22 March 2015

Aldous Huxley, prophet of totalitarianism

Aldous Huxley
(1894 - 1963)
Aldous Huxley was an English novelist who is probably now best remembered for the science fiction work Brave New World, one of the first books to use the concept of totalitarianism, and predating Orwell’s 1984 by more than a decade.

Huxley moved to California in the 1930s, and during the 40s and 50s became associated with some of the mystical and counterculture movements based there, including Vedanta. He was interested in techniques such as meditation to achieve altered states of consciousness. For similar reasons he experimented with the drug mescaline, leading to the publication in 1954 of The Doors of Perception, a book that influenced a number of writers and artists.

I met Aldous Huxley on a number of occasions at the Society for Psychical Research in London, but only in rather social situations, such as lecture meetings and parties. Around that time some members of the SPR, including Professor H H Price, themselves took mescaline under medical supervision for experimental interest.

The meeting with Huxley which I remember most clearly was at an SPR lecture, probably one that was given by a particularly statusful person as I remember it was a bit of an occasion, although I do not recall the speaker. A lady who was leading Huxley around on account of his diminished eyesight, possibly his wife, brought him to be introduced to me. By that time I had an Oxford BLitt (postgraduate degree), but my way to academic appointments, research grants, and support of any kind, was being blocked.

Huxley treated me very politely, putting on a highly sophisticated act of Old Etonian charm. While I knew that such charm could be layered (i.e. potentially dishonest), I had the impression that in this case it was underlain by a genuine perception of my exceptionality.

Huxley seemed respectful and even deferential towards me. He appeared to take an interest in what I was saying about possible research into hallucinatory phenomena.

I had read very few of his books, although The Doors of Perception, about his mescaline experiences, was a topic of conversation at the SPR at the time. It would seem that he must have been interested in indications that there were higher levels of consciousness, and in ways of reaching out towards them.

The intense descriptions of jewel-like colours in The Doors of Perception may have been partly provoked by his problems with eyesight. I found the book vivid and interesting, probably because it was primarily a factual account of his own experiences and did not make much attempt to generalise theoretically.

Another of his books with which I was familiar was Time Must Have a Stop. It was on the bookshelf in Sir George Joy’s flat, and I often sat reading it while waiting for Sir George to cook the steak and Brussels sprouts for our dinner. What I remember from it suggests that Huxley was aware of the threatening nature of existing as a human being. For example, I remember the preoccupations of an elderly gentleman with his deteriorations as he grew older, and his attempts to make himself feel as if he was young again, until finally he collapsed in the bathroom with a heart attack and died. After that, the character’s role in the book involved descriptions of his experiences in the afterlife.

Huxley made attempts in Time Must Have a Stop to describe the feelings of being in the position of existing as a dead person, including the effort of connecting with the body of a medium and achieving communication via her with the world of the living. While these attempts may simply have been made in the service of entertainment – Huxley’s novels all seem to have an air of black humour about them – they may also have reflected a genuine interest in the theoretical possibilities of disembodied consciousness.

I suppose that a preoccupation with the meaning of existence, and how there might be access to anything beyond life, would account for Aldous Huxley’s occasional contacts with the London SPR while he was living in California. Although the SPR was not prestigious or noticeable among societies (by contrast with, say, the Royal Geographical Society), it was in effect a social club for upper-class people, so that Huxley would be fraternising with people of his own social class when he attended its functions.

I was disappointed that Huxley never gave me any financial support. This was all the more surprising considering his own high intelligence, and the fact that he seemed to have some independence of thought, and ideas of his own. He was in fact just as unsupportive as any of the other statusful people I was meeting at the SPR.

Of course it did not help that I met him under the watchful eye of Rosalind Heywood, an influential person who was clearly hostile to me. However, one might have hoped that someone as insightful and upper-class as Huxley could have made up his own mind to act in my favour. Instead, he brushed me off by sending me a polite and carefully worded letter saying that it was very difficult to get support for this subject, and that the subject was not fashionable. He did not offer support himself. That was the last I heard from him.

I was told that, as Huxley was dying, his wife recited soothing words, as previously arranged with him, about how he ought to ‘let go beautifully’ and so forth, a method presumably informed by his ideas about consciousness and dying. Curiously, various senior members of the SPR, when discussing him after his death (I believe one or two senior BBC people were also present), were somewhat patronising about ‘poor Aldous’ and his concerns. They, unlike him – the implication seemed to be – were psychologically advanced, and hence not afraid of death or anxious about the meaning of life.

A propos the upper-class act of treating people of lower social standing with deference, and the way this was applied to me: although Huxley treated me in this manner, as did a number of other upper-class men I knew, at times it seemed that the rule broke down in relation to me, and the upper-class person (particularly if it was a female person) instead tried to convey that I was of no importance whatsoever. I noticed, for example, senior staff at the BBC giving an impression of tremendous interest in people of a lower social class than their own, while figuratively elbowing me aside, on several occasions when I was asked to take part in a programme.

Rosalind Heywood once criticised the way I talked to people, as not giving sufficient impression of being interested in them, in the upper-class fashion. She contrasted my approach unfavourably with that of Yehudi Menuhin, who apparently had a social act similar to that of Old Etonians. I do not think her complaint was meaningful, except as indicating her hostility towards me. In any case, I did not have the social prestige of a Huxley or a Menuhin to confer on others.

I appeal for financial and moral support in improving my position. I need people to provide support both for fund-raising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.

01 March 2015

ESP and the circulation of the Daily Mirror

Slender, wiry, other-worldly, but with a manner that could be intimidating as well as endearing, Dame Ruth Railton ... is most likely to be remembered for founding the National Youth Orchestra in 1947 ...

... Those who endured her auditions [for the NYO] were apt to describe them as the most harrowing experiences of their lives ...

[After her husband Cecil King’s death, she] continued to attend NYO concerts ... laughing at any suggestion that she had ever intimidated anybody: a creative fantasist to the last.

(Guardian obituary, 1 March 2001)
Dame Ruth Railton
(1915 - 2001)
I met Ruth Railton on several occasions with her husband, Cecil Harmsworth King. From what she said about her dealings with the National Youth Orchestra, she struck me as someone who was identified with her ability to manipulate others. For example, she told me of a young musician who had tried to excuse himself from a rehearsal, saying he had an appointment with his psychiatrist. ‘You cannot have two psychiatrists,’ she told him, ‘I am your psychiatrist, and you must bring all your problems to me’ – an assertion which he apparently accepted without demur.

Dame Ruth appeared to believe that the members of her Youth Orchestra should live as cheaply as possible, and was said to turn down applicants who seemed to her to have the wrong attitude, in favour of others of a lower standard.

When I pointed out to her that we did not have adequate funding, she said that we should save money, as did the members of her Youth Orchestra, by sleeping on mattresses on the floor, thus saving the cost of bedsteads. As I and my associates already had bedsteads, this did not seem helpful advice towards expanding our operations.

A similar outlook was shown by Rosalind Heywood at about the same time. She was another extremely influential lady who stood in the way of my getting any money. When Eileen Garrett of the Parapsychology Foundation in New York had turned down my application for funding, she gave Rosalind Heywood a small amount of money earmarked for me which she said Rosalind could hand out if I had ‘acceptable’ needs.

I thought of some fundamental reference books which I did not own, and asked for those. ‘But you can always go into libraries to read books,’ Rosalind said.

‘Oh well,’ I thought, ‘I do not own a bookcase of my own as I am living in digs, and I certainly need to have one,’ so I suggested that to Rosalind.

‘You do not need a bookcase,’ she said. ‘You can always make bookshelves out of planks of wood supported by bricks.’

After some more of my suggestions had been turned down, I said, ‘Perhaps you could put the money in the Post Office Savings Bank, so that it will be accumulating interest until such time as money is released.’

These interactions had lasted over a period of months, and I suppose she felt that she had failed in driving me into doing something I did not want to do, in order to get the money, so at my proposal that the money should be invested, her patience gave way, and she sent me a cheque for the whole amount, which was, after all, not very large.

* * *

Looking back at my interactions with Cecil King and my attempts to obtain funding for the Institute of Psychophysical Research, I do not find it plausible that he had any interest in extrasensory perception or related areas of psychology other than in their possible effect on the circulation of the Daily Mirror, and the same may well have been true of his interest in the National Youth Orchestra.

Ruth Railton may have made him aware of extrasensory perception, and young musicians, as topics which could be effective in expanding the circulation of his newspapers, but I doubt whether her influence went beyond that.

On one occasion, when I was having lunch with Cecil King and Ruth Railton in Oxford, they expressed the belief that idealistic people such as university research workers and nurses should be paid as little as possible, since otherwise people whose primary motivation was not idealistic or altruistic might become research workers or nurses, and apparently it was important to prevent this.

Professing such an ideology might appear to be a good attitude for someone who had it in mind to gain influence over people who might do newsworthy things cheaply, such as myself.

To be consistent, one might have thought that Cecil King would also take the view that chairmen of publishing companies should not be rewarded by any increase in their salaries, or increased dividends on their shareholdings, if the circulation and hence the profits of their newspapers increased. However, he did not appear to notice any inconsistency in his outlook.

I appeal for financial and moral support in improving my position. I need people to provide moral support both for fund-raising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.

24 February 2015

Cecil King and extrasensory perception

It was not until after he met [his future wife] Ruth that King went public on ESP [extrasensory perception] and began actively searching for promising research projects. The International Publishing Corporation (IPC) – as King’s empire was named in 1963 – gave seven-year covenants of £1,500 annually to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and £5,000 to the Psychophysical Research Unit, founded by three young female Oxford graduates. ‘Mrs King is very right,’ wrote Sir George Joy of the SPR, after the three of them had visited the Unit, ‘when she says that if one is determined to pursue an objective, regardless of the means to carry it out, and willing to make any sacrifice that it involves – help comes from unexpected quarters – as in this case.’

‘CECIL KING GIVES £35,000 TO DREAM GIRLS’ was a Daily Express headline that caused both unease and mirth among King’s colleagues. The relationship with the young women quickly soured. To a blithe letter from the Unit’s Director, Celia Green, asking if he would like to finance a fund-raising tour of America (‘This might cost £2,000 to do properly’) King commented, ‘I have made many visits to the US, travelling “en prince”, but I never needed “£2,000”.’

‘Is she going round the bend?’ King enquired of Joy when he received what he reasonably described as a ‘preposterous’ letter with mingled demands and complaints. John Beloff, the Edinburgh University psychologist to whom IPC provided £1,000 annually to pay for an assistant, was professionally impeccable, but was unable to report anything very encouraging from their research into parapsychology.

(Ruth Dudley Edwards, Newspapermen, pp.318-319*)
The author of Newspapermen, a book about Cecil King and Hugh Cudlipp, here quotes derogatory remarks made in a controversial situation about a person still living (myself), without having made any attempt to hear that person’s point of view.

Cecil Harmsworth King
Cecil King was a newspaper magnate, and a significant figure in British post-war society. He was Chairman of International Publishing Corporation (now Time Inc. UK), which published the Daily Mirror among other newspapers.

King was our only significant financial supporter, and for a time sounded as though he might become a far more important one, enabling us to do full-scale experimental work which was our aim. He referred to his covenant of £5,000 a year as ‘priming the pumps’, when I pointed out that £5,000 would not go far in supporting research projects.

In practice, King behaved as though his small covenant had bought us as cheap labour.

We were effectively obliged to take on a mass card-guessing experiment, part of which King wanted conducted via the Mirror. It was an operation I would never have chosen to do, and considered futile. As it was a large-scale experiment, there were an enormous number of score sheets to be marked, which required research assistants. (When Dr Charles McCreery, then a young Oxford graduate, first made contact with me, he saw the front room of my house populated by groups of girls marking score sheets and questionnaires in relation to this project.) Research assistants do not work for nothing, and the covenant money did not go far in paying for them.

Since we were forced to do the experiment, I tried to improve the shining hour and make the operation a bit less futile, by thinking of a prediction simple enough to be tested in such circumstances. As it happened, the prediction I made (that deviation from chance would be correlated with birth order) proved successful.

Newspapermen quotes King’s response to our suggestion about organising a fund-raising tour in America, in imitation of a similar tour undertaken by Professor Alister Hardy. King’s reaction seems indicative of his personality, which (as the book shows) could be dismissive and irrational. A fund-raising tour around American universities and lecture halls, undertaken by two or three researchers, is a different matter from a single individual taking a business trip across the Atlantic.

Our correspondence with King was generally vetted by Sir George Joy, who acted as our intermediary with him. The author of the book asserts blandly that it was ‘reasonable’ of King to describe one of our letters as preposterous, a judgment made without full awareness of the facts.

* Newspapermen: Hugh Cudlipp, Cecil Harmsworth King and the Glory Days of Fleet Street, Pimlico, London, 2004.

I appeal for financial and moral support in improving my position. I need people to provide moral support both for fund-raising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.

05 February 2015

Why I cannot write long books

Sir George Joy KBE CMG
(1896 - 1974)
Professor H.H. Price, my DPhil supervisor, when saying that I had an alpha mind, also said that I could say more in one page than most people would say in three. In this context he recognised the brevity of my writing as indicating the high quality of my thinking; but this brevity was generally a drawback, which made fulfilling academic requirements even more burdensome than it would otherwise have been.

My book The Human Evasion perhaps illustrates this brevity at its most extreme. In that case a few people seem to have regarded the brevity as a merit. R.H. Ward said in his Foreword to the book, ‘Few books, long or short, are great ones; this book is short and among those few.’ Sir George Joy described it as ‘a great book’.

One of the aphorisms in my book The Decline and Fall of Science states, ‘I cannot write long books; I leave that for those who have nothing to say’.

It was hard work for me to produce a postgraduate thesis of the expected length, even though I had plenty of ideas, and covered the topic exhaustively and in great analytical detail. By contrast, most DPhil theses contain far fewer ideas, but manage to spin their material out to great length.

Professor Price’s recognition of the quality of my writing did not lead him to suggest to the faculty that it had gone on long enough, when I was still far short of the average length. The bookbinding firm in Oxford to whom I eventually took the thesis in for binding commented on its shortness and the difficulty of finding a hardcover binding that was small enough. Perhaps, of course, they were trying to undermine me, as people often did.

A good deal of academic writing has the opposite characteristic to mine, as the reader has to plough through a lot of waffle to discover the point, or points, if any, of the piece of writing.

When people started to do nominal research in the area of lucid dreams, some years after the publication of my book Lucid Dreams, Dr Keith Hearne acknowledged my priority in this field at the beginning of his own book on the subject. I cannot remember whether it was here or elsewhere that he referred to my book as a ‘little book’. As in the case of my thesis, I had managed to say a lot in a very short space in Lucid Dreams, but this only made it possible to belittle it, rather than its conciseness being regarded as an achievement.

The same problem arose in connection with the speed at which I worked. When I was at school, the fact that I could take exams and get very high marks in them at very short notice was taken as indicating overwork on my part, or ‘pushing’ by my parents. I expect it was taken as a contributory reason for rejecting my DPhil thesis, and awarding it only a BLitt, that I had spent only four years on it, while commuting between Oxford and London to work half the week at the Society for Psychical Research.

29 January 2015

W. Grey Walter and my DPhil thesis

copy of a letter to an academic

W. Grey Walter
Writing about the Perrott Studentship with which I returned to Oxford in an ostensibly normal way, much to Dame Janet Vaughan’s chagrin, has reminded me how extreme was the misrepresentation of the situation with regard to experimental work and my thesis.

From the very first, my intention was to make correlations between the psychological and the physiological, to work towards a better understanding of some of the anomalous experiences that people reported. None of my supervisors were prepared to help me get facilities for experimental work; they recognised my interest in working towards such things only by providing me with reviews of the literature in areas in which experiments might be done.

Dr Graham Weddell* said, ‘If you want to make correlations, the most obviously relevant area would be in working with EEGs, so I will arrange for Dr Grey Walter to be your supervisor, as he is the great expert in that field.’ But Grey Walter also would only provide me with book lists and surveys of the literature. I was constantly applying in various directions for funding and facilities to do experimental work, but received no support in doing this.

Grey Walter** said that he would not support my applications because if there was any funding to be had, he would want it for himself. In fact he did receive funding from the Parapsychology Foundation in New York to do experimental work on a supposed medium. I do not know why he should not have received money from the Parapsychology Foundation to do experiments himself, even if they had also funded my DPhil project.

I hope to write about this in more detail later, but there was no doubt in my mind that I was aiming at doing experimental work all the time I was working on my postgraduate degree.

* Graham Weddell was a physiology lecturer at Oxford who later became Professor of Anatomy.
** W. Grey Walter was a researcher at the Burden Neurological Institute near Bristol who later became a professor at Aix-Marseilles.

26 January 2015

Psycho-physical correlation: taboo area

EEG waves
People on the outside of the Oxford academic world imagine that it is far more objective than it actually is. People who get research grants to do higher degrees are supposed to be, in some meritocratic way, ‘better’ than those who apply for them but do not get them. In fact it is necessary to be accepted by a supervisor who is going to oversee your work. No one in the faculty is obliged to accept a graduate student, however relevant the subject matter of a potential supervisor’s previous work may seem to be to the candidate’s proposed thesis.

Many factors may enter into whether the university wants to promote a certain person or a certain area of work. A supervisor is likely to want to believe that his students’ theses will develop or reinforce the ideas expressed in his own research. Hence tightly enclosed areas of permissible research may be expected to, and actually do, develop. Opening up new areas, or expanding those already existing, is almost impossible.

It is also easy to set graduates on tracks which will soon reach a blockage, so that although they may appear to have been accepted to work for a certain degree, it is determined in advance that no positive outcome for them will be possible. In effect, this is what happened to me.

When Professor H.H. Price had agreed to become my DPhil supervisor, my college, Somerville had telephoned him to try to dissuade him. On the face of it, he had not gone back on his acceptance, but from then on he never supported me in getting any financial or other advantages, although he continued to write glowing reports about my work to the Perrott electors at Trinity College, Cambridge, which was only allowing me to go on doing what I had already been accepted to do.

My potential DPhil thesis, for which I was awarded only a BLitt, was said to be interdisciplinary, and it appeared that it might include analyses of both physiological and psychological observations. What I did not realise was that avoidance of correlations between the physiological and the psychological, or the physical and the mental, had been a powerful determining factor in the revolutionary restructuring of the modern academic world. (My thesis was all about such correlations.)

As there was no precedent for a graduate degree in this area, I asked my supervisor Professor Price whether it would be necessary for a successful DPhil thesis in the area I was proposing to include experimental work. Professor Price reported to me that he had been told it would be possible for a thesis in this area to make a contribution to the field, sufficient for a DPhil, without including any experimental work.

If Professor Price had been acting in my interests rather than those of the academic establishment, he would have asked not whether it was a theoretical possibility, but whether it was the best possible way of ensuring that I got the DPhil. When I submitted my thesis, it was turned down for a DPhil and only awarded a BLitt, the reason given being that it did not include any experimental work. Professor Price then applied on my behalf for the thesis to be ‘referred back’, as it was called, so that the necessary additions could be made to it. This was refused, on the grounds that experimental work would not arise naturally out of the thesis in its present form, so such work would be an ‘unnatural addition’ to it.

In fact, this could hardly have been less true, as the thesis consisted of discussing correlations between the psychological states said to be favourable to successful extrasensory perception (ESP), and the electrophysiological activity of the brain as reflected in readings on an electroencephalogram (EEG). This had led me to conclude the thesis with a prediction of the outcome of EEG experiments on ESP subjects. Carrying out some of those experiments would seem to be the most logical development possible of the observations and analyses made throughout the thesis.

Experimental work arose very naturally out of the prediction in my thesis that successful ESP would be correlated with an acceleration in the subject’s alpha rhythm, as measured on an EEG. For example, two experiments carried out in America by Rex Stanford and others at the University of Virginia, after the publication of my thesis, measured correlations between scoring above chance on card guessing, and the frequency of the subjects’ alpha rhythm.

Professor Price entered into no further conflict with the examiners, but apparently accepted their judgement, or rationalisation, on this point without argument. Clearly Somerville had been opposed to my being accepted to work for a DPhil with Price as my supervisor. It is not difficult to suspect that the ultimate abortive outcome was anticipated, and planned for, in the faculty’s original replies to Professor Price about the desirability of experimental work.

21 January 2015

Slandered by Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch
I had got to know J.B. Priestley through Mary Adams of the BBC, and after trying to make use of me to collect quotations for his coffee-table book about time*, he went on visiting me in Oxford and talked about a television programme or series of programmes which might be made about me. Perhaps this had something to do with the possibility that I might lead him into contact with young female undergraduates and postgraduates. After a time, on one such visit, he came into my lodgings looking portentous, and said to me and my two fellow lodgers (one of them being the daughter of Mary Adams), ‘Iris Murdoch says you are lesbians.’

Iris Murdoch was a well-known novelist and former member of the Communist Party, and at the time very much part of the fashionable literary scene. She was also a philosophy don at Oxford, so any gossip she was spreading was likely to be a reflection of the attitudes of the Oxford dons generally. None of the three of us had ever met her.

The allegation of being lesbians was one of many rumours that went round about me and my associates having zero basis in fact. (See also Oxford’s slanders about drug-taking.)

I could not bring myself to deny Iris Murdoch’s alleged slander, as it seemed merely boring to deny something for which there was no foundation, so I made no reply, nor did either of the others. After a pause, J.B. Priestley said, ‘Oh well, I didn’t expect you to deny it,’ as if our failure to deny it was an admission of its truth. After this meeting, he did not visit us again, and the plans for television programmes were heard of no more. In fact what Priestley had gained from Iris Murdoch was not information about our supposed lesbianism, but information about our lack of social acceptability.

When I see detective programmes on the television, I have noticed that the person who most vigorously denies the suspicions against them often turns out to be the culprit. Possibly this is in recognition of the psychological fact that those who have something they need to cover up are motivated to produce an alternative account of the situation, whereas those who have nothing to do with the situation, that is to say, who have ‘nothing to hide’, feel no need to suggest an alternative explanation of the facts. This was, in fact, my position, and if J.B. Priestley were being realistic, he might even have had enough insight to regard our silence as the reverse of incriminating.

Another example of Oxford reacting to us in a way for which there was no justification was provided by an official at the organisation which listed potential landlords who would offer rooms to student tenants. One of my associates who owned a small house, in which I had formerly lived for a short time, applied to this organisation and asked to be placed on their list. No reason for their refusal was given, but the official looked shocked and exclaimed, ‘Oh no!’ on sight of the address, as if it was well known as a house of ill repute, or something of the sort.

* Man and Time, Aldus Books, 1964.
Photograph of Iris Murdoch by Jane Bown.

17 January 2015

It’s not what you know, but who you know

The lower middle class does not exist in official statistics, nor in conversational contexts, but in practice, when I was at Somerville College, Oxford, in the early to mid 1950s, I encountered several students who seemed to be being treated as belonging to a despised underclass, determined by social status rather than ability or achievement.

My impression that this was so was confirmed when I was living in digs in Oxford with two other postgraduate students, working for higher degrees. One of the other students was Margaret Eastman, and the third was the daughter of Mary Adams of the BBC. Margaret and I were of what might be called lower middle class origins, having won scholarships to Somerville, but coming from respectable middle class families which had sent us to State schools.

The daughter of Mary Adams, on the other hand, had gone to the Francis Holland School, a prestigious fee-paying school which had once been considered a possibility for Princess Anne, and had gone on to Somerville as a commoner (a non-scholarship student).

The digs, as was frequently the case with lodgings inhabited by Oxford students, were unhygienic and insalubrious. Among other things, the draining board in the kitchen was rotting. Mary Adams, visiting her daughter, and in the presence of Margaret and myself, expressed horror at the filthy surroundings. ‘This sort of thing may be good enough for Celia and Margaret’, she declaimed, ‘But my daughter was brought up to be a lady’. I was amazed that this should be said by an egalitarian socialist.

It would seem that she was not only voicing her own private views, but those which underlay the attitude of the Oxford University administration. I knew a postgraduate student who lived in lodgings where the lavatories were never cleaned, so that tenants would wish, if possible, to go out into the garden when they needed to use them. Less unhygienic lodgings were likely to have higher rents, so only those who could afford it could remove themselves from such unpleasantness. It must be supposed that the administration was aware of this situation, and so implicitly expressed the view that filthy lodgings were good enough for most students, but of course those who were rich enough could maintain the standards to which they had been brought up.

Other people who seemed to have similar underlying attitudes were the friends of Mary Adams, drawn from a population which hobnobbed with champagne socialists, even if not perhaps every one of them could be classified in this way.

I would certainly have expected, on the basis of the way my own family would have behaved, that on visiting a student living together with two other students, the visitors would all ask to be introduced to the friends of their friend, or have just entered the apartment and got to know the others in a less formal way. This, however, did not happen, whether or not they feared the apartment might be too filthy to be safely entered. Friends of Mary Adams would come to the door and take her daughter out with them without meeting anyone else.

This went on happening over a period of years, and on at least one occasion the daughter of Mary Adams said to her, ‘When your friends visit me, they take me out for a meal, but not Celia and Margaret. When Celia’s aunt Emmie visits us, she takes all three of us out for lunch’. Mary Adams responded, ‘Celia’s aunt must be a very rich woman then’. My aunt Emmie was retired and on a pension. Like all members of my mother’s family, she had a very high IQ, and she had become a highly skilled shorthand typist. However, as a member of a lower social class than the champagne socialists, my aunt had never had a salary approaching the BBC salary of Mary Adams.

On one occasion, as the daughter of Mary Adams told me, some of the visiting friends said they would like to buy her a birthday present, but they wanted to be sure it was something which she herself could use and which would be of no use to any other inhabitants of the apartment. ‘How about slippers?’ they had said, ‘We could buy you some, but do assure us that your feet are much smaller than Celia’s and Margaret’s, so they could not possibly use any slippers we buy for you’.

14 January 2015

Oxford: stairway to the stars?

Margaret Eastman was an undergraduate at Somerville College, Oxford, with a scholarship in classics. This fairly clearly implied exceptional ability. She had acquired her expertise in writing Greek poetry by reading classics in her local public library.

Social mobility was allegedly desirable, so one might well have expected that people such as Margaret Eastman and myself would be welcomed to Oxford, and encouraged on their upward path. But this was far from being the case. People such as Margaret and myself were greeted by the Somerville dons as if we had got above ourselves and needed to be reminded that we were still inferior to people who had been to prestigious fee-paying schools such as St Paul’s Girls’ School.

Margaret had become able to write Greek poetry so well that she took the optional poetry writing paper in the Mods exam. She also wrote a Latin epigram which was published in the Oxford Magazine. Such publication conferred a considerable cachet, but was greeted by one of Margaret’s tutors with the comment ‘It’s the first thing you have done since coming up that justifies your scholarship’.

As Margaret was always spoken of by the dons as something of a second-rater, people who did not know about classics might have taken this at face value, but it is scarcely compatible with the facts. Margaret had got her scholarship by being able to read and write Latin and Greek at a high level, and she had not stopped being able to do so, but continued to read and write Latin and Greek throughout her first terms at Oxford.

A year or so later, when she wished to apply for a research scholarship to proceed to a higher degree, her tutors sounded uncertain whether she was ‘good enough’. They thought she was not ‘good enough’ for an academic career, although she should be able to ‘hold down a job’.

In my own case, when I started trying to explain to my first tutor how badly I had been affected by being held back and prevented from taking exams in several subjects at an early age, she had said ‘But you are just an ordinary person’, which seemed to rule out any attempt to understand how various factors might have affected my performance.

Somerville would never support either Margaret or myself in applying for grants for higher degrees. I think we were turned down on at least four occasions, although ironically we were both able to help other people who were doing higher degrees in different subjects, by picking up very fast on something which we had never studied before.

Eventually we both found ourselves without an academic appointment, or any way ahead within the university system.

11 January 2015

Egalitarians and those ‘beneath’ them

When I was an undergraduate at Somerville College, Oxford, in the mid-1950s, feminist ideas were very much on an uptrend.

‘Feminism’ is usually taken to mean gender egalitarianism, i.e. that women are or should be the equals of men. This idea could, however, be interpreted in very different ways.

While I was at Somerville, a male undergraduate said to one of my college friends that women were ‘equal but different’, and this seemed to mean ‘equal but inferior’. Women could never have strong enough wrists to play tennis properly against a man, and there were various other things which they would never be able to do well.

Nowadays, it is often suggested that there should be equal numbers of men and women on the boards of companies.

Mary Adams OBE, a well-known ‘fellow traveller’ (communist sympathiser), was one of the first women to have a fairly high position in the BBC, and was also the mother of a college friend of mine. I was the top scholar at Somerville College, and her daughter was a commoner (non-scholarship student). I frequently visited Mary Adams’s Regents Park apartment.

On one occasion, my father came by car to pick me up from the apartment, and Mary Adams said about his voice on the telephone, ‘He sounds very common’. At least, this was what her daughter relayed to me a little later. I was surprised that Mary Adams, as an influential leader of thought at the BBC, did not find it necessary to demonstrate her social egalitarianism by asking my father up for a sherry, and taking an interest in his experience of education in working-class areas of London. After all, he was the headmaster of a school in the East End.

Lord Longford
When I told this story to Lord Longford* (a Labour peer) at the House of Lords, where he had invited me to visit him after I sent him an appeal to support my work, he looked taken aback by the accuracy of the wording. In fact I had not, at the time, known that ‘common’ was the word an upper-class person would use in talking about a social inferior. ‘Did you hear her say that?’ he asked. ‘No,’ I said, ‘her daughter, who did hear it, told me afterwards’. ‘She should not have told you’, Lord Longford said, laughingly.

One may notice that he did not say, ‘Mary Adams should not have said that’, in line with the socialist egalitarian ideas which both Lord Longford and Mary Adams professed in public. Instead, it appeared he thought that her daughter’s loyalty should have been to her own (upper) class, and to her influential mother, rather than to someone of a lower social class but, probably, higher IQ (i.e. both me and my father).

At the same meeting, Lord Longford looked at me curiously, as if he were trying to work out my social provenance. He said to me, ‘You don’t sound working-class. You could be a peeress.’ He continued to look at me. I must have said something, and he then said, ‘I see it is an Oxford accent’.

I cannot recall my college contemporaries, or any more senior person, ever expressing admiration of my achievement in getting the top scholarship, or even any Oxford scholarship, coming as I did from a relatively disadvantaged background. People appeared to be impressed only by social institutions. Mary Adams seemed to be bowled over when I first told her of meeting Dr Charles McCreery, an undergraduate at that time. I mentioned that he had been to Eton, and Mary Adams went into church with admiration, breathing, ‘Eton is the best school’.

A similar reaction was shown by Oxford physiology lecturer Graham Weddell (later Professor of Human Anatomy), when speaking about Charles’s father, General Sir Richard McCreery, before he had even met Charles. ‘His father is a great man’, he said, although General McCreery had (it appeared) been slandering Charles.**

* Frank Pakenham, the 7th Earl of Longford, was a Labour politician who became Leader of the House of Lords in 1964. Photograph by Allan Warren.
** Further details can be found here.