Close encounters at a tender age
Though I did not realise it at the time, my first encounter with the Bahá’í Faith was when I was aged seven, though it took another five years for me to begin to comprehend the reality and potential implications. We had just moved house across Manchester to Chorlton and my class teacher was an exceptional woman who made me feel very much at home in my new school environment. As a seven year old, my impressions were of a very loving, enthusiastic and warm-hearted lady with twinkling eyes and an almost permanent smile. Her name was Betty Shepherd. Betty was a member of the Manchester Bahá’í community. She later pioneered with her husband, Harold, and children to Inverness. In later life Betty moved to the Orkneys. Whilst in Scotland she was appointed an Auxiliary Board member.
Five years after having met ‘Mrs Shepherd’ I was devastated when one of my school pals, Martin Coombes, announced that he and his family were emigrating to Australia. By this stage the Grant and Coombes families had become close friends. Martin’s mother, Mary, decided to host a hen party before the family left the country and my mother, Connie, attended in full expectation that she would be back home by about 11.00.p.m. – in the event it was nearer 3.00 a.m. Catching up on old acquaintances proved very time-consuming but the principal reason for the ‘late night out’ was meeting Betty again. At one point Betty mentioned that she was going to a Bahá’í meeting to which my mother responded ‘What on earth is one of those?’ From this point forth the life course of the whole Grant family changed.
My parents, Connie and Gordon Snr., both became Bahá’ís several months before the 1963 Bahá’í World Congress in London. It would be years before I declared myself a Bahá’í but I recall 1963 vividly. Both my parents attended the Congress, returning with countless stories about that momentous event. They brought back pages of newspaper clippings. Particularly memorable were the photographs of the Bolivian Indians in traditional costume so it was especially significant for me as a teenager (16 years at the time) to meet those same individuals when they travelled to Manchester after the Congress.
NSA meetings at the family home
The family home was always full of Bahá’ís. In those days the National Spiritual Assembly (of the then Bahá’ís of Great Britain) occasionally met at our Chorlton home in Manchester. I soon found myself exploiting the talents of individual members. Though I still considered myself an agnostic at this time, the NSA members fielded all my questions with patience and with a quiet and impressive authority. I recall conversations with Betty Reed, Philip Hainsworth, Charles Macdonald, John Long and Adib Taherzadeh but I think I must have ‘interrogated’ all the NSA members at some time or another. I knew that it was only a matter of time before I declared – but I still had personal hurdles to deal with – largely tied to a skepticism of organised religion and of a perception that every faith group I came across seemed to claim a monopoly of the truth.
A stream of Bahá’í visitors
By now Betty and Harold Shepherd and their children, Brian and Ann, had pioneered to Inverness, but Harold was a frequent visitor as he still had business to deal with in Manchester. Many a time my mother would return from shopping to find the kettle whistling away in the kitchen with Harold reading the Manchester Evening News after another return trip from Scotland. Those were happy days.
My parents were by now an integral part of the Manchester Bahá’í community. Dad was elected Chairman of the Local Spiritual Assembly for many years and Mum also was a serving member of the LSA. Dad was a quiet, self-effacing person. He had a strong sense of fair play and social justice and took naturally to the Bahá’í model of consultation. It was no surprise to me that he kept finding himself in chairing roles. Two other figures in the Manchester and Stockport communities reminded me very much of my father, not only in terms of their values and personalities but also, uncannily, in their looks. They were Harold Campbell and Frank Worsley. Harold was a great philosopher who, like my father, stumbled across the Faith when middle-aged. He had been greatly influenced, I seem to recall, by Buddhist teachings and possessed wonderful insights into matters of the spirit. Frank and his wife Min were wonderful Bahá’í servants and turned up to meetings wherever they happened to be, often offering lifts in their Hillman Imp to those, like my parents, who were without personal transport at the time.
Ours was an old Victorian house. It had 13 rooms spread over four floors and was, I suppose, an ideal Bahá’í home, capable of accommodating lots of people. Mum was an exceptional host, a great cook and very adept at responding to unexpected situations. One such was a pea-souper of a fog following a Bahá’í event – the fog was so dense that it was dangerous to drive very far, the result being that the Grant home became an overnight refuge for stranded friends. I cannot recall how many people stayed over to be fed, watered and given a bed or a few square meters of floor space, but I do remember Mum never being so relieved to find a hidden can of baked beans at the back of a cupboard. At least no-one would expire! Mum was as good a conversationalist as she was a listener, never afraid to let old class divides and conventions become barriers to a good old natter. Inquisitive by nature, she was predisposed to ask not only ‘why’ but ‘why not’? Even though she spoke only English my mother never allowed language to be a barrier to Farsi or Arabic speaking friends – her non-verbal communication skills were inventive and at times comedic. They were certainly endearing qualities and another reason why people were attracted to our home.
Hand of the Cause of God, Mr Samandari
But during my teenage years other events were already having formative influences. Perhaps the most enduring of all influences was meeting Hand of the Cause of God, Mr Samandari. Mr Samandari and his grandson spent several days at our family home and during this period Mr Samandari held meetings and gave presentations at the Manchester Bahá’í Centre. When I was five years old I acquired a small wooden spindle-back chair from my parents. It turned out to be the perfect size and shape to accommodate Mr Samandari’s frame. Daily he spent hours in ‘my chair’, meditating in front of the fire, occasionally breaking to take a cup of tea. Never have I seen anyone take such care over the consumption of food, the entire procedure orchestrated with such care and attention. Nothing was rushed. I was fascinated by the way he sweetened his tea – fist a sip of black tea, then a taste of marmalade on a spoon, the marmalade occasionally ‘dunked’ in the tea, the whole process repeated. Being at this time the only surviving Bahá’í ever to have been in the presence of Baha’u’llah, Mr Samandari was a truly special figure of great historical importance.
Still a not a declared Bahá’í, I was totally unprepared when Mr Samandari asked me one day if there was anything I wanted to ask him. A million thoughts flashed through my mind before I spluttered a double-barrelled question: ‘Could you please tell me what it was like to be in the company of Bahá’ulláh, and what did He look like?’ I was unprepared for the answer. Mr Samandari told me that it was impossible to convey a sense of Bahá’ulláh’s looks because the spiritually penetrating power of His eyes made it impossible to look upon Him in the conventional way, but His demeanour and love for those around Him evoked a natural desire amongst those in His company to serve Him. It must have been truly awesome and inspiring. Imagine then my own and my family’s delight when, before departing for the next leg of his journey, Mr Samandari wrote a tablet to the family to thank us for our hospitality. We had already heard of his expertise as a calligrapher and were therefore especially blessed and privileged to be the recipients of something written in his own hand.
Later we had a Professor of Persian Studies at Manchester University translate the tablet. He told us that it was the most difficult piece he had ever attempted to translate and that he could not do justice to the feelings and emotions that our guest had committed to paper. The original and the translation remain in the family archives and a copy lies with the National Spiritual Assembly. The ‘Samandari’ chair, as it is now known, had its sixtieth birthday last year and remains with us, looking as sturdy, strong and even more sat-upon than it did all those years ago.
Getting into the Bahá’í community
By the time I was ready to take up my studies at Manchester University I had become well acquainted with most of the Bahá’ís in the local communities of Stretford, Manchester, Cheadle, Stockport, Salford and Eccles. Albert Joseph, one of the very early British believers, probably knew Shoghi Effendi better than almost anyone. I still recall Albert’s occasional accounts of meetings with the Guardian in Albert’s Manchester warehouse that took place sitting on woven clothes’ skips. Like others I tried many times to encourage Albert to recount these anecdotes but he was usually reluctant to do so. Many of us invited Albert to write down his memories but sadly we were not successful. Recalling those early days was still an emotionally charged experience for Albert and he felt that words could never satisfactorily express what he wanted to say. Even though Albert rarely spoke about the Guardian, his warmth of heart, humour and knowledge attracted people like myself to him like a magnet. Still not yet a declared Bahá’í I attended Friday night firesides at Jimmy and Ruth Habibi’s home. The Habibi’s firsesides were almost an institution in the Greater Manchester area and people travelled long distances to attend what were always lively, enjoyable and informative gatherings. I continued to be touched by the love and respect that the Bahá’ís had for one-another but I realised that if I was to declare myself I would need to be away from home and completely free of any family influence.
Dr Ta’eed enters the fray
During my studies I developed an interest in mental health issues and became friendly with Dr Ta’eed and his family who lived not so far away in Billinge near Wigan. One day Dr T. invited Margaret, my fiancée, and me to visit his hospital where he was a consultant psychiatrist. We had a wonderful afternoon being escorted through all the hospital departments before being invited to the Ta’eed home for tea. I had no idea of what lay in wait. Tea turned out to be a fireside with a house full of friends. The moment for which I had been waiting for several years suddenly came upon me and I asked Dr Ta’eed if I could speak to him privately. It was to him that I made my declaration. It was 1969. Despite being younger than me by four years, my brother, David, had nevertheless beaten me to it, having declared some months earlier.
Later the same year I found myself on the Local Spiritual Assembly of Manchester, the Local Youth committee, and later the North of England Teaching Committee and the National Community Development Committee – the latter produced deepening materials. They were daunting experiences. I had had ample time to study the theory of consultation over the many years of attending firesides – the ‘application’ was of course quite different – but then I was to discover that everyone was still struggling to put theory into practice.
Margaret and I had a Bahá’í wedding in August 1969 attended by a hundred or so family and friends. We were blessed to have Adib Taherzadeh officiating. Adib was a member of the National Spiritual Assembly at the time. Years later he was elected to the Universal House of Justice. Our wedding was the first opportunity for many of my relatives to be in direct contact with Bahá’ís apart from my parents, so it was a wonderful teaching event, save for the slight hitch with the tape recorder when the music which was supposed to herald Margaret’s entrance, Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’, blurted out ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue’ instead. But it all turned out well in the end.
I recall well the first Nineteen Day Feast that Margaret and I hosted after our wedding. We had rented a flat in a large Victorian house but there were no carpets and few chairs. Imagine our surprise when Bahá’ís from everywhere descended upon us. But it did not matter. Everyone sat on floorboards. And we had a great Feast, the first of many.
Firesides and all that
Two years later in 1972, following some postgraduate research and, for Margaret, a change of school where she was teaching drama, we moved into the neighbouring Stretford community to join Elsie Gibbs. It was our first experience of being in a Bahá’í group. We started weekly firesides on a Monday evening and soon developed a core of regular attendees. A number of declarations followed – Margaret’s parents (Jim and Ada Hufton), Janet Bayat, Barbara Ogden and Bert Saville. Some of the youth members who came along – David Brown and David Armes for example – particularly enjoyed the deepenings we organised. Whilst Margaret was exploiting her dramatic talents at Bahá’í events I was led into rather more conventional pursuits like occasional public speaking or leading deepenings. At one point we staged quite an adventurous event in Longford Park – an outdoor exhibition. I recall spending hours cutting out large polystyrene letters for the display before erecting the boards in our postage stamp sized back garden, much to the consternation of our neighbours. Longford Park was a great success as a proclamation event and we were fortunate to be blessed with fine sunny weather.
Thinking of those early days I feel truly blessed to have stumbled into the paths of so many wonderful friends and personalities who have made lasting impressions on me. Gita Chaplin from Eccles, a lady of substance with a huge heart and a voice capable of filling the Manchester Free Trade Hall, was a stickler for respecting Bahá’í administrative rules. I recall visiting her before I declared, only to find that a19 Day Feast was in progress, and found myself having to wait outside until the business was complete. And quite proper too! Gita referred to Margaret and me subsequently as ‘her cuddlies’. So many of the Baha’i ladies of Greater Manchester at the time – Pouri Habibi, Ruth Habibi, Shahlah Haqjoo and Gita Chaplin of course – were talented cooks and enchanting hostesses.
Social events were understandably a delight and I recall very large Naw-Rúz gatherings that were true feasts. Ruhi Shakibaie, photographer extraordinaire, had one of the most infectious laughs I have ever heard, and it seemed that there was a perpetual smile on his face. The Mottahed boys were always a great bundle of fun – I recall a ‘spice-tasting’ session in Shahram’s flat above the Manchester Baha’i Centre when he slipped other household substances like soap flakes into the mix just to confuse us, whilst also having us frothing at the mouth. Shahram later became a dentist – I wonder if there is a link there? The Senior family – Pauline, Frank and Adele – were a joy to be around not least because of the laughter they created. Florence Fairclough, for many years the LSA secretary in Manchester, had a voice and disposition that continue to remind me of early characters in Coronation Street.
We certainly knew how to party and enjoy ourselves, but there was of course a serious underbelly tied to teaching, deepening and proclamation activities with weekly firesides, public meetings and weekend schools – and there was no shortage of devoted souls like Louis Ross-Enfield, Bahadur Haqjoo, Habib Habibi, Bill and Madeline Hellaby, Lou and John Turner Snr., and Joan and Ernest Gregory regularly attending to share their knowledge and to facilitate learning.
After three years in Stretford (later amalgamated into the Trafford community) Margaret and I, together with our daughter Claire of one month, pioneered to Anglesey (Ynys Mon). It was December 1974. By Ridvan 1975 we were fortunate to have had some declarations and Anglesey formed its first Local Spiritual Assembly. Betty Goode officiated on that historic occasion on behalf of the National Spiritual Assembly.
Personal reflections – Anglesey onwards
Looking back, I think that the bigger questions at a local Baha’i community level were always tied up with reaching a balance between proclamation, teaching, deepening and pastoral activity. Guided, as ever, by the cycle of universal plans set down by the Universal House of Justice, it still remains a challenge, I think, to be sure if the prioritization and implementation of plans locally are about right. Though there is such clarity about the core activities, I still feel that it is too easy to overlook community pastoral and welfare needs. Even in the UK where there is a welfare state and a health service free allegedly at the point of delivery, there is gross and seemingly intractable inequality between rich and poor, a large and growing number of people with long-term needs for care and support, lots of people with fragmented familial and social relationships, and many others who are disempowered or lack voice for different reasons. Addressing those needs, I think, is as essential to being human, community bonding and community building as the core activities.
Besides the adoption of major commitments towards inclusion, equality and human rights, one of the keys to sorting these issues out is of course consultation. I think we all know that when this works well it is almost magical, and certainly transformative. When this has been the case I have always wanted to bottle it like a prized potion and keep it stored safely until it is needed again. But consultation as practised can also be subject to the frailties of the human condition – too much candour and not enough courtesy, quantity rather than quality of talk, and inattention to putting into practice decisions made. But perhaps, as you get older – I am now in my mid sixties – your attention span becomes more strained, and long meetings, especially when they come at the end of the day, are more inclined to send you to sleep!
I have been extremely fortunate to be married to my true soulmate, Margaret, who has been my spiritual mentor, sounding board and confidante for over four decades. There have been times when we have both been tested by family tribulations, Bahá’ís and all manner of life events, but our Bahá’í marriage and our essential oneness of purpose has seen us through everything – so far. I doubt without the Faith that we would have managed.
We were also blessed to have a son, Andy, born almost three years after Claire, and our home was soon full of youngsters from the neighbourhood. Though Claire and Andy have long since ‘flown the nest’, we continue to revel in opportunities to have especially young children in our home and to hear their playful laughter whenever we host events.
A poignant moment
Not long after I had taken up an appointment at Bangor University I had the good fortune to work alongside John Turner. We were part of a three-person research team investigating the delivery of social care in rural areas. Most of our fieldwork was carried out in Wales, entailing a good deal of travel. John and I had split a huge segment of North Wales into two, each of us taking responsibility for co-ordinating the work in each area. One morning John set out to do some interviewing but he never returned home. He had been seriously injured in a road accident, and passed away later the same day, leaving behind his wife, Zoe, and one year old daughter, Anisa. It was an unimaginably devastating time for John’s family. That moment in time has been frozen in my memory ever since. For me, John was the personification of all the best attributes of being human and in so many ways set a standard that I could never attain in relation to his scholarship, his artistic talents and his insights into matters of faith. For all that you could not meet a more modest, gentle and giving human being. When I reflect on John’s passing the first thought that comes into my head is usually ‘Why not me, why John?’ Inevitably, I then find myself consumed by a range of emotions. I have often pondered the relationships between destiny, predisposition and coincidence but confess that these continue to remain a mystery to me.
After 23 years
Our move to North Wales was never intended to be long-term. How wrong could we be! New friendships and our gradual assimilation into the wonderful Welsh culture cemented our identity with the community in which we lived. It prompted Margaret to take a close interest in Druid and Roman culture, eventually leading her to write a novel that she is hoping shortly to publish as an e-book. Through both work and NGO affiliations I became quite involved in lobbying MPs from all political parties – Plaid Cymru, Labour and Conservative – about human rights issues and especially the plight of Iranian Bahá’ís. I have to say that, across the political spectrum, there was nothing short of fulsome support.
But our time on Anglesey was marked by a lengthy period of vibrancy spearheaded by young Bahá’ís. We were involved in launching the first ever junior youth campaign in Beaumaris, bringing together study classes, music and dance, a fancy dress party, and acts of service including tree planting and a soup kitchen run for elderly people nearby. It was 1987. In the years that followed there was considerable growth in the Bahá’í community locally, with young people using their musical and artistic talents to great effect. But such expansion also brought fresh challenges. Capacities and expectations were at times over-extended, not to say exhausted, and protection issues were sometimes very testing.
Taking Bahá’í administration for granted?
I have had the privilege of serving on a number of Bahá’í committees: the Pastoral Consultative Committee, the North of England Regional Teaching Committee, the Wales and the Marches Teaching Committee and the Community Development Committee whose remit was to produce materials for Bahá’í deepenings (I was responsible for staging some of the events where these were used – this was quite staggering when I think about it now given my inexperience at the time). When we lived in North Wales I spent a number of years as an assistant to Auxiliary Board members Viv Bartlett and Shirin Fozdar. Shirin is now of course a Counsellor.
When dealing with protection issues in particular I must admit, looking back, that I never seemed to have the time and energy, perhaps the devotion, sufficient to proactively address the responsibilities involved. My day job – by this stage I was the director of a university research centre – involved endless meetings, strategy planning, trouble-shooting, fieldwork and lots of travel which was quite energy-sapping, with the result that my physical and emotional batteries needed constant re-charging.
Margaret and I were also entering a period when our parents were acquiring serious health conditions associated with ageing and we were plunged into prolonged episodes of family care for well over a decade. These work and familial demands were important but took their toll on our energy levels. Looking back it makes me very much aware of the enormous commitments required of our National Spiritual Assembly members, of those who serve them in various committee and support roles, and of the appointed arm, and how easy it is to take it all for granted. I feel guilty when I think about it. I wonder whether others feel the same? I also wonder whether we pray enough for those we elect to serve us and for those who are appointed to inspire and encourage us?
The power of ‘public performances’
The vagaries of life provide many natural opportunities for Bahá’ís to enact ‘public performances’ where spiritual realities and practical applications of these can be shared in a respectful and dignified manner with a wide audience. In these ways life events such as births, engagements, marriages, deaths, house moves, and Bahá’í anniversaries can be used to extremely good effect with direct and indirect teaching. In my view some of the best examples of the Bahá’í approach in action have come from the careful planning and sensitive implementation of these events. I would count amongst these the weddings of Mehri and Gawayne Mahboubian-Jones, David and Jackie Grant, the funerals of Turner Snr., Turner Jnr., June McCallister, respectively Connie and Gordon Grant, and Jim and Ada Hufton, and several anniversaries of the Ascension of Bahá’u’lláh, the latter held during the early hours of the morning and on one occasion down on the beach where a quite unique quality of tranquility and peace prevailed. Because audiences at these events are guaranteed it is possible to devote all of one’s energies in making sure that the essential messages are conveyed effectively. Often these events represent the very first time that some people have witnessed the Faith in action so the effects can be very powerful. Some of the most complimentary comments I have heard about the Faith have stemmed directly from people’s experiences of these occasions.
Bahá’ís who have influenced my life
Looking back at my own Bahá’í history it is easy to overlook so many figures who have influenced me in so many ways, but I think particularly of the Hands of the Cause. I have been privileged to speak to Mr Samandari, Dr Muschlegel, Mr Robarts, Mr Faizi and Mr Sears, each of whom had their own special qualities, interests and charisma. I have mentioned Mr Samandari already, but Bill Sears, always ready for a joke, made an instant impression upon me when I was still an enquirer. He gave me a bear hug after one of his rousing talks that I think took place in the Grand Hotel, Manchester. I heard a crunch which drew the instant comment from him: ‘Oh boy, there goes another pair of my spectacles’ (actually they were OK – this time). He kept his precious specs in the top pocket of his jacket but often forgot that they were there. With his generous frame they were given to protruding and therefore became the object of attack whenever he hugged someone. Anecdotes like this will not be repeated by future generations with the passing of the Hands of the Cause. Even now we probably do not realise the true historical significance of the Hands. Generationally, perhaps, we are too close to them. In historical terms it is rather like taking one step outside the Empire State Building and trying to measure its height – an improbable task.
But I have to mention my birth family in this connection. My parents, Gordon Snr. and Connie, and my brother, Dave (still ‘our kid’ to me) constituted for me a stable and loving home. Dad – ever the rock, reliable, a man of conviction and integrity, modest and the personification of humility; Mum – the social networker, problem-solver and lover of laughter; and Dave – best mate, confidant and still, importantly, fellow Manchester City supporter. In this latter connection, Dave and I both know what it takes to be an eternal optimist!
An encounter with China
Because of my work interests I have been fortunate to have had opportunities to travel widely and have visited far-away places such as China, Australia, South Africa, the USA and Canada. My visits to China were during 1993 and 1995. Having become involved in an academic exchange programme with scholars from the People’s University of China, Beijing, I came to know some of the Chinese people very well and have been able to spend lots of time talking to both old and young people on the Chinese mainland. Though it is a country going through massive economic and cultural change, the ‘ordinary people’ (a term they themselves like to use) are eager to know about the West, to acquire our technologies, to learn about our value systems, and to ask what we think about China as a country. Having been closed to the West for decades, China has been ‘opening up’ (another term the Chinese use) and there is a great thirst amongst its people to discover the rest of the world.
Later I was able to act a little more boldly about letting the Chinese people know about the sources of my own value systems. China’s young people, admittedly mostly the student population, have impressed me greatly by their thirst for knowledge. Teaching methods in China are very traditional so the students are fascinated to know about learning theory and more student-centred approaches to education that have been adopted in other parts of the world. The democratic and emancipatory principles of the Faith appear to be particularly attractive to the young people. When I was there in 1995 I was able one evening to speak at an outdoor informal gathering to hundreds of students about Bahá’í principles, discussion lasting well beyond midnight; it was an energizing experience.
Integrating personal and professional values
Margaret and I never intended to remain in North Wales for too long, not least because my work position was not secure for some years – I was engaged in health and social care research at Bangor University with funding from external agencies so life was a constant round of submitting proposals in open competition in the hope of creating opportunities for continuing research. But things worked out well, and some years on I was able to help establish a financially self-supporting research centre that continued to prosper until well after Margaret and I left North Wales.
During these years I was able to exploit what can best be described as synergies between my personal values as a Bahá’í with research concerning the lives of people with severe and profound intellectual disabilities, people with enduring mental health problems, and their families. With the Baha’i writings placing an emphasis on inclusion, consultation, equality and community building, I took naturally to research incorporating commitments to emancipation, building of human and social capital, and pluralities of knowing and being, especially when working with disadvantaged groups.
I had the good fortune to become involved in helping to set up one of the first advocacy schemes in the UK for people with intellectual disabilities, and to work alongside many wonderful people who had been energized to develop community-based initiatives with and for disadvantaged groups. One such, Antur Waunfawr, was a community co-operative scheme established in 1984 to provide employment and accommodation for local people who were without work or who had severe disabilities. It was the brainchild of Gwynn Davies, a visionary campaigner whose son had intellectual disabilities. Gwynn and I spent many hours travelling to meetings with Welsh Office officials and to join others campaigning for more local control and ‘joined-up’ thinking about health, education, employment and social care intended to provide more seemless support for vulnerable groups over the life course. It is a testimony to Gwynn’s vision that Antur Waunfawr has continued to grow and prosper.
As a youngster, I had never imagined myself engaging in things like this. I count myself as extremely fortunate to have had opportunities to do so, and to have been able to work alongside so many fine colleagues who are still my friends. Along the way I like to think I have had some hand in helping to generate evidence, hopefully some of it useful knowledge, in connection with these thematic interests, and in some modest ways changing lives and institutions for the better. As I write this in 2013 I am trying to support another university in crafting a statement about how its research is impacting upon society – for no longer is it acceptable for academic institutions merely to be disseminating evidence and knowledge in the usual ways but also to demonstrate how this can be accessed, developed and used by research user communities, i.e. potentially everyone outside academic institutions, through partnership working, for the betterment of humanity.
In 1997 Margaret and I moved to Sheffield where I took up a professorial post at Sheffield University. Having lived on Anglesey for 23 years we were determined to find a semi-rural location for our home that would still be commutable to the city centre. We were fortunate to come across an old semi-detached farmhouse, close to High Bradfield, only eight miles from my place of work. It turned out to be the highest habitable dwelling in South Yorkshire, standing at 1400ft. We lived there for 13 years, managing without a 4×4 despite exposure to severe frost and occasional snow drifts. Never before did wood-burning stoves earn their keep so well!
Trying to embrace diversity
Our home became a regular venue for feasts, devotionals and different kinds of social gatherings. A particularly interesting and eye-opening occasion was when we decided to host a picnic for a group of Pakistani youngsters whom we had encountered on a tree-planting day in Sheffield. On hearing that they rarely ventured into the countryside we offered to lead them on a walk around the nearby Agden Reservoir. We had a wonderful day. Accompanied by their community leader they came back to our home for ice cream and strawberries. Very noticeable was their curiosity about the artefacts and pictures, including the photos of Abdu’l-Bahá, that we had around the house, presenting us with opportunities to tell them more about the main source from which our beliefs and values arose. The salutary part of this experience for us both was finding that ours was the first non-Pakistani house into which any of these youngsters had ever ventured. There were about a dozen young people visiting us that day – average age about 13 – so about 156 cumulative years without exposure to the home of someone from a different culture. It demonstrates just how far we all have to go to translate the rhetoric of community integration into a lived and felt reality. An irony here is that Sheffield was the UK’s first city of sanctuary – a formal acknowledgment of its work and status in accommodating refugees, displaced persons and minorities. I think that Bahá’í communities, as they develop, have huge contributions to make in reaching out to such communities of interest.
The blessed Sheffield experience
Margaret and I count ourselves as truly blessed to have been part of the Sheffield community for 13 years – never before had we entered a Bahá’í community where we were presented with a welcome pack upon arrival! Everything you needed to know was there – addresses, a telephone tree, feasts, a copy of the latest Connect newsletter, event timetable, community officers with delegated responsibilities – librarian, archivist, interfaith and UNA representatives and so on. And here was a first – a community where Bahá’í meetings actually started on time!
Truly impressive, however, was the level of community participation – everyone seemed to be making a contribution, and this was no flash-in-the-pan. It was a distinguishing feature of the Sheffield Baha’i community that was well and truly sustained, regardless of the vagaries of births, deaths and migration. The Agahi, Croft, Fryer and Ghadirian households were already well-established hearths and homes for what became the core activities, and we were able to add our High Bradfield home into the mix. Doing things could more often than not be great fun – Vargha Agahi’s impressions, Phil Croft’s jokes (and hats), Sandra Agahi’s comedic emails and the youthful exuberance of the Agahi girls – Jess, Sara and Payvand – ensured that there was never a dull moment. I should also mention another enduring feature of the Sheffield community – the mandatory annual photograph of the newly elected Local Spiritual Assembly at Ridván. There was the ‘offical’ photograph with all concerned standing or sitting to attention, and then the alternative version where it was compulsory to pull a funny face or to be wielding a household object of some kind with the intention of looking as ridiculous as possible – never difficult to accomplish! And all committed to the Sheffield archives – God help us!
Being in Sheffield provided me with opportunities to represent the Faith on Sheffield SACRE, become a Bahá’í pastoral advisor at Sheffield University, and give Phil Croft some respite from being the LSA chairman for a year or two.
Another house move, another life stage
With a decision on my part to take early retirement in 2008, Margaret and I decided after a while to relocate so that we were a little more accessible to the rest of the Grant family – son Andy in Rotherham (so already nearby), daughter Claire in Solihull, my brother Dave (and Jackie) in Maidstone, and extended family in Manchester, London and the south coast. Lincolnshire, but close to the A1/M1 corridor, seemed about right. So, in November 2010, we found ourselves moving to a lovely village, Caythorpe, eight miles north of Grantham in Lincolnshire. We have been here ever since. Reluctant though we were to leave Sheffield for reasons that will now be obvious, it has been a good move for us. We joined another Bahá’í, Peter Dowson, to form a group here in the district of South Kesteven.
Networks and social bonding
Caythorpe must be one of the most welcoming and socially networked communities in which we have ever lived. The day after we arrived, a neighbour arrived with a houseplant to say ‘welcome to our village’. She brought along another neighbour, now close friend, whose husband happened to be the chairman of Grantham’s photographic club. Since I was looking to improve my photo editing skills I joined the club and now participate regularly in photographic projects and competitions. A month later we noticed a flyer advertising a meeting about starting up a walking group as part of the Walk4Life network, intended to help older people and others with long-term conditions to stay physically active and healthy. We both joined and have since trained as walk leaders, so we now co-ordinate the walks with a gang of six others, and welcome 30 people or more each Monday on one of the 24 different walks we have since recced. They have been a great success, not least because we always return to ‘the pavilion’ for a cup of tea and a natter where a great deal of bonding takes place. The Walk4Life group has presented us with great natural opportunities to network.
Quite a few of our new Caythorpe friends are connected to the parish church so, perhaps inevitably, we have become involved in supporting some of the church-led community activities here. Volunteering has extended to shimmying up the inside of the church belfry to clear out detritus left by birds – approximately 10 giant bin bags equivalent for every six months – before the bags are jettisoned over the tower to the collecting point below. We are now a regular feature of the church ‘clearing-up’ brigade.
My interest in photography led to an invitation to make a photographic record of the 2012 Jubilee celebrations in the village – after saying ‘yes’ I was to find that the celebrations here lasted five days, and included two village jubilee quizzes, two ‘music in the park’ events – one rock/pop, the other jazz – a children’s day with clowns, face painting and competitions, a tea party for older citizens, and of course the street party attended by over 500 people! We think we now know almost everyone who lives here, and have a photo of them! The photos are being lodged by the parish council in a special archive.
In our efforts to challenge body and brain, Margaret and I took up salsa dancing some years ago and have only recently discovered a new salsa class in nearby Sleaford. For anyone with lower back problems (we both do) I can thoroughly recommend salsa as the movements are mostly lateral involving hip swivelling, which helps the joints. If you have problems with lower back pain and glutes, which can be in spasm when you do not realize it when you are as old as we are, I can recommend a combination of salsa and pilates. Salsa parties seem to be a regular feature of most salsa classes when lots of people, young and older, come together, and these of course present great networking and teaching opportunities. One of our salsa contacts from Sheffield, Fariba, who just happens to be Iranian, quickly became aware that Margaret and I were Bahá’ís (we were not coy about letting her know). Now a university lecturer, Fariba was inadvertently responsible for prompting a discussion between the university pro-vice chancellor and myself about the Faith quite recently. It just goes to show that you never quite know what the consequences will be when you engage in networking. Still being a bit of a technophobe I have resisted Facebook and Twitter thus far as I have neither the inclination nor time for these social media, but Margaret has recently taken the plunge and I can already see our Broadband bills rising!
Margaret and I host a monthly meditation and discourse evening at our home. Peter brings his wife, Shirley, and friend, Julie, so we have two non-Baha’is in regular attendance. They are relaxing, stimulating and also great fun. Each time we meet we decide what theme we want to discuss on the next occasion so the agenda evolves naturally. Our hope now is to sustain but also grow attendance.
Back to work
For a time-limited period I have come out of retirement to help the other university in Sheffield (Hallam) with some research capacity development work. I have been enjoying it immensely, not least I think because working two days a week allows for a fairly healthy work-life balance that suits me at this stage of my life. However, anyone involved in education, be it primary, secondary, tertiary or any of its life-long forms, will know how intrinsically satisfying it is to work alongside anyone who has a thirst for knowledge, and to be able to provide some encouragement and signposting for them along the way. This becomes even more accentuated when your students have additional challenges, like a recent PhD student of mine who had serious psychotic episodes but nevertheless managed to complete his doctoral work very successfully. People like that have my unconditional admiration. I have a feeling that I will find it difficult to retire properly in a year’s time. We shall see!
A final word
I hope I never lose my own appetite for learning, and for trying to put into practice the links between what I call the three B’s – being, belonging and becoming! I am at a stage in my life where I have spent too long in meetings over the years – be they work-related, otherwise secular or Bahá’í. I now feel my priority, in a manner of speaking, is to talk less and do more. That said, many people have said many wise things to me, many of those persons being Bahá’ís, so I would like to bring my narrative to a close by thanking all of you for helping me to be who and what I am today, for accepting me warts and all, and for encouraging me on life’s journey.
Lincolnshire, January 2013