Cecil Beaton’s Land-Girls

This unusual photograph is attributed to Sir Cecil Beaton. It is part of the Vogue archive. I use it here because I’m going to discuss it in some detail, and since it is the subject of this post it constitutes what I consider to be ‘fair use’, rather than simply a ‘stolen’ illustration.

In the summer of 1940 The Battle of Britain was being fought in the skies over England. Beaton, who was not knighted until 1972, was working hard on British propaganda. As an aesthete he wasn’t particularly skilled at this because he made the jungles of the East and the deserts of Africa beautiful, even when littered with the detritus of war.

I admire him for this skill and wish more photographers had the ability find beauty, whatever the circumstances in which they find themselves.

On the day this image was taken Beaton was photographing Land-Girls in the Home Counties. There is some confusion about whether the young women in question were professional models, or simply local people of suitable ages and appearance. In the posed images on the roll of film, from which this image was made, they epitomise the kind of people who are known as English roses.

Beaton’s contemporary, Norman Parkinson, who spent the Second World War as a farmer, made lots of images at his home that show just how dirty and demanding farming can be. There is none of that in Beaton’s work.

So what about this image? It seems that a couple of pilots dropped by to see their sweethearts, and persuaded Beaton to photograph them. It may well have been posed, of course, but as it’s the sole photograph of the kind on the film I like to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Two flyers with their uniform trousers rolled above the knee gallantly carry Land-Girls, who in this image wear slacks, across a mere. All four are smiling and you can almost hear jocularity from the men and squeals of delight uttering from the women. In the background there are trees at the horizon, as if these images were taken in parkland.

It’s a historical document, to be sure, but more than that for we might easily substitute the RAF uniforms for denim, and the sweet English faces for those of proud African ethnicity and the magic of this moment would be preserved.

It’s a fair assumption that all four people in this image, as well as Beaton, are dead. The park-like setting is probably a housing estate, the mere drained and no longer used for agriculture.

So, what is it that makes this picture so powerful that it came during sleep causing me to search in old texts until I located it in Unseen Vogue: The Secret History of Fashion Photography?

We have established that it’s not the time in which it was photographed, nor stories we may know about the people depicted. It’s not this particular landscape, for this like the people has long since changed.

No, it’s a kind of moment-less moment beyond time, beyond space, simply aliveness finding itself in the aliveness that is us and in which we appear, to exist, as separate entities.


Publication Today Is So Unlike ‘Helmut Newton’s Illustrated’

"Helmut Newton Grave headshot crop" by Ralf Liebau, stimmte der Veröffentlichung unter GNU zu, cropped Beyond My Ken (talk) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

“Helmut Newton Grave headshot crop” by Ralf Liebau, stimmte der Veröffentlichung unter GNU zu, cropped Beyond My Ken (talk) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1987 Helmut Newton, often dubbed as the porno-chic photographer, embarked upon what he considered to be his ultimate folly. I’m unsure that June, his wife, would agree, but that’s not what this article is about.

No, Newton’s self-confessed folly was in creating his own magazine. He called it Helmut Newton’s Illustrated. The first edition was themed: ‘Sex and Power’.

No longer printed, Helmut Newton’s Illustrated was a business disaster!

He should have known better. He really should. For years he had hung out on the edges of magazine publication. He was a photographer under contract for Vogue Magazine. He worked for Jocelyn Stevens‘ ‘Queen‘. After this he was an in-demand freelance. He even had a heart attack working on an assignment for American Vogue, but that was later.

Ian Fleming probably had it right when he stated in an 1964 interview made for CBS that his villains were modeled on sadists and megalomaniacs, respectively dentists and newspaper publishers.

You see, to start a high quality magazine is the ultimate worship of one’s own ego.

There are exceptions. Many smaller publications were set up years ago, when desk top publishing became available, simply to meet local need.


Picture Post, (Image Wikimedia).

Where Hulton’s  ‘Picture Post‘ had been Britain’s eye on the world, much like ‘Time‘ was for years its equivalent in America, so ‘The Blackmore Vale Magazine, founded by Alan Chalcraft did much the same for parts of Somerset and North Dorset.

A jewel of a publication Chalcraft started it in his kitchen, and although long ago sold to Northcliffe Media, it’s still published today.

Three of the publications with which I’ve been associated have, like Newton’s illustrated, come and gone. The first died when it’s lost its founder and publisher, the noted Tai Chi Master Linda Chase Broda. She was a driving force who could take the vaguest ‘hippy’ and slap them into focus, so making them take action.

Then there was Ieke Van Stokkum, a Gauloises smoking member of the Chartered Institute of Journalists who taught me more about publishing than I can ever repay her for. Her publication withered as her health left her.

Joe Sinclair ambitiously produced a magazine aimed at human potential. His main failing was that he insisted in typesetting it himself. He should have stuck to writing.

VanityFairNot all magazines are doomed, although everything has a life. Conde Naste‘s publication Vanity Fair was founded in 1913, (as Dress and Vanity Fair), but became a victim of the 1930s’ depression. In February 1983  it was revived under the editorship of Richard Locke, and currently it’s under the stewardship of the fourth editor since it was restored Graydon Carter.

Carter made a very curious statement recently in a film made to promote the Adobe Creative Suite. He said: ‘If I was starting a magazine today I wouldn’t even produce a printed edition.’

Go figure!

This article was first published on ‘Blokes on the Blog’ as ‘Publication Today, Is It Unlike: ‘Helmut Newton’s Illustrated?’,  Jan 4, 2012. Ieke Van Stokkum, journalist and owner of The Forum Publishing Co. died in March, 2015.


Truth and Fiction

John Carlton, who claims to be ‘the most ripped off copywriter in the world’, mailed me today about a topic that, coincidentally, I was considering as the subject of a post here.

His story is that one afternoon he found $2 in a car park, and even though he had spent far more money that day, his find was to change his life. For many years after finding the money Carlton would look around in car parks, even under cars, expecting to see cash that others had dropped.

Psychologists call such rapid conditioning ‘imprinting‘. It’s a biologically determined phenomena, thought, to help infants bond with their mothers.

In fact John Carlton found no further money, in car parks or elsewhere, but was stuck with the behavior until he awoke from this particular trance.

My story begins with a conversation over breakfast today. My wife, Irem, was explaining how the external hard disk, which she uses to back up data, was failing to register on her computer. Her conclusion was that it was broken. The power of her belief was so strong that she had decided that she would have to recreate some documents that she needed for a workshop to be delivered later today. As a result of this conclusion much of her time would be consumed re-writing, and the printing of the re-created material would fall to me rather than the workshop organizer.

When I examined the cause of the problem I found the hard disk to be perfect working order, but a problem had arisen because she was using a USB connector that has a plug to supply power to the drive from older computers that cannot provide sufficient from the native USB port. She had inserted the wrong plug into her machine, so no data was being transferred.

The similarity between these two things is that whilst two events seem to have occurred – in Carlton’s case finding some money, and in my wife’s world a hard drive failing to function as expected by her, each of them led to their changing behaviors based upon faulty conclusions.

John Carlton and Irem aren’t unique in this respect, we modify our behavior based upon the conclusions we reach as a result of events that apparently happen to us, or close to us. The trick is knowing that events occur simply because they happen – none of us will ever find an ultimate cause, and the stories we tell about those events – even when good enough to, seemingly, get us somewhere positive can never be anything more than stories and therefore, ultimately, fictions.

I think our everyday experiences are real in similar ways to how the young can bond with strangers, or similar single powerful events may lead to compulsive behaviours. Just as such bonds whilst, apparently existing between infants and foster parents, ultimately, have nothing to do with genetic replication so events appear to happen because they are expressions of unbroken clarity, rather than discrete signals from objects separated by space-time.
Most do not think in this way. The dominant narrative, of our day, emphasises separateness and independence, even though technology seeks to network us digitally. Often the stories we share seem to separate us into tribes that seem at odds with others. These stories become lives, which demands that people think of themselves as individuals whose experiences are imbued with effort and suffering. Then misplaced striving arises for something that is always present to the awakened.

These geese are thought to be convinced that Christan Moullec, the pilot of this microlight is their parent. This is the current scientific explanation as to why, even as adults, they follow him across the sky, but none really know how, or why, they were apparently programmed in this way:


Horse Sense: The Art Of Living With An Open Heart

Living with an open heart means being responsive to subtle invitations from the world we seem to inhabit, like in the story of a horse.

Many people talk about the importance of planning, but when it comes to life changing events I find that the biggest don’t seem to be planned at all.

Take for example the chain of events that today finds me learning how to ride a horse. At 64 riding seems a pretty daft thing to do, after all I could easily fall and break my hip or sit down too quickly and squash my testicles; yet today I find myself in the saddle making a complete prat of myself. It’s my second lesson. How did this come about?

Unlike most who take up riding I held no love of horses nor, as a child, did I have any yearn to ride. When I was four my mother sold our house when Dad was out working and we had to rent a flat for the remainder of that year. Then I watched my father give apples to our landlady’s pony. He encouraged me to try, and told me to breath up the beast’s nose. All that seemed to do was to make the thing want to bite me and when I dodged out of the way it would hit me in the eye with a glob of spit.

Back then horses were for me rather like the prospect of school – when I grew up I would avoid both like plagues. And so I did until one day during my twenties as an organiser of summer holiday activities for troubled children I found myself at a riding stable supervising a party for a trek. I learned two things that day:

  1. Aggressive children have a greater fear of horses than mine
  2. Horses have their own agendas, are stronger than humans and are quite prepared do what ever is necessary to get their own way

Years past without me thinking about riding and then I found that I had fathered one of those girls who are illustrated in cartoons by Norman Thelwell.

I hoped that it was a phase; that being led around a field on a Shetland Pony when she was three would satisfy her life’s equestrian ambitions. It didn’t and slowly she moved to riding once, or twice a year, to every week. This was no mean undertaking because commuting to the nearest stables involved a total of three hours on the road, eating out, waiting for a horse to become available, or put on its makeup or whatever it is that delays horses from making their entrance, and ensuring when they do they are regarded as grand.

In those years we encountered lots of different riding instructors, and please don’t tell them I shared this with you, but quite a few of them were a little, I shall put this diplomatically: ‘funny in the head’!

John Wayne, Image Public Domain via Wikimedia

John Wayne, Image Public Domain via Wikimedia

But then who am I to write thus? My legs are killing me right now, I can hardly walk, and when I do it’s like John Wayne. And, can you believe this? – we actually got so pissed off with our weekly commute that we MOVED HOUSE to be five minutes away from the stables.

Little Miss Thelwell now rides every day, and you should see the antics that go on when I go to watch her. There are grown men standing in the saddle, waving their arms around like windmills, whilst little children of just six, and seven years gallop past them as confident as Comanches attacking a wagon train.

You won’t catch me making a spectacle of myself like that, I mused one day whilst sipping a glass of gin and tonic. But then fate turned the knife when my daughter wanted to give a carrot to a two year old she hopes to ride one day. Next door I discovered a grand old man, who was once paired with riders from the national team and now rarely gets what he considers a proper outing.

He reached out from his stall, gave me a shove with his nose before snotting all down my shirt. We became instant friends. Every day for a month I secretly visited him with apples and carrots after my daughter’s lessons.

During that month I found and read a copy of what, in 1995, the Daily Telegraph referred to as ‘The hottest book of the year’. It’s called ‘The Horse Whisperer’ and, even for someone brought up on Jane Austin, Dickens and Shakespeare, I thought Nicholas Evans wrote pretty evocatively. Through his writing, and with a little observation of what went on in the arena, I slowly became able to talk knowledgeably with ample women in jodhpurs as they called in from Europe, Russia, or even more locally from Istanbul, which is only 700 km away. During these moments my mind wandered to the novels of Jilly Cooper, who once wrote: ‘I love the long grass coming up to meet the willows’, which is innocuous save for the fact that she penned it.

By now I was in big trouble, my carrot guzzling friend took to kissing me. He found ways to take my fingers into his powerful jaws, but never champ down with his teeth. He looked at me balefully and I became hypnotized by his hazel eyes. I sought to discover what was going on in that enormous skull. It seemed to contain an alternative universe of such great dimensions that it might take several lifetimes to explore.

His owner put it to me more simply. One day her words confirmed my suspicion. “He is a very old horse who thinks he is still young”. The phrase resonated, for that’s pretty much how many people think of me – no wonder the beast and I share such an affinity.

Last week we made a plan, which I think was his intention from the outset. I would spring him from retirement. The cost of putting him to work is that I now must learn how to ride him. We’re not doing too badly, but I must still look pretty comical.

Unfortunately today our lesson coincided with a visit by a coach load of European journalists. If one day you find yourself eagerly anticipating having a tooth extracted, and in the waiting room discover a magazine with an article featuring a picture of an elderly man standing in the stirrups of an old horse waving his arms like a windmill, then you’re probably looking at a photograph me.

Did I consciously plan any of this? No, certainly not but there is a lesson here. It’s not necessary to plan everything in life if you can live with an open heart and respond to those around you, even when some of them are not even of your own species.

First published as ‘Horse Sense: The Art of Living With An Open Heart’. ‘Blokes on the Blog’, October 16, 2014.


Ransomware and The Tao

Sometime before Christmas some files on my computer became corrupted. At first I thought this was by chance but then, as time passed, and more and more files seemed affected it became clear that a virus had somehow got through and begun to affect the system. It turned out to be a polite form of coercion for on closer examination of files I found a courteously worded demand for $500 and a set of instructions about how to pay if I was to ever be allowed to use files that the virus had encrypted.

warning-tl-300x143I won’t go into details as to how the money was supposed to be paid, suffice it to say that it was the digital equivalent of leaving home with a bag full of used and unmarked notes, receiving calls at payphones, and driving around the countryside at speed. For a fraction of the ransom demanded I was able to obtain software that removed the virus, and which continues to protect the system from all manner of threats, many of which I think we take for granted.

Unfortunately, those files that were encrypted couldn’t be saved. To my surprise I found myself unaffected by this even though they included the text of an entire book, and several original photographs. Where in the past I may well have cussed, and shouted in disgust, imagined that God and his angels were set against me, and perhaps even taken it out on the computer, which after all is simply a machine – I found myself insouciant.

Strangely, this unperturbedness also became a source of mild excitement. It was as if I were watching some other person than me calmly going through the steps necessary to correct the attack, whilst at the same time remaining confident that any loss of data might, if not a good thing, rather be simply as it must.

Some years ago I hired some young people to work on some projects for me. When they failed to deliver, as they had promised, they retorted: ‘It was never meant to happen’. This I found to be an irritating tautological defence, because on the one hand I agreed with them. I believed, even then, that the world is how it is rather than how I, or others may prefer it; and recognized that as a human being it’s impossible to control events. None the less, I was peeved.

This time I suffered no such discomfiture. I was immune to the attack upon my computer for even my work, much of which had taken hours, if not days to prepare, no longer seemed a part of me. Naturally, I started to question how this change within my personality had come about. I had not willed it, for indeed I had not the wit to recognize that such as state might exist and, if I had, that it could be such an enjoyable experience.

I remembered that my state of mind had a name in ancient China. Thomas Merton wrote of it:

Wu Wei

‘The true character of wu wei is not mere inactivity but perfect action-because it is to act without activity. In other words, it is action not carried out independently of Heaven and Earth and in conflict with the dynamism of the whole, but in perfect harmony with the whole. It is not mere passivity, but it is action that seems effortless and spontaneous because performed “rightly,” in perfect accordance with our nature and with our place in the scheme of things. It is completely free because there is in it no force and no violence. It is not “conditioned” or “limited” by our own individual needs and desires, or even by our own theories and ideas.’

Chuang Tzu (莊子) and a frog

As I state in Photography and Zen, the philosopher who wrote those words was a Taoist called Chuang Tzu. Unlike Lao Tzu, who many know through knowledge of the Tao Te Ching but may never have really existed, Chuang Tzu is documented as a real person who lived during the 4th century BC. His contemporary Confucius, a former government official, stressed discipline and effort as virtues needed to lead a noble life. These attributes, of course, are exactly what are required in order to administer a state.

Chuang Tzu, however, took a different stance:

‘Fishes are born in water
Man is born in Tao.
If fishes, born in water
Seek the deep shadow
Of pond and pool,
All their needs are satisfied.
If man born in Tao,
Sinks into the deep shadow
Of non-action
To forget aggression and concern,
He lacks nothing
His life is secure.’

The difference between the approaches of the two philosophers is that, where for Confucius, right mindedness is an active process demanding thought, discipline, ritual and effort – Chuang Tzu thinks of it as ‘forgetting’. I agree with him, for it was not by dint of effort that I overcame any feelings of disquiet when my computer became infected, but rather, a kind of emotional forgetting that I should be feeling upset in some way.

  1. First published on ‘Blokes On The Blog’, February 11, 2015
  2. All quotations from Thomas Merton (1970)’The Way of Chuang Tzu’, London: Unwin Books. Text copyright 1965 The Abbey of Gathsemeni



Healing Dentistry

Last year my young daughter decided that she wanted to have her teeth checked over. I didn’t think it necessary but her mother Irem, who is always losing bits from her teeth, thought a check-up would be wise so we got a recommendation and went off to see a local dentist.

He was a rather feeble looking old chap, quite benign but the sort who revels in reading bad news in serious newspapers and then complaining about it.

I was feeling rather proud of my teeth because I rarely visit dentists, the previous time was around twenty years ago when someone almost succeeded in knocking my front teeth out, but that is another story. Anyway in the spirit of family camaraderie we all had our teeth inspected. Naturally I was pretty confident in the result so you can imagine my surprise when the score came out:

  • Irem: “One filling”
  • Amazon: “Three fillings”
  • Me: “You need to see a proper dentist, possibly in a hospital”

Yes, you read that correctly. My teeth were so bad that Dr. Death refused to consider treating me, which was somewhat a relief because I didn’t fancy the great depressive’s pork sausage-like fingers in my gob anyway!

Time passed, and a few of my teeth started to wobble. My father lost his bottom four front teeth at about my age. He had a plate that always chaffed his mouth so he would take it out into his workshop and grind bits off with a Black and Decker drill. From time to time the denture would collapse under his care and he would have to return it politely exclaiming:

“These bloody teeth you sold me are no good.”

To which his long suffering dentist would reply: “What the hell have you been doing with them?”

After a few months of attempting to ram my front teeth back into their sockets by biting on a plank of wood, Sarah Arrow  asked me to appear on a Google Hangout and discuss web site illustration. In the run up to the show Sarah and her co-presenter Ola Agbaimoni commented upon the gap between my two top front teeth. This gap has always been something of a matter of pride because as a boy it meant that I could spit further than most other children because I could squirt saliva through it like a water jet.

Ola thought it made me look like Terry Thomas, but then she was dressed like Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek, so I could easily find it in my heart to forgive her. On the other hand looking at my face up close on the screen did make me wonder about my teeth. They looked strangely crooked, and frankly dead!

Then at the opening of an exhibition of photographs I hosted earlier this year a young dentist had taken the trouble to drive a couple of hours to view my work. My wife introduced us and I instantly fell in love with her, and as you know love conquers all. Of course being of sound ego I knew at once that my love was reciprocated.

She had come with her brother, who proudly told me that his mother was a dentist too. “Oooh, I’m not interested in your mother”, I retorted, perhaps a little too impulsively for his liking.

Eagerly I grabbed her by the arm and introduced her to relatives, friends, and colleagues as ‘my dentist’. I meant it too, because I knew that, even if I had to endure the kinds of physical pain that ‘Babe’ the central character in Marathon Man played by Dustin Hoffman, unlike him, I could just lay back relaxed secure in the knowledge that whatever pain is love is a greater force. Think of the pain of childbirth chaps and you will understand instantly.

I arranged for a lengthy course of dental treatment so I could see my beloved frequently. The surgery was so far from where I lived that I brought my wife, not as chaperone but in order to share the driving. The whole experience was divine.

Upon arrival, for my first appointment, my lovely dentist made me a delicious cup of Turkish coffee, with a little lokum through which to suck it.

“We are friends”, she said in a way that made my heart pitter pat, and then smiled, which made it pitter pat even more.

“Let me take your photograph.”

She clamped my head in a kind of plastic box and a few moments later a dreadful picture of a skull appeared upon her computer screen. It was like something from a horror movie.

“Very good”, she said. “Steve, I will need to remove all of these teeth”. She pointed at the four teeth at the bottom and front of my jaw. “And these”, she added, indicating three teeth opposite at the top, and this one pointing to one further back.

Her enthusiasm was so infectious that I couldn’t wait to get down to it.

“We will be spending some time together”, she smiled. My heart went pitter pat again, and she invited me to take a seat in the dental chair.

“Open up, so I can take a look. Don’t be shy”, she smiled at me lovingly. My heart went pitter pat again, as I looked into the pupil of her hazel eyes.

“First I’m going to ask you to bite on this”, she said, proffering a horseshoe shaped implement covered with pink, and slightly malodorous goo. She shoved it into my chops and I bit as instructed. “Oooh”, she squealed in apparent delight, “One of your teeth has already come out – look!”

And it had. It stood proud and erect in the pink stuff.

Upon seeing this I immediately started to feel faint. It was not that I was scared, but merely that all the blood had deserted my brain.

“Are you O.K.?”, my dentist inquired with some concern. “What did you have for breakfast?”

The trouble was that in my infatuation I had forgotten if I was supposed to eat, or not, prior to undergoing a local anaesthetic. And what if she wished to use laughing gas?

I hadn’t eaten, or drunk, anything at all and now, mysteriously, the sight of my bloody tooth stuck on a horseshoe covered in what appeared to be ‘Bubble Yum‘ had caused my blood sugar to fall in an instant.

Suddenly we were not alone.

Within thirty seconds the dentist’s mother, a dental nurse, and a doctor from across the road were in attendance and urging me to drink a carton of orange juice, which proved to be a very welcome relief.

Everyone looked in my mouth and said how wonderful it would be. They were very keen, rather like architects when calculating how much money will need spending in order to renovate an old building.

“Ooooh, you look better Steve”, my dentist purred and I was relieved to find that my heart could still pitter pat despite having minutes before nearly collapsed completely.

“I am just going to give you some anaesthetic – here – and here – and here – here – here – here – a little here – and here – here – and some more here. Can you feel anything?”

My brain had difficulty in focusing, but I could still feel my mouth.

“Yeppsth”, I repled, “I can sppifth fill ewefinink”.

“Good”, she said pulling out the first tooth with what looked like a chromium plated plumbing wrench.

“Am I hurting you?”

What could I say?

“Nophth at all”, I curled my mouth in what I imagined to be a smile, but probably looked more like Bell’s Palsy.

A third tooth dropped into a surgical tray. She was really getting into her stride now. I studied the area around her eyes. She looked incredibly focused but there was still a softness both in the muscles to the left and right of her eye lids, and in the iris itself, which appeared to jump when she realized that I was reaching into her with my gaze.

I heard the fourth tooth drop. It sounded like a wheel nut being dropped into a hub cap. Love and anaesthesia, a good combination I mused.

“You may wash your mouth out now”, she said. The spittoon filled with blood. I rinsed my mouth again, and more blood bled. More blood later I lay back for the second half, expecting that now she would pull the top teeth, but instead first another horseshoe filled with gloop was forced between my jaws. Fortunately, no teeth came away so I was not obliged to faint again.

I washed my mouth to try to get rid of the taste of gloop, but failed to do so.

And then something remarkable happened. It was to become a regular feature of my dental treatment. The mother appeared, and started to treat me.

After remarking that my mouth was ‘very beautiful’ she whisked out the three top teeth faster than James Butler Hickok shot Davis Tutt.

Wild Bill Hickok vs Davis Tutt

Wild Bill Hickok vs Davis Tutt

From that moment on my mouth became a battle ground by which mother and daughter would negotiate and fight for control. Imagine trench warfare with my bleeding gums as the lines and my open mouth as no man’s land and you will get the picture. Every few minutes one of the pair would work on their side of my mouth, but as they did so each could not resist a foray into the territory of the other.

It seemed at times as if they were spraying the inside of my mouth with fire hoses, that is when not chizzling away at remaining teeth with angle grinders.

After a while the mother’s own patient arrived and my Dentist and I were alone together once more. “You look very handsome”, she said. I smiled at her forgetting that my mouth was full of rinse, and anyway my lips no longer functioned properly. Blood and water dribbled from my chin soaking my gown, penetrating through to the shirt underneath. I must have looked pathetic, but believed myself to be both brave and resolute. A warm smile was returned because of this.

I was a little concerned because I was due to appear on local television a few days after my appointment, and imagined that I would have to do so without any teeth that would be visible. Imagine my surprise when during the next hour mother and daughter manufactured a set of temporary bridges, which I would wear for the following six weeks.

All too soon it was time to leave. Nearly four hours had passed in the chair. Half of my mouth had even started to function again, and normal speech was restored.

There was blood everywhere. It was on the floor, around the spittoon, on the operating lamp above my head, and of course all over me. But there was something primeval about the experience too. I felt as if I had been involved in a shamanic journey in which, at least for a while, my dentist and I bonded at a deep fundamental level. The blood was part of that, and so perhaps the fact that the mouth is perhaps the second most intimate part of the human body. I could never have felt the same with Dr. Death.

And now, thanks to the loving spirit of my young dentist and the wonderful support of her mother who over the weeks was thrilled to put her fingers into my mouth, I was able to face my fears and overcome them. I count the experience I describe here as a transformation, it has helped me in ways that I cannot fully describe and many of which I’m sure I have yet to discover.

  1. Abridged from ‘Painless Dentistry: A Shamanic Journey’, first published on ‘Blokes Om The Blog’, November 6, 2014

A Five Day Monochrome Challenge

I respect John Amy highly as a graphic designer. Recently he challenged me to post a monochrome photograph every day for five days. In the spirit of the challenge I only posted work created on the day.

Day One - Monochrome Challenge

‘Rise and Shine’

Sometimes my images are so mundane that they are disregarded.

Day Two - Monochrome Challenge

‘Where’s Willy?’

‘It’s a window, a lavatory basin, a nut, a face, or a sky’ are the thoughts, which seek closure rather than explore simplicity.

Image Three - Monochrome Challenge

‘Muğla Ceviz’, (A universe in a nutshell).

These images are one point of view. In them the entirety of perception is compressed into a digital artifact.

Image four - Monochrome Challenge

Lost in the eternity from which we seem to emerge.

I don’t photograph in order to win competitions, or claim to be more exceptional, or different from you.

Image five - Monochrome Challenge

Man and Nature, The Miraculous Sky

Looking out of the window, peeing, eating nuts, delighting in the company of another – acknowledging that self and other simultaneously appear as mirages in this mysterious space is not enough for most photographers.

I wish good luck and success to those of you who want to be the best, rather than content to be whole, and who must collect ‘likes’ on Facebook and win competitions in clubs. It is as good a way as any, and there’s nothing wrong with such ambitions.

My miracle, however, like these photographs, is very ordinary. For me the moment represents something sacred – special, simple, times encapsulating wholeness – those which most take for granted without gratitude, or reverence.


Aslı Beslek: complimentary health doctor

A few weeks ago I happened into the office of Aslı Beslek who is the number one medically qualified, English speaking,  complimentary health doctor in the Muğla region of Turkey.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered behind her desk a large, stark, monochrome photograph of Manhattan. Everything else in her office pointed to her practice as an acupuncturist, and an allergist, as well as some more conventional medical disciplines.

I discovered that Dr. Aslı  had inherited the Manhattan photograph with the office and had just never bothered to change it. Why was it obvious to me, then, that the image was completely wrong for her sensitive personality or, indeed, her medical practice?

The Manhattan Skyline, similar to the one I write about.

The Manhattan Skyline, similar to the one I write about.

According to the ancient art of Feng Shui there are some fundamentals about setting out your office. For example it’s not a good idea to sit with your back to a door, perhaps because you are in danger of sitting in a draught, but more likely because it’s harder for someone to enter and ambush you.

Another significant idea is that it’s a good idea to be supported by a mountain. This is really military logic. With a mountain behind you once again it’s difficult for someone to come up upon you unexpectedly. This provides you with a sense of security enabling you to relax and recuperate between engagements. It also keeps you committed because its easier to fight down a hill than run away up a mountain.

These are fanciful considerations based upon the idea we evolved from nomadic people who had developed instinctive patterns in order to adapt and survive in hostile terrain.  It seems illogical that some of these distinctions may be hard-wired into the parts of our brains that give rise to involuntary behaviours.

There is an ancient Taoist story about a rainmaker. She was once called to a village after over three years of drought. Animals had died, crops failed; men, women and children starved. On arrival the woman asked to be allowed to rest in the seclusion of a hut. She remained there for three days. People began to worry about her, but on the third day it rained and she emerged.

When asked how she achieved this she said it was not her but Tao. When she arrived she was not in harmony with Tao and so experienced separation. After three days of rest she recognised once more that she and Tao were one. As a consequence the clouds burst and the rain, so long separated from the villagers, fell in abundance.

I feel, somewhat, like the rainmaker when thinking about photography and healing.

Today it’s not always possible to locate your office in such a way that there’s a mountain behind you. One remedy is to install an image.

You could argue that the Manhattan skyline, with all its towers, is the contemporary equivalent of a mountain. It’s man-made to be sure, but it is high rise, isn’t it? Indeed the New York Observer describes it thus: “Like a great mountain range, the city is arrayed around the twin peaks of Downtown and Midtown.

I can’t really argue with their conclusion BUT although the bedrock for New York is good to support skyscrapers the area was originally swamp, which is a very different metaphor from that of a mountainscape. Maybe this is why, whilst some make their fortune in the city, a large proportion simply get bogged down and lost?

For a sensitive soul, such as Dr. Aslı , the Manhattan skyline is at odds with her practice, especially when placed so prominently behind her. Indeed I can think of nothing worse than a photograph of an area full of confusion, crime, and complexity, as the backdrop to a therapist’s desk.

So I replaced the picture with this one. It’s a more local mountain near Dereözü, and one that I’ve exhibited before. A small version is located as part of a collection at the Turunç School, but the new version made for Dr. Aslı  measures 100 cms x 140 cms. It looks great – I hope it will support her, and who knows if it works maybe we can try her with something just a little more dramatic?

Mountain Nr. Dereozu, Turkey image © Stephen Bray

Mountain Nr. Dereozu, Turkey image © Stephen Bray


The Power of Positive Thinking

In 1952 Prentice-Hall published the first edition of ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ by the Reverend Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.

The Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale
The Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale,
image Library of Congress

It stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 186 consecutive weeks, and the book has sold around 5 million copies and been translated into 15 languages. It is Peale’s most popular work, and the one for which he is best known.

It has influenced millions of people, but is not without its critics.

There are claims that the techniques described within the book rely on a kind of a damaging kind of self-hypnosis*. Others that the book is full of anecdotes that are unsubstantiated. Some go as far as stating that Dr. Peale was a con-man.

Whatever the merits of these assertions there can be no doubt that whilst Peale may well have been a showman, for example he hosted live radio broadcasts, he also did good works. Projects such as being one of the founders of 40 Plus, with J. C. Penny founder of J.C. Penney & Co.; Arthur Godfrey, a radio and TV personality; and Thomas J. Watson, President and Founder of IBM, owe much to him. 40 Plus aimed to find work for unemployed executives.

Perhaps the greatest criticism that may be levied against Peale is his habit in later years of supporting, or criticising, various politicians on the basis of their religious conviction. This strikes me as paradoxical behaviour for a positive thinker?

Whatever you may think about Norman Vincent Peale he certainly put ‘psychological positivity’ on the map, and it’s never really been obliterated from the public psyche since the publication of ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’.

Today, Positive Thinking is a much more scientific theory than that contained in Peale’s book. It’s backed by empirical evidence, and no longer espouses repetitive self-hypnosis as a necessary ingredient for change. Barbara Fredrickson, a researcher from the University of North Carolina, wrote a paper titled ‘Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources‘. In it she established that: ‘positive emotions, in turn, produced increases in a wide range of personal resources (e.g., increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, decreased illness symptoms). In turn, these increments in personal resources predicted increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.’

You Can Improve Your Health by
Writing Positively For Just Two Minutes Every Day

Chad M Burtona, and Laura A King, from Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri, established that people who are instructed to write, and do write even if just for two minutes, about positive subjects perform better across a bank of health, personality, and psychological indices after three months than writers who chose their own topics and styles, (published in The Journal of Research in Personality).

A host of other research material is cited in these two papers that attests to the power of thinking positively.

When I practiced as a psychotherapist many I met became happier simply by stopping listening to the news on their radios first thing each morning.

Thinking optimistically is not to be confused with ‘The Law of Attraction’, which is a philosophy based upon the theory that like attracts like, and that focusing upon some object or goal is likely to bring it to fruition. Bold claims have been made for ‘The Law of Attraction’, but unfortunately many who are devotees of it still are to be found living in reduced circumstances. Whilst some have become disillusioned with ‘The Law’ others consider that it is they who lack sufficient focus to bring their desires to fruition.

This tautological way of thinking can only be associated with suffering. I know, ultimately, that the world cannot be other than how it is as it surrenders itself to you and I. For this reason it’s misguided to blame either self, or, others, for creating particular dreams of separation and the associated pains experienced because of them.

So why am I writing on this topic here? Quite simply I am prompted by a video I was sent by the noted Internet Millionaire, and also New York Times Best Selling Author, Jeff Walker. I detect within it a hint that he found himself working hard recently during one of his Mastermind Groups in Durango. The cause of his discomfort was a particularly negative member of the group who constantly dismissed the suggestions of Jeff, and other group members, as irrelevant.

I too have experienced negativity when presenting ideas to people, especially when speaking to those from a different country, or culture, from the one I was born into. Perhaps, not remarkably, when people have followed my suggestions their businesses seem to have benefited. I have even seen people who were openly hostile to my suggestions later come to adopt them when presented by members of their own communities.

At what stage do we withdraw ourselves from negative people and focus on those who are easier to help? Good business sense suggests that just as it’s best to sell to people who have an appetite for what we have to offer – so it’s best to counsel those who are positive about what we have to say.

In my model of the world, however, pragmatism also needs to be tempered with compassion. After all, the research shows that raising the moral and thought patterns of a negative individual may not only lead them into happiness, but also enable them to be healthier, wealthier people.

Compassion and acceptance play together as twins. When we attempt to change others we are doomed to failure because doing so reinforces our own dream of separateness. Acceptance of the world is a form of surrender from within which creativity reveals itself.

*Nothing herein should be taken to imply that self hypnosis is harmful. Critics, in particular psychiatrist R. C. Murphy, assert that Peale’s suggested method of repeated hypnosis defeats an individual’s self-motivation, self-knowledge, unique sense of self, sense of reality, and ability to think critically.


Douglas Harding: On Having No Head

It seems that since the publication of Paul Watzlawick’s informative work on the nature of communication family therapists have pondered the subject of its title: ‘How Real is Real?’ Family therapy is of course concerned with communication, but recently it has become increasingly preoccupied with the nature of ‘reality’.

Watlazick is right when he asserts, “. . . our everyday traditional ideas of reality are delusions which we spend substantial parts of our daily lives shoring up, even at the considerable risk of trying to force facts to fit our definition of reality instead of visa versa”, (Watzlawick, 1977 xi).

The problem is nested in the very meanings of the terms ‘reality’, and ‘truth’. To quote David Pilgrim: “Postmodernism refuses to concede a stable a priori self and attends to the inscriptions of personhood created by diverse and shifting discourses. Postmodernism reflects on a diverse world of multiple shifting realities.” (Pilgrim, 2000 p.7) I predicted that Family Therapy would encounter such ideas as early as 1985 when I cited Capra in support of my stance:

“Capra (1982) suggests that a bootstrap model of society would be fruitful. This means gradually formulating a network of interlocking concepts and models and at the same time developing corresponding social organisation. Such theories and models and organisations will have to be trans-disciplinary, using whatever language becomes appropriate to describe different aspects of the multi-levelled, inter-related fabric of reality.” (Bray, 1985).

Integral science, (following Foucault, 1973), holds that science may be divided into ‘Inner (a priori) Science’, and ‘Outer (posteriori) Science’. Inner Science refers to mathematics where the rules are applied in the private domain of the mind, and are accessible only to those trained to use mathematical rules; whereas Outer Science refers to experiments in phenomena that may be observed in an apparent ‘outer world’. Biology is an example of such a discipline.

Integral Science seeks to unify the rules of science regardless of whether they be ‘inner’ or ‘outer’ related:

“It is a fundamental principle of Outer Science that hypotheses be subjected to verification in the outer domain of experience by a community of trained practitioners. A physical theory, for example, is subject to the condition that its predictions must be compatible with our sensory experiences of the world of outer objects. It is important to note that only trained physicists are qualified to test physical theories against experience.

Similarly, it is also a fundamental principle of Inner Science that a community of trained practitioners subject hypotheses to verification. A mathematical theorem, for example, is subject to the condition that its proof must be compatible with our inner conceptual experiences, in particular, the inner experiences of trained mathematicians.”

From the above, we form a generalized principle of verification which does not depend on the domain of experience.” (McFarlane, 1977).

Social ‘scientists’, however recognize that perhaps more than any other creature human beings are unpredictable, especially in their imaginings. “In the natural world a frog shares the ability to be conceptualised as a whole entity; in the same way as a prince. However, only the prince will be able to imagine what it may be like to be a frog, or a beggar, and to model each if he wishes to do so”. (Sinclair and Bray, 1998 p. 62)

My issue then is not with the idea that we appear to live in a ‘Multiverse’, in which experience may seem contradictory and communication baffling, especially to families uneducated in the subtleties of post-modern thinking. Rather it is with the implication in Watzlawick’s statement that there is no reality that we can rely upon, or verify when there is confusion in our world.

Fortunately help is at hand in the writings of the English born lecturer and philosopher Douglas Harding. As a young subaltern Harding travelled to India with the sappers. During the Calcutta famine of 1943 he was granted leave, which he spent in the Himalayas. It was in these mountains that he made his amazing discovery. On returning from leave the streets were full of thousands of people who were dying of starvation. Harding did what he could, but found himself to be at once uninvolved, detached and cool. He did not deliberately withdraw from the suffering around him, but he found a place of ‘absolute detachment’. (Harding, 1990 p. 119).

Harding admits that his detachment was an incomplete ‘solution’, (as if any solution could be complete given the magnitude of the horror he witnessed). He writes: “I sought refuge . . . from the real world of inhabited space, and in particular its more tragic aspects.” (Harding, 1990 p. 129). It was not until he realised that there is no demarcation between the world’s container, and the world’s content and that these are supported by nothing at all, that he started to live life fully. . . but I rush far too quickly in writing thus . . .

Douglas Harding must be among the 20th Century’s most revolutionary thinkers. Whilst a partner in a flourishing architectural practice he taught comparative religion at Cambridge University, where he was on debating terms with Bertrand Russell, and greatly admired by C.S. Lewis. His published works include a whodunit, a philosophical treatise that took eight years to write, books on religion and the arts of living and dying and articles for the Transactional Analysis Journal, Architectural Review, Middle Way and the Saturday Evening Post. Anne Bancroft’s 20th Century Mystics and Sages has a chapter on Harding as ‘the man without a head’ – a reputation the Incredible String Band helped to establish with their Douglas Harding Song.

I first came across Harding’s ideas when in 1990 I returned to the market town in the south of England where I grew up. Here I discovered in local cafes and pubs a myriad of conversations on the nature of reality, some no doubt induced by psychotropic substances. Among the discussants, who seemed mostly confused and argumentative, was a giant Friar Tuck of a man, whom I shall call Eddy.

‘Ed-less Eddy’

Time after time, in conversation after conversation Eddy would reduce speculations concerning the truth to a connectedness between others and him that would end in a belly laugh.

It should be noted here that Eddy is no psychotherapist. He is a factory worker who endures long shifts, some by day, and some by night, year in year out but when not working he brings sunshine to those that meet him.

Curious, and used to asking impertinent questions, one day I demanded his secret. “I’m ‘Ed-less”, he responded, as if this answered my question perfectly.

“’Ed-less, I mean headless”, I queried?

“Yeah, ‘Ed-less”, he replied.

Now clearly this was not the sort of answer to likely to satisfy curiosity. What did he mean? Was Eddie psychotic after all? The situation remained thus for several months until one evening a cry went through the town at ‘closing time’ ~ “All back to Eddy’s”, this of course being an invitation to party.

In his kitchen Eddy brewed tea before casually passing me a faded and stained copy of a paperback book. I read the title: “On Having No Head”, its author Douglas Harding.

On the very first line of the book Harding declares:

“The best day of my life – my re-birthday, so to speak – was when I found I had no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean it in all seriousness: I have no head”, (Harding, 1961. p.1).

“Hmmmm”, I pondered, “a book that can infect a manual worker is a dangerous book indeed.” And I was right for the book next turned its attention toward me.

Harding writes: “At its briefest and plainest, (a scientist’s) tale of how I see you runs something like this. Light leaves the sun, and eight minutes later gets to your body, which absorbs a part of it. The rest bounces off in all directions, and some of it reaches my eye, passing through the lens and forming an inverted picture of you on the screen at the back of my eyeball. This picture sets up chemical changes in a light-sensitive substance there, and these changes disturb the cells (they are tiny living creatures) of which the screen is built. They pass on their agitation to other very elongated cells; and these, in turn, to cells in a certain region of my brain. It is only when this terminus is reached and the molecules and atoms and particles of these brain-cells are affected, that I see you or anything else. And the same is true for other senses, I neither see nor hear nor smell nor taste nor feel anything at all until the converging stimuli actually arrive, after the most drastic changes and delays, at this centre. It is only at this terminus, this moment and place of all arrivals at the Grand Central Station of my Here-Now, that the whole traffic system – what I call my universe – springs into existence. For me, this is the time and place of all creation.

“There are many odd things, infinitely remote from common sense, about this plain tale of science. And the oddest of them is that the tale’s conclusion cancels out the rest of it. For it says that all I can know is what is going on here and now, at this brain terminal, where my world is miraculously created. I have no way of finding out what is going on elsewhere – in the other regions of my head, in my eyes, in the outside world – if, indeed, there is an elsewhere, and outside world at all. The sober truth is that my body, and your body, and everything else on Earth, and the Universe itself – as they might exist out there in themselves and in their own space, independently of me – are mere figments, not worth a second thought. There neither is nor can be any evidence for two parallel worlds (an unknown outer or physical world there, plus a known inner or mental world here which mysteriously duplicates it) but only for this one world which is always before me, and in which I can find no division into mind and matter, inside and outside, soul and body. It is what it’s observed to be, no more and no less, and it’s the explosion of this centre – this terminal spot where “I” or “my consciousness” is supposed to be located – an explosion powerful enough to fill out and become the boundless scene that’s now before me, that is me.

“…. The commonsense or un-paradoxical view of myself as an, ‘ordinary man with a head’, doesn’t work at all; as soon as I examine it with any care, it turns out to be nonsense”, (Harding, 1961. pp. 12-13).

Harding’s assertive prose, almost archaic in style and simplicity is captivating, but no less theoretical than the ideas of Watzlawick. One reads 100, or even 1000 journal articles expounding this theory, or that idea, in terms of philosophy or practice, but ultimately they remain just words. Had Harding continued in the same vein, I doubt if I would have come to any harm. But the wiley author offered a stronger discourse than logic.

The text that follows is given for information purposes only. On no account should you attempt any of the experiments reported, lest you, dear reader, also lose your head!

How to verify your headlessness:

Experiment No. One. ~ Pointing

Point at the wall ahead . . . see how solid and opaque it is . . .

Now slowly bring your fingers down till it is pointing at the floor . . . still you are pointing at something, a surface . . . Next bring your hand round and point to your feet . . . your legs . . . your trunk . . . your chest . . .

Finally, point to what is above your chest . . . to your neck . . . your face . . . your eyes . . . Or rather, to the place where people told you those things are to be found . . .

Illustration by Douglas Harding, used here with permission.

You are now pointing at No-thing at all 😉

You are now pointing at no surface, at no thing at all!

Check that it is featureless . . . colourless . . . transparent . . . boundless . . . Keep on pointing seeing into the emptiness . . . seeing how wide . . . how deep . . . how high . . .is that no-thing that is your side of that pointing finger . . .

Have you ever been other than this No-thing/All-things this perfect union of stress-free exclusiveness and stress free inclusiveness? (Harding, 1990. pp. 8-9)

Experiment No. Two ~ In the bag

Douglas Harding's bag experiment

In the bag!

Find a large paper bag and remove the bottom to make a tube. You (A) and friend (B) fit your faces into the ends of the bag, friend (C) asks you the following questions:

On present evidence, dropping belief and imagination, how many faces are there in the bag? . . . Are you face-to-face in there, or is it face-to-space?

Take in the human features of the face opposite . . . the contours and shapes that make it unique among faces . . . Compare these with your own lack of human features of any kind, let alone distinctive ones . . . Take in the colouring of that face . . . its various textures . . . its opacity . . . its complexity . . . And compare these with your own colourlessness . . . your smoothness and freedom from all blemishes . . . your perfect transparency . . . your over all sameness. (Harding, 1990. p. 35).

Experiment No. Three ~ At arm’s length

Take an oval or any hand mirror. Hold out the mirror at arms length until you can see your face in it. Keep the mirror there throughout the experiment.

You can find your face in a mirror, or in a photograph.

You will only see your face reflected in a mirror, or represented as a photograph.

Dropping belief and imagination see where that face presents itself . . . Notice the place where you keep it – at the far end of your arm . . .

This distance is where others, too, recognise it. This is where they hold their cameras to photograph it, and where you put your camera to make a self-portrait. It has never been much nearer to you than that, or much farther away. (Harding 1990, pp. 26). Closer it becomes an eye and then darkness; farther away it becomes a head and torso even a full body, or part of a football team. This is not simply true for your reflection in that mirror; it’s also how others see you.

Often at this stage in discussions of Harding’s ideas certain objections arise. One example is to consider that his experiments must be disqualified because they arise as a result of distortions of perception. People assume that Harding somehow uses optical illusion to obtain his results. But this is not so. If one examines the kind of phenomena created by Adalbert Ames whereby images of two sizes are formed of different sizes in the two eyes, (Bateson 1980, pp. 40), we find that such experiments manipulate the content of what is seen, but are unconcerned about the ‘transparency’, or ‘Grand Central Station’ to which Harding is referring, where the illusions are assembled. It’s not optical illusion. They are phenomena of different logical types, (Bateson op. cit, pp 205).

The second objection that arises is that of common sense. Since everyone has a head, and everyone says I have a head, then I must have one. But this is tantamount to declaring our heads are no more real than any other social construction. Even a two year old would not stand for such nonsense! You might ask; “Can you not imagine yourself as part of a group, talking with others clearly and visibly carrying on your shoulders a wonderfully proportioned moustachioed head?” I would have to reply, “Yes indeed, I do see that fine specimen of a human being there in my mind’s eye, and I agree with all you say about him, including the distinctive features of his rugged countenance ~ but do you in turn not appreciate that I am now looking out at him, not from him and his body, but from a no-place or inviolate level? (Goswami, 1995 p. 182). He is no more real than the reflection in the mirror in the third of the experiments above.

At this stage violence has been known to erupt. People have been tortured and wars have been fought for less cause than Harding’s assertions. Thank goodness that AFT debates such matters through learned journals such as JFT and Context.

Harding is very clear: “If some misguided sceptic were to strike out in this direction . . . the result would be most unpleasant as if I owned the most punchable of noses. Again what about this complex of subtle tensions movements, pressures, itches, tickles, aches, warmths, and throbings, never entirely absent from this central region? Above all what about these touch-feelings that arise when I explore here with my hand? Surely these findings add up to massive evidence for the existence of my head right here after all?

“I find they do nothing of the sort. No doubt a great variety of sensations is plainly given here and cannot be ignored, but they don’t amount to a head, or anything like one. The only way to make a head would be to throw in all sorts of ingredients that are plainly missing here – in particular, all manner of coloured shapes in three dimensions. What sort of head is it that, though containing innumerable sensations is observed to lack eyes, ears, mouth, hair, and indeed all the bodily equipment which other heads are observed to contain?”(Harding 1961, p. 8).

“So what?” you ask in desperation. “What have the ‘deranged’ ramblings of a factory worker and a Cambridge lecturer, to do with family therapy?”

Let’s return for a moment to the third experiment above, Take your mirror out to arms length and find your face in it.

Douglas Harding playfully putting your head on another's body.

Finding a body for your head 🙂

“Where does that face really belong? You couldn’t fit it on your shoulders. The poor little thing is loose out there. It needs a body. Well, let’s find a body for it. Turn to your neighbour, and put your head on your neighbour’s body, where it fits perfectly.

“Why does your face fit on your neighbour? It fits because it belongs to your neighbour. My face belongs to you. We steal our faces from other people and put them here on our shoulders.” (Harding, 2000 p. 47).

And here is the space where our stories connect. My face appears in your space, and your face in mine. Regardless of whether your face is white, black, yellow, green or puce it is now my colour. I witness you from a transparency over which I have no control, and no wish to control. You may have an issue with my appearance, but I am for an hour or so a timeless universe in which you may express yourself.

You look at me; there is a kind of hostility in your eyes. You are a woman, I am a man and you have an agenda fuelled apparently by the abuse of centuries of male oppression, personalised by the molestation of a grandfather. As a man I cannot help you, but as space in which you narrate your stories I find ways to aid you to help yourself. You have become my focus; the universe shrinks to becoming simply space for you. Your story unfolds within it.

A Case Example

It’s late and I have seen three families already this afternoon. The face in the mirror looks tired; it’s the face of someone who wants to go home. The family has been referred by Social Services for assessment. The Local Authority is engaged in Care Proceedings with the family. The mother and children live in a family centre, the father occupies the family’s flat. The woman carries a tiny baby who smells and needs changing. The man seems hostile, he seems to resent the assessment, but has come in order to ‘win’ his children back. The three year old sits on his lap, a white candle of mucus suspended from his nose. A six-year old girl sits near the mother. Slowly I attempt to instil some structure into the session, mother leaves to change the baby’s nappy. The father is talking more reasonably. But when mother returns the three year old says he wants to go to the toilet. When Father tells him to wait he vomits on the floor. From that no-place where the universe assembles I recognise that all this process is occurring in the same space as my torso, hands and feet. It is occurring within a space called ‘my experience’. I realise that I am part of the chaos, and also its witness. I find that as a witness I am neither tired nor stressed. I encourage the family members to take some time out. The following week when they arrive they are more relaxed. There is also a vomit stain on the clinic’s fitted carpet. As the weeks pass that indelible stain on the floor reminds me of how even the most unpredictable and hostile families may be helped when engaged from the place of timeless clarity.

Recent theorists whose findings seem to support Harding’s assertion that: there is only one world, undivided into inner and outer, mind and matter, body and soul include: James, 1912 pp. 1-38; Jaynes, 1976 p. 44; Bateson, 1980 p. 20; Maturana and Varela, 1987 p. 244; Wheeler, 1982. But to read them is time-consuming, leads only to confusion, disagreement and headache. Maybe after all it is wiser to apply Douglas Harding’s experiments and simply become ‘Ed-less?

Acknowledgement: All illustrations in this article are by Douglas Harding ©Sholland Trust, London.
They are reprinted, as are the lengthy quotations, with permission. The Trust’s website is


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Written when a clinical tutor in family therapy with the Turkish Association for Child Guidance and Mental Health, (CARE-DER), Istanbul, Turkey.

The article appeared in an issue of Context: The magazine for family therapy and systemic practice, in the section ‘Thinking About Thinkers’, but this issue no longer appears on-line.