One of the key Alexander Technique concepts is the idea of ‘non-doing’, the opposite of ‘doing’ or ‘trying’. It’s not doing nothing, but a way of doing less, so we match the effort to the task.
To do less, we have to stop doing things in the normal way and allow ourselves to find a better one. The stopping or ‘inhibition’ means we intercept ourselves just before we proceed with an action. In the pause we have time to choose whether and how to continue. This allows us to think more about the ‘means whereby’ we do something, rather than ‘end-gaining’ to achieve a given result. By pausing we also stop our usual ways of acting and start to ‘unlearn’ our habits. This allows new patterns to develop over time, as old ways start to be replaced by easier and more conscious ways of being.
I’m about to apply the idea of non-doing to this blog. I want to continue writing, but with less effort. Non-writing. Or maybe writing in a more thoughtful, more sustainable way. Gradually I’m discovering that the activities I undertake have to be sustainable. This means looking after myself – working for shorter periods, taking breaks, and noticing when I need to stop, rather than carrying on regardless.
This term I’ve gone through some large ‘undoings’ in my body, and the process continues. In line with Alexander’s concept of psycho-physical unity (that the body and mind are not two entities, but one integrated self), it’s having an effect on my sense of myself and, in turn, on how and what I want to write. My response is to apply Alexander thinking not just to movement but also to how I approach other areas of my life, including this blog. I’m not sure what the outcome will be, but that is very much the point.
After nearly nine months of weekly posts, I’ve decided to take a break over the Christmas holidays, and after that I’ll be posting monthly rather than weekly (on the first weekend of the month, with an email going to subscribers on the Monday immediately following).
The next post will be on the website in early January 2018 -until then, best wishes for the holiday season and the New Year.
I’ve seen through the eyes of a bird, and been shaken to the core. I’ve just read The Peregrine by JA Baker, one of the great texts of modern nature writing. There are many bodies in this book – countless peregrines and their violent kills, Baker himself, and the effect on my own body of reading it. Baker’s biographer Hetty Saunders says ‘he strove in his writing to inhabit the falcon’s body – to see through its own eyes, feel through its body’. And his physical difficulties – the chronic inflammatory condition ankylosing spondylitis coupled with extreme short sight – had a bearing on what and how he wrote.
First, the background. The slim volume was published in 1967, won a literary prize and went in and out of print. It has caught hold of writers, campaigners, birders and general readers, and in recent years has been championed by writer Robert Macfarlane among others. He calls it ‘landscape on acid’. Film director Werner Herzog says it’s a must for aspiring film directors, yet regards it as unfilmable. On paper it’s a meticulous diary of one winter’s observations of peregrines around the Blackwater Estuary in Essex. In reality it’s a composite of ten years’ obsessive birdwatching from 1954 to 1964 compressed tightly into six months. It’s fact and poetry combined.
The bird he had in his sights –“that crossbow flinging through the air” – is a supreme hunter, ‘stooping’ from the sky to snatch its victims at well over a hundred miles an hour. Pesticide use (especially DDT) was rife when Baker was writing and peregrines at the top of the food chain absorbed more than most. Their eggshells weakened, breeding reduced and extinction was close. Baker documents his questing pursuit of the peregrine, using dense visceral prose to shake us awake to the vicious reality of nature and humankind.
Time after time he produces word pictures of flight and pursuit, with rapid and fatal movement in the sky. In his entry for 20 December a line of mallards comes into view:
“Looking up at them through binoculars, I see for the first time a falcon peregrine circling very high, beating and gliding in the fading light. She stoops, dilates like a pupil of an eye as it passes from day’s brilliance into dusk. She is the size of a lark, then of a jay, now of a crow, now of a mallard. Mallard spray outwards and climb as she dives between them. She bends up through the sky again, curves under and up with the momentum of her stoop, crashes into a mallard, bursts it into a drift of feathers. Grappled together, they glide above the wood, then sweep down to the frosted ride. Mallard fly along the line of the wood towards the lake. Nothing has changed, though one is gone.”
He creates movement and dynamism through an intense stew of verbs and metaphors. It’s exhilarating and addictive, yet stark and indigestible. I can only stomach it in short bursts. From my Alexander perspective he’s overly obsessive, too much of an ‘end-gainer’, concentrating exclusively on sighting the peregrine and pinning it down in prose. But it’s his restricted and singular focus that gives the book its furious power.
In some ways Baker’s body is barely present in the book, and he remains mysterious as a narrator. Away from the page he was until recently an elusive figure. However the Baker archives are now more complete and his life is better understood after the biography My House of Sky was published earlier this year. He effaces himself in his writing, yet his body caused him pain and difficulty. The fusing joints from his inflammatory condition meant he couldn’t use his fingers easily, nor could he range as freely outdoors as he wanted. His severe myopia affected what he saw, so binoculars were critical. Despite all this, he pursued and described his quarry. Shaman-like, he almost turned into one of the most visually acute, powerfully explosive and mobile birds of all.
“Hawk-hunting sharpens vision. Pouring away behind the moving bird, the land flows out from the eye in deltas of piercing colour. The angled eye strikes through the surface dross as the oblique axe cuts to the heart of a tree. A vivid sense of place grows like another limb.”
I’ve had my copy of The Peregrine for some years and it remained unread until last week. I couldn’t get beyond the first few pages. Every time I picked it up, another bloody kill made me put it back down. But something has shifted in me. I’m more stable now in my body, more comfortable in my skin. The Peregrine might ruffle my feathers, but it won’t knock me out of the sky.
I started by saying I’ve been shaken to the core by reading the book. Yes, it has changed my perception of the natural world and my place in it. I am shaken – but still standing. In the past I was more easily pushed off balance and somehow I seemed to absorb it physically. Now after six years of Alexander lessons, and nearly two years of more intense training to be an Alexander teacher, I’ve found an inner stability and a deeper resilience in myself. I’m more able to deal with whatever comes along. Read The Peregrine if you haven’t already. It’s a strong and heady brew, so be sure your body is up to it.
Photos from the exhibition ‘Natural Selection’ by Andy Holden & Peter Holden. The eggs are porcelain replicas, made by artist Andy Holden, of a hoard of 7130 illegally collected birds’ eggs, found by the police in a raid in 2006.
Police horses and pearlies, cadets and marching bands all assembled in the Sunday morning cold, alongside veterans, local dignitaries and others wanting to pay their respects. The nearby plaque to those who died in a V1 bomb attack in 1944 was a sombre reminder of why the Remembrance parade starts here.
As I arrived I saw uniforms being adjusted and frantic phone calls made to those cutting it fine for the prompt start. John, the local Pearly King and his son Darren, the Pearly Prince, were both in attendance, sparkling and weighed down in their traditional Cockney suits.
As the varied groups gathered in formation, I noticed how they held themselves and what their hands were doing. Even before the parade began, body language in uniform was stiff and formal. The Honourable Artillery Company and the army cadets clasped hands behind their backs, while the police cadets held their arms stiffly by their sides, hands curled and closed. Chests were puffed out, shoulders back, legs stiff and breathing restricted. Feet stood close together, boots polished and shiny.
The drummers were more relaxed as they waited, despite their starring role at the head of the parade. I thought about the heavy drums they held strapped in front of them, and the effect that carrying the weight while playing and marching would have on their bodies over the next hour or so.
The troops massed into line, an officer barked the command and the parade moved off. Every so often a leader shouted an order to keep the disparate marchers in time. Each group saluted as they passed the local fire station, with firefighters standing helmeted and to attention outside.
Rigid military bearing is the opposite of the free open movement I’m working towards with the Alexander Technique, and I was acutely aware of the contrast as the soldiers marched by. I felt uncomfortable as I watched their taut faces and held body language. I felt relieved and breathed more easily when they had moved on.
The parade continued, marching to the drummers’ beat and collecting more officials and children’s groups. We all came to a quiet standstill at the war memorial, where hundreds of people had gathered for an outdoor inter-faith service.
The crowd hushed as the trumpeter sounded the Last Post and we stood for two minutes in silence. Representatives of local groups and members of the public laid poppy wreaths then the crowd dispersed to warm themselves in the coffee shops nearby.