Thursday, 22 January 2009

923 - On Slumdog, Seven Stories, Aidan Chambers and the Stuff of Life

Leaving the Tyneside after watching Slumdog Millionaire, E and I bumped into Elizabeth Hammill and her husband, who also know a good story when they see one. Elizabeth was, with Mary Briggs, a co-founder of Seven Stories, The Centre for Children's Books (a great article about which, by author Adele Geras, is here).

I was fortunate enough to work for Seven Stories for four years, after qualifying as a librarian, and before going self-employed as Artist, Explorer and General Wastrell. It's one of several cultural jewels in Newcastle's Ouseburn Valley.

Apart from anything else, Seven Stories reawakened in me a love and appreciation for story-making. And not least because it introduced me to the work of Aidan Chambers and his wife, Nancy. Between them they are publisher, editor, librarian, author, teacher - a couple whose passion for Children's Literature has blazed a trail since before 1969. A couple who, as it is beautifully put in Aidan's biography, have been in conversation since they first met.

Aidan hales from just outside Chester-le-Street. His first name resonates the spirituality of Northumberland (three government buildings in Newcastle, including the tax office, have adopted the names of the Northumbrian saints, Aidan, Cuthbert and Bede, for, one can't help thinking, rather more mundane purposes). His own spirituality, addressed in several of his powerful stories for teenagers, is both experimental and experiential, and has not come pre-packaged in buildings, boxes or books. Seven years a monk, he left in 1967 to pursue his vocation as a writer (no contest, he declares).

Writing about his sixth novel, This Is All: The Pillow-Book of Cordelia Kenn (2005), he says that life is about nothing other than love and coming to consciousness (the quote's at the back of the paperback version, which I don't have!). It seems to me that through his writing he has midwived love and consciousness in many a reader - not least E, who quoted Cordelia Kenn on her PhD thesis, and credits this book as giving her, for the first time, the understanding that a novel is much much more than a fast-paced adventure (though at times the book is certainly that, too).

Love and coming to consciousness. A life's work. I can go with that. Steeped as I currently am in questions about reciprocal altruism and the evolution of religious sensibility, this brief insight, that love breeds consciousness, and consciousness, love, offers one wiser man's reflection on the moment at which life transcends game theory, and in so doing allows the transformation of scientific rhetoric from doctrine to poetry.

No monk or saint has offered more.

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