A few days ago I heard myself making the rather rash statement that if I had done anything right as a parent umpteen years ago it was to help create the conditions for my children to be able to choose to be open-minded. I wonder if they’d accept that they were offered such a choice… Whether they took it up or not and how they dealt with it is way outside my sphere of influence now.
From my perspective the two of them who have children of their own certainly seem to have passed on at least something of whatever they might have learned from me.
Whatever the truth of the matter, however things turned out, what I know for sure is that by the time the first-born appeared I had imbibed the teachings of Homer Lane and ASNeill and was determined to bring my kids up as ‘free children’. It’s not up to me to say whether I was successful or not; I have only my perspective to go on.
You can go back down your time-line and figure out how you come to be the kind of person you are. What were the things that influenced you to be the way you are? What somatic markers did you put in place, day by day, month by month, year by year? Your objectivity will depend on how willing you are to be open to all factors. Openness is part of what it is to be mentally free.
So, how come, just in the nick of time, did I arrive at the idea that I wanted to offer my children the conditions for them to be able to choose to be ‘free’ in the ASNeill sense? My own parents had no such ideals—it was for me to begin with just an inert set of ideals—so I did not learn the methodology from them; in fact, my mother who was left with the task of bringing me up between 1941/2 and 1946 tried so hard to contain what I suppose now was my deviation from her norm. By the age of ten I must have seemed ‘odd’ because I overheard my mother’s mother offering her what was supposed to be the comforting prophecy that “…by the time he’s thirty he’ll have grown out of it…” Twenty years passed and then another forty and I’m still ‘marching to the sound of a different drum’, as Thoreau put it. Oddity became normality without any effort on my part.
So how did I come to a belief in open-mindedness? What brought me to a belief-system that valued free-thinking and a desire vaguely to pass it on down the generations?
As I have argued elsewhere (WordPress: ‘Accidental Living’ 10th February 2012), like everything else in my life as I understand it, the belief arrived by accident. Two years after I was born the last clearly defined great bout of reciprocal destruction started and my father was just of an age to be recruited as cannon fodder. One morning in 1941/2 I waved him goodbye and shouted after him, “See you this evening!” as I had been used to doing, this time half-knowing that I wouldn’t because he was off to Huddersfield and India where the Japanese were causing upset in Burma, somehow in cahoots with Mister Hitler. “See you this evening!” was an early example of one of my attempts to be jocular— in somewhat bad taste considering my mother was standing by my side. As it happened, ‘India’—the concept—became what I think of as referring to the brief period when my father probably fashioned a unique reality for himself; later on whenever he talked about his experiences my mother, jealous that something real had clearly happened to him in ‘India’, would flounce out of the room. I picked this up.
Anyway, his absence and my mother’s pre-occupation with my sick sister meant that I was constantly left to my own devices; readers familiar with the Enneagram of Personality will recognise this set of circumstances as being likely to result in a proclivity towards Fixation 4. I was by accident a ‘free child’. I spent long hours poking around in the beautiful suburban garden my father had created between 1936 and 1939 by when the apple and pear trees were well-established, the crazy-paving paths well-trodden. I was a simple unwordy student of ants & bees, plant-shapes, the life of the pond, newts & frogs, sky and clouds. Opportunities to ‘poke around’ formed a somatic marker inside me.
My mother’s mother worked in a very successful postmans’ café in Greencoat Row, off Victoria Street, in London; regularly visiting the place with my mother, at the age of six I was left free to wander round London on my own, mostly on foot I think. It was either the case that I was trusted to do this for myself, or it came from a belief that I would be all right on my own, or it was a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’; I do not know what it was but it helped me to acquire the feeling that I was trusted, that I was somehow ‘special’ for being able to make such long expeditions off my own bat. Another somatic marker: ‘I can do’…
I was never conscious of any ‘rules’; I was given the space to do my own thing. I really don’t think that this was the result of parental policy: it was more a matter of wanting me to be ‘out of the way’. But I was by no means neglected—‘home’ was a profound idea for me, representing security; it has always been, and still is, the case that ‘home’ is where I come back to after making long journeys. I think perhaps my mother just didn’t want to have to think about me. So I was on my own most of the time, busy inside my own sense of Being, making patterns of things for myself.
In her nineties, my mother would say, in a mixture of pride and absolution, “I don’t know where he gets it from—it’s not me and it certainly wasn’t his father…” where ‘it’ stands for my generally odd purchase on life as she saw it. I quoted this in the funeral oration I made for her after she’d arrived at the crematorium in the side-car of a funeral motorbike with me as pillion—a final gesture of oddity; my son did a reading at the ceremony wearing a flamboyantly colourful shirt. The funeral was my sister’s last outing in her electric wheelchair—she died twenty days later. But it had given her great joy that her mother had turned up to her funeral by motorbike. I’d always said jokingly to my old mum, “I’ll take you for a ride on my motorbike!” and so I did.
But she was wrong about my father’s influence on me! I did get rather powerful things from him after he returned, a stranger to me, having won the late scrap for democratic freedom in 1946. What did I acquire? His persistence in the face of difficulty; his application to making things with his hands; his creation of a garden. I used to watch him at work. Above all, maybe, I learned his ability to stand outside events, to look at the world from an ironical distance, letting it all pass him by as remote watcher/observer.
Now I feel that the world is passing me by! And it doesn’t really bother me since what I like to think of as my intellectual life, inviolable, is where my ‘reality’ resides. ‘We live as we dream—alone…’ (Joseph Conrad)
So I had the space to be my very own self, to poke around wherever I felt inclined to do so without rules and a growing habit of standing on the outside of things to notice what was going on. I can think of countless occasions when these things conspired to create in me the idea that I could always construct things in whatever way I wanted, to suit my self. I was the rule-maker; in the absence of rules I learned to concoct my own fairly rubbery ones. Rubbery rules… Later on this must have warmed me up to receive Blake’s ‘I must create my own system or be enslaved by somebody else’s’ into my Being.
I remember—about 5—trying to follow some instructions in a magazine for napkin-folding—somebody else’s system which, when it became impossible for me to make sense of, I dismissed impatiently (something else I learned how to do from my father…). I never follow instructions even now: computer manuals seem useless, self-assembly kits are for the self to assemble, but not by following instructions. As a matter of habit, I get stuck into things and figure out how they work for myself. Poking around rules! OK!
I have a DIY mentality. The way I fit things together is often pretty wayward and I’m only too willing to set about making adjustments after the event. I rely heavily on the feedback I get in many different contexts to determine the ‘next step’. In coaching, in musical composition, in building projects, and so on.
As a result, I think, of the long-term DIY mentality, I took to the idea of systemic thinking when it became a strong feature of Ian McDermott’s NLP training in the mid-1990’s like a duck to water; it was as though it was a model that captured the nature of all my processes since the year dot.
They all led me—my processes—to suppose that I could do anything I wanted to: write poetry, novels, do watercolours, compose music, all by just following my nose. The principle was YOU JUST HAVE TO DO IT. For too long I had learned that thinking about wanting to do something was counter-productive—you just have to throw yourself into something to make it happen. It did take me thirty years to really get a grasp of this though.
By 13 or 14 I was doing long solo bicycle rides; I would think nothing of doing 125 miles a day down to the South Coast of England and back. Down the old A24 along the coast and back up the A29.
I had learned to take many risks but baulked at the risk involved in talking to other people; I was described as ‘shy’—but by the time I was 18 and doing so-called National Service as a sergeant-instructor in the Education Corps I was somehow fully capable of standing before 100 raw recruits and holding forth on subjects such as map-reading and military history (about which I knew nothing till it came to having to teach it!) I learned that I could turn my hand to anything I chose… I do not know how I made this transition but perhaps I was never ‘shy’ at all.
Around the same time, a key book in my omnivorous reading life was ANWhitehead’s Adventures of Ideas. It was the notion that ideas existed to give you adventures that formed a powerful somatic marker for me; you can pick an idea up and run with it wherever you like, wherever it will take you. Ideas are so exciting. It has never been otherwise for me. It will never be otherwise and there’s much more to come.
I have just read, for instance, for the first time, an incredible novel by André Gide, The Immoralist. It takes its place with all the other great novels in my Being: The Lost Domain (Alain-Fournier), Moby Dick (Hermann Melville), Nausea (Sartre), The Italian Girl (Iris Murdoch), The Purple Land (WHHudson), After London (Richard Jefferies), on and on. At the end of The Immoralist I was bowled over by the sentence: ‘It seems to me sometimes that my real life has not begun…’ On the one hand this can seem like a gesture of despair and loss; on the other hand it creates the condition for always being ready and open for the next thing.
By the time of the first-born in 1963, all this had become the pattern of my Being. It had seemed quite natural to be drawn into the movement rooting for nuclear disarmament and then to follow Gandhi into total non-violence and, as an unintended result of my brief army career, pacifism. I think it was from somebody I met during those years that I learned of ASNeill; there emerged a consistent pattern and that was that.
When I got early retirement from wage slavery in 1992, I determined to get my musical compositions played. They have been, not at the Proms (yet) but as far afield as Romania and America.
When I decided that there was not much point in trying to get anything I wrote properly published I invented my own way of making paperback books. The books I make for other people sell under the Hub Editions imprint.
There are lessons to be learned here somewhere, somehow. The current drive to reduce education to the ticking of boxes will not produce free children or ones open to new ideas. It requires a certain something otherwise.
I have come to rely on this approach to life—the one summed up so beautifully in Gurdjieff’s account of what his grandmother told him on her deathbed: “Eldest of my grandsons! Listen and always remember my strict injunction to you. In life never do as others do… Either do nothing—just go to school—or do something nobody else does…”
And, while I’m at it, the length of this piece of writing is the result of Gurdjieff’s advice: ‘If you go on a spree, then go the whole hog, including the postage…’