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Being with Erika: #08, “It’s all the same”, London, 1993

A lot of teachers wanted to come and meet Erika, so I organised several half-day workshops over a period of two weeks in my apartment in West London. The participants spanned a period of thirty-odd years experience and came from diverse training backgrounds. The interaction between them and Erika was of great interest to me.

Here was a woman whose contact with the Alexander Technique (her first lessons from her aunt Ethel Webb were in 1919) predated anyone else still alive. For all of the teachers who came, their link with Alexander was through their head of training or that person’s head of training – in all cases leading back to the same eight people: Patrick Macdonald, Peter Scott, Walter and Dilys Carrington, Dr and Marjory Barlow, and Dick and Elisabeth Walker.

Erika, however, had distanced herself from what had been going on in the Alexander world after World War 2. For some time she had felt uncomfortable with certain attitudes in Ashley Place 1 and when the training course reopened in September 1945, Erika found the atmosphere very different from the pre-war era. With FM playing a smaller part in the running of the course, the three ‘crown princes’ (Patrick Macdonald, Walter Carrington and Bill Barlow), as she called them, were already vying for who was going to ‘pick up the mantle’. Consequently she saw the contemporary Alexander world from the perspective of what it had been to her in those early experiences with Ethel Webb, Irene Tasker and the Alexander brothers. She was like a time-traveller who had jumped forward fifty years and could see how, over just two generations, ideas and practices had developed in unexpected and sometimes, to her, unusual ways.

Like many of my contemporaries who trained in London in the 1980’s, I was trying to understand the difference between the various ‘styles’ or ‘approaches’ to training. As the different teachers, from those very backgrounds, came and interacted with Erika, bringing with them (just like me) their mixture of ‘idées reçues’, misconceptions, insights, discoveries, frustrations and ‘strongly held beliefs’, it became clear that she had a somewhat different way of seeing things.

Some people came with very definite ideas about what they wanted to ask, but she stepped deftly aside in the face of ‘specific questions’. What she was interested in was people, and what made them tick. Who was asking this or that question, and what way of thinking was behind it?  She tried to get through a person’s outer shell and connect with the individual with whom she was in discourse. Some found this frustrating; they were waiting for when they could start getting in and out of chairs. Some felt the rug pulled out from under their feet; they were looking for a rational explanation of this or that idea or to justify this or that point of view. Others found it like a breath of fresh air.

When she ‘worked’ with someone, she never allowed it to become the seeking out of certain sensory experiences. She brought the person into the moment, into their own presence in the here and now. One could see the scales fall from their eyes as the questions or concerns which had been dogging them, and were preventing them from entering into a direct experience, disappeared.

Speaking for myself, still the old questions fought to reestablish themselves in my mind. I asked her to talk about the differences between the major lineages of the Alexander Technique.

“But they are all the same” she said. “Can’t you see that?”

“No I can’t” I replied. “What do you mean?”

“They are all about ‘teaching‘.”

I still didn’t understand. But my curiosity was piqued now, and I wanted to find out what she meant. This took quite some ‘unpacking’ and involved an exploration of events which took place in London long before I was born.

1. “…there seemed to be a tendency at Ashley Place to have the attitude that we were the clever ones and the people out there don’t know anything……..I wanted to find out what else was going on in the world”. Erika Whittaker, Annual Memorial Lecture, STAT 1985. (… back to text).

© 2013 John S Hunter

Other Posts on Being with Erika:

#01, London 1985 – Annual Memorial Lecture
#02, Brighton 1988 – Key Note Address
#03, Melbourne 1991 – “Come for lunch!”
#04, Melbourne 1991 – Tea Ceremony
#05, Melbourne 1991 – Jean Jacques by the Sea
#06, Back in Melbourne, 1992
#07, “Where did you train?”, London, 1993
#09, “Making the Link”, London, 1993
#10,  A Lesson in Stopping, London, 1993
#11, Hands, London 1994
#12, “Yes, but you’re worrying!”, London, 1993
#13, “Nothing special”, London, 1994

Being with Erika: #07, “Where did you train?”, London, 1993

Erika’s first stay with me in West London in the late Autumn of 1993 was a very busy two weeks; there were teachers’ groups most days, numerous visitors for lessons, friends for tea and chat, and a talk to the recently formed STAT Student’s Network at the Westminster Friends Meeting House in London WC2, where I had recently set up a practice.

About forty students came to the event. I was by now getting used to the fact that nobody imagined the woman with such a youthful bearing could be someone who had lessons from FM in the 1920’s. A typical example was when I went to let a STAT student into the Friends Meeting House just as Erika was coming out of an adjacent door from the ladies restroom.

The student, seeing Erika, asked if she was “… here for the talk”.

“Yes I am” replied Erika.

“Are you a student or a teacher?” came the next question.

“I’m a teacher”.

And then that almost compulsory ‘tribal’ question in the Alexander world “Where did you train?”

“I trained at Ashley Place” said Erika.

“Oh really! When”

“I started in 1931.”

The student’s jaw dropped several inches.

A similar incident comes to mind. A small group of teachers were expected at my home for an afternoon workshop. One of them arrived early and Erika went to let him in. After the class Erika, being a great mimic, recounted to me what had happened. The teacher evidently thought Erika was another participant at the workshop, possibly even a student but certainly not a “teacher of note” as he did not recognise her.

“Oh yes” impersonated Erika with her nose slightly in the air, “I’m so and so and I’m here to see Erika Whittaker. I teach at such and such institution and I’m on such and such STAT committee, don’t you know… And you are….?”

“I’m Erika Whittaker!”, at which point his tone changed dramatically.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Other Posts on Being with Erika:

#01, London 1985 – Annual Memorial Lecture
#02, Brighton 1988 – Key Note Address
#03, Melbourne 1991 – “Come for lunch!”
#04, Melbourne 1991 – Tea Ceremony
#05, Melbourne 1991 – Jean Jacques by the Sea
#06, Back in Melbourne, 1992
#08, “It’s all the same”, London, 1993
#09, “Making the Link”, London, 1993
#10,  A Lesson in Stopping, London, 1993
#11, Hands, London 1994
#12, “Yes, but you’re worrying!”, London, 1993
#13, “Nothing special”, London, 1994

Being with Erika: #06, Back in Melbourne, 1992

Despite the political problems, which related to AUSTAT’s path towards affiliation with STAT, I enjoyed my time in Sydney. The four week refresher course went well and the teachers’ group asked me to return for a longer visit.

So about a year later, in 1992, I was back in Melbourne – having delivered this time a three month refresher training course in Sydney; by then I was very glad to see Erika again.

I tried to get her to be more specific about how she worked with people.  She would always answer in a practical or anecdotal way – never theoretical.  Some of my insights into her approach are as follows.

Tea is very important!

My friend and colleague Professor Marilyn Monk also went to visit Erika in Armadale and was duly served with a cup of tea. After about half an hour or so of tea, cake and chat Marilyn said, “This is all very interesting Erika but actually what I came for was a lesson“.

Erika looked at her, somewhat surprised, and replied. “Well, you are having one!”

Tea provided the opportunity for Erika to get to know the person coming for lessons; whether they had what she described as a ‘straight-forward physical difficulty’ or some underlying personal problem.  If the former, they were fairly easy to help, she would say. If the latter, she needed to find out why they were, as she put it, ‘closing themselves’; to discover their ‘trick’ – that is to say, the little habit they had by means of which they avoided something that was uncomfortable for them; not in order to engage in some kind of analysis, but in order to help the pupil to see their ‘trick’ for what it really was, and to then help them to see their ‘problem’ from another perspective – the perspective of ‘presence’ – thereby loosening its grip on them.

As they engaged in conversation and began practical work, Erika would encourage the pupil to use their senses to connect with the outside world whilst bringing about a change in the head, neck back relationship – but with very little hands-on contact; just enough to begin a process. In Melbourne she used the seagulls always visible from her window. Later, when she was teaching in my apartment in London, she used the aeroplanes on their way to Heathrow in the distance.

She said that it was a question of timing. One had to chose one’s moment to help pupils to see their “trick” without it becoming an issue.

However, it would not be accurate to define this as her ‘teaching technique’; it was one aspect which I observed and garnered from various conversations. Her approach was expressed very well by one of her young Melbourne ‘Alexander friends’. “Erika is just so open that after being with her for a while, you find that you are opening too”. R.D. Laing’s term ‘co-presence’ comes close, but with a lightness of being.

I felt that it was outside of the more ‘formal’ teacher/pupil relationship – which she was always keen to avoid – that the most ‘learning’ took place. She often referred to her favourite Zen stories, in particular one which talks of a man advancing to the stage where he goes beyond all techniques; now a Master, he returns to the world and mixes with ordinary people – appearing to be one of them. This was a key element in Erika’s approach to teaching. As she once said, “The best teaching happens when the pupil doesn’t know he or she is being taught”.

Many people, including Alexander teachers, who met Erika saw only a pleasant elderly lady. The ‘wise-woman’ in her cohabited with the very sociable “Leo”; there but ‘hidden in plain sight’.

If one tried, with one’s questions, to ‘pin her down’ – then, like a judo master, she stepped lightly aside; before one knew it the subject was changed and the moment had passed.  She was also very adept at acting. When someone wanted her to do something that she didn’t want to do, she could be a “very confused old lady” for a time. “Well” she told me, “one has to get along with people!”

I remember one incident when I and a colleague were spending a morning with her in Melbourne. She was out of the room when we began discussing some lofty subject – I can’t remember what – and at the moment when Erika came back into the room my colleague happened to be saying the word ‘truth’.

“Truth!” said Erika, in a firm voice.

We both stopped, surprised at her tone, and looked at her.

What I saw at that moment is difficult to put into words; something like ‘total presence’.

She continued, “Truth is right now.”

We were all silent for a few timeless seconds. Then she picked up an earlier conversation and time moved on again.

After my second visit to Melbourne I was beginning to get a taste of something. The things I was learning by being with Erika were, I felt, important not only for me but for the Alexander community. She was having less difficulty with her leg after the accident some two years earlier, and was talking about coming to the UK the following year to see friends and family. We discussed the possibility of her teaching in London.

I had a few days in Tasmania, visiting friends and making a ‘sentimental journey’ to Wynyard and Table Cape, then returned to London.

Erika and I kept in touch and plans began to take shape. Towards the end of 1993, I was delighted to welcome her – on her way to Edinburgh to spend Christmas with her family – for what was to be the first of many visits to my home in West London. A very busy programme awaited her there.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Other Posts on Being with Erika:

#01, London 1985 – Annual Memorial Lecture
#02, Brighton 1988 – Key Note Address
#03, Melbourne 1991 – “Come for lunch!”
#04, Melbourne 1991 – Tea Ceremony
#05, Melbourne 1991 – Jean Jacques by the Sea
#07, “Where did you train?”, London, 1993
#08, “It’s all the same”, London, 1993
#09, “Making the Link”, London, 1993
#10,  A Lesson in Stopping, London, 1993
#11, Hands, London 1994
#12, “Yes, but you’re worrying!”, London, 1993
#13, “Nothing special”, London, 1994

Being with Erika: #05, Melbourne 1991 – Jean Jacques by the Sea

There were two training courses in Melbourne in 1991: Vivien Mackie’s school at Melbourne Trinity College and Duncan Woodcock’s Melbourne Alexander Teacher Training School. Although both of these courses were from a different “line” or “tradition” to mine, the work seemed somehow familiar and I enjoyed my visits. What was it, though, that was different about Erika? And for that matter about Margaret Goldie? I could not really put my finger on it, but I wanted to find out.

At the end of my first week in Melbourne Diana came back. I had plenty of time still before I was due to start teaching in Sydney, and so I was pleased to accept her invitation to stay longer. I had the chance then to catch up with Valerie and David Rich, whom I had also known in London and, of course, spend more time with Erika.

I invited Erika, Diana and Jacqui to lunch at a well known Melbourne landmark, Jean Jacques by the Sea; a characterful restaurant in a refurbished bathing house. The conversation was alternately light and serious and everyone was having a grand old time.  Erika’s stories were, as with all octogenarians, somewhat repetitive, but she was always alert, poised and full of life.

We were sitting at a window table and outside was a patio area with more tables. There seemed to be quite a lot going on at the one just the other side of the window, where a family was sitting. At one point I made a comment about something I had noticed. Erika then told me everything about that family: there were three children; the eldest was very serious and the middle one liked to joke around; Mum was trying to get the youngest one to eat something and Dad was beginning to think it was getting late; and so on and so forth.  Erika had taken all that in without noticeably seeming even to look at them at all.

Her attention danced, while at the same time she kept her inner state collected.  If ever one wanted a lesson in how to apply the Alexander Technique in life, the solution was to spend a few hours in Erika’s company.

Through our conversations I was beginning to realise that Erika had a very different perspective on what had happened in Ashley Place in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s; and in particular during the first teacher-training course which began in 1931. Over the next ten years pieces of this fascinating jigsaw began to fall into place.

I left Melbourne and flew to Alice Springs. I was treated to a rare phenomenon at Uluru; a setting sun, a full moon and then a lightning storm. Little waterfalls appeared overnight on the rock, and all the desert plants had the dust washed off them, so they appeared greener than green against the darkened red sand.

Then I was off to Sydney and back to my twin roles as “teacher” and “chairman”. Little did I know what a political minefield awaited me there.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Other Posts on Being with Erika:

#01, London 1985 – Annual Memorial Lecture
#02, Brighton 1988 – Key Note Address
#03, Melbourne 1991 – “Come for lunch!”
#04, Melbourne 1991 – Tea Ceremony
#06, Back in Melbourne, 1992
#07, “Where did you train?”, London, 1993
#08, “It’s all the same”, London, 1993
#09, “Making the Link”, London, 1993
#10,  A Lesson in Stopping, London, 1993
#11, Hands, London 1994
#12, “Yes, but you’re worrying!”, London, 1993
#13, “Nothing special”, London, 1994

Being with Erika: #04, Melbourne 1991 – Tea Ceremony

I arrived at Fulton Street, Armadale for my appointment with Erika. After my lesson with her six years earlier I was curious to discover how I would experience this one. But a lesson with Erika was nothing like what we are conditioned to expect. A lesson almost invariably began with a cup of tea.

Erika confessed that she had heard on the Alexander grape-vine that the ‘Chair of STAT’ was coming to Melbourne and she had been looking forward to meeting me. She did not remember the young teacher she had met in London after her Memorial Lecture in 1985. She left me sitting in her living room and went off to get the tea.

As I looked around I noticed several editions of STATNews were lying about on the coffee table and on chairs, all open at pages on which were articles I had written over the past two years in relation to various bits of ‘STAT business’.

“Oh dear,” I thought. “She certainly does her homework. She wants to find out what makes me tick.”

She asked me, with regard to the Alexander Technique, what I was concerned about. I was not aware that I was concerned about anything, but I said, “That it is all still a mystery”. We talked on a little more and then she suggested we go into the next room to “do some work”.

I fell straight into the first ‘trap’. As soon as I saw her hands moving towards me I immediately started to ‘give my directions’.

“Whoa!” she said. “You’re getting ready aren’t you! Wait and see what it is I am going to do.”

She commented on some of my misuses, saying she was trying to see my “trick”. The whole time she was directing my attention to the outside; using her hands just a little – to initiate a change – and then immediately taking them away again. A gradually increasing sense of length and width in my back was beginning to appear, and it was something that was ‘doing itself’.

She asked if I would like to work on her and I was struck by the quality of relaxation and liveliness in her body. ‘Work’ was never allowed to become something that we were doing for its own sake though. As soon as anything became fixed (a thought, an idea) she redirected my attention.  The conversation continued throughout.

“It’s really something practical”, she said. “When I look around and I see that the sink has filled up again with dishes, instead of grumbling I put my head forward and up and I get on with it. That’s the Alexander Technique. That’s Zen too.”

I was still calmly expanding as I left, with a sense of something really new. It was as though a light had been shone through the diamond of Alexander’s discoveries from a completely different angle; I was given a glimpse of hitherto unseen aspects.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Other Posts on Being with Erika:

#01, London 1985 – Annual Memorial Lecture
#02, Brighton 1988 – Key Note Address
#03, Melbourne 1991 – “Come for lunch!”
#05, Melbourne 1991 – Jean Jacques by the Sea
#06, Back in Melbourne, 1992
#07, “Where did you train?”, London, 1993
#08, “It’s all the same”, London, 1993
#09, “Making the Link”, London, 1993
#10,  A Lesson in Stopping, London, 1993
#11, Hands, London 1994
#12, “Yes, but you’re worrying!”, London, 1993
#13, “Nothing special”, London, 1994

Being with Erika: #03, Melbourne 1991 – “Come for lunch!”

Misha Magidov was invited by some Australian teachers to visit Sydney and run a refresher course for them. Afterwards they wanted him to go again soon, but he had other commitments so asked me – one of the assistant trainers in his school at that time – if I would like to go instead. It sounded like a wonderful opportunity to travel and meet new people. If I included a trip to Melbourne I would, I hoped, be able to reconnected with Erika.

Shortly after initial plans were discussed I had a visit from a woman called Jacqui Baker (now Hindley), a teacher-trainee from a school in Melbourne. She wanted to discuss some concerns with me as I was then the Chair of STAT. I said I was planning on visiting Melbourne the following year and she invited me to stay with her in the house she shared with Diana Johnston (now Devitt-Dawson). I knew Diana from when she was a student in London. So it was all set up for September 1991.

After a stopover in Bangkok and a visit to a contact in Canberra. I arrived late one evening in Melbourne. Diana and Jacqui being away, I had to let myself in with a key left under a dustbin.

The next morning I was wondering how to get in touch with Erika when the phone rang. I answered and strangely enough there she was. She gave me some helpful hints about places to go and things to do in Melbourne on a Sunday and invited me to lunch the following day. Later that evening Jacqui arrived and the next morning we went round to Erika’s apartment in Armadale, the first of many visits.

About a year before my first visit Erika had had a serious accident. She was knocked down on a pedestrian crossing and had fractured her leg in the knee joint. Her mobility was affected by this and her regular trips to the UK to visit her daughter and grandchildren in Edinburgh had been suspended.

Lunch – helped down with one or two gin and tonics – seemed to last most of the day, and a wonderful day it was! The time flew by with endless conversation about FM, AR and Erika’s fellow first generation teachers; also Chinese medicine, comparative religion – just about everything. I had a strong sense of how integrated she was. Just being with her was to learn; no trying, no doing, no stiffness, just natural. Although we were discussing themes of some import, the tone was light.

Then she went out of the room to attend to something. When she came back she looked at me very intensely. “That key-note address I gave in Brighton – I meant every word I said.”1

I almost fell off my seat!

Seconds later the conversation was light again. I asked if I could have a lesson with her and a time was set for later that week.

1. Erika’s Keynote Address

© 2013 John S Hunter

Other Posts on Being with Erika:

#01, London 1985 – Annual Memorial Lecture
#02, Brighton 1988 – Key Note Address
#04, Melbourne 1991 – Tea Ceremony
#05, Melbourne 1991 – Jean Jacques by the Sea
#06, Back in Melbourne, 1992
#07, “Where did you train?”, London, 1993
#08, “It’s all the same”, London, 1993
#09, “Making the Link”, London, 1993
#10,  A Lesson in Stopping, London, 1993
#11, Hands, London 1994
#12, “Yes, but you’re worrying!”, London, 1993
#13, “Nothing special”, London, 1994

Being with Erika: #02, Brighton 1988 – Key Note Address

From the left: Sam Wilson, Erika Whittaker, Sir George Trevelyan, Marj Barstow, John Hunter.

The next time I met Erika was not in Australia, as a new phenomenon appeared in the Alexander world – the International Congresses – which took Erika to New York in 1986 and to Brighton in 1988.

After her exposure to the ‘state of the Alexander nation” at Stony Brook, Erika felt she had something to say. Marj Barstow encouraged Michael Frederick to give her a platform to say it, so she was invited to give the Keynote Address at the opening ceremony.

In that talk she issued a dire warning:

“….I see a great danger of his work suffering the same fate as that of many other great original innovators in the history of the world. It is a pretty familiar pattern. Successors to the master tend to launch into interpretations, which in time cause arguments, dissensions, disagreements, splits into schools or sects, fragmentation leading to dogma, to tradition, and to fixation”.1

I did not get much chance to make contact with her in Brighton. She was, as I learned from her years later, not well at that time and had decided to keep a very low profile.

1. Erika’s Keynote Address

© 2013 John S Hunter

Other Posts on Being with Erika:

#01, London 1985 – Annual Memorial Lecture
#03, Melbourne 1991 – “Come for lunch!”
#04, Melbourne 1991 – Tea Ceremony
#05, Melbourne 1991 – Jean Jacques by the Sea
#06, Back in Melbourne, 1992
#07, “Where did you train?”, London, 1993
#08, “It’s all the same”, London, 1993
#09, “Making the Link”, London, 1993
#10,  A Lesson in Stopping, London, 1993
#11, Hands, London 1994
#12, “Yes, but you’re worrying!”, London, 1993
#13, “Nothing special”, London, 1994