Do you look back over your life with a sense of progressing logically towards your present achievements? If so, you can probably regard yourself as successful. When I look back over my life what I see, on the contrary, is confusion, a collection of memories and experiences which seem to have little to do with each other. I’ve been ‘all over the place,’ and if there has been any success it has been from drawing together disparate strands, rather than from an ordered progress towards a goal.
My education, for example, lurched from failure to just passable to doctorate. I’ve worked as an engineering apprentice, as a teacher in various forms, as a civil servant in the Crown Estate Office and in Immigration, and as a counsellor, to mention only a few of my jobs. Politically I’ve campaigned for the Conservative, Liberal (and then Liberal Democrat) and the now defunct Socialist Alliance parties, and I’ve swung backwards and forwards from a moralistic to a more detached intellectual form of political activism. Emotionally I’ve also been all over the place, though somehow arriving at great happiness. Geographically I’ve literally been all over the place; apart from my many homes in Britain, I spent nine years in Saudi Arabia (and even there I had four different homes), and lived for shorter periods in Germany, France, Egypt, Japan, Israel and Austria. I was baptised an Anglican and brought up by parents who were, in their different ways, strongly religious, only to lose my faith at the age of seventeen. Nearly half a century on, however, I discovered Unitarianism, and am now not only a member of this church, but lead services every couple of months.
This chaos reflects, I believe, the confused boundaries of my upbringing. My father used to say that children need geographical stability. He said this well aware of his failure as father in this respect, and the consequent ill effects on his children. My first home was at Shrewsbury where my father was on the staff of the public school, and where we were part of a cohesive community. At the age of eight I was sent to another such community, albeit a much smaller one, a prep school run by my grandfather in a baronial castle in Northumberland. At the age of ten my father became the headmaster of this school, and so school became home. And then at the age of thirteen I was sent back to Shrewsbury as a boy, and so my old home became school.
Not content with this confusion, I added to it later in life myself by splitting up with my first wife, Angie. For years my unconscious mind refused to accept what my conscious mind knew, that it was over.
Sometimes it seems as if the only consistent thread in my life is the continuous attempt to create a consistent thread! When I left Shrewsbury I tried to cycle back to Northumberland with my brother Jeremy and my friend Robin Waters, though Jeremy and I gave up at Hellifield. Later I attempted to travel all the railways of Britain, or, if lines had closed down, to walk along their old track-beds. Linked to this was a fascination with maps. I researched and wrote a 1000-page family history, thinking that my roots would provide clarity. I walked across Britain linking the places with which I had some connection, including ancestral ones, to create the basis for a geographical autobiography which remains unwritten. Learning foreign languages, however badly, introduces a further complication in one’s personality, for each language represents a different view of the world. My walk from London to Cairo linking the countries where they speak the languages I had studied (French, German and Arabic) was an attempt to resolve this issue. It was, moreover, supposed to be the basis for another book which also remains unwritten. In the nineties I organised a reunion of my college year, and on 7th July 2012 I arranged a much bigger ‘Remembering Hillbrow‘ event of the school my father, and before him my maternal grandfather, ran almost continuously from 1922 to 1962.
For many years I wrote a diary, and am trying to reacquire the habit, with the thought that this would bring at least the unity of a single narrative to my confused experience of the world.
And then it occurred to me that diaries could be supplemented by other forms of documentation, letters, school reports, the railway notebooks referred to, records of employment and so on. Gradually I developed a personal archive which, in 1995, following a crisis in my personal life and fearing I might lose it, I donated to Mass Observation.
But once a collector, always a collector, and another personal archive has arisen centred around the documents I inherited from my parents when they died. And last, though not least, my study of psychology, followed by my work as a counsellor was undoubtedly in part an attempt to bring order into the confusion of my own mental life.
Music, Railways and Walking
An old school comrade whom I hadn’t seen for fifty-six years wrote to me that on re-meeting me at the 2012 Remembering Hillbrow reunion I was instantly recognisable to him, both in appearance and manner. So evidently there’s something about me which is consistent. And when I think about it there are some obvious persistent threads. Classical music, especially the work of Bach and Schubert, has had a huge influence on the way I view the world. I wrote in my diary in 1973, after a mini-crisis in my life: ‘And so I went home and listened to some Bach.’ Music was and remains my rudder through the choppy seas of existence. It is music which made atheism unacceptable to me, and eventually brought me back to religion. Walking, whether along old railways lines, from John O’Groats to Lands Ends, from Watford to Cairo, or from the North Laine to Moulsecoomb within Brighton to visit my son, has remained an abiding passion. And lastly I’ve never lost my love of railways and especially of steam engines. The ostentatious power of these great monsters filled, and still fills, me with wonder and provides a role-model when I’m feeling weak. It’s interesting that I came to view power as the key understanding human behaviour.
Despite these consistent threads, the urge to create a narrative out of my life remains strong. This website is my latest attempt to bring order to confusion, but in such a way that it links to previous attempts, and particularly to the F Clark-Lowes Small Collection at Mass Observation (MO) and to my own Home Archive. Taken together, the website and the archives form an unusual kind of autobiography, though the first is intended to stand alone in its own right. Wherever possible, reference will be made to the archives. The MO collection has at present twenty boxes open the public by appointment. I’m afraid my personal archive is not open to the public. The Hillbrow School papers will eventually go to Warwickshire Country Record Office, and it is possible my other papers will, after I’ve cast off this mortal coil, find a public home as well.
As its name suggests, a website is about a host of connections, the IT equivalent of footnotes and indexing, but all accessible at the mere click of a link and without having to remember the alphabet! This site bristles with such links, some of them internal, that is to other parts of this site, others external, that is to other sites. In this way I hope at last to have found a way of drawing the strands of my life together.