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Irene Tasker (2nd edition): Review by Sue Merry.

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Alexander Technique
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Article Text: 

Excellent Women

This marvellous, extensively researched biography is now out in paperback. The hardback version of the book has been reviewed in these pages already, by Anne Battye (Statnews May 2021). I would refer the reader to this review for a very comprehensive overview of the contents of the book.

Essentially the book tells the life-story of Irene Tasker and her ground-breaking accomplishments. The narrative part of the book is followed by an absolute treasury of collated documents presented in a series of appendices:

  • Appendix A: Published writings
  • Appendix B: Notebooks
  • Appendix C: Letters
  • Appendix D: Other Documents
  • Appendix E: Testimonial letters - South Africa

There are one or two minor changes and corrections from the hardback edition plus a brand new foreword from Ruth Rootberg. Ruth directs our attention to the extraordinary achievements of Irene Tasker, which would be remarkable today, but are made all the more extraordinary in the context of her gender and the times she lived in. It is this aspect of Regina’s book that especially resonates with this reader. Until the publication of this book, the extraordinary influence that Irene Tasker had on the early development of the Alexander Technique was not widely known.

In 1999/2000 Judith Kleinman and I were preparing to deliver the 2000 Memorial Lecture. Our topic was “The Little School and Beyond”. The idea we had was to research the Little School and to present our findings and then to look at what had happened in education since then. It fell to me to find out as much as possible about the Little School. We had invited Erika Whittaker to join us on the day to be interviewed live and then to be available for questions from the audience. At the time it was generally agreed that, of the remaining first-generation teachers in the UK, Erika had had the most experience of helping at the Little School. Also, Erika’s aunt was the remarkable Ethel Webb.

I also arranged to speak in person or via letters to Walter Carrington, Elizabeth Walker, and Marjory Barlow. I spent a delightful hour or so with Walter at Lansdowne Road, he was very generous with his time and then, very kindly agreed, that I could be let loose on the archive. I was also very lucky to be at Lansdowne Road just after Margaret Goldie’s legacy arrived there in the form of some copies of The Alexander Times, the annual compilation books of the children’s work. I had absolutely no idea that these existed until then. I was beside myself with joyous excitement. (N.B. The Alexander Times is now available in book form from Mouritz)

In those days the archive was stored in the basement/garage at Lansdowne Road, sequestered in a sort of office, that I assumed had once been the haunt of a long-passed chauffer. My memory of it is that it was very full of stuff. There were some filing cabinets plus many and various boxes. Left to my own devices there, I was completely trusted not to walk off with anything, which, I must say, would have been very easy to do. Happily, ploughing through the Alexander Times, the folders of letters and biscuit tins of loose photographs etc. something finally began to dawn on me. Up until this point I had been referring to the Little School as “Alexander’s Little School”. He made appearances there but, essentially, it was Irene Tasker’s Little School. I am ashamed to say that I barely knew who she was at this time. Here were all these photographs of her school in South Africa for example. What school in South Africa? How did I not know about this before? Had I simply not been paying attention? Well, in one part, yes. In another part, I began to feel that the remarkable contribution from Irene Tasker to the history of the Alexander Technique, had somehow been brushed aside or overshadowed by our veneration of Alexander himself.

This most excellent woman’s story might have been completely lost or at least largely overlooked without the dedication and skill of Regina Stratil. The archive moved from the basement of Lansdowne Road and became part of the Walter Carrington Educational Trust in 2010 or 2011. It was while helping to catalogue this material that Regina discovered a handwritten notebook marked as Irene Tasker’s. Intrigued, Regina catalogued the notebook and then began to transcribe it. She describes in the introduction what motivated her to do this and then how this then led her onto further investigation and research.

Regina has ploughed through all the relevant information in the archive, she has chased up and spoken to members of Irene’s family and studied everything she could find relating to this most excellent woman. However, this book is so much more than a biography. The appendices contain an absolute treasury of information and, indeed inspiration. Especially inspiring are Irene’s notebooks – mentioned above - where she records some of the various insights she has had at various times. This includes insights gained during her teaching, during her time on the training course, and during her lessons with Alexander himself.

The various letters are also extremely enlightening. From them a picture begins to emerge of a woman who was very intelligent, very skilled as an Alexander Teacher and a teacher of the Montessori method, extremely skilled at dealing with children - particularly children considered “difficult” – adored by her pupils, funny, compassionate, humble, dedicated and very loyal to Alexander. The latter is especially impressive when you start to understand that he did not always treat her very honourably.

My 2000 interview with Erika Whittaker eventually took place before the Memorial Lecture, at her retirement home in Edinburgh and was filmed by Dave Reed. She was quite forthright about how she felt Irene Tasker had been treated by Alexander and by his preference for Margaret Goldie.

Margaret Goldie was certainly another of Alexander’s excellent women, but a very different character to Irene. Erika describes her thus:

“Goldie was very, very quiet and she had a great sense of humour, but she didn’t show it very much when she was teaching. But, I think some of the older children found her too depressing in a way. They wanted something a bit more lively.”

Erika describes one occasion when she was having a lesson with Alexander at Ashley Place. She explains that he worked with his door open so that anyone passing could “join in the fun”. On one occasion she remembers that Irene, who was teaching the Little School children in a different room, suddenly let out a very loud hoot of laughter – this was something she was known for. Erika describes Alexander wincing and looking very disapproving. The fact that Margaret Goldie was quiet and very compliant with Alexander’s preferences was, in Erika’s opinion, why he preferred her way of working with the children. Erika also remarked to me, “Marjory (Marjory Barlow – nee Mechin, Alexander’s niece) thought that uncle was a saint. Well, he wasn’t a saint!”

Irene was pretty much pushed out of her position at the Little School when the school moved from London to Penhill, Kent. Regina makes a compelling case for what may have happened to cause Irene Tasker to leave the Little School – or what may have pushed her over the edge. There is evidence to suggest that it was Alexander’s refusal to confirm her position as “responsible Head of the School” despite her explaining to FM in a letter (transcribed on p.72f.) how important that public recognition was to her, especially thinking about her responsibility towards the parents. Irene obviously chose not to make a big scandal out of this, which speaks volumes about her personal strength and integrity. In addition, Erika explained that, although she did not know (or was choosing not to say) exactly what had happened, she understood that Alexander was somewhat ambivalent about Irene. As well as finding her too loud and boisterous, he had to deal with the fact that she was not afraid to stand up to him and to confront him. This was apparently quite unusual. What a woman she was!

This is a woman who was among the first women in the country to go to university. Not only that, the subject she studied was Classical Tripos at Girton College, Cambridge. The year of her enrolment was 1907 and she received a degree certificate with honours in 1910. The early Victorian attitude that learning Latin and Greek was essential for male scholars, but quite unsuitable and well beyond the capabilities of a woman, persisted at this time. The difference being that women were now allowed to study classics and other subjects, but no real degrees were issued. Women were only allowed to gain titular degrees from 1921 onwards but were still not admitted to full membership of the university, their certificate was different from the men’s plus other restrictions. This did not change until 1948.

Regina discovers from her research that Irene was accredited with an “original outlook on life.” After leaving Cambridge she allied herself with the ‘New Education” movement and this eventually led to her training with Maria Montessori in Rome. This is where she met Ethel Webb, and through her, Alexander.

It is possible that the skills and influence of Ethel Webb and Irene Tasker on the early development of the AT may have dropped a little into the shadow of the bright spotlight illuminating FM Alexander himself. These excellent women, often worked quietly in the background, their achievements not always recognised.

Regarding the early development of Alexander work, Regina demonstrates how astonishingly influential Irene Tasker was. Here are some examples that she lists:

• Together with Ethel Webb, Irene helped to shape Alexander’s first three books and undoubtedly had an influence on Alexander’s thinking. She was most likely at least partially responsible, along with Margaret Naumburg, (another excellent woman) for steering Alexander towards the philosophy of John Dewey. Also possibly giving him the term “means-whereby”, or at least encouraging the emphasis on “means”.

• Irene set up the Little School in 1924 and the existence of the school was a contributing factor to the establishment of the first teacher training course in 1931.

• In 1935 Irene became the first teacher who was not a member of Alexander’s family, to set up her own independent teaching practice.

• Irene single-handedly introduced the Technique to South Africa. She was immensely successful there, especially in educational circles. Her pupils lobbied Alexander for permission for Irene to establish a teacher training course. Unfortunately, this did not happen, an interesting story that unfolds in the letters presented here.

• Irene lobbied for and supported as a trustee, the establishment of STAT. She urged all the senior teachers to come together in one body for the sake of younger teachers and trainees.

• Regina: “Perhaps the most outstanding contribution made by Irene Tasker is her development of ‘application work’, the application of the Technique to an activity, as a complement to lessons.” This is a very interesting aspect of Irene’s work and formed the bedrock for the way the Technique was taught in her work with children. It also appears to have been tremendously influential in Marjorie Barstow’s development of the application approach to teaching the Technique.

Here we are now in 2022 - twenty-two years since I blundered around in the basement of Lansdowne Road - with the contents of the files, folders, and biscuit tins, pertaining to Irene, now intelligently collated, and beautifully presented. Also, there was so much more there than I realised.

Regina: “This book will also be helpful for further research into the history of the Alexander Technique. History is indispensable in order to give us a deeper understanding of the origin and development of the Technique, of past efforts and obstacles, failures and successes. The Technique is evolving, but the better we understand its history, the better equipped we are to assist in its evolution and to help direct its course.”

I can only hope that Regina will now turn her intelligence and skill on another of Alexander’s overlooked excellent women, namely, Ethel Webb.

© Sue Merry. September 2022. First published in STATNews Vol. 11, issue 6, September 2022, pp. 26–28.