Tuesday 4 June 2024



Frank Musgrove, who was professor of sociology at the University of Manchester when I was there as a postgraduate student in 1976-77, had a memorable line that has resonated with me from that time to this. ‘The health of a society’, he said, ‘lies at its margins’.


Becoming and being a Quaker identifies the person who has taken that path as being different from the mainstream. Quakers live at the margins of society, seeking to change themselves and the world for the better. That’s why we can be a force for good. At our best, we are the health of a society.


All of which brings us to Alan Newton, clerk at the Marazion Meeting House, who has recently accepted clerking duties within Cornwall Area Meeting. When I first met Alan my judgement was that he was a good, kind man with a quick wit and accomplished in his role as a clerk. He seemed a modest man, confident in some ways but self-effacing. Now I know his story I can appreciate his character more deeply. Alan has lived a life at the margins in a fashion which I find inspirational. More people should know about his alternative take on how to live well, how to live the good life.

Living the good life in the home that Alan built - June 2024 - Alan Newton and Beryl Brookman, with a Friend, Louise Donovan, in silhouette between them, sharing a simple lunch  

Alan was born in 1958 in Hornsey in north London before it became gentrified and posh. When he was five years old, the family moved to Wimbledon into a house that had been inherited from an aunt. Their new home was in a middle-class street with bankers and city commuters as neighbours. Alan’s dad was

an auto-electrician, a car repairer. Alan was the youngest child with two siblings, a brother who was eleven years older (and the ‘success’ of the family, following a career in computer technology) and a sister who was seven years his senior. Alan was an only child, in effect. Even aged five, the stage was being set for a life at the margins.


From early childhood, he felt protective towards animals. Bubble and squeak – you may be too young to remember this post-war staple – was shunned because the squeak suggested animal suffering. Beetroot was avoided because it spoke of blood. The giant in Jack and the Beanstalk was terrifying in his desire to eat you up. Alan grew with the sensitivity and imagination of a lonely child who required the security of a home but realised he needed something other than the routine and order that sustained his parents.


Life was all the more complicated because mum was disabled and Alan became more and more her carer as her condition worsened. Aged 12, he was pushing his mum to the shops in her wheelchair. At school he was quite isolated, saved from too much bullying by the support of his teachers who liked this hard-working boy. His dad did not want him to bring other boys home. The home was the family castle and the drawbridge was kept firmly raised. My image, not Alan’s, but Alan’s world was so similar to mine in childhood.


Alan’s concern to explore the big questions in life was nurtured on the all-important paper-rounds he undertook before school. By the age of 12, he had a firm vision of himself as the owner of a bit of land and growing trees. His parents supported a version of the dream, paying the rent on his first allotment. There can’t be too many who enter that fruit and vegetable world so young.

A glimpse into the future - the doorway into the house that Alan built which became the home Alan and Beryl have made together - June 2024

 His parents, on the other hand, were dead set against what they saw as the romantic and impractical nonsense of what was beginning to be known as self-sufficiency. Besides, ‘No one will want to marry you if you live like that!’. In Alan’s mind at that age getting married was a natural event like getting taller. Yes, he decided, I do want to get married. I don’t want to be lonely all my life. These were important matters to chew over on the paper-round. Alan thought long and hard. If I go with their vision, their plan for me, then my life would be normal – a house and a car, a mortgage and a pension, a career. But I have my dream which is for something very different – an alternative way of living. Alan’s thinking was subtle. He reasoned to himself that if I try to be something I’m not then his parents would be hurt when they found out the truth. Any future wife would be hurt when she found out that her husband was living a lie and wanted different. Alan was working out a set of values for himself in the absence of any religious background.


Life at home was lived in an emotional vacuum. Alan’s dad had a measure of what we now call autism. It was taboo to show emotion within the domestic castle. Alan turned to children’s TV programmes such as the House on the Prairie and the Waltons for vicarious fun and joy and as a means of understanding emotions. As he approached the age of sixteen, he resolved to give up his childish ideas of self-sufficiency. He was in the top class at his Wimbledon single-sex, comprehensive school yet his mum and dad told him he was not clever. By now his much older brother was enjoying success in the world of computers. What was he to do? His mum insisted he didn’t need to learn to cook. His dad, who had left school at 14, would not teach him practical Do It Yourself skills. Alan was painfully aware that his contemporaries at school where he had no real friends were more informed emotionally than he was. The world was proving difficult to shape.


Then came something of a breakthrough. Alan still hankered after finding out more about foods and cooking. His journeys to the public library on one occasion unearthed a book called ‘Wild Harvest’. That name appealed. ‘Wild’ suggested that the ingredients would be cost-free. If that were so, he would not be offending his mum by bringing them into the tightly controlled kitchen at home. But Alan had utterly misidentified the book. It was not a collection of recipes. It was the autobiographical story of Hope Bourne who lived a life of self-sufficiency in a caravan on Exmoor. The Light had appeared and illuminated a way forward. This was exactly what he wanted to do. Wow! – it was possible after all.


Hope Bourne's advocacy for self-sufficiency, first published in 1978

Yet the nagging doubts surfaced. Alan saw the other path only too clearly. I have got to be sensible’, he thought, ‘and get a good job’. Being a young man with a moral compass, he added the rider: ‘…so I can do good in the world’. Aged 19, with a couple of A-levels behind him, he joined the Metropolitan Police and was posted to the station at Wandsworth. That did not go well. In part, it was down to Alan’s lack of life experience but more importantly he refused to accept the institutional racism that the Macpherson Report finally and officially identified in 1999 a couple of decades later. When he first started he was given his 3-a-day quota – stop and question at least three people every day. If they are mostly black people that’s fine. They are the ones committing the crimes anyway.


Alan was aware of the institutional corruption too. At one point on the beat at night, he stopped outside a travel agent in the High Street with a hunch something was wrong. He checked, unaware that he was being observed by an undercover unit within the Met who suspected he was part of a corrupt group of officers who were running some kind of protection racket that had targeted a number of places including this travel agency. He was later called in for questioning – and found innocent. Within the year, Alan and the Met parted company.    


By now, Alan was desperate to get out of London. He resolved to learn the skills of the retail trade. He would run a shop in the countryside. The first step was employment with the WHSmith chain of newsagents in Wimbledon. That led to a friendship and love with a woman who was already married so that relationship was doomed. Then came the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and the world began to change. Alan feared he would be stuck indefinitely where he was and resisted. He gained fresh employment with John Menzies in central London, commuting on his motorbike. Menzies doubled his pay – but they also doubled his working hours. He was getting up at 3.30 in the morning to ride into work for a very early start and clocking off at 6pm in the early evening. By now, his dad had retired. One evening Alan asked his parents what seemed to him now the obvious: ‘Why don’t we leave London and buy the place in the country you have always wanted?’.   


Wonderfully, they agreed. His mum wanted to move to the New Forest to be still near London – but the estate agents laughed when they explained how much they would have as capital after selling their Wimbledon house. His dad fancied Devon and Alan did a reconnoitre of possible houses, staying in the Exeter youth hostel. Alan’s own preference was for Cornwall and the Light shone and within the year the family were living in a bungalow near Port Isaac, not far off the beaten track where Alan could grow and sell his foods. He and his parents would be self-sufficient and anything extra would be sold to provide additional income. Meanwhile, Felicity Kendall and Richard Briers were living their inspirational Good Life of self-sufficiency weekly on the TV.

Alan Newton with one of the horses and his dog - at Tregole, near Port Isaac - 1985

Unfortunately, Alan had not taken into account the horrendous winds that blew from the sea one mile away and shaved the branches of the trees into a permanent sloping angle. Life was tough. Between 1981 and 1990, Alan and his parents just about coped. Alan would earn money leading pony treks in the summer for a local stable but it was mum and dad’s pensions that were keeping the wolf from the door. Local farmers ridiculed Alan’s ideas about organic production of foods without the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals. As the last decade of the century approached, Alan was becoming aware that his lack of social contact had led him to become almost a hermit. Self-sufficiency was perhaps not as fulfilling as he had imagined. Maybe self-reliance within a circle of friends was the better path to follow.


The stage was set for the next phase in the odyssey. By 1990, Alan’s dad was in his late 70s and mum needed access to a town. The family agreed they needed to start looking for somewhere else to live. A home in Gulval was found but late into the purchase the deal fell through. A family suicide on the seller’s side had intervened. By such twists are our lives shaped. The family that had been selling were sympathetic and offered a cottage on their land where the Newton family could stay until they had found another property. Meanwhile a Green Centre was opening nearby for the Penzance region and Alan arrived on the first day and put a notice on the board saying that he wanted a piece of land. Serendipity appeared again, wearing the finest green clothing ever. The local chair of Friends of the Earth knew a landowner who wanted to sell his 13 acre site in what became Gonew Woods – and the rest is Alan Newton’s history for the next three decades. His mum and dad bought a bungalow in St Erth and lived there in contented retirement, mum passing in 1995 and dad in 2006. Alan had £2,000 capital left over and bought a very cheap caravan where he lived in constant fear of the men from the council arriving to say this is not legal. The green life had started. He let part of the land as grazing for horses from nearby stables and started planting the trees that have become the woodland of today.


The Gonew Woods sign fixed to the gate that led into the field planted with saplings - circa 1996 - nearly thirty years later the view is now woodland  

He had some initial help in the tree planting and the emphasis was on fruit trees. Alan disliked machines and what they represented so he avoided projects that involved too much heavy digging to prepare the soil for crops. Instead, he concentrated on the fruit that the trees yielded which he could sell at a number of markets, including the weekly market at St John’s Hall in Penzance.


Alan Newton in the east end of a fruit field - 1997

The house that Alan has built began to take shape. What an achievement! Let the images tell their own story. Over thirty years, there have been extensions and alterations but all the work is Alan’s. The edifice, with its surrounds, that had been part of the vision of Alan aged 12 has become a reality.


Another view of Alan and Beryl's front door, showing on the right some of the extensions to the house that have been shaped over these last thirty years.

Yet, one important dimension was still missing. Alan sensed that his spiritual journey was incomplete. He knew that his explorations of different faiths had left him unsatisfied. There was so much binary division. We are right. We have the truth. You are living wrong. Join us and all will be well. By 1999, Alan had begun attending at the Marazion Quaker Meeting House. The Quaker belief that everyone was equal and all spiritual beliefs are valid spoke the essential truth. In 2007, he and Beryl Brookman, also a Quaker at Marazion, made their commitment to each other.

The Marazion Quaker Meeting House - 2022

As well as offering a spiritual path, the Quakers also provided the practical support and social acceptance and friendship that Alan has always craved. Meanwhile, Beryl who had followed a very different life journey to arrive at the same point made the house that he had built a home, full of her love and the joy of a loving and supportive family.


Beryl and Alan - June 2024 - at home

The health of a society lies at its margins – just ask Alan and Beryl.        

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