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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

Lessons with Miss G: #9, People and Places

Miss Goldie and John Skinner, an Australian teacher trained by FM and then later his secretary, shared premises in Soho Square, next to the French Protestant Church. The waiting room (shared with Skinner, who had his own teaching room in another part of the building) and her teaching space had been one large room and was divided with stud-walls. A climbing plant of some sort had been trained all around the picture rail. Although there were lots of chairs, I think I only once or twice encountered another person – waiting for a lesson with John Skinner. The stud walls, as mentioned in an earlier post, provided hardly any sound-proofing.

In her teaching room, the smaller half of the divided space, the furniture all seemed tiny; a writing bureau, some chairs, a small couch in one corner for the extremely rare lying-down turns, a portrait-style photograph of FM on one wall, a small ‘attic-type’ window looking out at the adjacent London buildings; sometime later there arrived on the floor beside her bureau a rather large doll of Mrs Tiggy Winkle – the hedgehog washerwoman from Tales of Beatrix Potter – who stared at you surrealistically while you were trying to ‘not react’.

On the third or fourth floor of the building was a men’s washroom which was usually locked. On one occasion I fortunately found it open and went in. There was a ‘seriously suited’ elderly gentleman in there, looking very much like one of Charles Dickens’s less loveable characters; one thought of Mr Murdstone. He glared at me suspiciously. “I suppose you have a key?” he challenged me. “Well no I don’t, actually” I replied. “Hmm! Then whom are you here to see?” he growled. “Miss Goldie” I answered.

His manner then changed entirely; Mr Murdstone disappeared and there before my very eyes stood none other than Mr Pickwick. “Oh, Miss Goldie!” he said. “Well that’s all right then. Take your time and I’ll send someone to lock up. Do have a good lesson…. but I am sure you will. Good day!”

I believe the gentleman owned the business which leased the building and that he gave Miss G and John Skinner their rooms at a very favourable rate. Some years later, however, the lease expired and Miss G and John Skinner had to go. They moved to the Bloomsbury Alexander Centre in Southampton Row near the British Museum. Several of Miss Goldie’s pupils helped her to relocate, and it was pleasant to see her in another context than ‘the lesson’. I drove into Soho Square to take some things in my car to Southampton Row. My then girlfriend Elena, who was also having lessons with Miss G, came too. There was a touching moment as we parted from Miss G when Elena, being Spanish, moved towards Miss G to embrace her. Then, just as Miss G moved forward in response, Elena hesitated – thinking that she oughtn’t to – Miss G hesitated … and the moment had gone.

Rumour had it that MIss G had brought her vacuum cleaner in with her on the underground to make sure she left the old place clean. I don’t know if it is true, but it would not surprise me.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Lessons with Miss G: #8, Hands

A friend of mine went for her first lesson with Miss Goldie. Being from out of town, my friend was staying in the house of another teacher in London. When my friend got back to her digs, her host asked her, curious about the lesson with Miss G, “What were her hands like?”

My friend, to her and her host’s surprise, heard herself saying “Oh, she didn’t use her hands”.

She later explained to me that of course Miss G had used her hands, but what she experienced in the lesson was not about “hands”; it was about what was going on in her brain and nervous system.

Another colleague, speaking of his lessons with Miss G, once said that “she grabbed your throat with her bony hands and you thought she was going to throttle you, but in time you learned to love those hands”.

Some people I knew, quick to judge according to their own criteria, never returned after one lesson – not finding the soft, direction-giving hands they associated with learning the Alexander Technique.

It is true that Miss Goldie did not ‘give directions’ in the way most of us were used to. Sometimes she hardly used her hands at all – just a light tap from time to time as a reminder to ‘think in activity’; at other times she might be very firm in indicating a direction – particularly to the back.

My own impression was, like my friend’s, that the hands were almost incidental; there was a contact on another level taking place which called forth a different quality of attention.

She told me that Alexander, speaking of his students after the training course one morning, complained that ‘They are all in such a hurry to use their hands. I’m waiting for the one who isn’t”

© 2013 John S Hunter

Lessons with Miss G: #7, Stopping

To come into Miss Goldie’s teaching room was to enter a space of quiet presence – another world, in a way; one in which there could be some insight into the hidden laws which control human reactivity – and the possibility, if just for a moment, of becoming more free from them.

The form of the lesson did not seem so different from any classic ‘Alexander turn’; you stood in front of a chair; you might sit down and stand up; you could be taken into “monkey” or work through “hands on the back of a chair”. But there was no mistaking the fact that the medium (of the procedures) was not the message; the work was about what was happening in one’s brain (a place where, it is worth remembering, there is no sensation); moreover parts of the brain which seemed to be stubbornly resistant to being accessed and activated.

In the early lessons there was little outer movement – perhaps a centimetre backwards or forwards in the chair – but there was movement; the movement of thoughts, of nerve-impulses, of energies normally well below the radar. It was a revelation to see just how much of the unnecessary was taking place.

She showed us young teachers that sensations, be they ones of muscular release or of directed energy (depending on the school where one had trained), did not on their own address the great problem which – to Alexander – was at the heart of his work; human reactivity. It became clear that FM’s concept of ‘Man’s Supreme Inheritance’ did not only mean going through life with a more upright posture, a lengthened spine, a feeling of gravity in the pelvis or of contact with the ground, or any other kind of sensation – however subtle; it was the developed capacity to make choices and decisions; “the transcendent inheritance of a conscious mind” 1

And the key? Stopping!

“Stop doing your thing”, she would say again and again. “Quiet throughout, with particular attention to head, neck and back! Not you, doing your thing!”

She held out the promise of a kind of ideal: one in which ‘stopping’ meant the absence of interference with the workings of the organism at a very deep and fundamental level; not just muscular tensions but habits of thought, uncontrolled emotionality, attitudes, the functioning of the internal organs – everything.

She said once, rather enigmatically, “If we could stop – really stop, all our difficulties would simply disappear!”

1. Man’s Supreme Inheritance, FM Alexander. Chapter III, The Processes of Conscious Guidance and Control. Published by Mouritz, London 1986.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Lessons with Miss G: #6, “My Way”

“Quiet throughout, with particular attention to head, neck and back” came the familiar mantra from Miss G, as she gently tapped the back of my head with one finger.

After a minute or so (one’s sense of time was very different in her teaching room) she asked me, somewhat incongruously – and almost in a tone of curiosity, as if we were chatting over a cup of coffee, “Have you heard of an American singer called Francis Sinatra?”

“Yes Miss Goldie,” I replied, wondering where she was going with this.

“Then are you familiar with a song he recorded entitled ‘I Did It My Way’?”

“Yes Miss Goldie”, my attention dancing now between the anticipation of what might be coming next and the call back to the quiet energy that flowed, under her touch, between my head and spine.

“Well …” she said, stepping back so I no longer had that external reminder to ‘not interfere with head, neck and back’, her voice rising now in a crescendo “… he got it quite wrong you know! It’s not about doing it your way. It’s doing it your way that’s got you into the mess you’re in today.”

I’m saying to myself, “Don’t react! Stay quiet! Head, neck and back……”

“You want to stop doing it your way. Not your way”, her voice quietening now, her hand coming back to my head/neck area. “Not your way, but Nature’s way.”

I began to see that inhibition and direction are two aspects of a way of being; they are inextricably linked.

© 2013 John S Hunter