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Patrick Macdonald: #5, “It’s Just Happening”, Lewes, 1990

Patrick Macdonald did not, in those later years, speak very much when teaching, but he knew the moment when a few words could help to either induce helpful self-questioning or make something clear.

I recall two such incidents which took place during my last period of study with him.

I was working on one of my colleagues. Mr Macdonald was watching and reminding me with a gesture of his thumb to “take her up!”. Then something shifted; that recognisable change in state occurred in which everything begins to flow. Mr Macdonald leant over towards me, looked me in the eyes and said, very simply and very directly in a quiet but firm voice– as if confiding something both important and personal:

“That’s right! Never mind about her! You look after yourself!”

Then the moment was over. He changed, stood back again and in his usual voice said,

“Go on then, take her up! Your job is to take her up.”

But I wasn’t fooled. Something that I had already at certain moments tasted was now understood; that experience will always stay with me.

In my last lesson with him I remember asking him, when I felt myself moving freely in and out of the chair,

“Who is doing this, Mr Macdonald? You or me?”

“Who do you think is doing it?” he replied.

“I don’t know”, I said.

A minute or so later, when something had really got out of the way and a finer energy was flowing, he asked:

“Who is doing it now?”

“Nobody is doing it,” I replied. “It’s just happening.”

“That’s right,” he said. “It’s just happening.”

And again, at that moment – something was understood.

© John Hunter 2015

Lessons with Miss G: #11, Now I’m a Believer

“Now you are doing it again!” she said, with more than a little exasperation in her voice. She stepped back so that she could look at me and pronounce her verdict. “John, you are such an unbeliever!”

Well, that was not what I was expecting to hear. All sorts of reasons had been flooding through my head as to why it just wasn’t working: it was because I was doing or not doing this or that, or that she was doing or not doing this or that, but the idea that it could have anything at all to do with my beliefs – or lack of them – had never occurred to me …

And yet, she was absolutely right. Because I didn’t feel what I expected – had even been ‘trained’ – to feel when getting out of the chair, I didn’t believe it was possible. I was used to “keeping my back back”, but this was brought about with the help of a strong stimulus from the teacher who provided the opposition, thereby stimulating the “anti-gravity response”. But Goldie didn’t do that; she was not going to make it work for you, and if the usual signals and sensations were not there, then I didn’t believe something could happen.

So Alexander was right: “Belief is a matter of customary muscle tension”.1 I didn’t see this all at once: it was a gradual realisation, but one that was set in motion by that remark of Goldie’s.

Of all the “master teachers” I worked with, it was only with Goldie that I did not always feel wonderful during or after the lessons. Far from it! Sometimes it all felt very static and pointless. On more than one occasion I could not wait for the lesson to end, swearing to myself that this would definitely be the last time I would put myself through such an excruciating experience. She was, of course, picking up this “resistance” and would sometimes comment that I should not concern myself with whether or not I felt it was working, or give way to an inner criticism that she was “not up to scratch today”, but I should “just go on with the brain-work”. Then, perhaps several hours later the same day – and quite unexpectedly – some new discovery would emerge; a clarity of thought, a more vivid perception, or an unknown part of my spine would suddenly wake up. I was coming to understand that what she called “brain-work” was bringing about changes from the inside rather than through muscles or nerves. Another of Alexander’s aphorisms began to make sense:

“When the time comes that you can trust your feeling, you won’t want to use it.” 2


1 Some references to belief and muscle tension.

  • “Do you know what we have found that belief is? A certain standard of muscle tension. That is all”. (The Bedford Lecture, in Articles and Lectures, p.174, Mouritz (1995))
  • I remember one morning his coming briskly into our classroom, looking very pleased with himself, and saying, ‘Belief is a matter of customary muscle tension.’
    ‘F.M.,’ I said, ‘don’t you mean that belief about what you can do with the body is a matter of customary muscle tension?’ The discussion was on. He kept talking while he worked. Finally at the end of the morning’s work F.M. said, ‘Yes, belief about what you can do with the body is a matter of customary muscle tension.’ Lulie Westfeldt, F. Matthias Alexander, The Man and his Work, Mouritz 1998, p.68
  • Was FM’ s aphorism that belief is a matter of muscle tension simply designed to shock people, or was there a more serious element behind it? He was perfectly serious about it, because he equated belief with fixation. In his experience a rigidity of mind corresponded to a rigidity of body. (Walter Carrington on the Alexander Technique in discussion with Sean Carey, 1986, p.45f)

2 Teaching Aphorisms: The Alexander Journal No 7, 1972, published by the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique. Also published in Articles and Lectures by Mouritz (1995).

© John Hunter 2015

Being with Erika and Miss G

Erika Whittaker and Margaret Goldie were really like chalk and cheese. In the early days, as young women, they did not get on too well. Goldie had, said Erika, somehow got into what she called the “inner circle” at Ashley place (by which she meant the Alexander family, plus Irene Tasker and Ethel Webb) and she did not mix very much with the other students.

According to Erika the children at the Little School were a little bit frightened of Goldie; one day when they were all being served with soup, none of them dared to start eating in case they had not “inhibited” enough. Then F.M. came in, sat down and said, “Eat, eat. It will get cold!”

“She had this way” Erika said, “of looking you up and down as if to say ‘what are you doing here?’, and one felt an icy chill. The other students were all a bit frightened of her.”

When, more than half a century later, they re-established contact, they formed a touching friendship. Erika, having found some strange things going on in the Alexander world after an absence of several decades, was very grateful to be able to talk to Goldie and be re-assured that she was not alone in her critique. While Erika was staying with me on one of her London visits she was invited to Goldie’s for lunch.  She came back delighted.

“We had smoked salmon, Stilton cheese and champagne; my favourites.”

Goldie also valued the contact with Erika. When I told her on a later occasion that Erika was coming again to London, she became quite emotional.

“Oh Erika!” she said. “When we were at Ashley Place she was always so light, so joyful and so free. Mr Alexander was always sending us off to go for a walk, saying we were too serious.

‘Why can’t you be more like Erika,’ he would say. ‘She understands.’

But we couldn’t. We didn’t know how.”

I only went to Miss Goldie’s house in Richmond once, and that was to take Erika to visit her. I dropped her off and went a few hours later to pick her up. I went in and spent half an hour or so together with these two old ladies who had influenced my understanding of Alexander’s work so much over the last twelve years. It was the only time I was to see them together and it was the last time I saw Goldie before she died.

Goldie was sitting at her little desk under her bookshelves, full of fascinating titles. You really got the sense that she was a thinker: someone who reflected on subjects which had concerned mankind throughout the ages. She looked very fragile and had bruises on her face after a recent fall, but with Erika’s clever and considerate questions and prompts, the conversation was lively and Goldie reminisced happily.

She told us the story of her first lessons, when she was having each day one from FM and one from AR. She said she loved her lessons with FM, but hated the ones with AR. In desperation she wrote to her father who was paying for the lessons, and said that she thought it was not right that he should be spending all this money when she was only benefiting from half of the lessons.  His response was that he was paying all this money so that she could learn to face and deal with any problem that life put in her path, and this was one of them.  Later, she said, she became great friends with AR.

Erika asked her, for my benefit really, how was it that FM could see and work with so many people in a day without seeming to get tired.

Goldie laughed. “It was because he wasn’t doing anything” she replied.

“A lot of young teachers nowadays” continued Erika (and by “young teachers” she meant more or less anyone under the age of seventy), “are very concerned about getting more pupils and trying to make FM’s work more popular. What’s your view about that?”

Goldie smiled and said. “It was never meant for everyone. It is meant for the few who wish to evolve.”

© John Hunter 2015

Lessons with Miss G: #10, Some Meaningful Tittle-tattle

Stories about Miss G abound. They are interesting, often humorous and give some insight into her individuality. Sometimes they demonstrate her capacity to lay bare something in the person with whom she was interacting. Here are a few that I heard, first or second hand, over the years.

A newly qualified young teacher from Israel came to have a lesson with Miss G. As was her wont, she spoke throughout about the need to “stop and be quiet; pay particular attention to the head, neck and back”.

The young teacher, not knowing Miss Goldie’s ways and probably thinking that she was holding out on him, could only take so much of this before interrupting her and saying:

“Miss Goldie! You do realize that I have just completed three years of full-time teacher training, so I think I know the basics.”

“Oh!” said Miss Goldie. “Three years! I see. Well I have completed sixty-three years of training, and I still have to remind myself. So where does that put you and your three years?”

* * *

I heard one story from Marjory Barlow.

A pupil of Marjory’s said to her one day that, having benefited so much from his lessons, he felt a deep appreciation for Alexander and his work and he wanted to know where he was buried so that he could take some flowers to the grave as a token of his gratitude.

Marjory told him that Alexander had in fact been cremated and that she did not know what had happened to the ashes but, thinking that Margaret Goldie would certainly know, she would try and find out.

Another of Marjory’s pupils, an Alexander teacher, was also having lessons with Miss G, so Marjory asked this person if she would, next time she saw Goldie, ask her if she could shed any light on the fate of Alexander’s ashes – adding that it was best not to mention Marjory’s name.

Sure enough, the next time this person was having her lesson with Miss G, she said that “a friend” had been curious about Alexander’s ashes and  wanted to know what had happened to them.

“Well!” replied Miss G in a minimalist and dismissive manner, “There are lots of people who want to know all sorts of things!”

Several years later another of Miss G’s pupils was able to supply the missing end to this story. It seems that she had her lesson directly after the pupil who had asked about the ashes, and Miss G had made some comments to her about the incident. She, Miss Goldie, with one other person – most probably Irene Stewart – had scattered the ashes in a place which she said she would never reveal.

* * *

A friend of mine from Mexico would visit London regularly to have lessons with Miss G – sometimes seeing her twice a day. One year she was staying with me while Erika was visiting, and told us a lovely story when she got back from her lesson. By that time Miss Goldie had stopped teaching at the Bloomsbury Alexander Centre and was seeing just a few pupils at her home in Richmond.

I wanted to take her something nice as a treat and went into a delicatessen that was just round the corner from Goldie’s house. It seemed like such an intimate local area that I felt certain that the staff would know who Goldie was and what she liked, so I went in and asked a man who was serving what he could recommend for Miss Goldie.

“Miss Goldie?” he said. “You know Miss Goldie? Wait a minute!”

The shopkeeper then went to the door, put up the ‘closed’ sign, locked the door, pulled the blinds down and invited me into the back room for tea and biscuits. I was a bit worried but he seemed harmless so I agreed. He then interrogated me for half an hour about Miss Goldie, this mysterious woman who had been coming into his shop for years and about whom he knew nothing at all. I told him what I knew and then went off for my lesson. Of course, I told Miss Goldie all about the incident, and she roared with laughter.

When my friend got back to my apartment she could not wait to tell Erika and me this wonderful story.

“It was all so surrealistic!” she said. “I felt like I was back home in Mexico. I can’t believe that such a thing could happen in England.”

* * *

Miss G usually did not have a fixed fee and asked new pupils to consider how much they valued what they were learning before deciding what they wished to pay for their lessons. She had apparently been known to tell some people that they needed to pay more, whilst from others she would refuse to take any payment at all. The issue really was one of valuation rather than money. One story I heard examples a never-to-be-forgotten lesson given to a young man.

Young Mr X was asked, after his first lesson to give some thought to what he wanted to pay. He made the mistake of “trying it on”, however, and said he wanted to pay her her five pounds.

At his next lesson he was told, as soon as he arrived, to remove his shoes and lie on the table.

Miss Goldie arranged his head on some books and then left the room to go and have a cup of tea.

After half an hour she came back and told him to get up and go because the lesson was over.

“But you haven’t done anything” protested the young man.

“Well” she replied, “you wanted to pay five pounds, so you have had five pounds worth. Good day!”

* * *

© 2014 John S Hunter

Being With Erika: #14, Munich 1995

My good friend Renate Hoffman, who trained in London – first with Patrick Macdonald and then with Misha Magidov, lived in Munich.  She was a pupil for many years of Margaret Goldie and revisited London often to continue having lessons with her. Renate was very keen to meet Erika, who spent many of her childhood years in Munich and still had friends there. Erika had also maintained for many years a correspondence friendship with Sydney Holland’s daughter Mary; Erika and Mary, who ran a training course in Munich, had never met. The conditions all seemed very favourable for organising an “Alexander trip” to Munich with Erika, and so Renate set to work to arrange things while Erika was in Europe again in 1995.

We visited two teacher training courses, at each of which the tea break proved to be a feast, and Erika finally met her correspondent Mary Holland.

There was also a weekend of workshops for teachers. One never quite knew what to expect from these events. Even though I had by now been to numerous such gatherings, they were always different. She never planned what she was going to do. To break the ice, she often began by recounting her own early experiences with her Aunt Ethel Webb (she loved to imitate Miss Webb saying “Keep your length, Dear!”). She was, so to speak, feeling her way into the situation, gauging where people were in themselves , how they might be getting in their own way and seeing what they needed.

It is a curious fact in the AT world, however, that we use the same words to refer to different processes and experiences. Renate told me that she overheard two of the participants discussing their reactions to the first morning of the workshop.

“I think we are doing that already, aren’t we?” asked one.

“Yes I think so” said the other. “I think we’ve already got it.”

“Yes I agree. We’ve got it. We don’t really need to stay for the rest do we?”

“Not really!”

Another participant, let’s call her “X”, who had picked up some crumbs from Marj Barstow’s table at one of her Swiss workshops, came face to face with her nemesis when she insisted on the importance of slumping.

It is true that some Alexander students and teachers fall into the trap of trying to go up at the front (which can lead to a phenomena knows as the “£10,000 chest“) and to maintain such a posture at all times. Marj would often remind people that slumping is not per se a bad thing; it is part of one’s flexibility. She would even invite students to “have a little slump” before directing up out of it and into movement.

The aforementioned participant at Erika’s workshop had latched onto Marj’s point in a distorted form, concluding that slumping was good and that this was some kind of Alexander esoteric knowledge that Marj had transmitted to her. But Erika was having none of it. Although I had heard her say many times something similar to Marj, Erika recognised the misconception in the participant and confronted it (see also Note 2 in Traps, Pitfalls & Culs-de-sacs: the £10,000 Chest).

“Erika was fantastic” Renate told me afterwards. “She was like a Zen Master. She wouldn’t let X off the hook. X insisted that she was right but Erika just laughed and told her she was wrong; she had misunderstood.”

For X this was like a koan. She found herself in an impossible situation. She would have to let go of her misconception or ……… Or what?

In the end her misconception, together with her sense of feeling special, was more precious to her than the opportunity to move on. She decided to leave.

It was touching to watch others, more open, allowing their understanding to be transformed – if only momentarily – especially when Erika put hands on them and they had the experience of a different quality of energy flowing through them. A moment can, after all, be short in “outer time”, but deeply significant in “inner time”.

Yet it was the more informal times that were the most delightful and illuminating. There were dinners at Renate and her husband Peter’s apartment, full of light and serious conversations; there were trips to Munich’s wonderful Konditoreien.

Walking past the Opera House, she reminisced about her childhood, telling us about the “Opera Line”. It seems that in the 1920’s it was already possible to ring the operator and ask for a direct connection to live performances.1

Erika introduced us to Munich’s artistic community at a party. She had kept in touch with people there who fondly remembered her from their childhoods fifty, sixty or seventy years before, It was a sight to behold when they, already themselves no longer young, came face to face with someone from the distant past – but still so full of life.

1. Thanks to Pia Quaet-Faslem for contacting the Bavarian State Opera, who confirmed that the Théâtrophone was in use there until around 1930 when radio broadcasts made it redundant. See Wikipedia: Théâtrophone

© 2014 John S Hunter

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

Patrick Macdonald: #4, The Ups and the Downs, Lewes & London, 1989

At the time I was going to Lewes to work with Patrick Macdonald I was Chair of STAT, though I kept rather quiet about that as the Society was distinctly out of favour with Mrs Macdonald. There were some complicated issues that had to be dealt with regarding the students who had chosen to continue studying with him after his move to Lewes, rather than staying in the school in Victoria, the directorship of which was taken over by Mr Macdonald’s former assistant, Shoshana Kaminitz.

“They say they can’t give them STAT certificates” said Mrs Macdonald. “That would be pretty silly, wouldn’t it!”

This was the first I had heard about the problem. Indeed it would be ‘pretty silly’, I thought. There was nobody more experienced or better qualified to train teachers. I told her I would try and help.

It turned out that, having retired from running the school in Victoria, Mr Macdonald had not renewed his membership of STAT when it next came due. Because of the Society’s own regulations this meant that it was unable to recognise Mr Macdonald’s students. At our next Council meeting we found an ‘elegant solution’, which was to confer upon him honorary membership; his graduates were duly elected as teaching members. The practice of conferring honorary membership on some of the Alexander Elders has continued since then, though Walter Carrington declined the offer, not wishing to be singled out for special treatment.

There were other incidents related to Mr Macdonald’s condition following his illness in New York (and the way some tried to take advantage of that), but discretion forbids I go into details. Suffice it to say that one member of Council, no longer in the Society, shocked me at a Council meeting with – what seemed to me – the pure political spite he manifested; another member of Council touched me with the generosity of spirit she showed. The former demanded that Mr Macdonald be charged with serious professional misconduct. There was a stunned silence. The latter, Dilys Carrington, came to the rescue – saying calmly and authoritatively that that would be “quite inappropriate”. The person who had raised the matter remained silent…But all that belongs in the category ‘Self-destructive Alexander Politics’ (which may never get written).

“They study anatomy and all sorts of things these days” said Mrs Macdonald. “They make it all so complicated. All you need to do is to learn how to coordinate yourself. Mind you” she added, after a pause, “having said that….. it took me thirty years!”

Allison Macdonald had trained with AR Alexander in the US; apparently Patrick Macdonald didn’t rate her teaching too highly.

He would remind you, in words and gestures, that your job, as he put it, was to ‘take the pupil up’. He fixed you with his attention and as soon as yours even considered wandering away from an upward thought he would show you his thumb and point it upwards.

“Go on then; take him up. Your job is to take him up.”

“How did FM work, Mr Macdonald?” asked one of our party.

“He took his pupil up”

“How?”

“By going up himself. Alexander was going up the whole time.”

© 2014 John S Hunter