My parents, Fred and Joan Smith, had a small cottage in Herefordshire where they would retreat from the city. Nestled at the end of a long country lane which passed over a little brook, the cottage had a small meadow behind it. Here, whilst searching for easter eggs hidden by my dad, I came across a small boat lying in the long grass. I would often climb in and imagine that my little vessel could float through the grass into the stream and away. It gave me a wonderful feeling of possibility . . .
On other days of escape we would take a different route out of the city, trundling in dad’s car along the dull grey roads watching the houses give way to green fields. I recall the smell of the leatherette seats and the shine of my dad’s ‘Brylcreemed’ hair as I sat on the back seat. After an eternity, I caught a glimpse of a distant blue something between the hills and a current of excitement rippled through my 4-year-old body. “That’s the sea,” my mother told me.
THE SEA . . . I wanted to be there with whatever the sea was . . .
I remember a happy home . . . lying in bed upstairs I could hear the sound of The Merry Widow operetta climbing up the stairs, flooding my room with warmth and a sense that all was at peace in the adult world. Good, loving people were in charge and all would be well. I heard the song I Love You So frequently and could sing it back in its entirety to my mother when she came up the stairs to say goodnight.
At some point, for about six months, my parents took in a child whose mother had been struggling to cope. We shared the same room and became friends. Then one day her mother came to claim her and she was gone again. I felt so sad. Months later my father discovered that his brother had been siphoning money from their shared business, leading to the end of their relationship. To make matters worse, a kerb crawler had followed our young female lodger along the road and pursued her into our house before being chased out by my parents. On reporting the man and giving the details on his number plate to the police, my parents were visited by an officer and asked not to pursue it as the stalker was a man of some standing in the community with a wife and family of his own.
These events and other pressures led my parents to a decision to start a new life in Cornwall. After borrowing enough money to purchase a guest house in St Ives called The Grey Mullet, my mother drove me there to run it for six months whilst my father wound up his business interests in the city. My older half-brother Barry, a talented drummer, would remain in Birmingham – he was already in a successful band touring Germany and playing the same venues as the Beatles.
St. Ives has a powerfully attractive sea magic. Every day I would explore the little beaches that encircle the town, and every day I would return with my clothes soaked through because I couldn’t keep out of the blue-green, sparkling water. At night I would sometimes hear the lifeboat flares that shot up and exploded into the night followed by the sound of boots hammering down the cobbles of Bunkers Hill towards the lifeboat station to head out to some vessel in maritime distress. On summer mornings the Scillonian passenger ferry would sound its horn to summon travellers en route to the Scilly Isles – it gave me a wonderful feeling of possibility . . .
I started attending the little Methodist Sunday School that nestled halfway up Bunkers Hill near our house. I remember how much I liked Mr. and Mrs. Slater, the kind-hearted Methodist minister and his wife, who had been interred as prisoners of war in Asia during World War II. I remember proudly reading aloud to the school from the massive bible. At home my dad had never talked about religion but I noticed the figure of Christ in faded blue tattooed on his chest … one day he told me that “Even our best deeds are only filthy rags to Jesus…” I related strongly to the stories about Christ and took part in services at the main Methodist Chapel in the town. I was very moved by the stories of Jesus’s life that were recounted to me from the bible and I began to take part in the services at the main Methodist Chapel in the town.
On my first day at school the beetle-browed headmaster Mr Adams picked me up, held me upside down and spanked me because instead of eating the inedible ‘cruel dinners’, my new friends and I had been swinging our legs under the dinner table trying to kick each other. I still enjoyed listening to him read The Lion Witch and the Wardrobe though …
I was uninterested in reading books until my parents bought me The Chronicles of Narnia, eventually followed by The Lord of the Rings and A Wizard of Earthsea. I would walk out to the little fields that lay on the edge of the houses and think about whether some kind of magical power existed in our world in the way it was portrayed in these books. As I entered my teenage years I devoured anything I could find that alluded to the mystery that I knew must exist somewhere.
Moving on to The Belyars School, I didn’t fit in with the sporty lads but became friendly with those who had a passion for music. My mother had taught me the basics of guitar playing and paid for a few classical guitar lessons privately, until my long-haired tutor decided that in order to stay faithful to his idol (Mark Bolan) he would dedicate himself to poetry and writing songs about the people of Beltane or some other whimsical nonsense.
Fortunately my dad had just let a holiday cottage in St Ives to Danny McGuire, a hard-drinking Brummie musician and asked him if he would give me some guitar lessons. I arrived at the cottage to find a white, double-neck electric guitar lying on the couch, and Danny asked me what I wanted to learn. Samba Pa Ti by Santana. “Hmm, maybe not just yet,” he laughed and proceeded to teach me Painting Box, Summertime Blues and Something by the Beatles. After that I felt special, walked just a little bit taller along the school corridors and maybe even swaggered a little. We had a new young teacher named Graham Ward. He was very hip and I remember he played Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic to the class which caught my attention. He also played guitar rather well.
In May 1975, shortly before my fifteenth birthday, I found myself watching The Old Grey Whistle Test – A BBC television music show. A duo playing mandolin and guitar appeared. Their voices and the harmonies were so beautiful and refined that they made me feel something that I couldn’t put a name to. You can still find this excerpt from the show on YouTube: https://youtu.be/zTB3eQWDq10
They explained that the song they had just sung was inspired by the Bahá’í Writings. The next day I asked Mr Ward if he had seen the Whistle Test and what was that religion that Seals and Crofts had talked about?
“Oh that’s the Bahá’í Faith … my wife and I are Bahá’ís.”
On the following Saturday I went to visit them. Graham’s wife Sue was warm, friendly, beautiful and put me at ease – she was interested in what I thought about things. I’ve never been keen on the term ‘spiritual parents’ but Sue would be the closest to a spiritual mother that I’ve ever had.One evening Sue and Graham asked me to babysit while they went out, and Graham told me I could play any of their vinyl albums. I discovered Led Zeppelin’s Four Symbols and tracks like The Battle of Evermore excited my adolescent mysticism fuelling my naive imagination, but here was something different . . .
Taking care not to scratch the precious vinyl. I dropped Innervisions by Stevie Wonder on the turntable. Living for the City crackled into life -an angry, excoriating attack on racial inequality, followed by other transcendent songs all delivered in a voice that seemed to reach into my soul. I related to the Christian content from my past but this Gospel-based African American spirituality seemed more raw, connected, impassioned and warmer than the fragile mystical realms of my imagination.
Are you hearing what He’s saying?
Are you feeling what you’re praying?
Are you hearing, praying, feeling what you say inside?
I felt something awakening inside my soul, a spirituality that was conscious and connected to the planet and its inhabitants.
I became more interested in the Bahá’í Faith and through Graham and Sue I met world-renowned potter Bernard Leach. Trudi Scott (Bernard’s secretary) travelled everywhere perched precariously on a moped. Trudi and Alan Bell were editing and assisting Bernard with his last book Beyond East and West.
Occasionally I would read to Bernard who by then was blind and partially deaf. We sat in his flat at Barnaloft, St. Ives, overlooking Porthmeor beach. I met and listened to lots of interesting people there including Richard St Barbe Baker, the founder of Men of the Trees.
The first time I read the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, I remember thinking that this was the same voice that I had heard in the Bible at Sunday School.
Whilst I was busy finding a spiritual path, my parents were walking along their own path of service. Mum and Dad were keen ballroom dancers and ran a club for many years. They helped many people who were unhappy or depressed take up dancing. Often these folk would find new partners and remarry. After both my parents had passed away, people would often tell me “Joining your mum and dad’s dance club gave me a new lease of life.”
My mum was also very politically active, and organised a campaign and march to protest against the possible siting of a nuclear power plant across the bay from us.
I remember asking my mum what she believed – would she be prepared to adopt a new faith? “If you can show me something better than Christianity I’ll accept it,” she had said. Eventually she would tire of politics and embrace the Faith.
I continued to attend many meetings and firesides and investigated the Faith over the next couple of years; no pressure was ever put upon me.
At Naw-Rúz 1978 I attended a party in Newquay. A charismatic chap,named Eghbal Maani was serving food to guests. “Are you a Bahá’í?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.
“Then what are you waiting for?”
I decided there and then to declare my belief that Bahá’u’lláh was the Messenger of God for this day and age.
I was immediately invited to go to the teaching conference at Nottingham University. Emerging into the sunlight from the student dormitory early in the morning I stood facing a dignified Persian gentleman who was wearing large, horn-rimmed spectacles. He immediately embraced me as if I were the most important thing in his world. He was Hand of the Cause Mr Faizi. It still chokes me up thinking about it.
The excitement of conference resulted in a group of Bahá’í Youth travelling to Cornwall on several travel-teaching trips – I remember Chehreh, Ruhi, Dobbie, Brant who was hilarious and Helen Cameron who had met Stevie Wonder! Eghbal was there too. I admired a beautiful green Levi’s jacket that he was wearing and he immediately took it off and gave it to me. He would spend his summers going to Africa and teaching the Faith … he seemed to be fearless. Once when I was particularly worried about something he gripped me by the shoulders and said that once we were aware of God’s love for us then our only fear should be allowing ourselves to become separated from it. His parents had suffered a great deal in getting out of Iran and his mother Jamileh had been born in ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s bed in Haifa. I still think about Eghbal and Jamileh most days.
Ruhi wrote to me almost every week. Ruhi’s mother, Mrs Mohktari, had a large house in Plymouth which was always full of people she was feeding or extending help to. She exuded enough warmth, food and love to supply a planet.
When Eghbal left for college, his brother Vessal accompanied me along the spiritual path with great kindness and patience. Vessal was an unusual character, humble, funny, slightly mischievous and independently minded. The Maani family seemed to be on a different level spiritually, but also very down to earth, with a close connection to Bahá’u’lláh. Their mother Jamileh continued to feed us and shower us with love and warmth.
I also become friends with Paul Profaska and later his wife Diane. We’ve been close ever since and their friendship has been a blessing and a bounty.
I started at college and became friendly with a fellow student Andrew Shepherd. I told him about the Bahá’í Faith and some time later he declared. We were very close during our college years but when I left for Aberystwyth University we lost touch.
University life was exciting and liberating but led to a crisis in my belief. At that time some Bahá’ís talked about an impending calamity which I associated with the threat of nuclear war that seemed imminent. In short, I ceased associating with the Faith out of fear for the future.
Then I met Michaela at a musician’s co-operative where I attempted to impress her with my guitar playing. I knew she played but was humbled when she picked the guitar up and casually played some amazing chords, demonstrating a musical skill that was superior to my own . . . oh and she sang as well . . . wonderfully.
After completing our degrees and moving to Cornwall we decided to get married. A local Bahá’í persuaded me that we should not deprive ourselves of the blessing of a Bahá’í marriage. I explained that to Michaela who agreed and so we had our Bahá’í marriage ceremony in Trudi Scott’s cottage.
Meeting and being lucky enough to marry Michaela has been the blessing of a lifetime.
A few months later I felt drawn to the Faith again and started attending meetings and Feasts which felt wonderful. Michaela was working for the National Trust and we also played music in hotels, pubs and restaurants in addition to teaching guitar.
Michaela and I had booked our first pilgrimage but Michaela being heavily pregnant felt unable to go, so my mother went with me and we had the bounty of that time together.
Shortly afterwards Michaela and I moved into ‘Living Waters’, a run-down cottage bounded by a flowing stream running through the village of Angarrack. In September 1987, Rosie our first child was born, and in December that year, after Michaela had a mystical dream, she declared her faith in Bahá’u’lláh.
Toward the end of his life my father developed Parkinson’s disease. Unfortunately the medication that he was given to control the symptoms of the disease triggered hallucinations which persisted until his kind and gentle soul passed into the next world in 1988 at the age of 78. My mother and I drew solace from the writings of Bahá’u’lláh:
O SON OF THE SUPREME! I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve? I made the light to shed on thee its splendour. Why dost thou veil thyself therefrom?
Death had indeed been ‘a messenger of joy’ to my father, releasing him from the suffering and confusion of his last months. There were also signs following my father’s passing, indications or reassurances that my mother and I both experienced, one of which I am sharing here….
He had always loved hearing Michaela sing old standards like Stardust and Somewhere Over the Rainbow. In the days following his death I would hear Somewhere Over the Rainbow played daily either on the radio or in some other situation. I wondered if this was my father reassuring me that all was well. Michaela thought that it was perhaps all in my imagination, but when I told my mother, she was amazed and said that she had been having the same experience!
Then, when Michaela and I were together performing at a lunchtime concert, a stranger stood up at the back of the room and staggered towards us heading for the exit door on my left. As he got near me our eyes met and both Michaela and I heard him say “You’re not going to play ‘Over the Rainbow’ then?” before passing out through the exit!
In 1990 our son Jordan was born and I began to worry that music would not provide sufficient income for our growing family. I decided to use the five steps of prayer outlined by the Guardian. I recited some prayers written by Bahá’u’lláh and then sat in silence waiting for a response. After a while the words ‘Become a teacher’ floated into my mind. I knew this was the right direction and not the promptings of my own ego because I really didn’t want to become a teacher!
Nevertheless, following the guidance contained in the five steps I immediately took action, enrolling on a programme of study that eventually led to securing my first teaching post at Ludgvan school near Penzance. I loved having my own class and felt that at last I had come into my own.
It was during this time that Diane Profaska introduced me to the Virtues Project. I immediately took to the concept of virtues and tried to introduce them to my class and into the life of the school.
By this time we had been blessed with two more wonderful daughters, Bonnie and Mica.
In 1998, after I had been teaching for a few years, Michaela and I decided to participate in an exchange programme allowing commonwealth teachers to exchange homes and jobs. That summer the whole family flew out to Penticton in British Columbia. On our arrival we were blessed to be befriended by Eugene and Evelyn Smith and their family who helped us adapt quickly to life in Canada. My first few weeks were both challenging and inspiring. Parkway School was set in the town and my class had a mix of nationalities, including children from the nearby First Nations reservation.
One weekend we were invited out to the Kootenay mountains to visit a Baha’i, Kathryn Josefatow and her family. We had acquired an old Ford F1 pickup truck with a crew cab for the children to sit on. On the road to Raspberry Robson we encountered coyotes and the occasional brown bear on the long, forested highways. Many hours later we arrived at a large log cabin set on the banks of the river Columbia. Downstream we could see the lights of a large sawmill. Kathryn told us that we could stay either in the cabin with her family or in the tent that they had set up by the river.
Thank heavens Michaela chose the cabin because when we walked down to the tent in the morning it was surrounded by the evidences of bears that had visited in the night.
‘Squeaky’, our old Ford, had no radio, so instead we would sing with the children to make the long journeys more bearable. I think that is where they all learnt to sing in harmony. We would also set to music prayers and sections from the Writings as the miles ground on.
Eugene Smith took us on our last trip up the Alaska Highway, a journey of 2,606 km heading for the Yukon. We stopped at the Bahá’í Centre in Quinell, where we attended a study group. One of the participants was a gold panner who arrived out of the wilderness bringing fresh moose meat. He hadn’t spoken to a soul in weeks …
I remarked on a photograph of a girl on the wall, and was told she had been attending some Bahá’í classes, then she had been abducted (as have many First Nations women) only to be found dead by the side of a lake, her killer never brought to justice.
We sang as a family all the way up to Whitehorse and when it came time to leave Canada we received a letter of thanks from the Canadian National Spiritual Assembly.
To keep our family singing together we encouraged, cajoled and even offered bribes to Bonnie on one occasion. All of our children are now confident performers, so hopefully our methods will be forgiven!
I know that folks find a family singing in harmony together very moving, as I do when I experience it myself. Just don’t mention the Von Trapp family!
The Smith family on Mount Carmel
On our return to the UK, Michaela and I initiated Surfing the Spirit, a summer camp to help young people explore the Bahá’í principles through service to others and environmental sea-based activities. We managed to accommodate 35 youngsters in two small houses in our village. With the support of our children and friends our summer camp ran for three years.
Surfing the Spirit
At Ludgvan School I endeavoured to integrate the strategies of the Virtues Project into my classroom teaching, and into the school as a whole. However it was when I became headteacher at Kehelland Village School that I was able to introduce the Virtues Project strategies in depth. I had the loveliest, most supportive staff. After a while the reputation and popularity of the school grew as more and more parents became attracted by the unique, virtues-based ethos of the school. I was also blessed to have the support of my good friend the lovely Bev Fitzgerald Bevington, our Bahá’í neighbour who joined the school team. Every morning we had the bounty of saying prayers together on the short journey to school. Bev is an experienced foster parent whose warmth and wisdom made her hugely popular with the children and a beacon to parents who would regularly ask for her advice.
When our children moved away, Michaela and I decided that we would like to travel around the UK and share our music with Bahá’ís and their communities of interest. Some dear Bahá’í friends, Denise and Sohrab Samari, let us purchase their motorhome at a very reasonable cost, and for many years we toured the UK during every available holiday period, playing house concerts, gardens, village halls and summer schools.
Michaela has a special gift with songwriting and we became adept at weaving in stories and spiritual themes between songs.
Geoff and Michaela in concert
Back in Cornwall, my mother’s health deteriorated and she was hospitalised. During that time it was hard to talk with her, as the infections and treatments caused hallucinations which would agitate and distract her. She didn’t want me to pray and seemed to reject anything spiritual. The only way in which I could calm her down was to read to her Katherine Hepburn’s account of the making of the film The African Queen, and I would try to share a few chapters of it every time I visited her.
In 2015 she passed away. Initially I was unsure of my feelings but then I perceived a sense of her flying free of the shackles of this world, scattering the dust and fluttering up joyfully into some immense happiness …
I decided to give myself a few days to grieve. All I had to do was go into school in the morning and meet a local newspaper reporter who had agreed to write a feature on the Virtues Project, then I could head home. The reporter duly arrived and I asked him to interview the children for their thoughts on the Virtues. Whilst he was doing this, the phone rang and it was BBC Radio Cornwall.
“Mr Smith, we understand that you teach good manners at your school – is that right?”
“Not exactly”, I replied. “We teach the virtues, trying to nurture the development of good character in children”.
After that clarification they asked me to participate in a Radio Cornwall live interview that evening, to which I agreed. An hour later I got a call from BBC Southwest television:
“Mr Smith, we understand that you teach good manners at your school – is that right?”
I repeated the same clarification that I had previously given and then agreed that our visiting reporter could shoot some video footage of the children talking with me.
Late in the afternoon a final call came through. This time it was BBC Breakfast Television: they understood that I was teaching Good Manners. I was frustrated but intrigued – where was this coming from? What had triggered this sudden interest in the Virtues?
The voice at the other end of the line asked if could I travel up to their studio for 6 am the next day, which I agreed to, leaving almost immediately in a taxi that they had arranged to take me to Bristol Temple Meads to board the last train up to the studios in Media City, Salford. I had nothing with me, not even a toothbrush or a change of clothing.
During the journey, the taxi driver told me that a while before, he had suffered a double tragedy, when both his wife and best friend had suddenly passed away. Some time later, his friend’s widow asked him to accompany her to a dance lesson, which, in spite of his reservations he loved. He told me “Dancing has given me a new lease of life…and a new wife.”
Later, on the train I opened my phone to message my children and noticed that there had been a social media friendship request from Susan Ward, whom I had lost touch with over the years. I felt overcome with emotion and at 10.30 that night I messaged her:
Dearest Sue: last night my mother passed into the next world and lots of spiritually synchronous things have happened since yesterday. I’m on my way to be on Breakfast TV to talk about virtues education at my school, tomorrow at 7.40 am. I’m sure these opportunities are created by her passing. I’m feeling quite emotional, so forgive me but I just wanted to tell you that you planted love in my heart when I was young . . . thank you!
I got to Salford in time to be met by my son Jordan and we sat in the hotel reception and talked for a while before he set off for home in the early hours of the morning.
All went well apart from my calling Naga Munchetty ‘Nagmeh’ … but then I don’t watch BBC Breakfast and had no idea who she was. I was also interviewed on CBeebies … ah, fame at last.
Sometime in the late morning I re-boarded the train and headed back to Cornwall. After checking and re-checking, there was still no response from my emotional message to Sue.
Then at 2pm Sue replied:
I am so sorry to hear the news of your lovely mum and I know just how hard that must be for you. But know this, where she is now is free of any pain or restrictions of the physical plane and yes, she will be able to help and assist you so easily from there.
You came into my head and I felt I just had to try and contact you. I looked on Facebook and then we had a problem with our network. While the engineer was fixing it last night, you appeared on Spotlight. Synchronicity absolutely.
On my return I was contacted by a senior official in the Cornwall Education Department. Apparently questions were asked in the Cornwall Council Chamber. Why hadn’t I let them know that I would be on television? What was this Virtues Project? Was it a Bahá’í programme? Was I still teaching Christian R.E. at the school? After clarifying the situation and reassuring the educational department, I breathed a sigh of relief and headed home.
That weekend Michaela and I set off for a drive somewhere. I turned on the car radio. A rich baritone voice informed us “Now for our dramatisation of The African Queen.”
Around this time I also got reconnected with my good friend Andrew Shepherd, now a professor and lecturer in law, and living back in Cornwall. Before recommencing our friendship, Professor Shepherd made me take a humorous test of things that only he and I would know. I think I scored 70% which was the cause for some amusement. We have since shared many recollections about our past and where our lives have led us.
At that time I was also invited to meet Professor James Arthur, Director of the Jubilee Centre for Virtues and Values at Birmingham University. Professor Arthur has a profound understanding of Aristotelian Virtues. We met at Buckfast Abbey and his intellect was impressive. However, Michaela grilled him and put him on the spot by asking him how he would actually teach these virtues and recognise them in others. This reminded me that I had invaluable experience with instilling and awakening these characteristics in young children in a primary setting using the five strategies designed by the founder of the Virtues Project, Linda Kavelin Popov. Out of this meeting came a commission to write the first Character Curriculum for primary-school-aged children in the UK. The initial print run was quickly snapped up and is now available online through the Jubilee Centre website.
A few years later I was approached by a major educational publisher to write Character Education: The Star Awards Programme for Primary Schools. I invited Virtues enthusiast Shona Pye to be my co-author and she did a fabulous job and has become an amazing Virtues educator in her own right, bringing Virtues education to many in Cornwall and lighting up any school that she takes on.
In 2017 I was invited to speak about Virtues Education by Professor Nita Forouhi at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas.
At the Festival of Ideas – Cambridge University
It felt to me that mum created these reconnections and opportunities from the next world.
There were other synchronicities far too numerous to mention, some very meaningful and others not so much. Over time they became fainter and less frequent. The only way I can explain this is that something similar happens when you sing into the opened top of a piano. There will be resonance, other strings and notes vibrate, some very strongly and others less so. Was the passage of my mother into the next world the trigger for all sympathetic resonances?
I mentioned this idea – that around the time of my mother’s death all these connective resonances started occurring – to my friend Stefanie Lynn-Heyck and she gave me another perspective:
“Perhaps they are always occurring but when your mother died you just became more aware of them.”
In July 2018 I had the privilege of being invited to speak at the International Character Conference at the world’s largest school, City Montessori School in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India. For many years I have been supported in my Virtues work by Dara Feldman and it was wonderful to finally meet her and her husband Dave at the conference. I was humbled by the incredible way that CMS school and its founders, Drs. Jagdish and Bharti Gandhi, have applied the Bahá’í principles and provided both academic and spiritual education to so many young people.
Geoff at the International Character Conference in Lucknow, India
Each of our family members continues to resonate musically and spiritually, producing albums and online performances that have been very well received. I feel extremely blessed that all my children serve the Faith and that music helps them in that endeavour. Through marriage, our family has been joined to other wonderful families with talented souls –Yasmin, Tom and Naysan, and I am profoundly grateful to each of them for their encouragement and support.
Thank you for reading my story.
With love and blessings,
Cornwall, December 2020
Geoff and family