There are many stories, all inextricably interwoven, of those of us who became Bahá’ís in and around Henley in the ‘70’s. My recollections will inevitably have been romanticised and rendered inaccurate of detail with the passage of 40 years, but perhaps something of the spirit of those luminous, and for me genuinely thrilling days, may be captured in this personal account.
My twin brother Richard and I were born in Aberystwyth and lived the first few months of our lives in George Street, which apparently was a venue for some of the first Baha’i meetings in the city. My father believed in God, but while holding a notional loyalty to the Anglican chuch, thought religion was a bad idea; while our mother did not believe in God yet thought that religion was a vehicle for social change. I like to think that we got the better view of both parents, together with their strong views on social justice and aversion to all forms of prejudice. We used to attend a Congregationalist church with our grandmother, and used to colour in pictures of Jesus with blond hair so we would be rewarded with sugar mice, and at our subsequent boarding school we both became “confirmed” members of the Anglican church, all of which was pretty normal fare.
The summer of 1970 saw me attend a school ‘army camp’, and I returned to Henley with a friend where we discussed how war might be avoided so we would not have to go to fight. “Of course if there was only one army then we would not have to fight; but that would mean there would be no countries; and a world government then; but that could happen only after a lot of education, women and men both; yeah, and pigs might fly!” Then the door bell rang – it was Nick Richardson who lived up the road – “Have you met my new neighbours? Don’t let them tell you about their Bahá’í club…”
When my friend left, for no obvious reason I chose to walk up the street and introduce myself to a total stranger, which, for anyone familiar with the social norms of a 16-year-old in a place like Henley, was genuinely odd. Perhaps it was the allure of meeting ‘Americans’… 5 minutes later I found myself at the foot of a ladder where a sprightly Mary Hardy was painting the ceiling of her new house. “Have you heard about the Bahá’í faith?” “Here we go”, thought I. “We believe in the world as one country, a world government, education for all, equality of men and women…” she said.” “That’s odd”, I thought, as every word seemed to echo my conversation not half an hour before, so I agreed to join a ‘fireside’ the following Friday.
Thus it was that a 16-year-old confirmed Anglican at the end of a summer holiday from boarding school first encountered the Faith 150m up the street. Although my questions during confirmation classes had gone unanswered – if Jesus was the irresistibly powerful Son of God, how come it was Christians in England, Jews in Israel, they were Hindu in India and Arabia was full of Muslims? And what did it matter about being the ‘closest disciple’ if Judas betrayed Christ? I cannot say I was actively engaged in a spiritual quest; it would be more accurate to say that the Faith arrived gift-wrapped in my hand.
So I got to meet the Hardys – Mary, Brant, Sam, Gayle, Kathy and Joanne – as they settled into their new life, and of course we all thought Americans were very exotic, from the land of hippies and such, so it was no surprise that they would have an exotic religion as well. Mary loaned me a copy of Release the Sun which I read sitting in an old armchair in the attic of my school, while smoking French cigarettes and eating dried antelope meat, eventually scrabbling at the end pages wanting to know how the story continued. For the next year I would hitch-hike home on a Friday, and typically, now together with my brother Richard and a growing number of friends, friends of friends and school friends of the Hardys, joined the fireside to meeting a fantastic array of people and hear about Bahá’í ideas. House rules always applied: shoes off, clean, sober, and how graciously tolerant were the family of us all as we presumed on their personal space and family life (we would later appreciate how much of this they had given up, for we were too young to know any different and they were too polite to make it known).
By August 1971, Trevor Finch and I would occasionally visit the pub for a drink. One evening I must have been pretty drunk as I climbed to the top of the 6 storey fire station training tower and ‘relieved myself’ on the vehicles below. The following day my father counselled me about getting drunk, as unbeknownst to me I had also gone into my grandmother’s room that night, and pulled at the bedclothes and asked for ‘the book’.
A few days later, my next door neighbour Nick Talbot was organising the music for a disco at a local village hall. We were all there, but I forewent my usual beer for a bitter lemon which was just as well, as a fight broke out and both my brother and Nick Richardson were hurt. Two days later was the Feast of Asmá at the Hardys’ which we joined at the end. Sam Hardy was sitting on the floor complaining of a stomach ache, and I sought for a way to make her happy, if not comfortable and for no obvious reason, other than it was the only thing I could think of at the time: “I know, I’ll become a Bahá’í”. So I took a somewhat surprised Mary aside and signed a declaration card which was placed on the long mantelpiece over the fireplace alongside several others of recent weeks. I told my father of my declaration the following morning, and he looked somewhat askance over the corner of his newspaper. In later years he would celebrate that becoming Bahá’ís at least kept my brother and I off drugs and booze, although he struggled to make sense of it all by reading the Kitáb-i-Iqán. My Mum thought religion was useful for social improvement, but did not believe in God, while my Dad believed in God but thought that religion was a bad influence. I was perhaps lucky enough to get the good bits from their differing views on the subject, although it had been left to my Grandmother “Gu” to take my brother and me to church and the Sunday School where we would colour in pictures of a blond-haired Jesus with crayons to be rewarded with sugar mice. I have no idea whether my declaration brought any respite to Sam’s discomfort, but I was now a Bahá’í.
The following day (20 August 1971) we all attended a public meeting in Henley town hall featuring the opera singer Norman Bailey and pianist Sylvia Schulman followed by a film It’s Just the Beginning about a Bahá’í youth conference in Chicago, during which Trevor and I sat at the back making bad impersonations of Glenford Mitchell and laughing a lot. After the event we all went back to Mary’s for a cup of tea. High on enthusiasm and perhaps the accumulated adrenalin of a year of firesides, someone made their declaration, followed by another and another and eventually the entire mantelpiece was taken up with some 13 declaration cards including my brother Richard (whom Mary had met when she enrolled in a Judo class at the local youth club), Nick Richardson, his sister Kim, Nick Talbot, Trevor (who later served on the UK National Spiritual Assembly), his sister Becky, Martin Anderson, Neil Cameron (who lived over my back fence) and others whose names I have since forgotten, and those either then or following – Jenny and Martin Lockwood, Lizzie Reichold, Hugh Fixsen, Phil and Esmyr Koomen and more.
That Sunday we were all down at the pub again celebrating, this time with 13 pints of orange squash.
It was maybe three years before we could have a Local Spiritual Assembly as we were all too young… so we had to ‘make it up’ as we went along. There will be others who can recount more fully the stories of Matilda the converted ambulance sold to Brant by a couple of holidaying Australian nurses (friends now in Australia) and her travels notably to Liverpool and Belfast; the visit to Ted Cardell’s farm (the band Slade were performing nearby and a couple of skinheads dropped in and thought we the best people they had ever met…); adventures in Northern Ireland helping run an after-school day-care centre during the Troubles (I was famously asked whether I was a Protestant or a Catholic? “No, I’m a Bahá’í!” Aye, but are you a Protestant or a Catholic Bahá’í?”); picking up anyone who wanted to go ice-skating in London; listing those who banged their heads on the light that hung over Mary’s dining table as members of the ‘self-trepanation society’; a visit from Mr Olinga, the photograph of whose sweet face is only white eyes and an enormous row of shining teeth as he stood in a darkened doorway; breaking down a wall in Mary’s house to accommodate a visit from Mr Faizi; accommodating a group of Hells’ Angels who preferred to eat the daffodils in favour of the usual tea and biscuits; the visit of the Alaskan music group Windflower; regular coordinated ‘street teaching’ in nearby Oxford, Reading, Wokingham, Slough, Maidenhead (a precursor to the idea of a ‘cluster’ where, like many of us, I learned to type at the one finger newsletter typing academy); the ‘One Penny Folk Concert’ series that saw us learn how to hire and arrange a venue and organise and advertise a cabaret to entertain several hundred (no-one comes to a free concert, and if you charge $10.00, then you had better give $10.00 worth of entertainment – but a single penny: now that is intriguing); the surprise drop-in support for firesides in other communities; breaking in to Stonehenge to say prayers one night; the conferences in Padova and Plon; Easter Schools at the Henley youth centre and Summer Schools in Ireland; and a stream of visitors so wide and varied that at times it felt like the whole world could be found at the Hardys’ home… There can be hardly anyone of the ‘70’s, perhaps even the ‘60’s who would not have some connection with those days.
The night of the concert was also the first time I met Sholeh Shirazi who had recently arrived in the UK from Yemen (and was staying with Mary Kouchekzadeh in nearby Aylesbury) who loved to hang out with us all, and 15 years later our paths would cross again, and we would marry. Our daughter Anisa chose the same date to make her declaration…
I went on to study architecture in Canterbury, and pioneered to Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and now Australia where Sholeh and I live in Perth while Anisa is married and lives on Vancouver Island near my brother.
While several of those who made their declarations are no longer active Baha’is, many of us remain friends. Friendship and common experience is the foundation for any enduring relationship, although that alone is insufficient to sustain and deepen one’s personal faith and is even sometimes counter-productive to new friendships – all useful lessons, if hard learned.
These experiences were founded on hospitality, in a neighbourhood, supported by a ‘cluster’ of communities, and activities all of which have resonance with Bahá’í activities as they have become today. I am and will be eternally grateful to the many friends, and in particular the Hardy family, for being such an important part of my life, for the enduring friendships and adventures that flowed and the perspective and path of my life that has followed.
When Hand of the Cause Dorothy Baker realised she would be leaving ‘Abdu’l-Bahá for the last time, he comforted her with these words, which ring as true a wish as anyone might hope for:
“We will see each other again, and will recount what befell us in the pathway of God. And we shall laugh about it very much.”
Perth, Australia, October 2012