I went down these stairs and saw this group of kids intensely absorbed in discussion and play with each other. I remember my first response was of anxiety, Oh my god, can I belong here? Do I fit in? Do I know how to do this with these guys? Deep within there was this other yearning of, I have to! This feels so right, this is what I want, oh my god, I’ve just discovered Paradise. Alongside the fear. I remember hesitating on the step for a moment, then one of them looked up and saw me and said “Hi.” And then that was it, suddenly I was moving forward and I was part of the group and didn’t really look back. I had to be dragged out of there kicking and screaming because I didn’t want to leave when the house inspection was done.
So, this is different to the allotments in London, where people have communal garden space, this was in the ’80s?
The mid-’80s, yes.
So what led your parents to make the decision to move there? The mid-’80s was at the back end of the hippie movement.
It’s funny because my parents were on the back end of their own hippie movement, and they met at university both studying Chinese. My mum because she wanted to get closer to her father who spoke Chinese and had never spoken English very well, and my dad because, although he was a blue-eyed Caucasian, he wanted to be an I Ching fortune teller. He wanted to read the Tao de Ching in the original language. So, they were lefties and Buddhists and Taoists at uni, but were just coming out the back of that. My dad now is a rationalist materialist. He likes the poetry of religious texts, but for him God is nature. Both of them have really happy memories living in communities. I was actually conceived in a community in China that they lived in for a year.
That was clearly a really formative experience for you. Moving from the apartment block box into communal living.
Yes, and feeling like a sponge that was being rehydrated. I hadn’t even known that it was possible to feel that way.
Was it a case of, “Look out everybody, here comes Lee and he’s going for broke”?
Kind of. I think, looking back, I was a lot more aware of the dynamics of that situation. All of the other kids have grown up to have amazingly interesting and wonderful lives, but none of them were as completely obsessed by the group dynamics of our interactions and of the community as I was. I was just watching how, what makes the older kids cool? How is it that we so want to be like them, and where do they get all of their amazing ideas for the games? And feeling what it meant to me when they gave me their full attention and when they were being inclusive to me and helping me through difficulties, and how could I do that for the younger kids too? How could I pass on this service to the younger kids? And how cool is it that there’s always these emotionally available adults, and how much safer does it feel out in this garden when we’re having communal work weekends, and having celebrations around a little campfire which we used to do when it was a birthday or work weekend. Looking around, saying this feels so amazing, this feels so right. This woman is like a grandmother to me, this man is like an uncle to me, and then going back into my house and feeling very unsafe. My parents’ marriage was struggling and then failing. It was just so stark. I got to see the stark contrast between apartment blocks and communal living, and then outside of the house and inside of the house.
So it was like a refuge, an oasis.
Yep, totally a sanctuary, a Paradise. And also going to school; I was coming from a thriving community life and feeling alive and in my body and then seeing other kids in my primary school whose faces were a bit mask-like. We lived just on the boundary between middle class families who had comfortable lives and kids living in council houses with drug addicted parents and prostitute mothers with horrifying stories and seeing the look on their faces and getting this feeling of what they expect from the world and how they feel the world is. And that really contrasting with what my world was.
It sounds like all of that exposure lends you to a worldliness, where you have been exposed to diverse ways of living, diverse ways of being, but not every child living in that communal setting, I imagine, responded in quite the same way that you did.
No, others went on to become cabinetmakers or lawyers or artists.
So how did all of this lead to where you are now? Being a survivalist, Bluegum Bushcraft, being a counsellor, a psychotherapist? Maybe we’ll just start with whatever came first and then move on from there!
My dad’s emotional wounding meant he was very mistrusting of human communities, ironically. He wanted to be part of communities but he was never actually able to. So for him real safety was in understanding nature and nature for him was a fickle bitch, and if you turned your back on her she would kick you in the arse and you deserved it. So, safety lay in hypervigilance and independence, skilful independence. He would buy me books about nature, about bushcraft, and I could just feel that he really valued that, and I took on some of those values. Then skilfulness in nature and awareness of connection to nature became a way to transcend his fear story that I felt I was always trying to run out from the shadow of. That the world is dangerous and hostile. Nature connection became a way to prove him wrong and to find a way to be in the world that could be abundant and safe. And rich and fun. It served two purposes. At first it was getting approval from my dad and later on, as I became a teenager, it was proving him wrong, just when I needed to [laughs].
That’s often the case! Have you come full circle with him now?
Yes, we’re in a great place now. I have a lot of love and respect for him, and he has softened a lot. We’re good friends. And my mum was always very people orientated. She was the helper and a healer and so from her I got a love of people. Well from both parents a fascination with people, and a fascination for systems from my dad, and a fascination or a drive to improve and fix broken things from my mum. I always wanted to do some work that could help people in some way. At first I thought I wanted to be a doctor but what I was really interested in was the psychotherapy aspect of it and being someone who could help. One thing that really struck me about both of my parents was that I saw that they were struggling. They were quite young when they had me. They were 24 and a lot of the time when they were parenting me I would look at them and say, “You don’t know how to do this, huh?” And I would see them having horrible arguments with each other and think, “Why are you wounding each other?” I would see the remorse afterwards. Sometimes I would see that dad was upset but he didn’t know how to ask for forgiveness, or he didn’t know how to come and apologise. Mum felt wounded and in need of holding but she didn’t know how to ask for that holding. And for whatever reason I was able to see those dynamics and I wasn’t really able to articulate them in my head in that way but I could just feel that they were struggling and that they weren’t really coping and feeling like I wanted to understand these dynamics. I wanted to be able to help people.
There was one really formative experience for me, I must have been about six or seven, that encapsulates this. I was sitting on the bed in my bedroom and I just had a blazing argument with my dad. He had just been viciously judgmental towards me and I’d been defensive and rude and disrespectful back to him and I cried it out. I got to this place where I just saw really clearly how neither of us wanted to hurt each other, and it was like we had been taken over by something that had driven us to hurt each other, and it all seemed like such a waste. It all seemed so sad that people who love each other could hurt each other. It was so deeply troubling to me that this was going on in the world. And I think in that moment I made a non-verbal commitment to myself that I wanted to understand this a little bit better, this whole dynamic.
And that led to studying counselling and psychotherapy, and I imagine the Rapport Based Relating model as well?
Yes, it led me into being really interested in psychology, English literature, which was part of my degree. And acting and theatre, anything that seemed to shed some light or have some wisdom about this weird enigma of humans and how we can go wrong and how we can we can find our way back again. How we can be who we are without getting trapped or diverted.
That year in which you spent in the bush, were you on your own for all that time?
I was in a relationship at the start of it and that relationship failed quite quickly. For most of it I was on my own. There were times when I was going into Tom’s school to help with his workshops, but the vast majority of my days were just me waking up on my own. My commitment for that year was to follow my heart’s bliss from the Joseph Campbell quote and realising that I’d never had the freedom to do absolutely that, to do just purely that. So I got to really embrace just being a mammal. If I was hungry I’d eat, if I was tired I could sleep, and everyday I could go on adventures and learn or practice the skills of being a human in a wild environment.
I’ve read that your experience in the bush led to a radical understanding of what it means to be human.