Sir George Trevelyan
Eighty Years Young
This piece, written for Sir George's eightieth birthday in 1986, by David Lorimer, gives an overview of Sir George's life in a nutshell.
Sir George Trevelyan is the spiritual heart of New Age consciousness. He has inspired, encouraged and invigorated the emerging movement of synthesis between science and spirituality. David Lorimer pays a tribute to him on his eightieth birthday.
By the time this article appears, Sir George Trevelyan will have celebrated his 80th birthday in style, not only at an immense gathering in London, but also at numerous other locations throughout the land. The event is a landmark in Sir George's own life, but it could also coincide with an important turning point in the emergence of the new consciousness in which he has played such a pioneering and distinguished role. After the inbreath comes the outbreath, the expiration of the old and the exhalation of the new impulse, which now needs to be stepped up. A new consciousness usually arises out of the crises in our lives which force us to find new modes of adaptation to life, fresh responses to its flow of challenges. In this sense the life of the individual often mirrors that of the times in a microcosmic way; Sir George is no exception to this pattern, many incidents of his life having been breakthroughs to new awareness and ever wider fields of action and growth. And given his immense vitality and infectious enthusiasm, one can only imagine that this process will continue to inspire and guide him for many years yet.
Sir George was born into a talented and public-spirited aristocratic family with a penchant for radical thought and oratory. His father, Sir Charles Trevelyan, was a Labour MP who became Minister of Education under Ramsay Macdonald's Labour Government, while his grandfather had been a member of Gladstone's Liberal cabinet. His uncle was the great historian and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, G. M. Trevelyan, a friend and contemporary of Bertrand Russell, himself a radical and outspoken aristocrat and grandson of the Victorian Prime Minister Lord John Russell. I stress the aristocratic connection here as it can generate the kind of self-confidence in the face of adverse circumstances and opinion which is essential if new ideas are to penetrate a crusty and self-satisfied public opinion; of course many representatives of this class pursue their lives on a 'business as usual' (hopefully) basis, even if economic considerations are now obliging many to open the ancestral seat to the public.
Sir George's first enthusiasm, as a teenager, was for caves exploring a form of inner space which was later to assume another dimension. At university Trinity College, Cambridge where he read the family subject of history, the enthusiasm was turned outwards and upwards to mountaineering, some of which, at least, took the form of illicitly climbing back into the college. He also fenced, literally and verbally, taking part in university debates.
After a spell in Germany on leaving Cambridge, where he became interested in architecture, Sir George returned to England as yet undecided on a career. A friend suggested that he might go in for crafts, an idea which immediately appealed to him, so it was not long before he had signed up in a Cotswold furniture workshop at Chalford. Here he spent two years 'in the bliss of creative activity', before the workshops closed down in 1937. He made many pieces of furniture which are still in daily use, and later came to realise how the crafts form an integral part of the holistic vision and alternative lifestyle. At the same time he launched into training for the Alexander technique the first course of its kind and actually taught it for a while before realising that be was becoming too socially isolated.
It was at this point that he met Kurt Hahn, founder and headmaster of Gordonstoun School, where he was offered a job to teach history, literature, woodwork and practical work, and outdoor pursuits. This gave him the kind of wider contact he needed as well as a full and busy existence, as I know only too well myself. In 1936 Sir George first had the idea of using some great country houses as cultural centres for everyone; it was the seed of a vision which was to find its later fulfilment at Attingham. At Hahn's suggestion he went to Denmark to find out more about the Folk Highschools and first came across the 'Doctrine of the Living Word', whereby teachers were to speak from the heart without notes. Herein lay the groundplan of the proposal of the Living Idea, which Sir George has made such a feature of his more recent talks: ideas are no less alive than the earth or man, and need to be communicated afresh, not frozen or canned.
Sir George had laid a good deal of groundwork in the years before the central turning point of his life in 1942, when he was 36. Having been born into an atheist family in which baptism was unacceptable (or should I say, having chosen to be born into an atheistic family in order to gain vital insights) he had been an agnostic subscribing to the mechanistic and purposeless view of the universe which he later found so narrow. The revelation occurred at a lecture on anthroposophy by Dr Walter Johannes Stein: pre-existence, earth as a training ground for souls, reincarnation, the universe as living mind and thought, the earth as a living creature. It was a new gestalt which evoked an immediate response, nothing less than a volte-face from the mechanistic view. Subsequent years were devoted to a close study of Steiner's philosophy under the expert guidance of Ernst Lehrs.
The end of the war was marked with a serious attack of jaundice which immobilised Sir George for six weeks during which he ate practically nothing but boiled fish. On recovery he was expected to take up his appointment at Gordonstoun again, and even got as far as walking back to the school from Elgin. But halfway there he found his pace slowing and felt as if some elastic rope was preventing him from returning down the old road: a new challenge awaited, his first move in the direction of adult education as an instructor at the Army college in Dalkeith. Then in 1948, his father having decided to bequeath the family estate at Wallington to the National Trust, he found himself living in another country seat, but this time at the Shropshire Adult College of Attingham Park as principal.
Attingham was a new venture a short term adult college and the kind of opportunity which was a dream come true. There Sir George spent the next twenty-three years of his life until his 'retirement' in 1971. He calculates that he laid on over a thousand open courses on a huge variety of topics which included, from the fifties, subjects of spiritual significance, about which he had to remain somewhat circumspect with his governing body; but in the final analysis they could not deny that these courses were certainly fully booked and therefore made financial sense. Among some notable 'firsts' at Attingham were introductory weekends on Teilhard de Chardin and Psychosynthesis, ideas which have since come alive in no uncertain manner. Many of the people who later became leaders in their fields first met up at Attingham in the gradual development of adult education for spiritual knowledge.
Just before relinquishing his post as principal in 1971, Sir George was struck by another of those transforming illnesses, this time rheumatoid poli-arthritis, which threatened to immobilise him completely. He resisted attempts to get him to subject himself to orthodox treatments, and found his way instead to Dr Gordon Latto, a leading naturopath. He was put on a purifying regime of raw food, herbal remedies and other nature cure treatments aimed at restoring the balance of the blood. The arthritis steadily receded so that he is now able to walk the hills again, which would have been unthinkable had the disease pursued its 'normal' course. The challenge called for the kind of vigorous response which is so typical of Sir George.
Those familiar with Sir George's lectures will know his use of the phrase 'a droplet of divinity' in describing the immortal part of us which is imperishable. This realisation is among the most profound and mind-expanding which we can experience. Although he had been convinced of this intellectually for some years, it was not until losing and spontaneously contacting a dear friend and colleague that the realisation became absolutely concrete. We are always in touch with those we have loved and who have passed over.
By 1971 Sir George had a mailing list of some 1500 names of those who had attended spiritual courses at Attingham. A series of meetings led to the foundation of the Wrekin Trust, with whose work many readers will be gratefully familiar. Its contribution towards the emergence of the new consciousness has been second to none, the fruit largely of Sir George's vision and the dedication and management of Malcolm Lazarus. Like the Wrekin Trust, with its new curriculum for spiritual education, Sir George has moved into new pastures by increasing the number of his speaking engagements all over the country, thus becoming a living network in his own right. The titles of his books and talks bear witness to the vision which he brings and embodies: The Power of the Living Sprit, Summons to a High Crusade, and A Vision of Hope in an Age of Turmoil. His crusade reminds one of the famous lines by T. S. Eliot in East Coker:
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry.
The vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise.
In my end is my beginning
This exploration into intensity and communion in a state of inner stillness should not simply be the prerogative of old men though, even if it is perhaps Eliot's way of expressing the 'sannyasin' stage of the Hindu view of life: when the householder looses the bonds of material and family attachment so as to devote himself or herself to pure spiritual practice. We all need to free ourselves from the ties of the past if we are genuinely to experience the present in its fullness and pave the way for a future which is more than an extrapolation of present trends and confusion.
Sir George has defined the spiritual world-view as 'a vision of wholeness, an apprehension of the essential unity of all life', or again 'that we are spiritual beings in a life that is a vast oneness, that the Earth is alive and we are its stewards'. On a practical level this means the overcoming of separative ideas and thinking so as to evolve a system based on 'co-operation and giving, and service of the Divine Will and the Whole'. This shift of perception involves a move from mechanistic isolation to organic integration, and from rigid structures to a flowing and rhythmic, hence flexible, adaptation. Mechanistic integration can be seen in totalitarian political regimes where the individual remains a cog entirely subordinate to the supposed interests of the State: integration as submission and obedience. Organic integration, on the other hand, begins from the realisation that the part reflects the whole and that the whole is mirrored in the parts; that the contribution of the part matters in relation to the whole; and that the integrity of the whole cannot be maintained at the expense of the integrity of the parts.
Sir George speaks of the word holistic including both holiness and wholeness, and of the central importance of a new sympathy for the sacredness of life a lesson to be remembered from the example of the North American Indians. He goes on:
'The whole is holy. Healing is the restoring of harmony to the living whole. The emerging new age vision is imbued with the concept of the oneness of all life. The universe itself is seen as a vast continuum of consciousness, of creative thought of God'. The thought-form of the vision of wholeness is alive and growing through the creative efforts of individuals and groups all over the planet. At present it is competing with every manner of chaotic and destructive thought-form, the disruptive effects of which are only too apparent.
We cannot allow the freezing blasts of East or West winds to nip the new consciousness in the bud. Its roots must be firmly planted, its branches resistant and supple, its foliage and fruit vibrant and brimming with creative force. Sir George is just such a tree, his buds have not been nipped nor should ours be. The vision of wholeness beckons, the earth groans and cries for help: will the sleeping pilgrims wake in time?
David Lorimer is the director of the Scientific and Medical Network. At the time of writing he lived in Gloucestershire.