an experience at Clifton Villas…
It was about 6:50 PM on 8 July 1986, as I went up the stairs…
(to be continued below…)
I’m going to present a very short story where I was invited to contribute to accounts and experiences of and with RD Laing.
After the short story – I’m going to follow it with some of the background history – only in brief of course – selected by myself – in regard to RD Laing’s life.
This was the last group that ran on a Tuesday evening and had run for many years held by RD Laing – famous, controversial and revolutionary psychiatrist, who was a very creative developer of communities for those in distress, and which specifically offered an alternative to traditional psychiatric diagnosis and treatment. Some weeks, even a few months – before this last meeting – which comprised a pool of a number of people who had to go through an interview with RD Laing before they could join the group – it was rumoured that things were changing with Laing's situation regarding his time in London. In terms of applying to join the group – many people did not apply for fear they might not be accepted – I had the very same issue – but it required some courage to phone and make the request for an interview. For Laing was a person of great significance – with his special ethos in the field – and one would not wish to find oneself unsuitable for the group. But of course – this was all part of the prevalent existential theme in regard to Laing’s work. My desire to be part of this overcame my anxieties – and underpinned the courage that I developed to go through with it. It may be difficult for some people to understand why that would have been so difficult – but I can assure you that it was really difficult to make that decision to make that phone call.
Anyway – before this last Tuesday meeting – it was rumoured – even basically had to be understood as such – that this would be the last of a very long series of amazing and often dramatic Tuesday meetings that had run for years. This particular meeting had a much more sedate quality to it, that is compared to the usual – and also – as with so many of the previous meetings – it was quite unique – and yet so fitting for a last meeting.
So here is the short story:
The Last Tuesday Group
I HAVE BEEN ASKED AT THE LAST MINUTE to contribute to this volume. With only two days to the publishing date, I wonder if I can write something my conscience will be okay with in the years to come. Yesterday when looking in my regularly kept diaries, I found the many references to RD Laing that I had made, and also came across 15 pages of notes that I had made on the last Tuesday group. He ran this Tuesday group for very many years, without a break. In fact that last evening had been especially impressed upon my mind. I hope that I can offer a fairly accurate portrayal of some of the events and atmosphere of that last evening.
It was about 6:50 PM on the 8 July 1986, as I went up the stairs of what was the last venue for the groups, at Cliftonville Villas. I was a little early, and as I came in I could see, through the half open door, Marguerita blow-drying her hair decorously, sitting on the floor in front of a large mirror. It was where Ronnie and Marguerita were living together. Ronnie welcomed everybody in as they arrived. In all I believe there were ten of us. After we had all settled in this large and very attractive rectangular room, Marguerita came in with a huge bowl of cherries and strawberries, going round everyone before placing the large plate on the floor. Group members had also brought a number of bottles of wine and some fruit juices for the evening. The windows were open with the blinds slightly lowered due to the hot sun. It had been a glorious summers day. I felt an aliveness in the room. Ronnie got up and walked over to the piano, sat on the piano stool, and began to play (the piano belonged to Mina Balaskas). He was wearing a rather curious combination of clothes I thought, but Ronnie had many faces, many mercurial changes and this seems so fitting. For those interested, he wore a very well-tailored fawn corduroy jacket, an old rose-pink pleated shirt, with a tie and some very smart cufflinks. He wore darkish trousers, polished soft leather shoes and silk socks. He also looked in fine form that evening, with a look of health about him. As he played, Marguerita sat on the floor by the piano stool, repeatedly twirling and winding her rather dark hair through her fingers, and I recorded in my diaries that she never looked up once throughout the whole time that he played this. She was wearing a rather ornate white cotton shirt, and a long skirt, and appeared to be basically without make-up. When he finished he sat back and looked very pleased indeed. I said, ‘That was beautiful.’ ‘Exquisite’, he resounded. He then said with emphasis, ‘It’s called, Le denier rendezvous.’ A few moments later he announced to the group purposefully, ‘You know music is the purest form of communication.’
Some while after this, Ronnie seemed to be irritated by some comments that a few people had made to others, and also to him. He also made some very provocative statements to two other people, both of them therapists. Suddenly at some point there was a volley of surprisingly angry outbursts, followed by an ongoing angry dialogue by a few members of the group. After a fair while, as quickly as it had flared up, so the air suddenly stilled again. I reflected that some of this tension might particularly relate to the unspoken feeling that this was likely the very last of the Tuesday Groups. This awareness had been in the air for a variety of reasons, but still the talk was of a resumption in the autumn. For some time, the air had become cooler and this was followed by a sudden squall in the weather. The wind picked up very strongly indeed, and the trees were swaying violently outside. It then started to rain and turned into a downpour. Marguerita went over to the wide-open windows and pulled the blinds right up, so that we could experience the rainfall. Eventually the heavy weather cleared. I could smell the fragrances of the wet leaves on the tall limes outside, the smell of the wet earth as it floated up from below and drifted through the open windows. Soon the late evening sun started to appear again. It was now around 8:30 PM. For the next hour or so, the conversation continued to flow around and around, and on towards the close of the evening. Ronnie got up and walked over to the piano and sat down. He paused a while and then began a second rendition of Le denier rendezvous. As he did so, he was leaning back, looking at us all and smiling. It was very intimate, and it was so clear this time, that in fact he was indeed playing this especially for us. He paused awhile after he had finished, then slowly turned round to face us, and with his head down, he announced, ‘It’s ten o’clock. I want you all to go.’
It was absolutely still in the room and nobody moved. It remained like this for quite a while and Ronnie just sat there, and I thought looked rather tired. For what seemed ages, still nobody moved, and it remained absolutely silent. ‘Go on, that’s it,’ he said, ‘I want you all to go now.’I have to admit that tears flowed freely down my cheeks, as I typed those sentences above. One by one we all got up, and as we passed near to him he held out his hand to each and every one of us in turn. We all had a few very personal words, and suddenly one woman, a friend of mine, impulsively hugged him fiercely. He looked quite taken aback for a moment, but composed himself quickly and responded warmly, and wished her well. When it came to me, I asked him if he would do me a favour. To my surprise he immediately said, ‘Yes’, and waited expectantly. I produced a volume of his recent biography, Wisdom, Madness and Folly and asked if he would sign it for my family. He signed and also dated it. As he handed it back to me, I said, ‘See you in the autumn.’
He just looked at me and smiled, and that was it. I personally never saw Ronnie again, and I reckoned this was the same for most of the group.
As I walked home with all these feelings in my heart, I recalled the interview with him at his house, right at the beginning of my joining the group, in the autumn of 1985. I remember how he sat in his tall chair, and had listened to me for quite a while, and then how he had mysteriously beckoned me like a shaman with his hand. He had said nothing after this ritual action and had just watched me. He then lightly got up, and simply said,
‘See you Tuesday.’
Some further details – just a little of the history of RD Laing
This will also give a little more background to the atmosphere of The Last Tuesday Group.
People might have thought that I would write a sort of academic psychotherapeutic version – for my article – but I thought I would keep to aspects of the phenomenological vision – and then include a sense of the attachment. So anyway – it could be seen as an existential-attachment presentation – but completely free from any dry account from academia.
There would not have been time for me to write a more academic version of RD Laing (I was in fact asked to write anything I wanted and as many pages as I wanted) – anyway as I was saying – there would not have been time to write a long piece – because the editor Bob Mullen only found out my name and number at the very last moment – it was thought I might be able to give a good account – and I had only 2 days to write it – as it was getting very to printing. I had studied RD Laing from when I was 17 years old – reading about his account of a 5 year experimental community – Kingsley Hall, London – some relevant links to which can be seen on my www.johnjolliffe.co.uk website – and I followed him in all the publications of his later works. Much later – a few years after arriving in London – I became somewhat involved with what might have been called – The Movement –– in a variety of ways for two decades in London. I felt it more appropriate – to give what I see as being more in line with the ethos of RD Laing – at least as I understood it at the time when I wrote the short story – adding my own particular focus in attachment – and decided to call it ‘The Last Tuesday Group’ – bearing in mind I was literally given 2 days only to get it emailed off to the publishers.
Anyway – it needs to be taken in context – with the phenomenal struggle RD Laing had undertaken in challenging the orthodoxy in regards to diagnosis and treatments of the time. His path through this – was in fact a gigantic struggle – while he paved the way for so many later developments – and in fact his later communities – that sprang from the highly controversial Kingsley Hall experiment – were far more sophisticated in terms of existential psychotherapeutic input. At the time of attending what I have called ‘The Last Tuesday Group’ – I had recently co-founded a small residential therapeutic community somewhat along the lines of Laing’s philosophy – in Wandsworth, South-West London – and where obtaining property at that time for such purposes – was a really difficult task.
So somehow in the background of this ‘The Last Tuesday Group’ – at least for me – was the whole courageous struggle that RD Laing had undertaken – with his even becoming at one time like a guru for the North Americans – but certainly having shaken the establishment to its very foundations – alongside receiving flak from every quarter at ever-increasing and shocking intensities – and I sensed myself that he was a little tired of it all – maybe some of this I picked up from occasionally going for a drink with him – as I lived nearby – and if he saw me in the street he would sometimes ask me if I wanted to go for a drink. Laing was just a straightforward fellow in many ways – no pretenses – just a regular guy – who could be an adventurer that took many paths that often took one by surprise. A lesser a man of courage would have collapsed long before. Anyway – he had done his work by that time. He had made his views internationally popular with an alternative culture that had appreciated the ethos.
In The Last Tuesday Group – there was evidence of a collective attachment defence – where although it was generally in the background awareness – that somehow Ronnie (as he was called by those who knew him quite well) was retiring from a lot of his active work – and it was generally felt that this included his Tuesday groups. I don’t think it was ever directly stated – but it was something on reflection that was self-evident. There was a reluctance to even acknowledge that as part of the reality – and so I wrote the following very short two-page account of The Last Tuesday Group – which for me at least – conveyed this sense – which Ronnie was clearly aware of. Considering I wrote this many years later after that last group – one might wonder how I could do that – well occasionally I used to make very comprehensive and detailed notes on matters in London – in all my travels round a vast range of therapeutic organisations – and I had made hundreds of pages of notes – and I found something around 15 pages of notes on this – which I had made straight after that evening going on into the early hours of the next day. I clearly remember doing that. It would have been so much easier if computers had been around then. They were of course when I wrote the short story some years later. All that paper-based material could get rather bulky – and very difficult to keep transporting around from dwellingplace to dwellingplace, as I did in those days. So that is how I was able to recall it – having 15 pages of notes that I made immediately after the group – and it was also something – like some things do in life – that had remained indelibly impressed upon my memory – for all time as it were. I can clearly remember actually making those notes – as if some moments in one’s life’s experience, stand still forever. It meant a lot to me – as I’m sure it did to all the others that were present. There was an aura around RD Laing – a driving force – that drew you in to a most enlightening, fascinating and convoluted world of insights and expressions. This was of course assisted by his intriguing mercurial personality – that could take you this way and that in each and every moment – just as it was with each of the meetings – none of which was even remotely like the one before.
So I wanted the reader – to have that background information which then might put this short account into a more accurate context than one would have sensed otherwise – and why this meeting is likely to be remembered by those who were present – for the rest of their lives, as it is clearly is in my life.