A leading Buddhist in the 1960s, Alan Watts was born on January 6th 1915 at 3 Holbrook Cottages, Chislehurst. His mother, Emily, was a gifted needle woman and some examples of her work are still to be found at The Royal School of Needlework where she was a designer and teacher. His father, Laurence, worked for the Michelin Tyre Company.
Their home (pictured right) is described by Watts as ‘a pretty little cottage in a rather attractive suburb of London, with acres of unspoiled common land, a village of old world shops, a fine old church, St Nicholas, and a village pond‘. Holbrook Lane then was a rough track with a few cottages at one end. The cottages were not old; they had been built at the turn of the century in a countrified style. The house was tiny, with a front door that opened on to a flight of stairs, a dining room and kitchen on the right of the door, a sitting room on the left. Upstairs were two biggish bedrooms, a tiny room which Laurence used as a dressing room, and a small bathroom with lavatory and hot water geyser. The Watt’s planted a Rowan in the front garden and called the house ‘Rowan Cottage‘. They had a maid, Jessie. Laurence earned £300 a year and they hired a Norland Nurse to care for baby Alan. Alan’s memoirs recall a garden full of tomatoes, raspberries and beans on sticks, stretching far above his head. He also has a vivid memory of an enormous Sycamore, ninety feet high on the boundary between Farrington’s and their garden.
Laurence did not fight in the Great War due to a carbuncle on his neck, though he used to drill with a Territorial Unit on The Common. Alan remembers a bomb falling on the village green; although alarming, no one was hurt and he was given cocoa in the dining room!
Alan described the social and domestic life of Chislehurst at the time. The milkman arrived with clanging cans on a horse and cart, going to Christchurch with his mother or, if she was ill, to St Nicholas’ with all it’s Anglo-Catholic delights with Miss Augusta Pearce, his neighbour. There was a sweet shop in the village run by Miss Rabbit, the bakery run by Miss Battle, a stationery shop and a grocer’s smelling of fresh coffee, smoked meats and Stilton. The Chemist, Prebble and Bone, had enormous glass jars of coloured water in the window. The drapers, run by the Misses Scriven, displayed their dresses on headless, armless and legless mock ups of female torsos with wooden heads which gave him nightmares for years, apparently.
Alan attended St Nicholas kindergarten, next door to the church, with a teacher confusingly called Miss Nicholas. Aged 7 he was enrolled at St Hugh’s private prep school which was then located in Bickley. He went as a weekly boarder. He wore dark grey trousers, a black waistcoat with lapels and cloth covered buttons, a black jacket, known by the boys as a bumfreezer. There was also a white starched collar worn outside the jacket and a straw boater beribboned in salmon pink with a white fleur de lys at the front. He travelled by bus to the school each week with his mother. It was not a happy time: ‘I was sent off to boarding school for instruction in laughing and grief, in militarism and regimented music, in bibliolatry and bad ritual, in cricket, soccer and rugby, in preliminary accounting, banking and surveying and in subtle, not really overt, homosexuality.’
Part of the chapel at St Hugh’s was redesigned while Alan was there and his mother did some of her exquisite needlework on the altar cloths. The headmaster’s brother, Charles Johnson, a gifted architect, carved the new reredos and generally supervised the work. He also built a Spanish Mexican house in the grounds.
Alan wrote to his aunt in 1927 ‘all the ponds are frozen here and it is awful fun sliding on them. The papers and letters have not come because all the roads are like glass. Five newspaper vans have overturned while coming from London, and a train has slid past the station and not been able to stop there. One milk girl has been knocked unconscious and the butcher boy has narrowly escaped accident. None of the trains are going faster than 6 mph and a fog is growing‘.
As Alan grew up and travelled far from home, he commented that Chislehurst Station, with its knock- knock sound of tickets being issued and the tring of the bell announcing an approaching train, was a centre of liberation!
In 1928 Alan won a scholarship to King’s School, Canterbury (picture right). One of his recollections was carrying the long red train wearing knee breeches and silk buckled shoes at the enthronement of Archbishop Cosmo Lang at the Cathedral. He joined the debating society and spoke for the first time on Zen Buddhism and its rituals. One day, wandering in Camden Town in the holidays he bought a fine brass Buddha and announced at school that he had become a Buddhist. He attended Buddhist Lodge meetings up in Pimlico in the holidays.
Alan failed his Oxford university scholarship exam, deliberately it seems, and went at 17 with his father to work with the Metropolitan Hospital Sunday Fund at their Mansion House offices.
Watts began to move in theosophical circles and was absorbed by meetings in Soho restaurants, on one occasion missing the 11.55 last train from Charing Cross, and ended up being sent home in a chauffeur driven limousine belonging to Dmitrije Mitrinovic, a self styled guru from Yugoslavia. He also met, in this period, his new ‘teacher’, D.T.Suzuki, a Japanese author on Zen Buddhism.
Watts published his first book The Spirit of Zen when he was 19. There was to be second edition twenty years later. Watts read and wrote mandarin, practiced marshall arts and trained himself in calligraphy. In 1937 he published The Legacy of Asia and Western Man, described by the Church Times as a witty little book!
Alan introduced his partner to his parents at Rowan Cottage. He was by this time leading what was, at that time, considered to be a bohemian lifestyle, by staying with Eleanor Everett, an American, at her London flat on more nights than those he spent in Chislehurst. They had an engagement party at Rowan Cottage the day before they sailed to New York in 1937. They married back in England, Eleanor already pregnant by Watts, in April 1938. They lived in Courtfield Gardens in London and Alan concentrated full time on his writing, but moved to New York just ahead of the war. In America he lectured at the Jungian Club and wrote The Meaning of Happiness. He wrote articles and renewed his interest in Christianity. Bizarrely he was ordained as an Anglican Priest, and ministered in Chicago. During this time he wrote Behold The Spirit and was awarded a Masters degree. His services were popular if elaborate, but his ministry ended in scandal, following revelations about his marital problems and a ménage a quartre!
He returned then to his earlier passion for Zen. His next book was The Wisdom of Insecurity. He moved his daughters to San Fransisco and set up a new Academy offering the teaching of Asian cultures. The school turned out to be a meeting ground for unusual and interesting artists and poets. Chinese and Japanese buddhists alike became deeply involved with the Academy.
But Watts was a neglectful father and when his parents visited in 1952 they returned to Chislehurst and to Rowan Cottage with their younger granddaughter Ann, aged 10. She attended Farringtons for the next eight years.
In 1956 Watts wrote his most famous book The Way of Zen. He went on to write Nature – Man and Woman. In 1958, en route to lecture in Zurich, Watts returned briefly to Chislehurst finding it unchanged; there were still the same adverts painted on metal sheets at the station – Stephen’s ink and Palethorpe’s sausages – the old high street contained the same sweet shop, the chemist still run by the same owners, and Alan could still walk past the ancient church to The Tiger’s Head for a drink with his father.
In the 1960s the emergence of the counter-culture coincided with a radical change in Watts’s own life. He left his second wife, Dorothy, then pregnant with her fifth child and went to live with his new love, Jano, on an old ferry boat in Marin County and began to ‘swing’. His 1962 book The Joyous Cosmologywas a writing on LSD as a kind of medicine for sick modern men. The Two hands of God followed in 1963, then The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. By 1967, the ‘Summer of Love’, he was a full scale flower child and one of the most revered public figures in a worldwide revolution. He drank heavily and his sexual adventures took their toll on his third marriage. He was having to work at an exhaustive pace to support his family.
He had not returned home when his mother died in 1961 but he returned in 1968 to help his father move to a retirement home, Merevale. His final trip to Chislehurst was in 1971 for his fathers 90th birthday. The family held a party at the at The Tiger’s Head, and Watts sang the Peter Seeger song, Little Boxes.
Watts died of heart failure in America, in 1973, aged only 58. ‘The secret of life‘, he said, ‘is knowing when to stop‘. He was in his own words ‘a philosophical entertainer, a genuine fake and an irreducible rascal‘.
Source: Genuine Fake, a Biography of Alan Watts, by Monica Furlong (1986)