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
Related to using lying-down work as a ‘horizontal monkey position‘, there is a simple procedure through which the pupil can be taught to connect the action of the legs with the powerful anti-gravity muscles of the back.
The pupil being in semi-supine, the teacher takes one of his or her legs and firstly ensures that the hip and knee joints are free. Keeping the pupil’s leg bent at the hip and knee, the teacher then applies a gentle pressure to the pupil’s heel whilst the teacher stays ‘back and up’ in opposition to the applied force. In this way one can elicit a reflex response which will cause the pupil’s leg to straighten.
This response, however, is often overlaid with patterns of learnt movement and persistent, unnecessary tensions. Consequently it is necessary to patiently ‘look for’ and ‘cultivate’ this response. It is interesting to note that the overuse of certain muscles and some uncoordinated movement patterns are usually related to the inadequate use of the postural muscles.
In order to ‘wake up’ the reflex response, the pupil may be asked to push against the teacher’s hand in the direction which could be described as the ‘virtual continuation of the lower leg’, and ‘through the heel’.
Usually repeating this a few times is sufficient to be then able to elicit the reflex response to a rightly applied (i.e. applied as a consequence of the teacher him or herself ‘going up’) pressure against the heel. It should at this point be explained to the pupil that he or she is to try to catch the moment at which the leg seems to want to straighten of its own accord, and that he or she should not attempt to inhibit this activity in the leg. Indeed at the beginning he or she should be encouraged to ‘go with’ the leg movement even if they are not sure whether or not it is a reflex response or something they are doing. Once the response begins to be more active, it is practically invariably very easy for the pupil to recognise the difference between the two.
Needless to say, reminders should be given frequently, with words and hands, to the pupil’s head and neck.
The benefits of this procedure are:
- It engages the right muscles in an effortless leg-straightening movement.
- It connects this movement with a simultaneous, coordinated ‘spreading out’ (lengthening and widening) of the back muscles against the surface of the table.
- The engagement of the postural muscles of the back and legs allows for a freedom in the hips and lower back which is otherwise difficult to bring about.
- The postural muscles having been activated in this coordinated way makes them more ‘vital’ even at rest. Energy begins to flow.
- It introduces to the pupil the action of the anti-gravity muscles in a secure position (i.e. lying down), thereby helping him or her to be able at an appropriate time to keep the back back in chair-work, walking etc. and – most importantly – to understand the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of it.
© 2013 John S Hunter
One of my closest friends was the first person I heard coin the name ‘the surgeon’ for Peggy Williams.
“She puts her hands on me and they feel enormous, like I imagine Alexander’s did. She just opens me up. I call her ‘the surgeon’. She can put me right in two minutes”.
With PR like that, how could I resist…!
I had been teaching for a couple of years and still did not know very much. I was already having lessons with Margaret Goldie and with Patrick Macdonald, but my friend assured me that Peggy’s work was something different again.
Peggy lived in High Point, an upmarket 1930’s modernist apartment block (designed by Berthold Lubetkin) in Highgate, London. She was always very welcoming, but definitely didn’t like anybody arriving late.
Standing in front of ‘the chair’ on a thick rug in my stocking feet, I felt her ‘enormous’ (yes they felt like that) hands arrive on my shoulders and start to press them down. The more they released, the more I went up!. It seemed as though my whole frame was going up from the inside and that there was no end to it. With a prod at my hips, my knees went forward and then I was in the chair. I went on going up.
Getting out of the chair was easy if you kept the back back; something Alexander insisted on, she said – adding that many young teachers coming to her would ‘lurch forward’ as soon as they felt the slightest pressure on their backs.
Then she would put me on the table, still chatting throughout; her ‘surgeon’s hands’ would go to work, opening up my whole body. Under those hands everything just let go, and I knew then what my friend had been talking about.
The lessons mostly followed that pattern, and at some point she would always ask “Well, any news?” She loved to hear what was going on in the Alexander world and always had some good gossip to exchange.
There was a lovely flow of direction as she worked, and she kindly commented once that it was a pleasure “to work with someone who knows how to direct”, adding that giving me a lesson was like receiving a lesson, because I had so much direction. She would often make supportive remarks like that, which was very encouraging for a young teacher. When I was grumbling once about some persistent difficulty, her response was “Don’t worry! It must come right in the end, because the direction is there”.
Mostly she would stimulate the upward response of the anti-gravity mechanisms with her hands on my (troublesome) shoulders, or with one hand on my head and the other on my back. Once though, coming off the table, she took my head forward and up with such clarity that I can almost feel it as I write now, some 25 years later.
I continued to see Peggy every couple of months for about three years between 1986 and 1989.
I was very glad to have had that experience, particularly from a senior teacher not only trained by Alexander but also strongly associated with the Constructive Teaching Centre, where she taught for 17 years.
An Interview with Peggy Williams, by Glen Park, is very helpful reading for all teacher-trainees.
© 2013 John S Hunter
In one of my early lessons she asked me to take my shoes off and get on the table. This was a narrow couch up against the wall in one corner – and there it stayed.
There seemed to be several telephone directories under my head. Miss Goldie sat at the top of the table and I had the impression that she was just pulling my head. But unexpectedly at some point my back came with it and lengthened out.
“Do you see?” she said. “Head forward and up and back lengthen and widen are part of the same thing.”
I didn’t see, but I felt a new sensation in my spine.
Then something quite odd happened. I had by this time become deeply quiet; my body almost in a meditative state but my mind still alert. She had a finger lightly touching one knee. My eyes were half closed so I couldn’t see her, but while her finger was still on my knee, as if by an act of simultaneity, both hands arrived at the back of my neck. The sensation in my knee was still so clear that I was, for a moment, very confused. How could she be in two places at once?
After about 15 minutes she asked me to get up, reminding me that it was “still part of the lesson” and to put my shoes on.
It was the only table-turn I received in twelve years.
© 2013 John S Hunter
In 1985 Erika Whittaker was invited to give the STAT Annual Memorial Lecture, a very popular event which took place in the Autumn each year, quite separate from the Annual Conference, in St. Wilfrid’s Hall at the Brompton Oratory. It seemed that the Alexander world was beginning to knock on Erika’s door. I believe it was Jean Clarke who sought her out in Melbourne and suggested she give the Annual Lecture. During Erika’s time in the UK she also visited several training-courses and met two generations of teachers to whom she was quite unknown.
I had been qualified for just over a year and, having recently started taking lessons with Margaret Goldie, was very curious to see another ‘grand old lady’ of the Ashley Place days.
John Nichols, the Chairman of the Council at that time, was already sitting on the stage to introduce her in a rather formal way. Then this relatively youthful looking woman came bounding onto the platform and began to speak.
I was initially rather confused. I wondered who this person was, why she was talking to us; and when the ‘grand old lady’ was going to come on stage. It took a good couple of minutes for me to actually realise that this was Erika.
One of the first things that registered was when she said that anyone who looked as though they were practising the Alexander Technique was not. I looked around the lecture hall and saw practically a room full of people who looked very much as though they were practising the Alexander Technique. Not only that, they were sitting in little enclaves, depending on where they had trained, and were practising the Alexander Technique in the ‘house style’.
My interest was piqued. I wanted to know more about this very unusual woman.
A few days later I was talking to a colleague about Erika and the lecture. “I had a lesson with her” she said. “It was very interesting.”
It had not occurred to me that she may be teaching while in London, but now I was hoping that I could get to see her before she returned to Australia. She was staying in another teacher’s flat in Earls Court. I contacted her and asked if I could have a lesson. “I’d be pleased to meet you” she said. A couple of days later I rang the doorbell and Erika answered. I knew straightaway that there was something different about her which, at that time, I could only express to myself as she allowed herself to ‘live her personality’. There was no ‘imposition of a technique’, no sense that she was ‘the teacher’, and one felt immediately at ease with her.
Because of a mix-up over times, the teaching-room was in use so she took me into another room and we sat down and began to talk. Well mostly she began to talk and I listened. After a while I began to realise that what she was talking about was actually very relevant to me. She had quickly got the measure of me and was giving me some insightful advice in a very indirect way.
After a little while the other room became free and we moved in there. In front of the chair she constantly kept my attention engaged so that I did not interfere. It never became ‘chair work’, but I soon found myself sitting down; and a few moments later I was standing up again – though I did not know ‘how’. She invited me to lie on the table and made minimal contact with her hands, but kept talking to me all the while.
Then she said she had another appointment and I had to leave. I asked her what I owed her. “Oh no!” she said. “You are a teacher aren’t you, so we are just ‘exchanging’. The next time will have to be in Australia.”
And so I left. I went and sat in a cafe to have a coffee, feeling somewhat similar – and yet very different – to when I had my first lessons some seven years earlier. Similar in that I was experiencing myself in a new way; but different – very different – because this had come about with hardly any ‘hands-on’ work. Something very important had happened. Erika had got inside my head. She had changed my thinking.
© 2013 John S Hunter
Other Posts on Being with Erika:
#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
#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