Xiaolu as a new arrival in London in 2002, outside the Houses of Parliament

Xiaolu as a new arrival in London in 2002, outside the Houses of Parliament

A week ago there was an article in the Guardian that gives an insight from one person’s experience of what it is like to be transplanted into a vastly different culture even when the circumstances are not traumatic, as is the case with a refugee. Below is a short extract, which stops at the point when it all seems an obviously good idea to come to the UK: for the full picture of how it turned out see link.

By the time I reached my late 20s, I was desperately looking for a way out of Beijing. From 2001 onwards, the city was consumed by preparations for the 2008 Olympics. Every bus route had to be redirected. Every building was covered in scaffolding. Highways were springing up around Beijing like thick noodles oozing from the ground, with complicated U-turns and roundabouts. The city was surrounded by a moonscape of construction sites. Living there had become a visual and logistical torture. For me, as a writer and film-maker, it was also becoming impossible artistically, with increasing restraints placed on my work.

The opportunity to leave came sooner than I could have hoped. I heard that the Chevening scholarship and the British Council were looking for talent in China. I had never heard of Chevening. Someone told me it was a large historical mansion in Kent. My mind was instantly filled with images from The Forsyte Saga – one of the most-watched English television programmes on the Chinese internet. The wealthy housewives of Beijing in particular loved the fancy houses and rich people dressed in elegant costumes riding about on white horses. So I applied as a film-maker.

Eight months later, after many stressful exams, the British Council in Beijing called me in. “Congratulations! You are one of three people in China this year who’ve won the scholarship! You beat 500 other candidates!” The English lady brought me a cup of tea with a big smile. She also handed me back my passport with a UK visa in it.

When I told my parents the news, they were rather surprised, but both thought it sounded like a great opportunity. “Your father says he is very proud of you!” my mother said. “All your years of studying now make sense.” Then she added: “You said the scholarship is from England. Do you mean Great Britain?”

“Yes. Great Britain,” I confirmed.

“That’s great. Greater than United States, right?” my mother said, drawing her conclusions from her Maoist education of the 1960s. But I knew that she had no idea about either Britain or America. The only thing she knew about those countries was that they were in the west. “You should take a rice cooker with you. I heard that westerners don’t use rice cookers.”

I remember very well the day I left China. It was 1 April, and the Beijing sandstorm season had begun. I dragged my luggage towards the subway, choking in the sandy soup. This was my chance to escape the world I had grown up in. But that world was trying one last time to keep me.

“I will be walking under a gentle and moist English sky soon,” I said to myself. “It nurtures rather than hinders its inhabitants. I will breathe in the purest Atlantic sea air and live on an island called Britain.” All this was destined to be nothing more than a memory. . . .

This is an adapted extract from Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up by Xiaolu Guo, which will be published by Chatto & Windus on 26 January. To order a copy for £14.44 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.

This is an excellent post on the Anne Brontë theme. Well worth taking a look at the full article.

James R. Neal

Today is the birthday of Anne Bronte, the youngest of the famed Bronte sisters. The birthday of arguably the most under-appreciated of the Bronte sisters would be an appropriate time to reflect on her literary work. But, that is not my purpose here. What I would like to reflect on is the role Anne played in her short life to advance equality and unveil the misogyny and mendacity of society – both Victorian and contemporary.

Like many people who were granted the gift of a balanced secondary education, I muddled through Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre while in high school, gleaning only the surface of what these women sought to impart. Like some I came back to them as an adult, scuffed up and seasoned a bit by life, and finally understood what all the fuss was about in the first place. But, like most, I remained until recently almost completely ignorant of Anne…

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Trawden Cottages (for source of image see link)

A few weeks ago I was up in Trawden without a thought in my head about the Brontës – well, not until someone in the pastoral meeting I was attending mentioned that we were a mere eight miles from Haworth. We may have been in a different county, but almost within hailing distance none the less.

As I stared out of the big bay window on that bleak Saturday, watching the snow flakes swirling down against the backdrop of the steeply undulating moorland, it became obvious that I was in what most of us have convinced ourselves is authentic Brontëland.

It began to seem very appropriate that, as we had driven the snaking icy roads to get there earlier that day, my friend and I had exchanged stories of the people we had worked with professionally, people wounded by traumas, some of them from childhood, some of them more recent.

bronte-timelineThe Brontë family history is a painful one. They were well acquainted with grief. Even when I seemed to be distancing myself from it by putting it in a table to help me understand better how old the younger sisters were when the sequence of deaths that bedevilled their childhoods began, the pain of it was if anything even more visible. The trauma was not only about death. It was about the separation of the two older sisters from the youngest children, following so close after the mother’s death. It was about the atrocious conditions in the boarding school which ultimately contributed to the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth (see two earlier posts for the traumatic nature of boarding school education, even in the 20th Century). The table I’m including here stops at 1829: that was not the end of all the pain, but that’s something that will have to wait until a later post.

take-courageI’ve referred recently to later triggers that reinforced the hint life gave me in Trawden. One of them was hearing about Samantha Ellis’s book. I’m only half-way through and already I have picked up a number of useful clues about the possible relationship between trauma and creativity.

What I want to focus on briefly here is her account of what happened to Anne Brontë’s greatest achievement after she was dead. According to Ellis, after the second edition, Charlotte vetoed further publication: Ellis argues this was part of her attempt to whitewash Ann’s reputation, which seemed to her to have been tarnished by the book. This gave Thomas Hodgson his chance to steal some profit. He hacked the text down to fit into one volume so he could publish it more cheaply than if he’d stuck with the original three. After Charlotte died her publishers made the mistake of using his text as their source. This is the one that is still alarmingly prevalent. Ellis writes (page 142):

The mutilated editions are still everywhere. My own copy of the novel is a mutilated edition. It takes a while to find one that isn’t. I get slightly obsessive about checking, and find butchered texts in bookshops, in libraries and on friends’ bookshelves, all bought in good faith, because unless you knew they weren’t right, you couldn’t tell.

Her use of the word ‘mutilated’ intrigued me. It is as though this were for her a sort of posthumous traumatic atrocity. Some degree of outrage is, though, understandable, as I discovered soon after reading her words.

To my alarm, I checked out my own copy of the Folio Society Edition. Surely you can trust the Folio Society to get it right? Apparently not. It is a mutilated version. This explained my own difficulty when I recently picked it up to read the novel for the first time. That’s right. I said ‘for the first time.’ I admit it. I was an Anne ignorer as well. Anyway, back to the main point. I was puzzled by the abrupt beginning, the result of Hodgson deleting the real opening from his version. I didn’t even realise at first that it was meant to be a letter, let alone who Gilbert was or why he was writing it.

Fortunately Ellis prescribes a remedy (page 142): ‘There are better versions – the best, I think, is the 1996 one edited by Stevie Davies.’

tenant-of-wildfell-hallIt didn’t take me long to work out via the web that my local bookshop had a copy. I rang them to make sure it was still there: it was and it was the only one they had. I put on my shoes, grabbed my coat and set off on the twenty minute walk to the shop as fast as I could in case someone else might get there first.

Even as I walked I asked myself why was I so fired up about this. Anne has been dead just over a hundred-and fifty years. She’s not going to be upset, surely, if I buy it later, or even if I just read the butchered Folio copy I’ve got on my shelf. Then I remembered how Patrick Brontë had regularly walked ten miles to meet Anne’s mother before they married and ten miles back to his home. I remembered the integrity with which he had fought for justice later in his life, making far greater efforts than a twenty minute walk to do so. The injustice of a mutilated novel may seem small beer, but I realised it mattered to me. To appropriately honour Anne’s memory it was only right that I should rectify this travesty done in the name of easy money.

As I walked home at a slower pace, taking the long route over the modest upward slope of Churchill Gardens, I was glad that I had made the effort. I had checked that the book did indeed contain the missing opening: then I was sure it also had all the other missing details, some of which are crucial to Anne’s depiction of her heroine, Helen. Some kind of justice had been done. I can now read what she really wrote when she created a book that would give women even then the strength to fight against oppression in the home.

As I opened the door to go in, my wife asked where I’d been. She was surprised at my explanation.

‘Why didn’t you ask them to keep it for you? You could’ve saved yourself a walk and picked it up tomorrow when you’re in town anyway.’

I couldn’t find a way to explain it then. I’m not sure whether I fully understand it now. Maybe this is all a sentimental rationalisation of an unfathomable impulse. The one thing I’m sure of is that I’ll be coming back to the Brontës on this blog sometime soon.

Bani Dugal, Principal Representative of the Baha'i International Community to the United Nations

Bani Dugal, Principal Representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations

A couple of friends on Facebook recently  flagged up an article on the Bahá’í International Community site that resonated particularly strongly with me, perhaps because of the way my life experiences have reinforced how important trust is as the foundation stone of any enduring relationship: it is something without which love, in any real sense of that word, does not seem to me to be possible. Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

Many today are wondering whether the United Nations and the international system are up to the challenges of the moment.

The rise of non-state actors, the resurgence of nativism and xenophobia, the displacement and migration of populations at historic volumes – the challenges are numerous and rapidly changing.

Yet among the obstacles facing the international community, the Independent Commission on Multilateralism recently highlighted one as particularly problematic:

Repeatedly, the Commission heard reports of a deep lack of trust. There is a lack of trust both among states and between states and the UN Secretariat. There is a lack of trust between governments and their citizens….And there is a lack of trust within the UN itself among the various departments, agencies, funds and programs.

The problem, they suggest, is not that we are unable to work together effectively. Rather, it is that we frequently refuse to. Whether as individuals or members of families, communities, demographic groupings, or nation-states, we are disinclined to rely on others, to depend on them for aspects of our well-being. Humanity is faced with a deficit of trust.

The reconstruction of trust

This is one of the foremost problems facing the international community today.

If citizens and their elected institutions distrust each other, the affairs of society cannot be beneficially ordered. If governments distrust each other, meaningful progress on global challenges cannot be achieved – aspirational rhetoric notwithstanding. If ethnic, racial, or socioeconomic groups distrust each other, solidarity and social integration are little more than empty wishes.

Put simply, societies can neither endure nor advance without trust.

This is nothing new or revolutionary, of course. Nevertheless, numerous aspects of the multilateral system are shaped by the dictates of power politics and expediency – constraining or motivating actors ranging from nations and UN departments to civil society organizations and individual activists.

What becomes clear is that while the importance of trust is generally recognized, its construction is rarely prioritized. Whether the work is too long-term or its mechanisms insufficiently understood, its results too diffuse or not flashy enough, too few tangible resources are committed to this objective.

A central focus of civil society, United Nations agencies, and Members States alike in the coming years will therefore need to be addressing and reversing deficits of trust at all levels of the multilateral system. An explicit commitment, universal and resolute, must be made to the global reconstruction of trust.


Just another few days to go before the next meeting of the Death Cafe on 18 January from 6-8 pm, so just re-posting this account of the last meeting I attended. If you are close by it would be good to see you there.

The walk to the Courtyard last Wednesday was more complicated than the first time I described it. I won’t bore you with the details but the short cut across the car park I usually take has been blocked off. They’re in the process of building a by-pass. It was a warm evening and rushing to make up the time meant that when I arrived I had to discreetly wipe beads of sweat off the counter as I ordered my coffee.

I know. Why order coffee when I was sweating buckets? Well, I was going to a meeting of the Death Cafe. What else could I drink?

We weren’t in our usual room either. I had to carry my coffee upstairs to the Arts Studio, trying not to drip into the cup as I went.

But it was all worth it. Two hours of inspiring and uplifting conversation followed. Partly it was the sharing of difficult memories. But that really was only part of it.

Early in the meeting a key question came up yet again. Why, if we told people where we were going, did so many recoil in horror at the very idea?

We didn’t come to any firm conclusion about that, but it did feel such a shame that so many people were missing out on a great evening of laughter and insight.

I know poets, for instance, have grappled with the problem of death ever since people began writing poems. In the past two views of mortality were strongly connected with images of death such as skulls and tombs: memento mori and carpe diem. Each view of mortality has a different take on morality, interestingly enough: ‘Gather ye rose buds while ye may’ (Herrick) versus ‘be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin’ (translated from the Vulgate‘s Latin rendering of Ecclesiasticus 7:40).  Ode to his Coy MistressAndrew Marvell’s masterpiece of lyric poetry, ironically explores these two responses of his time.

The Grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hew
Sits on thy skin like morning glew,
And while thy willing Soul transpires
At every pore with instant Fires,
Now let us sport us while we may . . .

The balance is heavily tilted here towards ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,’ but the menace of the grave, the reminder of death, is not disguised. He manages to look both possibilities squarely in the face. Shira Wolosky has written a brilliant critique of this feat in The Art of Poetry pages 70-79. She states:

The poem offers, then, not one, but two topoi [themes]: the overt “carpe diem” and a subversive remembrance of death inscribed into the text alongside the call to seduction. . . . . . Both topoi are urgent calls, calls to weigh your life to see what, in its short compass of time and space, you really can accomplish; what, in its short span, really has value; what you should be striving for.

(page 79)

Graveside Stockport

We dug deep into what that same dilemma meant for our society, if anything. Our children don’t often die before us as all too many did in Marvell’s time. It’s easier to ignore death. Too much of the time we seem to be in denial, distracting ourselves with all the glitter at our disposal, and there’s a lot of it. That may be why the idea of a Death Cafe seems so repellant.

But if we do not face the inevitability of death, we wondered, how can we make the most of our lives? This distracted discounting of our destination may have consequences beyond our individual selves. Maybe the denial of personal death is echoed in and contributes to the widespread denial of what we are doing to the planet, and therefore ultimately to ourselves.

Part of it, we felt, may be the short term perspective evolution has hard-wired us with, which reality requires that we transcend. But taking the long view is hard, though not impossible we felt. We’re hard-wired for that kind of effort as well, but it’s something we have to consciously decide to do and stick with.

The fact that we are living so much longer makes it harder to take the long view: death seems too far off to most of us a lot of the time. Paradoxically though, our longer lives don’t mean we can afford to be less concerned about death. We should take it more seriously. There are more of us exploiting the surface of this planet than ever, so we are damaging it more. When the time comes, as it must for all of is, we can also expect a much longer and slower acquaintanceship with death, both our own and that of others’ close to us, than the plague or death in childbirth ever allowed.

There’s yet another obstacle to full awareness, as we explored.

While our longer lives, our global connectedness, and the global challenges we face, make it imperative we also face the destructive consequences of our mindless consumerism and consider the well-being of all life on our planetary home, we are wired strongly to give priority to the family, the tribe and more recently the nation, and find it harder to widen our embrace to include those who fall outside those boundaries. We felt this has to change. A tipping point has to come where the world of humanity tilts over into compassion for the world as whole.

Putting our heads under the sands of time as though its passing had no consequences is not the answer. Maybe coming to proper terms with our personal death could enable us to live in a way that cherishes all life, not just our own.

We all felt that these were inspiring not depressing thoughts. There are Death Cafes in many places. It might be worth your while finding out where your nearest one meets and give it a try.

I walked out into the mild darkness of that autumn evening with a new spring in my step. And that pun is just a mild reminder of the jokes that flew around the table as we debated death.

doctoring-the-mindEven during the last few hectic weeks, I have managed to find time to read Richard Bentall’s brilliant demolition of standard psychiatric treatments. I realise it’s a bit late in the day to flag up my enthusiasm for this book which was first published in 2009, just after I retired. However, as it’s message is so important and resonates so strongly with my current preoccupations I feel obliged to sing its praises.

In subsequent posts, I intend to draw on its rigorous analysis of the misleading inadequacy of psychiatry’s diagnostic system, its powerful and carefully argued exposure of the myths surrounding psychotropic medications and their supposed efficacy, and its moving description of the critical importance of positive relationships to recovery. In the meantime for those who want a more detailed sense of this book’s perspective, the Guardian review of 2009 is a good place to start. Below is a short extract. For the full post see link.

Salley Vickers applauds a brave work that argues that mind-altering drugs do more harm than good to the mentally ill.

Richard Bentall, a clinical psychologist, is a controversial figure in the field of mental health. An example of the hostility that his conclusions provoke among those practising conventional (that is, drug-based) psychiatry is given in the preface to this book, which raises serious questions about the treatment of mental illness. Bentall describes an encounter with an amiable-seeming psychiatrist who responds to a talk he has given as follows: “Professor Bentall has told us he is a scientist. But he is not! Nothing that Professor Bentall has said – not one single word – is true.”

The unlikelihood of a professor of psychology delivering, in the sober environment of an NHS conference, a talk in which every word is fictitious and every opinion fallacious gives a flavour of the threat that Bentall’s theories pose. The response, as reported, sounds deranged and it is interesting to observe how debate among professionals over the causes of mental illness appears to induce its own version of madness, as if the topic itself were contagious. One sign of sanity, both in the individual and society, is the ability to deal with dissent.

In an earlier book, Madness Explained, Bentall was at pains to distinguish his approach from other anti-psychiatrists – for example, RD Laing, whose radical views were discredited because of his flamboyant lack of rigour and attendant inability to accept criticism. Bentall, as this book attests, is a different kettle of fish. With patient persistence and without recourse to rancorous diatribes, he has appraised the scientific evidence for the success of contemporary psychiatric treatments and come up with a dismal report. It is probably the very balance of his approach that drives his opponents crazy.

Doctoring the Mind is an attempt to clarify the dense array of evidence offered in Bentall’s earlier work. The result is a much easier read. It is also, for that reason, more disturbing. Other recent books (Lisa Appignanesi’s Mad, Bad and Sad, for example) have also traced the dark strains of misperception, mismanagement and downright cruelty in psychiatry’s chequered history, but Bentall’s achievement is to focus on contemporary psychiatric practices, especially those dedicated to treating serious psychoses (his own area of expertise).

Bentall’s thesis is that, for all the apparent advances in understanding psychiatric disorders, psychiatric treatment has done little to improve human welfare, because the scientific research which has led to the favouring of mind-altering drugs is, as he puts it, “fatally flawed”. He cites some startling evidence from the World Health Organisation that suggests patients suffering psychotic episodes in developing countries recover “better” than those from the industrialised world and the aim of the book is broadly to suggest why this might be so. . . .

As Bentall starkly says: “Without hope, the struggle for survival seems pointless.” At a time when dialogue in the presence of other human beings is becoming less and less available, this brave book gives a sense of why this could be disastrous.


Emily, Anne and Charlotte in To Walk Invisible. Ann is seated in the middle. Photograph: BBC/Michael Prince

I am slowly picking myself up after a busy festive season. At the end of it I found myself wondering what themes were calling me, as I’d rather dropped the ball over the last few weeks. 

I find I am being drawn to the Brontës by a number of hints including Sally Wainwright’s recent excellent documentary drama, To Walk Invisible (it’s available for another 19 days), and this excellent Guardian article of last Friday  by Samantha Ellis, which redresses the balance in terms of Anne.

The Brontës’s combination of trauma and creativity suggests that trauma can elevate a person to a higher level of understanding which is a form of transcendence, even in the absence of transliminality, unlike my rather glib conclusion in an earlier post’s diagram. 

So, I’ve added another substantial clutch of books to my list. Heaven knows when I will be able to read them all, let alone pull what I have learned into a coherent perspective. I guess I’ll not be keeping up my previous pace of posts for a few days or even weeks yet. I hope your patience with me will prove worth it in the end. 

Anyhow, here is a short extract from the Ellis post – how intriguing to have as a surname Emily’s pseudonym! Click the link for the full post.

Seen as less passionate than Emily, less accomplished than Charlotte, Anne is often overlooked. But her governess Agnes Grey is a clear model for Jane Eyre.

Anne Brontë started writing her first novel some time between 1840 and 1845 while she was working as a governess for the Robinson family, at Thorp Green near York. I imagine she must have made her excuses in the evenings, and escaped the drawing room, where she had to do the boring bits of her pupils’ sewing, and often felt awkward and humiliated – excluded from the conversation because she was not considered a lady, yet not allowed to sit with the servants either, because governesses had to be something of a lady, or how could they teach their pupils to be ladies?

Anne must have stolen away to her room and pulled out her small, portable writing desk. Leaning on the desk’s writing slope (which was decadently lined in pink velvet), Anne could go on with her novel. She had to write in secret because she was skewering her haughty employers and her peremptory pupils on the page. Although her job was difficult and thankless, she had realised that it was providing her with excellent material, that she was telling a story no one else was telling. As she laboured away in her neat, elegant handwriting, Anne must have felt that she was writing a novel that would go off like a bomb.

Agnes Grey sticks close to the facts of Anne’s life. The eponymous heroine is a clergyman’s daughter, just as Anne’s father, Patrick Brontë, was the perpetual curate of Haworth in Yorkshire. Anne doesn’t specify where Agnes grows up, but she does say she was “born and nurtured among … rugged hills”, so when I read the novel, I imagine the Yorkshire moors. Both Anne and Agnes were originally one of six children. Anne lost her two eldest sisters when she was five. Agnes has lost even more siblings; she and her older sister Mary are the only two who have “survived the perils of infancy”. Both Agnes and Anne are the youngest. When Agnes says she is frustrated because she is “always regarded as the child, and the pet of the family”, considered “too helpless and dependent – too unfit for buffeting with the cares and turmoils of life”, it feels like Anne talking. She always chafed at being patronised.

. . . . Agnes turns to one of the only other jobs open to middle-class women: she decides to become a governess. . . .  instead of an adventure, Agnes gets a crash course in how cruel the world can be, and how it got that way.

One of Agnes’s pupils, Tom Bloomfield, enjoys torturing birds. One day his vile uncle, who encourages Tom’s cruelty, gives him a nest of baby birds. When Agnes sees him “laying the nest on the ground, and standing over it with his legs wide apart, his hands thrust into his breeches-pockets, his body bent forward, and his face twisted into all manner of contortions in the ecstasy of his delight” and he won’t be reasoned with, something rises within her. She grabs a large flat stone and crushes the birds flat.

This brutal mercy killing is almost too violent to read. Agnes Grey’s first critics thought it went too far, but Anne insisted that “Agnes Grey was accused of extravagant overcolouring in those very parts that were carefully copied from life, with a most scrupulous avoidance of all exaggeration”.

 A new Vintage Classics edition of Agnes Grey is published on 12 January. Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis is published by Chatto & Windus on the same date.