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Stephen Eeley

A Self-Portrait

My most vivid memory of a Damascus Road revelation is of a time when I was at the Oxford Polytechnic studying for three A Levels, two of which I felt sure were beyond me: beyond me in terms of my intellect and beyond me in terms of my application.  I may be wrong about intellect, but then at the age of 17 I subscribed to my father’s view that I was not very bright and did not try hard enough.  I was walking slowly up Headington Hill after lunch for the afternoon session of classes feeling miserable about my absence of interest in any of the subjects that I was studying.  It was assumed at home that after I had got two A Levels (any grade, it did not matter then) I would become articled to a firm of solicitors and for five more years I would take exams until I qualified when I could enter my father’s firm and eventually become a partner.  I don’t remember the sun breaking through the cloud or a loud voice calling from the heavens, but I do remember a voice in my head, a calm reasoning voice, which told me that I could not go on taking exams for five years after I had scraped  together two A Levels.  When I got home later that afternoon I told my mother that I could not be a solicitor; I could not do it, it wasn’t in me.

Conversations with my parents were infrequent and could hardly be described as conversations, but when I told my mother that I could not continue on the path they anticipated for me, to my great surprise she agreed.  She was kind enough not to say that it was beyond my capabilities.  But it seemed that she had remembered that whenever I or my younger brother had been asked what we intended to do with our lives we had both answered consistently that we were going to make lots of money.  It was she who read in her Sunday Express that there was a young man in his very early twenties who was earning the staggering sum of £3,000 a year.  This was 1965.  He was employed in something called “an advertising agency”.   He lived in a smart flat in the centre of London and drove an E Type Jaguar.  He did not wear a suit to work and he was very good at his job in the advertising agency: he was a copywriter and had written press and television advertisements that were familiar to all.  His name was Charles Saatchi, and if he could do it without A Levels then perhaps so could I.  Advertising did not require an entrance exam; it required only talent.  It was a world of ambitious young people who were beautiful people living beautiful and entirely hedonistic lives.

Looking back on the early period of  my working life I can see that I was driven not so much by my wish to succeed and to become wealthy for myself, but for the image that I would project; for how others might perceive me, starting with my immediate family.  I had one great advantage right from the start in advertising; my parents knew nothing about this world.  So they had no way of measuring my success or my failure.  However I might feel about my progress or lack of it, it was very important to project an image of success.  I was lucky to have been accepted by J. Walter Thompson onto their training scheme.  In those days anyone who knew the tiniest bit about advertising had heard of JWT. 

My shift in priorities came after I married and eventually became economically secure.  Not having children meant for me that I had my wife and extended family to consider, and no member of that group of people was financially dependent on me.  After working hard up to the age of 40 I could start to consider employment that interested me rather than employment that rewarded me financially.  And with this change in perspective came an interest in personal growth and, more specifically, spiritual growth.  My interest in spirituality was greatly fostered by an extraordinary man who I met in Sardinia having dropped out of advertising at the age of 26, and prior to a second career in commerce.  In my adult life I have been drawn to rare individuals who are not intimidating and who can draw out interests in me that might not otherwise be expressed.  In my thirties I met someone who is perhaps the most intellectually gifted person I know and, at the same time, completely devoid of worldly ambition.  Through these two people (interestingly, related to each other through marriage) I received so much food for my questioning mind, and because of their natures I felt that I could ask them anything at all without worrying about protecting a self-image.  Gradually, through meeting people who have interested me and not threatened me I have lost the need to project a particular image of myself.  As a consequence I am much more liberated and open than I was in my teens, twenties and early thirties.  The people I now find attractive in terms of role models are those who do not have worldly ambitions.  There is a writer, the late T.F. Powys, who epitomises all that I hold sacred, but I am developed enough to know that I could never hope fully to embrace the way of life that he chose: asceticism and the life of a recluse may be attractive aspirations but they would not work for me. 

Until recently I thought that I could only feel at home in Oxford, but I have found the idea of moving to a town where I am not known and of which I have no preconceptions and little knowledge, an attractive concept.  As I have endeavoured to protect less and less a self image, I have become less concerned about how I may be perceived by others.  Because I find a greater variety of people interesting I am more and more happy to come into contact with strangers.  I have made more friends as I have grown older and more open, and these friendships are always rewarding.

I think that I have grown much more positive in my outlook, and this is an act of will as I feel that by nature I am rather negative.  I have inherited a gloomy outlook from my mother who is still alive at the age of 89.  The “worst moments” with my mother are ongoing and are all to do with her negativity; with her unfailing ability to seek out the cloud in the silver lining.  There are so many examples of her attitude that run through my life that it is hard to pick out a particular instance.  I was always aware that she would complain to my father that she never went anywhere, and when, prompted by this observation, he offered to take her out she would always refuse with the excuse that something needed doing or it would be too much fuss.  But long-term her attitude has done me good in so far as it has made me aware of my potential for negativity and has caused me to take evasive action whenever I sense my own negativity.  I was once told of an experiment which was carried out on a regiment of soldiers.  In confidence half of the regiment were given a piece of paper with the word “Birdsong”, and the other half was given the words “Dog Shit”.  After a week the half who had been given “Dog shit” reported that they had never noticed before just how much dog shit there was on the streets and that it was an absolute disgrace and how much they would like to punish irresponsible dog owners.  Meanwhile the “Birdsong” half was delighted at the amount of birdsong there was in the world and what a very uplifting experience it had been to listen to a thrush singing.  I try always to concentrate on the birdsong in life and let the dog shit pass.  It’s not easy and I often fail, but I keep trying.

My parents were not demonstrative or tactile and yet I think that my brother and I felt that we were loved, or at least we felt secure.  I don’t think that my parents were unhappy, and when I emphasise my mother’s negativity, she was negative but not unhappy.  She would not use the word “happy”; the closest she would allow was “contented”, and contentment was an aspiration for the family.  Contentment did not carry the connotations of show or fuss or exhibitionism that happiness might.  There was always a need to be low-key and not to draw attention to oneself.  And if I asked whether a jacket, tie or shirt that I was wearing looked OK, it was usually pointed out that no one was likely to be looking at me anyway.  So I didn’t learn demonstrative love or confidence at home and I think as a result of this I had a difficult time when I went away to public school at the age of thirteen.  I think that if you are brought up in an atmosphere of family love and family interest then you feel secure in any new situation.  I hated my public school because I felt so insecure and because I excelled at nothing at all.  It left me feeling stupid and undervalued and very lonely, and it was not even a very good school.  Because it was a single sex school my encounters with girls were few, and my knowledge of them as individuals and collectively was non-existent.  Women were sex objects, sadly viewed from afar, and the real motivation for close encounters with the opposite sex was entirely sexual.  But lacking confidence and knowledge made these encounters nightmares of anxiety.  It took me a long time before I could feel comfortable and equal in a relationship with the opposite sex.

I have a test that I apply to check my feelings about other people.  I imagine a friend or acquaintance being set upon by an individual that I don’t know, and I ask myself how involved I feel about the outcome of the situation.  In every case I find that I care deeply for the person known to me, so deeply that I want to intervene and protect the person.  Where I feel this I recognise that I love that person, and I feel this in every case where I have applied the test.  Love, or is it compassion, and then is it compassion for all of suffering humanity?  I don’t know.  I don’t feel involved in all the awful suffering that I see daily reported on the television news, but then this is because the medium has somehow anesthetized me to the true impact of the message.  An individual’s vulnerability will always get a response from me, and often I will perceive vulnerability where it is far from obvious.  I am now much more prepared to be charitable about someone’s reasons for behaving badly and excuse behaviour because it is indicative only of shyness, threat or an inability to cope well with a situation.

I am not a leader.  I rather feel that I am a person who has arrived at an age and a standing which makes most people believe that I might be consulted.  This may be a politeness on the part of the consulter and has a lot to do with my increasing years.  On the other hand, I have arrived at an age where I seem to be completely invisible to anyone under the age of 25.  I have always done best in situations were I have been performing a task for someone else, and I have always performed best where what I have done has been approved and I have been thanked.  I would probably work for nothing if I felt that what I did was appreciated.  When I left the commercial world where I was well paid but often treated badly, I came to work for the University of Oxford where I was poorly paid but where my efforts were appreciated.  It was a far more satisfactory work environment. 

I gave up on academic learning at the age of 18, but after much intellectual stimulation in my late thirties I returned to academic endeavour through the Open University and then went to Warwick to do an MA in my fifties.  I am now a very committed supporter of education at all age levels, and it is my biggest regret when looking back over my life that I went to the school I did and did not encounter teaching infused with enthusiasm and interest.  When I was at prep school I used to travel home each evening on the number 4 bus with my closest friend who lived two stops before mine.  Often I would get off the bus with him and have tea at his house.  Both his parents were often at home; both were academics.  When we sat down at the kitchen table for tea his parents would get his homework out of his satchel and the four of us would set about Latin translations with great enthusiasm and pleasure: learning was fun, a great game for all the family in his home.  When I got home I was ordered into a room on my own to complete my homework.  Learning was a chore with all the fun and pleasure removed.

I am now 57 years old and I have changed a lot in the last 40 years.  I am more settled, my fears have diminished and my hopes have become more realistic.  In some things my tastes have changed; I want less and I don’t need the external stimulation that was so important in my twenties and thirties.  I am happy to cultivate a spiritual life and drop my material strivings. 

November 2004.