Martha Harris: a biography

 

by Meg Harris Williams

 

Martha Harris was born Martha Gemmell Dunlop on the 13th April 1919 at her parents’ farm at Beith in Ayrshire, first child of Gabriel Dunlop and Margaret McLure, who then had three more children in rapid succession, two girls and a boy: Nancy (Agnes), Peggy (Margaret) and Jack (John).  Their maternal grandfather was named Mazzini McLure in honour of the Italian revolutionary, and he himself had partisan opinions of a somewhat eccentric nature: thus, after quarrelling with the minister over a point of theology he never entered the church again, and it was left to his wife to shepherd the ten young McLures  (all born neatly two years apart) over the hill to the church on Sundays.  The McLures were of Clan McLeod clan and intermarried with the Howies who were of Huguenot descent.  They were all good-looking and independent-minded.  Four members of this generation emigrated to Canada, and one to South Africa, retaining nonetheless a strong sense of family identity. 

 

            Margaret was aged 30 before she cautiously consented to the bonds of matrimony, in response to Gabriel’s persistent suit.  She ran her own thriving tailoring company with six apprentices and in the town she was a more wellknown figure than her husband, who was disconcerted to discover that he was referred to as ‘Maggie McLure’s husband’, especially since from an early age he had been accustomed to being the person in charge.  His own father died when he was 9 and he was trained in agriculture by his uncle, who decided that by age 16 Gabriel was old enough to run his own farm and look after his mother, invalid sister and younger brother.  He was a man of quiet authority - far from loquacious – who expected to be obeyed in his own house, yet despite strongly held opinions was never tyrannical, as he had the unusual quality of allowing his point of view to become modified by reality - and by his sister in law Catherine, who a few years later came to live with the family, and whose opinions were equally strong but frequently opposed to his own.  It was his custom to keep a rolled-up copy of the Glasgow Herald by his side during dinner, to deliver a bop on the head to anyone who misbehaved.  My mother described him as ‘a good man’ – her highest expression of praise. 

 

            Ten months after their marriage Martha – always known as Mattie – was born, and proved not an easy baby to manage.  She refused to stay asleep at night, so her father fastened a string to the cradle so that he could rock it from his bed when she woke up.  It wasn’t long before a young girl was brought into the household whose sole task was to carry the baby around while her mother was busy with the full-time work of the farm and dairy.  Mattie’s particular brand of idealism is illustrated by an incident that all the family consider characteristic, and which occurred when she was about one and a half (about the time her sister Nancy was born).   Mattie was carried outside to look at the moon, which she immediately named ‘Daddy’s tick-tock’.  When she discovered that she was not able to have it, she burst into inconsolable wailing.  A friend of her parents, listening from the house, said, ‘why don’t you just give the bairn what she wants?’ to which they replied ‘we can’t – she is asking for the moon!’  For years after the death of her father, Mattie wore his watchchain in the form of a necklace. 

 

            When she was a little older she pestered her parents to be allowed one evening to be allowed to stay up after her usual bedtime of 7 o’clock, utterly convinced that there must be magic in the air after this time.  She was exceedingly disillusioned when finally this request was granted and she discovered that the mysteries of the universe were not after all revealed. 

 

Mattie did not appear openly jealous of her sisters, whom she frequently led into mischief; though she did seem jealous of her brother, whose birth – unlike that of the girls – was announced in the newspapers because he was a boy.  (A farm, as a business, depended on having boys in the family.)  After Jack’s birth their mother fell into a prolonged severe depression.  It was at that point that Catherine, the youngest McLure sister, came to live with the family and from then on the children in effect had two mothers.  Aunt Cathy had been working in an office in Glasgow and could type; she had very decided views about the independence of women, saying she would have liked to have been a suffragette and describing herself as ‘a suffragette in spirit’.  She was much courted in her youth (despite the paucity of men after the war), but in her own words, was ‘chary of marriage’, and was in any case, before long, irrevocably attached to the Dunlop family.  Later she explained that she was not by nature someone who doted on babies, but she stayed with the family because the children were ‘so interesting’.

 

By the time Cathy joined them, the Dunlops had moved from their original rented farm at Nether Grae to one at Lugtonridge, which although rather less profitable was owned by Gabriel Dunlop.  The Lugton Burn ran alongside and there was constant worry that the children might fall in.  One day when the river was in spate in the spring, Mattie led the other children across it on top of the wobbly storm-gates, placed there to catch debris.  Another time the adults were struck with panic when Peggy, aged two, wandered in and announced dreamily that ‘Nancy was in the river and sinking fast’.  It was said of the three girls that Peggy just didn’t know when to stop; Nancy knew when to stop and did; Mattie knew when to stop but wouldn’t.  The children were extremely well brought-up and well mannered, taught that to be discourteous to a guest was the gravest crime. On occasion, before going out to tea, they were lined up and plied with bread and lest they could not control their greed in another house.  Contrary to contemporary custom, they were rarely smacked, apart from the taps with the newspaper or an occasional spontaneous brief skelping:  

 

Someone once amended the self-righteous Victorian recommendation ‘Never hit a child in cold blood’ to ‘Never hit a child except in hot blood’

Your Teenager 2007, p. 257

 

 

And the children rarely came to blows themselves.  Their inventiveness was put to work to find other modes of venting their exasperation: thus they would hiss, ‘I’ll scream in your ear!’, or Mattie would make the pigs squeal, by chasing them with her hands on their backs – a noise that got on her sisters’ nerves. The children were given tasks on the farm as soon as they could manage them.  Taking tea out to the harvesters was one of these; and in warm weather, when she was thirsty, Mattie would stop in the field on the way and milk a cow for a drink.

 

Mattie’s most obstinate exploits however were probably verbal ones.  She had always been precocious in her speech and learned very early to argue relentlessly.  After a heated debate in adolescence about the King and Mrs Simpson, she was told: ‘you’d argue all night that a black crow was white!’ to which she replied ‘yes, and before dawn, I would prove it too!’  One day when she was small, Mattie was rebuked for demanding of a visitor who always brought them sweets,  ‘what have you got for us?’  ‘You mustn’t ask’, she was told.  So next time he came, she twisted the formula into one which she thought would appear acceptable: ‘I’m no asking, Tam, I’m no asking!’  Despite the requirements of obedience, she was determined to find a channel for getting her message across. Yet outside the home she adhered strictly to her father’s precepts. From the age of six, she was entrusted with escorting Nancy every day along the two-mile walk to school and back again.  Coming home one rainy afternoon, a friend of their father passed by in a car and offered them a lift.  But she had been told never to accept lifts, so they struggled on in the torrential rain.

 

My mother’s memories of starting school have been recounted, faintly disguised, in her book Thinking about infants and young children, when she and her best friend were taken to school for the first time by their mothers and they heard the disturbing sound of the Lord’s Prayer being chanted in assembly.  Her mother tried to reassure her by saying they were ‘talking to the teacher’, but the child thought, ‘I’d never heard anyone talking like that before and I had a vague feeling of something extraordinary going on’.  Then she noticed her mother was ‘shaking slightly, all upset’, so she started to howl and said she wanted to go home:

 

My mother and father must have talked about it that night because the next morning Father announced that he would take us both to school that day and our mothers would come to fetch us when school was over.  I looked at his face and knew better than to protest.  He handed us over to our teacher without a murmur from either of us and as far as I remember that whole day seemed strangely eventful and interesting.  It never seemed to occur to me to start crying for my mother.  From then on I liked school a lot. (p. 67)

 

 

       Another story from this period of early childhood may be found in the same book, in the form of a six-year old’s fantasy about her night-time parents.  It was Christmas time and Mattie was thinking with ‘a kind of awe’ of Santa Claus coming with his sledge from the frozen north, and also of the Snow Queen who stole Gerda from little Kay – a story that she had just been told by her mother, who was imminently expecting her next baby.  Mattie did not manage to explain her disappointment with the doll she had received for Christmas (for not being a real baby), and this seemed to end her fantasy of a fairytale romance with her mother.

 

My father came, all concerned to find out what was the matter with me.  I couldn’t explain, but he kept on asking me and finally, just to stop him asking, I told him that my big cousin hit me, which wasn’t true. (p. 78)

 

 

The following Christmas morning – with her baby brother now solidly established solidly on terra firma – Mattie was discovered bumping about downstairs where the children had hung their stockings:

 

This woke my father and mother.  I told them I’d come downstairs to see whether Santa Claus really did exist.  They laughed at each other and said, ‘How like her!’ – then became rather irritated and said, ‘Now don’t you go and spoil it for the others – give them time to find out for themselves’.  But I couldn’t keep the secret.  I took both my sisters aside that Christmas Day and whispered to them that there was no Father Christmas, it was only mother and father.  My little sister, who must have been three at the time, didn’t register.  I remember her sucking her thumb and looking at me stolidly as if she knew much better.  My five-year-old sister evidently pondered on it and went to ask my mother, later in the day, if it was true.  My mother was annoyed with me and I felt obscurely guilty, as if I had spoiled Christmas Day for everybody.  In some kind of way it was the end of my childhood, at least one period of childhood. (p. 79)

 

In a way it was the end of the child who had cried for the moon, for Daddy’s tick-tock.  In one sense those shadowy figures from the eternal world, Father Christmas and the Snow Queen, became ‘only Father and Mother’.  In another sense they were relegated to some mysterious place amongst the blue hills and lochs of the north from which she was soon to be weaned away, but which remained firmly established in her imagination as her personal vision of ‘that immortal sea/ Which brought us hither’ (Wordsworth, ‘Immortality’ ode).  From childhood on, she said, she felt that whoever looked at her intently would see the hills in her eyes.

 

For when she was eight years old, what was probably the most dramatic event of her life occurred: the family left Scotland, to stand – like Keats’s Ruth in a passage which Aunt Cathy used to describe the move - ‘in tears amid the alien corn’ (Ode to a Nightingale).  This seemed to colour my mother’s perception of things for ever afterwards: wherever she was, was always in a sense temporary until eventually she would return to Scotland, even if this were to take the form of a spiritual rather than an actual journey.  All her life she had a great sympathy and fellow-feeling for exiles.  And she was devastated by the prospect of abandoning her namesake and best friend from infancy, Martha McBride.  In the words of the tract The Child-in-the-family-in-the-community which she later wrote with her third husband Donald Meltzer:

 

The ‘couple’ family is felt to be mobile potentially, even though it may be tenderly attached to the home or landscape or community of friends and neighbours.  If opportunity glows on the horizon, a pioneer atmosphere begins to scintillate, akin in feeling to the times when the mother is pregnant.  (reprinted in Your Teenager 2007, p. 257.)

 

 

Mattie said the book which captured most poignantly the quality of her life in Scotland was Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song - a book which, incidentally, Aunty Cathy considered very unsuitable reading for the girls, and was horrified when Mattie recommended it to Peggy.  My mother, however, quoted with approval Hugh MacDiarmid’s judgement that it was ‘the best thing that ever came out of Scotland’.  At that time there were special incentives for Scottish farmers to come to southern England to improve the backward dairy industry.  So after the death of his mother, Gabriel Dunlop made a journey of reconnaissance and leased Withy Pitts Farm at Turner’s Hill in Sussex.  Despite the heartfelt protestations of the rest of the family, in May 1928 they made the nightmare journey south by train, dismal and sick, and early next morning packed themselves and their belongings into two taxis at Euston station.  At this point, Mattie perked up at the prospect of driving through London, and started to demand unceasingly, ‘Is this Buckingham Palace? … Is this Buckingham Palace?’  Needless to say, here were inevitable grounds for the symbolic expression of eternal disappointment.  So that when they eventually passed in front of it: ‘That is Buckingham Palace!’, she could only respond in a tone of ultimate disillusionment, ‘Oh’.  For the rest of the journey she did not say a word.  With that ‘oh’ she felt she had exchanged innocence for experience.

 

At first the children, like their mother, were very miserable at Turner’s Hill. They found themselves in a more primitive, semi-feudal society where the village school had no ambition beyond turning out farm labourers and domestic servants, and where in effect the Dunlops were foreigners, barely speaking the same language as the natives.  Mattie was too depressed to shepherd the other children around as she had always done in the past.  It was left to Nancy, then aged six, to defend the flock against the yokels of Sussex, which she managed fairly effectively by taking off her double-breasted overcoat, which had large saucer-like buttons, and swinging it about her head so that the buttons left the enemy battered and bruised.  The children were frequently ill.  Mattie began to grow tall at an alarming rate, which she converted into another weapon to use against the foreigners, in particular against the headmaster of the village school, since she became subject to fainting fits and knew that she had only to close her eyes and she would faint.  The rule at school assembly was to stand completely still with eyes shut.  But eventually, after carrying her out over his shoulder once too often, the headmaster exempted her from restraint and allowed her to fidget as much as she pleased.  As for Sunday school, she argued herself out of it, while Jack achieved the same goal by arranging to be expelled.  Later when Peggy complained that she had to go to church and Mattie didn’t, she was told that this was because Mattie knew her Bible from cover to cover.

 

After the initial period of transition to their new surroundings, when the family became firmly established in the community and closely linked with some other Scottish immigrant families in the area, the later childhood and adolescence of the Dunlop children became an exuberantly happy time, in which the usual rawness and angst was played out in a containing framework of busy activity and comradeship.  Each member of the family had his appointed tasks in the house and on the farm.

 

Such an expectation is paying respect due to [the child] as an individual who is valued for what he is able to do at whatever particular stage of development he has reached.  ‘To each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities’. Your Teenager 2007, p. 115

 

 

Unlike the others Mattie tended not to have pets (although she always wanted a pony): she preferred her animals to be either wild or working.  (And perhaps it was the same with human beings.) The children used to jump into an old pony trap lying around in the yard and push it down the slope to see how far it would go; Mattie always gave it the final shove before jumping in herself.  She was also a great tree-climber and cyclist.  She loved singing and dancing, especially the Scottish variety, and would persuade Peggy to play the melodeon or piano while they sang, or organise carol-singing expeditions at Christmas.  When a mother herself, she organised us into playing the recorder and singing to while away long car journeys. She used folksongs as lullabies, and she always treasured the fantasy of learning ‘a little instrument’ herself.  And from early on she was a voracious reader, devouring any scrap of print that crossed her field of vision: sometimes, she said, as a form of escapism; at other times, penetrating her mind ‘like wine through water’ - to use a favourite metaphor of hers taken from Wuthering Heights, which she read aged eight, propped up near the stove whilst she was stirring the porridge for family breakfast. 

Withy Pitts Farm became a centre of attraction for young people who came and stayed with the family.  They were allowed to wander for hours in the woods of neighbouring Balcombe Forest, playing and debating, and unhindered by contemporary notions of what it was proper for young ladies and gentlemen to be doing together, since the adults saw that it was not necessary to curtail any of their activities through unnecessary moral strictures.  Mattie imbibed not opinions, but values, from her three parents.  As she wrote herself:

 

We may hold broad and generous views meanly, and stern opinions with tolerance

(Your Teenager 2007, p. 154.)

Playing with ideas is as important to [the adolescent] as free imaginative play is to the three-to six- or seven year old (p. 100)

 

 

Despite the strictness of the domestic rules about manners and appearance, their father was enlightened regarding their need for freedom to explore friendships with the opposite sex.  He would say something like, ‘and who is this young man coming to visit?’, while puffing away at his pipe, to which the girls would reply ‘oh, nobody in particular, Daddy’ – particularity being lost amidst three girls of nearly the same age.   The girls shared dresses and jewellery, and had to fight for indoor privacy where none of them had a room of her own. Their mother made or superintended the making of their clothes with her usual fine dressmaking taste, so they were well and often slightly unusually dressed, although in individual terms their wardrobes were small.

 

            Mattie was renowned for dreaminess, untidiness, and lateness, frequently holding up the school bus – or even occasionally taking the wrong one.  Perhaps there was also an element of rebellion against the impeccable standards of her mother, of whom Aunty Cathy said that ‘when Grandma made something, it was as neat inside as out’.  Once when Mattie was heard to use a swear-word, she was made to wash out her mouth with soap and water; and though she never swore again, she still refused to be neat inside and out.  It was characteristic of her that on the day of her first ball, she broke a front tooth playing hockey, but nonetheless went to the dance with half a tooth missing and a red swollen nose.  She was not above subterfuge.   When she and Peggy were forbidden for a while to go to the swimming baths because their mother said they were spending too much time in the water, they used to throw their swimming costumes out of the front window each morning, then say their goodbyes and leave for school from the back door, retrieving the costumes from the front lawn as they went.

 

            At age eleven, Mattie (and later the others) went to the county grammar school at East Grinstead which had only opened the previous year.  Throughout her time there she was engaged, probably without realising it, in a kind of unilateral conflict with the headmaster, since for practical purposes she ran the place, being captain of all the sports teams, organising most of the school clubs and finally becoming Head Girl.  She was very popular because she never treated anybody with condescension, nor did she create any sense of elitism.  Out of school her hockey stick was a constant companion, and once she used it to severely wop somebody who was stalking her down the road from the bus.

 

            Mattie had few enemies but she knew how to deflate the opposition. In this context the headmaster sometimes felt his control was not quite as complete as it might be.   In misogynistic times, he vaguely sensed impropriety somewhere, and tried to ensure that Mattie didn’t know her own cleverness, even to the extent of trying to conceal from her the successful results of a scholarship exam, until Aunt Cathy ferreted them out of him.  Mattie was always surprised by her academic success although nobody else was.  She got the news about passing her Higher School Certificate while she happened to be out on an errand to the village shop, and her excitement was evidenced by the bag of squashed bananas she brought home. When she wanted peace at school, she used to clamber up on the roof to read a book.

The only subject at school for which she could not summon up any enthusiasm was domestic science, and she was expelled from the class after rolling her pastry along the floor.  She never cooked or sewed until the end of her first year at university, when during the vacation she decided to make a shirt and culottes for each member of the family and completed this project from start to finish without any supervision.  (In later years, she was pleased when a professional chef complimented her on her Cordon-bleu standard cookery – which had developed owing to her desire to provide abundantly for her students.)  She also loved to act in plays, and amongst others, produced a version of P. G. Wodehouse’s If I Were You which toured beyond East Grinstead and was put on in Regent’s Park.  She wanted to be an actress until a point suddenly came when she said she became selfconscious and lost interest. This sort of internal change was described by her in her Teenager book:

 

Most of us can remember how, after protesting that we were determined to become a fireman or a ballet dancer, these particular careers suddenly dropped out of our ambitions – we did not want to any more, or we knew we could not.  An ambition that is wrong for us will drop out if it is not artificially sustained by rebellion against parental pressure or ridicule. (p. 92)

 

It is harder for the little girl who has been rather a tomboy and who has tried to beat the boys at their own game to change over to being an admired young lady than it is for the one who has always been neat and pretty and noticeable for her appearance rather than her actions…. To grow into a woman after all, is rather a delicate business.  You may not even be too sure that you will like being one, but nevertheless, a sense of reality convinces that the best must be made of a bad job.  (p. 55)…

 

 

           

            Although it was clear to everyone that Mattie ought to go to university, the headmaster had decided that this was not necessary for girls, so had excluded the girls at his school from Latin lessons – essential in those days to pass university entrance.  Encouraged by Aunt Cathy, Mattie succeeded in doing the Latin course on her own in six months, and passed the admission exam to University College in London, which she chose because it was the most mixed and cosmopolitan that she knew of. She applied to do Psychology but the professor advised her to read English instead because psychology was ‘all about rats’ – one of the few pieces of advice which she remembered with gratitude.

 

            This happened in 1938.  Mattie was slim and attractive with a lovely figure although her mother despaired of her slouching deportment.  Her friends were in love with her, both then and later, including my father, whom she met at university but did not marry for another eleven years.  He was of a retiring and studious disposition and his energies were bound up in intercollegiate chess tournaments.  My mother stayed in London for the first two years, then the college moved to Aberystwyth for the rest of the war.  She was in France the summer that war broke out.  Her family were waiting for her at Newhaven as two ferries docked, loaded to the gunwales with returning tourists. Her mother, fraught with anxiety, dissolved in hysterics when Mattie finally appeared and slowly and dreamily wandered ashore, one of the very last stragglers to disembark.

 

            During the war she worked as a teacher, while her sisters studied nursing in London. Once, on the way back to her job at Southgate, she was caught climbing over the wall at Guy’s Hospital at six in the morning after visiting Nancy.  She took under her protection a German Jewish girl who was at college with her and who suddenly found herself destitute; this girl spent a summer at Withy Pitts before becoming a teacher and then marrying. In 1941 Mattie married herself, in a passionate and headstrong manner, her first husband Harry Thompson, an ecologist.  Her parents advised her to wait but she insisted, using the war as an argument, and got her own way, backed up by Aunt Cathy in this act of rebellion.  Harry was a conscientious objector working for the Forestry Commission.  For the next seven years they led a peripatetic existence, and from the material point of view, impoverished.  My mother taught in a series of Dickensian schools.  During this period she formed many of her most lasting friendships, as with Ursula Tarkovsky, Alastair Steven, my father Roland and his friend Werner Wolf (a German Jew who was sent to Canada and interned immediately after finishing his final exams), and Dina Rosenbluth, whose father – a Minister of Justice in the early days of Israel – my mother also greatly admired.  For a while she and Harry lived in Scotland in a commune, into whose spirit she entered zealously, with a mixture of hilarity and fervent dedication. She was also the one whose earnings as a teacher constituted the group’s primary source of income.  When Harry started to conduct his research on rabbits, they moved down to Oxford and lived in a caravan at Whitam Wood. Mattie took a job feeding the rats in the psychology department; then, urged on by Harry, she thought she may as well use the opportunity, finally, to do an M.A. in psychology.

 

            My father had also started as a sincere conscientious objector. During the first part of the war he worked on a farm under ‘the wisest man he ever knew’ (in his own description).  This was the internal-father farmer of his poem ‘The Lark’:

 

…its nest also hidden in open

insignificance, of grass –

       a bodyguard even for important people.

 

Coming one day upon

such naive privacy where the plough must pass,

my farmer,

a lark-like practical man

of shy inward song

and carefree fatal love,

preserved that island oasis

under its branching palms of song

green in the brown fertile desert,

avoiding it with his iron heel –

       a tribute we are more in need of than the lark –

 

there stayed the shy bird with her eggs

and a heart too loud for singing,

but though in peril

happier than in a vague a-sexual love

 

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He then served in the Friends Ambulance Unit, with whom he entered Belsen 2 days after its liberation, to work in the refugee camps.  After the war he travelled over Europe.  He had given up playing chess and in emotional terms become ready to face life with my mother, whom he met again by chance on a staircase.  They shook hands, and at that moment (she told us) she realised that this was the man she should have married.  It was a moment recorded in another poem:

 

We are of those blessed lovers

        Who loved before they knew,

Without pursuit or fleeing;

        And met as pilgrims do,

 

Whose eyes, bent on the going,

        Turn once to ask the day

And find their end’s companion

        Travelling that same way.

 

I did not pass through sense to touch

        The spirit in you shrined;

You took my hand, my dear, but when

        Your love had made it kind.

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In 1949, to the consternation of all at Withy Pitts, my mother announced that she intended to get divorced. This was considered an act of dubious morality with dire social consequences. It was Aunt Cathy who objected most stoutly, on principle, because she had supported her niece the first time round and felt it was too much to be required to do a volte face - though later, she and Roland became the best of friends.  Divorce proceedings at that time were both difficult and expensive.  Although my mother was scarcely bothered about the social stigma she anguished over the pain caused to the three protagonists. My parents’ marriage was witnessed only by Nancy and her husband Bruce Holt, a civil engineer, whom she met during the war in India.  My father was the only child of a talented but somewhat unstable and ultimately penniless pianist - ‘ruined by success’ my mother said – and a once-beautiful but rather helpless and clinging mother, who had little help from her husband with the upbringing of their son, whom she worshipped possessively.  Soon after my parents’ marriage my grandfather died of cancer of the face, and a few years after that, moved by my father’s compassion and sadness (and the distance into Wales), my mother insisted that my grandmother come to live with our family in London, permanently.  This arrangement, though it lasted till my grandmother’s death when I was a teenager, turned out a severe trial to Mattie since my grandmother instinctively sabotaged her authority, which led at one point to my sister having a serious accident. Things would have been very different, she said, had it been her own mother residing with the family.

 

            When my parents married they had a debt of a hundred pounds (a considerable sum in those days) and some furniture made of orange-boxes.  Accommodation was hard to find at that time and after temporary lodgings in several places they took up residence in a flat in Kensington that was vacated by Nancy and Bruce, and remained there for 2 years.  Like her own mother, my mother was 30 when she fell pregnant for the first time.  Hospital consultants were not informative, and during the monitoring of her first pregnancy she picked up a stray word from the gynaecologist who was addressing some students, and on returning home found it  (or something like it) in a medical dictionary borrowed from the library, only to discover that it referred to a condition that was ‘generally fatal to the mother or baby or both’. I was born at University College Hospital, where the nurses drew the curtains around my mother lest other women should see the bad example she was setting of breastfeeding at irregular hours. According to an ironic account written by my father, Mattie was ‘badly disciplined and incurred many of Hygeia’s severest frowns’ (Hygeia being the goddess who rules the hospital). She was a bad patient, he said, especially when she was not ill.  So my sister Morag was born at home.  Regarding the context of this second confinement, my father wrote that ‘not anxiety and relief but tenderness and joy coloured all our feelings’: at home amidst  ‘bookshelves, familiar paintings, window and wireless’, and a fire ‘fed by the learned, dolorous book of the Strayed Word’.  Of the birth itself, he wrote:

 

Perhaps you have opened the door at night, expecting someone – and there is a stranger whose face you do not know.   That was one shade of the feeling – the powerful presence of an unknown spirit. I cannot tell you how violently, though so far off, the force of the still child’s spirit intruded into the room, which had for hours been sensitive to approaching change.  Blue-grey, pallid, the child lay, its puckered head sideways, frail.  Hadn’t we asked too much?  We knew the brutality of our wills’ insistence.  And we waited irresolute for some gesture from the child.  All this no clock would have registered; the mother had not yet seen the child at all; there is no measure for such a time.  Neither were we anxious, nor confident.  I do not think that at that moment we should have felt sorrow had the child been dead, or joy at its life, or any feeling.  The moment was outside humanity.  We awaited a sign.  I remember once facing the steep ridge of a Swiss mountain: on one side, the sun burned on the rock’s skin; on the other, a swirling mist checked steeply back and up, chilling and vertiginous.  Grey-blue, like a wet and curious stone, the child lay outside any slope of time, on the ridge.  Then gradually but quickly, her colour changed to the colour we call flesh, though mottled yet; the stone breathed in the sun.  An immediate and overwhelming rush of gratitude, and sympathy, of welcome and tenderness, swept over us and enfolded the child.

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It is the moment of catastrophic change – ‘on the ridge’ – heralded by Prince Andre in War and Peace, or Hamlet in ‘To be or not to be’, or Keats in his journey to Burns country, ‘beyond the bourn of care’.  Like the nesting lark, ‘in peril’ but ‘happier than in a vague a-sexual love’, it is a metaphor for the brushing of spirit against flesh.  In fact, my mother died one day after the anniversary of this birthday, exactly 32 years later; just as my father’s mother died on his own birthday.

 

            By this time we had moved to a larger flat in Westbourne Terrace where we lived for seven years, together with my grandmother and a succession of au pair girls (thirteen in total); and like all guilty working mothers, ours always maintained we were fond of at least some of them.  During this period my father was teaching in secondary schools, inevitably poorly paid, and my mother was doing the expensive psychoanalytic training and also the Tavistock training with John Bowlby and Nusia Bick.  Until the end of her analysis and training some ten years later our parents seemed constantly preoccupied with money and the lack of it.  In the early days they used to take one child each on the back of large black bikes to Portobello market on Saturday mornings.  Then they got a Ford van, windowless at the back (since there was a tax concession on absence of windows – rather like the 18th century window tax which nobody realised was a health hazard).  In this the whole family went on rigorous camping holidays in Scotland or on the continent; only on one night did we ever seek shelter in a hotel, when rain flooded the trenches dug round our tent by the side of Loch Doone, where we were camping alongside friends with a family of boys who determinedly survived the deluge.  Back in town, a Heinkel bubble car was purchased exclusively for my mother’s use; she used to park it outside the Tavistock Clinic (at its original site in central London) at right angles to the kerb, whence its tail would regularly be knocked off by passing traffic, and the door pockets of the vehicle were stuffed with ten-shilling parking fines.  My father never went in it; he couldn’t bear to watch my mother drive.  It was one of the few ways in which she could ruffle his equanimical temperament and evoke despair and rage.

 

            Indeed she always maintained an obstinate and deliberate incomprehension of things mechanical, whilst using them with a cavalier disinterest; for she liked to have all the household machines on at once – television, record-player, cooker, typewriter, sewing machine.  She herself pointed out the contrast with her own mother’s dexterity, admiring the way she could take her sewing machine to pieces and put it back together again. Her own style, however, was not imitable.  She never gave matter-of-fact instructions about modes of procedure; her recipe for gardening, for instance (‘plant so many flowers that the weeds can’t grow’) is impossible to follow if taken literally.  You could see that she was ‘doing it’ but you could never make out exactly what ‘it’ was; all you could really gather was that if you approached it in the right spirit ‘it’ was possible.  Neither she nor Roland required peace and quiet in a study - with the children out of the way - before intellectual work could begin.  Such work got done semi-invisibly amidst the hubbub of existence.  Only the annual preparation of the school timetable (for which my father built a special table the length of the bedroom) was honoured by seclusion and undivided attention.  Meanwhile, in quiet collaboration, Mattie and Roland were experimenting with innovative methods of education - initiating a counselling service in my father’s school (unheard of before) and discussing how to establish a Child Psychotherapy profession that would enable Esther Bick’s psychoanalytic training to survive in the world.

 

Nothing was more foreign to her nature than the administrative requirements that eventually devolved upon her at the Tavistock.  If ever anyone had ‘greatness thrust upon them’, it was the reluctant Mattie at the time when Mrs Bick left the Clinic and it was up to Mattie either to take over or to let the infant Child Psychotherapy Course fade away.

Donald Meltzer                                 Read more

 

 

 

            When we were aged 10 and 7 respectively, my mother got what she had long pined for: a house with a garden.  Material circumstances improved when she finished her training analysis and our father became the deputy head of a large comprehensive school. The house at Ferncroft Avenue was comfortable, hospitable and well-kept, with the help of a devoted Portuguese housekeeper (Monica, who returned faithfully to help nurse my mother after her accident). My mother made her own clothes, and ours, until we learned to use the machine ourselves.  She had a passion, indeed a lust for both furnishing and dress materials and at sales times would descend on John Lewis and Liberty’s like a locust.  Meanwhile my father wanted a boat as much as she wanted a garden, and had done ever since he had made model yachts to sail on the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens.  So it came to pass that much of our family life, during half the year at least, was conducted on a sailing boat in the middle of the North Sea. Roland treasured this ‘baby’ and spent winter evenings like a 19th century fisherman dovetailing ropes, mending sails and carpenting wooden varnished fittings for its interior. Though at the same time, he was among the first to use the technological aids that were just beginning to be available to small vessels such as depth-sounders and radar.  He knew the sea was a dangerous place – it was one thing to live ‘on the ridge’ himself, another to entrust his family to it. Summer holidays entailed dripping into one coastal cinema after another at the end of a hard day’s battling against wind and tide, to watch My Fair Lady, South Pacific or A Hard Day’s Night yet again and dry off.

 

            My mother was not a keen sailor for her own part, though certain features of boating appealed to her – such as visiting other countries from a waterfront viewpoint.  She was always interested in other lifestyles, particularly the homely ones of of Denmark and Holland with their non-paranoid uncurtained windows allowing glimpses into family sitting rooms, and she also liked the English villages with their craft and tea shops.  She became an avid collector of chinaware and vases from the places we sailed to.  Not least, she loved the wild expanse of water.  Sometimes when we arrived at our boat on the east coast, late on a Friday night, she would dive into the dark waters and swim around it; and whenever on our road travels she came across a sufficiently wild and beautiful place with deep water she would strip off and rush into it, any time between April and October.  Anyone who didn’t feel up to following her incurred her mild disapproval for being a sissy – not quite contempt but if anything even more dampening.  She could also relax with gusto, sunbathing on the deck in the least glimmer of sunshine while devouring every new novel that had appeared on the market. Mattie was fascinated by the new brands of instant foods like Vespa paellas - there was no cordon-bleu cooking on the boat (or indeed on weekdays at home).

 

            For the last year of the boat (before our father’s sudden death at age 50) we also had a quaint little cottage in West Mersea called St Botolph’s, which my mother planned to use as a base while my father went sailing.  After he died she became dangerously ill with what was eventually diagnosed as aplastic anaemia.  Reading War and Peace in hospital, she said, made her realise she did want to go on living, reinforced by a dream-message from Roland.  She sold the cottage and bought for £4000 the dilapidated house on East Mersea with its uncultivated garden, because it had views of the sea – where we used to sail - from both sides, and she saw potential in its ruined state.  Shortly after this her life with Donald Meltzer began, to continue for 17 years.

 

Then most unlikely but wonderful development last winter I did fall in love and am marrying again a colleague and friend of Roland’s and mine.  He was really closer to Roland than to me and hoped to collaborate with him on some work on linguistics. letter to a friend, 1971

 

 

 Buttermilk Hall near Oxford became the main family home during our student years, a busy and crowded ‘paradise’ (as Don called it) of profuse and diffuse projects, entertainments, arguments and hospitality, not unlike Withy Pitts of the previous generation. Meanwhile they gradually rebuilt and planted Mersea together, and during the following years, it was perhaps the place with most space for private life – for refuelling the inner soul in the midst of the vast expansion of the work empire of international dimensions which they were simultaneously evolving.  They wanted to feed the world – less corporeally (an ambition of governmental scope) than spiritually – a qualitative ambition where the size of the area of operation doesn’t signify.  The family values spread outwards. For as the model of The Child-in-the-family-in-the-community reminds us:

 

The growth of all members of the family, as evidenced by carefully monitored and frequently discussed indicators of physical, social, intellectual and emotional development, is necessary to maintain the sense of security, which is intrinsic to the family and is felt to be utterly independent of the community, despite the overall optimistic and benevolent view taken of the natural and social milieu.  (reprinted in Your Teenager, p. 257)

 

 

The various atelier groups and more formal educational organizations inspired by Don and Mattie, following on from the pioneering work initiated by Mattie and Roland, came under the umbrella of the ‘couple aegis’ – though they had a hard struggle to try to maintain their integrity thereafter, especially in the adverse conditions of the tyrannical Thatcher social regime that followed, and which could be considered a phenomenon of the developed world not merely of the isles of Britain.

 

            Perhaps my mother always remained in one sense the baby who cried for the moon.  Yet her brand of idealism never consisted of idealising, either persons or institutions.  She could diagnose anyone’s moral deficiencies with laser-like accuracy, and we in her family often received the diagnosis untempered by mercy; although to the greater world which she was likewise dedicated to reforming, she generally gave gentler and more circuitous treatment.  She had a strong sense of being privileged – not worldly privilege but spiritual – derived from her internal image of ‘wide-embracing love’, whose richness towards those who she sensed were more needy, vulnerable and uncertain than herself (which was almost everybody).  Her missionary spirit strove to create circumstances which would make it easier for people to be good and ‘true to themselves’, despite the original sin in their natures which was a fundamental part of her view of the mind (with its parallel in Mrs Klein’s formulations of the same thing), and which she interpreted as a form of falseness, akin to Blake’s or Money-Kyrle’s or Bion’s Platonic view of ‘the lie’ as simply an unreal obscuring of the hidden truth, not a real entity in itself.   She worked with a light touch, never hauling out a cannon to squash a fly.  Rather, she removed people’s fear of the consequences of becoming good, as she did weeds from the garden, infusing strength and replanting with joy and hope.  Like the second, reformed Cathy of the end of Wuthering Heights, she was ‘afraid of nothing’.  Nobody could bully her.  Confronted by Mattie Harris, the sonorous foghorns of would-be despotism and pomposity were revealed in their true light as little squeaking voices.  In the midst of cooking she would sometimes be mentally preoccupied with her tactics for disposing of the enemy: ‘yip yip yip’ she would mutter in a sing-song way, bopping their imaginary heads with a wooden spoon just as her father had done with the Glasgow Herald.

 

            Yet she knew the eternal spirit which she embodied operated in a world of flux and change.  Hence she would create gardens wherever she went, not with the sense of building a monument, but of manifesting a spirit.  She knew her work and her life were part of a wider process of growth and decay, and always said that when she died, she would like to be buried not cremated because she liked the thought of being eaten by the worms.  In the same spirit she enjoyed Byron’s epithet about the Egyptian pharaoh Cheops who misguidedly built a pyramid, ‘thinking it was just the thing/ To keep his memory whole, and mummy hid’:

 

But somebody or other rummaging,

    Burglariously broke his coffin’s lid:

Let not a monument give you or me hopes,

    Since not a pinch of dust remains of Cheops.

(Byron, Don Juan, I.ccxix)

 

Her favourite novels were those in which both plot and characters seem to grow out of the landscape, moved by its poetic spirit – the hills in their eyes.  At the end of novels by Thomas Hardy, Grassic Gibbon or Wuthering Heights, the buildings and institutions crumble back into the landscape like ‘dust to dust’, assimilated into its natural beauty, but the spirit transfers via the love of individuals. 

 

I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

(Emily Bronte, end of Wuthering Heights)

 

But she still sat on as one by one the lights went out and the rain came beating the stones about her, presently feeling no longer the touch of the rain or hearing the sound of the lapwings going by.

(Lewis Grassic Gibbon, end of A Scots Quair)

 

 

 

Published in Italian in ‘Un omaggio a Martha Harris’, Quaderni di psioterapia infantile no.18 (1989), translated by Aroldo Stevens.  Rome: Borla.

 

Postscript

 

The above was substantially written in 1987 as a family project with the help in particular of my aunt Nancy Holt.  A few additions have been made to coincide with the Trust launch and publications of Martha Harris’ books in 2007.  Time – pace Cheops – has confirmed the pioneering and heroic quality of her life and work, despite what appears to be a temporary regression in society’s educational mores deriving from the inequality and rigidity associated with continuing Thatcherism (as a social phenomenon rather than a particular personage) and from the social turbulence arising from our clumsy endeavours to come to terms with the electronic revolution. When Mrs Thatcher was in government, there were frequent complaints that she was a look-alike woman not a real one – an ‘iron doll’ whose tradition was upheld by a look-alike man dubbed ‘Bush’s poodle’ – together forming a not a very inspiring couple-aegis for society.  Looking back over 20 years it is interesting to consider what a neat contrast the Thatcher-doll makes with Martha Harris and her promotion of love and parental values.   Aspects of these values maybe found on every page of her published work; they are founded on her own internal combined-object parents.  A one-time tomboy herself, her advancement of womanhood in both public and private spheres was founded not on the need to appropriate an iron phallus, nor on turning a man into a poodle, but on the passionate commitment and generosity of spirit that can be born only of an expansive capacity for love, itself generated by good and loving internal parents.

 

To conclude with an anecdote.  On one occasion, before Wilfred Bion moved back to England from the States, he was visiting here on a sort of reconnaissance trip and having lunch, together with his wife Francesca, at our house near Oxford. We were discussing the political situation and he suggested that Mrs Thatcher (newly elected) could be a good thing – because she was a woman, goodlooking moreover, with strongly held views: a combination which he felt might constitute a recipe for overcoming social confusion and re-establishing worthwhile values.  Those of us who lived in England of course realised she was a caricature, though he – fresh from California – could not yet see it.  On the same occasion my mother invited him to give some talks at the Tavistock.  Bion inquired of her who was really running the Tavistock these days?  Everyone laughed and said ‘Mattie does!’. We were in the right position to do what he always recommended in his theoretical writings – to distinguish between the real thing and the fake.