Wednesday, 17 January 2007


My friend Dr Rachel Pinney, whom I mentioned in a blog over in the arena, was another of the remarkable women I have known. [I have known some remarkable men, too, and may get around to blogging about them sometime.] She invented the technique of “Creative Listening”, which was a method intended to circumvent the usual shallow inattentiveness of so many conversations, and to prompt the participants to start really hearing each other.

The unique feature of Creative Listening is that you practise it with someone who has a point of view opposed to yours and who agrees that while one of you explains their position as fully and clearly as possible, the other undertakes not to argue or to answer back, and only to interrupt if there is something they don’t understand which needs clarifying.

Dr Pinney was a Quaker and an ardent anti-nuclear weapons campaigner. She accordingly used her method primarily to engage with supporters of nuclear weapons. However, she also realised that it could be applied to many other topics, and one day she suggested to me that we should apply it to homosexual law reform. This was in the 1960s, when the Wolfenden Report’s proposals that homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should be decriminalised were being widely debated in parliament and the press, and so the subject was more in the public’s awareness than it had previously been.

So on a warm summer’s evening Dr Pinney and I set out from Earls Court Station to hear what we could get passers-by to say about homosexuality. It was, in fact, Dr Pinney’s first ‘Listen’ in London; she had previously been Listening only in the provinces. Usually, she told me, people never refused to talk; and I would not have thought that homosexuality was an especially closed subject in Earls Court, even for those who disapproved of it.

But hostile talkers proved difficult to find, despite Dr Pinney’s winningly persuasive sales pitch. Marching up to front door bells or accosting ladies tending their front gardens, she would explain that she had been touring Britain Listening for Peace, but ‘tonight’ [emphasised in a delightfully ‘you are especially privileged’ tone of voice] – “tonight I am Listening on homosexual law reform!” A few of those thus addressed hastily bade us good evening, looking as if they consigned us to the depths of depravity. But most of them never batted a eyelid at the dread word, smiling as unconcernedly as if we had been selling washing powder or canvassing for local council elections.

As most were on our side, Dr Pinney varied her routine with Listening on the Bomb, which gave her all her longest Listens that evening. We encountered only one forthright opponent, and he predictably said he was not prepared to discuss homosexuality in the street [or, I suspected, anywhere else]. When pressed by Dr Pinney to give a reason, he replied: “I was forty years in the Navy, madam, and that’s quite good enough reason. Good day to you!”

Our most informative Listen was with a taxi driver at West London Airport Terminal. As soon as Dr Pinney announced her topic, he waxed voluble. “Yes”, he said, “me and my mates know all about these homosexuals. Some of them are alright, perhaps. I know some quite well-known people who are that way – and a few may be born like it. But for most of them, it’s just something they do for an extra sensation. There’s none in the working classes, of course.” [The working classes, presumably, not providing many late night taxi fares.] His main grudge appeared to be that ‘these homosexuals’ had led to the closing down of nearly all the overnight public conveniences which he and his mates used for more orthodox purposes.

It was an instructive and entertaining evening, but one I didn’t repeat. Dr Pinney carried on Listening for Peace, which eventually took her to Red Square in Moscow, at the height of the Cold War. She was even braver than she was eccentric, and I admired her.


zola said...

Can't argue with that.

Anonymous said...

I can.
Anticant talking about the "working classes"?
Should that have been working class?

anticant said...

Comments like that are best left anonymous.

zola said...

Can't argue with that

Anonymous said...

I can.
"best left"?
Anticant would not know a left wing from a left hook or a left luggage locker.

anticant said...

The Left is never right. But anticant is.

Anonymous said...

Could you claify that statement?
Sori to interrupt.

zola said...

Should that have been "clarify"?

Anonymous said...

Yes. Clarify was meant. Just a spelling mistake.

anticant said...

Too many liguistic and verbal pedants around here.

OK, qualify it as "But anticant sometimes [he would prefer 'often'] is."

Carry on quibbling. I'm off to bed.

anticant said...

I really am rather irritated that this piece only attracts such trivial comments. If you've nothing better to say about it, why bother? It's this sort of constant belittlement that makes me wonder whether it's worthwhile keeping on with the bother of thinking up, researching, and writing posts here. It's not exactly effortless, you know.

zola said...

Good morning Anticant : believe you me I did not intend to upset you.

I played only with the listening for peace framework that you blogged. I merely did what you talked. If it backfired on me that is OK.
To upset you? Not ok.

anticant said...

No worry, Zola. You are not the culprit!

It would have been nice to have some comment on the substance of the piece, though.

Love and Peace.

lavenderblue said...

Good Morning, Anticant !
I am sure that no-one wishes to belittle you.
'Teasing' would be a more acceptable word.
I, for one, am well aware that writing is certainly not as effortless as you make it seem.
It is a good post, and I hope to respond, but I do not have the wealth of information and knowledge at my fingertips that comes so easily to someone of your considerable experience.

Szwagier said...

I've always considered myself rather a good listener, practising something like this for most of my adult life.

Being a language teacher for as long as I was, particularly one who was more interested in content than form (still a rarity, at least in the EFL world), only helped me hone the skill further.

Had I been allowed to carry on in that vein rather than being required to fart about with virtually irrelevant grammatical niceties in the nqame of 'rigour', I might be a teacher yet.

Szwagier said...

On the question of whether it's worth keeping up the writing for the Burrow, that rather depends, doesn't it, on who you're writing for.

If you're writing for yourself, the relevance or profundity of the following comments really doesn't matter. Likewise if you're writing for readers rather than commenters. I know for a fact (because I keep a pretty tight rein on my statistics) that I have far more readers than commenters. I imagine most bloggers are in the same boat.

The only circumstances in which the comments should influence your decision are those in which you are writing for the commenters. Then you might have cause to wonder.

In any other case, keep going. I certainly read all, even if I don't have the wit to say anything sensible on some topics.

butwhatif said...

Do we have a modern day Dr Pinney, one who could turn the Big Bother House into Earls Court, if only for 10 minutes?

anticant said...

Each of us blogs for many and complex reasons. I blog as an outlet for my memories and thoughts, and in the hope of interesting others. I do not want to 'convert' anybody to my point of view. But dialogue is important to me, as my mobility is now restricted and I am virtually housebound, so social contacts for conversation are limited to the occasional visitor. I do not write 'for' my site visitors or commentators, but I am naturally interested to know what they think of my blogs.

Like you, Szwagier, I have many more site visitors than commentators, but I don't know how many of them actually stay and read what I've written.

One of Dr Pinney's devices - which might have been useful for Big Brother - was to make the person speaking hold a conch shell or other suitable token, which they did not pass on to the next would-be speaker until they had finished saying everything they wanted to. Only the person holding the shell was allowed to speak; the others had to listen.

Richard W. Symonds said...

May I commend Orwell's 1946 Essay : "Why I Write" ('Orwell and Politics', Penguin Classics, 2001-Page 457-464).

Wonderful stuff. His first of five reasons : "Sheer egoism"...and the essay includes such familiar gems as :

"What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art"

"One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist or understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention"

"Good prose is like a window pane...and looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books, and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives, and humbug generally"

Why do you write (and/or read) on this blog ?

Why do I ?

zola said...

Nice one RWS : I enjoy to smile every time I see somebody knocking the stuffing out of those like Dr Johnson who would have us write only for money if we were to be sensible.
Good to wake up and smile - so thanks for that Orwell bit.

Szwagier said...

I feel a little sorry for this Blair, at least.

I'm not overly fond of purple passages, but anyone who feels that decorative adjectives and humbug are intrinsically bad things really needs to lighten up a bit.

Szwagier said...

Conch shell... now where have I heard that before. Was it "Lord of the Flies"?

Richard W. Symonds said...

Thanks for saying thanks, Zola - appreciated more than I think you know.

And you are right, Swagger, Eric B did need to "lighten up a bit" perhaps...but that was who he was...and you might be a a bit grouchy with a snipers bullet embedded, and a illness which was to kill him.

Mycroft said...

I stumbled across this while searching for references to Rachel Pinney. I met her long after the events described in the blog - in the late eighties and early nineties shortly before she died.
She had made a considerable impression on me when I heard her on, I think, Radio 4 talking about Creative Listening and I made a considerable effort to track her down and contact her. She invited me to come and meet her at her flat (near Pentonville Prison if memory serves well) and I found her equally impressive face to face. I became something of an acolyte and purchased several copies of Creative Listening which I pressed on friends and colleagues. Sadly, I seem to have lost the copies I kept, though I may still have the computer transcription I made. I still have my copy of Bobby.
Thanks for reviving memories of a wonderful old lady (as she was when I knew her) and, if you have any further reminiscences you would be willing to share I would be grateful to hear/read them.



Mycroft said...


A conch shell was a major "character" in "Lord of the Flies", where one of its uses was the same as Dr Pinney's, and it is also used in one of the solutions to the "Dining Philosophers" problem.

gypsyspirit60 said...

I worked with Rachel for two years in Toronto. We were trained on the technique of listening to children and we used the conch shell in our circle staff meetings. Rachel never spoke on Wednesdays because she had taken a vow of silence for solidarity with the original Ban the Bomb protestors.

She loved booking all her business meetings on Wednesdays. She communicated with hand gestures and facial expressions.

I'm sixty years old now. She was my first real teacher....and she would be happy to know I've turned out somewhat like her.....LOL.

Anonymous said...

Hello to all Rachel Pinney commenters and listeners alike, I also worked with Rachel in Toronto and turned 60 this past year. As well I replaced Rachel in New York City while Rachel visited LA, to follow up on a possibility of beginning a new Center. During that time I worked with a young autistic boy, Rachel later wrote about. I was part of a team including Mimi Schacter... if you are out there Mimi, I would love to get back in contact.
I have been using elements of therapeutic process and creative listening in a variety of projects including art education and now looking into weaving it into listens of Genocide Narratives.

Leah said...

Rachel and I attended a conference in LA. prior to her relocating to NY.
This conference was attended by a group of people interested in Gurdieff including Fritz Peters who commented that Rachels attention in listening was akin to Mr. Gurdieff's in its 100% attention.

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Linda Palmer said...

I know it's a bit late in the day, but I was very excited when I found your blog. Rachel Pinney was my doctor back in the '50's when I contracted polio, at the age of 5. She treated me at home using a somewhat controversial treatment involving hot and cold 'sandbags' and massage. After 6 months the paralysis was gone and I was able to walk again. I owe her so much and remember her with great affection. Thanks for a very interesting blog.

Linda Palmer said...

I know it's a bit late in the day, but I was very excited when I found your blog. Rachel Pinney was my doctor back in the '50's when I contracted polio, at the age of 5. She treated me at home using a somewhat controversial treatment involving hot and cold 'sandbags' and massage. After 6 months the paralysis was gone and I was able to walk again. I owe her so much and remember her with great affection. Thanks for a very interesting blog.