Greetings from me, Jeremy Harvey, a trustee of PETT. I wish you, all at PETT, & all whom we are in touch with a good year. May we flourish!
I first visited PETT in May, 1992 as a guest of Craig Fees. We had got to know each other through, among other things, our interest in George Lyward and David Wills, both inspiring educational pioneers, who created their own kinds of Therapeutic Communities (TCs).
That May day at Toddington I spent with Craig, and with the children of New Barns school. I remember especially the order and peace of lunch and the variety of the curriculum on offer, including things to make and do. What I experienced I wrote up and took back to my work as Head of Bishop Fox’s Community School in Taunton.
Fast forward to the present, twenty years later. I am well retired, enjoying the third phase of my life, still living in Taunton, still a churchgoer; a grandfather; still studying, following my interest in writing and art (where, with others, I am working to enable Taunton - one day - to have a major art gallery). My teaching side is satisfied by the talks I give: I’m currently preparing one on 'Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits'. I’m not directly involved in education, though I read the papers and follow the news.
But in the last six months I have felt constrained to write letters to our MP, letters of polite protest. The first was about low teacher morale, and the teachers known to me, or friends who have had enough and are leaving the profession early. The second letter was about Mr. Gove’s plans to change yet again the school exam system by introducing an EBAC exam. For this pupils would be examined only on some core subjects and have far less chance to learn about, and practise, the arts, crafts and creative subjects - the ‘hands on’, making and ‘being’ parts of school life. There’s an online petition of protest about this - click here.
Such a reducing of the obviously creative side of school life is educational madness because it ignores, certainly plays down, the potential and creativity of all young people. For many youngsters their strengths lie more in making and doing. They are not naturally academic, they may be very motile (great movers). But give them a task, a problem to solve, or invite them to design and make something, and they are off. They come alive. If schools are to succeed as places where the young learn with enthusiasm, then they have to make every child feel valued; and there have to be opportunities for their various gifts and talents to flourish.
I have yet to have my letter acknowledged, though I am sure it will be. What disappoints me is that senior politicians say they listen, which they may do, but do they take any notice after that? Sadly, in educational matters rational argument and alternative ideas do not appear to change much at the controlling centre.
My letter made one further point. We all know that 2012 was a remarkable year for the UK. It gave us much to celebrate, and we provided outstanding Olympic and Paralympic games through which our strengths and talents came to the fore. We really are very creative people with much to give to others. We can run ourselves down at times, but when we pull together it is astonishing what we can achieve.
Accordingly, I suggested to my MP that the success of last year shows that the UK could play a worthwhile role as promoters and partakers in sporting, cultural, and key leisure activities. Instead of trying to be a powerful military nation we could be peacemakers and reconcilers, not invaders. We will not make the world safer by renewing Trident. We could take climate change as a creative challenge to be properly met. We could promote festivals and fashion, our artists and photographers, dancers and designers, musicians and writers, alongside all the engineering and scientific, medical, IT, technical, business and trading things that we do so well. We could, if we so chose, grow our creativity and create a happier and more peaceful world in the process.
You get the idea. Does any of this chime with you?
Jeremy 30 January, 2013
Craig Fees is the founding archivist for the Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre. Technically, the Archive and Study Centre doesn't celebrate its 25th anniversary until 2014; but the commission from the Trust, asking him to explore and lay out the options for gathering together archives and other materials related to the Trust and planned environment and related group therapies, came in 1988. This makes 2013 the 25th anniversary of an experiment to build an unparalleled research resource for understanding deeply troubled people, and communities designed to engage with and for them. It has been a rich and difficult adventure, and it all began with the help of the Folklore Society in 1984...
In the long ago, pre-Internet world of 1988, Talking Folklore published a report I wrote for the Folklore Society of London on the outcomes of a research award they gave me in 1984 for a project called "Folk Memory in a North Cotswold Community". This £100 grant "basically gave me licence to behave like a community folklorist for a year" in the town of Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire. What is a community folklorist, you might ask?
Two years later, in 1990, Maladjustment and Therapeutic Education published "Reflections of a Folklorist in a Residential Therapeutic Community for Emotionally Deprived and Disturbed Children", in which I shared my understanding of what academics were for:
"The function of scholarship is to help illuminate the world, and to do so by exploring the way it works and why by jumping into a small bit of it and wrestling with what comes up."
By 1998's ‘”No foundation all the way down the line”: History, memory and ‘milieu therapy’ from the view of a specialist archive in Britain’ (published in a special issue of Therapeutic Communities devoted to "Boundaries and parameters with children and adolescents"), we were nine years in to the life of the Archive and Study Centre, and I noted in "No foundation", as an archivist, that "as archivist for the Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre, I have handled the records of six therapeutic communities for children and young people which have been forced to close... none of which closed because of the failure of their therapeutic regimes or through internal administrative or organisational collapse."
The life, work and purpose of a community folklorist had become more serious. Being in among the memories of a community as it traumatically closes is not a laughing matter.
"What makes the closure of a therapeutic community even more devastating" I said, with the operative word being 'devastating'...
"is that a therapeutic community is the locus of more than simple community or belonging for people to whom identity by definition is itself problematic, and for whom belonging is both the start of therapy and sometimes its greatest triumph. The ‘continuity of care’ of a community which survives all that a disturbed child can throw at it, and which a growing young person and adult knows is there and can continue to refer to as needed throughout their life, is one of its greatest therapeutic assets and an incomparable therapeutic tool. When a community is closed this asset and this tool go with it, with consequences which continue to unfold during the lifetimes of all of the people involved and into future generations."
I also drew the painful conclusion that
"had an established, vigorous and challenging culture of historical inquiry, debate and publication been in place over the past twenty or thirty years, these six places and probably others almost certainly would not have had to close – or if they had closed, it would have been for their own internal reasons...
The tools for such an inquiry - the collected, organised and accessible archives, personal memories, and literature relating to therapeutic communities - did not then exist. They do, to a significant extent, now.
For the past 25 years I've been given the great opportunity by the P.E.T.T. Trustees to explore the role of a community folklorist. I have been given permission, with the help of many other people, to wrestle with whatever came up and to build a unique and unparalleled Collection, a comprehensive and integrated resource of national importance, and to put it to use - for example, in the extraordinary "Therapeutic Living With Other People's Children" project, whose outline can be seen in the 1988 article, and which is essentially an exercise in applied public history.
We have shown that a place like the Archive and Study Centre can carry something of the continuity and belonging which are lost when a therapeutic community as an institution is lost, and can even help to gather continuity and belonging together from the fragmentation and dispersal.
We still have to show that a vigorous and challenging culture of historical inquiry, debate and publication can be created and sustained, which can help to ensure that future therapeutic environments are not only infused with the wisdom and knowledge which is within their history and heritage, and therefore help them to grow and flourish; but which can also help to protect and nourish their work through a greater understanding and wider knowledge in the world around them - in the public at large, and in the many bodies and agencies which act with, on, at and for therapeutic environments in our society. A major tool has been created; the fullest realisation of what can be done with it now will be the work of the next - twenty-five years? Or can it be done in ten? Or, with sufficient resources, resolution, imagination and momentum, even sooner?
It depends a great deal upon you, and upon your belief and vision in what is possible. I'm grateful for the past 25 years, and for the opportunity I've been given to take youthful ideals and translate them into an exciting demonstration of some of what is possible. How many of us get that? Looking forward to an even more exciting time to come -
Thankyou, and Happy New Year.
The articles referred to:
Craig got me thinking about why the PETT Archive is important to me, and of course it’s largely personal. The Archive holds part of my memories, memories of an important part of my life, a key part of who I have become. But it also holds the clues to understanding many of the changes which have taken place in our society since the early 1950s. One of the benefits of aging is the wider perspective you gain, but that also comes with potholes to fall into, such as 'we tried that and it didn’t work'; and 'oh that’s so old fashioned', in an effort to seem with it.
Pauline Weinstein and daughter Esther, admiring a hat to be sold to raise money for the Hackney Playbus
I admit I do look back quite often and wish I were an historian so I could better understand the changes I have seen, and am still seeing. Many of these changes are now absorbed and accepted into our culture, even taken for granted. “Riding on the faith of our Fathers” as my husband Judah used to say, meaning that in our laziness and apathy we stop questioning the status quo and so are frightened of thinking differently or more widely.
When the Playgroup movement, Play Buses, Mother & Toddler groups, the One O’clock Clubs in the London Parks and elsewhere, seemed to mushroom overnight, was this to fulfil a need, a demand, a growing understanding of child development, or all of these? What part did the literature play? However we understand it, one real benefit to both children and adults was the overarching nurturing received.
Forgive me for an aside. When I lived in Hackney I started a Playbus, only the second in London at the time. When I returned many years later for a dinner in honour of another change agent, this time in the field of mental health, I was told that the Bus is still chuntering around offering play facilities to children, and personal time for their mothers. I wept a little.
And whatever the reason, we also need to alert people to the values and spirit which lay behind the nurturing as well as the real struggle for understanding and acceptance, so avoiding the watering down of that real excitement that infused the thinking and the action.
I have a similar concern about attitudes to age. Believe it or not older people were ignored, disparaged, devalued, often themselves accepting this reduced status. Then the charity Help the Aged, who at that time had some inspirational leaders, organised a conference at Coleg Harlech in Wales. Older people rose out of the ground like new grass and flocked to Wales (sorry, mixed metaphors) and so began a UK wide movement. Now the rights we won are accepted unthinkingly by most.
This is, of course, inevitable: Society is constantly changing, adapting to circumstance, discarding, evolving. It is a living entity, so it must. But this raises our question about how we preserve that non history of our part in those changes. The brother of our lovingly remembered friend Robin Laslett has written a book called “The World We Have Lost”. He is talking about medieval England. But the world I was born into is also lost, or will be when my generation have all gone.
This is one of the reasons I started and still run (with help) WISEArchive. The other reason is that during the 1980s redundancies I met a lot of men and women who were devastated by the loss of their 'job for life' and who had little chance of another job, as their knowledge and skills were already outdated. I was bemoaning this situation one Christmas, sitting round the kitchen table with my youngest daughter Esther. "OK" she said, "We’ll record their stories and put them on a website so everyone can read about their working life. Easy!"
Easy it wasn’t, but WISEArchive is still flourishing, still collecting and recording stories. Things have changed several times since that conversation, and they continue to change; so 'Hip Hip' for Archives to capture people’s experience now.
Pauline worked as an 'adult' at Bodenham Manor School with David Wills in the 1950s: "I went as Assistant matron £9 per month & all found! I was scrubbing the main stone stairs on my 21st birthday so hadn’t become Assistant teacher by then. After Bess Keedle the head teacher left , Howard Jones became Head & David (Wills) offered me the Assistant Teacher role, probably 1951/2 (with a slightly higher salary teaching rate at time.) I think I left to go to LSE about 53/54." More memories of her expereinces from Bodenham Manor can be found here on the 'Other People's Children' website.
Unstinting Kindness and Conflict Transformation in Therapeutic Community
At the age of 20, when I gave birth to my first child, I was drawn back to working and living in community. Having grown up this way, I knew I wanted my children to also be touched by the gift of growing up as part of something bigger than them. Now, for the past three years, I have worked for a therapeutic community in North Carolina. Someone left me in charge of their outreach and marketing efforts, so I do my best every day to answer that call.
I grew up in two different therapeutic communities in the US – one in Michigan and the other in Massachusetts. From birth until the age of 10 I spent my carefree childhood, unbeknownst to me, among adults profoundly affected by mental health and addiction issues. It was not until the age of 13 that the question arose for me: what is mental illness? Society’s reaction to people with mental illness has never, ever matched my life experience. I was so off-put when one day a friend’s mother asked me, on growing up in these communities, “Weren’t you ever scared?”
My three siblings and I grew up this way thanks to my father and mother, who -- drawn to this way of life in the 1970s -- met at a community in Massachusetts, fell deeply in love, got married 5 months later, and created our little family of six. My childhood provided a strong foundation – it was idyllic even. Idyllic because I was never made, not for one instant even, to doubt that I was a person of worth and value. I have hung onto that powerful message my entire life so far, and I draw on that lesson of unstinting kindness in everything I do in my work.
For those of us who have crossed from being children in community to being actual staff members, we know that running a place like this is far from idyllic – rather, these sacred places function as gathering points for conflict; people come to our door in despair, are hopeless, their families often broken, and their sense of purpose lost. It is really hard work – for staff and those receiving services -- to help someone rebuild their sense of self. And sometimes the heartbreaking occurs, and we lose someone to suicide. But it is work that can be accomplished because of one constant factor that sustains both the giver and receiver: community, fellowship, togetherness.
I recently took a test online via the United States Institute for Peace. The name of the test was "What is your conflict style?” The test surmised that my top style/approach is "avoidance". So ever since that test, I have been observing how I react in any conflict situation, big or small. I have observed that my strongest tendency is to either avoid the situation with a 10-foot pole or try to alter the situation in order to make everyone happy. I could never be a lawyer -- I would try too hard to see the situation from everyone's side and my client would fire me for sure! But the test made me realize that at my heart, I am a peacekeeper, seeking peace for myself and others.
It's funny that this is my response to conflict... the logical conclusion would be that I would then seek out a boring job where I interacted with people very little. The exact opposite has proven true! I am drawn to conflict like a moth to a flame; despite how uncomfortable it makes me, the work is meaningful.
In my chosen vocation, I stand at a crossroads for conflict. Families torn apart by the mental illness of a loved one find their way to our door and say "Here I am, help me!” When I pick up the phone, I never know who is calling or what situation is going on at the other end of the line. One time I picked up the phone and for 5 minutes listened patiently to a screaming argument happening in a moving vehicle between a mother, daughter, and grandmother. That was intense. Another time, I picked up the phone to a very calm voice on the other end. This calm voice informed me that her husband just tried to kill her with a baseball bat while she was sleeping... and could I help him?
Conflict... resolution? No, I could never be so arrogant as to assume that is the product of the work I do. Resolution can only come from within us all, and is a gift, from a higher power if you are inclined to think that way... from your own heart and soul. But you want to talk about transformation? Conflict is a force that rips through people’s interactions, relationships, and lives. Mental illness is the source of conflict for most of the people I serve. Conflict can rise like a wave and wash over us, transforming us all for the better. In community, when the waves of conflict wash up to our door, we open it.
I’m sometimes asked how I came to be an oral historian. I’d like to say it was a planned career move, but it was much more by accident than design - so much so that I didn’t even know that what I was doing was actually called ‘oral history'.
As a mature student at the University of Leicester in the 1980s, I decided to research the undertaking trade in Leicester in the earlier 20th century for my final year dissertation (pause while you wonder what sort of person picks a subject like that). It was fascinating, and nothing like as depressing as almost everyone warned me it would be; but I soon exhausted the documentary sources and contacted some local firms of funeral directors to see if they could help. They were very helpful – ‘well, as one of them said, we don’t often get people coming to see us willingly’ – and by talking with them and their staff I learned an enormous amount that I would never have found in written sources.
So, a year or two later, when I saw a community history job advertised at Leicester City Council requiring experience of oral history, I could honestly say that I now had some; and one way or another I’ve been practising it ever since – as an Education Oficer with the local museums, as Project Manager of the East Midlands Oral History Archive when it was first set up in 2001, and through oral history training, adult teaching and involvement with the Oral History Society when the remit of other ‘day jobs’ didn’t include it.
I’ve met some wonderful people, none of them as ‘ordinary’ as they insisted that they were, and I’ve had many memorable experiences, including one or two that I’d rather forget. Setting out to interview a 103 year-old man without a blank audio cassette ranks high among them – retrieved by a mad dash into a local audio shop where the very helpful shop assistant ran slowly through every possible option – 60, 90 or 120 minutes? Chrome, ferric? - until I was driven to proclaim ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s an EMERGENCY!’. It was some time before I dared go back, in case I was instantly recognised and surreptitiously pointed out to his colleagues. (I was once loudly identified in my local supermarket by a child as ‘that lady who talks to rabbits’ – true enough, as I had been spotted doing just that in the garden, but not necessarily the image I would choose to present to the world).
It was through the Oral History Society Regional Network that I first met Craig and eventually became involved with the ‘Other People’s Children’ project at PETT as a member of the Advisory Board. One of the things I enjoyed most about this role was the opportunity to reflect on the theory and practice of oral history the company of others through the Assessment, Training and Advisory Events (ATAs). Oral historians often work in isolation, or simply get caught up in the day to day business of interviewing, processing and documentation, so while the PETT team clearly valued the different perspectives and experience that the Advisory Board could bring to such occasions, I also gained a great deal from these events.
I had wondered, as I wrote to Gemma after the second one, if it was really possible to spend a whole day discussing transcription… It was – and it brought out some very significant issues around what we are actually doing with oral history projects, and for whom we are doing it. For 'Other People's Children', the process of interviewing and asking the interviewees to reflect on what they have said was much more central to the objectives of the project than is usually the case, or than I had really understood up to that point; and while I could happily settle for a detailed summary – both in terms of producing a record of my own interviews or accessing other people’s recordings – a transcript was actually crucial to this process. As a historian, this was rather different from the way I normally work. While treating the interviewee with the same respect, and ensuring that their legal and moral rights are protected, my main focus has tended to be on oral testimony as one of a range of historical sources that I can employ in analysing and interpreting a particular subject or question. So this particular ATA event really helped me to understand the priorities of the project and how they determined different aspects of it in practice.
I also welcomed the opportunity to hear the perspective of the transcriptionists themselves. I have done lots of transcription in my time, and I can honestly say that it’s my least favourite aspect of oral history work. Interesting as the content itself might be - and much as I hypocritically rejoice when I find that a recording I want to use has actually been transcribed – I find it incredibly time-consuming and mentally and physically exhausting. Even transcribing the ten minutes of recording for discussion on the day seemed to take forever – so it was fascinating to listen to people who actually enjoy producing transcripts explaining what they gain from work others like me will go to great lengths to avoid.
And for now, I’ve definitely gone on long enough…
Oral historian Cynthia Brown is a member of the Oral History Society Committee and edits the British News section of the Society's journal, "Oral History". Formerly Co-ordinator of the Oral History Society Regional Network, she is still a Regional Representative, and was a member of the Advisory Group for PETT's "Therapeutic Living With Other People's Children" project.