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Children’s literature and place II

July 9, 2010 Leave a comment

Is there some kind of connection between good kid’s books and place? Of course, that begs the question what is a ‘good’ kids book. Jacqueline Wilson and Harry Potter are both good, but they did nothing for me.  And neither have much place-ness. King’s Cross and a vague Wild North via the Settle-to-Carlisle doesn’t count; the film went further, both in this respect and in fleshing out the paper-thin characters. But my daughter loves both, and rightly says they are good to read to yourself. I think that defines their quality well: perfectly written for a 10-year-old to read to herself, and be totally absorbed in. That’s a real achievement: but they leave me cold and are both nowhere-books. Whereas with Northern Lights, or Mark Haddon’s Boom!, which we’ve just begun, I knew we were off as soon as we left Oxford/Hounslow…

Happiness

June 28, 2010 Leave a comment

We don’t seem to have as many words for happiness as we do for, for example, love; yet it’s every bit as varied. There are types of happiness that can be accessed (almost) as simply as pushing a button: one of these, for me, is that to be had with the headphones on loud early in the morning in an anonymous corner of an anonymous chain coffee shop in an anoymous street with the laptop primed for writing action. Or (at another extreme) sitting in a family-nest watching Dr Who, with kids on laps. These are cheap and easy; they pass as quickly as the next deadline or the next fall-out between kids; yet that doesn’t neccesarily make them superficial. When – as it has been twice in the last three days – I am in the middle of several miles of high and wandering earthen pathways, the chalkland dry and fast beneath the wheels of my bicycle, the scarps spreading out before me as I fall through the landscape – only to return to  swift shower and to drying off in the sun – this is a real connection with much of what I value most in my experience of being human. The same thing, deeper still – simultaneously intellectual, aesthetic, spiritual – occurs every time I open the door of an as-yet-unvisited church. But there are other happinesse – are they deeper? They are certainly rarer – to be had a few times in a lifetime. The rapturous tearful joy of a new born baby, leaving one’s heart for a few days raw, open, elated, is one extreme. Yet I look back and can only identify two times when something deeper still occured. A feeling that every potential source of conflict, contradiction, anxiety was resolved; of a deep calm wellspring of beneficient being, strong and unyielding. I have glimpsed this for an hour or two in certain spiritual situations; but to feel it as a state of being, to live in day-to-day, to inhabit: well, there were 10 days in Yangshuo, Gaunxi province in January 1985; and a week in Femes, Lanzarote in what must have been the mid 1990s. Both came after difficult times; and these I think of as true happiness. It was certainly both deep and extraordinary; but perhaps there is another happiness, equally significant if less easily identified as remarkable: the busy, confusing bustle of a family/work day, of ‘settled’ life, not without anxiety or conflict, but somehow running forwards on rails from which it should not divert. Perhaps this deserves a different name; perhaps we need more words for this elusive quality.

Kid’s books and place

June 27, 2010 Leave a comment

How did it become something of a given that children’s literature should be deeply rooted in place? Is the specificity of setting somehow aimed at the adult reader/companion: the Cumbrian setting of Postman Pat, the Welsh one of Ivor the Engine, they add something to otherwise fairly inane material. And then there are the invented landscapes: the strange world of Tubbyland, which is also somehow partly the middle England where I understand the set was created. And the Real Literature settings, like that of Watership Down, which my daughter and I retraced, and found it by turns accurate down to the blade of grass and completely reengineered. And what does Oxford do to get Lewis Carroll and Philip Pullman riffing their way out from actual to fantastically imagined? Cambridge has no equivalent I am aware of. Perhaps its something in the subaqueous nature of that landscape, of south/central Oxfordshire’s palbably origins as the setting of a great pre-glacial lake, a lake in turn at once backwards-evoked and forwards-prophesised in Richard Jefferies’ After London. But that’s one for another day…

Urban sublime

June 24, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s a bit cheap-holidays-in-other-people’s misery to go on about overpasses and towerblocks. Which didn’t stop the very people who coined this phrase indulging in a little urban sublime of their own, flowers in the dustbin and all. It just struck me a few days ago, 8am in a London backstreet where a council block reared above a Georgian terrace, that there was something in my reaction that was simply response to the natural world onto that to the man made one: that it was the same mixture of faint thrill and faint fear that accompanies the glimpse of granite boulders erupting clifflike on a far off hill. How much of our reaction to architecture is a transferral, a translation from the natural world? And how much of our reaction to both is born of naivety, ignorance, or too many years of tamed safety? I remember at the age of 12 finding it impossible to enter a storm-tossed Devon lane, so sure was I that malignant natural forces lay within; a terror beyond appeals to reason. A similar feeling a year or three later, heading east in London on a pushbike and suddenly encountering what I now know was the Truman brewery in Brick Lane, but which read as a strange and faceless barrier in an already unfamiliar wild East. This is how my medievals felt faced by unsettled fen or open torland or atlantic beach; how those equally in the know today approach the wrong liftshaft in the wrong stairwell in the wrong part of town.

Highlights of the year

January 8, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s not been a year of major transformative life events. There have been many good times, no major crises and a lot of very hard work. Yet as I look back over it, four very specific moments keep repeating on me.

Snow in February. Climbing high above the village with a local sheep-farmer to help her establish if any have been lost after a week of white-out. Crossing the high down in a blizzard, trying to count the white lumps as they shake themselves from the landscape and form an orderly line moving away from us. Our heads seemingly brushing the low snow-clouds. The spacious, curving form of the valley below suddenly made vivid, its emptiness and limits defined cup-like by a billion falling points of white.

Beijing in March. Cycling back from the Starbucks in the Golden Resources Shopping Centre, where I had enjoyed putting together a talk about medieval Ripon surrounded by the comings-and-goings of twenty-first century China. The ride home should have taken 20 minutes, but with every turn of the gearless pedals, Fighting a Cold matured more certainly into Having a Cold, and the low particulate haze of a Beijing Spring revealed itself to be a serious rainstorm in disguise. And where I was meant to cross the Fourth Ring Road I got lost, and instead of being home in ten minutes I found myself in a time warp, a seemingly endless suburb of potholes and mud and decaying one-storey brick shacks and people living their lives in public: China 1985, just a kilometre away from China 2025. And I had no idea where I was, was damp from head to feet, and well on the way to being ill. Yet somehow I loved it.

The Indiana/Michigan borders. No place-shock has ever been more deep or more profound than my first experience of America. Never have I known a more bewildering, compelling and almost-terrifying combination of factors: the apparently virgin landscape, ancient woodland with lakes and clearings, as if the Saxons had just started clearing the primeval forest. The school-less, shop-less villages and hamlets with their little clapboard houses and handsome red-painted identikit barns. The radio dial, which revealed a world without News as I recognise it; in which the only music is country or country rock or Christian rock, and the only spoken opinions – rare in themselves – assert without hesitation a world view that makes the Taliban sound progressive. The reality and recentness of creation. The human landscape: Amish villages, the grid suddenly petering out into dirt roads, an Indian reservation, Vietnam vets proclaiming their identity from the verandah. All this 3 hours from Chicago, cosmopolitan, connected: nowehere in my country can a three-hour drive render you into a world so shockingly strange and beguiling.

Walsingham realisation Three days in Walsingham, which I found to be a very, very odd place. Somehow coming up for the first time against a brick wall in my dilettante spirituality: uncertainty is not provisional; it is fundamental. I will never believe these things. Driving to Binham and on to the coast with Van Morrison singing of ‘tales of mystery and imagination’ as if the tale-telling, unknowing and imagining were themselves the deepest and bestest we can expect. And then a drive home that felt like a drive to heaven: Walpole St Peter, West Walton: luminous barn-churches in the strong summer light. The glorious broken poetry of Crowland baking in the sun in the middle of the fen; then west an hour, to Wing as the light fell, silent and bathing. Like poems whispered by a cracked angel.

 

White Christmas

January 8, 2010 Leave a comment

This close encounter with the much-anticipated White Christmas came as something of a shock: with the oil topped up, and by chance an hour south and an hour west of the places that faced *real* problems in those days, all we could do is glory in it and weep at its fading, and dream of holidays to Spitsbergen, South Georgia or Kamchatka, black-and-white places not quite yet turned to new costas by climate change.

Which got me to thinking about White Christmases. How they are a north European imposition on an event which we are meant to be celebrating, but which took place in the Middle East. If this was really All About Jesus, we would celebrate a Hot Christmas, or at least not a snowbound one. But it’s not: Jesus’ birth day us unknown, and History has chosen midwinter, and something older and more fundamental than a very good man (even a Divine one) is written in the DNA of this festival. That’s why we lug fresh evergreens into our living rooms, and send each other cards where Babylonian mages wade through dune-high snowdrifts and the star is crystalline on a freezing night.

But also that a White Christmas in reality is not just about snowballs and hot toddies and evenings round the fire. It’s about failed trains, blocked roads, people getting stuck, rough sleepers losing their lives. And in a funny kind of way, that thought *does* tie us in to the Christian layer of the rich midwinter/Christ child/consumer feeding frenzy layer-cake that is Christmas in the North Atlantic Archipelago. Because that tired story is all about ordinary people having hard times; the blind actions of distant, all-powerful states; refugees, childbirth, compassion and gifts.

I fantasised about relocating the whole shebang to one of those benighted EuroStar trains: what if they had failed deep beneath the Channel on Christmas day itself; and on board there is a family who are making the journey because of the blind whims of a distant state – west African refugees, perhaps, forcibly ejected from one side of the Channel or another – and in the hold-up one of the woman goes into labour; and a kindly employee with a torch shows those on board – three executives coming back from late meetings, a handful of OrdinaryPeople on a last minute bargain-rush across the water – where they can help by giving from their supplies of ungiven gifts and on-journey refreshments….

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