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 to see what Chris has made of these two questions.

Next year in…

The wish for restoration in the Passover Seder “Next year in Jerusalem” was poignant this year. Where will we be when the words are next used at the end of September? There is a great desire for a new dawn, a new day, but looking at the political landscape I can see bigotry and mauvaise foi, and I cannot see the wide spread of justice like an everflowing stream that so many of us desire. Utopias are precisely that: places that are ou-topoi, no-places. The British Library, in its excellent trail through the literature, explores a possible play on words between eutopia, a good place, and utopia, asking “Can a perfect world ever be realised?”

If, as Kathleen Jamie suggests of St Kilda, “their way of life broke on the wheel of the modern world,” it may be that this also signals how little validity there is in the harking-back of current political rhetoric. The eutopias of the past are Ealing Studio films (Comedies?) only: ou-topias. However, it’s possible to find personal places in a “when and where were you happiest?” sort of way. In Looking in the Distance, Richard Holloway is at his most plangent as he describes his “fierce and sorrowful anger” on a return to his old theological college: We know that nothing lasts yet the sudden awareness of our own finitude can surprise us into grief… But not always grief: they can be places of beauty and joy. The woods in Spring and Autumn above Nettlebed with Maggie might be such a place for me. Iconic for me (as anyone who has read back in my posts) is the visit just before we were were asked to stay home when Mat Tobin and I went to Uffington, the memory of which has sustained me when I have felt miserable during lockdown. Aberlady, Gradbach, Wychwood, Nettlebed… all sorts of places can do this, and can be the cloud of witnesses that surround us on a grey day or in a time of confinement. Here is a collage of photos of such places – places that are some of my eutopoi:

I notice how selective I am when choosing these photos: the hill of Ludchurch, Aberlady Bay, Uffington, the Lye Valley: outdoors places rather than, say, the churches of Rosslyn, Cordoba or Durham, or the Bodleian, or Magdalen.

These eutopoi suggest something about where I feel wholeness. However, I look at these airy, quiet places and see they are not the places I am regularly: the kitchen; the allotment; my preferred social media platforms… They are outdoors, rural or semirural heterotopias, where difference is key. I am often accompanied by people dear to me: I experience both the Kaplan’s notion of escape and a social aspect that I think is connected – for me – to their idea of fascination (the link here takes you to one of my explorations of their work). These good places might be a delight of solitude, but often for me have a human presence, a human perspective to them – but it is easy (maybe – under normal circumstances, at least), to pick a friend and go somewhere like this. The “human aspect” of fascination is about a compatible voice, a hand to hold.

So when I look to wholeness, wellness, I have to ask what the human aspect actually is. It’s a tough question when dealing with mental health, not just because, thrown on our own resources I come back time and again to my own mental health, but to a bigger question about “When This Is All Over:” what will wellbeing be like? I hope it will include pubs, hugs, time together, as well as all the bigger societal things, but thinking personally (and irrespective of the broader political machinations particularly) here I am struck by a suggestion from Jon Reid on Twitter today that has brought me right back to the present, a brilliantly simple humanistic examen that asks us to identify:

  • Three ways I have looked after and cared for myself and
  • Three ways I have looked after and cared for others

It is really tempting to see September (or January or 2022 or even the next scheduled General Election) as a time when everyone will vote for a humanity-based society where peace and justice take into account the needs of the most vulnerable, where society is a seen as a whole entity, full of interconnections and mutual dependencies, where truth is embedded in politics more than vote-grabbing, where care workers are paid properly… and yet I don’t believe it will come. So let’s take the “next year” wish and (to nick an idea wholesale from William Blake – but he is not alone in wishing it) build our own places of wellbeing and belonging, around three daily occurrences of self care and three of care for others. It will be up to us to kindle that hope into something bigger.

It is a start at least. Each pool of light might connect with others.


Uffington is a glorious sweep of downland, a sleeping body under wide skies.

The path between Cat’s Tor and Shining Tor is a magical place, with suns’ rising tattoed into the outlines of the escarpment, and in the hills beyond, Ludchurch, that thin place.

Santorini, Monreale, the arena in the ruins of Salona above Split… Hemingford Grey, Malham…

These have been “event spaces” for me, places where even going there means something.

Lockdown means that Uffington remains the event place that I last visited, unreachable except in my mind’s eye; Thoon is as beyond me as Monreale. And as for those big, bold holiday destinations, well, I wonder whether, as I ponder the urgencies beyond the virus attack, I will ever see these tourist places again. Maybe as “events” we see them, glory in them, and carry them with us.

And then there’s Boundary Brook.

I could, at the moment, call it Rat City: plenty of lively inhabitants of the Rattus Norvegicus kind scurrying around, and I wonder when the fox population will move in, or the badgers and hawks and owls step up…. and this is part of the problem with Edgelands: they are a stark mixture of human-stuff-we-like and animal-stuff-we-like with human-stuff-we-don’t-want and animal-stuff-we-don’t-want. Stark? Or vibrant?

If we are looking for writing that conveys the vibrancy of such spaces, then Rob Cowen can give it to us: at one point in Common Ground he writes that

the edges provided playgrounds for kids and illicit bedrooms for lovers. Whether consciously or not these spaces kept us in time and rooted to the rhythms of land and nature… We all still go to edges to get perspective…

and elsewhere

The ebb and flow of birdsong, the rise and fall of the sun, such things became my world. The slow spinning of the earth, the circadian rhythm is of the solar day, the life and death of the flowers and fruits, these whirred the mechanisms of my mended biological clock.

But the great Annie Dillard can also add to this vision.

Now [she is writing of late June] things are popping outside. Creatures extrude or vent eggs; larvae fatten, split their shells and eat them; spores dissolve or explode; root hairs multiply, corn puffs on the stalk, grass yields seed, shoots erupt from the earth turgid and sheathed… and everywhere watery cells divide and swell, swell and divide. I can like it and call it birth and regeneration, or I can play the devil’s advocate and call it rank fecundity-and say that it’s hell that’s a-poppin.

Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. 10: Fecundity

Cowen and Dillard give me two quite different views that I can take with me into the wildlife corridor that leads from by my house down to Boundary Brook and then extends onto Warneford Meadow. Despite its grandiose name, this is a strip – or a plait of interwoven strips – of self-seeded trees, wild clematis, ivy, Wild Garlic, squirrels, a pair of sparrowhawks, old fences demarking a different pattern of land use, an electricity substation, and (as is very obvious in a night time ramble) the street lights from Old Road and the car park lights from the labs and libraries of the campus buildings. So to make sense of this edgeland, I have to turn to two further sources: the book by Michael Symmonds Roberts and Paul Farley that gave me (and lots of other people, I suspect) the word Edgelands, and Richard Mabey.

First of these concluding words, then, are an extract from Richard Mabey and his Unofficial Countryside:

…It’s not often that the scrubland stage is reached. Where it is, it is in those awkward-shaped parcels of ground – left over like a hem when the surrounding areas have been sewn up – often called ‘marginal land.’ These seem to be multiplying with the piecemeal extension of built-up areas: a sliver of land left over between two strictly rectangular factories, a disused car dump, the surrounds of an electicity substation. Nothing can be done with these patches. They are too small or misshapen to build on, too expensive to landscape. So they are simply ignored – at least until the bushes start shutting out the light from the machine-shop. For that spell of ten or twenty years they form some of the richest and most unpredictable habitats for wildlife to be found in urban areas…

The Unofficial Countryside: Bearings

and (almost) last words to Symmonds Roberts and Farley:

It’s always a surprise… To find a gap in the shiny advertising boardings or a bent back sheet of corrugated iron which affords a few onto an open wasteland carpeted with flowers in summer… The city suddenly has a new scale and underness and an overness. 

The journey to a high moor or heath in search of wilderness and communing with nature involves a slow readjustment in terms of scale and space, but a city wasteland is all the more mysterious for the manner of our encounter with it: the imagination does the travelling.

This is what the Edgelands represent, an No mans land between the two sides…

I wrote “almost” because the typing of that quotation was initially overridden by the computer, unexpectedly throwing up a very different (and much more dramatic) touchstone on the constantly shifting border: Rob Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood’s disturbing meditation Ness – in that my text at one point read “and under Ness and an over Ness.” So I turn to this shattering prose-poem about the fall of a Babylon to the greater Principalities of wood and water and lichen, and find similarities with the rotting stumps and rusting gateways of where I run.

The encounter in the poem of the Powers of Nature with the grim purposes of humanity is exposed in an “environmental takeover,” and the willow-boned, hagstone-eyed entities that possess the nuclear defence site do so in their own time:

& time to them is not deep, not deep at all, for time is only ever overlapping tumbling versions of the now.

It has about it the bitter vision of triumph after oppression of the Book of Revelation; ruination; shattering; repossession. In the same way in the Edgelands, the everyday submits to the unbounded potential of weed sycamore and umbel and the run of the brook as the spring puts out, in Robert Macfarlane’s words, the green where shadow meets leaf.

Post dies octo

There were whispers in that night too,

When, the doors locked out of fear,

Oil lamps guttered and men talked anxiously

Of trust, hope, faith: the certainties that die so easily.

Shadows on anxious faces, shadows

In corners, like deep points in pools

Catching the unwary come to bathe.

For what improbability lurks there ready

To drag the overtrusting from the half-lit place

Into a depth where hope chokes in the dark?

And what might these men see, straining

Weary eyes and wary minds to scry

For vision, comfort, revelation shining

In the shade beyond the reach of light?

NS Wednesday, 06 April 2005

At Sea

When Moominpapa leads his little tribe away from Moominvalley he is trying to negotiate a new way of being the Father. In Moominpappa at Sea he has left his study and gone back to his childhood wanderings as depicted in his memoirs – except that this time he has family to deal with, and instead of hilarious annoyances like the Hemulen Aunt and Edward the Booble, settles on an island and is concerned with keys to the lighthouse, protecting his family, and the fact that – as we maybe all discover in some ways – that our shadows follow us when we make changes to our lives. Change in purpose, in attitude, in relationship (to one another, to the landscape we inhabit, to our selves) is at the heart of the story.

Following them in her inexorable, inexplicable, icy rage is the worst Nemesis in any book for children: the Groke. Symbol of crushing depression, she kills everything in any place she sits. This is perhaps the most terrifying illustration of the creature in all of Jansson‘s depictions (I am even fond of the darkening paper of my soon-to-fall-apart copy). She frightens me like the revenant in the final sections of Michelle Paver‘s terrifying Dark Matter.

The Moomin family have been described as “surprisingly complex and plausible.” Part of me wants to jump up and down at that “suprisingly,” but it does reflect something of my own disquiet when I first read this book – and I read it as an adult. In fact I did remark to one of my children that “I didn’t think it was a book for children.” I think my opinions about “for children” have changed now – but it reflects some of the themes Tove Jansson presents. These are characters with depth, full of love, sadness, frustration, loneliness: capable of wrong decisions, reconciliation, fear and delight – and because they are Jansson’s characters, able to worry too about the lack of paraffin and to enjoy a birthday tea.

Reviews on Goodreads go from a five-star “poignant and empathetic” to “a deeply distasteful story of toxic masculinity.” It is worth remembering this is a book from 1965, of course, but in the way that Moominpappa is trying to restart his life, and the ways Moomintroll is trying to make sense of the haunting chill of the Groke that has pursued him and the beauty of the seahorses he encounters, we are looking at an exploration of growing that goes way beyond the anachronism of “toxic masculinity.” If anything, these two male characters are asking for ways to make sense of their place in family and society: how can I be a “family man” when so much is beyond my control? asks the father. How do I tame the depression that seems to negate my inner need for beauty and transcendence? asks the son. Or perhaps I read the two characters like this because in some way those are my own questions… Let’s return to the text. (NB: It would take a lot longer than a blog post to bring in here a discussion of Little My, or Moominmamma or the sea horses – they need looking at in their own right. This post will have to be about Moomintroll and Moominpappa, and revisists/revises some of my thinking from an earlier post.)

The way Moomintroll and his father interact in Moominpappa at Sea appears to me to be an indicator of both characters growing. With his comfortable self-assurance, Moominpappa in Ch 4 (“The North-Easter”) starts off in control when he and his son go to bring in a haul of fish: Now you can see I know something about the sea, he says, but he is panicky, unable to direct Moomintroll effectively, and the nets are full of seaweed rather than fish. All the father’s expertise temporarily ebbs away – and their boat capsizes. Tove Jansson knows her boats, and takes us through this disaster assuredly – but even though father and son come through the crisis, here, in this brief interchange, her characters show they are less sure of themselves:

“Well, we managed that all right,” said Moomintroll, looking cautiously at his father.

“Do you think so?” said Moominpappa doubtfully.

It is a revealing little scene: the self-assured, bungling dad loses face with his growing son, and when Moomintroll looks cautiously for reassurance, it is at this point that Moominpappa expresses his doubt. Simply told, but in an effective few words.

The chaos of the botched fishing trip is a metaphor for frustration (as Keith Negley describes his pirate in an interview with Mat Tobin), and is followed by the usually imperturbable Moominmamma’s sighs as Moomintroll’s obsession with the lantern (and the demands of the Groke) interrupt her plans. It is as if in this landscape of frustration, nothing can come right.

Moominpappa is contending with his island, his family, his worries. Instead of a study where the family interrupt him, he has a crag on which to sit: this life change has not been the success he had expected.

The ending is ambiguous, Moomin Valley is (maybe) lost, the characters (certainly) challenged, and if their issue around the custodianship of the lighthouse are resolved, I still feel a chill when reading

The thought of the Groke crossed Moomintroll’s mind. But he didn’t feel that he must think about her. He would see her later as usual, but he didn’t have to.

It now reminds me (with important distinctions, of course) of the final of Dark Matter. The narrator, Jack, having been menaced and haunted (“It can open doors“) in Gruhuken in the blackness of an arctic winter where his friend has drowned, now lives in balmy Jamaica, and once a year visits the sea:

When I’ve mustered my courage, I can just bring myself to crouch at the water’s edge and di[ in my hand, and hold it there while I talk to Gus. It’s a kind of communion. But it’s a dangerous one, for I know that I’m also communing with Gruhuken, and with what walks there in the dark…

The worst is not knowing if you’re still there.

What has Moomintroll’s repeated encounters in the dark with the Groke, this vengeful granddaughter of Nordic Frost Giants, brought him? An appreciation of his father’s ennui? There is a significant change in understanding between Moomintroll and the Groke so that she

…started to sing. Her skirts fluttered as she swayed to and fro, stamping on the sand and doing her best to show him that she was pleased to see him…

and I would – maybe even ought to be – happy with that, but what is the Groke’s new relationship with the Moomins? Is she in some way healed? Changed? She appears to me a figure of terror, but gradually Jansson introduces other ideas: her sadness; loneliness the coldest thing that ever was… Why do I come back to her as something to be scared of negotium perambulans in tenebris, Scaduhelma…wan under wolcnum? Is it, maybe, that these frustrated monsters are for me like the thursen of our research – and that what I am looking for is the very opportunity to grow? Moomintroll himself has grown, it seems – but what of Moominpappa?

The title in English gives us the “at sea” of this blog post: lost, aimless, adrift. The title in Swedish translates as “Moominpappa and the Sea,” reminiscent of Hemingway. Moominpappa has uprooted his family, tried to rewrite their relationships, and come adrift from the way his family works. Who lives in the lighthouse – who controls this important part of the environment? Most crucially: whose job is it to do these things? Who is using all the paraffin (it is his son’s night time meetings with the Groke herself). In the dialogue with the raging sea – which parallels his son’s gradual reconciliation with the Groke – Moominpappa rebukes the sea which in turn gives him a sign that the family should stay. It is not the task Moominpappa envisaged, but it is a mission nonetheless, to settle down there and enjoy themsleves, although they were surrounded by a vast, never-changing horizon closing in on them. Settle into this new life, and accept what is offered: re-invent this landscape not as one of frustration but as one of change. Just as it is not Moomintroll’s job to tame the Groke, but to live with her, to accept her, it is not for Moominpappa to control his environment, but to live with its ambiguities. The crucial symbolic action for Pappa is therefore much closer to home (for him and me? – and do I wear a hat so much because he does?):

[The lighthouse keeper] completed the puzzle. It was a picture of birds flying round a lighthouse. He turned round and looked at Moominpappa.

“Now I remember,” he said.”We’re both wearing the wrong hat.”

He took off the hat he was wearing and offered it to Moominpappa. They exchanged hats without saying a word.”

The lighthouse keeper, the lost Ben Gunn-like fisherman, gets his old hat back, along with his role as lighthouse keeper – and Moominpappa, who had said he didn’t need his top hat any more, has his iconic hat returned to him.

The blurb at the start of the Puffin edition (1974) tells me it is “for readers of eight and over,” and describes it as a “haunting, moving, beautiful book…perhaps the most satisfying of all the Moomin stories.” But just as I take issue with the word “surprising” from the Guardian, I wonder quite what “satisfying” really means here. So many unanswered questions remain – not least whether they will stay in the end – and for me, the psychodrama of Moomin and the Groke, and his father’s loss of faith in his role, pound at my reading like the breakers on the rocks.

Need Called Knowledge Out

This blog post forms part of the dialogue between me and Chris Lovegrove on aspects of Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider. This was my post on anger; this was his exploring the Myths and the Gifts that Gwyn receives, and this is Chris on Loss, which I will cite below.

Many stories take off at the point where a protagonist realises something about their place in the narrative. The variations are worth a quick look. The title of this post comes from the complex beginnings of A Wizard of Earthsea, where Ged discovers, little by little, the power of magic, and it is this particular sequence from LeGuin that for me embodies the best of these understandings of who these young heroes are – or might become. Will Stanton has a more dramatic set of encounters in the Dark is Rising; the growing menace that threatens Martha and the other children of a quiet Oxfordshire village in The Whispering Knights shows another way of introducing the dilemma at the heart of fantasy. Caspian, Eustace and Polly in various of the Narnia stories have similar vocational events; the children in Elidor fall into their task by accident and are all, in various ways, unwilling heroes. The two most famous (at the moment) are where Harry Potter is told that he’s a wizard and where Frodo takes up the task of destroying the Ring. Here, as a shortcut, is the film version of the Harry Potter interchange; likewise here is Frodo at the Council of Elrond. It is debatable whether this is the moment at which Frodo decides, of course, and there could be various readings of this. It would make an interesting task to take these narratives of self-realisation and tabulate them: gender (What happens when Lyra is given the alethiometer? Is this her “vocational event”? Is Lucy in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe the same in terms of “vocation” and belief [a theme repeated in Prince Caspian] as her brothers here? What about Susan?); does it come about by self-discovery or an external message; how does use of past histories explain the state the hero is entering (what does Miss Hepplewhite’s back story do to help the children along?); age of the young hero (nine? ten? thirteen?); pace of discovery, point of self-realisation…

Ah yes: the point at which the hero accepts the quest makes for an interesting point*. In Harry Potter, this is a surprise, almost comic, as the boy discovers (by being told) something about who he “really is” in the teeth of opposition from his oppressive family; in Lord of the Rings this is an unwelcome realisation on the part of Frodo Baggins – that his part in the story is not over, a culmination of a whole load of plot development, near-death adventure and background in-fill: while Harry is described as unhappy, abused and lost, with his inchoate powers hinting at him that there is more to come, Frodo (not a magician any more than his Sam) has learned of the peril of the Ring, the need to get it secretly away from the terrors that are seeking it, and has experienced its addictive and destructive power. Such is the pace of Rowling and Tolkien in a nutshell: Tolkien is creating his world, while Rowling throws us in medias res. In a story written with children in mind the choice for a sudden exposition is also connected to a desire to get on with the plot – so that when Gwyn is given the news he is (or may be) a magician in The Snow Spider it is abrupt like the news Hagrid gives Harry:

“‘Time to find out if you are a magician, Gwydion Gwyn!’ said Nain.

‘A magician?’ Gwyn inquired.

‘Time to remember your ancestors: Math, Lord of Gwynedd, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy!’

‘Who?’ ‘

The magicians, boy!”

and just in the same way as Harry Potter and Ged will take time to find their place in the world they are entering – one might argue that Ged struggles all his life, after his early (literally schoolboy) errors – Gwyn takes all three books of The Snow Spider to realise his power, his place in Nimmo’s grand continuum of myth and location.

Vocational Event: self-realisation. When a story takes off like this, somewhere along the line there is a task to take up, a burden to shoulder.

Frodo becomes the hero (and maybe even more so, Sam) by his involvement in the story, whereas Harry’s status goes before him. Gwyn, Ged and Will are an uncomfortable mixture of the two, which makes these stories have an undertow of Bildungsroman to them: their growth into their magic is what makes them interesting protagonists. While Will is looking for his place among the Old Ones as their mission reaches its conclusion, Ged is literally (and figuratively) at sea, looking, as the books progress, at the encircling gloom he has, in part, released. Gwyn, however, is a new creation of the mythic past – less an inheritor than (as I said before) “growing into an adult sensitivity, into understanding his family, into his power as a magician.” The demons he encounters are therefore not just the spirit of Efnisien but what Chris Lovegrove calls “the multiple human tragedies that always happen, now as ever -” the thousand natural shocks.

The need that calls out his knowledge is not just the immediate – to find Bethan his lost sister – but to stand in the breach of his family’s pain. As Chris explains it “Gwyn has to learn how to control his innate gifts as a magician in order to make good as many of the losses as he can.” He needs to contain, to hold, to heal. The symbolism of the gate not shut is subtle – but insistent throughout the first book of the trilogy, and the clumsiness of Gwyn’s attempts at healing recurs in the third.

Gwyn (or young reader of The Snow Spider), please note: no-one – apart, perhaps, from your imperfect parents – expects you to be perfect, and if Nain looks like she wants to rest the whole weight of the history of early medieval Wales on your shoulder, she, too, is over ambitious.

This is where the reader’s identification with a questing protagonist is key. We ride alongside Gringolet to earn, with Gawain, the true value of knighthood; we learn to deal with adults with Harry Potter, with belief and faith in Narnia: we negotiate family dynamics in a time of transitions with Roland in Elidor and in a time of pain and loss with Gwyn in The Snow Spider… Growing up in not without pain, struggle –

And as Will concludes in the final words of the Dark is Rising books “I think it’s time we were starting out…We’ve got a long way to go.”

*There are parallels here with many Biblical (and non-Biblical) narratives: the call of Abram/Abraham; the vocational encounter of Moses; the desert experience and Baptism of Jesus – the questioning about suffering of Siddhārtha Gautama, the call of St Francis, the Sword in the Stone… I might then want to explore the lines between the sacrificial journey of Abraham and Isaac, the journey to Calvary, and the sacrifice of Lubrin Dhu in Sun Horse Moon Horse… There isn’t really space in this post to do any exploration of these justice. But at least that thought gives me an excuse to finish with the view from Uffington.

Silence, honey cakes and lockdown

Abba Macarius was once dismissing an assembly of his monks in their desert retreat, and he did so with the words “Flee, brethren.”

One of the seniors asked him ” Where could we flee to that is further away than the desert?” Macarius put his finger to his lips and replied “Flee also from this,” and he went to his cell and shut his door.

It is interesting to note that much of the work we have detailing the sayings of the early Desert Monastics is about them as people: people getting along with one another, or not. I chose as a title to this post a deliberate nod not only to those early pioneers but also to one of their most readable modern commentators: Rowan Williams, whose book Silence and Honey Cakes is full of great stories from the Desert Fathers and Mothers and marvellous insights into their applicability. What is Macarius asking his brothers to flee?

“Hermit” gives an oddly disconnected view of their loose communities of monasteries, solitaries, eccentrics, radicals. The early Desert Monastics practised some radical solitude, it’s true, and are wary of meetings (judgemental), interviews (occasions to be distracted by praise), liturgy and communal meals (an easy time to show one’s piety). The “silence/ that is his chosen medium/of communication” (I’m coming to R S Thomas in a minute) is their chosen way, and what we have left is fragments of maybe rare conversation. They flee, to seems to me, a sense of belonging. Maybe it is missing that very sense of belonging that makes me – religion or no – feel deracinated: in all this lockdown I want my friends back, my community of people to affirm and challenge, to affirm and challenge me, to make me feel at home. We console ourselves with “when this is all over” utopias when when we want – at least I know what I want – is a bit of my own control back. Thank heavens for the Internet? This is birthday time for many in our family: the Internet is a pale substitute.

So this year when we come to the most communal, Catholic bits of the year it is odd to see them as a time when we are alone. Alone with the TV or computer monitor, watching someone else “doing” the liturgy. Having begun my active involvement in Catholic liturgy in the last years of the old dispensation, some of this feels quite familiar: watching; listening; the “act of Spiritual Communion” (instead of queueing for frequent reception of the sacrament) – but it also presents the challenge I think Macarius is dealing with here. It’s about authenticity: now I can’t shuffle up to the front, half-attentive and half-wondering about the next piece of music; now I can’t squeeze in a pre-Easter Confession, the whole thing is laid out before me: I actually have to engage, to believe, to sort out what is sinful from what is embarrassing, to think about the circumstances and actions of the first Passiontide. At a deep level (and rather at an odd angle, to mix my images), by not being able to pick and choose, pick up “my” sacraments, I am less of a consumer and more of a participant. That is not really very comfortable a role in today’s society where “my” seems inextricably tied in to “my” choices.

And that – and the worries of my family in the present virus, and missing my friends, and feeling as if I’m not coping and all the uncomfortable truths about that – brought me to a bout of anxious sleeplessness that I would prefer not to repeat for some time. But at least even that brought me to reading and reading and reading. I finished my comfort read (mostly bath times for the past week or so) of C S Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, and over a 03.30 cuppa took down R S Thomas from the shelf. Now, much of his poetry doesn’t make for comfort reading, but does say a lot about the appalling honesty with which Thomas looks at his own spirituality. He is able, like very few other writers, to look at the aridity of his own spirituality and bring out something amazing. Perhaps apt for this time of year is to compare him to the blackthorn, whose beautiful flowers appear on the dark wood and among the sharp thorns. In his poem on Hebrews 12:29 Thomas has this marvellous few lines that go way beyond conventional Christianity and speak of how we confront our own need for authenticity:

To be brought near

stars and microbes does us no good,

chrysalises all, that pupate

idle thoughts. We have started and stared and not stared

truth out…

RS Thomas, Hebrews 12:29 (Collected Poems p484)

But actually “fleeing” also means I need to set aside telling myself (and anyone that wanders onto here) how grandly heroic this all is.

Dicter – Anger and a Family in Crisis

In Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider, nine-year-old Gwyn Griffiths, son of a Welsh hill farming family still reeling from the loss of his older sister, is charged with taking up his role as descendent of the ancient magicians of the Mabinogi, the collection of Welsh myths and legends. 

Through his growing understanding of his magical powers, and with the guidance of his grandmother, the eponymous Snow Spider, and a mysterious girl who joins the family, Gwyn becomes involved in the beauty and danger of a world normally just beyond mortal grasp, and has to confront rage and pain from centuries ago. 

Chris Lovegrove who blogs here as Calmgrove and I will be discussing a range of topics that have occurred to us while reading Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider. It falls to me to start, and I’ve chosen to think briefly about one aspect of Griffiths family’s emotional landscape.

Gwyn is given five odd birthday gifts by his Nain, his Grandmother, who suggests he remember his roots, in part his connection to ancient Welsh magicians. This explicit link to a magical past is one not many in Gwyn’s family ever have, and increases the tensions and distance between the boy and his father. 

The mountain Gwyn lives on is also the place he has to challenge the negative forces of the past, whose rage and hatred are contained in a broken model of a horse, symbol and remnant of a jealousy and anger that should have resolved but has not. In this respect we are on the same turf as another Gwyn, the haunted heir of past mistakes and ancient jealousies from The Owl Service – but Jenny Nimmo’s young protagonist, while he feels similar tensions, is also more of an agent: not just an inheritor, Gwyn Griffiths is growing into an adult sensitivity, into understanding his family, into his power as a magician. 

The opening crisis – the boy’s ninth birthday party which his father, Ivor, breaks up with implacable rage – is a disturbing plunge into the family dynamics of the farm: Gwyn’s sister went missing in a snow storm on the boy’s birthday when he was five.  It would have been straightforward, I imagine, to write about Gwyn’s struggle with his family and his own loss of his sister in terms of his own anger: trapped by his past, he could rail against circumstance and either come to terms with it or be broken by it. It bubbles through the relationships he has at school, his burgeoning realisations of his magic, the personification of anger in the broken horse (I’m coming to this); yet a quick search for “angry” in the text reveals that Gwyn is not always the one to be angry.  In the tensions of his mother, his father, the magic around him and his past, Gwyn is buffeted by the anger of others like the wintry winds of his hillside.

Gwyn is curiously forgiving, to the extreme that suggests a cautious painting by the author of a family in crisis, on the edge, maybe, of emotional abuse.  Gwyn’s father cannot detach from the loss of his daughter, Bethan, and is left only with negativity to his son. Gwyn knew his father could not help the bitterness that burst out of him every now and then, and he had acquired a habit of distancing himself from the ugly words. It is noteworthy that the new Television version (currently airing) seems to present the father in terms of his inner pain, rather than his distance and anger.  He is frozen in the grief and anger at the loss of his daughter. 

Jenny Nimmo plays skillfully with the psychogeography of the farm. The family are at once free to move around – across the mountain, despite its danger; down into the village, over to see Gwyn’s Nain – and yet, like a real farming family, have an eye to the windy, snowy weather than can pin them down and that four years ago took Bethan from them. Gwyn’s father cannot let go of his anguish; Gwyn and his mother cannot discuss the pain they feel: they are trapped by their trauma.

The broken horse – a deliberate harking-back to the maiming of horses in the Mabinogion  which retells mythic past of the area – is a terrifying symbol of this destructive hatred. It is “grotesque:” earless, tailless, lidless like the ones maimed by the prince Efnisien.  Nain expresses her fear of it, “a dreadful thing” in which long-ago hatreds are stored, all too ready to be released. It symbolises a powerful anger that Gwyn has to name and conquer: but Gwyn’s anger is itself trapped, not allowed a voice. It is only as he comes into his power that Gwyn realises that he can use it, and when he does, in his confrontation with a boy at school, it is clumsy and ill-timed, and Gwyn comes off the worst. Like his father, Gwyn is suffering and inarticulate; unlike his father, he has resources of language and magic – or perhaps the magic of language –  to help him. But the fight with Dewi and his gang is a turning point for Gwyn and his father; Ivor Griffiths musters his anger to defend his son, and the influence of the mysterious girl Eirlys is felt as the father’s mood softens. She is there to mark the thaw, like the snowdrop her name signifies. 

“It seems to me,” advises Eirlys, ”that if you are to stop the thing, you have to get its name, discover what it is.”  This is the task of the young magician – and, at one level it is of any young person as they grow: to recognise and to name emotions. This language is what Gwyn brings to his family crisis, to the healing of his family that start as trapped and inarticulate. At the end Gwyn’s parents are healed but “too old” to express how they feel as the story resolves, except in the plainest of terms, the words Gwyn has missed for four long years of growing: “I’m glad.” 

Escape, extent and serendipity

There was a time long ago – say, last Sunday afternoon – when nipping off for a run seemed easy and natural. And on Monday, when Jeff and I went for a walk – well, it seemed a normal thing. Bloke. Dog. Biscuits. Sunshine. The political clouds of isolation and the warning that people had to be more responsible were looming, but dogs gotta walk, and man’s gotta be sensible about “social isolation.” That seemed about it.

Jeff the dog and I went to South Park and Warneford Meadow. We got muddy, he more than I, we looked at the various corvids and the people playing basketball, he ate dog biscuits and I didn’t, and we were sensible about keeping ourselves to ourselves. We didn’t do the reckless “last weekend before we have to be indoors” congregating, but yes, it seemed that keeping to guidelines was easy. A new politeness was emerging around how far apart we needed to be from people we passed, it’s true, but in any case they weren’t people either of us knew, not even nodding acquaintances. A quick chat with the basketballers a good 4m away and then we moved on. We got closer to magpies, to be honest. Three for a girl, if I remember rightly.

Only with yesterday evening’s pronouncements did that mood really change, and I think in retrospect we pushed it a bit. Maybe it was my day’s exercise. It will have to stand as such.

Wind back a week and I am with Mat high on the Downs, and you could not wish for a lovelier day. Sunny again, breezy, a sharp-eyed, sharp-minded kestrel of a good friend, everything bright and fair. As I discussed here, human relation to place is, for Robert Mcfarlane, grounded in language; but language is itself grounded in relationship. I’m coming back to this.

Back to the Friday before and Lizzie, Maggie and I walk through the Aberlady nature reserve and across the beach to Gullane. A bright sun, a brisk wind. Family enjoying one another’s company.

But these are not excuses to show snapshots. What is it that gave these trips significance? Why feel better after them? They both lacked the challenge of Rob Macfarlane’s exploration of the treacherous Broomway or even the experience of our face-to-face encounter at Ludchurch. What is it that some trips into the outdoors bring? and how do we represent that in time and place without it being, like these photos, just a grown-up version of What I did on My Holidays?

The absolutely seminal book on the psychology of the outdoors for me is the 1989 book The Experience of Nature, by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. In it, they explore dimensions that may provide a framework for how “nature” helps and supports psychological wellbeing. Extent; fascination; action and compatibility. Because their work looks to the “wilderness” they address the nation of escape as well, which they view with some caution because it has in it “an absence of some aspect of life that is ordinarily present and presumably not always preferred.” I can see their point, but given that it is early work (thirty years ago) and has been superseded in many ways (partly by the new nature writing itself), I want to raise the question of escape with someone. Here, further off on the Aberlady sand dune, is Maggie; Mat not only drove the two of us to Uffington, his insights enriched our visit. We are “political animals” – not because we are forever tuned into the depressing power games (or, if you like, selfless and inspirational leadership) that cram our news until we cannot see what’s actually happening – but because we are defined by how we live in the company of others. I go out on my own but with me come meetings to have, people I want to see (or don’t), ideas to bounce off others. I bring the city with me. And similarly I contend that a visit to Uffington means I am “with” (metaphorically) Rosemary Sutcliff, or that to go to Ludchurch “with” Alan Garner is not to travel alone. In some ways, the accompanying author or characters provide what the Kaplans call action and compatibility, and of course are the spur to action via the notion of fascination. We go “Backpacking with the Saints” according to Belden Lane (article here; link to the [excellent] book is here. Name the saints that come with you.

Lane, a “scholar in recovery” takes with him insights from the Desert Monastics and “a few lines of Rumi” and is wedded to the silence that wilderness can bring. Not as far into my recovery I have taken Gawain, most recently Sun Horse Moon Horse and the Land of the White Horse. Somewhere in my mental backpack are lines and vistas from writers such as Robert Macfarlane, C S Lewis, Oliver Rackham…. This isn’t a boast: I sometimes wonder whether I could leave them in the car. Would this then be more of an escape, or given the liberating nature of some of this writing, less of one? And what about extent? Do we need the wide open wilderness of the Ozarks are we OK with the view from the White Horse down into the farmlands of Oxfordshire and Wiltshire? I think of Aberlady, where I have no literary baggage to bring: an escape, as the Kaplans would see it from particular content, “a rest from pursuing certain purposes.” I wonder if writing about his wilderness hikes took the edge off the experience from Beldin Lane…

But for the trips that fall under the Wild Spaces Wild Magic umbrella I really have to take the authors firmly in my hand and my mind: last week for example I was reading the episode of Lubrin Dhu’s planning of the White Horse from Rosemary Sutcliff and looking for where she might have sited the Wych Elm. She comes with me and by extension the characters she calls into being; David Miles comes with me – my copy of his book has a smudge of Uffington soil on the page of his site plan (p101, if you’re interested); Mat of course comes with me. Identifying where this Wych Elm might have been, we find some wild apple trees by chance and wonder: are these the inspiration for the sacred apple trees in Sun Horse Moon Horse?

Social aspects of serendipity (see for example Morrissey’s “An autoethnographic inquiry into the role of serendipity in becoming a teacher educator/researcher,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 2014) seem to me to work alongside the changeability of being outside. Less is in the enquirers’ control, expectations have to change. Two pairs of eyes are able (sometimes) to be more alert to these changes: sagacity (Morrissey again) enhances serendipity but are two heads better than one? If we are aware of the dangers of shoring up each other’s ideas, might collaboration, like identifying mistakes (Morrissey) “also uncover for the researcher… fears, preconceptions or beliefs …of which he/she had hitherto been unaware”?

And if we are accompanied by the cloud of witnesses from literature – such as nature writers and their places, fiction writers and their characters – then we might address two notions (or one single notion with two aspects? I’m not sure as I write) of psychogeography and autoethnography. How much, in other words, does setting (in its broadest sense) and personal history of setting enhance or detract from personal reading of landscape? I am conscious of the dilemmas where Dyson writes “In recognising that I was a subject and an object of the research I realised that at the same time I was and could be both an insider and an outsider within the culture that I was investigating.” (From his article My Story in a Profession of Stories: Auto Ethnography – an Empowering Methodology for Educators, 2007). I rejoice in being on the Downs with Mat; I am very glad we have purpose in a book I love; I am exhilarated in the chill breeze and bright sun. To change from his journey metaphor to one of wind or water, being the reader and a colleague in an investigating team involves recognising how all sorts of things flow over one another: the reader and her/his history; the researcher and her/his concerns and limitations; the authors under investigation, their sources, their motives, their depiction of place and character; and being a research partner multiplies these complexities. For me this links with Rob Macfarlane’s lines from his introduction to The Living Mountain:

…the world itself is therefore not the unchanging object…but instead endlessly relational. It is made manifest only by only by presenting itself to a variety of views, and our perception of it is made possible by our bodies and their sensory-motor functions… We have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world – its spaces, textures, sounds, smells and habits…

We are human, language-loving and people-loving; we are also placed: physically located on a windy ridge above a deserted farmhouse in the Peak district, or searching for a tree that may never have been at the foot of the Downs.

To conclude with Belden Lane, who may be close to an answer here (I know I’m not): The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset once said, Tell me the place where you live, and I’ll tell you who you are. I think he also could have said, Tell me the place to which you are drawn, and I’ll tell you who you are becoming.