The Meandering River: Memoir of an alternative life
Excerpt by Brigitte Ryley




Crystal Palace Park
    Kirkdale School


Crystal Palace Park

I take bus number 176, the bus linking Oxford Street with Penge. Interestingly that bus route passes by all the homes I occupied since moving to England; Lordship Lane, Laurie Park Road, finally 81 Thicket Road where it all began. I stroll around the lake past the dinosaurs, despite small improvements added over the years it seems nothing much has changed. It’s hard to believe that number 81, at the edge of the park, now an elegant Victorian house divided into flats was once a legal squat. It was run by a group of architectural students with the agreement of the local council.

81 Thicket Road was no ordinary squat. For a few years it housed a group of eccentric talented individuals whose intention was to create an urban “commune”. The group consisted of around ten adults and four children. They lived communally sharing resources, childcare, cooking, and chores. They wanted to support each other’s growth, experiment with pushing the boundaries taken for granted within conventional relationships, deal with conflicts creatively.

How I came to live with my partner in that environment is a long story. I was 23 years old, very shy and did not speak English. I had dropped out of reading psychology at Louvain University in Belgium. I had met my husband during my travels in the South of France in search for rural alternative communities. When we came to live in the London commune, I was pregnant with my daughter. I felt estranged from my partner and the members of the commune most of the time. I remember the dominant feeling as one of quiet isolation. Yet underneath the emotional distress, there was a growing sense of self.

It was that “Self” responsible for pushing me out, away from the familiar confines of my Belgian student life in order to be exposed to new ways of living. I lived in the community, remaining separate, on the edge, safely protected in the role of the observer.

Studying psychology in Europe in 1968 had been the beginning of a journey of emotional intellectual and spiritual exploration. Our readings included, Marcuse, Lacan, Wilhelm Reich, Ronnie Lang, Allan Watts, Simone de Beauvoir and many other ground breaking thinkers. There was amongst a certain group an atmosphere of questioning old grounds and a desire to create new forms of cultures. Looking back I see that I was young, naïve, emotionally damaged, lacking intellectual rigor and critical thinking. I was desperate to break away from restrictions and repressions brought about by closed communication systems encouraged by Catholicism and white middle class dominate ideologies. I had felt cut off from my instincts and lacking personal power and confidence. My sense of self remained very dependant on other people’s approval. I was very alienated from my parents and the rift seemed to get bigger as time went on. My father was made redundant from a good managerial job, however I was very arrogant, rebellious and lacked compassion and empathy for the older generation.

Louvain University could be likened to a big cauldron in which new intellectual, artistic, and spiritual theories were brewing. They reached many areas of society. Amongst them, ideas around the nature of madness named as anti-psychiatry, ideas on organic farming, and experimental ideas on education had reach us, all the way from an alternative school, Summerhill, in England. Eastern philosophies and exotic esoteric texts by the likes of Carlos Castaneda were impregnating our brains. Vegetarian, macrobiotic cafes, new age shops and esoteric bookshops were sprouting like mushrooms. There was a genuine longing for knowledge and other ways of doing things, fuelled by a sense of dissatisfaction around our parent’s way of life.

The flower children we were. We wanted liberation, creativity, we did not want to dwell to much on the hardships the previous generation had to go through in order to build themselves lives after the devastation of the war. Taking into account the cultural climate of the late sixties it is no wonder that my official studies in psychology felt irrelevant compared to the new theories that seemed to point towards the possibilities of a counterculture. These years were filled with hope and possibilities. I often frequented alternative groups and when given the opportunity to join a group of students to visit the community of L’Arche in France, I was delighted.

L’Arche had been founded By Lanza del Vasto, a disciple of Gandhi. It was there, sitting in a rustic kitchen, peeling carrots that I met my husband to be. He had a long beard falling right down onto his chest and wore exotic Turkish baggy trousers. We started a conversation that continued throughout my week’s visit. To the shy student that I was, he seemed full of wisdom. After a discussion on education as practiced in Summerhill alternative free school, I remember thinking he would be the ideal father to a child.

Whilst my interest in the seventies counterculture was encouraged during my studies at university, it is true to say that my leanings towards the esoteric aspects of new age thinking were nurtured by my maternal grandfather’s philosophy. My grandfather, Monsieur Marin was a devoted Catholic, but he had always been fascinated by the occult. He had been a keen explorer on all possible ideas and beliefs regarding the mystery of life after death, extra-sensory perception, clairvoyance, magic, mysticism, yoga and meditation. He owned hundreds of books on the subject. By the time I had reached the age of twelve I remember spending hours reading through them in the attic of the Villa Mona. I remember titles such as: The Secret of Numbers, Mysteries of the Pyramids, African Magic, Alexandra David Neal, Gypsy Magic, Madame Blavatsky, etc, etc. My grandfather also reveled in telling ghost stories. He had healing gifts and practiced physiotherapy. I remember feeling enchanted by the word “le nouvel age”. When using the word my grandfather seem to conjure a mystical time and place that would involve great upheavals before bringing about a happier way of life. His speeches had a magical quality and inspired me deeply. He radiated a spiritual strength and I shared his belief in this dimension of life. By the time I came to discover L’Arche in the South of France, my sense of self needed to encompass a philosophy allowing space for ‘the marvelous’ in the way the Surrealist artists had done. I desperately wanted to explore the human psyche and understand myself. My studies in psychology didn’t provide me with the tools needed to heal my suffering. ‘New Age’ thinking seemed to point towards new hopes and to offer a perfect escape from my inner conflicts, encouraging very narcissistic identification with idealised views of the self and the world.

After my stay in L’Arche, the bearded Englishman and I stayed in touch. I went to stay with him in a place called, Carrus, a community nestling in a valley situated in Les Corbieres, department de l’Aude. Peter and I started a relationship. Carrus was a rather dry, isolated place surrounded by ‘Le Maquis’. A couple, Bernard and Jeannette who were also followers of Lanza del Vasto, ran the community. They took on people who might want to become permanent members and also often visitors who worked in exchange for food and lodgings. Peter was responsible for a huge vegetable garden, he baked bread in a stone oven, tended the herd of goats, made cheese. Other jobs included, cooking, childcare, building work, laundry etc. Although people took it in turns to go through most jobs, there were times when cooking, cleaning, childcare had to be done mostly be women. The best moments were times spent in the outdoors, walking, getting close to nature. If you followed a rocky down spiraling path, you came to a pond surrounded by rocks. We all swam in the nude, rejoicing in the wonders of God’s creation. At first my new life was exciting however after the novelty wore off it became clear that life consisted of endless chores. I felt stuck and dissatisfied living with people who appeared quite rigid and not interested in discussing new cultural or psychological ideas. Conflict remained unresolved and festered. We decided to leave. I traveled to and fro between Belgium and wherever Peter had chosen to settle. His last home was a barn in the Pyrenees, with no road, running water or electricity. There were huge problems in our relationship. I chose not to listen to the inner voice. I became pregnant. We went grape picking in Beziers on an organic vineyard. It is there that we met the communards from Penge. They offered us a place to stay temporarily if we wished.