In the summer of 1967 I moved with my friend Terry Delamare into a flat in Highgate West Hill. Though I did not know it at the time, it was to be my home for the next three years. ‘Our new home’, as I wrote many years later in an unpublished article,
"...was situated on the second floor of a Victorian terraced house; it consisted of two rooms and a kitchen, and from the back windows there was a view of Hampstead Heath. The landlady was a small, grey-haired woman of seventy who informed us, when we called in response to her advertisement in the New Statesman, that her name was Joy and that she was blind. That she was blind, or very nearly so, was evident from the condition of the hallway, the stairs and passages, and the vacant flat on the second floor, all of which were badly in need of redecoration. Landladies being a suspicious breed, Terry and I naturally had to give some account of ourselves. I do not remember if we told Joy that I was a Buddhist monk, but we certainly told her that I was a writer and that Terry was studying philosophy. No sooner was the word writer pronounced than the withered old face lit up with an expression of surprise and delight. A writer! Many of her friends had been writers, Joy assured us, and she liked to have writers as her tenants. In the days before the war a group of literary people who called themselves the Leopards had met at her house every week, and on one memorable occasion they had received a visit from Aldous Huxley. By this time Joy had led us into her sitting-room on the ground floor, the art nouveau furnishings of which had a shabby, dusty look. Here we paid our first month’s rent and it was agreed that we should move into the flat as soon as we had decorated the two principal rooms."
The decorating took Terry only two days and within the week we were installed in our new abode. At the time there were only two other tenants, a room on the first floor being occupied by a buck-toothed woman in her thirties and the attic by a young man in his early twenties. Joy had expressed the hope that the four of us would have coffee with her in her sitting room at eleven o’clock every Thursday morning and engage in intelligent discussion about books as the Leopards had once done. Terry and I would not have minded doing this, but the other tenants declined the invitation. They had full-time jobs, they said, a fact that Joy seemed to have overlooked.
Neither Terry nor I encouraged visitors. In recent months much had happened to us and we needed time for reflection. I also had lectures to prepare, while Terry was still suffering from depression and did not feel like meeting people. Though we gave our new address only to a few close friends, our whereabouts could not be kept altogether secret and before long people came knocking at the big, black front door of the house.
One of my most colourful visitors was my old friend and enemy Jinaratana Thera, whom Terry and I had last seen in Calcutta a few months earlier, when we were packing up my books and Buddhist artefacts for dispatch to the UK, and who was almost the last person I had expected to see in London. His robe was bright yellow and his bald pate shone with scented oil. He was on a world tour, he told me in his usual abrupt manner, and the Sinhalese monks in West London with whom he was staying had given him my address. In the India of those days no self-respecting guru could afford not to have a world tour, a tour that would win him more disciples and enhance his reputation, and Jinaratana had more than once told me that as soon as he had saved up 25,000 rupees he would have a world tour of his own. Now here he was in London and his next stop would be Washington DC where there were Sinhalese monks and a small Theravāda centre. He asked me what I was doing, though more as a matter of course than because he was really interested. I told him that I had started a meditation centre in central London and was giving lectures in different parts of the town. He stayed no more than half an hour and I think I gave him tea.
Whereas Jinaratana had been known to me for many years, another colourful visitor seemed to come from nowhere. I do not remember her name, or how she came to know of my existence. She was Burmese, wore the traditional sarong and little jacket, and her thick black hair was so short as to be almost cropped. My earliest recollection of her is of her coming up the stairs holding a large bowl of trifle, and this may well have been our first contact. Thereafter she came quite a number of times, always bringing with her a trifle or a cake or some other comestible. Once or twice she was accompanied by a lanky Englishman of her own age, which I judged to be about thirty-five. He was interested in Zen, he told me, but otherwise he was silent. The lady herself was not interested in Zen. She invariably wanted to talk about pain and suffering and seemed to be confused between Buddhism and Christianity. Was she, I wondered, a ‘born Buddhist’ who had been educated in a Christian institution? Whatever her background, it was evident that she had an emotional investment in pain and suffering, and we had some intense discussions around the subject. On one of her visits she looked at the books in my bookcase and pulled out one of them. The title of the book was The Theology of the Pain of God and I was not altogether surprised when she asked if she could borrow it. I had read the book or had at least dipped into it. It was written by a Japanese Christian and so far as I remember it attempted to show that Japan was not the aggressor in the Second World War but the victim, for it was on Japan that the first atom bomb had been dropped. Japan had suffered as Christ had suffered on the cross, and her sufferings had a sacrificial quality that redeemed not only Japan but the world. The author seemed to have forgotten, or at least had disregarded, Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, the Nanking atrocities, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the enslavement of the Korean ‘comfort women’, and the brutal treatment of Allied prisoners of war. Unlike Germany, which did its best to atone for its Nazi past, Japan seemed disinclined to admit that it had done anything wrong, and it was not until 1998 that the Prime Minister of Japan wrote an open apology for his country’s wartime past. Even so, he did not use ‘shazai’, the key Japanese term for sorrow. As early as 1971, however, Emperor Hirohito who had been Japan’s head of state during the war, made a state visit to Britain at the invitation of the government. Like many others, I thought that he should never have been invited. No doubt relations with Japan had to be normalized, but Hirohito was an old man and it would have been more seemly if the government had waited for his death and invited his successor.
Another colourful visitor was Jiyu Roshi, though she was colourful only metaphorically, not literally. She was shaven headed and wore a voluminous black robe that made her look bigger and fatter than she really was. I had corresponded with her in my Kalimpong days. She was then plain Peggy Kennett and a member of the Buddhist Society in London, of which I had once been a member myself. I am not sure why she wrote to me, for she wrote only to tell me that she would be travelling to Japan, where she hoped to train in the Zen tradition. Her next letter was not from Japan but from Malaysia, and I gathered that she had been unexpectedly ordained there, though the nature of the ordination was by no means clear. Eventually I heard that she had arrived in Japan and been accepted into a Zen monastery. Now, having spent seven or eight years training in Zen, she was back in the UK and staying at Sarum House in Purley, Surrey, where there was a little FWBO community. I knew that she was coming since the proprietor of Sakura, the Japanese shop in whose basement I held my meditation classes, had been in correspondence with her. Emile was an aficionado of Zen, and he had urged Jiyu to settle in London and teach there instead of carrying on to the United States as was her plan. He had received a very strange reply. She could not possibly teach in London, she had told him. She had enemies there, and it would be dangerous for her to do so. In one of her aerogrammes she even wrote that she might be assassinated, and reading it I formed the distinct impression that she was suffering from paranoia. The supposed enemies, of course, were from the Buddhist Society where Zen was taught, though of a kind different from Jiyu’s. I was therefore interested to meet her and invited her to have lunch with me at the flat. She came accompanied by her shaven-headed, black-robed attendant and a casually dressed young American, and from the beginning she was very much on her dignity as a roshi. I therefore decided to behave informally, which I did all the more easily as I was not wearing my robes. While I was serving up the meal, and while we were all eating, Jiyu and her attendant talked to each other in what I thought was a very artificial and stilted manner. They talked about various conflicts that were going on within their own tradition back in Japan, at the same time nodding gravely at each other. They spoke slowly and deliberately, as though repeating words they had learned by heart, and I realized there was more in all this than met the eye. After the meal I asked Jiyu if it was true that she had decided to settle in the United States. She replied in the affirmative, adding that she would be establishing herself at a place called Mount Shasta, in California. I then asked her if she knew what the word śāstā meant in Sanskrit? It was a long time since she had done her Sanskrit, she replied rather haughtily, and I could see that I had offended her. I had certainly not intended to expose her ignorance of Sanskrit but only to point out the appropriateness of the name ‘Shasta’ for what she planned to establish there. It meant ‘teacher’, I explained, as in ‘the teacher of gods and men’, which was one of the titles of the Buddha.
After Jiyu’s departure with her entourage I reflected on the visit as I washed the dishes. Later on I heard that some of the members of the Sarum House community had noticed that Jiyu’s personal attendant was always hungry. At mealtimes, feeling sorry for him, they plied him with second and third helpings, but he was never satisfied. After a few days someone ventured to ask Jiyu if anything was wrong. Was he ill or undernourished, they wanted to know, and Jiyu was obliged to explain that he had been mirroring. They all overate, she declared, and her attendant was simply mirroring their behaviour in order to shame them out of it. So that was what the strange dialogue between Jiyu and her personal attendant had been all about! They had been mirroring, but what they had been mirroring and for whose benefit, I never knew. The famous mirroring technique seemed not to work in the West, from which I concluded that what worked in one culture could not easily be transplanted into a culture of a very different kind.
Like the Burmese lady, Kati seemed to come from nowhere. She was tall and dark-haired, with a slightly swarthy complexion, and although only sixteen she was of an independent nature. I do not remember how we met, for she came neither to my meditation classes nor to my lectures. As I search my memory, I see in my mind’s eye the saloon bar of the Prince of Wales in Highgate, where I used to go on a Saturday night when I was not away on retreat. I am sitting at the bar with my first or second vodka and lime and I am alone. At the other side of the room there sits a good-looking young man and he is accompanied by several women. Kati enters and joins the group, but as soon as she sees me her face lights up with pleasure and she darts across the room and joins me at the bar. She is wearing her school uniform. We talk for a while, after which she goes back to the young man and his women.
I know the story. The young man is married to one of the women, but his current girlfriend is also there, as well as his previous girlfriend. Though good-looking, he has a weak character and is very much under the thumb of his women. Kati is not in love with him as far as I know, but during the week she goes to see him in the evening and if his wife is away she spends the night with him. Otherwise, she comes and stays with me at the flat. By this time Terry has left me to live with his girlfriend Mafalda, and I have joined the two single beds together to make a double bed, and Kati shares this bed with me. There is no question of sex, and nor is she very affectionate, but she likes me and we have become friends. She lives in Hampstead with her mother, who is a pianist I have heard on the radio, and it is too late for her to go home. The little rendezvous went on for five or six months, coming to an abrupt end when I moved from Highgate West Hill to Muswell Hill and ceased to frequent the Prince of Wales on Saturday night.
I cannot remember whether it was Dr Cooper who wanted to see me about Terry or whether it was I who wanted to see him about my friend. Whichever it was, we communicated through Terry, who was seeing Cooper once a month and who was keen that I should meet the controversial psychiatrist. Once or twice he had turned up at the appointed time only to find Cooper too much under the influence of drink to be able to give him a consultation. His bill came at the end of the month as usual though, and I gathered that this was all part of the treatment. At Cooper’s suggestion we met at the Round House in Chalk Farm, where he was attending a session of the Congress of Dialectics of Liberation. We would have half an hour together after the session ended. I arrived on time but the session was still in progress. It was not only still in progress but had run over time and the last speaker was still on her feet. She was a Swedish feminist and was shrieking rather than speaking about the outrages and humiliations to which women were subject all over the world. On and on she went, shrieking and weeping, until one of the organizers went up to her and took away the microphone. By this time it was long past the time for our meeting and Cooper had another appointment. He therefore invited me to have lunch with him, and a few days later I was sitting opposite him in a crowded and noisy restaurant in Soho. So noisy was it that no serious conversation was possible and I therefore invited Cooper to have lunch with me at the flat. He did not come alone but with his girlfriend, whom I had not met before. She was a rather ordinary looking woman of about thirty-five. Cooper himself was overweight and balding and I judged him (wrongly) to be some years older than me. He was at that time perhaps at the height of his career and he and his more famous colleague, R. D. Laing, were names to conjure with in the world of the alternative community. Terry had told me much about him. He had founded the famous Villa 21 for the treatment of young schizophrenics and Terry had spent some time there after the breakup of his marriage, Cooper having diagnosed him as schizophrenic. Cooper had his own ideas about the genesis of schizophrenia and how it was to be treated, and had developed what he called anti-psychiatry in opposition to orthodox psychiatry and its methods. So far as I remember, we did not discuss his theories and did not even talk about Terry very much. What I do remember is that in the course of the lunch I formed a very definite impression of Cooper as a man. He seemed to me to be like a big white mushroom, a mushroom that was thoroughly rotten within. I was not surprised when I learned some years later that he had died of chronic alcoholism at the age of fifty-five.
In the course of my first year under Joy’s roof the young man in the attic came to see me several times. His name was David and he had been born and brought up in Whitechapel. He was small in stature, fair-haired, and he always dressed entirely in white. As I soon discovered, he was fond of metaphysical discussion, and tended to tie himself in knots that I could not unravel. I was therefore not sorry when he stopped visiting me. After he had visited me two or three times I thought I ought to pay him a return visit, so went up and knocked on his door. There being no response I pushed open the door, only to close it as quickly and quietly as I could. During the few seconds that it had been open I had caught a glimpse of two naked white bodies chasing each other round the room, one of them belonging to a girl who had been attending my retreats in the Surrey countryside. How the two had met I never knew, as David did not come either to my meditation classes or to my public lectures.
The attic did not remain long unoccupied after David’s departure, his place being taken by a Nigerian student. I hardly ever saw him, for he kept to his room and seemed to spend all his time preparing for his examinations. One afternoon I answered the doorbell to find a neatly dressed young woman standing on the doorstep. She asked if the student lived there, mentioning his name. I replied that he did, and invited her to go straight up the stairs to the attic. Thereafter she came once a week, always on the same day, at the same time, and each time it was I who answered the door when she rang, for Joy was almost as deaf as she was blind and often did not hear the bell. One afternoon, as it happened, she did hear the bell when the young woman rang and answered it herself. What passed between the two women I never knew, but Joy had somehow managed to discover that the young woman had not come to take dictation, as I had assumed, but for a very different purpose, and she had lost no time in confronting the student with her discovery. What do you think he said, she asked me shortly afterwards, still agitated and indignant. He said it was his bodily need. His bodily need indeed! She had given him a month’s notice on the spot. She was not going to have that sort of thing going on in her house. I felt sorry for the poor student and hoped that his next landlady would be more tolerant.
A few days before I moved to Muswell Hill, Joy told me, with evident satisfaction, that a young married couple would be moving into the basement flat. They would be decorating it at their own expense, she added, and they had told her that they would regard it as a privilege to live there. A privilege to live there! This was the sort of thing Joy liked to hear, as it bolstered up her idea that her house was still a sort of cultural centre. I could forgive her this little weakness, as I knew that she needed not only more tenants but ones on whom she could depend. In the course of the last three years she had more than once been ill in bed and unable to move and I had done her weekly shopping for her along with my own. The young couple would be no less helpful, I hoped. Perhaps they would even join her for coffee at eleven o’clock every Thursday morning.