29 January 2015

W. Grey Walter and my DPhil thesis

copy of a letter to an academic

W. Grey Walter
Writing about the Perrott Studentship with which I returned to Oxford in an ostensibly normal way, much to Dame Janet Vaughan’s chagrin, has reminded me how extreme was the misrepresentation of the situation with regard to experimental work and my thesis.

From the very first, my intention was to make correlations between the psychological and the physiological, to work towards a better understanding of some of the anomalous experiences that people reported. None of my supervisors were prepared to help me get facilities for experimental work; they recognised my interest in working towards such things only by providing me with reviews of the literature in areas in which experiments might be done.

Dr Graham Weddell* said, ‘If you want to make correlations, the most obviously relevant area would be in working with EEGs, so I will arrange for Dr Grey Walter to be your supervisor, as he is the great expert in that field.’ But Grey Walter also would only provide me with book lists and surveys of the literature. I was constantly applying in various directions for funding and facilities to do experimental work, but received no support in doing this.

Grey Walter** said that he would not support my applications because if there was any funding to be had, he would want it for himself. In fact he did receive funding from the Parapsychology Foundation in New York to do experimental work on a supposed medium. I do not know why he should not have received money from the Parapsychology Foundation to do experiments himself, even if they had also funded my DPhil project.

I hope to write about this in more detail later, but there was no doubt in my mind that I was aiming at doing experimental work all the time I was working on my postgraduate degree.

* Graham Weddell was a physiology lecturer at Oxford who later became Professor of Anatomy.
** W. Grey Walter was a researcher at the Burden Neurological Institute near Bristol who later became a professor at Aix-Marseilles.

26 January 2015

Psycho-physical correlation: taboo area

EEG waves
People on the outside of the Oxford academic world imagine that it is far more objective than it actually is. People who get research grants to do higher degrees are supposed to be, in some meritocratic way, ‘better’ than those who apply for them but do not get them. In fact it is necessary to be accepted by a supervisor who is going to oversee your work. No one in the faculty is obliged to accept a graduate student, however relevant the subject matter of a potential supervisor’s previous work may seem to be to the candidate’s proposed thesis.

Many factors may enter into whether the university wants to promote a certain person or a certain area of work. A supervisor is likely to want to believe that his students’ theses will develop or reinforce the ideas expressed in his own research. Hence tightly enclosed areas of permissible research may be expected to, and actually do, develop. Opening up new areas, or expanding those already existing, is almost impossible.

It is also easy to set graduates on tracks which will soon reach a blockage, so that although they may appear to have been accepted to work for a certain degree, it is determined in advance that no positive outcome for them will be possible. In effect, this is what happened to me.

When Professor H.H. Price had agreed to become my DPhil supervisor, my college, Somerville had telephoned him to try to dissuade him. On the face of it, he had not gone back on his acceptance, but from then on he never supported me in getting any financial or other advantages, although he continued to write glowing reports about my work to the Perrott electors at Trinity College, Cambridge, which was only allowing me to go on doing what I had already been accepted to do.

My potential DPhil thesis, for which I was awarded only a BLitt, was said to be interdisciplinary, and it appeared that it might include analyses of both physiological and psychological observations. What I did not realise was that avoidance of correlations between the physiological and the psychological, or the physical and the mental, had been a powerful determining factor in the revolutionary restructuring of the modern academic world. (My thesis was all about such correlations.)

As there was no precedent for a graduate degree in this area, I asked my supervisor Professor Price whether it would be necessary for a successful DPhil thesis in the area I was proposing to include experimental work. Professor Price reported to me that he had been told it would be possible for a thesis in this area to make a contribution to the field, sufficient for a DPhil, without including any experimental work.

If Professor Price had been acting in my interests rather than those of the academic establishment, he would have asked not whether it was a theoretical possibility, but whether it was the best possible way of ensuring that I got the DPhil. When I submitted my thesis, it was turned down for a DPhil and only awarded a BLitt, the reason given being that it did not include any experimental work. Professor Price then applied on my behalf for the thesis to be ‘referred back’, as it was called, so that the necessary additions could be made to it. This was refused, on the grounds that experimental work would not arise naturally out of the thesis in its present form, so such work would be an ‘unnatural addition’ to it.

In fact, this could hardly have been less true, as the thesis consisted of discussing correlations between the psychological states said to be favourable to successful extrasensory perception (ESP), and the electrophysiological activity of the brain as reflected in readings on an electroencephalogram (EEG). This had led me to conclude the thesis with a prediction of the outcome of EEG experiments on ESP subjects. Carrying out some of those experiments would seem to be the most logical development possible of the observations and analyses made throughout the thesis.

Experimental work arose very naturally out of the prediction in my thesis that successful ESP would be correlated with an acceleration in the subject’s alpha rhythm, as measured on an EEG. For example, two experiments carried out in America by Rex Stanford and others at the University of Virginia, after the publication of my thesis, measured correlations between scoring above chance on card guessing, and the frequency of the subjects’ alpha rhythm.

Professor Price entered into no further conflict with the examiners, but apparently accepted their judgement, or rationalisation, on this point without argument. Clearly Somerville had been opposed to my being accepted to work for a DPhil with Price as my supervisor. It is not difficult to suspect that the ultimate abortive outcome was anticipated, and planned for, in the faculty’s original replies to Professor Price about the desirability of experimental work.

21 January 2015

Slandered by Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch
I had got to know J.B. Priestley through Mary Adams of the BBC, and after trying to make use of me to collect quotations for his coffee-table book about time*, he went on visiting me in Oxford and talked about a television programme or series of programmes which might be made about me. Perhaps this had something to do with the possibility that I might lead him into contact with young female undergraduates and postgraduates. After a time, on one such visit, he came into my lodgings looking portentous, and said to me and my two fellow lodgers (one of them being the daughter of Mary Adams), ‘Iris Murdoch says you are lesbians.’

Iris Murdoch was a well-known novelist and former member of the Communist Party, and at the time very much part of the fashionable literary scene. She was also a philosophy don at Oxford, so any gossip she was spreading was likely to be a reflection of the attitudes of the Oxford dons generally. None of the three of us had ever met her.

The allegation of being lesbians was one of many rumours that went round about me and my associates having zero basis in fact. (See also Oxford’s slanders about drug-taking.)

I could not bring myself to deny Iris Murdoch’s alleged slander, as it seemed merely boring to deny something for which there was no foundation, so I made no reply, nor did either of the others. After a pause, J.B. Priestley said, ‘Oh well, I didn’t expect you to deny it,’ as if our failure to deny it was an admission of its truth. After this meeting, he did not visit us again, and the plans for television programmes were heard of no more. In fact what Priestley had gained from Iris Murdoch was not information about our supposed lesbianism, but information about our lack of social acceptability.

When I see detective programmes on the television, I have noticed that the person who most vigorously denies the suspicions against them often turns out to be the culprit. Possibly this is in recognition of the psychological fact that those who have something they need to cover up are motivated to produce an alternative account of the situation, whereas those who have nothing to do with the situation, that is to say, who have ‘nothing to hide’, feel no need to suggest an alternative explanation of the facts. This was, in fact, my position, and if J.B. Priestley were being realistic, he might even have had enough insight to regard our silence as the reverse of incriminating.

Another example of Oxford reacting to us in a way for which there was no justification was provided by an official at the organisation which listed potential landlords who would offer rooms to student tenants. One of my associates who owned a small house, in which I had formerly lived for a short time, applied to this organisation and asked to be placed on their list. No reason for their refusal was given, but the official looked shocked and exclaimed, ‘Oh no!’ on sight of the address, as if it was well known as a house of ill repute, or something of the sort.

* Man and Time, Aldus Books, 1964.
Photograph of Iris Murdoch by Jane Bown.

17 January 2015

It’s not what you know, but who you know

The lower middle class does not exist in official statistics, nor in conversational contexts, but in practice, when I was at Somerville College, Oxford, in the early to mid 1950s, I encountered several students who seemed to be being treated as belonging to a despised underclass, determined by social status rather than ability or achievement.

My impression that this was so was confirmed when I was living in digs in Oxford with two other postgraduate students, working for higher degrees. One of the other students was Margaret Eastman, and the third was the daughter of Mary Adams of the BBC. Margaret and I were of what might be called lower middle class origins, having won scholarships to Somerville, but coming from respectable middle class families which had sent us to State schools.

The daughter of Mary Adams, on the other hand, had gone to the Francis Holland School, a prestigious fee-paying school which had once been considered a possibility for Princess Anne, and had gone on to Somerville as a commoner (a non-scholarship student).

The digs, as was frequently the case with lodgings inhabited by Oxford students, were unhygienic and insalubrious. Among other things, the draining board in the kitchen was rotting. Mary Adams, visiting her daughter, and in the presence of Margaret and myself, expressed horror at the filthy surroundings. ‘This sort of thing may be good enough for Celia and Margaret’, she declaimed, ‘But my daughter was brought up to be a lady’. I was amazed that this should be said by an egalitarian socialist.

It would seem that she was not only voicing her own private views, but those which underlay the attitude of the Oxford University administration. I knew a postgraduate student who lived in lodgings where the lavatories were never cleaned, so that tenants would wish, if possible, to go out into the garden when they needed to use them. Less unhygienic lodgings were likely to have higher rents, so only those who could afford it could remove themselves from such unpleasantness. It must be supposed that the administration was aware of this situation, and so implicitly expressed the view that filthy lodgings were good enough for most students, but of course those who were rich enough could maintain the standards to which they had been brought up.

Other people who seemed to have similar underlying attitudes were the friends of Mary Adams, drawn from a population which hobnobbed with champagne socialists, even if not perhaps every one of them could be classified in this way.

I would certainly have expected, on the basis of the way my own family would have behaved, that on visiting a student living together with two other students, the visitors would all ask to be introduced to the friends of their friend, or have just entered the apartment and got to know the others in a less formal way. This, however, did not happen, whether or not they feared the apartment might be too filthy to be safely entered. Friends of Mary Adams would come to the door and take her daughter out with them without meeting anyone else.

This went on happening over a period of years, and on at least one occasion the daughter of Mary Adams said to her, ‘When your friends visit me, they take me out for a meal, but not Celia and Margaret. When Celia’s aunt Emmie visits us, she takes all three of us out for lunch’. Mary Adams responded, ‘Celia’s aunt must be a very rich woman then’. My aunt Emmie was retired and on a pension. Like all members of my mother’s family, she had a very high IQ, and she had become a highly skilled shorthand typist. However, as a member of a lower social class than the champagne socialists, my aunt had never had a salary approaching the BBC salary of Mary Adams.

On one occasion, as the daughter of Mary Adams told me, some of the visiting friends said they would like to buy her a birthday present, but they wanted to be sure it was something which she herself could use and which would be of no use to any other inhabitants of the apartment. ‘How about slippers?’ they had said, ‘We could buy you some, but do assure us that your feet are much smaller than Celia’s and Margaret’s, so they could not possibly use any slippers we buy for you’.

14 January 2015

Oxford: stairway to the stars?

Margaret Eastman was an undergraduate at Somerville College, Oxford, with a scholarship in classics. This fairly clearly implied exceptional ability. She had acquired her expertise in writing Greek poetry by reading classics in her local public library.

Social mobility was allegedly desirable, so one might well have expected that people such as Margaret Eastman and myself would be welcomed to Oxford, and encouraged on their upward path. But this was far from being the case. People such as Margaret and myself were greeted by the Somerville dons as if we had got above ourselves and needed to be reminded that we were still inferior to people who had been to prestigious fee-paying schools such as St Paul’s Girls’ School.

Margaret had become able to write Greek poetry so well that she took the optional poetry writing paper in the Mods exam. She also wrote a Latin epigram which was published in the Oxford Magazine. Such publication conferred a considerable cachet, but was greeted by one of Margaret’s tutors with the comment ‘It’s the first thing you have done since coming up that justifies your scholarship’.

As Margaret was always spoken of by the dons as something of a second-rater, people who did not know about classics might have taken this at face value, but it is scarcely compatible with the facts. Margaret had got her scholarship by being able to read and write Latin and Greek at a high level, and she had not stopped being able to do so, but continued to read and write Latin and Greek throughout her first terms at Oxford.

A year or so later, when she wished to apply for a research scholarship to proceed to a higher degree, her tutors sounded uncertain whether she was ‘good enough’. They thought she was not ‘good enough’ for an academic career, although she should be able to ‘hold down a job’.

In my own case, when I started trying to explain to my first tutor how badly I had been affected by being held back and prevented from taking exams in several subjects at an early age, she had said ‘But you are just an ordinary person’, which seemed to rule out any attempt to understand how various factors might have affected my performance.

Somerville would never support either Margaret or myself in applying for grants for higher degrees. I think we were turned down on at least four occasions, although ironically we were both able to help other people who were doing higher degrees in different subjects, by picking up very fast on something which we had never studied before.

Eventually we both found ourselves without an academic appointment, or any way ahead within the university system.

11 January 2015

Egalitarians and those ‘beneath’ them

When I was an undergraduate at Somerville College, Oxford, in the mid-1950s, feminist ideas were very much on an uptrend.

‘Feminism’ is usually taken to mean gender egalitarianism, i.e. that women are or should be the equals of men. This idea could, however, be interpreted in very different ways.

While I was at Somerville, a male undergraduate said to one of my college friends that women were ‘equal but different’, and this seemed to mean ‘equal but inferior’. Women could never have strong enough wrists to play tennis properly against a man, and there were various other things which they would never be able to do well.

Nowadays, it is often suggested that there should be equal numbers of men and women on the boards of companies.

Mary Adams OBE, a well-known ‘fellow traveller’ (communist sympathiser), was one of the first women to have a fairly high position in the BBC, and was also the mother of a college friend of mine. I was the top scholar at Somerville College, and her daughter was a commoner (non-scholarship student). I frequently visited Mary Adams’s Regents Park apartment.

On one occasion, my father came by car to pick me up from the apartment, and Mary Adams said about his voice on the telephone, ‘He sounds very common’. At least, this was what her daughter relayed to me a little later. I was surprised that Mary Adams, as an influential leader of thought at the BBC, did not find it necessary to demonstrate her social egalitarianism by asking my father up for a sherry, and taking an interest in his experience of education in working-class areas of London. After all, he was the headmaster of a school in the East End.

Lord Longford
When I told this story to Lord Longford* (a Labour peer) at the House of Lords, where he had invited me to visit him after I sent him an appeal to support my work, he looked taken aback by the accuracy of the wording. In fact I had not, at the time, known that ‘common’ was the word an upper-class person would use in talking about a social inferior. ‘Did you hear her say that?’ he asked. ‘No,’ I said, ‘her daughter, who did hear it, told me afterwards’. ‘She should not have told you’, Lord Longford said, laughingly.

One may notice that he did not say, ‘Mary Adams should not have said that’, in line with the socialist egalitarian ideas which both Lord Longford and Mary Adams professed in public. Instead, it appeared he thought that her daughter’s loyalty should have been to her own (upper) class, and to her influential mother, rather than to someone of a lower social class but, probably, higher IQ (i.e. both me and my father).

At the same meeting, Lord Longford looked at me curiously, as if he were trying to work out my social provenance. He said to me, ‘You don’t sound working-class. You could be a peeress.’ He continued to look at me. I must have said something, and he then said, ‘I see it is an Oxford accent’.

I cannot recall my college contemporaries, or any more senior person, ever expressing admiration of my achievement in getting the top scholarship, or even any Oxford scholarship, coming as I did from a relatively disadvantaged background. People appeared to be impressed only by social institutions. Mary Adams seemed to be bowled over when I first told her of meeting Dr Charles McCreery, an undergraduate at that time. I mentioned that he had been to Eton, and Mary Adams went into church with admiration, breathing, ‘Eton is the best school’.

A similar reaction was shown by Oxford physiology lecturer Graham Weddell (later Professor of Human Anatomy), when speaking about Charles’s father, General Sir Richard McCreery, before he had even met Charles. ‘His father is a great man’, he said, although General McCreery had (it appeared) been slandering Charles.**

* Frank Pakenham, the 7th Earl of Longford, was a Labour politician who became Leader of the House of Lords in 1964. Photograph by Allan Warren.
** Further details can be found here.

07 January 2015

Recognising that I was exceptional

When I was at Somerville College, Oxford, I got to know Mary Adams of the BBC, who was the mother of a college friend of mine, and hand in glove with Dame Janet Vaughan, the socialist Principal of Somerville, and with Professor Sir Alister Hardy. Upper-class top people of a certain age were those most likely to recognise my exceptionality, although not to give me any help.

Mary Adams OBE seemed to recognise that I was exceptionally advanced in understanding psychology. When, as an undergraduate, I was in a car with her and her daughter X, I was explaining someone’s psychology to her daughter, who had had difficulty trying to communicate something to this someone. I said that people have barriers. Mary Adams said, ‘She won’t understand that. You have to have years of experience to become aware of people’s barriers.’

J.B. Priestley
Some years later, Mary Adams tried to convince Sir George Joy that he should stop X and Y from working with me in my incipient research institute. ‘They are normal girls in their early twenties,’ she told him. ‘They are no match for Celia, who might well be twice their age in psychological understanding.’

Another time, earlier on, she had described me as ‘more man than woman’. J.B. Priestley (whom I met through Mary Adams), after having had a meal out with me and X, said to Mary Adams that I was ‘perceptive in a range that could be sinister,’ as Mary Adams told me later.

She also told me that I had impressed Priestley; he was (she said) afraid of me.

01 January 2015

Further notes on Professor H.H. Price

Professor Price’s remarks on the quality of my writing were foreshadowed by my getting the Senior Open Scholarship to Somerville College, to a considerable extent on the strength of my essay papers, as it was said at the time. Some time in my first year, at a college sherry party, a don in another department, whom I did not know, came up to me and said she remembered my essay papers in the entrance exam. They were, she said, the most remarkable she had ever seen.

Some people were evidently impressed by me at first sight. W.H. Salter, for example – at least early on during my time at the Society for Psychical Research, while he was still under the influence of his wife. Salter, at some meeting of the SPR, said of me in a slightly jokey way (but as if he meant what he was saying) “Of course I know you are a genius”.

Soon after Professor Price had volunteered to become my supervisor at a meeting of the Board of Literae Humaniores, he was telephoned by Somerville in an attempt to dissuade him from accepting this position. Professor Price told me of this quite humorously, although he did not tell me of anything specific that had been said against me.

What they (for example the Somerville dons) felt against anyone who showed any open-mindedness to anything other than reductionist materialism seemed to be that they assumed them to have strong beliefs in something spiritualistic. On the other hand, those who condemned other people for supposedly having these beliefs (whether or not they really did have them) appeared themselves to have strong and unshakeable beliefs in other directions.

I appeal for financial and moral support in improving my position. I need people to provide moral support both for fundraising, and as temporary or possibly long-term workers. Those interested should read my post on interns.