Life, love and John Bennett

14th February 1997 at 00:00
Arthur Brown talks to Harvey McGavin. Life itself is the best teacher. It brings all sorts of teachers: dogs, trees, sunsets, people. In a way the only real teacher is reality or, some people would say God, and for some people it is manifest in a particular person.

Having said that, there have been a few people who have made a huge impression on my life. When I was at high school in Leeds, there was one guy called Leslie Lees who taught English. When I was going through a really bad time at home, I used to go round to his house and he would dish out the tea and look after me. He had a great sense of humour.

But perhaps the greatest influence on me was John (Godolphin) Bennett. In the 1970s, he ran a residential course in Sherborne, Gloucestershire, based on the teachings and vision of Georgi Gurdjieff, the Russian mystic.

He came to set it up after he was staying in France where he had a vision. He saw an angel who told him he had to open this place. So he called his wife and said go and look to see if there is a property and within two weeks they got together the money.

He changed my life around. Before that I was an isolated, lonely, unhappy person. Through contact with him I was able to overcome various negative conditions.

He had been captain of an Army rugby team and did a lot of negotiating with the Allies after the First World War. For 20 years he carried out research on coal, and was in line to become head of the National Coal Board. But then he got into research of a different kind and wrote many books on philosophy. He was a brilliant teacher and could play several games of chess simultaneously over the phone without even having a chess board in front of him.

He was very tall, a very big, powerfully-built man. But even when I met him, at the age of 72, he was a little shy, with a lot of English reserve. Even though he was a little distant, he could be fun - he was quite a good dancer and could drink a lot, for instance.

He could be charming too. One day he would be dressed like Clark Gable, and I would ask him where he was going and he would say he had to impress the old ladies, "they're going to pay for our new barn". The next day he would be dressed like a tramp.

One day he decided he was going to sit in the lotus position, which he hadn't done for 25 years. He ruptured himself, then went and had a hernia operation and the next morning was leading the dancing.

I was there for 10 months in 1974. It helped to change my life but I'm not a Gurdjieffian, I'm not a disciple of it. It's founded on the idea that usually awareness is focussed on everything we want or have to do. Because we are obsessed with these things we function like machines. But the point of it is to say there is a way in which we can focus our attention on where our lives are coming from.

A lot of people dismiss it and say that's just spiritual crap and that getting a job, getting a house, getting a car is far more real. I would say there is no difference. What happens is that people set themselves a goal, whether that goal is spiritual enlightenment or Pounds 1 million.

So it's a question of being in touch with the roots of one's own existence. That might sound airy fairy but in fact it's quite important. There are lots of other traditions that do the same thing, but the Gurdjieffian way is a way of de-programming our minds. John Bennett taught me to unlearn a lot of things.

I first heard of this place when I was touring in Switzerland. I was ready to chuck in the band and go off to India. My agent phoned me and said why don't you check out this place. Gurdjieff said that by the age of nine, your tapes are set and they are going to replay for the rest of your life. I didn't like the tapes so I thought this must be a way to get around it.

It was all about the notion of being able to be free of all the conditioning we get lumped on us from school all the way up. On that course, there were lords, people from corporations, policemen - all kinds. The people who went on that course had come to a real pivotal experience in their life.

There were three groups and every third day one of the groups had to look after the place. Building, chopping wood, cooking and so on. Their belief was that we were preparing for the future when, because of the pressures of the world economy, we would have to be self-sufficient.

Our daily routine included psychology, meditation, and temple dances. You would do about two hours of them every day - they were very physically demanding.

After I left Sherborne, I stayed in his son's house in London for a year-and-a-half and he would come up once a week to talk with us. He died about three years after I first met him. But he sometimes appears in my dreams.

Arthur Brown had a number 1 hit in 1968 with "Fire". After touring with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Kingdom Come, he moved to the US, where he worked as a housepainter, counsellor and music therapist. Aged 54, he lives in Lewes, East Sussex, and has just recorded a new album.

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