The army had posted my father out to Kenya during the Mau Mau revolt in 1952 and he later persuaded my mother (whom he had met briefly whilst investigating financial impropriety in the army in Manchester) to join him, which is how I came to be born near Nairobi. When I was just six months old, my mother managed to hide both of us in the bush when our house was set on fire by local Mau Mau supporters. Towards the end of the revolt, my father left the army and we headed for neighbouring Tanganyika (now Tanzania) where he secured a job as a labour recruiter with a Dutch copper mining company. Then, when South Africa celebrated its independence in 1961, he took advantage of the government’s incentives to encourage Europeans to settle in the Republic of South Africa and so we found ourselves living in the suburbs of Cape Town and later Hermanus, in the Cape Province.
I grew up in South Africa, a partially deaf child with a father who refused to believe that there was anything wrong and a mother who tried desperately against the odds, to help me with my disability, whilst shielding it from my father. I started school at six, struggling with an old fashioned body-mounted hearing aid and trying to integrate with the largely Afrikaans-speaking community. Having my schooling delivered in both languages was difficult since Afrikaans was not spoken by either of my parents and learning it was made more complicated by my lack of hearing. Family life was tense, often punctuated by outbursts of ferocious temper from my father and it was not unusual to find my mother in tears, surrounded by broken glass or crockery. I was in constant trouble for not ‘listening’ or not acting on instructions I hadn’t heard and for many things my father imagined I had done wrong. It was not surprising therefore, that I spent much time on my own, away from home and away from the taunts of my school friends who were either too impatient to try to communicate with me or thought it was fun to say things I could not hear and go into fits of laughter. For a short time, my mother managed to enrol me into a boarding-school for the deaf, three hours’ drive away in Cape Town, then for reasons not explained to me, I was back at home again never to return to the deaf school. However, I had been given a leap forward in my lip-reading technique, which I have relied on ever since. I loved the natural world, which was only a short cycle ride from home, either into the bush or to the jagged coastline where land met the sea on a rocky shore and high cliffs, scattered with large boulders and the odd cave. Here I spent my time, making my own home in a cave, complete with a fire to cook the fish I had caught standing on the rocks with a line, stone and hook. I also spent much time in the bush exploring and watching insects, and other creatures. Later I developed a passion for catching snakes, which I returned to the wild. Eventually I helped to collect snake venom for antisera vaccines after my mother put me in touch with an adult already engaged in supplying the local hospital, for fear that I was doing something too dangerous on my own. My other love was music, which I listened to on the radio, sitting close to the speaker and marvelling at the sounds an orchestra could make. I desperately wanted to play an instrument, but could not persuade either of my parents to let me have lessons or an instrument.
I cannot remember not having a belief in God and my fascination with the natural world always strengthened my feelings and reverence. My mother was brought up in the Church of England and my father was an agnostic. Although I attended a Sunday school for a while, my mother did not go to church, but became an avid reader of ‘Science of the Mind’ books by Mary Baker Eddy, and told me much about the effects of positive thinking. In 1971 when I was fourteen, we left South Africa for a holiday in England. My father had just been released from gaol after refusing to pay a fine for transporting ice cream cones for his business by car instead of using the national rail goods service. Whether my parents meant to return to South Africa or not, I still do not know, but they lost their savings, house and business revenue when they decided to stay in England. We settled in Southport for no other reason than to be near my mother’s elderly aunt, renting a one-bedroom bedsit for the four of us, which was all my parents could afford. My father went to work in a fish-canning factory at the age of 65, in an England that had just gone through the sixties and bore no resemblance to the country he had left in 1952, all of which only served to increase his frustration and anger. I was sent to a secondary modern school where I became the boy from Africa who knew nothing about football teams and the pop music scene. I did not fit in and it wasn’t long before I was in hospital with retinal bleeding after a group of lads decided to test me out. My stubborn refusal to talk about the perpetrators led to some form of acceptance amongst the schoolboys. Later, I had to endure an embarrassing lesson when the kindly headmaster talked to the class and gave a brilliant insight on my behalf into the problems of being hard-of-hearing.
At age fifteen I lay in bed one night listening to a friend’s progressive rock album with headphones. I heard things I had never heard before and I resolved there and then to get a record player and headphones of my own. I managed to save enough money from my paper rounds and Saturday job to buy a second hand reel-to-reel tape recorder and hid it in my room in between taking it to friends’ houses to record their LPs (long-playing records). I had to sneak them into the house, as my father would not have allowed me to listen to pop music, let alone waste time playing music. I had made friends with a lad of my age, John Brown, whilst crewing for the Southport sailing crowd. He played the guitar and with much patience and empathy, took it upon himself to teach me. Later, I bought a guitar of my own and kept it at John’s house where I would call round to practise and play music. Unusually for my school, I left with ‘O’ levels and went on to study ‘A’ levels at the local grammar school. Amongst the new friends I made at the grammar school, I found another guitar player who listened to the same music that John and I liked and invited him to form a band with John and myself. I opted to play the bass, as I was not as competent on the guitar and was acutely aware of my disadvantage. I quickly memorised all the notes on the fret board and the chord shapes on the guitar so that I could play by watching what was needed on the bass from the chords the others played so as not to rely on my hearing. Little did I realise then the journey music would take me on.
Just before I left secondary school my mother came across a poster in the high street advertising a public talk on the Bahá’í Faith and asked if I would go with her to see what it was about. The theme of the talk, given by Joe Foster, was on progressive revelation, which he explained in great detail using diagrams to explain the revelations appearing in the Adamic cycle and the age of fulfilment, in the Bahá’í Era. I immediately connected with this concept, to such an extent that I imagined that I had already had some idea or belief in progressive revelation, although it was the first time in my life that I had come across the concept. I started to go to the firesides at the home of Jim and Sue Grimshaw, later meeting David from Manchester who was studying at the nearby Ormskirk Teacher Training College, and his friend Jimmy Parish. One particular book I borrowed to read on the Faith, which greatly affected me, was ‘Release the Sun’ by William Sears. My mother had been going to firesides and other Baha’i meetings for some time and had declared her belief in Bahá’u’lláh. It took me longer to become involved with the Bahá’í community as much of my spare time was taken up with playing music with the band. However, I often helped with Bahá’í activities and I can remember distributing leaflets advertising public meetings, pasting posters on empty shop windows in similar fashion to those I put up advertising local band concerts. I had a kindly but serious meeting with the Bahá’ís, gently telling me that this was not quite the Bahá’í way! I declared my belief in Bahá’u’lláh in September 1973 as I started my ‘A’ levels. Amongst the boys joining the grammar school from other secondary modern schools, was Greg Moore, in whom I found a quiet and reflective friend and with whom I was able to have deep conversations. I invited Greg to a Bahá’í public meeting, which he attended, accompanied by his girlfriend Carol Hulse. Both started to attend the firesides. Together with another Bahá’í youth, and Terry Thompson and Jimmy Parish, firesides at the Grimshaws became a dynamic evening to look forward to.
Around this time I met Fiona Dunn (soon to be Fiona McDonald), a Bahá’í who had had singing lessons with the then famous singer, Eve Boswell, and whose parents had recently moved to Southport. Hearing that I played the bass, Fiona invited me to join a group of Bahá’ís she was getting together to perform a mixture of mime, music, dance and spoken word on Bahá’í teachings and tour the UK over the summer. A similar venture had already taken place across continental Europe featuring The Dawn Breakers, which enjoyed success in being able to reach out to people attracted by the arts and music. Fiona’s group, called Daystar, had already had a planning meeting and I joined at the start of a week’s rehearsal in the summer holidays, in Epsom, before going on to do a two-week tour of Southern England. I had only been playing bass for just over a year then and felt a little daunted, playing alongside musicians ten years older than myself and clearly much more experienced. I was also exposed to a different style of playing and a different genre of music by John Jameson and Geoff Ault, the two guitarists, who coached me over the next week and introduced me to the folk/jazz music of John Renbourne and Bert Jansch amongst other artists. I remember well the members of Daystar coming to pick me up from the train station in Epsom and having to return to the station again with a larger vehicle to accommodate the bass cabinet. I had taught myself enough about audio electronics and had made the bass cabinet myself as well as a Public Address system (these being out of reach, financially), so I naturally fell into looking after and setting up the PA for Daystar whilst on tour. Being aged just 17 amongst a crowd of older Bahá’ís who had a regimen of morning devotionals followed by physical and vocal exercises before a day of focussed rehearsals, whilst all living under the same roof, and having different artistic contributions and goals in life, made a lasting impression on my own spiritual development. The multimedia presentation worked well on tour and the mix of music, poetry mime, readings and projected slides played out along a story of the effect of religion on humanity’s progress, made interesting watching. We visited many Bahá’í communities who had often planned a full day’s itinerary for Daystar, from visiting old people’s homes and hospitals for the mentally-handicapped to entertain with a variety of well-known songs, to performing in public town centres in order to advertise the evening’s multi-media show at a local concert hall or community centre, as well as appearing on local radio.
My summer steeped in Bahá’í activity and devotionals, served well to buffer the raging rows between my parents, and my father’s insecurity over my and my mother’s involvement with the Bahá’ís. At my father’s insistence I was not allowed to go out in the evenings, which put a stop to meeting Bahá’ís and playing music for the next few months. By the end of my ‘A’ levels, my mother, worried about my well-being, suggested I leave home and I went to live with Jimmy Parish, by now a Bahá’í and living on his own after David had finished teacher training college and returned to Manchester. I then had the freedom to go to Bahá’í meetings and play with the band as well as concentrate on my ‘A’ levels, as I enrolled for a one year refresher course at the local college. It also allowed me to join Daystar again in the summer holidays for another tour. Amongst the new members replacing those who had left Daystar, I met Clive and Gill Tully with whom I was to have a lasting friendship and guidance on my Bahá’í journey. I was also able to travel to visit nearby Bahá’í communities in Preston and Liverpool and to visit John Jameson in York where we would rehearse music and plan the next Daystar tour. After the summer I attended Manchester Polytechnic and fell into life within the Manchester Bahá’í community. I also spent much time visiting Clive and Gill in Hull and other communities, helping to organise Bahá’í musical performances and speaking at public meetings.
Later, Fiona McDonald formed another music group called ‘Travelling Shoes’, with John Jameson, myself and Bob Lohr, a Bahá’í and professional musician from Canada. For the next couple of years I don’t think I spent a single weekend in Manchester as I was either travelling up and down the country playing concerts or supporting Bahá’í events in the North of England. I continued to build a PA system for Travelling Shoes and Daystar, which was also used for the house PA at National Convention in Wolverhampton and Teaching Conferences for the next couple of years, all transported courtesy of British Rail (often borrowing the post office trolleys to get all the speakers, amps and equipment from one platform to the other). Daystar again took over the next two summers as we toured the North of England and Scotland one year and Northern Ireland the following year. By this time I had met Karen Moskowitz at the wonderful firesides hosted by the Haqjoo family in Stockport, which the youth from Manchester supported. Soon afterwards I met her friend Ken Finn, who was studying at Bangor University and as a group we travelled a few times to Anglesey to attend Bahá’í Easter Schools and local activities. Galvanised by Clive and Gill Tully’s travel teaching experiences in Nigeria, I suggested to Karen and Ken that we go and travel-teach in Nigeria during the summer break and so we found ourselves having a consultation with the National Spiritual Assembly of Nigeria, and subsequently travelling along the Calabar-Mamfe road which joined the Cameroon to Nigeria and through which the faith had come into Nigeria, to find the Bahá’í communities and deepen them in Bahá’í community administration.
Deepening the Bahá’ís in the rural outback of Eastern Nigeria was a challenge, as many of the villagers who had become Bahá’ís had integrated old practices of Catholicism and local customs into their understanding of the Faith. Yet there was a thread of Bahá’í spirit, which was strengthened through their communal singing of Bahá’í songs. Music was very much the key to opening hearts, facilitating bonding and fostering an acceptance that we could tap into, as we had taken our guitars and a host of Bahá’í songs that everyone could join in with. Later we travelled to some towns and cities in Cross River State, meeting some of the Persian pioneers who had settled in these parts. Their lives and dedication to the Cause left a deep impression on me. When I returned home, I couldn’t find my parents as they had sold the house in Southport and did not have a means of letting me know whilst I was in rural Nigeria. I was able to contact Sylvia Miley, a close Bahá’í friend in the Southport community, who told me they had moved to Liphook in Hampshire to work in a homeopathic hospital as a chef and manageress. Later, they did similar work at the ‘Yoga for Health Foundation’ in Biggleswade, near Bedford, and my mother, after hearing that Bahá’ís were needed in Newmarket to form a Spiritual Assembly, persuaded my father to buy a house there and settle down. After meeting the Cambridgeshire Bahá’ís, my mother travelled to The Gambia in West Africa to travel-teach with Wendi Momen.
A year after we returned to the UK, Karen and I got married and I went to study nutrition at Kings College, London. I had been very much taken with Adam Thorne’s slides used on the Daystar productions and in particular, the way music and the spoken word worked with images. Using the experience from Daystar, Karen and I formed a group with Richard and Corrine Hainsworth, Tim and Becky Maude, John and Glynis Dunthorne and Sunil Abrol, called ‘Fire and Snow’ in 1980. A show using music, slides and the spoken word to teach the Faith was put into action and Fire and Snow toured regions of England and Wales during the summer and put the show on at odd weekends as guests of local Baha’i communities through the year. After graduating, Karen and I moved to Rugby to support the local Baha’i community and Fire and Snow continued as a smaller group since Richard and Corrine had moved to Russia and John and Glynis to Lincolnshire. I set about writing a new show, composing much of the music and poetry, all made possible with much of Karen’s patience and help as ‘my ears’. I also started to experiment with two and later three projectors so that the images would dissolve from one to the other and also superimpose some images. Fire and Snow continued to perform at least twice per month in many parts of the UK, building a close bond within members of the group through the work and devotionals we shared.
Karen and I moved to London to support an emerging community in Hillingdon and I secured a job as an associate lecturer at Kilburn Polytechnic and Uxbridge College of Further Education. Tim and Becky left Fire and Snow and we asked Ken Finn and Sue Reed (soon to become Sue Finn) to join along with Raju Karia, and Fire and Snow continued for another two years touring in the summer breaks and performing at weekends throughout the year. In 1982 Karen and I were blessed to go on Pilgrimage. Connecting so much of what I had read and heard about with actual buildings was an emotional experience, heightened by having the chance to listen to stories about the early believers in the evenings and visiting Bahjí. In the same year my brother decided to go and live in Australia, earning his living lecturing in film studies at an art college, and later joining the then fast growing Australian film industry as an editor, which he still does to this day. In April 1984, Esme, our first child was born and a year later Fire and Snow disbanded when I took up a new post as a nutritionist and research scientist with the Agricultural and Food Research Council in Norwich, and we moved to Norfolk.
In December 1986 we travelled to India to attend the inauguration ceremony of the new House of Worship in New Delhi, arriving two weeks before the ceremony and offering to help with last minute preparations. Karen joined the choir and I was asked to assist Charles Nolley in installing the house PA system in the Temple. We worked at night when other building work had stopped. It was an unforgettable experience working all night under the podium floor to the sound of cicadae and stopping to say prayers and take photographs of the Temple at dawn. We also set up equipment to record the ceremony. Time was tight as we also had to prepare a 12-projector slide presentation about the building of the Temple for the accompanying conference and I can remember working non-stop for a 36 hour period to get this done. Armed with the stories told by the builders and architects and the photographs I took, I was able to create a 3-projector slide show, which was used by the National Spiritual Assembly in the UK in a conference to announce the completion of the Temple, with guests from the Indian High Commission and the UK-based architects Messrs Towbrough. It became a useful proclamation and teaching aid, being shown at public meetings, firesides and proclamation events all over the UK.
The next year saw us starting to renovate our first house, bringing our second child, Robert, into the world, witnessing my mother’s passing, trying to build a recording studio, being involved in the sound system and audio-visuals for the International Youth Conference held in Manchester in 1987 and serving as an assistant to Auxiliary Board member Martin Cortazzi. Sadly Karen and I parted at the end of 1989 and I threw myself into spending time with the children at weekends and put everything else on hold for the next two years. I was asked by the Bahá’í Publishing Trust (BPT) to be their audio-visual consultant and started work recording talks at Bahá’í conferences and national events, as well as recording the music of individual Bahá’í artists and to produce a transcript compilation of their songs, which was published as a Song Book. Among the Bahá’í recording artists that were recorded at my studio were ‘Smiley Inside’ and ‘Martin Newman’. As the Centenary of Bahá’u’lláh’s passing was approaching, Gordon Kerr, director of the BPT at the time, envisaged a large installation comprising the Siyah Chal, the Garden of Ridván and an exhibition on the history of the Faith in the British Isles, that would feature at the Centenary Conference in Liverpool. I had already helped the Waveney Community with their amazing carnival floats used in local and London’s Notting Hill carnivals and knew that Graham Norgate, Lionel Glennie, Richard Morgan and Nigel Colebrook were the people who could transform Gordon’s ideas into reality, so I introduced them to Gordon. They set about designing the installations which were to have life-size props and feature an audio-visual show incorporated into the structure of the room with back projection screens and soundtrack. The scripts were written by Gordon and narrated by Iain Macdonald, leaving myself to create the 3-projector audio-visual shows and synchronise them. The installations took a year to build, were a huge success and used at many other events in the following years.
After Liverpool, I now had access to 9 projectors and set about creating 9-projector, three screen audio-visual shows. Sequenced, dissolving slide shows have similarities with time-lapse photography and ‘out of real time’ film sequences, a technique used in film to produce emotive scenes. By using three screens side by side, much of the narrative of a slide show can be replaced by the juxta-positioning of images. I had found a medium that I naturally took to and which could touch people’s hearts. I was asked to produce a show for the satellite conference to the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992, held in Manchester, relating the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh to the rising concern about planetary housekeeping and the environment, called ‘The City and the Heart’ which was projected onto the clouds over a 3D model of a city made by the Waveney Baha’is. When the conference was over, I started to make a 9 projector show called ‘This Handful of Dust…’ in which there was no spoken word but which explored the world we live in, culturally, politically, naturally and religiously. The show had bookings for the next 7 years and was the most used of all the shows. I created a number of shows, using different themes and later adding a cine projector to the line up. These shows were used by Bahá’í communities all over the UK and booked by such events as the University of East Anglia’s Christmas public lecture, the launch of Birmingham City interfaith forum, Cambridge University, the Royal Photographic Society, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Glastonbury, and many schools, colleges and societies, including a Druid festival. The presentations were always connected with the Faith. My job as a nutritionist took me to many countries in the developing world, which gave me a unique opportunity to take photographs to use in my multi-image shows.
Stage set up for slide show screened in Manchester by satellite conference to the Rio Summit in 1992
I was also involved in making installations using audio-visuals and film for the Bahá’í festivals at Scarborough introducing the Ruhi Study courses and an exhibition on the Houses of Worship organised by Sara Talai. In 2002 I developed a stage production celebrating 100 years of the Faith in the British Isles with Iain Macdonald, Andrew and Natasha Wilkinson and Graham Norgate, combining live acting on stage with projected images, and this same team produced a second show celebrating the life of Tahirih and the emancipation of women. In my experience, it is the arts that connects with people and when combined with the Word of God has a profound impact on the perception and experience of the Bahá’í teachings. The initial attraction is through the arts, facilitating the opportunity to teach the Faith afterwards.
In 1995 I remarried and Helen and I have two wonderful children, Libby and Benjamin. Being married to a non-Bahá’í has its own challenges and focuses one’s behaviour at all times. Helen has always been very helpful giving suggestions when writing scripts for an audio-visual show or film, from a public perspective. I was deeply moved and blessed when my daughter, Libby, declared her belief in Bahá’u’lláh at age fifteen.
In 2003 I was awarded a PhD for my research into the use of biological labels to understand selenium metabolism in humans. Throughout the years 1998-2010, I tutored photography at the Bahá’í-inspired Arts Academy with the exception of just two years. In many ways it has been my life-long love of music that opened the channels that led me into audio-visuals and the chance I had to serve the Faith in this capacity. I have always been involved in a music group playing in jazz, world music, Latin and folk bands, up to the present.
The development of digital technology opened the opportunity for me to experiment with digital video and in 2006 I was commissioned to produce a film to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the UN Department of Human Rights, ‘The 1981 Declaration on the Freedom of Belief’, held in Prague. The film was screened during the opening conference celebrations and made available ‘live’ on the world wide web. Two years later I was asked to make a film that would be used at the opening of the conference ‘Faith in Human Rights’ at the Peace Palace in The Hague, The Netherlands, hosted by STEK.*
At present I am making a number of short films on subjects such as progressive revelation, the life of Bahá’u’lláh and the history of the Bahá’í Houses of Worship. My recent fight with cancer has suddenly thrown these plans into sharp focus and I will be pushing to get these finished!
* STEK is Stichting voor Star en Kerk ‘Justice and Peace Netherlands’; they hosted the international conference ‘Faith in Human Rights’, an International Inter-Religious Conference under the umbrella of the United Nations. This was held at the Peace Palace which is the seat of the International Court of Justice in The Hague. At this conference the religious leaders of the world (including a representative of the Universal House of Justice) signed the ‘Faith in Human Rights’ Statement in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands.
Norfolk, September 2017