Root Menu

Charlotte Suthrell

A Self-Portrait

There are many things in my life which I wake up and say 'thank you' for on a daily basis – that I was able to do a doctoral thesis, a process rich in experiences of many kinds, is one. Living in Oxford, the city I continue to love completely (despite the City Council abominations of a few years ago) is another, especially that my sister and I bought a house here sufficiently long ago that it was still affordable – together with the fact that sharing the house over the years has led to some great and enduring friendships.  My connection with family and band of friends is another huge plus in my life – and, probably like many people, I think relationships are the key element of living that has really been important to me all the way through my life. But the nature of those relationships has changed over the years. When I come to reflect on them, I realise that in many ways they are characterised by the passage from fear to love. In my early life, it is with something of a jolt to remember that relationships outside my family were principally about fear, an area of painful awkwardness, because now they are a source of enormous warmth and support.

When I was at secondary school, for example, I found relationships with many of the other girls in my class seriously difficult.  They bullied and baited me from day one and in a pretty malicious, unpleasant way. (Thinking about it, I have the impression that if trapping my hand in a car door had been an available option, they'd have done that too…)  They tended to divide into two camps – those who had boyfriends, wore make-up, read Jackie, didn't do their homework and were definitely not going to university – and a much smaller group who did their homework, were planning to go to university, didn't wear cosmetics or read magazines or have boyfriends. I fell somewhere in between. I wore make up and read magazines (sometimes), did my homework (mostly) had a boyfriend and definitely wanted to go to university.  Unbelievable as this seems now, there didn't seem to be any others in this category. The prevailing culture at this narrow-minded, provincial girls grammar school was to hate lessons and participate as little as possible and I felt quite lost and confused most of the time because I didn't know what was wrong with me, I just knew I didn't fit.

So at that point in my life, I tended to hang out with boys because they seemed to have – or be capable of – much more interesting conversations (no doubt they also liked to show off.) But I still felt as if I was starving for something I didn't even know how to name, let alone look for.

When I was 16 I had an extraordinary piece of good fortune. Through my best friend, I met a chap who had been assigned to work with her boyfriend for a local engineering firm. We met on his first day of working in Lincoln; he'd been thrown out of Oxford for a year for political activity (students still did that then!)  I really don't know what I'd have done if he hadn't walked into my life at that point and I still thank the universe for it with unswerving gratitude.  The things that I learned from him were like meat and drink to a starving woman; he just transformed everything.  He came from a family who were very intellectual and cultured, he'd been to a good London public school, was reading Engineering Science at Oxford but had an enormous range of interests and knowledge.  One of the authors he introduced me to was Hermann Hesse – I loved Steppenwolf immediately – and I'm still enormously fond of it; the image of the small door in the wall which is so important in the text – and I've only recently realised this – is an image which I've had on the wall of practically every room I've ever lived in.  I guess because I'm so thankful I found it and for the relationship which shone the light in it's direction.  (And books definitely come very high up the list of important things in my life… Perhaps because my mother was quite ill throughout my childhood, I learned early on to 'play' quietly and escape into a world of stories.  To this day I find it hard to believe that there really are people who prefer non-fiction to fiction as pure-pleasure reading matter.)

So I'm deeply thankful for many of the relationships which have come into my life over the decades, but for that one in particular. If Matthew hadn't turned up, maybe I'd still have been stumbling round in the dark trying to find the small door.  It's probably also because of him that I fell for Oxford. My first visit here was with him and it was such an intense experience.  I remember going to a concert in Merton Chapel of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and experiencing a pleasure so potent, I thought I might have died and gone to heaven. Lawrence Durrell says in The Alexandria Quartet that 'a city becomes a world when one loves one of the inhabitants' but this was much more than that – the love of the man and the love of the place were both incredibly strong but together they amplified each other into something concentrated and fervid and entirely irresistible.  I would catch the train from Lincoln to Oxford at weekends after he'd returned to being a student – I was still at school – and feel a joy and excitement so extreme on the way there and a desperate, bleak misery on the way back; it was like being a manic-depressive.  And through that relationship I was finally able to reach out and touch the life I'd dreamed of but didn't know how to name – and have the kind of conversations that lit me up – about books and films and philosophy and politics and music and art and culture – even though at that point, I was technically just a hanger-on to the Oxford world.  I was just so grateful that I'd found it at last, this magical world, and the door in the wall that led to it.

Later, probably during my time as an undergraduate, I discovered relationships with women friends and the delight of those conversations and a sharing of a way-of-being; relationships which have continued to grow both in number and in strength. Many years later, I mentally looked at this group of wonderful women I knew and wondered what it was, if anything, that we had in common – we seemed to have such different backgrounds and personalities and abilities – and the only thing I could put my finger on was that we'd nearly all had that experience of feeling a misfit during our school years – coupled with the elation after we left school of having come through.

Curiosity is a priority, too – to find out and go on finding out and allow oneself to change in response to what one discovers.  I can't decide whether this gets easier or more difficult as one gets older… There are some things which I think I'm considerably more tolerant of – the who-does-what on a daily basis when you're sharing a house, for example. But there are other things I'm much less tolerant of, especially the maltreatment of different groups of people, whether it's the Tibetans by the Chinese, people with non-mainstream sexuality in UK culture (and many others) or the destruction of the environment by just about every culture.

India has been a truly important learning environment for me, both about the way another culture functions and the changes that have happened in me because of the time I've spent there.  Somehow, I knew from when I was very small –  maybe five or six – that I wanted to go there more than anywhere else in the world.  My parents had some relatives there and I was so fascinated with their letters and the things they brought when they visited – and when I was about nine I read a story about a woman who went on a walking tour from Srinagar and even just reading the word on the page made the hairs on my arms prickle.  I finally got there in 1988 and went walking in the Himalayas. I had found a leaflet at a talk I went to for a 90 mile trek in Ladakh and I signed up for it without even knowing where I'd find the money for the deposit from or whether I'd be allowed the time off work – because although the voice of my rational brain said 'you can't afford it, you can't do it', the voice from my gut saying 'GO' was so strong.

Handwritten: 'I've written a journal on most of my travels but the journey in the Himalayas was a really special one. (Sadly, though, it then got lost on a plane!) I had no idea this photo was being taken but the friend who took it kindly passed it on.'

Within a week, the money had arrived from an entirely unexpected source and the people in my workplace were fine about me taking leave.  That was the first time I'd ever trusted the gut voice and it turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life (even though for the weeks before I went, I lay in bed at night thinking 'but I hate walking – I specially hate walking up and down hills – why on earth am I going to walk 90 miles in the Himalayas?'!)  We stayed in houseboats on the lake in Kashmir and for some reason, the family who owned them decided to kind of adopt me – and after the trek was over, through a strange and unexpected set of circumstances, I actually went to live with them as a family for several weeks. Marvellous. My first taste of being an anthropologist in some ways.  But also, I noticed how much more open-hearted and trusting and child-like I became in India. And even though I've probably spent a total of about 30 months there since 1988, that still happens – extraordinary country.

At school I had also dreamed vague dreams of becoming an anthropologist; vague because it isn't a subject taught at school (or at least not mine and not then). As an undergraduate it was a saddeningly desiccated experience – as if they had taken all the marvellous juice that the subject contains in so many forms and tamed it into boxes, a Jif lemon version in its plastic Jif lemon shaped bottle. So afterwards I gave up any ideas of pursuing it further and found work with a Housing Association – which was immensely fulfilling but not at all what I'd imagined.  And several years later – too many – I discovered a place where they did still teach the real thing; the ripe, fresh fruit. (The department attached to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Only it was called Ethnology instead of Anthropology.) To go to lectures given by the person who was the expert in their field – on Nuristan – or Australia – or the Amazon – was just amazing; brain-lifting. I came out of lectures feeling incandescent with excitement. On top of which I really loved college life – and had three brilliant years Junior Deaning – just the best job in the world…There are nights when you can dine at High Table, then go to the undergraduates' parties – and you come to know both groups much better than you otherwise would have done, as well as having a sense of being useful to the community in which you live.

And when it was my turn to go and do fieldwork for my D.Phil, I arrived in Jaipur, ready to find and interview hijras (individuals, usually living in communities, who were born as men but live as women, and are found only in India) – and I did – but what else happened was that I got to know a family in a village about 30 miles outside Jaipur really well and it was often the time that I spent with them in the village that felt like 'real' work in the field. The parents – who are in their 50s – never learned to read and write but the males of the next generation went to school and to college and now, in this generation, the girls are going to school too.  Rajasthan is one of the most beautiful of the Indian states but also one of the most feudal which is partly why it's taken so long. And although I'm 100% pleased that the girls are getting an education at last, I do wonder how traditional village life will be sustained if the women are no longer prepared to do all the work in the fields.  Big changes coming, I think, over the next 20 years.

And now Jaipur is the part of India I mainly go back to, particularly because the people I've become close to there have truly become like family, Sometimes, I think that if I end up not having a family of my own, I shall spend my old age there if I can. Although at others, I think I'm too English ever to leave England completely, forever. (And the long stints of time I did spend in India were wonderful for concentrating the mind on what I do really appreciate about life in England … People, most, of course, and the combination of both relaxed and  stimulating conversation that comes from the bedrock of experience you share with them.  But also the Phoenix cinema and the theatre and opera, talks and bookshops, the variety of food and ambience of different cafés, the, the freedom of being able to jump into the car and just go; central heating on a cold night and, most of all, Radio 4.)

I don't really fear death but I do fear ageing and, in particular, loss of mobility.  On bad days I worry about being part of an maturing population, having no children of my own (nor even nieces and nephews), being a burden on the younger working population and their resentment of that; being regarded as a nuisance. I worry about not yet having met the man I’d like to grow old with, perhaps marry and have children – and whether I’m destined never to do those most basic of human activities.  (I thought I had but when the relationship broke up a few weeks ago, I really began to wonder again.)

On good days I reason that because the over-65s will exist in greater numbers, the facilities for them are likely to improve in every direction, from new and innovative housing solutions to ever greater potential activities.  (And I've just remembered that when I was 20, an astrologer told me that by the time I'm 64 I'll be living in a community of women – and most of the other things he said in that session have been proved right. Over the last year or two I've started to realise how many of my contemporaries – and I – cherish an idea of living in a community of friends and like-minded people. But whose friends? And would the complexities prove too much for us?)  If I am going to have a career as a writer, as I hope, then at least that is something which doesn’t have a retirement age… But whether it will ever make me any money – sooner or later – is another question!

I don’t even know whether writing will be the mainstay of the work I do, though I hope it will always be a part of it; I love teaching, too, so I hope that can come into it somewhere – and I shall never give up hope of being able to work for Radio 4 – but I also hope that if other opportunities present themselves I’ll always be ‘up for it’ and able to explore them. My father is 90 now and in pretty good health – and I believe that, as well my mother's very good care of him, the single most important thing which has enabled him to live long and fruitfully is that he very seldom rejects opportunities. When you offer him the possibility of doing something quite unexpected, he nearly always says ‘Yes’, whether it’s going on the scary rides at St Giles Fair or a trip to India. I respect him enormously for that – it would be so easy to plead old age as an excuse for not continuing to be involved and active – but he doesn’t. And I really hope I can be like that as I get older – go on living for today and tomorrow, not just remembering yesterday.  Staying open seems to be a real key.

When I think about the future it is very much affected by the mood I’m in on that day, so perhaps it is an emotional response, although there are times when I try to have a more logical, planning approach.  I recently heard someone say that over the course of an average life, we have about 600,000 hours – of which we’re asleep for about 200,000 – and by the time we’re in our 40s, we have about a third of that 400,000 left – so maybe about 130,000 hours.  Somehow, that really concentrated my mind and made me determined to crack on with my ‘stuff-to-do’ lists.  But then what is ‘wasting time’? Surely it’s important periodically to just stay at home and watch a good film on TV? To loiter and talk to friends when one ‘should be’ getting on? To drink cups of tea and have no particular thoughts at all (or sometimes impetuous or even life-changing thoughts) for 10 minute spaces in the day?… I’ve begun to realise that it’s often in just those apparently ‘blank’ spaces that creative ideas start to flow or an image flits through the neural pathways which turns out to be vitally important – or just enticing.  Sometimes I joke about the fact that one reason I love India so much is because there are chai-sellers on every street corner so your next glass of tea is never more than 100 yards away.  I rather think that one thing which may well endure in for as long as I live is the pleasure of the cup of tea moments… But who really knows?

Wheel of the year

And there's another piece of the jigsaw of life which ought to go into this portrait, although I find it difficult to describe - and that's the element of spirituality. Many years ago, a close friend was involved in a 'Women's Mysteries' group in Yorkshire and I realised that the ideas she talked about were things that were very close to my heart - the idea of giving thanks (to heaven, to earth, to nature) at particular seasons of the year.  I now do this, almost without fail, at the eight points of the year - the equinoxes, solstices and the points which fall exactly half way between them. The cross-points are also known as fire festivals; the names date back to Celtic times - Samhein (at the beginning of November), Imbolc (February), Beltane (May) and Lammas (August). They happen when the season is noticeably at it's height, so for example although Spring officially starts on the Equinox (21 March), it usually isn't until the beginning of May that you really notice it throbbing and bursting in the trees and hedgerows.  If I'm here and I have someone (most often my sister but sometimes other close friends) to do this with, then we celebrate with a bonfire - either in the fire pit at the bottom of our garden or sometimes somewhere out in the countryside.  If I'm alone, I may just light a candle and pause in the course of the day to give thanks for the blessings of the season and also to focus my thoughts on the next quarter - what to let go of, what to introduce, what to focus intent on.  For me, this isn't at all incompatible with Christianity (which, of course, incorporated these ancient festivals when it came to these islands) - primarily because it is just about acknowledging and appreciating the earth and the seasons.  But it also does have something to do with recognising that 'God' could never be a single-sexed entity but surely must comprise elements of both sexes - and probably something beyond what we simple humans can imagine.  And this was also an important element of my eventual choice of a topic for my D.Phil, albeit in an indirect way.

Handwritten: 'This picture of the Wheel of the Year was painted by one of the friends who led me to celebrate the festivals & has been a great inspiration. It's framed so that it can be hung according to the season & it's just such an object of beauty for me as well as representing something deeply important.'