Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Dark is Rising

'The Dark is Rising' is both the name of a series of five novels, originally written for children, and of the now classic, second novel in the series. This book was the subject of an 'online' reading group (on Twitter) initiated by the accomplished nature writer, Robert Macfarlane last Christmas that brought it to my attention. I finished the last in the series yesterday with one of those releasing sighs where deep satisfaction and tender disappointment are mixed when you 'finish' a reading experience haunting and well made.

Like all good children's literature, it can (and ought) to be read by adults for enjoyment and profit. Here for multiple reasons.

First of which is that she is a gifted nature writer. In a few deft strokes she can describe a place vividly, accurately and even when she steps into the fantastic a solidly, real world is before you. But her nature is a place of the uncanny too - of the natural wonder of its giftedness as well as its ability to transport you into new states of mind - heights and depths. The Dark (in The Dark is Rising) precipitates a deepening ice grip to help claim (and demonstrate) its victory and you start with a winter in the Buckinghamshire countryside but as the screws turn you descend into a prospective icy hellishness, carrying forward all the natural conditions of a winter, but made eerily, threateningly other. Nature is one of her principal characters.

Second her's is a nature interwoven with history, folklore and myth, rooted in places, of England and Wales principally. You could enjoy the books simply reference spotting (though no reference is made that is not thoroughly imagined as part of the unfolding story). Here is Arthur and the Grail, here is Lyonesse, the sunken kingdom off the coast of Cornwall and here is Herne the Hunter and his hounds.

Third, it is a fictional fantasy world with a simple, consistent and robust architecture. You have the everyday world of its young protagonists, worrying whether their next meal will arrive on time, through which runs the unseen battle between the Light and the Dark and under both is the space of the High Magic (the oldest, primordial tradition that is literally 'amoral' (or transcendent to the moral) and serves neither the Light nor the Dark but does set the laws of their encounter.

The Dark is fascinating because though its human agents can coerce, at several points one or other of the children are snatched in brief episodic kidnaps, the Dark itself cannot harm unless the subject either of their unguarded consciousness or own volition consents. Nor is the world ultimately rescued in any act of violence (redemptive or otherwise) but by symbolic act rooted in the greatest bond of all that is love and affection. This is consciously offered as a progression from the past - where Arthur fought the Dark literally at the battle of Badon, the children outwit and out love the Dark in this our world. The true magic is the hallowing of the heart's affections (though this being a British novel such loving is always more better shown in low key acts than emoted or said)!

Fourth, Susan Cooper, the author, plays with time. The children move through it, events connect in non-linear ways, adjusting remembrance of the past changes both it and the future, all of time is always present, presence, and nothing is ever lost in a 'disappeared' past because all is eternally present. There was no wonder in my mind when discovered, simultaneously, that Cooper has written a study of J.B. Priestley (and edited his selected essays) one time haunting writer acknowledging another 'time haunted' one (to use Priestley's own description).

And, finally, and necessarily, Cooper creates characters about who you care - most especially Will Stanton, the eleven year old protagonist of The Dark is Rising who discovers, on his birthday, that he is an "Old One", one of the aged guardians of the Light, and how that reality sits with his childhood self is fascinating. A childhood self that is always, rightly imagined in my view as both vulnerable, maturing and yet gifted with seriousness. I was reminded of Jung's discovery, at a similar age, that he was not one but two personalities and that the second was immeasurably older and wiser than the first. It is deftly crafted and wholly believable and you care what happens to him next on his journey as you care for the unfolding story as a whole.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Bright Day - an unsung great novel

J.B. Priestley's own favourite novel was 'Bright Day'. Here a jaded scriptwriter, returned to England from Hollywood, in the immediate post Second World War period, has a chance encounter in a Cornish hotel that translates him back to his earlier life in Bruddersford (Bradford) before the First World War.

Here Gregory Dawson, now the scriptwriter, is working in a wool factory, an aspiring writer, he sorts threads and idolises the family of his manager into whose circle he is drawn. But the magic of projection slowly unwinds into his witnessing a family tragedy. As he works on in the Cornish hotel, Gregory is drawn into remembrance of this past and, in parallel, into encounters in the present that will significantly readjust that remembrance inviting a better, indeed liberating, understanding of what it might mean for his future.

The portrayal of that gilded, hopeful Edwardian era is beautifully drawn. You taste its hopefulness just as surely as you know that it was to be broken by the unfolding terrors of war and the failed aftermath to build a world fit for heroes. But equally you are reminded that people are people, whatever the hopes of their age, we work through time carrying all the lumber of our personal possibilities and failings. It draws powerfully a common Priestley theme that every step we make is a choice towards possibility, individuation, gift or away into a shallower, shrunken, disappointed image of who we could be.  Likewise it carries that other key Priestley theme that the past is never done with, it can be returned to. Memory can step back into it, return it to life, and a path not travelled, a choice not taken be relived in a way that carries import for the present. As long as we live, our character is not fixed (and that life is always intersecting with an eternally present that brings all of that life potentially into view).

What is remarkable about Bright Day is that both Priestley's vivid social realism, his fundamentally Jungian psychology (Jung thought him the best of lay interpreters) and his metaphysical depth - a man, as he said, haunted by time and by eternity - flow effortlessly into a 'realistic' story. A story of youthful ambition, folly and love making its way into a valley of outer success and inner dislocation and out the other side to the prospect of a maturing validation.

It beautifully captures too the ages it traverses - Edwardian England, the vicissitudes and seductions of Hollywood and the austerity of post-war England and its social hopefulness being reborn (more successfully than after the First World War and in which Priestley as a public intellectual played a not insubstantial role).

The wonder is that such a good novel moves in and out of print and that Priestley's own reputation is so unsure. 'An Inspector Calls', his most famous play, sits on the GSCE syllabus, studied widely by children at school (and given a recent and excellent outing on the BBC) whilst many of his works languish waiting republication of which Bright Day is one. It is true that his work is more uneven than many of his contemporaries, that its multiple dimensions do not always mesh as effectively as here; and, his texts sometimes feel more 'of their time' than other texts equally of the same time (such as, for example, Graham Greene) but the best stand comparison not only with his direct compatriots but with literature as such.  Let us hope that his admirers, of which I am undoubtedly one, keep plugging away until he settles securely into the canon of the should be read.

P.S. The painting, except that it is of a 'bright day' has nothing directly to do with Priestley. It is a painting by Hermann Hesse. It does occur to me, however, that one observation of Anthony Payne in his recent excellent book on Priestley and Time has great merit namely a secure literary reputation might have come more easily for Priestley if he was positioned against continental literature more secure in the magical/metaphysical than traditionally English literature finds itself - perhaps like Huxley, he should have gone to live in California! But like his contemporary the Scottish author, Neil M Gunn, whose early social realism took a mystical turn - to the bewilderment of many of his readers, Priestley was too identifiably of his place to make that possible. It is we, the readers, who need to be more 'catholic'!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Exploring the roots of and the routes to empathy

One reason for being in Toronto was to check in on Roots of Empathy and attend the first day of their annual Research Symposium.

Roots, founded by Mary Gordon, is an evidence based intervention that enables children to develop deeper empathy for, and with, others, a greater ability to navigate and understand their own feelings and develop better pro-social skills. It has been able to show that its program has long lasting results in reducing negative behaviors, such as bullying, and promoting well-being and positive social interaction.

At its heart is an opportunity to engage with a young infant from four months (over a period of eight months) and their mother in ways that enable them to see and better intuit a child's developing range of responses and emotions and through that identification be helped to better understand their own and of the people around them. A process beautifully shown in this recent short BBC film . It was made with the same group I went to see on Tuesday. It is the baby that is the teacher - and baby Naomi was a fabulous one!

Roots is closing in on reaching its a millionth child and is now available in eleven countries and counting.

The Research Symposium was quite the most interesting event of its kind I had been to in a while. Partly no doubt because I was not in my well-trodden path of enterprise development, in which I am the expert (apparently a global thought leader, God help us), but a listening novice.

We had four excellent presentations:

The first from an emergency room doctor and broadcaster, Brian Goldman, on his journey to understand kindness and why empathy is essential and what drives it, now turned into a new book: "The Power of Kindness: Why Empathy is Essential in Everyday Life." This ranged from a moving story of how he came to recognize his own empathetic failures in the emergency room , through how empathy, in habituating self protection, declines as you proceed through medical school to fascinating stories gleaned from around the globe of empathetic people and their sources of motivation. My favorite was the Tim Horton franchisee a quarter of whose staff had a learning challenge. This was rooted in the franchisee's own deafness and critically how it had given him a deep sense of exclusion.

The second was from Graham Allen, the former Labor MP in the UK, who helped found the Early Intervention Foundation to champion early intervention as a core public policy and to do so on the basis of the most robust available evidence (with the caveat that evidence ought to be 'good enough' rather than complete: what indeed does complete ever look like except as an excuse for doing nothing?) It was an astute account of how (and how not) to achieve credible public policy and included the sage advice to always collaborate with one's 'enemies' (as he has done with Iain Duncan Smith, his political adversary).

The third was the most nerdy (so its positioning immediately after lunch might have been a mistake). This was Christian Keyser from the Netherlands Institute for neuroscience discovering the root of empathy in mirror neurons and demonstrating eloquently that we are hard wired for empathy - even psychopaths can be encouraged to exercise their neglected 'muscles' - indeed working with criminal psychopaths had suggested a more complex view of empathy. It is both a propensity and an ability and both need to act together to realize an empathetic response. This reminded me of 'mindfulness' which is not simply a skill of attention but needs to be suffused with the right intention if an ethical, compassionate transformation is to be realized.

The fourth was from an Icelandic sociologist who explained how Iceland had gone from having the worst substance abuse figures from young people in the 1990s to now the best. Like Graham's talk it was a compelling account of how public policy within the right patterns of collaboration can work marvels, changing the dynamics of a whole culture where, in this case, parents spend more time with their children, where the country has invested in meaningful youth activities and services; and, where the new cool is engaged sociability rather than getting hammered (in one form or another)!

I came away happily and realistically optimistic - we genuinely know things, grounded in evidence, social and scientific, that enables us to address the challenge of how to live more effectively together. There is no magic pill or formula but there is a challenging invitation to build the interventions necessary to help us improve.

In 1990, 45% of Icelandic schoolchildren at the age of fifteen reported that they had been drunk in the preceding thirty days, now it is 5%. Change is possible.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

George MacDonald - Visionary Dreamer of reconcilation

George MacDonald was C.S. Lewis' master. Lewis credited a reading of MacDonald's 'Phantastes', his first fantasy novel, with giving him a model of the search for holiness and that this search had a stop, a home, a place when it was fully realized in God. MacDonald was not only a principal factor in Lewis' conversion, he was a model for that conversion. He came after the manner of a literary saint.

MacDonald, himself, occupies a rather ambiguous place in literary history. A popular and accomplished nineteenth century author - of novels, poetry and theology - what principally survives is his striking reinvention of the fairy tale for the child in every person and his two striking novels of imagination and what would become known as the unconscious namely Phantastes (written at the outset of his career) and Lilith (written at its end). Here he creates imaginative worlds that are both resonantly beautifully and metaphysically complex inviting the reader to undergo their own self-reflective journey towards wholeness, holiness as Lewis' found. He is an author whose striking content in these books overcomes the inadequacy of his style (both in itself and in its ability to contain the reality of his vision).

As William Raeper compellingly argues in his 'George MacDonald - Novelist and Victorian Visonary', Lilith is MacDonald's 'Divine Comedy' where its central character, Mr Vane, is taken through an other worldly journey from ignorance to self-revelation, a revelation that brings redemption not only to and for himself but to the world he inhabits, the real world of dream of which this world is only an imitation.

For MacDonald believed passionately that this world is enfolded in a greater one, the beauties of this world, as a disciple of the Romantics, was a foreshadowing of an ideal world, where life continued in a deepening pattern of revealing meaning, a world in which God lured every soul back home to its home in God who was both our Father and our Mother. Death was never an end but a transition to this world foreseen. It was a vision that was accompanied by, and contend with, much actual death - MacDonald`s family being wracked by tuberculosis as so many were.

Reading Raeper's intellectual biography reminded me of the difficulty of reading Lewis as an 'evangelical'. MacDonald himself had rejected his birthright of Calvinism, had failed to become a successful Congregational minister because of his purported heresies and had settled into Anglicanism (and laity) because it allowed him a capaciousness of thought that allowed for little censure. After all he hoped for the redemption of all at the end and imagined that this included the whole of the created order, animals included. He was in the jargon of the time - an universalist.  As was Lewis himself. More than this, their imaginative lives stretched them to a sympathy towards the 'pagan' both of antiquity and (notably in MacDonald's case) towards other religions. They were both more complex than simple classification allows.

Both too were wonderful defenders of the reality of the imagination as the key category of being in the world. As Coleridge acknowledged, the world came to be continuously as an act of the divine imagination and grasping the contours of the world required our own imaginative acts. Poetry was a vehicle of truth telling not simply of fancy. We navigate best when we dream most deeply aligned with the world's own dreaming. MacDonald regularly quoted with appreciation the German poet-philosopher, Novalis, remark that life becomes only truly real when you realize that it is being dreamed.

Strikingly MacDonald`s two novels of adult faerie have the capacity to transport you closer to your dream, the reality of the life you are meant to be living not didactically (MacDonald left his capacious ability to sermonize behind here) but by creating symbols complex enough to mirror any soul, to meet it where it is in its struggle towards consciousness and invite it further and deeper than many a more superficially accomplished author. 

Everyone is interesting, even if to requires a few sherries to find out how

V.S. Naipaul, who died recently, once asked one of his interviewers, before he would permit them to start, "What have you read? And do...