I was born in Cornwall on 14 May 1941. My parents were middle-class, non-practising Anglicans. They had retained high moral standards without the religion.
I went to a public boarding school where we attended chapel every morning, twice on Sundays, plus evening prayers at the `house’. I enjoyed the chapel services for the singing, the organ music and the Sunday sermon, usually a visiting speaker – not necessarily a clergyman, and usually of a high standard.
I was not particularly happy at school, but certainly there was the feeling that it was important what you believed. I was a practising Christian with doubts, and already at 16 or 17 intrigued by the other great religions, as I didn’t see why God should only be interested in Christians. When I left school I encountered a movement somewhat like Theosophy and came to believe in reincarnation.
When I arrived at Downing College, Cambridge in 1960 I had decided from the start that I wanted to learn more about other religions. Fortunately in Cambridge there’s a society for everything imaginable and at the start of each year there’s a Societies’ Fair where each has its stand. So, within days of arriving I found myself in front of the stand for the “Society for the Study of Religions” which I joined. In fact, although there were no Bahá’ís in the University at that time, the next-door stand was for the Bahá’í Faith, but I didn’t pay so much attention as I was more interested to know about all religions. However, the first talk organized by the Society for the Study of Religions was on the Bahá’í Faith and the speaker a certain Mr Ian Semple.
I remember nothing about what he said except that I liked it and that when we chatted after the talk he gave me the address of the Bahá’í Centre, 4 Gonville Place, which was just round the corner. From what he said I concluded that Bahá’u’lláh was undoubtedly inspired and no doubt if Bahá’ís didn’t believe in reincarnation it must be because `Abdu’l-Bahá had corrupted it! Anyhow I started to attend the weekly firesides and to read avidly. Modestly I said I didn’t want anything by anyone except the Founder, so my first book was Gleanings with which I didn’t get far! As for many people, I think the first thing that attracted me was progressive revelation and the relevance of the teachings to the present day as well as the spirit I found among the Bahá’ís themselves.
The firesides were excellent, but in fact I often popped round at other times and it soon became my second home. Every second week David Hofman would come to assist with the teaching and it was a lot of fun. Mahin Tofigh (later Humphrey) was the queen bee of the centre and it was quite a young community. For the first time I felt I could discuss essential issues no holds barred and obtain satisfying answers. With the Bahá’ís I felt free to be myself, no need to pretend or put up a false front; no feeling of being judged, accepted for what I was. I loved the Writings but what finally bowled me over was the early history. I read Bill Sears’ Release the Sun in one night and was carried away with excitement that such things could have happened so recently, that in our own age people had dropped everything to follow the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh with the same whole-hearted love and fervour with which Peter and the other disciples had abandoned their nets in another age.
A few days later I went to a students’ party. It was like a nightmare. In my emotional state I was revolted by the falseness of it. It seemed to me like a glimpse of hell as if everyone was wearing a mask. I felt totally sickened and had an irresistible urge to escape. I left the house and started running as if the devil himself was after me. Instinctively I ran to the Bahá’í Centre even though it was late. I knew it was my home and that I was a Bahá’í. Seated with Mahin I declared my faith and for the next two years I felt most of the time as if I was walking on air. I had an old camel-hair duffle coat my mother had been issued in the Wrens during the war and I used to say I wore it to keep me on the ground because I was so happy. Wherever I went I would sing as I walked along. I felt I must show people how happy I was.
When I `declared’ at the age of 19, Ian Semple gave me God Passes By and I got the Bahá’ís to sign it. Incidentally, Ian Semple was the first Oxford undergraduate to become a Bahá’í and, thanks to him, I became the first Cambridge undergraduate. A French girl who was attending the same firesides wrote: “Pas tout a fait, mais presque!” and signed, Denise. She `declared’ a few weeks later, just in time for our first wonderful Fast in 1961. There were quite a few lovely girls there at that time and I loved them all and certainly never imagined that a year later Denise (née Girardo) and I would be married and off on a honeymoon pilgrimage. Our wedding took place in Downing College. David Hofman called upon us to make our vows and Marion Hofman read the ‘Marriage Tablet’.
A little later there was another declaration there by an au pair girl from Switzerland, Louise Gloor, later to become Louise Semple following her pilgrimage. There was quite a string of declarations in Cambridge at that time from a combination of weekly firesides, Holy Day celebrations, parties and picnics by the river. The oldest was Ethel Rider who was 70.
For the Fast a good few of us would meet for breakfast and prayers at the Bahá’í Centre. As the College gates were locked at that hour I would creep out through the garden of one of the professors (I could hear him snoring as I went past his bedroom window!). At the Centre I’d help prepare the fruit for the muesli and gradually everybody would come down – Mahin, Ida Kouchekzadeh, Denise, and occasionally others, including David Hofman a couple of times, “pale, tired, but happy”. It was exceptionally good weather that year and after prayers and breakfast we would take cushions out on to the lawn and read the Writings until about 9 o’clock. During the Fast I did all my studying in the morning and even my essays, normally time-consuming and a source of anguish, seemed to write themselves. We have always loved the Fast ever since.
Our pilgrimage took place in 1962 immediately after our wedding. We flew to Nicosia, and met some of the Bahá’ís, both Greek and Turkish and a Dutch pioneer lady; then on by boat from Limassol, so we had the blessing of watching for our first glimpse of the Shrine of the Báb’s golden dome at dawn, along with crowds of excited Jews immigrating, mostly from Eastern Europe. We then had the privilege of a pilgrimage as instituted by the Guardian, as guests of the World Centre in the Western Pilgrim House. Mr Faizi was our guide to Akka and Bahji (where we slept, me in Paul Haney’s bed with the bars at the end sawn off to leave room for his feet!) and Mr Samandari related his meeting with Bahá’u’lláh. Lotfullah Hakim advised us how to pray at the Shrines and Rúhíyyih Khánum invited us to tea. While we were having lunch in the House of Abbud Mr Faizi showed us how to tell whether a boiled egg was hard or soft by spinning it.
Jessie and Ethel Revell looked after us and a guided visit to the town with Jessie was memorable – seeing her reach up on tiptoe to collect the mail from P.O. Box 155, buying cards and booking our return boat to Cyprus. Everywhere we entered she would be greeted ‘Good morning Miss Revell’ to which she would reply in a firm clear voice, ‘Good morning – Bahá’í pilgrims’. ‘When will the tickets be ready?’ ‘In two days time.’ I’ll call for them tomorrow morning’ – ‘Very good, Miss Revell.’
My first summer school was in Harlech. I recall two moments in particular: firstly a talk by Hand of the Cause, Dr Mûhlschlegel, I think on The Seven Valleys. What marked me especially was his repetition at various points in his talk “Ve must keep ze vision of the Faith”. How right, it needs feeding! The other was my first experience of Arabic chanting. I had become used to the sweet poetic chanting of the Persians. On this occasion I heard what seemed like a gun-shot from the chair behind me which made me jump and turn round to see who could be producing such an unheard of sound. It was Soheil Bushrui. Since then I have been to many summer schools in the UK, France and Poland.
Although we `declared’ towards the end of the Ten Year Crusade, after the passing of the Guardian, both Denise and I felt we were in effect “Guardian Bahá’ís”. There was such a spirit at that time that we had to win the Guardian’s plan. It was unthinkable to disappoint him. I remember Marion Hofman saying to me that she couldn’t read the Guardian’s writings, especially his letters, when she went to bed or she would be unable to sleep.
It was the time of the Ridván Rush (or shuffle). In 1963, just before the first World Congress, it seemed there could be no doubt that Denise should go off to save an Assembly. So many others were doing it and it was infectious. Just before Ridván the expected phone-call came through. Can you go immediately to Southport for three months? Yes, where is it? Near Liverpool. This was our first separation, though we met at the Congress, and fortunately there was a `declaration’ and she was released early. A lot has been said critically of this last-minute ditching, because it maintained Assemblies artificially, but spiritually it was extraordinary and gave poignancy to the Guardian’s oft-repeated exhortation that Assemblies must be saved “at all costs”, “whatever the sacrifice”. It was extraordinarily exhilarating to know that all over Britain there were Bahá’ís, young and old, their suitcases packed, waiting for a last-minute phone-call from the secretary of the Pioneer Committee to know where they should go. That was whole-hearted faith, unconditional obedience and willing sacrifice. It was exciting and we couldn’t wait to hear who had gone where, in what circumstances and against what odds. Each year, at National Teaching Conference, when Marion Hofman launched her appeal in the name of the Guardian, for pioneers to save old Assemblies or form new ones, for many of us it was impossible to stay in our seats, even if we knew that logically it was impossible to go. How often precious pioneers discovered through consultation and prayer that the impossible was possible! Many from that time are still mentioned in the newsletter “Pioneer Post”. Equally, those who, after consultation, found that they should stay where they were felt confirmed that they were in the right place.
Denise attended the whole of the 1963 World Congress, but because of looming exams I could only attend for three days. We stayed with Marian Mihaeloff in her flat in the basement of 27 Rutland Gate. In consequence Denise had the privilege of taking a tray of teas into the meeting (their first I think!) of the members of the Universal House of Justice. She was doing the simultaneous translation into French along with Micky Mihaeloff and Léa Nhys. At one point the speaker recalled Mulla Husayn’s resounding cry “Mount your steeds, O heroes of God”. Denise, instinctively updating it, translated it into the equivalent of “Get into your cars (en voiture!), O heroes of God”. It was a while before French-speakers heard anything more as all three translators were speechless with laughter.
That Congress was undoubtedly an unrepeatable experience. For most of us it was the first time we saw before our eyes a glimpse of united humanity. The successful fulfilment of the Guardian’s plan and the election of the first Universal House of Justice with the presence of so many Hands of the Cause together and iconic figures like ‘Uncle Fred’ from Australia, a Dyak ex-head-hunter and the first Bolivian Indian Bahá’í – all these things and many others touched and exhilarated our hearts.
In 1992 I was lucky enough to attend the second World Congress in New York and the friends in the Pays Basque had supplied me with traditional Basque costume to take part in the parade of the nations. For me the most emotional part was hearing the choir and orchestra and also the Gospel choir all of which seemed to add a new dimension to Bahá’í community and cultural life.
From the earliest stages each time we had a major decision to make (starting with our decision to marry) we would go to pray at the Guardian’s grave.
Having hesitated about what to do after my degree I applied to do teacher training in Cambridge but was too late. Eventually I was accepted by Swansea University where there was one Bahá’í, Frankie Durairutnam. We became good friends with our first landlords. They didn’t become Bahá’ís, but when some 30 years later I re-contacted them we stayed a couple of nights and found a Bahá’í prayer book and Pattern of Bahá’í Life by our bedside. Our second landlady, Denise Telfer (Dewar), generally known as Dee, became our first declaration. While in Hove she had known about the Faith for some 16 years and met several Hands of the Cause, but declared in Swansea which became the first Assembly to be formed in the 9-Year Plan through declarations.
Nickie our eldest daughter was born during our first year in Swansea (1964) and then Jago, our son, was born in 1966 but died following an accident 20 months later and is buried near the Guardian’s Resting Place.
In 1968, following consultations with the Pioneer Committee which, because we were both French-speaking, suggested a move to Dahomey (now Benin). However there was no work to be found there. I was offered a job in Kumasi, Ghana, but then the committee came back to us to consider either Orkney or to open the Inner Hebrides. I was keener on Africa, but to keep everybody happy agreed to apply for Scottish island jobs thinking there were unlikely to be any. I was immediately offered a job in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull of which we had never heard and which I somewhat reluctantly accepted thinking three years would be acceptable. A letter from Mr Faizi indicated he thought we might need 12 years and indeed 12 years it was!
Mull: While I became the single French, and later on German, teacher, Denise had a spell of ill-health. Our daughter, Rhiannon, was born in Oban in 1973 and a while later Denise got a dream of a job as part-time district nurse/midwife. Two teachers became Bahá’ís, meaning we were three Bahá’ís out of a staff of 12. All pupils got a chocolate for Naw-Rúz and the teachers a chocolate cake. With some further pioneers and a couple more declarations Mull’s first Assembly was formed in 1975 with Ted Cardell representing the National Assembly. There were many activities including children’s classes and the Faith was well known throughout the area.
The Basque Region:
In 1980, having handed in my notice we pioneered to the Pays Basque in France, one of the last remaining unopened virgin territories remaining in Western Europe. We arrived in October with our two girls and a tent. Eventually we found a temporary flat and I hired a van and brought as many belongings as could be fitted in it. Contrary to our expectations Denise did not find work as a nurse. I had done a crash TEFL course and as a back-up a few rudimentary lessons in leather-craft work. Initially I did a bit of English teaching and some leatherwork, but had no real income. Money became an issue, but we had our first declaration, Rhiannon’s teacher. Eventually Denise got a night-duty job in a Sanatorium in Cambo-les-Bains and I opened my first leather workshop. We established regular meetings and were joined by John Emlick, also a leather-worker and his wife Michelle. With various ups-and-downs we had further declarations, particularly the Dirasse family, genuine Basques, who have become pillars of the community. During this time I sold my leather business and started freelance teaching, eventually to staff in companies as well as other private lessons. During this time Denise became ill with cancer and died in 1996 and was buried in Sare. Shortly after this the first Local Assembly was formed in Bayonne.
In 1984 we attended our daughter Nickie and Vahid Mehrabi’s wedding in Haifa where they were both serving in the Maintenance department. Both David Hofman and Ian Semple, who had played such an important part in my Bahá’í life, attended.
Finding myself alone in Sare I tailored my teaching contracts to permit me to do teaching trips to the Ivory Coast where the Bahá’ís had set up a Teaching Institute in a province (Danané) where there had been many declarations. I went there three years running. I also served on the Basque Bahá’í Council, which was fairly unique in that it embraced both French and Spanish areas of the Pays Basque resulting in some interesting language challenges.
Return to Scotland: By this time I was beginning to feel it was time for me to move on. On a visit to Scotland to which both Nickie and Rhiannon had returned, I met my present wife, Carolyn, which led to our marriage in 2000 and I settled back in Scotland, initially in Bearsden, Glasgow, as Carolyn was then principal viola with the Scottish BBC Symphony Orchestra. Not finding suitable work there for me we moved to Moffat in Dumfries and Galloway to open that town and acquired a Guest House which we ran for three and a half years before down-sizing. During those early years of the institute process we held many training sessions for tutors and ran a youth course called History in the Making. We also did a lot of travel teaching in Europe, Mauritius, Madagascar, Senegal, Ireland, Canada, Orkney, Shetland and the Faroes. Although we had regular activities and linked up with the Bahá’ís in and around Dumfries this move did not lead to any declarations.
In 2008 we decided we wanted to be somewhere where there were other Bahá’ís with whom we could work as a team. We eventually picked Stirling, part of the Forth-Clyde “A” cluster, where we had good friends, Pat and Parvin Morrissey. This has proved to be a good move in that we have more Bahá’í activities. Carolyn also has more opportunities for her music and once a week I am teaching English to foreigners which is great fun. We are quite close to being able to re-form a Local Assembly. I am Bahá’í chaplain for the NHS in Central Scotland and also the University of Stirling. I also serve on the Central Scotland Interfaith committee as well as the Scottish Inter-Faith Group on Domestic Abuse on behalf of the Scottish Bahá’í Council, which latter exercise involves an interesting learning curve!
We run regular firesides and study books. Recently my book Letter to the Christians has been published in German and translations in Italian and Spanish await publication. Following our first visit to Mauritius for the launch of the English version of this book I produced a course (The Omega Course) aiming to help Bahá’ís feel better equipped to enter into dialogue with Christians. Apart from Mauritius I have also presented it in the Faroes, Poland, Birmingham, Liverpool, Stirling, Inverness and the Isle of Skye.
Updated December 2011
first written in April 1994