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Reflections on my first thirty years. Part III.



A Fortnightly Serial.


By Alan Macfarlane.

III. The institutional framework


In thinking about what has helped to shape my life, I find it useful to bear in mind the three-fold scheme of those who work in creativity studies. They describe how the widest factors that influence personal creativity are at a wide national, and even international level. These regional and global contexts affect all our lives in a million ways. I have described this elsewhere. I have also described the individual factors in my life, the way in which my personality and body shaped me. In between these lies a middle layer of institutions and networks which is especially important. This consists of sets of people and institutional structures through which a person passes and which shape what s/he thinks and does.

The detailed account of this level in my life is contained in the eight volumes of autobiography. Yet in this brief summary, I will give a description of the main ones which shaped me to the age of thirty.

The first was obviously the institution of my family. That I came, through my father, from a Scottish family some of whose members had been ministers on the inner isles of the Hebrides, and whose junior branches were part of the Scottish diaspora in search of work in the wider empire and beyond from the later nineteenth century, was significant. The fact that my father’s father was a mining engineer in Mexico and Texas, so my father was born and brought up there and then sent at twelve to a Scottish boarding school was part of my background. That another branch of the family sent several members to become tea planters in Assam from the 1890s directly led into my father’s decision to do the same thing a couple of generations later.

On my mother’s side, through both maternal and paternal lines, I was connected to generations of ancestors who had been in Jamaica for many centuries from 1655, in India from the 1780’s, in China and Australia from the 1840s and in Upper Burma from the 1880s. It was a typical British colonial family and it hung on very late. Even by the time of  infancy in India in the 1940s I was surrounded by that colonial world. My mother’s father had gone as an army officer to India before the First World War and stayed there until 1944, having been born in Coonor in the Nilgiri Hills.

My mother’s mother had been born and brought up in Burma and lived most of her life in India. My mother was born in Quetta and after an infancy in India and English boarding schools, returned to India in 1939 at the age of sixteen and remained there until 1965 as a tea-planters wife. During the war, the family was joined by my three mother’s brothers, William, Richard and Robert, all born in Burma or India, the first two coming to serve in the Gurkha regiments fighting the Japanese. My interest in anthropology and desire to work in Asia was clearly sparked by all this.

The world of returning imperial families, struggling middle class pensioners in a time of maximum austerity… was the one I inhabited.

The next institutional frame was England when I returned in 1947. The world of returning imperial families, struggling middle class pensioners in a time of maximum austerity, which I lived in north Oxford and Dorset, was the one I inhabited. The central family was close and my grandparents and uncles, as well as the Scottish side of my family, had a strong influence on me. That all of my mother’s brothers went to Lupton House at Sedbergh School destined me to go there, and that two of them went on to read history at Oxford University and both became writers, pulled me in that direction. The settings of north Oxford, the Dorsetshire heathlands and finally Wordsworth’s valley in the Lake District, and the friends we had in each clearly influenced me greatly.

The Dragon School, a boarding school of about four hundred children aged from eight to thirteen, to which I went from 1950-1955 was an unusual place. It was liberal and progressive for the times and was filled with the children of Oxbridge academics who were destined to go on to top boarding schools. It had excellent teachers and pursued a balanced curriculum with great attention to non-academic subjects such as music, art, drama and games.

The school’s aim was to discover talent wherever it lay so it produced numerous boys who would become outstanding in many fields – the media, arts, science and politics. The atmosphere was relaxed and we called the teachers by their nick-names. I gradually flourished there, especially in sport, and began to engage with poetry, music, history and ideas more widely. It shaped me hugely.

When I went on to Sedbergh School, I now realize, I entered a sort of time capsule. Sedbergh was an ancient grammar school founded in 1525 and set in the beautiful but rugged hills of what was then Yorkshire, now Cumbria. Its remoteness, but bracing beauty, attracted first rate teachers and encouraged an unusual sense of a real community. It preserved much of the Victorian and Edwardian ethos of its reforming headmasters of an earlier generation. I now realize it was about half a generation behind the leading public schools in the south of England in its culture.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. 

Again Sedbergh aimed at the rounded individual and I flourished in a world where I could fish, form a skiffle group, walk and run wild, as well as become really engrossed in history and English literature. Although the school was provincial and, to a certain extent, a hang-over from the imperial training institution it had been, there were also many boys from northern industrial families to give it a more down-to-earth leavening. It respected scholarship, music and the arts as much as games. So it disciplined my body and mind, often painfully, but certainly strongly.

Oxford over the five years when I returned as an undergraduate in 1960 through to when I left to write my D.Phil in history in the Lake Districts in the summer of 1965 was a glorious experience. In some ways, it was at its peak. It combined centuries of academic excellence and stored knowledge, its unique personalized teaching system (only shared with Cambridge), with a new vigour created by the arrival of excellent students and teachers from the high period of the English and Welsh grammar schools. It was the time when national service was ending, so there was a sprinkling of more mature, older, students, and the admissions were widening socially. The teaching of history was especially strong and Oxford was acknowledged to be, at that time, the leading European university in that subject.

This was also a period when my teachers and  fellow doctoral students were being invigorated by new ideas of social and population history coming from France and by the archival revolution made possible by growing national wealth. it was a hopeful time, with a new engagement with international philanthropy and new experiments in cinema, drama, poetry, classical and ‘pop’ music. I was part of a wave, swept along in that beautiful city, experiencing the delights of first love affairs and the excitements of finding one of my vocations, as a historian.

It was fortunate that, as I became set in my ways as an Oxford historian, the early pull of my trips to Assam and India, plus my desire to do something practical to improve the situation of millions suffering around the world, yanked me away into a new kind of broader experience. I moved University, from the old Collegiate university of Oxford to the relatively new city university of the London School of Economics and Political Sciences. With it socialist, Fabian, roots and specialization in the social sciences and current affairs, and its London location, it was a very different setting from anything I had experienced before.

I now encountered people working all over the world, in economics, sociology, demography, philosophy as well as my subject, social anthropology. The LSE was also at a high point. It was precisely in 1966-8 when I was there that it became the British epicentre of the student uprisings coming from France and of the anti-Vietnam protests.

Going to the School of Oriental and African Studies, and then fifteen months of fieldwork in Nepal, stretched me in other directions and I became part of a network of Himalayan scholars and was re-linked to the tribal worlds of my infancy. It launched me towards Asia where, for many years, I would explore Nepal, Japan and China.

So the stage of my life has had many scene changes, each of them enriching me and adding layers to my character, emotions and ideas. My life was like a rich meal, each course very different, but continuous and themed to give a progressive education. Each experience added to the depth and pleasure of growing up.

Naturally, I was scarcely aware of the many streams that were flowing into me, to change the metaphor, from all over the world and many disciplines. I had little time to absorb and process it all. That is a task I have been engaged in during the first ten year of my retirement and I now have a general picture of what happened. The following instalment outlines what happened, while the great detail contained in contemporary documents is published for each scene of the drama in different volumes.

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.

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