These portraits are memories, not fiction, and not
Memory is fallible and inadequate, but as the sole survivor of a
community which seems to me significant and characteristic of its time I must
use whatever store I have to tell its story.
The first time I saw Fredrick Lohr he was
poised like a sea-captain confronting a mutinous crew from the deck of his
ship, voice pitched to cut through squalls. But he wasn't a sea-captain on the
bridge of a ship, he was on a platform in Hyde Park. It was a bright, blustery
day in 1941, not the most auspicious time to be asking prickly questions about
war, power, the conduct of governments, and the crisis in history, but that's
what he was doing.
It wasn't a harangue he was delivering but
something closer to an inquisition. He would pick on a particular heckler and
fix him with a penetrating gaze, leaning forward as if trying to pierce the
mask to reach the struggling infant inside. He would then submit the heckler's
words, attitudes and assumptions to mordant scrutiny. As a rule the heckler
reacted like a predator faced suddenly by a larger predator. He retreated
warily or in haste.
I don't remember how soon after this I got to
know Fredrick and learned his story, but this is it.
His father was a German who married an
Englishwoman and became a British citizen. In 1915 he joined the British Army.
As anti-German hysteria grew among civilians, the family suffered abuse from
neighbours. One day, when his father was on leave, a crowd gathered on the
stairs of the South London tenement, baying for blood. Fredrick's father came
out onto the landing in uniform and carrying a rifle. He threatened to blow the
head off the first person to take another step. No one did. Fredrick was five
or six years old at the time.
Lohr senior died in his forties and Fredrick
inherited a moribund garage business and no money. First through specialist
servicing and then through selling cars, he developed a thriving trade and
became a Lancia agent in London, spilling cash on hunting with hounds, motor
racing, and learning to fly an aeroplane. His favourite books were the novels
of R.S.Surtees, whose character Jorrocks rollicked through the shires with
huntsmen, trenchermen and bibbers.
Once, when in full flow, he noticed my wife
Gene in the crowd he paused, struck by inspiration. But instead of revealing an
immortal thought he told the joke from Surtees about the man at the inn who
asked what the weather was like outside. A fellow carouser pulled open the door
of a cupboard, peered in and reported 'Filthy dark and smells of cheese.' The
crowd received this news with respect and attention.
Fredrick married a capable, ambitious woman
who ran her own dress shop. They had a daughter who became an actress and
sometimes visited Fredrick, wearing an expression of tolerant detachment.
When, after ignoring reality for years, the
newspapers began to press alarm buttons about Hitler, crisis, and carry rumours
of war. Fredrick awoke to an odd thought. He had relatives in Germany. Were
they going to fight him? Did they want a war? He decided to find out.
What a crazy time to visit Germany, his wife
said. If Hitler wants a war, and the politicians can't avoid one, you can't
stop it. You're not attending properly to business now. Why waste time and
money on a trip which can bring no comfort and no solution?
They'll look at you like something the cat
But Fredrick went. His relatives were warmly
hospitable, and fed him rich cakes. No, they told him, they didn't want a war.
In any case, they said, there wouldn't be one. How could there be? Hitler was a
great man who admired the English, and loved peace.
Fredrick returned home bewildered. If people
in Britain didn't want war, and people in Germany didn't want war, what sort of
system was it that allowed war to happen? He didn't believe that Hitler was a
great man who wanted peace, but he didn't believe, either, that British
politicians were wise man who knew how to avoid war. He didn't believe that any
of them had the interests of their own people at heart, or had any real idea
how to control events. Perhaps nobody can ever control events?
there was something behind events, some secret which you could never reach. Was
it all our fault, or God's? Or was everything a tissue of accident, and man a
He talked to customers, friends, business
acquaintances, taximen, horse-trainers, shopkeepers, bankers, everybody. He
tormented people for information they didn't have, and for thoughts they had
never bothered to think. He read books on politics, economics, history and
social philosophy. The only writers who struck home were Kierkegard,
Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and the Russian thinker Berdyaev, who managed to be at
the same time a Christian and an anarchist.
Fredrick grew increasingly lonely and
agitated. He could not sleep. He went for walks at night through streets
populated only by cats, drunks and the homeless. He felt cut off from the world
he had known. It was no longer a real world, but a dream. He felt ignorant,
helpless, like a novice swimmer splashing in a rough sea.
He could not navigate through a single day
blown by a fair warm wind. He would start a conversation in one mood and end it
in another. He would swing in minutes from being talkative, forceful, decisive,
to being withdrawn, brooding and sunk in silence. His wife began to lose
One day, when pacing sombrely between tall
buildings which frowned over him like a threat, he was struck alive by a poster
demanding 'Why war?' Since this was the single question to which he most wanted
a practical answer, he strode into the placarded building and emerged fifteen
minutes later a member of the Peace Pledge Union, armed with a pamphlet and the
information that a PPU speaker held forth every Sunday afternoon in Hyde Park.
Fredrick went that Sunday to Speakers'
Corner. A well-known pacifist priest was stating his position with sober
confidence and Fredrick began to believe that perhaps he wasn't entirely alone
But when the priest finished, a young
idealist in corduroy trousers, with long hair and an expression of arrogant
timidity took his place. The crowd was immediately hostile. If they or their
brothers and sons would have to join the Army and get shot, why should this
weedy youth escape? Who was he to tell them what to do?
There were then - and probably still are -
ruthless and highly skilled hecklers whose hobby it was to harry and destroy
speakers in Hyde Park. Once they got a victim on the run they chased him down
with the concentration of a stoat after a rabbit. There was rich sport in
baiting a novice whose delivery was hesitant and whose arguments under pressure
became increasingly confused. The pack closed in for the kill. Every effort the
stricken speaker made to marshal his thoughts was greeted with ribaldry, one
heckler inciting another to feats of mocking abuse.
In a final effort to gain some sort of
control, the speaker raised his voice to what he hoped would be a commanding
bellow, and produced instead a despairing squeak. A gale of laughter blew him
away. He turned his back, fighting tears.
Fredrick took off, barging his way through
the crowd like a Rugby forward going for the line. He pulled the floundering
youth down from the platform and leapt up in his place, a six-foot sea- captain
looming above an astonishment of flushed faces.
He didn't have to find words, words found
him, and fired themselves at the crowd. He denounced them individually and
collectively for malice, ignorance and stupidity. Were they so afraid of the
opinions of a harmless youth that they had to attack him like wild dogs? Would
any of them have the courage to stand up and face a hostile mob in defence of
an unpopular cause. The boy was trying to confront real problems at a time of
crisis and all they could do was play cruel games in the nursery.
He began to describe the conflicts and
contradictions which plagued his own mind, and how the coming war tormented his
conscience. He challenged each member of the audience to face them too. Where
was the truth? What was to be done? As he spoke he realised with amazement that
he was saying what the authentic hidden Fredrick would have said if he had
known how, and that the crowd had fallen silent. It was as if he were suddenly
aware of the world, of everything around him, in a new way, alight with
meaning. He had a sensation of tingling vitality.
When he fell quiet the crowd waited in equal
quietness. A drunk, slow to pick up the change of mood, tried to raise a shout.
The surrounding charge of anger sent him shuffling off into exile.
Fredrick knew with the clarity of sunlight on
a startled lawn that he had found his vocation. This was why he was alive: to
discover the hidden currents that move people and events and share what he had
seen with those who would respond. There was no turning back.
From then on he spoke regularly in the Park
and at Lincoln's Inn Fields. He hired a room in Endsleigh Gardens for an indoor
gathering which became known as the London Forum, and kept up its work for
When the war began his business died. Who
wanted a Lancia when there was no petrol, no signposts, and nowhere to go? How
could you import them, anyway? How was he to earn a living? Fredrick wrote
later: 'Only in the utter acceptance of complete material insecurity can a
man remain faithful to his vision' - a dictum easier to explain to the
marines than to his wife.
Collections were made at his meetings; people
approached him at the Forum and offered him money. Whenever he lost faith,
economic difficulties followed; when faith revived, cash came in. This way of
life offended his wife's dignity and common sense. They lost friends and her
own business suffered. She left, taking their daughter.
It was not long after this that agents
provocateurs managed to incense the crowd to the point of fracas. Fredrick
found himself in court charged with breach of the peace. He served three months
in Wormwood Scrubs. His account of the experience concentrated entirely on the
ingenious efforts of fellow-prisoners to smuggle food to a man in solitary
By the time I met him, Fredrick had moved
from straight pacifism to the position of a thoroughgoing philosophical
anarchist. He published a booklet, 'The Philosophy of Freedom', in which he
wrote: 'Vocation must replace wage slavery, voluntary co-operation must
replace governmental coercion, and so security will supplant insecurity. We
must find again joy in activity. There is no other meaning in life. Man was
once bound to the social herd by force of necessity, language has freed his
personality from social compulsion. Now we must return by desire to a social
community of free people.' But how?
Although Fredrick's views changed drastically
as time passed, his sense of the necessity for freedom and vocation, and his
sense of the meaning of history were the fundamental issues for him until the
end of his life. In 1941 he wrote:
'All social issues narrow down to this
conflict between authority and liberty. . . No government, whether it be the
domination of one man over another, or of the State over the people, can
exercise authority if it has no power to enforce submission to its rule.
Therefore all authority in the final analysis proceeds from the threat of
violence.' He was calling for a society growing naturally from the simple
to the complex by the voluntary co-operation of free individuals.
His contacts with Spanish anarchist refugees
from the civil war in Spain, led him to believe that Spanish experience showed
this to be possible. But the influential anarcho-syndicalist movement in Spain
had been crushed by Franco, and never achieved equal strength anywhere else.
Fredrick became obsessed by a sense of the
inescapable loneliness of the human ego, which gave rise to all the
unanswerable questions in human life, and he was convinced that the desire for
power is itself the result of inner isolation.
His pilgrimage was an arduous one, and the
Forum changed as he changed, concentrating on methods of transcending the ego
to reach a state of objectivity and inner liberation, continually lost and
regained. Fredrick was not an obvious candidate for arrival at this state, but
it was his insatiable need to drive further that gave the Forum such intense
vitality for so long. It is notable that Fredrick?s concentration on Western
preoccupation with history made him indifferent to the meditation philosophies
of the East.
It must have been early in the war years that
Fredrick met the mysterious Brown - a perfect name for a man in the shadows.
Perhaps Brown sought him out after hearing him in the Park.
Brown's own story was remarkable. He joined
the Army in the First World War, and remained an unthinking and enduring
soldier on the Western Front until one day, entirely normal in its bleak
routine, he found himself sitting alone in the back of a truck carrying
supplies to a forward depot. I say 'found himself because that's precisely what
took place. One moment he was slumped in a state of weary torpor, the next he
was startlingly awake and aware of his surroundings. He took in with a sense of
revelation the blasted, desolate landscape with its blackened trees, shattered
buildings and muddy craters, the lorry crawling like a lost insect on the
rutted road. The whole area of madness, the enormous stagnant armies, the
deluded Generals imagining that they could control events, the vast
paraphernalia of war, and his own terrifying inner isolation from it all,
struck home with painful, stark intensity. He realised as if a blazing word had
been spoken that all these people were moving and planning and suffering in
their sleep, that he too had been asleep and was now awake. He jumped off the
back of the truck and out of participation in the war. Whatever happened, he
was now no longer under orders. How he escaped court-martial, and how he
survived the rest of the war I don't know, but here he was in London, in 1941,
still walking and still speaking in very few words only what he felt to be
necessary at the time.
I met Brown, a grizzled Scot, only once, and
learned how simple and infallible his method was. He would address to you a
pointed and definite statement, looking you coldly in the eye, and wait for
your response. If it was not satisfactory he would say 'Either you see it or
you don't', and if you didn't, he left. Each of us sees only what he is ready
to see; a phrase may be forgotten and years after it was said it comes alive in
the mind to reveal meaning.
In a letter of 1949 Fredrick took exception
to something I had written in an obituary article on Wilfred Ward Coupe (of
whom more later). He thought I had over-emphasised the influence Coupe had in
the London Forum, and on Fredrick himself. He set out to insist on his debt to
'I react resentfully against any
suggestion, however faint,' he wrote, 'that Coupe was the brains or the
ideological spearhead of the forum. This merit, if it is merit, belongs to
Brown, and Coupe's interest in the forum was due to something he recognised and
acknowledged in me and which I received from Brown and have tried to expound. .
Coupe's contribution was
scholarship, irony, a frame of reference. Fredrick's gradual movement away from
humanist anarchism towards religious belief and then to the Catholic Church was
not Brown's doing, and as a typical Coupian irony it was not Coupe's either.
Coupe was a practising Catholic, but advised Fredrick not to join the Church
because, he said, it would destroy his vocation.
My guess is that Brown's esoteric view of
history saw religious institutions as instruments for power and control rather
than for liberation and enlightenment. What then was his revelation? Since I
never heard him expound it, I can only suggest this, from secondary evidence:
that there is a hidden current in history which will only reveal itself to the
most penetrating and steady observation, and that this observation can only
take place when the ego has freed itself from continual identification with
doctrines and opinions which it has adopted for purposes of
self-aggrandisement, and for which it has no authentic inner justification.
Brown looked at events with a peculiar coldness of gaze, and saw an irrevocable
tendency towards greater centralisation and control. Those whose aim it is to
achieve world unity and to build man in a particular image (who are not the
politicians who delude themselves that they manipulate events) correspond to
Dostoevsky's view of the Grand Inquisitor, who saw his duty as protecting
ordinary human beings from reality by refusing them freedom. This explains
Fredrick's ongoing concern with that formidable apparition.
Speaking personally, I suspect that esoteric
explanations of historical development are highly suspect, and that life is a
great deal more complex than any rational explanation of it.
One regular attender at Fredrick's indoor
meetings was Molly Warner, the determined daughter of an Anglo-Irish clergyman,
who always remained precisely that, even when running a house frequented by
failed priests, seekers, anarchists, nihilists, neurotics, the miserable, the
frenetic, the desperate, the lonely, and the lost.
Molly looked like a Renaissance madonna,
douce, quiet and self-contained, but in fact she was deeply emotional, with a
steely will. When her mind was made up, nothing and no one could shake her
resolve. Once she had begun one of her rare discourses, interruption could not
turn her aside. She would simply repeat the mantra 'You see," and carry on
where she left off.
Fredrick gained in Molly his most dedicated
supporter and his most formidable opponent. After his divorce from his first
wife Fredrick and Molly were married.
In 1941 and 1942 I was a member of the
Friends' Ambulance Unit, which I had left University to join, and worked during
the day in the Receiving Room at Poplar Hospital, and in the evening at two
Docklands Air Raid Shelters, one at each end of the Silvertown Bridge, each
with a Boys' Club, one Catholic and one Anglican, both of which I was meant to
superintend. I did this with notable inefficiency, but enjoyed playing chess
with the Vicar. I never met the priest.
I moved then to work in the TB Ward at
Bethnal Green Hospital, an institution from which patients only emerged feet
first, moving from bed to bed as their condition worsened until they reached
Finally I was occupied during the day at the
Citizens' Advice Bureau in Whitechapel, my main job being to trace the
whereabouts of bombed families who were being sought by friends or relatives.
When found they had to consent to the information being revealed in case the
seekers were creditors or worse. Responsibilities included being asked to
rescue a beloved hat from a wardrobe perched on the second floor of a house
from which a bomb had removed the entire side-wall. The wardrobe was in a
distressed and drunken state. Since I was riding a bicycle back to base the
only place to carry the hat was on my head, and a passing policeman opened his
mouth to shout as I swept round the corner and vanished.
The Citizens' Advice Bureau was run by two
distinguished Communists, one who resembled a brisk and downright retired
Colonel, and one whose motherly benevolence calmed many a bewildered pensioner.
I gained for them both real affection and respect and they treated me with
While working in Whitechapel I was among FAU
members stationed at the London Hospital Students' Hostel. On several occasions
I brought anarchist speakers to this establishment - the saintly and
down-to-earth Matt Kavanagh, Bill Gape, organiser of the so-called Tramps'
Union, and Fredrick. Fredrick aroused more interest and debate than anyone
else. His integrity and total commitment produced the reaction, 'If this man
believes that. it must be worth considering.'
At one public meeting held, I think, in
Wigmore Hall, various left-wing mavericks did their best to inspire enthusiasm
for a new world beyond the war, and failed. Then Fredrick began pacing the
stage as if trying to contain the electric energy which burst out in sudden
spouts of words, something like this:
'Why are we here? What are we doing in the
middle of a war spouting rhetoric in a cold hall in a bombed city, when people
are killing each other all over the world? What's the war about? It's a war
between a murderous tyranny run by criminals and the complacent hypocrisy it's
got by the throat. What's the hidden evil behind this war and all wars? Power.
We're here to fight our own war against the delusions of power. People can seek
power in order to do good. But once power swallows them^all they work for is to
keep it. Why? '
'It's a craving. It's the Devil's trick.
The Devil tried it on Jesus. We've got to find a better way of organising so
that no one has enough power to do harm, and everyone has enough influence to
do good. '
'We're in a war, in darkness. We've got to
live in light. That's why we're here. Life can be a reign of terror, a
deception, a routine of dumb stupidity, a nightmare of loneliness. Or it can be
a rich and marvellous journey based on inner rules tested on your own
integrity. Where do they come from? From the seed we were born with. We know
what's true and what's false, we know what's right and what's wrong. When the
rules are lost, balance is lost, meaning is lost.?'
'I tell you this. Those rules are the
living delineations of beauty. We're here to break out of prison. We're here to
find out where we live, why we live, to discover the real world. Now! Wake up!
Freedom is real!'
After a moment of stunned silence there was a
storm of applause. Some sensational event seemed to have taken place but no one
could have told you what it was.
When the noise died down Herbert Read, the
anarchist poet, small, slight, neat and grey-haired, rose to his feet. 'What
we need,' he said, 'is grace.' And sat down again. No applause was
Late in 1942 I decided to leave the FAU and
go to work in the coal-mines. First, I wanted to get married, and for that
needed a regular wage, which the FAU couldn't provide. Second, there was a
prolonged pause in the bombing of London, and I no longer felt useful. Third, I
wanted to find out whether the syndicalism preached by Spanish anarchists was
possible in Britain. Who better to tell me than coal-miners?
I went with Gene, my future wife, to see
Fredrick in Marchmont Street, where he and Molly rented a flat. Fredrick wrote
to Gene later, when she was recovering from polio, to tell her the effect she
had on him then: 'The glory of you filled that little room like a choir of
Molly's sister Kate was there, at that time a
Communist as fiery as her red hair, enthusiastically devoted to an entirely
theoretical working-class, and the idea of propaganda in industry. She gave me
vigorous support, whether I liked it or not.
Fredrick didn't want me to go. He proposed to
set up an agricultural community in Wales, and hoped we would join. Since I had
only just managed to persuade a Tribunal to change my condition of service as a
conscientious objector from work with the FAU to work in the coal-mines, I
wasn't anxious to return for another bout. Besides, I didn't believe that the
project would work, and it would certainly do nothing to hasten our marriage.
Gene was not yet twenty-one, and how could we sell a community of eccentrics
and no salary to her parents?
Fredrick insisted that I could achieve
nothing in the coal-mines and would end disillusioned. I went anyway, and in
October 1943 Gene and I were married in the Registrar's Office in Ilkeston,
Derbyshire. I didn't end disillusioned, I ended with a discharge from the mines
because of a recurring and debilitating flu-like illness.
I'm not sure now whether the community in
Wales ever got started, but if it did, it didn't last as long as my sojourn in
While I was away Fredrick's ferocious debate
with himself led him in the unlikely direction of the Catholic Church. He
undertook a stay in Hawkesyard Priory. According to the journal he kept at the
time, he took immediately to the Prior, who was young, intellectual, and
sympathetic. But after the initial interview, the Prior did not appear again,
and within days Fredrick's mood had slumped. He found the priests pleasant and
polite, with an entirely conventional attitude to the war, and burst out in his
journal: 'My very soul cries out that the touchstone of truth lies in one's
attitude to this war.' As his mood sank lower he began to doubt his own
'Maybe my vision of Christ is wrong. Yet I
find no beatitude in this transcendent God. . .Can I see Jesus plotting and
conspiring with financiers and politicians? No. Can I see Jesus eating with
publicans and sinners? Yes.'
He was particularly incensed by their
condemnation of the Spanish anarchists because they desecrated churches, while
being quite happy to support Stalinists because they were allies in the war.
'War is a spiritual affair,' he wrote,
'an irruption of disintegrated, disillusioned and vengeful spirit. . This
frustrated vitality concentrates in unconscious hatred against the drab,
colourless insignificance of modern mechanised society. . . Oh, war manifests
spirit all right. Spirit frustrated in its drive for vocation and purpose. I am
quite sure conscience cannot cope with it.'
And this was true. Conscience could not cope
with it. I knew of men who willingly joined the Army, then found themselves
struck by a crisis of conscience, refused orders, and ended in the glass-house.
Their superior officers could not understand their position. Surely they knew
that Hitler was evil and had to be stopped? Yes, they knew that. But war too
was a fundamental evil. What was to be done? I knew too of men who obtained
exemption from military service on grounds of conscience, and then were driven
by spiritual unease to enlist, only to find themselves unbearably distressed by
the role of combatant. A woman of good-will asked me during the war, 'How
can an intelligent young man like you, who cherishes freedom, refuse to fight
the Nazis?' I could only reply, 'Somebody must.'
Fredrick wrote later: 'If I really have no
vocation - if there is no work I must do - then nothing seems to matter. I live
and have reality only insofar as the work is there. . . I do believe that if I
could only free myself from the idea (or perhaps it is egoistic obsession) of
vocation - I could find a useful life.'
But he didn't believe that in his heart.
When I was invalided out of the coal-mines
and Gene and I returned to London, we took a basement flat in Kentish Town and
I had a job as Citizens' Advice Bureau organiser, advising people how to claim
for war damage.
Rockets had begun to fall on London. V1s,
known as buzz-bombs, were cigar-shaped unmanned weapons which drowned over like
devilish wasps, suddenly cut out, crashed and exploded. If you could watch them
and note the cut out point, you could guess where they would explode, and
On one bus trip in the East End the
conductress stood on the boarding platform, leaning from the upright rail
watching the sky, and shouting to the driver 'stop' or 'go', according to the
After a month or two Fredrick told us he had
found a three-storey house in Paddington, and would take it on if we would
share the rent. Molly and Fredrick would be responsible for the lower floors,
and we for top floor and attics. We agreed. That's how we got to Westbourne
Terrace, and set up the nest of anarchists.
170 Westbourne Terrace
No 170 was at the
wrong end of Westbourne Terrace. The respectable part of the thoroughfare
linked Kensington Gardens with the Harrow Road. Kensington Gardens, home of
Peter Pan's statue, was respectable and douce, the Harrow Road workaday and
raffish. The other side of the Harrow Road was urban wilderness. That's where
we lived, behind Paddington Station. The area should have been known as 'Lower
Lower Westbourne Terrace
was demolished in the 1960s. It is impossible now even to imagine where it
might have been. The houses have gone, the road has gone, the entire
neighbourhood has gone, the relationship between neighbourhoods has gone. All
that can be said is that once upon a time it existed somewhere between the
Harrow Road and what has since become the opulent enclave of Little Venice. It
was not an opulent enclave then. Its denizens tended to slink about after dusk
beside a refuse-laden canal.
On the corner of
Lower Westbourne Terrace amid an even more raffish street which contained a
Welsh Dairy and an off-licence, stood a pig-bin with its lid set at a rakish
angle, overflowing with rubbish. On the wall behind the bin a local satirist
had chalked a portrait of the contemporary hero known as Chad - sausage-nose
and two eyes peering over a horizontal line - underneath the legend 'Wot, no
pigs?' Chad lifted morale by asking 'Wot no' this and 'Wot no' that all over
the country, his script written by hundreds of anonymous chalkers.
Behind the wall
was an ex-garden of trampled mud and a bombed house boarded up and peeling.
Glass was scattered tactically, paper bags blew about. A dog like a threadbare
hearthrug lay slumped in the gutter. Ladies in hair-curlers and carpet-slippers
shuffled in and out of the off licence bearing jugs or bottles.
No 170 was one of
a row of tall, rundown houses built in the late 19th Century in the hope that
they would be taken to resemble those l8th Century crescents in Bath. The
basement flat was occupied by a railwayman, his Irish wife and three pale
children. Once, when the lights failed and we knew the parents were out, we
ventured into the basement with a torch and found the children cowering
together in the dark.
The ground floor
entrance was a passage-way leading to are inner door and a flight of stone
stairs. It was supplied with one of those light-switches which are
designed to turn themselves off at the most inconvenient moment. You pressed a
flabby rubber button and fled for the inner door, evading if possible the
parked bicycle. The light died with the ghostly shadow of a sound as you groped
for the handle.
The rooms on the
first floor consisted of a kitchen and a bedroom off the landing, then a living
room off the second landing ten stairs later. The living room was immensely
tall with scrolls of plaster flowers on the ceiling. French windows opened onto
a balcony which it would have been unwise for more than one Italian tenor to
occupy at a time. It was visited regularly by Mickey the extremely mongrel
terrier who liked to bark frenziedly at anyone wearing overalls. These rooms
were inhabited by Fredrick and Molly.
Off the third
landing were two square rooms with sash windows, where perched ex-Dominican
monk Anthony Elenjimittam, and ex-physicist Cecil Smelt.
Our bedroom and
sitting room were above these, and on the top floor the kitchen crouched
under a skylight, and two attics had access to the wide lead-lined gutters
through tiny hinged windows. You could sit and sunbathe in the gutters because
there was a low wall to prevent you from sliding into air.
rooms during 1945 were occupied at one time or another by Andre Wendt, deeply
pacific German anarchist just out of Wormwood Scrubs; Stephen Peet, then still
a member of the FAU but drawn and maigre after years in a German
prisoner-of-war camp; Alfred Perles, man of all nationalities and none,
released from the Pioneer Corps; and writer John Atkins, temporarily AWOL from
Fredrick had been
accustomed to cite Anthony Elenjimittam as an authority on certain religious
and philosophical topics long before the quoted scholar - small, plump,
cherubic, and full to the brim with innocent benevolence - took up residence at
170 Westbourne Terrace.
Anthony was born
in Goa, the Catholic region of India originally colonised by the Portuguese. He
entered the Dominican Order as if in the course of nature. He had completed his
novitiate and was studying in England when some accidental encounter with Hindu
literature led him for the first time to take an interest in the nationalism
then rampant in his homeland. The encounters with London expatriates which
followed set his whole way of life trembling. At last the bubble burst and by
the time he took over a room on the second floor, Anthony had left the Order
and was earning his bread as a clerk.
You could not have
guessed from his conversation that he was still a Catholic and a Thomist. His
discourses on religion were florid, confusing, and all-embracing. His head
teemed with golden abstractions, an amalgam of Hindu scriptures, Buddhist
philosophy, and Christian theology, concepts from one tradition flung in
pell-mell with those from another. It was as if instead of contemplating the
realities on which the traditions were based, and the insights they share,
Anthony had floated on a tide of universal good-will to an island where he was
building a religious Tower of Babel.
All the more
surprising, then, when on one occasion he interrupted the disquisition of a
wild enthusiast for something or other by saying, 'Would it be helpful if I
explained what St. Thomas had to say on this point?' and ticked off a series of
logical steps on his pale brown fingers.
was even more effective when he made use of the technique learned from
engagement with 'medieval disputation'. Presenting his victim with a syllogism,
he induced a reply which elicited yet another syllogism until the victim fell
into a hole and disappeared. His manipulation of this tool was accompanied by
much benevolent glittering of spectacles.
He took me once to
meet a Professor Ganguly, who had become his Britannic guru. The professor
proved to be an urbane authority on English literature, and the conversation
was mainly concerned with the qualities and shortcomings of D.H. Lawrence.
Anthony looked on, beaming his blessings on civilization and all who sailed in
The furniture of
Anthony's room consisted of a bed, a wobbly cupboard and a full set of the
Encyclopaedia Brittanica. He sat on the short pile while eating off the taller
one. Crumbs were scattered on the uncarpeted floor as an offering to the mice.
This generosity was not popular with Molly.
He bought a primus
stove on which to cook, but had no idea how to set about the job. He would call
up the stairs to Gene asking what to do with the egg in one hand and the pan in
the other in order to produce an omelette.
inclined when flush with money to spend it on unnecessary gadgets. He would buy
the latest safety razor rather than a chair to sit on. He never needed to use
the razor because his round face was completely hairless.
encounter was a great adventure to Anthony. He came home one night speechless
with excitement because he had talked to a bus conductress in a pub.
He set off to work
every morning dressed in a dark suit, and riding a bicycle. To do this even
without an umbrella would have been hazardous enough, since he was never sure
on which side of the road to wobble, but armed with an umbrella as an aid he
found it almost impossible. He would either drop the umbrella or prod it
inadvertently among the spokes, causing a general collapse, from which he
extricated himself with amiable bewilderment. Once fully launched, he tacked
like a yachtsman in a gale. The prayer went up 'Heaven help him on the Harrow
Road', and Heaven must have done so, because he survived.
Cecil Smelt, who
occupied the next room to Anthony, looked upon him with satirical amusement. He
reported that if you poked your head round the door and cried 'God!'
Anthony floated up to the ceiling. Cecil was not accustomed to crying
'God!' except to achieve this result.
He began to attend
the Forum after hearing Fredrick in the Park. He saw Fredrick's desperate
pursuit of truth and certainty as a form of entertainment. For him there was
neither fundamental truth nor any prospect of certainty. Even doubt was
analysing into sub-atomic particles the statements and opinions of all those
Forum members and attenders who could be induced to utter them. He then
examined the self-deceptions which caused the disputants to hold those views in
the first place. The pleasure he derived was similar to the pleasure others
might gain from weeding a garden.
In September 1945
Cecil gave a lecture to the Forum, which Fredrick summarised like this: 'We
were told that it was useless to search for meaning and value in our knowledge
of the universe. Neither science nor philosophy, working from phenomena and the
experience of relationships, can provide us with proof that nature has a
purpose. The universe cannot explain itself - and it cannot, ex hypothesi, be
explained by anything outside itself. This is a fact, it was emphasised, if we
are honest, we must accept. . . knowledge is analysis, and both word and matter
analyse to nothing. Life, for all its richness and vitality, remains clothed in
mystery.' It is easy to see why Fredrick found Cecil so useful. He was a
starting point. Personally, I found Cecil's ruthlessness refreshing.
In another lecture
Cecil said that 'The play of assessment and merit constitute the make-up and
activity of consciousness, for without these indications of worth,
consciousness would suffer collapse into apathetic inertia and final
Cecil himself had
ceased to be interested in playing the game of assessment and merit. As a
result there were periods during which his consciousness did indeed collapse
into apathetic inertia. He could lie in bed all day because there was no
conceivable purpose in getting up. He could live for weeks without making any
moral judgement either on his own or other people's conduct. A sceptic may
doubt everything, including reason, but a nihilist lives in meaninglessness.
The intellect succeeds in destroying each perception of possible meaning as it
occurs, while the ego is exhausted and impotent, yet still functions
sufficiently to preserve itself. The result is a kind of selfish
Cecil earned his
living by marking physics papers for a crammer's college, although he regarded
the theories of contemporary physics as mathematical constructs which could not
be said in any meaningful sense to represent reality. He provided the proof
that analysis is a tool which psychologically destroys the body of the world.
Yet the body remains obstinately and enigmatically alive, fleas and all. And
the world functions.
Cecil did not look
on first acquaintance in the least like a man who lives in such a state of
deprivation. Dark, of medium height, with a square, rather heavily handsome
face, and an easy, saturnine manner, he could laugh at jokes, didn't take drugs
or get drunk, and would join in any lively conversation. He left work until the
last moment, and then laboured night and day to complete it. This was no real
hardship as he preferred to live at night, and often walked to Lyons' Corner
House, Marble Arch, for a cup of coffee at three a.m. Coupe, Fred Perles and I
joined him once, and spent an hour trying in vain to find any worthwhile book
which Coupe hadn't read. Cecil's own reading could be surprising. I found him
thoroughly enjoying C.S.Lewis's 'Screwtape Letters' for its acute analysis of
the workings of the ego, while entirely distrusting the lessons Lewis was
intending to draw from it.
Cecil enjoyed the
eccentric and meticulous scholarship of the predatory Coupe. He and Coupe
became incompatible allies - to call them 'friends' would be to redefine the
word - but they balanced and played off each other in a manner beneficial to
the Forum insofar as it was a truth-finding organisation. The titles of the
lectures they gave when Fredrick hired the Alliance Hall, Westminster, for a
series of public discussions may give some idea of their different
revealed his commitment, over-riding concerns, and state of soul, by
contributing 'The Problem of Loneliness', 'Freedom and Charity',
and 'Loneliness and Sanctitiy.'
Cecil's talks were
called 'Nihilism and Intellectual Honesty' and 'Word and Scientific Symbol.'
They could not be readily taken in on a first hearing, but when studied on the
page proved to be so precisely phrased as to make misunderstanding
lecture, on the other hand, announced as 'Staudenmeir and the Reversibility
of Perception' was typical in that no one present had heard of Staudenmeir
and to most this German savant remained impenetrable. I have never encountered
his name since. I found each paragraph as delivered very intriguing, but could
not now give any idea of how his perceptions had been reversed, or what Coupe
actually said about the process. Gene tells me that it did something to explain
the nature of apparitions.
occasion Coupe launched into 'Nietzsche and the Reversal of Values', a
popular subject with the Forum because whatever else he may have been,
Nietzsche was a brilliant psychologist who analysed better than anyone else the
ability of the ego to deceive itself. As can be seen, Coupe was fond of
dangerously attractive to women. Each one in turn hoped to fill a vacuum. Since
his actions could be physically positive but psychologically negative, the
results were usually disastrous. He attached no value to ideas of permanence in
relationships, and might vanish at any moment like a shadow when the sun goes
in. You could never rely on Cecil's sun shining, no matter how bright the day.
At least one of his girl-friends tried suicide. Midge threw herself out of a
window and broke her fall on a dustbin, surviving with severe bruises.
Soon after the end
of the war in Europe, Cecil took Midge to Cornwall for a holiday, more as an
acceptance of the inevitable, I imagine, than a gesture of contrition. After
they had been there for a few days and he reported favourably about the sands,
rocks and lodgings, we followed, staying in the same town. Cornwall in 1945 was
not rife with tourists, many of the bays were covered with barbed-wire and
overlooked by concrete pill-boxes on the cliffs, but the pounding waves and
lively air were a burst of freedom after confinement in battered London.
Cecil might seem
an unlikely candidate for the post of lifeguard, but he saved us from drowning.
Until the day on which the North Cornish coast showed its teeth and the sky
turned dark we enjoyed the ripples of sunlight in clear pools, and the random
music made by water dripping on floating tins in a disused quarry.
On a clear day we
swam out towards nowhere, and only when we began to paddle round for the return
journey did we realise that we had dreamed a great distance too far. A wind had
begun to blow, waves were heaving at the rocks, and the tide had turned.
Instead of moving inshore as we swam, we saw that if anything we were drifting
away. There was a nightmare quality in the sensation that we were exhausting
ourselves simply to stay at the same distance from the shore. The mind was slow
to accept the obvious: if we didn't soon reach the projecting strip of rock
where the waves were breaking, we should drown. Gene says she thought 'I
must help John', and then realised that she couldn't. It's amazing how long
it took to sacrifice pride and dignity and yell for help. When we did begin to
bellow and shriek in harmony the figures on the shore continued to move
placidly, intent on affairs which did not contain us. They were as remote as
pictures on a wall. No one turned his head.
And then we saw
Cecil, in shirt and trousers, slipping and scrambling on the rocks. If we
didn't reach him he couldn't reach us, but the sight of him plunging about on
the jagged lumps and edges of black rock, now just under water, revived
strength we didn't know we had. Cecil stood waist deep on the farthest rock,
hanging on. We were struggling and falling amid the breakers. One by one he
hauled us out.
The Wandering Scholar
Ward Coupe was designed for the job of eminence grise. An observer, an adviser,
a commentator, an analyst (who denounced analysis) he resembled a bird of prey
- a mild vulture, with a cock of the head like a robin's. He lived alone,
permanently poor, reading everything worth reading in English, Spanish, German,
Greek and Latin, and spent a great deal of time at the .Forum and in Fredrick's
spacious, ill-furnished sitting room, perched on a hard chair, sucking at a
He would remove
the pipe from his mouth, shut his nutcracker jaw, nod his narrow skull, and his
grey-blue eyes would twinkle frostily as he spoke. He relished discussion,
detailed attention to words, ideas and motives, but he would not argue. If
asked a question he would answer, given an opening he would contribute, and his
capacity to observe while listening was formidable. His interest was in what he
regarded as truth, not in people for their own sake. Where truth was hinted at,
or could be pursued, he was a terrier after a rat, but if truth was entirely
hidden beneath opinion, he would twinkle and say nothing, he would simply
listen, for as he said, 'all conversation is equally revealing'. By this he
meant that underlying what people say are a series of perceptible assumptions
which they prefer not to recognise. That he had a strong ego and a self-image
of himself as a sage will become obvious when we look at the pamphlets called
'Coupologues' which he wrote and the Forum published.
Molly did not
like Coupe. She suspected him, I think, of secret Catholic motives, as if he
were a spy. Fredrick found his scholarship and intellectual clarity invaluable,
and enjoyed his eccentricities and ironic humour.
although without evidence, that Coupe had a vital and reckless youth. Whatever
official qualifications he had, he didn't mention them, but his mental
equipment and his knowledge were prodigious. He was, I believe, at Oxford, but
left under a cloud, and then spent time teaching school Latin.
In the early nineteen-thirties he took off for Spain,
and stayed, teaching English, until the Civil War chased him over the border.
He was deeply read in Spanish literature, particularly Calderon, and was fond
of contrasting Calderon's uncompromising saying, in one of autos sacramentales,
'Do what is right, for God is God', with Nietzsche's tortured declaration that
'God is dead.' There's little doubt in my mind that for different reasons he
was as fond of Nietzsche as of Calderon.
It did not occur
to me that Coupe was a practising Catholic until one day a rosary fell to the
floor when he pulled out a handkerchief. He was a believer who remained at
arm's length. When in the late Forties Fredrick was on the edge of asking to be
received into the Church, Coupe advised against it, because, he said, it would
be bad for the health of the Forum. Fredrick took his advice for three years.
And then, from the time he entered the Church, work in the Forum grew less
When members of
the Forum decided on one occasion to entertain themselves at Christmas with
charades, they chose, with typical eccentricity, to perform Dostoevsky's
'Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.
This appears as a
story told by Ivan in 'The Brothers Karamazov.' It supposes that Jesus returns
to earth when the Inquisition rules, is immediately arrested, and taken before
the Grand Inquisitor. The Legend would be a dialogue if Jesus spoke, but
although he is questioned and challenged by the Inquisitor he does not answer a
in a speech of great length and subtlety, explains that Jesus's wish that
people should awaken to his message freely and follow his teaching through
understanding and choice was a mistake based on a delusion. Human beings, he
insisted, are not as perceptive and well-intentioned as Jesus imagined, but
base, venal, ignorant and selfish. They require to be led and controlled by the
wise, who know that peace and prosperity are more important to their welfare
than freedom, which leads only to division, strife and eventual disaster.
Jesus, says the Inquisitor, cannot be allowed to raise again the hopes and
longings in these flocks of sheep and goats which have been ordered into
acquiescence by the benevolent rule and restriction of the wise, and so
protected from the bitter experience of responsibility.
explains that he and his elite company have undertaken the terrible and lonely
task of accepting responsibility on behalf of those who could not bear its
There was no
doubt in anyone's mind as to who should play the part of the Inquisitor. Coupe
was designed for it.
Who should play
the part of Jesus was the problem. It is a part that no one is capable of
playing. Actors who have attempted it have betrayed their misunderstanding of
the world. The fact that in Dostoevsky's 'Legend' Jesus remains silent
throughout requires an actor who can establish a presence that is attentive,
alert and robust while using neither words nor gestures. The fact that I cannot
remember who did in fact play the part of Jesus shows that he must have
performed either very well or very badly.
The rules of the
charade were that no known language can be employed by the Inquisitor, either.
He must express himself only by uttering the word 'Rhubarb' with every possible
variation of emphasis and meaning.
The moment Coupe
fixed his eyes on the prisoner and began to expound his thesis, we realised
that we were in the presence not merely of a Master but of the Grand Inquisitor
himself, despite the fact that he was dressed in a white sheet with black shoes
peeping out below. He had an air of magisterial authority, appalling sincerity,
and ruthless pragmatism, which for its effect of threatening power was more
alarming that all the efforts to frighten us of Boris Karloff as the Mummy and
Bela Lugosi as Dracula.
said. 'Rhubarb, rhubarb', and with each rhubarb and with each pause between
rhubarbs his lonely and ascetic dedication became more deadly. But however
forceful and logical these rhubarbs became, the prisoner uttered not a single
rhubarb in reply. The effect was to cause us to question the role of authority
in the world once and for all, and to realise that freedom is the most precious
of human possibilities, to be gained and maintained only by dedicated attention
to the world as it is, and the most subtle and determined resistance to those
who would rob us of it. This, of course, was precisely against the intentions
of the Grand Inquisitor. Was it, however, the exact intention of Wilfred Ward
Legend runs to a great many pages and if Coupe had delivered as many rhubarbs
as Dostoevsky delivered the contents of his dictionary, we would have been
there for more than an hour. Coupe engaged us for no more than ten minutes. It
At the end Jesus
performs his one overt action. He moves swiftly towards the Inquisitor and
gives him a gentle kiss. The Inquisitor in this case started back in a kind of
fear, then opened the available door and Jesus departed into the dark streets
of the city - or, in point of fact, into the kitchen.
It seemed to me
that in Coupe's performance the Inquisitor's suffering was in exact proportion
to the authority he wielded, that he knew he was working in the service of the
Great Antagonist, and did this for what he regarded as the benefit of his
flock. Jesus, the Inquisitor's rhubarbs implied, should have accepted the
Adversary's temptation in the wilderness, and taken upon himself the regulation
of the world. Freedom, he insisted, was a terrible delusion, leading only to an
increase in suffering for the ordinary, the ignorant and the innocent. But we
were all aware that the powerful invariably abuse their power, and that their
efforts at total control had over the last few years come close to destroying
We were left with
a disquieting thought. Could we any longer trust Wilfred Ward Coupe to be the
wandering scholar in whom we had believed? What was the true extent of his
ambition? Could it be that an actual Inquisitor was moving among us in
Coupe's part in
the Forum, and in its demise, will be examined under that head, but at this
point it may be helpful to summarise his own thesis, as presented with some
ironic chicanery, in the series of 'Esoteric Coupologues' which he wrote
between 1946 and '47, and which Fredrick published and sold in the Park.
Since life. Coupe claimed, is its essential nature in
a state of flux, and the intellect can only perceive by arbitrarily and
artificially arresting the flow, converting it into static concepts, the
intellectual account of the world cannot reflect reality. The intellect works
in this way because the ego - the will - seeks always to establish its own
continuity, as a single entity, out of the multiplicity of responses to events.
To Coupe the one fundamental psychological reality is the soul, which is not
susceptible to definition. The failure to understand this leads to inner
He maintained (a
legacy from Brown) that the mind of man is being built for him by outside
forces, and that freedom can only be achieved from this relentless assault by
the restoration of innocence at the level of wisdom: that is, as the result of
by- passing the ego. The first necessary step along this way is to gain a clear
view of the origin and development of words.
His use of the
word 'esoteric' to describe his Coupologues reveals his delight in what is
hidden. He would love to have been Grand Mast of Something or Other,
influential but invisible.
makes a point of denying this in the opening of the first Coupologue, 'On
Innocence.' These odd works took the form of dialogues between an imaginary
'Honest Enquirer' and 'London Forum Member', who, of course, is Coupe himself
at his most tricky and authoritative, always well supplied with the last
understand that you are an initiate of the London Forum. I should be most
grateful if you could spare the time to make my mind clear on a few points.
'L.F.M. I will do
all I can to help, but allow me to say that you start off under a
misapprehension. I not an initiate of the Forum. In fact the Forum has no
initiates. The term would imply that the Forum is in possession of some sort of
secret doctrine, some occult wisdom,, hidden from the generality. That is not
so; the London Forum makes no such claim. The esoteric it expounds is simply
'H.E. Then, if
the esoteric is so obvious, why do I not see it?
'L.F.M. The best way to hide a thing is to put it in the most obvious
Forum had no initiates, but it contained those who had some idea of what was
going on and many who didn't. Why, in any case, did Coupe choose the word
'esoteric' in his title.
I'd better say
here that I don't know if I was an actual member of the Forum or not. I can't
remember attending its meetings more than two or three times, but being so
closely acquainted with those who did regard themselves as regulars might
constitute some sort of membership.
Coupe starts the
process of explanation, typically, by confounding the Honest Enquirer with the
aphorism 'All use of the intellect is a misuse.' Nothing is needed, he insists,
except the ability to stop the intellect from showing you what is not
At the end of the
pamphlet he summarises the argument. The mind is being built by those who
pursue knowledge (which of course is power). For understanding to be possible
knowledge has to be repudiated in favour of innocence, which at that point
becomes wisdom. Innocence allows the intellect simply to perceive what is
already given in the nature of things.
'H.E.I take it
then that knowledge exists for the sake of freedom, which is fundamentally
consciousness, and that the outcome of this work of the builders is that
innocence passes from unawareness to wisdom.
'L.F.M. It as you
say, but it is not done with the intention of the builders, who reject
innocence, which none the less becomes the cornerstone.'
That vision of
the builders is the message originally conveyed by Brown, and must be
considered the basis of the Forum's work.
the Coupologues is a sly joke in which Coupe himself is seen by the
not-always-honest-enquirer as a sinister presence, twisting the work of the
group for his own secret purposes.
In 'On Innocence'
we are told of 'a Jesuit in disguise', with Coupe referred to as 'being
numbered among your innocent ones, I suppose?' To this 'Forum Member' replies
'Well, not exactly. That is not how I should describe him.'
In the pamphlet
'On Casuistry' the Honest Enquirer tells us that 'Casuistry is verbal trickery
. . .' used by regular twisters 'like that fellow Coupe in your Forum.'
'L.F.M. You don't
seem to like Mr Coupe.
'H.E. Oh, I have
nothing against him personally. Besides, he might be quite nice to know.
Jesuits generally are. . .'
assures Honest Enquirer that Coupe is not a Jesuit, and that the word casuistry
has specific reference to cases of conscience.
Coupe in these
pamphlets enjoyed a sense of his significance in the Forum, which brought with
it some power, even if only exercised over a phantom enquirer. That, of course,
confirms his view that the ego must of its nature insist on asserting its own
Indeed, this is
the very point he makes at the end of 'On Casuistry'.
'H.E. What then
is Mr Coupe? Is he a casuist in the good or bad sense of the word?
as he endeavours to decipher the meaning of words in order to know what they
really have to reveal, and differentiates one from another without confusing
them with the implied reality, he works for clarity of vision, and is thus a
casuist in the good sense.
'H.E. Well, I
think he is not only a casuist, he is an egoist.
- especially if he makes his own ego one of his cases. Every attempt at
limitation is, with more or less subtlety, turned into a defence. I should not
be surprised, indeed, if Mr Coupe is not striving to make - or shall we rather
say to make out - a case for his own ego and, like the rest of us, can't quite
I can only
Laurie Hislam was
Fredrick's oldest friend among the anarchists. He had dark red hair, a red
beard, blue eyes, and rebellion written into his genes. If born in hospital he
probably howled violently at the nurse because she was wearing a uniform. It
was a hazardous venture to go out with Laurie. He argued with bus conductors,
insulted train guards, riled commissionaires and resented policemen. All this
he did with great good cheer.
Although one of the few
practical men likely to accompany Frederick on his abortive community project,
Laurie's tendency to attack any proposition which was advanced even when he
agreed with it, would make arriving at decisions an arduous process.
Laurie had a vigorous
and macabre sense of humour. At the time of the Munich crisis he went to
Downing Street carrying a small attaché case. There was a crowd waiting
for news. Laurie opened the attaché case, shouted, and threw it without
letting go. A policeman shouted 'Get down' and everyone fell to earth. A dozen
tennis balls with 'Why war?' painted on them with great care sailed into the
air and bounced harmlessly on the road. The magistrate took a jaundiced view of
this incident and Laurie spent a month in jail.
He could not resist
baiting the authorities. Conscientious objectors were given a card to return to
the place of issue if they changed their name, job, or address. Where the card
read 'I have changed my name to . . .' Laurie wrote 'Bamboozle.U' and put it in
the post box.
The jokes were not all
Laurie's. Fredrick had an old corduroy jacket of a faded green of which he was
very fond. At one point Laurie was devoid of a wearable jacket and had no money
to buy one. Oxfam shops did not exist in those days. Fredrick knew that Laurie
was both a devoted admirer of Tolstoy, and too prickly to accept cast-off
clothing. In a burst of inspiration he found a method of ensuring that Laurie
would take the jacket. He told him that the jacket had been a gift from a
Russian refugee who swore that it had once belonged to Tolstoy. Laurie wore the
jacket until it dropped to pieces.
When we left for
Scotland in January 1946, Laurie moved into our flat. His adventures when he
visited us in the Highlands will be recounted later.
Fredrick gave different
accounts of the origins and intentions of the Forum. He said at the 1959 debate
which proved to be the beginning of the end, 'The original idea of the Forum
was - speak your mind.' It was to be a psychological and spiritual
exploration conducted in total freedom. 'The Forum was the one place where
we need not worry about expediency of conduct. That was the condition of Forum
In Fredrick's view it
must never be a conventional discussion group, run on the lines, as he put it,
'We have a little time to spare and go along for a chin-wag. I do not regard
that as valid. What I believed about the Forum was this. There was a radical
experience which could be assisted provided it germinates in a person coming to
the Forum. My idea of the Forum is that there comes out of it a capacity to see
in a way that cannot be contradicted.' This did not mean the establishment
of some formula of belief or practice, but the effort, through examination of
the ego at work, to achieve the state of 'innocence' described by Coupe - that
is, the willingness to see what is in fact the case. A permanent ego by-pass
was never attained by anyone present, but the process certainly increased
starting-point was the state of crisis in which he envisaged Western society to
exist in 1941. He made several efforts to describe the situation as being 'a
collapse of belief and any sense of meaning, brought about by the will . . .in
its attempt to dominate life by the intellect alone.'
'It is quite
clear,' he wrote, 'that by intellectual process we shall never get
beyond the fact that matter disappears upon analysis, that consciousness is
reduced by questioning to a dubious hypothesis, and that all expressions of
Being, Form, and Meaning are purely arbitrary devices of the ego seeking to
escape loneliness.' He probably saw Cecil as a living embodiment of this
He likened the mood of
the Forum to that of existentialism - a deep disenchantment with accepted
explanations of the world in the face of war, oppression, holocaust and the
collapse of Europe, and an insistence on relating intellectual explanations of
phenomena to the reality of emotional life. 'The whole man is the primary
truth,' he said. 'Intellect must serve life, not destroy life by
analysis. Man is a responsible creature.' Coupe might have replaced thee
'whole man' with the word 'soul.'
lectures, and his eventual pamphlet 'The Grand Inquisitor', which embodies
them, confronted the problem that if meaning is not to be found in
investigation of the self, which disappears on examination, then it must be
found outside - but where? Not in science, not in nature: then in faith? But
faith must be based either on the discovery of objective vision, or in
revelation and the authority built on revelation.
situation was therefore complex, and contained intense contradictions. His
sense of vocation was the result of inner recognition, of personal insight, a
liberation into a perceived state of authenticity. This insight is seen as
having a source other than the ego. What source? There is no need to
interrogate the state too closely while the sense of vocation remains strong.
Coupe asserted that 'The service of one's vocation is a service of one's
real and true self.' And Cecil? Did he have a vocation for the destruction
of illusory concepts?
If the realisation of
vocation is a birth into freedom, then any movement towards dogmatic doctrines
and obedience to a Church or outside authority may prove to be a denial of
The method which the
Forum employed was to explore the identification principle - that is, the ego's
identification with doctrines, ideals, opinions, codes, crusades,
organisations, and explanations of the world. This identification is seen as a
way of self-aggrandisement.
That is where the
contributions of Cecil and Coupe were particularly useful. Cecil's scientific
knowledge, and Coupe's scholarship, could be relied upon to provide food and
fuel. Cecil's relentless examination of statements and concepts.. which
invariably denied them reality and meaning, reinforced the message. His
nihilism seemed in itself symptomatic of the peculiar swing into spiritual
Coupe's interrogation of
words, separating their original and developed meanings from the way in which
they were carelessly used, led in the same direction. It often seemed that
Coupe found some sort of esoteric concealed in words themselves.
A few examples can be
drawn from the 'Coupologues'. Forum Member (i.e. Coupe) remarks, 'The London
Forum never invents anything, unless you use the word 'invent' in its original
meaning of 'to find', from the Latin 'invenire.' The London Forum simply finds
what is before it.' Again, 'the root of the word 'innocence' is the Latin
intransitive verb 'noceo' and means 'I hurt', or rather 'I am harmful', but
cannot have an object, so that the sense is indeterminate. 'Innocens' is the
adjectival present participle with a negative prefix, and means to be harmless
and aimless.' Fredrick himself referred to 'primordial intuitions
expressed in language.'
The Forum approach was
once defined by Fredrick as 'provocative contradiction, drawing the ego into
the open.' That was certainly achieved. The wildest and most direct
expressions of opinion resulted from the process of interrogation - Communists,
nationalists, racists, anarchists, Zionists, humanists, atheists, pacifists,
occultists, religionists of all kinds, expressed increasingly ferocious views
and doctrines as they grew more intense. One particularly vocal individual was
devoted to the blood-and-race expositions of D.H.Lawrence, refusing to see
anything in them which resembled the doctrines of the Nazis. He returned again
and again to the place from which he started no matter how many times he was
diverted into other channels. Eventually he grew so excitable and frustrated
that he stormed out after a final explosion and was seen no more.
Nobody was immune from
investigation. Indeed, it was dangerous to make a statement. 'The ego,'
Coupe wrote, 'wills above all to assert itself. Frustrated in its direct
assault, it resorts to cunning.' The efforts of opinionators to dodge and
twist in order to retain self-respect in the fact of relentless probing was
often a sad, painful, or embarrassing spectacle. But it was soon realised that
to humiliate a participant was to lose his attention forever; and whenever a
speaker felt triumphant, authenticity was lost. Pride, vanity, despair,
struggled in the dark. Many - most, I think - did not fully understand what was
going on. They wanted to be told to believe and what to do, and when they were
not told, resented it, and grew angry. They flew up against analysis when it
was directed against their own views, and since analysis as a method was
continually criticised, they had ample justification. Justification, of course,
increases resentment, and the most dangerous form of indignation is the
How much good did all
this do? How much light shone on the assembled company? Not much, in many
cases, because the ego is adroit at rebuilding shattered walls in different
designs. Destruction of opinion only leads to authentic insight when a gift
arrives suddenly 'from the ceiling', as Thornton Wilder put it. Coupe
said that he regarded the work of the Forum as 'the recovery of lost
innocence.' He never achieved such innocence himself, and I certainly
didn't. But awareness increased, and the possibility of waking up and seeing
something as it really is became more than a possibility. Fredrick referred to
the work as the process of 'breaking open mind.' This is revealing and
accurate. Speaking personally, I took away from the Forum a habit that has
proved invaluable. Let's call it the pursuit of uncomfortable light.
Always painfully honest,
Fredrick remarked, 'From the beginning I hoped that the Forum would reveal
something which I lacked', and 'The Forum is a living thing. We are all
subject to our own natures and temperaments. I do not think anyone here is a
standard for anyone else. I am subject to moods and doubts; as we develop in
understanding the ground can often be shaky.'
At its best the Forum
was undoubtedly a living thing - living noisily at times - which in its
acrobatic performances gave attenders unforgettable visions of the ego at work.
They could not afterwards free themselves from the inner witness which observed
the play. Indeed, the discovery of that inner witness in individuals was the
purpose of the community.
was born in Germany of a German father and a French mother. At the time when it
was fashionable for young Germans to join a youth movement and roam the
countryside wearing shorts and a rucksack, singing open-air songs, André
joined the Röte Falken, a Leftish body soon to be attacked by the Hitler
André was a
determined idealist whose heart refused to countenance evil. He was drawn
towards the anarchists because they believed obstinately in the natural
goodness of man and his ability to co-operate in freedom. André's hero
was Erich Müehsam, an anarchist poet who' ended his days hanging in a
lavatory after being interrogated by the Gestapo.
and Nazis fought in the streets André didn't join in. He didn't believe
that fighting solved problems. Hitler was voted into power, and that was the
end of voting. Before long everyone connected with the German anarchist
movement, or with Rote Falken, or with pacifism, was arrested. André,
not one to conceal his opinions, was eventually sent to the concentration camp
Dachau was not
then the hell-hole it later became. Clandestine contact with the outside world
as still possible. André received word through the grapevine that any
inmate who volunteered for the Army would be released from the camp. Once in
the Army, the underground would be able to smuggle him out of Germany.
André, the most unlikely possible recruit, was nonetheless accepted, and
became a temporary soldier. A few months later he was spirited over the border
into the Netherlands.
To be in the
Netherlands was one thing. To be accepted by the Dutch authorities was quite
another. André had no papers, the Dutch did not feel safe with an
aggressive German regime as neighbour, and anti-Nazi refugees without papers
were not joyfully received.
The Dutch put him
in jail for a month, then pushed him across the border into Belgium. The
Belgians thought this procedure neat, and repeated it, making a present of
André to the French, who popped him into prison for a month and then
slid him back into Belgium. Soon after this the German invasion began nd in the
confusion no one cared about papers. André^ found himself on a boat for
England. The British authorities, with iron lack of humour, interned him as an
an authority on the prisons of Europe. His blithe innocence and optimism were
proof against bureaucratic efforts to destroy illusions and he did not dwell on
hardship. His comments on the European prison systems were brief and to the
point: the Dutch were harsh and Germanic; the Belgians slovenly; French prisons
freer and more careless, but dirty; the food in Wormwood Scrubs (which he
eventually visited) was poor, but the warders were 'human beings.'
André^ had an odd guttural trick in pronouncing the word 'human' which
gave it impressive emphasis.
internment, André was set to work on the land, and found friends in
Derbyshire. While labouring for a local farmer he lived with Jeanne and Peter
Ecker, near Breaston. Jeanne was Dutch, and Peter's father had been German. I
met Peter while working in the coal-mines. We lived in a back street by a
railway-line in Nottingham, and Peter was manager of a firm which manufactured
electrical wiring, a few hundred yards from our house,
Jeanne was the
warmest and most hospitable woman in the Midlands and André was in rich
clover. Working on a farm didn't trouble him at all. What did trouble him was
the future of humanity. He wanted to cure the race of its inclination to
internecine murder and its persistent power mania.
We were back in
London when André decided that with the war in Europe drawing to a close
he must set out at once, immediately, or sooner, to reform the world. While
hoeing, digging, humping and heaving, he had dreamed himself into the notion of
setting up a community in the German wilderness known as Luneberg Heath, which
he had explored while tramping with the Rote Falken in his youth. This was to
be the Headquarters of his crusade. He did not know that the place had been
transformed since he visited it. André would not have been impressed by
ironises of that kind.
accustomed to waiting for official permission before taking action, he
disappeared from Breaston and reappeared on the doorstep of our basement flat
in Kentish Town. He was armed with the English text of the pamphlet which was
to launch 'Freundschaft', his movement of transformation. This pamphlet was to
be printed in London and distributed to everyone everywhere. Who was to pay for
the venture? Well, all and sundry. He had enough money to print a thousand
copies, so why worry?
What he had not
paused to consider was that by leaving his authorised occupation he immediately
became an enemy alien on the loose, and our address was on the pamphlets.
One day as he was
entering Kentish Town underground station with a pile of pamphlets under his
arm, two large plain-clothes police officers approached and took him into
custody. André^ was eventually consigned to Wormwood Scrubs for three
We had a visit
from Special Branch. When they arrived I was wearing a dressing-gown and felt
like a poor man's Noel Coward. The Inspector was all in brown - brown hat,
brown overcoat, brown suit, brown shoes. The Sergeant was all in grey. My
dressing gown was blue.
The Inspector was
matey and did all the talking. The Sergeant was impassive and took notes. When
at last they reached the point which they had been approaching by a circuitous
route, they both became exceedingly grave, as befits guardians of the law
investigating a possible underground network of Nazi agents.
The Inspector had
in his possession, he said, a signed statement by Peter Ecker to the effect
that he and I had conspired to conceal the whereabouts of André Wendt. I
did not have the sense to ask to see the document, which did not exist, but any
cunning plan to conceal Andrés whereabouts would be doomed to failure by
our address on the pamphlets.
decided that we were not after all Nazi conspirators, and cast about for
another scenario. They began to question us on the lines that we must be
Communists. This did not draw blood. When the Inspector leaned forward and shot
out the accusation 'So you're a Trotskyist!' I began to see the humour of the
situation; he looked so proud at knowing the word.
In the end the
Inspector decided that I was a harmless lunatic and abandoned the case to his
Sergeant, who arrived one day at the Citizens' Advice Bureau where I was
working, and presented me with a summons.
He was very
affable while we waited outside the Court room. The magistrate asked me why I
had done what I had done and I replied that André was a friend, and we
had put him up. Although his proposed crusade was unlikely to transform the
world, it would have been ungenerous to discourage him. I don't know what the
magistrate thought of this, but he fined me more than I could afford.
By the time that a
bearded André, looking like a dedicated monk, emerged from Wormwood
Scrubs, we had moved from Kentish Town to 170 Westbourne Terrace, and he joined
us there, occupying the attic next to Stephen Peet, and immediately proved his
usefulness by providing the recipe for a form of potato cake with onions which
he called Reibekuchen, and cooking them himself.
peaceful recuperation in a congenial nest of anarchists was invaded suddenly by
a tempest from the Continent in the form of Leah van Loen. Leah was the only
person I've met who really frightened me. Her very presence petrified
André, rendering him helpless, a rabbit confronted by a stoat.
She was intense,
dedicated, and a Communist. Her face was a thin slice of determination, her
gaze targeted. If you were her target - look out! Her will-power would shake
down pyramids. What she wanted, she got. No power, organisation, individual or
code of behaviour would stand in her way. It's lucky she didn't want to be
dictator of the world.
At that moment she
just wanted André. To Leah, he was lost property. As soon as the war in
Europe ended she made plans to invade Britain and recapture him. She had worked
throughout the German occupation in the Dutch resistance, and survived. She was
accustomed to finding unorthodox means to an end. She learned that a batch of
Dutch children were to be sent to Britain to recuperate from near starvation. A
few adults would accompany them as supervisors. She determined to be one of
As soon as the
group reached London she found some excuse for leaving her duties and made
herself inconvenient to both Dutch and British authorities. She was temporarily
free in London and descended on André like a fiery angel. How did she
find him? I can only guess that he must have made the mistake of writing to
her, and when she pounced on André she pounced on us.
The moment Leah
appeared André became a helpless passenger on her battleship. Laughter
and good cheer vanished. He stopped making toys and telling stories, he stopped
cooking Bavarian dishes of ineffable plainness. He awaited the inevitable like
a zombie in thrall to a wizard.
To share a
dwelling with Leah can Loen was like having a djinn in the house. Her eyes were
black and glittering, her nose and intellect sharp, her determination as hard
as basalt. She not only besieged the representatives of the Dutch government,
she haunted the Home Office. I can imagine how she dealt with the efforts of
dedicated procrastinators to thwart her intentions, and to stall the engine of
her will. She simply bent on them the full intensity of her regard. There was
no hiding place in the Ministry of Circumlocution. She was not one of those
egoists who refuse to listen to what you say. She listened with glittering
restraint, then simply demolished your arguments, cutting through verbiage like
a demonic chain-saw.
no passport, no Dutch papers, no rights, no proven nationality. All the same
and notwithstanding she took him to Holland where he had no right to be, and
established him there whether he or they liked it or not. She taught everyone
who encountered her that the impossible can not only be done but can be
achieved at speed. It was simply easier to accede to her request than to endure
her unrelenting assault. Our sympathy with André was swept aside by
relief at seeing the back of Leah van Loen.
What happened to
André? Peter and Jeanne Ecker tracked him down some years later and
reported only that he was no longer the André they had known - full of
energy, idealism and goodwill. He had been sucked dry. No Freundchaft, no
Luneberg Heath, no salvation for mankind.
A Floating Life.
Alfred Perlès was born in Vienna
in 1897. His father was Austrian, his mother French. Fred claimed, too, 'a
considerable number of Jewish grandmothers.' What better recipe for a
cosmopolitan wanderer, who said that as a boy he had lived in a big house which
he could never think of as home. He insisted that he had never had a home
since. Maybe. But he had a remarkable ability to attune to any atmosphere, and
to settle down anywhere, like a chameleon that can grow visible or invisible at
will. That is a talent which could be called 'making yourself at home.'
Fred said that not only did he serve as
an officer cadet in the Austrian Army during the First World War, but had been
court-martialled for not giving the order to fire during an enemy attack. He
explained that he did not want to mow down his mother's relatives. If that is
true then the story contains multiple ironies, because this natural pacifist
and Taoist managed to serve in three armies in one lifetime - Austrian, British
and American, without either shooting anyone or even going so far as to shout
rude words at the foe. He wrote of personal conflict, 'Fighting never settled
anything, it only leaves a bad taste in your mouth.'
Fred's father chanced to be born in a
part of Austrian territory which after 1918 was transferred to the
newly-invented Czecho-Slovakia, so conferring on Fred a Czech passport, with
which he travelled from Vienna to Paris. He travelled to Paris because ration
cards in Vienna failed to secure enough food to make you spry, and because
money bought nothing as there was nothing in the shops.
He learned with alacrity how to live on
his wits, and how to do so in French. Getting food was his problem, women were
his resource. He did not so much exploit them as appreciate their generosity.
Also, he washed up in restaurants, served as a barman, sponged on friends,
wrote pieces for transitory journals, edited the magazine of a Golf Club,
destroying it in the process by printing the poems and jokes of literary
acquaintances, acted as agent for a cabaret dancer, then as secretary to the
backer of an unsuccessful revue, and eventually as proof reader on the Paris
edition of the 'Chicago Tribune.'
Some time in the late 1920s he
suddenly, as he put it, 'came to'. He was moving about as usual, in pursuit of
the wherewithal, when he found himself wide awake, alarmingly aware of his
position in the world, of his surroundings both immediate and distant, and
therefore of the inanity of his life. He had described himself on his passport
as 'homme de lettres' because he thought that would boost him in the eyes of
the French authorities, but what, he asked himself, was he doing about
justifying the claim. What had he written except begging letters, an outline
story for a comic film, and fugitive pieces about fugitive subjects in fugitive
The decision to take literary action
was not a financial one, but a declaration of intent, the announcement of inner
need. As he said in his article 'Why I Write' - written for another fugitive
periodical - 'The vocation of the writer is so deep-rooted, so deeply embedded
in the fabric of the unconscious, that no radar can locate it.' 'Its chief
concern,' he added, is 'to sponge on the Source'. God is the only genuine
creator, and our job is to 'give Him a hand.'
Embarking on a literary as distinct
from a merely Bohemian life (for which a Czech passport must be some excuse),
was helped by his meeting with Henry Miller in the year 1928. Miller at that
time was a tourist jaunting through Europe. In 1930 when he returned to settle
in Paris and began banging away on his ancient typewriter, they formed an
alliance, sharing money when they had any, and inventing schemes to get it when
Fred started writing in French, which
he found elegantly congenial, and published two books in Paris. Neither
provided more than a few square meals, but at least they proved him both
'ecrivain' and 'homme de lettres.'
Shortly before the Second World War
broke out, he crossed to England, in pursuit of the latest young woman. Miller,
who disapproved of the land of warm beer, 'gentleman's relish', immigration
officers and hypocrisy (he was officially regarded in Britain as a
pornographer) took off first for Greece and then the U.S.A.
Fred stayed in London, and in less time
than it takes to read 'Through the Looking Glass' became, as he put it,
'British to the core', buying a tweed jacket, a country landowner's hat, and a
reassuring pipe. He grew fastidious about pipes, frequenting a famous shop in
the West End and gathering about him a varied array of these expensive
ornaments. He was always alert about clothes and social customs, not only
becoming a connoisseur of beer, but thoroughly approving tea, going to the
length of learning an ancient Chinese poem in English translation celebrating
the fluid for its spiritual qualities.
He wrote, tongue in cheek, in one of
those lengthy open letters to Henry Miller, that tea, after hemlock, was the
most important beverage concocted by man. Once, in Paris, when we experienced
withdrawal symptoms at four in the afternoon, he despatched us immediately to
the cafe above W.H.Smith's bookshop, where we were revived by supplies of the
brew, accompanies by squashy cakes. Fred did not join us.
He skated with consummate ease into
writing idiomatic English, with a perfect ear for what are Americanisms and
what are local oddities of dialect. His facility with languages was uncanny - a
word which he would greatly appreciate. To argue with him about the meaning or
spelling of a given English word, or about the grammatical construction of a
sentence, was to invite humiliation. Recourse to the dictionary or Fowler
always proved him to be right. He cherished cliches and common phrases, which
he used continually, sprinkling his conversation with satirical but
affectionate locutions such as 'now, at once, immediately', or 'I, myself,
personally,' or 'You've got to use your noodle'. He was fond of saying with
supreme dignity that 'a man of my standing' could not stoop to this or that. He
called florins 'big white ones', and shillings 'little white ones.' He enjoyed
'come uppance', 'make no bones about it' and such like. As soon as we landed in
a foreign country he would say 'Let me do the talking', and did so, whatever
the language required. He spoke fluent German, French, English, and Greek, and
impressed the natives in both Spanish and Italian. The only language he refused
to learn was Turkish, because the Turks pinched his typewriter when they
invaded northern Cyprus, where Fred was living at the time.
He was adept at acquiring an affection
for whatever place he found himself in, and wrote about England that while in
France you are always 'un sale etranger', in London you are a friend, claiming
that it was wonderful being an alien in that city. I doubt if this was ever
true. It certainly isn't today, but it was for Fred. He always found treasure
wherever he looked.
He had no sympathy at all for the
Nazis, but refused to see an enemy in every German. Nonetheless, in 1940 he
joined the British Army, and wrote an account of his experiences in 'Alien
Corn' (1944). Since he was not a British subject he was directed into the
Pioneer Corps, where he served his time.
Typical of his attention to social
detail, he reported for duty carrying a copy of the populist Daily Sketch, in
order to be inconspicuous, only to find that the other distinguished foreigners
gathered for enlistment were reading The Times, The Manchester Guardian or The
One of the many and varied places in
which his section of that strange company were stationed was a camp in southern
Scotland, between Dumfries and Moffatt. There he met Anne Barrett from Patna in
Ayrshire, a shrewd, forbearing and downright woman of high intelligence and
great efficiency, who guided him through many difficulties for the rest of his
life, in particular steering him away from any alcohol overdose which would
make him ineffably amorous in an unsuitable quarter.
The members of the coterie to which
Fred had belonged in Paris did not approve of Anne. Henry Miller disliked her,
possibly because she considered Fred's admiration and affection for Miller
himself to be excessive. Lawrence Durrell went further. He despised her. They
thought she constricted Fred and drained him of his creative juices. There was
in this an element of contempt for bourgeois respectability, and an element of
jealousy. His friends tended to underestimate Fred. He gave no sign of
resenting this. Anne resented it on his behalf. As her influence waxed, theirs
Fred knew very well that his days as an
amoral predator were over, and accepted Anne for what she was - a sharp/a
practical observer with a keen, ironic sense of humour and both feet firmly on
the ground. He remained, as always, loyal to his friends, and discarded no one.
But he kept the balance. He knew when he was well off. Many otherwise
intelligent people never make that discovery.
They did not marry until 1971, but when
he went overseas with the Army, and was instructed to adopt a British surname
in case he was captured by the Germans, Fred chose 'Barret', removing a 't'
from the name of Anne's former husband, always referred to by Fred as 'my
predecessor', but rarely referred to at all by Anne. She herself was referred
to as 'my spouse'. As a writer he remained Alfred Perlès. Dual identity
The only thing of practical value he
learned in the Army was how to clear windows. Once when I was cleaning ours in
Scotland, Fred clapped his hands over his ears and begged for mercy. The
excruciating squeak-expletives of leather on glass set his nerves twitching.
Ordered to clear windows in the Pioneer Corps he discovered that wet newspaper
followed by dry newspaper rendered windows non-squeaky clean at unlikely speed.
I've used the method myself ever since, and never clean windows without
thinking of Fred. (A spoonful of vinegar in the water helps).
In 1940 I read Fred's highly
autographical story 'I Live on My Wits' in the newly established literary
monthly 'Horizon.' Its insouciance, humour and vitality were engaging. In 1943
came his novel 'The Renegade', again a short whisker from being autobiography,
which had the same affable, anarchistic zest.
Back from the coal-mines and working in
London in 1944, I started my own short-lived review (which Fredrick sold with
some success in the Park) and wrote to Fred, via his publisher, for an article
on Louis-Ferdinand Celine, the literary outlaw whose 'Voyage au Bout de la
Nuit' had blown a hole in French literary tradition during the
nineteen-thirties. Celine had been accused of collaborating with the Nazis,
which I found at once distressing and incredible. Fred seemed to me the only
man in the country likely to write with knowledge and understanding about
Celine. Although immersed in the Army, without books or facilities, he wrote
the article, and was paid.
When we first met he was in uniform -
small, spry, light-bodied, impish, amiable, with delicate hands and a
sensitive, expressive face. The Miller circle regarded him as a clown, and
called him 'Joey'. He could certainly behave as a clown for their delectation,
but he wasn't one. Indeed, he proved wiser than any of them. He was a
combination of chameleon and kelly. A kelly is a lead-weighted toy which
bounces back if you try to push it over. As Gene said 'a chameleon changes
colour but is still a chameleon.' Fred remained exactly Fred whatever colour he
Discharged from the Pioneer Corps in
1945 he had nowhere in London to live, and was content to occupy one of our
spartan attic rooms at 170, Westbourne Terrace. He as accustomed to attics, but
not to civilian rations, and was shaken when confronted with sober delicacies
like Marmite and André's reibekuchen. This was a time of radical
rationing, when Chancellor Stafford Cripps took great pleasure in lecturing
people on tightening their belts, even if they were female or wearing braces.
Fred swiftly adapted to his habitat,
and settled down to produce his four pages a day, which he announced to be the
correct output for a man of his standing. The problem was to earn some money
now, at once, immediately. He published a story or two in the popular pocket
magazine 'Lilliput', famous in its day but forgotten now, but plots were not
his metier, and he got a job as an international telephone operator, slipping
niftily from language to language, and keeping scrupulously under his country
gentleman's hat all the highly confidential information he gained, which
included the contents of conversations between members of the Royal family. He
often worked on the night-shift and since Gene and I both had day jobs we often
saw him only for his toast and Marmite.
Fred took little interest in the
activities of the Forum, and treated Fredrick with caution, as one should avoid
dangerous fireworks, but individuals who appeared and disappeared were
appreciated for whatever oddities they offered. He particularly enjoyed Cecil
Smelt, although I'm not sure why, referring often in later years to Cecil's
exposition of entropy. I think the word appealed to him. Besides, the idea of
the world running down was stored away for use at appropriate moments as
metaphor or fairy lore.
Fred didn't need to count his
blessings, he just accepted them as free gifts from above, but was determined
that we should celebrate ours when the chance came. Fred was present when I got
a letter telling me that my first book had been accepted, with some misgivings,
by the Bodley Head.
'We'll go and tell Gene,' he announced.
'Now, at once, immediately, without delay.'
We set out for Farringdon Street, where
she was working for the Amalgamated Press. We waited until she emerged for
lunch, then. Fred not only made the announcement, but executed a short,
extravagant dance in the street, which involved extensive use of arms as well
One day out of the blue he told us that
he had joined the American Army. When he appeared in uniform, he looked for the
fist time since we had known him unsuitably dressed. In British uniform he was
anonymously unsoldierly, but at ease. In American uniform he became,
incredibly, "a foreigner.'
It was in this disguise that he
returned to the broken countries of Europe. He had joined for a specific job,
which he must wear uniform to perform. He was interpreter from German and
French into English, from English into American, and from American into German,
making as usual no bones about it.
But as the weeks and months went by he
suffered from increasing bewilderment and unease about American extravagance
and profligacy. The Army kitchen threw out good food while all around them in
ruined German cities people were close to starvation. This was not due to
cruelty, or even indifference, but, according to Fred, just lack of
imagination. They could not, he said, conceive of endemic shortages, and,
besides, this food was the property of the Army and could not be awarded to
civilians. Fred was not impressed by these rules. He spirited away tins of meat
and fruit and awarded it to civilians. No one seemed to notice. Or perhaps they
winked one eye at a time.
When he came home he awarded us the
Iron Cross. He had found a drawer full of these items in an abandoned German
Army office. In the book he wrote about this trip, 'Round Trip' (1946) he
describes a conversation with a Belgian intellectual who was investing
spiritual capital in the healing power of democracy. Fred told this political
gentleman that every free human being must be an anarchist at heart, able to
envisage the possibility of order without rule. But of course, he said, it
won't come about. We would all have to have grown into balanced beings to make
a theoretical possibility solid. So he finished by telling the Belgian that
although the concept of anarchy is born from spiritual wisdom, it itself is
neither politics nor wisdom, adding that the greatest criminals of all time
were despotic rulers, but these deluded fellows were just shadow actors in a
nightmare. They have, he declared, no power over the spirit. Fred was always
willing to play the fool by being serious.
By the time he returned from his second
sojourn in shattered Europe, we had left Westbourne Terrace for the Highlands.
His adventures there will be described later.
The Film Man
Despite being the younger son of the
editor of that sober Quaker journal 'The Friend', Stephen Peet never became a
Quaker, but he sojourned, as I did, at a co-educational Quaker boarding school
in Somerset, called Sidcot.
This is not the place to examine that
interesting and benevolent establishment, the interior life of which was so
different from that which its mentors imagined it to be.
It was an institution which suited
Stephen. He was allowed to be what he was, and not someone else's stereotype.
He and Taffy Morgan drew a huge and accurate map of Spain in the Sixth Form
room, and daily moved a string skewered by pins to indicate the changing (and
deteriorating) position of the Republican lines in the Civil War as reported to
the News Chronicle.
Stephen was also one of the main
contributors to the enormous blackboard covered with cartoons, jokes, verses,
and comments, all welcome provided that someone thought them funny or
enlightening. Inferior efforts were dustered off as a replacement became
available, and the changing magazine was the first thing to be examined by
anyone who came into the room. All contributions were anonymous. No teacher had
the heart or the courage to wipe away such creative extravagance in order to
further orthodox learning.
Stephen also managed to make a film
which he showed at a school entertainment. It was a precursor of Disney's
Fantasia, in that it consisted of a series of patterned shapes and colours
which jerked and oscillated across the screen. It indicated things to come
since Stephen remained a film-maker all his wandering life.
He not only married Olive Newbery, a
beautiful and highly intelligent girl who was a younger contemporary of ours at
Sidcot, he kept in touch with old scholars everywhere, and since he visited
everywhere, this enabled him to find a bed and breakfast in the wildest,
weirdest and most unlikely places on the globe.
When I say 'kept in touch' I don't mean
by writing letters. Never. He was a dedicated telephonist and when he rang up
out of the ether after an absence of a month, a year, or three years, the
question 'Where are you?' might be answered 'At home' or 'Rhodesia', 'Norway',
'Sudan', 'Germany' or - well, anywhere.
When War began Stephen joined the
Friends' Ambulance Unit, and for some months we shared a room in the London
Students' Hostel until I went into the coal-mines and Stephen departed as a
uniformed medical orderly to Crete.
He remembered with the clarity of a
recurring dream a stark picture of the German invasion of Crete. He stepped out
of a building into the sudden snap of rifle fire just in time to see a German
soldier take aim at a British soldier running for refuge beside a wall. The
German fired. The British soldier fell and rolled over. The German threw down
his rifle and pelted through the firing to lift the British soldier on his back
and carry him to safety.
Stephen was taken prisoner in Crete and
worked first as a medical orderly in a hospital for the wounded, and was then
transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. A few months ago he sent back
to me the letters I had written to him in the camp.I did not remember them or
even that I had ever written letters to the camp. They were full of jokes,
The camp was like other camps and the
events like those recorded by many prisoners-of-war. But as the conflict moved
in jerks and bursts towards its hungry end, the inmates grew increasingly
worried by the fact that they were closer to the advancing Russians than to the
advancing Allies. The German guards were even more jumpy than the inmates.
One day the inmates awoke and there was
no roll-call, no guards, no food. The Germans had fled in the night.
This was a time now forgotten. The
stories of those who lived through it have not been recorded; they have
vanished into the limbo where all untold stories, and therefore true history,
must vanish. Poland, Germany and Russia were ravaged by war and tainted by mass
murder. Forced labourers, concentration camp survivors, foreign conscripts,
prisoners-of-war, civilian refugees, lost bodies and lost minds were
criss-crossing Europe in search of food, safety, troops of their own
nationality, or simply someone or some place they recognised from a broken
past. Home to one group was alien territory to another; they passed and
re-passed each other on their trek to anywhere which was not the place where
The British prisoners wanted to move
West before soldiers from the East reached their camp. If Russians marched in,
how long would it be before anyone informed the Allies of their existence?
Would the Russians bother to repatriate them at all?
Poles in the camp, and the local
villagers were even more worried, and with good reason. Both groups shared a
common fear of the Russians. In the circumstances the British and the villagers
saw each other as neighbours rather than enemies. The villagers took prisoners
into their homes and fed them.
Then by one of the accidents that war
makes easy, fire broke free in the forest. Every dwelling in the area was
threatened. The flames licked and leapt towards farms and homes, clouds of
smoke hung in the air, and the acrid smell of burning penetrated walls and
Villagers and prisoners began to work
together to cut firebreaks, dig trenches, carry water, organise men into gangs
and columns, feeding the firefighters to battle against an enemy older and more
terrible than soldiers.
To Stephen the days that passed were a
barely credible procession of fleeting hours, with Germans, British and Poles,
who did not share a language, sharing work, food, exhaustion and lack of sleep
with an unquestioning dedication which seemed as natural as breathing.
Once the fire sank back into sullen
malignancy, the prisoners were directed on their way, laden with food and
farewells. Stephen stumbled into a unit of the British Army and was returned to
England, to London, and the Friends' Ambulance Unit. Although officially
attached to the section established at the Middlesex Hospital, he took up
residence in our second attic, which was richly furnished with a camp bed and a
chest of drawers. This gave him more freedom to roam. He was lean, gaunt, with
sunken cheeks and a haunted look, but otherwise did not confess to having
changed, and accepted Fred Perlès and Marmite with the offhand elan he
always used as his disguise.
Among the girl-friends he brought to
170 Westbourne Terrace was a dark and comely one with an interesting gap in her
front teeth. Her name was Denise Levertov. She wrote poetry and was training to
be a nurse. I persuaded her to write an article on her experiences in this
profession for the literary journal I was editing at the time, and which
Fredrick was selling profitably to his followers in the Park. It was a good
article, vivid, perceptive and sensible. Denise went to the U.S.A. where she
became an accomplished and notorious poet and radical protester, marrying Mitch
Goodman, and providing Stephen with yet another point of contact on his world
itinerary. She died a year or two ago.
Stephen spent most of his time
officially collecting and preparing photographs for a history of the F.A.U.,
but did not spurn odd jobs which came his way, the odder the better. The
magazine for which Gene worked wanted male models for knitting patterns, and
Stephen obliged for a pound a time. He was mortified to find his picture
labelled 'A pattern for Daddies.'
Absent Without Leave.
John Atkins had worked for Mass
Observation and Tribune, and published poems and stories before before the war
pitchforked him into the Royal Artillery.
He was willing to fight Hitler but
found the Army intolerable. As he put it himself: 'I have very few good points
but perhaps the best is a love of life and especially of free life. This, as
you can imagine, made it impossible for me to become a satisfactory soldier. It
was obvious from the first that I would not find fulfillment in marching up and
down a parade ground saying 'Yes, sir' and 'Very good, sir.' In the end I went
for a rest to a detention barracks where I had a perfectly jolly time. . . One
little incident I cannot forget. An old soldier, ending his days as a
Regimental Policeman, told me that he had finally come to the conclusion that
the best part of the Army, speaking in a qualitative sense, was shut up in the
guard rooms and detention barracks. He meant the only part that believed
literally all that stuff about freedom that our great leaders talked. This
naturally pleased me very much.'
He had plenty of opportunity to check
the truth of this observation. When things became too much for him, as they
frequently did, he went absent without leave. Absence without leave becomes
desertion after twenty-one days, so he used to go back on the twentieth day.
He was stationed in Bradford when in
1945 he took off for a burst of freedom. He borrowed enough money from our
mutual friend John Braine, then a librarian in Bingley, to get him to Bristol,
where his wife was living, and arrived at Westbourne Terrace a few days later
wearing a pair of her trousers. The difficulty was their shortness and lack of
fly buttons, which he felt might make him conspicuous and attract the attention
of military policemen. We tried on him various pairs of trousers, and the pair
that fitted him best belong to Stephen Peet. Stephen was repaid later when
Atkins had a job teaching English in Khartoum and Stephen, always adept at
making use of such coincidences, stayed with him while filming in the Sudan.
That evening we went to the cinema. We
had to queue to get in, and when a pair of military policemen had walked past
the queue twice in a heavily booted manner, we decided that the film wasn't
really as good as all that, and nipped home for a cup of tea.
Atkins fitted admirably into the
community of 170 Westboune Terrace, enjoying everything that was laid before
him, until the requisite number of days had passed, when he returned to the
The Army did not know what to make of
him. After he had been in and out of the glasshouse several times they placed
him before an interviewing board, and asked him if he would like to become an
officer. When he said no, they delivered him to a psychiatrist, on the ground
that he must be unbalanced. The psychiatrist proved to be round the bend
himself, and the experiment was not a success. John Atkins was discharged from
the Army as soon as the war in Europe ended. The military had had their fill of
him, although they realised very well that he was a nice, intelligent chap.
Since the many books he published in
later years did not make him a decent living, partly owing to the fact that his
distinguished publisher neglected to pay him the royalties owed, he taught by
arrangement with the British Council first in Libya, then in the Sudan, and
finally in Poland, where he learned to pronounce Lodz as Wudge, and to
appreciate the works of Lutoslawski. I noticed that whatever country he
visited, whether for work or a holiday, suffered some sort of a revolution soon
afterwards, but I continue to regard this as a coincidence. We wrote one book
together, which was intended to be funny. Whether the noble fellow who
published it, whose name was Bernard Hanison, and the few citizens who bought
it, found it so, we could never be sure.
We also produced in partnership a
satirical review about the literary world which we distributed free to those
who might find it salutary. Many readers applauded the merry quips about their
contemporaries, but never the merry quips about what Fred Perlès used to
call 'their own selves'. Over the years, too, we have played innumerable games
of cricket, fives and tiddley-wink football, considering these activities to be
a necessity of civilised life.
Part Two. After That.
In early December 1945 I went into the
offices of Thomas Cook in Trafalgar Square and asked how to get to Ullapool,
which I remembered from a visit as a boy. It stood out in memory as a good
place to go and write books - a string of white houses beside a loch, with a
ring of mountains and away out to sea the rolling backs of the Summer Isles.
The war in Europe had only recently
ended and people in Britain had forgotten that anyone travelled anywhere except
where they were ordered to go, which unusually turned out to be the place they
least wanted to visit.
As a result of this paucity of
travellers the inhabitants of Thomas Cook's office were Rip Van Winkels who had
awakened blinking from a five year hibernation and had not yet tested their
telephones. They rummaged for their maps or dusted their files. The name
Ullapool meant less to them than Timbuktu or Saskatchewan.
Then from somewhere down the corridors
of time a tiny memory came scurrying with a message. Had there not been, before
the war, a boat which sailed form Glasgow calling in at a series of northern
outposts of which one might have been Ullapool, or a name something like that?
The recipient of this inspiration searched through piles of pamphlets,
brochures and time-tables, at first with excited interest and then more slowly
and at last in a sort of lifeless lethargy, confessing that in this mass of
everything he had found nothing.
A map told me where Ullapool was, and
a telephone call established that the nearest railway station was a tiny halt
called Garve some thirty miles away. After that - who knows? It must be
possible, after all, to reach Ullapool, because people lived there. I bought a
ticket to Garve.
On the night express you fell asleep
at somewhere regrettable like Crewe and awoke among mountains to view clouds
wandering over wild country. On this occasion the mountains were sprinkled with
snow. Since I had spent the years of war travelling in corridors among humped
and uniformed figures snoring, this journey was like a return to the days
before men with little moustaches began to destroy the world.
From Inverness a train promising Kyle
of Lochalsh admitted through a monosyllabic guard that it paused at Garve
station to drop off the mail. The village consisted of a row of terraced
houses. One of these houses was the Post Office. Outside the Post Office stood
a squat, snub-nosed bus. A tall, grey-haired man with a slow, sober tread was
stowing mail bags into the bus. Yes, he would be starting in a few minutes.
Yes, he would be going to Ullapool. He was not curious about this unlikely
passenger. He was just slow, grey and careful.
There were four other passengers. They
had the look of defenders prepared for a long siege. The bus was chilly. It
rolled along a single-track road with occasional parking places as if prepared
to do its duty with no hope of enjoying the job. Sometimes the driver turned
off the engine and vanished into a low stone croft-house. Once he was gone so
long that I darted from the bus and cantered behind a tree to pee. The driver
was standing there with grave intentness doing the same thing. He nodded
courteously but did not speak.
The road passed beside a lochan
bordered by leaning pines and then dropped steeply among woods and rhododendron
bushes to the dark waters of Loch Broom, and at last Ullapool appeared below,
strung along a sheltering arm of land. Darkness was closing in.
I was the only guest in the surprised
I walked to the Post Office in a
blustering wind, which had risen suddenly. The old postmaster looked up in
unblinking astonishment at a stranger on such a night in such a month of such a
year. He wrote for me the address of a gentleman who had before the war been
accustomed to let a bungalow by the shore, and then directed me to the house of
the schoolmaster, who had sometimes been known to hire out an empty cottage. I
got lost in the black wind which roistered round the deserted streets. A gate
creaked and sagged. I trampled blindly in the dark across a patch of what might
have been curly kale.
The door opened only after a fusillade
of knocks and thumps. Light fell out and the schoolmaster blinked from a face
like a forgotten potato. We stood in a passage painted institution-green among
apples ranked on newspapers.
His words were slow, his voice rusty
as if unused for months.
No, he said, not now, impossible,
nothing could be done.
I walked back to the hotel, blown
through the darkness by a wind which howled in the telephone wires. All night
the iron sign creaked, and the air grew wet.
I wrote to the address the postmaster
gave me, and a week later in London received a courteous letter from a
Lieutenant Colonel. A crow could have flown to the address on the letter in
less than fie minutes. During the war many posters asked us 'Is your journey
really necessary?' Oddly enough, I think it was. Stephen Peet came with me to
take over the bungalow by the shore. We intended to prepare the house for Gene,
who had to work her notice with the Amalgamated Press. We arrived in January
1946. The bus stopped by the mail box. From the road our feet crisped into
The ample and welcoming figure of Ina
Ross from the crofthouse on the hill stood in the doorway. There was a blazing
fire in the hearth, a paraffin lamp glowed on the table, there were hot water
bottles in the beds, and the kitchen stove shook with heat.
We walked, climbed and ate corned beef
hash. Stephen took photographs of hills under hanging skies, wind on grey
water, bursts of risky sunshine, and figures on rocky slopes.
When he left I was alone for several
days. Because I had not been officially released from conditions of
registration I was technically illegal and not surprised when one dark evening
I opened the door to find the local policeman standing there with a lamp and a
He entered with heavy casualness and
consented to sit down on a kitchen chair for a chat. All he said seemed to move
in the wrong direction. Why should he be so interested in Stephen Peet? Why
wasn't he asking for my papers and probing me with enquiries about my dubious
past? But he wasn't interested either in my dubious past or precarious present,
whereas he seemed to find any titbit about Stephen intensely gripping. Why?
When he tramped off into the dark he left a bemused and relieved citizen making
a cup of tea.
It was some months before someone told
me that a woman on the mail bus had reported Stephen to the policeman as
answering to the description of a man accused of committing a murder in
Glasgow. According to the newspapers the man was over six feet tall with fiery
red hair, whereas Stephen was about five foot eleven with brown curled. I
wonder what this lady saw when she peered under the bed each night?
Stephen returned to his attic bed in
Westbourne Terrace until August 1946. I suppose he must have paid a few bob a
week to Laurie Hislam, who now occupied the flat. When released from the FAU he
went to Czechslovakia to make a film for World Student Relief, then wandered
Europe teaching English and half-starving in Prague, Switzerland and Paris.
In 1948 he got a job filming in Africa
and eventually ended up producing the documentary programme 'Yesterday's
Witness' for the BBC. His career there was hampered by a bizarre misfortune: he
was the brother of John Scott Peet, who had crossed over to the East Germans
while a Reuter's correspondent in Berlin. There John ran a news-sheet which
revealed a lot of information that Western governments would have preferred to
keep under official hats. He was of considerable help to several British spy
novelists who came in search of plots.
Remarkably, he retained his British
passport and was a regular visitor to London, so what was the fuss about? When
in 1957 Stephen brought him to see us, I found John to be in essence a liberal
as devoid of illusions about East German Communism as he was about Western
capitalist foreign policy. Stephen himself never had the smallest inclination
towards Communism. Life is rarely as simple as the newspapers describe it to
Fred In The Highlands
It must have been summer 1946 or 7
that Fred joined us in Ullapool. It was agreed that he should invite Lawrence
Durrell and his new wife. Eve, to pay a visit. She was Egyptian and thought the
peat we burned in the stove was camel dung.
Fred's stay coincided with one by
Hellen Baillie, a friend of my sister. Hellen did not take to Fred, nor Fred to
Hellen. Hellen showed it; Fred didn't. There were few cars available in those
years and Hellen had one. We borrowed it to meet the Durrells in Inverness,
which was sixty miles away and travel from there complicated and wearing. The
car was an Austin Seven which knew its age, but faced life bravely. Hellen was
very emphatic that we should not overload the machine, and thought that Fred's
presence was a form of overloading. He said he would return by bus.
We set off in good heart. The little
box bumbled along with lively sobriety over rocky moorland, through gathering
mountains by a tumbling burn and at last through soft woods to the grey city.
The car's confidence was infectious and Fred and Durrell were so pleased to see
each other that I unwisely insisted that Fred should be one of the crew for the
return journey. Alas, the Durrells had a heavy suitcase.
All went well until the steep hill by
the quarry at Contin. The small box bearing the large suitcase and four people
chugged ever more slowly and at last the engine gave a gasp and expired. When I
applied the handbrake it refused to grip. With manic fury I rammed the gear
lever into first in the hope of arresting the descent and broke the half shaft
with a decisive bang. We ran smartly into the bank and came to rest. Hellen's
worst fears had been realised and the prospect of facing her wrath was more
terrible that the prospect of walking forty miles home. She would, of course,
The quarry foreman knew me and
telephoned the hotel at Garve. At the hotel we arranged for their taxi to pick
us up in a roadside cottage which served tea.
We spent a long time eating scones and
swigging tea while Durrell held forth about this and that and I inwardly
calculated whether our combined resources would pay for the taxi. It seemed
doubtful. After a time it entered my mind that no taxi had arrived. I pointed
this out to the assembled company and Fred leapt to his feet, volunteering to
go and fetch the taxi, explaining that he would, as always, do the talking.
Twenty minutes was taken up with
further swigging, chomping and holding forth before a triumphant Fred appeared
like a genie from a bottle, towing a gentleman in his wake. The gentleman
The conversation which followed went
something like this:
'We're glad to see you. We're ready.'
The man looked uneasy. 'Ready?' he
'How far is it to Ullapool?' Durrell
'Ullapool?' the man said. 'Thirty
miles I should think. Yes, it must be at least thirty miles. I've just come
'Bad luck,' I said. 'But I suppose
it's part of the job.'
'Job? What job?' said the man. A
dreadful thought came into his mind. I saw it on his face as it crept. 'You
mean you want me to go to Ullapool?'
'Well, yes. That was the idea. We
explained to the hotel.'
The man's face took on a wild and
hunted look. His eyes roved, his feet shuffled, he began to edge towards the
door. Were we pirates, hijackers, or lunatics?
'No. Really. I'm sorry. The fact is,
I'm on my way home. I've been on holiday. I'm late already. I must go.'
At this point the authentic taxi man
arrived. The kidnapped motorist broke and fled. His wheels threw up gravel as
he accelerated into the distance.
Fred had seen the car drawn up at the
hotel petrol pump, made his assumptions and said firmly through the window.
'Ah, there you are. Come on. It's this way.' And got in.
The most peculiar thing about the
incident was that neither Durrell nor Eve seem to have noticed it. As for Fred,
he was neither embarrassed nor crestfallen, but looked on with equanimity. He
had a wonderful talent for accepting events. Hellen Baillie, on the other hand,
knew exactly what had happened. A replacement half-shaft took weeks to obtain
and the repair cost me forty pounds.
Whilst Durrell was staying, the factor
and his wife used to come to the house regularly to play pontoon. Durrell was
very reluctant to join in, but yielded with downcast grace. He lost immediately
and retired to the balcony in deep depression. It turned out that he hated
cards and always lost. Fred played with his normal insouciance, and proved
excellent at liar dice, too, a game of poker dice in which you call incorrectly
and pass the dice, concealed, to your neighbour. This requires an alert memory
and the adoption of facial expressions designed to baffle observers.
wasn't so much inscrutable but incredible. When challenged he always proved
Frederick, The Forum and The North
From winter 1946 until the end of
April 1947 Fredrick and Molly were occupying a friend's flat in Rome, hoping
for sunshine and peace, but receiving instead deluges of rain and visitors.
Fredrick wrote from Italy on 8 April 1947 telling us that Laurie's wife
Winifred was expecting a child and that Laurie had been causing anxiety and
distress. How, exactly? He didn't say. 'That is one reason,' (he went on,) 'why
Molly is so anxious to get Cecil out of the house. . .She can't stand Cecil.
Sometimes I think it is a psychological phobia, but after the way he behaved
over the last twelve months, I have a certain amount of sympathy. He really has
no right to be there at all. Waited until we had gone and then sneaked in
again. Irene and Winifred spent a week finding him another room, but he won't
move there while there is someone to keep him..'
'..I try to meet your very
obvious sympathy with Cecil, but frankly John, there are limits. . .It is not
the misery that he has caused but the complete lack of any endeavour either to
redeem or to exert himself, to shoulder even the responsibility which no man
can decently evade without losing his own self respect . . I am always at a
loss to understand how one so sensitive in many respects can be so callous in
regard to people.'
Laurie Hislam and Winifred were
occupying our flat 170, and Irene Harsley another room in the house. For a year
or so Irene had been speaking on the Forum platform in Hyde Park. She went over
to join Fredrick and Molly in Rome for a few weeks. Fredrick reported:
'She betrays the symptoms I know
so well from experience. The most gruelling work is not the platform, nor the
lecture room, but the long, arduous private conversations which one cannot, and
should not, avoid in connection with propaganda work. Unfortunately so many
people use us instead of doctors, psychotherapists, or priests, and it just
drains away one's vitality.'
By mid-May they were back in
Westbourne Terrace and on 17th Fredrick wrote: 'Home at last. As always the
refreshing experience of the extreme loveliness of the English countryside and
the welcoming grime of the London streets. Dear London, how I love it - cockney
that I am.'
There was something in that
remark that brought Dickens to mind and suddenly I saw Fredrick as a
combination of a character out of Dickens and a character out of Dostoevsky -
Dickens plus angst and metaphysics.
He went on:
'It softens the blow of the
Forum. They all tried to keep it from me but I doubt if this is a wise policy,
actually. It is better to be forewarned than to come back in innocent
defencelessness. Well, I won't bother you with all the sordidness, sufficient
to say that Coupe has gone. . . Cecil is my evil genius. Hatred and discord is
the result of six month's calumny of me whilst I have been away, and no one
will give me the opportunity to know what it is all about, nor will my enemies
permit me to know why they hate me nor give me an opportunity to answer any of
their insinuations and slander. But at least the air is cleared. Everybody
seems to have made his choice - some to the intellect, some to faith. For
myself, one spark of faith is worth, as I see it, all the brilliance and
cleverness of a million intellectuals. In all humility I am overjoyed to find
that amid this welter I have this spark of faith - small but strong enough to
survive the disappointment and to carry on. So we go to the Forum today, a
small band, but united in our loyalty and I am absolutely convinced that it
will be enough to beat them down and overcome all the venom, spite, malice and
hatred of a thousand Cecils and Coupe.. '
But there was in fact only one
Cecil, and one Coupe, and the peculiar vocation of the Forum required the
interaction of the triumvirate. The Forum could not survive in its most
creative form without that electric contact, and although it continued to exist
for another twelve years, the changes proved fatal in the end. Without
Fredrick, of course, it would neither have come into being nor operated at all.
It was in this sense the spiritual vehicle in which he travelled. Without it
neither Coupe nor Cecil had anywhere to go.
The intense life-and-death
subjectivity of Fredrick's pilgrimage and his consequent changing view of the
role of the Forum was always liable to cause difficulties. More and more he was
moving towards an acceptance of religion as Christian orthodoxy, and inevitably
therefore the possibility of becoming a Roman Catholic. The necessity of then
accepting the authority of the Church did not suit Coupe. Although himself a
Catholic, Coupe had advised Fredrick against joining the Church, warning him
that it would destroy the vocation of the Forum. It would also undermine the
principles on which the Forum was originally based on the fundamental human
necessity of freedom and the operation of totally free enquiry.
I can well imagine Cecil's
reaction to this passage from Fredrick's lectures on history, published by the
Forum as 'Greek, Roman and Jew' in 1952, but based upon notes read to the Forum
'Loneliness is ultimately the
surest guide to history. When it is accompanied by the dread sense of personal
futility, it can be experienced as an urgent compulsion to historical
understanding. Psychic isolation can be the no-man's-land between an accidental
existence and a meaningful life - and what better reason could men have for
seeking the meaning of history than the hope that it will uncover meaning in
Cecil was only too aware of the
reality of loneliness, and the sense of personal futility, but would remain
wary of basing an entire philosophy of history on his own psychological state.
Such assertions were surely what the Forum existed to examine with the utmost
rigour. They could not be endorsed uncritically. For what if the secret of
history is that it is indeed accidental? What if a sense of meaning in life is
to be obtained only by the acceptance of such an accidental reality and the
building of community despite it? If we are to depend for meaning on authority,
then on whose authority does authority speak, and on what rational basis is it
Again, despite his zealous
playing of the role of observer, gadfly and commentator. Coupe had his own
vanity and will-to-power; Fredrick's use of the Forum as a personal pilgrimage
must have been galling, and led to resentment upon which it should have been
easy for Cecil to work.
Unknown to anyone at the time.
Coupe was suffering from a brain tumour which brought about his death in 1949,
and his behaviour became increasingly strange. He would lock himself up for
days in his room like a hermit, eating cold food from a tin and leaving the tin
where it fell.
In the letter of 1947 Fredrick
goes on to refer to his efforts on the book which became 'The Grand
'As I believe I told you, my
historical treatise ('Greek, Roman and Jew') reduced me to despair and in Rome
I abandoned it. But when Irene came she revived my interest in "The Grand
Inquisitor', so during the time we were in Moore's flat I worked hard, with her
help, and by the time we left the thing was nearly finished.'
'The Grand Inquisitor' was
ostensibly an exploration of human loneliness and the problem of freedom; it is
also an account in abstract terms of Fredrick's own psychological situation at
In Dostoevsky's 'Legend', an
interpolation in 'The Brothers Karamazov', Jesus has returned to earth and is
immediately arrested and brought before the Grand Inquisitor, who is
Dostoevsky's incarnation of responsible power without faith. For the
Inquisitor, the world is meaningless, but ordinary people must not be allowed
to realise the fact. Men are too weak to accept reality and to endure freedom.
The wise must therefore accept responsibility for their welfare, providing them
with security and material prosperity at the expense of liberty. This means, of
course, to keep men in a state of inner slavery and sleep. Belief in religion
and the afterlife are to be deliberately promoted although they have no
Jesus is accused by the
Inquisitor of cruelty for refusing power and allowing liberty at the price of
This would in fact be an
excellent starting point for a justification of the freedom in which Dostoevsky
passionately believed, and which had been Fredrick's raison d'etre for so long,
and the basis for the Forum's work.
But his intention in 'The Grand
Inquisitor' seems to be to lay the blame for the Inquisitor's position solely
on his atheism. 'If there is no God,' Fredrick writes, 'then all things are
lawful. If there are no transcendental values then might is right.' The old
Fredrick would have seen any attack on individual freedom as an attack on the
possibility of inner discovery and the reality of spiritual development.
Intelligence applied to history may well judge that might as embodied in
authority, far from being right, is damaging, dangerous and counter-productive.
Fredrick goes on, 'If we are not
to take seriously the stern requirements of divine justice, why on earth should
we admit the claims of conscience. By repudiating punishment for evil, we
degrade the value of the good.'
This is surely an abandonment of
all the discoveries made by the Forum in its efforts to show that freedom is
the essential basis for any honest investigation of reality. Whatever dogmatic
statements and whatever assertions of faith may be made, a fundamental mystery
remains in the origin of the universe and in the life of man. As for
conscience, that grows through the exercise of that capacity for insight which
is born with us; we admit its claims because it is there. The mystery of how it
got there is to my mind more fruitful than any definite answer.
For some reason about which I am
not clear, Fredrick turns bitterly against personal experience as a
justification for philosophy or belief. Such experience, he says, is 'impotent
to create value.' But in fact experience is not being asked to create value,
but to discover it.
He seems to have chosen to ignore
the Forum's own critique of the ego; the ego can as well choose to identify
with religious teaching as with communism, ecology, party politics, or any
other ideology that comes to hand, and will then use that identification for
its own aggrandisement. To observe the manoeuvres and manipulations of the ego
in its will-to-power is to recognise the reality of a witness which is
necessarily separate from the ego or observation would be impossible. There is,
in other words, something in us capable of objective vision, and freedom is not
only justified but essential. Coupe says of 'the soul' it is a reality
impossible to define. The witness is similarly elusive, and all the better for
Fredrick was ignoring that strand
of Christian witness which based belief on the working of what the Quaker
George Fox called 'the Inner Light', which transcends the ego and its workings.
Fredrick in his despair at the loneliness of the ego in a world which cannot
directly reveal meaning, asserts that meaning can only be revealed in a life to
come. For him this implies a necessary acceptance of the Christian revelation
and the authority of the Church. But that is to destroy the sole reason for the
existence of the Forum. To subtract meaning from the world and to invest it in
an afterlife is to place it somewhere which cannot be proved to exist. Faith
then becomes the only virtue. And that is an even more desperate intellectual
situation than Fredrick has been in at any previous time.
'If there is no God,' he writes,
'then all things are lawful.' But that which is lawful depends upon those who
make the laws. Who makes the laws? It is the examination of this which raises
questions about power and freedom. Is God a God of power? We have moved a long
way from the dicta of his one-time favourite philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev that
'God is mystery and freedom', and 'the possibility of experiencing truth lies
in man's innate nature and informs it.'
Fredrick asserts again and again
that intellect alone cannot conquer 'the demon of doubt.' Of course this is
true. But perhaps the demon of doubt has its own vocation in the world.
In 'The Grand Inquisitor'
Fredrick expresses disillusion with those philosophers who sought for peace and
happiness in this world - which is to deny one strand in that anarchism which
he formerly espoused. As a philosophy anarchism depends on a belief in the
fundamentally positive nature of human beings. Of alone cannot establish a
civilised society. It could be held, however, that freedom remains an obstinate
human demand whether or not it produces happiness and peace. The struggle for
freedom in a social sense has revealed the need for co-operative action and a
sense of human community. Yet Fredrick goes out of his way to attack the
benevolent philosopher John MacMurray for advocating a society based upon 'the
community of persons', and goes on to denounce 'reverence for society' as a
form of atheism. But the effort to stablish relationships which are free and
just need not involve a 'reverence for society' and certainly does not involve
reverence for power, whether the power is political or spiritual, only a
recognition of the value of human beings in an intractable world.
Yet I have a sense that
underlying the book is a desperate concern with freedom, which is shared with
Dostoevsky, and this gives a disturbing impression of a man fighting, out of
desperation, against his true intuitions. It had surely become obvious that any
over-riding concern with the ordering of human society at the expense of the
individual soul leads to tyranny. The greater the central power the greater the
Fredrick was now attempting to
see freedom as dependent on a divine law which is beyond the scope of human
intellect to elucidate and we must therefore accept it on faith.
This seemed to me then and seems
to me now a dereliction of duty The fundamental nature of freedom reveals
itself in such odd phenomena as randomness in the motion of sub-atomic
particles and the ambiguities of Quantum theory. What arises from contemplation
of such matters is not the vision of an all-powerful God with His plans drawn
up, but of a creative explosion of unimaginable complexity which projects the
universe as a continual working-out of ever-developing problems. Surely that
would better conform to Fredrick's own concern with the process of history, and
with the assertion of man as a responsible being? Man would then bear the
extreme responsibility of working through to that unspecifiable culmination for
which history seeks, and the need for freedom would be built into the nature of
I had moved too far from the
twists and turns of Fredrick's pilgrimage fully to understand his repudiation
of the insights the Forum had achieved.. When I was working in the coal-mines
my chief comfort had been - together with the company of that iconoclastic
individualist Fred Crook - the discovery of Chinese philosophy. As a
consequence, the desperation implicit in the contemporary crisis of intellect
had come to seem not so much a human as a Western disease. Whereas Western
religion has sought an impossible solution in the power of a Church and the
person of the saint, the East has seen it in the rare but more attainable
development of the sage.
If I had been clear enough in my
own mind at the time to put forward a thesis in response to Fredrick's little
book, I would not have done so, because of an unwillingness to add to his
Molly In The Highlands
In an undated letter, probably
from early 1948, Fredrick relates his health tribulations, including septic
gums and severe stomach pain. 'Sometimes it was so bad that I had to stay away
from the office, and when I was there I had to be continually running out to
put food into the stomach.'
He had taken a job with a
friendly solicitor, typing legal documents, in order to give Molly some sense
of security. He was a quick and accurate typist.
'Eventually after a long series
of X-rays the Doctor at the hospital informed me that I had better have my
stomach out by a surgical operation. Apparently there are people walking about
nowadays without stomachs, but I was not very cheered at the prospect of the
small gut taking over the duties of the larger organ in spite of assurances
that the little fellow was 'ready and willin'', as Barkis would say. So I
continued to carry on, with more caution, and equip myself with bottles of milk
at the office and prayers at home, and funk within.'
He then goes on to talk of his
worries about Molly.
'As you know, her health was
splendid up to the birth of Paul, and for a few weeks after. Then she began to
debilitate, losing weight etc. A couple of weeks ago she fell into a very
depressed state of mind, and could not endure 170, although we all tried to
help all we could with the work.'
The 'all' he referred to would
comprise Winifred Hislam and Irene Harsley with a little help from Fredrick and
the unpredictable Laurie.
'Finally she went away to her
mother's and stayed there with Paul. She seemed to be better when she came back
.... but unfortunately it is only a temporary recovery. I am afraid she is
having a bad attack of melancholia and I have been scheming how I might get her
'The remaining thing to do is, I
believe, to get Molly away to the country or the sea-side for a holiday - the
trouble is that I fear her phobia against 170 will develop into an obsession
and she will not come back.'
' . . .You see, my dears, it all
had to happen. All the stirrings deep down in the sub-conscious of our
relationship had to erupt. . .We have been trying to pursue a vocational work,
earn a living, maintain a home and carry the storm and stress of a dozen
different tensions. At one time, last Saturday, I was defeated and gave in - I
think it really was the last straw. As a result Irene (who is doing all the
propaganda work) collapsed and so perforce I had to go to the Forum - literally
shaking. Then somehow, I don't know how, something took possession of me and
the words flowed in inexorable logic. He just won't let me pack up. With or
without stomach I have to go on, and with Molly and with love.'
The upshot was that we invited
Molly to stay with us in the Highlands for the summer.
'We have had a talk about things
and Molly agrees your invitation is one we cannot refuse without being wholly
insensitive to your concern and generosity. This is half the trouble, John, and
why I did not write before. It is necessary to realise what such an open-handed
gesture might imply. I will put it like this: Molly needs, I think, both
physical and mental relaxation. Her doctor says she does not need a tonic but a
sedative. Her nerves are all screwed up, and her physical condition
debilitated. She has been all her life unable to 'break down', open her heart,
confide completely in anyone.'
'. . .We have, from the beginning
of our relationship been burdened with difficulties and, I think, to very large
extent have succeeded, but penalties are inevitable. Through it all ran my
essential conflict between my intuition about vocation and Molly's human and
social needs. . . By an act of will, aided by exhaustion, I have on occasion
determined to abandon this intuition, sometimes using as justification the
reduction of vocation to egoism, and at others moral conscience to make Molly's
happiness primary. In all cases there was a failure. . . Practical discipline
showed the intuition not to spring from mere egoism; subordination to duty did
not convince Molly of the spontaneous sincerity she must have to free herself
from the 'guilt' she has that her secret intentions were different from her
He went on to explain that in
joining the Catholic Church he was, a divorced man, automatically committed to
a celibate life, which Molly would find intolerable since she had refused to
follow him into the fold.
He seemed to me unduly optimistic
when he went on, 'I am certain that if by love, care and devotion I can
convince Molly that my love for her is genuine, as before God it is, and is not
'secondary' in an unworthy sense, then I believe that we shall both be able to
go ahead happily and healthily. . . .'
In fact during her stay in
Ullapool from May until the end of September, 1948, Molly seemed robustly
happy. We did not ask questions or invite confidences, and she did not offer
them. Far from seeking rest, she was eager to join in every activity available.
She spoke a lot about her childhood in Ireland, and saw in the ceilidhs,
dances, and social gatherings of the Highlands a re-creation of the life she
had experienced then. The only remarks she made which revealed her attitude was
to say that the Church had been as keen to recruit her as Fredrick, but 'They
won't get me.' Her expression of saintly obstinacy confirmed it. Fredrick said
later that to his mind they wanted Molly a great deal more that they wanted
him, and this I can understand. Fredrick was one of the awkward squad.
Their son Paul was a small,
amiable baby, and although occasionally vociferous was never ill nor
inconsolable. Gene worked part-time in a cafe in the village, and Molly shared
the household duties.
The Mod was held in Inverness
that year, and as well as singing together in the choir, Molly and Gene were
persuaded to learn and perform a duet, 'Drink to me only with thine eyes.',
which they managed with moving simplicity. Molly's resemblance to a
representation of the Madonna helped the overall impression of grave innocence.
The choir was committed to 'Can ye sew cushions?' to which the answer was 'Yes'
in their case; they rehearsed at all hours to prove it.
By the time Fredrick arrived
after a weird adventure into the United States she looked well, cheerful and
relaxed. He had been persuaded by a dubious American called Heber something or
other, who attended the Forum, that if he went with this spirited fellow to the
U.S.A. he would be a wow in Boston, gathering large crowds and collecting
serious amounts of cash. Heber would give the necessary guarantees to the
authorities that he would support Fredrick in an emergency.
He didn't do anything of the
kind. Heber insisted on an exhausting and useless trip to Florida in an old
jalopy which got as far as Philadelphia and broke down, at which point Heber
jumped ship, leaving Fredrick alone and penniless. He had no work permit, and
had no idea where to go for help and advice. Someone directed him to the
Quakers, and they generously gave him enough money to to get to New York.
In New York he scraped a bare
living speaking in the open air, He'd rented an attic room but could not sleep
because of the heat, and used to walk the streets at night, stepping over
drunks on the sidewalk until they were scooped up by police vans in the early
hours. At the end of the month he moved to Boston where he did establish a
sufficient following to save enough for the passage back to England.
He came north to join Molly and
stayed for three weeks.
Something happened then that I
have regretted ever since. I had written a comic novel, the typescript of which
lay on the table where Fredrick was writing letters. He couldn't resist taking
a peep, and was shaken to find himself reading a boisterous account of the
characters in 170 Westbourne Terrace, exaggerated for effect. The portrayal was
affectionate but rumbustious and what he saw as a trivialisation of his mission
hurt him deeply, although he said nothing at the time.
Worse was to come. In 1949 I
heard that Coupe had died as the result of a brain tumour, and it struck me as
intolerable that the death of an extraordinary man should pass entirely
I wrote an article about him for
'Blackfriars Review'. When Fredrick read this article he sent a letter
denouncing me for misinterpretation of the Forum's work and for exaggerating
Coupe's influence on it. The words I had used were these: 'He (Coupe) lacked a
platform personality, and sensibly preferred to help formulate the ideas of
those men with forceful platform personalities - and this, to my knowledge, he
succeeded in doing.'
Fredrick was certainly right
about my misinterpretation of Coupe's own writings (when I re-read them later I
was astonished at how stupid I had been), but that Coupe's effect on the Forum
had been crucial I have no doubt.
I don't have Fredrick's initial
outburst, but the letter that followed my own defensive reply is dated 10
'I am sorry now that I wrote. I
acted on the impulse of an immediate reaction. . . Coupe is a touchy subject
for me, and if I jumped at you rather brusquely, it is because so much of me is
implicated. You see - personal reasons at the bottom of everything - but not
quite. Personal touchiness need not stem only from ego.
'The suggestion in your article,
intended or not, is definitely that Coupe was 'the master', and we sat at his
feet. The position was quite different.' He goes on to describe the primary
influence of Brown on the Forum , in a passage that I quoted earlier, and then
insists that Coupe used Brown's insights to form his intellectual system.
Fredrick says emphatically that Coupe's defection from the Forum, as well as
those of Cecil, Winstanley, Reed and the others, was grounded in pride. But my
guess is that it was also grounded on a perception that Fredrick was leading
the Forum off its original track.
'I think Coupe's defection,' he
wrote, 'nearly broke my heart, so fond was I of him, and so much I appreciated
him as thinker and man.' He goes on to repeat that it was on Coupe's advice
that he stayed out of the Church for several years, and says, 'You will
therefore understand what it would mean. . .to be accused by him of stealing
his money, his brains and his time. That he could conceive me guilty of such
enormities I can only put down to the evil influences which surrounded him
while I was in Italy, and to his childish incapacity for making judgements
about persons and his womanish susceptibility to flattery. Nevertheless, the
pain of such things was intense and I went to great lengths of humiliation to
win him back - unsuccessfully. The last blow was the keeping from me by his
'friends' of the knowledge that he was dying, so that I could not even visit
him. They would not even tell me where he was lying ill. But telephoned
immediately he was dead.'
He continues by remarking that I
can hardly be blamed for not understanding relationships his end, since I had
been so far away for so long, and he won't repeat his complaints about
misinterpretation of the Coupologues.
'But you see when I was with you
in 1948 I happened to read a manuscript of yours which was obviously written
about 170 and the forum. I was very much hurt by what I took to be a caricature
of our lives and work. Apart from this it convinced me that you did not
understand either the people or the work itself. It was with this in mind that
I suggested you wrote sometimes without sufficient knowledge. . . .'
In this Fredrick was probably
No letters survive in my
haphazard records until 1959. This does not mean that there was a break in
relationship. We not only paid several visits to 170. but Fredrick stayed with
us at least twice during the 1950s when we had moved from Ullapool itself to a
croft house on stony windswept point four miles north of the town.
On one of these occasions Hellen
Baillie was present with an amiable and intelligent young man who was greatly
impressed and entertained by Fredrick. Hellen was not. She disliked him even
more than she had disliked Fred Perlès, but for different reasons. She
thought Fred a parasite and a ladies' man, while Fredrick's intense manner of
forcing through an argument reminded her unpleasantly of her dominating father.
Her sensible young man quietly suggested that they move on elsewhere before
Helen and the atmosphere exploded together. I doubt in fact if Fredrick had
been at all troubled by her reaction. He was used to opposition and in any case
was too busy arguing with me about the differences between Eastern and Western
In 1952 the Forum issued
Fredrick's book 'Greek, Roman and Jew', an attempt to relate his new-found
acceptance of consequent use of analysis as a weapon in the ego's continual
struggle for domination and aggrandisement
He comes close to viewing history
as being propelled not by ego in conflict with others, or by economic forces,
or a clash of ideologies, or by social change, or political rivalries, but by
'the conscious will of men intending an ultimate world-and-life control.' By
this he seems to mean certain men of knowledge and influence with an
over-riding aim, and this of course is Brown's thesis, and Dostoevsky's in the
Grand Inquisitor. It is a conspiracy theory which rears its head again and
again in a society which has become so complex that influences of all kinds
interact in a way almost impossible to disentangle.
To my mind history shows that as
elites prove in practice to be as blind as their victims, and that wise men do
not run the world. One definition of a wise man would be: 'one who would refuse
power if it was offered him' - as the Bible story about the temptation in the
desert demonstrates in the case of Jesus. Fredrick's analysis of the
relationship between Greek philosophy, Roman practicality and Jewish mission is
full of insights, and his conscious conclusion demands thought: a change of
relationships between persons can only come about through 'a passionate
response to the call of the historical, . . . . . a willingness to personalise
this intention, and to make its objective one's own destiny.' This, in
Fredrick's eyes, requires an identification with the historicity of
Christianity, and its revelation through Christ of God's intention through
There are two historical drives
here - domination of the world by the egoistic will, with its weapons of
scientific administration and control, and Prophetic Christianity with its
vision of the mission of Jesus and 'the end of history' in the Second Coming.
For Fredrick it is this historicity which distinguishes Christianity from
Eastern religions and gives it unique meaning. What then are we dealing with -
the ego as the Devil at work, or the ego-as-controller in a sinful distortion
of God's historical will, or is this development of scientific intellect
divorced from natural life also a part of God's intention?
Fredrick sees a synthesis of
Greek, Roman and Jew as impossible: it is this which brings about the
continual, dynamic tension driving the historical process.
I don't believe that Fredrick's
vocation, discovered one day in Hyde Park, was a vocation for orthodoxy, and
indeed have a feeling that Coupe was right in seeing as part of his vocation
the need to remain outside the Church. It may well be that history in fact
encourages the unorthodox, the innovator, the maverick in the spiritual and
intellectual sphere, much as evolution advances by means of biological
'sports'. Fredrick tells us in 'Greek, Roman and Jew' that 'True freedom means
willing commitment to relationship and acknowledgment of dependence.' In other
words, the individual is saved by 'asserting Christ rather than the ego.'
For years he had been analysing
the dangers of a psychological need for ego-identification with doctrines,
ideologies and dogma, so that ego identifies itself by espousing the cause of
something larger than itself which it can impose on others. This it chooses to
call 'idealism'. To identify with Christianity would obviously be one of the
most effective of the ego's ploys and can only be avoided by reference to an
inner witness which Fredrick continually uses without acknowledgment. But if
identification with the culture of Christianity means the abandonment to egoism
not at all pure but painfully simple, then we are involved in psychological
disaster. This would be egoistic will without an understanding of the nature of
freedom or a sense of meaning. The basis of the insight from which Fredrick
began began is the human potential for co-operative activity, which the
anarchist Kropotkin saw as being present in other animals, and which he
characterised as 'mutual aid.' unsatisfactory. After all, the basis to say, as
Fredrick does, that 'the purposes of God are entrusted to human agents. God
gave himself into the hands of men' is a valid discovery, but add that 'In such
a thought the whole of history is predestined' is quite another.
You cannot be free in history if
the whole outcome is predestined. To explain the psychological need for freedom
a totally different theology would be necessary, positing a God who requires
men to solve universal problems because existence itself depends on the
What does it mean to be 'free'?
There are distinctions to be made here between internal and external freedom,
which are separate but interdependent. Although Fredrick vehemently denounces
'definitions' I will have to attempt some.
To be free in mind is to respond
attentively and without preoccupation to circumstances as they arise, so that
perception without distortion becomes possible.
Fredrick makes no reference to
any inner enabling faculty of which he must in fact through his pilgrimage
become aware, and which to my mind the Forum existed to liberate. Undistorted
perception by means of this faculty or state of mind occurs only momentarily,
in flashes. To experience it continually, were this possible, would be to
achieve wisdom, and can be obtained through a growth of internal 'being' and in
no other way.
This is to put first things
first, because freedom in mind cannot be realised by someone obsessed with the
need for external freedom, and external freedom cannot be furthered without
freedom in the mind; a man without freedom in the mind produces one result
while striving for another. This is not an impasse. It simply shows the way
forward through a development of human potential.
The understanding that intuitive
response to circumstances as they arise is freedom establishes the principles
of a free society. But what advocates of external freedom ignore is that a
'liberation' driven by the ego's 'will-to-power' results not in freedom but in
exploitation and tyranny.
This, of course, is closer to
Eastern than to Western thought, although there is no reason, except
institutional, why Christianity could not accommodate it. Fredrick himself had
little time for, or understanding of Eastern thought, because he was so
concerned with the 'historical', and with the West's obsession with driving
forward by the exercise of the will. The East is now following the West with
There are many valuable insights
in 'Greek, Roman and Jew' which in fact are at variance with his main thesis -
and good luck to them. I like his remark that despite the conflicts and
failures of history, and despite what he saw as the crisis of belief, 'The
notion of value, the appreciation of good, remains intact.' I hope so.
If it does, then that may be
thanks to human nature itself rather than, as Fredrick insisted, to
institutions such as the Church which have been established to govern it. The
Church as a power in the world may be closer to the Grand Inquisitor than to
Again, when Fredrick writes, 'We
never succeed in breaking with our religion except by breaking ourselves', does
he mean that when our culture breaks with its religion it disintegrates, or
only that when Western culture departs from Christianity it has lost its roots
and its fundamental meaning and justification? I would rather put it that when
any culture ceases to recognise and value the fundamental mystery at the heart
of life then the way is open for malign domination of men by men, and the
exploitation of power for power's sake. But when a religion refuses to
recognise the mystery as indeed a mystery, and imposes dogma as inconrovertible
truth, essential balance is lost.
At another point he says, 'The
final result of the most stringent self-analysis is to know the ego as in
itself nothing.' I can only agree. But that is not the end of the matter. The
inner witness which is capable of watching the ego at work is not subordinate
to it. Indeed, the statement ignores the whole current of thought within
Christianity, as well as within other religions, which speaks of the 'inner
light'. There is an intuitive capacity to 'see' which functions when the ego is
momentarily by-passed, and which can be characterised as impersonal awareness.
This capacity is inscrutable. Its existence may be due to the presence of a
'divine spark' but to go farther and equate such an experienced reality with
the recognition of Jesus as God strikes me with the same deep unease as would
outrageous presumption or blasphemy. There is that in life which must remain
In 'Greek, Roman and Jew'
Fredrick makes a difficult effort to formulate in academic language unsuited to
his explosive temperament, an explanation of his intense concern with history.
The concern was legitimate, but history is elusive and contains as many
possibilities as the mind itself.
Laurie Hislam in Scotland
Laurie and Winifred occupied our
old flat in 170 Westbourne Terrace. They came up to Scotland with their new
baby. Winifred stayed for a week, leaving Laurie to behave himself for another
month. The baby was just old enough to twirl on its pot explaining something
abstruse about 'mein dopfalls', which I took to be a German dialect greeting to
angelic beings, but which may have referred in the tongue of babies to whatever
was being delivered into the pot.
Laurie had been working as a
clerk at British Rail. He proposed now to become rich by making toys. He did in
fact produce a few toys but failed to become rich. He spent much of his time
creating a gadget which would measure the water in our collecting tank.
The water supply ran down a pipe
from a stream up the steep hill behind the house, but the stream was irregular
in its behaviour and the more we needed water the less of it the stream
supplied. In the summer we were always having to nip up to the tank and peer
inside to see if there was enough to make a cup of tea or have a bath. Laurie's
gadget was designed to float on the surface of the water in the tank,
displaying a long antenna to which was attached a small flag. To assess the
water level we were supposed to peep out of the back window and see how high
the flag floated, but either the antenna keeled over or the float got stuck or
the whole gadget fell to bits. We spent more time rushing up the hill to see if
the gadget was intact than we would have spent in viewing the level of the
water itself. The experiment was discontinued.
In any case when the supply in
the tank was low we could walk with a bucket a hundred yards across a field to
a spring of pure invisible water which collected in a tiny pool on the surface
of which tiny insects plied their legs. This spring was below the house and we
could not afford the pump and plumbing which would have transported indoors.
Laurie's ingenuity did not stop
at toys and gadgets. We had a continual stream of visitors who were conscripted
to play a variety of games in the field which surrounded the house. We needed a
cricket bat. Laurie made one out of oak, the only wood available in a big
enough lump. This weapon was so heavy that by the time an unprepared newcomer
had rained it from the ground the ball had rattled the herring-box which we
used as a wicket. Hardened players knew this and had to start a stroke as the
ball left the bowler's hand. It was like batting with a concrete post.
Laurie himself always aimed a
terrific left-handed blow at every ball no matter where or how it was
delivered. He also bowled slow left-arm, wearing an expression of hairy
innocence, relying on the bumps and tussocks on the pitch to make the ball
One day an unknown man walked
down the path just as Laurie connected with a devastating swing, and the
newcomer caught the ball neatly by clapping it to his stomach with both hands
as it attempted to pass through to the other side. There was controversy as to
whether Laurie should be considered 'out', since the newcomer was not an
authorised fielder. Since Laurie's powers as a controversialist were formidable
and his obstinacy notorious we abandoned the game as a draw and invited the
fielder to tea. Laurie had artistic as well as well as practical interests and
worked out the operation of the pebble symphony. All present collected handfuls
of pebbles carefully graded in size, and threw them from the rocks into the
water of the loch at varying heights and varying weights in a prearranged and
rhythmical manner, producing a dramatic and elusive music. The ephemeral
quality of this music was part of tis charm, like drawing on sand.
Towards the end of Laurie's stay
the pigeon arrived. It was a racing pigeon of great elegance and distinction.
We found it on a rowan tree, blinking with its head cocked sideways. We gave it
grain to peck (robbing the hens for the purpose) and it became a denizen,
popping through the kitchen window to snip crumbs from the floor during meals
and making swift, forbidden forays onto the table.
At night it roosted on our
bedroom window-ledge and if the window had been left open we were awakened by a
thump and a scratch of claws on wood as it paced across the uncarpeted floor in
the early morning.
Laurie decided that the pigeon
needed a home of its own and built it a box which he nailed in the rowan tree.
The pigeon resented the fact that the box had a wire-mesh door which could be
closed at night.
When he eventually returned to
London and British Rail, Laurie was commissioned to enquire for the
organisation which registered the owners of racing pigeons. He rang the RSPCA,
the C.A.B, the Zoo and a man named Sparrow on the grounds that he must know
about birds. At last he gave us an address in somewhere unlikely like
Cheltenham. We wrote announcing our capture, and after long delay received a
letter from the bird's owner asking us to return it at his expense. By that
time the pigeon had flown. Perhaps it missed Laurie. We heard later that the
village policeman had arrested and imprisoned it in a cell, from which, of
course, it escaped.
Laurie, the confirmed guerilla,
at last followed the Forum fashion, set by Fredrick, in joining the Roman
Catholic Church. However, he stayed true to form and fell out with the Pope and
his hierarchy on every conceivable issue, eventually setting out off on a
pilgrimage to Rome to tell the Pontiff personally what should be what. He even
shaved off his auburn hair to demonstrate the seriousness of his intent, and
was a very long time en route. Neither Pope nor Cardinals showed any sign of
changing their ways as a result of the pilgrim's visit.
Laurie was killed in a car
accident in France in 1965, while driving a second-hand London taxi. He was not
designed by nature to become a Grand Old Man.
Fred, The Dragon and the Ghost
We went to France with Fred and
Anne Barret in the late Forties. It was too soon for tourism and we took Fred's
advice where to go. He escorted us to Cassis, then still a fishing village.
We slept in a room apparently
designed by Van Gogh, with a tiled floor, a rush-seated chair, an iron bed, and
a view over red roofs. We lived on soup presented in an enormous steaming pot
at the local inn. Fred and Anne departed to various scattered destinations,
including Fred's birthplace in Vienna. We arranged to meet at a given date in a
small hotel in Montparnasse before returning to Calais.
This hotel was run by one of
those legendary female dragons whose look strikes terror into the hearts of
guests, visitors, husbands and the like. Her efficiency was of the kind which
freezes the blood. She pinned up notices wherever the eye might fall, listing
those things it was forbidden to do, and those things it was obligatory to do:
'No more than four persons are permitted in this lift,' 'Remember to extinguish
the light', 'Do not smoke in this area', 'No bath to be taken without
notification,' 'Do not wash clothes in the sink,' and so on. They sounded all
the more formidable in French. Some wag had signed these notices with the names
of authors he considered the most inappropriate, such as Goethe, Tolstoy,
Balzac, Nietzsche, and Flaubert. 'Maintain tidiness at all times' was, it
appeared, the work of Pascal. Her husband was a small grey man who occupied the
reception desk in a tiny lobby. He looked as if his sole ambition was to
achieve total anonymity.
When he opened Gene's passport,
however, he took off his spectacles and peeped up with bird-like briskness.
'Born in Manchester?' he said in
She admitted this, hoping it
would not prove to be a crime in the eyes of the dragon.
'So was I,' said the proprietor,
his anonymity melting away. He leaned forward, lowering his voice. 'I've never
been back. I once took my wife to England. When we got to Dover she looked
round and said 'You need a candle to see in this country', and we caught the
next boat back to France.'
He shrugged philosophically and
returned to the anonymity which was his sole defence.
Our problem was that we had no
money. We had spent all that the Government allowed us at that time to take
abroad. On reaching Paris a modest evening meal had devoured the last franc. We
could not pay the hotel bill. We did not think that the man from Manchester
would step in to save us from the dragon. On the contrary, his intervention
might add to her terrible wrath. Our one hope of survival lay in the appearance
of Anne and Fred.
They were due at seven p.m. but
did not arrive. They did not arrive at eight, either. Or nine. And so on until
at eleven we gave up hope and retired to bed. Perhaps something terrible had
happened to them and would shortly, when the dragon knew the worst, would
happen to us.
At midnight doubt became despair.
We fell into an uneasy doze,
waking suddenly with a sense that intruders had broken into the room. Fred and
Anne were looking down at us with benign equanimity. If they were not deeply
moved by the warmth of their welcome, they should have been.
When they got married, in 1952,
they went to live in Wells, Somerset, where Anne worked as office manager for
an agricultural supplier. No more unsuitable place than this douce and sober
Cathedral city can be imagined as domicile for Fred. Watching the swans answer
their feeding bell beside the ancient edifice? Saluting the Bishop with due
reverence? Impossible!. But it wasn't impossible. He accepted the situation
with grace, but for one instance.
On a particular occasion they
took us out to dinner with a couple in their thirties who ran a local business.
The wife was French and beautiful. She was also charming, cooked well, and
committed no perceptible offence. But Fred disliked her. He said she was
intolerably bourgeois. This was so unlike him that we were baffled. Could it be
that she had rejected his advances? Or had he given up all that? We didn't ask.
Shortly afterwards Fred and Anne
paid us a visit at Rhu near Ullapool. The house was at the end of a pot-holed
track under dilatory repair. The small digging machine engaged to excavate the
ditch had collapsed into it. The operators disappeared for several weeks. The
machine looked sad and humiliated. A friend of Anne's called Barbara, who ran a
hotel on Dartmoor, was staying in Ullapool, and drove over for the evening,
leaving her car at the end of the hazardous road.
At midnight Fred and I set off
with Barbara to escort her to the car. A huge white moon shone silver on the
water of the loch. The mountains loomed dark, waiting for something. It seemed
natural on such a night to talk of ghosts - the figure of the drowned American
sailor which Kenny Stewart had seen by the shore, the light which descended the
hill and always vanished suddenly at the bridge, the walker with a face of
staring white who wasn't there when Angle stopped to offer him a lift. And so
on. Nobody, of course, believed these tales?
We were about a hundred yards
from the main road when in the distance, or nowhere, a strange sound began to
grow, becoming recognisable as a kind of chant, African in its rhythmic
intensity, but irregular and disconcerting as if interrupted by scenes of
frightful menace. The worst thing about the chant was that it was meaningless,
arbitrary, illegible. Perhaps the night itself was speaking, in a voice which
destroyed all human assumptions.
Barbara was pale, and clutched
the nearest arm. 'What is it?' she whispered. There was no sound but this
gibberish floating on moonlight.
Then gradually, as the mind
focussed on the sound itself I began to make out syllables which were not Zulu
but the words 'Fuckin' 'ell' repeated over and over again with a bitter and
appalling concentration of malice.
No local inhabitant, however
drunk, could conceivably utter such a psalm. The singer must be a stranger,
possibly a tramp, and if a tramp then he was Happy Harry, so called because of
his transformations from Jolly Jekyll when sober to Hideous Hyde when loaded.
A moment later a form came
reeling into a sliver of cold light, waving both arms in bitter protest against
Things As They Are.
Barbara was trembling and seemed
incapable of taking a step. When we coaxed her into motion she moved as if
'Get in,' I said, 'start the
engine and drive off. Don't stop for anything.'
But she could not control the key
and stood shaking by the car door. I got in and reversed the car so that it
faced up the hill. She sat at the wheel, her face like white cloth.
'Turn the key,' I said. 'Go!'
The car fired away in a series of
mad jumps. The chant went on. Harry stood in the middle of the road, waving
darkly. Barbara did not brake, but swerved in a squeal of tyres, bounced off
the verge on the wrong side of the road and raced up the hill pursued by
We waited, stepping down under
the bridge to be out of sight. A few minutes later Unhappy Harry wavered above
us, still shouting and swearing with insane hatred.
Fred made a low noise of
commiseration, and never mentioned the event again.
When we drove north the following
morning, Barbara would not believe that the beaming fellow sitting on a boulder
by the roadside rolling a cigarette could be the raving ghoul of the night
before. I suppose in a sense he wasn't. Now he was Happy Harry.
He was drowned the next year in a
shallow pool. He had toppled forward when drunk and couldn't organise himself
Part Three. The End of The Forum.
After more than ten years in the
Highlands we left for London, not from desire but necessity. Work had dried up,
son David (a highly popular person on Rhu) was now of an age when he must
attend school, and Gene was pregnant. The doctor said 'You would be wise to go
somewhere nearer to a hospital.'
Laurie and Winifred were away
from the flat at 170, Westbourne Terrace; we moved in for six months.
The Forum had changed. Cecil and
Anthony were gone. Coupe was dead. Fredrick was on a tread-mill, working as a
copy-taker on the 'News Chronicle', while still attempting to carry on the
Forum. He looked harassed, gloomy and preoccupied, as if the world had closed
in to suffocate him. Most of the work in the Park was undertaken by Irene
Harsley. Irene was now married and her husband helped. I never heard either of
them operating in public. Irene too had become a Catholic. The contagion had
run through the entire group and the results were obvious. The atmosphere of
adventure, risk, controversy, polemic, of exploring the impossible, had
vanished. Too many avenues were now closed off. Molly alone had refused to move
her spiritual luggage to Rome. She did not attend the Forum any more.
Fredrick had decided to stage
another series of lectures. John Middleton Murry, Janko Lavrin on Ibsen, and
G.H. Bantock on L.H.Myers were among the speakers. I went with him to interview
a psychologist who had been recommended as another contributor. The
psychologist was a spruce and handsome man who received us in spruce and
handsome office which set out to impress with its tasteful and efficient
He saw it as his function to
explain his view of contemporary life. He had an air of sophisticated
self-confidence. Inauthenticity was to Fredrick unendurable and we both felt
that the psychologist was deploying a persona. Fredrick fell into a dark and
lowering silence. When there came a pause in the discourse he began to speak
with slow and sombre precision as if hammering nails into a coffin. It was a
withering assault not only on the man's intellectual position but on the
assumptions that lay behind it.
There was no need to say goodbye.
Another uneasy interview took
place a few weeks later. Neil Gunn, the Highland novelist, was on a visit to
London to discuss a film prospect. Since Gunn was himself a philosophical
anarchist of balanced insight it seemed natural to introduce him to Fredrick.
But both men were uncomfortable, Gunn restrained and courteous, Fredrick wary
and morose. The distance between them was at once temperamental and emotional.
Fredrick's pilgrimage was Dostoevskyan and intense; he swung up and thundered
down. What he enacted, in the manner of Tolstoy making boots. Gunn, on the
other hand, had been through his own period or passionate intensity in his
youth, and having gained equilibrium and literary success withdrew from from
situations which could not be resolved. The unhappy hour which resulted was
typical of 170 Westbourne Terrace at the time.
When we left for Leicester,
staying with my parents. Gene was struck down with polio and gave birth to our
second son in the Isolation Hospital, much to the delight of the nurses, who
didn't usually have babies as clients.
Fredrick wrote to Gene when she
came out of hospital:
'When John told us about it I
was too numb to make any sort of response - just closed up internally. . .It
had never entered my head that such a thing could happen to you and for awhile
my imagination refused to work. When it did, I seemed to get, vicariously,
something of what John was going through.
'It wasn't because I was
callous that I didn't write. I pictured you lying there and tried to imagine if
it would cheer you up to get a long, informative letter - perhaps gay, hopeful
ones - or solemn, donnish ones - but I knew I couldn't write to you then. But
now I feel you're out again - surrounded by love and help - so I can write and
add my little bit of joy about it.
'You know, of course, that
though I've no shown it much, you and John occupy a place in my life that I
can't talk about - ever since he brought you to Marchmont Street and the glory
of you filled that little room like a choir of Blake's angels - and my mind is
stored with bright images - John carrying peat off the mountainside - arriving
in rain on the Norton - holding forth against me on cricket and Zen - and you
in a thousand representative attitudes modelling for ideas and reconstruction
of blunted values.
'So please God you get better
rapidly every day a marked improvement. . .
'Sometimes my nerves are near
breaking point in this job. I'm glad I could write these few lines - into
another world. I pray the sales job won't break John's heart - there's a way we
can endure this - a commonsense, practical attitude which is valid.'
With Gene in hospital I couldn't
write, so when offered a job as sales executive in the family knitwear company
I took it, beginning work in December 1957 and remaining, eventually as Sales
Manager, until the end of 1970, when a novel of mine was filmed. To overcome
depression I launched into the job, but during all these years felt under
continual strain from a sense of lost vocation and it's not surprising that I
published little or nothing and that my reactions to events were flawed.
Some time in 1958 Fredrick rode
up from London on his scooter to the Leicestershire village where we lived. He
was seeking consolation in his melancholy, but in the circumstances I had
little to give, and have regretted it ever since.
In January 1959 he wrote:
'Molly brought 'A Single
Pebble' (John Hersey) home from the library several months ago - that's the
only way I ever get a book now; I seem to have no time and little inclination
to do more than scan headlines at work - and in reading it the most convincing
expression of your philosophy, or shall we say of your criticism of our
civilisation as I have been able to gather it from the few conversations we
have had in recent years.
'. . .The job of serious writer
must be difficult because, well done, the job is done in one book but he has to
go on earning a living. The propagandist and pamphleteer is easier because
there's the constant topical event to rail against because or the
identification to keep asserting.
'I thought I told you about my
little breakdown. Well, it can keep to another time. One is always thinking one
can't take any more. Economics depresses me. I have preached vocation and the
integrated life and have, myself, always been fissured and a hypocrite. Of
course, finally I had to crack under the pseudonym of gastric ulcer and
migraine. I'm slowly recovering but have no hope.
'Between your brief lines I
sense your sorrow, and commiserate. I wish I could encourage but, it seems, one
can only lift another by the resources of one's own vitality; I have to be
honest and say that I, too, am defeated and it is little help to you for me to
mourn with you. But I have no work. Selfishly, egoistically, maniacally
egocentric - if you will - the lack is killing me. And yet I know the fault is
with me. . .I want some status, have always wanted it, I see now. And I am a
typist, and subject, in the nature of the work and the environment . . to a
hundred petty humiliations that grind this fact into my face. Before, with the
Forum, it was tolerable; I endured and learned humility because I had the work
and one had to earn a living. Now I know, without the work, I have no true
humility, have made no ascent in spirit. . .
'Nevertheless, a man should do
what he can. I can't persuade myself otherwise. To earn one's living beneath
one's dignity and calling is always subjectively degrading; occasionally I
cannot suffer it. I make desperate, floundering efforts to overcome and then
fall back, defeated, hating myself, seeking to withdraw. If only one could get
a job that paid enough to master the domestic situation. Anything, selling
motor cars, writing advertisements, what does it matter. I can't even do that.
I offer myself to the market. No one wants me. . .
'Well, from this bellyache you
will see that I am not yet well. Perhaps it is middle-age. Man suffers, I'm
told, a kind of spiritual menopause. Please God it will soon be over.
'I sent the book to Gene. It
was a kind of pathetic tribute.
'She is my idea of a saint. It
was a little homage to her. I think I am touched with a true humility when I
think of her courage which makes my grousing pitiful.
'So far as you are concerned,
John, I think there is a basic determination which is still alive. You will
succeed I am sure. . One day you'll fling your single pebble on the crowded
beach; it won't be a best seller but I shall be one of those, I hope, who
understands why. God bless you both, und die kinder.'
In a sense he was precisely
right. In 1970 a novel of mine was filmed and I left the factory. But I found
myself embroiled in Liberal politics and did not regain a full sense of
vocation until we returned to Scotland in 1979.
The letter is typical of Fredrick
in its emotional honesty, extremism, insight, generosity, and affection. That
in his spiritual condition he should have chosen, and taken the trouble to
send, John Hersey's 'A Single Pebble', a book which proved to embody exactly
what I wanted to say about the necessity for, and the nature of, vocational
work, and its close connection with the spiritual state of being ' in form' is
remarkable. Hersey's American engineer discovers the secret of a meaningful
life by observing the intuitive adaptation to circumstances as they arise of a
dedicated boatman on the Yangtse River.
I myself never doubted the
validity of Fredrick's vocation, and believed that he had been undermined not
simply by economics, by the necessity to take unsatisfactory jobs to keep Molly
and Paul in decent conditions, but by the dissipation of the Forum's mission as
the result of its gradual takeover by those unwilling to follow an enquiry
wherever it might lead. This denied its purpose and gave Fredrick the sense of
a vocation threatened. If he had been able to shake off this threat the jobs
themselves would have been another aspect of vocation.
The End of a Pilgrimage
Fredrick and Molly had left
Westbourne Terrace, which was scheduled for demolition, and we were living in a
Leicestershire village when they were rehoused in the new estate at Roehampton
a series of concrete and glass blocks set, with the best of intentions, in
green space. Yet no one seemed to walk or play or cavort or celebrate in this
green space, which was bland and featureless, as if they had decided
intuitively that the whole area was for abstract shapes to inhabit. Fredrick
and Molly lived in a short terrace of up-and-down houses, the roofs at varied
heights as though imitating the accidental vagaries of Mousehole in Cornwall.
Their house was very small.
When we paid them a visit,
Molly's sister Kate was there, as she had been all those years ago in Marchmont
Street when we argued about my departure for the coal-mines. Kate was no longer
a fiery Communist but a subdued spirit who had been under psychiatric
treatment. Time and travail had worn and shaken everybody.
In 1960 Fredrick, Molly and
Molly's aunt spent a day or two with us in Billesdon, and shortly after that
Fredrick returned alone on his motor scooter. The following morning Gene and I
both had to go to work, and when we came home we found this note: 'Decided to
go despite the rain. It is not so heavy and I have leggings and boots. There
are so many chores to do at home and I have but fourteen days of freedom. It is
very nice - being here - but I feel rather like a ticket-of-leave man - I want
to crowd in as much as possible before returning to prison. 'Thankyou for your
hospitality - you are always very kind and patient with me. I hope you will
soon be able to visit us. If John is in London on business and can't get to
Roehampton perhaps we could meet in town . .
'Moods are the very devil. We
have to struggle against him. Trouble is it never seems worth while except to
the dedicated who don't suffer his onslaughts, because they easily recognise
'I'm struggling to be
common-sense about everything. It's all right up to a point but seems to lead
'One can't be content with the
mediocre. One can't endure to be empty and the commonsensical doesn't seem to
nourish the soul - and I've found that even understanding lacks something
beauty. So long as we're flesh, not 'in the flesh' but 'incarnate' - we need
beauty - living truth. I think Molly has this. Gene has more. I hope I haven't
embarrassed Gene - as I sometimes embarrass Molly - because it's so obvious
that I feed on them (I hope this doesn't remind you of 'sorbs') one doesn't
steal or detract from the beautiful by receiving the divine light. Yes, I have
become rather materialistic - I now see the material - is what I have
(purblindly) starved myself of for most of my life - now I love it - sadly and
late - but I believe in the end it will save me. Much love. F.'
The reference in an earlier
letter to a figure 'grinning behind the scenes' and in this letter to 'sorbs'
are both reminiscences of David Lindsay's visionary novel 'A Voyage to
Arcturus', first published in 1920. As soon as it was reissued in 1946 I bought
an extra copy and sent it to Fredrick. His devotion to the book is a sign of an
aspect of his nature which Catholicism concealed. Lindsay's vision is stark and
Manichean. The world is controlled by a demiurge who rules by deceit, stealing
energy from the light of the true, beleaguered god 'Muspel.' The sorb is the
organ possessed by the denizens of the planet Tormance which they use to absorb
their rivals. I never think of Fredrick without recalling the remark of Krag,
the ruthless guide on the journey to Muspel, which fits Fredrick so well -
'Simplify your ideas, my friend, the affair is plain and serious.' To my mind
Fredrick resembles Maskull, the protagonist of 'A Voyage', who journeys through
the planet Tormance unwilling to rest on anything less than ultimate reality.
For Fredrick the affair was plain and serious. A world of intellectual
speculation was meaningless to him as a life locked into the social dimension.
Thought without risk, commitment, adventure was trivial, phony, boring.
I had the sense that Fredrick had
visited us for solace and been disappointed, as I was myself depressed with
loss of vocation at the time; I felt then that I had let him down, and feel so
Not long after this visit I was
indeed in London on business being driven through the City on the way to fail
to persuade some reluctant executive to buy knitwear when I saw Fredrick
passing in the opposite direction on his scooter. How melancholy he looked, his
face set in strain! How far away, imprisoned in another dimension! The traffic
was thick, he did not see me, and in a moment he was gone. Cold gripped my
heart. Two worlds, and the best world dying. . .
Then in October 1960 another blow
fell. The News Chronicle, that famously liberal and ethical newspaper, sold out
and was absorbed by its rival, throwing Fredrick and fellow employees into
On the 19th October he wrote:
Humble and grateful
appreciation of your prompt concern. We lie, like orphans, in the hand of God.
This morning had an interview
with despised and proud vanquisher; unfortunately they run a pension scheme and
men aged fifty-one are de trop - plus difficulty of 'medical' which your
affectionate servant could never hope to pass.
position guaranteed for next few weeks by notice money, holiday gratis payment
and, later on, compensation for honourable five years service, details of which
have been published and astounded everyone - consternation among improvident
'Mystery extraordinaire in
Fleet Street - twisted lips and cupped hands at street corners, beery
truculence in pubs: 'How does it come about that property, plant and assets
worth five millions have changed hands for half a million?' This is the '
question which in coming months will provide scandalmongers with rumour-fuel.
What went on between Rothermere and the Quakers?
'But seriously, my dear
friends, your prompt concern has moved me. Thankyou very much indeed, but for
the moment we lack nothing and are in good spirits. A tale of woe I can tell of
my brother who, panicking for Northern Rhodesia, has sold his traps and
returned to England and now is today - five days after landing gone into a
mental home for treatment because he has developed a crushing anxiety towards
his economic future. He has not more £10,000 in cash and sundry
properties in Africa, and the poor fellow cannot face the prospect! So you see,
whatever your circumstances, it's just a matter of what's on your mind.
'Hope to see you soon.'
Plainly, unemployment was a
release from prison which brought a sudden lifting of the heart. But not for
long. The next year Fredrick was in hospital suffering from stomach cancer,
which had been undiagnosed for many months. Gene went to visit him with no
suspicion that this was his final illness. When she entered the long and dismal
ward a joyful, transforming smile made him young again. 'It gives me innocent
satisfaction,' he said, 'to know that you're in the world.' He told her that
years before he had experienced a sudden separation of soul from body and
wasn't afraid of death.
He died a few weeks later.
His letters give no real idea of
his personality, which affected most people as forceful, energetic and
dominating. Whatever he thought, he lived, yet he could never break free from
the tyranny of mood. He swung swiftly from gay to sombre, from bleak to merry.
He was generous, intense, perceptive, and could never be casual. He lived his
life in a varied, craggy landscape, moving from desert to forest, from mountain
to deep glen at extraordinary speed. Wild country, civilised by his own
essential goodwill. Light flashed, however dark the night. To me he was a
symbol of the transformation of consciousness produced by the war. His life had
some significance which I can't put a finger on - as if true history is always
unrecorded. As he wrote in his journal of 1942, 'Surely every man's vision is
in some way authentic?' If that vision is from essence, yes it is.
I have several photographs of
Fredrick - the three best taken by Stephen Peet. In one he is in full flow
above the crowd at Marble Arch, the Odeon cinema in the background. In another
he is meditating over a bottle of wine, with the expression of a man suffering
from debilitating toothache. A third shows him with Molly, glancing up in
gratitude as she pours him a cup of tea.
The fourth is a snapshot. He is
beside the crofthouse in Wester Ross , leaning intently forward as he lays down
the law. He looks like Tolstoy addressing the peasants. In all of them he is,
to 5 use his own word, authentic. Unlike ,most speakers in the world he is
actually there, instead of sheltering his ego behind the words.
After his death Molly went back
to Ireland. Her brother taught at Queen's University, Belfast, and had a house
in Donegal. Paul was at Art College in London. We heard occasionally from
Molly, but never saw her again.
The Return of Anthony
About a year after Fredrick's
death Anthony Elenjimittam reappeared suddenly. He was dressed as a priest with
dark suit and reversed collar. He was, he said, running a home for orphans in
Calcutta, with the help of some excellent and delightful Parsee ladies. He was
collecting money for the orphanage, and came to visit us in Leicestershire
harbouring the hope that we had become rich.
A grey-haired man now, he was as
amiable and rotund-Faced as ever, utterly unable to imagine that in twenty
years we had changed, that Fredrick was dead. Coupe was dead, Laurie Hislam was
dead, that Cecil had vanished and the world was a sadder and no wiser place.
To Anthony everything was as it
had been, alive now as memory. He talked continually of 'Freddie' - a form of
address which had irked Fredrick in the past - and looked forward with optimism
to a redeemed future.
He taught our two boys to stand
on their heads in yogic posture, managed to miss the bus to his next
destination, and was always ringing long distance to announce his arrival to
people who had no idea that he was not still in Calcutta, if they had never
known that he was there in the first place. He even had an umbrella, and kept
dropping it. In short, he was still Anthony. And yet the impression he left
behind was one of great sadness, as if a lost child was waiting for his father
Fred at Large
Fredrick was a desperate swimmer
in a rough sea; Fred Perlès floated like a cork. To change the metaphor,
from whatever height life dropped him he landed on his feet, relatively
unharmed. After their marriage, Fred and Anne lived for a time in Paris, but in
1955 Fred travelled to Big Sur in California to finish his book 'My Friend
Henry Miller', and wrote from there: 'Money (haven't seen any yet) seems to be
no object: everything is bought and sold on credit, even postage stamps and
helicopters. If you go to the grocer's, the bill adds up to something like
fifteen pounds, but you don't worry about it: just sign a slip and load the
stuff in your car. You put nine heaped spoonfuls of coffee in a special
percolator for three cups of coffee and throw away your cigarette when you've
smoked it half way; and so on. If a man is on the dole he gets the pay of an
English bank manager, and he needs it too; how else is he going to pay the
current instalment on his Cadillac or high-fidelity record player? . . .The few
places I've seen so far have left me uncorrupted in my Britishness to the core
unimpaired. . . '
Fred was as upset as Fredrick had
been by the news of Gene's attack of polio, and wrote in 1959:
'I confess I was prejudiced
against him (son Peter, born in the Leicester Isolation Hospital) because his
birth coincided with Gene's illness and in my ignorance I blamed him for it. I
ought to have known that the angel wouldn't have let him do such a thing; don't
let him go away - the angel, I mean. Gene looks marvellous: as lovely and good
as ever. . .
'Much love to all of you: I
embrace you tenderly, individually and collectively in order of seniority. .
.and respectful regards to the angel.'
Fred's belief - by no means
entirely ironic - in the angel who guards us through our early years was
typical of his optimistic and benevolent insouciance. He had seen the world in
all its variety, and hated violence and cruelty of any kind. Once when I was
impatient, and shouted at David as a tiny boy, Fred shrank back with an
expression of pain and distaste. Although he was treated by the Miller circle
as an unscrupulous womaniser, he told Miller that all his writing was of no
value without the reality of love, and could only be justified if it was funny.
In the Sixties Fred and Anne took
their respective Britishness and Scottishness to Crete and Fred was immediately
seized with enthusiasm about his new world:
'We've been here over three
months now, but the novelty of expatriation hasn't worn off. Greece is a
wonderful country and Crete is a paradise - not a tourist paradise but tout
court! Life is as simple and primitive as in the days before the steam engine,
the people are half-angels rather than men. We are living in a flat that costs
us 250 drachmas per month, about three pounds, which even we can afford! Cost
of living is low, especially the local products such as fruit, vegetables,
cheese and wine, the latter very delicious and only a little dearer than water.
. .We can manage quite well on our combined old-age pension. Anne, however, has
got herself a job with the film people who are now doing Zorba the Greek with
Anthony Quinn and Simone Signoret. They pay her 1000 drachmas a week for her
labours, which isn't bad for Greece and will keep the pot boiling for awhile.
As for myself, apart from playing an occasional game of chess with Quinn, I'm
doing absolutely nothing, comme de juste: just wu-weing it a la Lao Tzu. It's a
good life and I don't feel guilty either. My Greek is coming along fine and the
natives don't mind if I don't get the subjunctive aorist right every time.'
After three years his Greek was
good enough to translate novels into English, for which he was paid.
But by the time they visited us
they had become worried about the effect of Greek politics on their paradise,
and Fred asked me to consult the I Ching (Chinese book of divination) on
whether they should return there, and on whether a reunion in Paris with
Durrell and his wife would be a success. This shows, I think, that Fred was
never wholly at ease with Durrell, whose proclivity for intellectualising one
way and operating another always worried him, although he never said so. He
'If I can think up a tricky
question for the Book of Change I'll send it on a postcard to be placed under
the bamboo sticks.'
He framed his tricky question
'As I am approaching the end of
my days I ask myself frequently and with growing apprehension whether I have
been wasting my precious years on fruitless and egoistic pursuits. My question
is this: can I count on remaining in this world long enough to remedy my ways
and to contribute a work of value to posterity? A difficult question to answer,
O sages, but I beg you to give me a simple and unambiguous reply.'
The reply was not simple and
unambiguous, of course, but the book told him, as far as I can remember, to
carry on regardless, and he lived until he was ninety-two. He failed to produce
a masterpiece for this reason: almost all his writings were autobiographical,
so that too much material had been used up piecemeal. I had badgered him for
some time to produce a systematic autobiography, entitled 'Scenes From a
Floating Life'. He embarked on it, but the thought of repeating incidents
already deployed elsewhere drained energy and enthusiasm. The writing lacked
his usual verve and zest. The few extracts which were published in two slim
volumes by Turret Books in 1968 do not do justice to the variety,
inventiveness, and preposterous detail of his experiences
In Fred's spiritual country
surprise and wonder are endemic, and coincidence takes on its own meaning, as
if chimes of bells recurring in different cities insist on hidden patterns in
A few weeks ago I was playing a
cassette in the car, and recognised the band as Johnny Dunn's Jazz Hounds
recorded in 1922. But who was that on piano? Jelly Roll Morton, surely? What in
the world was the dashing Morton doing in a band like Dunn's, old-fashioned for
1922? As soon as I got home I looked up the personnel. Yes, Morton was there.
Who else? The name 'Earl Granstaff caught my eye, recorded as playing the
trombone. Where had I heard that name? There sounded a distant chime of bells;
I opened Fred's graceful booklet of extracts from 'Scenes From a Floating
Life', and there was Earl Granstaff, kicking against the pricks.
Some time during the
nineteen-twenties Fred had played the part of minder-manager to an American
named Mrs Potter, who had rashly chosen to finance a black revue in Paris. She
had gone bust before opening night. As a consequence, Fred explained, nobody
got paid, and not unnaturally she was having trouble with the cast and 'even
Earl Granstaff, the star of the show, was after her money.'
Granstaff was then dancer,
choreographer and producer, working ferociously to get the revue into shape.
Fred describes him as 'a splendid artiste, but also a wastrel and a spendthrift
who incessantly spent himself. But a spendthirft, it must be understood, is
essentially a giver.'
Typically, Fred and Granstaff
became friends. Despite the disappearance of Mrs. Potter, the show opened, and
was immediately closed by the theatre owner on the grounds that a company which
would pay more wanted the stage.
A few years later night-club
owner and Jazz singer Bricktop Smith told Fred that Earl had died of TB in a
Swiss sanatorium. Bricktop 'took death for granted and made no song and dance
about it. . .Earl had been her brother in the finest sense, he had spent
himself to the joy of all.' Fred's comment was this: 'Mourning, it flashed
through my mind, was the prerogative of the incomplete, the materialists, the
bourgeois at heart; for mourning implies a sense of loss that is inconceivable
to the children of God.'
By the beginning of the
Seventies, Fred and Anne had left Crete for Cyprus. He wrote from there in 1973
with the news that he had been granted a five-year pension by the Royal
Literary Fund, commenting that 'By the end of five years I'm supposed to be
either dead or financially solvent. But suppose I'm neither? However, we don't
consider the future.'
They both sensed storm-clouds
building up, nevertheless, and Fred remarked that 'we are tiring of the Eastern
Mediterranean and Levantines. But where can we go?' He even became nostalgic
about 'the benign Marmite days in Westbourne Terrace.'
The question was answered for
them. The Turks invaded Northern Cyprus, capturing among other things Fred's
cottage, stealing his typewriter and scattering his papers among the rocks. He
had never looked upon the Turks as civilised and now regarded them as
He wrote in May 1975:
'Our house was stripped of all
our belongings/including the furniture, as was to be expected; it's now
occupied by a number of Turkish refugees who got in 'by mistake', so we were
told by the police, as the house was clearly marked 'British property', with a
Union Jack pasted to the door, for good measure. But what's a Union Jack these
days? We could have got them evicted but didn't have the heart to do so. At any
rate, we're now in a pleasant villa up in the hills in Bellapais. . .And by a
stroke of luck I recovered nearly all my books, which were salvaged by the U.K.
Citizens' Association before the looting started in earnest. The books only,
not my papers, unfinished manuscripts etc. Have already replaced my excellent
Olympia with this crummy Olivetti portable, made in Spain, that emits tinny
sounds when I hit the keyboard. Just in case I'm tempted to take up writing
He described the political
manoeuvrings in Cyprus and adds:
'It's all politics and I've no
use for politics, and even less for politicians. No doubt I'm a political
imbecile, which has the advantage of preserving me from being brainwashed. My
own brand of 'pan-Hellenism', which has nothing to do with politics, goes all
the way back to my schooldays when my youthful imagination was stirred by he
magnificent deeds of Herakles. Naturally, it didn't occur to me then that
Herakles was just another big bully, much akin to the later Homeric heroes. To
my present-day thinking, all these glorious warlords and illustrious chieftains
and heroes were just a bunch of colourful hooligans and robbers, out for loot,
plunder and arson, and nothing else. There isn't a single character in the
whole Iliad with whom I'd drink a glass of cheap Cyprus brandy, and I'm
including in the lot their gods and goddesses as well. The great Greeks whom I
admire came much later, their spirit is alive today as it was a couple of
thousand years ago. That's why I think the world owes something to Greece. It
owes nothing to Turkey. '
Typically, when we next saw them
Fred and Anne were nestling in a habitation that neither the I Ching nor the
Oracle at Delphi could have forecast: an exquisitely manicured thatched cottage
no more than a few hundred yards from the naked Giant at Cerne Abbas in Dorset,
where Fred, once more the English gentleman, spent his evenings playing chess
not with Anthony Quinn but with the local Vicar.
The place had been lent to them
by a wealthy Levantine, and was tastefully stuffed with priceless rugs and rare
antiquities, some kept in locked glass cases, other poised singly in alcoves
from which visitors were well advised to steer clear. Anne maintained the place
as trimly as a museum, treating the precious objects with the respect they
deserved without for a moment allowing them to gain the upper hand.
Their stay lasted only a few
months and by an irony not unusual in Fred's picaresque existence, he ended his
days among the modest magnificence of the City of Wells, which they had left so
long ago. They occupied a neat detached villa in a modern estate in a
He was ninety years old when a
Miller revival began in Paris. Reporters and television crews from France
disrupted life in Spring Rise, demanding interviews, posed photographs,
reminiscences, and articles for the Press. Fred obliged with sang froid,
elegance, elan and other non-Anglo-Saxon attitudes, reverting to idiomatic
French spiced with argot deployed with impeccable grammar.
We called on them soon after this
invasion, and Fred showed us the cuttings with modest pride. Anne obviously
thought that the fame should be his own, not a mere reflection of Henry
Miller's. Our call was unexpected, and when I walked round to the back of the
house and saw Anne through the kitchen window washing up, the stupid idea
occurred to me to sign for silence and enter the sitting room silently and
When I said, 'Hello, Fred', he
started up from his easy chair as if stung by a hornet, and I had a momentary
stab of fear that I had killed him with a heart attack. But within minutes he
was plying us with wine and mounting the stairs to fetch books and papers, some
of which he must have kept for many years, yet I had never seen them before.
Where had they been hiding?
We arranged to drive them up to
Scotland for a visit the following year but when the time came I had to write
to say that Gene wasn't fit enough to manage it.
Fred's response was dated 17 May
'I remember first seeing Gene
(I forget what year) in London, where you occupied a small flat, and her beauty
drove me nearly crazy. The loveliest girl I had ever seen, and not yet quite in
her twenties. And you, dear John, weren't much older, in your early twenties, I
believe. . .
'A wordmonger though I am, I
can't find words to convey my admiration for Gene, her great vitality, her even
temper and the hospitality she had for all comers, including myself. Westbourne
Terrace, where we feasted on Marmite, Ullapool and Rhu are the best memories of
'. . .That after effect of the
polio she had in 1958 is really a tragedy, I am deeply aggrieved by her
affliction, though I am more or less in the" same boat. But in my case it's old
age which won't let my muscles carry my legs any more. I'll be 92 in August,
about four times older than Gene. And Anne is only three years younger than me.
'I was struck by your
unexpected appearance in Spring Rise: to me you seemed more like a resurrection
than an old friend. 'Eternal love to both of you.'
He died during 1990.
On many matters he would have
agreed with Fredrick, writing somewhere that analysis, even if purely
scientific, frightened him as being in some way evil.
His adaptability and expertise in
survival strategies is shown more vividly in remarks like these: 'Only
fundamentally insincere people never change their minds', and 'God has given us
carte blanche . . .All we have to do now is give Him a hand.'
Once he stated his position with
insight and accuracy: 'My tragedy and my salvation consist in belonging to no
race, to no nation. I have only a great capacity for floating, for being
adrift. My roots are cut, I am one with the cosmos. . .1 am appointed by God to
be a renegade.'
But this could be put another
way: Fred could take root anywhere, pull up the roots and carry them with him
to wriggle into the soil wherever he happened to land, as he viewed each
environment with irrepressible optimism. His most characteristic statement seem
to me to be this: 'And Lucifer will be redeemed. Already his pride loosens, he
is a black magician only by force of habit." And this was written just before
the enormities of the Second World War!
Well, there's a respectable
heresy which says much the same, but Fred was his very own heretic, his own
observer of the world, to whom orthodoxy and intellectual respectability were
of no account. I salute him for it. Anarchists have been, both philosophically
and socially, of some use to the world, after all.
Fred was widely read in several
literatures, and more erudite than he would be willing to confess. But he was
always suspicious of abstractions, and preferred the reality of living to
concocting theories about it. There will never be a plaque put up to him -
where on earth could it be placed? - and this account is the nearest I can come
to designing one.
Writing to Henry Miller after his
visit to Ullapool, Durrell spoke about the changes he noticed in Fred and
suggested - or complained - that he had become a saint. No. Fred was never in
that tradition. He did, however, become something like a sage, never preaching
or offering advice, but avoiding negative emotion wherever possible , and
recognising the wisdom of not making unnecessary trouble in the world.
The only member of the nest of
anarchists alive to share my condition is the indomitable John Atkins. He, like
me, has written some twenty books and failed to make enough money out of them
to excite the taxman.
He and I have exchanged letters
and visits for 64 years, often operating for literary purposes under the
pseudonyms of Charlatan and Picklewit. We have at almost every meeting played
fives, tiddleywink football, and/or a semblance of cricket, enjoying every
minute of the experience. We enlivened events by naming each wink by a suitable
name, such as Shelley, Byron, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Marvell and so on,
creating teams for each period and taking note of the contributions of every
player as an exercise in literary criticism. Marlowe, for example, proved to be
an excellent centre forward while Shakespeare never played to his full
potential in midfield.
J.A.'s letters are a treasury of
humour, resilience and zest for life, while his preposterous ability to survive
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune prompted me over the years to award
him various honours, such as a knighthood and the Nobel Prize, both of which he
blew away with modest courtesy.
He has flitted all his life from
one remarkable address to another, and I must register now, at once,
immediately (as Fred would say) the most romantic of them all: Blue Seas,
Durdle Door, Dorchester, Dorset - a line of poetry in itself. Greetings to the
man himself, a dogged fighter in the cause of sanity, and to his noble daughter