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Reflections on my first thirty years. Part I.

A Fortnightly Serial.


I. Prolegomena

How I became interested in autobiography.

 ‘You can only understand life backwards, but we must live it forwards.’ — Kierkegaard

THERE ARE SIGNS that I was interested in attempting to understand the process of my change from child to man early on in my life and hoped to write about this. Around my eighteenth birthday, at Sedbergh School, I wrote two pieces on this. The first paragraph shows my attempt to remember my early childhood, only twelve years afterwards.

The Confessions of a Schoolboy

“When I consider how my light is spent”— Milton

MY FIRST RECOLLECTIONS are of a slightly unhappy childhood. My parents were in India, my father in the army, and so we did not live a settled life. There always seemed be something wrong with my tummy (later I learnt it was acidosis) and once I broke my arm. Breaking my arm was one of the few events of my earlier days that I remember, especially the few seconds when the doctor had to re-break my arm without anæsthetic as it had set wrongly. At the age of five I came home to England, and even then I did not remember much, except that I was seasick most of the way home, and that my youngest sister was given a little stove for her birthday.

The second recollection is in the form of an essay for which I received my only Distinction at school. Here is a part.

The Past

 “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting….
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!” —Wordsworth

If we were told that we were descended from brave ancestors, that our past had been a glorious one, would we not hope and endeavour to live up to the tradition?

THE PAST SHOULD, and does, affect our actions and thoughts. It is an enormous psychological problem as to how far its influence extends, but the effective use of mass persuasion in the Second World War is an extremely significant thought in this connection. If we were told that we were descended from brave ancestors, that our past had been a glorious one, would we not hope and endeavour to live up to the tradition? The past can be one of our most precious possessions, enriching our lives with amusement and happiness relived. It is the springboard off which we plunge into the future, and it often even provides us with the temperature of the water! It can, if we are proud, be a constant source of pride; and even if we are not proud we can derive pleasure from the sense of having achieved something, even if it is only of keeping alive. There are few people who find the past completely unfriendly, without an ‘oasis’ where may bubble hope.

There is no doubt that we see the past in a different light from that in which it took place. We have only to look at some of our recollections of terrifying events, which now, often, seem ludicrous. Perhaps the reason for this is that we know the “happy ending” of the story, or that we can see other contributing factors which were obscured at the actual time. There is also a pleasing impression of ‘wholeness’; we know everything about the event, or we can find it out if we want to. Another reason for seeing past events differently is the hazy effect of time, and ourselves. A great deal of the actual feelings of the time have been obliterated, and the acute has been softened. Also the events have gone through us. They have happened, and then been matured in our brain. Like wine they have been turned, by time, from a sour, or at least commonplace events, into mellow soothing refreshing memories; like whisky there has been something added to them in our brain, which has improved them. We have made, subconsciously, excuses, criticisms and comments of the events, and when we again review them they have been distorted. In fact the past, I believe, has become a part of ourselves; grafted to us and shaping our actions, just as our physical capabilities shape our deeds. Like a piece of ourselves the past can be easily a source of pain if it is bruised, or a source of pleasure if it is praised…

People often find tremendous pleasure in reliving the pleasures of past events, partly as I have already explained, because they are surveying it from a safe peak of knowledge. It is only when we are not fully conscious, however that we can be truly transported there again and feel every emotion that we once felt. We must not worship the past. It is dangerous to idealise it, and useless to live continually in it. It can be utilized as a springboard to the future, and for those who have had an unhappy life it may be the dim backcloth to the glorious future, but that is all.

The prescient comment at the end of the essay in red ink was: ‘One angle left out – the aged. What does it feel like, I wonder when all the major experiences of one’s life lie in the past? The sole adventure left, death.’

Both these schoolboy essays show an interest in memory and change, as does my lengthy study of the childhood, travels and poetry of William Wordsworth. After an expedition round Europe in his footsteps at the age of seventeen, and the experience of living for five years in his childhood valley of Esthwaite Dale, I entered my essay for the Trevelyan Prize at Oxford.

This schoolboy interest grew in my undergraduate years at Oxford and became more explicit and focused. The hoarding of materials for such an endeavour, which had begun when I was fifteen, became more systematic from about nineteen when I started to keep almost everything, including carbon copies of some of my letters to others.

AS I ENDED my undergraduate years and pondered on life after university, I wrote several pieces on what I hoped to do in such an autobiographical study of the process of growing from child to man.

An outline of my plans was made in a letter to my mother, who was always interested in similar themes as a poet, children’s story writer and historian, and who encouraged and influenced me greatly. I relaxed for a week in the Cotswolds in April 1963, reading my favourite romantic poetry and children’s stories and visiting ancient churches, before returning to Oxford for my Finals. I wrote as follows.

Burford 14th April 1963

 I have been thinking a good deal recently about something I would like to think, & perhaps write, about, after I left Oxford – a sort of hobby … This is the relationship between the following – Religion (particularly Eastern) – Anthropology, folk-lore etc – children’s stories – poetry – C16–C17 & C19 (Literary) English history. The strand joining them is the process of ‘growing up’. This is a very large subject as you can imagine and I won’t go into it now – but just mention the sort of things I am on the look-out for.

Wordsworth of course is a prime example – in the prefatory note to ‘Immortality’ he speaks of “that dream-like vividness & splendour which invest objects of sight in childhood, everyone, I believe, if he could look back, could bear testimony.” This, W.H. Hudson calls “animism” – “that sense of something in Nature which to the enlightened or civilized man is not there, & in the civilized man’s child, if it be admitted that he has it at all, is but a faint survival of the primitive mind.” This struggle to reach beyond everyday experience – to assert that Science has not ‘nabbed’ Nature as Lawrence said is, perhaps, at the heart of the Romantic revolt in the early C19, & is implicit in the poetry of the Metaphysicals who sought to yoke together two modes of thinking – the old all-embracing, magic-believing, religious temperament of the middle-ages & the new scientific sprit of enquiry. Ultimately it is an attempt to unite all action & all thought into one pattern – for instance as in Religion & Rise of Capitalism1 to subordinate economic action to higher ends – and also a belief that there is something wonderful & unanalysable in the world.

 A study of this vast borderland of mystery, romance, ‘totem & taboo’ etc would entail a research into those people & books who most interest me at the moment – Lawrence, Wordsworth, Donne, psychology – Freud etc., fairy stories, the Grail legend etc. The danger is a) that it is a boundless field – a dream-land where one could easily get lost – to wake up to find life gone & nothing achieved b) that it is merely a temporary attempt at escape but some have suggested that nearly everything we do is such an attempt. … Probably the desire will die out as I come into “the light of common day” but I hope not. The area I would like to explore has been ‘mapped out’, though that is the wrong expression, by Robert Graves & I will finish by quoting him.


 These acres, always again lost
By every new Ordnance survey
And searched for at exhausting cost
Of time & thought, are still away.

AFTER THE EXAMS, I spent part of the summer working in the Lake District and in my spare time reading as widely as possible around the themes of the loss of enchantment and the rise of rational thought. Just before returning to Oxford for my doctorate, on 22nd September,  I wrote to a depressed girlfriend.

 Judging from my own experience the deep-seated cause is that you are too sensitive & intelligent. This means that the disease, a kind of religious schizophrenia which I believe to be at the heart of modern life, affects you most & brings you more agony than most… I am thinking more of a dryness, a feeling of hopelessness perhaps, a disillusion & conviction of purposelessness. It is the dull ache hinted at the end of ‘Dover Beach’ & Meredith’s Modern Love: “Ah what a dusty answer gets the soul when hot for certainties in this our life”. It is the realization that your last attempt to impose coherence & order on things, to live by an absolute code & to believe in things above greed & selfishness is failing, that everything is splitting up & losing its relationship; that the mystery & the ‘otherness’ as Lawrence would call it are only conjured up by the brain & that reality if there is such a thing is dry & meaningless. I have a suspicion that I am speaking more of my own spiritual struggles than yours, but perhaps it may help all the same.

This whole problem, the fading of coherence & belief, the emergence of an entirely relativistic philosophy & the death of the great dark & light powers which once lived just below or behind the surface of life is the central core of what I hope to turn into my background work for the next ten years. I don’t know the cure yet, I just guess that to study the disease itself might provide the answer. I suppose most of us immerse ourselves in some little escapist world, whether it is the common man’s busy life or horse-racing, or the intellectual’s pursuit of some kind of abstract truth. All I am certain of is that to try to give up the struggle altogether is death, while probably the best temporary solution is to immerse oneself in something bigger than yourself….

On 26th September I wrote to my Sedbergh School friend Ian Campbell.

It’s a bit late so I won’t bore you with the details of the plan – anyhow it’s probably a fad & won’t come to anything. But it is centred on the question of what happens to a child’s mind & imagination when it becomes an adult. I would study this on a collective basis in modern history, with the impact of modern science on old religious beliefs; in anthropology, with the impact of new ideas on an old, closed & united, system of beliefs & taboos; in literature – especially in children’s stories & of course in psychology. If nothing else it should give me a framework from my reading.

This summer I have been trying to start on the Literature aspect by comparing what happened to the poetic & artistic imagination in the C17 & C19 when there were giant shocks to the older order from the new astronomy, geology etc & all absolutes seem to vanish between an entirely relative world in which the air was too rarefied for man to breath. In the next three years I want to study Anthropology, Psychology & Literature. Of course this will be just an introduction to these fields & probably I’ll find that my thesis more than drains all my reserves of intellectual energy.

 I added to these thoughts three months later as I embarked on my Oxford doctoral thesis on witchcraft in sixteenth and seventeenth century England, an ideal topic through which to pursue the idea of the battle between religion and reason.

 Letter to Ian Campbell on 12th January 1964:

But the Romantic solution begins to recede and one is torn in half by a growing fissure, all or nothing, no compromise, sacrifice everything, love entirely and without thought – or start calculating and weighing-up, in fact become ‘adult’ in the opprobrious sense, used by Saint-Exupery & all the other good children’s story writers & become welcomed by other grown-ups, but lose any hope of real sensitivity and fulfilment. I hope this doesn’t sound too rambling, it’s a tricky subject & deserves a much longer space. Anyhow I hope when this degree is over to get the hell out of here and have a wander around to see what needs doing & then train specifically to do that… I still believe the solution of “why” to be the most important thing in one’s life & I still have moments of wonder at the mystery of it all, but like Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’ my golden age of belief tends to fade into duller grey & though ‘the rainbow comes and goes & lovely is the rose’ I am slowly [gaining] experience since it opens up a world of new ideas which I had never dreamt of amidst the childish undergrowth.

APART FROM SAVING as much material as I could, and writing books and articles pursuing the themes outlined above, it was only in February 2009 that I returned, by accident, to the topic.

A few months off retirement from my university professorship, I was asked to write an article for a book on Remembered Childhood. A dozen, mostly Indian, anthropologists wrote essays in honour of the leading Indian anthropologist, and a long-time friend, André Beteille. I wrote a short account, with photographs, entitled ‘Of Dragons, Hobbits and Anthropologists’ about my experience at my preparatory school.2

Looking at this essay again, I see how it was the only one in the set which used any contemporary documents (eleven letters) preserved since childhood. It was different from the other, memory-based, accounts. I enjoyed the experience so much that I proceeded to plan a longer book on the Dragon School and home life. As with Sir James Frazer, whose short essay on the sacrifice at Nemi ended up decades later as the twelve volumes of the Golden Bough, my short essay has ended up some ten years later as eight volumes, some three and a half thousand printed pages, of detailed, document-based, autobiography.

 For whom I am writing

ONE AUDIENCE IS for people outside the U.K., and particularly for my Chinese friends and colleagues.  I have been asked to write about how English education works now and in the past. There are many general analytical texts to feed the great curiosity of Chinese parents and their children. Yet none of them explain in detail and with an extended case study the four main stages of an English middle-class educational system – infancy/pre-school, preparatory school, public school, university. So these books, which it is planned to have translated and published in China, are to explain, from the inside, to Chinese and other readers from outside the U.K. what it is like to go through such an education.

There is also an archival legacy for future generations.  I have always been interested in the idea of preserving original records and documents to be worked on by future historians and for discovery by readers in generations to come. Usually these have been the records created by others, often several hundred years ago, historical records in English diaries, court records, wills and many others. Yet I am now moving closer to the present, first through the volumes on my own ancestors edited by Sarah Harrison,3 and now in this multi-volume account, based extensively on the records of my own life and largely generated by my mother and me.

Another possible readership consists of historians writing about the second half of the twentieth century. This is an account, mainly through the eyes of my mother and me, of a pivotal moment in western history. It starts with Britain fighting for survival in the lowest days of the Second World War and still a world imperial power. By 1971 the Empire is practically gone. In the thirty years there have been huge technological, economic, social and cultural changes which I will survey later. These volumes reflect, at the level of one family, the turbulence of these times.

1. India: Beginnings and Endings 1939-1946
2. Dorset Days 1948-1954
3. Becoming a Dragon: The Dragon School, Oxford 1950-1955
4. Sedbergh Schooldays: An English Boarding School Experience 1955-1960
5. Lakeland Life 1954-1960
6. Oxford Undergraduate 1960-1963
7. Oxford Postgraduate 1963-1966
8. Becoming an Anthropologist 1966-1971
Another readership consists of those who may be interested in writing their own autobiographies or preserving their papers. I saved many boxes of letters and other material from around the age of sixteen, not knowing exactly what they could be used for. Indeed, until ten years ago it was still unclear whether it would be possible to reduce the materials to anything readable. New technologies, as I explain below, make a new kind of autobiographical writing and publishing possible for the first time.

Another possible readership are comparative educationalists for whom I hope to provide primary materials, elsewhere unavailable, on how a certain kind of schooling and home life trains a body, mind, heart and spirit. Obviously related to this are psychologists who have hitherto had very little contemporary material, in minute detail, showing how our personalities develop, day by day and month by month.

A final obvious audience is myself. There is always an element of self-searching in autobiography, an unravelling and smoothing out of the past, a de-fragmentation and ordering of memory. Many novels, of course, have the same goal – ‘know then thyself’, explore one’s past in order to understand one’s present. The motive which drove on Marcel Proust, Compton Mackenzie, E.F. Benson, Lord Berners, Ved Mehta, Nirad Chaudhuri and a host of autobiographers who came before me, also spurs me on.

How I approached the task

THERE HAVE BEEN many brilliant evocations of childhood and the process of growing up. All of them are almost entirely based on memories of earlier events, often separated by many decades. They are a reconstruction of what the author thinks they did and felt at the time, seen through the eyes of an adult. A brief bibliography of some of those I have found most useful is given at the end. A delightful compilation of extracts from many accounts, including some children’s letters, is in Walter de la Mare, Early One Morning; Chapters on Children and Childhood as it is revealed in particular in Early Memories and in Early Writings (1935).

These volumes take a different approach to the question of how to chart a changing world, family, schooling and individual.

These volumes take a different approach to the question of how to chart a changing world, family, schooling and individual. My own unaided memory of my earlier life is very fragmentary. Even when I sat down to write an account of my early life when I was seventeen I could remember little up to the age of about thirteen. Looking back from my late sixties any account I would have been able to make would neither be detailed nor interesting.

THIS ACCOUNT IS based on many thousands of preserved records, in total about seventy A4 box files of written materials plus hundreds of photographs. Central to this collection are letters. Because my parents were away for most of the period, and my boarding schools insisted we wrote weekly letters to our parents, there are a very great number of letters between my mother and me. I continued the pattern when I went to Oxford and even during my anthropological fieldwork in Nepal. Naturally the letters between us became longer and more filled with real intellectual content.

Perhaps two thirds of what was written has survived and, because my mother was an excellent letter writer, her letters form the backbone of these volumes. There are also very illuminating letters to and from friends and especially between myself and my first two serious girl-friends as an undergraduate at Oxford.

This core of letters is supplemented by many other types of document. Almost all of my school work from the age of sixteen has been preserved, hundreds of essays and files of notes, as well as many private pieces of writing such as diaries, poetry, observations. My school reports and a great amount of ephemeral materials, programmes of events, meeting cards, scraps of expenditure, have also survived. My parents and grandparents were quite keen photographers, and photographs were often the best way to communicate in a family split apart between India and England, so there are many hundreds of photographs from my birth onwards.

The problem is that of selection and arrangement of the materials. On the whole I have followed a fairly strict chronology. This works for all the volumes, except the two covering my life from six to thirteen. At that time, there is not enough dated material for my home and school life to organize by date. So I have mainly arranged the material under themes.

What I have tried to do as a historian of my own life is to let the documents speak for themselves. I have not omitted anything that is damaging to me, though I have occasionally done so to protect others and I have not included the surnames of my first two real girl friends who have kindly allowed me to use these materials. I am aware that even in the process of selection, and in the internal biases that each source, such as schoolboy letters, has, there is still distortion and it cannot be an objective account.

Yet by covering such a long period of thirty years, seen through many sources converging on one life, I hope that readers will be able to compare accounts and judge for themselves as to the accuracy and plausibility of the account.

As far as I know there is no other attempt in the English language to reconstruct a life in this way. It has been done through a series of accidents. The inevitable wrong turns and abandoned frameworks, the fumbling to establish a methodology which did not exist and towards a goal which I was never certain of, made it a much more difficult and lengthy voyage than it would be if I were setting out now. Furthermore, when I started, the technology of writing and publishing, the quality of computers, scanners, compression and desktop publication was less powerful and a huge amount of time was spent shuffling materials around or finding things which would not now be necessary.

UNDERSTANDING COMES WITH hindsight, as does the personal resolution of many uncertainties, conflicts and misunderstandings. Many of us would like, in T.S. Eliot’s words, “To arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” Yet how can we do this, how can we, in Nabokov’s title, Speak Memory? Let me first consider the problem at a general level.

Recovering memories, the work which has made Proust and Wordsworth immortal, has concerned me much of my life as both an historian and anthropologist. Much academic work is actually about memory – anthropology, for instance, is about the Remembered Village in S.N. Srinivas’ book title, and history is largely concerned with projecting ourselves back into past memories. All this is obvious in the case of novels, yet it is not so often realized in relation to social sciences and humanities, and, I suspect, the hard sciences as well.

In this yearning, the period of childhood, particularly that most formative age before about thirteen, is the most difficult to retrace. It is particularly so if, as in my case, it was lived through the intensity of a boarding school education. How can one approach one’s past?

One approach might be to attempt to do an anthropological study of the process by intensive participant-observation. The holistic, intensive participant approach would be the best methodology to understand schools and childhood. I have attempted this both through filming and playing with children in Nepal and my grand-children in the West. One can go a little way into the mental and moral worlds of growing children. Yet there are obvious limitations.

No-one, to my knowledge, has undertaken a real anthropological investigation of childhood…By the time one is an adult, it is too late.

No-one, to my knowledge, has undertaken a real anthropological investigation of childhood. Malinowski defined the goal of anthropology as ‘To grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his view of the world’. In updated words, this might be our aim too in relation to childhood worlds. Yet it would appear to be impossible. By the time one is an adult, it is too late. One might get glimpses of the world of young children growing up by being a teacher or parent. Yet even with teachers and parents, most is invisible. One can get children to write diaries and answer questionnaires, as in Royston Lambert’s project.4 Yet this only scratches the surface.

In order to do the job properly one would need to participate fully, to be inside the dormitories at night, play the games in the playground, see the world from the level of a growing child. This is clearly impossible for an adult for ethical and other reasons.

Another approach would be to try to remember what it was like. George Orwell in his penetrating observations on his preparatory school, wrote, ‘I base these generalizations on what I can recall of my own childhood outlook. Treacherous though memory is, it seems to me the chief means we have of discovering how a child’s mind works. Only by resurrecting our own memories can we realize how incredibly distorted is the child’s vision of the world.’5

Something can be retrieved in this way and there are a number of moving and insightful accounts of childhood and education. All of them are almost entirely based on memories of earlier events, often separated by many decades. They are a reconstruction of what the authors think they did and felt at the time, seen through the eyes of an adult.

Yet they all suffer from the defects that afflicts memory – namely that it is patchy and only recalls certain moments, usually the painful or otherwise special. I have found a number of observations of those who have thought about childhood memory give insights into these difficulties.

E.F. Benson beautifully describes these isolated moments:

Early impressions are like glimpses seen through the window by night when lightning is about. The flash leaps out without visible cause or warning, and the blackness lifts for a second revealing the scene, the criss-cross of the rods of rain, the trees shining with moisture…. So it is with memory; my early blinks are exceedingly vivid, but they are sundered, and though the passage of time does not dim them, as it dims the more fading impressions of later life, they do not form part of a continuous picture.6


Benson, who wrote so brilliantly in novels about his own period from childhood to university, is worth quoting a little more.

Time, the mere lapse of it, performs the function of a telescope; through its extended tube one perceives things at a distance in very clear shape and outline, whereas more recent happenings, for the scrutiny of which no such telescope can be used, are often far more fluid and undetermined. They have not yet ‘set’. They shift and slide under the eye, various lights, which confused as well as illuminate, play upon them, and they have not yet undergone that quasi-crystallization which more remote, more documented objects have acquired.7

There is a lack of unity, and we easily stray off the path. The reason for this is well put by Donald Davie: ‘To me, however, in recent years, the past has seemed to be not one vista but many, radiating away from the knoll on which I stand, at liberty, as I turn my head or pivot on my heels, to gaze now down one vista, now down another…’ 8

Early in his autobiography, W.H.Hudson writes:

When a person endeavours to recall his early life in its entirety he finds it is not possible: he is like one who ascends a hill to survey the prospect before him on a day of heavy cloud and shadow, who sees at a distance, now here, now there, some feature in the landscape – hill or wood or tower or spire – touched and made conspicuous by a transitory sunbeam while all else remains in obscurity. The scenes, people, events we are able by an effort to call up do not present themselves in order; there is no order, no sequence or regular progression – nothing in fact, but isolated spots or patches, brightly illumined and vividly seen, in the midst of a wide shrouded mental landscape.

Hudson then describes a period of six weeks when he was seriously ill. ‘On the second day of my illness, during an interval of comparative ease, I fell into recollections of my childhood… it was as if the clouds, shadows and haze had passed away and the entire wide prospect beneath me made clearly visible.’9

The anthropologist Robin Fox writes:

Hume was right: the very idea of a “self” is a colossal act of faith: an imaginative imposition on the random passing of events. The past is indeed another country. An expedition there is almost ethnographic. A recording of its doings and customs would be fieldnotes from an alien tribe; it would be an attempt to penetrate an alien consciousness. We have met the Other, and He is Us. A good autobiographer is writing an ethnography of his own life, and he should treat his task with the proper detachment and regard for the facts. But like an ethnographer he must also weave this into a narrative to “make sense” of the facts which have no sense in their own right. He treads a fine line.10

Or, as George Orwell noted, “In general, one’s memories of any period must necessarily weaken as one moves away from it…. But it can also happen that one’s memories grow sharper after a long lapse of time, because one is looking at the past with fresh eyes and can isolate and, as it were, notice facts which previously existed undifferentiated among a mass of others.”11

THE PROBLEM OF recovering memory comes not only from the fact that one has forgotten so much, but also that what happened since the events occurred has distorted one’s interpretation of what is remembered. We re-interpret past materials, whether written or oral,  with the use of hindsight and hence distort the meaning. It is easy to be wise after the event and to allocate praise or blame, to smooth out contradictions or to find premonitions of later events. It seems to me that, as far as possible, it is important to refrain from retrospective speculations. It is also wise to refrain from the anachronistic practice of judging past times by the values of the present. It would be easy to condemn casual snobbery or racism, or just smugness and complacency in our past.  This is unhelpful and often unfair unless we fully think ourselves back into a different age with its special pressures and assumptions.

I ALSO DEVELOPED a method which I would use for all the volumes. I first wrote down everything I thought I could remember about the period I was about to investigate. I then checked this against the diaries, letters and school reports. This has thrown some light on the way in which my memory works. It shows that, at least before I was ten, without supporting documentation almost everything would be irretrievable. There would be just a very few lightning flashes of memory, usually moments of high excitement, pain or effort

A second thing I have found is how faulty memory is, not usually in the experience itself, but the surrounding details of when or where the event occurred or who was involved. With the aid of documents I have re-contextualized many early memories, when I caught my first fish, when I learnt to cycle, when I stole from my grandfather. I have also had to revise my whole assessment of the degree to which I was unhappy at school.

Without the contemporary photographs, letters, diaries, school reports and other materials, I would be like an anthropologist who had done fieldwork in another society some sixty years ago and had destroyed all the fieldnotes. It would be an impossible task to write the ethnographic and anthropological account without the primary materials.

I have found that the best way to extract memories, buried deep under a subsequent sixty years of accumulated sensations in my case, is to let them bubble up as they will – sometimes unprompted, at other times suddenly recalled. With me, it is my mother’s letters, my own letters and essays, various diaries, numerous photographs and even toys which jog my memory and force it to ‘speak’. So the work starts as a flow of consciousness.

While at first not much is remembered and it is an effort, as I proceeded, as seems to have happened with Proust, the more one remembers the more it triggers other memories. What we do is to try to use mnemonic devices surrounding the object to bring it into view – the physical space, the objects, the people, the smells and sounds. This is what I have done for those, most difficult to remember, first twelve or thirteen years of my life.

Before I started I would have said that I could hardly remember anything. Yet when I sat down and started to write, turning over old letters and diaries, handling again the physical mementoes, (toys, chocolate covers, photographs), as well as visiting remembered places and having conversations (actual or electronic) with newly rediscovered friends, I found a rich soup of memories.

This writing is like all intellectual work, a long and complex journey. It is also like anthropological fieldwork. At first one does not speak the language and one cannot understand much. Yet gradually the jumble of sensations start to fit into some simple patterns. As each jigsaw piece joins with another, so one can fit in others.

It is not something one can force, though I think that Nabokov is right to say that concentration can sometimes retrieve things which we thought were lost. Yet mostly it is waiting calmly. It is by association and when one gets into the frame of mind, as Proust realized, almost anything can bring back memories. For example, standing on King’s College Bridge one day watching small dace under the willows I suddenly remembered other willows and other dace of my childhood—and Orwell’s, as well: “Somewhere near at hand, though out of sight, there was a clear, slow-moving stream where dace were swimming in the pools under the willow trees.”12

Some other factors which encouraged this account

AS I CONSIDERED the seventy boxes of manuscripts and the photographs which I have saved for my first thirty years, I realized that it is possible to envisage autobiographical and biographical voyages of a new kind. As is often the case, changes in technology have opened new doors and corridors. The past is suddenly becoming recoverable to a degree which was quite out of the question even ten years ago. This is the result of very recent developments of computers and the internet.

In terms of the collection of materials to aid memory work, the internet makes an extraordinary difference. It enables us to find long-lost friends and family, and to share memories and exchange archives. It helps us locate an immense amount of long-vanished or concealed, material in private and public collections, including censuses, wills, journals, letter collections, gazetteers and other sources. If large sets of material are found (for example, in our case, thousands of letters in Cambridge University Library and the National Library of Scotland), they can be transferred by scans and microfilm to one’s own study. Without this, the research would be interminable and too expensive.

At the stage of analysis, the new technologies also alter the game. Electronic-mail and other electronic communications make possible forms of collaboration with others who are searching  the same past worlds, enriching the task enormously. Daily collaboration becomes possible with people anywhere in the virtual world.

1949: Jamie, Amber, Sandy. Click image to enlarge.

This was especially important when I set out on this task. I realized it might be a huge job, and my memories of my first boarding school were thin, even if I had quite a few papers. I was enormously fortunate to re-meet Jamie Bruce Lockhart after a gap of nearly sixty years. Jamie had been at my two boarding schools, the Dragon and Sedbergh, a year ahead of me (his younger brother, Sandy, was one of my best friends at the Dragon but had sadly died). So we pooled our memories and skills, and carried on a very intense discussion by email for a couple of years. The longer version of the account of the Dragon, Dragon Days, was written together. He helped launch the whole project and also gave me great advice on the Sedbergh volume, publishing alongside it a set of excellent letters from himself and Sandy to his parents.13

None of this would have been possible without email.

I started to write Dragon Days with Jamie ten years ago. I never foresaw that this would grow into eight volumes, with some 3500 pages, and that it took at least half my energy over the next ten years to reach the autobiography of my life until my age of thirty. Looking back and looking at what others have done, I see that no-one else has done anything like this. As Keith Thomas has said on three different occasions — and he should know — it is ‘unique’. So why have I done something which seems too obvious in retrospect, yet is unusual? Listed below, in no particular order, are some of the necessary, inter-acting, yet obviously not sufficient, conditions for this work.

First, I have written this during the period after retirement, that is from the age of 67 to 77. Thanks to the medical revolution, I have been physically and mentally fit during that period so I had the energy to do this. I did not, and could not, have started and completed it during the time I was a teaching academic. I did write How a Book Is Written, which is autobiographical, but much shorter at 274 pages. Writing and publishing that book brought me no academic credit in the eyes of my peers. If I had been trying to justify my academic position in an anthropology department, the writing of eight volumes of autobiography would have been worthless.

Furthermore, it is really well after the emotions of the events one is trying to describe that one can write. It is when time has made the humdrum nature of one’s past into something strange, needing explanation and description. In the past, many of those who might have started on such an adventure could not have guaranteed more than a few years of active intellectual life. Now the ‘Third Age’ has become far longer and more secure, and these volumes are one result of that.

To devote so much time and concentration to such a task puts a strain on others. In particular, if you are sharing your life intensely with another, as I had done with Sarah, your choice of occupation has to be approved. Not only did Sarah approve and support this project emotionally (and financially), but she was hugely encouraging and gave wonderful editorial advice which improved all the books immensely. In many ways, the books are a joint product, even if they tend to have my name on them.

Such an endeavour would have been immensely difficult, or even impossible, without the development of modern computing, well beyond the value of the internet already described. In particular, the developments from about the millennium with much better software and hardware, which makes it possible to find materials, to write and re-write, to scan documents, to insert photographs, to share what one is doing with others, to search for materials easily on the web, these and many other features of the extraordinary computer revolution have given us tools of an unimaginable kind. The power now available more than compensates for the gradual loss of energy, slowing down of mind and body, of which one is aware from the mid-sixties onwards. A writer now has the equivalent of half a dozen helpers if he/she has a good computer and knows how to use it.

One aspect of this computer revolution concerns the doors it has opened on self-publishing, or desk-top publishing. My colleagues and friends of an earlier generation sometimes thought they would write an autobiography after retirement. They knew, however, that it was very unlikely to be published by a commercial (trade) publisher, let alone an academic one. If they were sufficiently famous and it was publishable at another’s expense, they would be under an obligation to keep the book within reasonable bounds. Even the well-known historian Eric Hobsbawm was asked by his publisher to considerably shorten the manuscript he submitted to them.

Usually, the only way to get the autobiography published was through self-publishing. This normally consisted of paying a small publisher to print a few hundred copies, which the author would then distribute to his friends. Often only a few of the contents of the card-board boxes of the work would be distributed. It was expensive and ultimately frustrating.

When Jamie Bruce Lockhart and I started to work together on Dragon Days we were fortunate to find a small local publisher, The Village Digital Press, in Lincolnshire, which agreed to experiment with our book and print them on demand. This was technically challenging for us at first, but meant there were no up-front costs. We published several books with them, including Dorset Days and Different Days (Jamie). The books, however, were limited by the fact that there was no distribution and marketing network.

When the publisher decided to give up this business we were left not only with a couple of the books we had written, but I had embarked on new possible books on other stages of my education. To self-publish these would have been really out of the question. An amazing development had, however, occurred precisely at this point, namely about 2014, which is that the huge Amazon platform had created a self-publishing platform, Create Space (now Kindle Direct Publishing), where an author could submit a book for free, and it would then be available on all the Amazon websites around the world.

Create Space was one of several platforms, but it suited my purposes perfectly, and we have published through them since. It is very easy to use and does all the marketing, distributing, accounting and there is nothing to pay. A book can easily be changed almost overnight, so mistakes can be corrected or improvements easily made. It is extraordinary and without it I am not sure I would have had the impetus to continue with this venture. Although, ultimately, we tend to write for ourselves, there is also a need to communicate with others and if we know that no-one will read the book, it is somewhat dampening on the creative spirit.

I grew up, by chance, in the valley where William Wordsworth went to school and upon whose natural landscape he based what is probably the most famous autobiographical poem in the English language, The Prelude. Among the themes of that work, and other writings by Wordsworth, is the analysis of the creative springs from which our lives flow. He tried to capture the magic and mystery of childhood and how this was transmuted through adolescence into early manhood. His treatment of his task as the study of ‘Emotion recollected in tranquility’ early struck me with some force. I could see, as I wandered in his footsteps not only in Esthwaite Dale, but on my first foreign tour aged seventeen following his journey to Italy, that there was something special about the period when two worlds, childhood and adulthood, were in collision.

AT MY SCHOOL in the Yorkshire dales, where Wordsworth sent his son to school and which was in many ways similar to the magnificent scenery of his and my home, I continued to be fascinated by the need to remember as much as possible about my early life — to store it up carefully so that I could use it later. Wordsworth had done all this through memory, but now that I knew what was important to do, I could supplement any future autobiographical project with actual materials. As someone who was becoming very interested in history at school, from about the age of fifteen, I could see that contemporary documents, as well as memories, were needed for a proper account of a past period. So this was one of the factors propelling me into saving materials.

One reason I loved Wordsworth, as well as the associated Romantic poets such as Keats, Shelley, Coleridge – and later W.B. Yeats  – was that their central theme was the battle between a view of the world as filled with magic, mystery,  and the ‘rational’ world of a scientific and capitalist society. I felt myself going through the same battle and wanted to work out what was happening and to record it. Most writers, including children’s story writers, recover this tension through memory. I wanted to do that later, but knew that to do it in a special way I would need to see my mind in action and my emotions changing – from contemporary materials. So I stored and hoarded and occasionally reflected, on these changes.

That I became a professional anthropologist and worked for many years in Nepal and then in different ways in Japan and China, is also an important ingredient. It made me interested, among other things, in comparative education, in the comparative experience of childhood to adolescence, and also helped to make my own experience, so close and otherwise invisible, into something I could distance and wonder at and thus interrogate.

Before being an anthropologist I was a historian, and that long experience, from the first study of Anglo-Saxon English history onwards from the age of fifteen, through to my undergraduate and then doctoral experiences, showed me the importance of going beyond just memory. I became interested in using primary sources, which developed later into the work on the diary of a seventeenth century English clergyman Ralph Josselin, on witchcraft, on the reconstruction of the records of the Essex village of Earls Colne and the early history of the Nagas of Assam. All were based on original materials and were part of my realization that to really know anything, one needed more than sheer imagination and memory, or at least I did, one needed the contemporary materials.

ALL THE WAY through my volumes it is obvious that the influence of my mother Iris, is immense. Her letters, many of which are scattered through the volumes, are often the high point of these memoirs. Her obvious intelligence, wide interests, humour, writing skill, all influenced me as I grew up. She was interested, among other things, in autobiography, a great fan of Proust, and someone whose poetry, children’s stories and later her Daughters of the Empire are explicitly autobiographical. All of this was a central feature of what propelled me into this venture, and which raised the level of my account from the somewhat prosaic to something more exciting. In many ways the whole venture is again a shared project, not just with Sarah but also with Iris.

I think another condition for what I did was my grandmother Violet. I had known her from my birth in India and spent much of my childhood, adolescence and early maturity living with her in the holidays as my parents were away in India. She was a remarkable lady in many ways in intelligence and force of character, but she was also an archivist. She kept the family papers of her predecessors, as well as many of her own archives, and trundled with them around India and then to England. So I grew up with someone who was constantly telling me about her earlier life, pulling out albums of photographs or files of letters, and thus demonstrating to me how important it was not to throw away one’s past.

My grandmother encouraged me to store things and at crucial points when other parents or grandparents might have thrown away what I had saved, she and my mother kept my boxes of papers and books carefully. I am sure that of the many thousand who, like me, have saved parts of their childhood archive — letters, essays, school reports, etc. — the vast majority lost these around the time they moved away from home. The boxes were left and thinned out.

Violet also influenced her children. Her second son, Richard, wrote three volumes of autobiography — Chindit, The Road from Mandalay and The Years Between. My mother, as mentioned, was steeped in autobiography from very early on and kept diaries from about the age of fourteen and saved these, and her school letters and other things, later to use them in her writings. She was constantly storing up materials for later work.

Iris’s younger brother, Robert Rhodes James, with whom I shared my childhood, was a biographer, rather than an autobiographer. He wrote acclaimed studies of Roseberry, Randolph and Winston Churchill and several others. In each case he based his work on private archives. I am sure Robert encouraged me to think about the whole area of autobiography by example.

THIS LONG AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL set is only one part of a long-term interest in the way a person’s life is shaped by his or her childhood and experiences. Another example of this is in the series of studies I have made of the creative life of over half a dozen thinkers, from Montesquieu through to Ernest Gellner in my books The Riddle of the Modern World and The Making of the Modern World. I learnt through these studies how much of what we think and create is already strongly formed before we are aged twenty-five. If we want to understand a thinker or artist, it is essential to know about their education and early passions.

This was one of the main drives behind another long-term project which tried to explore how the child shapes the man/woman – namely a video interview series. I have interviewed over 250 people about their lives and works, covering most creative fields.14 In each case, I try to spend as much time as possible on ancestral influences, parents, childhood and schooling — often more than half the interview is about the people, places and events encountered before the age of twenty-one. These deep conversations have confirmed my hunch, and that of Wordsworth, that ‘the child is the father of the man’.

It seems that my early desire to preserve materials (in the case of my mother’s letters from India also driven by the desire to keep a bond with her, and a growing realization that her letters were special, a kind of autobiography), meant that I was early faced with the problems facing all archivists, namely how to store material so you can find what you need. The problems of classification and of information retrieval have been central to the work which Sarah and I have been engaged in over the years.

As soon as one moves beyond a few shoe-boxes of information, one encounters increasing difficulty of finding the thing one is searching for. This is faced in another way at school, where revision after a year’s work (or three years as an undergraduate at Oxford) means that one needs to keep one’s materials in an orderly way. So I started to be interested in indexing and, as our projects grew and the excitement of computer-aided research added to the potential power of retrieval, I constantly experimented in storing and retrieving materials.

Not only was this an expression of this hoarding and archiving interest, but it became crucial later when I came to write this autobiographical set. It is only the long experience of database systems, of query languages, of information retrieval strategies, learned on our various projects, that has made it possible to order what is now a huge archive of personal materials.

Although the materials for the period up to my 30th birthday, on which these eight volumes are based, would fit into fifteen or so filing cabinet drawers, they are but part of our archive, which occupied ten times that storage space. How do you order all this and make sense of it? After the experience of three large database projects – on Earls Colne, on the Nagas, and on fifty years of fieldwork in a Nepalese village – I was equipped to deal with this problem, with Sarah’s help.

It worth stressing again that being an anthropologist and looking back on my own culture has made this project worthwhile. Our own lives are humdrum, obvious, petty and insignificant. There is little sense of wonder and surprise in them. This changes when you immerse yourself in other world views and experiences both through reading and spending time in entirely different civilisations – in my case Nepal, Japan and China. Suddenly your own world becomes strange. It encourages a sense of magical realism – one’s past is humdrum and real, but also magical.

This sense of strangeness builds on something which I had felt much earlier. The experience of coming back from India when I was five and a quarter, and then of having to learn to be ‘British’ at two boarding schools from the age of eight, was a kind of anthropological ‘culture shock’ which was bound to make me bewildered. What was this odd world of post-war Britain, how did it work and how could I survive in it? Without that shock of cultural transition, which was clearly behind the work of one of the greatest of autobiographical writers, Rudyard Kipling, I am certain I would not have taken this journey. I needed to discover who I was. I was a stranger in a new land and keeping my identity was through building up memory.

There are features of my character, clearly reflecting those of my mother, which are also relevant. When I tell my friends what I am doing, and particularly if I show them bits, they are often rather shocked. Some of them feel that digging about in one’s youth is uncomfortable at the best, dangerous at the worst. It is an exercise in narcissism. Live for the present and future, let the dead bury their dead, they say.

Furthermore, if one does find personal materials of a potentially embarrassing kind, the small sins, crimes and weaknesses of all our lives, let alone patronising, intolerant, unkind thoughts and deeds, surely it is foolish to expose them to others? Honesty and too much trust in others are to be avoided. To bring the back-stage of one’s life onto the front stage for all to see is foolhardy. An example would be one’s poetry, often dreadful, or one’s love letters, too intimate and self-revealing.

One of the features of my mother’s writings, both privately in letters and in her books, is the ruthless honesty and self-confidence. She tells it as it was and throughout her life this was one of her strong characteristics, as it was of my grandmother. I learnt this from her, and their love and other factors helped me to develop a basically self-confident and trusting attitude to others. I learnt to keep things private, but I was not bullied and never encountered much vindictive, senseless, cruelty. So I was not wary, and this is essential in this kind of endeavour.

Furthermore, I have always felt that if, as an anthropologist or historian, I pry into the private lives of others in my research, and then write honestly about what I find, I should be prepared to do the same to myself. There should not be one rule for others and then a different rule for me.

Finally, the whole endeavour would be seriously weakened if, after all the effort of saving the material, ordering and making sense of it, I then censored it to obliterate materials which might be mildly self-embarrassing. Of course, I have left out materials which could hurt and damage others, but I have tried to be as honest and open about my own life as possible, consistent with kindness to others.

Alan Macfarlane is an anthropologist and historian and a Professor Emeritus of King’s College, Cambridge. He is the co-editor of The Fortnightly Review, the author or editor of 20 books and numerous articles on the anthropology and history of England, Nepal, Japan and China. Much of his work has focused on comparative study of the origins and nature of the modern world. In recent years he has become increasingly interested in the use of visual material in teaching and research. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society. His essay, “Concepts of Time and the World We Live In” was published the The Fortnightly Review in 2010, and his book The Invention of the Modern World appeared in serial form in The Fortnightly Review in 2012.


  1. R.H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), a book inspired by Max Weber.
  2. Malivika Karlekar and Rudrangshu Mukherjee (eds.), Remnembered Childhood (201
  3. The free, downloadable, pdf version of the volumes edited by Sarah Harrison can be found at They are also on Amazon under her name.
  4. Royston Lambert, The Hothouse Society: An exploration of boarding-school life through the boys’ and girls’ own writings (1968)
  5. George Orwell, Essays, (Penguin, 2000), 451
  6. E.F. Benson, As We Were: a Victorian Peepshow (Penguin, 2001), 67
  7. Benson, 189
  8. Donald Davie in Ronald Hayman, ed., My Cambridge (1977), 83
  9. W.H.Hudson, Far Away and Long Ago (1918), 2-3
  10. Robin Fox, Participant Observer (2004), 47
  11. Orwell, Essays,  419-20
  12. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 30
  13. Jamie Bruce Lockhart, Sedbergh Letters (2013)
  14. They are collected at the University of Cambridge’s Film Interviews with Leading Thinkers.

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