Sunday, 30 May 2010

4. The Dionysiac Ecstasy
I'll tell you whose name cropped up in the Telegraph letters page the other day, old man (said Donnelly): Edwin Mitchell! He was complaining about Arts Council grants being slashed for promising young dramaturges. He would, the centipede! My God, we all heaved a sigh of relief when he handed in his red biro, I can tell you! Have you ever come across the concept of the heterosexual queer, old man? Camp as Fanny, but actually batting for our side? Mitchell was one of those. Downright perverse, in my opinion: neither one thing not the other. Ah well. Anyway. Mitchell came to teach Drama. You might have guessed it, mightn't you. It seems to attract men of that stripe, drama.
He was very flash, you know, long scarves and hair over his collar. Edeltraut loved him. Well, she falls in love with all the new young male staff, until they turn out to have Feet of Clay, old man, such as not totally agreeing with something that old Jakob Schnellentaten once wrote in Trieste in 1934 to a convocation of midwives, or something. But at first, she and Mitchell got on like a house on fire. They'd compare their scarves for colour and filminess, and giggle in a corner. Larry Snudge wasn't so struck. He'd regarded drama as his baby, you see, and when this chap arrived with his tales beginning: “Dear old Peter Brook once said to me...” and so forth, Larry started to sulk, and muttered darkly about constructive dismissal and so on, until Tom Hobbes slapped him on the back and told him to drink up and don't be such a gynaecological item, if you see what I mean.
I must admit, Mitchell was a hit with the kids. I heard him once berating some young miscreant at the top of his voice: “DON'T YOU DARE SPEAK TO ME LIKE THAT!” There was one of those prickly silences, and then: “I'LL SCREAM THE HOUSE DOWN!” There's a certain type of temperament or personality that loves the smack of firm government, and the more hysterical among our youth clustered round Mitchell like flies on poo. Some of them even started wearing the same sort of clothes as him, and of course, that wasn't popular. Not too keen on the cult of personality at St. Geoffrey's, old man. But Mitchell did his job well enough, and even got his weans fired up enough to dedicate part of their summer hols to doing a show in the Fringe; a musical based on Tam O' Shanter. He roped in Bob Critchlow to do the music, and he invited up from the south a fellow called Roger Bawtry to do the costumes and design.
This creature Bawtry arrived, old man, and greeted Mitchell with one of those male hugs that went on for a very long time. Larry Snudge started to time it after a bit, and said it lasted about three minutes, which is a long time old man, especially when you're only saying hello. You just try timing it with a stop-watch. And there we were, all standing about, wine glass in one hand and a twiglet in the other, wondering what to do with our faces. This Bawtry fellow was one of those chaps that don't seem to age between about forty and sixty; he had long greyish blond hair that spread over his shoulders in a sort of cape. He wore Indian sandals and bare feet of a deep gypsy brown. I think I caught the glint of an earring. Then Bawtry took Mitchell's face between his hands and said softly, in a quiet bass like melted chocolate: “How have you been, Edwin?”

Mitchell replied in a whisper: “Fine. Fine.”
Bawtry closed his eyes and nodded slowly, and said: “Good.” It was like watching some sort of Primitive Rite, old man; some sort of Biblical epic. He then leaped up on to the sideboard and sat cross-legged, rolling a cigarette. Some female adjunct of Mitchell's turned up during the evening, and fairly turned to jelly when she saw Bawtry.
“Oh! God! Roger! How absolutely wonderful!” was the gist of her vapourings, and Bawtry folded her in his arms and said “Darling girl!” in that Ovaltine voice, and smiled! It was the smile that did it, old man! It gave me quite a turn! His face completely vanished into thousands of wrinkles as he unleashed a set of white and highly serviceable teeth. He looked like a grinning scrotum, old man. Then it was gone, and he was back to Indian Chief mode.
“Tell me about this play,” said Bawtry from his perch on the sideboard, and didn't speak again for the remainder of the evening. He had things All Worked Out, you see; something of a mystic: the strong silent type.
I assumed that Mitchell would put him up, but he was no fool. Bawtry was farmed out to Daisy Barnet's. He did the same smile trick for Daisy, apparently, when he was delivered there; he gave her the same catastrophe-in-the-corduroy-warehouse grin. Laughter lines? Don't be silly, Ignatius, Daisy told me: nothing's that funny.
Well, Tam O 'Shanter was a huge success. Sold out for every show and lots of stars in the reviews, and all that sort of thing, which was tremendous cachet for St. Geoffrey's, of course, and the pupil roll went up, and the drama students started putting on frightful side, and looking pityingly at the scientists and sporty types. Mitchell and Critchlow went everywhere together arm-in-arm, and usually accompanied by some of the more glamorous of the senior drama girls. Generally speaking, we were all agog for their next big show. St. Geoffrey's was getting a Name, you know, old man, which the rest of us at the chalk face had to struggle to justify. It was really quite exhausting. Fairly put us through our paces.
The next year rolled around, and the show this time was going to be The Swan Knight, a verse drama in the style of Christopher Fry, based on Lohengrin, and full of esoteric content, old man; absolutely dripping with Meaning. Once again, Roger Bawtry was invited to lend his services. He arrived in full fig, on a motor bike with all his gear, bedroll and so forth, in a sidecar. Daisy point blank refused to take him on again. The thought of that terrible smile gave her nightmares. So Mitchell had to give him houseroom himself.
Straight away, Bawtry believed in the project. He told us so in hushed tones over a pint in Bennet's Bar. It became an article of faith with him that this was the experience that was going to reveal Spiritual Truth to its audiences of the most profound and searching manner. There was a gleam in his eye that was worrying, and he no longer seemed to feel the cold. Summer in Edinburgh can be a chilly affair, as you know, and this was one of the cooler versions. But Bawtry worked with incredible speed in the open air, painting scenery in his sandals and a pink semmit. The whole thing was like a religious observance for him.
Came the First Night. The Fringe admin had given Mitchell a proper theatre on the basis of his success the previous year, and the cast, Mitchell and Critchlow were all warming up for the show, and the house was absolutely full! Mitchell was radiant in the wings, and the cast was ecstatic. Beware the dionysiac ecstasy, old man! It's a heady mixture!
Well, as The Swan Knight lumbered on, it turned out to be only moderately well-received. The audience had started coughing bronchitically and eating sweets with noisy wrappers about twenty minutes in, which is always a Bad Sign. During the interval a lot of the punters had had enough, and went off in search of more down-to-earth fare, and their seats banged as they filed out, with a sombre echo. Even the plaster bosomy ladies holding up the box seats had a look of solemn warning on their stucco faces.
In the end, those remaining gave it a polite smattering of applause, but it clearly hadn't shifted the ground of being, or opened the portals of perception for them as a whole. Mitchell was now looking tense but dignified, and the cast were hiding how frantic they were feeling with varying degrees of hysteria. Muffled snuffles and sobs issued from the Ladies toilet near the dressing rooms. There was a great deal of communion of kleenex, I gather.
Then came the bombshell. It turned out that Bawtry, believing so much in the piece do you see, had given away every single ticket for the opening night. He had papered the house, old man, I mean from top to bottom! There wasn't a penny in the box office! Front of House was looking decidedly fierce and muttering darkly, fingering the edge of the prop swords, and so on. It was an ugly moment, old man, I can tell you. It could have turned into a blood bath. Mitchell just told them to wait for the five star reviews in the papers, and have faith. Then he scuttled off.
Mitchell started screaming at Bawtry once they reached the privacy of Mitchell's second floor tenement flat, accusing Bawtry of everything and anything that crossed his mind. Bawtry was impervious to most of it, but then Mitchell said something about “caring about nothing but your own egomaniacal little guru power trip” and that seemed to touch a switch that fired a long-forgotten source of primitive action in Bawtry's psyche. Something atavistic and huntery-gathery beat its stone-age drums in his bloodstream, and he responded to its deep-dark, belly-to-earth call, old man. He picked up the sofa and hefted it through the bay window. There was a power trip, if you like! It smashed the glass to smithereens and flew through the air, downwards all the way, hitting the pavement on its end, and bouncing into the road, straddling the southbound carriageway, and very nearly knocking Myrtle Hobbes off her bike as she cycled out to the hills with her paniers full of groceries. She wobbled and fell, but fortunately landed on the sofa. She had the presence of mind to stroll over to the phone box and called for P.C. Murdoch.
Well, a squad car turned up containing one male and one female officer of the law. They knocked politely on Mitchell's door, and, raising their cheesecutters, asked whether they wouldn't terribly much mind making a wee bit less noise, and by the way, was there any little thing they could help with while they were there? It was Bawtry who opened the door, stripped to the waist, hair wafting picturesquely around his shoulders. He was now calm. The moment had passed, and he was once more At Peace. He'd shot his bolt, he'd made his gesture, and harmony was restored, as far as he was concerned. The call to action had come, he had answered it, and all was serenity beneath the flowing grey-blond locks. Mitchell had paused to draw breath, and so was able to overhear Bawtry's response to the constabulary.
“I've had a row with my lover!”
“Fair enough, sir. Mind how you go.”
The Old Bill politely saluted and left with a job-done smirk on their faces, but Mitchell's emotion was so overpowering, his voice rose beyond a register audible to the human ear. Dogs all over the neighbourhood set up an agonized howling, and all the city's bats rose from the various belfries as one bat, and threw themselves into the engines of an incoming jet in a desperate act of self-immolation. Chaos, old man! Utter chaos all round.
In the end, Mitchell decamped to Hampstead, and Bawtry now lives in a tepee in Wales. Critchlow's still with us, of course, quiet and humble. But it just goes to show, old man; never tamper with the dionysiac ecstasy. It's just too potent. No more for me, old man; I've got the Reliant Robin parked outside.

Monday, 24 May 2010

3. The Snark Was A Boojum, You See
In my view (said Donnelly) the rot set in when we decided to abandon the school uniform. It was a perfectly nice uniform; a sort of deep plum colour, with a gay device on the blazer pocket and a Latin motto: Non Illegitime Nil Carborundum. There were caps for the boys and berets for the girls, except in the summer term, when boys were allowed to go with open neck shirts, and the girls had lovely straw hats to wear. All very charming. We even had a school song in those days! Oh yes, we were a very pukkah outfit. It was something dug out of Hymns A & M, you know, a ghastly dirge called O Happy Band of Pilgrims. I can assure you that there's nothing more dismal than the noise of that issuing from a couple of hundred throats. In the end, we let it quietly drop. The only one who liked it was Edeltraut, of course. She tried to revive it lately, and hers was the only voice to be heard in the school hall; a sort of reedy, elderly whine, about half a beat behind the school piano. Nobody else could bring themselves to enunciate the mournful ditty. Not an experiment that anyone's in a hurry to repeat, old man.
But one day, someone came up with the notion that the uniforms were too expensive for some families, and uniformity stifled a sense of individuality, or some such pile of old cabbage. I remember it was Malcolm Tregorran who pushed for the abolition of the uniform most energetically, and thereby hangs a very sad tale, old man.
Old Tom Hobbes pointed out that if we dispensed with uniforms, the only thing that would set us apart from all the other schools would be the Harmony of the Spheres dresses. You must remember Harmony of the Spheres? It was a form of music and movement; you could indicate musical tones, signs of the zodiac; all sorts. Most especially, you could show the sounds of speech, and all dressed up in silky nighties and draped in yards of coloured chiffon. All very Isidora Duncan and madly expressive. Perhaps a bit too expressive at times. There was one bunch of seventeen year-olds who had been chucked out of their common room for leaving the place untidy and listening to loud music on the wireless. They bided their time, and then offered a Harmony performance for Founder's Night. Well, the staff were all delighted, of course, patting ourselves on the back and telling each other that what we teach sinks in in the end, and the youngsters had turned an important corner. I had my doubts, and I was not wrong, old man. They got up on stage in front of local dignitaries, members of the Board of Trustees, parents and pupils, and told us all in Harmony of the Spheres gestures that we were a shower of misbegotten sons of camels and to eff off. All this in graceful movements to the music of Debussy. At the end the parents, dignitaries and Board of Trustees all solemnly clapped, while those of us who could decode the various prancings were seething with a rage that we were frankly unable to explain to the rest of the audience. No wonder it was always abbreviated to “Harm” on the timetables! The school loved it, of course, having understood every movement, and clapped wildly, demanding encores, especially the sons of camels bit. Poor old Edeltraut Runkelstirn, bless her heart, just thought that they'd got it wrong; that what they were representing simply didn't make sense. Tregorran alone stood up for them when we discussed it at the Council of Teachers meeting.

“We've stifled their creativity, their sense of identity and invaded their own space,” he bleated, and the worst of it was that according to the rules of our meetings, we had to listen to him as though he was talking sense. So we gritted our teeth and nodded. Only old Peter Potocki kept calm.
“Yes, we could certainly get rid of the uniform,” he said; “after all, Steiners have already done so.”
This, of course, went down like a cup of cold sick. Steiners were the enemy. In a city where twenty four percent of the kids go to independent schools, we and Steiners were the only ones who were really “alternative”. We hated them because, frankly, they were so much better at it than we were at St. Geoffrey's Co-educational Day School for Children from Kindergarten Age to University Entrance. We used to meet members of their staff at standardization meetings for exam marking and so on. They stood out a mile, looking superior and sympathetic all at once. They knew what was wrong with everyone else, and forgave us for it. We just avoided them, or treated them with cold courtesy. Tight little smiles and raised eyebrows whenever they said anything radical, such as abandoning exams altogether. I mean, I ask you, old man! They just sat there looking high-minded, waiting for the rest of humanity to catch them up. Sick-making.
“But,” Potocki went on: “if we get rid of the uniform, you can be sure that in three, six, nine months, they will be coming to school in blue jeans and sports shoes. We have seen this in the United States. There is nothing to stop it happening here. I don't say we shouldn't abandon the uniform; just what to expect if we do, and what the consequences of that would be to our pupil numbers when their parents see how our pupils dress.”
The vision of American-style clothing turning up with our pupils inside it sent a cold shudder round the room. Hobbes had to nip outside for a dram out of his novelty walking stick, and Edeltraut had to have explained to her what bluejeans were. I think old Daisy Barnet fainted clean away. So a strongly-worded message was sent to the PTA, informing them of our decision. They immediately sent a strongly-worded message back, telling us what they thought of us, which rather chimed with what the pupils had said in the Founder's Night concert, and so we agreed to drop the uniform. You can't fight parent politics, old man. They were fed up with the prices that the big stores charged for our uniforms, and that was it and all about it. That's all she wrote, as the chap said. We sat back and awaited the tide of blue denim. And it appeared, old man. Oh yes, it appeared, all right. And all the ghastly appurtenances and accessories that went with it. The hair, old man! The jewellery! The colours! And the footwear! Sports shoes was the best of it. There were sandals, cowboy boots, wellingtons, snowshoes; some even came barefoot! This was the era of Flower Power, and All That That Entailed. Oh, it was a nightmare, old man.
Tregorran went around looking smug and saintly all at once. He had read the Zeitgeist, you see. He was in tune with Youth; understood them and their squalid ways. Or so he thought. He was a Cornishman with a Sense of Purpose, don't you know, and that purpose was Education with a capital E. He used to ask for a cut in pay, old man, to make sure that poor deserving kids could afford to come to school. Well, I mean to say; pure middle-class bolshevism, old man! And after all, he could afford it. His wife was a psychiatrist, or a florist or something. Something well-paid, anyway. He could manage on a handful of petty cash if necessary, so his Grand Gestures were simply swank. Another thing about him was that he was an intellectual snob. Poor old Larry Snudge only had an Upper Second, and Tregorran used to look down on him as if he were a poor relative cadging a meal at Christmas; kindly, don't you know, but letting one know that there were limits.
He had a way of stroking the table leg as he taught classes in the library that got in amongst those girls who were a tiny bit susceptible to nuance. They felt somehow unclean and used after his lessons, but couldn't exactly say why. Tregorran also had a way of looking out of the corner of his eyes that was downright shifty. Did he know he was doing it? I haven't a clue, old man. All I know is that he did it, and it upset pupils of a nervous disposition, or those who had not quite emerged from the Genital Phase of Infantile Development, and in those days, old man, that was by far most of them. We're still assessing the damage done by the Permissive Society, old man. But Tregorran still thought of himself as the students' friend and spokesman, and talked about them with Romantic fervour, as though every boy in the senior school was Byron or Shelley, and every girl...I don't know: that lassie who chopped up Marat in the bath, or someone like that. He embraced their revolutionary fervour, you see.
Well, the next thing that drove us all round the bend in staff meetings was the most unsightly fashion I think I've ever encountered. The boys started coming to school with carefully designed rips across the knee. The result of this was that their knobbly, hairy young joints were in plain view whenever they sat down. It was hideous, quite frankly, and in flagrant breach of the school rules about ripped and torn clothing. The trouble was it was a case of once bitten, old man, so nobody did anything about it. Let the sleeping dragon of the parent body lie, was the watchword, unofficially, of course. There were the school rules lying in metaphorical tatters about our feet, while the boys were wearing their trousers in literal tatters around their knees. All quite obscene, old man; enough to put you off your porridge.
This turned out to have rather an unexpected effect on Tregorran. He'd sit in classes, and his gaze would fall on the youthful knees – and stay there! The chaps were quick to notice that his attention had been drawn ineluctably to them, and they punished him for it in terrible, subtle ways. They started to slowly inch their trouser legs up, further and further, gradually exposing more and more stringy white leg, and watching carefully for a response from the region of Tregorran's groinal area. Well, response slowly manifested itself in a distressing bulge, and Tregorran had to rush doubled over from the room to drench himself in cold water. I mean, this was savagery of the most refined sort, old man. The girls noticed and used to egg the boys on with little notes, watch the results and titter behind their jotters. Oh, it was cruel! Cruel!
In the end, it drove Tregorran round the twist. He became a hollow-eyed recluse, eating his sandwiches in the library when no-one was about, and never meeting the gaze of any student. It got in amongst him; fairly ate him away inside. He took to slamming doors and blaspheming in class; all quite ugly. He even raised his voice in a meeting. And to poor old Daisy Barnet, of all people; the sweetest, most inoffensive creature. The Writing was definitely On the Wall. Once the kids make up their minds about you, old man, the verdict is well and truly in. And they had. And it was. Finally, of course, he simply evaporated. He faded from view, leaving not a wrack behind. You remember The Hunting of the Snark, by Lewis Carroll old man? The Uniform Snark had been a Boojum, you see. You remember the lines:
But O beamish nephew, beware of the day
If your snark be a boojum, for then,
You will softly and silently vanish away
And never be heard of again or something like that, old boy. I’ve no head for poetry.
Anyway, it sums the whole thing up much better than I ever could. I attended his cremation the other day. Quiet affair; not many in attendance. Have another one of those, old man; it's hours to closing time.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

2. The Valkyrie
Old Peter Potocki used to say to me (said Donnelly) that the kids are always reasonable, teachers sometimes and parents never. But the ones you had to watch out for, old man, were the combination: parent and teacher, all rolled into one ugsome bundle. Quite often these were great allies; people who Knew What It Was Like, don't you know. But there were some, and one in particular...
I don't know whether you remember Irmgard von Bösendorfer, old man, the terror of the German department? No? Before your time perhaps. She was a big woman; tall and broad-shouldered; fists like hams and an eye that could open an oyster and turn the milk at fifty yards. Her hair was blonde and done up in braids on the top of her head, like Brünnhilde, you know, and she was implacable, old man; a force of Nature. I found her once all alone in the photocopy room with a tear in the corner of her eye and a strained look. Ah, I thought, she has a tender, melting side after all, and advanced with hankie outstretched to proffer the soothing word and put a friendly arm round her muscular shoulders. Well she hauled off and gave me a sock on the jaw that sent me sprawling among the bales of copy paper with my dentures rattling round in my head. By the time I'd picked myself up, she was gone, swept out in the very highest of dudgeon. Edeltraut Runkelstirn saw me afterwards nursing my face, and Irmgard rubbing homeopathic ointment into her knuckles, and put two and two together in a feat of logic quite uncharacteristic for her. She told me that old Irmgard had been passing a kidney stone, my dear man! Hence the silent tear! Stern stuff, these Teutons, old man; cut from heroic cloth.
Now you and I were brought up in less tender times. The basic pedagogical approach of the place where I was educated, as far as I can work out, was: A Little Bit Of Kindness And A Lot Of Cruelty. The Christian Brothers, you know; very pious men with the Bible in one hand and a pandybat in the other: but that was all a long time ago now. Times change. But old Irmgard, now: there was an item! She was fierce for the Jakob Schnellentaten education, and could reel off the names of the subtle bodies that we were supposed to be familiar with: I can't remember them now, all Hindu names you know, gleaned from theosophical works and suchlike. Were you aware for instance, old man, that your Kama-Rupa works directly on to the Linga-Sharira of the pupil? Oh, I'm not joking! It's not that I'm at all sceptical about it, old man, I assure you, but there's so much of it! You'd never get a GCSE in the thing; it's all just too unwieldy to remember. But the point is that Irmgard had it at her fingers' ends, any time of the day or night! She once said to me: “Sometimes, Ignatius, I vonder if you are haffing at all an active Kama-Manas altogezzer!” Strong stuff, old man, and rather hurtful. Just because I'd been teaching one of the younger classes to sing the cleaned-up version of Madamoiselle From Armentières for a Swansmas-tide assembly. These old medieval festivals are taken very seriously, and always celebrated at St. Geoffrey's; it's de rigueur, as you know. But there she was, drilling me to the wall with her unswerving gaze, and the most terrifying thing was that there was a tiny twitch just under her left eye that gave her a look of incipient madness. I made an excuse and left, but could feel her scrutiny boring through the walls after me as I scuttled away.

Her husband was a little, defeated-looking chap who worked in one of the libraries in the town. We never saw him, and she never mentioned him, or at least, not without a sneer of cold contempt. He'd brought her back from Germany after his stint in the army, and I suppose he wished sometimes that he'd left her behind; but there you are. It doesn't do to cry over spilt schnapps. Anyway, their union was blessed, if you can call it that, with a frightful little creature called Siegfried-Johannes. Well, he was impossible to deal with. Any time he was checked for some piece of blatant delinquency and he went straight to Mutti to complain about the evil teacher who gave poor Siggi an essay on the value of not smashing windows, or whatever it was that had driven the poor dominie to distraction. Well, whenever that happened, it wasn't safe to go into the staff room if Irmgard had cornered the luckless colleague responsible for her son's disciplining. Blood and snot all over the place, old man. It was terrifying.
One day, dear little Siggi brought an air gun into class. Not one of those little Diana pistols that we used to shoot at sparrows with to eke out the meagre school rations; oh no! This was a great big engine of destruction that took a slug the size of a champagne cork and was lethal to rhinoceros up to seven miles. He'd brought it into poor old Larry Snudge's lesson for Show 'n' Tell. Larry was rather fond of American usages, and he thought this was a legitimate thing to import into St. Geoffrey's. Well, under normal circumstances it might well be, but trust Siggi to find the loophole. It was a thing he was “interested in”, you see. The class at the time was camped out in one of those temporary workman's huts that you see on building sites. We were struggling for space in those days, just as we are now. The ghastly child had no sooner pulled the thing out of its canvas bag than the whole class, knowing him of old, dived for cover under their desks. Larry Snudge was half-way out of the window himself. And then dear little Siggi demonstrated the power of his ballistics, and blew a hole the size of a dinner plate in the ceiling of the temporary classroom. You remember Larry Snudge; tall, big nose, glasses, an air of being just a bit too pleased with himself? Well, he was looking pretty crestfallen and humble that day, I can tell you! He hadn't realised how scared he had been, until he took his cycle clips off, if you follow me. There were letters to the Council of Teachers, and a few to the Board of Trustees, as well. It was all we could do to keep it out of the papers and soothe shattered nerves. But the thing was: What to do about Siggi? Yet more interesting and stimulating a problem was: What to do about Irmgard?
Normally under these circumstances we'd turn to old Peter Potocki, who was old, wise and experienced, and one of the very few mortals on this planet for whom Irmgard had an iota of respect. But he point-blank refused. He was too old, he said, to go belling the cat, especially such a ferocious and carnivorous sabre-toothed feline as this one was. No; what we needed was a Trouble-Shooter: someone who could arbitrate reasonably and sensibly, and stand toe to toe with Irmgard without giving away too much weight.
It was I who thought of Carlotta König, old man. I must claim the credit for that. Did you ever meet Carlotta, old man; used to wrestle under the name of the Austrian Fireball, according to some dubious authorities? If Irmgard was an aircraft carrier, Carlotta was a pocket battleship. She was small in stature, but a mighty personality. She was attached to one of the Schnellentaten schools up north and the terror of the Inter-Faculty meetings. She was the irresistible force that was needed to shift the immoveable object of Irmgard. I was dispatched to take the train to Aberdeen to persuade her to make the journey southwards to take on the might of the von Bösendorfer. I never thought that she would agree, but no sooner had I outlined the situation than she was cramming a few things into a canvas duffel bag, putting on her studded mountain boots and driving a pin the size of a meat skewer through her indescribable hat to fix it to her iron grey locks. She regaled me throughout the train journey with tales of her successes and triumphs in the field of personnel arbitration. False modesty was not one of her failings, I can tell you. She was no stranger to this sort of thing, old man. From Here to Hong Kong she had sorted out difficult and tense situations, such as rescuing submarines stranded on the bottom armed with nothing more than a pair of rubber gloves and a can opener, and that sort of thing. But I was still dubious, knowing Irmgard.
“You may be punching above your weight here, Carlotta,” I warned her; “This is a tricky customer. A double first in Theosophy, and Candle-Dipping, Pure and Applied, from Tübingen and a track record like Muhammed Ali. Even Peter Potocki is loath to cross swords with her!”
“Potocki – pooh, my dear, a lightveight. Tell me, vot has he ever accomplished apart frghom his book on Frgheemasonry?” There were no Rs more retroflex and Mitteleuropan than hers, old man; a sort of aggressive gargle, you know. “No, no. Don't vorry my dear,” she reassured me; “Ve vill Sort Somesing Out.”
I sank in my British Rail fauteuil, dreading the worst.
The following day, I waited for Irmgard outside the classroom where she was teaching. I heard the scraping of chairs within, and the chorus of: “Auf wiedersehen Frau von Bösendorfer;” cracked out like an elite squad of Prussian cavalry. No doubt about it, old man, she had them well-trained. Here she came like a Norse goddess, and I handed her the slip of paper, inviting her to a meeting in the Interview Room. A sudden horrible thought struck me: What if she didn't want to go? My heart was pounding like the engine rooms of the Queen Mary, old man, and the cold sweat was running down from my oxters in rich streams.
“Ah, Irmgard, there you are,” I began, rather lamely, I'll admit. “We wondered whether, that is, I wonder if, er - ” and I handed her the slip. Her eyes positively lit with inner fire, old man! I've never seen anything like it. She squared her magnificent stevedore's shoulders and the battle-light blazed.
“So!” she said; “Ze summons has arrived!” She strode away towards the Interview Room, her attitude summed up in the word “Achtung!” I swear I could hear strains of Wagner on the air, but it may have been Iain Donaldson adding atmosphere from the shelter of the Music Room. He wasn't above such behaviour. Well, I tiptoed along in her operatic wake, and watched her enter. Old man, I swear there were about seven of us all crowded round the door, pushing and jostling for position, all trying to get nearest the keyhole. I found myself nestling rather closer to Madame Léfèvre, the French teacher, than perhaps was quite consistent with discipline or decency, but these were unique times, old man. We just had to put up with it, though she gave me some very warm and melting looks in the days following...Ahem! But back to our muttons.
It started softly, you know. Just a few spikes and waves on the Richter scale, but after a few minutes, we were all hanging on to each other as the storm gathered in intensity. The building began to shake and the windows rattled. Then it all erupted in earnest. We were hanging on to the fixtures and fittings with one hand and trying to block our ears with the other. Somebody yelled out that somebody ought to see whether the kids were all right, but we were all too busy trying to save our own skins. My dear man, the noise! The language! Well, it was mostly all in German by this time, but we got the general drift all right. It was unmistakeable in any language. And through it all came Edeltraut Runkelstirn, serene as a carnival float representing Maidenhood, showing round a pair of prospective parents! This wasn't a job that we usually gave her. She didn't quite have the common touch, you know. A bit too ethereal for most people. Parents would embark on a conversation with her and emerge rather mystified, under the impression that something slightly mystical had taken place. Still, she covered for this situation remarkably well. Here was all this row and ruction, walls shaking and floors rumbling; and Edeltraut calmly said: “Oh, these play rrrehearrrsals! They can be so noisy!” Trilling the Rs like a little songbird. Maybe she believed it was a play rehearsal. I wouldn't put it past her.
Finally the door opened and we dived for cover: not because we didn't want to be seen eavesdropping, old man; we were afraid of radiation burns! But out came Irmgard, looking statuesque and tragic. What had happened? Where was Carlotta? We all waited with bated breath. The Irmgard took a deep breath, sobbed, and ran from the building covering her eyes with her arm. Carlotta came out after her, rolling down her sleeves with a broad, gap-toothed smile.
“Vell, I sink she can see a little bit vhere she might begin to rgheconsider her position,” she said simply, and we took her to the staff room and feted her in digestive biscuits and the ghastly brown sump oil that passed for coffee in our establishment. She was deep in confab with old Potocki, probably about some of the more obscure aspects of Schnellentaten education, or possibly what they fancied for the three thirty at Musselburgh; we never found out.
But it was the finish of Irmgard. She left before the end of term, taking the appalling Siggi with her. We had to draft in a supply teacher to cover the German lessons, and frankly, the standard dropped cataclysmically. But it was worth it to be rid of the scourge of the von Bösendorfers.
We never heard from her again. But one day, herself and meself were on holiday in the Highlands, and there was a little craft fair, right in the middle of nowhere, so I suggested to the missis that we swing by and sneer at the driftwood sculptures and lumpy knitting. It was all much as you'd expect, except, there at a stall selling brightly lurid paintings of Highland sunsets was – yes! The horrible Siggi. He'd discovered his talent, and was trying to cash in on it at the expense of the cash-paying public. I wandered over and asked how he was doing.
“I've sold a dozen today alone,” he said: “I've made over a thousand pounds.” The smug little whelp.
“How's your dad?” I hazarded. Siggi smiled and said he was now running a mobile library and doing frightfully well, thank you.
“And how's your mother?” I hardly dared to ask but did. He made a little moue, as if he neither knew nor cared.
“Ja, she's okay.”
“Uh-huh. What's she doing with herself this weather?”
“She runs the bar at the Caber-Feidh Hotel,” he said. Irmgard von Bösendorfer, running a bar? And one of the most unruly places this side of the Yukon Gold Rush, old man! You could have absolutely poured me out with a spoon. She used to rail against the demon drink if anyone ever suggested opening a bottle of wine at a staff party. And here she was pulling the pints for the teuchters! It just didn't add up, unless she'd had some sort of Damascus experience in reverse , and was now all for grape and hop and barley! It just goes to show that You Never Can Tell. Perhaps there's some good in everyone, after all.
“Not a rowdy sort of place, I hope?” says I.
“Ja, it used to be, but she pretty soon changed all that.”
I'll bet she did! I was almost tempted to go along and see what the place was like, and what she was like now, but wiser counsels, old man; wiser counsels. My round old man. Ready for the other half of that now?

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

1. A Bit Of An Obsession
Obsessions can be terrible things (said Donnelly) and I've seen many a fellow come to the most awful grief over the most unlikely thing. Take old Tom Hobbes, for instance. I don't know how he came to be scraping a living at the chalk-face; he'd been a staffer on the Daily Scream and done a lot of freelance stuff for such august organs as the News of the People and Wakey Wakey Soldiers, and so forth. Deeply esoteric stuff, old man: his pieces usually ended with the sentence: “I made an excuse and left”. He was ex-navy, and sported a full beaver, ginger and grizzled, and a nose like an overripe raspberry; eyes glazed like china, crazed with red, and a definite whiff of the peaty glens on his breath first thing in the morning. Used to drive old Edeltraut Runkelstirn wild.
“In frront of childrrrren,” she'd say, hitting the old rhotics like a circular saw; always a sign of deep distress with Edeltraut. “Smelling of alcohol! In frrrrront of the childrrrrrrren!”
She, you'll remember was the Harmony of the Spheres teacher; rather a rococo name for what's basically music and movement. She lived alone with a collection of Sir Walter Scott; never listened to the wireless. Innocent as the babe unborn, most of the time. She couldn't stand poor old Tom. Took him for a thoroughly bad lot, and who's to say she was wrong?
Discipline was never a problem for Hobbes. He wasn't above a swift wallop round the head of a miscreant, though he was as appalled as the rest of us at St. Geoffrey's at the idea of bending a child over to deliver six of the best in the old-fashioned style. Discipline is always what they call nowadays an issue in schools. I was educated by the Christian Brothers, of course; as subtle and vicious a bunch of sadists, in my humble opinion, as ever lurked in the darker corridors of pedagogy, so I was used to having the living daylights beaten out of me for such transgressions as momentarily forgetting the supine stem of confiteor. Not a mistake you make twice, old man. Old Tom Hobbes, though; the kids loved him. He'd stagger into a class at the beginning of a morning, gaze round with a wild surmise through eyes like boiled eggs; stagger out for a quick stiffener from a walking stick that doubled as a flask, and march back in full control. He'd heave a dictionary at the head of some kid chattering to his neighbour, to gain silence and attention. Nothing serious, you understand; no more than a flesh wound usually, or a slight case of concussion. Nothing to excite the notice of Haitch Emm Eye; Her Majesty's Expectorant, old man, of whom we are all In Awe.
Of course, this was all a long time ago. At St. Geoffrey's we'd always been in the forefront of the spare the rod movement, in favour of not thrashing the little darlings black and blue, I mean, but in those days, a quick cuff of the head or a clip round the ear was standard practice. I once flung a blackboard duster at a noisy young layabout in the back row of a class of fourteen year-olds, and I gather he bears the mark to this day, but this was in the dear dead days beyond recall. Beyond his recall, anyway: I understand that he walks round bumping into the fixtures and fittings with his shoes on the wrong feet. Not my fault, old man; that was the result of all the wacky baccy he'd been smoking in the bike sheds. But I mean, I don't hold with all that flogging. A man never looks so big a bloody fool as when he's wielding the pandybat. Everyone is diminished by it, old man; flogger and floggee. And you could pull an important muscle. But I digress.
“Where were we?” Hobbes would bellow, bringing his stick down loudly on the desk, and leafing through The Lyric Poets or Middlemarch or something. “And wake up at the back there! Silence, you there, Magillicuddy!” He never knew their names. Called all the boys Magillicuddy and all the girls Desdemona. But the kids had the measure of him, all right.
“Did you have much time for reading on the battleships during the war, Mister Hobbes?” some bright spark would ask, and he would gaze into the middle distance and go off into a stream of reminiscence about life on board HMS Superfluous and tell them about the drunken boatswain and the three whores from Port Said and other such toothsome tales for the tiny tots. That, or stories he'd reported on for the more gutter-situated press. Not that I suppose they listened, or not all through to the end. They'd heard them all before, old man. They drew pictures in their jotters. I've seen some of them, too: not for the faint-hearted, old man; not for the squeamish. Water off a duck's back for old Edeltraut, of course; she'd look at a great blast on the pornograph from some teenage reprobate and say: “Lovely! Those mountains are delightful!” or some such. Simply couldn't see it, old man. Never twigged. Cognitive processes too angelic to register the gory details. Too blue-eyed for words.
Of course, what gave Tom his great popularity was his extraordinary hospitality. He lived in a cottage south of the city, deep in the Pentland Hills. His wife used to go off on her old bike, squeaking and grinding the fifteen or so miles to the nearest shop to buy the groceries while he worked on his illicit still, so that there would be something to put in his flask during the week, and something to mix into cocktails for his visitors. His wife Myrtle was a wiry but colourless old streel, sometimes to be seen at school events, smiling wanly and gradually growing paler for lack of food and drink as Tom told one of his interminable stories. Well, Tom Hobbes used to invite the more enterprising and experimental element of the senior girls round to his place for the weekend. Oh, don't get me wrong, old man; nothing untoward happened: he never laid a lascivious finger on anyone, let alone poor old Myrtle. One of nature's non-combatants in the war of the sexes. I believe I heard a waif word of a Terrible Injury, but never had it confirmed from the horse's mouth, as it were, and it's not as if you'd ask, anyway. No, no. He'd simply show them how to mix cocktails and play strip poker, or teach them the tango to an old wind-up gramophone that he'd stolen from Hannen Swaffer or Cassandra, or someone or other from the old days in the street with no shame. You can see that this was bound to lead to trouble sooner or later, old man. But in fact, his downfall came from quite a different direction.
He had an altogether unhealthy interest in the occult, old man; quite an obsession, in fact. Perhaps that's what attracted him to our school in the first place. Old Jakob Schnellentaten, the founder of the school, was rather an expert, don't you know. Hobbes had even written a couple of books, potboilers, you know, about Hitler's secret chambers under the Reichstag where the Führer and a fuliginous squad of the darkest and worst of the Nazi crew would strip down to their beswastika'd underpants and bite the heads off chickens by the light of guttering black candles, invoking the Great Goat. Apparently he'd got the gen from a man loosely connected with SIS. Very loosely connected with anything very much, I should have thought, let alone the Real World. But old Hobbes lapped it up like cream, old man; like mother's milk. But anything that smacked of secret rites or Our Druidic Past had him pop-eyed and straining at the leash like an old boxer dog, sighting a bone.
Now, I don't know whether you remember old Peter Potocki pronounced Potosskey? The old Polish gent; your man with the cigarette burn just left of centre in his moustache? Bald and rather kippered-looking? He used to run Study Groups, old man; a grisly sort of entertainment to introduce younger members of staff to the more abstruse aspects of the writings and works of Jakob Schnellentaten, whose idea our school, and the others like it all over the world, originally was. Well, old Hobbes got tremendously excited after one of these study evenings, and went straight to the Hermitage Bar to calm himself down enough to hail a taxi to take him back out to his cottage. The thing was, old Potocki had given old Tom a clue that tied together a lot of threads that had puzzled him for years about an historic building known as Old Craig. It's all absorbed by the new university now, of course, but in those days it was in the grounds of the old mental hospital, and used as an administrative centre. Hobbes, on the basis of what Potocki had said – don't ask me what – had become convinced that the true Liath Fàil, the stone on which the Kings of Scotland were crowned from time inconceivable, lay underneath this old building in a secret chamber. Meanwhile, the stone that had been taken away to England in the Middle Ages and stolen back again by a trio of Scotnats in the fifties, was a ringer, old man; a fake.
“The blasted Stone of Destiny! It was the very stone that Jacob lay on while he had his dream of the Ladder,” he told me at lunch, flecks of his sandwich flying and stippling my waistcoat: “It was brought from Egypt by Scota, the daughter of Pharaoh, to Ireland, and carried thence to Scotland. It's the single most important treasure in the history of this poor benighted country, next to the Declaration of Arbroath!”
Apparently, he took to railing about this to his young weekend visitors, who grew rather bored with all this, and started going round to young Edwin Mitchell's house instead; the drama teacher, you know. He was rapidly gaining a following among the younger element, showing off his collection of after-shaves, and practising his handsome lessons on them. It all ended in tears, of course, but that's another story I'll tell you some other time. Hobbes would march up and down his little drawing room, waving a bottle of Highland Park and damning the authorities who refused him permission to get busy under the foundations with mattock and pick.
“Who knows what treasures are buried there,” he'd fume: “why, the Holy Grail itself, for all they know or care! It's flying in the face of unbiased historical research! There ought to be a law!”
Well, there was, of course, and it was against him. Meanwhile, the senior lassies rolled their eyes at each other, and dealt another hand of whist.
He came in one morning, looking astonishingly clear-eyed for a Monday; a dangerous gleam, you know. All full of purpose and derring-do. I feared the worst.
“It's all sewn up, Donnelly,” he hissed in my ear at break time.
“What is?” I asked, full of the Fall of the Roman Empire, and the dubious task of describing it to a bunch of prepubescent children leaving out the fruitier sections. Hobbes just placed a lumpy finger alongside his raspberry nose, and winked one glaucous eye in a way that was hideous to watch.
“You'll see,” he promised; “just follow the public prints!”
Two days later the story broke. It made page seven of The Caledonian, about half-way down, just next to an advertisement for foundation garments: “Husband Chains Wife To Railings To Demand Opening Of Crypt.”
There followed a picture of poor old Myrtle, shackled to the railings of the mental hospital, while droopy-looking individuals from the wards gazed at her with their mouths open and in more than one case, a rather lean and hungry look. Evidently, old Tom had decided to draw the attention of the media to his Deeply Held Conviction, or bloody mad obsession, that old artefacts of incredible antiquity and importance were to be found mouldering away under the building where, allegedly, Mary Queen of Scots had spent the night while skittering to and fro to escape the clutches of her bloodthirsty cousin. Meantime, he'd gone off to see his MP to demand support for opening up the crypt below Old Craig, and had alerted the gentlemen of the fourth estate to take snapshots of his scrawny spouse, attached like a reluctant suffragette to the ironwork. I suppose it was a blessing the whole fence wasn't electrified, old man. She'd have been like a toasted anchovy.
Well, the next thing was that one of the more svelte and willowy senior girls got in touch with the Evening Bleat to add some colour to the Caledonian story. She just meant to give a little cheerful background, and make a few quid for herself. But she mentioned the poker sessions and the tango lessons, of course, and this prompted an outcry that rang echoing through all the regions of St. Geoffrey's School. There were scruffy, rat-faced little reporters with cameras and notebooks and fags stuck to the lip, shouting at us through the school railings and taking flash photos of Edeltraut, who of course had no idea what was going on. Larry Snudge took to posing for them, showing his best side, but he was never quite One Of Us, you know. It was a judgement, in a way. I mean all those years as a Fleet Street hack, and now here was Hobbes, at the epicentre of his own controversy, quite unable to Make an Excuse and Leave.
The headlines were not something to be proud of: “Do-As-You-Like School Teacher Held Orgies With Senior Girls. Pictures inside.” You know the sort of thing. Poor old Hobbes was given a right royal hauling over the coals by the Council of Teachers and the Board of Trustees, and made to hand in his red pen and blackboard dusters. Myrtle learned the news of this while still attached to the railings of the mental hospital , and it did nothing to brighten her disposition. She just wilted in her gyves, old man; simply wilted. It was a terrible thing to watch. I gave her a friendly pat on the back and slowly walked away, sadder and wiser. I think one of the male attendants finally took pity on her and jockeyed the lock of her handcuffs with a bent pin, but she was never the same again. She went off to Lanzarote with the sewing teacher, one of those women who prefer the sensible brogue to high heels, you know; and the two of them scratch a living making woollen dolls and taking in summer visitors. Not the worst of fates by far, old man.
Oddly enough, our pupil roll went up after the event, old man. I suppose all publicity is good publicity, after all.
Old Hobbes vanished off the face of the earth for several years, and turned up just the other day in the Caledonian obituary columns. Spontaneous combustion, apparently. He'd been reading a book about Göring's attempts to reintroduce the mastodon to Lüneberg Heath, and just burst into flames. Nothing remained but his feet and ankles and a room full of greasy soot. He was identified by his Argyll socks, poor old sod. It pays not to let your obsessions get on top of you, old man. Have another of those..?

Sunday, 2 May 2010

The assignment for this essay was to write about an important event that had had a lasting effect. The task was to describe the event and to reflect upon it. The student here chose to describe her experience in childhood and adolescence (so far – she is only fifteen) with Asperger’s Syndrome.
It should, of course, be borne in mind that Asperger’s Syndrome takes many forms, and Nina, the student whose work appears here, is typical only of herself. Yet seldom have I ever encountered so clear and moving an account of living with Asperger’s.

Living With Asperger’s Syndrome

A past event that made a difference to me was when I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of ten.

I had a fairly miserable childhood. I was only happy at home, my sanctuary, where I was safe. At school, I was melancholy and introverted. From Primary One to Primary Five I had no real friends. I just wandered the playground by myself, daydreaming and eating. I had no idea that there was something wrong with me; I just thought that popularity was something you were born with, and that I happened to have been born unpopular. The older I grew, the worse I felt about this. While other girls were forming groups of close friends and learning dance routines and giggling together, I watched from the sidelines, wondering what they had that I didn’t. I was asking myself the wrong question: I should have been wondering what I had that they didn’t, and in Primary Five, I finally found out. The first thing I did when I got home that fateful day was slouch on the sofa and burst into tears.

I was autistic. I was cursed, tainted, diseased and soiled. I was a spaz, a mongo, a retard, a freak. And I would never get better.

As I grew older and got to Primary seven, I got so distressed that I started to self-harm by biting myself. I really savaged myself. Sometimes people would ask me what the purple marks on my arms were, but I’d just pretend not to hear.

Just as I thought I couldn’t feel any worse, I started High School. I was chubby, shy and frizzy-haired, ad all of a sudden I was surrounded by fake-tanned sluts and malevolent chavs. The girls in the school were like an alien species, with orange skin, painted faces and heaving cleavage. Even the girls in my class seemed older than they were; when they sneered with their glossy lips, attitude dripped from every pore. I was terrified of them.

They also all seemed to have boyfriends. The closest I had ever come to having a boyfriend was when I got “married” to one of my male friends under the goalpost in his garden when we were five. I remember one traumatic incident in the girls’ changing rooms when all the girls were talking about boys. One of them interrogated me about how many boyfriends I’d had. I said casually that I’d had none. The cold, shrill laughter echoing around the tiled walls is something I’ve never forgotten.

In order to stop this kind of thing happening again I made a plan. I vowed that I would become exactly like these girls. I would wear clothes like theirs. I would become normal, and maybe I would even become popular.

Except I didn’t. There was a fatal flaw in my master plan. Although I now looked exactly like the scary girls, I didn’t act, speak or think like them. I just couldn’t. I was still clever because my Asperger’s gave me a high IQ, making people think of me as posh, even though I looked anything but. I kept my grades up and didn’t dumb myself down because I was anxious to have a good future, which I’m glad about now. And instead of boys and clothes, my favourite topics of conversation were politics and current events. So even after making my mum spend a fortune on new make-up, clothes and hair products I was no more popular than before. Not only that, I had hidden who I really was, shielding my true self behind a mask of make-up. The problem was, anyone who didn’t conform to the chavs’ idea of “normal” was victimized. There was only one option; if I wanted to be myself, I’d have to move schools.

The moment I moved to Rudolf Steiner’s, I knew the ethos here was completely different. Instead of being the same, the place was a rainbow of different colours and styles, and people who weren’t afraid to be themselves. This totally threw my idea of what “normal” was and I finally had to accept that there’s no such thing. This is what made me confident enough to “come out” about my Asperger’s in class.

I could never have done that at my old school. I would have had to endure snide remarks and taunts, as everyone who wasn’t normal did. But when I told everyone what I had, all I got was a few confused looks from people who didn’t know what it was, but once I explained it, everyone was fine about it. I didn’t even have to endure one sneering whisper of “retard!”

I used to yearn for a cure for Asperger’s. I used to think it was the root of all my problems. But I recently had a conversation in the car with my mum, and she said, “I wish I had a brain like yours, Nina.” I asked what she was on about, and she pointed out how intelligent I was, how I started reading from eighteen months and could recite the alphabet by two; how I could read a fact and remember it for years, and how I could read a book in a day. She said: “I know you hate your Asperger’s, but it helps you process information in an amazing way.”

Something clicked in my head that day. Until then I would have cured my Asperger’s in a heartbeat, because I thought everyone could process information my way. I thought everyone could store and access huge amounts of information that they gained years and years ago. Until I was told, I thought everyone thought like me. This hurt a bit because it meant I was even further from normal than I thought, but it also helped a lot because I’d never thought of Asperger’s as a gift before. I’ll always be grateful for it now.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Song of the Raggedy Men

Larry McGinty tore his coat
& turned it inside outwards,
Put his cap on back to front
& lay among the flowers.

Maggie O’Farrell drunk her glass
& said: “That’s me for homeward!”
Walloped a copper across the jaw
For being far too forward.

& here we are a-sailing
On the good ship Lucky Star,
& no-one but the ship’s cook
Knows where the hell we are!

Charlie Murray placed a bet
But the dog lay down & died-o.
Charlie took a hard revenge
Kicking every Fido.

Mary Wilson laddered her tights
When she scratched her arse-o.
Went home & took some valium
& washed it down with Brasso.

& here we are a-sailing
On the good ship Horn of Plenty,
But the bosun’s being awful mean
With his packet of twenty.

Larry, Maggie, Charlie, Mary,
Posing for a snapshot.
There’s no film in the Brownie
& the cameraman’s a tosspot.

The church was open, in they went
To watch a quiet wedding,
Complaining loudly all the while
Of fleas among the bedding.

& here we are a-sailing
On the good ship Marie Celeste,
Plugging the holes in the universe
With the cabin-boy’s string vest.

Yes, here we are a-sailing
On the ocean azure blue.
There’s nothing to eat & nothing to drink,
So God bless me & you!

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Rosslyn Chapel and Kabalah

 Dr. Tim Wallace-Murphy, a Freemason with a deep interest in esoteric Christianity, informs us in The Templar Legacy that there are five signs by which we can recognize the influence of the Templar Knights in a church building. These are: the Dove in flight, with an olive branch; the Agnus Dei; a disembodied hand; the veil of Veronica and the five-pointed star. Each of these signs is to be found, among the plethora of other images and symbols, in Rosslyn. The writer Sergei Prokofiev, on a visit to Rosslyn Chapel, identified certain mason’s marks in the fabric of the building as Templar in origin.

Rosslyn is, however, a building of extraordinary complexity, rich in meaning, and no single spiritual stream can claim predominance in the chapel’s design, unless we weave together a number of strands into a single entity that we can call Esoteric Christianity (though, for some, even that would be controversial).

The Templar influence in the construction of Rosslyn must be understood as something of a riddle, as the Order of the Knights of the Temple was dissolved about a century and a half before the first stones were laid for the foundations of Rosslyn. No doubt the esoteric nature of the Templars’ unique spirituality survived the cruel end of the Order and is to be found in other places besides Rosslyn, where it joins other esoteric streams; among them, as I hope to show here, Kabalah.

Kabalah, the word means ‘tradition’, or ‘that which is received’ in Hebrew, is said to be the unwritten tradition that accompanies the destinies of the Children of Israel through all their sufferings and wanderings, though there are books which embody the Kabalistic relationship to the world, such as the Zohar, the Book of Splendour. Kabalah contains mysteries that can only be communicated through symbol and imagery; it is theosophical in its nature. One of the most commonly seen features of Kabalistic study is the Sephirotic Tree. Certain spiritual qualities are brought together and linked in a way that resembles the leaves of a tree.

If we consider the Sephirot as indicating divine qualities, we can relate each quality to members of the Hierarchy of angels. In this way, Kether is related to the Seraphim, Chokhma to the Cherubim and Binah to the Thrones. In the second hierarchy, Chesed is connected to the Kyriotetes, Geburah to the Dynamis and Tiphereth to the Exusiai. In the third hierarchy, Netzach is identified with the Archai, Hod to the Archangels and Yesod to the Angels. The last one, Malkuth, represents the Human Being, whose destiny, it is to be hoped, is to become one with the Hierarchies in the far distant future.

We can also connect the Sephirot to the seven planets, so that Saturn belongs to Binah, Jupiter to Chesed, Mars to Geburah, the Sun to Tiphereth, Venus to Hod, Mercury to Netzach, the Moon to Yesod and the Earth to Malkuth. One can go further, and see how the Ten Commandments of Moses connect with the Sephirot and the planets. Then we see, for instance, that the commandment ‘Thou shalt not steal’ is in the place of Mercury, god of doctors, merchants and thieves. ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ is found in close connection with Venus. ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’, the injunction not to give a false reflection of the truth is connected with the Moon, whereas the commandment that brings us face to face with the immediate world around us, telling us that it is better not to covet our neighbour’s ox, ass, servants, wife and so forth, belongs to Malkuth, the world in which we live. One can, in fact, find connections with each commandment and its planetary Sephira (singular of Sephirot). The first two commandments we can see in connection with those most exalted members of the hierarchies, the Seraphim and the Cherubim.

The Traditional Sephirotic Tree

              Left Pillar                       Centre Pillar              Right Pillar
              Justice                            Mildness                      Mercy


                     Chokhma                                                      Binah
                      Wisdom                                                         Intelligence

                      Geburah                                                       Chesed
                       Strength                                                         Mercy


Hod                                                             Netzach
Splendour                                                     Overcoming



                                                                                                            Fig. 1

Study of Kabalah came to prominence among the Jewish scholars who gathered together in Spain during the 13th century. From there it was taken up by, among others, Ramon Lull and, most importantly for our purposes, Pico della Mirandola and, who reinterpreted Kabalah in a purely Christian way. Both Lull and della Mirandola claimed to have made Jewish converts to Christianity on the strength of their Kabalistic studies.

Looking at the dates of the Christian Kabalists, it seems highly unlikely that they could have had anything to do with the building of Rosslyn; even Pico della Mirandola, who died in 1494, is unlikely to have been able to exert much of an influence over Earl William Sinclair, his wife Elizabeth Douglas and Sir Gilbert de la Haye, the architects and designers of Rosslyn. And yet…

When we look at the version of the Sephirotic Tree of the English alchemist and Rosicrucian, Robert Fludd, we find that he has turned the tree round into its mirror image. This is not surprising when we compare, for instance, the design of a Christian church with a Jewish temple. We enter a temple from the east, and move towards the Holy of Holies, in the west. In a Christian church, we enter from the west and move towards the altar in the east. Just as the temple is reversed, so is the Sephirotic Tree in a Christian context.

However, in May of 1924, Rudolf Steiner gave a talk to the workers engaged on the reconstruction of the Goetheanum. This is the headquarters of the Anthroposophical Society, containing the offices that take a close interest in anthroposophical endeavours all over the world. It was his habit to speak to them on a wide variety of topics, and on this occasion, he gave another picture of the Sephirotic Tree. In common with other Christian Kabalists, such as Fludd, he maintained the mirror image of the traditional Hebrew version, but he put some of the spiritual qualities, the Sephirot, in different places. Tiphereth, Beauty, he put in the place of Geburah, Strength. He did the same with Hod, Splendour, and Yesod, Foundation.

At first, one might be tempted to think that Rudolf Steiner simply made a mistake, but as we place Steiner’s Sephirotic Tree over the ground plan of Rosslyn, we find something quite unexpected, and extraordinary. First, we realise that implicit in Steiner’s version, for example, Geburah now connects with the Exusiai, or Elohim; the spirits of form, and the life of the Sun. This seems to me to be a happy adjustment of the more traditional picture. Other changes have also taken place; but let us consider Rosslyn and its carvings, and see what is revealed when we compare Steiner’s picture of the Sephirotic Tree with the layout of the chapel.

First, we notice the three pillars in the east of the building. Facing them from the west, we see that the south aisle, containing images from the Old Testament, including Moses and Abraham, is the one connected to the pillar of Justice, while the aisle in which Christ’s Passion is depicted, the north aisle, is dominated by the pillar of Mercy. The central aisle is watched over by a representation of the Madonna and Child, and we feel the rightness of seeing this in connection with the quality of Mildness.

In the east of the chapel is represented the Magi of Matthew’s gospel, the Three Kings, as well as the Kingly child that they journeyed to honour with their gifts. Another king, Robert the Bruce is depicted in the east of Rosslyn. Whether heavenly or earthly, Kether, the Crown belongs to this part of the building. Moving to the north, we find Abraham, Isaac and Melchizedek shown. The patriarchs Abraham and Isaac and the Priest-King Melchizedek represent the quality of Binah, intelligence, which the Hebrew people were to develop through generations, on behalf of humankind. Opposite them, in the south aisle, there is a carving of an angelic being holding a book closed against his breast. Here we see Chokhma, wisdom that has committed the contents of the Book to heart, and no longer needs to open it to find wisdom.

Rudolf Steiner’s Sephirotic Tree

Left Pillar            Centre Pillar               Right Pillar
            Mercy                   Mildness                      Justice


          Chokhma                                             Binah

          Chesed                                                 Tiphereth


          Netzach                                                  Yesod



                                                                                                Fig. 2

We cross back to the north aisle, and find a picture of devotion. Another angelic form surrenders a heart to the laws of Moses and his priestly rule. Not far from this carving, we see a representation of the figure known as St. Veronica, who braved the anger of the Pharisees and the wrath of the mob to give what help she could to her beloved teacher on His way to crucifixion, using nothing but her best cloth to wipe His brow. There is beauty in these devotional scenes, and we are here in the place of Tiphereth.

In the place opposite them, in the north aisle, we see the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, symbol of Mercy, and the bearded figure of John the Divine, pointing to the page of his gospel where we find the High Priestly prayer. This is the place of Mercy, or Chesed, and the quality Gedulah, which means Greatness.

In the centre of the chapel, in the aisle of Mildness, we find the place of Strength of Life, Geburah, and above our heads we see the inverted pyramid pointing to the centre of the chapel to mark that place.

Returning to the south aisle, we find the figure of St. Margaret, holding the fragment of the True Cross, which was her most treasured possession in life, in honour of which she founded the Abbey of Dunfermline. It is no exaggeration to say that the moral life of Scotland was, for many years, founded on Queen Margaret’s saintly example. Next to her we find a knight, symbol of manly virtue, and close to these two we find a couple bound by a scroll of scripture, exemplifying the pious life. This is the place of Yesod, or Foundation.

Facing these carvings, in the north aisle, we find a carving showing a mother and child resolutely turning away from a demon with ass’s ears, to face an angel bearing a long-stemmed cross. Near to these are representations of the Crucifixion and the tomb empty on the Third Day. Here are clear pictures of Overcoming, or Netzach; the ordinary person’s victory over temptation, and Christ’s victory over Death.

Moving to the west, standing in the west door, we look back into the chapel, and see the wealth of carving, the stained-glass windows and the wonderfully decorated ceiling, and we feel the splendour of the building. This is the place of Hod, or Splendour. Leaving the chapel and stepping out into the fresh air, we are in the world again, the realm in which we all find ourselves striving together. This is Malkuth, the Kingdom, or Realm of human activity.

Looking at the traditional version of the Sephirotic Tree, we can find no clear connection between it and Rosslyn. Even turning to Fludd’s reversed Tree, there are difficulties in seeing connections. Yet with Steiner’s picture, we find a clear resonance between the Kabalistic Tree and the interior of Rosslyn Chapel. Is it possible that Sinclair, Elizabeth Douglas and Gilbert de la Haye had some clear understanding of those esoteric Christian principles underlying the transformed Kabalah? Certainly, if we accept Rudolf Steiner’s version of the Tree of the Sephirot, we find a reflection of it in Rosslyn that is as clearly depicted as it is remarkable.