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No. 35 AUTUMN 2009

Published by The University of Liverpool School of English.
Supported by:
EDITOR    Philip Davis

DEPUTY EDITOR    Sarah Coley
CO-EDITORS    Maura Kennedy
   Angela Macmillan
   Eleonor McCann
   Brian Nellist
   Christopher Routledge
   John Scrivener

NEW YORK EDITOR    Enid Stubin


ADDRESS    The Reader Magazine
   The Reader Organisation
   19 Abercromby Square
   Liverpool L69 7ZG


DISTRIBUTION    See p. 128

ISBN 978-0-9558733-4-8

COVER  Tracey Emin ‘For You’ ;  adapted from photograph by Barry Hale

The Reader genuinely welcomes submissions of poetry, fiction, essays, read-
ings and thought. We publish professional writers and absolute beginners.
Send your manuscript with SAE please to:

The Reader Office, 19 Abercromby Square, Liverpool L69 7ZG, UK.

Printed and bound in the European Union by Bell and Bain Ltd, Glasgow

Jane Davis, Director, The Reader Organisation

A Reading Revolution!

   ‘People are dying – it is no metaphor – for lack of something real to
   carry home when day is done.’
Saul Bellow, Herzog

We used this quotation in 1997 in the very f irst issue of The Reader magazine. The
Reader Organisation didn’t exist then, it was just a few friends who wanted to open
up the exciting experiences we were having teaching the Literature programme in
the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Liverpool. We were
running evening and weekend classes for adults willing to read and make real books
from Saul Bellow to Chaucer, via Shakespeare, H. G. Wells and Ann Michaels.

Twelve years on and this magazine, which has been in continuous production ever
since, is the voice of an independent charity which is bringing about a Reading
Revolution: putting great books in the hands of people who need them.

Amongst other activities, The Reader Organisation is currently delivering 128 weekly
read-aloud shared ‘Get Into Reading’ groups on Merseyside, and supporting the de-
velopment of many more across the UK and beyond, particularly through our Read
to Lead training programme. We work in schools, workplaces, community groups
and old people’s homes, and a great deal of our work is delivered in partnership
with the NHS.

Get Into Reading has been highlighted in ‘New Horizons’, a new strategy by the
Department of Health that will promote good mental health and well-being, whilst
improving services for people who have mental health problems (

One in four people will suffer poor mental health at some point in their life. Shared
reading of great books is a simple way to provide ‘something real to carry home’.


7 Philip Davis 12 Catherine Pickstock
The Reading Revolution ‘For You’ by Tracey Emin
Neon Installation in
POETRY Liverpool Cathedral
10 Face to Face 14 Philip Davis
18 Tom Paulin The Man Said, No
27 Les Murray 21 Paul Kingsnorth
32 Connie Bensley The Gathering Storm
42 Nigel Prentice 54 Gabriella Gruder-Poni
62 Richard Meier The Reader Gets Angry:
70 Eleanor Cooke Scenes from a PGCE
81 David Sollors
THE POET ON HIS WORK 33 Kenneth Hesketh
49 John Greening On the Nature of Things

43 Richard Flanagan 63 Jen Tomkins
extract from Wanting Diaries of The Reader Organisation
118 Frank Cottrell Boyce 65 Ciara Rutherford
Aaahhh! Doing
76 Lisa Curtice
Pioneers in the Search for Health
84 Penny Markell talks to Gill Lowther
Calling Librarians


YOUR REGULARS 108 Good Books
29 Ian McMillan Brian Nellist
Time for My Lemon On the Novels of Iris Murdoch
71 Jane Davis 115 Frank Cottrell Boyce
A World Elsewhere Books for Your Children:
95 Enid Stubin Philippa Pearce,
Our Spy in NY Tom’s Midnight Garden
98 The London Eye
101 Brian Nellist 109 William Shutes
Ask the Reader The Letters of Samuel Beckett
Volume I: 1929–1940
89 Adam Phillips David Constantine,
Forsaken Favourites Nine Fathom Deep
93 Brian Nellist
The Old Poem: THE BACK END
John Donne, ‘As Due 124 Prize Crossword
by Many Titles’ By Cassandra
104 Readers Connect 125 Buck’s Quiz
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe 126 Quiz and Puzzle Answers
106 Angela Macmillan 127 Contributors
Books About…
Fathers and Sons

© Scott Douglas

“The Church has always been a place, for me, of
contemplation. I wanted to make something for
Liverpool Cathedral about love and the sharing
of love. Love is a feeling which we internalise; a
feeling very hard to explain.
   I thought it would be nice for people to sit in
the Cathedral and have a moment to contemplate
the feelings of love, it’s something which we just
don’t have enough time to think about and I hope
this work creates this space in time.”

– Tracey Emin
On ‘For You’, her installation in the Anglican Cathedral


the reading revolution

Philip Davis

I n this issue, as you can see from our cover, The Reader is to be found
loitering and looking in at the entrance to Liverpool’s Anglican Ca-
thedral, accompanied by the artist Tracey Emin and the composer
Kenneth Hesketh. Samuel Johnson, that worried and ever-lapsing
believer, tells us that a friend of his, invited to offer frank criticism,
once accused him of lack of Christian love or charity:
johnson: And when I questioned him what occasion I had given
for such an animadversion, all that he could say amounted to
this – that I sometimes contradicted people in conversation.
Now what harm does it do to any man to be contradicted?
interviewer (helpfully): I suppose he meant the manner of doing
it; roughly – and harshly.
johnson: And who is the worse for that?
interviewer (discomfited, placatory): It hurts people of weak
johnson (fortissimo): I know of no such weak-nerved people!

Exit Interviewer, trembling. Thank you, Mr Boswell. Another Reader in-
terview gone wrong.
But in happy celebration of Johnson’s 300th birthday this Septem-
ber, this is no issue for the weak-nerved. Nor do we know, or want to
know, any such. With Paul Kingsnorth and Gabriella Gruder-Poni, The
Reader gets angry – with civilised indifference, with rubbishy teaching –


on behalf of what it loves. Johnson is what he himself calls a good hater,
roughing up those who moan or cavil or despair.
interviewer (re-entering, rather hopelessly): What, Sir, do you
think of a man who was apt to say non est tanti, it is not worth
while, why bother?
johnson: That he’s a stupid fellow, Sir. What would these tanti
men be doing the while?
interviewer: But what reason is there for taking so much trouble
over the mere routine pursuits of existence?
johnson (in an animated tone): Sir, it is driving on the system
of life.
A man at once worried and intelligent has need of more than ‘reason’
– as if everything could be reasoned out in advance before you deigned
to do it! Keeping going is, more powerfully, ‘driving on’ for Johnson,
too often himself a prey to depression. For knowing the vulnerability of
effort, he feared as much as hated what he called those human ‘screech-
owls’ whose ‘only care is to crush the rising hope, to damp the kindling
transport, and allay the golden hours of gaiety with the hateful dross of
grief and suspicion’.
interviewer: And if weak-nerved people listen to the human screech-
johnson:It will burthen the heart with unnecessary discontents,
and weaken for a time that love of life, which is necessary to the
vigorous prosecution of any undertaking.
Even then, notice, this burdensome discontent is only ‘for a time’: some-
thing optimistically biological in its tenacity must come back through,
even for the timid. This Johnson is so physical a thinker in his use of the
language – you can feel that love of life even in the shake of that word
interviewer: And books, Dr Johnson?
johnson: The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to
enjoy life, or better to endure it.
This living Johnson says (selectively quoting himself, we believe, from
his own life of the poet Gray): ‘I rejoice to concur with The Reader.’ We’ll
be putting that on the back cover of our next issue, with the other com-
mendations we receive.
Because we need all the backing we can get in support of what we
are calling ‘The Reading Revolution’. We may not be in the church but
we are unashamedly in the pulpit, preaching the very feel of literature
without going soppily pious on you. Make no mistake: we are trying


to change everything about reading habits – beyond the glossy Sunday
chatter of the London establishment book pages; beyond the inadequa-
cies of an education system that at all levels is emphatically not a system
either of life or for life. The Reader is the written voice of The Reader
Organisation, in all its outreach work, bringing great literature out of
the universities into the communities, the better to enjoy or endure.
In this issue and in issues to come, you will see this more and more
explicitly – as we report on what we are up to in our outreach activ-
ity; provide continuing advice and recommendations to reading-groups
and to young readers; pursue the work of bibliotherapy in libraries and
hospitals and brain-scanning research laboratories, as well as maintain-
ing our usual mix of new poetry, fiction and thought-pieces in order to
ensure we are not just talking about literature but actively producing
and publishing it, in all its varied reality. This is not simply a magazine
any more, it is a campaign.

Editor’s Picks
In this issue Frank Cottrell Boyce gives us his own short story and also
provides the first of The Reader’s new occasional series ‘Books for your
Children’ (Frank has seven). At the other end of the age-spectrum, Tom
Paulin gives us his translation of Sophocles’ blinded old Oedipus at-
tended by his daughters, while Angela Macmillan launches her new
regular reading list (‘Books About’) by starting with the theme ‘Fathers
and Sons’. We have the opening chapters of Richard Flanagan’s new
novel Wanting, new poetry by our Australian editor Les Murray, and a
new guest panelist on the jury of Readers Connect


For the latest news from the The Reader magazine and the Reader
Organisation’s growing Get Into Reading project, for poetry, reviews and
video fun and spotlights on the bookish world at large please visit our
blog and leave a comment.
You can also subscribe online and find great offers on back issues.

Face to Face

Connie Bensley Eleanor Cooke John Greening

Which poet would Meeting with poet Meeting with poet
you have liked to John Donne is my all- I’d like to have had a
meet? time favourite poet, but good natter with Ben
Probably Byron, but I’d like to meet Emily Jonson in Bread Street.
only if I am much older Brontë for a walk over
than he is when the Happiest age
the moors.
meeting takes place, so When imagination
that I can question him Happiest age was something one
about his love life from I was happiest during took for granted: just
a safely detached point my late thirties and before we got a TV,
of view. early forties, I think. when I was 10.
But there’s always
At what age were Overused word
you happiest? ‘Only’. Also
My happiness ebbs How many drafts? ‘Huntingdonshire’.
and flows but I do I re-draft obsessively.
(Moral: find a poet- Recommend a book
remember being George Gascoigne is a
especially happy one friend you can trust
to whip poem from wonderful, neglected
day when we were Elizabethan poet: read
laying a garden path. under your pen at the
right moment.) him if you can find
Recommend a book
Recently I loved The Featured on page 70
Featured on page 49
Way We Live Now, a
Trollope I had never
read before.

Featured on page 32


Richard Meier Tom Paulin Nigel Prentice

Meeting with poet Meeting with poet Happiest age
Elizabeth Bishop John Clare Mid-20s. I escaped
from London to live
Happiest time At what age were and work in Italy, and
On honeymoon you happiest? it changed my life.
In my twenties
Overused word
Recommend a book
Umpteen Featured on page 18
Loving, the novel by
Recommend a book Henry Green: I read it
The Poems of Kenneth nearly every year.
Slessor Les Murray
Featured on page 42
How many drafts?
Umpteen, at least Meeting with poet
Geoffrey Chaucer David Sollors
Featured on page 62
Happiest age
Fourteen, away from
Meeting with poet
Dylan Thomas in
Overused word a pub on a rainy
None, but I’m an afternoon.
Happiest age
Recommend a book I have not yet got
R. K. Narayan through all the ages
of man. Live them all
Featured on page 27 without gradation.
Featured on page 81



‘FOr you’ by tracey emin
neon installation in liverpool cathedral

Catherine Pickstock

F rom the first distance, it looks like a faintly lurid overspill
from the window above, which is full of scattered lights –
as if the fragments of rose glass hadn’t quite been able to
contain themselves. It hovers over the void below, rather
like a flash of Islamic script, perhaps the soft fiery writing
of God himself, a muted warning, a tinted fiat. Looking back from the
East transept, just glimpsing the pink glint under the Nave bridge, but
too far away to make out the words, the bright caption almost looks
magisterial, a condensation of the window’s eruption.
But as one gets closer, looking up from the Well, Emin’s neon in-
scription ‘I felt you and I knew you loved me’ begins to shock us. It
interrupts the bursting-into-fragments of the kaleidoscopic explosion
of the Benedicite window above, and the dark and austere West porch
below. What intervenes, slashed through this space, is rose flushed to
the banality of pink. Pink’s own powdery embarrassment can least of all
endure the flushing energy of neon glow. Thus energised and electrified,
pink is exposed, simpering and a little tawdry.
What are we to suppose? Is it just a blush? Is this God blushing,
caught out in sending us a Valentine message? It is not what one feels
at first, except tacitly. Rather, one senses the uncanny intrusion of the
fairground, the disenchanting trailer-park chain of fairy lights with a
trailer-park lyric in simultaneous tow. This is the magical appearance
of market modernity within a sacred space that has perpetuated into
the present the nineteenth century gothic revival. What is presented
is hypercapitalism’s transcendence of the contrast between the stable


and the ephemeral. The pathetically intimate scrawl of western minis-
cule trinked-out in pink neon is entirely of a piece with the permanent
encampment of the out of town shopping centre, the fringing sugary
sprawl of post-modern business parks. Lost, all too safely, in such spaces,
what is left for us? Desperate and extreme stances perhaps, pleasure
only in the shedding of rich real blood so desolatingly absent there.
Or is this a different pink, the pink of the incarnation, translated
into redeemed luridity? Is its pale pinkness an echo of the sentiment
that only human physical intimacy is left in a loveless universe and the
miracle that this can be real? The miracle that a touch, physically like
any other touch, can all the same convey the highest spiritual commu-
nication? That a touch can be special, that its wandering cursivity can
convey a stamp of character not just unmistakeable like a script, but
imbued with a meaning that exceeds language, even though it is only
conveyed therein?
The miracle of a loving touch is all of a piece with the miracle of a
love-letter – of fiery shapes which burn with more than their geometri-
cally-flowing selves, which burn with sense.
And why not in pink? Its pale rose is the colour of flesh itself, and
the blush is the necessary awkwardness of all true feeling. ‘I felt you
and I knew’: what else can love be but this and what else religion? But
is any more left to us than the chances of human love: the arrival (or
not) of the Valentine card? Does love still seem in excess of that? Do
we know that we are loved? Perhaps not any more; perhaps now only
in a lurid way or commercially. For even personal feelings are now sold
to us, decked out in a rose that has crudified into pure pink, the least
redolent with transcendence of any shade. What can be done with that?
How can the cathedral refuse this last sad circus echo of a real dwelling
on earth beneath the heavens? The best that can be done with pink is to
grind it into powder and shake it like scented snow all over our newly
baptised bodies.
But its fluorescence is too resistant for this. It is indignant beneath
the rainbow colours of promise and blessing and above the questioning
void; it seems crude and unmoved.
To say whether this installation ‘works’ or not would be beside the
point. Its singularity is – fortunately – not the self-celebration or mere
illustrativeness of ‘art’. Rather its iconoclastic intrusion of pure electri-
fied writing genuinely reveals – the absence of the icon, the absence
in the contemporary market of any revelation, in the heart of a space
dedicated to the revelation of love.

Originally published in Art & Christianity


the man said, no

Philip Davis

I t begins with a man in flight, desperately seeking his way in life.
A guide comes to him, pointing the sheerly narrow way to salva-
tion. ‘Do you see yonder Wicket-gate?’ says Evangelist. In response
are written four of the most simple and fundamental words in the
language. ‘The Man said, No.’ Many people admire Keats’s famous
account of ‘Negative Capability’ in his letter to George and Tom Keats
(21, 27 December 1817) – ‘when a man is capable of being in uncer-
tainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and
reason.’ But the Man confronted by Evangelist has only positive incapa-
bility to offer – the reluctant No – even though he recognises that Yes
would be the apparently right and better answer.
Evangelist seems to respect this negative honesty, even in its risk
of self-condemnation. At any rate, he doesn’t give up on the Man, but
offers him a second chance, saying: ‘Do you see yonder shining light?’
In others it might provoke the hallelujah response, ‘Yes, yes, I see the
light.’ But Bunyan’s man manages just four more words: ‘I think I do.’
It is robust, even in its felt weakness, but it is not in the least gung-
ho. I think I do: however secondary that may feel, it is still a form of
belief, perhaps the form of belief, in its very fear personally riskier than
a maybe-yes, maybe-no agnosticism.


This is of course the beginning of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Later
when Pliant turns round on this Man who has become Christian and
asks him, in midst of his continuing trouble, where all this religion of his
has got him, the response of the Man is similarly heart-deep: ‘I do not
know.’ It is the all-too-knowing Mr Worldly Wiseman who can always
say, ‘I thought so.’ Those who suppose themselves healthy-minded need
only to be born once, but, says William James, there are other souls who
must be twice-born in order to be saved, and such is John Bunyan even
in those two responses to Evangelist:
In the religion of the once-born the world is a sort of recti-
linear or one-storied affair whose accounts are kept in one
denomination, whose parts have just the values which natu-
rally they appear to have, and of which a simple algebraic sum
of pluses and minuses will give the total worth. Happiness and
religious peace consist in living on the plus side of the account.
In the religion of the twice-born, on the other hand, the world
is a double-storied mystery. Peace cannot be reached by the
simple addition of pluses and elimination of minuses from life.
Natural good is not simply insufficient in amount and tran-
sient, there lurks a falsity in its very being. Cancelled as it all
is by death if not by earlier enemies, it gives no final balance…
It keeps us from our real good, rather; and renunciation and
despair of it are our first step in the direction of truth. There
are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose
the one before we can participate in the other.
    William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, (Lecture 8)
In the normal economy of the world, it seems first-order good sense to
cling to the natural life, even when it seems in deficit. Punters and in-
vestors cling on for fear there is no second life, not knowing for certain
any different way without risking, in advance and without guarantee
of return, the loss and ruin of their norm. That is what Kierkegaard
was to call the ‘despair of despairing’: locked into the first life for fear
that there is no second (or, sometimes, for fear that there may be), the
desperate continuance itself incrementally adds to the disbelief in any-
thing other. It may take a massive personal disaster, a scandal, illness,
bereavement, depression, to begin that total recalibration of life that
James describes in the twice-born.
Bunyan’s God seems to have great hidden respect and compassion
for those who can only say ‘I think I do’, the tentative new beginnings
of the second chance in response to His first challenges. So it is in Mark
(9.23–4) when Christ says almost temptingly, or testingly, to the father
of the epileptic child seeking the miracle of a cure for his son: ‘If thou


canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.’ To which the
father straightway cried out and said with tears: ‘Lord, I believe; help
thou mine unbelief.’ It is the second half of that utterance – more than
the first, but also impossible without it – which is the real language of
belief, precisely for incorporating doubt within itself. Thus too George

“It is on a knife’s edge of plausibility as to how far these
conversions are indeed authentic or inauthentic. Even
the protagonist himself cannot be sure.”

Herbert pleading to God at the end of ‘Affliction (1)’: ‘Let me not love
thee, if I love thee not.’ For this robust way includes in its tough sense
of human fallenness the self-suspicion lest the turn to the second life
is no more than psychological compensation for the failure of the first
one. Public figures brought down by scandal suddenly born again into
charitable good works; repentance reached on the day of execution:
beneath the omniscience of God, it is on a knife’s edge of plausibility as
to how far these conversions are indeed authentic or inauthentic. Even
the protagonist himself cannot be sure. In ‘To Heaven’ Ben Jonson says
robustly in his sorrows ‘I know my state, both full of shame, and scorn’,
‘I feel my griefs too’ – but also fears lest those prayers of his to God
should be ‘For weariness of life, not love of thee’.
‘Not’, ‘no’, ‘unbelief’: this is the language of positive incapability at
the wits’ end of what is human, volunteering to what is almost shame-
fully but also involuntarily inadequate. It (whatever is to become its
name) all begins, not ends, with No – as in Luther’s great Protestant
declaration, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.’
When I say such is the real language of belief, ‘real’ is a word I take
from John Henry Newman, in particular from ‘Unreal Words’ in his
Parochial and Plain Sermons (5.3). There Newman recalls how to the
young man who lightly called Him ‘Good Master’ (‘Good master, what
shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?’), Christ replied, ‘Why callest
thou Me good?’ as though implicitly bidding him weigh his words (Mark
10. 17-18). ‘Words have a meaning,’ says Newman, ‘whether we mean
that meaning or not; and they are imputed to us in their real meaning,
when our not meaning it is our own fault. He who takes God’s Name in
vain, is not counted guiltless because he means nothing by it.’ To mean
the meaning, to inhabit and take personal responsibility for one’s words
as for oneself: that is the ‘real’ – in my judgment itself a far deeper word
than ‘honest’ or ‘sincere’ or ‘authentic’, because so riskily committed to
its faltering language even as ‘I think I do’ is.
But the reality of such language does not rest merely in its vocabu-


lary. The great Old Testament example in this respect comes from Job
speaking, from the midst of his suffering, of his paradoxical relation to
God – thus:
Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain
mine own ways before him. (Job 13.15)

It seems likely now that this, taken from the Authorised King James
Version, is a mistranslation. ‘Let him slay me’ it begins, but the second
clause may be better rendered as the more easily compatible ‘I have no
hope’ – though just possibly it may still be ‘in him I will hope’. Even so,
literal or not, the Authorised Version retains its place through centuries
of usage, in resonant memory of the Hebraic tradition of a loyal oppo-
sition to the Lord, of arguing with God precisely through a protesting
faith in Him. Thus what is most powerfully real in Job’s saying is the
syntax, the English connectives that create it: ‘Though he slay me, yet
will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him.’
It is important that the three clauses are in that order – and no other
more conventionally pious or apologetic version – and returning still to
‘mine own ways’, my own personal sense of justice however inadvert-
ently flawed, rather than become religiously unreal. ‘Religion’ itself is
a temptation; that is why the whole experiential shape of faith has to
be self-checking, in that great phrase of Newman’s ‘saying and unsay-
ing to a positive result’. But it is even more important that, for all their
contradictions and their conflict, somehow – the sentence says, because
it is one sentence – somehow all three positions can be held together, and
passionately are so in a life. He slay me; I trust him; I maintain mine
own ways. It is like a version of what Tertullian said of God – ‘Credo quia
impossibile est’: I believe in the reality of this utterance precisely because
it is well-nigh impossible.
It cannot be
That I am he
On whom thy tempests fell all night.

It cannot be but (he says, in the silent aftermath of wonder) it is: George
Herbert’s amazed recovery from the long dark night of depression in
‘The Flower’. ‘I am he’: you could not make it up, you could not reason
it, unless you found and felt it on different lines from the normal lines
of life and time. In its still unresolved movement through the midst of
its own difficulties, not yet anywhere near the point of Herbert’s recov-
ery, Job’s ‘though, yet, but’ is profoundly robust, stumbling yet upright,
faithful yet defiant with it.


tom Paulin

extracts From Oedipus at Colonus

Tom Paulin writes, ‘I did a version of Antigone for Field Day in 1984, then
a version of Prometheus Bound for the Open University classical civilization
course. I saw Oedipus Rex at the National last year and thought it would be
good to try the two Oedipus plays. I then went on to do Medea which Barry
Rutter’s Northern Broadsides in Halifax are going to do next spring. My Antig-
one, The Riot Act, was done in Northern-Irish English.’

And how could war break out
between these nations?

Know son of Aegeus
know most gentle son
the gods alone
neither age nor die.
But all things else
all-powerful time disturbs.
The earth it wastes away.
The body wastes and faith
dies out too
and so distrust is born.


Little by little the spirit
changes between a man and his friend
or between two cities.
For some men soon
for others later on.
Either their pleasure sours
or love comes again.
The same with you and Thebes.
Between you both
the sweet season holds.
But Time Time goes on
and no man can ever measure it.
Unnumbered days and nights it fathers.
And then one day
they’ll tear apart with spears
this gift of harmony
and all for one slight word.


Though he has watched the time go by
sometimes a man will still desire the world.
That man I say he has no wisdom.
The hours pass by.
They rack up pain.
And as for pleasure
an old old man
can find it nowhere in this world.
Better than thought and speech
is never to be born.


Only to see the light
and then go back
is second best to that thing.
His youthful follies over
what trouble is there now for man?
What will he not endure?
But in the end
he comes to impotent old age.
There in the twilight
he must live with every bitter thing.
I speak the truth now
not just for me
but for this blind and ruined man.
He’s like a northern shore
bashed by the waves.
From the setting of the sun
to the bright noonday
he’s trapped and ruined
– trapped and ruined both.


the gathering storm

Paul Kingsnorth

I n September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, and the British and
other Western governments declared war on Germany. The build-
up to war had been apparent for years; everybody knew what was
coming. Now, with the war’s official beginning, it was clearer than
ever that a cataclysm had arrived, which would affect virtually eve-
rybody not just in Europe but the world over.
Yet initially, nothing much happened. Warnings were issued, rear-
mament was stepped up, posters were printed warning people to keep
their gas masks with them at all times. But neither the Nazis nor the
allied powers instituted an offensive against the other. For almost eight
months, life seemed to go on much as before; it must have seemed as if
nothing would really change after all. People called it ‘the phoney war’.
Today, we are living through a phoney war of our own. Just over the
horizon, now as then, looms something enormous and world-changing.
Something which we hear about every day in the media, in increasingly
alarmist tones, and yet which never seems to quite arrive. Now as then,
life goes on, for most of us, just as it always has.
But now, as then, the phoney war will end. In May 1940 the German
invasion of France shattered the illusions of those who had let them-
selves believe that the old world order would somehow continue. Today,
the ongoing collapse of the global environment is leading us towards
the same kind of reckoning. We are living in insecure and unprecedent-
ed times, and nothing that we currently take for granted is likely to


survive the 21st century unscathed – up to and including our civilisation
itself. All around us are signs that our way of life is passing into history;
that it cannot be sustained; that the lives we have taken for granted are
going to change, radically. And yet we go on, most of us, as if nothing is
really going to happen at all.
The world is undergoing an ecological crisis unprecedented in mil-
lions of years; a frenzy of destruction and radical upheaval, initiated by
one species: ours. The root of this crisis is often assumed to be political
or economic: if we could just get ‘the system’ right, the logic runs, we
could create a more ‘sustainable’ world. But it is not the system that is
the problem: it is the assumptions that underpin it. Put another way,
the root cause of the global crisis we are living through is an imagina-
tive one; it lies in the stories we have told about ourselves and our place
in the world.
We imagined ourselves isolated from the source of our existence.
The fallout from this imaginative error is all around us: a quarter of
the world’s mammals are threatened with imminent extinction; an acre
and a half of rainforest is felled every second; 75% of the world’s fish

“We have herded ourselves to the edge of a precipice
with the stories we have told ourselves about who we
are – above all, by the story of civilisation itself”
stocks are on the verge of collapse; humanity consumes 25% more of the
world’s natural ‘products’ than the Earth can replace – a figure predict-
ed to rise to 80% by mid-century. And over it all looms runaway climate
change, which threatens to render all human projects irrelevant; which
presents us with detailed evidence of our lack of understanding of the
world we inhabit while, at the same time, demonstrating that we are
still entirely reliant upon it.
A civilisation is built not on oil, steel or bullets, but on stories; on
the myths that shore it up and the tales it tells itself about its origins
and destiny. We have herded ourselves to the edge of a precipice with
the stories we have told ourselves about who we are – above all, by
the story of civilisation itself. This story has many variants, religious
and secular, scientific, economic and mystic. But all tell of humanity’s
original transcendence of its animal beginnings, our growing mastery
over a ‘nature’ to which we no longer belong, and the glorious future of
plenty and prosperity which will follow when this mastery is complete.
It is the story of human centrality, of a species destined to be lord of all it
surveys, unconfined by the limits that apply to other, lesser creatures.
What makes this story so dangerous is that, for the most part, we


have forgotten that it is a story. It has been told so many times by
those who see themselves as rationalists, even scientists; heirs to the
Enlightenment’s legacy – a legacy which includes the denial of the role
of stories in making the world.
Humans have always lived by stories, and those with skill in telling
them have been treated with respect and, often, a certain wariness.
Beyond the limits of reason, reality remains mysterious, as incapable of
being approached directly as a hunter’s quarry. With stories, with art,
with symbols and layers of meaning, we stalk those elusive aspects of
reality that go undreamed of in our philosophy. The storyteller weaves
the mysterious into the fabric of life, lacing it with the comic, the tragic,
the obscene, making safe paths through dangerous territory.
The global crisis we are living through demands a response, and that
response is too important to be left to politicians, economists, concep-
tual thinkers, number crunchers; too all-pervasive to be left to activists
or campaigners. Writers are needed. But where are they? Where are the
novelists who are equal to this challenge? Where are the poets? Many of
our writers today are stuck in old grooves. Think of the novels that make
the headlines: if you want an idea of what apparently challenges today’s
mainstream novelist you may choose between the bourgeois angst of
the Ian McEwans or the urban multiculturalism of the Monica Alis;
you can choose between the country house or the inner city, but you
cannot choose much that goes beyond either of them. In the world of
poetry we are still struggling with modernism and pop culture, and the
gap between Wordsworthian ‘nature poetry’ and performance agitprop
remains largely unfilled.
Believing that the times deserve more than this, a group of us have
come together to try and forge a new movement of writers and artists
dedicated to looking honestly and unflinchingly at what the future
holds. We don’t believe that the future will be much the same as the
past, and consequently we don’t believe that yesterday’s writing, or
even today’s, is going to be helpful in signposting the years ahead.
We call this the Dark Mountain Project, and its aim is to forge a
school of what we are calling ‘Uncivilised writing’. Uncivilised writing
is writing which attempts to stand outside the human bubble and see
us as we are: highly evolved apes with an array of talents and abilities
which we are unleashing without sufficient thought, control, compas-
sion or intelligence. Apes who have constructed a sophisticated myth of
their own importance with which to sustain their civilising project.
Uncivilised writing offers a perspective which sees humanity as one
strand of a web rather than as the first palanquin in a glorious proces-
sion. It sets out to paint a picture of homo sapiens which a being from
another world or, better, a being from our own – a blue whale, an alba-


tross, a mountain hare – might recognise as something approaching a
truth. It sets out to tug our attention away from ourselves and turn it
outwards; to uncentre our minds. It is writing which puts civilisation –
and us – into perspective.
If few writers today are working in this way it may be because the
challenge is so very daunting. It daunts us; but we believe also that it
needs to be risen to. And there are writers who do, or have done, so. One
example is the late American poet from whose work we take the name
of our project.
Robinson Jeffers was writing Uncivilised verse seventy years ago,
though he didn’t call it that. In his early poetic career, Jeffers was a
star: he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, read his poems in the

“I would burn my right hand in a slow f ire
To change the future”
– Robinson Jeffers

US Library of Congress and was respected for the alternative he offered
to the Modernist juggernaut. Today his work is left out of anthologies,
his name is barely known and his politics are regarded with suspicion.
Read Jeffers’ later work and you will see why. His crime was to puncture
humanity’s sense of self-importance. His punishment was to be sent
into a lonely literary exile from which, forty years after his death, he
has still not been allowed to return.
But Jeffers knew what he was in for. He knew that nobody, in an age
of ‘consumer choice’, wanted to be told by this stone-faced prophet of
the California cliffs that ‘it is good for man … To know that his needs
and nature are no more changed in fact in ten thousand years than
the beaks of eagles.’ He knew that no comfortable liberal wanted to
hear his angry warning, issued at the height of the Second World War:
‘Keep clear of the dupes that talk democracy / And the dogs that talk
revolution / Drunk with talk, liars and believers … / Long live freedom,
and damn the ideologies.’ His vision of a world in which humanity was
doomed to destroy its surroundings and eventually itself (‘I would burn
my right hand in a slow fire / To change the future … I should do so
foolishly’) was furiously rejected in the rising age of consumer democ-
racy which he also predicted (‘Be happy, adjust your economics to the
new abundance …’)
The aim of Uncivilised writing is, in Jeffers’ words, to ‘unhumanise
our views a little, and become confident / As the rock and ocean that we
were made from.’ This, we think, is the literary challenge of our age. So
far, few have taken it up. The signs of the times flash out in urgent neon,


but our literary lions have better things to read. Their art remains stuck
in its own civilised bubble. The big names of contemporary literature are
equally at home in the fashionable quarters of London or New York, and
their writing reflects the prejudices of the placeless, transnational elite
to which they belong.
But the converse also applies. Those voices which tell other stories
tend to be rooted in a sense of place. Think of John Berger’s novels and
essays from the Haute Savoie, or the depths explored by Alan Garner
within a day’s walk of his birthplace in Cheshire. Think of Wendell
Berry or W. S. Merwin, Mary Oliver or Cormac McCarthy. These are
writers who know their place, in the physical sense, and who remain
wary of the siren cries of metrovincial fashion and civilised excitement.
They are, in their own ways, examples of what is possible.
The Dark Mountain Project was launched in July. So far we have
printed our manifesto, in a limited edition of 300 copies, we have set
up a website as a hub for the project and have held a launch event,
but these are just the first salvos. We are planning more events, from
storytelling evenings to mini festivals, and we plan, in 2010, to launch
the first issue of the Dark Mountain journal. Most of all, we are looking
to meet people to whom the project appeals. We want to discover new
writers and move in new directions. Time may be short, so there is none
to lose.

The Dark Mountain Project can be found online at



les murray

A Frequent Flyer Proposes a Name

Sexburga drive is a steep mud lane
but Sexburga, she was Queen of Kent
fourteen centuries ago.
She tried to rule as well as reign
but her tough spear-thanes grated No!
She’s but a wife-man, a loaf-kneader:
we will not obey a bodice-feeder.
No precedent, said Witan. Quite unkent
so on Sheppey isle she built a convent.

But now, in an era more Amazon,
the notion has come to the jarl of London,
white-polled Boris, to move Heathrow
east to the marshy Thames outflow
so jet-liners may leave their keening cry
over the Channel and grim North Sea –
and Celtic queens have ruled: Boudicca, Bess,
but your Saxon ones still await redress.
Savour this name: London Sexburga Airport.


Hesiod On Bushf ire

Poxes of the Sun or of the mind
bring the force-ten firestorms.
After come same-surname funerals,
junked theory, praise of mateship.
Love the gum forest, camp out in it
but death hosts your living in it, brother.
You need buried space
and cellars have a convict foetor:
only pubs kept them. Houses shook them off
wherever Diggers moved to.
Only opal desert digs homes by dozer,
the cool Hobbit answer.
Cellars, or bunkers, mustn’t sit square
under the fuel your blazing house will be,
but nearby, roofed refractory,
tight against igniting air-miles.
Power should come underground
from Fortress Suburbia, and your treasures
stay back there, where few now
grow up in the fear of grass.
Never build on a summit or a gully top:
fire’s an uphill racer deliriously welcomed
by growth it cures of growth.
Shun a ridgeline, window-puncher at a thousand degrees.
Sex is Fire, in the ancient Law.
Investment is Fire. Grazing beasts are cool fire
backburning paddocks to the door.
Ideology is Fire.
The British Isles and giant fig trees are Water.
Horse-penis helicopters are watery TV
but unblocked roads and straight volunteers
are lifesaving spume spray.
Water and Fire chase each other in jet
planes. May you never flee through them
at a generation’s end, as when
the Great Depression died, or Marvellous Melbourne.

your regulars

Time for my lemon

Ian McMillan

I sent an email to a mate of mine the other day where I said, rather
pretentiously I reckon, that ‘I always return to the Avant Garde as
my default mode’. It’s true, though: if in doubt, in art and music
as well as poetry, I always look for the stuff I can’t understand
straight away, the music that my wife calls ‘squeaky gate music’
and the art that makes people cross because they reckon a kid could
have done it with a toy brush. ‘Avant Garde? Aven’t practised’ as my pal
Darren said. Well, that may be the case but it certainly makes for fasci-
nating listening, looking and reading. Especially reading.
Recently I’ve come across two books of interestingly difficult poetry
that have made me see the world in a different way, and maybe that’s all
we can ask of poetry. The books are Sills, by Michael O’Brien, published
by Salt, and Tom Raworth’s Collected Poems published by Carcanet. I just
can’t read these poems in isolation, forbidding as they sometimes are: I
find that reading knotty and slippery writing helps me to appreciate the
world around me.
In Barnsley, where I live, we’ve got a new bus station, a bold state-
ment of intent in a town that’s reinventing itself after decades of neglect.
The bus station is brightly coloured, it reminds me of images I’ve seen
of Barcelona, and it’s fair to say that it divides opinion. Some people,
me included, love it. Some people can’t stand it: they think it looks

your regulars

ridiculous, and daft, and arty, and pretentious. Barnsley’s landscape is
changing, with a new Digital Media Centre and a new Civic Theatre
where I’ve taken my grandson Thomas to see some really lovely chil-
dren’s shows. I wandered through town the other day with the Michael
O’Brien book in my pocket and when I sat having an espresso at the
Aroma Cafe in the Arcade I almost felt like I was in New York or main-
land Europe or New England (or at least New Barnsley) with O’Brien.
I’d never heard of him until I bought the book, which I did in support of
Salt’s scheme to get as many as possible to buy a book to stave off Salt’s
financial collapse. I always like to encounter writers I’ve not heard of:
all that promise, all that excitement, like the new Barnsley Bus Station
in printed form!
In one sense, he’s the less avant-garde of the two; he feels at times
like an American Roy Fisher and like him he’s often a poet of place,
a poet who tries to pin down the essence of place in a way that the
new bus station is trying to do. Here’s his evocation of somewhere in
Finistére: ‘The bones of a church lie clean in the sun. // Lines of an old
intention / relinquished to its elements / no-one to pollard the trees / salt
roses lichens a rash of stone / a fox might live in this watered light.’ A
line like ‘the bones of a church lie clean in the sun’ is a good line to keep
in your head as you wander down to the bus station. The bus station
isn’t like a church, of course, unless you worship the great god Time-
table, but in today’s heat you can feel the bones of the building in the
rafters, the metal joists. O’Brien’s line solidifies my feelings about the
bus station, brings them into sharper focus. His fragment ‘Washington
Square’ reminds me to keep my eyes open, to keep looking for the unex-
pected and to see the unexpected in the mundane: ‘So much sky in your
compact mirror / the arch gave birth to a piano / two anti-nuns descend
from the bus’. Anti-nuns, eh? Like those two lasses ready for a Barnsley
night out, clambering off the Thurnscoe bus on tottering heels. The arch
giving birth to a piano, is somehow like that little three-wheeler Reliant
put-putting round the corner of Eldon Street, and I’m going to spend
the rest of the day trying to eavesdrop on somebody catching the sky in
the mirror. And that’s what this kind of poetry can be: a mirror you can
hold up to anything, a mirror that can reflect the world back to you.
I picked up the Tom Raworth Collected Poems from a wonderfully
eccentric second-hand bookshop near Victoria Station in Manchester
where, once I’d bought the book, the proprietor gave me a lemon. Why
can’t Waterstone’s do that? Jazz music was playing so loudly in the shop
that a woman shouted from the doorway ‘I’d love to come in and buy
a book but the music’s too loud!’ I love Raworth for his restlessness,
for his ability to try out new forms and discard them just as quickly, for
his use of found language and overheard linguistic detritus. The book

your regulars

is five-hundred-and-odd pages of sheer delight. His sequence Stag Skull
Mounted is really just a list of times and events and memories and de-
scriptions allied to those times, which, in the same way that O’Brien
makes you think about place, makes you think about the moment
you’re in: ‘8.06pm. June 10th. 1970 // poem’, ‘9.25pm. June 10th. 1970
// poem / poem’. So what happened between 8.06pm and 9.25pm? Was
one minute (second, moment) worth one poem and the other minute
(second, moment) worth two poems? Or was the poem expanding as
the evening wore on? And does it matter that we don’t know what the
poem is about, or if it exists? Not to me, it doesn’t. It makes me want
to fill each moment with a poem, or realise the poetic possibilities of
every moment. I’m writing this at 15:44 on a Saturday (you can tell the
football season hasn’t started yet). I look up and see washing hanging
on the line. My glasses are on the table, resting on a book of nineteenth-
century French poetry that my son got me for Father’s Day. Poem.
I know that I’m going to spend a lot more time with O’Brien and
Raworth, getting to know them better. Just as I’m getting to know the
Bus Station better. Now it’s time for my Lemon!


connie bensley

‘O Tell Me the Truth’

Will it start with a vague apprehension?
Will it come as a pain in the chest –
or a place which we don’t like to mention?
Will it be introduced by a test?

Will you wake up together one morning
because it’s crept into the house?
Will it strike like a snake without warning?
Or play like a cat with a mouse?

Will it come with a wave in the ocean
or a leap, or a handful of pills?
Will it cause a tremendous commotion
or end with that soft air that kills?

Can you fool it by blaming your mother
or offering payment in lieu?
Please find out one way or another
and tell me the truth when you do.

after WHA


on the nature of things

Philip Davis talks to Kenneth Hesketh

Described as ‘...a composer who both has something to say and the means
to say it’, Kenneth Hesketh (b. 1968 Liverpool) has received numerous com-
missions from international ensembles and organisations. A prodigy, he
studied at the Royal College of Music, later in America with Henri Dutilleux
and was subsequently awarded a scholarship from the Toepfer Foundation,
Hamburg, at the behest of Sir Simon Rattle. In 2007 he was made Composer
in the House with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Hesketh’s
music is broad in its range of stimuli, covering classical architecture, medi-
eval iconography, poetry and Bauhaus constructivism. He lives in London
and is a professor at the RCM and University of Liverpool.

What sort of composer are you?
Contemporary Classical with strong modernist affinities which means
I’m an increasingly niche composer in an ever-increasingly niche market.
But the meaning and reason behind what I do – the sort of gestures and
musical statements I like to make – is stimulated by a deep love of the
arts in general – and is most often the starting point for my own work.
I have always been intrigued by myth and folklore, and the subjective
re-tellings of the same story. The idea of ritual inherent in myth, and
within its telling, began to interest me during my time as a chorister.
You were a chorister at the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral in the late seventies?
Yes, in 1977 when I was nine. It dawned on me recently that the reason
much of my work is bathed in generous sustained resonances arose
from the acoustical properties of the building.
The big echoes of the Anglican Cathedral?
Yes, somehow it seeped into my head. Sound produced in the Cathedral
has a seven- or eight-second acoustic delay – its life span. One hears the
initial sound and seven seconds later it’s still there in the building, possi-




bly coming back at you. It seemed as if the numinous took tangible form
in the echo, the dominance of the building, the mist of sound all around
you. It affects visitors and worshippers alike. In services, the congrega-
tion, choir and organ sound together almost as if the building reverberates
sympathetically. A timelessness – sound followed by what seemed an eon
of resonance. The grand organ, the grand ceremony, the ritual and the
text, the seeming profundity of space and echo, all left their mark on me.
I associated emotion with music and text from a very young age.
There was one particular occasion that’s significant: I used to have
to set out the service music on certain nights – usually after evensong.
Organist Ian Tracey, I think, was practising and there was no one else in
the nave, central space or choir areas. As choristers are wont to do, I ran
from the furthest bay of the nave up to the altar experiencing a Doppler
effect as I did so due to my relative position to the organ’s sound. A
shift in pitch occurred similar to when a police car siren approaches and
recedes due to the pitch-waves contracting and enlarging. That moment
has stayed with me ever since. I try to play with that kind of sound
– active musical figures fighting for clarity against a heightened acousti-
cal resonance, the music bathing in a reverberating, embryonic fluid.
Was it important that this was a cathedral and not just a fine concert hall?
At that point the Anglican Cathedral was the only place that afforded
me real musical training. Singing was already a part of my life, which
is why I went to audition there, but after joining I was also given piano
lessons and other basic theoretical training. From about the age of ten,
I was composing. Would this have happened elsewhere? Probably not.
I didn’t have an especially religious background but religion and faith
started to mean more as I got older through various Cathedral events,
as well as through various friends who were beginning to examine their
faith and who they were in regards to a God. I tried to take part in all of
that for a while. But I was never really comfortable with it. What has
remained with me from that time, and experience of organised religion,
is that sense of ritual, the beauty of text supporting music and a sense of
tangible numinousity which may lead to another way of experiencing. Is
there something beyond that? I would say no.
Say something more about your background.
My folks still live in Kirkdale, a hard neighbourhood at least during
my lifetime. Moving from that milieu to the more rarefied one of the
Cathedral was initially overwhelming. If one shows an aptitude for
something, one wants to consolidate upon that and progress, and that
would not have happened by staying around Kirkdale. In the Cathedral
I was surrounded by quite a few interesting and capable youngsters. It
was a case of adapting and keeping up.


What did your non-musical contemporaries think of your involvement in music?
They were bemused. It must have seemed to have no relevance to what
was going on around them. A memory from this time outlines the juxtapo-
sition of what the local youth were interested in compared to the rarefied,
antiquated and seemingly pointless exercise we choristers were in the
service of in the huge, however beautiful, concert hall, as I see it now. I
was a chorister at the Cathedral during the Toxteth riots in the eighties;
we were playing football outside the undercroft when a gang of youths
started throwing bricks and bottles and hurling abuse, so we headed back
inside – or did some stay and fight for a while? I can’t remember.
Other kids from the neighbourhood surely had no understanding
as to why I would find any of what I was doing interesting. Perhaps it
looked like some kind of dodge. But for me it was a way to change, a way
out. At that and subsequent times, music saved me in various ways.
What did you need saving from?
From aspects of the music profession itself! One example is my attend-
ance at music school which was daunting at a young age. They can
be unpleasant places; everyone’s extremely focused on developing their
talent but don’t necessarily have the social skills to get on with others or
to know how, or when, to take others into account. So when things were
bad, music – and what music led me to – became a great place of safety.
For example, listening to medieval music, which I did a lot at that time,
led me to read the original songs of Beuren, the Carmina Burana which
Carl Orff set to music, and then the Roman de Fauvel, a fourteenth-cen-
tury allegorical poem, and the imagery in the medieval iconography
became places where I could retreat from my ‘now’. I suppose I created
my own bolt-hole. I am drawn to the antique, whether it be the ribald
epigrams of Martial or the beautiful lines of Lucretius. Until quite re-
cently certain types of more recent modern culture was something I
couldn’t work with artistically. The majority of texts I have set have
been ancient or, if they have been modern, as with Dylan Thomas, a
poet I love, there’s an archaic Biblical flavour devoid of specific religious
meaning. I seem to need stories which are told and made more potent
by their distance. The contemporary reading that I do is similar in many
ways: Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist, My Name is Red, for example
or The Saddlebag by Bahiyyih Nakhjavan. They are like modern versions
of the composite stories of Boccaccio or Grimm’s Fairy Tales, even Hesse‘s
Fairy Tales. I’m interested in a central core narrative, some great book or
myth or epic out of which other story possibilities emerge yet resonate.
It’s almost like a genetic model.


Yes, there is a mitosis of idea which, even though it keeps important
elements of its parent nature, spreads and changes and my work is
certainly influenced by this way of thinking. It’s important that those
processes are self-determined. I have to somehow guide each one yet
allow for a mixture of the spontaneous with the foreplanned.
You were a prodigy. Born 1968, first orchestral work completed at 13. You had had
something played by the Liverpool Phil and Charles Groves when you were just 19.
Yes, my first professional commission. I was in my first year undergrad.
But before that I’d written a lot of orchestral music, which had been
performed at the Phil Hall by the Merseyside Youth Orchestra, includ-
ing a symphony.
Very often with people who have early success or talent, there is a point where they
then get stuck and have to stay still. Did that happen to you?
I hit a complete wall when I was an undergraduate at the Royal College.
I knew that my writing was shallow and conventional and I needed to
give my work a more personal profile.
Was it conceivable at that point that you would have stopped composing?
No, but I did think about becoming a hack and using my skills that way,
which is a very simple agreement: You do that, We pay you this: Next
job. For a while, that was the path I followed but eventually I realised
that there ought to be more. I applied to the Tanglewood Music Centre
in America, a course run every summer, and my successful application
re-set everything. Tanglewood is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s
summer home and attracts large numbers of students from all over the
world to work with well-known and important musicians, composers
and conductors. I worked with people who have since become big forces
in my life and friends: Oliver Knussen and Henri Dutilleux to name but
two. Though I don’t keep opus numbers, Tanglewood is where my opus
1 was written. That’s 14 years ago.
I was surrounded by intelligent and driven young composers in their
early- to mid-twenties. I had no idea why I had been accepted, wonderful
as it was. I composed absolutely nothing while I was on the course, apart
from a small clarinet piece. I retreated into books and into musical theory
and it was the theory that allowed me to feel a way forward and out again.
I began slowly to answer important questions for myself – how does one
put note on top of note in an individual manner without simply resorting
to pastiching previous musical types? How is musical meaning projected
through form? Until that time my composition had been grounded in
sheer basic ability. I hadn’t done any real apprenticeship. I had been very
lucky and yet very unlucky in my youth with early works being performed
immediately – it was good to hear these attempts but I never had any


time to rethink. When people say, ‘That was wonderful, let’s have some
more of that’ it‘s easy to continue along the well-trod path.
In a piece At God Speeded Summer’s End, which I think you once said was
a turning-point for you, the relation of acceleration and retardation is very close.
It feels as though sometimes it is holding back a feeling that it’s therefore pushing
forward. I kept thinking what does it mean? Is it to do with the sense of ending?
Perhaps it has something to do with rushing towards a void. The desire
to jump from a high building which must be fought against. I’m always
aware of it – rushing towards, pulling back. Funnily enough, the title of
the work is taken from Dylan Thomas’s ‘Author’s Prologue’. 102 lines in
total, the first 51 lines of the poem rhyme, in reverse order, with the last
51 – an aural palindrome. ‘At God Speeded Summer’s End’ is the only
line that doesn’t change. It opens:
This day winding down now
At God speeded summer’s end
In the torrent salmon sun,
In my seashaken house . . .
Out there, crow black, men
Tackled with clouds, who kneel
To the sunset nets,
Geese nearly in heaven . . .

I remember reading it when I was a teenager, re-reading it again when
I was about twenty-six, and the torrent of imagery and onomatopoeic
effects completely overwhelmed me. It was a marvellous literary reali-
sation of a model I’d been groping towards for some time.
It seems to me that when the text, the words come into your music, it’s sudden and
abrupt and sometimes even scary, like an eruption.
Sudden change, or perhaps more correctly, seemingly sudden change – as
it always has to be earned or worked towards – is somewhat alluring.
Seemingly compatible materials eventually compete with or overtake
one another. A gridiron pendulum is a good analogy. Alternating zinc
and iron strips allow the pendulum to swing regularly, one allowing
for the other’s expansion. In my work there’s generally one idea set
against another in some way, giving both internal cohesion and tension,
both providing an inevitable forward movement of the narrative. There
is also something restless, possibly disorderly, in my musical thought.
Maybe the cathedral’s cavernous space – the bizarre moment of running
freely amidst a Doppler effect – has something to do with it. Ongoing
change within a consistent core does interest me.
The technical matters are to do with discovering a language – not just learning a
craft but finding ways to harness what you have. Is that right?


Craft and meaning evolve over time; I get to the structural heart of a work
much more quickly these days. Architecture and the study of rhetoric are
two of my many interests. Both are ways of supporting and expanding
a core idea; a scaffolding that supports the act of creation, which, once
removed, leaves you with what has been produced by the mould-shape.
Tell me about your piece which I’ve just been listening to, ‘Graven Image’.
It’s a short piece, just fifteen minutes, and is conceived as a musical ‘stele’
or marker stone, something which marks the having been. I wanted to call
it ‘Stele’ but the title had already been used. In this piece, the retracing and
embellishment of things is important, as it is in my work generally. One
idea may have been previously perceived but elements of that idea progres-
sively take over, evolve. Ideas never actually return, something is always
just out of grasp. Such will-o-the-wisp ideas are very attractive – seeking
furtive patterns in chaos, looking at the night sky and joining indis-
tinct dots of light. There are structures in the music that should always
materialise otherwise it wouldn’t work, but in live performances, through
acoustic vagaries or the unexpected dynamic of individual players, certain
things will emerge in different ways at different times. It’s not that we’ll
hear more ‘melody’ or ‘harmony’ – different textural elements take on
greater importance which in some circumstances are submerged whilst in
others are in relief. Those aspects create a dynamic quality in my work.
The emotive quality in my music should communicate, it is a strong
need within me. When one experiences any art, one questions it at a
deeper level. To agree with it or to be repulsed by it. Such dichotomies
I try to project in my work in various ways, for example via density –
loud, soft, full, narrow. There are moments when things scream at one
and times where one can hardly make out any clarity, it’s too hushed,
packed with cotton wool. In trying to make sense of the actual musical
narrative the influence of abstract theatre shows itself in my work, a
drama working itself out.
That seems urgent and personal. Say more about that loudness and quietness.
I could mention my mother’s deafness caused through meningitis when
she was a very young child. When I was growing up there were moments
when she would communicate her frustration at her deafness through
shouting, just to make herself understood, and at other times through
absolute quiet when a situation didn’t require verbal articulation. The
memory of sound in the cathedral is a useful example here as well. A
loud organ chord is utterly different when you’re standing not five yards
away from it compared to when you’re downstairs in the building. One is
crystal clear, the other muffled, almost underwater. I think of the build-
ing in terms akin to a grotto, an otherworld into which one retreats, is
changed, and from which one emerges. The loud and muffled, an often


grotesque combination, are part of the ritual accompaniment.
And when you come out again, what has happened – are you enlightened?
One is shriven, to use an archaic Biblical term! There is a sense of com-
pletion, of having divested oneself of a necessary task.
You like those encounters that change the human scale.
Yes, I think that’s a very good way of putting it – the changing scale of
things. It hits me with greater force the more dizzying the intertwining
of threads and conflicts.
At the moment I’m close to giving up the search of finding a story,
or text, for my next opera – should I just write the damn thing myself? I
know all the ingredients. I know exactly what they would be.
Let’s do that. What are the ingredients? The grotto sounds a good place to go and
I love the idea of the penitent, the shriven – could we have that in?
Well, certainly someone outside the normalities of life, but someone
who combines the possible with the unfeasible.
So we need a sort of enclosed area like a grotto or a cave?
Or one room.
Has the room got windows? Or just appear to have windows?
There may be doors which lead somewhere but the audience never sees
the place: they are means of egress, possibly, but it’s effectively dead
space to the audience.
We need the enclosure to build something within it.
We’ve selected a living space. To fill it, we could add the dramatic idea
of an individual against a collective of others, negative only from the
individual’s point of view – perhaps the protagonist struggles with nega-
tive human emotions arising from betrayal, cruelty or indifference. Next
add the presence of the mechanical – I’m a great lover of automata in
general. A very sad minor horologist myself, in that I attempt to put
clocks together and get them working. It’s the tinkering with structure
that interests me, the interplay of pinion against arbor, against gear, the
gearing up and gearing down of the going train, that which both main-
tains the energy and directs it to produce movement.
How does the mechanical get into the room in terms of the story?
The protagonist might be a clockmaker or wished he or she inhabited
a world of clockwork order: the music will link the two, the clockwork
and the human. This reflects something I’m focusing upon more and


more, a concept I call unreliable machines. Machines of course have
been the stock-in-trade of composers for many years, from Liadov to
Ligeti – reproducing the unchangeable, the programmable in rhythmic
gesture or bell-like timbre. But the unreliable machine tries to reinvent
its mechanism, to change, but only brings on its own demise more
quickly. It works brilliantly for a short time and then fails through some
last-minute internal change made by itself.
Interesting – the machine tries to make itself more a machine and ends up being
more a person and that’s a disaster. It wants to be a free person just as your protago-
nist wants to be more like a machine. These are your two things swapping over.
The search after regularity, of order – not conformity! – which is itself,
possibly, only one step on the road to entropy, to winding down. It would
also be important for the protagonist eventually to try to leave that
room, to go through a door to another place. There might be a return
but not quite a return, some sort of cycle in which, even so, nothing is
ever quite the same again either.
That sounds just like your music. Is music a machine?
Some people would say some music is.
Would you?
I would say that my music’s construction specifically includes cycles,
returns and seeming regularity, a play with unreliable machines, along-
side something which is indefinable, sudden, emotional, improvised,
perhaps flawed.
If the fate of the unreliable machine is that it kills itself, is that what happens at
the end of the opera? You are interested in self-determining or self-enclosing struc-
ture and yet it’s the very attempt to get out of that cycle which is the fatal fault.
An attempt to leave, to get out, that only rushes one more quickly
towards the void? Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s story ‘The Tunnel’ is about
that. Passengers are travelling on a train, the train enters an unchar-
tered tunnel yet none of the passengers seem bothered by this. The
main protagonist asks the conductor ‘Why are we in here?’ He replies,
‘It’s all right, don’t worry’. Eventually the train just goes further into
the tunnel, descending helter-skelter into the void. The conductor asks
what they should do, and our protagonist says ‘nothing’ to which Dür-
renmatt adds ‘with spectral serenity’.
Moving on an unstoppable conveyor belt of existence inexorably
pushing one towards an end, a finality, and being aware of that end
rushing up towards one – it seems honest, more real and I don’t see that
as nihilistic in the least.


nigel Prentice


They tiptoe on the silvery ridges, creep
Into the clouds, the air a veil shaking
In flurries of cold and derangement.
Each lives the finest degrees of dying, step
By step; minds fanned fiercer but painstaking,
Ticking through intricacies of equipment.

Some blur into blizzards, never again take shape;
Or are whipped or tumbled like washing; or plunge,
Clamped in a great crevasse. One falls asleep
Staring at an ice-wall, and stays for months.

Those who return teetered on a few thin words
Through a speechless realm to the blinding show
Of a glass. Walk daily through our living world
Not word-perfect in ecstasies of snow.


extract from wanting

Richard Flanagan

It is 1839. A young Aboriginal girl, Mathinna, is running through the long
wet grass of an island at the end of the world to get help for her dying
father, an Aboriginal chieftain. Twenty years later, on an island at the centre
of the world, the most famous novelist of the day, Charles Dickens, realises
he is about to abandon his wife, risk his name and for ever after be altered
because of his inability any longer to control his intense passion.
Connecting the two events are the most celebrated explorer of the age,
Sir John Franklin – then governor of Van Diemen’s Land – and his wife, Lady
Jane, who adopt Mathinna, seen as one of the last of a dying race, as an ex-
periment. Lady Jane believes the distance between savagery and civilisation
is the learned capacity to control wanting. The experiment fails, Sir John
disappears into the blue ice of the Arctic seeking the Northwest Passage,
and a decade later Lady Jane enlists Dickens’ aid to put an end to the scan-
dalous suggestions that Sir John’s expedition ended in cannibalism.
Dickens becomes ever more entranced in the story of men entombed in
ice, recognising in its terrible image his own frozen inner life. He produces
and stars in a play inspired by Franklin’s fate to give story to his central
belief that discipline and will can conquer desire. And yet the play will bring
him to the point where he is no longer able to control his own passion and
the consequences it brings.


T he war had ended as wars sometimes do, unexpected-
ly. A man no one much cared for, a rather pumped-up
little Presbyterian carpenter cum preacher, had travelled
unarmed and in the company of tame blacks through
the great wild lands of the island, and had returned with
a motley cluster of savages. They were called wild blacks, though wild
they most certainly were not, but rather scabby, miserable and often

© Bronwyn Rennex


consumptive. They were, he said – and remarkably it did now seem – all
that remained of the once feared Van Diemonian tribes that for so long
had waged relentless and terrible war.
Those who saw them said it was hard to believe that such a small
and wretched bunch could have defied the might of the Empire for so
long, that they could have survived the pitiless extermination, that they
could have been the instruments of such fear and terror. It wasn’t clear
what the preacher had said to the blacks, or what the blacks thought
he was going to do with them, but they seemed amenable, if somewhat
sad, as broken party after broken party were embarked on boat after
boat and taken to a distant island that lay in the hundreds of miles of
sea that separated Van Diemen’s Land from the Australian mainland.
Here the preacher took on the official title of Protector and a salary of
£500 a year, along with a small garrison of soldiers and a Catechist, and
set about raising his sable charges to the level of English civilisation.
He met with some successes, and, though these were small, it was
on such he tried to concentrate. And were they not worthy? Were his
people not knowledgeable of God and Jesus, as was evidenced by their
ready and keen answers to the Catechist’s questions, and evinced in
their enthusiastic hymn-singing? Did they not take keenly to the weekly
market, where they traded skins and shell necklaces for beads and
tobacco and the like? Other than that his black brethren kept dying
almost daily, it had to be admitted the settlement was satisfactory in
every way.
Some things, however, were frankly perplexing. Though he was
weaning them off their native diet of berries and plants and shellfish
and game, and onto flour and sugar and tea, their health seemed in no
way comparable to what it had been. And the more they took to English
blankets and heavy English clothes, abandoning their licentious naked-
ness, the more they coughed and spluttered and died. And the more
they died, the more they wanted to cast off their English clothes and
stop eating their English food and move out of their English homes,
which they said were filled with the Devil, and return to the pleasures
of the hunt of a day and the open fire of a night.
It was 1839. The first photograph of a man was taken, Abd al-Qadir
declared a jihad against the French, and Charles Dickens was rising to
greater fame with a novel called Oliver Twist. It was, thought the Protec-
tor as he closed the ledger after another post mortem report and returned
to preparing notes for his pneumatics lecture, inexplicable.


On hearing the news of the child’s death from a servant who had rushed
from Charles Dickens’ home, John Forster had not hesitated – hesita-
tion was a sign of a failure of character, and his own character did not
permit failure. Mastiff-faced, full-bodied and goosebellied, heavy in all
things – opinion, sensibility, morality and conversation – Forster was
to Dickens as gravity to a balloonist. Though not above mimicking him
in private, Dickens was immensely fond of his unofficial secretary, on
whom he relied for all manner of work and advice.
And Forster, inordinately proud of being so relied on, decided he
would wait until Dickens had given his speech. In spite of Forster’s
ongoing arguments that recent events excused Dickens from the
necessity of addressing the General Theatrical Fund, he had been un-
wavering that he would. Why, even that very day Forster had called on
Dickens at Devonshire Terrace to urge him one last time to cancel the
‘But I’ve promised,’ said Dickens, whom Forster had found in the
garden playing with his younger children. He had in his arms his ninth
child, the baby Dora, and he’d lifted her above his head, smiling up at
her and blowing through his lips as she beat her arms up and down,
fierce and solemn as a regimental drummer. ‘No, no; I could not let us
down like that.’
Forster had swelled, but said nothing. Us! He knew Dickens some-
times thought of himself more as an actor than a writer. It was a
nonsense, but it was him. Dickens loved theatre. He loved everything
to do with that world of make-believe, where the moon might be sum-
moned down with a flourish of a finger, and Forster knew Dickens felt a
strange solidarity with the actor members of the troupers’ charity, which
he was to address that evening. This attraction to the more disreputable
both slightly troubled and slightly thrilled Forster.
‘She looks well, don’t you think?’ Dickens had said, lowering the
baby to his chest. ‘She’s had a slight fever today, haven’t you, Dora?’ He
kissed her forehead. ‘But I think she’s picking up now.’
And now, only a few short hours later, how splendidly Dickens’
speech was going, thought Forster. The crowd was extensive, its atten-
tion rapt, and Dickens, once started, as brilliant and moving as ever.
‘In our Fund,’ Dickens was saying to the crowded hall of actors, ‘the
word exclusiveness is not known. We include every actor, whether he
is Hamlet or Benedict: this ghost, that bandit, or, in his one person, the
whole King’s army. And to play their parts before us, these actors come
from scenes of sickness, of suffering, aye, even of death itself. Yet –’


There was a stuttering of applause that stopped almost before
it started, perhaps because it was felt bad taste to draw attention to
Dickens’ being there just two weeks after his own father’s death. A
failed operation for bladderstones had left the old man, Dickens had
told Forster, lying in a slaughterhouse of blood.
‘Yet how often it is,’ continued Dickens, ‘that we have to do violence
to our feelings, and hide our hearts in carrying on this fight of life, so we
can bravely discharge our duties and responsibilities.’
After, Forster took Dickens aside.
‘I am afraid . . .’ Forster began. ‘In a word,’ said Forster, who always
used too many, but now realised there was one he did not wish to
‘Yes?’ said Dickens, eyeing somebody or something over Forster’s
shoulder, then looking back, eyes twinkling.
‘Yes, my dear Mammoth?’
His casual use of Forster’s nickname, his presumption all this was
just banter, the pleasure of the performer at the success of a perform-
ance—none of it helped make poor Forster’s task any easier.
‘Little Dora . . .’ said Forster. His lips twitched as he tried to finish
the sentence.
‘I am,’ mumbled Forster, wishing at that moment to say so many
things, but unable to say any of them. ‘I am, so, so sorry, Charles,’ he
said in a rush, regretting every word, wanting something so much
better to say, his hand rising to emphasise with its customary flourish
some point never made, then falling back to the side of his body, his big
body that felt so bloated and useless. ‘She was taken with convulsions,’
he said finally.
Dickens’ face showed no emotion, and Forster thought what a
splendid man he was.
‘When?’ asked Dickens.
‘Three hours ago,’ said Forster. ‘Just after we left.’
It was 1851. London’s Great Exhibition celebrated the triumph of
reason in a glass pavilion mocked by the writer Douglas Jerrold as a
crystal palace; a novel about finding a fabled white whale was published
in New York to failure; while in the iron-grey port of Stromness, Orkney,
Lady Jane Franklin farewelled into whiteness the second of what were
to be numerous failed expeditions in search of a fable that had once
been her husband.

The poet on his work

knotting and unknotting

John Greening

S ince the early 1980s, we have lived on the borders of
Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire – although poetically
speaking I have remained in a Huntingdonshire of my
own making – and while this is not good territory for
walking, there are certain inviting cycle routes. One of
these takes me past the hamlet of Knotting. Extraordinary enough
for its name, this tiny settlement has contributed considerably to the
history of English poetry. Not only is it associated with the Cavalier
Waller and the hapless Laureate Pye, but it was here that Martin Booth
(who died five years ago this February) established his Sceptre Press in
the late 1960s and proceeded to bring out 160 booklets by some of the
biggest names of his age, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney
among them. Lucky the browser who stumbles on one of these finely
produced pamphlets today.
Yet I felt myself lucky yesterday in Charing Cross Road when I
chanced on The Knotting Sequence, a book published in New York in 1977,
a wonderful long poem by Booth celebrating the hamlet where he lived
– total population (after his son was born there), 28. I had heard of this
poem and even had a chance to look at it while visiting Penelope Shuttle
(another of the poets Booth published), but never thought I would own
a copy as it seemed to be selling for absurd prices online. For all its in-
debtedness to those same authors he published (particularly Hughes)
The Knotting Sequence deserves to be remembered. It is peculiarly evoca-
tive of this part of England:

the poet on his work

a row
of dying

the crack
of frost

the cry
of lapwings

And the very sparseness of the verse, learnt from certain Americans, lets
that wind from the Urals into the language. If it is Hughes’s Crow who
comes to mind in ‘who owns these screams? / who lives to scream so?
/ who dies in such screaming?’, it is Geoffrey Hill’s Offa who dominates
elsewhere. For Offa, however, read Cnot:

at last a
place with no

said Cnot settling
there, unaware
of the sun’s
bite and the
moon’s pull and
the snow

The above is a complete poem, one of several without title, some of
them apparently merging so it is unclear (since there are no capitals or
full stops) whether one section has ended and another begun. There
is something here that reaches beyond the stylistic mannerisms of the
period, and which Booth has achieved by paring his language down, fit
for a landscape soon to be shorn of its elms and its hedgerows. Booth’s
poems depend heavily on enjambment. Sometimes the line-breaks
seem to be all that is keeping them from prose – and his critics will see
in this a foreshadowing of his later decision to turn to the novel – but
they are not prose. There is a powerful music embedded here, as when
he writes of Knotting church:

under the
beam, Bunyan

The sound of ‘under’ is echoed by ‘centre’, and ‘beam’ bumps satisfy-
ingly against ‘Bunyan’, setting up that solitary monosyllable, ‘sang’. As

the poet on his work

Booth’s lines teeter on the edge, they sing indeed: a harsh song of the
1970s, a voice that has not dated any more than Bob Dylan’s.
A Knotting Sequence weaves us in and out of time, to Cnot’s era and
back again, knotting and unknotting, reminding us that past and
present are inseparable (‘you / share this / place with // me’): there is a
dynamic dialogue of letters, insults, backstabbings and tokens of affec-
tion between the poet and his alter-ego. Sometimes the ‘not’ in ‘Cnot’
seems to define him; but the poet too can be grumpily negative. Neither
speaker can quite be pinned down. When Booth is happily boozing with
a friend in ‘The Blasphemers’, he cannot avoid remembering his fore-
runner: ‘Cnot / lying in the fields / demanded / mead’. Elsewhere, the
death of his dog moves him to ask Cnot to

him by
proxy until
I join
you a hundred
metres from
and feed
him more
of the bones he
always found in
furrows and


The overall effect of The Knotting Sequence is of a broken mosaic, the kind
still lying under many fields in Eastern England; but Booth’s poems are
not impenetrable fragments of modernism, rather pieces of passionately
felt loyalty to a place, a role. Here is Bedfordshire Booth watching a
muntjac escapee from Woburn ‘stutter and / cough through / the dusk’
or imagining the author of Pilgrim’s Progress preaching under the tree
that goes to restore Knotting’s church; Everyman Booth trying to start
his car, complaining about the twisting Anglo-Saxon lanes, jetting off
to Vienna or New York (but thinking all the while about an ash-tree he
planted at home); Hunter Booth after rabbits or hares; Naturalist Booth
studying mushrooms, noting a Little Owl or a peregrine, the timeless
cutting and digging processes of farming, pondering the crassness of
human attempts at improvement (‘what / disgrace of / beauty suggested
to / the Eastern / Electricity Generating / Board, to / erect a grey / relay
transmitter / box upon / a stiffened / pine pole in / a direct line between

the poet on his work

my / study and / the histories held with- / in the / church-tower...’). And
here is ‘forefather Cnot’ barking back about what a bad shot the poet is,
repeatedly asserting his prior claim to this bit of England, defying the
Normans, the Nazis, the Americans, spanning his ‘god-place’, the fields,
‘with/two/wide fingers’ and remarking of the church that ‘we don’t /
really need / this holy / building’ while getting on with his dark age life:
counting his wives, minding the land, establishing a place in history.


Some years ago, after a Good Friday walk with my family around a new
nature reserve in Knotting, conscious of so many shades at my elbow
(even Robert Southey had connections with this tiny place), I wrote the
following poem. It is, I realise now, an excessively literary piece of work,
revelling too much in its own wit and allusion (Pye strikes me as par-
ticularly indigestible), but the very name ‘Knotting’ suggested a proud
show of filigree, conjuring Elizabethan gardens and Arthurian quests.
Nor could I resist the fact that merlins were rumoured to haunt the area,
that Booth’s press had been called ‘Sceptre’. ‘Knotting’, then, became
an exercise in what Charles Tomlinson has called ‘healing artifice’.

the poet on his work

In memory of Martin Booth (1944-2004)

A merlin chasing a skylark
as I pick through the black-
thorn, teasel and oak
set-aside, and think
of that sixties press, the Sceptre,
publishing all those future
poets here; then of Waller,
once the plot’s owner,
preserved in a verse enclosure
by his ‘Go, Lovely Rose’.
A stream leads through hedgerows
to a sump. And, of course,
Pye, Pitt’s infill
Laureate, whose serial
dullness ripened all
the way to Southey – he’ll
have adopted a manor here,
forgotten like Cavalier
and post-war pamphleteer.
But who to ask? I’m aware
of a low protective laugh
from the church tower, a half
restored memorial’s grave
silence, the only relief
St George, some windows
smashed in a barn, a garden
growling and (invisible under
his son’s bonnet) a father
who ignores our Easter outing
to this once and future
common land. Knotting
tightens around its nothing.


The Reader gets angry

scenes from a PGCE

Gabriella Gruder-Poni

T wo months into a PGCE in English, I noticed that the Year 9
students in my school, considered one of the best in the county,
had trouble with basic vocabulary: ‘envy’, ‘lament’, ‘fiend’,
‘distinguish’, ‘negative’ and ‘eternal’ were Greek to them; no
wonder they found reading frustrating. So I brought from
home a stack of vocabulary books that I had used in middle school. With
their witty exercises on usage and notes on etymology, these books had
awakened in me a love for the English language. In the spirit of sharing a
good book, I lent one of the volumes to the convenor of my PGCE. A few
months later, instead of returning the book to me, Mr. F— summoned
me to his office. ‘Why did you lend this book to me?’ he demanded.
‘I thought you would be interested’. Far from being interested, he was
outraged. The book was ‘dreadful’ and ‘frightening’. Wouldn’t learning
new words make the students better readers and writers? Not at all; the
books were ‘boring’ and ‘dangerous’ because they did not include all
possible definitions of the words. Hoping to placate him, I said, ‘If you
don’t want me to use them, I won’t’. ‘Oh, you certainly won’t,’ he ex-
claimed, ‘They’ll never need these words!’ I left the interview with those
words ringing in my ears. Never need words like ‘assail’, ‘assimilate’, or
‘mishap’. Why not? Didn’t he expect them to read or to write when they
left school? I began to suspect that my students’ ignorance might be a
consequence of attitudes like those of Mr. F—.
One of his objections to learning vocabulary was that it would take
up valuable class time. If one hour a week on vocabulary was too much,
what, then, was there time for in school?


Year 6: ‘Literacy Hour’
The students read a biography on the website ‘’ and then
gave one-minute presentations on what they had learned. Unfortunate-
ly the website, sponsored by a television station, directs the reader to
profiles of entertainment celebrities. So the students spent half an hour
madly clicking from one celebrity to another. One of the few students
who didn’t choose a pop star was a boy from Sudan who had been a
refugee for most of his life. He chose Nelson Mandela. Maybe because
Liban was shy about speaking in public, or maybe because English was
his third language, he gave a confused presentation. ‘He was very brave’,
he kept repeating, without saying why Mandela had spent decades in
prison. I was sure the teacher would pick up where Liban left off. I re-
member well the homilies my primary school teachers in the US and in
Italy gave on exemplary lives, on civil rights workers, and on the people
who had sheltered Jews in the Second World War. I was moved by these
stories, and often we students came back the next day with our own
tales, having quizzed parents and grandparents. But this teacher said
nothing more about the life of Nelson Mandela. Instead she stood up
and gave her own presentation – on Sean Connery.
Year 8: Text Types
The class was broken into pairs; each pair received an envelope contain-
ing pieces of paper with the names of different ‘text types’ written on
them. The students then had to tell each other the order of the planets
following the conventions of a randomly selected ‘text type’. For an hour
the children said things like, ‘Add Mercury to Venus and stir’ (recipe)
or ‘Great pass from Earth to Mars!’ (rugby commentary) or ‘Turn left at
Jupiter and go straight until you reach Saturn’ (travel directions).
Text Message
The year before I enrolled in the PGCE there had been a small scandal
in the press surrounding a student who text-messaged an essay to her
teacher. It was agreed that those who criticised the student were old
fogies. By contrast Mr. F— encouraged us to come up with ‘creative’
ways to ‘integrate’ mobile phones and computer games into lessons.
A-Level class
The students drew illustrated maps of the places described in the book
they were reading. In another lesson, the teacher picked objects out of
a bag and asked her students to explain their significance in the book;
then she covered all the objects with a cloth and asked the students to
make a list of as many objects as they could remember.

Two overriding themes emerge in this sample of characteristic lessons.
First, there’s the pursuit of topicality: ‘Students are interested in mobile


phones and celebrities; therefore, we’ll give them lessons about mobile
phones and celebrities.’ There was no notion that education ought to
expand one’s horizons, or that students might enjoy being introduced
to new ideas. The teachers were fatalists: the students are as they are,
and we’re not going to change them. But their fatalism was self-righ-
teous rather than regretful. Once I prepared a worksheet on paragraph

“The real reason for the banishment of culture was the
lack of interest not among students but among teachers.”
structure for my Year 8 students, which included a paragraph on Leon-
ardo da Vinci. The teacher objected that Katherine, the weakest student
in an outstanding class, ‘Won’t have heard of the 1500s or of Leonardo’.
To me that seemed an excellent reason to introduce Leonardo; for the
teacher, it was self-evidently a reason not to do so. His own handouts
for the class concerned hair care and school policy on stationery. I began
to wonder if the real reason for the banishment from the classroom of
anything that smacked of culture was the lack of interest not among
students but among teachers. For the students, especially the younger
ones, regularly showed themselves to be curious about subjects other
than gadgets and celebrities.
The second theme is an absolute lack of faith in words. Pictures, objects,
role-plays: these were considered memorable and compelling. But not
words. Methods that didn’t involve words were approvingly called
‘learning by doing’, and I can see the importance of varied methods in
many subjects, but not if they exclude the spoken or written word. What
does ‘learning by doing’ mean in the study of English, a subject that
consists of words? How can one ‘do’ English without reading, writing,
and discussing?
My supervisors were deeply sceptical of any teaching that involved
explanations; when they spoke to students they gave instructions, never
explanations. To use an analogy: in teaching addition one might walk a
class through some examples: 2 + 1 = 3, 3 + 3 =6. Then one might give
the students problems to solve on their own: 3 + 1 = 4, 2 + 3 = 5. In
the schools I worked in, the problems students were asked to solve were
identical to the ones the teachers had given as examples: i.e. one would
tell the students that 2 + 2 = 4, and then ask the students to solve 2 + 2.
How could one gauge if a student had understood a concept or was simply
parroting what the teacher had done, I once dared to ask. The answer: ‘In
a comprehensive school the example must be identical to the application’.
There was no opportunity for the student to practise or to understand; a
student had just one chance to mimic what the teacher did. It struck me
that English was being taught as if it were factory work; in manual labour


there’s no great difference between practising and mimicking.
To give a concrete example: I was to teach the semicolon to a class
of Year 8 students – a very good class. The semicolon, I said, was used
to join two closely-related clauses – I had explained what a clause was
– for balance or contrast. For example: ‘Pools cool us in summer; fires
warm us in winter’. ‘The concert was over; the band went home.’ After
discussing the examples and taking their questions I asked them to
write sentences with semicolons. By the end of the lesson I was satisfied
that they understood, but somewhat nervous because my lesson was
not identical to the one outlined in the notes the supervising teacher
had given me. As the students packed up I asked one boy, ‘Do you feel
you understood?’ The boy nodded and I must have betrayed some
anxiety because he added, ‘Don’t worry, miss! You’re a good teacher!’
The supervising teacher thought otherwise. This article is not a brief
of self-defence but my supervisors’ criticisms of my teaching are worth
mentioning because they are so revealing. In this case, I was reproved for
not having given a formula for the sentences students were to write. ‘You
have to consider why they need the semicolon for this project.’ ‘Surely

“He might as well have warned me not to expose the
students to ideas”

they’re learning the semicolon not just for this project’, I thought. This
was not the worst of my crimes though. Mr. B— warned me against
exposing secondary school students to ‘abstract ideas’, a reference, I
suppose, to ‘balance and contrast’. What is an abstract idea? Don’t the
basics of arithmetic and grammar involve abstractions? I think he had
in mind any kind of learning that went beyond mimicking formulae; he
might as well have warned me not to expose the students to ideas, full
stop. He recommended teaching the students one use of the semicolon
each year all through secondary school. There are really only two uses of
the semicolon, and as I was trying to figure out if he could possibly be
serious he said something much more shocking: ‘This is a mechanical
way of writing, but it will get them a C at GCSE, which is all these stu-
dents need to do what they want to do in life’. But these were very good
students! And they were only twelve years old – how did he know what
they wanted to do in life?! I listened in shock as he tried to impress upon
me how dim the students were, how useless to explain ‘ideas’ to them.
After that lesson I was forbidden to teach that Year 8 class again. Oc-
casionally I heard Mr. B— regaling his colleagues in the staff room with
tales of the stupid things his students had said. I couldn’t help thinking,
‘Do you take no responsibility for your students’ ignorance?’


I mentioned the students’ limited vocabulary. They were equally
held back by their ignorance of grammar. If I pointed out that a sentence
lacked a subject or a verb, they had no idea what I was talking about.
Not teaching grammar is like not publishing the laws of a country. If I
have to introduce a grammatical concept when a student has made a
mistake I seem arbitrary and pedantic. If, on the other hand, I point out
a mistake to a student who has some understanding of grammar, the
student himself can explain what’s wrong and fix it. The mistake, not
the student, is in the dock. But grammar is so out of fashion that even
the teachers don’t know it. In my nine months in secondary schools, I
heard grammar terms mentioned twice. Once, Mr. B— talked about the
‘passive tense’ (not ‘voice’), and on the other occasion Ms C— asked,
‘What is the noun in this sentence?’ when she meant ‘subject’. To be
sure, ‘subject’ and ‘noun’ are related categories, as are addition and
multiplication, but a teacher should know the difference.
There’s one last good reason to study grammar: it’s a way to get used
to a specialised vocabulary, to words that don’t obviously correspond to
things, in a word, to abstractions – Mr. B—’s bugbear. As such, the study
of grammar is preparation for adult life: in one’s role as citizen, worker,
tenant, or patient, one occasionally needs to stand up for one’s rights, and
it’s essential not to be intimidated by bureaucratic language. By studying
grammar, students learn that technical terms are not magic spells.
Curiously, Mr. F— recommended that we introduce our students to
Polari, a kind of slang spoken by gay men in London up to the 1960s.
The examples he gave of Polari were funny and intriguing, but I had to
wonder why Polari took precedence over words that the students might
come across in books and use in their own writing. I suspect that my
supervisor considers a linguistic standard a pernicious notion. He has
co-authored an article entitled ‘Silencing Differences? Teaching the lit-
eracies of class and sexuality in the US and the UK’. I quote:
Relying on a postcolonial interpretive frame, we will examine
how academic literacies seek to produce normative identities
– aligned with the transparency of self in a self/other relation –
that connect all too well with public and corporate narratives
about the purposes of schooling. Specifically, we argue that
movements to standardise literacy education far from provid-
ing the equal playing field of the meritocracy they are purported
to offer only continue to disenfranchise those already most
marginalised from schooling by undercutting students’ critical
potential to alter culture rather than conform to it.

Which is Mr. F—’s real reason for wishing to keep students in ignorance:
this perverse belief that illiteracy is something precious that ought to be
preserved, or the contempt for students that he betrayed to me?


My first officially-observed lesson came at the end of a Year 9 unit
on war poetry. I chose excerpts from All Quiet On the Western Front and The
Good Soldier Svejk to read and analyse. The students were clearly engaged
and interested; even the observer said so. Nonetheless, the texts I had
chosen were ‘too hard’ and class discussion was ‘not an acceptable’
format. Why? Not all of the students were contributing, and since they
weren’t taking notes, they wouldn’t retain anything of the discussion.
But ‘listening skills’ are actually part of the National Curriculum. My
offer to teach note-taking – skills I was taught at age nine in an ordi-
nary state primary school in Italy – was not welcomed. The ban on class
discussion was a big disappointment. I had enrolled in the PGCE in

“Widespread illiteracy was an acknowledged fact in the
school, but it was never treated as an urgent problem”

the hope that I would be able to practise this essential skill, and I had
looked forward to getting to know my students as students, as think-
ers. How was that going to happen if we weren’t allowed to exchange
ideas and interpretations? I suspect that the reasons for the ban on class
discussion go beyond the question of how many students were partici-
pating or taking notes; my supervisor harboured a deep antipathy to
debate. In one unpleasant interview Mr. F— said, ‘It’s clear that you’re
cooperating, but it’s clear too that you still have your own ideas. This
must change.’ I admitted to having opinions. That wasn’t enough for
him. ‘They’re beliefs, not opinions … You’re wrong, you’re just wrong.’
My lesson on All Quiet on the Western Front was finally deemed unsat-
isfactory because I wasn’t thinking enough about ‘the students’ needs’.
My supervisor never elaborated, but soon I came to see that many stu-
dents did indeed have desperate needs: about one third of them could
barely read. Before my year in a comprehensive school I hadn’t under-
stood what functional illiteracy was; I’d never imagined that there were
so many intermediate stages between not reading and reading. Many of
my students were mired in a twilight zone between literacy and illitera-
cy: they knew the letters of the alphabet (if not always their order); they
could sound out most monosyllables; and they could understand short,
simple sentences consisting of short, simple words. Anything beyond
that and they were at sea. This meant that anything that might engage
their interest was too difficult, or at least, too difficult to be enjoyable,
and so they fell further and further behind.
One might imagine that a lot of time would be devoted to remedial
reading. Nothing could be further from the truth. Widespread illiter-
acy was an acknowledged fact in the school, but it was never treated


as an urgent problem; while at the university education department,
student illiteracy was politely ignored, even though it governed (often
arbitrarily) every assumption about what was and was not possible. The
lessons I observed were geared to the weakest students, but not in the
sense of teaching them what they needed to know – to read – but rather
of keeping them busy, and occasionally enabling them to pretend they
could do what in fact they couldn’t do.
For the first time in their lives, the students in Year 10 were to write a
literary essay. Not the department’s choice; the directive came from above.
The chosen work: Frankenstein. Not that the book ever entered the picture.
Students watched a breathless video on Mary Shelley’s life; they were
given synopses of selected chapters; they made PowerPoint presentations
on the synopses. After a few more activities designed to familiarise them
with the plot they were deemed ready to write their essays. The teacher
supplied the department’s essay outline, which detailed not only the topic
of each paragraph but also the content, including examples and quota-
tions to be used. Students could even request fill-in-the-blanks ‘writing
frames’. No wonder the teacher saw no connection between class discus-
sion and writing. The students weren’t composing their own essays. The
outline was a hodge-podge of ingredients the department knew exam-
iners would be pleased to see. Carla, one of a handful of students who
decided, on their own initiative, actually to read the novel, wrote a long
and thoughtful essay. ‘She puts us to shame’, I thought. The teacher’s
reaction, ‘You know Carla – always does more than she has to.’ And yet
Carla and dozens of students I met like her poured themselves into their
work time after time, with little or no encouragement. It was like unre-
quited love.
I couldn’t help thinking that every activity was assigned to mini-
mise the vast difference between the good students and the students
who were lazy or who could barely read. The bar was set so low that

“The teachers were indifferent to talent”
no one could fail to get over it. In fact there was no notion of ‘failure’ –
the teachers had given up that (negative) incentive to work hard. And
therein lies the paradox: if one honestly believes that all students can
reach the same level, one also has to believe in hard work, for there’s no
other way to overcome differences in achievement. But hard work had
been thrown out of the window. The lack of a sense of urgency about
student achievement could have been justified if the teachers thought
talent was all that mattered – the talented child will do well in any event
– but one thing is certain: the teachers I worked with were indifferent to
talent. When schools don’t do their job, the importance of background


is magnified: students from illiterate families are much more likely to
remain illiterate in a school that expects the minimum from them. Eve-
rywhere I encountered the same poisonous combination of classism and
anti-intellectualism. Schools in the late nineteenth century were the cat-
alyst for social mobility, but the schools in which I worked were devoted
to nothing so much as social stasis.
In May, I met with the parents of my Year 7 students in routine
parent-teacher conferences. I had prepared reading lists, and planned
to say to each parent, ‘Nothing will improve your child’s writing skills
more than reading. Here’s a list of books he or she might enjoy’. I did
this with the first family but after they left, Ms E—, my supervising
teacher, said to me, ‘Don’t give that list out to anyone else. This is a
comprehensive school, and these are working-class families. They don’t
go to the library regularly.’ Well, I’d be happy to give them an excuse to
go to the library, I thought. I did however get permission to offer reading
suggestions to students, if they approached me individually. Over the
next few days a steady trickle of students came up to ask for the list.
The parent-teacher conference was a revelation, because I saw that
some of these supposedly bovine parents were sceptical about what was
going on in school. Turning to Ms E—, they said: ‘Couldn’t you assign
more homework? His little brother, who’s seven years old, gets more
homework than he does’. ‘She’s starting to read books like Black Beauty
and Tom Sawyer.’ (‘Those are on my list!’ I thought to myself.) ‘When
I was her age we were reading the Iliad. I guess times have changed.’
(This last statement was from the mother of a girl who seemed to be in
a constant state of suppressed impatience, and no wonder: when I gave
her the list, she told me that the last book she’d enjoyed was Life of Pi.)
Four years will pass before these children are asked to read a book
cover to cover in school, four delicate years between childhood and ado-
lescence, when a child’s natural curiosity must become habitual if it
is to survive. Young people lose their thirst for knowledge if there is
no intellectual sustenance. Yet every time I suggested teaching a topic
that might begin to make up for years of wasted time, I was told it was
impossible because this was a comprehensive school, because these stu-
dents weren’t like me or the people with whom I had gone to school. A
school that takes all kinds should not be able to argue that its students
have to be treated like invalids.
The professionals who supervised me subscribed to two contradictory
beliefs: that they had nothing to teach the students, no knowledge to
impart; and that the students’ origins were their destiny. I’m convinced of
the contrary: I’m sure I have a great deal to teach my students, but I do so
in the expectation that one day they will be my intellectual equals.


richard meier

To A New Teacher

Between the old job, which half-killed you, and
this new one, the career you’ve planned

so long now, you have summered
half with Homer, half with the mud

of our young garden. What I love
you will say, typically, is how he’ll give

each warrior, however briefly mentioned,
all his gaze, his whole attention,

then lead me outside and straight onto
what’s been uprooted, what’s been planted…

You who’ve camped out on the outskirts of
your own life long enough,

you who know how hard
they often are to tell apart –

the living, the
unliving thing –

you’re leaving Limbo now, in your own style:
simply, amply, with your book, your trowel.

the reading revolution

diaries of the reader organisation

Jen Tomkins

I can’t paint you a picture of a ‘normal day’ at The Reader Organisa-
tion because there isn’t one.
Recently I found myself at the Royal College of Psychiatrists
Annual Meeting. ‘What’s all this then? What is The Reader Organi-
sation?’ I hear a gentleman behind me as I stand by our stall at the
conference. I explain that we use books to give people something real
to carry home when day is done, to quote Saul Bellow. ‘Ah, so you get
people to read to make them feel better? What if they can’t read?’ he chal-
lenges. ‘Reading is exclusive, rather than inclusive.’ But we read aloud
at our meetings. Anyone, whatever their reading ability, can be involved
in a Get Into Reading group. A spark lights and my interlocutor gets the
idea entirely, ‘So, the focus isn’t on anyone’s problem, it’s on the book – a
focus away from the problem but still about the personal response.’
Later that day I met a psychiatrist who also works as a librarian on a
Royal Navy submarine. Do you know the two types of books most read
by officers on a submarine? There are the epic classics such as The Odyssey
and War and Peace but then, more unexpectedly, Mills & Boon novels,
and the really romantic ones at that. The librarian’s explanation is that
the epics provide a useful parallel to their huge journeys while the Mills
& Boons supply a tenderness that is much needed when surrounded
entirely by men in a metal machine at the bottom of the ocean.
Shortly after my psychiatric encounter, I found myself doing a pres-
entation with my colleague Amanda Brown to the Chief Executives of
Bibby Holdings, a Liverpool-based shipping firm with global influence.
One man speaks his mind: ‘I don’t read poetry. I hate it actually. I was
totally put off it at school.’ Okay, this is going to be tough, I think, as a
nod of consensus goes around the room. We read the poem, ‘Well Water’
by Randall Jarrell, and a few individuals start tentatively to take part in
a discussion, but not the man who hates poetry; he is still quiet. After
a few minutes he comes back into it: ‘If you want to say something,

THE reading revolution

just say it. Don’t put it into flowery language and make us interpret
it.’ Speaking as a business man, he has a point. But, to quote Mamet,
you can’t bluff someone who’s not paying attention. Literary language
allows us to communicate in a more powerful way, ‘you cup your hands
/ And gulp from them the dailiness of life’ (‘Well Water’). To my great
surprise, after taking part in the session, the man’s parting comment
was an admission, to all in the room, that he kept a folder full of quotes
from novels, biographies and essays in a file at work. This is something
that I don’t think he would have shared with his colleagues in other
circumstances. William Morris said, ‘It took me years to understand
that words are often as important as experience, because words make
experience last.’
We’re reading Paradise Lost in my Get Into Reading group at the Blue-
coat. It’s a journey we’re undertaking not without fear. Here Sin (Satan’s
child, and bride) is speaking:
Pensive here I sat
Alone, but long I sat not, till my womb
Pregnant by thee, and now excessive grown
Prodigious motion felt and rueful throes.
At last this odious offspring whom thou seest
Thine own begotten, breaking violent way
Tore through my entrails, that with fear and pain
Distorted, all my nether shape thus grew
Transform’d: but he my inbred enemie
Forth issu’d, brandishing his fatal Dart
Made to destroy: I fled, and cry’d out Death;
Hell trembl’d at the hideous Name, and sigh’d
From all her Caves, and back resounded Death.

Just before this passage, we discover that Satan ‘gave birth’ to Sin in
Heaven, ‘a goddess armed / Out of thy head I sprung’. Now we learn
that Sin gave birth to Death, Satan’s son. ‘But Sin doesn’t need to really
exist, it’s just that Satan’s given birth to the idea of Sin’ was the response
from a group member called Eliot (or so I’ll call him here), who often
says little in the discussion. At this point he started to understand the
text as an allegory for being human. The insight that Satan can ‘think’
of Sin and that it is this created thought which will be what eventually
infects the human race: this was an inspiration in the group that week.
‘Oh, and I hope you notice that Sin’s a woman!’, he added.
Here’s a selection of poems for you that we’ve recently enjoyed in
the group: ‘I Am’ by John Clare; ‘Telling Stories’ by Elizabeth Jennings;
‘Trust’ by D. H. Lawrence; ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ by Gerard Manley
Hopkins; and ‘The Seed’ by Hal Summers. Try them yourselves.

the reading revolution


Ciara Rutherford

I t is by doing a thing that you become it, said Aristotle. Students
in the School of English at University of Liverpool have recently
taken part in a ‘Reading in Practice’ project (funded by the English
Subject Centre, Higher Education Academy) which has placed
them in The Reader Organisation’s ‘Get Into Reading’ groups in
the local community. Here they reflect on how participation in shared
reading groups has made more dedicated readers of themselves and of

In the second year of her English studies, Katie Baker visited the Mossley Hill
Hospital which specialises in treating people with advanced dementia. Here she
experienced at first hand how literature can help people with neurological prob-
lems rediscover old memories:
Often, the literature that was most popular with the group members
were poems which evoked happy and positive memories for them.
Because of the condition from which they suffered, reminiscence was an
important tool for everybody within the group, often suddenly seizing
their interest in something from their past which connected them to
themselves, to the poem and to one another. Frequently we would read
a piece of literature together that would spark off memories and often a
conversation between the entire group – sometimes even a group recita-
tion. It was gratifying to realise that the literature I take for granted has

the reading revolution

the ability to reach people who may not otherwise have had experience
of it. In this way, communities can be created from people that can find
common ground in literature, even if they have never really taken a
great interest in reading before. By the time I finished at Mossley Hil, I
really felt that we had become a proper reading ‘community’, and it was
always a pleasure to hear people telling stories from their past as a result
of the literature we had read together. I learned that ultimately reading
is a great help, even for people who have become mentally isolated, in
gaining trust and coming together.’

Maria Shmygol, also in her second year as an English Literature student, led a
reading group in a mental health day centre.
‘One of the rewarding and mentally stretching things about the project
for us was that it encouraged us to engage with literature that wasn’t
part of our university syllabus and perhaps even discover texts that we
had never read before. During the first few weeks of being a group-
leader at the Crown Street Mental Health Day Centre I brought along
some pieces of literature that I had personally enjoyed in the hopes that
I could share them with my group – a few poems by Christina Ros-
setti and a short story by Anton Chekhov, which, as I rather awkwardly
found out, were not the best things to start a group off on. I found
my salvation in several poems by Yeats, Wordsworth and other ‘greats’
with whom the group was already familiar, though initially I was not.
The reading material was really well received, especially Coleridge’s ‘To
Nature’, which provoked a discussion about individual experiences of
nature and the seasons. One regular member of the group who was
usually shy had a go at reading the poem and stayed to discuss it, which
was a pleasing surprise because he didn’t usually stay in the group, pre-
ferring to sit in his room.’

In her 3rd year of undergraduate study, Emma Hayward visited the Lauries
Centre in Birkenhead, for people with mental or physical health problems. At the
Centre Emma discovered how enthusiastic her group members were, and how
much they enjoyed debating the texts they were reading:
‘“I am going to have withdrawal symptoms” announced the group
member who had just closed Great Expectations. Although it was the end
of a book it was my first time volunteering with the Get Into Reading
project at The Lauries Centre in Birkenhead and I was astonished by this
person’s complete conviction and engagement with the novel. For him,
reading and discussing this novel each week had become necessary, not

the reading revolution

just desired. I soon learnt however, that it was not just a withdrawal
from Great Expectations, or from Dickens in general, but a withdrawal
from any book, play or poem that was to be concluded.
Reading back over my journals of my time with the group, I re-
discovered just how much each member connected with the works
we were reading and not solely on an emotional level but on a liter-
ary, philosophical and academic level as well. The members of this
group absolutely relished telling me why they disagreed with me, why
they thought something in the book did not work or indeed why they
thought it did. I wanted the group to become exposed to so much more
literature, knowing that they had the potential and willingness to tackle
any genre and subject matter. On my final day I was sad to say goodbye
to the people I had argued with so enjoyably. The most profound thing
that I learnt during my placement was how successful reading aloud
and together really was. Each new voice pulled something out of the
text that other group members were not conscious of. As I left then, I
was not only sad but also a little envious because they got to stay and
read the next chapter together.’
(At a recent Reading in Practice conference, showcasing the volunteer
work, Emma spoke of how her experience of the reading group right at
the end of her degree had made her aware of withdrawal symptoms of
her own. She has now returned to full-time postgraduate study on the
MA in Contemporary Literature.)

Eleanor McCann visited the Kevin White Unit, a drug detox centre. She saw there
the potentially therapeutic benefits of reading.
‘As a group, we have used books as a tool for instantly engaging with
strangers, as a resource for broaching delicate, deeply personal subjects
and even as a kind of medicine: at the Kevin White Unit, a drug detox
centre that I visited, the reading group gives a period of respite to people
suffering from the initial stages of withdrawal. To watch an illiterate
man there listening intently as a text is read aloud and suggesting per-
ceptive ideas about what he has heard is truly magical. The Get Into
Reading project has allowed me to see that reading can offer a common
ground and give people an opportunity to do something both challeng-
ing and healing even during times of adversity. As an English student,
it has been so rewarding to implement my learning in a vocational way,
a way that really does matter. It’s so easy for undergraduate students
to get sucked into the “let’s get wrecked” culture: this kind of project
means you don’t have to settle for that.’

the reading revolution

Helen Sheridan is basing her third-year dissertation on her experiences in a
reading group in Windsor House acute psychiatric unit, researching the therapeu-
tic benefits of shared reading.
‘I have been visiting Windsor House every week for 6 months. It is
quite a transient group, with people sometimes attending for only 3
to 4 weeks, and the levels of concentration and attention vary greatly.
It is not unusual for a group member to say the reading group experi-
ence is the most relaxed they have felt all week or even in a long while.
One member of the group, who had not read for a long time and was
nervous about joining, read aloud for a short period and was reminded
of her love of reading and how it gave her a refuge from the real world
and what was going on around her. People rarely read aloud, but when
they do, you can see their confidence grow and grow! It was especially
encouraging when a woman who was not a native speaker of English
decided to read aloud. It was a real struggle, but at the end you could
see the sense of achievement in her face.’

When reflecting on our experiences the overriding feeling amongst us
was that suddenly our study of English literature was no longer purely
academic. In the reading groups there are no pretences or qualifications
to be met; literature is there to be explored and enjoyed through honest,
individual responses. One of the most rewarding aspects of the project
is being able to share literature that you love with people who might
not have touched a book in years. There was a mounting awareness
amongst us that we were now able to use our learning vocationally and
that reading groups were having a profound effect on our relationship
with literature.

Rob Lewis put it like this:

‘I am now a bit clearer about what it is that literature does for us that is
so important. I’ve always known but never really had to, or felt the need
to, express it in a clear way. Exam papers and essay questions are usually
more particular and less philosophically orientated. But I see how in
reading a story or a poem a voice speaks to us and it happens only in
our own mind… We don’t have to worry about what other people think
or say about what the voice means, what matters is that each of us has
our own receptive inwardness, a relation that is subjective and unique
to us. Because of this we can allow literature to say things to us that it
would be too uncomfortable to hear from some other voice outside of
us. Literature can work safely, without being seen or heard, without

the reading revolution

drawing attention from those outside. Therefore, it is safe for us to let
it in, to allow it to affect us whilst maintaining a degree of control, we
can always put down or close the book, or choose a different one. And
in doing so, we find the world is still there, mostly as we left it and so
realize we can safely go back to the private voice that tells a tale that
helps to make sense of, helps to re-write, helps us to think about what
to write next, in our own life-story.’

The most important aspect of the project was the impact literature had
on the members of our reading groups. One of the most gratifying and
positive things that happened was seeing how the reading each week
opened up the members of the group. It enabled them to reminisce and
tell stories from their past, it enabled them to make conversations with
people they may otherwise not have spoken to, and above all, it enabled
them simply to come together, to have something in common and to
take something from each piece that mattered to them. When members
of the group said things like ‘that was the most relaxed I’ve felt all
day’, or just simply that they will come back next week, you know that
your time has been well spent. We hope this account of the project will
serve as an inspiration for students or members of the public who have
thought about getting involved in Get Into Reading, and demonstrate
that projects of this kind ought to be a vital aspect of any English Lit-
erature degree.


eleanor cooke


It hurts where his mother held his hand.
He isn’t afraid. He wants to see
what the accident’s done to him.
He isn’t prepared for the machines,
the hoist; something that could be his father.
The nurse smiles: ‘Your Daddy’s a model
patient.’ A tube tickles Oscar’s arm,
gurgles and moves of its own accord,
readjusts. Back home, the house
begins its whispering again.
Oscar takes paper, pens, a straw.
He makes a man – wires, tubes, a face –
and writes in felt-tip pen, Alive.

YOUR regulars

a world elsewhere

Jane Davis

For you the city, thus I turn my back:
There is a world elsewhere.”

S o Shakespeare’s Coriolanus declares as he leaves the city
of Rome, where he has been brought to task and ban-
ished by the people for whom he fought and suffered. His
cry is familiar in its force, but though we may all want to
believe in ‘a world elsewhere’, we’re generally stuck with
this world. It is a metaphysical as well as a practical problem: Coriolanus
doesn’t say ‘there is a place’ or ‘city’ or ‘career’ or even ‘life elsewhere’;
leaving Rome, for him, is leaving the ‘world’. This one moment, in a play
about a man of action, is all about the need of belief. He needs to believe
that in turning his back on Rome (everything he believes in and lives
by), he will find another place to believe in and live by, elsewhere.
Being human means living in and through the mixture of outer
reality and inner experience that is consciousness. The place where
we may be most human is on the line between those two realms, the
inward and the outward, signified in Coriolanus’ speech by the colon
following ‘thus I turn my back’. It marks a moment of silence or gather-
ing thought. It is here that we have the possibility of acting on belief
and thus changing external reality; the place where an idea may turn
into an action. It’s on this level that, while most of us aren’t soldiers, Co-
riolanus still works for us; we fight for things in which we believe, even
if only internally or in small-scale ways. The warning signs of belief are

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small but insistent. When reading or watching the news, as we see or
hear of human stupidity, corruption or war, that feeling, ‘there is a world
elsewhere’, will be with us. But on this enormous scale the instinct that
rises (‘thus I turn my back’) can have little effect in terms of creating
a new world: we often simply switch off and go back into the smaller
world of personal experience. As the play becomes the tragedy it is, we
understand that Coriolanus cannot actually inhabit ‘a world elsewhere’:
Rome and he are inseparable. And yet the phrase resonates. If only in
memory, hope or imagination, we need that possibility.
The growing good of the world depends, as George Eliot tells us at the
end of Middlemarch, on ‘unhistoric acts’ that are performed in the realm
of personal experience: you don’t leave school, you join the sixth form
council and push through a piece of legislation that allows whatever it
is that was driving you mad about school to be changed; you don’t hand
your notice in, but fight your boss at staff meetings, month in month out,
and force a change of policy; you don’t leave Rome, you fight it. World-
creating acts may be even smaller than this, too. The mass of men perform
regularly and unspectacularly what Wordsworth calls ‘that best portion of
a good man’s life, / His little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness
and of love.’ In the Nazi concentration camps, ordinary Germans (people
who fell in love, got married, looked after their aged mothers, walked
dogs and taught their children to read) who had become ‘Nazis’, con-
structed a world in which it was almost impossible to perform such little,
nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness. Everything human depends
on these acts, as Primo Levi demonstrates in If This Is A Man:
An Italian civilian worker brought me a piece of bread and the
remainder of his ration every day for six months; he gave me a
vest of his, full of patches; he wrote a postcard on my behalf to
Italy, and brought me the reply… I believe it was really due to
Lorenzo that I am alive today and not so much for his material
aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his pres-
ence… that there still existed a just world outside our own,
something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not
savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult
to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was
worth surviving.

I say ‘ordinary Germans’ to press myself into remembering that these
were people like myself – not inhuman, not without feeling, but vulner-
able to social pressures and human weakness. I say it to press myself
to remember that when we are not performing unremembered acts of
kindness, we are probably performing little, nameless acts of unkind-
ness and it is only by a sort of moral or social luck that our unkindnesses
happen in a setting which doesn’t encourage them. Bruno Bettelheim,

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the child psychologist and psychoanalytic thinker, was incarcerated
in Dachau for eleven months before escaping to the USA during an
amnesty declared in celebration of Hitler’s birthday. Thinking over how
his incarceration had changed his psychoanalytic views, Bettelheim
writes of the interface between inside and out:
Only dimly at first but with ever greater clarity, did I come also
to see that soon how a man acts can alter what he is. Those
who stood up well in the camps became better men, those
who acted badly soon became bad men; and this, or at least
so it seemed, independent of their past life history and their
former personality make-up.

Those are my italics on ‘how’ and ‘what’; those questioning words point
to the dynamic relation of idea and action: a sort of reversal and confirma-
tion of Nietzsche’s bewilderingly circular aphorism, ‘We become what we
are’. Or what we believe we are. All of which is to say that human beings
are believing animals, and that what we believe changes reality, including
the nature of the human beings doing the changing. Beliefs matter.
Ideas flower when people believe in them and therefore live them. ‘Oh
brave new world, that has such creatures in it,’ cried Miranda, meeting
for the first time a bunch of (not very reputable) outsiders to her world
in The Tempest, and she believes that as she says it. It is her grown up
and disappointed father, Prospero, who mutters ‘‘Tis new to thee’ from
another place of belief altogether. And so to the Peckham Experiment. I
don’t remember when I was last so excited by an idea in a book, though
I am old enough to understand that some more experienced people will
be muttering ‘‘Tis new to thee’ as I gaze in wonder and imagine all kinds
of possibilities. A colleague gave me some books she thought I’d be in-
terested in – one looking a bit like a 1970s’ geography textbook, one
like a parish magazine, another something from an out-of-date sociology
collection. A few weeks later I set myself to have a quick read and found
these old-fashioned looking books exploding with interest. Inside their
very ordinary covers, they were books like brain-changing drugs. ‘Wow’
I kept saying (my vocabulary not being as good as Miranda’s at the end
of a busy working day), and ‘this is an amazing story!’
The Peckham Experiment deserves a novel (someone write it please)
or at the very least a biography of its two founders, Drs G. Scott William-
son and I. H. Pearse. (For an introductory account read the piece which
follows this by Lisa Curtice on page 76.) The people who conceived the
idea are dead. The practical reality they created to demonstrate and ex-
periment with their idea is dismantled. But the idea is alive: there it was
between those not too attractive covers, shining, brilliant, way ahead of
its time. Ahead of us, too.

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In The Peckham Experiment (1943), which documents the work, Innes
H Pearse and Lucy H. Crocker write,
So vivid was the life, so illuminating the understanding that
came to those who worked and moved in and with the ex-
periment, that it remains unobliterable. The war, passing like
the black shadow of an eclipse across the world, has caused
the experiment to be suspended, but live and vibrant beneath
what is now a scorched earth, ‘the Centre’ lives to thrust up
in a new age.
It has already proved itself a ‘living structure’.

How startling to notice the date and to realise that at the very time
Nazism was creating death factories, this pair of British doctors were
conceiving the idea of ‘health centres’. The two ideas, though on very
different scales – large-scale mass destruction and small-scale social
health, seem to be at opposite ends of the same belief spectrum. I was
really moved by the sense that the physical centre was simply a physical
manifestation of the more enduring and powerful thing: the idea. ‘The
Centre’ was not bricks and mortar but the idea itself alive in hearts and
minds. In Being Me and Also Us: Lessons from the Peckham Experiment by
Alison Stallibras (Scottish Academic Press 1989), I was arrested by this
sentence from the Prologue:
This book describes a social experiment of nearly fifty years
ago, famous in its time but now only hazily remembered, that
urgently needs to be recalled and understood. For there is a
chance that the knowledge of human needs and possibilities
that was gained from it could, if widely absorbed and applied,
improve the overall capability of human beings to deal with
the avalanche of social, economic and ecological problems
that threatens to destroy mankind.

I was reminded of Doris Lessing’s tone and voice in Shikasta, which fici-
tonalises the world as a planet called Shikasta which is being developed
by a higher power, Canopus. Canopean agents are sent to Shikasta to
bring new ideas, or reignite old ones:
For long periods of the history of Shikasta we can sum up
the real situation thus: that in such and such a place, a few
hundred, or even a handful of individuals, were able with
immense difficulty to adapt their lives to Canopean require-
ments, and thus saved the future of Shikasta… Handfuls of
individuals rescued from forgetfulness were the harvest for
the efforts of dozens of our missionaries, of all grades, kinds
and degrees of experience on a dozen planets. These handfuls,
these few, were enough to keep the link, the bond.

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Doris Lessing’s Shikasta idea is one I’ve found continuously useful for
thirty years. Her achievement in this novel series is to have set up a
structure which can account for a Jesus, Mohammed or Buddha, but
which also gives value to the seemingly pointless life of a failing village
schoolteacher or even to a person incarcerated in the secure ward of a
mental hospital. It is good to be thus reminded that one or two people
– representatives living an idea – can change reality, even in the most
difficult of circumstances, as Primo Levi testifies. The Peckham Experi-
ment, proposing a fundamental shift in medical attention from illness to
health, might well be an episode in Shikasta. You can almost physically
feel that living idea in the Pearse and Crocker book. In Biologists in Search
of Material (1938) the two instigators of the project, Drs Williamson and
Pearse, write ‘Man’s vaunted “conquest of nature” is the expression of a
power complex – vain humbug. Nature is that which we obey. The scien-
tist is deciphering the rules we have to obey. Every rule disclosed has had
within its own power to ensure obedience’, a thought sited somewhere
between Nietzsche and Lessing, very well understood by Shakespeare
but not often visible in social, educational or medical policy. That such
thoughts had been translated into practical action – basic human prac-
ticality, concerning lungs and reproduction and varicose veins – seemed
to me staggering. Here was a model from which to learn. What could
our idea – the Reading Revolution – gain from such powerful practical
thinking? I wanted to go and visit but alas, though the Peckham Health
Centre survived the war, ironically it did not survive the creation of the
NHS – a different, cruder, set of ideas shaped the national agenda and
the experiment was closed in 1950. So, the physical reality has gone,
though, to quote another great thinker, Czeslaw Milosz:
And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.

The beliefs that shaped that practical Peckham reality are still very much
alive, awaiting your touch when you read the books – here is a world
elsewhere and full of promise, consolation, inspiration:
At least there is something of a consolation that such excellence
had been. What has been good is a promise that in other places,
other times, good can develop again… at times of shame and
destruction, we may sustain ourselves with these thoughts.

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pioneers in the search for health

Lisa Curtice

Peckham, South London, 1935: a small booklet is distributed to homes
in the neighbourhood of St. Mary’s Road inviting families to join a club,
The Centre. Part leisure centre, part health centre, the Centre offered its
prospective members the opportunity ‘to develop their health and hap-
piness’. For a shilling a week the whole family could use the swimming
pool and gym, take part in numerous activities such as billiards and
dancing, and have regular health checks or ‘health overhauls’, as they
were called. The residents were being offered an alternative health in-
surance, and the chance to become active agents in developing a lifelong
predisposition to healthy living. The prescription for health devised by
the founders of the Centre was to give babies the best start possible, to
provide families with an environment in which they could enrich their
leisure time together and to offer the members of the community infor-
mation, access to preventive health care, and a place to learn how to live
fuller lives. It became known around the world as ‘The Peckham Experi-
ment’, which was also the title of a successful book, published during
the war, which described the evolution of the Centre and its ambitious
rationale to conduct a community experiment into human health.

The Peckham Experiment had begun some years before when two
doctors opened a terraced house as a ‘family club’. Dr George Scott Wil-
liamson, a doctor and scientist who had previously conducted research
on the thyroid, conceived the idea of a study into health. Medical re-
search focused on disease but he wished to describe the state of health
and investigate how to develop it. His life partner, Dr Innes Pearse, had
been a child health doctor in the East End of London who had found

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that merely treating the children and parents who were ill was insuf-
ficient to overcome the effects of adverse life circumstances on their
health and outlook. Together they widened the net and sought to make
changes to the environment in which people lived out their lives, and
to investigate whether this led to better health and well-being, not only
for those who took part in the Experiment, but for future generations.
They thought of themselves as human biologists.
The first club, in Queen’s Road, Peckham, was modest in comparison
with its successor, but contained the seeds of ideas for an innovative
approach to delivering primary health care. The doctors offered health
consultations to member families and there was a club room and a social
secretary to co-ordinate activities. Opening hours reflected the commit-
ments of working people. By 1929, 112 families had presented themselves
for examination. The doctors, however, concluded that their intervention
had not been far-reaching enough. They had looked for health, but what
found were very high levels of ill-health, even in people who had not yet
developed major illnesses. Williamson and Pearse took the decision to
shut down the club in Queen’s Road, to rethink and to start again.
Then began years of thinking, planning and raising funds. It was
judged impractical to set up a controlled research study which would
attempt to alter the working conditions of men and women, and so
leisure was selected as the field for intervention and study. An Associa-
tion was formed (The Pioneer Health Centre Ltd, now known as the
Pioneer Health Foundation), with research funding obtained from the
Halley Stewart Trust. By May 1935, a purpose-built modernist build-
ing was ready to become The Centre and be inhabited and shaped by
Peckham families. The invitation to local families put it like this:
It is new. It is the first of its kind in the world. Eyes are turned
to it from all over the world to see what progress it makes. If it
succeeds, the idea will spread, and the Centre will be the first
of a long chain of centres. You have the chance to co-operate
in this great experiment. You have the chance to contribute
your experience and feelings to its working-out. You have the
chance to influence it, to make it grow in the right way.

It was often the children who took the lead in persuading their parents
to join the Centre. The facilities on offer, the swimming pool, with its
Olympic diving board, the equipment such as the roller skates and the
freedom to try out a whole range of new activities, must have dazzled.
Young couples too found incentives to join, for Dr Innes Pearse offered

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advice on preconceptual health and care throughout pregnancy. There
was a nursery which enabled parents to take part in social activities and
which also had an educational function in demonstrating good practice
in child rearing. The founders were particularly keen to attract young
people, but initially teenagers ran amok, spinning ashtrays along the
cork floors and putting the glass walls at risk. However over time a more
stable social pattern emerged. Children could approach a member of
staff for a ticket to use equipment or an activity. This was a control-
led way to provide them with autonomy and also doubled as a handy
research tool for monitoring the activities that individuals and families
were taking up. Paul Rotha’s film, The Centre, made after the war for the
Central Office of Information, shows that days at the Centre developed
a rhythm; for example, children would come on their own after school
and were joined later by parents after work.
The Centre was bursting with innovation in the way it approached its
investigation with member families. Innovation was based on emergent
principles which the doctors and their team were constantly refining,
and which in turn grew out of their observations and the experiences of
member families. Self-direction was a key principle. People were not told
what to do, even after a health consultation. They were given informa-
tion and exemplars and left to make the decisions themselves. Those
who left were not sought out, rather the staff waited to see if they would
have a change of heart. The doctors theorised that people themselves
were the best leaders. Rather than employ expert teachers to lead classes
in badminton or swimming, they encouraged members to teach each
other. Scott Williamson hypothesised that given opportunities, people
could be drawn into a more active lifestyle and greater engagement with
their neighbours, but to drive them towards it would be counter produc-
tive. ‘Health is more infectious than disease’, he said.
The theory of health that Scott Williamson developed was that health
was a product of an interaction between a person and their environment.
Like any living organism, a person draws nurture from their environment
and it is in the quality of that relationship that the potential for health
improvement lies. Williamson and Pearse were not determinists, they
trusted in people. Their idea was to cultivate the ‘social soil’, to provide
sufficient opportunities to enable a community of families to take better
charge of their health and well-being and to experience what it would
mean to have a richer life of education and activities. Whether in the
self-service cafeteria, with its unpasteurised milk and organic food, or
in the unique family health consultations, where all members of the
family were advised what was positive about their state of health, the
members found themselves challenged by new experiences. The genius of
those who ran the Centre was to provide these experiences in a way that

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enabled members to explore when they were ready to do so and in the
context of relationships between family members and neighbours.
The research focus of the Centre was an idiosyncratic combination
of scientific examination of the well-being of members, based on rigorous
tests of physical function, and qualitative observation of the behaviour
patterns and activities of individuals and families conducted by social
observers. There was constant discussion of the meaning of what was
happening amongst the doctors and staff, and also with member fami-
lies who called their newsletter, ‘The Guinea Pig’. The Experiment was a
hypothesis, rather than a plan; the doctors did not know in advance how
the community would work, rather they waited to see and to learn from
what people did when given the means to take charge of their health.
Evidence from the testimony of members, as for example in the
interviews published by Alison Stallibrass in ‘Being Me and Also Us’
suggests that, in its relatively short life, the Centre succeeded in es-
tablishing a dynamic that offered its members a peculiarly rewarding
experience that they were able to draw on throughout their lives. The
spirit of the place seems to have had to do with the lasting friendships
and the relationships that people formed there, the confidence and the
energy unleashed by facing new challenges. Above all, people lived the
changes, rather than being told what they could or should be doing, and
so they seem to have integrated the new information into their lives.
Most descriptions of the Centre start with the remarkable building
in which it was housed. I have left this until last because, although it
is the most visible aspect of the Experiment, it was the vehicle, and not
the driver, for realising the aspirations of its founders. Characteristi-
cally, Scott Williamson turned down the first plans and commissioned
an engineer, Owen Williams, the creator of the Boots’ factory in Not-
tingham to deliver the design he required. The result was an impressive
triumph of muscular strength and airy transparency. A concrete frame
supported a glass-walled structure which created a light and open inte-
rior. The concrete pillars were left plain and the spaces were open and
flexible. A central swimming pool was at the heart of the building and
members could look into it from the cafeteria and across to the long
gallery. The windows could be thrown open to the outside and children
played inside and out; even the flat roof was in use. The whole was a
hive of activity, described as resembling a liner when lit up at night.

During the war the Centre had to close; some families went to the farm
which had supplied the Centre with fresh produce, but the building
itself became a munitions store. With the equipment dispersed and the

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building needing work, the doctors were reluctant to reopen the Centre
immediately after the war, but the members were determined and the
doors were opened before a viable financial plan was put in place. Books
had been published and Scott Williamson and Pearse had lectured
abroad and the fame of the Centre was at its apogee. It was to become
celebrated, not only on film but through a constant flow of visitors, as
a model of British post-war social reconstruction. A poignant indicator
of the importance of the Centre to its members was that when children
‘graduated’ from the nursery, their parents were reluctant to see them
move to a traditional school, so members started up their own school
within the Centre, which continued even after the Centre had closed. Yet
the community in the immediate vicinity of the centre had been partly
dispersed by the war and further support for the research programme
was not forthcoming. Despite a high-profile campaign, the Centre closed
its doors in 1950. Though community activity continued there as the
Frobisher Institute, the original Experiment was over.

At the time it must have seemed like failure as the NHS moved in quite
other directions, focusing on the provision of treatment services. The
doctors’ post-war plan of a network of health centres with land attached
to grow organic food was out of kilter with the dominant national mood.
However the closure of the Centre did not end the influence of the
Peckham Pioneers. In the immediate aftermath there was an attempt
to start a community on Peckham principles in Coventry and, although
that was never realised, many community and public health initiatives
since have been inspired by the focus on people as co-creators of their
own health. It would be wrong to imprison the creative potential of the
Peckham Experiment by over-stating its equivalence with policies or ini-
tiatives that are current today. Its importance lies rather in its continuing
capacity to encourage people to rediscover for themselves the principles of
right relationship, healthy living and individual and community empow-
erment. Nonetheless fans of the Experiment can be encouraged by the
contemporary search for sustainability, by increased awareness amongst
policymakers that investment in prevention pays and by a growing re-
alisation that a risk-averse culture stifles the well-being of children and
of neighbourly mutual care. There may never be another Centre, but the
time for the doctors’ prescription may have arrived at last.

Information and resources about the Peckham Experiment, including publica-
tions, can be found at www.


David Sollors

Stillbirths, Ely

The one gift, motherly, to these
birthed to nothing, unearthed
an eavesdrop from the bishop’s
Easter sermon,
far enough from Heaven
that they never emptied their lungs
to praise God or take His name
as a curse, close enough to breath
that almost- mothers
heard and believed in their cries,
wrapped their skin and bone
a night or two in rags then
hid them in the lee of the church,
perhaps, by cast-off water from its lead.


A Man with No Known Family, Living Simply

At the five-bar gate he tells you
how this year favoured the blackberries.
God was generous. Last year
the onions were huge in their parchments.
Then he ate well;
onions and potatoes baked in the ashes,
hot and buttered. And you think
how good it seems, how good,
that in an Ireland of subsidies and malls,
motorways and real estate,
a man can live so close to providence.
And what you do not know is the way he hides
the letter that came three years ago,
in a good year for apples,
from Canada:

Sister Stephen died last week.
We found your address in her diary.

Sister Stephen; born Roisin Muire.
His alter, his twin,
was never Stephen. And
you do not know,
because he does not tell,

how he remembers her, all frock and pigtails
and her mouth
a wanton bruise of blackberry juice
and how he remembers
the way she’d say I’m Charlie’s ma
rocking and nursing
a doll improvised from spoons and sackrags,
and how he remembers the way
she grew past him as she became
a woman retreating into herself and then
retreating into a silence deeper than herself
and then retreating into the deep silence
of North America,
exiled with a man’s name and a visionary precept:


To live truly,
first it is necessary to die to the world you have known.

And he does not tell you
of the nights
he sat at the hearth, half drunk
and tried to call her back
across the ocean, back
across the years
to him, his little other –

Stephen, Roisin, Rosie, Sister, self,

and came back,
finding nothing but the Sacred Heart
glowing like an ember
and a sieve of mushrooms draining by the sink.

the reading revolution

Calling librarians

Penny Markell talks to Gill Lowther

Quaker Homeless Action (QHA) runs a variety of projects including a mobile
library that visits homeless centres in London. I interviewed the co-ordina-
tor of that project, Gill Lowther.

Tell me about the mobile library.
It was founded by a literary agent who is a Quaker about ten years ago.
She wondered what aspects of life homeless people are excluded from
and realised that voting and books were two key ones. Books were her
life and she knew that, with no permanent address, homeless people
usually would not be able to borrow books from public libraries. So QHA
bought an old Post Office van, fitted it out with shelves and filled it with
books. When the mobile library started, the van visited four centres and
offered to lend books for two weeks at a time, without fees, without
ID, and without any penalties if the books weren’t returned. It became
a much sought-after service because we treated homeless people like
ordinary members of the public – they were not in receipt of charity
but were on an equal footing about what interested them. We now visit
seven centres.
How many people visit each week?

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It fluctuates depending on the weather, and which football match is on.
In some centres only three or four people come in a visit, at other centres
you might get a dozen. We have to balance up what makes it worthwhile:
quantity or quality. On a good week about 25 people might use it.
Where do the books come from?
Originally they came from the contacts that the literary agent had; now
they come from various sources. Libraries are acutely aware of the fact
that they can’t lend to homeless people. They get round it by giving books
to us. A librarian in Richmond called me after they’d been weeding out
their stock and invited me to come and take as many books as I wanted,
so I filled my car. Orion Publishers offer me books: I can specify the kind
of thing we need and they do their best. Waterstone’s give all the books
damaged in transit to charity, and I could go at any time and ask them
for books too. We also buy some books, such as English dictionaries.
Books also come via various unsolicited publicity we’ve had: some
articles in the Guardian, and other papers. We were on a Radio 4 pro-
gramme where Mariella Frostrup interviewed me and various homeless
people. And we were on Songs of Praise. After publicity people call or
visit the website and offer us books. It can be complicated: books can
be unsuitable. We don’t censor on subject matter, but very large books
are not suitable for itinerant people and we don’t want duplicates or
tatty books.
What sort of books do you have?
A range of fiction and non-fiction. In non-fiction, for example, our
biggest sections are History, Biography, Spiritual, Poetry and Drama. We
can’t supply many Art books because they tend to be very big. There’s
a very large section in Language – especially as the number of foreign-
ers has increased, particularly from eastern Europe. I racked my brains
about where to get books for them from, and eventually I went to Grant
and Cutler – the foreign language bookshop on Great Marlborough
Street – and asked if they had any books to give me, or to sell at sale
price. They donated their entire sale stock to us. Those are mostly in
Western European languages though, so I made enquiries and found
that the main Polish centre was in Ravenscourt. They donated a few
boxes of Polish books.
What books are most popular with your readers?
It’s hard to say. Anything and everything. Stephen King. But people are
just as likely to ask for Thomas Hardy or Shakespeare. We can never
get enough True Crime, about the Krays etc., or books that reflect the
lives of the homeless. Dictionaries are really popular for people learning

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English. They don’t often come back, but we don’t mind donating them.
We can’t do specialist books – some people are doing courses or degrees
in Plumbing or Philosophy – but we can’t supply everything they need.
What’s the most unusual request for a book?
There was one lady who came in and requested a Latin Grammar. And
once I received a message saying that an old gent wanted an encyclo-
paedia. We didn’t have one, but I had two at home, so I went back
and got one of them and gave it to him. His face lit up, he hugged it to
himself and said ‘I shall take this with me everywhere’.
You could multiply these little incidents many times over. Mari-
ella Frostrup spoke to a young man who was looking for a book by
Roald Dahl. She asked why and he said ‘because I have a little group of
friends who can’t read, and I read them bed-time stories as they tuck
themselves up in their sleeping bags under the arches. I don’t want
anything too frightening because some of them have had very difficult
backgrounds, so Dahl is about right’.
What sorts of people come into the library?
This is a question of what sort of people are homeless. The answer is
you or me. I sat next to a guy on the steps of St John’s in Waterloo and
asked if he wanted a book. He said to me ‘who is your favourite author?’
I gave him a few inadequate answers, and he said ‘my favourite is Victor
Hugo’. It seems that he’d previously been an academic.
Many people have fallen on hard times. I met a young man from
Denmark, his wife had locked him out and he’d had to leave. Lots of
people come from divorces, lots of young people who’ve escaped from
situations with step-parents. Personally, I know people who have or
who could have become homeless: when they were between jobs, had
no money, were unfocussed, or on drugs. It’s easy to become homeless
and not easy to become un-homeless.
I think it’s sheer coincidence if you get through life without being
homeless. It’s not necessarily that these are feckless people. Does a chaotic
life lead to homelessness or does chaos come afterwards? It’s too easy to
become homeless. There are students, academics, choreographers.
What are they reading for?
Some read to forget. Some read because life out there is boring. Some
read for the same reasons as you or me. Many are better read than I am.
Some have traumatised lives and can’t concentrate. Some can’t read,
others don’t have glasses. Even if an optician visits the centre they find
appointments hard to keep, so we take reading specs out with us in the

the reading revolution

What kinds of conversation do you have about books?
We chat about what they’ve read, their dogs, the Big Issue, spiritual
issues sometimes, who are the Quakers?, whatever they want. When I
think ‘what do we require of our volunteers?’, to me it’s just that they
can relate to people equally.
Where do your volunteers come from?
Over the eight years I’ve been co-ordinator I’ve never advertised for vol-
unteers. Because the best people, the most committed ones, are those
who come to me or who seek us out. Up until now we haven’t had a
formal process for taking on volunteers. I have had an unofficial system,
which, in a nutshell, is making it as difficult as possible! Last time we
were out with the van a young lady came up and said ‘I’ve seen this van
around, I like what it does. How can I volunteer?’ I said to her ‘I’m going
away for a couple of weeks, if you’re still interested when I’m back then
here’s my telephone number’. If a person can hold their interest and
keep the phone number then they are really committed. Now we have
started an application form process as we need to be squeaky clean.
We’ve got about 34 volunteers. Some do just one day a month, others
more. We have two ex-homeless people who are volunteers, and a new
volunteer who is a multi-linguist who will be great with the Eastern
Where else would you find mobile libraries for homeless people?
Over the years I’ve had enquiries about whether there’s a scheme in such-
and-such town or how you set one up. I suggest they go to the public
library and see if they can work together with them: some libraries are
doing wonderful things. If the person contacting me isn’t affiliated to
any religion I ask if they might consider going to the Quakers and ask if
they’re doing anything. And if not, perhaps they might consider setting
up a group themeselves. The first one was in Bristol, in Bedminster. It’s
fixed, in a centre, and is called the Park Bench. There are sister centres
in Bristol too – they have their own modus vivendi and are doing well.
Quakers in Coventry run one mainly working with asylum seekers,
and a second one with mums and kids. Again they’re fixed, not mobile.
On the Isle of Wight they have three little branches. There are various
others. Recently in Truro Meeting House, they had a supper club for
homeless people and wanted to do this too. I said they could take along
a basket of books and offer them. If people want them then take another
basketful, and if it takes off then start cataloguing them and getting
There’s a member of QHA who went to Bangladesh. She’s started
two rickshaw libraries for special needs children. Now she’s also got

the reading revolution

one on a London bus, and one on a motorbike. One of our ex-volun-
teers went to work for Book Aid and found out that they run something
similar in Kenya, on camels. Then a friend who’s a librarian at Finchley
sent me pictures of one on donkeys in Venezuela! It’s marvellous what
people are already doing in little corners, without trumpeting about it.

What effect do you think the library has?
Occasionally people will say ‘it changed my life, made me feel that I’m
worth something again’. On a less dramatic scale what I hope the library
will do for them is to help rebuild their self-esteem. The aims of this
work are to help restore their self-respect, to integrate them into public
life, and to treat them as equals. And to continue to replicate wherever
and for as long as it is needed.

Contact for more information

your recommendations

Forsaken favourites

Adam Phillips

W e sometimes fall in love with people for the
very things about them that will eventually
drive us mad, or at least drive us away. It
can seem, in retrospect, that quite unwit-
tingly we had been doing a kind of psychic
alchemy; there were things about this particular person that we were
so freaked out by, that so disturbed us, we turned them into enchant-
ments. The once charming became utterly irritating. We had come across
someone – or something: a novel, a poem, a piece of music – so appall-
ing to us that we had to get over ourselves and we called it, at the time,
falling in love. Later, in the aftermath as it were, we might think of this
kind of falling in love as, say, counter-phobic, strangely self-destructive,
and so, strangely self-revealing. There are the times when falling out
of love seems more interesting than falling in love, because we are not
simply bereft, we are baffled; we seem to have lost something we never
really wanted; we seem to have been misled.
There is of course always the pressure to avoid the lurking disil-
lusionments, the bad faith of having to keep faith with oneself, of
wanting to believe that all our relationships have some valuable neces-
sity about them. These self-betrayals, if that’s what they are – the loves
we really regret – are tempered when we fall out of love with writers, or

your recommendations

rather, with their work. What were we like if we liked this? is a less daunt-
ing, more easily interesting question about writing that has absorbed
us in the past than about lovers or friends whom we have fallen out
of love with, or just lost interest in. And yet clearly our aesthetic pas-
sions are somehow of a piece with, not substitutes for or alternatives to,
lovers and friends and family. The patent difference, though, is that in
relationships with other people everyone is changing all the time; with
writing, we change, but the words on the page don’t. In this sense art
never betrays us; we can only betray ourselves. Sons and Lovers is exactly
the same book we read when we were sixteen, but we are not exactly
the same person when we reread it.
Nothing reveals our resistance to giving up on past pleasures, our
unwillingness to notice that we are not getting the pleasure we wanted,
more than rereading the writers we loved in adolescence. These are the
writers that are like lost loves, the writers who made us feel so promis-
ing, the writers who conspired with us to love our own excesses. And by
the same token they are the most perilous writers to return to. ‘You’re
the one I’ve been looking for / you’re the one who’s got the key / but I
can’t figure out whether I’m too good for you / or you’re too good for
me,’ Bob Dylan sings on Street Legal. When a writer just doesn’t work
for you anymore, Dylan’s questions are among the questions you’re left
So when I was invited to write on this subject, I was dismayed that
the writer who came to mind was Dylan Thomas. A writer, it seems, I
have become too good for. The poem that came immediately to mind,
perhaps appropriately in the circumstances, was ‘Do not go gentle into
that good night,’ a poem that, if you grew up in Wales in the Sixties,
was everywhere. I remember the revelation of reading it – or rather,
hearing it as I read it – as a fourteen-year-old; the fact that it was a
poem about death wasn’t a problem for me then, because I thought
it was a poem about going out in the dark, something I particularly
liked. I couldn’t wait to go out at night, and Thomas was giving me his
strange bardic encouragement. When I learned later at school what the
poem was really about, it seemed even better: better as in deeper, graver,
more portentous, more grand. And Thomas’s poetry was inextricable
from the legends and stories about him. Welshness was so alien to us
as second-generation émigré Eastern European Jews, and Thomas made
it seem all rather alluring in his slap-dash, slapstick, and apparently
naïvely-sophisticated Celtic fluency. If you thought, as I did then, that
the Visionary Company was the only company worth keeping, Thomas
was the bard of choice. Partly because he wasn’t T. S. Eliot, and partly
because he clearly had no idea what his poetry was about: his was an
obscurity immune from academic interpretation. His seriousness, I

your recommendations

thought then, was even greater than Arnold’s, his on-the-side-of-life-
ness even profounder than Lawrence’s. Reading the poetry, or hearing
him read it in his plummy upper-class English accent, was powerful and
obscurely moving, and left you nothing to think about.
Virtually everything that I valued as an adolescent – other than his
face in Augustus John’s great portrait – annoys or bores me now. His
poetry seems, more often than not, like a calculated self-parody, with
the joke being on us when we were moved by it. It would be more real-
istic to say that I let myself be tricked by Thomas’s poetry; not that he,
in any sense, wanted to do this to me – how could I know? – but that a
sense of being tricked is what I have been left with. It is as though, in
retrospect, I would like to have been more foolproof, a terrible thing to
want. Our disillusionments must be the key to our tastes. The mystery is
why such vehement unmaskings are required. Why we can’t just move

Originally published in The Threepenny Review.

your recommendations

the old poem
John Donne, ‘As Due by Many titles’

Brian Nellist

As due by many titles I resign
Myself to thee, O God, first I was made
By thee, and for thee, and when I was decayed
Thy blood bought that, the which before was thine,
I am thy son, made with thy self to shine,
Thy servant, whose pains thou hast still repaid,
Thy sheep, thine image, and, till I betrayed
My self, a temple of thy Spirit divine;
Why doth the devil then usurp on me?
Why doth he steal, nay ravish that’s thy right?
Except thou rise and for thine own work fight,
Oh I shall soon despair, when I do see
That thou lov’st mankind well, yet wilt not choose me,
And Satan hates me, yet is loth to lose me.

your recommendations

I t’s four hundred years on Helen Gardner’s reckoning since Donne
sent the six poems to the Earl of Derbyshire that begin what we
now know as the Holy Sonnets and this is the first of them. En-
thusiasm for the form that had flourished in the 1590s may have
died down but 1609 was also the year in which the greatest of the
sequences appeared and maybe Donne knew of Shakespeare’s sonnet
146 ‘Poor soul the centre of my sinful earth, / My sinful earth these rebel
powers array’, the word which can mean both dressed up to the nines
but also marshalled for battle. I mention that because Donne’s poem also
has this metaphor of continuous warfare within confused allegiances.
He had served himself as a soldier with Essex on the expedition to sack
Cadiz in 1596 only three years after his brother had died in prison for
harbouring a Catholic priest. ‘Resign’ in the first line is both a legal term
(‘due by many titles’) but also a word for military surrender. He is an
ancient city built long ago by its rightful owner and rebuilt when ‘I was
decayed’ (the Redemption). Yet it has been given up to the enemy, ‘I be-
trayed / Myself’; yes, the line ending insists, it was I myself who did it.
I know that for many readers today the language of religion and sin,
though the word isn’t used in this particular poem, is at best irrelevant
and at worst alienating. We believe in the freedom of the individual in
a horizontal world without those vertical demands, the hope of glory
and the sense of shame, intruding on our exploration of it. Well, we
gain and we lose and religious poetry gives us entry into that loss and
reminds us of a human reality. If we gain liberty we lose also a sense
of life’s seriousness and urgency, not simply through fear of death but
through the terrible consequence of earlier actions. This poem is full of
violently active verbs, ‘usurp’, ‘steal’, ‘ravish’, ‘rise’, ‘fight’, that leave
the individual in the centre of them almost helpless as a result of the
wrong choice once made, ‘betrayed’. Donne, the frequenter of plays in
his youth, knows how to utter the voice of revulsion with that power-
ful ‘Oh’ in line 12. Yet the appeal is founded not on his sense of God’s
unfairness but our own injustice. He attempts to blackmail God (‘I shall
soon despair’, unless –) yet knows, in the end, he can only appeal to
love. As in some of his secular poems love and hate interchange in a
reverse order; he belongs by right to the hater but appeals, against what
he has himself ceded, to God, the lover of souls. The struggle is to be
continued throughout the later ‘Divine Meditations’.
Donne used to figure larger in our reading, I think, than he does
now but even then he was read too selectively. For their astonishing
psychological depth go further and look for example at ‘A Litany’, more
of the Elegies than ‘Going to Bed’, certainly the satires, especially I and
III, and the epistle ‘To Sir Henry Goodyer’, for instance.

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Our Spy in NY
can you ever forgive her?

Enid Stubin

G iven New York’s current climate of malfeasance,
larceny, and ordinary corruption – Mr. Madoff
has been sentenced and remanded to a medi-
um-security prison in Atlanta, Georgia, and
divers politicians are issuing one-line resigna-
tion letters and nose-diving into dishonourable retirement from public
life – one would be hard-pressed to find some tale of dishonest living to
gladden the flinty heart. But you know I’m on the case: submitted for
your disapproval is the slender, elegantly designed Can You Ever Forgive
Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger by Lee Israel.
In the seventies and eighties, Israel had carved a respectable niche
for herself as biographer of Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgal-
len. Her books sold well and were taken seriously as documents of the
Golden Age of Popular Culture. Commissioned to write a ‘warts-and-all’
book about Estée Lauder, the cosmetics magnate, Israel found herself
caught ‘twixt mighty opposites: having accepted a handsome advance
to write a scabrous tell-all timed to coincide with a pious hagiography,
she found herself being offered even more money by Lauder’s lawyers,
Roy Cohn among them, to write nothing at all.
She makes the wrong choice – so easy to do in the world of publish-
ing – and grinds out a watered-down, unauthorized bio that pleases
no one, gets crummy reviews, and sells badly, the trifecta of literary
disaster. Unwelcome and unemployable (as she notes wryly, the writing
of books hardly prepares one for the marketplace), she drifts along on
and off welfare as a superannuated ‘temp’, proofreading for a legal
publishing outfit (and I saw the best minds of my generation working

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the midnight shift at Matthew Bender to pay the rent) and, snubbed
by the editors and agents who used to flatter her at expense-account
lunches, takes to what the A. A. crowd calls ‘drinking and dialing’. Rep-
resenting herself to an assistant as Nora Ephron, she waits for the eager
‘Hiya, Nora’ before shouting ‘Star fucker! Is that one word or two?’ and
hanging up. A ‘secretarial pissing contest’ with one of Esther Newberg’s
assistants renders the hardened agent ‘pre-cardiac’.
Living in hopeless squalor, unable to pay for her beloved cat’s medical
bills and desperate to avoid complete penury, Israel uses her formida-
ble talents and the casual security policies of several research libraries
to invent letters from the likes of Fanny Brice, Dorothy Parker, Louise
Brooks, and Noel Coward, providing herself with a separate manual type-
writer for each notable. The results? Hundreds of autographed letters that
provide vibrant glimpses into the hearts and minds of characters already
lionized by the celebrity-crazed culture and exploited by the autograph
dealers who bought Israel’s confections cheap and sold them dear. But
that’s only Trimester One, as she terms it; worried about dealers twig-
ging to her confabulated ‘memorabilia’, she moves on to Trimester Two
and infiltrates university libraries up and down the Northeast Corridor to
steal letters in their holdings and replace them with forgeries. Acquiring
an accomplice to sell the purloined letters, she manages to sell some to
the ferretlike autograph dealer blackmailing her. In a wonderful scene at
a bar, Israel, terrified of exposure and arrest, blithely assures the dealer
that she can pay him the amount he demands and, once he leaves, tells
the bartender, eyes averted, ‘His wife found out about us.’
It’s the stuff of a caper film, at once larky (Israel’s word) and dark;
Israel’s immersion into a subject’s life, managed through biographies, the
loosely guarded archives she rifles though, and her own ventriloquist’s
skills, fills her ear with voices she can mimic brilliantly: Louise Brooks’s
jaundiced, insider’s view of Hollywood (‘But finally nothing that breaks
up the monopoly of time-honored bullshit can prevail’); Noel Coward’s
knowing self-evaluation as a songwriter (‘My major problem is grammar,
not verbs. For that, I must apply not the ear but the arse’); and Lillian
Hellman’s imperious froideur and proprietary control of the Dorothy Parker
estate (‘There is a tide in the affairs of men, but this is the decade of the
illegal dump’). But Israel invariably has the last word – and laugh – on
Hellman: ‘She was a difficult woman; happily, her signature was easy.’
This is a story of literary theft, to be sure, and it speaks of voyeurism
and possession. But it’s also a celebration of the delights of mimicry;
Israel acknowledges the biographies that capture their subject so per-
fectly that, following their lead, she can clone speech and observation as
vividly as the personages themselves might have done. Her work, disrup-
tive and piratical, is also the stuff of imaginative tribute: in the close of a
Coward letter about Marlene Dietrich’s towering vanity and humorless-

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ness, Israel creates a line that limns both: ‘ “Unteachable, I suspect,”
Coward might have written, but he did not.’ It’s with unalloyed pride
and pleasure that Israel cites her own imitation appearing ‘as practi-
cally the eleven o’clock number’ in an important edition of Coward’s
letters: ‘For me, this was a big hoot and a terrific compliment.’ If Dorothy
Parker’s ‘epistolary legacy is spare’, leave it to Israel to concoct a raft of
letters covering the Hollywood years, ‘because the ur- letter was headed
with her Norma Place address.’ Reading the definitive biographies, Israel
becomes an after-the-fact researcher – and the real thing herself.
She summons up the strategies and ploys of a marginal life in the
big city – selling books at the Strand for pocket money; peddling pa-
perbacks from a bridge table on upper Broadway and, at the sight of
a neighbor, deftly wheeling the table into the street and pretending to
hail a cab; selling a valuable handwritten note from Katharine Hepburn
about Spencer Tracy’s death (‘Anna paid me $250 for the letter, which I
needed more than I needed Hepburn’s tears’). Sentiment and nostalgia
fuel the appetite for her forgeries, and dealers accidentally tip her off to
the very qualities a prized letter should include.
As in any caper movie, the feds close in. For Israel, the confrontation
takes place outside a ‘fancy kosher deli’ – I recognize it as the now-
defunct P. J. Bernstein’s on Third Avenue and 70th Street – after she has
consumed a pastrami on rye. Frantic to divest herself of any incriminat-
ing evidence, she shreds mounds of notes and drops off her ‘gang’ of
typewriters along a stretch of Amsterdam Avenue, fantasizing an escape
to Fort Lauderdale, holing up in her mother’s ‘cheesy bedroom closet,
coming out for pot roast and an occasional swim’. Her lawyer assures
her that she will likely serve no more than ‘a year and change’ in prison.
At her moan of anticipatory terror and grief, he counsels, ‘You’ll bring
a book.’
Given the ‘unsexy’ nature of Israel’s crimes and her immediate
guilty plea, a prosecutor finds it hard to summon up outrage (‘How
about elevenish tomorrow?’), and a judge gives her five years’ proba-
tion and six months’ house arrest, along with the admonition that he
never see her again ‘in this context’, which Israel sees as ‘not a total
rejection’. Contrition? Israel considers her invention of the line ‘Can
you ever forgive me?’: ‘As I wrote it, I imagined the waiflike Dorothy
Parker apologizing for any one of countless improprieties, omissions,
and/or cutting bon mots… apologizing with no intention whatsoever of
mending her wayward ways.’
In a press release, Israel confesses, ‘I have no regrets.’ Why should
she? The letters she crafted at forty dollars a pop recalled their sub-
jects to life and gave them voice. Her inspired if larcenous ventriloquism
questions the very nature of authorship and authenticity. It’s an act of
generous mischief.

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The London eye
be stone no more

T he success of Kevin Spacey’s artistic directorship of the
Old Vic is still in dispute, though everyone is agreed that
he can bring in the big names, and thus, big audiences.
Me, I’m keen on big savings, and the Old Vic sell great
seats for a tenner if you’re young enough, so though I’m
guilty of not taking full advantage of the wealth of theatre on offer in
London, I’ve been going pretty steady with the Old Vic for a couple of
years now. And I have seen some very high-quality productions. I had to
be shushed and held down in my seat while watching Gaslight – throb-
bingly tense Victorian thriller with a magnetic Kenneth Cranham as an
eccentric detective. I sat in the front row to see a brilliantly entertain-
ing Speed-the-Plow and was rewarded with the spit and sweat of Kevin
Spacey himself, alongside Jeff Goldblum (less greasy in real life).
So when I was given an early tip-off that Sam Mendes’ Bridge
Project (a company of British and American actors) would be perform-
ing another Shakespeare/Chekhov double-bill at the Old Vic this spring,
I took notice and booked tickets as early as possible. Having said that,
I’ll go and see any company performing The Winter’s Tale. I played the
three parts of First Servant, Servant (they are different!) and Mopsa in a
production at university, and I defy anyone to bring less presence to the
roles. But as I spent most of the play and the many rehearsals waiting in
the wings, I came to know the lines very well, particularly the speeches
made by Hermione at her trial. They are not particularly beautiful, except
in their simplicity. But as a counter to the erratic whirlwind of Leontes’
paranoia, his wife’s words, so perfectly expressing her thoughts and situ-
ation, seem almost miraculously ordered.
I’ve always thought that, in the right conditions, a whole audience
could be made to doubt reality in that last scene when the statue seems to

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come to life. Perhaps we all know that Hermione did not die of grief, and
the statue is not a statue, and that it is all an elaborate piece of theatre
set up by Paulina. Yet the burden of sixteen years rests on this bit of the-
atricality, there is so much regret and wonder and fear expressed, and
so much urgency and carefulness in Paulina’s speeches – an audience
should forget and start with surprise when the statue moves at last.
In this Old Vic production, the stage was set with a child’s bed, rugs,
cushions, a desk and table piled with books, papers and toys – a family
home about to be ripped apart by dark imaginings. While Hermione made
her playful, clever speech to Polixenes, Leontes paced the stage, watch-
ing, his back to the audience, only turning to speak when his thoughts
were in full flow: ‘Too hot, too hot…’ Simon Russell Beale played Leontes
with growing panic, like a man out of control, so ridiculous and pathet-
ic in his suspicions that the audience laughed at him. He was petulant
with his amazed courtiers and patient wife, desperate for approval then
enraged when it did not come. This skittishness became sinister when
Leontes gave the order to have his new born baby killed. There is a neuro-
logical condition called prosopagnosia, or ‘face-blindness’, which renders
people unable to recognise faces. The sudden suspicion that overpowers
Leontes seems like this, a blown fuse in the brain, a failure of connection
between nerve endings, denying the family resemblances.
Simon Russell Beale is worth watching in any play. He says the lines
as if you were hearing the thought processes of a real person, a believ-
ability which is particularly fascinating when he is playing Leontes, who
cannot believe in anyone. He refuses Hermione’s denial of guilt:
leontes: I ne’er heard yet
That any of these bolder vices wanted
Less impudence to gainsay what they did
Than to perform it first.

hermione: That’s true enough;
Though ‘tis a saying, sir, not due to me.

Though Rebecca Hall was occasionally a little strident as Hermione for
my liking, she said these lines perfectly, twisting round in an attempt
to catch Leontes’ eye and fix it on herself, to untangle her real situation
from Leontes’ mockery of it. But Leontes did not look and would not
hear. He defies the oracle, the news of his son’s death arrives, and Her-
mione is taken away lifeless. Faced with the finality of death, Leontes
realises his mistakes, his ‘evils’ as he later calls them, as smoothly and
quickly as waking from a dream. Too easily. So just as quickly, he begins
to rely on Paulina and the ritual of daily mourning to make him feel his
loss – as if rewiring the circuit; relearning proper responses now that he
knows he cannot trust himself.

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In that final scene, the statue stood with her back to the audience
so we would witness the awe of the observers, looking out. Leontes who
would not make eye contact with his fellows before is transfixed now:
       O, thus she stood,
Even with such life of majesty, warm life,
As now it coldly stands, when first I woo’d her!
I am ashamed: does not the stone rebuke me
For being more stone than it? O royal piece,
There’s magic in thy majesty, which has
My evils conjured to remembrance and
From thy admiring daughter took the spirits,
Standing like stone with thee

There he goes getting what is real and what is imagined all mixed up
again, but this madness is as much a pleasure as an affliction. The words
circle and repeat until they seem to bring Leontes to a standstill, turning
him into the same insensible block who would not hear truth at his wife’s
trial. He must be brought to consciousness again. Like an experimenting
scientist, Paulina provides the vital spark: she requires him to awake his
faith, which alone will do since reason has been no help in the past:
Music, awake her: strike!
‘Tis time; descend; be stone no more: approach;
Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come;
I’ll fill your grave up: stir; nay, come away;
Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him
Dear life redeems you. You perceive she stirs […]
Nay, present your hand:
When she was young you woo’d her; now in age
Is she become the suitor?

Sinead Cusack’s Paulina was aggressively reasonable in her coaxing, and
I wasn’t sure this worked with lines as strange and reckless as ‘Come /
I’ll fill your grave up’. The language is of life and death and redemption;
it is energetic and commanding because the outcome is still not clear. If
Paulina’s speech lost any sense of the miraculous on this occasion (the au-
dience chuckled knowingly), Simon Russell Beale rediscovered it with ‘O!
She’s warm!’ – spoken with such feeling that it brought tears to my eyes.
My brief fling with amateur dramatics was enough to discover how
little control I had over my voice and actions on stage. Despite exhaustive
rehearsals, in live performance I could still speak my well-learnt lines
with an entirely unexpected tone or expression, changing their effect on
the scene. The very best actors seem to possess an almost supernatural
control over their voice and actions, like craftsmen who can cut breath,
presenting life and emotion as something studied and yet always new.

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ask the reader

Brian Nellist

I have a problem with poetry. The classic English novel I have
Q always read and loved for the reality of the situations and di-
lemmas it presents and the depth and warmth with which its
characters engage with one another and with life. But poetry has always
seemed to me too involved in self-conscious artifice, coldly preoccupied
with its own being there, a kind of verbal constipation. My wife however
reads little else; for the sake of our marriage can you advise me?

Yes, you have a genuine ailment though fortunately, it’s not like
A Swine Flu contagious. But poets themselves have long recog-
nised the problem. Philip Sidney, for example, at the start of
Astrophil and Stella, writing love sonnets with their tight structure and
rhyme scheme, has the lover trying to find inspiration by reading other
poets’ work until the Muse tells him ‘Look in thy heart and write’. So art
itself, the Muse, recommends spontaneity. Three hundred and fifty years
later the American poet, Marianne Moore, starts ‘Poetry’: ‘I, too, dislike
it; there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle’, and what
a pernickety business it was for her since she wrote lines on the basis of
counting the syllables in the line. Poetry can seem more concerned with
the artful and literary than with the situation it is addressing.
Yet all writing involves the shaping of words even as I write now
since even such nerveless prose as I can manage involves selection and
the ordering demanded by grammatical structure, the need without
spoken emphasis to have the stress fall on the right words. That tension
between speech and writing involves the difference between the impro-

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vised and the considered, the immediate and the reflected upon and is
present in your words as in all writing. Poetry honestly admits the gap
between the loquacity of our conscious mind and the greater depth,
the discovery of hinterlands of significance, that writing involves. Lan-
guage works upon us in ways other than purely rational statement, as
political rhetoric confesses, for example. The movement regulated into
a rhythm or metre, the music of verbal sounds, the conscious disloca-
tion of grammar, the submerged influence of image and metaphor all
involve the further reaches of language to touch and develop the further
reaches of the mind.
Such pontification means little without example. When Ben Jon-
son’s eldest son, also a Benjamin, died of the plague in 1603 aged seven,
his father, being a poet, wrote an epitaph for him:
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy.

The reader used to poetry would expect a slight pause somewhere near
the middle of the line. Here, however, it’s delayed right to the end, to
the last two syllables because poetry is oral, dramatic, and you must
hear the breaking of the voice with its suppressed emotion. The conflict
between the ceremonially correct gestures and the personal feeling is
enacted not explained. Yes, ‘farewell’ as at a funeral, which by its for-
mality does indeed help our grief, but oh, the loss, the end of ‘joy’; and,
yes, wouldn’t you just know it, by claiming too much I’ve lost it all,
‘My sin’, and yet I’m still talking to you ‘loved boy’. The poetry doesn’t
analyse as prose would; it performs.
But surely, you might reply, grief can’t find time for rhyme and regu-
larity of metre. Yet, even in the midst of a catastrophe, our minds crave
understanding beyond the disorder not expressed as argument, there
can be none, but because that is the way our minds are structured. In
the last four lines of the little poem the father must say goodbye to his
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry;
For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

Now there, I can almost hear you say, that’s what’s wrong with poetry,
that self-consciousness that turns the child he’s just lost into a poem.
And I’d reply; no, you’re wrong. He’s on your side. For Jonson, despite
all his ambition as a writer and his actual achievement, it all counts for
nothing beside his son. The unexpectedness of the line makes the hair
bristle. Moreover, the poem doesn’t end there as though he wanted to

your regulars

close with a clever trick. Poetry inhabits the feelings it expresses and
uses its formality often enough to contradict it. Here the poem ends
with apparently a lesson learned the hard way but feel the bitterness of
that contrast in the final line between ‘loves’, the natural attachment,
and ‘like’; which seems now the stronger feeling. And the dead child
is made responsible for that unbearable dichotomy, ‘For whose sake’.
How right therefore that these are ‘vows’, promises born of the occa-
sion but of course impossible to keep. The mingling of resolution and
recognition, bitterness with love, is only made possible by the form, is
only possible within the formality and breaking of that formality that
constitutes the poem.
I’ve been misled by the interest of an individual instance into for-
getting your general problem. We read at different speeds; you don’t
attend to your novels with the brisk desire for information that you scan
your newspaper. Poetry needs a still slower more attentive reading and
above all not a silent reading. Even if you don’t want actually to sit there
reading aloud to yourself, hear the words in your head in the theatre of
your own mind. Above all you must feel for the tension between the
analysable content and what the poetry actually does which will differ
from what it apparently says. Rhyme and rhythm, those structures you
dislike, are inherited, stand within a tradition, represent the formalised
voice of a community, so don’t despise them, but what should concern
you is the particular way the individual poet responds to that collective,
how he or she resists, complies, celebrates and breaks away from it.

Readers connect

Oxford World’s classics
Daniel Defoe
robinson Crusoe

A castaway, alone on a desert island: this is the classic example of the
great human test. Considerations that have become second nature in civi-
lised England – shelter, food, comfort, luxury, company – are transformed
back into primary questions of survival, both physical and psychological.
Can Crusoe re-make some sort of home for himself on the planet? Will he
lapse back into an animal state? This novel, pub-
lished in 1719, still makes the reader ask strange
questions, big and small – should Crusoe bother
to wash and shave? could a man alone on a desert
island even be said to have a face since there is no
one there to see it?
Samuel Johnson said there were three books
of which he never tired: Pilgrim’s Progress, Don
Quixote and Robinson Crusoe, all different forms of
quest. What he loved about Crusoe was the ex-
pansion and contraction of secure boundaries, the
ebb and flow of advancing desire and retreating
fear. At first the protagonist makes a small defensive shelter within a
cave on the worst part of the island. Then, his sense of security gradu-
ally established, he begins to venture forth, even making a boat strong
enough to go round to the more fertile side of the isle. But the journey is
so perilous that he is glad to come back to what he only now calls home,
however poor he had thought it before. Here he is, desperately lonely,
suddenly finding on the sand a human footprint not his own – is he
happy, relieved, excited?
My key affliction had been that I seemed banished from
human society, that I was alone, circumscribed by the bound-
less ocean, cut off from mankind, and condemned to what I
called silent life
To have seen ‘one of my own species would have seemed to me a raising
from death to life’. And yet when he actually finds the print, what is
amazing to him is his own reaction:
that I should now tremble at the very apprehension of seeing a
man, and was ready to sink into the ground at but the shadow or
silent appearance of a man’s having set his foot in the island.
Today we fear what yesterday we desired.

THE jury
Jo Cannon is a Sheffield GP and short story writer
Robinson has Asperger’s Syndrome, which insulates
him from the horror of his plight. His wife, the book’s
only female, appears and dies unmourned in one sen-
tence. Friday functions merely as servant, admirer and
covert homo-erotic interest. Emotional detachment
renders the proselytising slaver an unsympathetic,
pompous narrator. His racist victories are distasteful
now. And the descriptions of DIY drag.
Lynne Hatwell (dovegreyreader) is a Devon-based
community nurse
It was always going to end in tears but somehow I
hoped this might be the moment for the eighteenth
century and me to hit it off. Sadly mistaken, Robinson
Crusoe proved as impenetrable and distracting as any-
thing else I have attempted, another time perhaps but
not this one.

Eleanor McCann is an English student at Liverpool
University and student editor on The Reader magazine
In an unusually discouraging university lecture I
heard this book dismissed as tedious and so was sur-
prised to find it absorbing and fast-paced for the most
part. Defoe raises questions of morality with an in-
creasingly Christian outlook: as when Crusoe spies on
the feasting cannibals. Disgust dissolves and Crusoe
apprehends, with self-reproach, that in judging them
he succumbs to the savage in him.
Drummond Moir, once of Edinburgh, works for a
London-based publisher
Although tedious occasionally, Robinson Crusoe is truly
a classic: initially popular as an adventure tale; wildly
successful in post-revolutionary America as a story
of triumphant self-sufficiency; ammunition for both
proponents and critics of imperialism. For modern
readers it is the ultimate parable of downshifting,
proving that happiness can be found on the slimmest
of shoestrings.
Virginia Woolf, novelist
There is a dignity in everything that is looked at openly.
You may object that Defoe is humdrum, but never that
he is concerned with petty things. He belongs to the
school of great plain writers, whose work is founded
upon a knowledge of what is most persistent, though
not most seductive, in human nature.
*****  one of the best books I’ve read   **  worth reading
****  one of the best I’ve read this year   *  not for me but worth trying
***  highly recommended   0  don’t bother
your recommendations

books about…
fathers and sons

Angela Macmillan

Richard Madeley has recently published his autobiography, Fathers and
Sons, by no means the only (or the greatest) book by that name but it got
us thinking. One might imagine there would be a long list of novelists
taking on the subject of the relationship between fathers and sons. Of
course there are lots of books in which a father and son are among the
characters but not many writers seem to want the issue to be central
to the fiction. If you think about it, there are stacks of books about
mothers and sons, or about daughters and fathers, but even Dickens is
reluctant to explore the complexity of father and son. Here are some of
the novels, memoirs and poems on this theme that we want to recom-
mend. Please let us know if you can suggest any others.

Edmund Gosse, Father and Son (OUP, ISBN 978-0199539116)

‘This book is the record of a struggle between two temperaments, two
consciences and almost two epochs’. Gosse’s parents were Plymouth
Brethren, his father a marine biologist. After the death of his mother,
when Edmund was just seven, he was brought up almost in isolation by
his loving but strict father. The writing of his autobiography becomes a
very moving account of the inner life of feeling, and an extraordinary
account of a vanished world.

Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (Oxford World’s Classics, ISBN 978-

In the arrogant and ardent young Bazarov, the book’s central character,
we find the human need for faith, friendship and human love conflict-
ing with the political and philosophical ideas of nihilism when ideals

your recommendations

have to be lived out in real life. But through Arkady, Bazarov’s acolyte,
and Arkady’s father Nikolai, we see that freedom and human values can
coexist together and bridge the generations.

Philip Roth, Patrimony (Vintage, ISBN 978-0099914303)

Philip Roth abandons fiction in this unsparing and unsentimental
account of his father’s slow death following diagnosis of a brain tumor.
A grim subject, written not without humour and always with a power-
ful energy.

Sebastian Barry, A Long Long Way (Faber and Faber, ISBN 978-

The story of Irishman Willie Dunn fighting for King and Country in
WW1 while, at home in Dublin, his countrymen are rising against the
British. At the heart of the novel is his relationship with his policeman
father: loving, tender and heartbreaking.

Marilynne Robinson, Home (Virago, ISBN 978-1844085507)

If you read nothing else this year, read this utterly absorbing exploration
of the nature of hope and forgiveness. A companion piece to Gilead in
which religion is once again central.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road (Picador, ISBN 978-0330447546)

A father and his young son walk through a post-apocalyptic landscape.
Nothing of value remains except the love and need they have for each
other. In turns terrifying, and tender. This is McCarthy at his best.

William Wordsworth, ‘Michael’ (from Lyrical Ballads, Longman,
ISBN 978-1405840606)

In old age, shepherd Michael and his wife, Isabel have a son, Luke,
much loved. Troubles come and faced by the prospect of losing the land
that had been their all, Michael decides Luke will leave to make his
fortune and safeguard his inheritance. The boy never returns. Every day,
to the end of his life, Michael goes to work on the sheepfold they had
started to build together, ‘There is a comfort in the strength of love; /
‘Twill make a thing endurable, which else / Would break the heart’.



The Novels of Iris Murdoch
Last week, in the first of the new series of University Challenge, all eight contest-
ants failed to recognise a photograph of Iris Murdoch. This year marks the tenth
anniversary of her death. For those who have not read any or those who might like
a reminder, Brian Nellist suggests why we should continue to read her books.

Literature, Iris Murdoch said, as opposed to philosophy, her other
concern, is ‘very natural to us, close to ordinary life and to the way we
live as reflective beings’. Why then, you might ask, are her stories so
rich in extraordinary and eccentric characters, why do they culminate
in some explosive event or catastrophe and why do her people behave
in extreme ways, incest, attempted murder, suicide? She was writing
in rebellion against the reduced scale, as she saw it, of other twentieth
century fiction which seemed to assume that every individual was free
to make his or her own way in the world with other people as objects
of choice or mere background to their lives. She wrote instead about
disturbing figures of power, both what it was like to exercise such in-
fluence and about those subject to its authority and in doubt or open
reaction or delighted acquiescence. She saw very clearly all the non-
rational obsessive and desiring elements of a self which was often far
from free. ‘Reality is not a given whole’, she wrote. ‘An understanding of
this, a respect for the contingent is essential to imagination as opposed
to fantasy’. Her characters are always articulate middle-class not out of
snobbery but because they constantly try to understand their competing
and conflicting inner pressures. There’s always an intense excitement in
her books as they move, especially in the earlier works, between some-
thing close to myth or fairy tale, say The Bell or The Italian Girl and a
more recognisable sense of the everyday, say The Sandcastle or, my own
favourite, An Unofficial Rose. But the greatest achievement is really the
long later novels where the power of the almost magically endowed pro-
phetic figures casts a spell over an immensely varied cast of characters,
as in The Message to the Planet or The Book and the Brotherhood. Each novel is
a world in itself, compulsively readable, constantly surprising, stimulat-
ing of thought but above all, to use her own word, ‘fun’ to be with. If you
haven’t read any before, what pleasure is in store for you and if you have
they will seem even more rewarding when you return.
Brian Nellist

verbal booty

The Letters of Samuel Beckett Volume I: 1929–1940
eds. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009
ISBN 978-0521867931
William Shutes


ou know I can’t write at all’, Samuel Beckett wrote
to his friend and main correspondent Thomas Mc-
Greevy in 1931, when he was aged 24. ‘The simplest
sentence is a torture.’ The young Beckett laments his
perceived inability throughout the letters collected in
this volume, covering the years 1929 to 1940. ‘This writing is a bloody
awful grind’, he complains; ‘The idea itself of writing seems somehow
ludicrous.’ Although Beckett says, ‘I can’t write anything at all, can’t
imagine even the shape of a sentence’, in his letters he is finding his
creative voice. As the editors suggest in their General Introduction to
this, the first of four projected volumes:
The writing of letters constitutes for Beckett both a warm-
ing-up exercise and an end in itself, an act of writing often
as exciting as anything he is composing with a view to

Despite the bloody awful grind of it, writing is explicitly as neces-
sary to Beckett as is living, which itself comes in for complaint. ‘This life
is terrible,’ he has decided, ‘and I dont [sic] understand how it can be
endured.’ The letters often act as a long list of physical maladies – many
very real – alongside writerly maladies. Many are reflections upon the
indolence which so worried his mother. ‘Perhaps I may prepare some-


thing,’ Beckett supposes, ‘– but do something… no.’ The reader often
finds him ‘perfecting [his] methodology of sleep, and little else’, ‘con-
strained to do nothing’. In his more melodramatic moments, Beckett
refers to ‘motion itself [as] a kind of anaesthesia’, as ‘what we all do,
struggling to ensure our dying every second’. In such a state, physically
suffering and unable to write, he found it difficult ‘to reach a tolerable
arrangement between working & living’. Like life, though, writing, an
end in itself, comes to be seen as vital, suggested by Beckett with regard
to a poem of his:
Genuinely my impression was that it was of little worth
because it did not represent a necessity. I mean that in some
way it was facultatif [optional] and that I would have been no
worse off for not having written it.

‘I cannot get away’, he writes five years later, ‘from the naïve antithesis
that, at least where literature is concerned, a thing is either worth it or
not worth it. And if we absolutely must earn money, we do it elsewhere.’
The identification of living with writing shows Beckett following the
course of a strictly literary life.
This extraordinary ‘stew of LETTERS’, then, tells a narrative of Beck-
ett’s life as a writer. In the 1980s, he himself authorised Martha Dow
Fehsenfeld, General Editor of the project, to publish ‘those passages only
having bearing on my work’. Due to this stipulation, to the impossibil-
ity of locating all his letters so soon after his death in 1989, and to the
fact of there being over 15 000 extant letters, the four-volume collection
will be a selection, rather than a complete edition. This first volume sees
Beckett travelling between Paris and his dreaded homeland Ireland,
around Germany and through London. He writes to Sergei Eisenstein,
requesting admission to the Moscow State School of Cinematography;
considers training to be a commercial pilot; and is stabbed in Paris by a
pimp called Prudent. The novel Murphy, the short story collection More
Pricks Than Kicks, and the study Proust are just three of his publications
in this period. These are not the statistics of an indolent writer’s life.
Amongst the letters can be seen the accumulation of material taken
from real experience: ‘ “butin verbal” ’ [verbal booty] which finds its
transposition in the poems, fiction and, beyond this collection, drama.
On the 8 September 1935, he reports watching ‘little shabby respectable
old men’ ‘flying kites immense distances at the Round Pond, Kensing-
ton’. Then, on 22 September, ‘The kites at the Round Pond yesterday
were plunging & writhing all over the sky.’ He continues, ‘The book
[Murphy] closes with an old man flying his kite, if such occasions ever
arise’ (which he has confirmed they do). Descriptions of his mother’s
temporary residence, as being within sight of her dead husband’s resting


place, foretell the scenario of the novella Mal vu mal dit (Ill Seen Ill Said)
over forty years before its composition.
Fittingly, in a narrative of the writer’s life, the selection opens with
a letter to James Joyce, the friend and teacher whose artistic spectre
haunts Beckett throughout this period and beyond. A problem repeated
by Beckett’s early critics, it was no less obvious to the young writer that
his work bore the indelible imprint of his Irish forebear. He admits of
his story ‘Sedendo et Quiescendo’, ‘of course it stinks of Joyce in spite of
most earnest endeavours to endow it with my own odours’, but vows ‘I
will get over J. J. ere I die. Yessir.’ After all, Joyce was ‘froissé dans la perfec-
tion’ [crinkled up in perfection] ‘dégueulasse’ [enough to make you throw
up], and, as Beckett conceded in 1931, ‘Unfortunately for myself that’s
the only way I’m interested in writing.’ By 1938, though, he writes to
McGreevy, ‘I don’t feel the danger of the association any more.’ The
letters concisely demonstrate the development of a style which was
very much Beckett’s own, self-confessedly ‘hard to follow, & of course
deliberately so’. ‘In spite of what I wrote to you concerning the impos-
sibility of working,’ he writes to his cousin Morris Sinclair, ‘I have just
been making the most outlandish efforts to write what nobody wants
to hear.’
Beckett is remorselessly self-deprecating in this way, variously de-
scribing his work as ‘samples of embarrassed respiration’ and as ‘the
latest hallucinations’. He thinks Murphy ‘reads something horrid’, ‘a
most unsavoury and not very honest work’. Yet out of such nihilism
comes what is now known to be characteristically Beckettian. What he
sees as ‘the only source I have, the only source of reference, my own
bloody self’ becomes his materials. As he says later, ‘how lost I would be
bereft of my incapacitation’. Themes of suffering and loneliness in his
oeuvre develop herein.
It is, though, the extended discussions of art and aesthetics which
provide the highlight of this book, showing Beckett actively finding a
style with which to approach his themes, so as to build upon ‘Goethe’s
opinion: better to write NOTHING than not to write.’ Beckett’s natural erudi-
tion and his remarkable memory combine in his analyses of paintings
seen in European galleries. With the impressive scholarship of the
editors, providing locations and even catalogue numbers of the paint-
ings in question, a tour could, and perhaps should, be made of the works
whose effect on Beckett was no less than to develop his aesthetic.
Although his immersion in the Old Masters was immense, it is his
comments on Cézanne, with whom he says painting ‘began’, which
suggest his aesthetic for ‘a mechanistic age’. In Cézanne’s work,
Beckett sees landscape to be stated as ‘a strictly peculiar order, incom-
mensurable with all human expressions’. Man is alienated from his


surroundings, and senses, moreover, the ‘incommensurability… even
with life of his own order, even with the life… operative in himself’.
Beckett figures this alienation as ‘the deanthropomorphizations of the
artist’. Elsewhere, he complains, using a similar register, ‘No sooner
do I take up my pen to compose something in English than I get the
feeling of being “de-personified.”’ His task became to verbally negoti-
ate a sense of nothingness and loneliness, to write, as it were, about
nothing and nothingness. ‘[I]t can only be a matter’, he proceeds, ‘of
somehow inventing a method of verbally demonstrating this scornful
attitude vis-a-vis the word’, to convey ‘the silence underlying all’.
Beckett saw the English language as ‘more and more… like a veil
which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the
nothingness) lying behind it’. Volume I of The Letters of Samuel Beckett
triumphantly represents the young writer’s arrival at this design, which
of course his work went on to fulfil. Hints of future modes of approach –
‘I have the feeling that any poems there may happen to be in the future
will be in French’ – demand that the further volumes arrive soon. At
once scatological and profound, sympathetic and scurrilous, Beckett’s
early letters, with ‘a little seriousness in the stress of irony’, are trag-
icomic, very much like the subsequent works whose ‘sadness always
adds to beauty’.


buy this book
David Constantine, Nine Fathom Deep
Bloodaxe, 2009
ISBN 978-1852248215

Sarah Coley

W hen Dante reads the message on the gates
of Hell, ‘All hope abandon, ye who enter
here’, he finds he doesn’t understand (or
maybe he’s playing for time) and he asks
his guide Virgil what it means. In Cary’s
old translation Virgil clarifies the meaning thus: “Here thou must all
distrust behind thee leave; / Here be vile fear extinguish’d.” Along with
hope, you also leave behind mistrust and fear, and that is the way to
walk through hell. In place of a sustaining and dreamed-of future, there
is now a pressing need for clarity of the senses and judgement, and an
attention that does not look away.
Nine Fathom Deep is not a hell but it is this world seen as if according
to those other-worldly principles. The first poem, ‘Photomontage’:
Against a photograph of the two of them in their eighties
Into the bottom righthand corner of the frame
When he was dead and she was beginning her absence
She set a photograph of herself at eighteen
Black and white, she cut it out
From somewhere, she cut round
Herself so she was nowhere and alone
Laughing. Nobody commented
But there it is and see,
It says, how I looked when you fell in love with me
And I with you and didn’t we bear it out


To the edge and over the edge of doom?
Her montage in the dying living room.

‘Nobody commented’, there’s nothing in the way, just the picture of the
laughing girl set against the picture of the couple in their eighties. This
bare witness, ‘and see, / It says’, carries the moment from long ago that
was strong enough to have travelled forward and made a lifetime. It’s
poignant because the woman is ‘beginning her absence’, suffering from
dementia but I love the simple ‘fell in love with me’ that actually and
impossibly rivals ‘over the edge of doom’.
There’s much in this collection that on the face of it is dark subject
matter for poetry but the clarity of attention transforms it. In ‘Fishing
over Lyonesse’ – a doom nine fathoms deep – the poet imagines the fish
below listening in ‘down the trembling line… to what holds humans /
Together, what keeps them from disassembling / Over depths well known
to be unfathomable.’ The answer is that what holds them together is the
same thing that might make them disassemble. Three times, like the re-
percussion of an illness, or a pull from a bottle, Constantine mentions
together the living and the dead, the widest possible aperture for us, as his
friend Hugh Shankling talks of people he has known:
   I see more clearly
  Where we are, in relation, how much we need
Mutual aid, the telling of stories and to wrap
  Our precious dead and our precious living close
In a welcoming house, Atlantis on dry land,
  The good and peaceable, cheerful, funny,
Close and ordinary.

The thought of that which you fear to lose, the close and the ordinary,
the precious stories, and the recognisability of some person who has
been, is also what can keep you from coming unstuck.
In ‘The Silence between the Winds’, Constantine watches smoke
from a fire rise and a butterfly decide to take flight in the momentary
stillness between the winds:
    But see
How all things cannot help remembering
What they like doing in still weather. See
They lift up, look around. The wise
Sit tight, of course, their only pleasure
Judging which of the unwise think this will last for ever
And which know it won’t.

In Constantine’s poems things and people behave as they would behave,
and that is the peace you must find in them. Wishing for more or for
longer is a limitation.
your recommendations

philippa pearce, Tom’s Midnight garden

Frank Cottrell Boyce

W e’re reading Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philip-
pa Pearce in our family and the thing that
gets everyone talking is the skates. At the
climax of the book, Tom and Hatty – the
ghostly girl he finds in the magic garden –
go skating on the frozen river Cam. A mixture of sheer momentum and
absolute joy makes them go further and further – further than they
meant to. They end up in Ely and have to get a lift back in a horse and
carriage. Hatty is the only person who can see Tom, so no one makes a
space for him in the carriage. And as they ride on into the night, Hatty
starts to fall in love with the driver. As a result she loses the ability to see
Tom. It was loneliness that made her sensitive to Tom’s presence. It’s
not this kissy stuff that people are interested in in my house, though.
It’s the skates. Tom doesn’t have any skates of his own. So Hatty says
that after the expedition, she’ll hide her skates under the floorboards
and with luck they’ll still be there in Tom’s time – a hundred years in the
future. Tom goes to look and there they are. So when Tom and Hatty go
skating they are in fact wearing the same pair of skates. Wow! Doesn’t
that break all the rules of everything?! One of my children points out
that Bill and Ted do this with the key. But it’s different here because
the skates are so emotionally loaded. Their presence shows that Hatty
carried on thinking of Tom, and believing in him, after she lost the
ability to see him. And also because they show that some things survive
even when great things – like the garden – are lost. These feelings all

your recommendations

come to a head in the final scene of the book, which is one of the most
powerful scenes I’ve read anywhere. Young Tom is about to leave the flat
in which he’s been staying with his aunt, when the old lady who lives
upstairs asks to see him. Tom goes in and realises that the old lady is
Hatty. It’s an electrifying moment – and completely unexpected because
until then you’ve assumed that Hatty is a ghost. In fact, as Hatty says,
it was Tom who was the ghost. Or, more accurately, we are all ghosts.
When I read it as a child, I was appalled by the idea that the attractive
young girl could become the old woman. Now I’m older I can see that
the scene is full of joy. The old woman had carried these memories in
her heart and now they were there alive again before her. Everyone who
has had children knows that this is both commonplace and mysteri-
ous. You hold vivid, recent, precious memories of them, which to them
turn out to be vague, shadowy impressions from a mythical past. But
somehow it doesn’t matter. Somehow the garden is there even if you
can only get to it when the clock strikes 13. Or when you’re thrilling
your own children with a book that thrilled you.

Tom listened as she began her tale; but at first he listened
less to what she was saying than to the way she was saying it,
and he studied closely her appearance and her movements.
Her bright black eyes were certainly like Hatty’s; and now he
began to notice, again and again, a gesture, a tone of the voice,
a way of laughing that reminded him of the little girl in the
Quite early in Mrs Bartholomew’s story, Tom suddenly leaned
forward and whispered: ‘You were Hatty – you are Hatty! You’re
really Hatty!’ She only interrupted what she was saying to smile
at him, and nod.
Tom’s Midnight Garden, Ch.26



Frank Cottrell Boyce

T here are a dozen priests at the altar but the priest in the
middle is Father Gerry. All is still. It’s midnight, on Christ-
mas Eve, in the Church of the Manger in Bethlehem, just
coming up to the Elevation of the Host. The sanctuary bell
rings. ‘Hoc Est Corpus’. A meditative silence flowers. This
is it. The most pregnant moment of the most pregnant Mass on the
most pregnant feast in the most pregnant Church in Christendom. If
you don’t taste the Real Presence now, you’ll never taste it. Father Gerry
listens to his heart and finds that it is humming, ‘No, you’ll never put
the aaahhh in gravy without Bisto.’
After Mass he talks to Father Damian. They are leading their Archdi-
ocesan pilgrimage together. They have been inseparable since seminary.
‘Dame, did you get anything?’ ‘Socks. Lynx. Soap. A prayer book. Like I
might not have one.’
‘I mean, during the Mass, did you … you know, feel it?’
‘The Presence.’
‘What Presence? I never felt any presence.’
On New Year’s Eve, Gerry slipped out of the Archdiocesan finger
buffet at the Hotel Jolly Jerusalem and walked alone to Gethsemane.
Surely there, where Christ Himself had wept, he would receive some
reassurance. He knelt where he could see the stars. He tried to imagine
the Bethlehem star. Would it have been visible in daylight? It would
have been so easy then, to look up and see a million tons of evidence
in the sky. Please God let there be some presence in the Universe other


than my own bloody consciousness. He began his long vigil.
It had verses, that Bisto advert. One verse about each member of the
family. He was trying to recall the one about Dad. What did Dads do?
Gerry’s own Father had died in a car crash when he was eight. When
it comes to gravy, what can beat… something was moving behind him.
Other pilgrims? Bandits? Terrorists even? He swung round. There was a
gentle glow in the olive branches, as though a luminous rosary had been
left hanging there. The glow moved. ‘Who’s that? Who’s there?’ A sing-
song, fluting voice replied, ‘Pax Vobiscum…’ and then they came.
They were slender and frail. Their eyes had that look of abstracted
intensity you get if you have been driving too long. Their skin was pale.
They wore long white floaty robes and little, tinselly haloes hovered over
their heads. Angels. Had his prayer been answered?
Not exactly. Not angels, but aliens. When you looked closely you
could see that, though dressed the same, they were of many different
species. They had come from every quadrant of the Galaxy. They all
spoke perfect Church Latin. ‘What do you want?’ asked Father Gerry.
‘Well… to start with, Confession and Communion,’ said the one at the
front, ‘My spiritual director died on the journey. Haven’t had the sacra-
ments since.’ They were all Catholic.
Obviously this was very exciting but Gerry couldn’t help being
slightly disappointed. Of course they could be the answer to his prayer
in a roundabout way. Just not angels, that’s all.
There was a good deal of interest in the press and in the streets. But
the Church is good at discretion and the alien Catholics were soon safely
behind the Vatican wall. Gerry and Damian went with them. The alien
Catholics had asked for Gerry to lead their ‘pilgrimage’.
In the Vatican, they were questioned closely by the Pope Himself.
Gerry and Damian were thrilled to meet him on such terms. Damian
had seen him at a public audience once and Gerry had seen him as a
boy, the time he came to Manchester. Of course that was a different
Pope. For both of them, meeting His Holiness face to face was just as
unexpected as meeting the alien Catholics.
‘How did you get here?’ asked the Pope.
‘Via Frankfurt,’ said Damian, eager to talk.
‘I was talking to our New Brothers and Sisters,’ said the Pope. New
Brothers and Sisters was now the official nomenclature. Gerry winced
whenever he heard it. His own brother had died in the car with his
‘In flying saucers,’ said the New Brothers and Sisters.
‘But… how? Did you travel faster than light? What kind of engine?
What fuel source?’ asked the Pope, who had once been an engineer.


‘Faith is our fuel source,’ said New Brother Number One. ‘The Power
of Faith. We just pray about it and the flying saucers go.’ The New Broth-
ers and Sisters were very big on Faith.
His Holiness was clearly impressed. ‘And the Good News, how did
you come to hear it?’
‘You surely remember,’ said Brother Number One, ‘that both our
Blessed Lord and His Holy Mother ascended into Heaven. Well they
stopped off on the way, at our planet and lots more. They’re still doing
it as far as I know.’
They talked long into the night. The Pope asked our New Brothers
and Sisters what they wanted. They told him they wanted him to anoint
one of their number a Bishop so that their Bishops too could claim direct
lineal descent from Saint Peter. The Pope was pleased to do it. He said to
Father Gerry, ‘Who would have thought? Did you ever imagine?’
‘Never in a month of Sundays,’ said Gerry. This was a good enough
reply. It’s also a line from the Bisto advert, which began to run through
his mind as soon as the Pope and the aliens started going on about the
role of the Oil of Chrism in Ecclesiastical History.
Later Gerry and Damian showed the New Brothers and Sisters
round St. Peter’s. One of them stopped in front of the Pietà and said,
‘Now that is one chuffing amazing likeness.’ Damian had been giving
them English lessons. On questioning it turned out that the Immacu-
late Heart and the Immaculate Conception had turned up on this New
Brother’s planet after the invention of photography. He had snapshots
of both of them. He showed them to Gerry and Damian. Our Lord and
Our Lady were standing one on each side of the alien, with their arms
round him, leaning into the middle of the picture, grinning. ‘Queued
for two days to get that took,’ he said. ‘Look they’ve written on the
back.’ On the back it said, ‘To Cosmos from Jesus and Mary.’ Jesus and
Mary both looked pretty much the same as they did in the Pietà. But
less stressed.
The snaps were published in the papers. There was a great upsurge
of piety throughout the World. The New Brothers and Sisters provided
reassurance, excitement and inspiration. Their Faith-Powered Space
ships became places of pilgrimage. People would test their own Faith by
trying to make them work. As time went by, more and more succeeded.
Father Gerry, however, never put his faith to such a test.
When the Pope died, Father Gerry’s close association with the New
Brothers and Sisters was enough to get him elected to the Holy See. He
took the name Thomas. He made Cosmos Cardinal. Damian – now in
charge of Vatican finances – restored the Holy See to wealth by making
a series of lucrative franchising deals with car manufacturers. The Ford
Franciscan became the most popular car on the planet. Its specialised


engine meant that it ran on a phased combination of Faith and petrol.
Very few people had enough Faith to fuel an effective ignition system,
almost everyone had enough for motorway cruising.
Everyone in the World felt good. Earth was suddenly the centre
of the Universe again. And the new Pope Thomas was the centre of
the Earth. But the terrible Truth was that Thomas still didn’t feel that
much. Inside. He looked up at the stars and knew now that they were
full of Catholics but… bulk was not the answer. Whenever it was quiet,
his mind still silted up with old jingles.
In particular, he found Cosmos’ enthusiasm embarassing. One af-
ternoon, they were in the Sistine and Cosmos started to complain about
the frescoes, ‘They’ve got nothing to do with religion. They’re all about
the cult of the artist. It’s just Michelangelo showing off. Really speaking
they’re idolatrous.’
‘I thought you liked the Pietà.’
‘Yeah I like the early stuff but this is really over the top and self-
important. You should paint over it.’
‘You can’t paint over the Sistine Chapel!’
‘Why not? You’re the Pope.’
‘It’s been there the best part of a thousand years.’
‘So Heritage is more important than the living well of Faith.’
The Living Well of Faith, I ask you.
‘Want to know what I think about this stuff? I think all that post-
Vasari Artist voodoo has blinded everyone. It’s created a situation where
you are content to allow this chapel – the panting heart of our Uni-
versal Faith – to be used as an exhibition hall for the celebration of
‘What are you on about?!’
‘Look. Look around you. Adam looks like one of the chuffing Village
People. I’m telling you, a bucket of whitewash is the best thing for it.’
There was no point arguing. Tom whitewashed the Sistine Chapel.
Today, said the editorial in Osservatore Romani, the Holy Father has cut
the chains of History. Thomas was hoping that someone would object
but no bugger did. He looked up at the whitewashed walls and tried to
imagine the muscular bodies beneath. All he could see was whitewash,
though he knew intellectually that the bodies were there. This seemed
to him to sum up his spiritual life.
He tried to talk it over with Damian, who was his confessor now, for
reasons of security. ‘I don’t feel anything inside,’ he said. ‘I can see that
things are going well but inside … nothing. Even my memory … it’s
clogged with crap. I can’t remember the words to the Hail Holy Queen
but I can do the whole of the Bisto song and the theme to the Flashing


‘Oh that was a great show,’ said Damian. ‘Who could forget that?’
and he started to sing it. ‘You’ve got to fight for what you want, for all
that you believe…’
Thomas joined in, in the heat of the moment. They bounced up and
down on their seats, riding imaginary horses, like the two musketeers
in the title sequence. Afterwards, Damian gave him Absolution and an
Apple iPhone in Papal white. ‘You said your memory was going. This is
the ultimate information sculptor,’ he said. ‘It’s got a five hundred year
diary so you can leave little messages for the next twenty popes. It’s also
– you’ll love this – got an electronic Lectionary. No more pissing about
with bookmarks. You switch it on and all the readings for the day are
there. It even gives you key words for your sermon.’
That evening at Mass, he saw the camera closing in on the iPhone
and realised that it was another of Damian’s product placements.
He said the words of the Offertory, ‘O Lord we offer you this day this
Warburton’s bread and this Gallo Brothers’ wine…’
The next thing that happened of course was the total collapse of
World Banking. Every account was wiped clean. Not that the money
vanished. There were still tills full of cash and vaults full of gold but
no one knew whose it was. All the data had gone. There was chaos,
and fighting but above all there was praying. Praying like Heaven never
heard before. Maybe during the Black Death or something.
Tom knew that it must be something to do with Cosmos. Cosmos
was only too chuffed to take the blame. ‘Yes I looked into cyberspace
and saw that it was a mess. So I introduced this virus. It rearranged the
whole thing along the lines suggested by Thomas Aquinas. Pornography
and money are both under Mammon, for instance.’
‘How did you design a virus? You don’t know the first thing about
‘I just said a little prayer and it all seemed quite simple.’
Tom could see that this was a miracle. That this must mean the virus
was the will of God. But it was intensely irritating just the same.
The Vatican accountants set about trying to redistribute the wealth
but by then it was too late. Factory workers had tasted the sunlight
and were not going back to the dark. Stressed-out executives were
feeding their families with vegetables from their gardens. With no cars
and no television, communities were being reborn. The make do and
mend skills that the homeless millions had acquired were suddenly at a
premium. The homeless millions became mendicant consultants. Pollu-
tion stopped. Nation states dissolved.
Damian said to Tom, ‘We’re the only coherent authority left. We
could clean up. We’ll start by buying up the airlines.’
‘What for?’


‘Well we’ll be able to move around the World. We can hold it all
‘But what for?’
‘I’ll get back to you.’
Damian got back to him three days later. ‘You’re right. I mean, I
know you’re right; you’re infallible but I mean this time, you’re really
‘How d’you mean?’
‘Well you know what this is don’t you? World peace. Zero industrial
growth. Total faith, hope and charity? It’s only the chuffing Kingdom
that’s all. It’s the Kingdom of God. And to think I almost ruined it. I’m
off, Tom. I’m back to Widnes to live in a cave and just BE. I’m leaving all
this behind. A big white underground salt cave. You should come.’
‘Well…’ The fact was Tom really liked that Papal White iPhone and
he was really getting into the art collection. ‘I’ll catch you later,’ he
He did think about that cave near Widnes but what if he went into
it alone and found nothing there but the ancient advertising jingles
that still rattled round his head. What if, when there was no other dis-
traction, that was all there was? He was still not sure. In the cave, he
thought, he would be nothing but lonely. That was how he felt when he
contemplated eternity. Lonely. Like a God that could not create.
A few days later the official Toyota Martyr of Pope Thomas II, hit a
wall in Lungoteverre and he found himself hurtling towards the wind-
screen. The glass shattered round his head, like the water in a swimming
pool and he plunged headfirst, not into the Roman suburbs but blue-
ness, limitless, expanding blueness. He swam through it for days until
he came to a set of turnstiles. They were like the turnstiles at Widnes
rugby ground. And off to the side, a nicely polished door with a flunky
in front of it, like the one that led to the directors’ box. He knew instinc-
tively that this one was for Popes. As he went through, Saint Peter was
‘What did you think?’ he asked.
Before Thomas could reply the air was full of a bright, brassy sound.
A music so pitched that each cell of his mortal body reverberated like
glass. And the tune was the Bisto advert complete with all its words,
including the verse about dads. Thomas listened.
Hearing these words restored, he was drenched with relief. And at
the last remembered with a stabbing vividness, the day on the beach.
His Mother, his Father, his Brother, himself. All four playing, madly
yelling this song, and each filled to bursting with the joyous pointless-
ness of His Presence.

The Reader Crossword
Cassandra No.27
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

9 10

11 12

13 14 15

16 17 18

19 20 21

22 23

24 25


9. According to the song he never swings *1 and 4 down. Basic requirement for 9 across
alone (4, 5) one would have thought (8, 2, 4)
*10. See 19 across 2. No offence taken in this leading role (4, 4)
11. Flying arrows for example or side never *3. See 22 down
unaccompanied (3,4) *4. See 1 down
12. Activity performed up an alley but not in 5. These pre-emptive strikes slap butter all over
Walter’s case (7) the place (10)
13. Initially I made a mistake searching for 6. Brief exchange for this self-descriptive clue (3, 5)
these religious leaders (5) 7. Vehicle to be found back in Nagasaki or
*14. Possibly Atlantis splits to provide irriga- Timbuktu (6)
tion (9) 8. Often given a bad name (1, 3)
16. Cross sections of the medieval church? 14. A Jehovah’s Witness may have this point of
(6, 9) view (10)
*19 and 10 across. Fantastic extra-terrestrial 15. Thinks ill of the patronage of a princess (10)
(3, 2, 4, 5) 17. Can right fist rotate when blood supply is
21. Policeman keeping the peace in vulgar obstructed? (8)
daily speech (5) 18. Mixing her paint to produce a flower (8)
22. No coral to be found in this tourist resort 20. Volatile Scot in alarm (6)
(7) *21 and 24 across. He turns up when fig and ham
23. Commotion after almost heroic bold- are cooked over straw (6, 5)
ness (7) *22 and 3 down. Get these in before the monas-
*24. See 21 down tery or the bar closes (4,6)
*25. Sometimes happy to begin with? 23. Having splashed out can sound depressed (4)
Always (4, 5)

* Clues with an asterisk have a common

buck’s quiz

grand designs

1. ‘Caverns measureless to man’ are situated in which city?
2. The Marabar caves echo ‘Boumm’ in which novel of empire?
3. In which Jacobean house did Kipling write ‘If’, Puck of Pook’s Hill and
‘The Glory of the Garden’?
4. Who meets his end crushed under the falling wall of The Grotto of
Locmaria as he holds it up in order to allow his friend to escape?
5. What significance does Lyme Park have for literature?
6. Who lived at Max Gate?
7. Which husband and wife both wrote poems entitled ‘Wuthering
8. Name the four heirs who mismanage Castle Rackrent.
9. Darlington Hall is the setting for which Booker Prize-winning novel?
10. Which Cathedral connects Henry Fielding, Thomas Hardy and
William Golding?
11. Both the residence of the author and the title of one of his books,
this dwelling was previously known as Fort House. Which house? 

12. Where was Christine Daae taken when she was kidnapped?
13. From where does the narrator flee aghast as he witnesses the bloody
and enshrouded body of Madeleine fall upon her brother causing him
to die of terror?
14. Who, as punishment for her disobedience in burying her brother is
herself buried alive in a rocky vault?
15. An Anglican minister and a teenage heiress transport a fragile edifice
across the outback. What is it?

the back end

The winner of the Crossword (plucked in time-honoured tradition from
a hat) will receive our selection of World’s Classics paperbacks, and the
same to the winner of the fiendishly difficult Buck’s Quiz.

Congratulations to Pamela Nixon from Oxford who answered all ques-
tions correctly in Buck’s Quiz, and to Tony Anstey from Birkenhead who
is the winner of the Crossword competition.

Please send your solutions (marked either Cassandra Crossword, or
Buck’s Quiz) to 19 Abercromby Square, Liverpool L69 7ZG.

Cassandra Crossword no. 26
1. Back 3. Telepathic 10. The long 11. Goodbye 12. Emporia 13. Ibizan
15. Raymond Chandler 16. The little sister 21. Philip 22. Marlowe 24.
Conquer 25. Nearest 26. Breakaways 27. Play

1. By the crate 2. Cheaply 4. England’s top draw 5. English yeomanry 6.
Aeolian 7. Hobnail 8. Crew 9. Journo 14. Pruriently 17. Enhance 18. Ill
luck 19. Inroad 20. Too well 23. Scab

buck’s quiz no. 34
1. Julius Caesar 2. The Caretaker 3. Waiting For Godot 4. An Ideal Husband
5. The Woman in Black 6. Medea 7. She Stoops to Conquer 8. The Rivals 9. The
Admirable Crichton 10. Uncle Vanya 11. Talking Heads 12. A Streetcar Named
Desire 13. Waiting in the Wings 14. Pygmalion 15. King Lear

contributors 35
Connie Bensley lives in London, and the most recent of her six poetry collections
is Private Pleasures (Bloodaxe Books, 2007). She was on the judging panel for the
Forward Poetry Prize in 2004.
Eleanor Cooke has published five collections of poetry. She has worked as a
writer in schools, university departments, galleries, and in the community; and
as an editor. She has four children, and lives with her husband, the artist Hugh
Child, in south-west Cheshire.
Frank Cottrell Boyce has won several awards for his novels and screenplays, and
lives in Liverpool with his wife and seven children. His third novel, Cosmic, was
published in 2008 and was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.
Lisa Curtice is a Trustee of the Pioneer Health Foundation and Director of the
Scottish Consortium for Learning Disability. A former academic researcher, she
believes in everyone’s capacity to contribute.
Richard Flanagan. Born 1961 in Tasmania. Novels include Death of a River Guide
(1997), The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1998) and Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in
Twelve Fish (2002), winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner,
Best Book). Wrote and directed film version of The Sound of One Hand Clapping.
Wanting (2009), is set in Tasmania and England in the early nineteenth century.
John Greening was born in 1954 in London. His Hunts: Poems 1979-2009 ap-
peared last Spring. He received a Cholmondeley Award in 2008. He is currently
completing a book about Elizabethan love poets.
Gabriella Gruder-Poni is a teacher living in New York City. She has written on
Andrew Marvell, and is currently translating an Italian children’s classic, Il Gior-
nalino di Gian Burrasca, by Vamba.
Kenneth Hesketh is a composer commissioned and performed throughout
Europe, Canada and the US. RLPO Composer in the House 2007-2009 and RCM
and Liverpool University Professor, his work is critically acclaimed and recorded.
Paul Kingsnorth is the author of Real England: the battle against the bland (Por-
tobello, 2008). His debut poetry collection is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry.
Gill Lowther has tried her hand at various things, but settled with teaching,
which she loved. She enjoys being a mum, playing the saxophone and trumpet,
floral painting, and co-ordinating the QHA library van.
Penny Markell runs Get Into Reading groups in London, mostly in the East End.
She works in libraries, at a centre for the homeless, and in a mental health ward.
Ian McMillan was born in 1956 and has been a freelance writer/performer/
broadcaster since 1981. He presents The Verb on BBC Radio 3 every Friday night.
Richard Meier lives and works in London. A number of his poems appeared in
Carcanet’s Oxford Poets Anthology 2002. He hopes that some kind publisher might
publish his collection in the not too distant future.
Les Murray works a day a month on Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary. Other days
he moves around in time a lot.
Tom Paulin is a poet, essayist, editor and lecturer and was a regular panellist on
BBC’s Newsnight Review. Publications include The Invasion Handbook (Faber 2003)
and The Secret Life of Poems (Faber 2008).
Adam Phillips psychoanalyst and author of eleven books, including Side Effects
and Houdini’s Box. He writes regularly for The New York Times, the London Review of
Books, and The Observer, and is General Editor of The Penguin Freud Reader.

THE back end

Catherine Pickstock is a Reader in Philosophy and Theology at the University of
Cambridge. She has written books and articles in the area of philosophical the-
ology. Her current project is a book about theory, religion and idiom in Platonic
Nigel Prentice lives in Warwickshire and is an EFL teacher by trade. Poems pub-
lished in Poetry Review, Smiths Knoll, The Rialto and other journals. A collection is
ready for publication, but he has yet to seek a publisher.
Ciara Rutherford has just graduated from Liverpool University with a degree in
English and Modern History. Having returned to her home city of Leeds she plans
to travel so she can spend an extended period of time reading in the sun.
William Shutes has written reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and The
London Magazine. He is currently researching the paintings and other artwork of
Roger (Syd) Barrett.
David Sollors. Born 1964 in the West-country. By training and a different name
a lawyer and father to four daughters. Numerous contributions to magazines
and occasional internet/library projects and readings. Currently working, slowly,
towards a first collection.
Enid Stubin is Assistant Professor of English at Kingsborough Community
College of the City University of New York and Adjunct Professor of Humanities
at NY University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

The Reader Magazine
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