There is no reason to suppose that Mr. Magee ever studied under Alexander or Coué, or had ever heard of either. Yet, when I compare his instructions for prayer with much of what Alexander and Coué taught their pupils in respect of instituting desirable changes in their bodies, the connection, despite all divergences, is striking. Though here, a word of warning is necessary. Let no reader confuse Mr. Magee’s instructions, or Coué’s strictures concerning will, and Alexander’s rules about relaxation, with the collapse or, as it were, swooning, of the body. Relaxation should not suggest any such condition; but merely the elimination of volition from the body’s co-ordination and from the mind.
When we clearly envisage the situation of a human being, particularly of a modern go-getting, end-gaining one, the product of Western civilization, with all his lively consciousness and wilfulness and, above all, corrupted, by that recent defect of a feminist society — the lack of discipline and, above all, of any practice or expertise in self-discipline; we appreciate the enormous snags lurking in the path of him who today resorts to prayer in order to seek alleviation from pain, or release from any other kind of maladaptation caused by an untoward change in his own body or in his environment.
I had recently published my sixth novel — French Beans — and the first of my treatises on the woman question and on feminism — Woman: A Vindication — when I received a most appreciative letter from a lady signing herself “Agnes Birrell.” Besides containing a nattering tribute to my writings, it was in its way a challenging letter, expressing surprise that, as a champion of the healthy values she found defended in my works, I should have given no sign of any knowledge of the greatest discovery of the century — the doctrine and technique of “Conscious Control” which the world owed to Matthias Alexander.
I was naturally pleased with the compliments Miss Birrell had thought fit to pay me; but, being then conceited enough to imagine that I had little more to learn about health and the means of preserving it, and having investigated and turned down too many obvious rackets among the current schemes for securing “perfect health,” to feel much impressed by Miss Birrell’s recommendation of “Conscious Control,” I wondered how I could decently avoid any commitments concerning this new movement whilst yet concealing my profound suspicions about it. I felt sure she had no intention whatsoever of taking me in and was probably merely a wealthy dupe of the founder of the method she advocated. I therefore courteously acknowledged her kind letter and as inoffensively as possible implied that I was too busy to become more narrowly acquainted with yet another New Way of Life, although I did not pretend to doubt its sterling merits. ...
She replied very promptly; ... and ..., renewing her arguments in praise of conscious control, urged me earnestly to spare a little of my precious time to learn something about it. She assured me that I should find it abundantly worthwhile, and every day that passed without my knowing about it only jeopardized my future both as a writer and lover of life. This was in the autumn of 1923, and for the next twelve months — i.e., until late in 1924 — letters continued to pass between us at least once a week without any abatement of her efforts to introduce me to conscious control. To say that, in the end, I was beginning to feel exasperated by her insistence, would be an understatement. For, truth to tell, what I had begun to debate in my mind was whether perhaps the most effective means of ridding myself of her importunacy might not be to try downright rudeness.
Late in 1924, when we had still not even met, she pointed out that I was surely behaving somewhat unreasonably in refusing to do so much as investigate the system she championed; and, after reiterating her old refrain to the effect that, apart from the benefits my health would derive from it, my further contributions to thought would be improved by the training she advocated, she proposed that we should meet at Alexander’s, at 16 Ashley Place, S.W.1, where I could watch her having a lesson before I definitely gave up all idea of taking lessons myself. This, she said, would commit me to nothing even if it failed to convince me.
To cut a long story short, I ultimately decided to fall in with this suggestion. It would cost me nothing; my curiosity was aroused, and I half hoped that an ultimate gesture of compliance might put an end to a tedious and time-devouring correspondence which had lasted long enough. On a certain morning in late November or early December 1924, I therefore met my strange correspondent at 16 Ashley Place; and, to my surprise, found that she was not the desiccated and hallucinated old spinster I had imagined, but a quite attractive, bright and intelligent young woman in her late twenties — or thereabout.
I was relegated to an easy chair by Alexander, whose personality I found it difficult at first sight to gauge, and I was invited to watch the half-hour lesson he then gave to Miss Birrell. I tried to follow closely what he was doing, and imagined that there was nothing I missed. I found his incessant accompanying patter rather distracting, and was not impressed by its purport. He would break off from time to time and, in a deep and attractive voice, declaim a passage from Byron or Shakespeare, which seemed to me to bear little relevancy to the matter in hand. Altogether, I thought him too reminiscent of a showman, and there and then decided to have nothing to do with him.
At Miss Birrell’s request, however, Alexander subjected me to a cursory examination; made comments about me which I hardly understood, but which seemed to distress Miss Birrell, and concluded by declaring that there was every hope that I could be put “quite right.”
Miss Birrell and I thereupon retired to Fuller’s in Victoria Street for coffee and a chat. Taking it for granted that I intended to enrol as an Alexander pupil forthwith, Miss Birrell then informed me that Alexander was probably the most expensive specialist in London and could demand as much as four guineas per half-hour for every lesson he gave; and with some trepidation and profuse apologies, inquired whether I thought I could afford a course of some twenty-five lessons.
As I was determined not to spend a halfpenny on what I now secretly believed to be a most obvious racket, I told her that as a struggling literary man I could really not afford so much as a farthing on the treatment. I said that I should feel I was depriving my wife not merely of a few modest luxuries, but of essentials, if I embarked upon any such extravagance for myself alone. I moreover implied as tactfully as I could that the séance had not impressed me too favourably.
Thus the matter rested until New Year’s Day 1925, when, in order to recover from an attack of food-poisoning, I went for a holiday to Cannes. Whilst I was there Miss Birrell renewed her propaganda in favour of conscious control, and implored me to reconsider my views about it. But, as I now had an excellent excuse for keeping clear of it, I pleaded poverty and declared that Alexander’s fees made it quite impossible for me to think of going to him. What was my surprise, therefore, when one morning in the first week of February 1925, soon after my return to London, I received a telegram from Miss Birrell in which she informed me that all my fees at Alexander’s had been settled in advance and that he was expecting me to start as a pupil there on the morning of 6th February!
Such determination to force my hand rather staggered me, and I could not help respecting, even if I did not welcome, Miss Birrell’s generosity and persevering zeal. But I was annoyed by the thought of the time I should have to lose, going morning after morning all the way from St. John’s Wood, where we were then living, down to the vicinity of Victoria Station. Nevertheless, after consulting my wife, I decided to comply, as by that time I had begun to suspect that there might be more influences working to place me under Alexander’s tuition than were dreamt of in Miss Birrell’s philosophy. [By this, judging from the beginning of the chapter, not quoted here, Ludovici means – rather ungratefully I think – that ultimately what was helping him was not Miss Birell’s effort but rather cosmic Life Forces.]
Yet, when I first began my course, and even for some weeks afterwards — for I found Alexander had contracted to give me many more than twenty-five lessons — I got no nearer to acquiring any faith in his method. Truth to tell, for some time I did not even understand what he was trying to achieve, and I often returned home only to groan to my wife about the money that was being “squandered” and how much I should have preferred to see it enter our own rather than Alexander’s pocket.
Then gradually, and much to my surprise, I began to change my mind. Certain prophecies about me, which Alexander had made from the start showed signs of being fulfilled to the letter. My costal arch, which was the worst feature of my poor figure, as it is of many schizothymes, was obviously opening out and widening. My threatened kyphosis had been so much diminished that an old friend, on meeting me one evening, asked me what on earth I had been doing to effect such a change in my appearance. When I breathed, my floating ribs now thrust out the lower reaches of my thorax as they had never done before, and my old waistcoats seemed hopelessly tight. I knew enough about anatomy to appreciate that probably all along my periodical “bilious” attacks had been no more than a protest on the part of the viscera in my epigastrial region at the constriction they suffered from the rigidity of my ribs; and I began to see the reason of the high incidence of dyspepsia, peptic ulcers and respiratory troubles among modern Europeans; for the loosening and widening of my thoracic cage had, among its other effects, greatly normalized my respiratory function.
By the time I had been three months under Alexander, therefore, I had become as ardent a convert to his doctrines and the technique by which he fulfilled them, as Miss Birrell herself, and by 1927 I had already published the first of my books which contained an eloquent eulogy of the teaching (Man: An Indictment).
It is impossible fully to describe the benefits both in health and in joie de vivre which I owed, and still owe, to this radical alteration in my physique; for although nothing could of course correct all my constitutional failings, I was a changed man. When, therefore I say, as I did on a previous page, that the learning of conscious control was the most precious of all the contributions on the question of health that came to me during the years between the outbreak of World War I and 1925, I am not exaggerating. It has certainly prolonged my life.