Wishing all my readers a happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous Christmas. May this season and the coming new year fill you with joy, hope, and good cheer. Merry Christmas!
Recently I have been copy-editing a German to English translation of a child-rearing book by a behavioural psychologist for a Swiss client. It got me thinking about my many visits to Switzerland and Austria, my recent catch-up with an old friend from that part of the world, and my life-long love of the alpine region.
Part of this love and interest started at the age of eleven, when I read a children’s adventure story at my school library. ‘The Sign of the Alpine Rose,’ was the fourth in the ‘Jillies’ books by prolific (yet sadly oft forgotten) English author, Malcolm Saville.
During his eighty-one years, Saville wrote around ninety books. The majority were adventure stories for children with a strong sense of place, like the ‘Lone Pine’ series, but he also wrote about the English countryside and his strong Christian faith. His memory and work are still celebrated by a society in his honour, which has annual meet-ups and a quarterly magazine: http://www.witchend.com
The strong sense of place I have described, echoes throughout ‘The Sign of the Alpine Rose.’ The book is set in the fictional mountain village of Bertch, in a post-war Austria divided into various occupation zones. Written in 1950, the story is akin to a slightly more grown-up ‘Famous Five’ book, in which two daughters and a son travel with their widowed artist father to visit a foreign pen friend.
The father of the pen friend never returned from the war, and is being held captive in the communist occupied zone. The book describes how the visiting Jillions family get involved with an underground movement of free Austrians, seeking to help their countrymen escape the communist controlled territory. The symbol of this movement is the Alpenrose (Rhododendron ferrugineum), which is typically worn in the hat or buttonhole as a form of covert identification.
The narrative oozes with beautiful descriptions of the scenery, architecture and rustic lives and culture of the native Austrians. As a young lad this had a powerful effect on me, and for many years after I searched bookshops to try and obtain my own copy. Saville died less than a year before I read this wonderful story, and it was out of print long before it arrived in our school library.
In my late thirties, and with the advent of the Internet, I finally managed to track down a first edition from a second hand bookshop. Reading it again was like being re-united with a long lost friend.
The other day, and prompted by my work on the Swiss book, I decided to read it once more.
There is a paragraph I would like to share with you, that speaks volumes about the human perception of change:
‘He had a passion for beauty, and only now was his elder daughter beginning to realize how much he sacrificed to give his children an education which would enable them to appreciate what was really worthwhile in a world which, he maintained, lacked the vitality, colour and vigour of the days before the cinema and television dominated so many leisure hours.’
Considering Saville wrote that in 1950, one can only imagine the horror with which both he and the character he describes would view the world of today!
The freedom with which the children are allowed to go off on unsupervised adventures (as long as they are home in time for tea), reminds me of my own childhood. Playing in the great outdoors, enjoying nature, using our imaginations. Sometimes the clever technology that is supposed to free us seems more like a shackle, and I feel sorry for the younger and future generations who appear to miss out on many healthy, simple yet important pleasures that were our daily experience.
It was good to go back to Bertch…
George Santayana is credited with first making an oft-quoted statement along the lines of: ‘Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’
In the UK at present, our news coverage is largely filled with daily claims and counter-claims on both sides of the EU Referendum argument for staying or leaving. While I have my own personal views, I do not use this blog for political purposes. I have however noticed one common theme not specifically related to the topic which I have observed elsewhere, that seems to have reared its head a lot in recent months. I am talking about the dismissal of life experience and the wisdom it affords, by the younger generation.
Just this morning I switched channels past a breakfast TV programme, where the ‘Remain’ campaign were building a strategy to convince university students to vote in favour of staying in. The representative was making the point that the future does not belong to their parents and grandparents, but to the young. Ergo: they should supposedly not give two hoots about what the older generation (who largely wish to leave the EU) are considering to do on polling day.
While nobody is disputing the simple fact that the future does belong mostly to the young, it was the dismissive tone which brought to mind other similar experiences of late.
It seems to be a curiously western phenomenon that growing old is viewed as a negative thing. People are desperate to reverse the appearance of ageing, some employers don’t like to take on staff beyond a certain (sometimes very low) age limit, and it appears that the older you are the less relevant you and your opinions become. Old and young have little interaction, and the divide is then further widened by the creation of stereotypes from perceptions based on that isolation.
I know from changes in my own life over the course of time, that even reaching middle-age can lead to viewing bygone days with an exaggerated halcyon glow. But to discount all of that life experience when you are young and have virtually none, seems like utter madness. When one looks at the universe, one observes that change is really the only constant. Change can be uncomfortable, but there is little growth without it. Sometimes what appears to be new and exciting or ‘different,’ is however just something from the past dressed up in new clothes. Those who are students of history or have lived long enough to see how cyclical human civilization can be, are often instinctively aware of this. Centuries come and go, but human beings have the same needs, drives, faults and failings.
In traditional oriental cultures, older people are frequently treated with reverence and awe. Folk realise they have something to offer that cannot be taught in a classroom, or obtained by any other means than the life each represents. Every older person is a repository of knowledge, wisdom, and individual experience of history within that culture.
Sometimes after visiting such cultures, a traveller may comment at how backwards they are and that nothing has changed there for generations. Could it be that they have embraced and incorporated the wisdom of their elders, and avoided fighting the same wars and struggles with newer weapons and different names as other cultures have done? Perhaps in that regard change is an illusion, and the old saw ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same,’ has an additional hidden message for us?
If we were to make the same choice and accord our elders a little more respect, maybe we could step off the cyclical wheel of history. Folks, it’s time to take a tangent.
Recently I read an on-line thread where people of various ages and experiences were discussing Winston Churchill and the sacrifices made for freedom in the last world war. A couple of nineteen year-old contributors stated that a war and person from seventy years ago had absolutely no relevance to their lives today. Whether or not the tone of their comments was meant to be disrespectful, it still shows the same disconnection that makes Santayana’s quote so sadly timeless. Within twenty years we will pretty much lose the last of the World War 2 veterans. Could it be that despite the fact new technology and young people intimidate them, they have something of value to offer this world that nobody else can?
At school, we were taught to research information from as many sources as possible when writing essays or making important decisions. In those pre-Internet days, this largely came down to visiting libraries and museums, and (ideally) meeting somebody who had lived through said era if the topic was recent enough. We weren't bombarded with information, but then it also wasn't available in bite-sized chunks and vapid sound-bites or memes. You actually had to take time to read a lot of material, which gave you a much broader understanding of the topic.
The future belongs to the young, but it was given to us by the old. We only have them with us for a while, and when they are gone this world loses a lot. Here’s hoping our culture will finally learn to fill-in the ‘age gap,’ for the benefit of all.
The Christmas tree is trimmed, the presents are wrapped, the baking is done, and my marrons glacés are coming along nicely. Later I will exchange cards with visiting family members, as we prepare to commence the week leading up to the big day.
At this time of year the radio is awash with the usual suspects, in terms of Christmas songs we have known and loved (or possibly are a little tired of hearing) for many years. One track that I have always been fond of, got me to thinking back to the original meaning of Christmas. ‘Fairytale of New York’ was released on 23rd November 1987 by The Pogues, and featured a then twenty-eight year old singer/songwriter called Kirsty MacColl.
Thirteen years later after presenting a radio show for the BBC in Cuba, she took a holiday to Cozumel, Mexico with her partner and two teenage sons. They were enjoying a swim in a designated diving area, when a powerboat entered the restricted zone. MacColl’s thirteen year old boy was clear, but the boat was obliviously motoring straight towards her fifteen year old, Jamie. Kirsty managed to push the lad out of the way, leaving him to sustain minor head and rib injuries, while she took the fatal full force of the impact to save her son.
That was fifteen years ago on Friday 18th, December. There is a bench dedicated to her memory at Soho Square in London.
The Christian tradition from which our current celebration takes its name, is also based on the idea of sacrificial love. At this season I like to remember the many various sacrifices made by others, often unsung while we eat and drink our fill of Christmas cheer. From members of our armed forces stationed in danger thousands of miles away from loved ones, to our emergency services who are often faced with tragic and difficult incidents as they give up their own celebration of Christmas to serve us.
May your festive period be one of health, wealth, happiness and filled with peace, love and comfort.
I’ll leave you with ‘Fairytale of New York,’ which also features an emergency service in the form of the New York City Police Department.
Another Halloween came and went, and I finished delivering a series of lectures at local university campuses. Afterwards, I decided to take some time during the month of November to read Laura Ingalls-Wilder’s wonderful ‘Little House’ series of books, along with her other works.
Earlier in the year I sat and watched every episode ever made of the long-running television series inspired by the stories. This was a show I grew up with during its first airing in the 1970’s and ‘80’s and remains (to my mind) some of the greatest television ever made. With the late, great Michael Landon at the helm, ably assisted by the hugely talented and also sadly departed Victor French, the show featured countless actors and other entertainers who would go on to be film and television staples in later years.
Never one to shy away from tackling controversial issues; across one pilot, nine seasons and various specials ‘Little House on the Prairie’ covered themes such as infant mortality, bereavement, rape, drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness, terminal illness, racial, religious, social and class bigotry, and various physical and psychological disabilities, to name but a few. Presenting such subject matter without being preachy or corny is a phenomenally difficult challenge, but one which the writers, producers and directors of the show carried off with aplomb.
Michael Landon’s portrayal of Charles Ingalls introduced the world to a strong, masculine, and hard-working yet sensitive and gentle head of his household. A man who swore to his own hurt, always kept his word, and had a deep faith and firm sense of morality that acted as a compass throughout his many difficult life choices. Frequently the stories involved the interplay between Charles and his second daughter, Laura, who would go on to be the author of the books. Laura Ingalls was the principal character of the show, and young actress Melissa Gilbert proved an inspired choice for the part. In one sense many of us grew up with her, as the years progressed and we tuned in each week to watch.
‘Little House’ featured a variety of character arcs cleverly portrayed in a number of captivating tales. The community of Walnut Grove really felt like a living, breathing place that one could almost step through the screen and be a part of. It was this relationship with the audience and the love it fostered, that made the final episode where the town is destroyed so emotive and powerful. I believe there were many tears on set among the cast and crew during filming, and to this day I certainly can’t watch it with dry eyes.
Set in the American Midwest during the late nineteenth century, the books that would lead to this epic production were written and published between 1932 and 1943.
Commencing with life in a cabin in the big woods of Wisconsin, following a move to Indian territory, settling in Minnesota and then on to stake a claim in the newly opening west, the stories bring that whole era to life so vividly which no-one now is left alive to remember.
In ‘By the Shores of Silver Lake,’ the family leave Minnesota and head out west once more to become homesteaders in the unexplored Dakota Territory.
Laura takes her first trip on a train, and writes of herself:
‘She knew now what Pa meant when he spoke of the wonderful times they were living in. There had never been such wonders in the whole history of the world, Pa said. Now, in one morning, they had actually travelled a whole week’s journey, and Laura had seen the Iron Horse turn around, to go back the whole way in one afternoon.’
Laura’s life spanned ninety years (February 7, 1867 – February 10, 1957). Sometimes I think that I have seen a lot of change and technological developments in my own lifetime, and that the pace of it has accelerated exponentially. But really it is nothing compared to her experiences: Living in Indian Territory in a cabin built by her father. Scratching an existence from the land and encountering Native American tribes in their home environment before they were driven out. Experiencing life on a wide open prairie with no roads or even tracks, before the technological hand of man changed it forever.
Let’s consider what she saw arrive since that childhood: Trains, automobiles, aeroplanes, roads, telephones, radio, television, recorded sound and music, plus the more sinister evolution of weaponry and warfare. As a child she would watch her father melt lead to make musket balls for his single-shot gun, before he went hunting. From that would come machine guns, tanks, aerial bombardment, mechanized slaughter on an industrial scale, two world wars, and the creation and use-in-anger of the atomic bomb, before her days ended.
Each year since 1954, the American Library Association has conferred a bronze medal known as the ‘Laura Ingalls-Wilder Award’ upon authors and illustrators of books published in the United States, who have evidenced a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.
As I finished the last of the books, the North American holiday of Thanksgiving came into view (26th November this year). I remembered the same day twenty years before, when I was staying at a real ‘Little House on the Prairie’ nestled on a dirt road near the rural town of Spiro, Oklahoma.
At college in Texas I had the good fortune to form friendships with some truly lovely people. One of these was a guy called Ted, who initially used to do dreadful Dick Van Dyke-esque parodies of my English accent. Everything he knew about the world at that time was from movies and TV, although he has since broadened into a well-travelled, cosmopolitan and educated individual. A few years later it was my distinct pleasure to invite him to England and dispel (slightly) the picture of life here created in his mind by ‘Mary Poppins.’
As Thanksgiving approached on campus, he asked if I was going anywhere. I had figured I would just bum around college with some of the other internationals. It was then that he asked if I would like to visit his family for the holiday, and I was delighted to accept.
Catching a small plane from Dallas, Texas to Fort Smith, Arkansas, we drove across to Spiro, Oklahoma and I enjoyed the warm welcome and hospitality I have come to experience many times in homes across the United States.
It was during our stay that an alarm was suddenly raised, when a grass fire broke out at a nearby farm. Given the open, rolling prairie landscape and awesome winds that place it firmly in ‘Tornado Alley,’ if a fire takes hold it can quickly devastate entire communities.
Ted and I grabbed some shovels, jumped into a car with one of his sisters, and sped off to the property. We were first on the scene, and only the farmer’s wife and children were home.
They stood on their porch, watching in horror as the flames spread toward the house and out to the land beyond. Ted’s sister wasted no time in ferrying buckets of water backwards and forwards from the nearest source, while my friend and I got stuck in, frantically trying to beat out the fire and stem its progress. At one point there was a shout from behind, and we turned to observe that we had been cut off by the encircling flames. Getting slightly singed, Ted and I jumped through the smoke, heat distortion and lapping orange tongues in time to see the Spiro fire truck arrive. Thankfully it made short work of extinguishing the blaze, and our efforts had just been enough to halt its progress until they made it over from town.
I was wearing a fairly old pair of shoes that immediately fell apart, and I cannot remember a time when I have smelled smokier in my entire life.
It later transpired that the farmer’s son had been playing with firecrackers in a field by the house, causing the tinder-dry grass to ignite. He probably didn’t sit down when his father returned and heard the story of how they nearly lost their home!
Ted and I remained in touch, on and off. We celebrated another Thanksgiving four years later in Atlanta, Georgia, together with our good friends Anthony and Sam. Ted always said that every time Thanksgiving came around in Spiro, the story would be told of the grass fire of ’95 and the visiting Englishman who fought it.
I imagine such events are a fairly regular occurrence in that part of the world, but it is touching that our little escapade all those years ago has been considered worthy of remembrance.
I’m a big fan of Thanksgiving as both a holiday and a life concept. Much has been written of the positive and life-enhancing benefits to having ‘an attitude of gratitude.’ Various countries have their own similar celebrations, with ‘Harvest Festival’ being the closest in the United Kingdom.
For Americans, the celebration dates back to the first successful harvest by the early Pilgrims in 1621 at Plymouth Plantation. Three days of feasting were enjoyed and said to have been attended by around ninety Native Americans and fifty three Pilgrims.
After the Revolutionary War, George Washington would eventually go on to proclaim the first national Thanksgiving Day designated by the government of the newly formed United States of America. While the specific day has been known to alter over time, it is now officially held on the fourth Thursday of November.
Parades, charitable giving, travelling to visit family and friends, eating good food, watching college and national football and (naturally) giving thanks are all key components of the celebration today.
This year I’m giving thanks for the business engagements and successful lectures I have delivered over the last few months, for great friends and good memories, for Laura Ingalls-Wilder and her wonderful books, and Michael Landon, Victor French and the whole team who brought that world so vividly and beautifully to life onscreen for millions of us around the globe.
I’ll leave you with a video clip I found online, from some of the original opening credits to the TV show. May they bring back many pleasant memories.
It never ceases to amaze me how the plans we make or the path on which we feel certain we will remain, have a habit of taking us on twists and turns that we never expected.
Twenty years ago to the month as I write this, I was embarking upon a course of study in contemporary theology, ministry and missions at the internationally famous Christ For The Nations Institute Bible College in Dallas, Texas. At the time I was twenty three years old and had already worked part-time as a Christian youth leader, outreach, and worship team member at a church in the UK for several years, while holding down a corporate job during the day.
I would go on to serve as a missionary both foreign and domestic, and live/work in several different countries.
If I could sit ‘young John’ down in front of me now however, I wonder if I could bring myself to tell him of some of the less-expected directions his life would go in?
Could I make him understand that he would embrace post-evangelicalism, and develop a broader mind-set while still holding fast to the inner core of his faith in a non-sectarian or dogmatic way?
Would he appreciate that the horrific burnout and ill-health he would encounter was not some kind of failure, but a necessary season of growth?
How about the decade-and-a-half working for greater public safety in the police service, rather than being in specific full-time ministry?
As I think back to the learned men and women whose tuition I sat under in Texas, I remember several of them talking about ministry in the marketplace. At CFNI, many students hope to walk out the door and quickly move into a pastoral role or other career ministry position. While it is true that I have been offered and rejected church leadership positions like this since graduating, I am still confident that the alternative path I have trodden is one of wholeness in the grander scheme of things. I have surely made my fair share of mistakes and foolish decisions, but in a strange sort of way I am thankful for every one of them.
Currently a freelance geospatial consultant and lecturer in GIS and crime science, this coming week I will be working in London with a major client to train their Counter-Corruption Higher Intelligence Analysts. It is perhaps ironic that much of the ‘secular’ work I have done has revolved around bringing the guilty to book and upholding integrity in public institutions. Arguably a true ministry in the marketplace, and a tool to implement those famous lines of the Lord’s prayer:
‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.’
Twenty years from now, I might look back on another two decades of unexpected detours!
There are moments when it would be so nice to be back at CFNI. The power of the place, the presence of the Almighty, the worship and learning, the camaraderie and heartfelt friendship are all fond memories to treasure. It is very much a ‘bubble’ away from the everyday world, where men and women of various ages, races, nationalities and backgrounds come together in proper harmony and genuine love to explore their faith and intercede for the nations of the earth.
Twenty years on, I decided to create a little video with some memories of beloved faculty members (several of whom are sadly no longer with us), friends and fun times.
The footage is taken from my student video yearbook and graduation, and features the school song with a solo on the second verse sung by my old friend, Robin Padbury, from Zimbabwe.
Until the next fork in the road and the decisions it will entail…
The period marking the end of April and start of May represents my favourite time of year, as it is during this short window that our woods are filled with carpets of common bluebells.
I have loved these flowers for as long as I can remember, and in the following five and a half minute documentary you can share in that love too…
Albert Einstein is reputed to have said:
“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity.”
Whichever way you slice it, time is a funny a thing and our perception of its passing an equal mystery.
William Blake in ‘Auguries of Innocence’ captures the idea with his signature poetic grace:
‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.’
Through the wonders of social media, I was recently able to enjoy pictures from the 40th birthday celebrations of a dear old friend. We met while college students in the United States, and went on to form part of a multi-national missions team in Jamaica during the summer of 1996. Eventually we returned to our respective homelands, her to Zimbabwe and me to England. For a few years we stayed in touch, and I was delighted when she married a splendid fellow. He even e-mailed me during the delivery of their first child. Time went on and we gradually lost touch as is the way of things, until the invention of Facebook and her finding me once again.
Now she has four children, all growing up. Her daughter looks increasingly like the young woman I met in the USA all those years ago, and it causes a beautiful yet aching pang in my heart to behold. Whether this is because my own life took a very different turn and I won’t ever have a family of my own, a sense of years and youth lost that I can never have again, or just a reminder of the transient nature of our brief mortality I really couldn’t say. Somehow I suspect it is a combination of all three.
It was lovely to see my friend in a birthday picture with her husband and family, and she has looked after herself as I had no doubt she would. Where do the years go, and what must we do in the day to day moments to look back and reflect that our life has been well lived?
Over the last two weeks I have read a couple of books on the much neglected English poet, John Clare, that I bought some years ago. One book was an anthology of his poems, and the other a collection of letters, journal entries, and other writings from the man himself.
John Clare (1793 – 1864) was probably the greatest rustic poet in our history. A man who captured the golden age of the English countryside in verse, and who was devastated by the Enclosures Act and the arrival of the railways that changed the rural landscape forever. He was born in Helpston, Northamptonshire and lived the majority of his life on the fens, with the exception of visits to London while promoting his work and his four year incarceration at an asylum in High Beach. Escaping in 1841, he walked back to his wife and children in Northamptonshire, an adventure which became known as his ‘Journey out of Essex.’ By this time, he was starting to evidence multiple personas based on other well-known poets. The revelation that despite much effort, his own writing career did not seem to go anywhere added to his frustrations. In many of his works, Clare writes dedications to his first love, Mary Joyce. Her parents had terminated their courtship, but Clare had never been free of it in his heart. Mary had died a spinster while he was in the Essex hospital, and the poet believed by this time that it was Mary, as well as his actual wife Martha (‘Patty’) Turner that he was married and returning to. Refusing to believe reports of Mary’s death, the strain on the family resulted in his admission to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum after Christmas 1841. He remained there until his death in 1864, and his letters to his wife and children are quite heart-breaking. Most noticeably of all is the sense of lost time, as institutionalisation begins to take hold. In a letter to Martha, seven years after his admission, he states:
‘I think it is about two years since I was first sent up in this hell and not allowed to go out of the gates. There never was a more disgraceful deception than this place.’
While I thankfully have never suffered the trauma of life in an asylum, I have met those who have. I also know from bitter personal experience the total devastation and loss of self that occurs during a nervous breakdown, and the long and difficult journey out of that darkest of valleys.
The last years of John Clare’s life are marked by loss. The loss of his true identity, the loss of time, and the loss of connection from present reality. The sensitivity that enabled him to immortalise a vision of the English country landscape long-since extinct, was traumatised most severely by his realisation of what was coming. It was only in the late twentieth century that he was finally accorded the honour he deserved, a plaque being added in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey. I am so very grateful that he was able to capture those moments in time.
Today is the 17th March: St. Patrick’s Day. Another realisation of time passing occurs as the penny drops that ten years ago to the day I was on my last visit to Ireland. Renting a little cottage on the edge of Killarney National Park, I managed to record some footage of the parade in Killarney itself on an old Handycam. I will include it at the end here for your enjoyment.
When I think about the brevity of life, the weirdness of time, and the importance of making my own count; I am reminded of the 5th century Sanskrit dramatist, Kālidāsa. His poem, ‘Look To This Day’ perfectly encapsulates all of those aspects:
Look to this day:
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendour of achievement
Are but experiences of time.
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision;
And today well-lived, makes
Yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day;
Such is the salutation to the ever-new dawn!
I hope that all my readers, young and old, will know the joy of mindfulness in their own lives. May your own yesterday be a dream of happiness, and your own tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well therefore to THIS day.
I have long been a fan of the writings of Lucy Maud Montgomery, and for the month of February I decided to delight in the joy of reading the eight books in the ‘Anne of Green Gables’ series.
For many years I was a literal card-carrying member of the former ‘Anne of Green Gables Society,’ which was based in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island where ‘Maud’ (as the author was known to her friends) grew up and based all but one of her novels. Back then, being a member included the receipt of a regular paper publication called ‘Kindred Spirits Magazine,’ which had articles from the island, reflections of visitors, poetry and stories from members, and extracts from Maud’s twenty novels, five hundred poems, short stories and copious diary entries. It was a superb publication, and although printing costs led to a discontinuation of the previous format, you can still find the remaining commercial evolution of it today at http://www.annestore.ca
To my mind, L M Montgomery is one of the two greatest female authors of all time, along with Louisa May Alcott who wrote the four books in the ‘Little Women’ series.
Both writers had a phenomenal ability to deeply touch the souls of their readership, and evidenced a sensitivity, love of nature, beauty and social justice which speaks directly to the inner condition of their audience.
At a more personal level, I also find their works inspirational due to the author’s well-documented sensitivity and fearless portrayal of sensitive characters. And all this decades before the scientific studies and research on Sensory Processing Sensitivity took place.
Louisa May Alcott features two classic HSP characters in the ‘Little Women’ books, namely Jo and Beth March. Jo is a classic HSS (High Sensation Seeking) extravert HSP, and the tragic Beth, my personal favourite, a LSS (Low Sensation Seeking) introvert one.
When it comes to L M Montgomery and especially the Anne books, HSP’s abound. Perhaps most beautifully, male HSP’s also feature in a way that demonstrates the non-sensitive male cultural stereotype and bias and its effect on the male HSP’s of the story. Nowhere is this more beautifully demonstrated than in the last book, ‘Rilla of Ingleside’ which is seen largely through the eyes of Anne Shirley’s youngest daughter. One of Anne’s three sons, Walter, is already introduced as a sensitive child in the previous book, ‘Rainbow Valley.’ In this story the children are growing up. Then in the next comes the outbreak of the First World War and Canada’s involvement in that horrendous conflict. For a long time, Walter struggles with the idea of signing-up to fight, after his elder brother Jem joins the army. This is not because he is afraid, as is suspected, but because of his hatred of violence and ugliness born out of his sensitive nature. In a beautiful discussion with his adored youngest sister, Rilla, she nails his HSP nature in the most breath taking way:
‘Walter, one time I heard father say that the trouble with you was a sensitive nature and a vivid imagination. You feel things before they really come – feel them all alone when there isn’t anything to help you bear them – to take away from them. It isn’t anything to be ashamed of.’
Tragically he joins the fight after the sinking of the Lusitania, and is killed during the battle of Courcelette.
Those of a reflective and imaginative nature are referred to in the last four books as ‘the race of Joseph,’ which is a great label for folk who can relate to such experiences.
Maud was herself quite clearly an HSP, and often described as sensitive, highly-strung and with a rich and imaginative inner life. In the last of the Anne books, the ‘golden years’ of Prince Edward Island slowly yield to the introduction of the motor car and moving pictures. A profound sense of loss is felt, as with the inaugural ride in their first motor car, Anne, Gilbert and her family already get a sense of the world speeding up.
In a 1924 letter to G B Macmillan, Maud writes of one of her real-life return visits to Prince Edward Island:
‘We spent many afternoons on the sandshore. There’s nothing in all the world like that shore. But one poetry had vanished from the gulf forever. It is never now dotted with hundreds of white sails. The fishermen now have motor boats which chug-chug out in the morning and chug-chug back at night and are not on speaking terms with romance.’
It is a tragic fact that the phenomenal contribution of L M Montgomery to literature was not widely recognised until the latter half of the twentieth century, even though a 1947 poll, five years after her death at age 67, showed her to be regarded on a par with Charles Dickens as a treasured writer.
Maud had her fair share of tragedy in life, including the loss of her mother by the age of two, one stillborn child out of three sons, horrible legal battles with her publisher and nursing her church minister husband through severe bouts of depression while trying to preserve his good name in a world that really didn't understand what was often termed ‘Religious Melancholia.’
Despite a lifelong love of her native Prince Edward Island, Montgomery only managed to get back there for sporadic vacations after her marriage, instead living at various locations around Ontario where her husband ministered. As a minister’s wife, she had the unenviable job of breaking the news of bereavement to families in their parish during the First World War. By the time the Second World War commenced, the combined strain of all the afore-mentioned situations saw her suffer from a series of nervous breakdowns.
In October 1941, several months before her death, she wrote the following to her nephew James Campbell on PEI, fearing that he might be pressured to fight, and that she might lose her son Stuart to the conflict:
…I am very ill and will never see Park Corner again.
Don’t let them stampede you into going to war. You are needed at home. Park Corner would go forever if you went… You must not go to war. Tell them you are the only son at home and your mother would not live to see you come back. I can hardly write – my nerves are so terrible. Stuart is intern in hospital but I suppose they will take him too. I think my mind is going.
Rest from worry is what I need and I cannot get that anywhere. I am done.’
Broken of spirit, she died on April 24th, 1942 and was buried back on Prince Edward Island at a spot she had picked out at Cavendish Church, from where could be seen many of her favourite sites that inspired the fictitious and internationally loved village of Avonlea.
Thankfully a significant portion of the island, including Lover’s Lane, The Lake of Shining Waters, Silver Bush and Green Gables have been preserved as a national park, and attract millions of visitors every year.
Lucy Maud Montgomery created many beloved heroines in her works such as Pat, Emily and perhaps most famous of all the fiery, independent, red-haired Anne Shirley.
Her legacy is an inspiration. A window into her soul and a way to explore the depths of our own in a way no other literature can. It is writing that transcends writing.
For myself, as a sensitive man, children’s author and undoubtedly one of ‘The Race of Joseph,’ her work is a treasure and pearl beyond the greatest price that I will hold to my breast until the day I die.
I’m so glad I got to spend this month with Anne…
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, as the lyrics to the old song go.
For me, there are a number of particular traditions I like to observe at this time of year; but one specifically relates to a favourite literary figure, poet and author John Masefield.
Born in Ledbury, the son of a solicitor (there is still a Masefield Solicitors in Ledbury to this day), he spent many years at sea. Indeed, nautical themes are found in a number of his works, including ‘Cargoes,’ and ‘Sea Fever.’ Eventually despairing of life as a sailor and yearning to write, he deserted ship in New York in 1895. Holding down a series of jobs and devouring literature with a voracious appetite, he began to write poetry. By the time he was twenty four his poems were being published, eventually leading to his appointment as Poet Laureate in 1930.
A few years ago I had correspondence with an author, now sadly passed away, who wrote some local history about a village where I rented a cottage for a number of years. He remembered John Masefield when he spent time at a farm near his home. It was a delight for me to discover that walks I used to take and enjoy in the area, were also regular haunts of the great man himself. I didn’t know it at the time.
Masefield had a keen imagination, wrote books and poetry in many genres, and was known as a public speaker who could touch people’s hearts. All of these are qualities that I admire and which endear him to me, almost as much as my favourite of his children’s books: ‘The Box of Delights.’
In 1935 this sequel to his earlier work, ‘The Midnight Folk,’ received publication. It is a wondrous story about young schoolboy, Kay Harker, returning home for the Christmas holidays and getting swept up in an exciting series of events surrounding a magical box.
The book first came to my attention in 1984, when the BBC made an award-winning six part television adaptation of the tale, which used cutting-edge special effects of the day. It immediately became a story that I treasured, and naturally a reading of the books followed.
Now, every year on Christmas Eve, I sit down and watch all three hours of the production in one go. Those hours always seem to fly by, and the story is utterly timeless in its appeal and charm.
This year marks the thirtieth Christmas since it first arrived on our television screens. Thus I have made a short video reflecting on the events of those last three decades, and the constant companion that has always been there in the shape of ‘The Box of Delights.’
If you’ve never seen the production or read the book before, hopefully this little tribute will encourage you to do both.
I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a happy and peaceful New Year.