A long and winding road, John Raeburn

Cockney Kid: The Making of an Unconventional Psychologist
Tony Taylor
Silver Owl Press, $44.95,
ISBN 0986451916

I approached this memoir with some trepidation. Its sheer scale made it a daunting read – 437 pages, and weighing in at around a kilogram – and it has, for my taste, an overdose of detail. However, Tony Taylor finished this book at the age of 84, and (as someone who is also ageing), I have to respect his prodigious feats of memory in putting such a formidable tome together. And he has certainly had a fascinating career, with many accomplishments to his credit, both in New Zealand and internationally.

There is a compelling basic storyline. Taylor grew up in dire poverty in one of the most working-class areas of London (the old docklands, now gentrified) in a family that did not function all that well. He managed to transcend these limitations to become a professor of psychology at Victoria University of Wellington, and a world authority on prisoners, disasters, and a string of other things. His big break came when he joined the British navy as the war was ending. Through sheer determination, he succeeded in getting onto the officer track (along with dukes and the like), and did well. (This required changing the way he spoke and not letting on about his background.)

The first quarter of the book is devoted to the childhood period, and, while it is no Angela’s Ashes, it is a fascinating insight into a poor “cockney kid’s” upbringing. His father was constantly out of work, and the household was dominated by his mother and grandmother to such an extent, that Taylor says it led to his having gender identity issues, resulting in a lifelong interest in such matters as transvestitism. The family’s living conditions were on the breadline or below, but he is able to convey some of the strong and positive culture on the streets – although I did find myself turning over unread pages micro-detailing kids’ games and other such topics. But his memories of surviving the London bombing, though relatively brief, are riveting.

The process by which he starts to transcend his background is the most absorbing part of the book. Taylor partly attributes this to the Scouts, where he discovered he had leadership qualities, and began to realise his high intelligence and competence. He joined the British Navy at the age of 19. Although he just missed any war action, there is enough Boys’ Own Adventure material to make good reading. He turned down attractive offers of advancement in the Navy to pursue what he describes as his “lifelong ambition” to be a probation officer.

Around 1950, he ended up in Wellington with a wife and possibly a baby, and herein lies one of the most puzzling aspects of this book. Although there is intense and prolonged detail about his work, his adult domestic life gets very sparse attention. In particular, he never names his wife of 40 or so years, and it is a long time before we learn of his three sons and their names. Throughout, I wanted to hear much more about his intimate relationships generally, and I’m not sure why he was so coy about this, especially since he is quite self-disclosing about other matters. Readers wanting any sort of love story will be disappointed.

Once Taylor arrives in New Zealand, the book changes its tone. He is now in relentless work and career-advancement mode. After getting a probation job, he does some teaching at Victoria, and is invited by Ernest Beaglehole, New Zealand’s first professor of psychology, to become a full-time academic. Initially, his main interest continued to be prisoners, first at Mt Crawford, then at Arohata Borstal for women. He presents many amusing and quirky cases, at times with a somewhat voyeuristic aspect to them. An early research area was studying inmates’ tattoos, described in huge detail, including the fact that the prevalent four dots on the hands of female prisoners stood in at least one case for “Find ‘em, phone ’em, fuck ‘em and forget ‘em”. He moved on to describe work with those who have sexual identity issues, and this is a sure crowd pleaser.

His prison interests expanded more generally to dealing with people in a variety of stressful environments, including disasters. He did his research and practice in the context of various significant events and places, including wintering over in Antarctica, counselling helpers at the Erebus plane crash site, and being involved with Ahmed Zaoui. He was in the US at the height of civil rights protests there, and managed an interchange with Joan Baez. His celebrated piece of research on teenage crowd hysteria at the Beatles concert in Wellington included two interviews with John Lennon.

Later, he was in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, and spent time in postwar Vietnam. There is a chapter on an extended visit to German and Polish concentration camp sites. He says his reaction to Dachau was so strong that afterwards, “I wanted to rape, yes, rape, to express my feelings of revulsion against the German nation”. He also describes in horrific detail his observations of past conditions in psychiatric hospitals in New Zealand, including badly applied ECT and enforced psychosurgery, and notes significant moves towards euthanasia for the mentally ill in 1920s New Zealand. Certainly, I found myself resonating to most of the values he expresses in this book – his repugnance of the Holocaust, his outrage at the old psychiatric system, and his strongly expressed views on New Zealand. Similarly, I was sympathetic to Taylor’s criticism of punitive prison policies pursued by politicians and pressure groups (continuing today), and the excesses of Rogernomics, the legacy of which we are still enduring.

The latter part of the book seems to tail off into a series of chapters on disconnected topics, including a listing of his accomplishments and the awards he has received. There is a brief chapter on reconciling himself with his childhood family, and, earlier, he owns up to having had a three-year period of psychoanalysis to assist with the ghosts of his past. He seems pretty content with where he is now. He has a new relationship, and says he is facing death with equanimity.

In sum, this book is a mixed bag. It needed  serious editing, and more on his adult domestic life would have added depth. But much is worthwhile and entertaining, and some robust social commentary is of value. For fellow-psychologists, the early history of the Victoria University academic psychology scene is of particular interest, not least the deep ideological divisions, which include Taylor’s enduring sense of never being fully accepted by many of his colleagues. For those who know and like him – and there are clearly many who do (he has several godchildren) – this will be a good read. The same applies for those interested in his areas of research and academic expertise – at least in parts. If I were giving this autobiography a university grade, I’d say B+.


John Raeburn is an Auckland writer and academic psychologist. 


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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
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