Basic instincts

6th February 1998 at 00:00
Anyone who thinks he knows himself, asserts Adam Phillips uncompromisingly,"is up a gum tree. You might think of yourself as a shy person, a bold person, a happy person, an unhappy person and tomorrow you might meet someone with whom you feel quite different. Self-knowledge is always provisional, retrospective".

Meeting a well-known literary psychotherapist could be a bit unnerving, possibly radically changing one's own (provisional) self-view - he must be analysing everyone, new and old acquaintance, constantly, mustn't he? No, he says - well, he might have some thoughts, but no. What's more, he doesn't think of himself as a particularly interesting subject, either.

For 17 years Phillips was a child psychotherapist in the NHS, but resigned two years ago to pursue his increasingly successful writing career. He keeps his hand in by practising privately, seeing mainly adults.The distancing has enabled him to put his thoughts on the subject in perspectiv e, helped by the arrival of his adopted daughter, Mia, three and a half years ago.

Talking in a warm, book-filled room in a house in a fashionable part of west London, he lets the ideas spill out, much as they do in the books, which fizz with new thoughts, observations and references (literary as well as psychological) on every page.

"I make it up as I go along", he says, adding, "I've already done the research unconsciously".

His books have the most intriguing titles: On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored, On Flirtation, Terrors and Experts, Monogamy and now The Beast in the Nursery. This latest collection of essays focuses explicitly on childhood, although child therapy has always been integral to his writing..

"Appetite" is one of the crucial words in his latest book. It is synonymous, especially in children, with a zest for life, with hope and a belief in the future. Without appetite we cannot survive. By the same token, a child's tan-trums are - perhaps surprisingly to the parent of a rigid, screaming two-year-old - a positive sign, "acts of passion, an unwillingness to submit".

In his practice as a child psychotherapist - "a doctor for children's worries", as he introduced himself to his patients - he assessed the success of the treatment by looking for particular changes. The child should be "freer to be curious and to express feelings, more able to enjoy life and make friends". He did see children on their own sometimes, but "in a sense all child therapy is family therapy".

In the central chapter, "The Beast in the Nursery", Phillips describes the process of acquiring language, its effect on the individual and the adults around her. His daughter's influence on the book is, he says, difficult to pin down, but it is in this chapter that it is most keenly felt. "Growing up", he writes, "becomes the necessary flight from inarticulacy", but we should recognise what may be lost by this apparently straightforward progress towards linguistic and ultimately moral competence: "a self without its best behaviours to be on, a self that suffers and enjoys at a pitch that the grown-ups often find daunting."

He would like us not to lose the spontaneity of the inarticula te child. The "beast" of the title has many resonances - reasons for it were arrived at retrospectively - but, more than anything, it refers to the child as yet uncluttered by culture.

Does this mean he celebrates rebellion within the education system? "There is", he says, "inevitably in education - in some ways rightly - a pressure to conform. What that can leave out is the extent to which each child goes their own way, secretly or publicly. I want to speak up in this book for the way people educate themselves despite their education. I want a culture that will both set down its curriculum but also acknowledge that people can be very idiosyncratic and selective."

He agrees that this is a Utopian model and, as with all Utopias, there is no way of knowing whether it is possible. There is a risk, though, he says,of us being given "a lot of so-called realistic options which are extremely depressed, extremely masochistic or extremely small-minded". But then he adds optimistically: "What I've described is to a certain extent happening anyway", a conclusion reached in treating hundreds of children over the years.

In any situation the unconscious is at work, picking up clues without a person realising. These may crop up again in some other form, perhaps in dreams which he describes as "the way we tell ourselves secrets. They require mulling over."

You can, he says, only teach children what they want to learn, although they can, of course, be inspired to learn what you want to teach them. Ideally he would like education to be a two-way process, so that children could feel valued when adults acknowledge having learned from them in return.

The "impressions" in his books - a word he prefers to theories - reflect the years of experience and reading. He sits down to write when the resulting thoughts have gelled sufficiently, but not necessarily with the intention of producing a book. In "A Stab at Hinting", for example, one of the four essays in The Beast in the Nursery, he includes three apt quotations, from a letter written by John Keats, from Henry James's essay "The Art of Fiction" and a conversation between Ludwig Wittgenstein and a fellow philosopher.

Keats wrote, for example: "let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey-bee like, buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be arrived at: but let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive - budding patiently under the eye of Apollo and taking hints from every noble insect that favors us with a visit".

"I wrote the piece", says Phillips, "because those quotations had stuck in my mind; I didn't think 'now I must research the idea of hinting'."

He has a pretty good line in aphorisms himself. Two from this chapter alone: "A lot of so-called good manners are orders disguised as hints" (he gives the example of someone remarking on the warmth of the day rather than asking out-right for a drink), and: "the best kind of teaching, like the worst kind of seduction, is all hinting" give a flavour of his style.

Adam Phillips's readers have learned a good deal from him, about their own behaviour. He says modestly that he is astonished by the popularity of his work. His most engaging characteristic, is to state clearly, in polished but accessible prose, exactly what you thought you were about to think yourself.

'The Beast in the Nursery' is published by Faber and Faber (#163;14.99) on February 16. Adam Phillips will be on Radio 4's 'Start the Week' that day.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today