Root Menu

Richard Thompson

In conversation with Simon Beard

I remember thinking about thirty years ago that a person was extremely fortunate if they could count the number of friends they had on the fingers of one hand. In other words, a really rich haul is to have four or five good friends. That was a period in my life when I was extremely busy developing a new sort of school and I had a group of friends who I used to meet. We’d share our inner work together and it became really very powerful and important. Including my wife, because I am very fortunate to have a friend as a wife, there were four of us so I started to think I was doing quite well really!

I don’t think all the others, who other people might say were my ‘friends’, were really important, though they where friends in the normally accepted understanding of the word. My idea of friendship is where you could ring somebody up at three o’clock in the morning and say, ‘I’m in a real mess and would you lend me a fiver’ or ‘come and pick me up from the middle of nowhere’, and they would. Also perhaps one shares one’s shadow or one’s negative side with one’s friends as well, and they are the people who one is prepared to do that with.

I’ve moved around quite a bit and whenever I’ve moved, I’ve had forty, fifty or sixty ‘friends’ and I’ve been rather surprised at myself how I haven’t kept in contact with them at all, but I have kept in contact with those good friends. Possibly it’s the giving of trust that means there is a depth in good friendship that it’s very difficult to replicate, or maybe at that particular time with those people we experienced something that was so significant to our growing that they’d become part of me and I’d become part of them. In a lifetime, one actually doesn’t come across that very often, it’s a more precious thing and a rarer thing then we sometimes assume.

I also thought about the difference between life in a village and life in London. I started to think about the limit of how many people you could actually relate to. I was head of a school with twelve hundred people and I tried to run the school as if it were a school of one hundred. It was a bit of a con maybe, but all of the young people from twelve to twenty all thought that it was a very personal sort of school. They all thought I knew everybody’s name! I’d be in the dinner queue and they’d ask, ‘Sir, do you know everybody’s name?’ and I’d say, ‘you try me’, though I only said that if I remembered their name of course. They also used to ask me, ‘Sir, do you speak Urdu’ and I’d say ‘yeh, you try me’, and they all used to say, ‘What is your name (in Urdu)’ and I’d reply, ‘My name is Mr Thompson (in Urdu)’, but no one ever said, ‘Don’t you have a tie?’ or ‘Where did you buy that striped shirt?’ because I wouldn’t have known what to say. So I thought about how many people can you actually meaningfully relate to? I thought the limit is about two hundred. That is why when I am in the tubes in London I actually make a decision to block people out, because you can’t actually start reaching out to everyone, and if you can’t reach out to everyone you block them off and you don’t actually smile at anyone in a tube train. I used to smile and see what happened, and usually people are not ready to respond.

If you smile at someone in a village on the other hand the reaction is very different. You may not be from the village but if you say good morning, then people will respond good morning and you might say that it’s going to rain and then you start talking. You don’t do that on Mile-End Road and you don’t do it on St Giles either. If we went out and I said, ‘Good afternoon, how are you?’ that would not be welcomed. I can say it here (in the Friends meeting house) because they know that I live here, so as soon as they come through the door that becomes permissible. I don’t think that I could relate to the twelve hundred people in my school and all the seventy-five staff. I knew all the staff but I haven’t kept in touch with all but one or two. I was close to them on a professional level, I’d been deputy head and then head and obviously if I went up now to Bradford and stopped outside the school everyone would say, ‘Wow, long time no see’ and I’d ask, ‘How are you doing, how are your kids?’ et cetera, but I haven’t kept in touch at all. Out of those seventy-five staff we still do Christmas cards with about eight or ten of them, and that includes the caretaker and his wife, the deputy who is now head, and just one or two staff, that’s the only remnant of my friendships of seven years ago.

Then again, as soon as the ideas of hierarchy, power and salaries come into it I think it’s very difficult to allow something to go into a good friendship. I think that as soon as you’ve got the power thing introduced, and I suppose it might be the same with the sex thing, that precludes the future of being a good friend.

I probably tend to choose my friends for those who are actually interested in the quest, in the inner journey, like I am. However, maybe I should welcome people who are not and who can unsettle me. I’ve got an intellectual understanding that we learn more from struggle then comfort. Perhaps those who have remained my friends have done so because they don’t criticise me and I don’t criticise them, only my friend upstairs, my wife, knows how to criticise me. It has been hard, but I think I’m maturing a little bit more now and starting to just begin to be able to see criticism as a rich resource, and not get it linked up with ideas of self-approval and worth. Maybe if I were to be consciously looking out for friends I’d be looking out for someone who could, who would be brave enough and confident enough, to nudge me with regard to some of my shortcomings.

Criticism is something that is pretty close to the knuckle, I should give renewed vigour to this because it does hold me back, this whole feeling that the world should do everything my way and if it doesn’t and seems to suggest another way then I take it personally, it’s ludicrous. Possibly, it goes back to being the third child, and then at school being deputy head prefect. I think that has driven me to apply for headships and to stick in there and go through all sorts of indignities and a lot of extra work in order to become head. So I think the next challenge to take in my fibre, in my guts, is to be open to criticism, to other ways of doing things and to be less self-centred, self-righteous and self-justifying.

In the last six months, I have been reading Gurdjieff. One of the central points of the Gurdjieff view is that we can do nothing, things happen to us and we react. We’ve been conditioned in a certain way and we go through our whole lives in this sort of sleep, like an automaton, and only by realising that we cannot do anything may we start to actually get a glimmer of awakening. That’s why two weeks ago when I saw Ingmar Bergman’s production of the Magic Flute it nearly knocked me off my chair because the very first five seconds is Tamino saying I can do nothing. He’s got a quiver with no arrows in it and there’s a bloody big monster following him. He realises he is powerless, and he calls for help. That takes only about thirty-five seconds, and yet it’s the actual first step of the magic flute which leads to a quests of accepting suffering, all sorts of trials and learning.

As well as being uncomfortable with criticism, I find I am uncomfortable with ‘party talk’. I’ve just written to apologise to a couple for not going to their wedding. The idea of the church service and seeing them married is lovely, but after it the canapés and the talking, the eating at half past four in the afternoon and trying to find something to say, just fills me with unease. So I have taken the way out of saying that I’ve got something planned. I have a meeting in the morning, but I know that the meeting finishes at one o’clock and the wedding is at half-past two and I could actually get across to it. However my wife can’t make it because she is in Warwick, perhaps we could have had the day out together but the fact that she’s away and I’d have to travel fifteen miles to this wedding by myself and meet up with, very nice, people but that’s a challenge. It isn’t particularly great but I’d run a mile from that.

What I was hoping to do was get away on Saturday. We have one weekend per month free and it’s actually very precious, and we have to move and get away. Otherwise friends, the telephone and everything goes off, so we actually remove ourselves physically, and that’s good for the assistant warden as well because people actually speak to him rather then saying, ‘Richard, can I have some blue tak please.’ This is the first weekend for years that I’m not going anywhere because my wife’s going to Warwick and it’s her birthday the next day and we’re going off to Waterperry together, to see Art in Action.

I would like to be more courageous in accepting the limits of my own action, and a bit of humility, I don’t think it leads to a narrower meaning of existence, I think it leads to a richer, much more varied existence. It’s breaking out of this persona which I’ve developed over the years that has so many restrictions on it, I can actually do without that now and let it go and see what happens. One of my good friends said to me thirty years ago that ‘it doesn’t matter what people think of you, it’s what you think of other people which matters, it nearly blew my head off, that. I realised that I’d spent, and I continue to spend, so much time like a puppet trying to gain the approval of other people, showing them what a good boy I am. That’s quite a narrow role to play and it just doesn’t matter. It’s what I do, how I care for people, that is my contribution, rather then worrying about what they think of me, that’s part of my journey.

***

We have a group here called SAA, Sex Addicts Anonymous, and I was fairly frosty to them when I first came here because we got off on the wrong foot together. I thought, ‘My god, what will they dream up next?’ About a month later I came into the library and they had left a book out, it was a twelve step program, and I actually saw myself changing. I’m not too sure if we usually change all that much, but in this particular case I think I changed. I changed because I suddenly realised from this book the huge quantity of misery that our society’s focus on sex, especially when sex is used in a commercial way, was generating. If you could quantify misery, then the misery you have because you can’t have some new Adidas trainers might be a thimble full. If we where to quantify the misery from, say, money, that would be quite a lot but if you could quantify the misery amounting from sexual anxiety and worry, absolutely fostered by commercial powers it would be like a huge goods train going past with about one hundred and fifty wagons and you’d say, ‘MY GOD, what’s that misery train there?’ and they’d say, ‘Well that’s the sex thing’. People who meet here may have had abuse when they where little and then may have, undoubtedly, sat through advert after advert and innuendo and suggestion about sexual inadequacy unless you’re doing certain things so frequently. This is absolutely whipped up into a frenzy in everyday life for millions and millions of people in this country. Then to be able to find someone who really understood, and this twelve step program, which again starts with the idea of powerlessness, but at least now you’ve got some companions. I’ve realised the value of groups like that now.

I find the whole area of personal growth, the question of learning from one’s time on earth, absolutely fascinating, and I’ll be always ready to look at something like that. I’m now looking at the Gurdjeff thing, I’m looking at Ouspensky, ‘The Search for the Miraculous’, and the little book that chose me, I didn’t choose it, by Elizabeth O’Conner called ‘Our Many Selves’. What I dislike learning about are technical things. I bought the computer books to try and just occasionally dip into them and find out something new and they’ve remained totally closed and I’ve never made time to try and learn publisher or to try and learn excel. I’ve managed to teach myself a basic bit of word processing skills and a bit of spreadsheets and desktop publishing and now I don’t want to do anything more, so I never do and I’ve got books galore. I just look on it as a huge gap and a waste of time.

Sometimes though, I need to learn something specific. Right now I want to become knowledgeable in the development of French Quakerism. That’s a particular need as my wife and I are leading the French Quaker Annual Meeting at the end of August, which is next month! We’ve got seventy people who are going to have five days with us and before then I shall have to become more fluent in French and also in French Quakerese. For instance I’m going to need to know the actual French ways of saying ‘to wait in the light’, ‘be still and cool from thy own thoughts’ and ‘be patterns, be models’. I must get these into myself, and I am interested so I’m going to do it, I’m going to find time.

I find though that I don’t want to learn a large amount of things, I am reacting against that. I feel that there’s such a huge, rich and varied field in the Gurdjieff/Ouspensky/Bennet sort of literature and I want that sort of thinking not just to go into my mind and the mental apparatus, but I want that to go deeper, because I think it’s something that is actually really true. I’ve got this feeling that all the other things I wish to know about, lesser spotted woodpeckers and Quakers in New Zealand are distractions and I want to focus now. There is this monk in me I think, who would like a much more austere, truer, deeper existence, instead of my natural tendency to be like a butterfly and to alight on this or that book and get interested in it. I’ve got a divergent mind which goes off and thinks ‘fish symbolism in the Japanese no theatre, wow I’d like to know about that!’ or ‘sense of space in Islamic gardens, there may be something really good there’ and I’m going to say NO.

***

Growth

I’m probably very self-centred about the future. There is a mounting anxiety about the future of our grandchildren and the more I take it seriously the more desperate I feel. Yet, it doesn’t actually lead me to do more then token actions. I’m pretty good at recycling, I’ll go to the tip on a Monday and take three quarters of an hour of loading up cardboard and various things. I do a lot for the public awareness of sustainability and climate change, and yet I still fly. My wife is from a little village in the Cevennes and she has family there, so that’s how I justify that. John Macmurray says that all meaningful action leads to friendship and therefore friendship and relations are very important to me. I think I try and put the action in its place though and say that I’m flying there and I’m flying back because we only have one weekend off. It’s a bit like when William Penn asked George Fox ‘Can I wear this sword?’ George Fox refused to take away Penn’s responsibility for himself and said, ‘Wear it for as long as you can.’ I still rationalise to myself that that plane is going to take off on Friday morning whether I’m on it or not, and yet it will allow us to go and see our little house and my wife’s family and for me to do the garden, and so we do it. I put on the back burner my fears and anxieties about how we need to change our lifestyle and so I don’t change mine.

I am excited about my own future because of the work I’ve just begun in the Gurdjieff line and the enforced change which is coming. The fact is that I get to my retirement age this year and have now decided that I’ve got to leave Oxford, though I am very happy here. I’m not sure where we’re going but I think I’ve been here nearly eight years and I’ve got this feeling that seven or eight years is the time after which the law of diminishing returns sets in. I want to be ready to change then, so I’m quite exited about that.

I’ve tended to change but not have a career pattern ahead of me, perhaps I’ve felt that after a certain period of time jobs and life situations become devalued and loose their potency after a while, just like words can. One starts to act a bit like one has become part of the furniture. The habitual and the mechanical become predominant in your actions and then there’s a warning light which comes on and says, ‘Wake up and move’. I hope that warning light comes from, if I’m not too presumptuous enough to say it, my own witness who has a bit more wisdom then my perceived self has ever had. If I listen to it it’s usually right, but often I don’t listen to it.

When I have moved I think I have tended to choose where to go based on dissatisfaction. When I was at university everybody said I was going to be a teacher so I thought bugger that I’m not going to be a teacher because everyone believes I’m going to be a teacher and so I chose to go into mail order retail. When I was in mail order I was dissatisfied with the philosophy and the meaning behind that company, or the lack of it. I used to have long walks and talks with my wife about whether work should have any meaning, and from that I decided to go into teaching. I then got dissatisfied with teaching French, which I loved to a certain extent but I found the inculcation of facts, tenses and grammar a bit narrow and technical so I went into careers. Then I wanted to come out of the instrumental, learning-for-a-reason, education and go into a holistic job based on ‘what makes people tick?’ so I went into an experimental residential comprehensive school in south Yorkshire. I became deputy head because I was hankering after this leadership thing, then head and then here (Warden of the friends meeting house Oxford). The spur has mainly been dissatisfaction. Whether that’s a wholesome thing I’m not sure.

I tend to justify what I’ve done so I tend to think that I learned more from the jobs that didn’t satisfy me than I would have done otherwise. For instance I learned what I didn’t want was to work in mail order! I remember going into school on my very first morning of teaching and realising that I had gone from an adult medium, however superficial it was, into a childish medium amongst adults. I went into the staff room and the head of physics came in and said, ‘That’s the last straw, someone has taken my car parking space. I’m going to see the head master!’ and I thought I don’t believe this. I knew that had I gone to my finance director the week before and said, ‘Sir, someone has taken my parking space,’ he would have said, ‘Piss off, out of my room.’ Yet the head teacher was going to say, ‘Hey don’t get so heat up Fred, it must have been this new chap who had no idea it was your car park.’ I thought I’d gone into a place of arrested emotional development and that’s what some teachers are, because they had gone from home, to school, to college and then back to school again. I tended to justify the two years I spent in commerce as an uncomfortable but healthy time.

***

I think I’ve got enough material now for my life to be complete. I don’t have to go to Kathmandu or trek all over the Rockies. If I were brave enough I’d try going into retreat and sitting in front of a bare white wall to find completion there. Then I think a little voice would say, ‘This is a sham,’ and that completion actually is in continuing to relate authentically with others, so I’d come out of the monastery and try to interact as genuinely as I could at all times. I think that would lead to a deeper sensation of completion than isolation. Completeness is to do with meeting people and applying yourself, and not falling into those traps, probably self-imposed, of proving myself, of patting myself on the back of saying, ‘Look what a good boy am I’. It’s really listening to other people, people I meet and looking round at each one of them as a unique and precious resource, that I need for my completion.


October 2005