A CRUCIAL INTERVENTION
Posted 8 months ago by John
I am old enough to have taught pupils who now have grown up children of their own. Sometimes, I pass one of these ghost-children, nod a greeting and remember, “Once, when you were twelve, you wrote a vivid little poem about a weasel.” Or, “Once, when you were fourteen, you wrote a love poem, seemingly filled with such longing, it caught the back of my throat.” Often, I have little idea whether the pupils continued to write secretly or to enact their imaginations in other ways, but I possess this filigree of significant knowledge about them and it moves me.
I recall, in the English classroom, one term for creative writing was 'imaginative writing' and, before self-consciousness kicked in, we could all do it. For, there are times in life when the imagination is not in doubt, nor the importance and pleasure of stimulating it. When we watch a small child, for example, delight in colour, texture and sound, we see an imagination using its senses to explore and to extend its world.
When I am presenting my book about J. M. Barrie's childhood in Dumfries, Sixteen String Jack and the Garden of Adventure, illustrated by Ian Andrew, as a prelude I show two pictures that tell us important things about the imagination. The first picture is of a nineteenth century 'shoe doll', a child's doll formed from the sole and heel of a shoe. The second is Picasso's sculpture, 'Bull', made out of a bicycle saddle (head) and a pair of handlebars (horns). Children see that the first object, made by someone who was very poor, and the second, made by the most successful artist of last century, are united through the vision of the imagination.
The psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, in The Beast in the Nursery, instances two kinds of learning. In the first, the child learns competence through imitation – it would fit any rote learning model. In the second stage, “Each student, consciously and unconsciously makes something of their own out of it all.” This is the value of a creative education; one which engages the imagination. But creativity stands a far more likely chance of success if there is someone there who can make a meaningful intervention; who can say, “Yes, this poem about a weasel is of value,” or who can show how, with a nudge here or there, a love poem will become more itself; or say, “Yes, this shoe can become a beloved doll.”
What part might Moat Brae have in all of this? It has three vital elements to offer. It offers a place that has a proven stimulus on the imagination. The garden stretches gently from the back of the house, in unpredictable gradations, to the river. In the garden, the imagination is enacted through play, as it once was - more frequently – in other gardens, fields and, in my Edinburgh of the 1950s, patches of waste ground.
The second element is heritage. Whoever comes to Moat Brae, to greater or lesser degree, inherits its past. The past is the imaginative richness of what became Peter Pan, but also of the stories J. M. Barrie and his friends drew on – Coral Island and the tale of Sixteen String Jack himself. But memory is Janus-faced: we look to the past to imagine the future. In Moat Brae, imitation will give way to invention.
The third element is that of the possibility of the crucial intervention. An informed awareness of the house might catch a historical imagination at its earliest inception. The knowledge that a world-shaping imagination flourished in a garden that is open to you might lead you to conclude that genius can happen anywhere. Conversation and exchange with elders and storytellers might enlarge imaginative sympathy by showing that we are united by the common experiences of childhood and play. And the imagination enlivened can be enacted in word, story, music or image. Yes, imagination is inside us all, but it can be stultified; it can lack stimulus and the opportunity to find creative expression. That is why settings where both the imagination and creativity may flourish are so important. Let's call such places Hot Spots. Let's ensure Moat Brae will be one of them.