November 7

Frederick Matthias Alexander : His Life and times

By Rosslyn McLeod

Much is being said at present about Alexander’s writings and how they should be interpreted.  It is useful to talk of these matters and look back at the times they were written in, but we will never really understand them. Nowadays we have such huge stimulus about events all around us, so instant, and we are constantly responding.  How different in Alexander’s lifetime; his writings alone can never convey the essence of his work. By using his hands and teaching he conveyed touch “memories” via his trained teachers, which so many people, particularly the trainees in his teacher training courses, had access to. Nowadays we still have those memories. 

I am grateful for the experiences I have had from a few of those original teachers, and hope in my own teaching that I can share with pupils the benefits that study of Alexander’s ideas can bring.  Each teacher will work slightly differently.  In today’s world the Alexander Technique is sorely needed with its emphasis on self-knowledge and learning to grow into a deeper level of constructive conscious control as an individual.

Each person’s life is defined by one’s personal existence, family, friends, societal conditions; the country we are born in, the environment.

For FM his life led to him developing knowledge, understanding of the human condition, so that in his lifetime he communicated his ideas to many others through his teaching, especially the use of his hands.

Now we only have his writings (plus a short video of him teaching) and the writings of others who knew him.  Each of these people will have their own interpretation.  For example, Erika Whittaker wrote of her memories of the first training course in an article published in the Alexander Review Vol 2 no 3, September 1987, and stressed that each person on that first training course would have different memories.

FM Alexander, born Tasmania 1869, left Australia in 1904, aged 35 years; he spent the next 51 years in England and America; what a contrast.

We now live in a completely different historical world.  The European traditions and colonialisms of the 1800’s was what the Alexanders knew.  Matthias (FM’s grandfather) and his brothers were caught up in English society of the 1830s when there was much unrest.  Because of their activities Matthias and his brothers were transported as convicts to Van Diemen’s Land.  These men were on the wrong side of English society and were banished from their homeland. 

Boat journeys to the Colonies were long and difficult – one only has to read some of the many diaries available telling of the hardships of these journeys to realise how daunting these trips were. 

Once in Van Diemen’s Land the Alexander brothers were gradually able to make a success of their lives, to become respectable citizens, to be part of local society and contribute to life in the Colony.  It is, however, well reported that many former convicts who settled in their new land, always had deep suspicion of authority; there was mistrust, wariness of government officials and others.

By the time FM Alexander was born, 1869, Alexander families were well settled along the North-West Coast of Van Diemen’s Land so there would have been a wealth of family history for him to get to know.

A point worth noting, Tasmania is an island, a twelve hour boat trip south from another much bigger island, the mainland of Australia.  I have been to Tasmania on many occasions over a number of years for various events, including three bushwalking trips – pack-carrying for six days in real wilderness.  At those times one realises how remote Tasmania is from larger populations.  In FM’s time there would have been an even greater sense of isolation – but not completely cut-off as there was much contact by many ships plying their trade along the North West Coast of Tasmania, plus trips to Victoria.

For FM, his world for his formative years was North West Tasmania, then in 1890 his world expanded with life in Melbourne; then travel, including New Zealand, with his final years in Australia being in Melbourne then Sydney.  Next the huge change to England, the Northern Hemisphere, back in a society that less than one hundred years earlier had condemned his grandfather, exiled him from the homeland.

Some years ago British Alexander teacher, Mary Holland, wrote a Paper for STAT, entitled “A Time for Reflection”.  I like the quote on page 3: “‘Nothing is more unfair’ as an English historian has well said ‘than to judge men of the past by ideas of the present’”

Yes it is good to explore FM’s writings but keeping in mind the above.

FM grew up in the Southern Hemisphere, amongst people of mainly English plus other European origin; they brought with them to Australia much of their ideas, their animals for farming, their plants for growing.  Back then little was understood about First Nation’s Peoples (Aborigines), lifestyle, etc.; only now are we here in Australia learning more about this.

For a detailed description of how the Alexander family fared in Tasmania see book by Jackie Evans Frederick Matthias Alexander, A Family History.

My book Up From Down Under, the Australian Origins of Frederick Matthias Alexander and the Alexander Technique has much general description of life in the Colonies (Publisher Mouritz).

Regarding FM’s personal life; we know he had health problems, from birth, he was not strong. In his early years of schooling he was fortunate to have private tuition at home so for much of the day he could explore the bush around Wynyard.  See my book for printing of FM’s unpublished autobiography of his Australian years, where he goes into detail about what it meant to him to have this free time in “the pure air”.

Next FM moved south from the coast to Waratah, about 40 miles from Burnie, town not far from Wynyard. At this time the Mt Bischoff Tin Mine was in full operation and one of the richest in the world.  FM had a job as a junior accountant.

FM’s autobiography, published in full in my book, is written in the first person. But there is a second version, written in the third person, with some corrections in FM’s handwriting.  From his life in Waratah I quote “he was now nineteen, but his health was still poor, and he frequently had colds in the bitter weather at Waratah and was a constant patient of Dr Kennedy there.  Because of this he was allowed to make his own hours and did not attend the office regularly, but did his work to everyone’s satisfaction in his own way and time.”

Waratah is high up in the mountains, very damp, rain much of the year; plus air quality round the tin mine would not have been good! So for someone already having respiratory problems this was not an easy situation.

Once FM went to Melbourne in 1890 air quality would still have been a problem. In Melbourne there were various illnesses around (typhoid, tuberculosis etc.) and lack of proper sewerage was a major contributor to health problems.  We know at one stage FM’s doctor, Dr Charles Bage, advised FM to go to the seaside (Geelong) for 6 months, which he did. FM left Melbourne in 1894 to travel, then returned there in 1896. By then Melbourne now had a very modern sewerage system so air quality would have improved greatly.

When FM was in New Zealand he noted the fine breathing capacity of the Maoris, in the context of his own breathing problems.

Once in London, and helping his pupils to solve breathing and other problems he recalled what he had seen of peoples’ breathing capacities in other societies. No wonder FM realised there were major differences.

For each one of us breath and nutrition contribute fundamentally to shaping the quality of our existence.  Erika Whittaker, Alexander Memorial Lecture 1985, says interesting things regarding FM and his insistence on good quality food.  Also in the F M Alexander’s Letters (pub. Mouritz) Vol 1, page 148/49 and Vol 2, page 562, FM himself talks of the importance of food quality. For FM his poor health start in life led him to think a lot about choices and observe what other people did.

The 1985 Alexander Memorial Lecture by Erika Whittaker has an allegorical section re a poem “The Hat” and how each generation can look at something invented in an earlier generation.  Well worth pondering.

Today we can study FM’s writings and his times. Of course we think differently, and future generations should be able to read FM’s writings as he wrote them, and draw conclusions relevant to their times.

I have recently read the Jane Austen Remedy by Australian author Ruth Wilson.  She examines the novels of Jane Austen (1775-1817) and looks at their historical context with particular reference to the different types of heroines – their strengths and weaknesses, and what society at that time considered was the role of women, from a range of class levels.  Ruth Wilson also reflects on her own life’s journey and relates her findings to the fictional heroines of the Jane Austen novels.

It is a fascinating exploration of how to relate one’s own lived experience to that of someone else of bygone times.

Similarly we can read FM’s writings, learn more about the society of his time and then reflect on how his ideas can be made relevant to the needs of this present era.

Postscript: A Challenge

The book, The Jane Austen Remedy by Ruth Wilson contains much reflection by the author on her own experience of growing up in our times, then looks back to society of Jane Austen’s era and how it was expected women were to behave then.

So…

An interesting project would be for an Alexander teacher to explore in depth society’s attitudes to physical fitness in FM’s lifetime and how he expressed his ideas of “physical fitness”; then compare in our times how society now views physical fitness and how we can use FM’s ideas but express them in terms relevant to today.

Rosslyn McLeod

September 2022. 
Email      info@fmalexanderdoc.com 


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