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Cameraman: Through different lenses


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Influences: Education

Oddly, I didn’t include Education in the first iteration of this ‘Influences’ section. Perhaps it was because I recalled one of my more memorable school reports, in which the assessment of one teacher went like this: “John sets himself low standards—and consistently fails to achieve them.”

“Education,” as W.B. Yeats put it, “is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” My own fire was ignited in many ways, in many places, by many people. In retrospect, much of my education happened on the edge of things, from schools in outposts of a fading empire in the 1950s to a new university shuddering on the edge of revolution in 1968 through to an emerging movement—environmentalism—that for many years scarcely dared speak its name, at least in the business world where I chose to focus my efforts from the mid-1970s.

Nuns and EOKA-B

Fire burns, too. The most searing experience I remember from my early years came when, as one of three notionally Protestant children in a Catholic convent school in Northern Ireland, I asked Mother Superior whether animals went to heaven. (Living out in the country, we were surrounded by every variety of wildlife and saw life and death daily on the nearby farm.) She replied, with an emotional intensity which I can still feel more than half a century later, that I was “either a pantheist or a pagan”—and, she said, she didn’t know which was worse!

I have a highly visual imagination and my memory of that instant is of a pair of clawed hands coming through a curtain in my brain, tearing the fabric asunder. In a matter of seconds, it seemed, such faith as I had evaporated.

A day or two previously I had another pivotal moment, at least it later came to seem so. Walking home from a farm labourer’s cottage in the pitch dark, between disused flax ponds, I had found myself surrounded by migrating silver eels, or elvers. I have no idea now whether they were headed to or from the ponds, but there was a moment of profound connection with Nature that has never quite left me.

In contrast, while the RAF school outside Nicosia may have had its moments, I remember very little about it—except a big map of the island and a large jar of cotton stalks and bolls used to explain something or other. Much more influential was growing up alongside American families, the Marches and Sanders, with their open horizons, and imbibing the extraordinary history of Cyprus, particularly through visits to the chain of castles and monasteries in the northern mountains (see Cyprus 2005). Immersion in the Protestant-Catholic tensions of Northern Ireland, the Greek-Turkish-British tensions of Cyprus (at the time in the midst of a nasty set-to between British forces and EOKA-B) and Israel, where everybody tends to hate pretty much everybody, fed my deep suspicion on religiosity, so often used as an excuse for baser human instincts and tribalism.

Prep school at Glencot, near Wookey Hole and Wells, Somerset (1959-61), was the first real separation moment, except for a three-day trip my brother Gray and I took around Cyprus in a minesweeper, HMS Fiskerton. In many ways, this was a distillation of the prototypical prep school story, with at least one homosexual master and a headmaster, Mr Adams, prone to outbursts of violence (he was eventually committed to an asylum, I believe), but he—despite his cupboard of canes, many burned or scorched when one boy had set the cabinet alight, taught me subjects like English, History and Maths, and I doubt I would have had any chance of getting into Bryanston without his help.

He used to cane me regularly, as he did others—indeed, at one period, he took to caning a whole floor of boys at a time. His excuse with me was that his study overlooked the river and he would often catch sight of me throwing stones at targets out in the water. Can’t really imagine why I persisted, but many years later I read that the same part of the brain that handles trajectories in missile-throwing also handles thinking about the future. If true, perhaps I was exercising my futures muscles?


Two things stick in my mind from Glencot, apart from the camaraderie between the boys. The first was the wildlife, from sticklebacks, grass-snakes and kingfishers through to the mysterious spring and wildflowers in the grounds.

On one unforgettable occasion, I returned to the dining hall and remained silent when the formidable headmistress, Mrs Adams, suddenly asked the assembled boys who had been eating garlic? No-one replied, so she embarked on a circumnavigation, suspiciously sniffing every boy. When she came to me, she erupted. Did I have garlic sausage in my tuck-box, she demanded? It took me a while to rumble what was going on, but eventually I said I had been eating (once again, largely out of an appetite to experiment) wild flowers and roots in the woods, Ransons or wild garlic, it turned out. If possible, she was even more agitated at this evidence of my (wildly dangerous, she concluded) feral nature.

The second thing that sticks in my memory is of getting permission from the Adams to stand up one day in the dining hall and ask all the boys to part with their pocket money for two weeks. This was for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), founded that year, 1961. Given how acutely shy I could be, I never understood where this had come from, though I was pleased to get a letter of thanks from one of Prince Phillip’s equerries.

Then after I co-founded ENDS in the late 1970s, I was driving down to Godalming to see WWF with Max Nicholson, one of the organisation’s original founders—and the author of books like The Environmental Revolution. He asked me where my environmentalism had started. I told him about the eels and about the Glencot story—and he said he thought he knew what had happened. He and colleagues had managed to get a large supplement on WWF into one of the major newspapers of the day. As soon as he said that, I could remember going into the school library, finding the newspaper on a lectern and plunging in.

There were quite a number of libraries at Bryanston (1961-66), in Blandford Forum, Dorset, where I absolutely adored history—and spent much time reading around the edges of the curriculum, particularly about civil and religious wars, which I came to see as crucibles in which the deeper identities of peoples and nations are often forged—or exposed, as if placed in an X-ray machine. In the end, it was the A-grade and S-level I got in History that got me into university, not the D’s I got for French and Economics, or the A for General Studies, whatever they were.

Bryanston was almost perfect for me, again in retrospect. It celebrated and supported freedom of thought and inquiry, which I took full advantage of, though many of my happiest moments were along the nearby River Stour and atop Hambledon and Hod Hills, a delightful cycle ride away, though often made slightly more complicated by the half-gallon flagons of illicit cider we toted past the yew grove and over the shudderingly wonderful iron age ramparts.

So successful was Bryanston in fuelling my spirit of independence that I had no interest at all in staying in touch when I left, spurning invitations to join the Old Boy’s society—replying that I was by then involved in import-export activities, but not mentioning that this involved semi-illegal movements of gold coins to Germany and reverse movements of VWs, to sell to Continent-bound American students. Despite it all, I found myself profiled many, many years later in the school newsletter, though no mention there of coins or Beetles.

Prising open the doors of perception

No-one had ever thought in terms of my going on to university, least of all me. Indeed, I sometimes thought that I would end up in the hardware shop, Hartwells, in Bourton-on-the-Water, near the family home. Later, the suggestions for careers—such as they were—ranged from the armed forces to merchant banking. To boost my chances of getting into university, I attended Cheltenham Technical College for a brief period, until I heard I got into the University of Essex.

And in many ways thank God I went there, on the edge, rather than Oxbridge—which I think I effectively had turned my back on when I gave up Latin at 14, despite all the advice of my tutor. This new university was a seething brew of new thinking, new music and drugs. One of my favourite teachers was Andy Tudor, who set Frank Herbert’s book Dune as required reading in his course on the sociology of religion—and unwittingly launched me on a path which ended up with my meeting Herbert many years later.

Hashish was everywhere and fascinating, but LSD genuinely opened doors of perception I had until then only read about in books by the likes of Aldous Huxley. New connections were made, as when I talked to my paternal grandmother, Isabel, about the out-of-body experience I had had at one point. It turned out that she had had a similar episode when she almost died in South Africa, aged around 12. As the Chinese proverb put it: I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand. Or at least it sometimes seemed so.

I went to Essex (1967-70) to study Economics, but gave it up after a year, in 1968, because it (or at least the way it was then taught) seemed to have precious little to do with what I saw going on in the world—and the streets—at that time. Instead, I took up Sociology & Social Psychology, which got my first degree. My thesis was meant to have focused on Latin American militarism, because of a nice young lecturer who wanted to take me with her to Venezuela, but then I met Elaine. Over time, my thesis subsequently morphed into a much longer work on the similarities—including at the level of adrenal chemistry—between hallucinogenic drug experience, mental breakdown and religious ecstasy. I’m sure the examiners wondered what I was on, but I seemed to pass with flying colours.

Feeding the flames

Then, after several years of trying every which way to avoid getting a grown-up job, I went on to the School of Environmental Studies at UCL to do an M. Phil. (1972-74). Here again my thesis headed off in directions that stupefied some of the Faculty, though the resulting tome—almost four times the allowed length—was later almost published by Heinemann. This focused on the psychological, sociological and economic links that people forge with their built environments, links that are too often disrupted by insensitive forms of urban regeneration. With system building all the rage at the time, this amounted to some form of heresy, and the thesis was almost turned down as nothing to do with the subject I had been meant to be studying—urban and regional planning. Once again, the fates intervened, in the form of my tutor, the late Professor Peter Cohen, who had a wider-than-normal perspective on much of this than many of his colleagues.

During this period I worked on a number of alternative technology farms and related ventures, including Robin Clarke’s BRAD (Biotechnic Research & Development) and visited Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti project in Arizona. Soleri’s thinking around arcology had quite an impact on me, as did the writing of Ian McHarg on landscape design and Buckminster Fuller on just about everything.

Much of this stuff I got into by spending my lunch-times in the RIBA and RTPI libraries in Portland Place, while spending nine months micro-filming nurses’ records for the General Nursing Council. The Arcosanti visit in 1973 spurred my first published article, which appeared in 1974 in the Architectural Association Quarterly. Typically, it ran over many pages, with a profusion of photographs of the extraordinary structures which, I concluded at the end of the piece, would make wonderful ruins.

Through Peter, serendipitously, I got my first real job, with the late John Roberts and his tiny team at TEST, initially in King Street, Covent Garden, and then Floral Street (where, later, on the floor below, Elaine found a job with Wildwood House). Her work in publishing over many years had kept me fed with books on everything from medieval castle architecture to oceanography.

This was where my education really got into its stride, particularly when I began to write regularly from 1975 for New Scientist. Later, I did the same for The ENDS Report, The Guardian and, for fifteen years to 1995, Biotechology Bulletin. Suddenly, I was meeting scientists, technologists and business people around the world, visiting hundreds of companies and research institutes.

In the process, the fires of my imagination were energetically stoked. I wrote literally thousands of article, 40 published reports and, to date, 17 books (with co-authors like Julia Hailes, Tom Burke and Pamela Hartigan), each a powerful opportunity to learn. That said, I sometimes reflect on how much I once knew that I now don’t, which aggravates the main effect of ageing in this area—that the older I get, the less I feel I know about anything.

Once lit, those fires have needed constant feeding. I have long had a voracious appetite for magazines (emerging from airports with armfuls) and other people’s books. As a result, any office or home I have inhabited has been more like a library. But, on reflection, I have probably learned most from talking to people, from conversation. So if I were trying to pick an iconic symbol of my learning over the decades, I would oscillate somewhere between a sofa and a moonless field of elvers.

©2014 John Elkington. All rights reserved.