Lost, like my name.

“The trouble is, Nick, you don’t know who you are.”

It’s true. This Lent I have been occupied by a phrase from the letter of St James:  purify [your] hearts, dipsychoi, people with divided souls. Like some kind of fidget toy, I’ve twisted it this way and that, coming back again and again to wondering about honesty, authenticity and truth. The headline challenge from a friend this week came with greater force than the discussion in Confession the weekend before. Three or four, or even more voices and choices have been raised in me and around me, and the nail is hit home with that phrase: “you don’t know who you are.” Dipsychos, a person with a divided soul, and it is friendships, two revelatory friendships in particular,  that have shone a light on that division. This post isn’t about them, really, but is trying to make some sense of this “unknowing” model in terms of my work and my research.

It would be lovely to talk about how being outside clears my head, about “the mountains, the solitary wooded valleys,” but is it just about walking?
When Rob Macfarlane writes, it’s not just about walking; in today’s looking at my relationship with Garner’s Thoon and Ludchurch it seems hardly to be about walking for me at all, but a sort of pilgrimage (that overstates it) towards a personal integration. When I have written about “being real” before  it has been about creating a relationship with place through story; this post, this week’s thinking is about me making sense of me through people, through place, through story but as I attempt it…

Photo from Oct 16 of first visi

…I am back to Ludchurch and the disquiet I felt when I met that dark place, the darkening wood and the disempowerment of the Green Knight in the dusk. Maybe what I turned from there, the thing that chased me from Thursbitch for weeks after our first visit, was a shapeless Big Thing made of what I couldn’t see: an anxiety that I cannot find a self under all the guises  I carry. One of the coats I wear is about the research, the  language and literature reading and thinking and walking I have been involved in, the Wild Spaces Wild Magic project. I come back to it again today in something of the spirit of Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure, where he suggests that walking can be “like gazing into a crystal ball.”   Walking, maybe, and reflecting on that walking – but he also warns that “the imagining and mythologising of nature is an ambivalent process.” So while pressure of work and demands of family mean not much one-foot-in-front-of-another walking has been going on, there has been a lot of (very ambivalent) crystal ball scrying: it   has been a week where time and again, sitting in my office or in my meditation or as I drift off to sleep I have walked from the Gradbach hostel up to the Green Chapel, and as I reflect on this I keep coming back to the blog post and the John Fuller poem I cite often, where in the one I claim I am my own Gawain and in the other Caliban concludes, angrily:

                              … I think it is not good
To be unhappy with your freedom or
My language (learnt, but nothing understood),
Lost like my name within the magic wood.

This Good Friday evening, the first night of Passover, let me add some more thoughts.

Perhaps it is the rhythm of spring and Liturgy in both Christian and Jewish traditions have been (in part) agents of bringing me to a point where I have to acknowledge, as Rob Macfarlane describes it in The Old Ways, “the co-present ghosts of the former and the future.” The ghosts of past relationships and the uncertainty of present ones; the ghosts of past half-finished research so beautifully topped by more able medievalists at home and elsewhere; the hopes and fears of all the years. Maybe “imagining and mythologising [of anything] is an ambivalent process” – solvitur ambulando,  but I feel like I am on a fatigue run, carrying so much. It feels like time to stop running: to change the metaphor, it feels like time to look to the ordering of my life, to make sense of the bits I am carrying, like a hiker rummaging in a disordered rucksack, or a mosaicist faced with the task of creating a picture from random tesserae.

The poet who “got me through” the bleak and beautiful four years of studying and working in Durham, Anne Stevenson, challenges the reader at Easter with the lines

What god will arise and slouch
through this realm of rubbish?

And I think the place I am at the moment is just what she describes in North Easter: a realm of rubbish with real flashes of beauty. That is to say that I am unconvinced by the Olympic myth of “anyone can be what they want to be,” but I am in sympathy with Auden (in lines again I have come to this Lent):

Instruct is in the civil art
of making from the muddled heart
a desert and a city where
the thoughts that have to labour there
may find locality and peace
and pent-up feelings their release…

Let Fuller and Anne Stevenson end this. She complains in her poem A Sepia Garden of creating identity as

the daily irritation,
the cramped frustration of attempting
the jigsaw with pieces missing

and my plaintive joining Caliban in saying

…I framed what syllables I could

because we all create who we are with what we have. The trouble is I’m not sure what the picture I’m creating should look like.

Green Thoughts: time and space in Thursbitch and Boneland

It is interesting to speculate on the role of a complex author such as Alan Garner and whether he can be counted a “green writer” – or whether that kind of nomenclature is at all useful. He is not writing the polemic of George Monbiot, whose  lyrical, engaged prose in work like his Feral has an explicit moral tone. In critiquing (p215) a Wildlife Trust’s management plan, for example, Monbiot writes

“…invasive and undesirable species are native trees such as rowan, sallow, birch and hawthorn, returning to their natural habitat… [A]t great expense, it sustains the ambiance of a nuclear winter.”

Powerful advocacy. We might, however, contrast Garner’s use of trees at the moving death of the eighteenth-century protagonist in the final scene at the end of Thursbitch:

“If I’m to rest tonight in this flowery valley, tell them to put me in my own fold, so as I’m close to you. Then, tell them, put at me head a pipe of hornbeam, for sweetness, a pipe of holly, for sadness; a pipe of oak, for wildness. Then when the wind blows it must play.”

They are writing for different purposes, of course. Monbiot, to state the baldest argument, has a concern for place and the future, while Garner’s project is place and the past. Jack Turner seeks a resting place and finds it at the intersection of myth, legend and a mystical experience of the powers that shape his cultic space. The end of Boneland offers a similar set of images, of story at the heart of land and belonging. The modern protagonist Colin walks free of his nightmares (to some extent) and the Paleolisthic Man rests, his story passed on. Garner is even bold enough to cite the rhythmic refrain from the local story of the sleeping knights as the past and present protagonists become one, walking

…by Seven Firs and Goldenstone and Stormy Point to Saddlebole

where he (who? Colin, the Man?) see “a new story, a Dream.” Where – or more precisely when – are we in these last, beautiful rags of prose in the book? Whenever we are, we are [at] the heart of the human story, with sacred cutting of stone and Jodrell Bank. There is no simple catechism of how we might be kind to the earth, but we are at the heart of how and where we belong. This is where Garner’s “greenness” resides, where his inspiration rises like a spring on a hillside.

Lyotard (I am not an expert) suggests that the Oikeion, the “belonging to the dwelling place,” is “a relation with something that is inscribed at the origin in all minds, souls or psychic apparatuses” (in the brief but incredibly dense section “Ecology as Discourse of the Secluded” in The Green Studies Reader, ed Laurence Coupe, p135). While I can see that Lyotard is going in a very different direction in looking at the oikeion as a motivating relationship in literature, it strikes me that this brief quotation might be a way of looking at Garner as an ecological writer. That it not to say that we should choose a title like “Green Writer” and shoehorn someone we admire into a role we choose for them, but that it points to exactly the deeper relationship with the world, the deep ecology that we see in Thursbitch and Boneland. Time is a crucial part of this.

When Sal, the modern-day protagonist in Thursbitch, surveys the ruined farm at Thursbitch, she says plainly “The stones belong but the house doesn’t. What’s here is much older.” The house is a ruin, much as Sal is, and affects her so deeply that even in the challenges of her deteriorating condition, it remains powerfully in her memory. In the same way the Man, the pre-Sapiens hominin, tells the first story of his “dream in Ludcruck” in Boneland and thus passes to modern humans, to the early Cheshire people, his story,and gifts for the future  his song

To dance in Ludcruck to cut the rock and to keep the sun from death.

Story (song, dream) help us pass out of a linear view of place into something else, something that loosely is called Heritage (however that term is used and abused by the tourist industry these days).

Garner is concerned with belonging in time and space, and the non-linear peculiarities of his stories only serve to point out how difficult it is to come to terms with. Place is powerful not only because of our use (or abuse) of it, but because of our intimate relationship with it, inextricably linked to our experience of time. Nails grow at the same rate as tectonic plates shift. Sal sees Jack Turner and he sees her. Is she Sal at the end, or Jack’s wife Nan? Characters and objects move through spaces and time in a very fluid way: myths represent themselves in the Owl Service, historical episodes and artefacts merge and confuse in Red Shift, in the earlier works Weirdstone and Gomrath, Garner plays with story and legend and language in ways that even the powerful adult third episode in the trilogy, Boneland, only half resolve. He is acutely aware of how inhabiting a landscape places the writer – maybe the reader – in a place but not necessarily in time. As he ends his meditation on the alder copse in Arboreal, “the dead men in the ground had worked the same land.”



Red Riding Hood’s Reality Check

I’m due to give a talk next week, and someone – not unkindly – asked if it would be my “Jack Zipes Shitck.” And actually I’m rather hoping not. What I will be doing is looking at

  • Werewolves – and why children are still scared of wolves in England
  • Red Riding Hoods – and why authors and illustrators love them
  • The Great Wood – and why it exists in our minds (hearts?) if not for Ordnance Survey

So, Jack Zipes (see his work here) and Perry Nodelman (here’s his enviable staff page) will hang over this as my tutelary spirits, but I hope, even in something fairly light, to go deep into the dark wood.

And out.

In an hour.

Lost Words

A lot was made recently of the decision by the Oxford Dictionaries to take out some words from one dictionary and put in others.   The choices that were especially criticised were the ones where “nature” words were lost in favour of computing words.  I’m not sure where I stand on this; it is the task of the lexicographer, and especially one working with a word-limit to make such decisions.  What words do children use? What do they need?

The excellent Landreader project makes some really good points in this blog post, not least the suggestion that the list of words to be taken from the Junior Dictionary  can be seen as a  “prose-poetry supplement to be administered like a multivitamin as a defense against lexical malnutrition” – a neat turn of phrase.  It’s neat because of the word “need.” What words do children need, and why?

They need words to talk about things – ivy, a starling, catkins. They might need a dictionary to help them understand something on the edge of their current world – the stream that gives its name to  Boundary Brook Road,  the kingfisher in Kingfisher School. They might also want – and this is where a dictionary helps immensely – to inform when a reader meets something new and unexpected – minnow, newt, porpoise.

This has limits, of course: the Landreader project has a glossary which introduces the visitor to words beyond usual use: sleech,  or drumble, or twitten. Intriguing though they are, they are not really for the Junior Dictionary. But are we really to think that heron and poppy are becoming part of the same world? That the comic  linguistic vagaries of Rambling Syd Rumpo might also now include conker and stoat?

Safer to stay at home

The Teddy Bears’ Picnic is an odd mix of cuteness – bears gaily gadding about &c – and danger. From a sweet picture of playing and shouting, the text and the key move (2 mins 13 sec) to a more sombre tone:

“You’d better not go alone.”

“Lovely – but safer to stay at home.”

It’s as if the Teddy Bears are involved in the scene from the Bacchae that King Pentheus is lured into watching. A  pastoral scene: a little valley, shaded by pines, a very rural scene where Pentheus watches the ritual abandon of the Bacchae who are “unawares” – until  Dionysos reveals the watching king and the terrible tragedy unfolds.

What would the Teddy Bears have done if we, the watchers hadn’t stayed at home? They would have torn us, as Agave does her son, limb from limb – because they are not Teddies; they are bears.

The Teddy Bears’ Picnic is perhaps the last gasp of this understanding, arising from the event in 1902 when “Teddy” Roosevelt encountered a bear – a real bear – on a hunting trip. Bears (until the Teddy) sat alongside wolves as dangerous; the tension of wild and dangerous versus tame and cuddly is evident in the change of tone in the song.

And with this tension comes the greater dilemma: how safe it is Out There?



Do they all live in the same wood?

Building on the real question posed by a four-year old reading Red Riding Hood, I would want to explore the nature of the landscape in which ‘fairy tale’ characters from Western European traditional tales have their adventures. Some of this landscape is represented in older versions by clear topographical features which root the story to particular places – the chalk pits of Tom Tit Tot , or the Blackdown fairy markets discussed by Katharine Briggs. In more recent representations of the landscape in children’s literature, authors have used intertextuality to play with the notions of place. Using insights from ecocriticism, from historical landscape studies such as those by Oliver Rackham, and the study of folk tales from writers such as Jack Zipes and Sandra Beckett, I propose exploring the landscape(s) of Janet and Allan Ahlberg (Each Peach Pear Plum; Jeremiah in the Dark Wood and the Jolly Postman), Lauren Child (Beware of the Storybook Wolves) and other works such as Nicola Smee’s Finish the Story Dad to see
• Whether there are discernible features in the ‘fairy tale’ landscape that suggest a common understanding of that environment;
• Whether an intertexual approach from modern re-authoring of traditional stories enlightens the reader or impoverishes the stories;
• What the agents in the stories do to interact with their environment.

Cheap Tricks

When Gombrich talked about woods, fields, hills and a Church spire in the distance as the “cheap tricks” of English landscape painting, he might have had S R Badmin’s painting in mind – such as this Christmas card , which I discussed in my last internal paper, the reading for which is at the end of this post.

Certainly, Badmin does have a particular view of the English Countryside: this link and this (scroll through Gentleman and Hilder to Badmin’s West Yorkshire)  will illustrate it sufficiently – although he is able to depict quite explicit human activity like this picture and this show. [Logging, is, in some ways, anti-totemic; woodland is to be “preserved,” and perhaps unconsciously this implies “kept inviolate.” Portraying woodland as resource runs counter to the idea of the innocent landscape. Echoes of Manley Hopkins and Clare: much more to think about here – for example, George Monbiot on Clare as “poet of the environment” and Blake Morrison on nation and landscape.]

Of course, what I failed to recognise was the mutual dependence of (traditional) landscape art and the preservation or creation of (traditional) landscape.  I’m not sure what “traditional” really implies, but let’s leave that for now. Badmin paints the scene of skaters on a winter’s evening and we appreciate it as “beautiful,” see the landscape in a particular way – but the landscape is formed that way because the landscape artists of the past (and maybe of the present: see this blog from Cornwall, for example)have taught us to look for it.

We look for snow at Christmas (the gale and the rain outside as I type are more like the weather that must precede the flood at the start of The Children of Green Knowe (this is a quick blog post), and as the Grandmother remarks in Green Knowe, “Whoever heard of thunder at Christmas?”), and we look for the Church spire, the trees in the middle distance, a brightly lit sky. The landed creators of estates and agrarian revolution farms looked for (and paid for) landscapes they knew were beautiful. We are into Richard Mabey’s views on the planting of the Chiltern beechwoods.

Our “outdoors” is partly formulated by an interplay of economics and art appreciation. Cosgrove and co have already told us this, I know; my reiterating it is maybe my own “cheap trick” about landscape.


Appleton, J (1996) The experience of landscape. Chichester : Wiley 1996

Bonnett, A (2009) The Dilemmas of Radical Nostalgia in British Psychogeography Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 26(1): 45–70

Coverley, M (2006) Psychogeography. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials

Donovan, V (1982) Christianity rediscovered: an epistle from the Masai. London : aSCM 1982

Kaplan, R and Kaplan, S (1989) The experience of nature: a psychological perspective. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press

Salisbury, M and Styles, M (2012) Children’s Picturebooks. London: Laurence King


Gruffalo Hunting

Well now, this is an interesting project: Gruffalo hunting is the new Bear Hunt…

Outdoor nation makes some important points about children (and parents) and their thinking about outdoor exploration, suggesting this is an area worthy of some serious discourse analysis.

But starting from Outdoor Nation, we move to the blog In Search of the Gruffalo’s Child. This looks well worth following: personal, enlightening and still managing to link to Gruffalo-related material.