Memories And Reflections – Jenni


My father had a special way of being with young children. I think that one of the reasons was that young children are naturally scientists: they are very curious about the world around them; they have a huge capacity to drink in data; they ask ‘Why?’; and they use their minds in fresh creative original ways to make meanings from what they witness. Pa retained all of these abilities throughout his life, and it allowed him to relate to young people as peers in the spirit of Enquiry.

For his way of joining with you as a young person was hugely respectful – not at all patronising.

He had a way of engaging with your mind that helped you grow up in the expectation that you could understand things, and watching him you grew up expecting that you could do practical things too. If anything needed fixing, there would be a way, and you could find out what it was.

I didn’t really find out that most of the world thought that girls couldn’t do maths or science or repair electric motors until I left my all-girls school and entered university where the maths and physics classes were then about 80% male. (I think that his admiration for his own mother’s intellect was part of the reason for this.)

 

A love of booksWinnie-the-Pooh and Piglet

My parents took us to the public library every Saturday, and there we chose our own books.

I must have been about six or seven years old, I think, when I found a book in the library called “Winnie The Pooh”.

I took it home, and there it turned out that Daddy (as he was then) knew exactly the way it should be read!

At story time Dad would sit in the middle of the couch with up to three spell-bound children cuddled in around and on him. He read a story for each child below fluent reading age; and then when past the age when you officially got a story, you would still listen when you were drying the dishes around the corner in the kitchen – you’d creep round the corner a bit to hear better.

I think that another element to the way my Dad related to children was that children are also natural philosophers. So there was enormous shared delight in lines like:

“Well, he was humming this hum to himself, and walking gaily along, wondering what everybody else was doing, and what it felt like, being somebody else, when suddenly he came to a sandy bank…”

and:

“I didn’t sneeze.”

“Yes you did Owl.”

“Excuse me, Pooh, I didn’t. You cant sneeze without knowing it.”

“Well you cant know it without something having been sneezed.”

Bill liked stories with different layers of meaning – the quirky or absurd, the sweetly human, through to the metaphysical. Colourful characters in circumstances with unexpected twists away from the usual, that said something witty about the normal. He loved language and all that it could do. He had an enormous vocabulary, but also delighted in the rhythm and the power of repetition in some of the best in children’s literature, and had his favourites amongst the stories and poems he read to us: Lewis Carroll, Dr Seuss, AA Milne, Coles Funny Picture book.

When you were very young you could sit on his knee during story time. He had rhymes with their own Mobility Special Effects. For instance you’d be thrown into the air, laughing, or backwards down his long legs at the climactic point in the rhyme.

Half a pound of tuppeny rice

half a pound of treacle

Half a pound of whatjama-call-it

POP! Goes the weasel …. and down you’d go, laughing all the way!

 

Home moviesHome movies made by William Dall

He made home movies back in the days when few people did, using a 16mm camera, and applying his characteristic meticulousness to the editing and creation of a coherent well-tailored family story. But it was his ability to interact with, and hold his children’s interest and attention as he worked with the camera, that was the real secret to the success of these works of art.

Bill made many beautiful things – furniture, jewellery (like this pretty celtic-designed ring I am wearing), useful pots to put things in such as these little nested containers and this wood-lathed pen – these were his ways of saying “I notice you are like this, or interested in that… and I’d like to connect with this aspect of you via this aspect of me”. I think that, being a shy man, he – like Pooh bear – often “felt that he ought to say something about it, but didnt know quite what. So he decided to do something helpful instead.”

Though you wouldn’t call his parenting style overly permissive, nonetheless there was somehow a bit of a blind eye turned to adventurous exploits – as though he still remembered that kids learn how to be themselves by doing those things. To think for themselves, and to problem-solve. He somehow, quietly, conveyed the value of following one’s own lights, as opposed to conforming just for the sake of conformity.

 

A long-buried interest in yoga

Just after my 35th birthday I received a letter from him.

I had been a dedicated practitioner of yoga for 16 years by then, and teaching yoga had been my primary source of income for about five years – so it was a pretty big thing in my life. Nevertheless, my Dad had never gotten around to mentioning that he too used to be very keen on yoga in his late teens at a time when few people in the west had even heard the word “yoga”. He had read everything he could get hold of on the subject from the Workers Educational Association (WEA), and used to rise early every morning for an hour of yoga and meditation before he went to work. (Being drafted into the army had effectively put an end to his practice, although he did periodically attempt to revive it later. However, he said, it required “a private and peaceful venue, which wasn’t available during most of my married life.”)

surya-namaskar_lungeHe was writing to me about it though, because he was concerned that one set of practices that he had found very valuable might not, he thought, be widely known and so ought to be passed on to a yoga teacher. He had gained this esoteric knowledge from a slim volume – printed on poor quality paper by an obscure Indian publisher – which his father (who was in the wholesale book business) had brought home in 1943.

surya-namaskar_parvatasana

The book had long since vanished, but he had ceased to have any need of it as he knew every word and diagram off by heart.

His letter went to to describe the sequence, using diagrams he’s painstakingly concocted on his computer (remember this was 1989), and phrases he still remembered from the book. It turned out to be Surya Namaskar (a dynamic, aerobic form of yoga now practiced widely throughout the western world, although in differing versions, and usually a maximum of about 9 cycles performed at a stretch).surya-namaskar_Bhujangasana

On cold winter mornings, he used to practise 150 cycles of Surya Namaskar followed by a cold bath!

 

A true scientist

A good scientist remains open to new information that challenge and change their working hypotheses.

I remember once not so long ago, I was visiting here in Brisbane, and staying in Pa’s study. I noticed a neatly organised desktop hanging file system labelled “Climate Change”.

I knew that he had been expressing the opinion at that time that he didn’t think the scientific evidence supported the theory that humans are having a significant long-term effect on the climate. Most people have some sort of opinion about this big current issue.

But my father had sourced, gathered, read, highlighted sections, and organised, all the scientific papers he could find in order to inform his opinion.

You might not agree with his conclusions, but you had to admire his process.

William Dall's books

On my next visit, at some opportune moment, and knowing that new evidence was being produced all the time, I asked how his current thinking about Climate Change is. He replied that he was undecided now.

Right up until the end of his life, he was engaged in the scientific discourses of the day, and he was able to remain open-minded.

He never stopped thinking for himself.

— Jenni Dall