The keys to the palace

Completing my reading of ‘Kith: The riddle of the childscape’ by Jay Griffiths.

Jay Griffiths

Jay Griffiths

‘A few weeks ago, Stephen Roberts, a friend and occasional walking companion called me a ‘Romantic’ on here in a post entitled ‘Who are you?’ Here’s the exchange:

First, Stephen – “Hello to my fellow historian and psychogeographer. I agree that you are a historian. I wonder if you ever think of yourself as a “Romantic”, not in the soppy sense of the word, but in the sense in which it was originally used to describe people like Scott, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth, who had such profound senses of place. I will have to think about my description of myself. It is hard for us stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen to say anything positive about ourselves. We don’t like to blow our own trumpets, but I think this will be a worthwhile exercise for me.”

My reply – “I never once thought of myself in such illustrious company, but I get what you mean about ‘Romantic’ in their terms of living a life led by a desire to be natural, emotional and personal. And why shouldn’t we be quietly free to think well of ourselves? Maybe even catching glimpses of the clouds of glory we may each be trailing behind us.”

All of which must have made me especially receptive to this book ‘Kith’, which is about Romanticism and how, in tightly time-managing our children’s lives, locking them away from all that is instinctive and natural and free in them, we are damaging them and therefore the future of humankind.

Jay Griffiths shows us how the young in Euro-American cultures are unhappy. Called ‘attention deficit’ and drugged to calm them down in school and get them ready for a life in an obedient workforce, our young are depressed and either worryingly conformist or increasingly, angry.

‘Kith’ explores this unhappiness and anger in detail. Contrasting it with children the author has met in more indigenous societies. As well as with the Romantic ideals of childhood expressed in the work of the Brontes, Williams Wordsworth and Blake, John Clare and many others.

Ending with a recognition that Romanticism is not a nostalgic old artistic movement, but a joyous and necessary philosophy of life today, to let the natural light in on the controlled Puritanism that dominates our children’s lives and, in our over busy and work obsessed society, all of our lives.

‘Forget-me-not’ she says about Romanticism at the end of her book. ‘Forget-me-not’. I won’t

Anyway, I’d like to convince you to read this wonderful thing. I must do, this is the third post I’ve written about it.

Therefore to finish, a couple of key moments from the author’s own life where her most important adults recognised and helped her ‘into a world where I belonged’:

“When I was nine, my mother gave me a gift of enormous meaning when, one afternoon, she ushered my brothers and me into the children’s library, settled the boys in a corner, then took me by the hand and suggested I started reading from the main, adult, section. This is a book you might like, she said and pulled from the shelf a small, navy-blue hardback with thin pages like bible paper. It was a bible to me, this book which I would over the next ten years read twenty times. Jane Eyre.

It was my eureka moment. I had found it. When I read the book, it was a portal through which I was swept away into a world where I belonged and where, like most writers, I have dwelled ever since. To this day, I remember the precise layout of the library and,blindfolded, I could find my way there, to the exact part of the exact shelf, as if even as a child my mind foresaw the significance and made a mental map of the library like a guide to the treasure, an X marks the spot. I cannot imagine the poverty of my childhood without this particular library, which has now been threatened with closure.”

Next, moving from reading to writing, and if this doesn’t make you want to read this nothing will:

“I was lucky that my mother and her mother saw my love for books and encouraged it. My grandmother was a stern woman who had not always had an easy life, and she could be short tempered with small children but when, aged about five, I wrote my first book, sellotaped it together and gave it to her (I was living with her at the time), she received it in both her hands, gazed at me with solemnity far more than love, and told me, with a belief that left me both aghast with acknowledgment and apprehensive with the enormity, how much she looked forward to reading the first book which I would get published. She never did: she died when I was still a child, but she gave me an unshakeable belief not that she had given me the keys to the palace but that she knew with certainty that the keys were in my pocket right from the very beginning.”

I love that, ‘the keys to the palace.’

See also ‘Kith’ and ‘It takes a village to raise a child’.

Also, ‘The wonderfulness of public libraries’ – where I too found that the keys to the palace were in my pocket.

4 thoughts on “The keys to the palace

  1. jbaird

    Wow, this book is a must-read! I love that grandmother story at the end of your post. Grandmothers can influence us more than our own parents. I’ve forgotten much of what my parents told/taught me, but I never will forget the gems my grandmothers bestowed upon me, even though I was one of many grandchildren. I felt special–and loved. Thanks!


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