Memory lacks the objectivity of ‘real’ history, which is based on verifiable events, recognized artefacts and a reliable paper trail. Memory is the drain filter of life, it catches all the chunky bits, but that doesn’t necessarily make them either comestible or of particular value … until the day you accidentally lose your wedding ring in the shower. In other words, I’m offering this as gold, but it may contain some copper. In addition, there may be some parts of this story that offend more refined sensibilities than my own. You have been warned. – Hugh
I grew up as a much-loved and very happy middle child of five in the kind of family one would call “milieu C of E”, for want of a better description. We knew all the hymns and went to church at Easter and Christmas, but that was about it. When I was seven or eight years old I joined the local parish choir, as my brother had before me. However, it soon became apparent that my voice was too good for this level of performance and so began a year of rigorous training followed by my weary trek from Cathedral to Cathedral, audition to audition. Between the ages of 9 and 13 I was a probationer, chorister, and finally a Dean’s Scholar in the Cathedral choir of Llandaff in Wales, where people really know how to sing! I spent about 1,800 hours of my childhood life in the disciplined limelight of a professional choir. This included services at Easter and Christmas, when other kids were at home with their families. I absolutely adored it and would not trade a minute of it for any other life. Later I received an academic bursary plus a scholarship for voice and violin to All Saint’s School Bloxham, a Woodard boarding school with strong Christian traditions and a great cultural life. I loved the music and drama and literature associated with my faith, and knew my Bible well, but apart from a brief period when I was about 12 and toyed with the idea of becoming a priest, I was never especially religious, nor was religion a subject of conversation in my family. I sensed no lack in my life, no empty space waiting to be filled. Indeed I never thought of myself as someone seeking something or anything in particular until the day I found it or, to put it more plainly, it found me.
It was 1971, the summer of my nineteenth year. I had recently returned from an intriguing but best-left-unreported period of my life spent in an increasingly volatile Greece (sounds familiar?), to resettle temporarily in my parents’ home in the village of Stamford Green, on the outskirts of Epsom.
As a young singer-songwriter, I was already considering a career in the music industry and busily engaged in various recording sessions with a view to hooking up with a major record company. A key aid in this process was my elder brother’s expertise in recording, considerably strengthened by his recent meteoric rise from humble studio-mixer designer to onstage technical expert to the stars. It was he who accidentally set in train the serendipitous sequence that would eventually bring me to the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh.
My brother had recently equipped The Grateful Dead with the largest stage PA ever assembled to that date. The idea was not to be louder than others, simply clearer and cleaner. After a most successful European tour, he received from Jerry Garcia, along with the usual remuneration, a small sealed package of tiny blue tablets, the very finest “California Sunshine” (LSD of exceptional purity), which he generously shared with me. Thus the stage was set for the first part of what was to become a strange spiritual journey.
Although the teenage urge to try everything I could lay my hands on had already left me after some bad experiences in Greece, I was nonetheless fascinated by this almost legendary substance. Therefore I decided to wander in the footsteps of Huxley on a series of relatively controlled trips to the outer reaches of the human mind. My companions were Brahms, Elgar and, quite particularly, Sibelius, alongside the more contemporary offerings of Captain Beefheart, the Incredible String Band or Frank Zappa. This period of experimentation also involved a lot of long walks in the countryside, ecstatically aware of my heightened sensory perception and that sense of oneness with all created things so typical of this particular psychotropic. One of these walks was by moonlight on a glorious night in midsummer and it turned out to be life-changing.
As I meandered through the meadows, birch and oak woods of Epsom Common, I was constantly being “nudged” by a powerful inner message: that the next few hours would reveal to me such a secret as would not only change my own life, but the life of the entire world. Being by now used to the kind of delusions that could arise in such an unhinged state, I tried to set this inner voice aside and simply concentrate on the beauty of the night, its scents and sounds. However, try as I might, the sensation of being steered toward some kind of destiny only grew stronger as the night wore on, even as the effects of the tiny tablet were diminishing into a general afterglow. I was thus understandably disappointed when a glorious sun rose on another dawn, and I had not yet received any kind of earth-shaking revelation.
And so it came about, that after a sleepless night I found myself at 9:00 in the morning, exhausted but still alert, standing in line for a cup of coffee and a bun at a café in Epsom town centre frequented mainly by housewives out shopping and art students between courses. I sat down at a free table and began to look out of the window, at first in a daydream but gradually with a rising sense that something strange was taking place: for as I looked at the people hurrying by, I seemed to see, either on or close to every one of them, a point of light. This light appeared to emanate, not from the people themselves, but as if projected through them from some point behind or beyond, as if they themselves were illusions projected on glass, but that the light was something real shining through. There seemed also to be no direct correlation between the outline of each figure and the position of the light. One man seemed to have his light shining through his shoulder; one lady had hers on her chest, another floating near her head. Each light was of a different size and strength. Some lights were quite strong and healthy, others very weak, barely visible. Neither was any relationship apparent between the intensity or size of the light and the appearance of the person concerned. They all looked equally ordinary and hum-drum. It was a most unusual sight, something I had certainly never seen before, despite a deal of experience with LSD, and something I have never seen since, regardless of my level of awareness.
It was at this moment that I became aware of a young man about my own age, standing in the queue. Although he seemed tired and even a bit sad, yet to me his whole being was simply brimming with light. It streamed off him in scintillating bands. I was astonished. This was quite unlike any of the passers-by I had just been looking at. Certain that this apparition held either the answer or at least a clue to the life-changing secret I was meant to discover; I called him over to join me at my table. No sooner had he sat down than I said, perfectly distinctly and unequivocally: “You have something important to tell me!”
He began to talk about everything except what I was waiting to hear. He spoke of his journey from overseas, of his college and how he had invested his inheritance in this opportunity to study art. He told me how disappointed he was in his teachers and their methods in that very unstructured period in British art when anything and nothing was possible at once and no one really wanted to teach you the necessary skills of your craft, such as line drawing from life, preparing a canvas, working in oils, the laws of perspective and the philosophy and science of colour. He felt cheated and was seriously considering giving up altogether and going home.
I found this all very touching and honest, coming from someone I didn’t know, but all the time I was turning each word over to see if it held some clue or indication that related in some way to my conviction of the previous night. But there was nothing there. We were having one of those conversations typical of people of a certain age and attitude, but no more than that. However, before he hurried back to class, he took my name and my phone number.
A curious thing happened that same afternoon. I received a phone call from someone I had recently met at a party in London, who worked for the BBC in a casting capacity. He seemed to have been positively impressed by our conversation that evening and told me that the BBC was planning to shoot a documentary based on the daily work experience of a group of young actors (I’m afraid I had rather talked-up my stage and production capacities, which were in fact pretty minimal) in the context of an experimental theatre company. Today we would refer to such a project as “reality TV”. Back then, such a high-risk strategy was almost unheard of. The idea was to provide us with a disused old theatre, a single large apartment to live in and a production budget. The rest was up to us: what we played, how, when, how often etc. a film team would arrive once we were settled in to film us at work and at play, at home in the apartment and in the theatre itself, in all our creative moments, conflicts, crises and resolutions. Was I interested? Yes, of course I was! Within days I was on my way to Bristol, where the BBC’s western office was supposed to take care of us.
Soon after our arrival (there were seven “actors”, four of whom were quite experienced and a young director who had already done some work in the past for the BBC) we found that the theatre was in dire need of repair and that the “single large apartment” was in fact a basement in Clifton with dodgy plumbing and damp patches. Six of us actors shared this space, while the director and the prettiest of the actresses lived further up the hill in a charming little flat with a balcony. The promised production budget never arrived; neither did the film crew – although we did have our rent covered for three months. It transpired, as we heard later through the grapevine, that at a subsequent meeting the project had been shelved, but that no one had bothered to tell us. This was how we did not become a famous precursor of Big Brother, merely a footnote in a few CVs. However, we bravely soldiered on and even put on one half-way decent production before the rug was pulled out from under our feet and I returned home once more with my tail between my legs, this time to a rather chilly reception, as my long-suffering parents had really thought they were rid of me at last.
But the reason I mention this sojourn in Clifton is because I was, quite unknown to me at the time, in close proximity to the house ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stayed in during his visit to Bristol exactly sixty years before. Someone once told me it was only a street away, but it was actually a little further than that, in Royal York Crescent, just behind York Gardens, where our director lived and where we did our ‘read-throughs’. And also because it was in this basement flat in Albemarle Row, Clifton that I had a strange dream. In my dream I was looking into a room, a very particular type of stucco-ornamented, high-ceilinged, oriental-carpeted room, lit with long windows down one side. I turned and descended a tiled staircase into a little courtyard with a well and a fruit tree. I exited through an iron gate and found myself on a street I already knew, “rue Vieille du Temple” in Paris … end of dream. In addition, it was during this brief stay in Bristol that I first saw the word “Bahá’í”. It was on a decal stuck in a second-floor window of a house on our street. I think the sticker said: “Bahá’í Faith: Mankind United” … I remember thinking it referred to a football team.
Back home in Epsom I was faced for the first time in my life with a total impasse. All avenues seemed closed. My music dream was temporarily on ice. My thespian future had collapsed. My friends were either out of the country or at university. My girlfriend, in her last year of school, was pleased to see me again, which was gratifying indeed, but otherwise prospects were bleak. One day, while shopping for bread in town, I thought of the art student I had met in the café. I wondered if he was still around, if he was happier in his studies or still just as miserable. Upon leaving the bakery, imagine my surprise when I quite literally bumped into him! He seemed inordinately pleased to see me. I could not understand it. We hardly knew one another. Why was he jumping up and down like a puppy that’s just retrieved its favourite squeaky toy from under the couch? We walked and talked for awhile until it was time for him to go back to college. This time he spoke of his dreams for a better world and was clearly very pleased to see that they coincided in every point with my own. Before we parted, he made sure to invite my girlfriend and me for supper that same evening. Things were looking up.
That evening, I remember it as being mid-week, after we had eaten a slightly Caribbean sort of meal; our new friend told us that he had another engagement at the house of an acquaintance, but that we were welcome to come with him. It was, he said, a “Bahá’í Fireside”. Something about this word rang a bell of familiarity that I couldn’t quite place. We both felt it a bit odd to invite people for supper and then go swanning off elsewhere with a vague suggestion that they might like to follow. But it was still the afterglow of the sixties and such curious informality was well within the norm.
We arrived on foot at a large house in Epsom where the living-room was chock full of people listening to a couple of musicians from Canada. I found something strange about this group of people. They were all far too “different” from one another. Usually, people with a common interest have a common look. All train-spotters look somehow alike, as do ecologists, engineers, estate agents, rugby players, architects, born-again Christians, Rotarians … but something tied these disparate people together, and that something must be very powerful indeed, because they were types who would not normally associate freely with one another.
After the lads from Canada* had played a few songs and talked a little about the Bahá’í Faith, there was a sort of silence in which we, being newly invited, seemed to be expected to ask questions. I began not only to ask questions, but also, much to my own astonishment, to answer them too, amidst general surprised nodding and smiles from all around me. I was by now entering a state of mind which was unfamiliar, a state where I was aware of being moved about as by a giant finger on my forehead. I was no longer entirely my own person and it was not a pleasant sensation at all. The Canadians began to show some slides. The second or third slide was a glimpse into a room. I whispered to one of the Canadians, whose name I remember as Grant, that I was sure I knew that room, that I’d seen it before somewhere. There was a tiled staircase descending to a small courtyard with a raised well or cistern and a fruit tree … I wasn’t sure which kind of fruit.
“It’s an orange tree”, he said. “It’s the next slide” … and there it was. As we were at this time in the Iranian city of Shiraz, I didn’t say that in my version of this house, the gate opened onto a street in Paris whose name referred to the tearing of a veil. It seemed somehow inappropriate. My girlfriend, who was cross-legged on the floor beside me tugged on my trouser leg just then and whispered that she felt a bit odd and could we go home now? I agreed about the oddness and turned to the Canadian to excuse us both, because it was getting late etc. However, when I tried to get up I found I could not move my legs. They simply didn’t want to leave with me. Thus I stayed seated for quite a few more minutes until the Canadian politely inquired: “Weren’t you two wanting to go home just now?” “Yes,” I said, “but I have the feeling that I can’t leave this room before I become a Bahá’í”, to which he replied that there was nothing preventing that.
At this news everyone was absurdly happy and a general search was started for our art student friend, my spiritual father, Lindsay Moffat. He turned out to be hiding under the kitchen table crying his eyes out. I later learned that at exactly the same time that I had been wandering through the woods that summer night, believing that something life-changing was about to happen, he (having himself become a Bahá’í only a very short time before) was up on Epsom Downs, on the other side of town, walking the deserted racetrack and praying Baha’u’llah with all his might; please, please to send him someone with whom he could share this message. And on the very next day a complete stranger calls him across to his café table and says: “You have something important to tell me” … and he totally failed to deliver the goods! Since then he had tried to contact me by phone, but my parents had told him I’d gone away to Bristol, leaving no address. This news had sent him into such a depression that in all those intervening weeks he had hardly left his room. Indeed, the day I went shopping for bread was apparently his first visit to town in a couple of months.
So, there I was, surrounded by delighted and delightful people, with my rather confused girlfriend politely trying not to spoil the ambience. I was on the brink of signing the card when I had a sudden flash of certitude: “I’m sure you people don’t drink alcohol”, I said, which they confirmed. “I’ll be back tomorrow morning, then.” The truth was that I had a bottle of my favourite poison which was calling to me at that very moment. Upon arriving home I drained it to the dregs, slept the sleep of a baby and awoke without even the slightest trace of a hangover. As promised I returned to the house (of Patrick and Christine Beer, by the way) and signed my registration card as the newest member of Epsom’s fast-growing Bahá’í community.
Some time passed, and I found myself on a musical teaching-trip through North Wales. One night we performed in Bangor and after the show there was a fireside at the house of two young Bahá’ís who had quite recently moved there.** The lady of the house seemed strangely familiar. “Excuse me”, I asked, “but could you turn slightly away, please, I’d like to see your profile”. She found this an odd request but complied nonetheless. I raised an accusatory finger. “Bristol”, I said, “Clifton, Albemarle Row, number 9 I think, you had a red Austin Mini. I saw you climb out with a box of groceries and go into the house. You lived in a flat on the second floor with a sticker on the window saying “Bahá’í Faith: Mankind United”. She told me they had only been there a few weeks before moving up to North Wales and had not had any particular success at making new contacts. They’d always considered their stay in Clifton to have been a bit of a failure.
* The group may have been ‘Windflower’ but Hugh is unsure. They may have been living in Belgium or Germany at the time.
** The lady’s name was Judy and her husband was Dave. Hugh says he served briefly on the LSA with them in Bethesda/Bangor at a later date and before he left for Germany. Chris & Carolyn Eaton-Mordas were also members of that LSA, in Hugh’s recollection. They were close friends of Chris and Carolyn Gibbs and Viv and Ed Povey.
Hugh Featherstore Blyth
Belgium, December 2011