March 26, 2019 / Leave a comment
Jay Griffiths: “a child can transform a twig and a pile of leaves into absolutely anything”
Jay Griffiths is a writer, mostly of non-fiction books, and occasionally of fiction. Her books include ‘Pip Pip’, about the politics of time, wildness and wilderness in a book called ‘Wild’, and about childhood and the natural world in ‘Kith’, a book I adored. She often writes about indigenous cultures because, as she told me, “I think there is much that non-indigenous cultures can learn from indigenous cultures”. ‘Kith’ in particular focused on the need to cultivate and nurture childhoods that put imagination at their heart. It was a delight therefore that one of the final interviews I conducted for this book was with Jay. I started by asking her how she would evaluate the state of health of the imagination in 2019? [The audio from our conversation was terrible so sorry, no podcast this time!)
“One of the things I’d say is that there’s been a kind of commercialisation of imagination. Imagination is seen as something that people buy from other people, that it’s merchandise. It’s something that you buy rather than it’s something that you have and something that you make.
I’d also say that that question of the mercantile element of it is an enclosure of imagination for artists themselves, because the question that a lot of artists and writers and musicians are encouraged to look at is, “Will it sell?” Which is an incredibly limiting feeling when you’re thinking about self-expression and imagination; that as soon as you put that kind of constraint on it, it makes you smaller. It’s part of, in a way, what I think of as the enclosure of imagination.
To me one of the most important things is mental sovereignty, is that you really think for yourself rather than be made small, be made constrained, by the narrowness of the dominant culture. Because in that sense the things that the dominant culture perceives as appropriate imagination, it’s in such a narrow kind of sphere. That enclosure of our collective imagination is one of the reasons why collectively we don’t understand climate change or extinction, to their real tragic depths.
Part of it to me is a matter of the individual and mental sovereignty, and part of it is a much wider aspect that if imagination is not part of gift culture, but it’s part of a capitalist interaction, then you enclose it and you make it smaller.
You mention about the link between imagination and the enclosure of, or decline of, imagination and climate change. I wonder if you could just say a little bit more about that. What’s the link?
One of them is something that many, many people have said, rightly, that it’s something of such enormity that it is generally incredibly difficult to grasp the physical facts of it. It’s also difficult to grasp the emotional facts of it; to have known a world with such beauty and such climate safety and then to feel that that is so seriously under threat.
It’s almost a metaphysical failure of imagination, just because of the size of the task. But I additionally think that because the whole parade of what the dominant culture has decided, this narrow, narrow parade of what the dominant culture has decided is art, is imagination, is welcomed imaginative expression, that if there is a discussion of climate change or extinction, that it is made to look as if it’s a worthy tedious, dull kind of way of speaking, way of writing, way of creating art, rather than seeing that actually it’s necessary, it’s powerful, it’s moving.
We’re humans, we’re sensitive creatures. There’s that sense that one of the most constraining things of expression is to feel that you will not be heard. That in itself really stops people speaking, acting, doing their drawing, whatever it is, making expression about something, to know that it will be ignored. Which is one of the reasons I think that the power of that movement Extinction Rebellion is really important because actually it’s kind of saying we’re putting fire into this expression.
It’s also that because it’s coupled with a world where a lot of imagination and imaginative space is being taken up, in a really frightening dark way, by the whole imaginative space of fake news. It’s enormous; brilliant in its own way, horrible, absolutely horrible, but kind of brilliant for such a spread of dark imagination.
‘Kith’ painted a picture of a world where childhood is under assault. It feels to me like there’s a war on childhood. I wonder if you could just say a little bit about that. And again, how does that then knock on to the imaginations of young people?
In some ways, some of the things that many people have talked about, the overscheduling of children’s lives, too much screen time, the sense of the stress that a lot of children feel under with tests at school and things like that. But I would also say that there are some more subtle things like we all know children need attention. This is very clear.
But they also need privacy and that sense of having little, little places to go in the natural world where they can make dens, because den making is a universal aspect of childhood and there’s a whole book about den making around the world. It’s very interesting. All kids do it. You don’t necessarily go to a den to do anything. It’s a place really where they’re making a cocoon for the psyche and it’s an absolute place of pure imagination.
Children do that, if they possibly can, in the natural world, in the scrubby little bits of nature that adults tend to ignore. That kind of thing, in a way it seems like a small thing, you know, kids making dens in the woods or in the bottom of the garden, but it’s very important because it’s also that those are the places where so many children learn a first intimate connection between themselves and the natural world.
That particular kind of hedge, those particular snails that they saw every day, that sense – obviously I’m talking of a British kind of landscape here – but that feeling of which birds that a child can see at particular times of the year. That sense of being really at home in the land on the land, even if that is the tiniest of places, because kids don’t need vast swathes of wilderness, but they do need access to something, and ideally something which is not too tidied up and not too possessed by adults.
The imagination thing to me is because I think that when children feel really protected and their time is not constrained, and they’re not under observation, that actually that sense of an imaginative liberation happens much more easily and also obviously to me that kind of imaginative liberation which is absolutely cocooned in the natural world gives children a deeper sense of the other lives that surround us, not just human.
When we live in a time where a lot of those scrubby places that you talked about are being built on and kids are being ferried around and start compiling their CVs from the age of 4, have less and less time for that kind of free play and what we’re talking about, what problems are we building up for ourselves in the future? When you have a generation that has that anaemia of those experiences, when they reach adulthood, how does it impact on the adults they become?
One of the most important things is that when children are taught that they will always be supplied with things, they will always be given things, that games and play is something that has to be bought for money, it’s partly the obvious capitalist ethos of that that is to me really distasteful in childhood, but it also teaches a child that there is a scarcity within them. That they are not able to provide their own imagination, to make the world otherwise.
If a child is basically given a twig and a pile of leaves, they can transform them into absolutely anything. That’s imaginative power. And it’s also a really important way for children to learn that they don’t have a scarcity within them, but they have a fullness of imagination, a sense of imaginative self-sufficiency that is profoundly able to disobey when necessary.
One of the whole things of children being taught to endlessly respect stupid little rules about you can’t go out there, you’re not allowed to do that, you have to ask permission to go into the garden, and that the public world is getting ever more severe about children being out of doors because of the perception of stranger danger – which is obviously a massive, massive fear, but it is so, so uncommon, and also all the statistics say that children are infinitely more at risk from family members and friends of the family than they are from strangers – but also the fear that is being inculcated into children and indeed parents that the natural world itself is scary.
It’s like, “You could get lost, you could get bitten, you could get eaten” whatever it is. But actually where children are more able to trust their own judgements, to trust themselves, and to trust their own ability to make natural places of imagination, they are more able then to question wider society as they get older about what exactly it is wider society is requiring of them and whether they are willing to sign up to it. Because a habit of obedience is inculcated and also a habit of disobedience can be learnt in that sense of independence in childhood.
If our education nurtured young people to the extent that they left school at 18 as imaginative as they could possibly be, with their curiosity, their imagination completely honed and razor sharp and ready to take on the world, what would the 14 years of education they had had before that point have looked like?
You’d have to start with the whole principle of forest schools. You’d have to start with the thing of time spent outdoors as a practice of profound empathy, which is one of the things that children playing outdoors learn, a sense of empathy with not just other people but other creatures. It would be something where values were overtly in the curriculum. Where a kind of sense of ecological responsibility was a given, was an absolute given.
I think it would also – to me, and this maybe one of my pet subjects – be that children wouldn’t be taught that foreign languages are foreign. They would be encouraged to see the relationships that so many languages have with each other and to see language as something which is almost like different shades between languages.
But in a way an education which is teaching children the fact – it’s not a political argument, it’s an absolute fact – that we are all connected. It’s such a cliché but it’s so true. But the ‘we’ is what I’d look at. It’s not just about person to person, it’s not just about the connections in that classroom with other kids, it’s about connections with people all over the world and it’s about – probably much more importantly now – it’s about a connection between us and every other form of life. Animal, plant, soil, and that sense that their responsibility is not to a capitalist wage earning society, their responsibility is to…
World of life, exactly. That their responsibility is to life.
You mentioned forest schools. In terms of educational models or schools or things that you’ve come across that you feel stand the best chance of producing young people like that, what comes to mind?
It probably is them in the sense that the movement of forest schools and the whole principle of Rabindranath Tagore and the outdoor Education and the Reggio Emilia system in Italy, that all of them have something very similar which is a sense of the absolutely necessity of looking at the truly wider community, and to do so in an ethical sense.
I’d also say that a lot of indigenous education, to me, even if it’s not directly in the process of a school, but so much of that is about the importance of what the world around you is, what it needs, what your relationship to it is, and what the ethics are. In the Amazon the traditional education there absolutely involves a kind of sense of resources. If you like what you can take, what you can’t take. What you can take a little of, what you must never take. What you can take but not from a certain protected area.
Rather than teaching children that they can be anything they want and they can do anything they want, and they can have anything that they want, which is all very well in terms of creating confident children who will be deeply disappointed later, but it’s all very well in the sense of building up an individual human – although as I said, it’s going to build children to be very disappointed later – but actually to create in children that they are part of a wider whole.
They are part of a community, so while their will matters, so does the will of the adults and the other children around them, and indeed, so does the will of other animals, other creatures, and the needs of a wilder world, so the imagination is an ecological imagination per se.
You mentioned at the beginning that you are a storyteller. I’m really fascinated by how as our imagination declines we become less able to think about the future in positive ways, in ways that aren’t dystopian visions of the future. One of the things we really need to cultivate is that ability to tell the stories about how the future turned out okay, what would it be like. I wondered what your sense was as a storyteller of any insights or thoughts on how best to enable and support people to be able to tell those stories about the future so we can counter the dystopias and counter the idea that it’s too late and we can’t do anything.
I find the future that we’re looking at to be so ghastly that trying to spray a bit of shiny hope on the top of it feels fake. There’s something about the very nature of future narratives that appears false if they are glossed into a deliberately hopeful telling, and unfortunately future-stories have a feeling of narrative truth if they are dystopian. That said, if anyone can find hope I am delighted. One thing that does give me hope is Extinction Rebellion, for its ferocity and audacity and its absolute commitment to speaking the truth about the situation we are in, and calling it the emergency that it is.
The question that I’ve asked everybody who I’ve spoken to has been if you had been elected as the Prime minister at the last election and you had run on a platform of ‘Make Britain Imaginative again’ – so you had felt that there was an overarching need to revitalise imagination, whether in education, in public life, in policy making, in the arts, across the board and you were swept to office on your ‘Make Britain Imaginative Again ticket’ – what might be some of the things you might do in your first 100 days in Downing Street?
Oh god, that’s surprisingly difficult. I would make jokes a compulsory part of the curriculum for kids. Telling them, making them up. I would also – it’s so much easier thinking about kids isn’t it – I would also want there to be a subject in schools – no exams – but a subject studied in schools called ‘Conversation with non-human beings’ so that children would be encouraged to do what they naturally do, which is start conversations with a cat or a woodlouse or a tree, but actually to really take that seriously and to ask what does this tree need, what does this whole woodland need? How could you think of a two way dialogue with the natural world which could be as core a part of the curriculum as jokes.
That was all my questions. Just whether you had any last thoughts about imagination that I haven’t asked you the right question and you were thinking, “Oh, I hope he’s going to ask me such and such so that I can say, such and such”. Just if you had any last thoughts or insights that you wanted to share.
Imagination is not just about expression – it’s not just art as it were – it’s also ethics. I could tell you about the Rules of the Tea Towel. Do you want to know about the Rules of the Tea Towel? What it is is that one of my beloved nephews gave me a tea towel that his favourite teacher, who’s actually his art teacher… Anyway, she had made it, and it was beautiful, but it was absolutely rubbish as a tea towel because it was one of those water resistant tea towels… You know the kind? They’re absolutely … it’s like glass paper.
But it’s the most lovely tea towel and it says, “Be kind, be honest, and do everything with love” and because it was actually very beautiful piece of art, I put it up with my garden shed where I sit with my pals in the summer. So we’ve called it the Rules of the Tea Towel, because in terms of ethical imagination, you really don’t need a lot more than that. Just be kind, be honest, do everything with love.