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AUTHORISED SUMMARIES OF F.M ALEXANDER'S FOUR BOOKS

Ron Brown

STAT Books(1992)

I find it a bit of a mystery that this book is not better known in the Alexander profession. There can be few of us who, as we dutifully plough our way through the endless sentences and paragraphs of “the books”, have not fervently wished that Alexander would simply get on with it.

As Walter Carrington explains in his preface, the summaries were prepared at the time of Alexander’s libel action against the editor of a South African government magazine called Manpower which published a peculiarly vitriolic attack on the Technique in 1942, condemning it as worthless and referring to Alexander as a quack. Alexander sought an apology and withdrawal of the article which the editor refused and Alexander’s libel action came up for trial in 1945. It attracted considerable media attention with distinguished lawyers and witnesses appearing on both sides.

Given that much of the legal argument turned on what Alexander had written about the Technique, his lawyers decided that a succinct summary of his books would be a help to the jury and commissioned Ron Brown to prepare one. Brown was an experienced writer, a Reuter’s editor and had been receiving Alexander lessons, making him well qualified for the task. He duly prepared the summaries, which were submitted to Alexander who took the enterprise extremely seriously, checking each page carefully and initialling it to indicate his approval. As Carrington said, the book provides a ...fair and accurate summary of his writings, to the publication of which he had given his full consent. The intention was that Brown would go on to write a biography of Alexander but he died before he could do so.

The result of Brown’s work is a slim volume – 145 pages of text in total. It is undoubtedly a much easier read than the books, largely free of the long meandering sentences created by Alexander to make his meaning ever more precise while succeeding only in obscuring it from his readers. For the purposes of this review a lengthy and important extract from close to the end of The use of the self will suffice as an illustration of what Brown managed to achieve. Alexander wrote:

"It seems strange to me that although man has thought it necessary in the course of his development in civilisation to cultivate the potentialities of what he calls ‘mind’, ‘soul’, and ‘body’, he has not so far seen the need for maintaining in satisfactory condition the functioning of the sensory processes through which these potentialities manifest themselves. As a result, the functioning of his sensory processes has become so unsatisfactory that the use of his mechanisms is constantly misdirected in his efforts to ‘do’, and when he tries to put right the results of this misdirection, he has no other criterion for self-criticism to guide him in these attempts but that of the untrustworthy sensory processes which originally led him into error.

We must therefore see the danger of continuing to base our efforts to help ourselves or other people upon beliefs, judgements and convictions which have their source in sensory experiences, without ascertaining whether the mechanisms through which these experiences are conveyed are functioning satisfactorily. I venture to suggest that the experiences described in this book throw light upon the way in which the functioning of the sensory mechanisms can be so improved that they will afford a more valid criterion for self-criticism. Those who have had the experience of putting into practice the technique I have described for the building up of a conscious direction of their use, have found that the process gives them the opportunity for testing continuously the validity of their sensory observations and impressions of what is taking place, because all the time that they are consciously projecting the directions for the new and improved use, they are obliged to go on being aware whether or not they are reverting to the old instinctive misdirection of their use which, associated with sensory untrustworthiness, had led them originally to be deceived in what they were doing with themselves. Further, those who continue to make the principle underlying this procedure their guiding principle in all their activities, find that they are able to combine ‘thinking in activity’ with a new sensory observation of their use of themselves in the process. This means that they are not only aware when their reaction is not what they feel it is or what they desire, but, having at the same time a reasoned knowledge of the means to a better reaction, they are also able consciously to keep in check the old instinctive reaction that has been the obstacle to doing what they desire.

Brown’s version (page 96) reads:

It seems strange that although man has thought it necessary in the course of his development to cultivate the potentialities of ‘mind’, ‘soul’, and ‘body’, he has not seen the need for maintaining in a satisfactory condition the sensory processes through which these manifest themselves. As a result, his efforts are misdirected, and when he ‘tries’ to put right this misdirection, his only criterion is the faulty perception which led to the original error.

We must therefore see the danger of basing our activities on beliefs, judgements and convictions which in their turn are based on sensory experiences, without first ascertaining whether the mechanism through which the experiences are conveyed are functioning satisfactorily.

The "Use of the Self" shows how these mechanisms may be so improved that they afford a more valid criterion for self-criticism. Those who have put this technique into practice have found that they can continuously test the validity of their sensory observations, because all the time that they consciously project directions they must go on being aware whether or not they are reverting to their old instinctive use. They discover that they can combine “thinking in activity” with a new sensory awareness of the use of themselves in the process."

Any number of other examples could be selected but the above shows clearly how Brown’s shortened version still captures the full sense of what Alexander wrote. Elsewhere in his text, Brown also manages to temper some of Alexander’s more embarrassing ventures into evolution, such as his notoriously erroneous description of the development of the eye in Constructive conscious control of the individual; this has no place in his broader analysis and happily finds no place in Brown’s summary.

Alexander’s last work, The universal constant in living, does, however, more or less defeat Brown. Peppered with “appreciations”, messages of support from devoted followers, and denunciations of those who disagree with him, this mishmash of a book is shortened but is no more coherent than the original. Nor, dare I say it, does it add significant to what Alexander had already said in the other books.



Reading the Authorized Summaries one is struck by the extent to which Alexander repeats himself. His message is radical, important and simple. Most humans are misdirecting their lives, focusing on poorly conceived ends rather than the means by which they can realise their potential in a thoughtful, self-aware and ‘psychophysically’ integrated manner. If they could learn to stop, think, and than act rationally rather than habitually, the benefits would be felt in all spheres of activity from the individual to the international.

Brown does a remarkably good job of capturing the essentials of Alexander’s thinking in, for the most part, clear intelligible writing though as a summariser he is constrained by the limitations of the original. I am tempted by the thought that it should be possible to go further and, starting with Browns’ work, shorten the text still further with no loss of useful content.

Alexander’s ideas deserve, indeed need, to be more widely known. The social and individual ills he saw around him are as prevalent today as they were in his time. At the international level, countries still wage war and ignore the consequences of their actions. In national affairs, politicians ruthlessly and successfully appeal to people’s short-term interests rather than their long-term welfare. Cults, fads and daft ideas about how to achieve health and happiness still abound. All the mistaken and harmful ideas about physical fitness are as popular as ever, with the rise of so-called “extreme exercise” regimes, and the survival of the lethal phrase “no pain, no gain”, paving the way to the next generation of ruined knees, hips, back and shoulder joints.

The present edition of the Authorized Summaries was published by STAT in 1992 and is long out of print. In fact, it has acquired a considerable rarity value, and my copy, the cheapest I could find, complete with its underlinings and Wiltshire Library Service stamps, cost me £42.00. I earnestly hope a way of reprinting and better publicising this valuable component of the Alexandrian literature can be devised.

Gerald Foley August 2015

THE GREAT BELOW: a journey into loss

Maddy Paxman

Garnet Publishers (2014) 

garnetpublishing.co.uk

Maddy Paxman lived with the poet Michael Donaghy for twenty one years.  Their life together was challenging – poets tend not to be the most domesticated of creatures.  Money was a problem.  Even highly regarded poets like Donaghy struggle to make a living.   In the midst of it all Maddy managed to train as an  Alexander teacher.

Then their world collapsed.  Michael suffered a massive brain haemorrhage.  The next four days were a nightmare.  It was a time of sitting through the night in deserted hospital waiting rooms, of lost patient notes, of lack of any information about what was happening,  of sheer terror and a gradual getting to know that nothing could be done.  Then came the new reality of being without Michael.

This book tells the story of how Maddy and their eight-year-old son Ruairi  coped with the sudden shock and the longer term adjustment to a new and emptier life.  It is a completely absorbing and extraordinarily well written narrative of a strange, dislocated and frightening time.

Never slipping into the maudlin,  Maddy gives a warm and good-humoured account of her  life with Michael punctuated with  wry and, I am sure, extremely painful shafts of self-awareness.  She tells how she managed to deal with the immediate aftermath of grief and sudden loss and the often haphazard way she managed to cope and look after Ruairi as she hauled herself through the following  three years.

Few of us are good at dealing with friends who have suffered a bereavement.  It sometimes feels easier to dodge down a side street than meet them on the pavement and mouth embarrassed platitudes.    This book tells us there is no reason to be afraid of these encounters; it should help us  find the words and the will to be useful to our friends at a time when they need it badly.

 

HELP MY BACK's KNACKERED What can I do about it?

Dai Richards
e-book: stophurting.co.uk

This is a simple and useful e-book on the Technique.  It provides a readily available and economical answer for the pupil who asks for a suggestion on what it would be useful for them to read.   It is a valuable addition to the literature on the AT and will be useful to those, whether teachers or pupils, who  read it. 

It does not provide any particularly profound description of how the Technique achieves its beneficial and sometimes spectacular benefits.  But it does place the focus on the need for intelligent engagement on the part of pupil.  The AT in this description of its working is not something that you have done to you.  It is a route you follow to an improved way of using your whole psychophysical self with the help and guidance of an Alexander teacher.  It also provides quite inspirational descriptions of the way Richards and his brother recovered from the depths of pain and psychophysical malfunctioning they suffered as a result of their back problems. 

It also raises an important question for all of us involved in the AT.  Why in the face of logic and commonsense, together with compelling evidence of its efficacy, do so many people resist even having a free trial AT lesson?  I speak from my own experience.  The AT was my final port of call in a long journey round the medical and wider therapeutic worlds.  I came reluctantly and doubtfully to my first lesson and it was only after I read Wilfred Barlow’s book The Alexander Principle during a week-long business trip that I seriously decided to give a fair trial.

I have since found that  there seems to be a deep reluctance in most people to accept the possibility that the AT might be useful or effective.  In comparison with the drugs, injections, exercises and operations which they willingly accept and persist with, or the various plausible or implausible nostrums of the alternative therapists, the AT, in fact, suffers from a lack of credibility.  I know this from conversations with people about what I do as a teacher.  They politely agree with me that it seems sensible but even if I offer them a free lesson or consultation they tell me they will think about it. In the meantime, they will go back to the chiropractor, have the other knee done, or cut down on their gluten intake rather than consider the possibility that the AT might do them any good.

This remains a major challenge for all of us in the AT world.  How are we to persuade people who, as a matter of course, are willing to embark on a drug and exercise regime or an alternative therapy that it would make sense for them to add “As well as having some AT lessons”? 

 

BAD PHARMA: how drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients

Ben Goldacre
2012 Fourth Estate, London

Who trusts the banks any more? You now suspect the nice young man or woman advising you about your finances is looking for a way of selling you some dodgy product to meet a sales target. Who now thinks of the bank manager as the pillar of probity whom we ask to sign the back of our passport photographs? We wonder why so many of the chief executives and their hench-people are not in jail. We learn more every day about how regulatory agencies and governments colluded and connived with the worst offenders.

We still need the banks but not in the form we have experienced in the past couple of decades. To do the job required of them, they have to be scaled down, purged of their excesses, and properly supervised so that they can be turned back into the kind of organisations where honest and talented people can feel comfortable in doing their jobs.

All the signs that were ignored as the banking and financial industries wound their merry way to their present deplorable state are now clearly visible in the pharmaceutical and medical industries. Ben Goldacre’s deeply disturbing book is a warning that our societies will pay a heavy price for ignoring. We need to be able to trust our doctors and our medical services. But the grounds for that trust are rapidly being eaten away by the corrupting influence of the pharmaceutical and medical companies on the medical and health professions and the regulatory agencies who should be protecting us from these companies but actively collude with them or choose to ignore their activities.

Goldacre is a doctor and medical researcher1 (His website is http://www.badscience.net) In Bad Pharma he provides the detailed references and the research findings that back up his picture of a grievously malfunctioning system. He writes clearly and graphically about what is being done to us in the name of health-care. It is we who are paying for all this chicanery through our taxes, medical insurance and purchase of medicines and pharmaceuticals.

Here are just a few snippets. They are fully backed up in the book. We fondly believe medicines are thoroughly tested before they are dispensed to the public. It is the drug companies who carry out most of the trials; positive outcomes are celebrated, negative ones are concealed. The regulatory agencies do not implement their own rules on the design, implementation and publication of drug trials. It is no surprise to learn there is a well trodden career path from being a civil servant with a regulatory agency to a much better paid job with a drug company. Drug companies draft a high proportion of the articles in the refereed medical literature. Many doctors and academics are happy to accept hospitality and fees from drug companies and put their names as authors to these papers. The editors of professional medical journals depend on the advertising revenues from the drug companies and the purchase of copies of favourable articles about their products for distribution to doctors. They ignore their own rules against conflicts of interest and publication bias. Drug companies fund patient action groups as a means of promoting their own drugs and treatments.

Drug company representatives, as might be expected, push their own products and rubbish those of their competitors. They use their selling skills, which is fair enough. But the basic products they are selling to busy medical practitioners have often not been properly tested because of faulty trials; sometimes they are being promoted for uses outside the group for which they have been approved – so called “off-label” prescribing. Good reps make notes on their medical clients and pass them on to their colleagues when their client moves to a new job. The jaw drops.

In the US there is at least some fight-back by regulatory agencies. Huge fines have been levied on various drug companies. GlaxoSmithKline was fined the extraordinary figure of $3 thousand million dollars by the US Department of Justice in 2012 after pleading guilty to a range of civil and criminal fraud charges. Other drug companies found guilty of similar offences and also paying enormous fines include Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Abbott, Merck, and AstraZeneca. These fines, large though they were, scarcely dented the companies’ profits; there are just so many other revenue-earning opportunities and porosities in the regulatory systems.

The true importance of these trials lies in the light they shed on the workings of the drug companies. The case of GSK is worth looking at in detail. The US Department of Justice website at http://www.justice.gov/opa/gsk-docs.html has the details of the charges against the company and the evidence presented in court. Do not be afraid of having to wade through arcane legal language; this reads like a John Grisham novel. The company pleaded guilty to publishing misleading accounts of drug trials, downplaying or ignoring safety risks, concealing information on adverse reactions to its drugs, using gifts, payments and other forms of remuneration – bribery in other words – to induce physicians to use its drugs; and training its sales force in off-label promotion of its drugs.

GSK, was formed from the merger of Glaxo Welcome and Smith Kline Beecham in 2000. Its Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in the period 1995-2000 and chairman for the following two years was Sir Richard Sykes. He is a biochemist and most of his career was spent with the company or its predecessors. He received his knighthood in 1994 for “services to the pharmaceutical industry”. No trace of the scandals attached to the company have affected him. He became Rector of Imperial College for the period 2001-2008 and was appointed Chairman of the Trustees of the historic Royal Institution in 2010. A history of being in charge of a criminal enterprise appears to be no barrier to belonging to the highest levels in British medical science.

UK government policies to increase the involvement of drug companies and other medical corporations in the diagnosis and provision of patient care further diminishes the effectiveness of regulatory agencies and widens the opportunities for profitable business. Government pressures to make universities and research institutes more commercial have turned many university departments into publicly funded adjuncts of drug companies. Unlike the more romantic stories of whistle-blowers winning against the odds, there are many more whose careers have been blighted for daring to protest. There needs to be more protection.

The drug companies and medical corporations like to cultivate the impression that they are in the business of providing the best medical care but they have long lost any such ethos. Their top managements are driven by the lure of ever greater salaries and
bonuses. Their marketing budgets are two and a half times bigger than those for research. Patient outcomes may figure in their public conversations; budget outcome is entirely what drives these enterprises. This whole sector needs the kind of reform that is so slowly and grudgingly being accepted by the banks and financial organisations.

One might reasonably ask why I have put this review on a website devoted to the AT. The reason is that, as AT people, we have as big an interest in a properly functioning health system as everyone else. Traditionally there has been a high degree of respect between the AT and the medical profession; Alexander firmly believed the Technique should be taught in medical schools. In a world dominated by the ruthless marketing activities of increasingly out of control medical corporations, trust must give way to wariness.

But even with a perfect health care system, we should keep in mind our own fundamental principles and the need to take responsibility for oneself. The choice as to whether, and to what extent, to trust our medical advisors is our own. Given the behaviour of the medical industry, and its increasing similarity to the financial services industry, we do well to remember that fundamental point.

5 December 2012

THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE

 

 

Judth Leibowitz and Bill Connington

First published by Harper and Row 1990.  Paperback edition by Souvenir Press 1999

My friend and neighbour Phil Evans had AT lessons with me for seven years.  He found Judith Leibowitz’s book inspiring and wrote this review of it.  In addition to his views on the book, it reveals a great deal about Phil’s cheerfulness and fortitude.  I think it is of interest to anyone learning, teaching, or thinking of having lessons in the AT.

This book has a sub-title "THE WORLD-FAMOUS METHOD FOR ENHANCING POSTURE, STAMINA, HEALTH AND WELL-BEING, AND FOR RELIEVING PAIN AND TENSION", while the fact that the name of Kevin Kline is mentioned as providing a Foreword suggests that its precepts are much admired by members of the acting world (Bill Connington trained as an actor at LAMDA).

F. Mathias Alexander was himself an actor. His own particular quest for improvement started when he begun to suffer from chronic hoarseness, and discovered that this was caused by his pressing his head back and down, so compressing his spine. Over a period of nine years of self-study he realised that all the bad habits he had garnered had helped him to lose his voice (pulling your head back, compressing your spine, shortening your torso).

Judith did, however, starting with metal braces, but the great break-through came when a cousin suggested that she try the Alexander Technique - after which her improvement came speedily. Her limp lessened, her body began to straighten out its distortions, and she started to move more easily. Soon after her coach suggested that she become an Alexander teacher. While aspiring actor Bill Connington realised that if his body was tense, particularly in his neck and shoulders, his voice would be restricted.

There follows a list of many cases of people from both sexes and all ages, from those recovering after having experienced strokes or accidents to those suffering from accruing bad habits while becoming elderly. A very intelligent editor exercises often but not correctly, causing immense discomfort to her back, while another person who suffered from performing injurious exercises to his spine pushed two vertebrae out of place.

There are also clues as to the manner in which we might ask ourselves important questions: Where is my head in relation to my neck? How does my head sit on top of my spine? What are my shoulders doing? What is happening to my chest and to my rib cage?

The defining moment in my own life came on Friday 14 February 1975 when on the way home from work as a publishing editor for a company near St. Paul's, I had a near-fatal accident. Taking a corner near St. Pancras on a treacherously wet road, my car skidded into a lamppost. Fortune smiled on me, however, in those successive sombre weeks.I was most fortunate to be taken soon after to University College Hospital; and although the first four months locked me in a coma, I've been so blessed that my sight, my hearing and above all my brain remained little affected. (Daily my wife and some friends used to visit, and read to, me.)

When out of the coma, over the next two years I made a slow but gradual recovery, first in U.C.H. and later at a Rehabilitation Unit in Chessington. And while there I was asked to write a book before the 1978 World Cup: a great inspiration on the road to recovery. This happily has led to my writing further books, as well as short stories and articles.

THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE by JUDITH LEIBOWITZ is a hugely uplifting book which throughout is massively positive. It is a most useful guide which provides advice and reminds a person not to slouch/the manner in which to climb stairs/drive cars, etcetera. By some degrees, however, the most productive way to make use of the Alexander Technique to improve one's health is by one-to-one teaching with an expert.

I have been receiving lessons for several years now, anticipate them with a vast degree of relish, and afterwards feel immeasureably improved - much more loose, much more agile (both mentally as well as physically), and much more focussed - and in control of myself.The lessons are also a huge incitement to think positively about what might be possible, and how I might make the most of my life - although a person confined to a wheelchair.

Indeed someone who suffered from back pain, and was recovering after having a disc removed, offers: Would you like twelve thousand dollars' of advice? Try the Alexander Technique.

Philip Evans
July 2010

 

FORWARD AND AWAY: memoirs

Elisabeth Walker

Published by Gavin R Walker  2008

Elizabeth Walker who died in September 2013 was the last of the teachers who had worked and trained with Alexander. She remained a popular an active teacher into her 98th year. As she said:  “ It is more difficult to be balanced and co-ordinated in one’s nineties; aged bones, muscles, the whole functioning system slows down, one takes less exercise so it is even more essential to give thought to applying Alexander’s principles.”  She kept going through it all and this book is a charming and copiously illustrated memoir of a dauntingly active life. 

She was born in 1914 and her book recounts just how different growing up as a girl in the 1920s and 1930s was from today; she was apprenticed as a Court dressmaker and had a horrible but mercifully short period as an unpaid seamstress to a Madame Calista in Wigmore Street.  But she also became an excellent golfer.  In 1937 she met Dick Walker who introduced her to mountaineering and rock-climbing – as well as to FM Alexander with whom he had been having lessons.  They decided they wanted to train as teachers with Alexander and got married in 1938 as the war loomed closer. 

After the war the boundlessly busy pattern of their lives was established.  Interested in art, they met Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth in Cornwall and never willingly passed an art gallery without a visit.  They later became friendly with Lee Miller the war photographer and Roland Penrose the surrealist.  In 1947, they both qualified as Alexander teachers and Dick became one of Alexander’s assistants while Elisabeth looked after their two young children.  Tragedy came with the death of one of their boys at the age of five following a tonsillectomy – a doctor callously remarked to her “I see you have another on the way.”  She went on to have another four children.

The following decades were filled with travel – they went everywhere, including South Africa, in trucks or camper vans; climbing whenever they were  near a mountain; teaching and promoting the Alexander Technique.  They lived in South Africa from 1949 till 1960  becoming increasingly disturbed by the development of apartheid and active in opposing it.  Helen Suzman was among their friends and they met Nelson Mandela and found him “a very special man.”  They returned to England in 1960 after the Sharpeville massacre.

This is an lightly written memoir by a truly remarkable woman.  There are unpretentious references to Alexander himself and to the big figures of the Alexander Technique, Walter and Dilys Carrington, Bill and Marjory Barlow, Margaret Goldie and others.  Her final chapter, “Reflections” repays careful reading by anyone seriously interested in the Technique.  But above all this book is a celebration of travel, friendship, family, art, and the joy of living life to the full.

It also cleared up a particular point for me.  Nikolaas Tinbergen received the 1973 Nobel Prize for his role in developing ethology, the science of animal behaviour.  Somewhat to the scandal of the assembled scientific dignitaries, he devoted half his acceptance speech to praising the Alexander Technique which he had recently discovered.  His biographer, Hans Kruuk, a scientist and former student of Tinbergen’s, was keen to denigrate this, claiming it was an interest that quickly faded. 

His Alexander teacher was, in fact, Elizabeth.  She mentions that Tinbergen continued to have lessons from her for a further nine years, that they shared a continuing interest in photography, and that she and her family spent a particularly happy holiday with him in his holiday cottage in Westmoreland in 1980.

 

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