Martha Harris: a biography
by Meg Harris Williams
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
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
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 ‘
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
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:
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.
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:
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
Mattie said the
book which captured most poignantly the quality of her life in
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.
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:
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.
age eleven, Mattie (and later the others) went to the county grammar school
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.
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
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
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
the war she worked as a teacher, while her sisters studied nursing in
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’:
He then served
in the Friends Ambulance Unit, with whom he entered
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
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
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.
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
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
the last year of the boat (before our father’s sudden death at age 50) we
also had a quaint little cottage in
Buttermilk Hall near
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.
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
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’:
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.
in Italian in ‘Un omaggio a Martha Harris’, Quaderni di psioterapia infantile
no.18 (1989), translated by Aroldo Stevens.
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