Marilyn Strathern interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 6th May 2009
0:09:07 Born in North Wales in 1941; looking back at father's family, Thomas Charles of Bala was the founder of the British and Foreign Bible Society; his grandsons were heads of theological colleges; the role that theology and theological dispute played in British society provided an intellectual arena that is inappropriate for the kind of society we are now in; I prefer to look on these ancestors as intellectuals rather than theologians. Mother's family were carpet makers in the Midlands, among other things. I knew my father's parents, who lived in Surrey; also knew my mother's mother, but her father died when she was seventeen; maternal grandmother had a wicked sense of humour and I like to think she has passed it on to me. My father should have been an academic, not unlike a person that I got to know well in Mount Hagen; he was a journalist trained at King's London but for only one year; he worked for the 'News Chronicle' in Manchester, a liberal paper run by Cadburys; it failed during my first term at Girton and my father was suddenly out of work; Cadburys had made no pension provision; he moved to the 'Telegraph' which did not reflect his views at all. He was very much influenced as a boy by a neighbour whose passion was natural history; in those days, collecting butterflies was a mark of interest not a trespass; he built up an exquisite collection of butterflies, moths and other insects, all of which were classified according to the Royal Entomological Society classification; he also bred moths and experimented on samples from the north and south of England to show the effects of soot; before the days of flexible plastics there was a kind of cellulite material, and I remember these containers filled with privet leaves sitting in the bath with caterpillars crawling all over them; we even had to take them away with us on holiday in order to keep them fed. He had a huge knowledge of ornithology; because robins have territories they become very possessive of them and become familiar with other beings living in them; when living in Pets Wood near Orpington -- the railway ran all night so my father was able to get home after work -- for two or three summers my father trained robins to take fishermen's maggots from his fingers or even his lips; he was fascinated by Darwin and his family and was well-read in evolutionary theory; my mother said that he was explaining Gould to her on the day before he died; he was also a poetry reviewer for the 'Oxford Times', and I have his collection of poetry collected from the fifties. He was rather diffident and shy but quite definite in his opinions; I found the combination of his definite opinion and erudition quite difficult and chose a subject to pursue during my teens that had nothing to do with his interests; that was archaeology! Petts Wood was a Roman suburb and there are archaeological digs all round.
10:15:15 My mother had an equally formidable knowledge of natural history, and wild flowers in particular; on any walk we would be aware of what was around us. She read English at Girton and then taught; she was broadly interested in all aspects of English literature and branched out into an interest in women's issues; this was pre Betty Friedan and the second wave of feminism; she would lecture to the Workers' Educational Association on women's interests, in the 1950s before it was fashionable; she was a member of the Fawcett Society and once stood for the local council; her political roots were really quite deep; before she met my father she had been to Russia to celebrate the dawn of a new society; she remained politically engaged in a way that my father would go along with but was never passionate about. She taught first in a boys school near Manchester; when I was born there were still issues concerning women with children remaining in jobs so she stopped school teaching; in Kent she started teaching in Maidstone Gaol and did correspondence courses for Merchant Seamen; I vividly remember her marking 'O' level English papers; she would take the exam scripts down to a National Trust wood with us when we were little so she could mark while we played. Her interest in women's issues, politics and internationalism led her to become involved with the International Women's Movement; she was also a great believer in the Commonwealth; she would have been proud of my being asked to represent Papua New Guinea at a celebration to mark sixty years since the change of name from British Commonwealth to Commonwealth of Nations; when I was in the upper classes at school she fed me ideas; when I was doing a project on the eighteenth century she took me to London and we walked round the eighteenth century parts, which was quite something; she had to carry all the social life of the family. She was a great friend; she died not so long ago and I miss her a lot
16:43:20 I have two younger brothers and both of them retired well before I did; my first school was Crofton Lane Primary School, though there was an earlier school, Poverest Road Infant School, next to a Baptist Church; I went on to Bromley High School[GPDST]. I remember a sports' day at my infant school, dressed in what seemed to be satin pyjamas, admiring my calves and thinking I was the bee's knees! Went to the primary school from eight until eleven when I took 11+; at that school there was a particular teacher that I remember in the last form, but I am not a great one for thinking of genealogy in that sense, who has influenced me; I do have distinct memories of being inspired by several of my high school teachers, in geography, English and history. While still primary school, when we were on holiday with my parents we would visit historic buildings; there are some very early drawings of mine of a Norman keep; I learnt to recognise different styles of church architecture, so history has played a part in how I learned about fitting things together in terms of explaining the world; history was one of my 'A' level subjects and I always enjoyed it; English literature I enjoyed enormously; I still recall a ghastly moment during the 'O' level exam, head full of everything from Chaucer onward, wondering how the questions could begin to touch on what I knew; I got a terrible mark and everybody was scandalised, but I couldn't turn my knowledge into exam answers. Music? My mother had been a disappointment to her own father who was musical, so she had me tested at the age of seven and I was found to be tone deaf; neither of my parents was musical so this is a huge gap in my education; I do listen to music but in ignorance and words mean more to me than music; I loved drama and can still remember the exhilaration of being in a successful performance; I think I was just a stage manager or something, but being part of the organization, the team work, that I enjoyed.
26:27:13 Both my parents had come from Baptist backgrounds but my father was an atheist and my mother would say she was agnostic; in later years she got some comfort from Quaker circles but she would never say she was a believer; being brought up in an atheist family gave me reverse problems; during the period when I went off digging - thirteen, fourteen - I would come home, eat the Sunday lunch left for me, then dash out to the Congregational Church; we had been sent to Sunday school but that was a routine practice and not a religious thing; I went to the Congregational Church for about two years; I had not been baptised so knew I could not take communion; I was rescued by the Astronomer Royal; Fred Hoyle in his Reith Lectures gave a descriptive vision of the universe that did not require a deity; I had been looking for some reason for not associating myself with the church and Fred Hoyle gave it; that was an incredible liberation and I have never looked back. Now I am an atheist to the core and find the present theisms really quite alarming; I now live in a world very different from what I imagined the world would be, with religions popping up on all sides, and faith schools and such nonsense. I do not agree with Dawkins: anybody who wishes to express belief can practice science and I don't think the two are incompatible; my younger brother is a devout evangelical and is a forester, a natural scientist; these things are not implacably opposed; that is not to say that there are not runs of theory which are incompatible; evolutionary theory and Darwinism, for example, because they touch on the origins of how we come to be what we are, quite clearly are challenging for religions that also propose to account for the same. Given that a number of anthropologists were believers, what is it that I substitute for religion that might have the same effect on my intellectual life? I think I would say an interest and love of institutions; I suspect that those aspects of religion that inspire social scientists are those aspects to do with the ecclesiastical organization of religious life regardless of what belief systems are involved; if you were to look for a counterpart of that in my own life I would say that I have always liked being in contexts where there was organized life around me; I like being in hospital, for example, and am not frightened by the notion of institution as such; I have enjoyed departmental life from the organizational demands that it makes; I am very much a college person and enjoyed being in the institution; that is where in my own life I might echo where people with religion might find some inspiration for being interested in other people and their social relations; it is also the rituals of institutions from which I derive a particular pleasure, in the relationship one has to a convention which one willingly follows, but in such a way it does not impinge on one's autonomy; a willing submission to a convention for the pleasure of the convention, but at the same time one is conscious of oneself as an active participant; I have always found that the relationship between person and office - which I discuss in a contribution to 'Cambridge Anthropology - is an actual source of intellectual pleasure, something that I enjoy managing
37:10:11 I feel very sorry for our Chaplain at Girton, who does a lot of good for College, who perceives that I can't join in as far as belief is concerned; when I was at Bromley High I would keep my mouth shut during assembly and refuse to sing although I would do the physical genuflection; funerals would be the most frequent other occasions when I would be in church; funerals are quite educative because it becomes very clear that as a participant in something that is important you are actually participating with other people; for the sake of the other people there, that you join in the singing; for funerals, the impossibility of the substance of what they are promising puts the content beyond rational thought; one is left with the singing as an activity; funerals that minimize that kind of collective participation are very unsatisfactory. When it became clear that in college I would be in chapel quite a lot it seemed to me that for the sake of the college it was important to play one's part and I did not sit there anguishing over the content of what is being said. I have no need for resistance, it is just not relevant.
40:35:19 In those days you could apply for both Oxford and Cambridge and I got in at Somerville as well where I would have read history; of Girton, Newnham and New Hall, Girton was the obvious college and I got an exhibition there while only a place at Somerville, so that made the decision for me; I came to do archaeology and anthropology as I had done a lot of digging but I knew I never wanted to be an archaeologist; we had studied the eighteenth century and I had read Rousseau, and became quite carried away with notions of society, and what society was; Meyer Fortes was the Professor of anthropology; Girton was looked after by Doris Wheatley who was quite an idiosyncratic person; I was also taught by Audrey Richards and Esther Goody. Now in my mind, Meyer [Fortes] and Edmund [Leach] are very much a pair; this is bizarre given their histories; I think of them as a pair precisely because what was exhilarating to a student at that time was having them dispute with each other; the knowledge that they disagreed but that both were interesting was an inspiration; Edmund delivered his lectures in a very forthright and engaging way; I came up in 1960 so this was the time that he was bringing Levi-Strauss to an English audience; the audacity of his ideas was conveyed in the energy with which he delivered things; Meyer was more removed, quite calm, very precise, detailed; go back to those two volumes on Tallensi, they are quite incredible works; the impact he had wasn't at all the same as Edmund's but he managed to be a little bit patriarchal without being pompous; I was fond of him; I think I was more in awe of Edmund because of the flamboyance which was so far removed from the kind of person I was; I quite empathised with Meyer; they had very distinct differences. Reo Fortune and G.I. Jones were there, so was Martin Southwold and Jack Goody; there were few students so we would go off together to the Bun Shop [or Meyer's room in King's], particularly when I became a research student; my contempories were Steve Gudeman, Maurice Bloch, Liz Kennedy, Susan Drucker-Brown and Geoffrey Benjamin; as a student I didn't appreciate Audrey Richards, her manner was dry and remote; by the time I knew her as a teacher she was tired, was teaching on methods; as a supervisor, because she was in Newnham, she was quite wonderful; she would read what I wrote quite carefully and made very interesting comments and I really began to warm to her in a way that really didn't come over in her public persona at that point in her life. In the summer of 1961 I went digging with Charles McBurney; in summer 1962, Audrey and Edmund decided to take a troop of students to Elmdon to teach them genealogical methods; Andrew Strathern came along as well; I have to say that none of my experiences in New Guinea were nearly as terrifying as that; in New Guinea I didn't really know the conventions, but here I knew the conventions but had been brought up with them; as an English person I was incredibly sensitive to people saying go away we are not interested, or go and look in the local library. It was an enormous kindness that she let us use her house and make her materials available; what in her lectures I had thought of as remote and dull, quite clearly had another side which was a degree of detachment from what she was and where she was which enabled her to include other people in her project; very different from Edmund who got fed up very quickly and removed himself from what she was doing; that detachment then translated much later into her allowing me access to all her materials; I had offered to help her write up a chapter but that turned in the end to my authoring the book on Elmdon; there was this generosity to her that was really quite impressive; I also became extremely fond of her.
52:28:20 I got a 2:1 and there being no firsts that year and my being top of the 2.1s, I had bitter thoughts about the external examiner! There were no grants or scholarships and fieldwork funding which one had to find oneself; became engaged to Andrew in my third year and we married the summer of 1963 just after I graduated; the reception was at the Garden House Hotel; Audrey, the Goodys, Meyer and Edmund were there, and Edmund discovered that one of my father's doctor cousins had treated him during the war. No one apart from Reo Fortune knew anything about New Guinea; the story of why we went to New Guinea in my mind is that it wasn't Africa; it was also the case that the New Guinea Highlands were being opened up and there were one or two anthropological reports from there; the Highlands were not discovered until 1933 and then the war came and there was not much access; in the early 1960s they were still fairly recently opened up; Esther Goody was my supervisor