31st July, 2016
My daughter, Cleo’s, graduation ceremony was held at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank on Wednesday 27 July.
The University of Roehampton is one of the 'modern' London universities, only 175 years old and was first established as a women’s teachers’ training college in 1874. The theme of higher education for women was very much the theme and colour of the day, with a very writerly and beautifully enunciated opening speech, a pleasure to listen to, by the chancellor, Jacqueline Wilson, who is a well-regarded author of youth fiction.
Her speech was followed by another, equally inspirational address, by Sarah Brown, wife of Gordon Brown, former prime minister, and a human dynamo. I should have known about her but I didn’t. She is, apparently, a passionate advocate for global education, and as founder and president of the children’s charity ‘Theirworld’ and executive chair of Global Business Coalition for Education, she has, along with her husband, made a very real difference in the lives of vulnerable children and young people everywhere — her mission is to send 57 million children to school. She is also ranked the top tweeter in the UK, her success judged by the impact of her messages on her reading audience. The question asked was ‘how well does a person resonate with their audience, and with the world at large?’
I’m struggling to write my journal. There’s not enough time in the day to live the experiences, let alone write about them. So the graduation ceremony was a perfect place to write my Highgate cemetery entry. I had taken a tiny notepad from the hotel, and sat quietly, writing my account, as the flocks of graduands proceeded slowly to the middle of the stage, where with a shake of Jacqueline Wilson’s hand, they became graduates. I wrote on as the creative writing students and the social workers filed across but pricked up my ears when the psychology PhD students were announced because then we were treated to a description of their topics, all of them extraordinarily inventive and intriguing. Here is a sample:
‘Fighting to survive in a woman’s world: an interpretive phenomenological analysis of men’s experiences of having breast cancer’
‘Caught in the complex web of words: a Foucauldian discourse analysis of counselling: psychological accounts of grief work’
‘Investigating how exposure suppression and coping flexibility are related to the psychological well-being of police officers’
‘The empathy fillip: Can training in more expressions of emotion enhance empathetic accuracy’
‘”Slugs and snails and puppy dog’s tails” Exploring the ‘gender disappointment’ experiences of mothers of boys who wanted a daughter: An interpretative phenomenological analysis’
‘How do fathers make sense of their experience of stillbirth, after therapy?’
‘The relationship between anxiety, sensitivity, experiential avoidance and sociability in sleep quality'
I was seated next to a proud grandmother, dressed in a luxuriant turquoise and gold sari, and the extended family, mother, father, sister, aunt, of a very clever PhD student Gauri Chauhari whose topic was: ‘Stories of comedy and tragedy in therapy: Psychological therapists’ experiences of humour in terminal illness.’
And then my daughter was floating in the field of my vision, making her way across the stage, looking so beautiful and dear. My chest swelled, my eyes watered. The last time we were in this hall, she was seven years old. We brought her to see the theatre adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. Now nearly 23 years later, she is here again, this time graduating with an MA in play therapy. She has done so well.
Cleo found out about the MA while waiting on the platform at Barnes station. She noticed a sign across the rails saying Barnes Station, University of Roehampton. Before travelling to London she had completed a BA in psychology and a diploma in narrative therapy in Auckland. The move was precipitated by a desire to travel and as well her husband got a job here. When they left, thinking back to my own experiences in London, I said to her, ‘try and make this time away good for your career too. Look out for courses that will enhance your qualifications. See what you can find.’
I asked her on graduation day about the children she has counselled and where she thought she had made a difference. Some of her work in London has been grim. She’s dealing with deeply traumatised children, little ones who have witnessed awful, inhuman incidents and who are living in situations of unremitting extreme stress and darkness, as portrayed in Ken Loach’s social realist docudrama Ladybird Ladybird (1963). Some of Cleo’s work is about calming the overly aroused fear centres in the children’s brains through quiet and meaningful play. On the first day, she tells a new client, ‘this play therapy room is your special place where you get to play with anything you choose.’ For her private clients she has a large suitcase of playthings that she lugs across London, on and off the underground system. It must seem like a Mary Poppins bag to the children. Her answer to my question surprised me. She said it was the children she counselled in Auckland, at Bayfield and Ponsonby primary schools and Pasadena Intermediate. She felt they had a future.
On our way back to Cleo’s home we walked down Putney high street passing planter boxes displaying artful arrangements of the white and lime tinted nicotiana and the floppy flowers of white cosmos, the butter yellow geum and rosemary. The air was balmy, the sky rolled up bursts of pale cloud lit by the sun. People were sitting at tables and benches outside Victorian pubs. ‘There’s Tiwone and Tim,’ said Cleo, referring to two of her fellow play therapists. So we sat down with them and over a drink we learned a little about their lives. Tiwone is from Malawi and Tim is part Mauritian and Scottish. Tiwone’s grandmother still lives in the village of adobe houses and thatched rooftops, along a dust track in Malawi and is 102. She says her longevity is due to eating meat, and nuts and not drinking or smoking. Each day she grinds the nuts that form the paste in the meat stews. Tiwone and her mother and family return regularly to their home village and Tiwone’s mother runs a charity that provides solar power to the area. I’m struck by something. Is the world becoming a kinder place? And is it the women who are making it so, reaching out across the globe and finding a way to alleviate suffering and create more opportunities for education? I don’t want to overstate a feminist argument. I’m sure that men are equally active in these arenas but maybe women’s access to higher education and the feminist message that women can do anything has made a difference. Still we are under the tyranny of a mad male ruling hegemony, that hasn’t changed, but women, especially are good at working round the power obstacles and finding a way. Perhaps things are changing and the world is a better place today. As I looked at these three young people, just graduated, all of them working with the most powerless and susceptible in society I felt huge admiration for them and also very grateful to the University of Roehampton for educating and empowering them.