If you know me it’s most likely I will have talked to you about ‘Wild’ by Jay Griffiths. A book that came to me when I most needed it.
Summer 2010, three years after Sarah’s breast cancer diagnosis. Three years of worry and treatment and staying close to hospitals. Of keeping our business going, mostly on my own. I was exhausted and I needed time off. Time off being a carer, time off working, time for me.
So I headed alone to the hills of Wales, with ‘Wild’.
And such things I read. In some ways a ‘travel’ book, because she travelled all over the world writing it, in fact it defies categorisation. The book itself is wild.
Travelling from the tundra to the tropics and back again to see what has been done to indigenous peoples, to the wild, by exploitative capitalists, the settled, she writes:
“Thus hundreds of years of hostility from the Establishment against all forms of nomadism, and the nomads are losing ground at every turn. In fact, so successful have the Settled Classes been, and so complacent are they in their success, that they can now afford to co-opt the last vestiges of nomadism in the form of package tourism, and invent that laughable self-contradiction, that apotheosis of turgidity, the static caravan.
But the lure of wild and nomadic freedom has never left us. It is in our lungs, breathing in freedom, in our eyes hungry for horizons, and in our feet itching for the open road. Put your boots on.”
I would come down from the hills in the evening to the farm where I was staying, and after eating the food grown mostly on the farm itself, would then read on into the night. Drunk on nothing but words.
“Walk. The drum begins. Follow it. Follow the drums of thunder. Follow the sun. Follow the stars at night as they lean their long slant down the far side of the sky. Follow the lightning and the open road. Follow your compulsion. Follow your calling. Follow anything except orders and habit. Follow the fire-fare-forwards of life itself. Go where you will, burn your bridges if you must, leave the paving stones smouldering and singe the gate as you leave, leave an incendiary device by the wall and scorch your way across the land. I dare you.
All children, but only a few adults, are wise enough to know they must run away and join the circus, the Travelling Circus, the really Big Top, where the sun itself is the ringmaster and the circus tent the whole round of the world, and every day the fervid performance, free and for everyone. And all you have to do to get an entrance ticket is come with your boots on.”
I’ve read ‘Wild’ twice more since then and my copy now falls open at my favourite passages. I grin every time I pick it up and when it’s been a while since I’ve last picked it up it seems to call out to me ‘Oy, don’t be getting too settled over there!’
It’s my inspiration, my favourite book ever, the one I know I’ll take with me everywhere. Except Jay Griffiths has now written another one, a companion for ‘Wild’ – ‘Kith’.
Writing ‘Wild’ she’d encountered what she calls a ‘deep riddle worth solving’:
“Why are so many children in Euro-American cultures unhappy? Why is it that children in many traditional cultures seem happier, fluent in their child-nature? Nature is at the core of the riddle: I began looking for the nature of childhood, whose quintessence is inextricable from nature itself. I was interested in how children belong, needing their kith, their local acre, as they need their kin. An entire history of childhood is in that one word ‘kith’, which is now used as if it means only extended family, whereas in the phrase ‘kith and kin’, ‘kith’ originally meant country, home, one’s land. Childhood has not only lost its country but the word for it too: a country called childhood.”
This last Saturday I took the new book with me to a place that feels like our own kith, the beloved common land at Thurstaston.
After lunch Sarah slept. And I began reading ‘Kith’.
“It is hard today to imagine what children’s lives were like before the Enclosures and it is impossible to overstate the terrible, lasting alteration which those acts made to childhood in Britain. Although it is not, in the great scheme of things, so very long ago, we today are effectively fenced off from even its memory. My grandfather’s grandfather would have known what it was like to make himself a nest on the commons of mud, moss, roots and grass but neither the experience nor a record of it is my inheritance and, for that, I hold a candle for John Clare, patron saint of childhood, through whose work we can see what childhood has lost: the enormity of the theft.”
Fencing John Clare off from ‘nature’s wide and common sky’ bewildered him and broke his heart. And in losing our commons and our carnivals and increasingly keeping our children locked into timetabled lives, divorced from nature by health and safety and the endless striving of ‘hard working families’, we are breaking all of their hearts and our own too. The children are unhappy. Jay Griffiths shows that suicide rates amongst the young are rising and, as we saw in 2011, the cage rage of the young is causing them to riot. About time, some would say.
She goes on to talk about the loneliness of our babies. The strict puritan commands to ‘break their wills’ still resonating today as we ruthlessly train our tiny ones to fit in with our work ethic lives. I remember with regret trying to follow the advice of the ‘childcare experts’ back in the 80s to let my own baby cry herself to sleep in her own little room, until I could stand it no longer. As if this was supposed to be in some way good for her?
And I’m reading all this sat out on one of the few bits of commons left to us. It should be crawling and buzzing with children on such a sunny day but of course it isn’t. Now and then we hear evidence of a very few of them passing nearby. The main evidence being the stern raised voices of parents sounding worried, maybe by the ‘outsideness’ of this place: ‘Don’t go too far! Careful, you might fall! Come back now! Hold the pram!’
She writes beautifully about her own childhood, her own kith:
“We fished for wishes and caught them; we swam to find mermaids and became them; and we dived for pearls and returned with a stick, a bit of litter, a coin or the makings of a joke. Pearls, in other words…This part of my childhood was, I now know, a passport to the world.”
And on she goes as the sunny afternoon wears on. By the time Sarah wakes a hundred pages have gone by.
And I’m only just getting going on this book. As you can hear it’s making me sad and angry, as well as filling me with hope and joy, as a Jay Griffiths book will. So this wonderful polemic will be returned to on here, I’m sure, as I take it out for more reading and daydreaming around my sacred places.
But before finishing, a couple of other people’s opinions, in case you still need any more encouragement to run to the nearest bookshop or library and get hold of ‘Kith’.
First, Niall Griffiths:
“A beautiful combination of expansive tenderness and fierce intolerance of pettiness. ‘Kith’ is a call to live life intensely and authentically, vividly and with grace, humour and passion. Griffiths has politicized awe, wonder and play.”
And Philip Pullman, who called ‘Wild’ ‘a raging oratorio’:
“Kith’ could have been written by no one but Jay Griffiths. It is ablaze with her love of the physical world and her passionate moral sense that goodness and a true relation with nature are intimately connected. She has the same visionary understanding of childhood that we find in Blake and Wordsworth, and John Clare would have read her with delight. Her work isn’t just good – it’s necessary.”
There should be a word for this, the feeling of getting going on a book which you suspect is going to enrich the rest of your life. ‘Enjewellment’?