I spent a couple of days in Windsor, this week, telling stories at Cumberland Lodge, which is in the Great Park, which is basically the Queen’s back yard. Harry and Meghan drove their carriage through the park after the recent royal wedding.
Cumberland Lodge is also the fictitious home of Roald Dahl’s BFG – Big Friend Giant – he taught here in the 1970s and thought it would be a great setting for the BFG house – especially as he lived in a house called Cumberland Lodge in Cardiff, when he was young,
I was with the author Bali Rai and we took turns telling stories and explaining how reading builds empathy. While Bali told stories, I drew pictures of his – and my – audience. You can see the drawings towards the end of the video.
Why should we bother promoting empathy? Because we spend more and more time on our screens, playing games, living in alternative worlds, on our own, not interacting with others. It is beginning to show in children’s behaviour and relationships at school. It’s showing in politics and world events.
Reading a whole book helps you, for a while, to step into another person’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. You may not like that person or agree with their views, but you may gain an understanding of that person, and others like them, that will widen your understanding of the human world and how best to navigate your way through it.
I spent a wonderful 12 June at Netley Marsh CE Infant School, telling stories, and discussing the idea of empathy with some quite young children. They get it! We also discussed and explored body language and and how empathy can help us read others and their emotions, using illustration and emojis.
With all that in mind, I thought I’d share a most amazing book with you. I first came across it while wondering around the Maritime Museum in Hull. They have quite an exhibition relating to the whaling history of the town, which includes several, gruesome paintings of men butchering whales. The beautiful scenery is quite incongruous. Elegant tall-masted ships lay at anchor among ice floes and romantic mountain scenery, while their crews go about their bloody work.
One painting is of the Diana, the last whaler to sail from Hull. They crew caught only one walrus on their long voyage. Whaling had been a bonanza, but now the stocks were so depleted, whales had become almost impossible to find. In 1866, desperate to catch something before returning home, the crew missed their chance of escaping the ice before winter set in. The ship was icebound and at the mercy of the elements, tides and currents.
Among the displays at the museum is the diary of the late Charles Edward Smith, M.R.C.S., who was the surgeon on board the Diana. After many months, the ship broke free of the ice and make it’s way to Shetland, where half the crew had come from. Smith describes a being like a ghost ship with gaunt bodies returning home from the dead. The Diana continued on to be met with a massive welcome in Hull, where the crew had been assumed lost at sea.
Smith’s son, Charles Edward Smith Harris, edited the diary, turning it into the most thrilling book I think I’ve ever read.
Why a book for Empathy Day? I feared a gory description of whaling when I began reading. A fearsome tale of hardship and cruelty, of the sort we have come to expect from Victorian Gothic thrillers.
But no – it turned out to be a masterful description of the best of humanity under the most frightful conditions. Smith writes like a dream. Members of the crew leap off the page, fascinating characters who, though individuals, are also caring members of a band of brothers thrown together in adversity, sharing the same predicament. All accept their fate stoically, putting their lives and fortunes into the hands of God and the Captain, John Grevill.
The Captain is the most remarkable man – wise and gently caring of his crew, who follow him faithfully. Let down by other ships that could have helped the Diana escape the ice, his instincts and seamanship, get the boat home though many of the crew died along the way. He is the antithesis of the hard, cruel Victorian taskmasters we have come to expect of that period. Victorians were human too.
I happened to be walking round the dock in Lerwick on Shetland one evening and was drawn to a marble memorial in the middle of a car park. It was a memorial in “Memory of the Providential Return of the Steam Ship Diana.” It felt like a pilgrimage, that I had connected the dots of this fateful voyage, that I could spend a moment remembering the men of the S.S.Diana who set out one fine day, full of hope and adventure, who could have had no idea of what fate had in store for them.
Below is a video I made when I came across the memorial on my trip to Shetland.
I’m going to be inThe New Forest on Empathy Day, this 12th of June. So will Sue Hendra, author of the wonderful Supertato, that I have enjoyed reading with children before. We will be at Netley Marsh CE Infant School, talking about and encouraging the skill of empathy with the children there, using ur books, stories and drawing.
Empathy day has been championed by Empathy Lab who have been researching the effect that reading has on empathy. A book is like no other medium. Movies and TV show you. We watch as observers. Empathy is about getting inside another person and seeing the world through their eyes. Nothing does this quite as well as a book.
We create the pictures inside our heads as we read, slowly filling the shoes of the characters and viewing the world through their eyes. This is a deep, sustained form of empathy lat lets us experience this world, and others – from the point of view of people, animals creatures and inanimate objects we might never encounter in real life.
Building the skills of empathy allow us to see the world through the eyes of our nearest and dearest, our neighbours and our foes. This understanding is the base point of sympathy, compassion and, most importantly, understanding, which is the root of peaceful negotiation and agreement.
On Empathy Day itself, I’ll be blogging about a book – a diary – that made a terrific impression on me, allowing me to see beautifully drawn Victorian characters in an awful situation as real human beings. I’ve always thought of the Victorians as stuffy, stupid or cruel. Reading the book allowed me see and feel the humanity and share the trials and tribulations of the people involved.
So, I’ll be thinking a lot about empathy over the next couple of weeks and may well come back to the subject. If you could look outing through someone else’s eyes, who would that person be and why?