Bettina Schnurman [BeS]
Craig Fees [CF]
18 May 2019
BeS It's May 18, 2019, and I am speaking with Craig Fees
BeS again. I'm sorry I didn't make it last month, and I'm sorry my apologies were so last minute. It was a really hectic time.
CF Yes, I know it was. Has everything settled down?
BeS Just about. Let me just turn off my telephone.
It's surprising how long it can take for things to really settle down! Now: We said we would try to meet every month, or every two months, so I don't suppose we're so out of synch. It's two months today.
CF And it isn't like this is a hard and fast obligation. We may even find the intervals get longer and longer as we go along -
BeS Or shorter -
CF Or shorter. Or come to an end altogether. I'm in your hands. As a military brat conversations can be suspended for years without losing connection. Although maybe that's an anachronism. Maybe social media have changed the way people hold one another in mind, or perhaps even where. If people are always potentially present, does the brain store presence differently?
Anyway, here we are. I'm in your hands.
BeS Here we are. Okay: One of the reasons we suggested meeting once a month at more or less the same time was to create a kind of real-time record of your changing concerns. So, if we had met last month, was there anything particular in your mind; something in particular you wanted to discuss?
CF Yes. I've written them down. [pause] One was "austerity", and the other was "thankyous".
CF Let me explain what I meant by "thankyous"! I was central to the creation and building of the Archive. I know that. I can accept that it wouldn't have become what it did without me. This is not to say that another Archive wouldn't have come into being, or that an institution somewhere might not have ultimately taken the David Wills Collection in and built a therapeutic child care or therapeutic community Archive around it. Robert Laslett had the need for a definite provision for the Wills Collection clearly in mind, and he had his wider vision; he would have realised it somehow. If nothing else, I am sure he could have persuaded PETT to use the £50,000 from the Wills Estate to make it an attractive project to the right university or repository. £50,000 was a lot of money in those days. Thinking along those lines - and I apologise for all the digression - it may have been John Cross who was the catalyst that brought me in, and brought the Archive to Toddington. Or...Robert is the only trustee who ever asked to read my thesis, and he was the only trustee - until Bob Hinshelwood later - who actually came in and did work in the Archive; it was part of his tuning as an academic and a practitioner, and as someone whose personal history was threaded with those of the founders of PETT, and the Trust itself; and he was a long-standing governor of the school. But perhaps more research is needed: Would it be possible? It would be a bit difficult now, unless there are contemporary diaries and correspondence - I don't think it's touched on in the oral histories, and my memories of the minutes is that they wouldn't be much help in nailing down the background catalytic processes through which this particular junction of actors and factors came into play. And what would the alternative futures have been if these actors and factors had been tweaked? For example, what if I had been taken out of the picture? What if I had had more support at the end of my PhD, or the residual personal wherewithal myself (I was pretty whacked and lost for a while!), and had applied successfully for a kind of public historian's post in Fife that came up, or one of the other posts that I began applications for? What would Robert have done? Would they have made something like the Archive in Toddington? What would it have become?
BeS I'm interested in what you just said about the end of your PhD. Your state of mind, and the jobs you were going for. I don't think you talked about this in our first interview. What were the jobs?
CF Bet, it was a long time ago. [pause] There was one based in Fife which was right up my street as a community folklorist, and immensely attractive. There was a theater technician/manager's role at Michigan Technical University, which was right up my street after all those years in technical theater in Los Angeles, and where my good friend Michael Gorman was on the faculty. And there was one which I think was in theatre history at Leeds, into which I could have segued with my PhD in what was, effectively, performance history, and with my masters degree, which was equivalent in scope to a PhD in theater history. It would have been very much up my street, and I think might have been achievable: I was known in the School of English, after all, having just completed my PhD there, and having had one of those viva experiences where you walk in the room and the examiner says "Congratulations Dr. Fees. Your thesis has been accepted, without changes. So let's spend the rest of our time just talking about it." Words to that effect. I'd thrown up in the B&B shower before heading for the viva, and spent the whole of the discussion thinking "Now they're going to change their minds".
BeS But you didn't make the applications?
CF No, there was a hump I couldn't get over. I was whacked and lost. I had had what supervisory support the School of English could offer, but my department had closed some years before, and I had really been working without the postgraduate supports and networks one should be able to take for granted. I had involvements - I haven't thought about this for a while, so I shall have to let the memory field emerge from wherever it has been hiding. This was also before the Internet and mobile phones, so the kind of ready connection at a distance we would take for granted now simply wasn't in the landscape. It was a snail mail and hardcopy era. [pause] I had involvements, but they weren't the kind that led to employment or income. "Talking Folklore" and the British Folk Studies Forum, which I helped found, weren't tied into institutions. And I emerged from the PhD as I've seen others do since, in a kind of state of shock; and with a five figure debt on top of it. The school was quite tolerant; I was allowed to keep my room, and have a kind of on-site sabbatical at the same time. Quite extraordinarily tolerant, looking back on it. The only clear memory I have at the moment, that I can definitely say came from that time, was painting a light pole down on the ashfelt play area with Hammerite. The proposal to help this foreign thing called P.E.T.T. with their idea for an archive - "pett" was a later abomination - comes out of this time; and may have been John's way to anchor me. There would have been a benefit for the school, for the Trust, and for me; so if that was in his thinking, and it probably wouldn't have been uncharacteristic, it would have rung three bells simultaneously.
BeS Great. Before I interrupted you, you were talking about "thankyous".
CF I was also going to mention Helen Frye. When I was speaking about trustees and work in the Archive a few minutes ago, I hadn't forgotten Helen. She was a founding member of the school team, and a PETT trustee for many years, and she also contributed a tremendous amount over many years to the Archive and Study Centre as the Honorary Librarian: As someone who was taking care, and managing, and adding to the collections. She is one of those people I wanted to acknowledge publicly, because she is one of the many people because of whom we had an Archive and Study Centre, and who made it what it was. I had tried to begin to try to recognise and thank these folks on the website during the last 18 months or so at the Archive, but with everything piling in on me I didn't get very far. And I ran out of resilience. You know how the old VWs had an emergency tank, and when you ran out of gas you could turn a lever with your foot and get a certain number of miles more? I had flipped that in the Archive a long time ago - this is why we need to talk about austerity - And the last year or so I was running on fumes. And then the memory of fumes. I was pretty resilienced out this time five months ago.
BeS When you handed over the keys.
CF Yes. At the end of a month/five weeks of seven day weeks, and they were long days, at the end of - well, a very long time. So when I was thinking about "thankyous" this time last month, it was part of what I try to explain about the Archive and Study Centre, that it was a self-organising organism, a kind of self-creating phenomenon, in which I was one of many catalysts and facilitators, and in which I was one of many agents and creators. I don't say "just" - I understand fully that I was not "just" one of many catalysts and facilitators, and not "just" one of the agents and creators: I had a particular and privileged role. But The Archive and Study Centre and what it accomplished was something far more than I personally could have envisaged or created; it became and evolved because there were volunteers who were not "just" volunteers, researchers who were not "just" researchers, team members who were not "just" team members, suppliers who were not "just" suppliers, people providing services who were not "just" providing services, people giving collections who were not "just" giving their collections - it was a genuine creation of community.
BeS In which you played a central role.
CF I played a certain role. Someone had to literally open the doors and say hello to people. Someone had to say Yes to ideas. Someone had to keep out of the way of others' creativity and ideas. Someone had to provide continuity, and a sheet anchor, and connect people. There is definitely a role specific to me there, or rather a series of roles which changed and developed over time. That is obvious and so obvious that it shouldn't have to be said. But you can not stop there. You can't possibly understand what was created in the Archive and Study Centre if you go down anything like "the great individual" route. The "great individual" illusion is created by people, male or female, who acquire title to ideas and innovations and actions that are not their own, as if they were their own, and even by taking them away from others; and who create a silence of dissent and challenge around themselves, in a whole lot of ways: you can see it all around you, in the way that communication and information are cut off and managed, and pools of mutual interest and collusion develop. But we don't have to acquiesce to that here. We can employ the fundamental principles underlying planned environment therapy, and of therapeutic community at its best: No dynamic system exists in isolation; and every dynamic system consists fully of each individual within it. Each individual is unique and essential, and as a dynamic system itself, lends meaning, being, and coherence to the Dynamic System of which it is a part. Remove any individual from the System, and one changes the System. Incorporate any individual into the System, and one changes the System. In the relatively small system of an archive or a therapeutic community, every individual is crucial to its understanding. And the more open the communication and sharing of information, or the more transparent and mutually agreed the limits of those - which must be open to discussion, definition, and challenge - the fuller the understanding of the System can be, to itself, and if documented, to others. The more creative and productive it can be as well.
If the goal is to think one understands the Dynamic System, or to make others think you do, then it's perfectly fine to look at "the great individuals". There will be enough about them to make a working approximation of the Whole System, especially if no one knows enough about it to challenge you. The less complex the system - or the less complex you can make it by eliminating data points - the closer your approximation will be to the Dynamic System itself. Indeed, archivists can simplify history enormously simply by "weeding", "sampling", and excluding records, or simply not doing their own basic research...And do. It certainly makes the administrative life easier and research quicker and less challenging to existing ideas. But to understand a complex system in a way that is worthwhile - to understand beyond received ideas and knowledge - to surprise ones' self, and come closer to understanding how surprising the universe is, and to understand and navigate more accurately through it from one place to another - one needs as many unique data points within that System as one can acquire. The archivist needs to retain them, and the researcher needs to explore them. With this richness of perspectives you can then create increasingly effective policies, and interventions which are more likely to work more frequently to achieve the ends you are trying to achieve. A bit like Horatio Hornblower, who astounded his contemporaries by his ability to set a course across the open seas, and actually arrived accurately where he set out to. So by "thankyous" I meant to draw attention to more of those data points who are essential to anything like an understanding of the Archive.
So that's where I was at this time last month: "austerity", and a whole body of people one needs to know about, to explain the Archive and Study Centre. The thankyous.
BeS And this month?
CF This month I've found myself thinking more about loss. I've been thinking about the deaths of specific people, and the deaths of communities as well. I suppose this builds on what I've just been talking about. I've been thinking about the loss of friendships, too, and the loss of friendship networks. For example, there was a woman who phoned me out of the blue about fifteen years ago - phoned me at the Archive - to ask if I had any information about a particular children's home where she thought she'd been as a child, as she was trying to trace her childhood history. Quite an extraordinary history. Her parents had gone on a holiday with her as a child, and simply left her behind at the end of it. Simply drove off. I couldn't help very much, but every year or so she rang back to update me on how it was going. I always looked forward to her updates, and I always knew immediately who she was. There are ties like that that are now broken. I wrote about therapeutic communities one time as places of belonging, and a therapeutic community as a locus of belonging. The Archive was my locus of belonging, and I think it became a locus of belonging for others. I'm abbreviating a bit, but I think it was something like an anchor, which made all of the deaths bearable -
BeS That sounds like there were quite a few.
CF Well, there were. I was there thirty years, remember, as what was a kind of community archivist before the term was invented, and an oral historian. You build up a significant number of people you care for, and over that time you've not only seen some of them die, and been to funerals and celebrations of a life, you've seen the aging process take hold as well, and progress. Now that is disheartening. I think being anchored in the Archive made the number and array of friendships manageable as well, far beyond what one could sustain as an individual. So coming away from the Archive, in the way that I did, was a big deal.
I'm getting a visual image of one of those TV shows, where someone is trapped - a tree falls on them, or something, or perhaps a girder; they're in pain but reasonably happy; and then someone lifts whatever it is off their leg, and hey presto! they die. There'll be a name for it. Didn't you do pre-med?
BeS Advanced First Aid. Not the same thing. But what you're thinking of is crush syndrome. My First Aid instructor called it "the smiling death".
BeS You've got a crush injury. After a certain amount of time you release the pressure, and unless you've prepared the patient properly, there is a rush of released toxins which attack the body, which can be fatal. I presume that's the metaphor you're reaching for. But I'm pleased to say you don't seem to have died.
BeS But perhaps the metaphor could help to explain why so many men in particular seem to die as soon as they retire; and perhaps help explain the rate of suicides and mental health problems in people who lose their jobs; and why people fight tooth and nail to stay in jobs despite all the pressures that are put on them, in the National Health Service and so on. But unless it's a slow death, and that can happen, you seem to be alive.
CF So it's a potentially dangerous metaphor? I was trying to find a way to describe the pressure of the past fifteen or twenty years, which got to be pretty crushing at times; but was contained by the anchorage in the Archive; and then one day - literally one day, there was no gradation, it happened one day to the next, one moment to the next - that anchor was just taken away. One moment I was there, and the next I wasn't. It wasn't just the pressure that was taken away, it was the whole apparatus, the whole assemblage of tools one was holding for others and in which one was held. Now, did that create a void, a kind of suspension in nowhere, or was it more what you've just described; was it a deprivation, or something more active, a kind of unregulated rush of toxins...
BeS Was it a case of straightforward Deprivation, or of Reperfusion -
BeS Reperfusion is the sudden flooding back into the self of chemicals the crushing had held back. Let's say a dam breaks. The lake becomes a torrent that wipes out towns and farms and villages down stream. Children playing in their schoolyards, are then suddenly obliterated. The self can't manage it. Something like that.
CF Right. Reperfusion. You're invoking trauma to explain trauma. [pause] I made a note to myself the other day. It's on my phone...."Community as self-medication". I meant it in a negative sense; I was thinking about someone who had wrapped himself in a community to keep himself safe. In that case it was a community he had tightly wrapped around him, and kept as far as he could to himself, like an island. I suppose if you're caught up in a flood, that is one of the things you would do; you would find high ground, create the medicinal community around you, and hold tight. You wouldn't want it invaded, you wouldn't want the disbalancing pain of challenge, and you wouldn't necessarily have the capacity to expand and open up the community once the waters had begun to recede. In fact, you might fight tooth and nail to protect the safety of the island from change, out of personal defense. Even though from the outside it's no longer an island, it becomes one. I think I can understand that.
BeS Invoking catastrophe to explain catastrophe.
BeS You substituted the word "trauma". You said "invoking trauma to explain trauma". I'd said "invoking catastrophe to explain catastrophe". I was thinking more in terms of catastrophes. Natural catastrophes, and manmade catastrophes.
CF But I think you did say "the self can't manage it", which would be a kind of operational definition of trauma. But what is the difference?
BeS Catastrophe is an objective change of state, from which trauma is one type of outcome. You place one more grain of sand on a pile, and there is a sudden change of state: the pile collapses. It changes state. "Trauma" represents a catastrophic change of state, but it is more than a change of state; it is a diagnostic category. It tells you something about the future, which "catastrophe" in itself doesn't.
CF So what if the grain of sand that sets off the catastrophic change of state is the removal of an individual from the ecological system whose various forces were sufficiently in balance to maintain an effective dynamic cohering tension? What if you take a human being in their early stages of growing into their bodies and selves - a child - out of the ecosystem in which they have achieved a surviving cohering tension of sorts - I'm thinking of children who enter the therapeutic care system; children whose surviving tension expresses itself in self-harm, or diminished physicality - failure to thrive - or in ways that damage or cause concern outside the family ecosystem, to the extent they are removed from it: Or what about - let's say, a psychiatric nurse working at the Henderson Hospital, when it was summarily (and duplicitously - that must make a difference) closed? Someone in the steel industry, who comes in to work to find the gates closed? Or myself, obviously. Can you talk of this "catastrophe" as a kind of "a reperfusion of the self"? A flood, which incorporates deprivation of the prior ecosystem and the components of its cohering tension: A sudden break and breaking up of relationships, and everything that means, into toxic fragments of deprivations: Deprivations of future realisations; deprivations of past actions and associations; deprivations of the anchorages of self in memory which inheres and is expressed in the environment of things and people around one? Deprivations as active constituent toxins in the flood, and not a simply as the absences of things that are no longer there, no longer to hand. An active flooding chaos of broken links, of care, of promises, of hatreds even, and of sustaining fears - being rushed out of a place one belonged and into the desolation of a flooded river valley.
I've come across flooded valleys driving through the mountains, back in Colorado: desolations of dead trees, bleached, thrown everywhere, scoured watercourses, skeletal remains of houses. I am putting myself into that situation now: You pick among them, and you find the promises you made which you now can't fulfill; you find the promises you failed to fulfill, but had not given up on trying, had some prospect at least of repair and restitution before the damn broke. You find all of your failures settled at your feet, dead, irrecoverable, mounds of dead fish battered and killed by the lack of a flowing, oxygenated stream. Can it be surprising if, in a situation like this, people become ill? And if one has an entire generation of young men - but not just young, and not just men; I'm thinking now of Grith Fyrd, which was a response to the psycho-devastating consequences of long-term unemployment foisted on an entire generation by the Depression. The Grith Fyrd answer was communities, rural self-governing communities, rural self-sufficient communities of men who built their own barracks, their own cabins; grew their own food; made as far as possible their own clothes and shoes; taught each other trades; rambled the countryside together, with songs and literature and poems. But here's an aside: what did the women in these circumstances do? There wasn't a Grith Fyrd for women; there wasn't a Hawkspur Camp for women. I don't think there was. In that case, what did the women do? 30 years in the Archive, and I haven't a clue. How stupid. But, to change the subject again, slightly, but maybe building on "Grith Fyrd", which translated from Anglo Saxon as "Peace Army": you can see why the military is such an important option for young people in times of huge disruption and deprivation: personal disruption and deprivation, as well as wider, social disruption and deprivation.
BeS Taking your digression: Does that mean you're not a pacifist?
CF I've never been a pacifist, at least not in the sense you may mean, of being antimilitary. I've got too much of the military at my core; but that core is one that says the military is a place of last resort. It is a service to the community, which the community needs to respect to the point where it does everything possible and then some to ensure that service is not called on. When the military goes into hostile action it is a failure of the community to step up to its responsibilities. Community has an obligation to become in such a way that military is obviated. But what I was referring to in the military's role in relation to a disrupted and deprived young person was the provision of community and purpose which enable a vulnerable human being to knit a positive life together. David Wills was a Quaker, as well as an anarchist and a pacifist; but he supported and never took to task any of the young men from Hawkspur or later who went into the military. On that level I don't think there's a contradiction between valuing the military and what it has to offer as a human system, and viewing violence against others as a profound and terrible failure: a failure of self in the interpersonal situation; a failure of community in the global situation. Perhaps that's why "Grith Fyrd" resonates as a model.
BeS So where are we up to? We've been talking now for a little over a half an hour, and it feels like we may still be laying foundations for a conversation. We've spent a bit of time on "thankyous", and a bit on loss. Not so much on austerity. And not much on deaths or lost friendships, not specifically. Where would you like to go from here?
CF Maybe talk about deaths, for a moment. It was forefront of my mind. Austerity's not going anywhere.
BeS Any deaths in particular?
CF Yes, and not really. It probably makes sense to leave the deaths of communities to one side for the moment, and just talk about people.
I did something like this before, when I was asked to give a talk to the Campden and District Historical and Archaeological Society on its 25th anniversaryi. I began to think of all the people who had helped me during my PhD, and it just began to cascade. I'd stop, and then another flood of names would come in. No, not names: it was like now. I'm - while I'm talking - I'm having visits from people, visual images, moving visual images, impressions of voices...Kay Carmichael...Ruby Mungovan...The person is there visually, in my mind - and actually, in a way, in my body; I have a physical response. They come with their name. I also have people where the names don't come with them; so, it's not about names. And I'm thinking about Max, who I signally failed at the one end, and Ralph, who I failed at the other end. I visited Max in Nova Scotia just before he died -
BeS This is Maxwell Jones?
CF This is Maxwell Shaw Jones. He met me in their sitting room, sitting down, with a blanket over his legs; they'd arranged a room for me in a hotel in Wolfville, and lent me their car for the time I was there. I hadn't come across unleaded petrol before, which may tell you how long ago it was. It smelled wrong, and I had to get a garage attendant to reassure me it was okay to put in the car. I also came off a roundabout one evening, having gone around it the wrong way, and saying harsh words to the driver coming at me until I realised I was the one on the wrong side of the road. So all of this floods in even before I've said anything about Max, or Chris his wife, or Gill Smellie, who was going to catalogue Max's papers before they came over to the U.K. This is early days in the Archive, 1990. I don't want to digress too far into the experience itself. A key moment was a dream that Max had, probably two or three days in, that he told us about probably at the breakfast table - I had my breakfasts there, and they were wonderful. I had a Jungian interpretation, and Max's was more literal: It involved an old time sailing ship, sails billowing, crossing the open ocean, Max I think at the helm. The core trigger was his decision to hand the archives over. I saw the dream as a handing over of the self; his, I think, was more in terms of a literal onward voyage with the Archive. One of the things I think happens when someone hands over their archives or records their oral history, is that something within them has come to an end. Something is resolved. Something is handed over. And this is what I experienced here. Two weeks after I left, Max was dead. My experience is that having handed himself over, he could let go. And having let go, he could die. Or - well, he did die.
BeS So you blame yourself?
CF Well, there is a direct association there, isn't there, which does recur. And add to that, that I can feel that I feel a guilt that our exploring his life and work together wasn't able to happen. Nor did his archives ever come over to England.
And I think that is more the point. There is a huge burden of responsibility that is handed over when you take on someone's life and life work in that way. I have the same sense with Ronald St. Blaize-Molony, for example - I mean, he's come into mind and body while I've been talking about Max, for some reason. With Dr. St. Blaize-Molony I don't feel the same depth of blame, because the commitment was different, and what was handed over was different: but the nature of the fundamental responsibility is the same. With Ralph Gee it is far more like Max, but with even more intensity. And I feel I failed both of them immensely.
BeS In what way?
CF That would need a more detailed discussion than I want to have now. I let Ralph down immensely. I can rationalise some of it, simply because of the state I was in, and the lack of time, and that brings back the need to understand what austerity means, and what it meant for the Archive. But for both of them, there was some chance of recouping what I'd promised as long as the Archive was intact with continuity. The break means there is virtually no avenue of recompense. I can't pay back what I owe them.
BeS And is that a recurrent theme?
CF That's a recurrent theme. I've ended my time in the Archive with a deep sense of shame.
CF That's not where I'd expected to wind up. I had thought that the deaths of people I cared for personally and professionally was about the personal loss. The loss of relationships, and friendships. Which it is, but I can see another core issue, when so many individuals, and so many communities, invested belief and immortality in an institution, but when the nature of the break means there is no institutional continuity.
I'm going to need a break, I think. I think I need to gather myself up again. Is that okay? I would really like to talk about people. But I think I need to stop and take on board what I've just said.
BeS Of course.
i"The Making of an Historian", The Old Police Station, Chipping Campden, 18 April 2009, https://craigfees.com/room/index.php/have-self-dropdown/the-phd