply,

in the joy of the body as full and clear

as falling water; the pleasures of the mind

like a dark bird dipping in and out, tasting and singing.

And the first thing I wanted to note was that WordPress – measuring characters and words alone – says that this poem will take a minute to read. Scan down that, highlight a bit, move on. If I’m honest, Morning Prayer was a lot like that today. Did I actually say the Benedictus? I remember when I was seventeen (in the 70s) assisting at an old rite Mass – what would now be called the Extraordinary Form – where the priest got through the whole liturgy in ten minutes: a liturgical patter song I found it hard to keep up with. Such, perhaps, is familiarity, or maybe such is reading until we fine-tune that as something that is reading for the deepest meanings possible.

And with Dipper there are two I want to think about.

The first is MO’s choices of image and words. She is a writer who is wildly in love with each day’s inventions (“Of What Surrounds Me”) and who looks – as in Dipper – for the moment that excites the human response: gratefulness, compassion. One of her most popular poems, “Why I Wake Early” is, like Dipper, of this kind: a noticing of a something; a realisation of the importance of that event; an answer from the writer, and similarly the poem “Wild Geese” – with the line You do not have to be good which first brought her to my scattered attention – and “Landscape,” quoted here, where the crows as seen as realsiing thier dreams as they break off from the rest of the darkness/ and burst up into the sky. She challenges with these perceptions of natural events; the reader is confronted with the suggestion, the question sometimes, of how to seize the world with the same freshness as a grasshopper, or a bird.

Even this cannot be read quickly, or if it is skimmed through – I find I cannot read more than a couple before I “feel full” – I find I miss the impact of these sermons from nature, even from lines like these, from “When Death Comes.”:

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

The second is an occurrence which suggests why this poem appeals to me. Visiting my daughter Lizzie in Edinburgh we went on a bus trip to Penicuik and off into the Pentlands. We saw a Dipper. I had known them since I took the Tell Me Why magazine in the 60s; I had seen them in Scotland once before. This, however, was a chance to sit and watch as the little bird zipped about and hopped in and out of a little burn just below the reservoir. I now recognise, having read the Mary Oliver poem above, those attributes of sweetness, and briskness she writes about. Slow watching of a bird – slow reading of a poem – the appreciation of the poem having observed the bird – the reading of the poem enlightening the memory of the bird: a virtuous circle in which understanding of the natural event and the reading of the poem are mutually supportive.

And then what about these Mary Oliver challenges to live life to the full? How does this first yes not negate a whole load of other choices? How do we distentangle “what comes with the package” from other choices we just let happen when we make a choice for A rather than B? Choices I made in my teens or twenties have implications even today, and life in my sixties seems just as precious but carries with it the ache of mistaken choices, baggage of all sorts. Hard not to feel like this at the moment: all those pre-lockdown times I went to a Garden Centre rather than out onto the hills – but then how would the allotment have been dug? I suspect Mary Oliver would suggest we look over the shoulder of such anxieties to the dippers and heron and crickets, or the jay as I dig, or Mat’s discovery on our trip of a Bloody Nosed Beetle?

Another final set of lines, then, from Mary Oliver, from “The Summer Day:”

Doesn’t everything die and last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

But it is a Summer morning, and maybe I need to do more than write about it.

Two final questions

This blog post forms the final part of the dialogue between me and Chris Lovegrove on aspects of Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider. I have really enjoyed working with someone of Chris’ studiousness and perspicacity, revisiting a book my children loved, and looking (at least in part) at how Jenny Nimmo’s work has transferred to TV, and where she sits in the circle of British fantasy writers. Here I hope to look at tradition and folklore and at Jenny Nimmo as a re-presenter of Welsh culture – not so much as a summary, more as further lines of enquiry. As before, Chris will be responding to the same questions on his own site, but, beyond shaping the questions and agreeing when we should post, we have not colluded….

So the first question (our third in the series), and posed by Chris is:

3. The backstory and the action in the story’s ‘present’ both point to the Halloween/All Saints period as a moment of transition, Noson Galan Gaeaf leading to Calan Gaeaf, the first day of the Celtic winter. Do you think the setting in the Welsh countryside ensures this threshold moment is more rooted in the past — and perhaps more ‘authentic’ — than a ‘modern’ Halloween tale located in suburbia? 

Hmmmmm. I am not the greatest fan of Hallowe’en in its present format, in part because the patterns of play and trickery have been overlaid by material from US fim and TV and an ensuing rush for tacky costumes and upstaging neighbours: a sort of full-circle, I suppose. I wrote about it here, so I won’t go on moaning, but I will pick up on a fascinating point in Chris’ question: Hallowe’en as a threshold moment.

I’ve written about Hallowe’en as smiling at the shadows – and when I worked in Nursery, this was how we approached it – but in The Snow Spider we encounter a different set of thresholds. Gwyn, coming (at his birthday) to the end of the first part of his childhood, with his models for adulthood skewed, missing, off-script; he stands on the threshold between an older way of life in the Welsh hills and a set of outlooks in a more modern world (with all its faults it is what he is growing into); he stands – as part of this, perhaps – on the threshold between “our” world and another. And here, as the Autumn blasts fold the farms of Pendewi into Winter, we stand with him at Hallowe’en.

Nimmo manages this well. On All Saints’ Night – the “night after Hallowe’en'” as Nimmo tellingly has it – Bethan, doomed big sister to Gwyn, had gone out looking for Gwyn’s ewe. The pumpkin from Hallowe’en stared out at her as she went, “grimacing with its dark gaping mouth and sorrowful eyes.” It is as if the folk-horror is to be underplayed on purpose: just a pumpkin represents the play Hallowe’en, when, the night after, things take a sudden plummet and we are into the main action of the book. Gwyn’s black ewe and Bethan are never seen again. Gwyn’s years as a sunny little boy are at an end. “Shut the door tight, when I am gone,” Bethan says as she leaves, and that is just what the family do. They plunge into a wintry landscape of anger and loss – and confusion, too – the end of which is presaged by the arrival of Eirlys, whose name means snow-drop in Welsh. It is a slow and an emotional version of the melting of the long winter in Narnia.

It is up to Gwyn to challenge his father – and he can, it seems, only do this by finding a link to the mythic past, by the magic gifts from his grandmother, by the help of the mysterious girl from another world: by stepping over the threshold of his father’s expectations. Gwyn leaves the house (like his sister), crosses the threshold to call the names of his ancestors, to meet the dark. This is as about as far from Trick or Treat as we can go in today’s Hallowe’en, where we – or our urban gangs of children, or maybe even before the start of the story Bethan and her little brother – go from house to house, half-joking, half-threatening, jolly tricksters.

A suburban telling would have been different in so many ways: street lamps and the ease of access to transport. Not that it would have been worse – think of the desolation of the children in Garner’s Elidor, all chill wastelands, alienating buses and dark demolition sites – but it would have had a hard time taking a lone boy out to meet something as monstrous as the anger of prince Efnisien. Which brings us (back, maybe?) to the question of Nimmo and Welsh myth – and other fantasy writers who have crossed a border into Wales.

4. (The final question: mine), thinking about Nimmo as writer. Jenny Nimmo and Alan Garner and Susan Cooper have all written with a great deal of thought about the places and myths of Wales. Is there a common theme that makes their approach successful – or are they all still writing as outsiders?

Perhaps I am over-ambitious here. Catherine Butler’s work on Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper, after all, takes over seventy pages on Myth and Magic alone. This is, therefore, a quick set of side thoughts.

There is a wonderful and inspirationally broad sweep in Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence in which various combinations of protagonists meet the story of Arthur, the ancient trackways of England, Cornish folklore, and the struggle between good and evil in Gwynedd. Cooper magpies her way through a range of historical traditions to bring us to the conclusion and the departure of the Old Ones, the curtain falling on the transcendental drama of good and evil. I have already mentioned Alan Garner’s Gwyn, another descendant of ancient rivalries and magic, and Garner has immersed himself in the Welsh language, is respectful of its history and legend. In contrast to Nimmo’s Gwyn, whose delve into his past is primarily about self-identity and a distant legend, or Susan Cooper’s children whose task is the Matter of Britain, the Garner version is made up of claustrophobia and recent history as well as repeating magic. Big images, big motifs in all three are brought down to recognisable characters: Will, from the hills above the Thames, a disaffected Gwyn sulking in a valley where he should be Lord, a nine-year-old Gwyn playing with his watch and with tasks to do on the farm. When myth works, it works through concrete images – that is through story, Catherine Butler asserts, and then suggests that story functions like a repeated ritual such as the Mass… as providing access to that event’s reality. In other words, we have the great themes of myth and legend made flesh.

Whose myth, however? Whose legends, whose culture are these authors writing?

In The Snow Spider, The Owl Service and The Grey King all three English authors have come over the border into a world that is not wholly their own. Why have they done this? Without referring to any critical writers or biographers (very possibly there are statements of intent from any of these three: but the texts have to stand on their own, I think) I would want to see the three bodies of writing as needing Welshness to give a freshness and a detail to the mythic landscape. It is as if the Celtic – twilight or no – adds something vital that the English corpus of story cannot. Cooper visits, and finds a theme that excites, engages and carries her sequence further; Garner watches, strikes up relationships, ponders and then produces an anxious and hemmed-in story in which the figures of legend are uncomfortably close; Nimmo lives in Wales, celebrates her family’s roots, asks her protagonist to do magic for us to see. In The Snow Spider, she gets a boy, his friends, his farm, his village to show us the stories that in part define them. The relationship between the three authors and Wales is as different as the authors themselves, and as different as their individual reasons for looking at the myths of legends of the Mabinogion.

And there, for me, is the nub of the reason why a fantasy writer might look to Wales. English magic, English beginning-myths have little in the way of consistent telling of stories – we have Hobberdy Dick and the local goblins, ghosts and fairies. Apart from Arthur (Two points, however: yes, I know “Arthur” and “English” may not sit together too happily, although I am mindful that Henry VII – Henry Tudor, descendant of Owain Tudur – called his eldest son Arthur to try and give us another king with that name; and there are genealogies linking the Royal family back to Woden) we do not really have anything of the power, of the rich seam of story that we get in Wales. English history might be heroic – but it is prosaic, too.

Puck, for example, in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, has a hard time bringing English myth to life – in fact Kipling really uses Puck as a doorway into English heritage rather than a discussion point in his own right (there is an exception to this: the shadowy relationship between Old Hobden and his mysterious visitor Tom in Dymchurch Flit). For Kipling there was an inspiration other than his own at work, perhaps (I cite it here): but the genius loci in the brook by Kipling’s house is a sense of Englishness more than a sense of English magic, which is portrayed as passing and fading. He can write with resonance about the magic that has gone – but Puck/Kipling is clear that the glory has departed.

What then attracts, if the English Twilight of the Gods is long past? Again, I have thought before about the persisting fairy tales, and maybe another way of seeing them is that these are the little flowers that grow where a big tree has been cleared: we have local place stories; we have the intense locality of Alan Garner but no grand narrative of what Englishness means. Fantasy writers look for something to inspire, and find it – Nimmo certainly does – in the wildness and energy of the mountains of Gwynedd more than the Sussex Weald or the Woods of Warwickshire.

Only a Story

Only a story gathered from the hills
And the wind crying of forgotten days,
A story that shall whisper, “All things change-
For friends do grow indifferent, and loves
Die like a dream at morning: bitterness
Is the sure heritage of all men born…

In that this post presents a melancholy young poet, this is a sadder blog than many – and less of a sermon than many of my posts too, I hope.

Geoffrey Bache Smith‘s small collection of poetry, A Spring Harvest (which forms a pivotal sequence at the end of the Tolkein biopic) suggests that GBS was lonely, frustrated, but aware of the power of language to conjure emotion and fantasy. A clever depiction of a friend, a tentative exploration of sexuality before WWI, and love and religion and class, and… and… and a lens for the film to show the ways in which some people can delight and fascinate: almost, it seems, an explanation of the ways in which the writer of Lord of the Rings (and so much more) learned to charm. A film of the student Tolkien learning Icelandic would have been less likely to win over an audience (I would have gone), or to explain how a boy with an unhappy childhood grew and blossomed into such a creative influence in C20th literature.

Just like his poem of the Downs – not Uffington although for me it evokes those memories, and I can hear Chesterton’s poem in Bache Smith’s – the young man is himself a track half lost in the green hills. It is a sad shame – a tragedy, a waste, a horror – that Geoffrey Bache Smith did not live and grow: maybe he might have blossomed into a greater poet, or a thoughtful adult scholar, or whatever. These poems, and a footnote in the young adult life of a great writer, are what we have left : a voice heard once, and heard no more, as GBS himself suggests in a Commemoration poem. For us Only a Story is hardly a story at all, and we pass on.

This sense of sic transit, of the fragility of life and fame and love runs through so many of his poems, made all the more poignant by his death in 1916. And here we are, not at war (despite the rhetoric) but in trouble in a world where sickness and greed and neglect and politics have combined to bring about a major crisis, the aftermath of which I doubt I shall live to see wholly resolved, where the call to compassion has to be repeated over and again. We look daily at death as though numbers are all we can make of tragedy. Media vita in morte sumus. It is therefore a bittersweet thing to look at these poems – I first read them in the cellars of the Radcliffe Camera of the Bodleian, but now find them online – and wonder about all the missed opportunities and times of sadness that GBS explores. Here, in his poem The Last Meeting, he preceded a very similar idea from Yeats, and tells us something that Oxford was imbued with for me as an undergraduate: that many things fade, but that some are more than transitory, loves that shall break the teeth of Time:

We who are young, and have caught the splendour oflife,
Hunting it down the forested ways of the world,
Do we not wear our hearts like a banner unfurled
(Crowned with a chaplet of love, shod with the sandals of strife)?
Now not a lustre of pain, nor an ocean of tears
Nor pangs of death, nor any other thing
That the old tristful gods on our heads may bring
Can rob us of this one hour in the midst of the years.

The poem I cite at the top of this blog almost stands as a rebuke to Tolkien, suggesting that GBS is writing about love, not the great deeds of history or legend. The one that follows, while still with a melancholy feel, is at least a seasonal celebration

Because the twittering of birds
Is the best music that was ever sung

so here is Geoffrey Bache Smith’s Sonnet:

There is a wind that takes the heart of a man,
A fresh wind in the latter days of spring,
When hate and war and every evil thing
That the wide arches of high Heaven span
Seems dust, and less to be accounted than
The omened touches of a passing wing:
When Destiny, that calls himself a king,
Goes all forgotten for the song of Pan:
For why? Because the twittering of birds
Is the best music that was ever sung,
Because the voice of trees finds better words
Than ever poet from his heartstrings wrung:
Because all wisdom and all gramarye
Are writ in fields, O very plain to see.

Confusions

To reflect on the moving Corey’s Rock by Sita Brahmachari and Jane Ray has required a number of shifts in my thinking. I’ve had to screen out some of the praise for the book as well as the discomfort I feel at a personal level for a subject that – in part at least – touches my own life. There are already confusions here, and what I want to do is to return to the questions of ambiguity I’ve looked at before (in fact just over a year ago in my post Understanding).

Corey’s Rock tells an uncomfortable story. Isla, the young first -person narrator, has returned to the island where her mother’s family have roots. In the aftermath of the death of Corey, Isla’s younger brother, the family of four – Mum, Dad, girl and dog – are a family seeking, in Auden’s words, locality and peace. The narrative at its simplest is about the weeks in which Isla begins to settle into her new life while mourning her brother.

But I see that I have already strayed away from the simple into the complex, and in referring to Auden I have returned to my own confusions, and a post in which I look at the

the cramped frustration of attempting

the jigsaw with pieces missing

And if the posts from that time are about a lost me, this book is a story of a lost family.

So I think there are three sets of confusions to be addressed here: the ambiguities of the text and illustrations; the complexity and detail of narrative and art work; the twinges and uncertainties of the reader.

They are not all things we should fight shy of: life is confused; endings are uncertain. If the current crises in health, society and the economy (insofar as they can be disentangled) can teach us, we are an uncertain bunch: too reflective to suffer dumbly, but unable to make much sense of sudden changes, sudden downturns in our fortune. This is not always to the advantage of the writer, who has to contend with issues of clarity. Jenny Nimmo writes a piecemeal and sometimes unclear narrative when she looks to set out the relationship between the magic world and our world in The Snow Spider; Sita Brahmachari does the same with a similar brief: how to look at a child’s grief through myth and landscape. The issue, it seems to me, is connected with the genuine confusions in the minds of Isla and Gwyn – and the pain of their adults. Ivor, Gwyn’s father, is the more confused of the two dads, lost in his anger as much as Bethan was lost on the mountain; Isla’s father (and some cost to himself, I think), sighs as he tells his daughter “You know Corey can’t come back, don’t you?”

The truth does not make him any less beautiful or eloquent: Jane Ray’s luminous artwork gives him soulful eyes and a deep connection to his children and Sita Brahmachari gives him the best lines:

“How deep does the colour go?” I ask Dad.

How deep is the sea,” he answers.

He is an archaeologist with the soul of a poet. Kathleen Jamie, meeting him on a beach in the bleak north of Scotland, would have found a friend.

Back to my three confusions: I suppose I am trying to distinguish in my own mind between what seems the author’s deliberate blurring of edges (which is as much at the heart of this as it is David Thomson’s classic People of the Sea and the film Song of the Sea) and the fact that I am not (or not yet) at ease with the rich complexity of the story Brahmachari is telling. Shapes shift, roles move, tragedy and freedom walk hand in hand, and in this story we trace other themes, too, besides myth and landscape: race, disability, belonging, refugee children washed up on the shores of Europe; the roles of incomers in an island community; a mother coping with grief and a father’s efforts to keep his family whole; and the big question of little Isla:

Do you think this island will make us happy again?

Have the author and artist been over ambitious, or is it, perhaps, that I don’t feel able to embrace this complexity? I struggled with this on my first two readings, but then was struck by the Celtic knotwork on one of the double-page spreads, and thought of those complex interweavings that are part of so many pre-conquest crosses, ornaments (like this from a Viking grave in Orkney) and tombs and manuscripts – and I honestly think this was my misreading. This is an ambitious book, but look at Sendak (link here to the haunting and complex My Brother’s Book, again a richly illustrated and complex text about death); Foreman; look, even at the stories of Katie Morag and her own island life. I know picture books and richly illustrated texts aren’t always easy. Of course I know that.

So what was my problem here? My third confusion. It is possible for a story to be poorly written, badly drawn: in my teaching on a module called Becoming a Reader we would look at texts with ideologies long dead, books with clumsy pictures or inconsequential, often derivative stories. Corey’s Rock is not one of those, although the threads of detail take some following. The third confusion is where the reader looks but does not see how those threads might go.

Because in the end there are more and more threads to follow: where author and artist brings their research, their pasts (including their past work: the dad in Corey’s Island recalls – although not exactly – the beautiful, caring father in A Balloon for Grandad)… or where a reader’s own reading past or visits to a place or similar sadnesses lead off in the wrong direction.

So to end, not in any way to try and trump the painful story at the heart of Corey’s Rock, but maybe to explain part of my confusion as I read and re-read it, joining in the sea song of all those times Isla’s family walk along the beach or look out for the bobbing head of a seal, is one of my twenty-year old poems for our son Theo.

Recalling you is a daily conjuration.  In solitude

I know my sadness, know your face, but you appear

where least expected: at the corners of sleep;

at the bruise of unkindness; in a flower

unlooked-for, by a cliff’s edge.

Today I called you,

throwing a stone

into the receding tide,

trying to write your name in the wet sand;

but as I made the first stroke, crossbar of your T,

the wave returned,

unbidden, sudden –

And the mark my writing didn’t leave was you.

Landscape and Community

Chris Lovegrove and I have been trying to explore aspects of Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider together: this blog post forms part of the concluding dialogue between me and Chris. In this week’s blogs we are answering the same questions, but doing so, to some extnent “blind:’ we have agreed our two questions and then we are posting our blogs on the same day.

Here’s the first, posed by Chris:

1. The Snow Spider is very much set in the Welsh landscape, not just by the language and the myths but also by the descriptions — the hills and the sheep farming, for example, and the apparent proximity of the sea (which Gwyn is able to smell after a short tramp through over the hills). Does it matter for our engagement with the story that it’s bedded in a realistic setting or does it work equally well in a mythic setting (as it has to for those unfamiliar with The Snow Spider’s cultural matrix)? 

My response: I’ve been to Wales four times: once to Conwy and Betws-y-Coed on a coach trip with a pile of nuns when I was nineteen;  once, in 2000, to the Brecon Beacons to get soaking wet while training as a Forest School Leader in the pouring rain; once to stay in a cottage at the foot of the Sugar Loaf near Abergavenny. My  last visit, rather later in my life, was to help at a Quality Assurance event in Carmarthen. My understanding of Wales is therefore built on brief and specific visits – and at no time have a stayed in a claustrophobic valley like in The Owl Service, nor really had any dealings with Welsh hill farmers beyond being told a footpath was no longer in use. So what, therefore, is my response to the landscape in The Snow Spider? How realistic do I need it to be?

It was not a high mountain, nor a dangerous one. Some might even call it a hill. It was wide and grassy, a series of gentle slops that rose, one after another, patterned with drystone walls and windblown bushes. The plateau at the top was a lonely place, however. From here only the empty fields and surrounding mountains could be seen and, far out to the west, the distant grey line of the sea.

This is Nimmo’s early setting the scene. Gwyn ascends the mountain to practise his powers, but here we are being told simply what the upland looks like. There is a lot, of course, that a reader (particularly, perhaps a reader of Gwyn’s age) might want to disentangle in the language and topology: How can a hill be a mountain? What’s a plateau? As we sort out the vocabulary of place in a possibly unfamiliar place at the start of the narrative, we are on the cusp of a deeper understanding, almost a curtain-raiser for the mythic and developmental battles young Gwyn is beginning to engage in.

But in order to come close to Chris’ enquiry I feel I need to distinguish between the everyday depiction and the descriptions that that move the story along. Michael Bonnett and certainly Michael Farrelly seem to suggest that “human-environmental interrelationships” are aided by powerful storytelling. We have that here, in Jenny Nimmo’s three Magician Trilogy novels. In the Snow Spider it seems to me that the author chooses weather as a way of inviting her readers into the hill farms, rather than more explicit topography. Here, for example, in Chapter Eight the young magician is poised to fight in the face of a snowstorm:

There was a sudden stillness and the mountain held its breath. Clouds of snow began to gather on the summit; they intensified and rolled downwards in a vast, ever-thickening ice-cold wave.

It is atmospheric writing of a high order. Nimmo has brought us to this point by vivid and intensifying descriptions of weather in a hill country. From much earlier in the story, this is the arrival of a November gale, the first major encounter with wind as an elemental, magical force:

Then, one Sunday, the wind came; so quietly at first that you hardly noticed it. By the time the midday roast had been consumed, however, twigs were flying, the barn door banging, and the howling in the chimney loud enough to drive the dog away from the stove.

The storm, a dominant motif – and an important factor when anyone is up in a mountainous region – will come to provide the wintry arena for a final conflict . Even Gwyn’s prosaic father Ivor has to admit it is “a damn peculiar kind of wind” ; by doing so we come to understand that this is a hard life, and see quite how the tragedy of Gwyn’s older sister being lost on the mountain might have occurred. In these earlier sections, however, Nimmo is also careful to give us little domestic details: the barn door, the dog, the stove… So I come (finally) to Chris’ question: Does it matter for our engagement with the story that it’s bedded in a realistic setting?

I think it does. Part of the power of the depiction of Gwyn’s father (see below) is that he is ordinary; the ambiguities of learning to be a wizard are all the more painful for Gwyn than the flamoyant Owls from Hogwarts and cartoon familial abuse are for Harry Potter because in Gwyn’s story they are depicted as taking places in a believable world. Nimmo leads her readers through the fields with open gates, cows that need milking, the circle of trees where the septic tank lies… and into a world of magic spiders and a past full of ancient tales. It’s a clever way of convincing the reader of the reality of the Gwyn’s challenge as he grows – but for a little more of this, see below.

The second is posed by me:

2: The tight-knit community of The Snow Spider allows for powerful reactions between a limited range of characters: Gwyn’s family, his friends, the neighbours. In a more widely connected world – mobile ‘phones, internet & c (shown in the new TV version) the world is a wider place. Does this date the plot unduly? And if not, why not?

I started by wanting to consider the Hui Clos of Pendewi, the village in the Snow Spider, but of course the most famous line from Sartre’s play is L’enfer c’est les autres, and the more I ponder the community the less sure I am of this. There are family tensions here, and the neighbourly relationships of a small village, but these are not people trapped in Hell together, but a Pobol y Cwm, a people of the valley. When Alun, Gwyn’s friend, is lost in the storm, the ‘grapevine” works fast to rustle up a search party. When Bryn and Gladys Davis confront Gwyn’s family about Gwyn injuring their son Dewi it is uncomfortable – but not on an epic scale. Gwyn is like many a child who needs to make sense of his family as he grows: what does his family history tie him to? Does he like being with them? As with landscape (above), it is the ordinariness that provides the power to the scene and to the magic that interrupts it.

The new TV version gives some nod to the passing of time since the original publication of the Nimmo books, starting in 1986, in that there is some mention of the internet, and the watch Gwyn gets as a birthday present in the book has become a tablet (with remarkably good connection). This in turn allows some further plot exposition, some idea of the past which Gwyn is inheriting. It also serves to underline that very odd nature of the old Welsh manuscript the young magician reads. As a reflection on the updates in the series it works well.

Does this make the actual text creak at all in retrospect? I didn’t think so. The IPad/tablet would have been no further use in the story than the rewrite has allowed it. (In pondering updates I did think of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet where for the tragic failures of communication to take their toll, the modern audience needs not to think how simple a quick couple of texts or emails could have sorted everything). Gwyn’s father’s quad bike was a nice touch, too: this was a family more like Emmerdale (or God’s Own Country) than Cold Comfort.

But what of magic in the modern world? Where might the Tylwyth Teg live now? For Alice Thomas Ellis the uncomfortable magic of the Welsh tradition in Fairy Tale suggests they live where they have always lived: in edgelands, woods, odd meadows and lanes with a strange feel to them, very much alive in the affairs of humans. In Pendewi, the stories live on by being reenacted (more explicitly in the later books in the trilogy), and the parallels with Garner’s The Owl Service are many, from common roots in the Mabinogi to the recurrence of tensions dating back into myth and legend. Where is the magic? In both books (“all the books,” if we count the Ellis, the Garner, all three by Nimmo and Susan Cooper [who will come into my next post]) it is frighteningly close: it exhibits in the fallible humans who cross its path. (Just as it would be amusing to think up how M R James’ stories could be updated effectively, it would also be a challenge to think quite where his ghosts might reside now: in mobile numbers that link to conspiracy theories long dead, catalogues whose URL summon destruction, internet stalkers whose only real presence is to hunt the curious through the pdfs of manuscripts…) But Nimmo’s Gwyn, it seems to me does not needs this. It is his ordinariness that saves him. Tensions between generations, Ivor Griffiths’ incoherent anger at his family’s loss, the petty rivalries of the playground: these are universal enough to contain the introduction of the internet, while a small village up in the hills (Chris may take a different view) may not be able to rely on mobile signal quite as much as I do for sustaining its relationships.

Chris and I are planning to post our blogs on 4th May, having not seen one another’s responses. Do please visit https://calmgrove.wordpress.com to see what Chris has made of these two questions.