The Great Events?

55BCE, 597CE, 793CE, 1066CE, 1282CE, 1534CE, 1588CE, 1649CE, 1707CE, 1714CE, 1922CE…  pick your date for an event or series of events that define England, or Britain. There are others, and the ones I have chosen may say more about my poor historical knowledge or prejudice than anything. There are also occurrences which pass without comment at the time or which we cannot date certainly because no record exists: when really does Britain cease to be Roman? Or when did the last wolf die? Why does one date matter? Will the referendum on 23rd June 2016 be eclipsed by a final unequivocal date or will that be the one history picks as the The Date We Left Europe? The Date Things Changed?

We cannot dictate, and maybe can’t predict with certainty. Perhaps something else will intervene to take precedence – the failure of electricity, a catastrophic event such as the melting of the polar ice? What does strike me is that this simplistic history suggests that one date was important, and that the messiness before or after are somehow lesser occurrences that don’t matter. And that the massive changes were not contested, opposed, or that those who did contest were ridiculed, sacked, sidelined, imprisoned, killed. I feel as if I signed the Terms and Conditions for C21st without reading them, and I think of Tom Holland’s brilliant book on the Millennium, where in effect Western Europe did try and sign particular Ts&Cs only to find a new millennium just as complex and hard. A single date just doesn’t work. 1066 is one date: do we (and I need to exclude historians here, of course) consider the harrying of the North?

The counsellors in the decades/centuries of Christian consolidation; subjugated  Saxons after the death of Harold in 1066; recusant Catholics – all these people would attest that these great events are never simple. These “events that shaped Britain” were the cause of pain and unquiet: families divided, economic disturbance… and we are seeing the same in our time, in ways I never thought to see, never wanted to see. “Project Fear,” in which the UK suffers terrible upheaval, may not come to pass, or it may – but this evening I am wondering quite what will come. I suspect it’s going to be big, and an unpleasant change. I am gloomy, and predict a rowing back from liberties won, well-being improved. I feel the sharp tug of solastalgia.

Why is this part of this blog? Over the next few days I will have the pleasure of being outside with learners of various kinds. Some theory, lots of practice: a challenge for me, but a very welcome one. I will be making a plea – directly and indirectly – for the pleasure of being outside to be seen as a driver of a life well lived. Ecological wrongdoing in the Anthropocene will impact on people’s wellbeing; economic changes, greed and “austerity” planning may mean that parks and woodland will change. But I hope that people – maybe the young people I meet or the families they will work with – will still see the energy of plants and bugs and the movement of clouds and look for joy and delight and maybe transcendence.

Because all these things are transient, this Jeremiad included. And I think that with the little time I have, I want to help people find joy in the small things, and see our interconnectedness with bigger ones:

I want you to walk out into the fields
where the water is shining, and the rice has risen.
I want you to stand there, far from the white tablecloth.
I want you to fill your hands with the mud, like a blessing.

Yes, Mary Oliver does it again, this time in her poem Rice.

Importance and Binary Opposites

The presentation on What Children Shouldn’t Read for the Reading Spree didn’t go too badly, and reflecting on what did (and didn’t) get heard has been interesting. A few messages went astray both from me and from other presenters, although the “reviews” to listen to are, of course, the people who were actually there, and caught nuances more than the powerpoint slides Twitterers want to argue with. Responses on social media have been thoughtful (and certainly less spittle-flecked) than they were following the first one, at least.  However, reading them does bring me back to Kieran Egan, whose Teaching as Storytelling was a key element of my 20 or so minute ramble. He asks

  • What is most important about the topic?
  • Why should it matter to children?
  • What is affectively engaging about it?

and then  follows this with the challenge to find binary opposites/pairs:

  • What powerful binary opposites best catch the importance of the topic?

Big questions when we look at storytelling and curriculum.   I suggest that they are different for teachers than they are for children. In What Not to Read I suggested we might ask “How do we look at books when we are educators?” and the same is true of how we look at the whole phenomenon of the outdoor curriculum and outdoor storytelling in particular – and in many ways, looking at curriculum is closer than using Egan’s probing questions as being essentially about storytelling.

There are tensions, binaries around ecocriticism and curriculum. Am I storytelling outdoors as a part of the Green Agenda?  How do I deal with a tension around book sharing and how we might orally present traditional tales – there are, for example, practical issues around books and outdoors (as we discovered in a session last year when it poured with rain)?  Teachers’ binaries will be concerned with these curricular issues; children-as-audience will be concerned with, as Egan puts it “the human adventure that began in magic and myth…” and they might be concerned with good and evil, danger and escape (Roald Dahl’s Goldilocks is a wonderful skewing of these concerns with his “delinquent little tot” and her fate at the hands of Baby Bear) or with destruction and redemption (I think at once of a beautiful and politically charged book I have discussed before: Michael Foreman’s A Child’s Garden).

So many binaries to disentangle, when the challenge from Egan is to find the  “binary opposites” that “best catch the importance of the topic” (my emphasis).   This is no small task when selecting books or stories for an outdoor audience; a huge task for teacher or school when considering why they might want to do storytelling and the practical considerations that arise from this plan. Why do we teach how we do?  What prevents us from running on the free rein of professional expertise and creativity?

*

To end with an esprit d’escalier thought about presentations and co-presenters at the Reading Spree, I will take a wide-angle lens view, and ask another of Egan’s questions:

  • What content most dramatically embodies the primary opposites?

This Saturday it was for me testimony from Simon from Whitby – of children in his school who had never been to the beach – and Nicki – a librarian on a TA’s salary, buying library stock from her own pocket.

I went the next day (Sunday) to a panel discussion hosted by members of the Blackfriars congregation about the impacts of poverty and austerity on the educational experiences of children in Oxford. The feelings of the three speakers (and including my Maggie), all in various roles in education, around the squeezed budgets of public services suggests to me the final and most obvious binary: funding and austerity. Life chances are enhanced by things like decent libraries and book provision (and excellent library provision and staffing such as evidenced here) in towns and schools: refusing to answer calls for better staffing and book stock is an ideological choice, to cut public funding and cut taxation.

Cut after cut and cut as politicians tear one another apart and us along with them. There’s a binary for starters.

 

Family

This is me:Me, study, Christmas

 

and my brother. 3378BABA-5EAA-47A0-939F-9BA534BA2A83

 

He is quite a bit older than me, and is, in fact, my older half-brother. This is the story:

Our mum has a baby, my brother Glenn, but her husband Jack is killed at sea in WWII. Eventually (in the 50s) she marries my dad, another sailor, Ray, and I come along. A series of miscarriages and my brother being abroad mean I am, more or less, an only child at this time.  Mum dies the year I go to University and my brother and I lose touch. We are eventually brought back together some ten years ago. I am, physically at least, quite like Glenn – to be honest, a shorter and -erm – less athletic version of my brother (and of his son, my half-nephew, Ben).

(I also have another half-brother and half-sister, Mark and Hannah, who are the children of my dad’s second marriage, to Val. Hannah is only about six months older than my oldest child, Joe, but for this post I want to mention Glenn and me).

Glenn is a fool and I am not. That is to say, his role in his local Morris side is that of a fool and I am in no way nimble enough to be a Morris Man. We share common interests in folklore, although mine tend to be bookish and his practical. We are both gardeners. We both have beards and white hair. I had quite a bit of contact with Glenn as I was growing up: I loved it when he came home, loved going on his motorbike from Blandford to Badbury Rings, loved going to visit him and his family – loved his garden, and walking on the wide beaches of the North East coast. In some ways he gave me experiences of outdoors, folklore and family that stay with me. Habitus. We aren’t twins separated at birth – but I am astonished by how strong I now perceive his influence on me to be. Was it really his dancing that led me to Wild Spaces, Wild Magic? How does his social circle of beardy beer drinkers influence my choice of appearance and choice of beverage? Was it our mum’s deep admiration of him that convinced me that here (in some respects) was what growing up was about? How, in the twenty or so years we didn’t meet, did those choices Glenn had made tell me about being who I am?

I am (as I have been before) reflecting on “history’s curved shell,” as R S Thomas says in his poem Eheu Fugaces, on how pasts come together in the present, on these strands of influence, and the more I think, the more I find the Nature/Nurture argument often too simplistic. There are physical differences as well as emotional ones, beliefs and life decisions we have made that are different, life circumstances (his losing his dad so young, for example) that are just not replicated…  Where do our choices come from, and how are they determined by people we meet, or see, or imagine? How do we look back at attitudes and choices?

*

To change tack: lots of things conspire to get me thinking about my family at the moment, but (for the purposes of this blog), I want to think about the struggle for identity so vividly described in Anthea Simmons’ Lightning Mary, a fictionalised account of the early life of Mary Anning.  In it, Mary is trying, with a “head full of pain and sorrow and anger” to establish what it means to be a scientist, coming from a poor background with numerous hardships; how does she identify as a woman without being seen as a potential wife and mother?

“Did I ask to be a woman? I did not… I hate babies and husbands and men and being poor and the sickness and the toil and the injustice. What have we done? Why are we to be punished so?”

Into Mary’s mouth are put the cries of impatience of generations.  Her mother responds,

“Whoever told you that life was fair, Mary? Not I. It is what it is.”

The injustices and hardships are depicted brilliantly in the book: her clashes with the landed gentry and “proper” scientists, her sustaining but troubled friendship with the precious young Henry de la Beche…  Mary becomes a real heroine, although as Simmons acknowledges in her afterword, her story is “profoundly sad,” and the novel ends, rightly, on a down-beat.

My brother’s and my story is not (so far!!!) sad, and neither of us, I think, is a frustrated genius, “born to blush unseen” but we (all) tread the difficult line between self-identity, the urge to be Henry de la Beche’s “friend and scientist” and Anning’s mother’s line that “life is what it is.” But our similarities and differences do highlight the ambiguities and tensions of upbringing and choice, of lack of freedom in various generations, of societal expectations. For us it is just ordinary life, in so many ways, but for Anning it was painful and frustrating.

“There were days, dark days, when I felt as if I had lined up for a race and then been told to take two steps back because I was poor, and then two steps back because Father had been a Dissenter, and then ten steps back because I was not a man…”

Anning in the novel is prickly and wilful, but also determined, resourceful – and ultimately doomed (the passive voce is important, I think) to be by-passed by the scientific revolutionaries with whom she deals. The book is a rallying- cry for young woman thinking about science as a career. It is also a plea for educators to remember how complex the stepping stones of privilege and the nets of disadvantage can be.

 

 

 

Omens

It’s a spring day as March comes to its “out like a lamb” ending. The sun is shining and I’m out on Warneford Meadow, treading through tufty grass, and along paths worn by commuters. It is our local Green and a valuable space, with a rich and (I suspect) growing biodiversity.   I am one of a number of visitors, human and non-human – and as I trot down one of the paths I see a bunch of magpies. The Opies record the rhyme as:

One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a wedding
Four for a death.

Lots of other versions are on record, testimony to the respect  people (maybe) had for these striking birds as messengers.  The Boke of Saint Albans has, in its lists of the Compaynys of beestys and fowlys has a tiding of [mag]pies (but beware: I’m not sure I trust a list with  Superfluyte of Nonnys or Noonpacience of Wyves)…

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish
Nine for a kiss
Ten a surprise you must not to miss.

(It received a boost by being the theme tune for the Thames TV production of Magpie, ITV’s Blue Peter Rival, when perhaps other customs and rhymes have fallen by the wayside – but that began when  I was the key audience: a long time ago, now.)

Back to Warneford Meadow as I slog over a possible Roman settlement and try not to think about the Quis Est Iste Qui Venit of such a run.   Nine magpies, then as I approach it’s four then seven and then just one. What do we make of portents whose mobility makes the I Ching look solid?  Well, of course, we don’t, in general; it’s a bit of mind play while I run.

I remember that as I qualified as a teacher, the National Curriculum was just coming in, and the course leader was ending his goodbye speech to the PGCE with “May you live in interesting times.”  He did not foresee where we might be today: if we were only contending with conflicting views about curriculum that would be enough, but we have Schoolsweek announcing scandal upon scandal, Unionist bands and racists openly on the streets in London vying for publicity (and no, they don’t get links) with crowds and crowds of people with more politeness and less threatened violence, a Parliamentary struggle the likes of which I have never seen before… These are interesting times, but not in a good way. There are no signs or portents to match all of this rubbish.

And while I trundle my sixty-something way and wonder about what the list of magpie numbers might portend (I really did get the one above the other week), part of my mind is wondering: instead of nines and sevens am I just seeing magpie after magpie after magpie? Sorrow and sorrow and sorrow?  I don’t think I have ever felt gloomier about the state of my country and my profession.

So instead of corvid fortune telling, I will end with part of my play list for running:

Nina Simone whose version of Billy Taylor’s anthem to Freedom has been a lifesaver this winter.

And while we’re at it, her singing of Randy Newman’s great hymn to compassion.

Sod the magpies, stuff the omens: this is what we need.

Wolf Moon

I missed the superbloodwolfmoon thing this week: cloud hid it in Oxford, although lots of amazing pictures emerged around the place. I tried, in compensation, to write a blog post linking back to my earlier explorations of Wolves and Red Riding Hood (my “Jack Zipes schitck” as someone described it) and the stuff I mull over a lot around outdoors and storytelling and wolves, and maybe (although this is where I stumbled and tripped) on the Black Dog of depression, nipping my heels nearly all this Christmas.

However, the death of Mary Oliver prompted me to buy a collection of her poems and comment on them. Social Media had all sorts going on – as is the way, some friendly and some not-so-friendly – but with today’s cold weather in England, I thought I would cite one of her bleaker pieces as apt for the weather and the moon:

Wolf Moon

Now in the season
of hungry mice,
cold rabbits
lean owls
hunkering with their lamp-eyes
in the leafless lanes
in the needled dark;
now is the season
when the kittle fox
comes to town
in the blue valley
or early morning;
now is the season
of iron rivers,
bloody crossings,
flaring winds,
birds frozen
in their tent of weeds,
their music spent
and blown like smoke
to the blue of the sky;
now is the season
of the hunter Death;
with his belt of knives,
his black snowshoes,
he means to cleanse
the earth of fat;
his gray shadows
are out and running – under
the moon, the pines,
down snow-filled trails they carry
the red whips of their music,
their footfalls quick as hammers,
from cabin to cabin,
from bed to bed,
from dreamer to dreamer.

Superb, and as bleak as the landscape and weather she is writing about.  It’s over ten years since I began to explore children’s literature as means to look at the outdoors, and literature continues to be a lens I use to look at how we react to landscape. My brother, I note (as I type), is in the snow at the Cat and Fiddle – close to Thursbitch in the snow. I think of Jack Turner, and the car off the road we saw in the fog by there:  worlds collide.

In Wolf Moon Oliver picks up the themes of Death and cold –  “his belt of knives,” “his gray shadows” –  in an almost Grendel (ettin or þurs)-like way; this is a Big Thing to terrify, with the wolves’ howling as the “red whips of their music” disturb the night. Because it is (perhaps) a simple point to make, but I feel it needs making: Mary Oliver is a good poet, not always writing comfortable nature poetry about childhood or inspirational lines about

I was thinking
so this is how you swim inward,
so this is how you flow outward,
so this is how you pray.

Five A.M. in the Pinewoods

and her sharp eye and the writing that comes from it is able to look at the aspects of nature that humanity finds inimical – and has, in some ways dedicated a lot of its evolutionary history to conquering.  She is able to write about the “roaring flamboyance” of the sea and the “hallowed lime” of owl pellets: the memento mori we can gain outdoors  that I mentioned in my earlier post.

The response of literature to the winter is itself interesting, and writers such as J R R Tolkien (think Caradhras the cruel) and Kenneth Grahame give vivid pictures of its dangers: although snow in The Wind in the Willows is softening, almost redemptive, the creepiness of Mole’s wintry experiences in the Wild Wood are very expressive “Then the faces began…Then the whistling began…Then the pattering began.” The winter wood; the dark wood; img_1355the wild wood as evening closes in. More modern writers have given us some great examples of snowy landscapes and confronting death: Philip Pullman works the theme extremely well in Northern Lights; Michelle Paver is terrifying in her adult book Dark Matter but also richly descrtiptive as Torak  battles the limits of human (and animal) endurance in the snow, and (again for adults – I wonder if this is significant) Garner deals with death and loss in the ice in Boneland, a death that stalks both strands of the book in different ways.

It seems to me that the immediate reaction is to see “outdoors” as somewhere positive, just in the same way as Mary Oliver is seen as uplifting – but we take on these broad judgments without thinking at our peril: literature does well to remind us that the outdoors is not always friendly, as sudden blizzards by Cat’s Tor can show.

Hope you’re OK, Mark.

Passport to a Rant

I find myself really torn by the recent DfE initiative around enriching children’s childhoods. img_0772I love the idea of children being outside; I am unhappy when schools are elbowed into making sure children do this, that or the other outside the school day. We are told – and it already seems a bit defensive to highlight this in the web page that launches it  – that the initiative is “backed by the Scouts, Girlguiding and National Trust.” This is part of the introduction from the webpage:

The list of activities is intended to support parents and schools in introducing children to a wide variety of experiences and fulfilling activities like flying a kite, learning something new about the local area or putting on a performance.

The list of activities was inspired by the Education Secretary’s visit to St Werburgh’s Primary School, in Bristol, where every child is encouraged to take part in a list of tasks and experiences, with key achievements for each school year to tick off. The list will be sent to schools in January for teachers to adapt to meet the needs of their pupils and local communities, helping young people to build their personal skills and qualities during the school day and at home.

And here is the draft passport, downloadable and by and large unobjectionable as a set of things to do. Already some of my impatience at yet another thing for schools to do is partly mitigated: this is to “support parents and schools,” not just to be a tick list for schools, and it is adaptable, so that (to some extent – see below) issues of physical or economic challenge can be got round (I am choosing that awful phrase on purpose). Ah but look carefully at that last sentence.

The list will be sent to schools in January for teachers to adapt to meet the needs of their pupils and local communities, helping young people to build their personal skills and qualities during the school day and at home.

It will be for teachers to do this: schools are (yet again) seen as the managers of the deficit home life or at best the recorders and by extension legislators of parental attitudes and activities. The organisation Every Child Should (that title raises my hackles, but let that pass) take the line that “particularly with the demise of universal youth work provision and Surestart” schools are now the “only remaining point of universal access.” In other words because of all the cuts, teachers: work harder! Schools stump up the funds! This is where my – and their – disquiet is worth hearing:

Great to introduce a bucket list for 11 year old but is this just another thing for schools to be held to account for? Austerity. Little extras. And yep – these are all significant issues and to pretend a passport can fix these challenges is at best foolish and at worse insulting.

While they then do suggest a passport is an effective model, they do so with a set of very worthwhile pro viso warnings about affordability, inclusivity and partnership. Let me propose a couple of scenarios here to illustrate where the passport model might not be a good way forward:

In case one mum is a teacher and dad is an office worker. They have two primary age children. Hard working (remember the “hard-working families” guff from a few years back?) but if they feel to some extent time poor they are not at a critical point. They build snowpeople [sic] when they can, read books, play on IPads, go camping.

In case two, again a “hard-working family” with two primary age children, and with dad on nights, mum works in a local supermarket: they box-and-cox childcare as best they can. This is much more like real time poverty, but there is still time for a kick-about in the park, and swimming club on Wednesdays, most weeks: and sometimes a bit of belt-tightenng to afford it.

Family one are already doing this stuff, and the school are being asked to do what? Manage these things? Supervise them? Require parents to record them? I recall the Oxford Reading Spree conversation about teachers keeping children in to “do reading” if the Home-School Reading Record was not showing reading at home: are we now looking at compulsory After-School Guiding if the record is not kept up to date? Family two likewise might be able to take on suggestions about starry nights or planning a meal, but really do not need school breathing down their necks any more: there is already enough pressure around finding the approved shoes for school, doing the increasingly involved homework (“make an Egyptian irrigation system”), find the money for trips… My point here really is to ask what does this passport have to do with them?

When the NCB endorses the passport their Chief Executive writes

We welcome this effort to immerse children and young people in activities that can build their confidence, develop their curiosity and support their growth beyond academic attainment…

But none of the endorsements seem to see the relevance of this element of control on the lives of these families. Let’s face it: as proposed by the National Trust (whose suggestions for “Things to do” form the basis of the Passport) these activities are interesting, free from immediate curriculum constraints (until we get to writing about it in class: note the SoS for Education seeing the “relevance to the curriculum”), and might encourage a bit more engagement with world beyond the immediate, technology dominated life of today. They are a bit culturally biased, a bit lacking in context, a bit wistful for a childhood past (I love the adventure into Ladybird Land with “post a letter” – although “play in the garden while Daddy reads the paper” was strangely absent), but we are reminded this is adaptable. The parasites are already creating forms for you to use. When Action for Children suggest more face-to-face time in their Build Sound Minds campaign (and God knows we need to think about families’ mental health), I worry the resource creators are already licking their lips at some kind of target-driven initiative that makes quality parent-child time into a Couch to FiveK plan. Yes, that’ll work, I’m sure.

And now let me suggest case three: mum is full-time at home, not out of choice but because the needs of their child suggest she may be called upon when these additional needs are felt to be beyond the capabilities of the school; the out-of-school activities they need, as she once explained to me, to include “our own parking place at the local hospital.” This passport better be adaptable – and not just in terms of “work arounds” for this family, but in ways that are genuinely inclusive. Or is this child’s teacher actually going to have to say “We’ll let you off the tree climbing, of course…”

It would be easy to go along a scale in terms of severity of need and still not stray from families I have worked with: the child looked after all week by Granny; a family for whom the mother being outside the home was culturally a challenge (a challenge they were meeting); the single parent for whom a lie-in felt like a necessity and who didn’t know how to cook (one of the TAs taught her to save money by mashing potatoes rather than buy microwavable stuff)… and we aren’t yet in the serious crisis cases.

I am all in favour of schools – and families – going beyond academic attainment. I spent a large amount of time on my two modules on Outdoor Learning last semester talking about how the curriculum  is much more than a syllabus; learning is more than being filled with facts… We sat outside in the autumn sun; we lit a fire, found a badger sett…  And out of work – well, after work, and along the road from the Harcourt Hill campus, at least –  I IMG_9750-1have sat in a local copse with a couple of mates and a beer…  And this is all without mentioning my passion for exploring children’s literature and how it can represent the magic of being outdoors.

I am not (as Margaret Hodge once described me and some colleagues when we asked for developmental elements in the Foundation Stage documents) a “joyless do-gooder” who wants to deprive working class children of the opportunities I gave my own children. But I am not convinced – yet – of the passport as proposed from on high as not just another bit of target creep: codification and a plea for schools to work harder.

In the end, I guess, my rant comes down to one thing:

How joyless to see the stars at night so you can tick them off!

“George took his lantern”

John Masefield ‘s The Box of Delights is a fantasy published in the 1930’s which draws on the hopes and fears of people after the first war, and set in the English landscape. We meet not only characters from the earlier work The Midnight Folk but the story deepens as the protagonist,  Kay, battles forces of witchcraft intent on destroying the traditional English Christmas by ruining  the thousandth midnight Christmas celebrations at the Cathedral.    The Box of Delights is a sequel that in many ways surpasses the nightmarish first book (pace Rob Maslen, who praises the Midnight Folk here) and its narrative strength means it has also made a radio play, a classic BBC TV adaptation and more recently a well received stage representation. All this is summed up very neatly here in the Guardian, and explored by Jake Hayes with his usual depth and perspicacity in his Tygertale blog for this Advent, and it is the language when we come to the denouement that I find striking  – I’m coming to this.

Throughout it is Kay’s relationship with Cole Hawlings that sustains the narrative. Cole is a travelling Punch and Judy Showman, but so much more than just an itinerant busker: like his successor, Susan Cooper’s Merriman Lyon, he is at the centre of a struggle against evil, represented (as in the previous book) by the murderously wicked Abner Brown. As with Merriman, we are allowed to see only snatches of the battles the adults are fighting; there are more than symbolic “wolves running,” allies we do not always recognise, dangers for the adults as well as for the children…  But there is an important set of differences: while Merriman/Merlin openly entrusts the Matter of a New Britain to the children in Cooper’s Silver on the Tree, Cole Hawlings, having helped Kay restore the rightful place of Midnight Mass in the embattled Cathedral, is still looking back: the nostalgia for Old England is strong in the final pages of The Box of Delights as, speeding towards the Cathedral, we hear the bells start up in all the little churches, and meet the monastic community of the Cathedral’s past. And while we are flying along in Herne the Hunter’s unicorn-pulled sleigh, to move the recently freed Bishop and Dean and choir (&c., &c.) from some kind of sub-Trollope or All-Gas-and-Gaiters imagery, we have a Christmas hymn in a folk idiom, which Masefield calls a carol: here is the text.  What surprised me on my first reading as a child, and still surprises me, is that Masefield gives the singing of it to the ambiguous dating-from-Pagan-times Cole Hawlings.

[Incidentally, the first time I heard this song, Móirín Na hEaglaise, sung by Nóirín Ní Riain, I thought of this carol, with the higher sections or answering melody being used in verses 4 and 7. I have tried it, although unsuccessfully: it may need something more robust, where maybe the last line of each verse is the “chorus after each stanza” Masefield notes].

The carol is a remarkable piece.  I’d like to look at a few details to see what they tell us about The Box of Delights:

Let’s start, like Masefield, with George. His very name seems to set the lyric in England, maybe even rural England, and it occurs in four of the verses. He is the figure of compassion, a carefulness that twice calls him to the byre (a beautifully localising word: again we are in rural England), where he first lets in a poor couple and then comes back because of the trouble and sees the Christ Child and then the kings.

Lantern, byre, hay, stable – even inn and snow – put the Nativity in the same landscape as The Box of Delights. The “-a” at the end of the shorter lines moves this further into the folk-song idiom, although what is and isn’t a folk song (a bit like what is and isn’t a carol) is disputable. Perhaps the most truly rural – or maybe best attempt – at a “country tone” is the line George heard a trouble in the beasts. It sounds like my Father in Law.   It is snowy and dark, George has a lantern to go to the stable/byre – and England receives its revelation.

And there within the manger bars
A little child new born-a,
All bright below a cross of stars
And in his brow a thorn-a.

The Mother, the Child, tenderness – but never too far from the cross and the Pieta: we are in Durer’s bleak theology, with those cross-like structures present in the nativity scene in his Madonna on a Grassy Bank.  George’s vision is mystical; we are with Durer, with Chesterton and Gill, in seeing a Gloria in Profundis, although what Masefield presents is a transcendent Child, a submarine vision of humanity divinised not “the height of the fall of God.”

What happens next is interesting from the point of view of a rural poem. The visitors are not shepherds but Kings. I am unsure whether to read anything into two great kings and Melchoir but will assume we needed Melchoir for scansion and rhyme. They bring Eucharistic gifts, too – and at a practical level welcome ones for the poor Family – bread and wine.  The ecclesiastical imagery is extended with the mention of robes. We have, by now, a crib scene – but where are the shepherds?

They – and we – are there in the person of George. The plain people of England (to misappropriate a phrase from Myles nagCopaleen) kneel down with the farm worker in homage of

that dear Babe today
That bears the Cross and Crown-a.

In looking back to a rural, more innocent time, we are at the heart of the nostalgia project that occupied so much thinking in the post-War period; we are also in that hankering for a countryside of freedom and adventure and risk that is at the heart of Masefield’s two books, and which informs Lewis, Garner and Cooper  — and… and …

And when Cole Hawlings – the theologian Ramon Lull – the pagan countryman and the lost medieval mystic – sings of this past time when George knelt down and prayed-a we are invited to a personal piety that is itself nostalgic, a recreation after The War to End Wars, of a pious peasantry, a dedicated episcopacy and (and here we are into a whole new set of thoughts about the villains in this story) the defeat of corrupt and self-serving greed. Not a bad wish for Christmas in the inter-war period; not a bad wish for this Christmas, either, but I am mindful of how Masefield’s vision played out in the following years: Masefield knows it is a “nice dream,” as Kay admits at the end of the book.