Saturday, 19 July 2014

A Conversation about Happiness by Mikey Cuddihy

published 2014




[Mikey is a young American girl at Summerhill school in the UK in the 1960s: this is her memoir]

With Ulla helping me, I am realizing my dream. Like Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, I can fashion anything I want, luxurious and wonderful, from the most humble of materials. Life, I’ve come to see, is punctuated by dresses, each one chosen and worn for a special occasion, and then discarded. Dresses conjure up a sense of nurturing affection. Homemade dresses (made with assistance) are proof of love, attention focused on me: turning tucking, pinning, darting. When I’m older, my first darts in a new dress make me feel proud to be acknowledged as a woman.

Ena takes me to London during the Easter holidays – just the two of us… I buy some Finnish curtain material to make a dress with, bright colours which you can’t buy anywhere else – fuchsias, oranges, reds. We go to John Lewis on Oxford Street, and Ena buys me a bra, black cotton, patterned with little pink flowers. I have been making do with hand-me-downs from Vicky, who is more developed than I am, so it is thrilling to have something new, and not Playtex.


observations: Summerhill is an independent alternative ‘free’ school in Suffolk in the UK – it opened in 1921, and was for a long time synonymous with its founder and principal, AS Neill. It was famed for its ‘no rules’, democratic, child-centred approach to education. Opinions divided as to whether it was an anarchic disaster or a super-successful experiment whose aim (to wipe out unhappiness) was successful in alumni.

Mikey Cuddihy’s memoir – most of it is an account of her years at Summerhill – would leave you somewhere in the middle, but then there is a lot more to her story than a school where no lessons were compulsory, and the children’s voices were as important as teachers’.

She was one of a group of siblings who were left orphans, and then tossed around among their remaining relations. As was absolutely normal in those days – early 60s – in all kinds of families, the children had no idea what was going on most of the time, and were not even informed fully about what the plans were for their future. They were sent off to boarding schools in England, with apparently only vague plans made for their holiday arrangements. The Summerhill she describes was extraordinary, and some of the goings-on would leave you very uneasy. But then you would also not think her own extended (and very wealthy) family was the ideal environment. As an on-the-ground report of what it was like being at the school it is absolutely riveting, but the whole story is completely heart-breaking, you keep wincing at the casual neglect and cruelty, and the simple fact that there was no-one for whom these children’s welfare was paramount. The moral would be, don’t be born to alcoholic or difficult parents, and even then, hope they don’t die. The subtitle of the book is ‘The Story of a Lost Childhood.’ It is written in a very flat, affectless style which suits the story: although completely written as an adult, she successfully describes events as they happen, without judgement or hindsight.


Cuddihy herself suggested I might be interested in her grandmother in a mink coat and Chanel, a coat that Cuddihy herself later wears – and did the grandmother look like this? (from the Joanna Rakoff book here). I am glad she suggested it to me, because it was a gripping, affecting and thought-provoking read.



I was fascinated by the theme of sewing throughout the book - as she explains above, the young Mikey is trying to make sense of her life by making sense of her clothes (as we all do) and reshaping, re-creating - and also fixing relationships with the women who help her with the sewing.


Summerhill still exists, and I looked up the most recent OFSTED (ie Government) report on it – it gets a very positive write-up, and would almost convince you you should send your children there. (Mind you the report itself is not well-written at all – if you are judging other’s educational abilities then you shouldn’t be producing this sentence: ‘Most of the pupils come from a wide range of international backgrounds and a few of them are at an early stage of learning English’.)

The picture shows pupils at Summerhill around 1968 – it was taken by John Walmsley for a book about the school. 

8 comments:

  1. I do like non-fiction on occasions, but will stick with what I already have.
    My mum and her sisters bordered at a convent school in Tipperary back in the 40's. Not sure if my uncles were "sent away." Not as a result of any family loss, though that happened afterwards. It was normal I think at that time for maybe middle class children. I wouldn't have been so understanding if it was me boarding and it wouldn't have been something I'd contemplate for my own children regardless of finances.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know - it was considered very normal in some circles, but it's hard for me to understand. In this particular case the sad thing was that no-one seemed to be putting the children's welfare first.

      Delete
  2. Moira - What a fascinating book! I'm quite familiar with Neill's Summerhill, as I read it during my studies. And of course since I have a background in education, we learned all about Open Schools and other types of schools similar to Summerhill. It would be really interesting to see the same school from Mikey's point of view. That said though, I felt said just reading your post about her. I think all too often, some people still don't see children's well-being as paramount. But don't get me started.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I knew a fair amount about Summerhill, but I think this was the first time I'd read a basic account from the memory of a pupil - which is pretty much an unfakeable source. All so interesting. In this case I think a calamitous combination of circumstances left them rather uncherished.

      Delete
  3. Moira: Having gone to boarding school in Canada in the 1960's I cannot conceive of "no rules" for teenagers. I had a good experience but teenagers need rules. Adults need rules! I expect anarchic understates the reality.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is rather difficult to imagine a life without rules, and in a boarding school more so rather than less. Some of her stories would make your hair stand on end!

      Delete
  4. This sounds like a very sad book. I had a "happy" childhood, and it was painful; I cannot imagine the emotions she went through.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know just what you mean, I think - there was nothing wrong with my childhood and I still found it full of difficulties and injustices and miserable moments, so I can't imagine what it is like to have major problems.

      Delete