The perfect 20th-century Bohemian: Raga Woods has whirled with dervishes, networked with travellers and married a Zen monk. She tells Sandra Barwick about her life so far
Friday 30 July 1993
Nor have the years dimmed her enthusiasm. In the past she has whirled with dervishes in Turkey, taught Spanish bakers to use bran, sweated with Indians in North American lodges, and started Gingerbread, the support organisation for single parents, in England.
This week she was released from Holloway prison after serving three days for breaking an injunction that forbade her to protest by entering the M3 construction site at Twyford Down, near Winchester. Tomorrow she leaves for Japan with her third son, Sadhu, 14, to visit his father and her second husband, Agar Noiroi, a Zen Buddhist monk.
The life of Raga Woods is, in short, a perfect example of mid- to late-20th century Bohemianism: a story of spiritual questing mixed with passionate protest, against a backdrop of patches, patchouli and, sometimes, policemen, with a dash of Graham Greene's Travels With My Aunt thrown in.
She started it as Tessa Fothergill, born in Manchester. Before she was five she had tried to run away from home. Her mother was a social worker, her father a blacksmith. They parted when she was still an infant, and she thinks it was a combination of that disruption and the fact that she was being sexually abused by another relative which made her so early an escaper.
'I was packed off to a boarding school near Pendle Hill when I was five,' she says. 'It was vegetarian, and we had a cold bath every morning.' A succession of day schools followed as her mother moved around the country, finding work. At 15, Tessa traced her father: he had re-married, and his second wife did not seem pleased by her re-appearance. But by 19, Tessa had created her own family: while training to be a nurse she had fallen in love with a schoolteacher several years older than her, and married. Her first son, Lloyd, now 32, was rapidly followed by Gavin, now 30.
By now it was 1963, the year when, according to Philip Larkin, sexual intercourse began. Across Britain young housewives heard the siren voices of the Sixties calling them to self-discovery. One of them was Tessa, now living, babes in arms, in a semi in Bury, Lancs, and already startling the neighbours. 'I got interested in the traditional dress of Lancashire working women,' she says. 'I got myself clogs and long dresses and shawls. I got into running Oxfam shops. I met some quite avant-garde people, but there weren't many in Bury. I said to my husband, 'unless we move nearer London I'm going on my own.' '
Within a few years of moving to Banbury the inevitable happened. Tessa, who had developed theatrical friends, left her long-suffering husband, and the house whose windows she was in the habit of breaking during episodes of extreme frustration. A friend who was directing a strip show at the Crazy Horse Club in London got her a brief job as a hostess, but soon, by Christmas 1969, she was facing homelessness. 'I spent Christmas Eve putting up posters round Bayswater saying, 'Mother and two kids need home,' ' she says. 'Nothing happened. I was going down the Bayswater Road and I saw a cafe called 'Golden Age Gingerbread.' I really liked the name. I went home and started to think that there must be a lot of people like myself, alone with children, having a desperate time.' Someone told her about a new magazine called Time Out, which published a story about her idea of a support group. The Observer ran a piece illustrated by her in a mini-skirt and sacks of mail followed. Gingerbread, now flourishing with 250 groups nationwide, had begun.
Tessa, typically, moved on. 'I'm good at initiating,' she says. 'But not so much at organising. I always say that if I could file I'd take over the world.' She went to Spain, keeping her children by teaching English and baking wholemeal bread to sell on the beach, where she met Californians with new ideas.
Interested now in anthroposophy, the idea of spiritual perceptions in place of material interests, she returned to England and enrolled her sons at the Rudolf Steiner school in East Grinstead, Sussex, while she lived in a caravan in a field. 'But it was clear the teacher thought I was a disruptive influence on my own children,' she says. 'So I said one day that I was taking them out for five minutes, and I put them in an old Commer van we called 'Mr Thomas', that I'd bought with the proceeds of my divorce. And we left the country.'
On Tessa's return from Europe some time later - she is hazy on years - her mother attempted to confiscate 'Mr Thomas'. It was a hopeless gesture. Tessa instantly packed her bags, and hitched to Samye-Ling, the Buddhist monastery in Eskdalemuir, Scotland, with her two sons and two live ducks rescued from a French market. They did not welcome her.
'We had no money, we hadn't booked,' she says. 'They said that no way were we going to stay. But the gardener heard me talking, and he took us to a breakaway group living in an old house nearby who thought Samye-Ling was too straight. We stayed there for quite some time. My mother came to visit me there. She was upset. She seemed threatened by the unconventional, I don't know why.'
By the mid-Seventies Tessa was back in London, involved first in interactive street theatre with deprived children, then massage and aromatherapy, visiting festivals and gatherings. Then the inevitable happened again. 'I found out about the Bhagwan,' she says. 'I started going to morning meditations. We did it without clothes at that time. I had no intention of belonging to the cult, but one morning I got incredibly moved by the whole thing. I found myself wearing orange and a mala. I realised I had to go to India.'
After a brief detour for a secret visit to a whirling dervish in Turkey, she reached Poona and saw the Bhagwan. 'I was totally in love,' says Tessa. He re-named her Raga. She contracted hepatitis. Recovering, she found refuge with a serene group of Japanese followers. It was then that Raga fell deeply in love with a Zen monk, whom the Bhagwan, either in his wisdom or because he was running short of ideas, had named Agar, her own name spelled backwards. The two journeyed to England, where one day, Raga/ Tessa's mother opened the door of her Yorkshire village home to find her daughter, now in her late thirties, on her doorstep, pregnant, wearing orange, and accompanied by a flute-playing Japanese monk with bushy hair.
'She was rude to him,' says Raga, sadly. But wasn't this predictable? Raga looked genuinely surprised at this suggestion. 'Perhaps I was insensitive to her,' she says thoughtfully. 'But I felt so rejected. When we went to Japan his family wasn't like that, even though his mother had never had a western woman in the house before. Though she did say the first thing we had to do was go to the local bath.'
In Japan, in 1979, Sadhus was delivered, a child of his time, largely by his father, on a hill on the island of Kyushu. Raga became friends with three other western women married to Japanese, and with them had an experience that led her to adopt the surname Woods. 'They were taking down a wood to build a golf course, so we went to the woods and held a ritual. I took some of my menstrual blood on a rag and we did readings and wept. We could hear the chainsaws in the background. I guess that was when I committed myself to environmental work.'
After more journeyings, including a North American Indian period, Raga and Sadhu returned to England and settled near Winchester, where one of her elder sons, perhaps in a moment of boyish rebellion, had taken out a mortgage. The father of the elder boys had supervised their education in their teens, and both sons had completed degrees, Lloyd in biology and Gavin in psychology and, later, in artificial intelligence. Lloyd works for a housing association and Gavin is contemplating a future with computers; Raga intends, she says, at some time to go through with them what they thought of their unconventional early life.
But she has not had much time on her hands. Seeing that the rebellion at the destruction of Twyford Down was already under way, Raga rapidly joined it, networking with her contacts among travellers, the peace movement, and Greenham women, to help swell the protest. 'Twyford Down was one of the most perfect pieces of landscape in the country. It had five different designations for its special properties. But all that supposed protection from the government meant nothing. The hill was an Iron Age fort. Archaeologists found grainstores and skeletons curled up - things that show this is a sacred place.' When the bulldozers came, Raga was there with the rest.
But within two or three days it was gone. The Department of Transport took out an injunction against many of the protesters, including Raga, banning them from the site. But they returned on 4 July.
'We decided to hold a requiem. We grieved and celebrated our sense that we were really strong. Group Four took a video of us, and there was a picture of a man with a great didgeridoo and a woman with a horn against a blue sky. It was so powerful, calling on the spirits to come and give them strength.' But, a few days later, men with summonses arrived instead, and Raga was committed to prison for contempt of court.
She will, she says, continue to work for Twyford Down in other ways than by entering the site, perhaps by beginning a green communication centre for Winchester. When she came out of Holloway, at her sons' insistence she rang her mother in Yorkshire. 'I told her I was out,' she says. 'But she didn't congratulate me.' And Raga Woods, or Tessa Fothergill, just for a moment, looked like a hurt 17-year-old again.
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