RICHARD ROBERTS [RR]
Interviewed by Craig Fees [CF]
27th September, 1997
This interview is the copyright of Prof. Richard Roberts, and is presented here with his permission.
RR It was a priceless site, it was a wonderful site, that one, that Charlotte Mason College, superb. Do you ask leading questions, or how do you go about this?
CF No, I don't.
CF I mean I can do. But if you sort of identify who you are, and then -
RR Yes, yes, OK. Is it going?
CF Yes, it is.
RR Yes, OK. Well, my name is Richard Roberts. I now hold a chair in Religious Studies in the north of England at Lancaster University, and I had a long - a period certainly in my lifetime of about - nearly fifteen years, of intense involvement with Forest School Camps. This was when - from about '54 onwards to the late sixties. My mother had heard about Forest School Camps, which of course generally speaking is never advertised, through a friend of hers whose children had come, and I went to Whitwell to a standing camp there, met this man, Tony Ivins, who's still alive - very elderly, but living in a cottage near the Hall in Reepham. And it was the first time I'd been away from home. I'd grown up with my mother, who'd been a - was divorced, separated, married chaotically towards the end of the Second World War to a Czech airman, and they basically loathed each other, separated. I was brought up by my mother. And for me Forest School Camps was definitely the beginning of a very intense form of annual therapy. Sometimes twice a year, but usually a fortnight, I would go down there. It was living under canvas, which I hadn't done before, but the thing which I found really challenging was the contrast between the experience of going to what was by contemporary standards an extremely brutal northern grammar school in Manchester, where people were beaten with everything ranging from slippers, canes, the sticks on chairs, chairback sticks, belts, Bunsen burner tubes, the lot. It was very brutal, and to go - and no girls, at all - and to go to Forest School Camps which were communities of mixed age, there were boys and girls there, and Whitwell was a remarkable experience. It was a very quiet place, apart from the old line, which was the, I think, the East Dereham Line, which went past the bottom of the site, which of course was closed by Lord Beeching in '66. But at that time there were three or four goods trains through a day, but otherwise one was on this site, and for me the experience of encountering a community of this kind was very challenging. For about three days I was intensely homesick, but then began to adapt to the community. And for me it was an utterly - it unfolded parts of me, it made me aware of parts of me which I hadn't been aware of before. I was pretty difficult, I think, as a young person, I wasn't an easy person to deal with. But it was the beginning of - or at least it didn't so much change me permanently, but each year when I escaped from the very difficult situation at home, being brought up by a mother, a very intensely feminist and man-loathing mother, and to escape from that environment and to go to this camp where there seemed to be such a sort of relaxed and uninhibited people compared with myself, this was a very - it was an experience, it made me aware that there was a possibility other than that that I was accustomed to - I went to Whitwell a number of years, regularly to Whitwell, and that was the sort of backbone of my experience. I did have some other very interesting camps. One of them was a drama hike in the Cotswolds, must have been about 1961, and I've met one person today who was on that, curiously enough. No, no, sorry, I haven't met one from that. I've met them from another camp today, but that camp involved going to the Whiteways Settlement, which was an anarchist/ socialist settlement near Stroud. This was our base, and again very striking there was meeting an elderly lady - a tremendously lively elderly lady, whose memory went right back to before the First World War, who had been involved in the original anarchist community, and who had sheltered soldiers, French soldiers, fleeing the - fleeing military conscription, because anybody who - at the beginning of the First World War there was no legal status for conscientious objection, and people who conscientiously objected were shot. And she had been involved in this. She told us lots of stories about the community, and particularly about the very difficult relationship between the village at Whiteways and the anarchist community. The anarchist community were true communists, they held everything in common. They had a communal larder, and the villagers used to come and steal from this, and I can remember a curious incident. We used to do the traditional Forest School country dancing in the hall that the members of the community had erected, and then this youth from the village began throwing stones at the roof. And we went out talked to him, and it was clear that there were still, what, sixty years - fifty, sixty years - there was still antagonism - residual antagonism between the community, the anarchist community, and the village. But that was a remarkable camp. We wandered over the Cotswolds and I can remember I got an appalling back pain, because we had a very primitive record playing device, a mobile one, and I recall that I carried this on my rucksack, over my rucksack, and it was very, very heavy and gave me a strained back. But we stopped in I think it was places like Chipping Campden and performed under the market cross in the market places. We dramatised a couple of ballads out of the Oxford Book of Ballads, and performed these dressed in blankets in the street, and also one of the Wakefield Mystery Plays. That again was a very - it was a very interesting and - it was, again, totally out of kilter with the experience, the contrast between the brutal northern Manchester political economy type of grammar school. These apparently utterly liberated people, emanating largely, it seemed to me, from Hampstead. Later on I went on a fascinating camp in the West Highlands, which involved the sort of last gasp of the steam age, again in the early sixties, travelling up pulled by Princess Marie Louise; it was a magnificent locomotive. I can remember the name of the locomotive now - picking up the train at Crewe, travelling overnight over Shap and over Beattoch, exactly the route of John Grigson's "Night Mail". Very much the experience like on the "Night Mail" experience. And then changing trains I think it was at Stirling to go on the West Highland Line, pulled by these locomotives built in - round about 1875. They were very, very ancient steam locomotives, round up to North Ballachulish, where we were put down. And then for a fortnight we wandered - well, wandered, we had a definite itinerary. We had to cover ten miles a day, and it rained continuously from one end of the fortnight to the other, apart from one afternoon. And it was extremely arduous. People with shorts ended up looking as though they had elephantiasis, because they were consistently bitten by the midges. It was like being in Alaska from that point of view. And it was extremely - it was very arduous because we had heavy camping gear, we were given five shillings a day for food, which had to cover for paraffin, and I can remember one occasion when, in my tent, which - I brought the tent and somebody from Birmingham brought a groundsheet, and the groundsheet leaked completely, so we were totally saturated, sleeping bags and everything in the fortnight - I can remember the occasion when somebody made a clumsy movement and this big primus stove fell over with the evening soup, and we had bread and jam, because there was nothing else. But the culmination for me was a camp - was actually the last major camp I went to - was one held back at Whitwell, which today - it's curious how attitudes change - involved the demolition of two cottages, seventeenth century cottages, on the edge of the Whitwell estate. And I can remember now feeling guilty at being involved in this demolition, because there were oak pegged beams in these cottages, and we dismantled these. But it was a camp of extraordinary intensity. I can remember the - it was one where everybody seemed to be falling in love with each other in an extremely intense way, and we were working all day, this very heavy labour, sleeping - talking all night and playing guitars and singing right - all the way till three - four o'clock in the morning, and having about four hours sleep a day, but again living on the level of extraordinary intensity, in which it was rather like the contrast that you find, for example, in the biography of John Stuart Mill, when Stuart Mill was brought up by his father, James Mill, and - who was inspired of course by Jeremy Bentham - to have a rational explanation and a path for everything. This is what Manchester was like, where money was everything, and accumulation was central. And then there was this extraordinarily romantic communism, with which, to my eyes, Forest School Camps seemed to be pervaded by, with the old guard there who had been members of the C.P., who had organised work camps for unemployed men in between the wars, who were still around and active at that time, who had taught at Forest School, been associated with it, and were part of the - really a broad band, not so much anarchistic socialism, but certainly through to quite a number of regular Communist Party members. And after that camp I went from Manchester later in the year and hitch-hiked down to London. I can remember it was on a - I was given a lift by a tanker which contained twenty tons of nitrobenzene or something, and the driver said, "I've got two tons of naphtha between this and the load to shield me if it goes up." But in those days I mean I hitch-hiked. I must have been fifteen, and I hitch-hiked - fourteen or fifteen, hitch-hiked to London, and generally speaking wasn't nervous about doing that. I was able to do that, and stayed with these people, and went to a party on the rooftop house - the rooftop garden of the late Richard Crossman, and met my first person who had ever smoked pot at this party. So it was right at the very, very beginning of the sixties, but my generation was one which was really a kind of - the end of the Philip Larkin generation, of sex being invented in 1964. But the people I was meeting were sort of somewhat later than that, for whom sex had already been invented, so there was an interesting sort of interplay between those for whom it was being invented, and those for whom - they'd known a lot about it for a long time. But it was certainly coming out of this environment of Manchester, of the clothing trade in Manchester, a background of pure, pure small scale capitalist accumulation, and the extraordinary utilitarian approach to education, because the school I went to was impressed with this. We were told by our headmaster when we first came in in the First Form, "You are here to lead. Other people are there to be led." As regards sex education in the Sixth Form: "Women are the hunted. Men are the hunters." Absolutely sort of complete unreconstructed. And then I was of the generation for which this all broke down. We were trained to be industrial gauleiters for the industry of the north west of England, but this decomposed as I went through my education, and so my whole life has been spent living with that - the conflict between paradigms, and Forest School Camp for me represented a very interesting contrasting paradigm of to me an intensely liberated way of life, compared with this classic repression in order to be disciplined and to discipline others. Because the idea was that - an educational system I experienced was that you never did anything later in life which hadn't been done to you, and you'd had dreadful things done to you, so you could do dreadful things to other people. And so for me there was that contrast, which was extraordinarily important. I left it afterwards, and got over my - tried to get over my adolescent traumas. I went to live in France, then came back, went to university, and became a workaholic. And I've been a workaholic for thirty years - an academic workaholic, now. But for me it was a kind of - it was a liberation which at least made me aware - Forest School Camps - of other possibilities in life from those with which I was brought up.
CF It must have been pretty powerful to bring you back here, thirty years on.
RR Well, as it happens, my wife saw the advert in the Guardian, and that's why I've come. But I did come because I wanted - for many years I thought Forest School Camp had faded away, because in the mid - early sixties, there was quite a crisis of confidence, because the ownership of Whitwell Hall was disputed, and there was a question about where the equipment would go. And also there was the onset of the sixties, and the fact is the sixties - sort of what went into sixties Flower Power didn't actually fit that closely with the kind of ethos of the Forest School in the thirties, it seems to me. There was a kind of idealistic ethical earnestness about that which I don't think was quite sixtyish. And there was a growing clash. I mean there was a lot of conflict in camps about sex for a start, which was developing. And it was clear that there was a crisis of identity. And I thought for many years that Forest School Camps had disappeared. But then some years ago I was in a mainline station in London somewhere, and saw a bike loaded up with equipment with a big label on it, "Forest School Camps." I thought, "Gosh, it's still going." And so when the ad was drawn to my attention I thought, "Great, it's still in existence," and that's why I've come today, to see what's happening. And again, the main impression I have is that in the fifties and into the early sixties it was a very strange combination of elite upper middle class socialism, Etonian Communist Party members, that kind of - to me, with the sort of background patriarchal figures - some of them, anyway, at least one particularly, a man named Arthur Cobb, I think, was one of those types - on the one hand, and then on the other the - an admixture of some very wild people, because - who I've not met. I can remember this extraordinary man from Leicester who was almost psychotic, this young man. And he was contained by the camp. He was - he tended to quite extreme violence, but he was contained by the community at that time, and was part of this. And even in my upbringing in Manchester I had basically been trained in this kind of gauleiter grammar school, but at the same time was shielded from the really brutal side of Manchester working class life. So meeting - I can remember being struck by this young man who worked in a shoe factory I think in Leicester or Nottingham, somewhere like that, who was quite terrifying to me at the time. But he was contained. There was a mechanism. The community tried to contain and to develop - to socialise, basically. It was sort of rapid socialisation, and it was only later on that I really began to think about what people were trying to do. But it certainly did me a great deal of good at the time, because - it didn't effect a permanent change, but it offered the glimpse of an alternative, to which - which was deeply alien to everything I'd experienced everywhere else in the north, in this educational system which had developed in the nineteenth century, and which was still retained was purely utilitarian. And there was - it was - there was a kind of romanticism about - a romantic socialist dimension to Forest School Camps which was deeply intriguing.
CF Do you think you can identify that mechanism?
RR Yes. I think it was - it was an odd combination of the communal and the hierarchical, because it was communal in the sense that the camp was divided vertically, sliced in clans. That was one way it was divided. And then it was divided, as it were, horizontally, in terms of age groups. But there were - it was very much leadership based on authority figures whose behaviour had to be such that one respected them, but there were also communal rules which one was made aware of. There was, I suppose, what you call in Germany an ordnung, and this ordnung, unlike in many German contexts where the ordnung is written down - if you go into a community in Germany there will be a haus ordnung, and you have to obey it. This ordnung was not particularly written, but it was very much a question of an active oral tradition. I remember bumping into this on about my second day, when I was a bit of a pyromaniac as a child, and so fire making appealed to me deeply. And I can remember beginning to strike about me with an axe, and somebody came up to me very sternly and said, "Have you passed your axe test yet?" to which I said, "No." And I was duly beautifully crushed by this experience. But then I began to realise that there were rules that one - weren't thrown at one, but it was clear that if you weren't conforming, then there was a kind of change in the atmosphere. And so the idea was you developed a kind of desire to know what the ordnung was, what the subliminal rules were. Because when you knew those rules, life was a lot more comfortable. But they were - it was a form of charismatic authority. It was definitely not bureaucratic, it was a form of mild charismatic and patriarchal authority, in Weberian terms, it seems to me, but deeply non-routinised.
CF And invested in individuals, or -?
RR Invested in individuals and the community, so that the two existed in a kind of mutuality. The authority was in both. So that the leader would invoke - if there were problems - would invoke the authority of the community, let's say if people were leaving their food around the food circle, and being clumsy with that, then this would be - the authority figure would point to this, and - but the community would seek to enforce it. That again coming from this intensely atomised, utilitarian, individualistic background of a sort of Hobbesian fight for survival in Manchester which was, you know, was really Herbert Spencer's evolutionary Darwinism writ large, which came both from my family, but also from the environment in Manchester. This really - a form of ethical socialism, and communitarian socialism, was again very, very different from what I'd experienced.
CF It's something you have in progressive schools about the same time in the sixties, where you again have the foundation in the thirties, and the governors would be the people who'd known it in the thirties, and they suddenly were confronted with the world, children living in the sixties.
CF And they found it very difficult to -.
RR Well, there was the whole Dartington scandal, you know, the breakdown at Dartington.
CF Yes, I suppose I do remember that.
RR And then there was also a break up at Summerhill, where things went - when the readiness to express - to agree to and to assent to principles of community broke down, in some progressive schools, appalling situations. I think it was Dartington where they - the children started killing rabbits and things like this. It became very, very dark at one phase. Forest School missed that because it was closed down, when it was taken over by the military during the war. It never opened up again, I think, as a school. But I felt that in Forest School, because the last time I ever went was when I went back with my wife. I was always talking about this Forest School Camps, and my wife was intrigued by this, who'd never been part of that, and we were in Norfolk and we went on spec to visit in - probably in about 1972. And it was - had been this period of tension, and Tony Ivins, who'd been one of the original Forest School Camp leaders, was running camps on his own there at Whitwell, which were at some distance. They could no longer - they were no longer, as I discovered, fully Forest School, though he was associated with them. There'd been this conflict about Whitwell Hall. I can remember going to that, and arriving there, and the camp - the Pathfinder group, the older group, was on the verge of dissolution, because there were some - the balance between people capable of sustaining the community, and convinced the community had to be sustained, and those people who were nihilistic - not anarchistic, but nihilistic, had broken down. So there was no agreement on the leadership side about how this should be rendered coherent, and in this Pathfinder group it got quite violent. And this really alarmed me. There were some - well, youths I suppose, you know, young male Pathfinders from - I think they were supporters of Tottenham Hotspur, and there were two of them. One of them was enormously powerful physically and started hitting the girls, and was really brutal. And he had this attendant, this small, almost to me like sort of simian figure who would laugh at all his jokes and wind him up. And as I was there Tony Ivins asked me to stay on. I just called on spec with my wife, and I stayed for a week, in order to contain this group, to help contain this group. And I actually had physically to constrain this lout on occasions, because he was totally uncontained. And he didn't - he didn't - there was no sense within him. He was deeply nihilistic, there was no sense within him that you don't actually hit girls, and I had to physically restrain him on some occasions. I was very alarmed by that, because it was - it had poisoned what I had experienced before, but I mean I was at that stage where I'd, as a late goer to university, tried to come to terms with my own problems I had. I'd become a workaholic, I was working my way - I did four degrees in eight years, and then went on and went into a university career, and have ended up on my second professorship, having been on a treadmill for thirty years. Been worked back now, with the return of post Thatcher managerialism, you know, what Willard F. Ennsman calls managerialism as a global ideology, the McDonaldisation of education. So all the controls which were characteristic of political economy and so-called Victorian values have now come in through McDonaldisation, and through the regimentation and regularisation of the educational system, which ironically means that now at 51, I question my role, even though in a sense I ought to be at the height of my career, I now feel I have to pull out, because precisely what has inspired me in university education and the teachers that had inspired me, tried to promote the free critical intellect and the process of human discovery, which my eyes were in a sense opened to by Forest School Camps, experientially, existentially. This has now been prohibited in universities now, where the system of regularisation and control means that quality circles have to be enforced regardless of the human consequences for students. So that's the point at which the whole cycle begins again, it seems to me, out of which Forest School Camps emerged, as a protest against that kind of regimented education system, whether it operated at the public school level or at the elementary school level, of regimentation and authoritarianism. Well now they have deeply bureaucratic, self-imposed authoritarianism of the quality circle, the module, audit and so on, against which I have protested as Professor of Divinity in St. Andrews, and was sent to Coventry by my colleagues. They passed a vote of - a secret vote of no confidence in me, because they wanted a quiet life at any price. So now I'm at the point of feeling that in the name of the kind of principles I encountered at Forest School, I'm going to have to withdraw from what I love doing most, which is teaching in a British university, in order to try and do - I'm not sure how - but to do what I value most. This is because these core values have been over-ridden, and I'm obliged to police myself in a way, and in accordance with principles which conflict fundamentally with my integrity and identity as both a human being and as a university teacher. Mistakenly, perhaps, I experience the latter work as a kind of vocation; but now as someone teaching and studying religion and theology, and so on, I find all that I've been doing for thirty years is in crisis. Forest School Camps opened up a practical "other"; I somehow need to re-find and redefine this alternative - and do something.
RR Sorry. You've sort of prompted me to link all these things together.
CF No, there's no need to apologise, I think you're quite right. And it all comes back to [ inaudible ]. Well, there you are. Thank you very much.
END OF TAPE [CF0234]