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Unsmudged: Review by Malcolm Williamson.

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Alexander Technique
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This book about first-generation teacher Peggy Williams has been eagerly awaited for many years and fulfils anyone's most optimistic expectations. The book is an effective mix mainly of transcriptions of conversations between the author and Peggy with short descriptive and scene-setting narratives. For someone who shunned talking about the Technique, when she was eventually persuaded to share her thoughts she was remarkably articulate and clear in what she had to say. Little has been written on the Technique as it evolved during Alexander's later years and Nanette Walsh is to be congratulated for producing what deserves to become a classic text for all Alexander teachers.

When Peggy eventually agreed to accept her teaching certificate from Alexander after eight years as a student (1947-55), Walter Carrington recognised her natural teaching ability and preferred Peggy to others around Ashley Place to be his assistant. Peggy's nightmarish first marriage to Louis Nixon had provided one shining ray of hope. Through him, Peggy was introduced to Alexander and the Technique: 'I am eternally thankful. Because I would never have started with Alexander, and that was wonderful! I mean, however unhappy I was with Louis, he really gave me my life.' The Technique enabled Peggy gradually to emerged from her 'miasma of misery' and to' realize how much there was to life - and to get on with it.'

Peggy was second youngest of six children brought up in a comfortable, middle-class home at 70, Palatine Road, in a predominantly Jewish area of south Manchester. They had two maids, a cook and a nanny, and later Miss Busby - her governess. Her father whom she remembered with great fondness made his living as an electrical supplier during the cable-laying electrification of the city. Peggy's relationship with her mother was difficult; the two finding themselves frequently at loggerheads. Her mother showed little affection and seemed harshly (and unjustly) critical but rather than crushing her daughter's spirit this fostered Peggy's defiant steely determination. At fourteen, her secret boyfriend Basil (mother would definitely not have approved) provided the little tenderness she felt in her life. They would meet at 6 o'clock in the morning and walk along the nearby River Mersey or he would sneak into the house by the cellar door and the two would have a cuddle.

When she was nineteen, the family moved to Brighton on the English south coast. Her father's health had been severely affected by the polluted city air and he was given two years to live. Peggy loyally nursed him to the end and, at twenty-one, she escaped from her mother's tyranny by marrying Louis Nixon. This was a disastrous and loveless marriage that ended in 1956 and Peggy later married Rex Williams, a pupil of Walter Carrington's with whom she found true happiness until his untimely death.

On the training course at Ashley Place, Peggy thought Patrick Macdonald was the 'bee's knees.' She felt herself to be a miserable lump and benefitted greatly from Pat setting her alight with his hands and his energy. Later, she came to appreciate something quieter from Walter's teaching that had strong and lasting effects. Alexander, though, 'was the greatest ever!' He did not delve into emotions but he was supportive and, as Peggy explained, 'I learned enough to reason with myself, and I could reason myself out of a bad state.'

Following Alexander's death, Peggy's 'apprenticeship' as Walter's assistant continued through the '60s but, by 1972, circumstances had changed and she retreated to her grand 1930s 'international style' apartment in Highpoint, Highgate, with its distant views of St Paul's and the City. Here she continued to teach for the rest of her life. At Lansdowne Road, Walter's wife Dilys was taking on more responsibilities and Peggy was pragmatic in accepting the situation: 'There was only room for one queen bee, so it was time for me to go.'

Highpoint became a mecca for the Alexander community visiting London from around the world. Peggy was quite simply regarded as 'the queen of inhibition' - 'Stillness is inhibition! Stillness is a state of awareness - leaving yourself alone - not doing anything to be still and not doing anything not to be still.' Her reputation, both for the extraordinarily powerful, crystal-clear direction conveyed through her hands and her moments of fierceness were widely talked of and I plucked up courage to phone her for a lesson in the early '90s. (Some people said she was frightening, others felt intimidated but I think she used provocation purposely as a teaching tool; something to kick against and get you motivated. She apparently mellowed with age and I experienced nothing but kindness.)

Peggy's health began to suffer around 2000 and she would often phone to cancel lessons. On the times when she would greet me at her front door I would ask, 'How are you Peggy?' to which she would sometimes reply, 'Bloody awful, but let's see how things go.' The lesson would invariably be astonishing. At the end she'd say, 'Well I think we did each other a bit of good' as she pencilled in my next lesson. Lessons on a Saturday meant they were apt to be interrupted by the one phone call Peggy had to answer immediately. 'Oh, that'll be my agent' she'd explain, disappearing hastily out of the room (i.e. her betting manager). You knew not to ask questions. If she'd won, she would tell you with great glee. If her horse was unplaced, the conversation moved on to other topics.

Peggy would say very little about the Technique. Sometime I couldn't resist asking, 'What are you doing Peggy?' She would give me a pitying look and in a patronising tone explain, 'Well, I'm allowing my neck to be free and lengthening and widening into my back . . .' 'Yes, of course you are, Peggy. How silly of me to ask.' Her rascally sense of fun sometimes tinged with a vulnerability and deep sadness made Peggy very endearing. So long as you didn't interfere you could have a delightful directing contest, exchanging to and fro off each other's thinking. As this was going on, Peggy would be telling you about this and that; who'd been to visit and the latest news of what was going on in the Alexander world. Her gossip was as wondrous as her work. You listened quietly thinking, 'Peggy, you are naughty. I'm not sure I should be hearing all this detail.'

Unsmudged, has three parts: Part I, Peggy, her life history; Part II, Working with Peggy, a transcript of three lessons from October 1999 to May 2001; Part III, Speaking on the Technique and Teaching. Nanette Walsh's choice of words is as truly authentic as words can ever be. There is a glossary including Peggy's own definitions, a short outline of the Technique and index. This is a touching tribute and testimony to a remarkably woman and teacher.

'Learn to do the simple things well', could be Peggy's teaching legacy.

2018 © Malcolm Williamson. Reproduced with permission.