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




Crystal Palace Park

» Boisseson
    Kirkdale School



I can imagine us driving across the meandering narrow mountain road in our white Renaud van packed with our belongings eager to reach Boisseson, our new home ground. When I look back at all the places we happen to stay during the first eighteen months of Marjolaine's life Boisseson is where I felt the happiest. The pretty, capricious, river Orb ran at the bottom. The village was surrounded by orchards and hills filled with the smell of thyme, rosemary, lavender and other odoriferous herbs. Peter had found work as a seasonal laborer for monsieur Giraud, a fruit farmer. He owned orchards of cherry trees, apricot trees, olive trees and some vineyards. We were given a little house as part of the deal. A coat of white paint on most walls was enough to make the house more welcoming. We bought matting, cushions, a few kitchen items. From the beginning I felt much more at home there than in Bardou. Due to lower altitude the area had a gentler climate and the feel of Le Midi. I have always loved living close to water. Peter was the breadwinner. Although he sometimes came home for lunch, I spent most of the time alone with the baby whilst he was at work. There was a small patio at the front of the house where a small child could safely crawl around. The river was only ten minutes away. At the first signs of spring, I would head towards the river. I would spend hours with Marjolaine sitting on the riverbank, mesmerised by the sight of fast flowing water, finding her way around huge rocks and boulders. The sound of the gushing water had a kind of hypnotic power. The combination of sparkling water, azure blue sky, rocks painted in ochre tones gave way for a special kind of luminosity. The quality of the light had a very uplifting influence. Marjolaine loved to be left to play with pebbles, crawl around, touch, taste. I remember being there as a continuous feast for the senses. She loved climbing rocks before learning to walk. As trying to stop her was a total waste of time, I would sit or stand right beside her whilst she found her way up some rock formation. Eventually, exhaustion had the better of us and we had a leisurely picnic before more explorations and games. I would gladly have stayed forever on the riverbank. The temperature would decrease gently and we would find our way home.

Employed as a seasonal laborer Peter was expected to pick up the skills of the trade by doing the job. This involved the necessary tasks needed to keep trees healthy. This would have involved, pruning, spraying, nourishing the soil with compost, loosening the earth. Cherry picking was hazardous at times. The workers had to carry heavy long ladders from one tree to another and position the ladder against the tree in a way that made it safe to climb. To pick the cherries at the very top required a skilful balancing act. Nothing compares to the taste of the first ripe, juicy cherry Peter brought home after his first day of picking.

We would awake most mornings by the steady rhythm of Julien's horse steps resounding on the cobbled street. Julien was our neighbor. He would take his beast out to the fields at the crack of dawn. The sound of horseshoes carried across the morning stillness. Julien had a rugged tanned face. He shared a house with his elderly sisters. The ladies who looked like characters out of Balzac used to stare at the world through the curtains. Our family would have seemed very alien to them. There were villagers who disapproved of the fact our child was often seen without shoes. This was due to the fact that she hated shoes and would attempt to get rid of them. Shoes would inevitably get lost. People thought we were careless and irresponsible. They probably felt sorry for the poor babe.

The highlight of the fruit-picking season was the apricot harvest. In the beginning the fruits. We turned into thieves. Unable to resist, we crept towards the orchards at night and gorged ourselves with the most exquisite ripe juicy apricots I had ever tasted in my life. It was of course totally irresponsible. Had we been caught, we would have found ourselves, jobless and homeless.

During our stay in Boisseson we made friends with Bernard and Therese, a young couple who lived in the next village. They had a small baby named Joseph who was a little older than Marjolaine. They were very friendly but found my child-centered ways a bit over the top. Therese thought I was alienating myself and ought to leave the baby much more to her own devices even if it meant letting her cry. Therese was very practical. She had a garden, kept chickens and goats, she had a weaving loom and span her own wool with a hand made wooden spindle. She was everything I was not. I was truly desperate for a friend. Yet there was no emotional resonance. I found our encounters frustrating. She had no understanding of the unconscious side of life. Her husband was a carpenter. There was a lot of tension between them.

We had some visitors during our stay. My parents came. They drove all the way from Brussels and stayed in a hotel nearby. They were both charmed and horrified faced with our way of life. They loved the natural beauty of our surroundings. However, my father kept telling us there was no future for us here. He of course had a point. He was outraged at the fact that after supporting me financially to go to university I had chosen to drop out. My parents enjoyed their granddaughter a lot. She was able to walk by then. My mother still remembers Lucien’s old horse ambling down the road in the morning. The atmosphere between my parents and us remained tense. It was a relief when they left. Eventually we were able to move into a much better house. It had terracotta tiles on the living room floor and pleasing furniture, having been converted into a holiday home. Peter’s brother, Andy came to stay with us there with his girlfriend, Kate. Kate was half Romany Gypsy. She loved Marjolaine. She and I really connected. She was warm, funny and very resourceful. We shared our very last grape-picking season. Kate helped with childcare, which really helped. She could read into the lines of the hand and told Peter I would surprise him one day. She was a wonderful storyteller. As a child she used to be sent into a field to milk a cow without getting caught. The gypsies always knew where other members of their group might be. She said that they really believed in telepathy and the sixth sense. When time had come for her to leave I was devastated. I never saw her again. She and Andy split up.

I had really enjoyed living in the comfortable new home. The owners offered us a lease for a reasonable rent. Peter said we could not afford it. When the grape picking season ended, we decided to return to London. I am not sure why we made such a drastic decision. Moving away from le midi would once again involve us in a radical change of lifestyle. I think the move back was a great loss to all of us. I will always remember living near the river Orb as a feast for the senses. Living there I experienced a subtle awakening. The aromatic perfumes of le marquis, the clear azure skies, the subtle hues of lavender blues and pinks covering the river banks, the crisp cold dry air in winter, the quality of the light, all have left feelings, impressions lingering in my memory. Like Marcel Proust, I love the process of remembrance. Right now I remember the smell of lavender, the feel of warm rain pouring from the blackened sky on our dancing bodies after five months of drought, an ecstatic moment dancing alone by the river feeling connected to the whole world. I will cherish those memories forever. They make me who I am, add subtle tones, moods and texture to my palette and still nurture my creative imagination.

When we decided to return to England, it almost felt like a very impulsive decision. However deeper forces were at work. I like to think they were the forces of destiny. By that time Peter and I felt we had reached an impasse regarding our lives and relationship. We both felt very frustrated with each other. I had not managed to create a social life for myself. We were not properly integrated into the French system. I had enjoyed life in the commune and despite the loneliness and exile I had experienced the beginnings of authentic encounters. I thought that it might be easier for me to create a life for myself in England. We once again packed our belongings and drove back to London. I do not remember whether we had asked the communards if they were able to take us back in. However we went straight back to 81, Thicket road. They gave us temporary asylum. As a matter of fact they were not particularly happy to have us back. The community seemed to be falling apart. Couples were breaking up and some members wanted to move on. I remember once being told by one of the key ladies 81 was an experiment. She seemed to think it had been worthwhile. However there were a few broken hearts and disillusioned souls at the end of it. I remember feeling disappointed having to come to turns with the fact that the cohesive force holding the group together had vanished. I also remember that when we got back Marjolaine went into total withdrawal. She seemed to be in a state of shock. It was a shock to all of us to be faced with the reality of London after a year in idyllic Boisseson. I recently heard from a friend that our friend, Bernard and Therese had separated. Very recently someone I know by some extraordinary coincidence told me he had been visiting Bardou. Jean and Klaus are still going strong. They rent space to classical musicians and music lovers for very high fees.

We stayed in 81 for a month and were offered a room in a big house in Laurie Park road in Sydenham. It was a very civilised genteel up market squat. We felt that it was an offer we could not refuse, so we moved in. The new squat was ruled by Jerry, a Dutch middle-aged woman who lived with a younger man. She ruled with an iron hand. We never really got along with her. We shared the house with a Brazilian couple that had a small boy, a Swedish girl who was a pottery student, and a very sexy English girl musician who had a lovely daughter. A huge garden full of old trees surrounded the house. It was clean and well maintained. We ate communally sometimes. We shared house chores. Living there was very different from living in the old community. We were all living like housemates, living our separate lives. There was no group spirit like the kind I had experienced in Thicket Road. However the place felt like a safe heaven and allowed us to relax and find our feet. We had a very big room overlooking the road. Peter build a very elaborate wooden platform for us to sleep on. We decorated. I remember painting the walls white and the woodwork dark green, going to Homebase in Penge to buy paint.

The place felt homely enough for me to feel able to settle and get on with my new life. We were going to experience some respite from the stresses of a nomadic lifestyle. That period of our lives proved to be the quite time before the storm. As we relaxed in leafy Sydenham creative seeds were planted.

During my years living in France I had developed an interest for traditional weaving. This craft had somehow become fashionable amongst some of the seventies country hippies. It was not uncommon to find women who had chosen the way back to the land to have learned the old art of spinning, carding, dying wool with natural dyes and loom weaving. Some had managed to earn money from their craft. Others made art objects like such as lampshades, wastepaper baskets, and fashionable items. I had been particularly inspired by the work of Anne-Marie, who lived with an anthropologist in a village house near Carpentras. She was able to incorporate the soft colours of the Mediterranean landscape into her work. She used to dye her wool with natural ingredients and she had regular exhibitions. I had also met a woman in Carrus who had attended a popular weaving school in Switzerland. I managed to persuade Peter that weaving was something I really wanted to do. I thought that I could even earn some money from it. So we commissioned a very good artisan to build me a loom. I remember visiting him and his partner in Yorkshire where we discussed the project. Before I knew it, half our room was occupied by solid loom build in oak wood. It was truly magnificent. I went to evening classes in Brixton to learn the basics. It transpired that making something by myself at home was easier said than done. The technical of setting, warping, threading a loom is complex and requires patience, dexterity, and skill. You have to be well grounded in the body to think and perform the skillful tasks. So it ended up being very difficult. Although I did manage to pick up the basics, I used to feel frozen in fear. The real problem was that I was totally blocked creatively. I found it really hard to enter the creative space. My hands seemed totally separated from my head. I did however manage to weave some rugs, and made a couple of simple jackets for family members. The jackets were very primitive. I remember trying to sell some rugs in Camden Market on a friend’s stall and seeing Julie Christie having a look and nearly buying it. Sadly I was not able to commit myself to becoming a weaver. Eventually, I sold the loom. I was to try my hand at weaving several times, first in my thirties, than again more recently and was able to enjoy it as a hobby. I was never quite able to free and express the creative passion I had felt for the play of colour and textures and shapes emulated in the art of creative weaving.

A lot of my time was devoted to looking after my daughter. I used to go to the One a Clock Club in Crystal Palace. There I met other mothers whilst Marjolaine was playing. I would mainly engage with the local hippie mothers. A lot of them had creative projects on the go. Marjolaine was blossoming, enjoying a busy social life. She got into the habit of going to stay the night with little friends from a very early age. We visited Peter’s parents in West-Kirby on a regular base. They adored their granddaughter and somehow accepted our lifestyle and were very kind to me. I remember becoming interested in modern dance and taking classes. I think Peter had a job in the park. I had a regular cleaning job.

Living communally provided lots of distractions. Peter and I were growing more and more dissatisfied with each other and therefore were lusting after other people. Eventually, I fell head over heals in love and lust with a handsome, tall athletic Australian swimming champion. Peter retaliated by having an affair with a woman he had known in France. She was a member of a primal commune based in Brixton. Members of the group named Atlantis, practiced a kind of do it yourself form of primal therapy. They were hoping to free themselves of neurotic pain by helping each other to relive and experience traumatic feelings. All hell broke loose. Of course having affairs with other people whilst still married and living together still was a recipe for disaster. However I needed to have the affair with Garry to realise that Peter and I were totally incompatible. We had the wrong chemistry and knew that we should separate. Peter managed to convince me that we needed help to sort out our marriage. He believed we would get that help in the primal commune based in Ireland. I gave in and reluctantly agreed. So once again we packed and took ourselves all the way to Donegal in Ireland. Although the commune was located in an area of outstanding natural beauty, I remember Atlantis as a sinister cold place. The woman in charge was cold and power hungry. She was known to always go for the young men, hoping to find her match. When vulnerable she would get them through the primal process of getting them into their feelings. As well as a house on the main land, the commune had a small house on an island you could only reach by private boat. The story goes that on one occasion a man got so afraid of the matriarch whose name is Jenny James, that whilst trapped on the island he called the helicopter to come and rescue him from the clutches of the evil woman. I remember feeling totally unsafe, cold and desperate to leave. Getting people into their feelings using the group was very irresponsible. Peter realised that Atlantis was not the best place for us to stay. We returned to London more aware of the need for us to separate.

At last we separated physically if not emotionally. I stayed in the house for the time being and Peter moved to a squat in Jasmine Grove to share with another family. Peter and I continued to share childcare. Marjolaine spend half the time with me and the other half with her dad. The Australian and I continued with our affair. However he was not ready to settle, resented my lingering attachment to Peter and could not handle the darker side of my personality. No longer sheltered by the relationship with Peter, I sometimes felt depressed and paralysed. By that time the lease of our house with the council had come to an end and I had moved into the house next door. It is in that house that I lived through the most difficult times of my life. I was overwhelmed with hopelessness and despair. There I was, separated from my husband, living in one room, almost single parent, feeling bouts of suicidal depression. I had missed my opportunity to finish my psychology degree and had no interesting way of earning a living.

I seem to remember that it is around that time Peter got a teaching job at a Kirkdale school, a small private free school run along the same lines as Summerhill. Marjolaine started to go with her dad for a few afternoons a week. She was just about old enough to join the first group. The school had been founded by a couple of teachers who had worked in the state system they had children of their own and wanted a different form of education for them. I personally knew nothing of the English system. Peter had taught in a primary school before. He described this project as selling his soul to the devil. I had read Summerhill and felt very inspired by these groundbreaking ideas on education. I had not particularly enjoyed my years in school. I felt I had mostly been subjected to a subtle process of dressage the kind applied to animals in need of taming. Everything I ever learned was filtered through the catholic discourse. One lived in a world defined by the opposite categories of good and evil. To be and become a good person seem to be the aim of schooling. The expectations on how to behave were very rigid. You never learned how to learn from experience, you never learned to act from within and reflect from the self. I therefore was more than happy to send my daughter to Kirkdale.