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  • Keith Johnstone

MOSTLY BIOGRAPHICAL STORIES (UP TO COLLEGE).

Updated: Apr 25



DANES

1973? I was in Copenhagen, walking towards the Modern Art Museum, when I took a short cut through a graveyard. The first tombstone that I saw had the words ‘Tak for alt’ carved into it. There was a bench nearby so I sat and wondered about this dead person – I forget his name (Oscar something) – who chose ‘thanks for everything,’ as his epitaph: thanks for the failures and thanks for the successes, for the people he liked and the people that he didn’t like, for the pain and the pleasure, the joy and the grief.

It gave me an overview of my own life. I couldn’t say those words, not truthfully. I had no peace in those days, no equanimity, but at least ‘tak for alt’ gave me something to aspire to.

It's fifty years since I saw that tombstone but I often think of it. I’m closer now to being able to say those words truthfully, and if I live longer than I expect, perhaps I'll eventually earn the right for them to be my epitaph. (Better than R.I.P. which really means 'don't come back and bother us!')

“Did the old guy say anything after he was hit by the truck?”

“Yes, but it was in a foreign language.”

I walked on through the graveyard, wishing that I could have known Oscar - that remarkable man - but I didn't get far before I noticed that every tombstone said, ‘Tak For Alt’.

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PSYCHOSIS

1995? I was offered Prozac – the new ‘glam’ anti-depressant - because my doctor friend saw my fiction as negative whereas I saw it as truthful (I’d made an appointment with her because of my feet, not my head).

“It might change your view of the world,” she said. I remember her using the adjective, ‘rosy’.

I had tried to turn Samuel Beckett on to marijuana for the same reason, so I accepted a prescription for this brain drug and was told to expect no effects for at least two weeks. Four hours after I took the first capsule everything seemed further away; rooms turned into tunnels – an effect that I enjoyed.

From then on I watched TV all day, ate nothing but corn flakes, and didn’t shower. After a week this struck me as unusual so I forced myself to get clean and go outside. There were pleasing visual effects – mostly to do with an increase of contrast – but then, after half an hour, two huge, fawn, short-haired dogs homed in on me, the slightly smaller one staying a little behind the other. My arm was half way down the throat of the leader when it occurred to me that this couldn’t be happening. The dogs vanished and I was alone at the edge of a vast reservoir. (The reservoir was real! And I had driven myself there - think of that!)

I stopped taking the drug and after two days I was back to normal. Detoxing was extraordinary. I would realise that some other parts of my mind had been ‘thinking independently'. I could back-track each alien set of ideas towards its origin. When several ‘lines of thought’ were in my mind I could move from one to the other as if there were several different versions of me. (When the B.B.C. publication, Great Actors, interviewed actors about their craft, several of them described something similar.)

Could I really be several different people (something that can occur in Mask work)? Cultures that believe in one God teach us to be one person, but a Haitian friend was taught that we each have at least six spirits. After all, is there really so much difference between thinking, ‘I’m happy today,’ and thinking, ‘I’m a happy person today,’?

Prozac inhibits the uptake of serotonin so I presumed that the effect on me was a result of already having a high level by nature; depression and boredom are unknown to me, and there must be a reason for that.

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VERSE

Because the voices on TV

Were very much a mystery,

I saw a specialist for ears,

Who said, “You’re getting on in years!

To me your problem’s very plain,

You ears are good but not your brain.”

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THE SOCIAL SELF

The other children would have laughed or thrown stones and the grown-ups might have done worse if I hadn’t developed a ‘social-self’ to placate them. Such ‘selves’ are often sustained by a constant frown, or grin, or by an expression of fear or sadness, and this makes us ugly. (Wilhelm Reich used to imitate his patients’ rigid expressions and say, ‘why do you do this?’)

I frowned so much that strangers commented on it: ‘Oh, look what deep-set eyes that little boy has!’ That made me frown even more and think, ‘so make me happy then!’ When some autistic children are seen as hauntingly beautiful, could it be that they lack the ability to harden their faces into defensive masks?********************************************************************************************************

THE GOOD ANGEL

A colleague at RADA seemed rather pink.

“Did you fall asleep in the sun?”

“I dropped a saucepan and boiling water splashed on my face.”

A ‘voice’ had ordered him to plunge his head into the cold washing-up water and this had avoided severe damage.

“I was alone,” he said, still marvelling, “but it was as if someone spoke from the back of my skull.”

“It must have been your good angel.”

“I suppose it was.”

At moments of extreme crisis our good angel shoves our social-self aside as ‘irrelevant’ and tries to rescue us. It’s quicker than the verbal mind (it evolved a lot earlier) but it can’t be completely trusted, as when a man leapt into the Thames to rescue a drowning child before remembering that he couldn’t swim.

I met my good angel as I slid from a cliff. It made my ten-year old self into a detached observer. There was no pain, no fear, and no verbal thinking. A scraggly branch floated up at about an inch a second (sharply focused in spite of my poor eyesight). My fingers curled themselves around it as if there was all the time in the world. It ripped out of my hand but halved my speed and kept me vertical until a scree of loose stones could spread the force of my landing.

I had time to wonder, ‘who was I when I fell?’ before the world speeded up, and blood oozed from my slashed palm.

Even when there’s no emergency, our good angel might write the story, or paint the picture, or compose the music, or choreograph the dance, if verbal thinking didn’t interfere.

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BARELY BELIEVABLE

I was middle aged before I had a serious talk with my sister about our upbringing.

“It was terrible when you left home,” she said.

"But why?”

She explained that until then the nagging had been shared.

“But Mum thought you were wonderful!” I said.

"No, she thought you were wonderful!”

Tell each child that it’s worthless, bad, incapable of achieving anything (that's what Mum ‘hammered into me’) and then praise the other to the skies - what a way to raise children! There we stood, two adults (if I was about fifty, then my sister was about forty-four), looking back at the attempted ruination of our lives, and glimpsing for the first time that we had both suffered from the same venom.

Is it any wonder that it was the first time we had ever had a serious talk about our upbringing? (It was just after Mum had died.) Had she been trying to make us hate each other? I doubt she was that rational.

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CROSSWORD

I was in a CCB studio in Calgary, being interviewed by a journalist at the BBC in London, when the taping was interrupted.

“We keep getting a tiny intermittent noise that our technician can’t get rid of,” he said. “Do you have any idea what it might be?”

“Is this this sound?”

“That’s it!”

“I’m sorry. I had no idea that you could hear it. It’s the sound of my pencil as I write the solutions to a crossword puzzle.”

The journalist seemed miffed: “You’re doing a crossword puzzle while I’m interviewing you!”

I said something like: “This interview was supposed to last ten minutes but your producer keeps buying more time, so he must be happy. You've been interviewing ‘spontaneous Keith’ while ‘defensive Keith’ was occupied with the crossword, and I promise you that you wouldn’t have got much out of him.”

We continued, while ‘defensive’ Keith distracted himself by remembering each bus stop between Brixham and Totnes. We talked for well over an hour – about creativity - but I wish they had they recorded that example of 'removing the censorious self'. I think it was quite funny.

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RAPIST DUCKS

I was at Emerson College in Boston, and had been working on ‘pecking orders’ just before lunch. There was a park across the road where some of us ate our sandwiches in pleasant surroundings: grass, trees, a small lake, friendly water fowl. I had brought some bread with me which I shared out so that we could feed the ducks - something that for me is an absorbing activity.

We were getting low on bread when I suggested to a tall, slim, mature student – actually a professor who was auditing the course – that she should feed just one particular duck. I should have realised by her youthful figure that she was some sort of athlete. Anyway, whatever her sport, she threw with great accurately. This duck, a female at the bottom of the pecking order, couldn’t believe her luck as each piece of bread landed right beside her, but then ten male ducks mobbed her and tried to push her under the water.

The reversal of the pecking order – alpha ducks usually gets first choice - seemed to have activated so quite normal gang-rape duck sexual behaviour, but before I could explain this the professor had hurried away, crying ‘Oh, you monster!’

God or evolution was to blame. Rape among ducks is so prevalent that the females have evolved clockwise vaginas as obstacles to the anti-clockwise duck penises. (I'm not making this up, it's in the literature!) Darwin was baffled by the evolution of the eye (solved!) but the evolution of anti-clockwise penises and clockwise vaginas might have perplexed him even more.

I returned a year later, and the professor audited the class again, but we avoided the subject of ducks, and when I went to the park with some students to eat our sandwiches she did not join us.

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MINE FIELD

I arrived to give a demonstration class at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. The theatre was packed.

I said: ‘Good evening. It’s nice to be here.’

The audience exploded! These ‘inscrutable’ Japanese roared! They were hugging each other! They laughed so much that they were sliding off of the seats. The ones at the front where I could see them seemed to need medical attention.

I waited, trying to look like someone who has made a splendid joke and was being modest about it. Then I worked for two hours with no idea what had happened. The performers, and the few hundred watchers, might have had a better time if I hadn’t felt that I was having to step carefully through a mine field.

The translator was an Australian improviser. He had translated: ‘Good evening. It’s nice to be here,’ as, ‘Mr Johnstone says, “Go fuck yourselves!”' The Australians have a word for such people. They call them, ‘fuckwits’.

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MUSINGS

Question: “Who wants to live to ninety?”

Answer: “Anyone who is eighty-nine.”

Or maybe not. Death is horrible when you’re a child, or in the prime of life, but it can be ‘a consummation devoutly to be wished’ when you’re old, and tired, and in pain, and feel that you've lived your life. ('Do not go gentle into that good night' was advice from a poet who never reached forty.)

Never underestimate Mythology! Retirement homes for Christians are full of unhappy people destined for Hell, so I’m told (and I can believe it), whereas similar homes for the Buddhists – and I suppose for the Hindus – are full of people who will be back to try again. The Tibetan Book of the Dead gives helpful advice for souls in transition - like avoiding pregnant donkeys.

The Dali Lama gave a press conference, shortly after whispering such homilies into the ear of a dead man. A reporter, who had observed this ceremony, said:

“’Ere, Dalai, wot if there ain’t nuffin' after yer die?”

The Dalai Lama looked especially beatific and gave a perfect answer: “Well, then it won’t matter, will it?”

There aren’t many good deaths (and won’t be unless the government starts handing out the psychedelics). Woody Allen said that he wasn't afraid of dying but that he didn't want to be there when it happened! I so agree! Simone de Beauvoir wrote a harrowing account of her Mother’s death which still scares me. She mentioned to the Nurse what a horrific nightmare it had been. “Oh, no," said the Nurse, "that was a very easy death.”

I want a packet of morphine like the one Theodore Roosevelt took with him when he explored the hindquarters of the Amazon. (Sorry! Headwaters of the Amazon river!) It would give me the feeling that I still have some control. By the way, when so many people are overdosing on fentanyl, don't you find it odd that some states in the USA are having trouble finding drugs with which to kill condemned prisoners? Don't they want them to die peacefully? Obviously not - why should criminals be so lucky! Do officials seek a cocktail of drugs so that they can inject the paralysing one first to ensure a terrifying exit?

When I was vaccinated against pneumonia – which used to be called ‘the old man’s friend’ – I asked the Doctor, ‘so what am I supposed to die of now?’ He wouldn’t answer.

A Doctor at the pain-clinic has arranged for me to see a gerontologist. I said, ‘what’s her cure rate?” He said he didn’t think it was very good.

Because I could not stop for Death -

He kindly stopped for me...

Thank-you Emily Dickinson, but isn't the truth more likely to be:

Because I could not stop for Death,

He took a year to stop my breath...

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TWELVE STAIRS

At the end of his life Dad did something that comforted him but that distressed me. We had walked down Glastonbury High Street to the old ‘coaching inn’ where we had retired to a quiet corner of the bar, just the two of us, father and son, sipping our beers. He wanted to tell me something, but delayed and delayed until we were about to go. Then he apologised for not protecting me from Mum: “She’d be waiting for you all day. I used to know you’d get it when you came home from school.”

I was dumbstruck. I had told myself that he had been blissfully ignorant down in the dispensary, but he'd been listening to my screams and had never, never, never come up the twelve stairs to rescue me.

Dad was a lot older than Mum, and much shorter – as if his teen-age bride had continued to grow. He kept to himself, and didn’t talk much. He had entered the marriage by choice and was ‘making the best of it’. And he'd let Mum work off her rage on me rather than having her direct it at him!

One thing he might have seen if he had ascended those stairs, attracted by the screams, was me and my little sister being chased around the table by Mum who held a red-hot poker. What sort of game was that? What did it say about her feelings for us? And what monster had played this game with her when she was a child? (My sister would have been two or three years old and that would have made me about age nine.)

She never played it when there was just me. A large woman terrorising a child with a red hot poker could hardly have been seen as a game.

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AH, OF COURSE!

A friend phoned me and said, “what have you doing this afternoon?”

I said: “I’ve just read five Chinese plays from the ‘Yuan’ period. One is called The Child of Chao and I’ve been trying to find out about the author.”

There was no response. I thought we’d been disconnected.

“Hallo? Hallo?”

The shock had left my friend speechless, but he recovered:

“Why are you reading that? You’re not a Drama Professor any more!”

How could he have forgotten that learning is a pleasure? Then I remembered that he was back at University, taking an advanced degree.

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GHOST

It’s been reported that I wanted to reach the age of seventy-two and then die. I've failed, even at that, and ever since I’ve felt like a ghost: ‘what am I doing here? I don’t belong in this world! Who are these people?'’

Seventy-two was an age that I seemed unlikely to reach because of my childhood. Dad used to say that the rain seeping through the wall was bad for us (especially for my Mum who had some type of tuberculosis). He said that the builder must have used sand from the beach without washing out the salt, but he seldom mentioned the several feet of water that entered the cellar twice a day. The coal was stored down there, so we checked the state of the tide to see when it was possible to go down and get some. At night, during the wartime 'blackout', we consulted the tide-timetable that we kept on the mantelpiece.

Another reason for not expecting to survive to age seventy-two is that my playroom in the attic had asbestos walls. I liked to draw on them with my fingernails, and being a little boy I’m sure that I sucked my fingers. The drawings faded in a day or so, but asbestos dust must have seeped through the house for us to breathe. (I was born in 1933: asbestos was shown to be dangerous in 1928.)

I lived at the edge of a thrilling harbour where almost everything I touched was bad for me, and where the red lead used on the boats was especially poisonous. I used to make shapes of animals and people and machines from red lead (and suck my fingers).

At about age twelve or thirteen I began getting pains in my left arm and was diagnosed as having a bad heart. That explained why I was always the worst athlete in my age group. It extracted me from school sports, and from being conscripted into the army. I asked a cardiologist what I could do about it and he said ‘get different parents’.

So reaching age seventy-two had seemed unlikely (but a good age to die and avoid decrepitude). Since then, when I wake up in the mornings, I’m mildly surprised (and dare I say - 'disappointed'?)

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MEDICAL DANES

I was in a Danish hospital for three weeks (in Frederichberg). Such nice nurses, so considerate. If you had a birthday a Danish flag stood on your breakfast plate - if I had a birthday I'm sure they'd have found a little Union Jack. When they learned that I was a vegetarian they purchased vegetarian food designed to have the texture and the taste of meat.

Four or five Doctors stood at the foot of my bed discussing me in Danish with a lot of head shaking. The group broke up, and the youngest Doctor was left to talk with me.

“You see, you don’t drink, Mr Johnstone.”

“Well, I have a beer occasionally.”

“Yes, but you don’t drink like a Dane. You see if you were Danish these results would be perfectly normal, but as you aren’t there must be something seriously wrong with you.”

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IS THE 'VOICE' YOU?

The 'voice' that we experience as ourselves has transformed us from a ‘dumb animal’ into an eye with which the universe investigates itself, and yet this verbal mind is ponderous (good for philosophy but not for table-tennis). If a boxer thinks the words, ‘I’ll punch him now!’ an opponent who reacts non-verbally can hit him several times first. Michael Goldie, a boxer who became an actor, told me that he was trained to do this, and movies show the young Mohammed Ali dancing around the ring, fists dangling, as he waits for such an opportunity.

The suspicion that the 'voice' is not the authentic self (or not the only way to apprehend reality) may be why our ancestors spoke of their immortal souls as distinct from their intellect, and why William Blake said that the real man is the imagination, and why an assembly of Hindu Gods who were proud of their consciousness found that they couldn’t lift a straw without the help of a power that was unknown to them.

Perhaps the author of The Cloud of Unknowing was thinking of the difference between verbal and non-verbal thinking when he wrote that ‘God can be loved but not thought.’

Much of my work has involved ways of interfering with speech so that 'something else' can operate.

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MUNICH HOSPITAL

I woke up in a Munich hospital with stitches in my forehead and a headache. I'd had a concussion. After a day or so I felt fine, and yet they were insisting that that I was not fit to leave. Suddenly I understood.

“Are you waiting for my left eye to move back to the centre?”

“Yes.”

“You’ll wait a long time! It’s been like that for fifty years.”

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"YES YOU DID!"

I was seen by a specialist:

“You’re going blind.” he said.

“What can I do?”

“Nothing,”

(Get better parents?)

“How long do I have?”

“Impossible to say. Perhaps two years if you’re lucky. If you are really lucky it might take as long as ten.”

“If I’m really lucky I might be hit by a truck first,” I said, which made him laugh.

I returned home in a sombre mood, remembering a man who went blind in a cafeteria at Waterloo station. Six people had refused to help him before the seventh agreed. That sounds bad, but perhaps he was frightening them. Once in my life I was desperately ill and called to passers-by for help. They hurried away! It wasn’t until I managed to say, courteously, ‘excuse me, Sir, do you have a moment,’ that I received any assistance.

I told myself that at least I wouldn't go blind in ten minutes like the man in the Waterloo cafeteria, but then another specialist said: “You realise that it could happen in half an hour?”

What was I to do? Take a trip around the world? See the Parthenon and visit Delphi? Tour art galleries? But I could have done those things already if I really wanted to. I tried to learn Braille (impossible! I’d have to be blind before I had the patience). I bought an ‘app’ to let my computer turn my words into type, but it typed gibberish. I gave some books away. I collected painkillers and kept them in the ‘fridge marked ‘Keith’s Medications’ in case I didn’t enjoy being blind.

Every four months I went through a series of tests, and each time the specialist - the one who first diagnosed me - would react with what seemed alarm, tutting, and sighing, and well nigh tearing his hair.

“What’s wrong. Doctor?”

“There’s no change!” he'd say, as if annoyed.

After years of such investigations (eight? Ten?) he said: “Well, as there’s never any change, you’ve better come back once a year. We’ll keep an eye on it.”

“That’s great! That’s wonderful! So I’m not going blind!”

A sort of shudder went through him. He turned away and mumbled, in a defeated voice: “I never said that you were going blind.”

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DUCKS HAVE FEELINGS

The New Scientist recently - well, in the last ten years - printed a letter from two New Zealanders. They reported that long ago, in the sixties, they had been in Regents Park (in London) where a man had coaxed some ducks on to dry land by feeding them small pieces of bread.

Amazingly, a duck had picked up a sparrow and had run with it to the water to drown it. I was the man, and I remember them, although I'd thought that they were Australians. This bizarre event – strange enough to be in the mind decades later – happened in a section of the park called ‘Queen Mary’s Rose Garden’. I was surprised that the duck was quick enough to be able to grab a sparrow, and then to grip it in its beak without seeming to damage it. The sparrow flapped frantically, eighteen inches from the edge, and managed to ‘row’ ashore. There was no concrete rim, the asphalt sloped gently into the water, so it was able to extricate itself and join the others.

(CLARIFICATION: I didn't coax the ducks out of the water; I was feeding sparrows. When the ducks arrived I continued to feed the sparrows - and only the sparrows - to see what the ducks would do.)

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SMALL TRAMPOLINE

Alarmed by my weight-gain, I purchased a small trampoline – about four feet across - and took it into the garden to bounce in the fresh, cool air. Bounce one! Bounce two! Bounce three! (Good exercise but I'm bouncing rather faster than I might have wished.) Bounce eighteen! Bounce nineteen! (Wave to my neighbour’s daughter who I see sunbathing beyond the fence.) Bounce thirty-four! Bounce thirty-five! (Smile to the small boys who have been attracted by the sound.) Bounce forty-one, bounce forty-two..But what the hell is this? I'm not bouncing! I might as well be trying to bounce on concrete.

I step off and observe that the metal legs have sunk into the soil until the 'platform' is level with the ground. I hurl a clod of earth at the small boys who stop laughing and throw several back. The neighbour’s daughter looks over the fence, straight-faced, to wish me ‘good morning’.

Extracting the trampoline from the ground is quite aerobic.

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