The Pinstripe Guru
Tottenham Court Road Station; Central Line eastbound platform. Unsurprisingly the dot matrix indicator says there is a six-minute wait for the next train, so passengers read the adverts on the wall opposite. Among all the posters promoting health-giving mineral water and holidays are three that offer various other paths to heaven.
The first is a grainy black and white photo of an empty wheelchair. Underneath the picture is a scornful line of newsprint that reads ‘There is no evidence for miraculous healing’ – Independent on Sunday. Below that: ‘You decide. A boy deaf since birth . . . a young man with a 19-year history of asthma . . . Maurice Cerullo. Earl’s Court August 15-22. 3.00pm. Admission free.’ It’s an ad for a summer visit by yet another of the charismatic healers who, from Billy Graham through to Reinhard Bonnke and onwards, appear from time to time to recapture our wayward souls.
The second recommends something Maurice Cerullo would regard as one of the devil’s works that he has come to save us from. ‘Change. As individuals our lives are subject to change and uncertainty and we spend a great deal of effort trying to control them . . .’ It promises an answer to the stresses of modern-day living, inviting you to attend the School of Meditation in Holland Park, a school originally set up to teach the Transcendental Meditation method of the twinkling-eyed Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, briefly beloved of the Beatles.
In contrast, the third poster doesn’t appear to be advertising anything spiritual. The large ad for the School of Economic Science, which has been pasted up more or less between the two looks a far more sober and sensible proposition: ‘Economics: A Fresh Approach to a Vital Subject,’ it trumpets. It is obviously intended for more serious, intellectual minds.
‘This course starts from the basic principles which govern all economic activity. “My interest never flagged,” said one student. It takes the universal natural laws and shows how they apply today. “If the laws are understood they can be seen everywhere.” It explains their relevance to the modern economy . . . The course also looks at the role of government in economic affairs. “An enjoyable course - well conducted by knowledgeable lecturers ...” It covers taxation, distribution of wealth, the factors of production, but all from first principles. If you’d like to enrol . . .’
Those who’ve studied economics already might wonder briefly about exactly what those ‘natural laws’ are, but to most people, it looks like a fairly straightforward course in basic economic theory. The course costs £45 for ten lessons. The address is 90, Queen’s Gate. At Warren Street, there is another billboard for the School of Economic Science which offers another set of classes, this time in philosophy. ‘Philosophy,’ it proclaims. ‘12 Practical Discussions. This course in practical philosophy draws from many of the worlds of teaching - both East and West – and presents a coherent approach to life and its purpose . . . £54.’
The London headquarters of the School of Economic Science is a beautiful pair of white regency buildings in South Kensington. On the pillared porch, a neat middle-aged man says, ‘Yes, that’s right. Come in. It’s just about to start.’ It’s just after 7pm and I’m late. In a rear office, a row of smartly-dressed men in well-pressed suits sit at desks and take your course fees. One takes my cheque for £54 (I chose philosophy) and hands me a neatly-written receipt. He’s doing a survey on how people heard of this course. ‘I saw the advert in the tube,’ I tell him when he asks. For around forty years now, the school has been successfully advertising its philosophy and economics courses on the London Underground.
Evening-class students are used to dusty classrooms and genial first-night confusion. This place, in contrast, is run with neat efficiency. Nor is there any of the laid-back hippie chaos of the Festival Of Mind, Body And Spirit here. I am ushered upstairs to a large first-floor room with french windows, chandeliers and fine plaster mouldings, where there are chairs arranged in rows facing a podium, on which sits a small table adorned with a small jug of water and a dainty vase of flowers. To its right stands a large old-fashioned blackboard on an easel. I notice, while we’re waiting for our philosophy teacher to arrive, that there is a hole worn in the middle of it, but don’t think anything of it. The floorboards are bare, slightly uneven. There is a school-like smell of chalk and cleaning fluid.
Lesson one is billed on a handout: ‘Philosophy: the love of wisdom. The need for self-knowledge. A practical exercise in the refinement of observation.’ We can choose any one of six different teachers. Because they know we’re all busy London careerists, we can attend the course any night of the week between 7pm and 9.30, or on Saturday mornings. It’s very convenient.
Tuesday’s teacher, Miss Crammond, a small tweedy woman, sweeps into the room, smiles and asks us, ‘What is philosophy?’ in the sing-song voice of a children’s TV presenter. She is grey haired, has a receding chin and smiles invincibly at us. It’s our first day, and we’re all shy, and we shuffle in our seats and look at the floor, so she answers brightly for us: ‘Philosophy is the search for wisdom.’ We nod sagely.
She declaims a quote from Plato’s Republic that pooh-poohs fairweather philosophers unable to cope with the rigours of the subject: ‘When they come within sight of the great difficulties of the subject, they take themselves off.’ We’re not going to be like that. We’re going to take this course seriously and make better people of ourselves.
Miss Crammond peers through glasses, reading from prepared notes. It is impossible not to think of Joyce Grenfell when you hear her fluty, old-school BBC English and see her elderly but happy face, ever-smiling in the face of our philosophical ignorance. Her technique is to ask questions, and then try in her well-meaning manner to nudge us round to the right answers. What the right answers are, though, soon becomes a source of bemusement to some of her students.
Her next quote is not from Wittgenstein or Descartes, but from the Gospel according to St Thomas: ‘ “Whoever knows the all but fails to know himself, lacks everything.” That’s a very interesting thing to say, isn’t it?’ she beams at us. ‘Is it possible for a man to be wise without knowing himself first?’ she enquires.
Like any first-night evening class audience, we are unsure of ourselves, and though we shake our heads, we remain mute: ‘What do you think is stopping us from knowing ourselves?’ she asks.
Finally someone attempts a long and rambling answer. It’s all about the programming we receive in life. He blames it on having to do O levels. ‘It’s because of our education,’ he says, uncertainly.
Miss Crammond’s eyes sparkle. She has just scored a bullseye, and so early in the class too. ‘You’re right!’ she sings out. ‘We are burdened by . . . education, quote unquote.’ She draws inverted commas in the air. ‘So, how are we to know ourselves?’
There are about sixty of us this first night. One man pipes up and asks hesitantly, ‘Is it really possible to know ourselves? I mean, know ourselves completely?’
Miss C. nods. ‘It is possible,’ she asserts with unshakeable confidence.
The man looks puzzled and opens his mouth, perhaps to ask, how she can know this philosophically, but he closes it again without speaking.
The philosophy teacher pours herself a glass of water and peers at her script again. ‘Let’s continue. What do you think is important if we are to know ourselves?’ she demands.
Pause. ‘Objectivity?’ a voice suggests.
‘Certainly,’ answers Miss Crammond benignly, but this is not the answer she is looking for.
Another voice: ‘Freedom from prejudice?’
‘Yes,’ answers Miss Crammond, still looking dissatisfied. No one has supplied her with the right answer, so she supplies it herself. ‘What about people of like mind?’ she asks. ‘Isn’t that important?’
A few would-be philosophers are beginning to sense that something is not as it should be. ‘Surely not if they’ve all got blinkered views?’ someone asks.
Miss C. cups her hand round her ear and giggles. ‘I’m sorry. Would you mind repeating that? I’m a bit deaf.’
The sceptic hollers, ‘Blinkered minds,’ across the classroom.
‘Oh. Yes. That’s a good question.’ She ignores it. Instead she reads another sentence from her notes. ‘To move forward in philosophy is to move forward in company because it is mutual love.’
After a confusing hour, we break for tea, served in teacup and saucer in the basement, by equally tweedy-looking ladies in cardigans and long skirts. They look so archetypally English, that none of the students seem to spot their uniformity of dress. Long skirts are in fashion. No one really notices the absence of visible calves.
In the second half there is still no sign of Adorno or Kant. Instead we get one quote from the Sanskrit Vedic scriptures and a nugget of Zen philosophy. ‘Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era, received a university professor who came to enquire about Zen,’ reads Miss Crammond. ‘Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in.” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”’
Many students laugh. What a silly professor. ‘How much of what the professor heard would be his own learning, his own concepts?’ Miss C. enquires of us.
A blonde woman, who is captivated by Miss Crammond’s address answers: ‘All of it?’
‘Yes,’ smiles Miss Crammond. The lesson we are learning tonight is that we have to throw everything we know about away in order to grasp the true meaning of philosophy. Our pedestrian expectations of what this course was going to be are an impediment to our self-knowledge.
What happens next is stranger. From her dais, Miss Crammond announces that the school has developed an exercise which can help us on our path to self-knowledge. This is the ‘practical exercise in refinement of knowledge’ promised by the course notes. To the astonishment of many, who have brought folders and notebooks as if preparing for an exam, she proceeds to lead her sixty-strong class in a meditation. At Miss Crammond’s orders we sit up straight in our chairs and place our feet firmly on the ground. ‘Feel the weight of the body on the chair,’ she intones. ‘Feel the weight of the feet on the floor.’ Pause. I can hear someone giggling quietly, embarrassed. ‘Feel the pressure of the clothes on the skin . . . the play of air on the face and hands.’ Pause. ‘Feel the sense of taste in your mouth . . . and smell the air as you breathe in,’ she tells us. ‘Let form and colour be perceived through the eyes. Refrain from judging what you see, just let it be perceived . . .’ Outside the french windows, a London plane tree sways in the breeze. ‘Let sounds be received in the listening, as they rise out of silence and return there again.’ Taxi brakes squeal outside.
In the first week, the exercise stops there. But this meditation is to become a central part of our activity as students. By our second lesson we have been told to practise it twice a day. Gradually as the weeks progress, it will be extended into more metaphysical realms. ‘Let our hearing go out beyond the furthest sound, to the stillness beyond.’ We are told to listen to the silence beyond the silence. ‘Now,’ this nicely-spoken old woman will conclude, ‘without reducing this large field of awareness, simply rest in the awareness of your existence . . . without limit.’ In the stillness of our separation with the every day we will discover our true selves. At root, the School of Economic Studies teaches the Hindu doctrine that our personalities are an illusion. What we imagine to be our characters, are merely an illusion created by our corrupting contact with the world. Joy and pain are an illusion. Illness is an illusion. They are what the school calls ahankara, self-identification. Through a life of discipline we must lose our individuality and rejoin the Absolute self.
But on our first day, the full mystical content of our course has still to be spelled out. After a few seconds of silence, Miss Crammond asks, ‘There. What did you get from that? What did you observe?’
The eager young blonde woman gushes, ‘It was very relaxing.’
Several appear to have found the exercise silly. ‘What were we meant to observe?’ one middle-aged woman asks sniffily.
The blonde woman argues back on Miss Crammond’s behalf. ‘I found it relaxing.’
‘Yes,’ glows Miss Crammond.
Afterwards, as we pour out on to the busy road outside, a couple of young women clutch each other and burst into wild laughter, running away down the street. They won’t be coming again. Several are more confused, trying to work out exactly what this course in philosophy consists of. I overhear one red-haired Australian turn to his companion, and ask in puzzled tones, ‘This isn’t a religious place is it? Only it didn’t make itself out to be in the advert . . .’
In the whole colourfully eccentric splatter of cults, there has never been one as genteel, stiff-upper-lipped and absurdly British as the School of Economic Science. In many ways, it’s quite the strangest cult I join. Despite the beaming vision presented by Miss Crammond, it has also been accused of being one of the most authoritarian. At 90 Queen’s Gate, the pale upper-middle-classes disappear into a life of servitude to a bizarre physical, intellectual and – most importantly – aesthetic regime originally dreamed up by a now elderly Scottish barrister called Leonardo Da Vinci MacLaren, who wears crumpled pinstripe suits, has an overbearing affection for Mozart and fine wine, and who smokes like a chimney.
‘This isn’t a religious place, is it?’ The School of Economic Science wasn’t originally intended as a religious place at all, and still denies that it teaches religion of any sort. They prefer to call what they teach a philosophy. And they see themselves as an academy of higher thought, on the lines of Socrates’ model, or the Academies of the Renaissance.
The original school was established by Leon’s father, Andrew MacLaren, a self-made Glaswegian who clawed himself out of poverty to become a fervent disciple of tax reform, believing that land, not income should be the source of government revenue. In 1914 he joined the Independent Labour Party and later became an MP. His staunch but eccentric views finally led him to resign from the party in 1943 in disgust at its descent into what he called the ‘welfare-state mentality’. Instead he threw his energies into setting up what would now be called a ‘think tank’, the School of Economic Science, an informal group of his friends and colleagues who got together to discuss MacLaren’s tax reform ideas.
It was Andrew’s son Leon who transformed the school into one of Britain’s few home-grown cults. In many ways Leon resembled his father. He learned his passion for Mozart from him, and still embraces his economic theories. Having studied law, he too joined the Labour Party and tried to become a Labour member of parliament, standing against Winston Churchill for the seat of Epping in the 1939 pre-war election. History, of course, records Churchill’s victory. Like his father too, he switched his allegiance to the Liberal Party.
But the difference between father and son lay in the fervour with which Leon began to embrace the mystical ideas of the Greek-Armenian mystic, carpet-dealer, gold prospector, typewriter mechanic, dancing master, guru and some say con-man George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff and his Russian pupil Peter Ouspensky.
Amongst the ranks of more genial new age school-ma’ams and masters Gurdjieff is the sadistic PE teacher. In pre-revolutionary Moscow, Gurdjieff established himself as a mystical guru who taught that the practice of self-discipline, cold baths, breathing exercises, chanting and choreographed movements could bring the self into close contact with the higher cosmic order. His philosophy had a self-denying, fatalistic edge which suited the morbid modernism of the times. He began to develop his ideas publicly in the years leading up to the First World War. It was a strange version of the Hindu philosophy that we are separated from true self by the distractions of the world. Men, he taught, were merely blind machines who operated under external influences, like the ant-like workers in Metropolis. Only by performing his exercises, known as the System, could they hope to gain the discipline needed to escape their mechanistic state. ‘When a machine knows itself,’ he wrote, ‘it is then no longer a machine.’
The exercises included subservience to a master. You had to remove the illusory outer shell of personality to get through to the true self beneath. More than five hours’ sleep a night was an impediment to self-knowledge. Austerity was embraced. In its extreme form, as occasionally advocated by Gurdjieff, it boiled down to the philosophy that if you carried out any task you were ordered to, however unpleasant, you could reach the enlightened state required to eventually break out of your machine mould. The middle classes, more used to servants chopping wood and cleaning for them, performed these tasks for the Master.
After escaping the revolution, Ouspensky arrived in London in 1921, followed by Gurdjieff a year later, where they attracted a fashionable following of millionaires, peers and intellectuals. T. S. Eliot and Katherine Mansfield were among those who turned up to Gurdjieff’s lectures and meditation sessions. Katherine Mansfield followed Gurdjieff to France where, ill with TB, she attempted to follow his prescriptions for a cure that would these days be called ‘holistic’ and which involved, once again, duty and service. In a retreat his followers had established at Fontainebleau, which he called the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Mankind, she followed Gurdjieff’s System, scrubbed carrots at midnight, ate a basic diet and slept on a bed above the cattle in the cowshed because Gurdjieff believed their odour was beneficial to health. She died a matter of weeks after her arrival.
Gurdjieff’s doctrine of self-denial must have struck a chord, though, with MacLaren’s impoverished Scottish family background. He first encountered Gurdjieff’s mysticism through a group called the Society for the Study of Normal Psychology, originally founded by Ouspensky and led by a Harley Street paediatrician, Dr Francis Roles, which he joined and soon began to dominate by the force of his own personality. By 1947 Leon was firmly in charge of his father’s School of Economic Science and the school was leaving the solid shores of social science for a more metaphysical, disciplinarian course set by Gurdjieff’s teachings. Andrew MacLaren, who had established the school in the first place, was not so enthusiastic. Some ex-members relate how he tried to barge in to one of the meetings his son was holding in Church House, Westminster, to denounce his son’s creation but was apparently barred by members of the school.
One of those who became caught up in the school in the 50s and 60s describes Leon MacLaren as a man who habitually wore a black coat and pinstripe trousers, a white shirt and a black bow-tie. He remembers his clothes were always expensive but crumpled, ash-strewn and over-worn. Other disciples mimicked this mode of dress.
Despite his demands for a regulated life in his followers he was a heavy smoker and fond of good wine. Under his coat he developed a noticeable paunch. He spoke in a low, quiet, authoritative voice that commanded attention. His cigarette smoking was an act of theatre in itself. ‘Just think what can be done with that space of silence between inhaling and exhaling,’ says one disillusioned ex-member, Giles, who originally joined in the 50s after reading an advert for a course in philosophy very similar to the one I read and who was awed by MacLaren. ‘Oh, it was a theatre trick that he used to the greatest possible effect, and of course there were others who were affected by his appearance and his technique. I remember one chap in particular who made a thing of drawing in and slowly exhaling. It was obvious he was copying MacLaren.’
By the early 60s MacLaren’s tube station adverts attracted a following of up to 3,000 pupils. In the courses they attended, Giles, and the ‘tutors’, whose shoes Miss Crammond now so cheerily fills, taught MacLaren’s own blend of Christianity and Gurdjieffian discipline.
Leon MacLaren systematised the Gurdjieffian System and mixed it with his own religious, political and economic ideas. It was, as it is now, an extremely gradual induction. You started studying the philosophy or economics courses, which gradually took a more and more mystical direction. Those unsuitable or unattracted were gradually weeded out. Only in your third year did you become subject to the discipline, and begin to find all your hours filled with performing menial tasks for the school: cleaning, carpentry, decorating the premises, as well as hours attending study groups. Most students took to the tasks with relish, pleased to further the school’s ideas. When you had assimilated enough of the creed, you became a tutor in your turn; but it was a pyramidal structure with MacLaren at the apex.
The ghost of Gurdjieff ruled. ‘We were deliberately put on to activities to cross-grain our temperament,’ Giles recalls. ‘I was put on to the one thing that I detested more than anything else – carpentry – which was probably why I was put on to it. How they knew that, I don’t know. I was given a job of measuring quite an expensive piece of timber which was designed to support the main weight of a skylight we were building and I cut it short by two inches. It was typical. The whole thing was a complete waste and I felt very guilty about that. Oh I did. The look I got from the tutor in charge of that particular group was withering.’
Giles became a tutor too, and joined the process of laying out MacLaren’s system for other followers. His entire life became bound up with the philosophy. He became eager, even desperate, to persuade students to join MacLaren’s curious enterprise. ‘If I lost a student, I could feel very bad about that. Oh yes. I could lose sleep over that.’
MacLaren’s dealings with his followers often displayed an authoritarian streak which may have attracted him to Gurdjieff’s dictum, ‘For a man to wake up, become conscious, a big stick is necessary.’ As with so many gurus, we can only speculate as to the inner workings of Leon MacLaren’s mind. He doesn’t do press. But the cult which he created was one that was – and still is to a lesser extent – built around a deeply, almost pathologically sexually repressive atmosphere. Encouraged by MacLaren, disciples came to believe that sex was a highly perilous area: sexual activity was equated with a lack of self-discipline.
Giles remembers one class where a man innocently mentioned just touching a woman student while dancing. MacLaren exploded, ‘You will not do that!’ he shouted. ‘It was the most incredibly sexless environment,’ remembers Giles sadly. ‘People didn’t hug each other. It was driven out of us.’ When discussing sex, MacLaren seemed to lose his dominating froideur. Another ex-member recalls MacLaren lose his temper one day when a woman asked why the school demanded that they behave so obediently. ‘All women do is lie around dreaming of how to seduce a man,’ he yelled. Giles still shakes his head in incredulity at how he and his colleagues found themselves living a monastic lifestyle at a time when the sexual revolution was just gearing up.
By the time Giles cracked up he was one of those close to the centre. He blames his time in the cult for two relationships which never got off the ground. The first was with somebody who was outside the school, so Giles dropped it. The second never really started. He was invited to a dinner party with the second woman, but it clashed with one of his tutor groups. He rang MacLaren and asked what he should do. There was a pause before MacLaren answered, ‘Well, you must do what is most important to you.’
‘Of course,’ says Giles bitterly, ‘I picked up the phone and another relationship bit the dust. I didn’t really have any more after that. A lovely piece of blackmail.’
Giles suffered a complete mental breakdown, during which he says he came very close to suicide. He went to visit MacLaren in his chambers. Still loyal to the ideals of the cult, he arranged with MacLaren to leave it gradually, so as to make as little fuss as possible. Though he accepts much of the esoteric teachings of the school, he is deeply bitter about the way MacLaren appeared to be able to control him and his colleagues: ‘He dominated in the way that Hitler dominated Nazism and Stalin dominated Communism.’
The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the lascivious guru later derided by the Beatles as ‘Sexy Sadie’ arrived in London in 1960 hoping to acquire British followers, looking especially for converts among the more influential classes. The only thing that tempered the Maharishi’s grandiose ambitions was his total innocence. In his scented rooms in Prince Albert Road, near Regent’s Park, he would issue orders to his followers. ‘Go and see the Queen and ask permission to build meditation cells at Buckingham Palace. We could have them underground, under the gardens. She will be very pleased with the idea.’ ‘Go to 10 Downing Street and ask for an interview with the Prime Minister.’ One day he asked, ‘What is the biggest hall in London?’ ‘The Albert Hall, Maharishi.’ ‘Call them up. Tell them we will take it for a world congress soon.’
Curiously the last request was granted by Leonardo Da Vinci MacLaren. MacLaren wanted to go further, to a purer version of the faith, to the source of oriental mysticism. Introduced to the Maharishi by Dr Francis Roles, MacLaren became obsessed by his approach to meditation, and set up the 1961 World Congress at the Royal Albert Hall. It was attended by 3,000, nearly all members of the School of Economic Science.
The meeting was a comical affair. Before the Maharishi appeared, the disciplined audience sat bolt upright and listened to a performance of – inevitably – a Mozart violin sonata. In the School of Economic Science, MacLaren’s Old Testament new age cult has elevated Mozart’s position to one of Godhead. MacLaren believes that after Mozart music plummeted downhill. He follows the Gurdjieffian notion that there is a ‘fine’ art that reflects pure consciousness and ‘coarse’ art that corrupts; uninitiated simpletons might suggest that fine art is what they like, coarse art is everything else.
After the Mozart, the smiling, daffodil-waving figure of the Maharishi wandered on-stage, to deliver one of his woolly lectures on the benefits of his method of transcendental meditation. About half-way through the meeting, the abrupt metaphysical about-turn the school appeared to be taking, launching from a world of strict obedience into the genially peaceful meditation practices of the Maharishi, became too much for one of the members. She stood up and began shouting abuse at the shocked Indian, before being frog-marched out of the hall.
The Maharishi’s influence remains. In their second year, students are invited to become Initiates, to take part in Transcendental Meditation. They are asked to bring a piece of white linen for purity, flowers for beauty and fruit for the inner self. And a material offering of money. The recommended sum is one week’s salary, offered in a sealed envelope. They then begin a form of transcendental meditation based on chanting a mantra.
But links between the Maharishi and MacLaren were short lived. Maybe they were both too ambitious for each other. Some feel the Maharishi pulled out because he disapproved of MacLaren’s authoritarianism. MacLaren’s friend Francis Roles’s next find had been yet another guru, the Indian religious leader known as the Shankaracharya of the North, who taught in the same tradition as the guru who had instructed the Maharishi. MacLaren, obsessed with the idea of finding the source of all philosophy, promptly disappeared to India.
Even today, students follow in MacLaren’s footsteps and make the pilgrimage to see the elderly Shankaracharya, who gives audiences seated under a canopy, and delivers his teachings to them through a translator. One tutor tells me, ‘He comes out with these marvellous ideas.’
Back in London, enthused by what he had seen, MacLaren instituted the next phase of his authoritarian ministry. The thaw was over. A new regime of holy servitude began – part Gurdjieffian discipline, part oriental mysticism, part Christian mysticism, part social snobbery based on MacLaren’s conviction that the only true art is high art. He created a panoply of semi-divine figures which included Shakespeare, Mozart, Da Vinci and the Romantic poets, all of whom are revered alongside Newton, Plato and oriental philosophers.
The cult’s lifestyle revolves around a notion known as the Measure. We are all asleep and have to wake up to the Absolute, to the higher world. The Measure forms the basis for disciplining and regulating our lives, to wake us from our slumber. After a few years in the school, members are encouraged to meditate twice a day, at sunrise and sunset, even during the long summer days when sunrise is at 4 am. They are encouraged to study Sanskrit, or calligraphy, or any of the other subjects in vogue. They are asked to perform tasks, like scrubbing floors, cleaning or redecorating classrooms and preparing food. At two week-long residential courses a year, plus a couple of weekends, they are invited to perform about three hours of manual labour a day ‘to bring about simple efficiency and happiness’, and then, at further group study meetings, they discuss what they’ve learned while at their labours. They are also advised to eat a vegetarian diet of fresh food.
In the years following MacLaren’s discovery of the Shankara charya, his sexual discipline seemed to have become even stricter. At the week-long retreats, men and women were separated. Women were enjoined to wear only long skirts. Hair was to be worn in a bun. ‘Sexually it was an absolute switch off,’ remembers one man. ‘Which is, of course, exactly what was intended.’
Week two, term one. We philosophy students are still a long way from being told of the existence of the Measure, but ever more quotes from the Vedas and the Bhagavad-gita are starting to appear.
Miss Crammond greets us again cheerily and asks if we have practised the Exercise, the mild form of meditation we practised in the first lesson, feeling the weight of our body and the play of air on our faces. A stiff, middle-aged man complains, ‘I’m not very good at it. I had a very religious upbringing and it seems to feel like a religious ritual to me,’ he says apologetically.
Miss Crammond raises her eyebrows, horrified. ‘We’re not trying to brainwash you!’ she answers. ‘We’re just trying to connect you to yourself.’
Over the weeks Miss Crammond drip feeds us the school’s beliefs: that the only way to knowledge of the absolute truth is to first reconnect with the reality of the self. A keen young Spanish woman who attends the class has already studied some philosophy and is becoming puzzled by the apparent lack of intellectual rigour in the pronouncements Miss Crammond reads from her pre-prepared sheets. She puts up her hand. ‘Excuse me. But how can a subjective idealist know that reality exists?’
Miss Crammond looks puzzled. She cups her hand round her ear. ‘I’m a bit deaf, I’m afraid. Can you repeat the question?’
The Spaniard repeats her question.
Miss C., rarely thrown off balance, looks positively alarmed. ‘Can you repeat the question?’ she begs.
By the end of the first term we no longer ask questions about subjective idealism. By the second term the classes have dwindled in size, to only eight or nine. Apart from regular practice of the Exercise, our lessons have become a succession of diagrams drawn by Miss Crammond on the blackboard. She picks up a giant wooden compass and draws a circle on the blackboard. This, she explains, is the circle of life. Death leads to birth, birth leads round to death. In the middle of the circle is the hole, worn through over the years, by the compass drawing endless circles on the board. She draws lines from the circle to the centre. This is us, she says, reconnecting in rare moments with the Absolute.
On other days she draws concentric circles, marked ‘Body’, ‘Mind’ and ‘Consciousness’. Miss Crammond is too short to write the word ‘Consciousness’ outside the biggest circle which contains the others, so one of us has to help her. We discuss the relationships between them. Gradually, numbers are whittled down to those who are still interested in the idea of the higher consciousness.
‘The mind,’ Miss Crammond reads, ‘extends beyond the body in time and space.’ She looks up, peering through her goldrimmed spectacles. ‘Well, what do any of you have to say about that?’ Pause. ‘What does that say about the mind?’
One of the genteel disciples asks if she is’talking about psychic powers?’.
‘Well, yes,’ answers Miss Crammond. ‘But it’s more than that. You see the mind can know something that’s happening hundreds of miles away.’ She tells a story about how she once had a terrible feeling that something bad had happened to a friend’s baby, so she phoned up and learned the baby had died. ‘That was an example of the mind stretching thousands of miles to learn something that was happening very far away . . . I’m sure we all have examples of that?’
The true mysticism of the followers drips through. Once one has reached true enlightenment, true self-knowledge, one is capable of magic, because we are all one self, and we can therefore know anything.
A terribly prim woman in a black skirt and gold twinset is nodding, wide eyed. She looks ecstatic with recognition. ‘I have a daughter who lives in America who works with horses,’ she tells us in clipped home-county tones. ‘One night I woke up with this really awful idea that something dreadful had happened to her. I just couldn’t get it out of my head. So I phoned up the farm in America where she worked and said, "Is Phillipa all right?" They said, "Of course. Why shouldn’t she be? We just saw her go out riding half an hour ago." But then a little while later I got a phone call from Pip in hospital,’ she says, still amazed. She explains what happened in earthy detail. ‘A stallion had tried to mount the mare she was on, you see, and she had fallen and broken her collarbone. But I knew.’
‘Absolutely,’ agrees the marvellous Miss Crammond, practically singing from the joy of it all. ‘That is the heart of a mother going out to a daughter. A heart can know what’s happening to a loved one hundreds of miles away.’
Cults, we are told by those in the anti-cult movement, practise a form of subtle brainwashing. It is obviously far too subtle to have an effect on the dozens upon dozens who have already abandoned the course by this time. I too appear to be immune to it; a year of lessons delivered by Miss Crammond and her colleagues has left me unmoved.
The few who are left by this stage in the course, are simply those who want to believe. I witness nothing that could be called thought reform, or brainwashing. The yearning dedication of those who stay, turning up week after week in their quest for the big answer to life, is somehow ignored by those in the anti-cult movement who try to tell us that behind the fluty-voiced Miss Crammond lurks a malicious agent of mind-control.
In 1984 two journalists from the Evening Standard, Peter Hounham and Andrew Hogg, published a stinging expose of the publicityshy School of Economic Science in a book called Secret Cult. They traced the network of properties owned by the cult. As well as the huge Oxfordshire mansion, Waterperry, where MacLaren now lives, the school also owns a gigantic mansion called Sarum Chase in Hampstead, Preston Brinscall Hall in Manchester, the two houses in Queen’s Gate, and numerous smaller buildings around the country. The properties are worth millions, and have been amassed through donations. One of the gifts, curiously, was Necker Island, one of the Virgin Islands, which was later bought by Richard Branson to become his hideaway.
To the authors of Secret Cult it looked as though they had uncovered an international conspiracy. There were branches in Ireland, Holland, Belgium, Malta, Australia, New Zealand, America and Canada. Most damning, the book accused the school of deliberately infiltrating our corridors of power. Several lawyers were members. Roger Pincham, chairman of the Liberal party, was a member too. He brazenly admitted it (stunning other Liberals at the time when Pincham’s claim that the school had taught him how to levitate himself was published). Other followers had stood as Liberal party candidates. The evil nature of the cult was there for everyone to see.
The book is a perfect demonstration of how, if you start looking for a malignant cult, that is exactly what you will find. It assumed that members had taken positions as wealthy lawyers, churchmen and politicians because they were in the cult; it didn’t reach the more obvious conclusion that they were in the cult simply because they shared the elitist upper-middle-class professional values that the school espoused.
Besides, if they were really trying to infiltrate the corridors of power, why on earth had they chosen the Liberal party?
Half-way through each lesson we go for a tea break downstairs. Sandwiches are served, prepared by the women in long dresses who hover in the kitchens.
On one wall in the tea room there is a large painting, fifteen feet by four, of a huge oak tree, rooted firmly in the soil. In its branches roost several birds. From all directions, birds flock towards it. The school takes particular pride in its artistic achievements. It’s beautifully executed, figurative, but above all, allegorical. Abstract art, just like modern music, is not encouraged.
I ask a man who has been in the school for years why they always display prints by artists like Botticelli, and yet nothing from the twentieth century except their own careful paintings. He replies, sniffily, ‘The artists selected by us are the ones that reflect the pure consciousness more greatly.’
In the painting in the tea room, many species of birds are painstakingly and accurately depicted. The uplifting message of the painting is emphasised by the motto underneath: ‘My son! A11 things fly to the self as birds fly to the trees for rest.’ In the allegory, the oak tree is a particularly solid, traditionally English representation of the Absolute self in which all souls find their rest.
The only worrying thing about the painting is that many of the birds flocking towards it are of the web-footed variety: mallards, egrets and gulls. Not having claws, they are going to have a great deal of trouble perching in an oak tree. Each time I look at this painting I decide the painter has subconsciously represented one of the truths of the School of Economic Science. It is a school of quiet snobberies. There are many people they don’t actually want to roost in their tree.
At one end of the tea room there is a bookstall selling texts by or about the school’s approved figures: Kahlil Gibran, Mozart, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky and Shakespeare. There is also a set of volumes by a little-known Renaissance philosopher called Marsilio Ficino, who translated the works of Plato from Greek, and whom the school have ‘rediscovered’ and placed on a pedestal. The school reveres the ideas of Plato who believed that God could be uncovered through discovering natural laws, and who preached that freedom could be achieved through a stronglyordered society led by philosopher rulers.
The work of translating Ficino’s letters has been painstakingly carried out by a group within the school known as the Renaissance Group. No translators or editors are credited. In the quiet name of service, the copyright belongs to the school.
The school dreams genteel dreams of being the vanguard of a new, cultured, refined, disciplined Renaissance. If there is a millenarianism in their beliefs, it lies here. The world has gone to pot. TV has dimmed our brains. Populism has rotted the mighty British culture. Lack of respect for authority is undermining the nation. An undercurrent of Royalism bubbles underneath their longing for an ordered world. They long for a safely certain ancient world where Mozart will be played for ever. But philosophy can restore the balance which has been lost.
One Sunday morning I go to an improving lecture at the Queen’s Gate address on ‘Philosophy and Being English’, by a middle-aged historian introduced as Miss Linda Proud. She decries the debased educators of today who spurn study of the Bard. Peering over the lectern in her tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses she announces, ‘Language requires constant work to keep what purity it might have. Newspapers are written by people who have not studied language. They may have done a degree at university, but today we have a situation where we’re reading the language written in a state of ignorance, as it were, where it is not being nurtured by people of a certain position.’
We people of a certain position smile, conceitedly. The genteel, refined members of the cult of the School of Economic Science are not so much infiltrating the corridors of power, but retreating into timorous, obedient certainties to escape from a modern world that has already overwhelmed them.
‘What we’re lacking today is people with a sense of language,’ Miss Proud ploughs on smugly. She looks to Prince Charles as an upholder of the new philosophy, she says. We need leaders, not democracy. ‘Politicians today, I think by the very nature of democratic society, are not allowing themselves to speak the truth. So we will only develop a culture of truthful speaking when a sufficient body of people, such as the people in this room,’ she smiles, ‘take it upon themselves to speak the truth at all times.’
Faces in the room light up with self-satisfaction. The audience clap with polite enthusiasm as the Sunday bells from a nearby Kensington church fill the air.
The school also runs its own independent school for children of the vanguard, St James. The houses at 90 Queen’s Gate also provide the premises for the junior school. The rooms we are taught in double up as their classrooms. Sometimes their work is pinned to the wall. One week I notice they have been working on collage pictures of the countryside. The pictures are oddly uniform. All seem to have the same shaped horses, the same shaped birds, the same shaped cows grazing on their same shaped hills.
Around 600 pupils go to St James - a girls’ school, a boys’ school and a junior school. The teaching ethic shares much with the School of Economic Science. Nearly all the staff attend courses at the School themselves. Exam results are average to good. Discipline is old-fashioned; they still retain corporal punishment. ‘There are two key factors in education,’a spokesperson tells me. ‘The love of the teachers and the discipline of the teachers. One without the other is an imbalance.’
Pupils must offer the vegetarian food that is served to their neighbours before eating. Reading is taught by the traditional method of ‘sounding out’ individual letters. Unless parents object, meditation is taught from the age of ten. Parents are asked to ensure that children do not listen to corrupting pop music or watch too much TV.
The more unusual items on the curriculum include teaching about the Upanishads and Socrates; Sanskrit and Greek are taught too. Not surprisingly, pupils learn a great deal of music by Mozart. And as for drama? ‘Lots of Shakespeare,’ notes the Daily Telegraph Schools Guide approvingly.
The spokesperson tells me, enthusiastically: ‘I think some of the things we’re doing will be highly attractive to the wider world, when they see the results.’
Back in Miss Crammond’s classes, numbers slowly continue to dwindle as we are asked to accept ever more complex eastern classifications of the world. We learn the three gunas - the states of - sattwa (harmony), rajas (activity), and tamas (inertia); we learn that the body is made of earth, air, fire and water; that a particle of earth is made of one half earth, one eighth fire, one eighth air, one eighth water and one eighth space; and that these same elements form, in the body, a hierarchy of blood, bone, fat and, as Miss Crammond delicately puts it, ‘the finest refinement of elements, the . . . ah, generative fluids’.
We are born with a balance of elements. Illness happens when our balance of elements is disturbed, she says. A young man in a grey suit interrupts to ask a question; a few weeks previously his wife gave birth to a baby that is seriously underweight. He’s worried about it. Can the balance be restored?
Miss Crammond, concerned, replies, ‘Presumably that’s something to do with a desire in the foetus itself . . .’ A usually cheery Belfast woman is shocked, ‘What do you mean, desire? I wanted to be six foot tall and that didn’t work.’
Miss Crammond giggles and answers simply, ‘Desire dictates form.’
The woman suddenly becomes worried by the implications of this. ‘Hold on. What if a child is born deformed?’
‘It’s desire,’ answers Miss Crammond. ‘They say you get the body you deserve.’
The woman is becoming more and more agitated. ‘Who says? Who says a baby gets the body it deserves?’
‘The sages. The wise men.’
In the tea break, the woman from Belfast remains unplacated. Her husband has been worried by some of the stuff she has been talking about since she joined the courses. He has told her: ‘Be careful what you’re getting into.’ In the break she talks to Miss Crammond about it: ‘I really do find it really, really difficult to slot into my own belief that any child would actually desire to be born ill.’
The ever-smiling Miss Crammond clutches her teacup and saucer and answers: ‘It’s not a desire to be born ill. It’s a desire not to obey the laws of the universe.’
Confused, the woman tells me she’s thinking that perhaps she’s not going to sign up for the next term’s course.
At the end of our last lesson of the winter term, Miss Crammond treats us to a bit of music. ‘I’m not going to tell you what it is, I just want you to listen.’ Out of her small tape recorder come the strains of the Elvira Madigan slow movement from Mozart’s C major piano concerto. She closes her eyes, blissfully, to the halting piano. When she opens them, she says excitedly: ‘Well, I’m dying to know what you think.’
Before we file out, she says, ‘I think I’ve probably given you more than enough to think about for the vacation. I hope I shall see you at the Christmas party.’
We have already been handed a large white copperplate printed card, inviting us to the school’s Christmas concert.
After I’ve stopped going to lessons, I call up the school’s publicity officer, to check a few facts about the school. He is wary, tired of people trying to knock the school. It turns out he is David Boddy, for twenty-one years a member of the school, a former press adviser to Margaret Thatcher and one-time director of public relations for the Conservative party. I ask him about all the women in long skirts. He answers, charily: ‘In classes, the ladies are encouraged to dress with honour and dignity. Which, yes, generally means that their bodies are covered with long skirts. In general, there are enough temptations of the flesh around today.’
The last time I see the magnificent Miss Crammond is at the Christmas concert, dressed as always in a long skirt, hiding the temptations of her flesh. It is held at Sarum Chase, a beautiful and immense 1930s mock Tudor mansion high on the hill above Hampstead which the school bought in 1971. Men in dinner jackets throng around the staircase, sipping mulled wine. Inside, some of my keener fellow students have chosen to recite Dylan Thomas’s ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ and one-time Gurdjieff follower T. S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’. Giggling children from the junior school perform a sugary scene ‘Dulce Domum’ from The Wind in the Willows. The choir sings a verse anthem by Orlando Gibbons. Then we all stand for ‘Good King Wenceslas’ and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’. All the vulgar modernity of the world is held at bay. First-year students, dressed in conspicuously informal jeans, look ill at ease and out of place. This wasn’t what they expected in a Christmas party. Awkward besuited men bellow the lines earnestly from song sheets. At times like this you can see the school was always just as much Leon MacLaren’s own bizarre charm school for gentlefolk as it was a cult. Behind the choir, looking oddly out of place, is a portrait of Shankaracharya, draped in saffron robes, white bearded, with a red mark on his forehead. In another room, suitably placed overlooking the vat of mulled wine, is a photograph of their other guru, Leonardo Da Vinci MacLaren, lying on a hillside in his baggy black suit, under a shock of black hair. He appears to be smirking. And who can blame him?
As I leave, I feel like a posh schoolboy at an earnest, wellmeaning, stolid, self-satisfied public school, going home to pater and mater after the end-of-term concert. I take the glorious Miss Crammond’s arm as we descend the large oak staircase.
‘Wasn’t it lovely?’ she smiles. ‘See you next term, I hope?’