Have you ever ordered a DVD of an old film that, once upon a time, you thought was wonderful (back when you were at an impressionable age, say, between the ages of 15 and 25)? And when you settled down to watch it, accompanied by a wee whisky and some cheese and onion crisps, did you then discover that it was utter crap?
Yep, me too. So you’ll know that fond remembrance can’t always be relied upon: judgements change; remembered facts turn out to be false memories… So I was cautious when I was asked to explain why an elderly MP, whom I’d known briefly when were both students fifty-odd years ago, would shave his head and join the Hare Krishna movement, aka ISKCON, The International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
The town allotments are a different sort of place to when I first used to come here with my grandad in the 1950s. Back then, they were the resort of the self-reliant poor: a means to put good food on the table for large families and active pensioners. Nowadays, all sorts have their allotments, dotted with elaborate polytunnels, fruit cages, and seasoned, wooden, raised beds. But they are still a sociable place and last month I’d been chatting to a fellow allotmenteer, Cressida Arbuthnot. Somehow, the conversation had shifted from Carrot Fly prevention measures to the picture in the previous week’s local paper of the town’s MP, making the headlines because he’d joined the Hare Krishna crowd. The picture had been taken on the steps of the local stately home, which ISKCON had recently bought as a retreat. Thinking I was making a wisecrack, I said it was convenient that the bloke was already bald as a coot (not much head shaving required, mainly around the ears), but I was disappointed that he hadn’t posed in the traditional Hare Krishna robes and sandals. Cressida didn’t smile or reply. I felt a bit awkward. So to fill the silence, I mentioned that, as a first year student at Uni, I’d had to share rooms with him and that he’d seemed a wee bit odd back then.
Cressida was suddenly animated. ‘Really, you knew him fifty years ago? He’s married to my sister-in-law and the family are terribly worried about him. He’s given away a large sum of money. He spends several HOURS a day chanting. He won’t eat meat, or fish, or eggs. The local party are going to de-select him. And, err, he’s moved into a spare bedroom: apparently, sex is only for, you know, procreation … he’s 72, of course…’
She paused, probably embarrassed in turn, because she’d maybe ‘shared’ a bit too much info. I started to commiserate, but she cut me short. ‘If you knew him when he was student, that would’ve been the time when all that hippie stuff was going on. Was he, you know, a bit hippie-ish back then? Was he interested in those weird cults, and so on? My sister-in-law is twenty years younger than him. When she met him he was a barrister and looking for a Parliamentary Seat… She doesn’t know much about his earlier life. She’s going round and round in her head, looking for some sort of explanation. I don’t suppose… if you knew him back then… if there was anything that might help explain…’
Despite my disclaimers that I never really knew the guy all that well, that it was all such a long time ago, etc., etc., Cressida backed me into a corner, and I agreed to give the matter some thought and get back to her.
To explain the connection, back in the Sixties, the Cambridge college where we’d both been undergraduates had the daunting requirement that first-year students must share rooms in college. In other words, they must share rooms with a perfect stranger. My stranger/room-mate was Alwyn Smith (he didn’t become Alwyn Wyckham-Smith til some years later), a rather reserved, short-sighted, law student from a place I’d never heard of called ‘Sunningdale.’ I eventually discovered that it was one of those not-quite-real, mock-Tudor towns for London commuters. I wasn’t unkind enough to state it, but I kind-of pitied him for never having smelled a foundry on the wind, or felt the surge and press of a football crowd. Things were missing from his life and he didn’t even know they were missing. (Of course, remember this was in The Sixties when, for the first and last time in human history, it was fashionable to be working class).
So there was a connection: we had to share the same bedroom for a year. But there wasn’t a close connection: we only went to the pub together once – he ordered a gin-and-tonic.
Nevertheless, Cressida had got a commitment out of me. I felt I had to come up with something. And not just because she was the chair of the allotment committee. I did a bit of internet searching, but didn’t come up with much: he’d been a moderately successful barrister and a pretty ‘undistinguished’ MP. I did then wonder if there was a clue in the latter ‘undistinguished’ career. Aged 72, did he feel that he had to make his mark now, before it was too late? But apparently, he was doing his best to avoid publicity, refusing all interviews and keeping the curtains drawn.
Then I considered whether Alwyn might have been ‘recruited,’ drawn into the sect by the blandishments of specialist recruiting sergeants. I remembered that back in the the Seventies, there had been a sect called The Children of God, that used to recruit by ‘love bombing’ – sending their prettiest and handsomest members round the pubs and clubs to entice love-starved recruits. But, again, a 72 year-old seemed an unlikely target. And the Hare Krishna crowd at the local retreat didn’t mingle; they kept pretty much to themselves.
Retired, with time on my hands, I contacted those few old university friends with whom I was still in touch. Maybe they would recall things that I’d forgotten or misremembered?
Andy, who I used to meet up with for occasional hillwalking weekends, said he remembered Alwyn as always being on the lonely edge of a crowd. He suggested that Alwyn’s embrace of Krishna Consciousness was unlikely to be a search for religious meaning and more likely to be a search for community, for the gratification of belonging. This chimed with my old adolescent aversion to not-quite-real Sunningdale, but I reflected that Parliament, with it’s many bars, dining areas, committee rooms, and caucuses, has the reputation of being the most exclusive club in country. So exclusive and clubable, in fact, that many elderly MPs hanker to stay on the premises in that excellent retirement home, the House of Lords.
Another old friend, David, a psychotherapist, emailed me that it was notable that Alwyn had a wife twenty years his junior. He’d got married without reading the terms and conditions. The Hare Krishna prohibition of sex, except for the purposes of procreation, thus allowed the MP to retire from the marriage bed, and its attendant obligations, without any damage to his sense of his masculinity. I’m a bit worried about David. He has been obsessing about the recent birth of a child in Downing Street, to father who cuts a rather louche figure, being alleged to have left several ‘love-children’ in his wake, as well as assorted children from previous marriages. David’s been writing this long, tortuous, libellous, unpublishable, academic paper about politics and the sex drive. Sent David a polite acknowledgement.
Jim’s email promised to be more helpful, because he had been a law student like Alwyn, although Jim’s subsequent career had been very different from the MP. Jim revealed some information that I didn’t know (that Alwyn’s mother had been the daughter of a High Court Judge), and some information that I’d forgotten (that, back then, Alwyn had been the only student in college to attend tutorials in a collar and tie). He suggested that the guy had spent seventy years in rigid conformity to some past parental model of career success, never giving any observer grounds for concern, only to finally crack-up with the finishing post in sight. ‘He fell at the last fence’, was how Jim put it. I could follow Jim’s reasoning, but in my experience conformity was much more likely to increase with age, rather than diminish. In any case, I felt Cressida and the rest of Alwyn’s family would hardly be cheered by Jim’s hypothesis.
It was the last reply I received, from Alan, that convinced me to be as guarded as possible in any message to Alwyn’s family. I hadn’t really expected to hear back from Alan: his was an old email address and I’d heard that he’d recently followed a contrasting, but oddly parallel, path to Alwyn’s: Alan had become a monk in the Orthodox Church. Alan wrote that my dogged search for an explanation for the MP’s conduct was understandable and well-meant, but doomed to fail.
To summarise Alan’s argument, he suggested that we are such complex, multi-faceted, muddled creatures that any clear-cut account of human motivation is bound to be partial at best, and subject to all sorts of fads and fashions. I imagine that he could’ve instanced the unlikelihood that, back in the nineteenth century, any of the most brilliant pre-Freudian minds of the day would have ever suggested that the relinquishment of a political career could be motivated by of fears of sexual impotency.
Alan ended his email thus: ‘This side of death, can we ever see into another’s soul?’ He entitled the email: ‘Rosebud.’
Image: Google images.