Diana Pittock, Victoria Regional Meeting.
During his life time Alastair Heron was a ‘weighty Friend’. He experienced many changes in his life: a professor of psychology, a cadet, a coal “trimmer” on a cargo boat, an office boy, unemployed, an accountant, a conscious objector; a human being like most Friends! While being Scottish he lived in England, Scotland, Canada, Italy, Germany, Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia), Paris and Australia.
For Australian Friends, our specific interest in Alastair can begin when he was a member of Melbourne Regional Meeting (as it was then), from 1970 – 1974. He played a leading part in the life of the Meeting (now the Victoria Regional Meeting) and in Australia Yearly Meeting. His contribution as an Elder in Melbourne Meeting was from both his deep understanding of Quaker thought, ‘theology’, and practice and too in the ways of Quaker ‘governance’. Alastair has written on these various topics in Friends’ publications both while here in Australia and in the last three decades of his life in the UK. You may have seen some of these in issues of ‘The Friend’.
Alastair edited the “Australian Friend”, from February 1972, with Donald Groom initially, to mid 1974, latterly briefly with me. Alastair returned to Britain later in 1974. He had some definite ideas about correct English and could not be persuaded to use some changing “common community usage” of words when editing some current social movement reports! Interesting discussions ensued!
Many articles, talks and booklets were written by Alastair on his concern for the life of Quaker meetings and ministry. His Quaker writings available for loan in Melbourne Friends’ House Library are listed below and show particular concern about Quaker membership: falling numbers of members and the need to support and educate new members and elders, and to enable continuing members to consider their Quaker life anew. Some of these writings relate to British Friends and may also be relevant here in Australia.
However, he also had his human side, and as a friend has commented Alastair “expected to be heard” and was surprised one time when his view was questioned! He was not too keen to pick up a tea towel yet was very hands-on at home. He was also particularly skilled with tools – creating an intricately fitted out campervan from a basic van.
Alastair’s autobiography, Only One Life: a Quaker’s Voyage, shows that far from having an academic upbringing he describes a life that moved him from place to place in his childhood and youth – not at all settled. Schooling in both the UK and Canada finished with his graduation in Canada but he was too young for university. He began work as an office boy, then a lab assistant until unemployed in the depression. With his father also unemployed they moved house frequently. The family decided to return to Britain in 1934, with Alastair and his father working their passage on a cargo boat.
After arrival and walking through London he saw a poster for the Ballet Rousse and attending that ballet began his life-long interest in ballet and music. He gained much pleasure from his hi-fi set and its good quality sound.
However, unemployment in the 30’s led to his joining the army where he was a “good shot” in the rifle team during his training. He became seriously ill when his twenty weeks training finished and he was discharged on medical grounds. He made a fresh start in employment as an articled clerk to an accountant.
Philosophically he was interested in the Oxford Group, a Christian organisation which later became known as Moral Re-armament. He writes of its “caring attitude”. It was ecumenical, and emphasised “the accessibility of the Holy Spirit to each one” and had its four absolute standards of honesty, love, purity and unselfishness. He speaks of “passing through the experience of what Quakers would call “convincement”. “I began the life-long process of conversion, of freely-chosen open-ness to being changed inwardly.” It was “the beginning of an adventure of the spirit, a journey into the unknown”.
In 1938 at twenty three years of age he had accommodation with the Metherell family who were also involved in the Oxford Group. By then he had dealt with various family disasters and his mother’s and father’s deaths but he still felt very immature for his age. However, he said he had “just enough insight to realise that I must put my trust in the love of God and not in my own capacity for change”. He said he could not imagine Jesus killing anyone for any reason.
The youngest daughter in the Metherell family was Margaret and they married in1940. Both had become students, Alastair doing a diploma in psychology at a “week-end” university from which he continued his university studies in psychology. Margaret studied as a probationary nurse. Margaret had previously had a long psychiatric illness that was openly acknowledged in the family and of which Alastair was aware.
Both he and Margaret had left Moral Rearmament behind but they had not found a home with the Anglican or Methodist churches. By the time of the beginning of WW II his Christian faith led him to be a conscientious objector to war and he found Quakers. He consequently served as a “c.o.” in the civilian ambulance service during the war. He had joined Friends in 1942 and trained with Friends’ Relief Service (FRS) to serve mainly in Italy with the Inter-Governmental Committee for Refugees (IGCR) in 1945. On returning to the UK he was assigned to Germany with the FRS.
When he worked for the IGCR and FRS in Europe at the end of the war he saw the devastating effect on people’s lives. However, he has mostly written about the logistics of the tasks there and enjoying the challenge: “works and faith”, living his faith. At one point he was finding the IGCR work in northern Italy “unsatisfying and depressing, mainly because there were no resources of food, clothing or money to relieve the conditions of those people I came across.” He said he found himself praying a “grumpy prayer” but then had “a peak experience” which led to his no longer feeling “alone, helpless and depressed.” This was one of the times he expressed his feelings about the situations he was in or that were around him. It seemed that he preferred his deeds to convey his concerns and beliefs.
Alastair’s academic career was built on his earlier diploma by studying for an MSc in psychology at Manchester University. With his degree in hand he worked in various aspects of psychology and on various community committees. His active research on occupational disadvantage provided the data for his PhD. He subsequently accepted a job in the institute in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) which became the University College in Salisbury (Harare). He was one of the first 2 professors there and helped establish the new university.
He left this position in 1968 and returned to England. Alistair had made his commitment to Margaret and when her recurrent illness required hospitalisation, they returned to England on several occasions during his career. He left senior positions which he enjoyed without having a similar position to go to in England. These decisions and changes can be seen in the light of his spiritual story.
Alastair’s professional life in Australia, after arriving in1970, was as Professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne and Head of that Department. As well as his work in both aspects, he played a very active role in dealing with tensions of various sorts, both with student unrest and in disputes in the life of the university. His leaving Australia in 1974 was unexpected – sadly due to his wife, Margaret’s ill health recurring. Alastair travelled ‘in the ministry’ back to Australia in 1987and to Canada in 1989.
His autobiography covers the many psychological and other areas he worked on. It is an enjoyable read and a fascinating account of a Friend’s life, warts and all, in following his strong faith as a Quaker.
Alastair Heron, a Quaker since 1942, died in March 2009 at the age of 93. He had lived in Sheffield, UK since his return from Melbourne to his country of origin. His Memorial Meeting was held at the Sheffield Meeting House on 2 May 2009. Margaret predeceased him and he is survived by his children, Keith and Joy and their families.
The Future of British Quakers – shrinkage addressed: process and commitment; publ. Curlew Productions, Kelso, Scotland; 2001
On Being a Quaker: Membership: past – present – future; publ. Curlew Productions, Kelso Scotland; 2000
Our Quaker Identity; Religious Society – Or friendly society? Publ. Curlew Productions, Kelso, Scotland; 1999, reprinted 2000
Now we are Quakers: the experience and views of new members; publ. Quaker Outreach in Yorkshire; 1994
Quaker Speak: first aid for newcomers; publ. Quaker Outreach Yorkshire; 1994 fourth reprint 2008
To Join or Not: A guide to Quaker membership; publ. Quaker Outreach Yorkshire; 1993
Caring, Conviction, Commitment: Dilemmas of Quaker membership today; publ. Quaker Home Service, London and Woodbrooke College, Birmingham, 1992: “What is it that brings a seeker and/or an attender to membership? “
Speaking to Our Condition: A ministry to Friends; Canadian Quaker Pamphlet no. 30; Publ. Argenta Friends Press; 1989: (‘In response to a remark a group of youngish friends said: “That does not speak to my condition” to which another promptly returned, “Perhaps you are not in a condition to be spoken to!”) Alastair wondered if the spiritual state of Friends at that time – (and now?) is in the latter condition!
Gifts and Ministries; a discussion paper on eldership; publ. Quaker Home Service; 1987
Charity, Liberty, Unity: A Quaker Search for Essentials; publ. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia Incorporated; 1987: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity”
Alastair’s autobiography, Only One Life: a Quaker’s voyage; publ. Curlew Productions, Kelso TD5 8PD, Scotland, 1998
Alastair Heron also edited the essay, Towards a Quaker View of Sex in 1963; publ. Friends Home Service Committee. This resulted from a group of concerned Friends meeting in 1957 and which continued to meet regularly at least until 1963 when he wrote this essay.