the last cult of England

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    Staff of Programmes Ltd, London, England. Dateline: mid-1980's.

    Programmes Ltd. was the UK's sales sensation of its time. These people could sell anyone practically anything, legal or not: they worked insanely hard and made their company the industry leader in about two years. No wonder they quickly won Britain's top phone marketing award.

    Never mind marketing – this is about a phenomenal group of people whose story has never been told. If a history of cults in modern Britain were to be written, these people would be in it. Fact: all or almost all the staff seen here are graduates of the controversial - some would say notorious - Exegesis Seminar. Without Exegesis, Programmes would never have existed. It was these men and women who launched Programmes in Bristol and later London. They quickly proceeded to revolutionize telephone marketing in the UK. The year was 1981.
    .
    Founded, inspired and controlled by the charismatic Robert D'Aubigny, a master trainer, Exegesis copied the style and content of Werner Erhard's est training – and pushed further. Exegesis seminars were much smaller, more intense and confrontational than est trainings. Once the seminar commenced its four long days in a hotel room, you quickly realized the trainer was not like anyone you had ever met. He, or she, was ruthless. It was as if your game was up. You could not hide. Nothing had prepared me for it.

    Was it disturbing? Absolutely. Was it abusive? Did it go 'too far'? I never witnessed that. The British media were extremely prejudiced about Exegesis and slammed it as a scam and worse. I cheerfully disagree.

    A man needs a little madness or else he never dares to cut the rope and be free.
    —Nikos Kazantzakis

    If anything, I thought Exegesis did not go far enough; still, of what use would the most brilliant training be if it was so shocking that the authorities banned it?

    Active in England and Wales from the late-70s to the mid-80s, with headquarters in Bristol and London, whoever was lucky - or doomed - enough to do the Exegesis Seminar, and had the nerve to endure it to the end either went through hell and came out transformed, as we used to say, or merely wasted time, money and the opportunity of a lifetime – and didn't. By normal, conventional standards it was a rash and scary thing to do.

    www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/features/gurus.shtml

    Given Exegesis' damn-the-torpedoes brand of full-frontal experiential education, toxic media reportage and ensuing notoriety were all but guaranteed. In fact, Exegesis got such lousy press it led to hostile questions in the UK Parliament. Thus, from Hansard:
    hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1984/may/14/mr-ashley...

    Full disclosure: I never worked for Programmes. I took part actively in Exegesis. Did I like it? No. I loved it. I hated it. I was fascinated by it, and at times disgusted as well. I wanted to get out, I wanted to stay in. It was as if we were being cooked in a cauldron of ever increasing commitment to be fully here now. My time in Exegesis was priceless, unforgettable. It invited me to experience passion, excellence, total commitment, trauma, grace, and enlightenment. If you could stand it, Exegesis was the shock treatment of your life (those barf bags under every chair in the seminar? They weren't props). Every moment was wake-up time: take full responsibility - no excuses! now! now! now! Committed exegesis graduates were like warriors without a war – or rather the war Robert had us fighting was no less than the age-old spiritual war against our own copping out, against apathy, against the fear-driven betrayal of life, truth and of love.

    Your greatest gift lies beyond the door named 'fear.'
    —Sufi aphorism

    “The need for truth is more sacred than any other need.”
    —Simone Weil

    Well, that was what fired me up. Other graduates responded differently. For many, the power they discovered in the seminar was promptly deployed in business; in this, Exegesis' series of communication, and other-themed, seminars were very successful. The applications for sales were obvious, and in Programmes they were put to full use.

    Reality check: if Exegesis sounds implausibly gruelling, idealistic and too good to be true, well, it was. Personal integrity was hammered into us at seminars; yet, outside, the Exegesis ethic was to go for results by whatever, uh, worked. Morality was irrelevant: ends justified the means. Even healthy and creative criticism was angrily rejected: unquestioning trust in Robert's directives and appointees trumped all other considerations. Dysfunctionality shadowed enlightenment in a weird duet. Largely as a result, project after project was launched with high hopes only to go nowhere.

    Away from the seminar – only, there was no 'away' from the seminar – there was no escape from the in-your-face demands by staff for more sacrifice, more commitment and most of all, more registrations. We grunts, called gaspers (graduate assistant seminar programme: an ultra-committed corps of unpaid employees) were not allowed to forget that Job One was to get people, thousands, millions of people, the whole freaking world! to do the Exegesis Seminar.

    "Hello, I want to offer you this unique opportunity to be humiliated, taken apart and turned inside-out in front of strangers. This is your once in a lifetime chance to totally transform your life and get enlightened."

    I mean, come on. You had to be crazy, right? We were!

    Yes, I took part in the drive, in 1981, to swing an election in a heavily Labour constituency of London to our very own candidate, a respectable lawyer. Unknown to the public, not to mention the dear old oblivious Liberal Party, she was in fact an exegesis staff-member taking orders from Robert. In the weeks before election day, busloads of well-dressed graduates from Bristol joined London graduates in canvassing the entire borough, door to door, clipboards in hand, scripts memorised, getting the answers we wanted.

    Using my deafness as an excuse I had at first not wanted to do it, then changed my mind. It turned out beautifully, blowing away yet another old limiting belief: "I can't do canvassing because I'm deaf". Going door to door meeting all kinds of people (years later I recall how kind they were to give me their time) and asking for their vote, and often getting it, was when I first realised my being deaf is, paradoxically, a gift, also an exquisite joke, opening me to total listening, without prejudice, a listening that transcends communication and opens to – whoa! – communion. Nothing else but total listening was – is – the answer to the koan of my deafness. How perfect it was. My world was rocked! Could I have learned this by following social norms and having a conventional education? Fat chance.

    “The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept.” —Thomas Merton

    How grateful I am that Exegesis was almost nothing like Aum Shinrikyo, or Heaven's Gate, or People's Temple, of "drinking the Kool Aid" infamy.

    Being unreasonable, risking yourself and doing the impossible was the Exegesis way. That was what I got from my encounter with Robert D'Aubigny and his students.

    Incidentally, in that election the Liberal Party, the Labour Party and even MI5 never knew who we were until the votes were in and it was too late. Exegesis' candidate came second, almost winning the seat against all the odds.

    Ah, memories. Yes, I witnessed the rise and fall of Microlight Engineering Ltd. (made hang-glider-like planes from imported kits), an Exegesis front company in the heart of Bristol's old industrial district. All the employees were exegesis graduates, including - fatally - its management. Its too-trusting graduate founder was soon financially ruined... Yes, I was in at the beginning of the powerplays called the Bristol Project (aim: to recruit key people in the city, and grow Robert's influence there) and the Glastonbury University project (aim: a university teaching enlightenment or whatever else Robert wanted)

    Dodgiest of all – or perhaps not – was the 'Money Seminar' (Bristol, 1981) in which Robert raked in serious cash from us suckers running a one-game casino, week after week... until we wised up and clammed up. How it worked: every graduate in the room wrote down their high bid in secret and handed it to a staff-person. The highest bidder won half the total pool. To this day I remember the awful look on the face of neophyte graduate D_ R_ as he learned that he had won that night's bout with his huge wager – and that after the organization had skimmed off its hefty cut he'd actually get back about half his stake. We all cheered for the winning loser!
    While not as unfortunate as my hapless cultmate I too was taken for a tidy sum before catching on. Ouch!

    The wackiest Exegesis project of them all? No contest: the Total Transformation of Society – yes, this includes you, dear reader – in 4 years. Or was it two? Launched at a much-heralded gathering of all exegesis graduates, led by Robert himself, in a city-owned hall at the foot of Park Street, Bristol in 1981, it was to begin with us 'transforming' the city, and go viral from there. If I recall aright, Robert declared the project a success after two years.
    Or was it one? Whatever.

    Anyway, every Exegesis project more or less failed, with the glittering exception of Programmes. It made Robert D'Aubigny extremely wealthy.

    homersykes.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Exegesis-Cult-1...

    In 1986 Exegesis ceased operations, having transformed itself into Britain's top telephone marketing firm: Programmes.

    The people I trained with in Exegesis still have a place in my heart – you never forget your first time! I wanted more, and became somewhat of a glutton for seminars and groupwork in the 1980s. Pursuing my passion for enlightenment, I went to a zen monastery in California, then on to Esalen Institute, and did the est training and its various graduate seminars. At the last est training and the first Forum in San Francisco, I assisted Werner Erhard. Curious about Werner and est? Check out:
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Werner_Erhard
    www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMeXmFVq6cY
    and
    www.erhardseminarstraining.com/

    At the same time, I volunteered at The Breakthrough Foundation, an est offshoot, as also the Hunger Project, and the simply transcendent Holiday Project, and as my decade of crunchy cult goodness came to a close, Ron Kennedy's 'Man Woman Training'. The last of these I did, in Russia, afforded us western participants the eerie realization that we were doing a seminar peppered with KGB agents (Moscow, then-USSR, 1989).

    No, they did not exactly get into the groove.

    opakapaka-, mersenne_twister, and 30 other people added this photo to their favorites.

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    1. telme1951 [deleted] 49 months ago | reply

      I did the Exegesis programme in Bristol...followed by a number of programmes in Bristol and London. I never worked for Programmes Ltd, but did work with Micro Systems Engineering, building the Mistral micro-lite. I wonder if any of those are still flying.

      Who out there remembers my name? And does anyone know what happened to Robert? I have only respect for him and the greatest of gratitude for the whole programme. I was finally drawn away from the programme and that was probably a mistake. But it was great while it lasted and I really appreciated many of the people I met, the leaders and movers...

      I wonder where they all are now.

    2. francistoms 49 months ago | reply

      You were based in Bristol? We probably met if you were there in '81. I salute you and the sweaty band of factory grunts working overtime building the microlites. I hope you eventually got paid! As for your name, well, telme1951 doesn't ring any bells..

    3. Paul 1433 39 months ago | reply

      Hey,
      Was wandering down memory lane and stumbled on this photo...

      I lived in Corby, Northants in 1986 and worked for Programmes Ltd...
      I still have some very weird and wonderful memories from that time.
      The "countdown" before the morning and afternoon work sessions, where the entire office would perform a sort of singalong (with actions) to energise us before getting stuck in to the telemarketing...
      The company had a huge country house outside Corby where a lot of the London staff lived. We had a huge party there one night where I sang and played guitar with Tony Visconti and some other staff in a makeshift band. Programmes owned Good Earth studios at the time.
      The company still has an effect on me now in my working and personal life. The morality and attitude to life is still within me.
      A strange and wonderful time.
      The only name I can remember is Virginia Greaves...

      As a green 20 year old from Glasgow, I felt like I was living the dream...

      Surprising how little info I could find on the company now...

      Thanks!

    4. Andy_Walter 35 months ago | reply

      Hiya - I did the very first seminar... we were like guinea pigs - with Mike Oldfield. I stayed eith Exegesis and Programmes throughout - until it began its move to Corby and then Milton Keynes. I was in Sales & Development at Microlite. The main slip up was doing a flight presentation to a large dealership but couldn't get the engine started. We later discovered the engine was bolted on upside down. Very soon after that, somebody died in another Microlite and sales plummeted - although we designed a portable hanger which farmers seemed to like. We also took up a News At Ten camera man over the snow-covered Mendips looking for lost sheep. We kept pretending to find them. It made that night's Trevor Macdonald's "...And Finally..." section. I think your exposition is brilliantly worded and faultlessly eloquent. Sadly some people still don't get the "integrity and self-responibility" part... and still 'blame'. But I learned from the age of 16 that nothing is impossible, that everything is perfect, and that miracles can happen when you're just open to them. What's not to like about Exegesis...? Andy Walter xx

    5. Hyperborean1 27 months ago | reply

      It didn't cease in 1986. I did the seminar in around 1988 and it had changed its name to the innocuous sounding 5 day training. It was led by a woman called Kim. I gained a lot from it but it faded. I remember the mantra "can i let go of wanting to change" and these days relate this to the Buddhist teaching of "non-correction" and letting things be as they are-i.e. facing your stuff rather than trying to get rid of it.

    6. pablo622012 25 months ago | reply

      I was 17, hungry for 'enlightenment', to know my place in the world. After a year listening to the trees, I created 'Exegesis' to give me the space to realise that potential.
      My life was and has forever been transformed.
      I worked for Programmes in France...yes we went there too. Extraordinary times.
      A message to all you deniers out there. This is it!
      A message to all of you who grocked what we did and still do. Let our light shine.
      I'm 50 now. Still doing it my own way. Life, no matter how shitty it seems to be is perfect.
      love to you all. Matt Grant x

    7. dave605jon218 23 months ago | reply

      I did Exegesis around 1976, at the first Manchester seminar (with 12 participants), and later assisted on others in the North, and did many of the themed follow on seminars (Money, Bliss, Relationships, etc). However I didn't get involved with Programme as was busy 'living it 100%' by the time it came into being.. It was a seminal moment in my early life, truly transformational, and a wonderful, exciting, 'awake' period. What I learned and experienced has informed the rest of my life's journey, and I am profoundly grateful our paths crossed. Much of what I learned I incorporated into my personal philosophy and it has served me well throughout that time. Following it I created a business (life purpose) that has since made an important contribution to 100,000s of people lives, and I know i would not have don't that without my contact with Robert. I moved from seeker to knower, victim to master, unenlightened to enlightened. I am still good friends with a couple of seminar mates and also Ali.

    8. Lee Southgate 21 months ago | reply

      I just stumbled upon this. I worked at Programmes for about a year - Queens Park. Did the seminar - interesting times and still carry some of the ethos with me today. Would be great to get back in touch with anyone out there who was about - I think it was 87/88 when I was there. I remeber Anne Marie Costa and a guy called Martin who I shared a house with for a bit

    9. Bob New 20 months ago | reply

      1978 great Western hotel paddington, friday morning, crapping myself. By Sunday afternoon i was laughing so much i lost my voice. Two of us from our small market town did the seminar and the energy we put out both frightened and fascinated the people who knew us, who unanimously decided we had been brainwashed, HA!
      Robert led my seminar assisted by Kim and an American? called Grant. At 60 still remember like it was yesterday, have just finished reading "The Book Of Est" a great read and an insight into where Robert got most of his ideas from. Am friends with Kim on facebook and am sure she has no idea who i am! A truly life changing experience.

    10. SolarRev 20 months ago | reply

      I met Robert Daubigny in London and attended a full seminar in the late 70s. Still holds up as one of the most profound experiences of my life. Pity it is no longer available. I often wonder what happened to Robert Daubigny. It is hard to imagine that one so charismatic, should fade into the background. It is surprising to me that so little information is available about this significant and historic movement. The seminars were both the subject of a BBC drama (Instant Enlightenment Plus VAT) and a documentary. Great memories of great times.

    11. raymond_oconnor 15 months ago | reply

      I worked for Programmes around 1988/89 for about 6 months, did the seminar. I remember it being very intense, as was the whole experience working for Programmes. It was a great experience, but there is no doubt this was a cult, that wanted you to reject the rest of you life and fully emerge yourself. It wasnt for me.

    12. Dio269 14 months ago | reply

      I worked for Programmes around 1986. In fact i kept in touch with quite a few people from those days for a while. The experience was nothing like i have since experienced in the workplace. i enjoyed my time there if truth be told. There are quite a few stories i could tell. The main point though is that there is a programme about to be produced on Exegesis and Programmes Ltd so maybe there will be a some interviews for those who are interested. Type "The last cult of England" into google......

    13. Dio269 14 months ago | reply

      I think I remember working with you Simon! Do you remember Wendy Boyd, Elizabeth Gluck, Kim Coe ?

    14. francistoms 14 months ago | reply

      Many thanks to all commentators!
      Further to the documentary in the works: "A Very British Cult" is the name of the project at November Films. Remarkably, producer Louis Price is the son of parents who were both active Exegesis graduates.

    15. Heartrose 13 months ago | reply

      I did Exegesis in Autumn 1979, when I discovered I was pregnant with our daughter, and very depressed as my husband had said he never wanted kids. It was a prfound experience, unforgettable. My marriage didnt survive, and I have a wonderful talented daughter, and three gorgeous grandchildren, Robert was unofficial godfather, so thanks to him and Exegesis!

    16. Bob New 11 months ago | reply

      anyone know what was the documentary about exegesis called? Is it available anywhere?

    17. Bob New 11 months ago | reply

      Thanks for that Francis. Wanting to find the, i think, BBC docu about exegesis, Saw it many years ago in Israel of all places! Recently loaned a friend a copy of "The book of est" by Luke Rheinhart. She is enthralled and i never thought you could "get it" from a book and she seems to have "got it" bloody exciting for me. I had hoped to show her a copy of the documentary. Passed the book on to her Mother and i am getting constant text messages from both. Seems there is still a need, maybe more so now than in the seventies.

    18. francistoms 11 months ago | reply

      Before it vanished, unfortunately, from the BBC's public website years ago I'd bookmarked what might be the same documentary you refer to, Bob. Made in the late seventies, I'd guess. If it showed a bouncer-sized seminar staffer interacting with a seminarian and a wall, that would be it. As for Luke Rhinehart's books, they influenced me too, to put it mildly, even before I met Robert. Sidenote: when I brought my enthusiasm for The Dice Man into a graduate seminar, Robert declined, not without humour – he would have none of it.

    19. dickus1 9 months ago | reply

      I was a seminar graduate from the Programmes generation (late 80's) the last seminar they ever held. I really loved it, I was very young, possibly not quite old enough to appreciate it all, as a teenager, but I did my best to learn something. I used to smile at the 'assistants' with the most cheesiest grin, but was never able to penetrate their icy gaze, fair play. Once during a sex segment, an assistant patrolling nearby giggled heartily at something I was saying - it made me feel good though, that they weren't actually, my aggressor. Many who left that weekend floated on air, and appeared distant for quite sometime until absorption took place. I remained the same as I was, a little wiser. I remember feeling that they must have learnt something extra that I missed or failed to understand and that sat with me for a while. I also recognised that a few were pretending to be a bit more 'transformed' than they actually were. It's nature. To me, it was never a cult, it was a choice, an option if we wanted it. People who didn't like working there, left - I remained an employee for many years and remained, as ever, more grounded than the earth. I know probably half of those in the picture, most I miss, some I'm happy never to see again, still friends with some. Robert, I never really connected with, too aloof. Kim was hilarious, and we'd always have a laugh. I've always thought that the seminar was best suited for people with 'common sense' when the teachings can be integrated wisely, or rejected, as each situation arises. To some, it was all or nothing, and at times they would come into difficulty in their daily interactions. I'm glad it was part of my life

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