I was forty before I came anywhere near the Bahá’í Faith. My tale is not one of sudden blinding realisations, heroic pioneering and ringing triumphs; rather it is a glimpse of my experiences down the years while watching all the while for any signs of interest in the Bahá’í message. My belief in Bahá’u’lláh is rock solid, and where I can I continue, as do others, trying to lead potentially spiritually thirsty horses to water, knowing all the while we cannot make them drink. I have endeavoured to make my story interesting, mostly trying to keep it light, side-stepping any negative aspects, and where appropriate attempting to inject a little fun. Much involved in recent years with my young grandchildren and their friends, I have often noted their universal delight in laughter. Bill Sears said God loves it; whether that counts as a pilgrim’s note I wouldn’t know, but I hope my occasional efforts to raise a smile are not seen as irreverent – God forbid.
I notice her in the queue at the bus stop because she is reading the English language Baltic Observer. It is 1992, the Holy Year. Nobody on the streets of Estonia speaks English, not even here in the capital, Tallinn. Ho hum! How do I make my approach without giving her a fright? I’m fairly smartly dressed – well, fairly smart for me: dark suit, white shirt, ex-National Power complimentary blue tie, nearly shiny shoes, a whiff of Brut. It all helps when a bloke is fifty three and a half, solvent, curious, and newly freed from the grinding austerity of a comfortable well-paid job, a luxurious office, hot coffee on tap, stylish designer restaurant, regular evenings in smart hotels, generous car expenses, free duffel coat, and wellies (to boot). Now, beneath my tentative tread lies the bruised Baltic earth of an impoverished land blinking nervously in the sunlight of freedom after decades behind the Iron Curtain, its people heady and quietly astonished, excited yet tense in case the tanks come back.
I sidle up. Don’t scare her. Show respect but don’t grovel. Stand back. Big smile.
Excuse me. I see you’re reading an English newspaper – do you speak English? (Creep).
She beams, half chuckles. She is about forty-one or thirty-three, shoulder length dark lustrous wavy hair, neat in a smart black suit. Wouldn’t look out of place on the board of governors at a private school in Leatherhead.
Yes – My name is Galina – I am Russian. I am an English teacher – it’s purely theoretical as I get no actual conversational practise. I purchased this paper so I could see how much I know and comprehend.
You speak it very well.
Oh no – not so well thank you, you are very kind. You are living here in this place?
She is slightly incredulous.
Yes, I am living in this place. It’s something of a contrast with affluent Solihull. Water-filled pot holes, clanking creaking forties trams and trolley buses finished in rust and beetroot, gloomy shops where they count on an abacus and specialise in muddy potatoes, rough hewn hunks of fatty beef on the bone orbited by squadrons of flies, salty brown bread like hard sponge packing, and squat bottled milk that goes off in a day.
I explain briefly.
I am here as a non-professional teacher of English, but mainly to support the Bahá’í community.
The English teaching is rather temporary. It’s summer. Everybody’s gone away. I teach for precisely one week. She asks about Bahá’í and I outline progressive revelation, the child-through-school analogy, and the reality of the Promised One of All Ages. She listens intently. Falls silent. Perhaps this western person has brought a western chat line with him. To ease any unease, I underpin my pure white personal credentials by offering only my first name. I jot down Bahá’í on her newspaper, and the phone number of our heroic Knight of Bahá’u’lláh, Brigitte Lundblade, our living oasis, she of the multi-national firesides in the modern flat with Finnish furniture and Lipton tea.
Thank you. It is interesting. You are very kind.
My face aches with smiling, like being photographed on my wedding day.
Too soon the big yellow bendy bus lumbers up. She smiles again.
Goodbye now and thank you.
Gone. Gone with the wind and a Bahá’í phone number and a prayer from a bloke in a free tie.
All Together in A Flat
I couldn’t have known, as a twenty three year old back in 1962, when I stood in my elder sister Viv Crook’s flat on the top floor of a four storey Victorian terrace in York on a wet and windswept spring day and met a little group of these Bahá’í people, that eighteen years later I would take up their faith and start to travel in support of it, and even set foot in a land astonished to be back in the sunshine of freedom after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. It certainly would have seemed a far cry for a National Serviceman in his final year, down the road among the thunderous nuclear bombers at RAF Finningley with its excellent food, comfortable billets and a touch of excitement for young men servicing the Vulcans armed and ready to deal untold death and destruction to the enemy.
My elder sister Viv Crook and younger one Christine Deihim had declared as Bahá’ís in 1962. Chris tells me Jean and Andrew Gash might have been among those gathered in the flat. I certainly remember a fair-haired young man, and especially a Persian girl, Golrokh, ‘Golly’, because she persuaded me to try to enhance the sound quality of her ‘budget’ record player. Nowadays hi-fi dealers say ‘entry level’ but Golly’s plastic bargain was more ‘built-to-recycle’. I made a half-hearted attempt at improving it by re-mounting the loudspeaker but the result was pallid and tinny – fish fingers masquerading as kalam polo.
As we stood in a little arc, these Bahá’ís and me, a sort of silence descended and suddenly all heads were tilted in varying degrees; to my surprise some sort of religious devotion was under way. I remember feeling mildly embarrassed and annoyed. Other religious groups had done this sort of thing and sent me sprinting for the hills. I slowly searched the various faces with a disapproving stare and a fake half smile but nobody met my gaze. Mercifully the prayer was short, then one chap started talking about setting off to try to sell fire extinguishers to local shops, and we were back in a world I recognised.
Oh – I know that face!
Maybe somehow the seeds of my journey to the Faith were even then awaiting as dew to the soil of the human heart long before I declared at Ridván 1979. I remember Viv telling me an intriguing little anecdote that perhaps hinted at things to come. One day in the nineteen sixties she was at home in Yorkshire when our mother happened to catch sight of a photograph in one of Viv’s Bahá’í books. “Oh – I know that face” she exclaimed. It was ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Viv remembered that mum’s dad, who had been a train driver, couldn’t read, and mum would read the daily paper to him from when she was about eleven, which was 1912. Of all the newspaper pictures she had seen in over fifty years, she remembered that one immediately. People remember dramatic things – it was the year of the Titanic disaster of course – but rarely a single photograph of a stranger from among thousands, over half a century earlier.
King loses castle …
Six weeks after I left the RAF and returned to the loving arms of the General Electric Company in Coventry, I fell into the loving arms of my future wife. After I had been courted for about a year by her mother’s wonderful hot dinners and Ambrosia creamed rice pudding, the organ was playing. I remember kneeling at the altar, the towering vicar, a looming black silhouette against the soaring stained glass window, booming in terrible tones that the day would surely come when the secrets of all hearts would be disclosed. I thought to myself, not all of them, I hope. Seven house moves, three sons and fifteen years later, it came to pass that in the cold damp autumn of 1978 my marriage foundered and I was out in the cold, on my own and anxious. I had gone suddenly from king of my own four-bedroom castle to lowly lodger surviving in not much more than a box room with an old brown black-and-white telly and a tinny little electric cooker the size of a shoe box. My new life in the rear of a semi in suburban Solihull, West Midlands, was anything but funny; well it was funny in a funny way. I had some pills from the doctor to help me through a stressful time but had you shaken me you would have heard the Lorazepam rattling like dried peas in a biscuit tin.
…and finds a new world
Soon after settling into my survival rabbit hutch I had a letter from Viv with the phone numbers of three Bahá’í homes in the area. Feeling distinctly adrift and in need of friends I was soon at an event called a fireside in a house without one. What luxury, enveloped in kindness, concern, central heating, and wonderful food with strange names like osh reshti and kallam polo. When the host’s wife, Sholeh Dirdin, asked me what I wanted to know, husband Terry laughed out loud at my bewildered response, “ I don’t know what I want to know”. That famous quote about known unknowns was unknown at the time. Little by little I came to know what it was I didn’t know I wanted to know and gradually discovered what I needed to know. Terry was always ready to scamper upstairs to his archives to satisfy my growing list of questions. In the ensuing months they lent me books, Thief in the Night being a favourite. They also plied me with litres of orange juice, hectares of osh reshti, walnuts in fluffy rice and all manner of other exotic delights, clearly knowing by heart the way to an Englishman’s. Early in my seeking I swiftly grasped the concept of the ta’arof so that I never overdid it and went hungry. I also attended other firesides, and familiar names began to grow – Paddy and Ann Vickers, Paddy’s brother Stephen, Richard and Corinne Hainsworth, Martin and Jenny Lockwood, Peter ‘Rocky’ Grove. Rocky’s special talent would have qualified him for the Guinness Book of Records as a FUSE – Fastest Uninterrupted Speaker in English. At one fireside he was going at a hundred miles an hour when, as an uninhibited enquirer, I butted in to ask if the older Persians present were able to follow him. As one they smiled and nodded their yesses with exquisite politeness; my eyebrows shot up so fast my ears waggled. Good old Rocky then came down to a sedate sixty-eight miles an hour for at least ten minutes. Sometimes the Bahá’í version of entertainment would be lovably amateurish. On one occasion, ‘disco’ music came courtesy of a single squeaky plastic entry-level record player. Golly, I thought.
A giant leap ……
During those wary, seeking months, I began making visits to Viv’s home in Somerset Road, Huddersfield, where she and husband Jack Crook were regularly invaded by visitors from all points of the compass, sometimes complete strangers, met with much hugging and laughter, delight and joy. It was at once a lovely thing to see and quite a culture shock for socially conditioned me coming from a world of tall garden fences, net curtains and what’ll the neighbours say. A powerful motive for my continuing to investigate the Bahá’í Faith lay with brother-in-law Jack. In his life before meeting the faith, as he told me himself, he had trodden a somewhat wheeler-dealer and potentially risky path in London, becoming skilled for example in the dark arts associated with the then illegal practice of street photography. He once explained how you could ‘diddle’ people when giving them change in half-crowns, those eight-to-the-pound solid, chunky and much cherished coins of my youth. He also spoke of consorting with some dangerous people back in the fifties, when gang violence and even contract killing occurred in certain areas of London. So, I thought, if he can make the leap from that murky scary risky world to this gentle, peaceful, civilised Bahá’í Faith, then I’m going to look into it a bit further.
Jack explained that he had always sought the truth about life and its meaning and purpose. One day, in lodgings in Toronto, he finally caved in to his landlady Helen McQuarrie’s repeated invitations to go with her to a Bahá’í fireside. The speaker, one George Spendlove, addressing the subject of ‘truth’, had suddenly pointed at Jack and exclaimed ‘ I’m talking to you! ’. Jack continued, ‘What could I do, Arth, here was the truth I’d been seeking all my life; I’d always talked about it and now here it was right in my face, shining bright’. So the ex-metropolis street-wise survivor made his giant leap for Jack-kind, and declared his belief in Bahá’u’lláh. He was a prolific reader and I learned a lot from him, about the Faith and about world history. His erudition at times overwhelmed me and I sometimes used to console myself with the knowledge that I knew a bit about power stations (being then a technical author with the Central Electricity Generating board) and wires and three-pin plugs, whereas Jack happily declared himself nonplussed by such technical mysteries. He would be touchingly grateful and disproportionately impressed whenever I brought a brain-dead table lamp back to life or a truculent toaster in out of the cold.
… and a beach landing
An early Bahá’í friend we made at Viv and Jack’s came in the form of a solid, stocky chap with short curly black hair, a dusky skin and a powerful baritone voice. He appeared at the door from nowhere, which turned out to be the United States. During our jolly conversations he said he had arrived ‘at that airport by the sea’. We were mystified. Did he mean Southend? Clacton? Blackpool? Not from America, surely. It turned out that in his eyes, Gatwick, twenty-seven miles from Brighton, was practically on the beach. God bless you, political scientist Jim Taylor, ever remembered as Gatwick Jim.
Once more with feeling
Early on Saturday morning, 21st April, Ridván 1979, I sat up in bed in my little back room, read a few verses from the Hidden Words, and knew I was going to declare my belief in Bahá’u’lláh. It was almost with a feeling of wry resignation, the old skepticism shuffled off, an intangible sense of a new life, a new skin, a new happiness. My head and heart were full of answered questions and answers to ones I’d never even considered. I was a bit like Jack. Here’s the truth Arth, so what are you going to do? Walk away? Against the wall the little tin cooker seemed almost lovable and I fancy the dusty old brown telly managed a wistful, redundant smile. An hour later at Terry and Sholeh’s I signed the card. I was a Bahá’í! … but then, within a week, a little panic.
In my enthusiasm to do the right thing, late at night I made my first attempt at the Long Obligatory Prayer. About two-thirds through I felt anything but spiritual, trying to do what they called ‘genuflections’; getting into a bit of a temper and feeling stupid, I gave up the prayer. A few days later I decided maybe I wasn’t quite Bahá’í – not ready enough for such spiritual rigour. I intimated to the National Office that I was backing out, but at the last moment I couldn’t do it. Bahá’í might be hard and strange in some ways but through my tranquillised fug I knew it was the truth and there was no alternative, so I withdrew my withdrawal. Meanwhile a beautiful letter arrived from the National Spiritual Assembly lovingly accepting my departure and wishing me well, followed a few days later by another apologising for the first one and welcoming me into the faith. Word of the new Bahá’í soon went round the community, but suddenly from being the centre of the fireside universe and thrilled focus of attention I became just a bloke over forty again. Gone my irresistible magnetism, back to being just me, but somehow a different me, always eagerly greeted by Bahá’í friend and stranger alike with a spontaneous warmth I had never experienced elsewhere. Suddenly I had several million friends. Many months later I won my battle of the pills, finally free of the last half milligram by bedtime on Tuesday, 8th July, 1980. The next day’s Martyrdom of the Báb commemoration in Birmingham was filled with sunshine, and so was I.
Very soon after, I began to notice that I was going slightly deaf, and conversation was starting to be difficult. As well as being immensely frustrating and isolating, being hard of hearing can have its comical aspects. At one feast, a girl who was always punctual had not turned up; apparently an old grandparent had died. Someone asked with due solemnity ‘Was it sudden’, to which I chirped ‘No – Newcastle’. Controlled mini-smiles flickered round the room. It was one mild example of occasionally amusing, frequently embarrassing, and sometimes downright agonising experiences along the next three decades as my hearing steadily deteriorated. Deafness has proved to be a troublesome handicap to my efforts to teach, to open up conversations with strangers, and especially to follow proceedings at Bahá’í meetings including National Convention. The loss of hearing was not too advanced however when early in 1983 I phoned the National Office to apply for a nine-day pilgrimage. Within twenty-four hours news of a cancellation came up, and eight days later I was in Haifa. I believe it takes slightly longer nowadays.
At London Heathrow on a frosty January day in 1983 a girl of about eighteen and an older man were facing a blank wall in the departure lounge and nodding rhythmically. They were out of sync and the effect was slightly comical. One or two passengers cast sideways glances. I was the one, but it was only a little glance; I was a Bahá’í, wasn’t I?
On board the El AL Boeing 707 (yes, it’s that long ago) as I settled into my seat, came an announcement: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Peled speaking’. A pause, then ‘Please note that no smoking is permitted in the toilets’. I had a vision of people trooping into the loos to ‘no smoke’. The flight was smooth and I talked Bahá’í much of the way to the elderly Jewish gentleman in the next seat; crumbs … was I ‘teaching in Israel’ on their aeroplane? As we touched down gently at Tel Aviv the entire planeload broke into loud applause at having brought a Bahá’í safely to Israel. At the meeting point a girl from the World Centre greeted myself and one Matthew Edwards who had been on the same flight, so the passengers had been clapping for two. Maybe there’s a metaphor here – an airliner pregnant with promise delivering two souls to the Holy Land.
Our pilgrimage group numbered about seventy, divided into two, one half Persian, the other a mix of American, English, and others. I believe the groups are slightly bigger nowadays. Much of the whole glorious nine-day experience at the World Centre remains fresh in my memory, and I still have about two dozen hand-written pages covering the talks in the pilgrim house. Of course the notes are not authentic but some points have stayed with me down the years:
- Like an electric switch, you can turn off the ‘power of Bahá’u’lláh’ by ignoring it
- Staying quiet to keep the peace is the politics of the grave
- Don’t worry if the right feelings don’t come from prayer or meditation or pilgrimage; if they are going to, they will arise naturally.
- Around these Holy places (the World Centre) circle the souls of all the Manifestations of God
- Some people are wise and some people are otherwise (Mr Furútan)
On that last point, sitting in the pilgrim house I reflected maybe after all I was just a little bit more wise than otherwise, otherwise I wouldn’t have been there.
One evening we were given an example of what is called the ‘doubling’ effect. If each Bahá’í were to bring one person into the faith every year, the whole world would be Bahá’í in eleven years. That was thirty years ago. For my part I think I may have steered four or five people towards the faith; as my old school reports parrot ad nauseam, must try harder. Also under discussion at one point was the then hot news topic of the cloning of human beings. I couldn’t help remarking while pulling an appalled face, “Just imagine, twenty-five years from now, an LSA of nine Arthur Kendalls!” The ensuing gale of laughter took half a minute to die down. Three decades have now elapsed, there are no nontuplet LSAs, and cloning doesn’t seem to have progressed much beyond Dolly the sheep. Perhaps it was a baarmy idea …..
Pilgrimage included a first acquaintance with Joy Behi and family, and my dear friends Ron and Thelma Batchelor, and I learned at first hand of Ron’s unique and dramatic approach to practical problems. One day during our group’s prayers on the slopes of Mount Carmel, something strange was apparently happening to Ron, but of course only he knew it. The day was rather overcast, with a steady vertical rain kindly blessing the lot of us. After the prayers Ron explained that his Nepalese home-made shoes leaked so he had clad each foot in a Sainsbury’s plastic lunch bag with the sock over it. The shoe soles however were made from an old car tyre and completely smooth – MOT failures. On the wet sloping ground he therefore found himself gently descending past the gathered friends on his unique and unscheduled slalom down Carmel. The entire astonishing performance only amounted to a travel of a few inches but occurring during the prayers it must have given Ron a slightly sinking feeling. In reality his hilarious recounting of the incident afterwards brought forth a merry ripple of laughter. ‘If we are not happy and joyous now .…’ Ron said he could hear his squelching tread later in the Shrine. I couldn’t, but for a while afterwards I thought of him as the sole raining monarch.
Many years later I read an email from one Sue Emmel who described her own pilgrimage with rapture and in such moving language that I posted a reply to her expressing my gratitude. Soon after, going through my box of Haifa photographic slides, I found one showing a list of people who had been on ‘my’ pilgrimage. There in the middle was the name Sue Emmel. I remembered then that I had chatted with her briefly in the pilgrim house. My experience of those great days was lovely but Sue’s was miraculous. How do some people gain the kind of intense and rapturous feelings that seem to have passed me by?
Bahji. What can one say? Simply beyond any words of mine. Stunning, majestic, heavenly, breathtaking. The beauty and the peace, and the Shrine of a Manifestation of God, the little Garden of Ridván and the fragrance of oranges, deep feelings of peace and serenity; Bahji, the desert blossoming as the rose.
Lunchtime on the day of departure, and oh what an empty feeling; hardly a soul around, a sort of sunlit grieving stillness. On the train back to Tel Aviv, Matthew and I had our passports scrutinised by a young soldier bearing a sub-machine gun. We were back in the here-and-now after the brief ecstasy of paradise. With three days to spare until my flight home I took bus trips to the Galilee and to the Dead Sea where I lay on my back on the surface, a middle-aged jelly baby on icing, and afterwards wallowed in black mud like a happy hippo. At the top of Masada I met Joy and children Krista and Habib again.
During the eighties our small community in Solihull maintained its usual flow of feasts and firesides. Wherever possible unless someone managed to stop me, I played the piano at informal Bahá’í events in the belief that people prefer live music to musak, though if anybody climbed my ladder for the soul they never told me. On one occasion I even recklessly took my powerful dance-band gigging organ to a Naw-Rúz party but it nearly blew one poor girl through the French window; a plastic record player would have been better. We were mostly successful in having our regular output of letters and press releases printed in the local newspapers. One reader’s memorable response in the Birmingham Daily News came under the heading ‘Mistrust of New Faith’. A lady wrote : ‘Any faith offering unity is blind idealism, It is unlikely that peace will reign on earth, man is an animal, and none of the faiths (which preach to the converted or to the aware and willing to be converted) will alter the present deplorable state of the world’. She was not opposed to the ‘altruistic motives’ of the Bahá’ís but was well aware of the distress caused by ‘cults and commercial religions’ in the USA. Her final sentence – ‘I have a natural mistrust of any new faith’ – made me wonder if that is what we are largely up against in Britain – or maybe it’s that benign indifference again. Anyway I dashed off a short seven-hundred-and-forty-six word response and drove through drizzle into the deserted city at midnight to pop it through the newspaper office’s letterbox. It never saw the light of day. Perhaps it was a bit long. Still, somebody might have read it – you never know. I’m not sure what you never know but you never know it.
A bell after midnight
Awakened suddenly by a ringing in the early hours, I fell out of bed and stumped downstairs to grab the phone in the hallway, imagining some unwelcome news. A bright and breezy American male voice sang out ‘I’m from the Church of Scientology and I want to hear all about the Baa – ha’i faith ’. Somewhat fuzzy headed I tried to respond civilly. ‘Could we discuss it tomorrow?’ He hee-hawed a somewhat thespian version of laughter. ‘Oh, do you want to tell me about your Baa – hai faith or would you rather just to go back to your nice warm bed?’ I felt hot anger rising, but roused to alertness by his baiting, managed to answer more-or-less under control ’Well I’m not a young man’ (although at fifty-six I was really) ‘and I don’t feel I can do justice to the Bahá’í faith or to you at eight minutes past one in the morning’. That seemed to mollify him. He stage-laughed again and said ok he would call back on the morrow at about 6 pm. No call came so I rang his office. Another American male voice answered, courteously apologised, expressed dismay at the tale and agreed to pursue the matter and come back to me. He’s still coming back – but he was very polite.
Lord hopes we’re right
I always kept some Bahá’í literature on prominent display by my desk at the Central Electricity Generating Board in Solihull. One day my Warwick leaflets were spotted by eminent VIP Sir Walter Marshall, Lord Goring, a large and imposing figure, Chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board and Mrs Thatcher’s champion for nuclear power in the eighties. On a maiden tour of the office with his entourage of regional managers flared out behind him like a bridal train, he paused by my filing cabinet and picked up the pamphlet ‘The Bahá’í Faith – What is it?’ After a brief scrutiny he spoke just a few words, mundane for him but priceless for me. ‘Bit idealistic isn’t it?’ I just smiled and said ‘Well it’s coming!’ He beamed as he uttered his parting shot ‘Well I hope you’re right’ before lumbering off. Of course a couple of his acolytes then had to have a peep and maybe another few seeds were sown. ‘It is not known’, as the media like to say, how many of that top echelon of managers in the UK power industry sought further enlightenment.
In the autumn of 1985 the Solihull Spiritual Assembly decided to hold a cultural evening in the form of a classical piano recital starring our renowned virtuoso Julian Hellaby, coupled with a set of songs in French performed by a young soprano (whose name, sadly, escapes me, and it’s only twenty-seven years ago). A school hall with grand piano was booked for a Saturday night.
At 4.45 pm. on The Big Day we noticed that there was no supporting rod for the lid of the grand piano so I shot off to B & Q, who were closing at five, bought a broom handle, dashed home, sawed it to size, applied car bumper paint to blacken it quickly and had it installed in the piano by 7.00 pm. which left just enough time to get the paint off my hands before the 7.30 pm start. I had estimated we could expect an audience of half a person per thousand of the population of Solihull so we put out four hundred chairs. Alas, we hadn’t allowed for the national lottery, people’s entrenched Saturday night pursuits, and a pandemic of ombrophobia. We should also have remembered that when the town held a seventeen-day Arts Festival the only sell–out event was bierkellar night. At 7.25 pm I peered out into the rain lashed street. A po-faced security man in a yellow smock, water cascading off his peaked cap, was glumly retrieving the line of traffic cones he had put out earlier to deter the masses of illegal parkers. Not even half a member of the general public had turned up, except for the Mayor of Solihull, of course, who having accepted our invitation had arrived in full regalia, together with his wife, the deputy mayor and wife, and four friends. With our valiant little Bahá’í group of eight adults and two or three children we didn’t look too bad, seated close behind the officials in two short tight rows, trying to look like a proper audience – or a bierkellar sell-out. About twenty minutes after the concert began, a miracle occurred! A group of loveably unpunctual Bahá’ís from the nearby town of Redditch came smiling in, an extended family, at least nine of them. Talk about better late than never. I nearly kissed the grandma but I am British. Suddenly we were a minimally respectable audience leaving fewer than three hundred and seventy three spare seats, which didn’t look too bad if you stayed facing forward. At the interval all was rather cosy as we milled around the tea urn and the kallam polo and the Mister Kipling’s apple pies, like a little wedding reception without the alcohol. The Mayor and his friends asked about the Faith and politely browsed the displayed leaflets, and if they missed their favourite tipple they didn’t let on. Throughout the whole event maestro Julian played his heart out, ending with a terrific jazz medley; the chanteuse sang like a French lark and the piano lid didn’t collapse once. At the close His Worship and pals said they had enjoyed the evening, and maybe in the days following a little of the Bahá’í message permeated the hallowed precincts of the Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council of the day.
Home and Away
For about a year in the late eighties after nearly four years as caretakers at the National Office, my eldest sister Viv and husband Jack lived with me in my little town house in Solihull, West Midlands. It was a year of the usual firesides and feasts, and several trips out, but also of our tripartite little ‘The Gift of Teaching’ study groups, invariably sustained by coffee and Safeway’s granary bread with blackcurrant conserve. We had moments of fun too. Almost every day something comical would occur to one of us, shared with the other two to the accompaniment of much ringing laughter. At the end of their Solihull idyll, and as I recall partly due to the influence of young American Bahá’í Roxanne Terrell, they pioneered to Hong Kong, and I visited them in their hillside villa on Lamma Island for about three weeks early in 1988. We were able to visit pioneers Graham and Rhona Ross and attend a feast at the Bahá’í centre in Tai Po, where a young man was hand painting dozens of beautiful wooden fund-boxes, but they wouldn’t sell me one because they hadn’t decided on a price at that point.
Goodbye to all that
At 5 pm on the sunny last Friday of March 1992 I became free of the world of work, which happened to be five years to the day since I had become a house owner again, king of a little castle after a string of rented rabbit hutches, and I walked out of my National Power office and out of my job with spring heels. The then government’s action in privatising the electricity generating industry meant the new owners were most anxious to ‘downsize’ staff, i.e. persuade people to leave. However our small but powerful trade union had created boiler-plate financial protection for its members against ending up at the soup kitchens or the workhouse. Good old National Power made me and several others an offer worth accepting. I was so keen to escape, I left my sandals under the desk. Months later one of the staff who chose to stay said they were still there, my vacated space being revered as a shrine; can’t think why, unless it was because I left my Bahá’í pamphlets proudly on display in case Sir Walter and cohorts were to pop back for another look.
Baltic bound… not somewhere else …
In the February 1992 edition of the Bahá’í Journal there was an advertisement for ‘… four or five unqualified teachers of English as a Foreign Language’ in Estonia. With my cushioned redundancy fast approaching I put my commitment to Estonia into action and immediately tests and difficulties began. At the travel agents the ticket I picked up the day before departure contained a slight error. The Lufthansa booking clerk had keyed in not TLL for Tallinn but TTL for Turtle Island in the Fiji group, ten thousand miles in the wrong direction. The nice man grinned and thought it amusing. So do I now, two decades later, but at the time I was perspiring like a racehorse.
What a beautiful sight, I thought, as the engines of my 737 roared with exuberant power and the plane sped down the runway to climb into a perfect summer’s blue sky. As I gazed through the window I thought ‘What a shame I’m not on it’. The window was in the passenger lounge at Frankfurt airport and the Tallinn flight had left without me. My journey had begun at Birmingham airport where, as soon as I had said my goodbyes and gone into the departure lounge, a tannoy voice had announced ‘Lufthansa flight 4125 will be departing approximately one hour late’, which turned out to be seventy-five minutes. So here was I leaning on the Lufthansa Frankfurt rescue desk, as bemused as the immaculate big man and nice-sized girl behind it. Yes, they agreed, it was their fault. I felt a bit guilty, knowing I had lingered in what some people call the bathroom, but they felt obliged to be helpful considering I had parted with £915 for the return ticket, which for a trip of around three hours was rather steep for 1992. Turtle Island would have been cheaper.
The impeccable raven haired Lufthansa girl in the company tie and designer spectacles stared with laser-like intensity at her computer screen and rattled in what sounded like a thousand keystrokes but was probably only about nine hundred. While she clattered tensely away I was given free use of her telephone to try and inform my Bahá’í contact in Tallinn that my spiritual path had been hindered by my impractical feat of missing an aeroplane. I couldn’t get through as both lines to Estonia were busy, so I rang the UK/East Bloc coordinator Edgar Boyett. He responded with a loud ‘Oh my God!’ which made me feel a lot better. After about half an hour the computer girl had re-routed my journey. She was about to hand me new tickets when they were promptly whipped away by the senior Lufthansa chap who shouted in lovely BBC English, ‘For God’s sake don’t send him to Moscow!’ That was two appeals to Higher Authority in ten minutes, for which I felt doubly blessed. Incidentally it was satisfying to know that those two new friends at Frankfurt had known nothing about the Bahá’í temple at Langenhain, or indeed about the Bahá’í Faith, but knew a lot more than nothing before they provided me with a Finnair ticket to Helsinki. An overnight stay there in the glittering Intercontinental Hotel was over all too soon and I took the next morning’s 9.30 am half hour flight to Tallinn. In that short time I was able to proclaim the faith to a receptive chap in the next seat, an ITT Nokia engineer based in Finland.
The Bahá’í supposed to meet me at Tallinn didn’t, because he had gone home to Canada the day before, using the plane I was supposed to arrive on. Perhaps he’d heard about my puns and done a runner. Down in a stygian cellar of the airport I was delighted to be reunited with my three suitcases, huddled together in the gloom on rusty angle iron shelving. Incidentally my luggage had travelled without me from Frankfurt, the airport where that was not supposed to happen after tightened security following the Lockerbie tragedy less than four years before.
Out in the Estonian sunshine an obliging Bahá’í from Finland, kindly faced bushy haired bearded Big Hari was waiting with touchingly modest transport, a big old rusty van with artistically cracked windscreen, hairy black dog the size of a Shetland pony and no passenger seat but a dusty old tyre for me to sit on in the back. At the empty house where I was to stay, Hari was wonderfully helpful but soon had to go. As his van trundled off into the distance trailing dust like something from an old cowboy film, I found myself enveloped by a sudden moving stillness, as if I had parachuted into a one-man tranquillity zone. It was quiet and sunny, oddly timeless and peaceful around this dated wooden house at the end of a rutted lane, like a scene from an English country village a hundred sepia summers ago.
On the kitchen table was a splendidly detailed note from the house’s absent occupants, my now lifelong Canadian Bahá’í friends Colin and Gail Owens, who were away and would be returning in a week. It listed the basics on how to survive in a country that had hardly moved forward from the thirties; how to buy milk and cheese, cope with rust-and-beetroot trolley buses, what to do about the cat upstairs due to give birth any moment, and crucially the telephone number and address of Estonian born Knight of Bahá’u’lláh Brigitte Lundblade, who was for decades a pioneer midwife in the Shetland Islands, where the ponies are bigger than dogs.
The need for ‘ … four or five unqualified teachers of English as a Foreign Language’ in Estonia turned out to be a myth. A kindly Russian friend of the Bahá’ís, one Jelena Rootamm, managed to find me just one week’s unqualified teaching of English in the south of the country, where ironically the people who showed keen interest in the Faith were not my class of Russians and Estonians but a visiting group of Swedish tourists who spoke excellent English and promised to follow up the Faith when they were back home.
My sunny Estonian days passed rather gently apart from an exchange of rifle fire near my flat one day between units of the newly revived Estonian army and men of the soon-to-depart Russian military. For me, teaching among the general public was, to coin that rarely heard word, ‘challenging’. I didn’t speak Estonian, and almost nobody spoke English although a nice teenage girl behind me in a food queue knew enough to tell me how to ask for two kilos of little frozen fish for the cat. My deafness had also become quite a handicap but did not cause much stress out in the streets, since I couldn’t understand people anyway, so the hearing aids often stayed in my pocket and most of my carefully hoarded six-months’ supply of batteries came home untouched. Among our community of Estonian, Russian, Canadian and Finnish Bahá’ís however, I made sure I could hear as much as possible.
We held our feasts and firesides, and it was lovely to see the Russians and Estonians mixing comfortably at Colin and Gail’s sunny house or in Brigitte’s brightly lit flat, in contrast to a certain tension between the two nationalities in the general population, which in Tallinn was thirty per cent Russian. Many of the local Bahá’ís and enquirers were young – between about sixteen and thirty – and turned up in all weathers, sometimes enduring tram and bus journeys of up to an hour in their enthusiasm to learn together in a relaxed and cheerful atmosphere. Unity feasts were the norm, since people newly declared usually brought other friends back with them to any future gatherings. With the approach of winter evenings the stairway in the block of flats would be in total inky blackness, lights long ago broken, and we would shuffle in silence up the concrete steps towards the only point of reference, the particle of light shining like a distant star through the security peephole in Brigitte’s door. Once inside however, we were out of the gloom and into unlimited brightness and delight, like suddenly finding a true faith after years in the wilderness. Some of the young people were surprisingly talented, and commonly spoke three languages. They were also artistic and musical. One who especially stood out to me as a life-long lover of the piano, and even-longer-than-life-long bumbling student of it, was brilliant classical pianist and harpsichordist Tatyana Loginova, a true professional. Tanya, as she was known, enthralled audiences at some of our public events with her lovely rendering of the works of Chopin. I was quite thrilled to discover that her professor of pianoforte was an Englishman.
One sunny afternoon after a poster campaign throughout the city, and thanks to the organising energy of Colin and Gail, several of the local Bahá’ís and the indomitable Big Hari, we had a well-attended talk and concert in a beautiful mediaeval hall. I played a selection of ‘songs from the shows’ and some nineteen-forties favourites. I think it was Councillor Polin Rafat who gave a Bahá’í talk, and a musical Bahá’í family from Finland performed pieces featuring a delightful teenage girl playing the violin.
There was a steady flow of declarations during my stay in Tallinn, and the name of the Faith became familiar to the locals and in the city’s newspapers, and there was a surprise shortly before I left the country. The phone rang one morning at my flat. It was Brigitte. “I’ve had a call from that lady, Galina. She wants to come and hear about the Bahá’í faith immediately”.
On a snow-bound day in October 1992, one of dozens of my birthdays, the friends gave me a little party at Brigitte’s flat. A Russian young man presented me with a squat wooden carving of a peasant-like wizened-faced grinning old chap in a brown hat like the top of a toadstool, which to this day sits on top of my bookcase and is an uncanny likeness. Two days later, on the Friday, I flew home via Helsinki and Frankfurt and didn’t miss a single aeroplane. The next morning, Saturday, chastened by that down-to-earth-with-a-bump feeling familiar to pioneers, a leaden sky hung over the house as I slumped in the armchair gazing vacantly at BBC teletext news. The phone rang. “Hi Arthur – it’s Gail. Guess what – Galina has just declared!” What a lift! What did rusty trams and muddy cabbage matter? Another precious soul. I switched off the telly and went and stood in the patio doorway willing the sun to burst through a grey sky …… ‘even as thou didst illumine my outer being with the morning light of Thy favour’.
In trying to recall the Galina story accurately I emailed Gail in Canada, who had a phone chat with her. Gail reports:
“Honestly speaking” said Galina “what moved me to call was seeing Arthur getting on a bus and I recognised him. He didn’t see me, but that’s what prompted me to call that very evening. I thought Brigitte would think my telephoning rather strange but she said right away ‘I’ve heard of you. Arthur told me to expect your call’ ”.
Gail continues: Brigitte welcomed Galina to her flat; she remembers Brigitte opening the door and being very friendly. You arrived later, which gave Brigitte time to explain a little about the Faith. She said that when she did begin coming to meetings she soon declared. Afterwards ‘baby Bahá’í ’ Galina joined Colin and Gail and the Tallinn group of Bahá’ís travelling to Moscow on November 25-26, 1992 for the Bahá’í World Congress Satellite Conference. Gail added ‘She laughs and always refers to you as her Godfather! She thinks of you often and the rest of us who helped her with her spiritual growth.
A couple of years after Galina declared, her mother also became a Bahá’í; although she had been a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, turning ninety this year and with some health problems, she is a firm believer in Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings and has participated in Russian tutored study circles.
Three weeks after being home from Estonia I was in Chicago to visit our beautiful temple in Wilmette before going on to New York for the World Congress. My cavernous hotel room had two double beds and a cool cabinet stocked mainly with redundant alcohol but partly with splendid orange juice. Out of curiosity I turned on the television for my first experience of American television. A news broadcast was just beginning and there in full living colour was Windsor Castle blazing merrily.
World Congress in New York was a wonderful and memorable event; enormous soccer-stadium smiling crowds with the subtle difference that everyone was rooting for the same side. During those thrilling days there were some coincidences I feel are worth mentioning. Within minutes of entering the lobby of the Milford Plaza hotel I found myself in the midst of a bunch of some forty-odd young Filipino Bahá’ís. In conversation with one girl, I mentioned the name of someone I had met in Solihull, Roxanne Terrell, who I thought had pioneered in the Philippines at some point. She said ‘Wait there a minute’, dashed off and returned with a letter from a friend in England bringing the sad news that Roxanne had died a few days before. She had apparently been ill for quite a few months.
While inching forward in a crowd of fourteen thousand in the Javits Centre for one of the Congress sessions, I struck up a conversation with another girl (I love talking to girls) and mentioned I had only recently returned home from Estonia. She wanted to contact one Laurence Lundblade. I knew that his mother Brigitte was staying in the New York YWCA so there was one happy lady. On the Friday after the great event was over I was filming through the bus window en route to JFK airport when, at one of the pickup points I saw through the viewfinder two familiar faces. One was Kevin Wilson, another of my Bahá’í contacts in Estonia, but the other was one Anne Brewer, who had left my technical publications office in Solihull in 1974 to emigrate with her husband Andy to Red Deer, Alberta, Canada – five years before I became a Bahá’í.
A grandad in harness
In the autumn of 1997 I moved to Braintree, Essex, to help with the first two of my nine grandchildren, thus enabling both their parents to work. It has been a great success. Those first infants, now teenagers, were followed by two more. In the early days I became quite useful at collecting the whole bunch from school through wind and rain and occasional sunshine, managing to deflect them from diving under the wheels of the ‘school run’ mum-mobiles. The years have slipped by and they all regularly bring friends round for riotous fun, ‘sleepovers’, and to empty my fridge. I estimate at least thirty youngsters have now gazed upon my framed photograph of the ‘lotus’ temple in Delhi, and I answer such questions as they can fit into their crowded texting Facebooking iPodding Twittering lives. Talk about a worldwide system of communication! The deluge of eager questions about religion has not yet begun but the older ones listen respectfully when I get the chance to give a Bahá’í perspective. They are ‘not sure’ (the universal answer around here when youngsters mean ‘I don’t know’) about some teachings of the Christadelphian movement, the belief system sincerely followed by their mum and dad.
The heart of a Mormon
‘Million-to-one astounding coincidences’ (like the ones in New York), a professor of applied psychology once told a class I attended, ‘are more likely near-certainties’. Having said that, the chance conjunction of some events with a Bahá’í element has sometimes surprised me. There was the summer’s evening in 1998 when a Mormon lady came to the door. I was mentally all ready with my Bahá’í presentation until her opening line: ‘Can you help me – my husband’s had a heart attack’. My son rushed off to phone for help. I stood by their car, talking small talk to fill in the stillness, the endless minutes waiting for the ambulance. The poor victim, a Mr. Floyd Astin from Utah, remained motionless in the driving seat, cold and sweating in the warm sunshine. His wife Pat said they had been on their way to a Mormon barbecue. I said ‘I’m a Bahá’í ’. She responded ‘I’ve never heard of that’, but Floyd, his speech distorted by the pain, managed to grind out ‘Oh I have – my colleague’s secretary is a Bahá’í, a very lovely lady’. At that point I would like to have followed Shoghi Effendi’s advice ‘…. teach the Mormons ….. when you find them receptive ‘ but the time and place didn’t feel quite right. At the hospital Floyd was duly brought back from the brink. Among my cherished possessions is a large ‘Thank you’ card signed by about forty members of the Witham, Essex, Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with many individual messages of gratitude for rescuing their American Elder. Just one note made me smile – ‘Get well soon’. I’ve felt well ever since. A year later came a letter of gratitude from Floyd back home in Utah, restored to full health and inviting me to drop in anytime. I’ll pop in on the local Bahá’ís too when I get there.
Martha Root teaching project
In the summer of 1999 I took up Joy Behi’s invitation to attend the Martha Root event in Cieszyn, Poland, run by renowned American teacher Jenabe Caldwell. It was an intensive period, beginning with the startling discovery that we had to be up and ready for prayers punctually at 7 am. At sixty years old I was not thrilled at the prospect but Jenabe’s persuasive manner ensured I adapted quickly, which was just as well, since I learned about the Hidden Words in much greater detail than I had up to that point. Jenabe reminded us that they ‘contain all of religious truth’, so the couple of dozen pages of notes I took, though less than a drop in the ocean, are for me better than nothing. He also used a true story to remind us not to over-crowd enquirers. One lady’s experience with eager Bahá’ís had been ‘like going to buy a stamp and being hit over the head with the post office’. Then there was the story of the Japanese monkey that, contrary to normal behaviour, suddenly started washing her sweet potatoes, to be copied by her offspring and then by all the others nearby. Suddenly all across the world, monkeys were washing their sweet potatoes. ‘So it will be with the Bahá’ís’ said Jenabe, ‘there will be a global flashover’. I hope I live to see it.
Circulating in the town of Cieszyn we delivered the Bahá’í message wherever people would listen, and a concert we publicised and presented at the university played to an audience of well over a hundred. Years before, I remember a much-travelled Bahá’í saying ‘Do not perform Chopin in Poland unless you play perfectly’, but our Polish compere girl said it was not that kind of audience. I could see it was not exactly Carnegie Hall, but somewhat nervously I thus made my Polish debut as an apologetic performer of a wisp of Chopin to a dutifully attentive audience, but not without incident. In rehearsal a few days before, I realised the concert grand’s rear leg was not fixed but merely trapped in place by the weight of the piano. On the big night I was part way through a prelude when the keyboard moved away from me by about four inches. I had a sudden fantasy of the rear leg collapsing and the instrument crashing down at the back, whereupon I would continue to play, leaning forward at a funny angle and completing the piece to thunderous applause and deafening (did I say deafening?) demands for encores. In the event the keyboard retreated no further, I finished without a bang, and the kind people clapped a bit.
Hear with thine own ears
During these my ‘Braintree’ years, in practically all the formal parts of Feasts, my traumatic struggle to follow what people are saying renders me isolated and mute, wary of speaking out lest I get the wrong end of the stick – which always seems to have two wrong ends. At times I feel about as much use as a waterproof teabag. The social part ought to be better since everybody talks at once and thus voices are raised, but in echoey rooms with bare walls, I feel as if my head is in a bucket shared with four people playing maracas.
Once more with feeling … again
Of course one’s entire ‘history’ in this life doesn’t end until the mortal coil is shuffled off, which slightly to my surprise was hinted at a year or two ago. The phone rang one sunny June morning. It was my sister Viv. She sounded rather breathless.
Arth, a Bahá’í friend of mine has just said ‘Sorry to hear about Arthur!’
‘What about Arthur?’
‘Well it says in the Bahá’í News Digest booklet he’s died’. I nearly fell through the floor!
I thought, my poor sister! She rings up uncertain what to expect and here I am answering the phone; bit of a shock for anybody. I was somewhat startled though, and then bemused. I simply responded ‘Well I hope it’s not true – I’ve just had my hair cut’. Viv’s anxiety was thus swiftly put to rest and I think I heard her smile, which on reflection sounds unlikely with my hearing. The episode of my deferred demise came in useful for weeks afterwards in bringing a little welcome laughter to our feasts and gatherings, and maybe to a few on the internet.
As I implied in the prologue, my Bahá’í story was never going to be shot through with shafts of quivering spiritual energy and excitement. Perhaps being a ‘war baby’ has had a bearing on my perceptions and emotions. My infant years passed in a home atmosphere of great stress, which may explain to some extent my tendency to timidity. Knocking on doors? I’d rather approach a stranger at a Baltic bus stop. Yet with the resilience of childhood, boyhood memories of my home town, Goole, East Yorkshire, are happy and full of sunshine. Away from the house were great outdoor adventures down froggy lanes and in the eerie stillness of mysterious woods, long exciting safaris in endless summers along the banks of the Yorkshire Ouse, west, to the monumental Boothferry Bridge. To the east was what we called ‘The Island’. It was a wide shelf of land projecting into the river and offering a dense jungle-like hinterland of amazing discoveries, wartime shells, flotsam from sunken ships, and stinking dead pigs. There were strange gigantic bushes with spring loaded purple flowers that burst and sprayed seeds in your face when you touched them. The years pass, five of the family I grew up with have left this life and the three survivors, Chris, Viv and me, are all Bahá’ís.
Among many high points is a special memory of sitting at the grand piano on the stage of Huddersfield Town Hall accompanying my sister Christine Deihim, who still has the voice of an angel. She sang ‘Morning Has Broken’ to an interfaith audience of several hundred, and then had them all singing together ‘Blessed is the Spot’, achieved through the master-stroke of handing out little song sheets beforehand. I’ve just remembered another nice little scene. I was once cooked an egg and bacon meal in a rather care-worn little rented house in Acocks Green, Birmingham, by a curly-black-haired young student in a thick roll-neck sweater. His name was Shahriar Razavi.
Investigating and embracing the Bahá’í faith – again initiated through a phone call from Viv – rescued me from an uncertain future, to put it mildly, potentially hovering between a tin cooker and The Mason’s Arms. Incidentally that was the pub where we Solihull Bahá’ís held some talks and I met for the first time a bright eyed young seeker called Fidelma.
Someone asked me recently if I had any doubts about the Faith. I was able to reply without hesitation “none whatsoever”. I will continue to look for chances to teach and to that end it would also be helpful to try to stay alive, which reminds me …. I need another haircut.
I think I’ll just check with Viv …
Essex, June 2013