Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947
Chapter Fourteen — The Abbey
while james wished for war in China, more and more I feared it in Europe, and longed for some alternative to war. I had read about Gandhi's work in South Africa and India and his use of non-violent methods; I had read R. B. Gregg's book The Power of Non-Violence, which proposed the general application of such methods and argued their effectiveness; I had read Aldous Huxley's pamphlet What Are We Going To Do About It? These convinced me that pacifism was right, and with sufficient determination might be successful, and that it must be tried.
When Canon Dick Sheppard started his Peace Pledge Union, which renounced the use of war as an instrument of national policy, and invited people to sign the pledge, I felt I must do so, although I had always shrunk from aligning myself with causes and parties. I went to a meeting in north-west London of men who had signed the pledge and were considering what they must do next, and joined a small committee. Either it did not meet or I did not attend very often; I found it hard to foresee how we should or could behave as pacifists in the hypothetical situation we tried to imagine. We seemed to be both unreally isolated and uncomfortably exposed; I had no sense either of a directing force of ideas or of the influence of any magnetic personality working through or upon our polite earnest forlorn small group. In any case the desperateness which had driven me to sign the pledge was not going to continue to operate in such a way as to keep me for long an active member of a group.
Great Missenden was easy to reach from London, either by train or by Green Line bus. It lay in one of the loveliest parts of the page 268Chilterns, in an open gentle valley among fields and woods. I began to walk the country round, usually with friends — with Elespie, with Reggie, Ida Lawson, Joy, Fred Page, Colin, Rosemary and Hal; by roads, lanes, field paths, up and down across country, until I came to know the district and its variety of landscape, architecture, history, so much packed into a small area, from Grim's Ditch and the Icknield Way to Cymbeline's Mount and Hughenden and Chequers. But if I had not strayed from the road between Great and Little Missenden I should have found enough to feast my senses.
Beech-woods seem peculiarly English, expressing the reserve and decorum of the English character. Their finely moulded trunks form a 'natural sculpture in cathedral cavern', all coolly tempered strength, grace, wisdom; whatever has taken place or may yet take place in these airy arcades leaves behind no untidy trace, offers no sign beforehand. I always expected to see or feel some strange presence among the beeches of the Wittenham Clumps on a small hilltop across the Thames from Dorchester, where witches celebrated and danced on Midsummer Eve until the end of the eighteenth century; but their immaculate calm shade was as if shriven by time, all quiet openness without the least expectancy. The red southern beech, nearly related to the European beech, forms such very different forests in New Zealand. Its trees grow far taller, their trunks quite straight, often not branching for fifty or sixty feet, but rough-barked, blackened with lichens, which softens their outlines; and overhead the small green leaves, half in sunlight, and on many levels, form a hazy greenish sea of indeterminate depth in which the arms of the trees appear to be floating.
That summer, besides Wordsworth, and Tagore's Sadhana, to which I was to return more than once until it ceased to stimulate me, I was reading chiefly L. H. Myers, The Root and the Flower, whose people accompanied me everywhere as I followed them with growing excitement, alive in my world as I lived in theirs. Only The Immoralist made any similar impression on me then (and no other book by Gide has touched me nearly, except his wonderfully vivid Travels in the Congo).page 269
I met in Great Missenden a number of people who might have formed the cast of a novel, one of whom became for a time a good friend. I think her first name was Joan, but she was known to everyone as Chalker, Miss Chalker who kept a small cafe at Tapping House in the High Street, doing her own cooking and baking and serving excellent meals as well as afternoon tea. She knew a variety of people, the well-settled and the vagrant.
Some of the former kind, with a few of the latter too, centred round Owen Mase and his wife, who lived in a bungalow in a quiet valley near Great Missenden. He was a b.b.c. music man, interested too in poetry and broadcasting, so that if I had been enterprising I might have done something for myself through him. At his home I met Edmund Rubbra, who with his wife and children was living the simple life somewhere in the district and writing music, some of which he played; outwardly they were dull plain simple-lifers (she managed to look a picture of the poor bedraggled squaw), and I was too uneducated musically to find common ground with him. He was not yet a well-known accepted composer, so that I found him too among the younger more vagrant friends of Chalker's, writers, sculptors and other men and girls, all living in cottages or huts fairly near. Two of the sculptors were pupils or apprentices at Eric Gill's workshop at Piggotts', Speen, where he and his family and his daughters' families formed a sizeable colony, having moved some years earlier from the Black Mountains. One sculptor, Donald Potter, also frequented the school next door to us during the school year, a short young man with dark thick hair growing low down his forehead and a sudden jarring runaway laugh; but what he and his friend talked about was the Gill ménage at Piggotts' and the habits and exploits of its strangely named company, Petra, Rene, Gordian. Lel of course had to miss all this, since she was too ill to go out.
While we were still at Great Missenden, Grandfather had sailed for New Zealand. He was unhappy at leaving while Lel's condition was still so doubtful, although Emily would be remaining for a few months longer. He had been busy buying for Otago Museum, his interests as various as ever, his vigour unflagging.page 270
On one of our last days together we went to see two new pictures at the National Gallery, a portrait of an old man by Rembrandt, and Rubens's Helena Fourment.
I was much taken with the Hindu view of the four stages of man's life, soldier, householder, statesman, sage. On this view, Grandfather had reached the fourth stage and might be expected to have withdrawn from active life. But here he was, still in the midst of affairs of all kinds, a busy participant in life. He brought to it some of the detachment, or the longer views, of old age; he reflected on it more than most men, or more consciously and articulately, especially through his reading of the classics. But — a sage? No, I could not think of him as that. It was not now part of the western way of life for an old man to detach himself to that degree, laying aside all worldly affairs and interests and family ties. It had been, partly, in the days when at least a few old men and women were able to retire from the world by entering a monastery. But that was no longer done. On Lel's twenty-fifth birthday, 17 September, a grey still day, Dora and I saw him aboard the Rangitiki at the Royal Albert Dock.
We said a number of similar goodbyes about that time. It was a pleasure to find a few people who wanted positively to return to New Zealand. Dorothy Davies was hopeful about living and making music there. Eve Poison, after seeing and absorbing all she could in England and Europe, wanted to go home and paint; we had talked a lot about painting in New Zealand, about differences in light and air between New Zealand and Europe. Fred Page, like Dorothy, wanted to make music. He and Eve were going to get married and live at Governor's Bay, on Lyttelton Harbour. They urged me to follow them, and I wanted to do so even though I dreaded leaving England. But could I live in New Zealand? Could their friendship support the weight I would inevitably place upon it? I had grown very fond of them. But — unless I did not yet know them well enough — they had no sense of the world's guilt, and was it possible to live among people without that? Fred wondered, not for quite the same reason, whether I would last long in New Zealand; he gave me six months.
Emily and Elespie left at last to return to New Zealand. Esmond, Mary and I saw them off one damp muggy evening page 271from Liverpool Street. With them went another stay of my nearly vanished supports. For the moment however Lel was in a fairly even, uneventful state, coming downstairs some days, with a day-nurse we both liked who was sharp with her when she seemed hysterical. I went for a few days to stay with Chalker at Great Missenden, to walk and refresh myself.
On my first afternoon, while I stood talking to Chalker in her kitchen before going out, a tall upright middle-aged woman and a young man came in for tea, and stopped to speak to her for a moment before going upstairs. Chalker introduced us, but I barely caught the names, which meant nothing to me. Later, I learnt they were the principal of the school next to our cottage of the summer before, and one of her staff. As soon as Chalker had taken up their tea the principal, Mrs Lister-Kaye, said to her, 'Who was that man? Tell him I want him on my staff.'
Chalker explained that the school was one for problem children, and that Mrs Lister-Kaye had difficulty in finding suitable teachers. I was invited to talk it over with her and two teachers who were leaving. We dined at the Plough at Speen, a pub that gave excellent not expensive dinners and was run by Ramsay MacDonald's daughter Ishbel. Mrs Lister-Kaye left most of the talking to her teachers, a young married couple with whom she seemed to be on terms of close friendship, Michael and Beryl Bancroft. They made the school and the children sound of fascinating interest — altogether unconventional, and the work not too exacting. Mrs Lister-Kaye's abrupt challenge was one I could not ignore. I liked the proposal; it would get me out of the house, where I was neither bound nor free, while it was near enough to allow me to go up to town easily. I wondered how long I could stand communal life, for the staff lived at the Abbey, and whether one would get any rest there. Perhaps I might try it the following term.
The March snow vanished, spring was appearing everywhere, as when you look into an apparently unlit sky and all at once begin to see faint stars. I tramped the Heath constantly, alone and with friends — with Colin and Jack, Ian and other friends page 272when they came up to town, with James Courage, Fred Page, Joy, Leonie Zuntz. At the end of the month, Rosemary and Hal got married and went to live at South Hill Park, a short walk away across the lower Heath. Colin and I usually made for Ken Wood. The world of Ken Wood was as near and as far away as that of the Russian ballet; the changes of nature and season made the one alive, the beauty and vigour of the dancers the other — especially, for me, Massine in Tricorne, inimitably lithe, springy, quick as a rifle-shot, his calves and buttocks stuffed taut as sausages. At that time however I was beginning to see Indian dancing.
Joy and I first saw a company at the Savoy, then Uday Shankar brought his troupe to the Gaiety. Later I saw Ram Gopal too, and went to all the Indian dancing I could hear of. This was dancing of an entirely different order. Russian ballet is the creation of an elegant court, it crystallizes the brilliance of court life at its most inventive — refined, sophisticated, witty, sometimes simplified and tender, always self-conscious, self-critical and intellectual, the work of a segregated and protected elite in which one could not but smell a heady hothouse air. Indian dancing shows court life too, and village life, and the imagined life of deities, and the intermingling of all three. But it did not seem to be in origin the creation of a court. It was much older than courts. It had formed part of general rural life, had developed with it, had been refined later in cities and at courts and had then taken on different styles in different parts of the huge country. It seemed never to have lost touch with village life, the life of the fields and the seasons, with the legends embodied in poetry, and with the processes of the universe as these are incorporated in the action of gods on earth and in the heavens above. No other form of art I knew exercised a more powerful spell.
The power and powerlessness of art — its power to transform inward life without apparently touching the life of the outer world — this troubled me constantly. One must want, as an artist, to transform the world both within and without, to create an ideal beauty which would redeem ugliness and evil. Ugliness and evil are with us always and can never be either forgotten or forgiven, will never cease to eat into us; at the same time the artist has to do what he exists to do, continuing to work at his art as page 273if they did not exist; that is the only way in which he, as an artist, can affect their power.
People who are very ill, in a crisis of illness or as permanent invalids, find themselves at the outer edge of society, if only because they are unable to share its life, although they draw upon it for help. Some of course do their best to remain in touch, feeling both how illness isolates them and how entirely they depend on the services of those who are well and the general life of society. Lel now was sometimes lost in her own pain and weakness, yet whenever well enough she looked with pleasure at all that was going on round her, entering into it as far as she was able.
was to go to Little Missenden Abbey in May. When Emily reached Florence, she wrote urging me to join her and Elespie for a short stay, if it was possible for me to leave Lel. It was, I thought. Lel was in a state of uneventful calm, although we believed the calm deceptive; I could return home very quickly if need be. Leaving Victoria on the night of Rosemary's wedding, I crossed from Newhaven to Dieppe and took a train from the Gare de Lyon early next morning.
I had not travelled that route by day before; usually we had left Paris for Rome in the evening. Then I always woke in the middle of the night to find the train resting at a place I had never heard of, Laroche-Migennes, the big engines breathing heavily like great draught horses amidst clouds of steam that billowed up white in the glowing headlamps. All round was darkness. The train was silent, its passengers asleep. Sometimes it was the stillness that woke me, after the motion of the travelling train. Sometimes it was the voice of a station official calling the mysterious name 'Laroche-Migennes!' as if it were a summons or a dreadful admonition, and I woke a second or two after he had called, with the name echoing in my mind. The world had vanished, or had dwindled to this one unchanging enigmatic scene, the great clouds of steam, the powerful hissing and breathing of the huge becalmed engines. Now I found a prosaic Laroche by daylight, but a country sunny and warm and coloured richly page 274— brown earth, warm-whites and greys and blues, colours of the sun, not of rain and mist. It was a hazy day, hazier still in the mountains, at the Lake of Bourget, and before Modane we were in snow, thick snow at Bardonecchia, white air, white sky. Whiteness penetrated the carriage windows, the cold was purging, purifying, I passed as if through a bath that cleansed soul and sight, and so made new, flowed into Italy.
Emily, Elespie and Aunt Agnes were staying at a hotel on the Lungarno, between the Ponte Vecchio and the Ponte Santa Trinità; fittingly, it seemed, my room looked behind onto the Piazza del Limbo. Italy made all of us more alive, keener to do and see. Spring had come, my first Florentine spring, with thin snow still on the Prato Magno. Chestnuts were in vivid green leaf, the fruit blossom was out, wistaria and judas trees and lilac were flowering, the Amo flowed a thick greenish brown, swollen and swirling after rain; on its green bank beyond the Ponte alle Grazie yellow spurge was half out. In the clear mild night candles burned, a wavering red, in the campanile of Santo Spirito across the river.
One day I walked in the Cascine, where the 'Ode to the West Wind' had come to Shelley in autumn, and sat on the river bank under a silver poplar which was almost as pale as air and hung with white fluffy catkins; elms and oaks displayed the Chinese calligraphy of their fresh crinkled leaves. The town was crowded, not only with foreign tourists, but with Alpini, soldiers trained for mountain fighting, notices about whom were plastered on walls everywhere. Our favourite one pronounced, 'The Alps have not made the Alpini, but the Alpini have made the Alps. Mussolini.'
Nature is more dramatic and brilliant in Italy than in the north, as the Italians are a more dramatic people than the English. Italian art too is dramatic, and I was swept once again into the heady flood of Florence, churches, galleries, palaces, streets and gardens, all of them seeming more vivid because themselves gathered up into the great flood of spring.
Aunt Agnes did not go with us to La Verna, which she had seen before. As independent as always, she set off on a long journey to Rome by way of Ascoli Piceno, a hill town above the Adriatic in a fine situation with good buildings of the late Middle page 275Ages, which she had long wanted to visit. Emily, Elespie and I continued down the Casentino to Arezzo, to see Piero's frescoes again. And there we said goodbye; they turned south, and I started back to London, taking a few days en route to see Bologna and the towns of the Po valley, hungry for all I could absorb. Would I ever set foot in Italy again?
I came home to no comfort. Lel's condition had changed very little. She was no better; but because she was not much worse, she seemed to be trying to believe that she was in fact improving. But by now I had unexpected support. I had begun to live and teach at the Abbey. It was the first paid job I had had: I could call myself a school-teacher. This in itself, in my own eyes, gave me a place in society and allowed me to justify my existence. Yet it was as nothing compared with what the Abbey soon came to mean to me.
I had to teach the top class of seven or eight. All girls — or was there one boy among them? The children had to attend lessons, unless specially excused; they had also to come to meals; and they were not allowed outside the large school grounds without permission. Otherwise the school had no rules, only customs, which changed with the children and the staff but were well settled in tone; Mrs Lister-Kaye believed hers was the freest school in England, excepting A. S. Neill's Summerhill.
The children were there because they had proved difficult in one way or other; some were sent by county education committees, some by their parents, in both cases on the advice of psychologists, psychiatrists, or psychoanalysts (I was never clear how these terms were used). Some had been rebellious, some had run away, some stole, because their parents were very poor or because they had been denied love and security, some had got into trouble with boys, or used bad language, or been violent, some were simply a nuisance to parents who did not want them; one was the daughter of a Leicester miner who had been injured and was on the dole. They had in common that they had not obeyed the conventions of other schools or of their families, for page 276which they had been judged guilty or otherwise condemned by those schools or families.
At the Abbey no child was held guilty and none was judged, because nobody there sat in authority over them. The staff were expected to treat the children as equals, to treat all alike, and to show neither surprise nor disapproval at anything a child did or said. They had no power to compel, they must persuade by winning the children's trust and respect; and the children treated the staff as equals, calling them by their Christian names. Difficulties were to be referred to the principal — to Lissie, as everyone called her. She had no more sanctions than her staff, and no authority other than her own personality — the fact that the children loved and trusted her implicitly and wanted to remain at the Abbey. For nearly all of them the Abbey was the home they had never known, a community of trust and love in which for the first time they felt valued in their own right and so felt secure. It Was the Abbey, the community, that 'cured' the child.
There were usually between twenty and thirty children at the Abbey, of all ages from four upwards. Vernon, aged four, was a strong-willed intelligent child whose sporting mother had no use for him — 'Give me dogs', she said; he had been violent to compel the love he had never found; at the Abbey he broke windows once or twice, but was generally little trouble because everyone was fond of him. The eldest children were girls in their last year or two of school; there happened to be no boys of that age just then. Most of the children were normally intelligent and responsible because at the Abbey their needs were recognized and they could be themselves. Lissie encouraged the children to draw and paint, because it helped to free them and their work helped her to understand them. Not long after my arrival a painter friend of hers, John Crockett, came to work at the Abbey. He was not to teach the children, but to let them work with him while he was working.
Excited by his presence and example, they poured out work, usually in poster paint or water-colour on large sheets of paper. It was work entirely their own, showing no influence of John's, expressing their state of mind rather than representing anything in the visible world, each child's immediately recognizable once page 277one had seen a few examples. The most striking work was that of Ann, a girl of about fifteen, hated by her parents while they lived and granted a few short years of happiness at the Abbey with nothing to look forward to afterwards. Both her parents had committed suicide, as well as one or two or her father's brothers; what hope for her could there be, when her uncle and aunt intended her for a life of domestic drudgery? She had lanky straight black hair and mottled pale-and-red skin, she bit her finger-nails nervously, spoke jerkily, broke into short gales of jerky laughter and generally looked a little comically puzzled, wryly apprehensive. In one of her paintings the devil tempts Adam and Eve, who are shown inside God. Other paintings of hers showed sinuous underwater creatures in surging motion intense in colour, vigorous and free, beautiful; but not adult work. The children discussed all the work with excitement and followed each other's development closely; the best pictures were hung up round the school. From the time of John's arrival painting became a regular school activity, although a less exciting one after he left. Before the year was out Ann and Lettsie had been accepted at Westminster School of Art, which gave us all a tremendous sense of fulfilment; Mark Gertler was enthusiastic about Ann's work, no matter that she was a little under age. For Lissie, it was virtually the first encouragement and sign of achievement she had had in ten years.
There was one other teacher new like myself, Mark, who taught mostly the younger children; he had gone up to St Edmund Hall a year before me and was a professional schoolteacher. To start with Lissie gave us instructions and left us alone to acclimatize ourselves. That was not so easy — it might succeed or not; if you were lucky, you found one day that for no obvious reason you were simply accepted as part of the Abbey. Mealtimes brought everyone together, the central moments of the day. Lissie did not appear until lunch-time at 12.30, and only sometimes for the evening meal. The staff had a small table to themselves at one end of the dining-room, which looked south onto the big lawn and the lake and trees beyond: Lissie, Mark and I, the Matron, the secretary Mrs Harling, who also took the kindergarten, a small red-faced woman with round black-rimmed glasses and a shock of indignant hair prematurely white; page 278with these there were generally one or two other people, besides visitors.
When I arrived there were a teacher from the term before staying on for a little (a Buchmanite who was guided in all he did), and Bill, an American of about eighteen, very tall and stooping a little, with large prominent teeth, living at the Abbey I forget why. At my second or third midday meal Bill suddenly lent towards me, towering across the table, and putting his face close to mine demanded, hissing with intensity, giving each word equal weight until the final one which he almost shouted — 'Can-you-tell-me-the-name-of-a-woman-who-lived-with-cats?' The whole dining-room seemed to stop dead in shocked silence. Bill waited, poised, not abating the fierce gaze with which he held me. At last, when he saw there was going to be no answer, he sat back in somehow deflated triumph and with the utmost scorn pronounced, 'Mrs Katz, of course!
Classes occupied the morning; after lunch the staff drank coffee in Lissie's room upstairs; on three days a week there was an hour of music at 2 o'clock (percussion band, part singing); for the rest of the day one was free. At first, and for some time, I was going to town every day or two to see Lel and attend to all the matters her illness brought up, and often not getting back to the Abbey until midnight. It was a wonderful relief from all that pain and anxiety and the fevered pressure of London to get out of the train at Great Missenden and walk through the cool dewy still night home — for the Abbey very soon became my present home. Within ten days I felt safe there, in some strange way; I was fast losing all dis-ease with Lissie, who gave me confidence and seemed admirably reasonable, undogmatic, honest, an almost humble psychologist. She had already begun to trust me.
The Abbey was an antithesis of the world, but also its mirror. The world used it; it was trying — impossibly, inevitably — to reform the world. One day one of the girls happened to say to Lissie that I was grown up, but that Mark was one of them — that is, a problem. He was very good with them, easy and natural, and they took to him at once and quickly grew fond of him, but as a brother or friend, not a father; I was always a father, which Lissie expected her men teachers to be. Mark and I also got on page 279well, he was musical and attractive, and looked charming when he wore his huntsman's green corduroy shorts with shirt to match and we went walking with the children. But why he was here without his wife and two small children was rather puzzling. Very soon he told Lissie that he was expecting a summons to trial on a criminal charge, for forging a cheque; he expected a prison sentence; and his wife was tired of him. The Abbey from the start had attracted problem teachers no less than problem children; Lissie took that as a matter of course, although it complicated her life greatly.
Mark showed few outward signs of being in trouble, but I began to notice them as soon as Lissie told me. He got sudden cravings for food, especially after dinner in the evening, when we had to go to the pub and with a glass or two of beer he devoured quantities of bread and cheese or sandwiches, ravenous as if he had not eaten for days. He played the piano obsessively at times. He remarked that he had a complex about walls. But he was still good with the children, and when Matron was out late endlessly understanding and patient with one small defective boy who could not always be persuaded to go to bed. When Mark seemed calm, we guessed he was repressing his fears desperately. But he said he forgot for a day or two at a time; the summons had been hanging over him for about two months. He told me too that he would be able to sleep soundly the night before he committed murder, and the night after, and the night before he was to be hanged. At first Lissie wondered if the whole thing was fantasy. But no. Mark had to go to town to collect his summons. With his agreement, because he recognized the need for it, Lissie had him put under a psychologist, who gave her a disquieting report, and was to prepare another one for the court. But the magistrate 'took a grave view of the case' and sentenced Mark to six months imprisonment.
All this we had to keep from the children. If parents learned that the Abbey employed such dubious teachers, the school would not survive. Yet it was often or usually such men who felt most at home at the Abbey, proved to be the most skilled resourceful teachers, and did most to help the children. Mark had gone home openly for the week-end to see his wife and children in Devon. On the Monday came a pre-arranged tele-page 280gram sent by his solicitor to say he was ill and could not return at present; next day, after we had learned of the sentence, Lissie told the children of his illness, and in the evening let them know that probably he would not be able to return that term. They were upset and restless, almost desolate; he was 'our Mark', he was lovable, entertaining, had been a good teacher and a calming influence. The girl who might have been most upset was not more so than the rest. She and Mark had each told Lissie shortly before his trial that they were in love. Lissie had taken it as a matter of course. In Mark's case it was largely a question of his need for sympathy. In Sybil's, it was likely that her affections would be easily transferable.
Sybil had come to the Abbey when Mark and I came or not long before. Her rather slovenly English had a trace of foreign pronunciation and was not always quite idiomatic — she had lived in both England and France, one of her parents being French. She was at the Abbey because she had run away from home in France and lived with a boy in a cave for six weeks; she was about sixteen and she was not pregnant, otherwise Lissie did not seem very hopeful that she could be helped. I was to do all I could for her, and Lissie felt there was no danger of my falling in love with her. Sybil had dark hair and a palely sallow skin and might have passed for a gipsy. She generally looked unkempt and unwashed; her clothes, mostly dark, might have been slept in for weeks, and she used make-up and smoked when she could; I expected her to smell. She had an attractive warmth and charm of sorts and when she wanted to could be engaging in a cat-like lazy way. She did her best to attract me and I did my best to be kind and friendly and detached. She had a shrewd magpie intelligence, no interests, little or no moral sense, and made a vague show of being artistic, because that was the thing at the Abbey.
The children were free to come into the staff's rooms on invitation. I had a big white sunny room, with windows to the ground, french doors opening onto the lawn, a white Indian hearth-rug and a minimum of furniture. No doors were locked; we did not have to barricade ourselves in and defend our property by main force like the staff at Summerhill, where only Neill's study was (so illogically) sacrosanct, and where life sounded page 281decidedly nasty and brutish and far from short. Whatever the undoubted virtues of that school and its methods it looked a battlefield when I visited it not long after. One day that Sybil had not appeared at lunch I went into my room afterwards to find her lying full-length on my bed, her nose to a vase of roses on a small table at its head. I asked coldly why she had not been at lunch. She answered in an affected low voice, casting cow eyes up at me soulfully, 'I had the roses, Charles.' I snorted in disgust and left the room abruptly.
Sybil was an actress, who dramatized constantly to get the attention she craved. She did not miss Mark for long. She was a little different from the other girls because of her history, and being half French. She wanted to be a little different, and was tiresomely successful. To arouse greater interest, she began to talk of suicide, seeing herself lying beautiful in a long white dress in a dark coffin, candles burning round, the girls and the staff gazing at her in wonder and pity that she was so young and lovely and had been so strong-minded, and full of remorse that they had not appreciated her; now they would never forget her. She spoke of throwing herself under a train; thundering expresses on the London-Rugby line ran through a cutting up the hillside just beyond the school grounds. To put an end to these fantasies, Lissie talked to her one day and at last asked if she knew what would happen supposing she did throw herself under a train. Well, Lissie would ring the police and tell them to take away that mess on the railway line and have it buried quietly, the girls would be told that Sybil had been stupid enough to throw herself under a train, they would think what a fool she was and not feel the least sorry for her, and in two or three days she would be almost forgotten and no one would talk about her again. Sybil soon dropped suicide, her usual cheerfulness unaffected. It worked. Lissie was right. Sybil was not in the usual sense a problem child.
Two of the girls had been virtually outcasts or waifs. Lissie had adopted Mary from the streets a few years before. When still, Mary stood or sat broodingly, statuesque, but she moved with such supple grace she might have been a ballet dancer. Her long pale colourless face and hair that hung heavily round it, large liquid eyes and a beautifully expressive mouth gave her an page 282ageless look; her low voice seemed to mould sentences caressingly as she spoke them, and she sang vibrantly. A powerful nature, who would give herself passionately, blindly; the sense of the tragic I felt in her would not necessarily lead to tragedy, but deepened and strengthened her feelings and attachments. She would change little, it seemed, until she was old. It was for her sake that the young sculptor Donald Potter, Gill's pupil, used to visit the Abbey; they married only a few years later, and went to live in Wiltshire when he became art master at Bryanston School.
Mary and Hazel were especially good with the young children. Hazel, whatever trouble she had had, was an open-hearted, kind girl whom everyone liked, always active and hopeful and trustworthy. She became a nurse and a hospital matron, then married and had a large family. She and Mary and Lettsie more than any others set the tone of the school, because they were the most stable of the older girls and had been there longest. Lettsie was large, pretty, vivacious and immensely attractive; she had been well enough brought up in a comfortable home, and a little spoiled, by a mother who was very like her and a father who kept a hotel; her only trouble was that boys flocked to her as bees to honey. At times she fell into low moods of nerveless gloom, the antithesis of her usual capable outward-looking gaiety. She seemed destined to have a life of many love affairs and so it turned out; but before she was old in a fit of melancholy she killed herself. Hazel then generously adopted her children.
Connie came to the Abbey when I did, from a dull family with little affection to give her. For writing a defiant bad word on a school blackboard she was judged difficult and consigned to the Abbey; a lucky chance, because she had never been so happy before. A handsome dark-haired pink-cheeked girl with good regular features, she was as stable as can be, but did not often show so much vitality and enterprise as when she scrawled on the blackboard. When she gave friendship or love she gave in devotion, unswerving. She was the only girl preparing to sit the final school examination, so that I worked with her more than with anyone else and we became good friends, friends for life. She passed the exam, the Abbey's one educational success at that time. Later her husband too became a friend of mine, the painter Maurice Sochachewsky.page 283
These girls and a few others were all from about fifteen to seventeen. There were eight of them in one of the two classes which Mark and I took; they were quick-minded and receptive. The other class consisted of only three girls and one boy, who were slow and had to be occupied rather than taught. For both, methods of teaching had already been worked out. But we were free to experiment, provided that with the first class we covered the required ground and prepared the children to sit the school-leaving exam if they wished. One subject I had to teach was biology, of which I was ignorant. The best I could do in the circumstances was to keep a chapter or two ahead of the class in the good text-book they used. This did not make me a biologist, but it related to ideas and instances which Alfredo talked about. In English and history I was more at home. I thought I had understood English grammar when taught it at Waitaki, but now I had to master it for myself, from Nesfield, which I did with interest and even enjoyment; I hoped that my interest was reaching the children. In history, as well as working on special subjects, I talked about the general themes which Toynbee presents in his Study of History. The children had little knowledge to test his ideas against, because their schooling had been broken, although intellectually they were well able to follow him and make their own judgements. Lissie had no objection to my discussing Toynbee. If I interested them in the subject and so encouraged them to think and work she would be satisfied.
In the circumstances, Lissie turned naturally to her teaching staff, those who were at all stable and dependable. She did not lean on them; she was strong enough to stand alone; but still she needed their ready co-operation in dealing with the children, wanted to give them her confidence, hoped for their companionship and friendship. She soon told me something of her life. She was married very young to an army officer of good family like her own, and had gone out to India with him. Being strong-minded and independent, she soon revolted against the conventions which he and his way of life tried to impose on her. She left him, and returned to England with their small son. It must have been a very drastic step in Anglo-Indian and indeed English society in Edwardian times. Her son died quite young; she was broken-hearted, and despaired of living.page 284
In that state, she was lucky enough to go to the psychoanalyst H. Crichton-Miller, to whom she felt she largely owed her subsequent life. Through him, she and a friend became matrons of a big children's home. She found she had an intuitive understanding of children, and decided that to work with children, especially disturbed ones, was her vocation. Later, with Crichton-Miller's backing and that of other psychoanalysts, she started a school of her own for difficult children; she moved to the Abbey in February 1935. The school always existed precariously. It was probably a little small to be able to pay; but Lissie was not a good manager — I think she had no patience for detail. Also the County Education Committee, which paid for at least half the children at the school, were always very late in paying. On the other side the staff's salaries were paid promptly and regularly. Lissie must have had a little money of her own to enable her to survive — little enough though. She spent next to nothing on herself; cigarettes were her only necessity, an occasional bottle of sherry, a few books. She dressed well, with natural good taste; she looked elegant, but her clothes were not new. She was tall, with very straight back and head held high, her light brown hair, which grew rather low on her forehead, cut short and brushed back freely — it showed hardly a streak of grey although she was just fifty. A rather masculine figure, evidently; but it was her independence that chiefly struck one. Her face expressed a combination of suffering, pride, energy and reserve, good humour and apprehensiveness, as nervous as a thoroughbred and as high-spirited; she tossed her head as if to shake herself free of constrictions, conventions.
She herself did not teach, but spent the morning dealing with school affairs, and appeared first at lunch-time. Before long it became the custom that after lunch we spent the rest of the day with her in her room, talking about the children and their problems and everything else under the sun. I was often away for the afternoon and evening, but I hastened back to her room as the centre of school life and indeed of my own. She drew us all because she set us free, once we knew her. Our instinctive reserves, or rather the reserves we had built up in self-defence in a critical or unfriendly world, these fell away. Lissie accepted everything one told her, as we were to accept the children and page 285what they said to us. This meant discovering oneself, bringing to light much that one usually concealed. Lissie's own talk, about the children and their difficulties, about her experience, about psychological theories of all kinds, about the views and practice of psychoanalysts, their histories (because she knew a number of them personally), their books; general talk with visitors and friends, hers and ours, about psychology, society, politics, the arts, books — all this combined to set one's thoughts free in extraordinary fashion, to lead one from discovery to discovery.
Before long, I began to feel that I had learned more about myself and the world in a short time at the Abbey than in the whole of my life hitherto. I was seeing people and the world in a new light, seeing beyond or through the surface of appearances, interpreting people's talk and actions in terms of their unacknowledged, often unconscious or only half-conscious, motives and intentions. This was to extend, externalize and objectify the assumptions that we all instinctively make about other people's behaviour; and it seemed to lay bare a vast complex network, as of nerves beneath the skin, which determined the course of human affairs. It was as if I had been given an open sesame to expose the hidden springs of life. All at once I Wanted to tell my friends that I understood them as never before, that I saw why they acted as they did, that their nature and my own were not as clear as we had always assumed them to be.
Lissie was less interested in psychological theories and systems than in their application. Although not a medical doctor, she was in effect a doctor of souls; it was the cure of children which was her genius and her life. Crichton-Miller, from whom she had learned most, was (she told us) a Jungian, but one who applied Jung's views with some freedom. She herself read Jung, Freud, Adler, Stekel, Prinzhorn and many other writers and learned from them, but remained a pragmatist, feeling bound to none; she knew herself and her methods, knew they worked, and was confirmed in her self-reliance by the support of a number of professional psychoanalysts.
She did not want me to read books on the subject, not unless I wished to. In fact I read a good deal of Jung and Freud and others in the next few years; they would have meant relatively little to me had I not read them in those circumstances. This led page 286me to think that it was almost immaterial what school of thought the psychoanalyst belonged to, and that any given patient could be cured or substantially helped equally well by a Freudian, Jungian, Adlerian, etc., given only the analyst's intuitive feeling for the patient. Ferenczi's remark seemed to sum up this view: 'It is the physician's love which heals the patient.'* I should myself have resisted strongly any proposal to subject my mind to another's in that way. If I was a poet, I had to make something of myself in my own way, or not at all; no one else could enter into my imagination and manipulate it for me. Lissie I think appreciated that. In general she saw no need that her staff be analysed. She felt able to keep them on the right line through her understanding of them, with a little help and prompting at times; their talk soon showed her what was required, and they were usually responsive and suggestible, as I was. It surprised me to hear about that time that one of my most practical, down-to-earth friends had subjected himself to a short course of psychoanalysis with a famous analyst (Stekel I think), and professed to have benefited from it. This was Geoffrey Cox, one of the last persons I should have thought in need of any such help.
Two of my friends seemed to be in real need — to be so tossed about by their own nature that one feared either for their sanity or for their ability to live — to ride out the dangerous demanding world. One of these was the painter John Crockett, who was about eighteen and an art student at Goldsmith's College. He was in violent revolt against his family's military tradition; his father was a regular army officer, his brother was destined for the army, and so had he been. But he refused, and by good fortune he was allowed to go to Goldsmith's, while he lived with a community of Anglican priests, who were kind to him and to whom he became attached. He declared himself a communist; his paintings were full of caricatures of capitalists, priests and soldiers, stock figures of the time. He drew well, if rather too neatly and schematically; some of his abstracts and groups of figures seemed full of promise. But he was so possessed by waves of inarticulate rage against the world in general and page 287especially his own upbringing that he seemed like those figures in the Gospels who fall to the ground incapable, foaming at the mouth, before Jesus drives the devil out of them.
John was at heart a gentle and tender creature with a marked Franciscan strain of love for all creation, when he could allow this to express itself. He was extremely tall, about six foot four, thin but strongly built, with a well-made head and rather heavy cheeks, large practical hands. He was capable in many ways, as actor, dancer, choreographer, designer, producer. But how was he to find an outlet for his energy and talent? He believed he was a painter first of all, which success at Goldsmith's seemed to support; to live as a painter was however impossible.
Soon after I began teaching at the Abbey, friends came to visit me there. One of the first was Robert Maddox. He had not long since got a job at the Wellcome Museum, and he was still going to the psychologist Graham Howe; he thought Howe was helping him, but he looked pale, very strained and ill. At once he seemed to feel at home at the Abbey. Lissie was as fascinated by Robert as I was; she thought him almost a genius, and very close to madness.
When the children put on an entertainment, we invited as many friends as we could, to encourage them. One July evening they performed songs and sketches, a skit on the Abbey, and Shaw's Inca of Perusalem, which I produced for them; then there was dancing; and when the children went to bed, the rest of us talked for hours in Lissie's room. I had invited Leonie that week-end, Robert had brought Bill Goodwin and Bill's sister Nanine; John brought an elegant Cambridge friend, Charles Reed, who was to become an art critic; there were Michael Bancroft and two New Zealanders, friends of Ian's from Canterbury, Eric and Freda Cook, rather dryly doctrinaire radicals who were having a hard struggle to live by doing left-wing political work. Another frequent visitor was the Auckland painter Douglas Glass, who was gradually giving up painting for photography and was to become well-known for his photographs reproduced in the Sunday Times; a short hard-bitten man with a square black beard rather unsuccessful in his love-affairs, as he told Lissie at length; she had always to be a bit careful about the girls when he was there, because they enjoyed his lively talk, page 288as we all did, and if he could he would take one of them without a qualm. She warned him however, and Would have refused to have him ever again if he offended. Another man who began to visit the Abbey was a friend of James's from Peking, Francis Hsu, who had come to England to study anthropology. He talked very easily, thought quickly in argument, and everyone liked him. He was sympathetic to communism although not a communist; he thought China might well turn communist and that it would be good if that happened.
It was extraordinarily fortunate that Robert in his extreme need was able to unfold at the Abbey. He continued to come even while Lissie went away on her summer holiday. She was going motoring through Denmark and Sweden as far as Finland with the young lover whom she told Robert and me about openly but guardedly; she never allowed him to come to the Abbey. Besides John, Mrs Harling, the Matron and I, only Mary, Sybil and two other girls remained during the holidays — as well as the three Bats, batty ones, defective children whom Lissie kept only because their parents paid heavy fees which helped to keep the school going. She kept them very reluctantly, it being no part of her intention to take incurable subnormal children, and she did not think it very good for the older girls who helped to look after them, although they were harmless and seldom gave trouble. I continued to go to town as usual to see Lel, who was now clearly improving, against all seeming probability; she began to get up daily. I visited Mark at Exeter jail; he was doing well, had not grown embittered, said that prisoners were well-treated, that they had a good library and got a little news; and he had a glimpse of green from his cell window.
We talked about art endlessly, both Lissie and Robert being fascinated by the work which Herbert Read was championing in his book Art Now and elsewhere. We discussed the London shows. I was greatly moved, indeed overwhelmed, by Epstein's Consummatum Est, which to Lissie did not come off; later his Lazarus and the Madonna and Child in Cavendish Square seemed to me finer still. Robert could not share Lissie's strange pride that all the best people are neurotics and be proud to be one; his neurosis was far too painful for that, and terribly shameful to him. His dreams of murder and madness, and of seeing him-page 289self as a ghost, frightened Lissie because they pointed again and again to suicide, and she was afraid for him. He was amazed at, for example, Douglas Glass's self-assurance and knowledge of what he wanted to do, for he himself revolved round his own self-distrust, as if destroying himself with questioning, identifying with himself all the doubts, weaknesses and wickedness of other people. Lissie believed he frightened the girls too because they felt him to be so near madness; that is why they did not much like him, as Lettsie, expressing the general opinion, told Lissie.
Only one psychoanalyst regularly visited the Abbey, the elderly Dr Hutchinson, who came every two months to see the children she had sent there. She was a plain unpretentious woman in whom I think I should have felt considerable trust. She had never married, but had adopted two children, whose difficulties drove her nearly to breakdown. At one time she even seemed to be going blind, so she subjected herself to fresh analysis, in the course of which it emerged that her blindness was symbolical in origin, in that she had refused to admit to herself an essential part of the truth about one of her children; and the blindness at once disappeared and her eyesight was as good as before. She like Crichton-Miller disapproved strongly of Howe and his methods and was angry that he called himself a medical psychologist; his treatment of Robert seemed indeed extraordinary — he had encouraged Robert to go to a common fortune-teller, who told him he was a weak character, and homosexual, and artistic; and there Howe left it, while Robert's constant fear of being taken for homosexual was reinforced.
Lissie's large white room above mine looked over the wide lawn with tennis courts beyond, the lake, and beside it a narrow wood which bordered the boundary wall to the left, northeastward; south and west beyond the lawn, fields with trees sloped uphill to the deep cutting in which the railway line ran. 'Little Missenden Abbey' seemed a misnomer, because it lay half-way between Great and Little Missenden, and three-quarters of a mile from the Abbey proper, Great Missenden Abbey, an old house in a park on the other side of the main road. That I did not penetrate, page 290but local legend said that an underground passage ran from it to Little Missenden Abbey. Lissie did not allow anyone to investigate the supposed entrance to the passage. The children, and her friends, had enough private undergrounds to contend with. Little Missenden Abbey was an almost modern building, perhaps forty or fifty years old; a large white simple dignified house of two storeys and some picturesque attics, with wide bay-windows; the gatehouse at the back, on the north side, through which you approached the main entrance, was a little more pretentious in banker's Tudor style. It was half overgrown with Virginia creeper which in September turned crimson and scarlet and gold and flame-red and flame-green.
Lissie's room was the nerve-centre and listening-post of the school. In summer, we might use all of it, sitting near the window, only careful not to seem to be paying attention to the children on the lawn below; they must not be made self-conscious, while they had to recognize that Lissie and the staff had lives of their own. The room was sparely furnished, with large low square chairs with broad flat arms, huge ugly clumsy pieces very hard to shift about and too deep for comfort, dens rather than chairs — you always wanted to curl your legs up and squat in them; one of the crude expensive fashions of the time, but at least they had faded chintz covers which suited the room. The walls were panelled in white wood, the mantelpiece was of white wood; it was a reassuringly restful room.
At the Abbey, crises never failed. A child fell and got concussion. Another began breaking windows. Another ran wild, and tore through the house flushed, hoarse, screaming with laughter; she infected some of the small ones with her wildness and lavatory talk and started them screaming too and shouting nonsense. Someone was stealing money. A girl was found to be going to a nearby farm, enticed by the farmer. A disturbed child left alone briefly threw clothes onto a fire and caused a small conflagration. The Matron, after being careless and neglectful in some ways for a long time, and being told off at last, gave notice. Lazy dirty servants broke or cracked in less than one term all the crockery bought when they arrived, and had to be given notice. When Mark came back after six months, he was in a pretty disturbed state, and soon began exciting and stimulating the page 291girls, rousing jealousies among them by his favouritism, taking liberties with them, and because they were fond of him and trusted him it seemed very likely that he would soon seduce one of them. He had to go; but still Lissie felt responsible and was obliged to make provision for him.
We clung to life, clung to the very edge of life, to the small circle of warmth and light which Lissie's fire precariously gave. The realm of freedom and light seemed to be dwindling round us as darkness and repression spread through the world. Nazi Germany was plainly growing stronger and more defiant while England and France, nominally opposed to it and in fact greatly alarmed by its open preparation for war, remained passively defensive and seemed to retreat before every advance it made. The British Government was mesmerized by the threat of Hitler, and yet often seemed to be in secret collusion with the Nazis. Its trickery in managing to oppose sanctions against Mussolini when he invaded Abyssinia was followed by its virtual capitulation to German and Italian blackmail in the Spanish civil war. English opinion was split over that war as over no other cause since 1914 at least.
The Spanish war became almost an English domestic cause. If Franco, supported by Hitler and Mussolini, defeated the Republic, what hope was there for liberal democracy in England? British liberals and radicals identified themselves with the Spanish Republic. Many went voluntarily to fight in Spain, others visited Spain to see the war for themselves, among them the poets W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender. Spender's direct and moving poems, which appeared in various journals, confronted us with the intimate human tragedy of the war. Auden's poem 'Spain' came out as a pamphlet in May 1937 just as I went to the Abbey. This is a rhetorical statement combining imaginative sweep in Auden's most individual manner with an immediate application which is inescapable; it included also what I could only think an element of mythology or make-believe which seriously weakened the imaginative truthfulness of the poem — I mean especially the preposterous line 'The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder', to which the only possible rejoinder seemed E. M. Forster's: 'If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should page 292have the guts to betray my country.' (It was many years before I saw through that sham antithesis.) But I too felt how crucial it was for us that the Republic should survive, so that I followed the course of the war with trepidation; and responded to Auden's poem, and to Spender's too, like a leaf to the wind.
But it did not occur to me even to think of going to Spain myself. Instinctively I shunned war and everything to do with it; I was not a practical man, I was timid and cowardly, and I had no wish to die, for however good a cause. Underneath all my overt allegiances I felt obscurely what I could never consciously acknowledge, that it was my business to survive, to live through the horror of the time, and still if possible make something of my life and of any gifts I might prove to possess.
Lissie wanted to be a communist, but was put off by the dogmatism and intolerance of communists as well as by doubts about communist methods. Reading Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China seemed to allay her uncertainties, as it strengthened my sympathies, for the Chinese communists at least; for a long time I had in mind a poem about their long march, perhaps rather in the manner of Perse's 'Anabasis' which T. S. Eliot had translated. James's first book, Crisis in China, came out from Macmillan's and reinforced Snow's thesis, all the more when he wrote to Jack in September that he was about to join the Chinese communist armies as a newspaper correspondent. Lissie expected to become a communist, if only to try it. She remarked to me one day that she had lived every minute of her life, which I saw in her face when it wore at times an expression almost unbearably tragic. The Abbey would never have come into being if Lissie's marriage had been a happy one, and if her child had lived.
Very slowly Lel improved all through the summer. In October at last her wound had healed, the surgeon said she could leave the nursing home, and advised her going to Eastbourne to get all the sun and good air possible and prepare herself for the voyage to New Zealand. The excellent nurse who had been looking after her very fortunately agreed to go with her to Eastbourne, and stay with her until she was ready to sail.
Eastbourne got every kind of weather, winds, storm, sun; south-page 293west gales beat the brown and white waves against the front. We had rooms on the top floor of a hotel, where we might almost have been at sea; the wind at night made the noise of a ship's shrouds, the waves rolled in below. On sunny warm days we were able to walk about and even sit on the front and watch plump gulls bobbing up and down on the small waves. Trawlers or tramp steamers sometimes almost lined the horizon. Although Lel was so much better physically she was still very nervous and easily upset; some trivial enough incident might send her into a fit of hysterical weeping, sudden unaccountable pains frightened and depressed her and she feared to be left alone. Early in December she and her nurse moved up to town and stayed at the Welbeck Hotel, off Wigmore Street where Grandfather and others of the family once used to stay; it was quiet, conveniently situated, and not far from the de Beers in Sussex Place. In a few weeks we were to sail for New Zealand. For that I had been preparing myself. But I was going because of Lel, not with any clear purpose of my own.
* See poem 'Fabled City of Agape' in 'Night Cries, Wakari Hospital', Home Ground