Skip to content

Reflections on my first thirty years. Part V.


A Fortnightly Serial.


By Alan Macfarlane.

V. Mind

One of the aspects of the detailed account of my first thirty years that most interests me is the development of my mind and my thoughts. As a future academic, largely dependent on ideas, this is clearly central. Furthermore, as far as I know, there is no other account available which is based on the detailed documents of the time, showing how a human being develops various critical intellectual skills, month by month and year by year.

Thanks to the perceptive comments by my mother and teachers, as well as by looking at my own writings, we can watch how a child turns into an adult and how the mind expands and alters under external pressures and inner necessities.

There is certainly nothing remarkable about my early years. It appears that the development of my speech was normal and that at my first kindergartens and pre-school I was very average. My mother lamented that I was very slow to learn to read and tried to bribe me to do so. When I went to the Dragon School at age eight, I was placed in a class in the bottom school, not the absolute lowest, but low enough.

As my cousin remembered me at that time, I was considered widely not to be ‘brainy’, but a good sportsman.

Through that school I made some progress, as the reports show and clearly pleased my teachers by being quite hard working and responsive. To my surprise, since it was so weak later on, I was quite good at Latin in a school famous for the teaching of that subject and filled with the clever children of Oxford dons. I was also, like my father, good at mathematics — though as equal first in the second set, I was not brilliant. There was little chance that I would win a scholarship to my next school, as the Headmaster told my mother, so I was not entered for one. As my close friend (and second cousin) Jonny Mermagen remembered me at that time, I was considered widely not to be ‘brainy’, but a good sportsman.

At Sedbergh, again, I entered in the bottom set, but began to show signs of promise by leaping up a year after a couple of terms. From then on, I was ahead of a number of my friends, and was often one of the youngest in the class. Yet my ‘O’ level results by present standards were mediocre— five passes and a failure in English literature (which everyone apparently failed from that school in that year for some reason).

It was really only in the sixth form, particularly when I joined the top history class under the excellent Andrew Morgan, that I began to show signs of some gifts. Much to my surprise, I see that I ended up as top of the school in English and about third in history and passed my ‘A’ levels with a distinction in English – though my Latin made me fail my third ‘A’ level (‘History with foreign texts’). Yet I was clearly still not in the top category, for I was not put in for scholarships to Oxbridge, except the Trevelyan, which was based on a project and not written examinations.

My uncle Robert, in writing in my support to go to his old College, Worcester, Oxford, where I did go, stressed my character and that I was academically ‘a late developer’. This was perceptive and true. Robert knew me better than almost anyone else and had himself, as he wrote, been a late developer.

As an undergraduate I continued in the same way, bumping along in the top quarter, but nothing outstanding. The fact that, even after working very hard and with great organization for three years, I was still only viva’d, but did not get, a First Class degree is a reasonable reflection of my ability. I really enjoyed the work and there was a sprinkling of straight ‘Alpha’ marks in my Finals, but also some mediocre ‘Beta’ marks as well.

Yet I did well enough to get a State Scholarship and to move up to the next rung of the ladder, to become a postgraduate student. Here, through the choice of an excellent topic, Witchcraft, which was precisely at the cutting edge of the new social history, through the discovery of some wonderful new archives, and the enthusiastic and gifted supervision of my doctoral supervisor, Keith Thomas, I began to show signs of real promise.

BY THIS STAGE I was probably employable as a teacher in a provincial University and could have gone on into the history profession, perhaps returning to Oxbridge later in my life like a number of my friends. Instead I spent another five years training to be an anthropologist, with two further degrees. This slowed down my career in the short run, but I also published two books and my election at the end of 1970 to a Senior Research Fellowship at King’s College, Cambridge, a very rare and prestigious position, was a recognition of something outstanding.

The rest of my career was also surprising for someone who had not been ‘brainy’. I was a Lecturer in Social Anthropology at thirty-four, only the second Ad Hominem (Personal) Reader in Anthropology in the history of the Department at forty, a Fellow of the British Academy at forty-five (one of the youngest of my time) and only the second Ad Hominem Professor at the age of fifty (in both cases, my only predecessor in these honorary promotions was Sir Edmund Leach, the well-known anthropologist and Provost of King’s).  It was a fairly stellar career in Cambridge and though it was, as we used to say at the Dragon ‘by some fluke’, in other words by good luck, it is still rather surprising and needs explanation.

The reasons for the movement beyond mediocrity that I had shown from infancy to fifteen, and then growing confidence and better results thereafter are no doubt many. The actual progress of my skills, my memory, logic, writing skills, emotional maturity, self-confidence, originality and imagination, can be traced through the minutiae I have provided. There the changes in my vocabulary and style, the width of my reading, my growing command of grammar and humour, my growing imaginative empathy with literary and historical figures, my improved ability in reading and comprehension, month by month and year by year from my first little letter to my father when I was six, to my letters from Nepal at the end of the period, are revealed. Here I will just dwell on a few of the things which I think most helped me to achieve what I did, and turned me from mediocre to something better.I was enormously fortunate in my family. My grandmother was very clever and gifted and she stimulated and supported me. My grandfather was a scholarly man, a lover of poetry, novels and art, who had only reluctantly spent his life as a soldier. My uncle Richard, who spent holidays with us, had won a scholarship to Oxford and later spent his life as a successor to T.R. Malthus, teaching economics and other subjects at Haileybury College.

My uncle Robert also went ahead of me through Sedbergh and then to Worcester College, Oxford, ending up as a very distinguished historian, sometime Fellow of All Souls and Member of Parliament for Cambridge. He was like an older brother, only eight years my senior, and having such a person to discuss with and to play with between the age of six and twelve years, and then to act as a role model in my teens onwards, was no doubt hugely influential. My sister Fiona, two years younger than me, was an extremely intelligent and artistic child, always getting better marks in her early years at school. So she was a very stimulating intellectual companion with whom I spent a great deal of time.

My mother was both broad and deep in her interests; a historian, writer of children’s books, philosopher, painter, poet, linguist and much more.

Above all, of course, it was my parents who shaped me most. My father was good at mathematics and an intelligent and sympathetic support, but not an intellectual. My mother, however, was outstanding. She was both broad and deep in her interests; a historian, writer of children’s books, philosopher, painter, poet, linguist and much more. She was also outstanding in her steady encouragement in inter-actions with me when she was nearby, and when she was away through her long and brilliant letters.

The flowering of the intellectual companionship between us from about my seventeenth year, developing into a really deep collaboration from University onwards, is evident in the published volumes. Whatever I ended up as, was clearly through being honed and encouraged by such a mind. I emulated Robert and wanted to please and keep up with my mother. Although my mother was never pushy, never dismissive or over-critical, she was constantly a person I wanted to please and whose intellectual company I enjoyed.

Outside the family, there were many formative friendships, where discussion and argument with bright people again stimulated me. There were some at the Dragon School and then at Sedbergh there were others, particularly with a boy of my age who was in the science stream, Ian Campbell, with whom I went on my first Continental Tour. We discussed everything and I remember him as a rational, logical, balanced and thoughtful person.

Then at Oxford I had some very intelligent friends from many backgrounds and with widely varied specialisms. Dick Smethurst, who later worked in the Treasury and became Provost of Worcester for twenty years was one. Another was Paul Hyams, my tutorial partner, who got the First in history I missed and later became a Professor of Medieval History in America.

Even more important at this time were girlfriends. My two serious relationships as an undergraduate were with Julie, who introduced me to a whole world of European literature and arts, and Penny, with her intensity and love of literature. Both were enormously stimulating in broadening my mind, as were other later girl-friends, particularly Zoe, who had got a First in PPE at Oxford, and my first wife Gill, with whom I shared Nepal. I often tell my students that we learn most of what we know at University from our friends, and this applies from earlier times at school.

The third set of influences came from my teachers. Looking back I marvel at my good fortune in having a succession of really outstandingly good teachers at every level of my education. At the Dragon, arguably the best preparatory school in the world at that time, I had absolutely first-class teaching in all subjects, as my reports and work show. I will not pick out names, but know that they inspired and encouraged me.

At Sedbergh there were also excellent teachers, but here I will pick out just two. My best subjects were English and History and in each I had two of the most outstanding teachers then working in British public schools. Later, when I interviewed him, I discovered that David Alban my English master had turned down a teaching position at Eton College in order to come to Sedbergh. Looking at his comments on my essays and his reports, I can see that he was superb – enthusiastic, critical and encouraging. I owe to him a great deal of my love of English literature.

Equally outstanding was Andrew Morgan with whom I remained friends until his death. He was deeply knowledgeable, absolutely up to date with the latest scholarship, enthusiastic, mildly combative and questioned parts of the public schools mission and the class system, as well as puritanical Christianity, all of which I took for granted. He encouraged us to debate, to read the socialist New Statesman, to really try to get inside the past. When one of his pupils (he taught many people who became distinguished in various fields), Lord Bingham, arguably the greatest British Judge of the twentieth century, gave an address at Andrew’s 70th birthday in the House of Commons, his hands were shaking as he described how Andrew had opened a gate into the amazing garden of history for him. Andrew not only directed and gave me confidence, but remained someone whose judgement I sought on all my writing over the last thirty years of his life.

Then I moved on to another layer of outstanding teachers at University. My three main teachers, and later friends, were very different from each other. James Campbell was my Anglo-Saxon and medieval teacher and Director of Studies/Tutor. He is widely acknowledged to be one of the great scholars of those periods, but he was also an extraordinarily good and dedicated teachers. I have described his methods in my book on Oxford, and this made me really determined to live up to his high standards.

For the middle part of my English history syllabus I was taught by Lady Rosalind Clay. Lady Clay had been teaching in north Oxford where she lived for fifty years when I went to her. She strove to keep up with recent scholarship and though some were critical, for she was over seventy then, I found her remarkably stimulating. We became friends and I used to visit her frequently when I became a postgraduate, and to continue to write to her for another ten years. Sh was a the centre of the Oxford network, a daughter of a famous Master of Baliol (A.L. Smith), married to a distinguished economy, Sir Henry Clay. She knew everyone in the oxford establishment and told me the invaluable folklore of my subjects.

For my political philosophy and Victorian history, I had Harry Pitt. Harry was one of those Oxford dons, like James, who felt his primary work was teaching. He published little but rather poured his energy into inspiring his students. He was one of those counter-suggestible, enormously well-read and logical, thinkers who challenged us all the time. A year with him at the end of my course polished off what had first been roughly shaped by him in the first term when he introduced me to one of the abiding influences on my intellectual life, Alexis De Tocqueville.

As a postgraduate I was equally fortunate. I was assigned as supervisor to Keith (now Sir Keith) Thomas of St John’s College. Widely acknowledged as one of the bright young men of his time — he had shared the prestigious Gibbs Prize with James Campbell and became a Prize Fellow at All Soul’s at the age of twenty-two — I was his first D.Phil. student. He is enormously well read, extraordinarily careful and punctilious, imaginative and energetic and his interests exactly matched my own.

Keith had already written about anthropology and history and was working on his huge magnum opus, Religion and the Decline of Magic, published in 1971. So the supervisions were extremely stimulating and his comments on my writing very formative. He taught me the art of research and of sustained writing. It was a discipline of fire, but I could not have had a better supervisor. From then on he became someone who through his references and reading of many of my books supported and pushed on my career in later years when he became President of the British Academy, Master of Corpus Christi College and Chairman of the Oxford University Press.

Although he was not my supervisor, I struck up a friendship with another historian at the peak of his power in Oxford, the Regius Professor of History Hugh Trevor-Roper (later Lord Dacre). My volume Oxford Postgraduate gives an idea of our wide-ranging and humorous relationship and his remarkable letters to an insignificant D.Phil. student were a huge help. His stress on style and presentation were very valuable and his interest meant a lot in the lonely years of research.

When I went to the London School of Economics for two years I had some excellent young anthropologists in my Master’s degree year, several of them went on to become well-known anthropologists — Peter Loizos, David Seddon, David and Andrew Turton. My teachers were also eminent and stimulating, a number of them the last of Malinowski’s students such as Sir Raymond Firth and Lucy Mair, as well as young figures like Robin Fox and Ernest Gellner.

Finally, I went to do my Ph.D. at SOAS. Again there were friends and good teachers, but the main influence was Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. He was by now elderly and some thought a little out of date. Yet he was perfect for me. He knew the ethnography of the Himalayas and India from first-hand observation better than any other western scholar. He was interested in my work and always encouraging. He advised me where to work and supported my applications for money. He was keen on collecting material with recorders and cameras. He was the perfect avuncular figure I needed to induct me into a new world of research.

Much of my mental development came from inter-actions with others, circles of family, friends and teachers. In each circle I met people who shaped me in countless ways. I find it difficult to believe my good fortune. Later I was to find that much academic work comes from collaboration and partnerships. Many problems are too large for the single mind. So I would work with computer scientists, demographers and others. I spent much time working within small-team projects and even my books have often been co-written or, at the least, largely re-shaped by comments from friends and, above all, Sarah. I learnt the importance of all this through those years. Ideas develop through dialogue and there is no greater pleasure than sharing them. Whether in lecturing, teaching or deep and sustained collaboration and on-going conversations.

As with my body, where my very small size, light body weight and slowness made me aware that I could only overcome natural disadvantages by courage and effort, so it was with my mind. I could sense from early on that my teachers did not think I had any outstanding promise. I was not one of the brilliant ones who would win a scholarship to Winchester or Eton — or even to Sedbergh. I was a slow learner, not particularly good or interested in languages, with an average memory, a clumsy style. So, I decided on a strategy which I have applied to mental tasks since then. There are various components to this, some of them practiced for a long time without me fully realizing what I was doing, but now apparent to me.

One was extreme discipline in my work. This was most evident as an undergraduate, when I set myself a target of how much work to do each day, neither more nor less. This was six hours a day for five days a week, with a half day on Saturday and Sunday free. This I did in my first year. In the second year, I upped it to seven hours, and eight in my last year. This was to avoid exhaustion, but to keep up the momentum. Steady running would achieve what my more brilliant sprinting friends might miss. I was like Benjamin Franklin in my meticulous attention to planning, saving, storing and spending my time carefully and harvesting the best of it, the mornings and after tea, for intellectual work. That practice has continued to this day and started in my teens.

In my last year working in a garden shed in the Lake District writing my D.Phil., I experimented with tape recorders, slide projectors and lateral suspended filing systems.

A second method was to organize my work materials very carefully, paying attention to my desk, to the careful filing and indexing of what I had done so that I could find what I needed, revise for exams, accumulate knowledge in an orderly manner. I did not throw things away and kept carbon copies of important letters and documents from about the age of nineteen. In my second year I bought an In/Pending/Out tray, and in my first year of research a filing cabinet for my witchcraft cases. In my last year working in a garden shed in the Lake District writing my D.Phil., I experimented with tape recorders, slide projectors and lateral suspended filing systems.

What I had learnt was that the inner workings of the mind was externalized through technology, whether written files or later film, photographs and computers. The organization of this layer of materials and a growing library had an immeasurable effect on what my mediocre mind could achieve.

A special part of this realization was the discovery of indexing. I began to realize that effective recall and research and discovery of new connections depended on how I indexed my materials. This led through my two doctorates into an elaborate hand-indexing system based on the ‘One Fact One Card’ method of Beatrice Webb, mediated to me through another very large influence on my intellectual life, Brian (now Sir Brian) Harrison, a few years ahead of me at Oxford. Brian had lent me all his undergraduate notes which helped in my earlier studies, and then introduced me to his amazing card index systems. So I became really interested in how we break up material and then re-connect it in more fluid ways, the basis of research. This would feed into much of my later research. It led me to spend many years spent in helping to develop computer databases and information retrieval systems.

What I was learning through these years was the equivalent of learning to play the piano or to paint or to fire a bow. I was learning the techniques of reading and of extracting what I needed to note-take in an effective way. I was learning to plan to write shorter essays under time pressure and longer chapters which would develop from these into books. All of this was taught mostly by the well-known apprenticeship system.

I would, from the sixth form onwards, be set a task, essay or project, given some suggestions for where to look for answers, and then work on my own. When I came with my results and arguments, my teachers would essentially tell me what I was doing wrong, correct my faults. They did not spend much time saying what I should do. That was up to me. Yet like gardeners growing a fruit tree, they would prune and train me in certain directions. It is a slow, indirect and often painful process. Yet once I learnt from my apprenticeship I could then teach the same to generations of my students in Cambridge, both many dozens of undergraduates and Master’s students and over thirty doctoral students.

Like learning to play the piano or violin, it was a matter of endless practicing, conscious effort, trial and error. I had to concentrate intensely, work when I felt exhausted, working my way round writing blocks or dead ends. I had to internalize the methods in the say a Zen archer or tea master internalizes their actions until, suddenly, they become so routine that one forgets about them. You do not fire the bow, the bow fires you; you do not play the sonata, the sonata plays you; you do not write the book, the book writes you.

The first time I discovered the liberation of true creativity, of discovery in the process of writing, was when, in a few months in 1977 I wrote The Origins of English Individualism. As I wrote in the first sentence of that book, ‘This is a book that wrote itself.’ This was six years after the period I am writing about, yet it was where I was heading. It then happened again and again, that enormously stimulating feeling of effortless and exploratory writing, most dramatically in my 2003 book Letters to Lily, but in parts of many of my books.

What I discovered, as I had been urged to do as I now see by teachers from the Dragon School onwards, and particularly Andrew Morgan, was to trust in my own abilities, to let my mind show its strength.

Looking back, I can see that there was no short cut to this later freedom. I had to spend year after year on learning the methods of research and writing, without which the final throwing away of all conscious methodology would have been impossible. Furthermore, I had to grow in emotional experience and in width of experience. While I was still a sheltered schoolboy or undergraduate, there were limits to what I could explore, and limits to my confidence and ability to break out of my ‘comfort zone’ or intellectual oasis, to travel out over the desert to another likely oasis.

It took the experience of Nepal, the discipline of being a teacher and administrator at Cambridge, two marriages and the bringing up of children, as well as many more years of fieldwork in Nepal and dozens of visits to Japan and China, as well as parts of Europe, to fill out and add content to the methodology. I had to have something to say that I felt was important, and this takes time. Also, I had to build up my self-confidence.

I will end on two final aspects of my mental development. As I wrote about my body, heart and spirit, I came to see how many of the contradictions and puzzles generated by those parts of me fed into the things I have devoted my life to study. My private life and my academic work are all one, just as my teaching and my writing are inseparable. This is something which led me to study, and was confirmed by, looking at the way in which a number of great thinkers who interested me spent their lives. From Montesquieu through Adam Smith and Tocqueville to my teachers like Jack Goody and Ernest Gellner, I saw how their work was always, in a sense, a wrestling with inner demons, or at least puzzles, a form of autobiography. I found that all discoveries come out of a search for answers to existentialist questions which arise from the wider political and social context and the life experiences of the writer. This is well shown through the volumes of my autobiography, where the life of the mind cannot be detached from the sensations, emotions and spiritual quest I was engaged on.

I could have settled down after my Oxford D.Phil. to have a reasonable career as a historian of England at a good university. Instead I switched discipline to anthropology, and then back to history and then to anthropology again.

The second point is that I learnt the pleasure of mental exploration and the encounter with new materials and new disciplines. I could have settled down after my Oxford D.Phil. to have a reasonable career as a historian of England at a good university. Instead I switched discipline to anthropology, and then back to history and then to anthropology again. I could have stuck to becoming one of a number of leading scholars on Nepal, but then I moved onwards to Japan and later to China. I could have remained in the field of history or anthropology, but instead have explored the borderlands of medicine, demography, political theory and art history. I could have remained within normal writing and research, but have worked extensively with museums and with computer scientists.

I have increasingly realized that discovery occurs on the edge or margins, that academic productivity as Adam Smith wrote, arises from ‘wonder and surprise’. I realized that we are like slash and burn cultivators. We move to new virgin forest, burn the felled timber and get a rich harvest for three or four years. Then we have to make the effort to move on before the supply of energy starts to decline. Both my mother, endlessly on a quest, learning new languages and skills to her last days, and my mentor Jack Goody, taught me this. And it is Sarah my wife, companion and supporter and fellow traveller who has made it possible to pursue an exciting, if not orthodox or particularly safe, passage.

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.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *