A Nest of Anarchists. By J.B. Pick.
These portraits are memories, not fiction, and not autobiography.
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 forgot.
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?
Perhaps 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 lost animal?
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 patience.
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 after all.
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 twenty years.
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 confinement.
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 Brown:
'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 the door.
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 astonishing kindness.
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 necessary.
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 Blake's angels.'
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 the coal-mines.
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 intuitions.
'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 shift.
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 cut out.
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 Westbourne Terrace.'
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.
These attic 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 the Army.
* * * *
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.
His intervention 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 her.
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.
Anthony was 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.
Every chance 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 doubtful.
He enjoyed 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 extinction.'
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 selflessness.
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 perspectives.
Fredrick himself 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 perverse.
Coupe's first 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.
On another 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 reversing things.
Cecil was 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
Wilfred 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 pipe.
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.
I imagine, 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 authentic.
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 word.
The Inquisitor, 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.
The Inquisitor 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 weight.
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.
'Rhubarb'm he 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 Coupe?
Dostoevsky's 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 was enough.
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 the world.
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 disguise?
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 crisis.
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.
Ironically, he 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 word.
'H.E. I 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 the obvious.
'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 place.'
Certainly the 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 there.
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.
Running through 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. . .'
Forum Member 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 identity.
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?
'L.F.M. Insofar 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.
'L.F.M. Possibly - 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 manage it.'
I can only applaud.
* * * *
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 membership.'
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 awareness.
Fredrick's own 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 state.
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.'
Fredrick's 1945 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.
Fredrick's psychological 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 vocation itself.
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 crisis.
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 righteous kind.
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.
* * * *
André Wendt 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 Youth.
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.
When Communists 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 at Dachau.
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 enemy alien.
André was 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.
Released from 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.
Not being 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 months.
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.
The policemen 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.
André's 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 those adults.
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.
André had 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 periodicals? Nothing.
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 broke.
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 Daily Telegraph.
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 waned.
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 suited him.
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 took on.
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 as legs.
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, often bad.
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 they stood.
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 minds.
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 Army.
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 hotel.
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 snow.
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 cumbrous expression.
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 be.
* * * *
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, blame Fred.
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 looked sheepish.
The conversation which followed went something like this:
'We're glad to see you. We're ready.'
The man looked uneasy. 'Ready?' he said.
'How far is it to Ullapool?' Durrell said.
'Ullapool?' the man said. 'Thirty miles I should think. Yes, it must be at least thirty miles. I've just come from there.'
'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.
Fred wasn't so much inscrutable but incredible. When challenged he always proved right.
* * * *
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 in 1945:
'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 them.'
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 established?
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 Inquisitor.'
'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 the time.
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 validity.
Jesus is accused by the Inquisitor of cruelty for refusing power and allowing liberty at the price of suffering.
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 that.
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 danger.
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 things.
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 problems.
* * * *
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 well.'
'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 conscious motives.'
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 unnoticed.
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 August, 1949.
'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 right.
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 thought.
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 time.
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 outcome.
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 this obsession.
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 Jesus.
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 hidden.
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 perform acrobatics.
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 English.
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 drugged.
'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 invisible demons.
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 to safety.
* * * *
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 modernity.
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 the nuisance..
'I'm struggling to be common-sense about everything. It's all right up to a point but seems to lead to insensitivity.
'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 still.
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 limbo.
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.
Nevertheless, financial 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 journalists.
'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 to come.
* * * *
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 wrote later,
'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 with precision:
'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 the world.
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 barbarians.
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 again. '
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 respectable suburb.
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 unannounced.
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 1989:
'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 my life.
'. . .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 Josephine.
* * * *
When I started this book I thought that it would be about a particular time and a particular place, about those who lived in that time and place, and about the intellectual and spiritual enterprise which began there and failed - if that is indeed what it did.
But now that the book is finished I realise that in fact it is about vocation - and vocation is a mystery within a mystery. The word means a calling. But who or what calls? Or, to put it another way, how does the delusion of personal destiny arise?
The ego is good at deception - the will over-riding insight - and can be drowned by obsession; but the experience of vocation cannot be mistaken either for mere preference of one job over another, or for delusive self-aggrandisement. That is, of course, that it cannot be so mistaken by a mind that is awake. Most of the time we walk about the world asleep; yet the sense of vocation is itself a form of awakening and has the flavour neither of choice nor of blind obedience, but of freedom within a necessary commitment.
The word 'destiny' in this connection does not imply a particular or inevitable outcome. It implies dedication to a specific use of talent and to the way of life required for its employment.
A vocation need not be in any material sense a success. Neither Fred nor Fredrick became rich and famous. Fredrick discovered his vocation as if struck by lightning, lost it, and died. Fred took a long time to recognise or admit the existence of his own, and instead of pursuing it as a terrier pursues a rat, or as a man pursues salvation, practised his craft while moving with the tide, so that in the end, by a Fred-like shift, his vocation proved to be for living rather than for writing.
Towards the end he questioned whether he had followed his calling as a writer with sufficient zeal; but his ability to adjust allowed him to survive until he was ninety-two. In the article he wrote on 'Why I Write' his answer was honest, serious, and unassuming. It was: I don't know.'
The entire enterprise of the nest of anarchists at 170 Westbourne Terrace, and the London Forum it generated, failed in the sense that it did not change culture or make an obvious impact on the world. Sparks were struck, minds were moved and shaken, participants died or departed and went their own way, the personnel changed, the atmosphere changed, the motivation changed. If there were ripples, and if so how far they spread, I have no idea. For the ego, public acknowledgment is essential) for vocation it is irrelevant. Of course the ego can and does identify with vocation, and twists its nature where it can, but there is something other than ego operating here, and it is that something other which is the fundamental reality that cannot be examined, and which alone recognises what is true and what is false.
Fredrick's story is a drama. Fred does not live in that spiritual landscape. Yet both men went through the war and suffered a variety of vicissitudes as a result. The East has followed the West into the wilderness of acquisitive materialism and to talk of 'East' and 'West' is less meaningful now. It's as if the East and West stories provide a contrast between what the East once knew and how the West behaves.
The present Islamist explosion is an example of ego-identification with misinterpreted doctrine, and is not a manifestation of Islam itself. Displaced Islam has entered the fray seeking authentic identity, and how far its violence goes will indicate how far it is from finding it. For Eastern thought the attainment of wholeness and experienced meaning is here and now or not at all. For the West, history is a drama moving towards an end, and only at the end does the meaning become clear. What end? Science and philosophy don't help us. The answer is a matter of faith or dogma, or of Cecil's entropy. But perhaps there is a vocation for questioning, and a vocation for faith, and a vocation for doubt, and a vocation for wonder. I do not believe there is a vocation for dogma. If Islam does not come to recognise this, civilisation is in danger.
Each one of us secretly cherishes a sense that truth exists, that inner realisation of its nature is possible, that wholeness is a desirable aim, and that there are paths which lead through the dark wood. Myths and folk-tales tell us so, religion tells us so, but often with no more clarity than the responses of the Delphic Oracle or the I Ching. All I can do now is to give my blessings, for what they are worth, to all who frequented 170 Westbourne Terrace, and in particular to those two friends whose reality and meaning will remain always in my mind until I join them in that living nowhere which receives us all.
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