A Royal Course

By Gordon Toplis, School of Architecture, Manchester, UK.

It is well known that in coastal navigation one may discover one’s position by taking bearings on known fixed objects. These bearings, when charted, should theoretically meet at a point. But of course they never do, except in ideal conditions. They tend, rather, to define an area known as a cocked hat, presumably because of its triangular shape when the bearings are taken.

In speaking, however inadequately, of Finchden Manor, the analogy is perhaps useful in two ways. Firstly, the writer, as someone involved in the community in its early days and continuing in close touch thereafter, cannot remain detached. Therefore he must take his bearings from as many viewpoints as lie on his own limited horizon. Secondly, the cocked hat, the area within which the essence of the experience lies, is incapable of definition. It is a sort of dynamic void recognisable only by constantly redefining its boundaries. Hopefully, however, multiple viewpoints can be illuminating.

One may speak of the poem (for Finchden Manor has been described as such) and of the poet (for this is what, above all, George Lyward was). Indeed the two are in a sense inseparable and I hope to approach both by means of any available models – description, anecdote, analogy, myth.

Where then should one take the first bearing? In Nathaniel Lloyd’s ‘History of English Brickwork’ there is an illustration of the brick piers flanking the gateway into Finchden Manor. The book does not, however, illustrate a group of four young men gazing with apprehension through this gateway at the overgrown drive. For they had been briefed to clear a passage for the vehicles involved in the move from Guildables. To their consternation the drive opened on to a courtyard even more overgrown. Around this brooded a cluster of dark trees, tall chimneys and tile-capped dormer windows aloof from, yet almost apprehensive of the upsurge of vegetation. William Beckford would have jumped to mind had the young men been mindful of him, but God knows they had never even heard of Pugin whose heraldic interior confronted them in the hall.

As darkness fell they crept into a corner of the seventeenth century Arbour to achieve a measure of human scale in these empty surroundings as yet unidentified. They knew nothing of the proximity of the mulberry tree under which judgement was given in a legal dispute about the silting up of Sandwich Haven. The judge was Saint Thomas More, another imaginative Londoner associated with Finchden. For George Lyward was very much a Londoner. The steel-like flexibility, the rapidity of judgement, above all the deep sense of irony are surely characteristic of the capital’s traditionally pluralist society. It is a vitality born of curiosity, a desire to stretch the boundaries of the established order without actually destroying it. The deep satisfaction which G.A.L. felt from the award of the O.B.E. was tempered with relief that it was not an even greater honour. It left him free to have a foot in both camps.

Here are many people familiar with Finchden through personal contact and through Michael Burn’s book, but relatively few will remember Guidables, the home of the community prior to the move to Finchden in 1935. Lying under the distant shadow of the North Downs, Guildable straddled the Kent-Surrey border. The narrow bridge over the Kent Brook served as an exciting hazard for those driving horse-drawn farm carts. For a farm it was, the traditional vocation giving identity to the community. But describing the place was often the subject of searching comment by members, much of it ribald. A friend’s laconic summary – An institute for Retired Public School boys – was curiously apposite at that time.

Guildables was an eighteenth century farm with an oast-house. Years later the farmer himself was sent a Christmas card by the community – To Stephen Williamson, without whom Finchden Manor would never have been possible. He is the only person I have met who simultaneously wore two Old Harrovian ties (the second one round his waist).

Indeed the staff were colourful characters, not least that of Gordon D. Knox. Descended from the immortal Scot, he was related to Father Ronald Knox, the controversial writer. G.D.K., the Old Boy, as he was affectionately known (just as George Lyward was always the Chief) was the founder of the Knox Patch at Finchden. Here were continued the ventures that had originated in the Guildables oast-house, a printing press, a science laboratory and a diminutive soap factory, centred on the ancient domestic copper over which G.D.K. presided like a giant. Hogarthian personable. Ingredients of the soap included fat from the kitchen and lavender from the oast-house garden. The enterprise would have warmed the heart of those today interested in ecological self-sufficiency. The soap was laced with some chemical which, on contact with hot water, turned brilliant red. It blushes at your dirt, as the Old Boy put it.

In a mysterious way G.D.K. complemented the intuitive driving force of George Lyward with his own rich and varied experience. This was particularly evident during General Sessions. These were occasions when the house was assembled in response to whatever the Chief had in mind relating to the current pattern of events. Sometimes these sessions could be fierce in their impact, to bring the house back on its toes, so to speak. After developing his theme, G.A.L. would turn to the Old Boy – “Am I right, Knox?” – and incisive illustrations would follow from the Classics or from scientific theory. (Incidentally G.D.K. could swear monumentally for two minutes in either English or French without repeating himself).

In spite of, perhaps because of the respite from pressures at Finchden there was always a sense of stimulation. This seemed to achieve organically what has been all too often superficially grasped at in conventional educational situations; depth of academic study when a member of the house was ready for it. The depth was achieved by allowing intellectual ability to emerge through the emotional development of each person as it really was, not as it ought to have been according to arbitrary conventional standards.

If the intellectual be the rudder, is not the emotional life the engine power? Why have so many educationalists concentrated on the former, taking the motive power for granted when it has all too often been anaesthetised by the pressures of home, school and society? (Some of our undergraduates have no sense of motivation, my university colleagues frequently complain). As the Chief has pointed out, it is hardly surprising if a push-button society tends to generate push-button reactions. If reaction usurps the role of response, what remains as an opportunity for motivation? We all have experience of becoming over-anxious about short-term issues. Justification is always ready to hand to impel us towards obtaining instant results. Education can hardly avoid being affected by this ethos. G.A.L. emphasised that the word education is derived from the late Latin word educare, meaning to nourish. How often in our anxiety do we unconsciously indulge in sophisticated methods of forcible feeding? (the tyranny of the syllabus).

The security and respite offered by Finchden has never been permissive, but geared to a process of emotional weaning, emphasising the need for interdependence. It is something to do with gradually learning to become vulnerable instead of constantly, on some unconscious pretext or other; seeking justification, described by G.A.L. as living on credit. Perhaps this is why, when preaching in Westminster Abbey, he described himself as having for over forty years lived among thieves who stole, above all, his time. It is no wonder he was so moved by the poem of Richard Church which begins – Learning to wait consumes my life. Yet this is what he is asking us all to do so as to learn to will the means with the ends, as he put it.

It has seldom been easy for outsiders to accept the deep irrelevance of the question – But what do the boys do all day? Paradoxically there is often a good deal of activity. During the life-time of Gordon Knox there were many things going on in the laboratory and printing shed. At Guildables the farm demanded continuous work. After the move to Finchden other things emerged, like maintaining and repairing the house. Under the discriminating supervision of a member of staff over many years, the apparently impossible was often achieved in repair work, even accepting the amazing capacity of a Tudor timber-framed building to respond to empirical initiative.

As well as the accident of location, the accident of staff interest and expertise has fostered in turn such activities as painting, pottery, photography, music and, above all, the plays, when the producing, acting and stage sets have been frequently of a very high order. Expertise in making stage sets has led to highly inventive themes for the transformation of the hall at Christmas time, when dances are held. The girls come by formal invitation and dances like Strip-the-Willow are part of a long tradition. The plays at Guildables were amateur in the extreme, as there was no hall as such. The original performance in 1932 took place in a small room with a stage space of hilariously miniscule dimensions. It may be said of that occasion, however, that audience participation by a handful of distinguished visitors, including Dr. Crichton-Miller and Dr Graham Howe, was of a very high order.

George Lyward has always maintained that his approach to education is right in principle for everyone. Emotionally disturbed people are, after all, not a peculiar species of individual. They are just like ourselves, only rather more so. It must not be forgotten that his method grew from his teaching experience in conventional Public Schools. He once said that greater academic insight was often shown by members of a senior rugby team during the journey home after an away match than was evident in many a sixth form discussion. This observation may provide a clue to many of his unorthodox methods. But an even more basic realisation struck him one day early in his teaching career, the simple fact that the class, including himself, were all people. Whilst at one level such a comment might appear to be bordering on naivety, it is surely a feature common to many pioneering attitudes which need a life-time to develop in depth. The Chief’s suspicions of the traditional preoccupation with academic study could only come from an academic who has seen the grave dangers of over-conceptualising, especially during adolescence.

I believe a question in a recent examination paper in the University of London required the candidates to compare the educational methods of Plato, Rousseau and Lyward. This issue would be relevant in attempting to answer such a question. G.A.L. did not, I think, respond readily to Platonic concepts. He believed that convictions were more basic than ideals. This is interesting because it begins to dissolve (dare one say solve?) the intractable dualism of subjective and objective. Certainly the word solution, whatever it may mean for any of us, was for him related to the notion of flow, surely the basis for all human relationships. Ideals are like stars for guiding mariners, he once said. Perhaps this is why they cannot be grasped. Those who try to do so veer towards cynicism and withdrawal into either smugness or despair, two familiar types of opting out. In searching for a renewal of the process of opting in, are we moving away from Plato towards Heraclitus and the emphasis on becoming? I believe Heraclitus also said something about the impossibility of penetrating the soul because it has so deep a logos. There is no doubt that the acceptance of mystery lies close to the heart of G.A.L.’s approach to education. We cannot ignore non-discursive symbolism in an age when society is so saturated with verbalising and so susceptible to schizophrenia.

There has been much misunderstanding about George Lyward’s emphasis on the value of unfairness in fostering creative educational situations. For the bully he has always shown the greatest sympathy because he maintained that this is what he so desperately needs. I recall many occasions when money has been simultaneously denied to some and given to others. The interesting thing is that though this creates a degree of uncertainty or even shock, it has not resulted in envy or resentment because there has always been a sense of security at a deeper level. Fairness is sometimes associated with certain kinds of routine and routine for G.A.L. was a means rather than an end in itself. At Guildables people frequently retired to bed in the small hours and breakfast was available until virtually just before lunch. At Finchden, however, meals have been served with astonishing regularity (they are now of course cooked and served by the house).

Related to this issue of unfairness, I recall that I provided at G.A.L.’s request a small note as an appendix to a paper he was preparing. I referred to the dynamic interweaving of predictable and unexpected elements in the architecture of Le Corbusier and the richness of response that this evokes. I wonder if the predictable and unexpected are somehow related to classical and romantic, about which G.A.L. once wrote a short poem in ten minutes before breakfast. The stanza under the title of Romantic is concluded thus:

Giving and taking is so hard
Without labels to say
Which is which and when
What is really important
The two are classically related.

Sometimes misgivings have been expressed about the Spartan living conditions at Finchden. Personally I believe the environment has found its own level in some way because Spartan conditions have never been made a cult. Furniture is sparce and simple; food is good and plentiful and every boy has an adequate space for sleeping. From time to time a general clean-up is organised, but any kind of nagging about tidiness for its own sake would be contrary to the spirit of the place.

The conditions combine considerable toughness with complete acceptance of a person for what he is. This is also the spirit in which members of the community treat one another. Differences of background are accepted as natural though they occasionally evoke irreverent comments. They are treated in much the same way as red hair, partial paralysis of the legs or the ability to play Brahms fluently. The Chief has used the expression stern love but no one would try to define the phrase. I only know that such an atmosphere creates goods manners in the fullest sense of the term and is probably something to do with what Saint Paul calls being members of one another.

Here the paradox emerges that to participate in a group creatively involves a deeper self-awareness, even separateness. But this is not loneliness in the ordinary sense. Inability to reach this stage in any of us would leave us open to the frightening manifestations of the herd instinct which is the antithesis of group awareness. Constantly feeling the pulse of the group is I think what the Chief has described as firmness at the centre. This fosters a willingness on the part of the boys to reach the point where they have the courage to say Please and Thank you and sometimes to accept the answer No without question. Curiously enough this sounds almost Victorian. Perhaps the approach towards this sort of freedom not only calls for a sense of security but must be constantly renewed in the language of our time if it is to be accepted as meaningful.

I wonder if our Puritan tradition, combined with industrial power and overseas responsibilities has led us to make a cult of duty. Have we put such an emphasis on doing and having that we have forgotten the need for living? Perhaps we have tried to put duty in the place of love. In G.A.L.’s phraseology, love in its judicial mode has been made to usurp the role of love in its ecstatic mode. Our educational system has, I suspect, inherited much of this confusion.

Towards the end of his life George Lyward began to search for the reasons why he had felt bound to leave the theological college where he was studying after he left Cambridge. He summarised it once by saying that they found unacceptable his overwhelming conviction that the symbol of God Immanent held greater emphasis for our time than that of God Transcendent. It seems to me that half a century later this sort of theological thinking is coming into general currency.

In the hospital where he was dying he was for a time able to read the books his friends brought him. One that strongly held his attention was a commentary on the raising of Lazarus. Another book that he found absorbing concerned the lost rivers which join the Thames within the metropolitan area and which, like hidden arteries, flow mostly underground, yet appear occasionally on the surface in an unexpected context. I think they symbolised for him the continuous flow of history. He had spoken earlier of his conviction that a place could become charged with the experiences of its inhabitants. Historic sites would therefore contain within them a rich overlay of human responses to changing conditions. I think he also felt this sort of thing strongly about the change in the meaning of words over long periods of time. How often he would interpose the original sense of a word or phrase in juxtaposition with its current usage, so as to deepen its meaning. The paradox again. George Lyward distrusted the infamous use to which words could so often be put by those with good intentions. But he also knew of their creative power, especially when subordinated to attitude and action. Hence his outstanding ability as a lecturer. He certainly distrusted polarised concepts. I dare to add that this is something to do with the fact that the whole is never the sum of the parts, but a product, and that this must remain essentially a mystery even while we strive to illuminate it.

It is a man who, with vision clear,
Knows each extreme as if it were his own;
And with a courage rarer, extracts from each
Its proper virtue; so he never floats
Along a safe inglorious middle way
But in himself controls conflicting claims,
And, ever humble, steers a royal course.

Against this passage from a play called ‘The Word’ written by G.A.L. in 1925 has been scribbled subsequently in his own hand – Finchden Manor.