Harold Walsby: Escape to Reality

Escape to Reality

Continuing our series of reprints from the SOCIALIST LEADER, from copy supplied by Ellis Hillman, this article comes from the issue of 1st March, 1952. It shows the warm response Walsby was capable of, a side of his personality seldom finding a chance to appear in his more theoretical work, and his evident interest in the painting going on at Braziers reminds us that he was by profession an artist. – GW

It is not often that one gets the opportunity to hear an internationally-known scientist and author talking about the subject of a book which he is still engaged in writing. Joseph Needham, Cambridge ex-Deputy. Director General of U.N.E.S.C.O., was speaking on the social and historical background of scene in China. Dr. Needham, I remembered, was on some government mission or other in China during a large part of the war. Here was that rare thing, a first-class scientific mind with first-hand experience of Far-Eastern thought and civilization. I had been doing some research into the origins of dialectical thought and was therefore interested in the growth of thought in the Far East, particularly in China. So off I set for Braziers Park.

Braziers Park, if you don’t know already, is a non-profit-making education establishment – a school of social research and adult education – registered under the Friendly Societies Acts and recognised as a charity by the Inland Revenue. It was drawn mainly from various left-wing sources – who felt the urgent need to study human social behaviour as it is (rather than as we think it ought to be) and to relate this study to the crying social and economic problems of our time. Since then it has attracted the attention and support of several hundred progressively-minded men and women, including a number of well-known psychologists, scientists and the like.

Most socialists, I think, would like to know about Braziers and would warmly approve of what is being done there. Lectures and discussions are held there practically every week-end and, as the School’s brochure says, “attendance at lectures and discussions is not in any way limited to members but is open to all interested in the future of mankind.” Apart from these valuable social studies, they also hold weekend schools of painting and modelling, music, poetry, drama and dancing. People who have never painted before in their lives (apart from childhood efforts) go down to Braziers and paint a reasonably satisfying picture in their first or second weekend. It all takes place in the setting of a large country house (which I have drawn for you above) surrounded by a lovely fifty-acre estate in the Thames valley. As I had never been down that way before, I looked forward to the journey.

A little over three-quarters of an hour in the train from Paddington brought me to Reading. Reading, I discovered, has two railway stations next to one another, the Great Western and the Southern. Round by the side of the Southern Station I found the bus terminus I wanted and, by a stroke of good luck, the bus to Ipsden was just about to move off as I boarded it. I settled in my seat and off we went, through and out of the town, passing over the Thames en route. Then into the countryside – into some of the nicest wooded country I’ve seen in wintertime.

It was a fine, clear day and, as the old bus clattered along, one caught frequent glimpses of glowing carpets of rich red and brown leaves around crowds of bare olive-green trunks After twenty minutes journey, along lanes often striped by the pale winter sunshine and tree shadows, we climbed the hill into Woodcote. The bus emptied itself of the other passengers at the village memorial. I looked at the conductor. “You’re the next stop,” he said, and we moved off.

We left the village and rounded a bend. I suddenly found myself looking through an avenue of trees down the road ahead, into a broad open valley and across to some blue hills in the far distance. It was like passing through a tall gate down into a spacious well-kept garden. I remembered looking at the map before setting out from London. Away to the left, across the valley and beyond the first piece of rising ground, lay the Thames. To the right, sheltering and cuddling the valley, was the southern ridge of the Chilterns. We were, in fact, rushing down a gentle slope into the valley from the southernmost brow of that ridge.

Nestling a little way down there, somewhere near the foot of this slope, was my destination. The conductor nodded and jerked the cord. “This is it,” he shouted above the noise. I stood in the road and, as the bus rattled away into the distance, looked around to get my bearings. The main road was crossed by a little lane. The finger-post pointed to the right. “Braziers Lane” it said. A few yards up the lane, past a couple of leaning hayricks and a belt of tall trees, I passed through the entrance and up the drive to the house.

One of the first things I discovered upon arrival was that the Director of Studies was an old I.L.P.er. As we stood chatting in front of a huge, open log-fire in the comfortable lounge, he recalled the time – soon after the 1914-18 war – when he was chairman of the North Westminster Branch of the Party. The Branch had been out of funds and had made a loss on a dance. They decided to hold a debate between two well-known people on “Capitalism versus Socialism.” John Strachey agreed to put the socialist case and the Tories deputed Duff-Cooper for their side. The problem was to find a suitable chairman for the debate. Someone, for a joke, suggested the then late Prime Minister, Lloyd George. And more in the spirit of the jest than anything, they wrote and asked him. To the utmost surprise and delight of all, he accepted! They made about £100 for the Branch and a crowd of several hundreds, unable to get in the already-packed hall, caused the police great consternation by blocking the main roadway and holding up the traffic!

After learning more about the School (e.g., it is commonly owned and controlled by its members) I heard the voices of a number of new arrivals for the weekend. I was introduced to the charming Secretary and Warden, Miss “Bonnie” Russell, who showed me around the place and then took me, past the water-garden, to the Studio where a few of the art students were still putting finishing touches to their afternoon’s work. One young lady, a schoolteacher on her first trip to Braziers, showed me – with undue modesty mixed with pleasant surprise – her first real attempt to paint. It was good, too. I spoke to Jeannie Cannon, the presiding genius of the Studio, who has, I found, the happy knack of enthusing everyone around and giving beginners just what they need most – confidence in themselves.

The tea-gong sounded when we got back to the house, and within a few minutes the huge drawing-room filled with the chatter and laughter of some thirty people. In came the tea-trollies loaded with food. Some sat and some stood around in groups. Everyone began to eat and sip tea, largely as an accompaniment to animated conversation on the weekend’s course. “Where’s the Professor?” asked someone. It turned out that Dr.Needham was driving from Cambridge with a Chinese colleague and was now overdue. The first lecture was down to begin at five o’clock.

When tea was over I managed to have a word with Dr. Norman Glaister, who was one of the prime movers in the Braziers Park project. He told me that, shortly, they aim to extend their courses to include pottery-making. This meant building a kiln for firing the clay.

I had noticed how well-balanced and poised everyone seemed to be, and I mentioned this to him. “Well,” he said, “we try to be as positive and inclusive as possible in our outlook. That, I think, is the secret cf our modest success so far. We are continually milking new contacts. And beside teaching, we are here to learn from them what is positive in their outlook. The study of social man is so vast that no one man or sect can claim to have anything like the whole story. The first lesson, however, I think we at Braziers have already grasped: Tolerance of the other viewpoint is not enough. We must learn from it. And to do this we must accept it, at least for serious consideration.

“We can reject or give up what is negative and destructive without much loss. But if we reject the positive and constructive side, we do so at our peril. Mere tolerance tends to be static and passive. Positive integration and synthesis is much more dynamic, active and useful. Surely world events of recent years indicate that the swifter path of progress lies, not in exclusiveness, but in being more inclusive?”

I couldn’t have agreed more. After the clattering carp and cavil of most viewpoints on mankind and society – the modern Tower of Babel – this was like a breath of fresh air. Before I could pursue the theme there was the sound of a car on the drive and in a moment, Dr. Needham and his Chinese friend appeared. In a few minutes they had refreshed themselves. We assembled for the lecture and the week-end course began.

from Ideological Commentary 38, March 1989.