Marj Barstow: #3, A Little Bit of Nothing, London 1988
I had mixed impressions of the week in Steiner House; some very good things and some not so good. Marj’s philosophy of the Technique was simple; you move your head delicately forward and up in such a way that the whole body lengthens and widens. I have emphasised certain words because they are of key importance in Marj’s way of describing the process. The directions to head and back are seen as precursors of movement. In order to make a movement one should be clear as to what leads the movement; it is the head. In what direction do you move the head? You move it forward and up. What is the quality of the movement? It is delicate or subtle. With regard to “the whole body lengthens and widens”, she insisted that one could say ‘body’ or ‘torso’ but nothing else; that is to say, not ‘spine’ or ‘back’. When one of the volunteers in Brighton used the expression “lengthen the spine”, Marj responded- somewhat surprised by the word – “Spine! What about the rest of you?”
The workshop was really too big. To have some sixty people, all teachers or teacher-trainees and all keen to work with Marj, was just too much. Her assistants, some of whom had been with her for many years and some of whom had not, also took groups, but people had come there to work with a first generation teacher rather than her assistants.
It takes a lifetime to really incarnate Alexander’s ideas; the assistant teachers were saying the right things but did not have the embodied knowledge to give the corresponding experiences. This is not a criticism of them or of Marj’s approach. The same could be said of any other teacher from any other background; time is a factor in embodying knowledge and there is no substitute for sixty years of work. At times though I felt the assistants were somehow in the role of apologists for Marj.
There was a certain sense of frustration amongst the participants that they were not getting what they had come for. In London, we were used to having a more direct contact with our teachers. There was, in Rudolph Steiner House, something of an “us and them” attitude. Many of us had just as much, if not more, experience as Marj’s assistants, and I felt an opportunity for more of an exchange or sharing was lost. The problem was primarily in the way the event was structured. There was more than a hint of a “master-plan” to introduce Marj’s approach to the rest of the Alexander world. I felt that Marj herself was not implicated in this. Some years later one of Marj’s oldest and closest colleagues told me how furious he was that Marj was being put on planes, taken all over the world and put in front of large groups of people whom she didn’t know – hardly even knowing what country she was in. Perhaps the Marj bandwagon was seen as a chance for someone to make a name for himself.
In London that year I wanted to take the opportunity to have an exchange “on a level playing field”, so to speak, and having made a friendly connection with one of the assistants over coffee one day, I invited her to meet to exchange work. I told her something about my lessons with Margaret Goldie, in particular the experience of a different quality of energy. “That sounds very like what Marj is trying to teach us”, she replied. Our exchange of work was very brief, but enough to give me some insight into the similarities and differences between our approaches.
I asked her if she knew Erika Whittaker, whom I had recently met for the second time at the Brighton Congress, and told her what an important experience my meeting with her had been “Oh, yes” she said. “We got to know each other when we were all assisting Marj at her Australian workshops; I thought of her as a friend, though, not as a teacher.” Some years later, when I had got to know Erika better, I was able to hear her recollection of the same encounter, which gave me a lot of insight into her approach to “teaching without teaching”. And the importance of a ‘well-timed gin and tonic’.
© 2014 John S Hunter