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THE LONG WEEKEND
by Margot Waddell

Essay Review of The Long Week-end 1897-1919: Part of a Life 

by W. R. Bion. Abington: Fleetwood Press, 1982, Pp 287. £9.

The work of the late Wilfred Bion is extremely hard to classify. Among the epithets commonly attached to it, 'original' is probably one of the least contentious. He can be located in direct line in the development of psychoanalytic theory from Freud to Melanie Klein. but he branches from that line in a highly individual way, one that is founded in an epistemology which is itself based in emotionality (emotionality, not just in contradistinction to rationality. but somehow constitutive of Bion's theory of thinking).

In this volume, the lay reader is given ready access to a way of thinking which, in Bion's other works, though much more developed, remains to the uninitiated both difficult theoretically and (as in the final three-volume Memoir of the Future) artistically and conceptually arcane. Here. by contrast. powerful strands personal. epistemological, ideological - interweave with great clarity. One of Bion's concerns is with the impact of the prevailing culture - its values and preoccupations - on the internal world, and with the relationship between that impact and other less accessible determinants of psychic development.

We are given insight into, understanding of, the early part of a life through the lens of a later belief in a very distinctive model of mind - an epistemological one - in which emotion is placed at the very heart of meaning. The account is painful. Not just as a record of unhappy, and largely (at the time) uncomprehended, experience, but for the way it reveals the numbing, destructive effect that this early life has bad on the growth of personality and the capacity to conduct intimate relations.

Bion's central concern is with the various aspects of the mind and with how it may be that some of them are in the service of discovering truth and beauty, and others, of mis-understanding and anti-thought. He describes his life with relentless honesty. It is a raw and disturbing read. His commitment to honesty is not merely a moral issue: it stands at the heart of his thinking and of his theory of thinking. Lies are the poison of the mind. Bion's awareness of the lying nature of his social environment, including the deceit and hypocrisy of much that made Britain 'great', and the fervour of the critique of the Establishment, particularly in its institutional forms; bring the most intimate into relation with the most general. He describes his own limitations, not as a victim (he is, perhaps, all too ready to take personal responsibility, for his failings), but as part of an analysis of a way of being which potentially leads to death: death of the individual soul and, by implication, a much more general death.

In these pages, there is a continually oscillating movement back and forth, as external experience mediates internal, and vice versa. We shift from the poignancy of a child's struggles to understand, demonstrating how anxiety and fear determine fundamentally the capacity to take in and communicate, to some of the consequences of failure to understand and communicate - the large-scale, death-dealing incompetence and incomprehension of the First World War, 'lived' through by the boy soldier, recalled, expressed and relived many years later.

One of the values of good autobiography is its capacity to illuminate the general through the particular. Here, we are taken effortlessly from external events to their conscious, personal impact, and further, into their unconscious significance, as they are felt to represent aspects of inner experience. The one continually informs the other. The contrast is ever between public image -'Tanks Storming German Lines' - and private experience - 'It was just a war, spoiled by hideous misshapen blobs of fear.'

The ordinary fare of autobiographical prose, the 'private' and outer', is not on offer. The terrain of describable personal experience is shifted to the 'public' and 'inner'. Of the recommendation for the Victoria Cross, Bion writes: 'In fact 1 did very little digesting; the recommendation was so utterly unlike the experience 1 would have expected... It was odd that it fitted so closely the facts as 1 knew them, and odder still that it was not the experience I had had.'

The images veer from the domestic to the historic and back; each is kept in relation to the other and interpreted through the other. An important facet, for example, of Bion's experience of war is illuminated through an understanding of his inner experience of the big-game shoots, the tiger hunts, of his childhood and the nature of his father's involvement therein. The impact of such early childhood experiences, and those of latency and adolescence spent in educational institutions and middle-class families is centrally relevant, it is suggested, to more general issues: what makes war possible in the first place, what enables people to endure it. The states of mind. in other words. in which such things are experienced and 'survived' are inseparable from the states of mind in which those earlier events were experienced and survived.

In this way, it becomes significant that the author who describes these events is a psychoanalyst. For he is extraordinarily candid about the individual consciousness and what can be understood, through self-scrutiny, about issues of a more far-reaching kind. There is a coherence of metaphor, symbol and imagery - and. perhaps more importantly, honesty - which transforms this record of experience and events from that of a writer gifted in self-analysis to that of one who is continually aware of the simultaneity of internal and external experience, and able to convey that simultaneity in prose.

The Long Week-End is, as the subtitle states, only part of a life. It traces some internal and external events from Bion's memories of earliest childhood to his demobilization from the army at the end of World War I, aged 21. Superficially, the trajectory would seem in conventional terms to be relatively ordinary and successful: son of an engineer, spent the first seven years of his life in India under the Raj; went to English prep and public schools; enlisted in the Tank Corps, decorated (DSO). But it is the tenuousness of the connection between external and publicly recognized achievement on the one hand and inner reality and self-knowledge on the other that forms the core of the book. It represents an indictment of the British social system in its various manifestations – religious, educational and military. It is at the same time a relentless examination of inner loneliness. Anxiety, fear, shame. despite – indeed, largely because of - external success. The two are inseparable. Bion spent the rest of his life living down the shame of winning that DSO on August 8. 1917 - the day, he says, on which his soul died ('the soul may die, the body lives forever'). He describes not only how little positive connection there is between external acclaim and a sense of inner worth but, on the contrary, how obstructing. how countervailing a force, how corrupting, how deadly such an honour may be. He repeatedly uses the metaphor of the 'exoskeleton' to convey the gradual acquisition - through certain kinds of development and an inability to learn from experience - of an external and inadequate substitute for an internal spine. The image recurs: he speaks of the uselessness of the exoskeleton in the cold night of one's own truth - or for any purpose other than hiding it. ‘The DSO, the tank itself, were very inadequate protection… I felt (my crew) looked at me as if to say "What, you? Recommended for a VC?…”. I might with equal relevance have been recommended for a court martial. It depended on the direction which one took ‘when one ran away.' The inverse relationship between status and substance is a theme to which Bion constantly returns.

A second theme or leitmotiv is Bion's preoccupation with different kinds of knowledge: in particular, the contrast between an inner knowledge of relationships and events, to which the facts may bear but a superficial and passing resemblance, and the external and recordable facts of 'history' (that is, the 'public"). The 'facts' in this sense are only hooks on which to hang the elements of relationship which would otherwise have been meaningless (a point he makes clear in the Preface). In the Memoir, 'facts' as such take on an altered significance - a rather different version from the one presented here. They no longer form an external structure for events and feelings at all, but become part of the furniture of the inner world and are subject to another logic altogether.

Here, there is a structure to events and a chronology: India, School, War. The book falls into these three parts, each with its own character and atmosphere, but linked by the threads of a powerful inner logic, as allusions and metaphors are repeated and connected to keep the past in continuous relation to the present and to the future. It is unremitting in its intensity, despite flashes of humour - usually black, sardonic and at Bion's own expense.

The very first paragraph introduces a certain way of thinking about experience, rooted in a particular stratum of English middle-class culture - characterized by religious allusions, meanings, tacit humour, but more importantly, it establishes links with knowledge of different kinds: guilty knowledge about feelings, about phantasies dimly conceived about early anxieties and fears; sensations about parents - physical, emotional, uncomprehended - reaching outward to the external world and inward to some region of indescribable terror. Each of these elements accrues meaning in the course of the book as it becomes elaborated through childhood, adolescent and young adult experiences. Bion describes a train of associations: sitting on his mother’s lap (warm and safe and comfortable, then suddenly, cold and frightening), dread of a punishing retributive being somehow embodied in the child's rendering of the Lord's Prayer, 'Arf Arfer (Oo Arf in Mrnphm)'; school chapel and guilt ('please make me a good boy'); 'I would slip off her lap quickly, and hunt for my sister.'  

It immediately becomes evident how prominent and terrifying a feature of Bion's inner world was this 'Arf Arfer' - related to the adult world (meaningless laughter, 'Arf! arf! arf! they would go'); distantly to Gee-sus; to the call of the jackals, the dark and frightening night when the animals had started howling; to the terror of his own father. An account of one particular birthday establishes Arf Arfer as a uniting principle of particular horror. Bion's father had given him a train, a new train, run on Electric City (the key, hoped the young Bion, to his confusion about the Simply City which featured in his evening prayers). The train didn't work, and insult was added to injury when his father discovered that it had been smothered with Ghee, or vegetable oil, in superstitious hope of repair. Arf Arfer, with his great black wings beating had already obscured the sun That night Arf Arfer came in terror "like the King of Kings"' as the dead tiger's mate 'roared her requiem'. For that was also the day of the great tiger hunt and his father's part in the shoot. That birth-day, in other words, for young Bion. brought together associations with the death-day for the tiger (powerful, male identifications, each undercut in its own particular way); his fathers emotional investment in the electric train ('I was afraid he was going to cry') and his heroic role in the tiger hunt ('He was well-known as a fine shot') is juxtaposed to the tigress's requiem and the ayah's plight and emotional strength when revealed as the source of the Ghee. 'Her head trembled as the storm beat about her, but like a reed shaken by the wind she bowed to its fury and it passed her by.' The account is laced with primitive anxieties: 'She won't eat us Daddy? You are sure she won't?' The threads stretch into the fabric of the book, explicitly, they point forward, and resonances echo both specifically and indistinctly. The electric train jolted, crawled and, 'like my tank many years later, stopped. It just stopped.' 

Bion never had a very good opinion of himself. He describes himself as timid, morose, cowardly. 'My character, when I glimpsed it, was horrible - in contrast with my wishes.' But what particularly oppresses the reader at this stage is less the child's lack of confidence or self-respect than the weight of his systematic humiliation. The denial of experience by the subterfuge and incomprehension of the adult world is painfully conveyed by Bion's sense of his mother's feelings and his identification with them as his departure for school in England, aged eight, drew nearer. He was never to return to India. His fearful anticipation paralysed his thought processes, but not his other senses: 

My mother just stroked my cheeks and dreamt without fear but with sadness. I couldn't stand it.

“Mother! You aren't sad are you?

“Sad?” she would laugh. “Of course not! Why should I be sad?

Well, why should she be sad? I couldn't think. It was ridiculous. Sad? Of course not!

But she was. 

Or again

It made it worse that I felt she was laughing - inside.

“You're laughing,“ I said. “No,” she said looking very stern. So she wasn't sad; and she wasn't laughing either. 

This early part of the book is characterized by such anxious attempts on Bion's part to make sense of his experience despite the obstructions to doing so. He chronicles the effect on childlike curiosity of the sorts of denial, evasion and incomprehension he encounters. The descriptions of sibling rivalry, of parental attitudes and the ways in which experience taught him and his sister to become accomplished liars, are connected lightly, painfully and often amusingly. He reflects sparingly on his moral righteousness at being beaten for teasing his sister - the comfort he took from Saint Paul's 'armour of righteousness' - 'until I felt the inadequacy of moral armour. It is wonderful what can be done with "nothing", but it takes a deal of doffing once put on.' The theme is picked up frequently in the course of the book, the humour adding a sharp edge to the destructive implications of the insights conveyed. Of a similar kind are his condensed summaries of parental attitudes: 'She loved us: he loved his image of us. She knew she had two nasty brats and could tolerate that fact; my father bitterly resented the menace of any reality which imperilled his fiction.' 

The contrasting aspects of his father's character, the problems of identification, the intimations of sexuality which the young Bion 'knows' and denies, are picked up in the relationship between himself and his father in a particularly telling and resonant incident. It encapsulates the relationship between the image of his father as a 'famous big-game shot' and his own inability even to go near a tiger trap once he had seen the bait of a kid in the crate nearby. 'I want to go home.' He never forgot this humiliation. 'How could my mother and father possibly have produced such asuch awell, such a what? 1 didn't know; it must be to do with wiggling; that always led to something dreadful.' The  unconscious associations in this episode, though not spelt out, are quite available to the reader and inform one's understanding of later events just  as they did in Bion's own experience. 

It was ‘wiggling’ which preoccupied him so dreadfully in the physical, mental and emotional struggles of his school years in England. In this second part, the same threads weave together: the pattern of connections becomes clearer, the character more pronounced or what is taken to be character. Certainly particular ways of being become characteristic: a way of getting by, an exoskeleton. Bion is caught changing his story about some trivial matter of 'Houses' on his first day at prep school, having just said goodbye to his mother. Paralyzed by grief and terror, he says whatever comes into his frightened mind, is accused of lying and mercilessly teased. He learns to treasure the time when he can get into bed, pull the bedclothes over his head and weep. 

As my powers of deception grew, I learned to weep silently till at last I became more like my mother who was not laughing, and was not crying. It was a painful process; I failed often in my attempts to climb each step of the ladder. Sometimes the problem was familiar - as with lying. “I’m not lying!” I had said brightly, hoping for my father's approval of my floral arrangement. [Referring to an incident when he had gratuitously added this guilty phrase, thereby evoking his father’s ire.] My mother would have known at once that such a mess could have been made by no one else; my father, though a brilliant engineer, was curiously dense when it came to Electric City and Simply City. So, in a luckless moment, my greed for reiterated admiration had led me to add ‘I’m not lying'. In that moment the glorious morning was obscured, the sun stopped glowing, became darkened and scorching, his words a torrent flowing over, beyond and below me. Tears did not cool and refresh - they scalded. Where had I got such an idea? I did not know. I had plucked them in the garden; I thought they would be nice. 

The description of the little boy's experience in this strange environment, isolated and uncomprehending, is terribly poignant, both for its particularity and for the universality of childhood humiliation and distress: he lacked as yet the necessary 'armour'. Fear. Humiliation, masturbation, punctuated by memories, now nightmares, of the childhood horrors described in the previous part. make this section of the book very painful reading. The goggle-eyed parrots and pink round faces swam around me and woke me with a shriek. Whoever was that screaming?' The associations are with pain inflicted and pain received (both inflicting and receiving pain). Bion's desperate inability to articulate his inner suffering to his enquiring mother relates both backwards to his earlier failure and linguistic elisions, in his attempts to make sense of his experience, and forwards into the unbearably stilted and dissociated encounters on leave with his mother during the war years. 'It was hopeless to pretend: my mother was no fool. It was simply a matter of compelling our face muscles to do their drill.' There seems no language to recount such experience. Such cataclysmic disasters (of school - 'that gigantic sexual pressure-cooker') cannot be described. They haunt me still.' The route to the survival of such separation from anything that was known or loved was to cut oneself off from feeling, a tactic which characterized Bion's relationships with the English families with whom he spent the school holidays. He does describe the pranks, joys and troubles of an ordinary boy's adolescence, but also, and more powerfully, his incapacity to learn from the experience available to him: 

What I might have learned at Archer Hall, but did not, was that breeding is ruthless. The graces and civilities play like a beautiful iridescence on the surface when feelings are absent or in abeyance... But I did not know the meaning of what I saw. The Hamiltons and the Rhodes's were providing an education that was not in the timetable. I saw: and was conquered. I did not understand.

Such character as he had, he says, was not that of a 'spine' but rather of an exoskeletonous type - 'bits of shell that continued to adhere'.

Meanwhile sex, religion and rules were all loathed and all felt to be inextricably related - indeed religion seemed to have no other function than 'the regulation of my and other people's "sexual activities"'. The religious energies and allusions which echo through the first two parts of the book acquire in the third part an intensified hatred and bitterness in the context of what are felt to he their consequences, war. Bion spares no contempt as he writes of the limited and dangerous mentality produced by the hypocrisies of the kind of religion and education which he himself underwent: 'the unspeakable cruelty of a nation dominated by a prep school mentality'. Written in knowledge of his own emotional scars and the actual ones of his country, he describes his experience of war, a war he enters into as a 'chitinous semblance of a boy from whom a person had escaped. But I was imprisoned, unable to break out of the shell which adhered to me. But perhaps', he wonders, he would have gone mad 'without those steely, strong, invisible bonds'.  

A particular tone characterizes this part of the book (comprising two thirds of the whole), conveying not simply the ghastliness, but the ordinariness, the inevitability of it all. War is experienced by the schoolboy mentality which never learns that ever more terrible forms of it are normal, not aberrant disasters. After the earlier pages, this appalling assertion can only be accepted. It is central to the book. War is the inevitable product of the mentality that is shaped and rigidified by the kinds of experience already described. The point is made in much more Joycean terms in the second volume of the Memoir, asserting through language and metaphor, as a stream of unconscious associations, the catastrophic consequences of such a system. 

PRIEST'S VOICE (droning as if in religious incantation of congregational prayer) England-have-won-the-toss-and-have-chosen-to-bat. Ah-men. Ah-setting-the-

Field-as-if-for-a-fast-bowler. Ah-wonder-who- it-will-be. In-heaven-as-it-is-on-earth-

because-there-is-no-turf-on-the-pitch-which- is-worn-and-will-almost-certainly-

crumble-long-before-the-day. Dies illa, dies irae. calamitas et miseriae. 

MAN (whispers, hoarse with excitement) Keep your head down! Don't watch - pretend you can't hear a thing. England are coming in to bat. I think it's Kichenger and... Kipling! No, it's

PRIEST'S VOICE... the weary at rest. Rudyard has ceased from Kipling. He has started his run to the wicket. From outside the main entrance... Here he comes and is just going round the bend! Look out! He's using an atomic bomb instead of a ball, and... Here is a list of the Glorious dead who batted into the third day after and have come direct out of the computer, the Holy Boast of our civilization. Quid nunc? These are they who come out of great Fibrillation and here endelh the Christo-semitic era and beginneth the post-fissile quasi-epoch. I only am escaped alone to tell thee. What a marvelous day it is!'

And so the passage concludes: 

What's yet to come is still unsure. Man is a discarded experiment like the mammals, like the saurians, like fire, like sparks that fly upward, like troubles when there is no mind to experience them.

In the account of the war years the patterns of association already established become clearer. They shape and define apparently new experiences, and invest them with hidden but known layers of meaning, reaching simultaneously back- adding new understanding to the significance of past experience - and forward. The first and only weekend pass from camp evokes the feelings of being left at prep school, of earlier anxieties about separation and the emotions attached to that, of ignorance and confusions about adult feelings and childish needs, stretching back beyond conscious memory. The most primitive anxieties obtain. 'I was cut off from my base. And the enemy was in full occupation of my mother. "Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new." Yes woods you fool! It is there alone in the jungle that you have to learn to live.' Similarly, the sight of his first tank: ‘The quiet mechanical shape, immobilised and immobilising, was frightening in the same way as the primitive tiger trap near Gwalior; I wanted to get away from it. A metallic hammering came from inside: a soldier got out and the day sprang to life again.' 

The writing in this part takes on an odd quality, mixing the kind of detachment that can describe death and mutilation as an everyday event, with a restrained and sardonic fury at the incomprehension and the idiocy, the banality, the arbitrary uses of power, the ignorance of command, the divorce of the actual events of war from (he utterly phoney public idea of what happened. The relentless juxtaposing of events reported with events experienced acts as a repeated counterpoint between inner and outer reality. The rain that was to be mentioned in dispatches but merely felt wet. 'Our company had lost almost two thirds of our officers and men, killed, in the one and a half hours from zero.'

Bion re-emphasizes the mindlessness of the activity on the one hand - the individual becoming merged into a primitive brute - and the incomprehension on the other, which was perhaps what made it possible at all. His insight pushes further and further into those human limitations which contributed to the total unfitness in all respects, and especially of the officers, for fighting the war. The deadpan descriptions of orders bungled in the face of all common sense are deeply affecting. After one particularly idiotic sequence of the campaign, in which one in three of the soldiers was killed, he says, ‘The crew were not fit to fight. They were not orders: they were sentences of death.’ He is not in any doubt about how the particular characteristics which lay behind this kind of behaviour were fostered and established: affectation - 'I now think it was a by-product of the cover-up system of the public schools' unfitness for training the leaders of a great nation.' The connections already made between religion, cricket and the Establishment are reiterated in the context of fear in war, and with the same implications - that the kinds of trappings acquired through that brand of 'education’ profoundly unfit any individual for the real struggles of life. 'In fact fear, real fear, seemed to diminish the God in whom I sincerely thought I believed, to colonel-sized vestments, rituals. like tossing up for innings before a cricket match - impressive to the elite who knew the importance of shiny boots.' The point is most clearly made in the contrast he describes between his own and others' complete lack of any kind of competence for war and that of the Coldstream Guards. 

For lack of any such training I had my childhood and schoolboy culture. It gave me something, but neither the discipline of repetitive command nor the "heaven" of middle class England, nor an exo-skeleton taking the place of a skeleton for an endo-skeletonous animal, can serve; still less in the domain of the mind. (“In the next war they would not dress up people like me like soldiers.")

There is an irony in the occasional expression of the survival qualities derived from that very ignorance and irresponsibility - the armour of irresponsibility, he says, 'was proof against any contact with reality'. 

But the inner reality of it is inescapable, compellingly linked by image and allusion to much earlier experiences, only just on the edge of consciousness: 

The tanks rolled up a grassy slope. There was a soft muffled explosion. Robertson's tank opened as a flower in a nature film might unfold. Another thud, then two, almost simultaneous, followed. The whole four had flowered. Hard, bright flames, as if cut out in tinfoil, flickered and died, extinguished by the bright sun. One tank, crewless, went on to claw at the back of one in front as if preparatory to love-making: then stopped as if exhausted... We never heard of that infantry battalion or that division again. 

Bion describes himself as giving up trying to be brave as time went on. His sole aim became to avoid disgrace. But one disgrace he could not avoid - being ordered to leave the infantry. Of that shame he could not rid himself. 

They say that the Spanish infantry never recovered after Rocroi in 1643. When I read about it at school the phrases sank into my mind: now I can believe that what I witnessed was a disaster of that order - nothing less than the murder of the spirit of incomparable men. For me the disaster was to have survived and to undergo the mortification of being watched leaving the battle by men condemned to stay. 

This is a passage of unusual rhetoric. More generally it is the very ordinariness of the descriptions of his own experiences at this time, of the interactions with fellow soldiers and men of different ranks, that brings the events within the sphere of something that the reader can identify with and therefore more easily share the horror of.  

Bion's time in the tank regiment had, of course, its own reality, but it was also a representation of much earlier meanings - reaching back to the tiger hunt, to Arf Arfer, and to his childish sense of yet earlier experiences. In his fascination for the tanks he was, it becomes clear, in some sense reliving unresolved aspects of the tiger hunt and the tiger trap, of Arf Arfer, of primitive sexual anxieties, of  birth and death. ('As you all know we shall shortly be going big-game shooting.') Sexual fear, fear of knowledge, the incapacity to learn from experience and the dire consequences of that - these are all present. The winning of the DSO, then, represented a seal of shame and dishonour - it epitomized everything Bion felt to be most deeply at odds with truth and beauty. It was a concrete manifestation of the triumph of adult reserve and emotional concealment, of prep school cruelty and public school dishonesty - death to thinking, death to the soul. 

The book gives an account through personal experiences of the sources of those states of mind which make war possible, and which have, until now, enabled men and women to endure it. It presents with great clarity the simultaneity of conscious and unconscious processes, how one constantly informs the other how, in fact, we live in two worlds simultaneously, inner and outer reality. 

At the end of all this, it is perhaps hard to imagine how Bion could have become the innovative and compelling psychoanalyst and thinker that he did. Left here, we have something like a counsel of despair. But it is important to draw on the insights provided by the account, in order better to understand the implications of losing touch with emotionality and passion. Without these, one is doomed to reproduce the very structures which induced the poison - destructive in the most intimate and most general senses. Bion's life's work after the age at which this book ends is about struggling to understand the passions and how they can mitigate the destructive aspects of the processes described here - the disasters of mental illusions at their most extreme - and instead can nourish the soul. It is about how self-scrutiny and analysis of the most intimate relations and of the most rigorous and unsparing internal kind may wrest life from death, may recuperate that self which seemed lost in its exoskeletonous form.  

His meaning is very clear at its most profoundly personal and most generally political. It is expressed with characteristic intensity to conclude the account of the tiger hunt. 

Intense light;: intense black; nothing between, no twilight. Harsh sun and silence; black night and violent noise. Frogs croaking, birds hammering tin boxes, striking bells, shrieking, yelling, roaring, coughing, bawling, mocking. That night, that is the real world and real noise. When super clever monkeys with their super clever tools have blown themselves into a fit and proper slate to provide delicate feeding for the coming lords and ladies of creation, super microbe sapiens, then the humans who cumber the earth will achieve their crowning glory, the gorgeous colours of putrescent flesh to rot and stink and cradle the new aristocracy.  

 

This essay review first appeared in Free Associations: Psychoanalysis, Groups, Politics, Culture Pilot Issue, which was a Special Issue of Radical Science (No. 15), pp. 72-64, 1984. 

Address for correspondence: Tavistock Clinic, 120 Belsize Lane, London NW3. 

Copyright: Process Press.


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