I think that to write one’s Bahá’í history is the most difficult of all things. How can I possibly be objective about myself? The second problem is of recounting events of great significance to me, so that they make sense to the reader. The third problem is that at 83, my memory can get a little hazy at times.
Having stated those three disclaimers, here goes:
I was born on 13th January 1932 in Tilbury, Essex. My family were loosely Christian, as the majority of English people were. My earliest memories are of the Bata Estate. This was a model village built by Tomi Bata, the Czech shoe magnate, in the Thames Estuary. My father was manager of the power plant so we lived in a company house. All the houses had flat roofs, and European electric plugs. There was an open air swimming pool at the end of the street, a theatre cum cinema, and a sports club. By pre War standards this was luxury. I had an elder brother, but saw little of him after he went to the RAF College at Halton, and I had a bedroom all to myself. I was born with a depressed sternum, which meant that I was not much good at sport but, all in all, I think I can safely say that I had a happy childhood.
I can remember playing in the front garden on a sunny September afternoon. A window was open and, from the radio inside, I heard Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declare war on Germany.
It was accepted without drama or fuss. My father had several ships sunk under him in the Great War, whilst mum had worked in a munitions factory, so they had no illusions about what to expect. In hindsight I think this period induced many good disciplines and habits. Don’t waste anything; work together; don’t complain; and feel sorry for those in occupied Europe. Seen through today’s eyes it would seem a time of hardship and drama, but at the time it didn’t. In fact I suspect that there were fewer overweight unhealthy children than there are now.
My education was pathetic, and terminated when I was fourteen, so it was a case of night school and teaching oneself. Fortunately, curiosity and the search for truth are similar so I’m not complaining; in fact, I think we all reach for our own intellectual level in life. But in later years when I lived in the USA I always laughed when I was told that I had the benefit of an English education.
My first spiritual leanings were not religious; they came about from an idea that I developed as follows: If the world is evolving, then sooner or later Homo Superior should appear, and I should look for his appearance. Leonardo Da Vinci seemed a prime candidate, but didn’t somehow fill the bill, nor did any of the others, but it did send me along the right path. At about fourteen, I had a dream: a space ship landed, someone emerged and said he was Jesus, and that he had returned. That’s the bare bones, but the symbolism was a lot more than that.
I’ll skip the next few years, which included a stint in the army (Royal Engineers), a lengthy apprenticeship as a lithographer in the printing trade (which included part time at the London College of Printing), marriage and emigration. I freely admit to being an economic migrant, leaving austerity England. Why, Canada was paradise! (THIS is why I have some sympathies for the economic migrants that clog the headlines today, although I had to do it legally through endless interviews and red tape). So, we first went to Toronto in September 1957, then California in 1960.
Now fast forward to Dallas, Texas, 1961.
It is very hot there in summer and I stayed inside my apartment a lot and enjoyed the air-conditioning. I spent this time searching, reading loads of books, and jotting down ideas.
I came up with a code as follows:
My first duty was to my family.
My second duty was to my country.
My third duty was to the World, but somehow I felt I was missing out on something …… !
At this point we returned to England for several months, but the dreadful winter of 1962 sent us scurrying back to New York on the Queen Mary and from there we drove back across the United States to California.
Fast forward …. another year, to California.
California is known for its ‘fruits and nuts’ – weird characters – and anyone ‘searching’ is bound to meet up with a fair selection of them. I remember for instance the Aetherius Society. The speaker stated that two yogis praying continuously around the clock could make the USA invulnerable to atomic attack. I politely raised my hand and suggested it would be easier on the yogis if there were more of them doing four-hour shifts, which didn’t go down very well……..
But like Majnun I kept raising the dust.
Then my wife came home and said a shop assistant had told her about this Persian prince, and that there was a meeting at Manhattan Beach that evening, and so we went along. I am normally very rational, a true Doubting Thomas, but I rapidly accepted the Bahá’í Faith with hardly any investigation. A born-again Christian once asked me if I was born again. I told him I didn’t know about being born again, but that yes, I had undergone a profound spiritual experience. For a brief moment I had felt the presence of the Master. I didn’t mention that though; this is the first time I’ve told anyone. So, May 22nd 1962 I declared. As one might imagine, this led to changes to my life.
Luckily, the local community had a deepening programme. We had a wonderful old matriarch, Noreen Chadil, who had received a classical education and knew Sanskrit, which was a rare thing in those days. Our main deepener was Elwyn Van Zandt from the Los Angeles community. Another good thing was that there was always a fireside, or some other Bahá’í activity going on in the greater Los Angeles area – and gas (petrol) was very cheap! People thought nothing of driving 30 miles to a fireside. I attended the Geyservillle Bahá’í School several times; I seem to remember a fourteen year old Wendi Worth (now Momen). I was fortunate enough to know many wonderful Bahá’ís. Sadly most of them have now passed on. I could recount lots of stories, but they sound too much like name dropping.
There was lots of experimentation in teaching methods. Don’t ever think that the Ruhi books appeared out of the blue. They were the results of years and years of developing a teaching system; there were many precursors (and of course there will be successors). Travel teaching was something else. We once hired a yellow school bus and drove it 700 miles to a Navajo Indian reservation. It was a great experience but school bus seats are hardly Pullman, and for subsequent trips I used my own car. This had another advantage; the temperature drops like a stone in the desert at night and it’s much better sleeping in a car than a tepee. A group of the youth looked like a pile of caterpillars buried deep in their sleeping bags, bunched together to fight the freezing cold. There was a mass teaching for a week in 1966 in the town of Fresno, California. A choir was formed by Bahá’í s from the entertainment industry. We had public meetings. I vividly remember the choir singing ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord’, whilst Hand of the Cause Bill Sears read from the scriptures. There were all kinds of activities. My part was producing the very first Bahá’í T shirts with a set of stencils and permanent felt tips. Someone had lots of ‘fortune cookies’ made up, such as biscuits with invitations on paper concealed in them. Some of the older Bahá’ís were quite shocked, but the chairman of the National Spiritual Assembly, Robert Quigley, summed it all up with “One community was so shocked it had a Local Spiritual Assembly meeting – the first one in nine months!”
I remember the time in 1963 when the World Congress was to be held at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and a large crowd of us went to the airport to see the lucky ones off. Some Bahá’ís started writing songs relating to the Faith. It was an exciting development, but looking back, I find much of this material has more enthusiasm than quality. Personally I agree with Hand of the Cause Mr Faizi who remarked on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, where one voice announces all men are brothers, and then everyone answers … that’s what I call inspired music. I feel the same about William Blake’s “Jerusalem” – that Blake, like others, felt the spiritual awakening of the new age.
Then I began to feel restive. I had peacefully become divorced the previous year, I had a good job, a Cadillac car, and an apartment near the beach… what next? I would like to emphasize at this point that giving up all this, plus United States residency was NOT a sacrifice on my part. I wanted to do it. There’s a saying ‘put your money where your mouth is’ which sums it up exactly. I wrote to the overseas goals committee asking for a post. They replied offering me the goal of Dominica in the Windward Islands (Caribbean) to be there by the following Ridván (1966). I accepted. Then a complication occurred. I had sort of settled in my mind that once I was pioneering I would find a wife of another race as ‘Abdul-Bahá would have liked, but then I met Anna, a Finnish girl, in Los Angeles on an exchange visa and newly-declared. I had popped in to see a local Bahá’í, Pat Gangel, who remarked that although the swimming pool heater was not working, this Finnish girl, Anna, was swimming happily around. She had become a Bahá’í at Russ and Gina Garcia’s firesides in Beverly Hills. She came from a Lutheran background, one of her brothers being a Lutheran minister. She had also been involved in the World Council of Christians in Switzerland, and spoke four languages. Her background was a whole world away from mine but somehow we clicked! I had my wife from another culture after all. We decided to get married, but how? Her visa would soon expire, and she had to return to Europe, while I had to be in Dominica by Ridván. I said “See you in Europe, we’ll get married at the German temple”. I sold my car and some possessions, left the remainder in my brother’s garage, and lastly forgot about and left a whole load of clothes at the cleaners (which are probably there to this day)! Next I took a quick trip up to San Francisco to say farewell to my friends there. I stayed with Margie and Joe Gallagher for a few days, said lots of farewells, then back to get vaccinations, tax clearances, and a lot more goodbyes.
So the posse from the Manhattan Beach community squeezed us all in a camper van and headed for the airport. I suspect the five of them were ready to manhandle me onto the plane if at the last moment I decided to chicken out!
It’s strange but as a five-year-old I once said to my mother “wouldn’t it be terrible not to be English” and I still hold to that, but someone pointed out to me that ’home’ is where you measure distances from, and there’s me measuring distances from Los Angeles. So there it is, every time you live in another country or culture you absorb some of it. On the plane I was seated next to a young Cuban woman and her baby, off to visit relatives in Miami. She was scared stiff of flying, and as we taxied out to the runway, she crossed herself and took out a Bible together with a load of tracts and pictures of saints which she kissed at the end of each prayer. I passed her one of our little Communion with God pamphlets which she dutifully read, kissed, and added to her collection.
Once in Miami, I found that all the flights were delayed due to Air Force One flying in and I had a twelve hour wait for my next plane, a propeller driven island hopper, first San Juan, then Puerto Rico, St. Croix, and finally, at midnight, Antigua. There I had missed my connection and would have to stay overnight. In those days Antigua had a serious water problem, and I foolishly decided to take a shower. The water was saline and alkaline, and I was ten times stickier and dirtier than before.
However, in the morning there was blue sky and sea, and sitting under a shady bougainvillea I had a pleasant breakfast, and a lesson in evolution which I will never forget. On the breakfast table was a sugar bowl with a lid. The lid had a tiny space for the handle of a spoon to sit through but there was no spoon. Suddenly a tiny bird flew down and settled confidently on the table. He had an enormous (for him) curved beak, which he pushed into the hole at the edge of the lid, helped himself to a serving of sugar, and took off. That evening I had my first experience of steel drums. They take a steel drum and beat/heat the end of it until they have an octave: then they play it with great enthusiasm, the only trouble being they have not worked out the sharps and flats.
The next day there’s more island hopping, first to Guadeloupe, and then we’re flying over Dominica. It is green and mysterious, with no sign of human habitation. I almost expect a dinosaur head to break cover, but we continue on to Fort de France and we are in France…or at least a department of France. Think of those old black and white films with Peter Lorre and other assorted screen villains with Panama hats and smelly cheroots, ceiling fans … that is the atmosphere exactly.
The following day was my final hop to Dominica. In those days there was just an airstrip, which was on the northern end of the island.
I am now going to quote from my diary of that time …………..
…. It’s Dominica next stop. Now, where can we possibly land? The plane circles the northern tip of the island and suddenly we’re dropping between – yes, looking up at thick green jungle, we skim over the tree tops and down onto the airstrip. I suppose one should call it an airport: They get one plane a day except Thursday. The airport is at the north-eastern tip of the island, whereas Roseau, the capital, is at the south east corner of the island. So into a taxi, and off to town. This must be one of the most scenic drives it’s possible to take. The lush green foliage together with bright blossoms of red, orange, and just about every colour, splashed here and there. At every bend (which means every 30ft) the driver honks the horn, this is because the roads are not wide enough for two vehicles to pass, one has to edge over and stop, whilst the other creeps around it; everyone we pass waves. Little girls with huge baskets of stuff on their heads. All the women and girls carry loads this way, and it gives them a wonderful posture. We go up and down hills, around corners, each new view is stunning . Every river has loads of women doing laundry, and spreading it on the rocks to dry in the sun whilst the kids splash around, most of them naked. They use English road signs here (pre war ones).
The people here at first contact, seem a bit simple but then you realise that they live in such a small static community that any unusual (to them) request will throw them completely out of gear. If one asks a leading question they invariably answer agreeably because this is the line of least resistance. I realise I will have to learn their version of English, just as I had to do in North America, if I wish to communicate.
I went to Dominica to get a foot on the ground by Ridván, whilst Anna went to her brother’s in Holland. So far so good. Anneliese Bopp, the German National Spiritual Assembly secretary, told me that Anna and I would have to be residents of Germany for six months before we could be married. Plan B now took over. We had to be residents of the United Kingdom for fifteen days, plus another three days for a special licence, then we had our Bahá’í wedding at the Bahá’í Centre at Rutland Gate in London with Betty Reed officiating. The first night of our honeymoon was in Cadogan Gardens, close to where ‘Abdul-Bahá stayed. We drove through Europe to Finland (via the German House of Worship) and then retraced our steps to England, and started trying to book a passage to Dominica – then we had to deal with a shipping strike!
Anna got herself a job, but a temporary job for me was out of the question due at the time to the strange etiquette of printing unions, so I cooled my heels by travelling up to the London Bahá’í Centre at Rutland Gate two or three days a week and helping out. Betty Reed had her desk in the big room by the front door, paper was piled in heaps all over the floor, the only other helpers were Claire, from Northern Ireland, and Jeanette Robbins, an American who had popped in for a few days and ended up staying several years. I remember that Betty took off on a teaching trip to Central America, and the other members of the National Spiritual Assembly suggested we ‘tidy up’. In our enthusiasm we attacked the paper mountain revealing the Persian carpet underneath, but forgetting that Betty alone knew the whereabouts of everything. Luckily for me, I was gone before she returned! Aside from this, we got to know the local Bahá’ís, Angela and Robert Tidswell, Peter and Pari Cheung, and Christine Sherwani.
In those days, if you were leaving for somewhere off-beat you went to Thomas Cook, and they arranged it. An old Italian liner was supposed to be going to the Caribbean and we managed to get berths on her. The day before we were supposed to go to Southampton docks, my mother came into our bedroom and spread a newspaper across the bed. ‘British passengers mutiny on Italian ship’, it read. The next day we were on the quay at Southampton docks, but no sign of the ship! Late that evening it turned up, and we all clambered aboard, only to find out that the air conditioning didn’t work so we dragged mattresses out up on deck and slept there the first night. After a couple of days they managed to get the air con working and it wasn’t so bad. The voyage took about seventeen days, first Portugal, then Madeira where we met the local pioneers, and then it was island hopping through the Caribbean. Our first sight of land was the NE coast of Puerto Rico. The next stop was Kingston Jamaica where we met the local Bahá’ís, and bought a wedding ring for Anna (to avoid giving a bad impression). Next stop Curacao where the ship refuelled, then Venezuela, followed by Trinidad, by which time nearly three weeks had elapsed; this is why, in later life, I tend to turn my nose up at the idea of ‘going on a cruise’. At last we reached Dominica about nine in the evening and dropped anchor about a mile off shore. We were then interviewed by the customs officer, and as we had no return tickets I handed over $200 in travellers cheques as a deposit (I neglected to sign them, and months later Sergeant Herbert would say “Hey man, you come for your cheques?” and I would reply “no hurry man – I trust you”) and then it was down the gangplank into a big old rowing boat together with our luggage, to be towed ashore by the customs boat.
We had booked a hotel and that first night we were serenaded to sleep by the whistling frogs.
The first few days involved house hunting, and coincided with the arrival of tropical storm Judith. This was quite exciting and introduced us to horizontal rain, and boats being smashed to matchwood on the shore. We managed to find a place to rent; it needed attention (that’s an understatement) but we moved in to save money and put our sleeping bags on the floor. Then hurricane Inez arrived. It flattened the island north of us (Guadeloupe) and destroyed 35% of Dominica’s banana crop. It also blew in a window and we had water dripping on our sleeping bags. A few days later our trunks arrived from Los Angeles: I had taken the precaution of borrowing a steel bender and putting rings of steel around our trunks – just as well I did for all the locks had been broken or sheared off, but everything was safe and secure. We now had all kinds of goodies: tools, radio, record player, cutlery, all the basics needed for living. We bought a small fridge, a gas cooker, and bottle of gas to run it. I made a workbench, then a table and benches etc . We bought an iron bed that sagged in the middle, but some planks of wood soon solved that.
About this time we had a pioneer from Barbados drop in, Lorraine Landau (now passed on) who gave us lots of valuable insights into Island living. Soon we managed to find a much cheaper and smaller house (20 x 25ft) and settled in. Another Bahá’í on the Island, Bill Nedden, an American, had come to Dominica on his own initiative and was staying at the far north end of the island, so we only went to see him every few weeks. Nowadays Bill is in Antigua, just a short hop away, and I get to speak to him via the internet. There was a lot to learn…. sleeping under mosquito nets, getting used to the lizard who lived behind the picture of ‘Abdul-Bahá in our bedroom, the tiny frogs who lived in the shower, land crabs that came exploring at night, and lastly the ants, who seemed determined to take over the world. Food was also different; there were strange tropical fruits that I had never heard of, all of which were delicious. The local fishermen had a rather assorted catch in their nets, which always seemed to include those globular ones covered in poisonous spikes. Flying fish look like herrings, once you trim the wings off, but I found that most tropical fish had much more taste to them compared with ones from cooler northern climes.
Dominica is a poor island and work is not plentiful; fortunately I had taken a good selection of tools with me. It works like this – I mend something for somebody, and they return the favour with, for example, a basket of vegetables. In a closed island economy this barter system is well developed. Anna got a job in the office of L. Rose, the lime juice producers who grow all their limes on Dominica. Later she ended up working for a Swedish company. There was a small enclave of expatriate Swedes who always had problems, so in the end the Swedish ambassador from Venezuela flew in, and made Anna ‘chancellor’ (Anna speaks Swedish); this gave us some diplomatic immunity, which was useful. I had several jobs over the years, first as manager of a small building company, and then as an assistant to an American who had settled on the island after his yacht foundered there. He had a chicken farm plus plans for a Freeport project. After that went sour I helped manage a plantation, including a banana plantation, a dairy herd, and retail outlets.
We spent nearly four years on Dominica. During that time we were lucky enough to be visited by Rúhíyyih Khánum, accompanied by Violette Nakhjavani. I have always respected this pair, ever since I had read where they drove thousands of miles through Africa in a long-wheelbase Land Rover (try driving one!). I merely had to drive them from the airstrip over the mountains to Roseau, but that was not a trip for the faint-hearted.Looking back it is amazing how much we crammed into such a brief visit. First I put on my tropical suit and took Khánum to see the Governor, Sir Louis Cools-Lartigue. Visiting cards were exchanged and I had a rare glimpse of a diplomatic tea on the veranda. Then there was a public meeting in town to meet ‘Madame Rabbani, noted world traveller’. I remember we got a local pillar of the community, the island insurance salesman Curtis Tongue to be the MC and he did a grand job and felt honoured to be asked. In between all this activity we heard lots of tales, and lots of good advice. Returning to the airstrip, Rúhíyyih Khánum asked me to stop the car, and she got out and took a picture of a particular tree, and told how Shoghi Effendi had tried to grow these in the Bahá’í gardens, but had never succeeded. She was one gracious lady. I’m very sparing in the number of people I respect, but she is top of the list.
Our son Roy Quddus was born in Dominica, and when he was a year old, we were told we should have another child around the house so we went to the Carib reserve, and there, a wonderful old matriarch who was godmother to numerous children, sorted us out one to adopt, Tiina, a Carib Indian girl, whose tribe met Christopher Columbus. There are only a few hundred of them left. Strangely enough, a Bahá’í family from Alaska, the Baumgartners, came to visit us and they had an adopted Eskimo daughter, and much the same story as us. The Eskimo chief visited their home and seeing no children (they had all grown up) had said, you must have a child – I’ll send you one round –and he did! – adoption in other cultures not being the long drawn out process it is here.
I must make a heavily opinionated aside at this point. In those days we had no Ruhi courses of systemised teaching, which would have produced much, much better results. The point is that new Bahá’ís are just like migratory birds. They get the urge to take off pioneering and before you know it their wings are flapping and they are following an instinct that cannot be denied. Indeed, my view of the Ruhi courses is that they are pre-flight instructions – nothing more, nothing less.
One thing I produced there was a slideshow. In these days of slick Power Point presentations, this would seem crude. I made a copy board for my camera, copied postcards, hand-drawn artwork etc. and produced a slideshow which I sent off to California, where it did the rounds and was returned with the news that it had resulted in several declarations. The only problem with local people declaring is that they get the urge to travel, and off they go! Several of our new believers emigrated to Canada.
There were only two times when I felt in really low spirits. The first was when news came of my father’s death in England. I had no money to attend his funeral, nor did I manage to arrange for a Bahá’í prayer to be read at the graveside. The other time was a test. I had a letter from a Bahá’í friend in California who said she was fed up and wanted to make a new start, and could I stump up her fare to the islands? After much thought I declined, and later I found out she had committed suicide. I still think I did the right thing; escapism and pioneering do not go together, but she was a good friend and I felt much sorrow over the situation.
All good things come to an end. We needed a break from Dominica but couldn’t afford it, so we arranged through a loan from the US Foreign Goals Committee to pioneer to Finland, making our way to England on a Geest banana boat with our little car strapped on the deck. The international sign for Dominica is WD and so I had made a ‘WD’ disc for the back of the car. Police would stop us just to find out what it meant! In addition it seems to mean War Department.
So home to Essex to visit my mum, and then the long drive to Finland. There we had a problem; in the printing industry one needs a decent command of the relevant language. Finnish is a language all on its own. It is not of Indo-European roots and not easy to learn. Of course English is widely spoken in Finland, but that was no help for me. The other factor was that Anna was pregnant and so effectively out of the job market. We had no assets, and so Anna and the kids stayed with her family on their farm, and I drove back to England to get a job and earn some money. Arriving back in England I stayed with my mother and got a good job. After a few months Anna and the kids came, and we managed to scrape enough money for a down-payment on a house in Kelveden, Essex. This, plus having to pay back our debt to the US Foreign Goals Committee meant that we had several very tight years of austerity. Our daughter Satu arrived. We had dropped off Anna at Colchester Maternity Hospital en route to the Colchester Naw-Rúz party, and on our return had an extra member of the family, plus an easy birthday date to remember.
During this time we had our own lovely group of the Bahá’ís scattered around Essex, and Anna was secretary. We were going great guns for a while until the teaching committee got wind of us and split us up. We now decided once more to go pioneering, this time to Norway. Anna telephoned Charles Macdonald, who was secretary of the NSA at the time, and announced our plan. He replied “Never mind Norway, Chelmsford is an important goal at the moment, so go there”, so we did, and have been there ever since, in Galleywood, on the outskirts of the city. Naturally I had to install a sauna for Anna because Finns rate a sauna as a basic need for living. Other than that, Galleywood has a common and a park so that she can indulge in jogging. Shoghi Effendi considered Chelmsford an important goal because it contained a bishop. Over the years, I have been to tea with one of the bishops, who confided in me that his niece Stephanie Houghton is a Bahá’í.
Over the years we have done the usual things. The Mid Essex Interfaith Forum was founded in our living room. We had a half page in The Times about a feast held in the same room. For about seven years we had the Roohizadegans as neighbours. Olya was constantly off around the world on her teaching trips, and Anna would turn her notes from these trips into legible reports for the Universal House of Justice. I used to read them and marvel. It made me realise that ‘many are called, but few are chosen’. Olya and her husband Ruhi became close friends and we missed them when they left for Australia to be with their children. Sadly Ruhi has now passed on, but we still keep in touch with Olya.
On our social life in the community, I was a scout and cub leader for sixteen years in Chelmsford. I remember Philip Hainsworth remarking that if he had never been a scout, he would not have become a Bahá’í. In fact, I still dream of a Bahá’í Scout group, which may be possible in the future.
Our children are now grown up and married. Our daughter has two children (one adopted) and has her own TV post-production company. Our son is married to a Polish girl, Aiwa, whom he met in Oceania whilst on a round-the-world yacht race. They have two children. She is a mathematician, and he is engaged in national security. Our adopted daughter Tiina wanted to lead her own life, and lives in Northampton with her children.
I am now well over the hill (83) and retired and my interest is in building Meccano models for exhibitions. I have designed and built a model that draws coloured patterns, each one different (its infinitely variable) but, more to the point, it can draw nine-pointed stars. I also walk twice a week with the Ramblers, and spend one morning keeping fit with a group called Happy Hearts. Other than a little gardening, I’m bone idle and happy. I can never get over how lucky I have been in having such a happy and rewarding life. The Faith seems to have supplied this indifferent Ellard computer with marvellous software and a wonderful operating system.
Essex, July 2015