Graham Greene said the first twenty years are where the experience is; the rest is merely observation. Rudolf Steiner called the first twenty years the Overture. I spent my first twenty years in a world illuminated by a different sort of sunshine from the one I`ve become accustomed to since. And I don`t really understand why or how, even after this subsequent stretch of years. Of all the accounts of or references to experiences similar to mine none completely convinces me that others have known what I`ve known. Yet I feel that many people must have passed through this world-transforming change that I`ve undergone, and had it confirmed and echoed and insisted upon every day thereafter, just as I`ve done. Strangely, some people who I`ve approached with questions about it seem not to have understood what I`ve been on about at all! Wordsworth described it best. Steiner explained it most satisfactorily. The reminiscences on my inner life that follow are by way of a plea. Is this process central to anyone else`s life? I feel like the son of a rich family brought up on the Mediterranean coast somewhere that`s suddenly fallen on hard times. And now we live in a council flat. It`s a nice council flat, with hot and cold running water and a park round the corner, but it doesn`t compare with the Palladian palazzo with Carrara marble, cypresses and olive groves that I grew up with. I seem to have re-enacted the Fall. Have you?
I wrote in one of my songs, `I was born in a garden`. And subjectively I was—or several gardens. Gardens seemed to impress me strongly in those very early years. One of them belonged to my great-uncle George and great- Aunt Dora. Uncle George was a novelist and had done rather well in life. He was also a spiritualist and so I don`t think he took his success too seriously. They lived in Surrey, near Guildford, and their garden was partly laid out in a disused quarry. I was two years old and playing on the close-cropped lawn with a little girl, a distant relative named Sonia, a year or so older than I was, while the adults stood about chatting. The lawn sloped up at one side, where presumably the quarry had once ended, and little Sonia and I decided to climb to the top. It seemed very steep to me, and high. As we climbed we reached the shadow of some trees that grew along the top of the slope among bushes. This was exciting. We were putting some distance between ourselves and the adults down below. Eventually we reached the very top—immensely high up it seems to me in my memory, but I suppose it was no more than three or four yards of gently sloping grass. However, through the fence that stood on the other side of the bushes I could see a road, with trees and possibly fields, or gardens. A voice, probably my mother`s, called out for us to go back, and we did. But not before I`d had the thought that if I slipped through the fence and made off I could have another life, as if lives were interchangeable. “I`ve tried this life for a couple of years now and it`s not bad, really, but I wouldn`t mind having a go at another one for a bit. Would that be all right?” Obviously I`ve reflected on this for a long time, and I wonder where my lack of attachment came from. Did I feel then that lives were not really binding?
There are other isolated memories from those early years. On holiday at Herne Bay, my parents led me down some wooden steps through long grass to the beach. The steps were wet and slippery (sippery, as I called them at the time), and maybe that`s why I remember that day so well—either that or the feeling of awe and wonder I had at the sight of the great sea laid out before me.
Other memories are less pleasant. I slipped over on polished lino in someone`s hall, which many years later I found out to have been in Cranbrook Road, Ilford, quite a salubrious area in those days. But I felt frightened and intimidated by my visit. There were menace and danger in the world.
Coats hanging on bedroom doors were frightening too. They looked as If they could easily transform themselves into demons. (Why are children who`ve never known unkindness frightened at all?) Mr Wright next door, whose hobby was DIY, terrified me with his sinister banging. “Ight, Ight. Won`t hurt you,” I repeated, trying to pronounced my parents` reassuring words. It didn`t work. I was still frightened.
But all else was very very pleasant indeed. It was the gentle early 1950s. Wartime rationing was still on but people were happy just not being bombed. My father had been strafed on the beach at Dunkirk and surrounded by the Japanese in Burma. He`d literally been involved in hand-to-hand fighting—and he had a photograph that he`d taken from the body of a Japanese boy he`d killed, which he`d kept not for any ghoulish reason but as a reminder that it could so easily have been him– After all that a semi in Queensbury and a clerk`s job at what was then called the War Office were paradise.
It all seemed paradise to me too. We had a large garden, where my father grew vegetables, and I had a sand pit, a pedal car and a tricycle. My Auntie Dora was always sending me Beatrix Potter books, and they, as well as The Flowerpot Men and Rag, Tag and Bobtail on the telly, determined the way I saw things. I was very fortunate. My parents were the kindest gentlest people in the world. I had a lovely garden to play in. Mrs Wright next door would throw her growing boys` unwanted toys over the fence for me, so that it seemed as if these gifts were descending from the heavens. And every morning—very mysteriously—on the table by my bed was a square of chocolate wrapped in paper, left for me by some beneficent being. “I wonder who left that there,” my mother would say in a sing-song voice. I felt it was her—but I was never completely sure.
My bedroom faced east and, the dangers of the night safely past, I awoke with relief and wonder to the rising sun, not just light, but personalities in the light, celestial entities sensed but never quite seen, with singing, joy, laughter.
One morning my mother was in the kitchen clearing away the breakfast things after my father had gone to work, and I was in the downstairs room at the back of the house, which also faced east. I looked out through the French windows up at the bright sky. And for a moment I didn`t know where I was. For a moment I seemed to remember another life, somewhere where I had been once or where I should be. Again I had the feeling that this present life was not all there was, that there were other lives on the other side of the light.
There were more anomalies. It took me quite some time to understand that Ruby Murray singing on the radio was not actually perched on the high shelf where the radio was. And when my mother said as Ruby started singing, “I like this girl,” she didn`t really know her.
Then my toy taxi turned up on a shovelful of coal in the coal bunker after an absence of centuries of my time. And although this doesn`t seem at all strange to me as the adult I am now, to the three-year-old child I was then it was a mysterious occurrence tinged with awe and even a little dread. What paths had Taxi been following through that great long sweep of time? What stories he would be able to tell!
I was lying on the floor in the kitchen, where my mother was working one summer afternoon, and from where I was I could see a thin strip of light under the front door. “I can see someone`s feet,” I announced, not sure, really, why I`d said it, as all I could see was the light. “We`ll see whose feet they are,” said my mother, going and opening the door. It was my little friend Bernard, who lived up the road; but how did I know? Did I know?
Grimsdyke Something was my father`s phone number at work. Phones were rare in those days, and I found them very strange, with their uncanny plastic, twirly flexes and crackly disembodied voices. What was Grimsdyke? I now know that it was an Anglo-Saxon or Celtic fortification or something, as well as being the name of a telephone exchange. But what did I think then? A person? Some difficult process of initiation. A mode of being? Words, I found, had power and implications quite apart from their literal meanings. I was becoming synaesthetic. Or had I always been? The numbers on the clockface had innate colours: 3, green; 4, blue; 5, brown. Letters and words had colours too. And the days of the week: Tuesday, brown with little magenta lights; Thursday, turquoise; Saturday, gold; Sunday, greenish gold. When I was three or four I had very strongly the sense that I was being inducted into this life. “Now we`ll have some lunch,” my mother said to me one day as my father came home after his morning`s work. But it seemed to me as if she were saying very formally, “Now we have lunch,” as if I were some visiting dignitary from a foreign country she`d been given the job of showing around. A foreign country? Or farther?
I must have been aware that things could be dull and banal too. I had a little Hornby clockwork train set, which my father used to play with with me when he had his cup of tea when he came home from work in the evening before The Archers came on. He`d made a wooden bridge and station for it, and the game involved our being two railway workers; he was George and I was Bill. I knew of course that in run-of-the-mill actuality his name was Bill and mine was John. So this was make-believe. This was exciting.
The only problem with my mother and father was their prudery, probably inherited from their Victorian parents. (My mother later told me that my grandmother had given birth to my aunt without her lodger knowing she was pregnant, because it was never referred to, she wore loose-fitting garments and carried a bundle of washing in front of her, and my mother approved of this.) One hot summer afternoon when I was four my mother took off her dress and lay down in her slip for a rest on my bed, as my room facing east was cool in the afternoon. I remember some inchoate and infantile sexual arousal and I must have touched her in what seemed to her a very adult and sexual way, and she pushed me from her with unaccustomed aggression. “We don`t like little boys who do things like that!” she said. I was horrified, mortified. The word she had used, we, had the value, more or less, of the entire cosmos. I felt isolated, rejected and on the edge of being damned, If my mother had just cuddled me the moment would have passed, but she didn`t, presumably because of her conditioning. And I felt like a dirty old man, aged four. It was a trauma. (Many years later I put my hand on a girl`s knee and when she lovingly placed her hand over mine I snatched mine away, fearing reprisals.) Some time later, a few weeks, I think, when my father came home from work one day, my mother met him at the door, and they kissed. I was upstairs, playing a game, acting out the roles of characters from a Beatrix Potter story, subtly changed, and I stopped and listened to my parents` greeting. I reflected or said under my breath, “They don`t need me. I don`t need them.” And I carried on playing my game. And from that point on I seemed to become more self-sufficient, with art being more and more important to me, my fantasy countries, an inner life, usually determining its direction.
A few months later I went to school. At first I couldn`t cope with it at all, the frighteningly large building with echoing corridors, hundreds of other children and stern wardresses—sorry, teachers—with stentorian voices. I was lying on the tarmac of the playground one day in a foetal position, trying to escape from this horror, when along came a mountainous teacher and prodded me with her boot. “Get up!” she ordered. It was a nightmare. But I adjusted after a while and made friends with my classmates. I`d realized that the world wasn`t as all-loving as it had seemed. It could be harsh. But it was still mysterious. One of the little boys in my class didn`t have a proper mouth. He had what I called a `yawn`, a sort-of big hole in the front of his face, but he seemed quite unconcerned by it. Then one day I went into school and found that his mouth was quite normal. The `yawn` must have been a dream, I later realized, but at the time it all seemed very strange to me. Life was multi-dimensional.
Shortly after this the family moved to Woodford Bridge on the London/ Essex border. Woodford Bridge was always referred to by its inhabitants as `the village`, and it did seem like a village in those days, the mid-`Fifties. It was surrounded by green, a farm, a convent, a wood, allotments, sports fields, and so on. There were Eighteenth Century cottages in the main road and an old coaching inn, and coming after the rows of 1930s `bypass variegated` houses in Metroland, Woodford Bridge felt to me like living in the country. My parents had sold their mortgaged semi in Queensbury and bought outright a big Nineteenth Century house in the main road opposite wonderful mature elms on the lower green. During the first couple of years that we were there I spent quite a lot of time with my grandmother, who was a sitting tenant in the ground- floor flat. We were close for a while. She had two paintings, or more likely prints, of sunsets over purple-heathered hill country, and they affected me strongly. I`d never seen hills. They seemed to be of the west, far away and long ago. They seemed mystical.
All else in my life was very very local indeed. I went to the infants` school up the road, and when we sang The Lord`s Prayer `the power and the glory` seemed a direct reference to the sunshine on the pavement by the old fence in Roding Lane, next to the school. I saw everything in terms of my own locality. I saw the glory in that particular sunshine.
My inner life was strengthening and becoming more ordered. My fantasy countries were becoming farther developed, the geography and history being elaborated. I even had a stab at devising the languages.
But increasingly I was becoming a normal schoolboy. I had a little gang of friends and together we`d play football on the green, get our feet wet falling in local streams, climb trees and so on. I became a bit of a local celebrity when I broke my arm falling out of one of the big elms over the road (while teaching another boy how to climb it!). A broken arm makes you quite a dare-devil when you`re nine.
But there were dark areas in life too. I hated arithmetic at school and I was ashamed of my lack of ability and afraid of our unkind and occasionally vicious teacher. I came to live with a certain fear. I had a few bad dreams during these years which would haunt me, strange atmospheres that enveloped familiar places and objects, filling me with a dread that would dog my steps for days. I was experiencing more and deeper emotions, good and bad, happiness and sadness. Despite this, though, the principal feelings were of certainty, stability, continuity. Living in Woodford Bridge in the late `Fifties and very early `Sixties seemed the bedrock of all human existence. Some of the music heard then, Moon River, or the Shadows` Atlantis, can set me down again very securely amid one of those sleepy summer Sunday afternoons, the grass waving on the green, my dad gardening, my mum making an apple pie, my brother and me playing on the lawn or in the sideway of the house. This was unchanging. This was All.
Or was it? On one of those peaceful `Fifties afternoons our ginger cat Timmy lay down in the shade of a shrub in the garden, and I looked at him, suddenly alarmed. I loved animals and I`d known Timmy all my life. I thought he was going to die. I rushed over and knelt down beside him, and I stroked his head. “Don`t die, Timmy,” I implored. He opened his eyes and nuzzled my hand. And then he laid his head down again—and died. I didn`t ask it at the time but I ask it now. How did I get my certainty?
I awoke once in the middle of the night, went to my bedroom window and looked out at the starry sky. I saw that it was very beautiful. Suddenly I noticed that a few of the stars had grouped themselves in the shape of a crucifix. I could hear a heavenly choir. I went back to bed feeling very honoured to have received the gift of this vision. It was a dream, of course. But dreams are also experiences. Where did this gift come from?
My parents al;ways used to take my brother and me out on a Saturday after shopping, either to Leigh-on-Sea or Epping Forest. Sometimes it was enjoyable but it could be very frustrating too, especially if it were raining, being stuck in the car, drinking tea from vacuum flasks, with the radio on, hearing what Duncan Sandys or Peter Thorneycroft had said in parliament that week. And so when I was twelve I was given a doorkey and allowed to come and go as I pleased. Like most of my friends, I was a great reader, and I used to go to the library, choosing books usually about spaceships, by Captain W.E.Johns among others. I`d settle down in the living room with a pot of tea and a packet of Abbey Crunch biscuits bought on the way home. Although we lived in the main road, there was much less traffic then than now, and I`d listen to the quiet. It was very quiet, with, I felt, an ancient quality to the quietness, more affecting somehow even than spaceships. One Saturday, sitting reading on the hearthrug, I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked down and saw there, just next to me, a little mouse sitting grooming itself. I felt a thrill of wonder as I looked at it. Again there seemed something ancient in the experience. I hadn`t read Burns then but I was certainly aware of the mouse as my `earthborn companion an` fellow mortal`.
One Saturday my dad had left his car parked in the side road by the green opposite as he`d felt the evening traffic, light as it was then compared with now, would have made turning into our sideway a bit difficult. I was getting older and I was allowed to stay up late at weekends and so when he went out over the road to get the car at about half past ten I went with him. It was a warm summer night. I stood waiting as my dad unlocked the car and I looked up at the broad leaves of the horse chestnut trees in the lamplight. They were absolutely motionless. From two or three hundred yards away across the green came the sounds of revelry from the White Hart pub. There were no juke boxes or piped music in pubs then but the sound of merriment was unmistakable, with women`s laughter in the summer air. There was something timeless in the lure of adult life.
In 1963 we moved from the main road to a house in a quiet cul-de-sac near the woods of Draper`s Hill, on the edge of Woodford, just a couple of hundred yards of elm and oak woodland from the first fields of Essex. The man who was selling the house to my parents came down to give us a lift to view the property as my dad had had a stroke a few months before (from which he made an almost complete recovery) and couldn`t walk any distance or drive at the time. I was in the loo when he arrived and my mum became flustered when the bell rang. “Oh, it`s Mr Dean,” she cried with rising panic. “What are we going to do?” “Don`t worry,” I called through the door to calm her. “You go. I`ll see the house some other time.” “Oh, you angel,” said my mum. She wasn`t given to flowery language or terms of endearment, and so I was struck by the word she`d used. When I looked objectively at the attitude I`d taken I felt it was pretty selfless.
Some time after we`d moved into our new home I spent an afternoon at a schoolfriend`s house. There were four or five of us. We were playing with an ancient cumbersome reel-to-reel tape recorder, doing silly voices, making fun of our teachers and so on. It was an outlet for creativity and I enjoyed it, taking a fairly prominent role. When we broke up for the afternoon the other four finalized arrangements for meeting later. They were going to the cinema with some girls. I was struck not just by the fact that they were going out with girls but by its being all arranged. I hadn`t known about their plans and it hadn`t even occurred to them to include me. I was beginning to find girls attractive , but nothing could have been more impossibly remote than going out with them. On my way home I walked rather slowly for a little way, deep in thought, but then I stopped and looked up at the wonderful sunshine with the power and the glory in it that I had known in my early childhood. Going out in the evening with boys and girls seemed alien to me. “This is my life,” I said with dedication, looking at my trees.
Something had been happening to me during the last few months. The glory that had been everywhere apparent in my infancy was reviving. But it seemed even more powerful now and more and more so as time went by. It was as if a black-and-white film had suddenly given way to colour. A consciousness seemed to be awakening in me, the consciousness that the earth is really paradise. I was fourteen.
Through the local library I had discovered painting. I didn`t know anything about the history of art. I knew very little history at all and even less about the costume of the various periods. Cranach and Renoir looked different but I didn`t know they`d lived centuries apart. It was a mystery—but exciting. The tall elm in Constable`s The Cornfield looked just like the ones on the green; there was a resonance. And the reflected light under the raised forearm of the nude figure in Titian`s Sacred and Profane Love was supernal and familiar together. I was reading a book about the Greek myths and delighting in their zest and fantasy. And I read H.G.Wells` The Time Machine, in which an industrial technological future is depicted as giving way to a sylvan paradise, with beautiful youths and maidens disporting themselves in the woods. Of course, The Time Machine is a dark tale that goes on to uncover bitter truths, but they didn`t register with me at that time. I merely fastened on to the notion that technology wasn`t an end in itself. This was a new idea to me. I`d always accepted the view promulgated by the media that humans had started out living in caves and were destined to develop technologically to the point where we`d be zooming around in spaceships and living in space stations. And that—give or take eradicating the occasional disease—was the sum total of human endeavour. Space, as they were to say later, was the final frontier. I`d always had a certain feeling for spaceships. Now I abandoned them completely. Nature, as Wordsworth put it, to me was all in all.
From infancy I`d loved animals, and my parents now indulged me by buying the fish tank that I`d asked for and materials for constructing a small aviary in the garden. Now, before we`d actually purchased the birds and fish, I surprised them by changing my mind completely. I told them keeping animals in cages was cruel. I wanted nothing to do with it. My course was decided. Mine was to be a spirit dedicated to Art and Nature, and I say that without any pretension. It was as natural as the rustling of the leaves.
But if art and nature weren`t enough—there were the Beatles!
It was the `Sixties. Everything was changing. I didn`t know anything about the famous planetary line-up from `62 to `69, but I knew something was happening. It was wonderful and there seemed somehow an inevitability about it.
I began trying to paint. I wrote a fantasy novel, set in my fantasy country. My hero and an interesting lady of his acquaintance were eluding the corrupt authorities, running through a network of tunnels cut from the rock beneath the city—when briefly I looked up round the room where I was writing. The walls seemed to have taken on the nature of the rock mentioned in the story. Everything had a certain plasticity. I remember walking home from school before the holidays, thinking with joy that I`d soon be writing; my imagination would be taking flight. There was another dimension to the world and the way to it was—inward. I started learning the guitar and I wrote songs. I did an art course at the local college for two years with some wild young people—and they were the teachers. It was a rich time.
But every period, even of just a few weeks, had an atmosphere of its own, as if the senses informed one another, as if all the senses were transmuted into spirit.
And then, precisely when it would be difficult to believe that things could possibly get any better, they got even better.
By the time I was eighteen I didn`t live in Woodford; I lived in paradise. It seemed as if I and surely others were awaking from an immemorial slumber, the two world wars, the Depression, the drabness of the age of austerity. Now, suddenly, Pete Townshend was smashing his guitar in the face of myopic restrictions and Donovan was having tea `on top of Honeycomb Hill`. I`d spent a few years fantasizing about fairy castles and Grecian temples; now I awoke to the perception that the ordinary furniture of daily life was enough, in and of itself, admittedly daily life transfigured.
I later read in Wordworth`s Prelude: Relinquishing this lofty eminence …the song might dwell on that delightful time of growing youth when craving for the marvelous gives way to strengthening love for things that we have seen. One sparkling summer afternoon in 1968 I sat on Draper`s Hill painting the distant view of Woodford Bridge and the Roding valley. I was eighteen, completely without doubt or fear of any kind. I belonged to the world and it to me. All was known and understood and dissolved in love.
When friends were occasionally unhappy or insecure I tried to reassure them, but sometime they looked skeptical. “Yeah, yeah, you`ve got fairies at the bottom of your garden,” one said in rebuke. I was undeterred. I knew they would feel the truth eventually.
And so I went on, writing, painting, composing songs, with a sense of belonging and rightness. I awoke early one spring morning in 1969 and heard the singing in the dawn. Everyone who`d ever lived in Woodford Bridge seemed to me to be present in the light—just as they had in my infancy. And all objects seemed to be made of light, the pavements, the fences, the trees. They seemed almost translucent. Very central in my world, as ever, stood the elms, and I remember thinking that I should devote some time to horse chestnuts, trees that had been almost as big a presence in my life as the elms themselves. I should make a study of them, paint them, perhaps next year, 1970, which I assumed would be simply a continuation of the past, though rising to even greater heights of delight and well-being.
But something totally unguessed and monstrous was about to happen.
I was playing in a band and people were beginning to take us a bit seriously. Simultaneously two friends of mine, who like me had ambitions to write and paint, suggested we went off to the country to rent a cottage (which could be done fairly easily in those days, and a couple of years later I actually did it). I was enthusiastic about this but so unpractical that it was some time before I realized that if I went I`d be giving up the band.
We wandered around Oxfordshire for a couple of weeks, camping, but failed to find a house, as Oxfordshire was expensive and fashionable even then. It was in the little town of Burford on the edge of the Cotswolds that I suddenly realized that something dreadful had happened to me, and I knew what it was intuitively. I`d reached the end of youth.
Perhaps travelling had been onerous. Perhaps it was because of having been forced to make decisions. Or perhaps, like Mr Polly, I`d expected to find people dancing in the meadows, as if they were in a Renaissance painting. I certainly hadn`t expected the country clubs, the golf courses, the sports cars. I had a dream one night in my tent about a particular order of monks who didn`t just wear the tonsure; they had their entire heads removed as a sign of belonging to their order. And as a reward they were given enormous quantities of food. I saw in my dream several massive wooden tables groaning beneath platters of meat. I wasn`t sure how the monks actually ate without heads, but that wasn`t important, The dream affected me strongly. I knew I`d exchanged spirit for matter. I knew the old life had gone. I asked people for advice. You`ve reached your peak, they said. You`ve become what you`re going to be. They seemed to have an accurate understanding of this process but they accepted it cheerfully, as if it barely touched them. At no point did anyone seemed to feel the desolation that I felt. The spring flowers when I was twenty-one appeared so hard-edged they looked as if they were made of metal.
A year or two later I read Wordsworth`s Ode: Intimations of Immortality and my eyes filled with tears.
There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore…
Wordsworth goes on to refer to the vision of youth fading into the light of common day. It was reassuring to learn that someone else had known what I`d undergone, to realize that it is a common human experience.
I got on with life and tried to adjust, but if I`m honest I haven`t made a very good job of it, of accepting living in a council flat after that Palladian mansion.
Thirty-five years, half a lifetime, later I was pointed in the direction of a little anthroposophical bookshop in New Oxford Street. Rudolf Steiner has made more sense of my experience than anyone else. He says that at about the age of fourteen our astrality, the astral body, which is involved with aesthetics and perceptions of what we may term the `paradise` side of things, separates from that of our parents. We have autonomy over our fantasy life but our spirits are not actually fully incarnated until about twenty/twenty-one. Then we`re rolled round in earth`s diurnal course with rocks and stones and trees. But I don`t know. The jury`s still out.
The endocrinological explanation of the delights of youth doesn`t hold up at all, I feel. Even if the sudden release of sex hormones were to impel adolescents into seeing fairly castles, why would the experience suddenly be terminated at twenty? Sex hormones are produced throughout adult life: Honeycomb Hill and the magic woods of youth are fenced off against us as we grow up. Or am I missing something?
Perhaps it`s all part of some lifeplan that I need to work through without overarching knowledge. Or maybe I`m just a sensitive and unpractical twerp who never stood a chance in life.
Well? Is matter an aspect of mind or mind a function of matter? I still don`t know. But I do know that as we grow older we appreciate how brief lives are, drops in the ocean. I`ve no absolute certainty but I tend to feel— as I always have, really—that I knew the truth in infancy. The cosmos is multi- dimensional. There are other lives on the other side of the light.