Marjory Barlow: #1, A Little Bit of Magic, London, 1979
Marjory Barlow, the daughter of FM’s sister, developed an interest in her Uncle’s work early in her life – largely through necessity. Like the young FM, she did not have a strong constitution and really needed what the Technique could offer. When she spoke about training, however, Alexander always told her that she was not strong enough and would never make a teacher. In later years she wondered whether that had been to spur her on, as she joined the first training course a year or two after it had started.
She came into one of my lessons with Alan Rowlands. I had seen her from time to time when I was sitting in the waiting room at the Alexander Institute in Albert Court, and knew who she was, but I had never spoken to her.
She was the first person to give me an experience clearly of another order. She put her hands, or rather the tips of her fingers, on my head and I felt it move up. I knew that she was not doing it, in the way that we understand ‘doing’, but that something quite new was happening – and in parts of my body I was hardly aware of.
It was then that I realised that there is a little bit of magic in the Alexander Technique.
© 2013 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