I haven’t recorded a poem for over two months. I’d been asked to read something by Shakespeare and was too afraid to try: how could I dare to do what the greats of acting and speaking have done? But hey – life’s too short to be a coward for long. And I took courage from the remembrance of things past about my classmate Judith, who recited this in our English Verse Speaking.
I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for 35 years. What? You’re telling me blog posts hadn’t even been invented 35 years ago? No, of course not: back then this would have been an article or an essay. But you know what I mean…
In 1984 I was a young curate with a struggling wife and three young children, serving a tiny church in an industrial village in Bedfordshire. I had felt a strong call to take the post, but my ministry there turned out to be not what some might call ‘successful’ in terms of making converts and growing the church. I didn’t see much noticeable fruit of my ministry, and although the people of the church loved us and we had some good friends there, it often felt there was little to support or encourage my wife and me in our own spiritual life.
Then I read a book which I thought at the time, and have often thought since, ‘changed my life’. It wasn’t a book you might have expected to change the life of a minister in that kind of situation.
It was Little, Big by John Crowley.
How can I describe this book, or explain (or perhaps, even, remember) how and why it changed my life? It’s a complex fantasy novel – Ursula K. Le Guin called it ‘a book that all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy’. It’s a love story – or better, a whole collection of love stories. It’s a family saga spanning generations. It’s a nature book, with beautifully written descriptions of field and forest, river and lake, birds and animals. It’s about architecture and literature and ideas – over and over again you want to mark sentences and whole paragraphs you think you must remember and quote. It’s full of mysterious events that you don’t understand the significance of until much later in the Tale – if indeed you ever do. It’s about the nature of Story itself: how stories are told and if they ever can have an ending. It’s a political thriller about the End Of Civilization As We Know It, when the failing democratic republic is taken over by a charismatic populist leader, whom the elite powers of the Establishment, the bankers and the media think they will control for their own purposes – but they are mistaken. (Remembering that this book was published in 1981, you have to ask yourself: How did the author come to be so prescient? What could have greater contemporary relevance for us?)
But above all, it is a fairy story. And the secret of how and why this book changed my life is tied up with this, and the old question we all remember from our days of watching Peter Pan: Do you believe in fairies? As I read this book in 1984, a time of struggling with and trying to make sense of questions of faith, again and again it helped me to learn more about just what faith means.
The Drinkwater family, around whom the whole Tale revolves, are said from the outset to be ‘very religious’. But this is not Christian or any other kind of mainstream religion: it is about knowing and living and walking with ‘them’, the inhabitants of another world, the world of Faerie. Into this family marries a young man who doesn’t share their ‘faith’, who is introduced to us in the very first wonderful paragraph of the book:
On a certain day in June, 19–, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told about but had never visited. His name was Smoky Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married: the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one of the conditions placed upon his coming there at all.
Smoky is aware of and respects the beliefs of his bride and her family, but he cannot share them. He never sees or hears or speaks to ‘them’: so he simply cannot believe in them. Yet out of courtesy he keeps quiet about his lack of faith, never speaks of it, seems almost to pretend that he does share it. Suspects, sometimes, that many of the other members of the family are also ‘pretending’ because they also are too reticent to speak of it. One of the most moving moments in the book describes the conversation, many years later, between Smoky and his grown-up son Auberon, when Auberon finally asks him, “Do you believe in fairies?” And it transpires that each of them has thought that the other knew Something all along that remained a Mystery to him. What is the difference between believing, and pretending we believe, because we think that all the people around us believe something we cannot, and yet they expect us to share their faith, and imagine that we do?
In the end (SPOILER ALERT! – or maybe not?) They all withdraw into the smaller world within their one, which turns out to be far far bigger, while all the characters in our world journey into that inner world that They have vacated, and take Their places. (I think.) All of them except Smoky who cannot make that journey. But it doesn’t matter, because
how could he desire another world than this one?
He couldn’t go where all of them were going, but it didn’t matter, for he’d been there all along.
His life, and all their lives and the things that have happened to them, are part of the Tale. Which is now ended; and yet it’s a Tale that never ends.
I have always been most fully convinced of things not by reasons or proofs, but by imagination. It’s why the moment I came to believe was when I read the Gospels and realised that this was a Story that I could, and wanted to, inhabit. It’s why the stories of C. S. Lewis, Narnia and the were so helpful on my spiritual journey.
And Little, Big helped me too, because it taught me to imagine the truth that “There is another world, but it is in this one.”1 Some of the most important discoveries of my own spiritual journey have been deepening insights into this truth. The ‘other world’ that we believe or aspire to believe in is ‘in’ this world, or touches it at every point, or is separated from it by only the thinnest of veils. And we come to know that ‘other world’ most fully as we learn to love and know this world. If we hate this life, we will never enjoy the life of Heaven. Or whatever.
You may not like Little, Big at all, it may leave you completely cold. But I hope that, if you do read it, you catch a glimpse of the same mysterious, wonderful truths that so captivated me and continue to do so.
Variously attributed to W. B. Yeats, Paul Eluard, and even Rilke ↩︎
I find myself looking back through some of the volumes of journals and diaries I have kept over the years. There are many of them, and I’m never sure how wise it is to read them again. During the 1990s especially, I wrote pages and pages of what was really a kind of spiritual journal, as I tried to deal with my depression, and worked (as I thought) at promoting my spiritual growth towards being the kind of Christian and priest I aspired to be. The reading itself is a depressing experience. Can I really have been such a self-obsessed miserable git as the guy in these pages?
But the main reason I was looking back, was to search for a note about when I bought my long-time favourite fountain pen. Most of those journals were written with a fountain pen, though in recent years I’ve been using a ballpoint, rollerball or a disposable like a Uniball Signo or Stabilo Sensor. Even when I’ve used a fountain pen, it was often with an ink cartridge. Now that we live in such a plastic-conscious world, I decided this was too much One of the ways of cutting down plastic use is to get rid of the disposables and write with ‘real ink’. But as I track down my various fountain pens, I find them seized up with old ink, all pretty sick-looking. All now washed and cleaned, they lie on my desk waiting to be put into storage, or perhaps even used.
So: what about that favourite pen? I knew exactly where I bought it: in wonderful Pens Plus on the High. But when? Turns out it was on Tuesday, 30 April, 1996. The more fascinating thing is that my journal records that on the paper I used to try the pen out, I wrote the sentence:
Terwilliger bunts one
I had entirely forgotten this sentence. But at that precise moment it was in my head because I had just read Annie Dillard’s memoir An American Childhood, where she writes this:
So it lived again in Oxford on 30 April, 1996., as my small contribution to the mystery of life. Would anyone see it and wonder? Thinking, What does it mean? Or even recognise the allusion? The world will never know.
All these years, I have never known what it even means. But today I discover to my delight, that bunt is a recognised baseball expression. It means, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: To let the ball rebound from the bat without swinging.
Has anyone proposed, as a remedy for depression, learning a new word every day?
The latest edition of New Statesman contains a review of The Cambridge History of Welsh Literature, edited by Geraint Evans and Helen Fulton, published by Cambridge University Press at an eye-watering £100. I might perhaps not have read the review, since I’m unlikely to read the book even if some rich benefactor stumped up the price, except that its author is Rowan Williams.
He has clearly read and assimilated the 854 pages of this volume, and knows the subject thoroughly enough to comment on the chapters, gently suggest improvements that might have been made, and list a number of factual and proof-reading errors. I couldn’t possibly argue with any of that.
But what particularly enchanted me was his comment on one of the most regrettable lacunae of the book.
“Strangely, even scandalously, given the justifiable stress on the significance of women writers in the last century or so, there is nothing at all (beyond a single mention of her name) about the greatest of medieval Welsh women poets, the 15th century Gwerful Mechain, author of a delightfully uninhibited celebration of the female pudenda as well as a number of other verses on those primary poetic data, the natural world, eros and God.”
(I’ve researched and added the links for the benefit of those who don’t believe him.)
The former Archbishop’s erudition is beyond amazing; it’s terrifying. Is there anything this man doesn’t know?
I’ve been fascinated by the I Ching for more years than I can remember. Maybe it’s having lived through the 60s and Flower Power and all that stuff, and being intrigued by some of the artistic, literary, and psychological associations like Hermann Hesse, George Harrison, and Jung; but I didn’t start looking at it more seriously until the 1990s. Since then I’ve kept taking it up and putting it down again, frustrated by its opaqueness and, quite simply, its foreignness.
And still I come back to it, and have a modest collection of different translations and books about it. I’m attracted to it not as a book of divination… who really wants to know what will happen, especially at this moment in history? It will be bad enough to find out when it actually happens. No, what appeals to me is the sense that it speaks with a voice of wisdom, a very different kind of wisdom from what we’re familiar with in the West, although often saying many of the same kind of things. It has a lot to say about how to develop moral character and right behaviour: how to study to become a better person; and I like that.
But still, much of what you find about it in books or on the Internet seems either mad, or unnecessarily esoteric, or alternatively just plain trivial. What has changed in the most recent time, has been coming across the idea that I might actually read it. (I know, I’m slow on the uptake… But the Changes don’t reveal their deep secrets to the person in a hurry. I think.)
Thomas Cleary, in The Taoist I Ching, insists that you cannot make any sense of this book, if you have only a limited knowledge of it, and this is especially true of any random approach (such as, only reading the hexagrams that result from some random process, whether counting yarrow stalks or tossing coins).
“Therefore, the first step is to read the book in its entirety, without pausing to judge or question, just going along with the flow of its images and ideas. … Ancient literature suggests reading one hexagram in the morning and one at night. At this rate, this initial phase of consultation can be completed in approximately one month. This may have to be repeated one or more times at intervals to effectively set the basic program into the mind.”
In fact, on this first read through of the 64 hexagrams (Book I in the Wilhelm/Baynes version), I’m going faster than just two chapters a day; I can come back to that more leisurely approach later. But the overview is already yielding wonderful nuggets: not least the quaint old-fashioned ideas that moral character is important; that it’s especially important in people with power and influence in the state; that everyone has a responsibility to cultivate it; that things go badly for everyone when moral character is lacking – especially aomng the people in power.
Take, for example, the Image of hexagram 12, P’i / Standstill (Stagnation):
The hexagram for this is ䷋: made up of the trigrams Ch’ien, the Creative, Heaven over K’un, the Receptive, Earth. These are complementary realities, but in this particular arrangement they are pulling away from each other, rather than working together, hence the idea of Standstill or Stagnation. (Don’t worry if this is all Chinese to you: walk with me for a while.)
The text for the Image reads:
Heaven and earth do not unite:The image of STANDSTILL.Thus the superior man falls back upon his inner worthIn order to escape the difficulties.
He does not permit himself to be honored with revenue.
And the commentary begins:
When, owing to the influence of inferior men, mutual mistrust prevails in public life, fruitful activity is rendered impossible, because the fundaments are wrong.
It seems to me you could hardly find a more accurate summary of Brexit Britain, and what’s wrong with the state of our nation and politics at the present time. People have simply lost all trust in our political class because the perception is that they are morally inferior people. It used to be the case that society, schools, the whole process of education and upbringing, taught that you should regard it as a moral duty to use your skills and gifts for the general good, not just for your personal advantage. Especially if you enjoyed any kind of privilege or position: and even receiving a free secondary, let alone tertiary, education, was an enormous privilege, bringing responsibility with it. Certainly that’s one of the things were were taught at my local grammar school, even if the invisible sub-text was that we would possibly be called upon to govern the Raj (or whatever the 1960s equivalent of that was) under the supervision of the gentlemen whose privilege had been to enjoy a public (sic) school education. This is no longer the case. The antics of the entitled classes, as exemplified by the Bullingdon Club and its many wannabes, is enough proof. The popularity with the Tory Party of the unspeakable Boris Johnson, and the absurd and terrifying likelihood that he will soon be Prime Minister, confirms it.
And all the while I’m sure there are many, many people in pubic office, perhaps even in Parliament, who really do have a notion that they are there to do good and to work for the common good. It’s just that their efforts are made invisible by the greed and wealth of those among them who continue to vote for measures that oppress the poorest and most vulnerable, and make their lives a misery. Theresa May appeared to say the right things when she spoke of making Britain a country that worked for everyone, but most of the policies of her Government shouted the opposite, and much louder. Francesca Martinez spoke for many, and earned the applause she received, when she said on Question Time that the Tories have blood on their hands, because their austerity policies have been a direct cause of 130,000 deaths.
There is much more in the I Ching about how rulers in particular, and all people in general who seek to live in wise harmony with the universe, should fashion their lives. Sadly, I doubt if the Boris Johnsons of this world and all those who admire them, so much as give a damn.
Somewhere on my bookshelves, I used to have a copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Its pages slightly browning, because even though I never read it, it must be over 20 years ago that I bought it, and for some of those years it sat on a window sill in the sun. But had it survived the downsizing, and terrible cull of books, that took place when we moved to Thame?
It didn’t take long for me to find it, and yes, it had survived, and is still on my list of Books To Read. Some time. (Being able to find it so quickly, incidentally, is an indicator of how few books remain…)
This search happened after I was reminded of Rushdie’s book by the recent BBC2 documentary, The Satanic Verses 30 Years On. In this film, presenter Mobeen Azhar examines the lasting effect Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses has had on the Muslim community and how the events of 1989 continue to have an impact today. Those ‘events’ followed the book’s first publication, when Muslims in Britain were scandalized by Rushdie’s fiction, convinced that it was a blasphemous affront to Islam. Huge demonstrations took place in Britain, where the book was notoriously burned in the public square in Bradford, and in other countries, especially Iran and the USA. Ayatollah Khomeini issued the notorious fatwah calling upon faithful Muslims to assassinate Rushdie, and death threats were also made against the book’s publishers and all the individuals who had been involved in its publication. 59 people lost their lives in the most violent demonstrations around the world.
At the time there were laws against blasphemy in England and Wales, but they only protected the Christian religion. For a time there was some discussion, supported by a number of liberals and Christians, about extending the law to protect Islam and other faiths. In the end this did not happen: instead, the blasphemy law was repealed in its entirety in 2008, and may be considered to have been replaced (in part) by legislation against religious and racial hate crimes.
It was nothing but a good thing for the Blasphemy Law to have been repealed. It was ridiculous and out-dated, had hardly ever been used by Christians in the hundreds of years of its existence, and the possibility of it being used by Muslims in a case such as the Rushdie case, simply appalling. It’s also an unfortunate reality of the differences between the world faiths, that there are passages even in the sacred Scriptures that could be construed as blasphemous by the adherents of other religions. Christians ‘blasphemously’ (to Muslims) believe that Jesus is the Son of God. The Quran ‘blasphemously’ (to Christians) asserts that Jesus is not the Son of God, and that he did not die on the cross. This is just the start of the problem…
Mobeen Azhar’s documentary followed up the events of 1989, interviewing some of the men who had been involved in the protests. His conclusion was that, although the protests had given the Muslim community the opportunity to make a protest which was, as much as anything, about the racial intolerance and disadvantage they had suffered, it had also had many negative consequences. In particular, the caricature of the Muslim bogeyman was born, because of the way the tabloid press reported the riots. Azhar’s final comment:
“It ushered in this age of division, with Muslims being seen as the other. But we’re not outsiders. We’re a really important part of British society. But we have to be able to stomach debates about our culture, and actually our religion as well. Even if we find them offensive, we have to be able to do that. And it’s only when we can do that, that the ghost of The Satanic Verses will truly be put to bed.”
That blasphemy is still considered a crime anywhere in the world, in the 21st century, is a scandal. We only have to look at the terrible way it is used in Pakistan and other Islamist countries, where not only Christians and ‘apostates’ from Islam are routinely lynched or murdered, but also Muslim politicians and justice officials who try to protect them. And this in a country which, as a member of the United Nations, is supposed to subscribe to the UN Declaration on Human Rights, with its protection of Freedom of Religion. (Including guarantees of the freedom to choose one’s religion, to hold to any religion or none, and to change one’s religious beliefs without fear of reprisal.)
Are human beings offended by material insulting to the God they believe in? They need to just get over it. Is God offended? I think God is likely to have a good laugh about the presumption of us thinking that God might be. But even if God is offended, I’m pretty sure God knows how to deal with it. Probably by grace, mercy, and love, and (I hope) opening the blasphemer’s eyes to see the foolishness of insulting the Divine.
My favourite fictional work about librarians is A Month of Living Vicariously, by Tony Price. It’s the novella I wrote for NaNoWriMo in 2011, and it has so much of myself in it, that there’s no way I couldn’t love it like a child of my own. I truly think it’s the best thing I’ve written for NaNo, and every time I read it in the months after November 2011, it cheered me up and made me laugh. (Available in PDF format on request!)
But Salley Vickers’s latest novel is much better, of course. And it made me cry, which is always a good sign, and made me feel good at the same time.
It’s the story of Sylvia Blackwell, an idealistic recently-qualified librarian who takes up an appointment as children’s librarian in East Mole, in the year 1958. We follow her trials and tribulations as she works to share her passion for books, and for encouraging children to read and love them, in the hostile environment created by her boss, her neighbour (who happens to be chairman of the Libraries Committee), the local middle-class ladies, and an education system that fails 75% of children, before they even start secondary school, by making them jump through the 11+ hoop. (I challenge anyone who reads this not to share the author’s conviction that the 11+ is iniquitous and barbaric: how can we still countenance it in so many parts of this country?)
Sylvia succeeds spectacularly, and she fails. She falls in love and has a hopeless affair with a married man. She moves away from East Mole. She has changed lives for ever.
I won’t give away anything about Part 2, the last 40 pages; but I hope you will read them and weep, too. The final Author’s Note by itself is worth the price of the book (which is in any case a modest £8.99).
You should read this book,
- if you love books, libraries, or librarians
- if you are grateful to librarians or have ever been one
- if you share the author’s rage at the closing of public libraries, and the damage being done to future generations by the policies that have led to those closures
- if you remember the 1950s, or want to know what they were like
- if you just want a great read
Thank you, Salley Vickers!
We were invited to attend the launch this afternoon of Richard Harries’s new book Haunted by Christ, sub-titled: Modern writers and the struggle for faith. In the fifteen chapters of the book, Harries discusses the work of twenty modern novelists and poets, for whom God has been a reality, or a nagging presence which they have been both attracted to and / or repelled by, and how they have dealt with this ‘haunting’. The wide-ranging list of writers includes Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edward Thomas, T. S. Eliot, Stevie Smith, Samuel Beckett, W. H. Auden, William Golding, R. S. Thomas, Edwin Muir and George Mackay Brown, Elizabeth Jennings, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Shusaku Endo and Evelyn Waugh, C. S. Lewis and Philip Pullman, and Marilynne Robinson.
The launch event was held in the chapel at Harris Manchester College in Oxford, and was attended by a large number of friends and fans of the former Bishop of Oxford (which includes ourselves!) among whom were people we got to know during our time in Marston, whom it was good to see again. Former archdeacons and area bishops, bishop’s chaplains and diocesan officers, college chaplains and principals, occasional clergy (like ourselves…) and other friends. It took the form of a conversation between +Richard and Jane Shaw, the recently appointed principal of Harris Manchester College, followed by a time for questions and contributions from members of the audience. Philip Pullman (a good friend of +Richard’s) was there and asked an interesting question about how we should respond and what we can possibly do, about the present alarming state of the world.
The whole discussion was erudite, civilised, humane, stimulating – so much more than most contemporary discourse in the Church or just in society generally. I felt nourished, intellectually and spiritually, in a way I haven’t felt for a long time. I look forward to reading the book – and perhaps reporting on it here. Many thanks to +Richard and all those responsible for the event.
Somewhere high in the Austrian Alps there may lie the body of a librarian, for that is where Robert Proctor was last seen, at the head of the Taschach valley, on the morning of Sunday, 6 September 1903.
How could anyone resist an article with an opening sentence like that? The article, by C. J. Wright, entitled The Missing Librarian, appears in the latest issue (no.59) of Slightly Foxed, which subtitles itself ‘The Real Reader’s Quarterly’. If you have never read Slightly Foxed, or are not yet a subscriber… WHY EVER NOT? Of all the publications I subscribe to or have ever subscribed to, this is the only one – the only one – that I read, without fail, from cover to cover. It describes itself as:
The independent-minded quarterly that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach. Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine.
And it is just what it says on the tin. It’s a constant source of discovery and delight. I used to think I would need to search out and read every single book its contributors write about, which would have proved a challenge when so many are now out of print. And yes, it has introduced me to lots of previously unknown books and writers I have since enjoyed. But that’s no longer essential: it’s often sufficient to eavesdrop on the enjoyment of the article writers, some of whom have indeed come to feel like fascinating friends. (If I have one small niggle about them, it’s that so many do seem to be the product of a private school, or at least a boarding school, education. But we can’t all be State-school kids, I suppose.)
And for this particular retired vicar, in whose breast still beats the heart of a librarian, how could I not be intrigued to read of a colleague who met such a mysterious fate over a century ago? According to Wikipedia, one of Proctor’s friends thought the missing librarian may have committed suicide up there above the Taschach valley. But C. J. Wright leaves the mystery much more open. Perhaps in the far future, a few thousand years hence, his frozen and preserved body will be found, like that of Ötzi the Ice Man, and the mystery of his death be finally resolved. But perhaps it’s more fun that it’s not.
Robert Peston for Prime Minister!
His North London Jewish background is so familiar to me from my own history and native place. He’s my kind of political commentator, too, and in this book (bracketed by a letter to his much-loved late father) he addresses the problem of why the world has gone ‘bonkers’. How come the world’s most successful, wealthy democracies are throwing themselves into the arms of mad populist leaders, and voting for such lunacies as Brexit and Trump?
Peston’s analysis and prescriptions sound totally like common sense; yet in the midst of all this madness which so often leaves me feeling really depressed, he somehow snatches hope, and a degree of optimism, from the jaws of despair.
The key fact is that behind the madness of those 2016 votes, lies the deep dissatisfaction of all those in our societies who feel they have been left far behind in the growing prosperity they see around them. It’s this inequality of wealth, opportunity, prospects, and the fair sharing of the wealth of nations, that we need to address and radically change. It’s a call to the 48% to stop trying to stop Brexit (and if we can’t stop it, at least hoping it will be the unmitigated disaster we’ve all along said it would be), and to work as hard as we can to make it work the best it can. What’s needed is some kind of ‘Brexit mission’ to reunite the country, and mend what’s broken in our economy and politics.
As Peston says, he doesn’t have all the answers, and maybe some of the answers he has are also bonkers. But we at least need to be thinking, and especially talking, about the issues he raises here.