A Kind of Biography
Some background to go with the name.
I started my course in 1944 in Perth, Western Australia, the third of nine children. My mother was English and my father was of ancient Australian lineage ("our ancestors came out with William the Convict") blended with Irish. My older brother John, was three years ahead of me. My older sister died in an accident when I was still a baby, so I had no memory of her. Ted was born a little after that and in due course there followed Mary, Elizabeth, Peter, Michael and Danny. As well as kids, we had cats, particularly Tibby, a stray who adopted me when I was sleeping on the front verandah. Dad said that our yard was too small for us to have a dog.
We lived at 353 Newcastle Street in the inner suburb of West Perth (now Northbridge). At an early age, I found adventure in exploring, which I nearly always did alone. On one occasion, I made my way to the East Perth end of Newcastle Street (about a mile) and on another I got almost to the Leederville end. Once I took Ted and we went right into the city centre, where I lost him. Fortunately, the police picked up both of us and took us home. At the age of six, I skipped school one day and made my way through the city to the river and round by Mounts Bay Road almost as far as the Swan brewery.
It's the house in the middle.
Ours was a working class family. Dad was a fitter and turner at Tomlinson's Steel. His father had been a farmer. I suppose Mum's background was upper working class - her mother had managed the cafeteria at Derry and Tom's in London and knew G. K. Chesterton. Mum's father was an auto mechanic in the days when cars were few and far between.
The Hewitts were a seriously Catholic family (never missed Mass) and I was schooled by the Sisters of Mercy and the Irish Christian Brothers. My first bible, however, was produced by the Seventh Day Adventists, a children's bible in four black-bound volumes. The illustrations, some in colour and full-page, were mind-blowing!
Perth stands on the shores of the Swan River, where it widens out into two large lakes before finally narrowing and flowing into the ocean at Fremantle. The river is in my bones and in my spirit: learning to swim at Crawley Bay, running on the sand at Pelican point, climbing the low cliffs at Point Resolution. My father made a flat-bottomed "canoe" large enough for himself, my older brother John, my younger brother Ted and myself. We once spent three days paddling it from Perth Water to Fremantle, but only John was allowed to go out into the harbour with Dad. The wonders of the river! Schools of leaping porpoises, graceful, lazy jellyfish, pelicans perched on a grey mooring post or soaring high into the atmosphere, riding the warm upcurrents in great, gliding circles.
In 1952 we moved to Bentley on the edge of the city. It was a post-war working class suburb, newly built by the State Housing Commission and swarming with kids. It was also paradise. The bush was just across the road and it was an easy bike ride to go swimming at Kent Street Weir or Riverton Bridge on the Canning River. What more could you want?
At Bently, we all got bikes, which extended our reach to "the hills" (the Darling Scarp, east of Perth), Como and even Fremantle, and while I did a lot of biking around with my brothers and other friends, I also did a lot of lone exploring. Newcastle Street was replaced by Albany Highway, and, on successive expeditions, I pushed further and further out into the country until at last I reached some miles south of Armadale. (It's all suburbs of Perth now.) Ted and I took to camping trips, in which we cycled to Coogee, Rockingham and then Bunbury (110 miles) and Albany (250 miles).
John, Jim and Ted at Bentley
From an early age, my imagination was nurtured by films. I fell in love with Snow White, was a fan of Roy Rogers, and vividly remember King Solomon's Mines, From Here to Eternity, Green Dolphin Street and Gone With the Wind. My classic comedy was The Marx Brothers Go West. After films, it was comics. Donald Duck, Archie, The Phantom, Blackhawk and Superman led the field. Films and comics brought a very American dimension to my otherwise English, Irish and Australian growing experience. With books it was otherwise. I devoured Enid Blyton (especially the Famous Five) and was fascinated by the Australian children's writer May Gibbs. I failed to get interested in Biggles, but at the age of 12, I graduated to Charles Dickens and read my way through all the novels. Mum had the complete set, given to her by her mother, and she got me started by recommending "Oliver Twist". Nana, Mum's mother, also got me reading Sir Walter Scott.
No pictures, unfortunately, from Rockingham, Bunbury or Albany, but here's one from a later cycling tour of the Australian Alps. Photo by Ted, subject me.
At the age of 15 I entered St Charles' Seminary, in Guildford near Perth, with a view to becoming a Catholic priest. At about this time too, I was given a copy of the Knox bible (a Catholic translation), which I read through from Genesis to the Apocalypse, twice. I never became a priest, but the discipline, concentration and friendships of the seminary were the making of me, turning my high school career, which otherwise would have been a disaster, into a resounding success. After studying scholastic philosophy and Greek for a further year, I entered the Jesuit novitiate in Melbourne, Victoria, having felt a call to enter the Jesuit order. Fifteen months later, I was on my way back to Perth, the novice master having come to the conclusion that I was definitely in the wrong place. I was dismayed and depressed by this rejection, but he was right.
In 1965 I started at the University of Western Australia and graduated four years later with a first in Classics. Theology would have been my choice, but the adamantly secular tradition in Australian universities gave no space to theology. The staff of our very flexible Classics department found ways of accommodating my interests however. Dr James Willis took me through Cicero's De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods) and Professor Austin enabled my study of St John's Gospel as a Greek text. While at university I acquired a copy of the Jerusalem Bible and a Greek New Testament. They have been my staple ever since.
I struggled with depression through my university years, desperate to have a clear vision of where my life was going and to be sure that it was going to be of great value. My plan was to study theology in Germany, Holland or Belgium and go on to be a priest thereafter. I felt that, once I got to studying theology - my real interest - my depression would go. Meanwhile, I was very much helped by good friends and teachers, some vigorous debating (the Vietnam war, the permisive society ...) and the discovery of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein.
At St Thomas More College, University of Western Australia. The volume in the foreground is from the Migne collection of all the patristic writers. I think I was looking for a reference to Plato.
Eventually, I approached the Catholic archbishop of Perth, Dr Launcelot Goody. He had a reputation, even among his clergy, for a somewhat intimidating aloofness, but he was an intelligent man who listened, and was open to persuasion. (My brother Ted, who was one of his priests, confirms my view.) He agreed to provide me with initial funding while I continued to look for bursaries, and to offer me an appropriate role as a priest in the diocese if all went as I hoped.
At the Goethe Institut, Bad Reichenhall
It didn't. I had decided to study theology in Münster, West Germany, where there were highly respected Catholic and Evangelical faculties of theology. In preparation, I had spent my last six months in Australia improving my German and had enrolled on a two-month course with the Goethe Institut. That went well, but as I got into the theology lectures and seminars at Münster, I began to realise that I had made a serious mistake. My depression returned and increased, and I began to see that studying theology wasn't going to lift me out of it, that the real problem was, I simply wasn't an academic - not by temperament. I had already gone as far as I would go in a university.
Of course, I had no alternative plan for proceding to the priesthood, so it all just fell apart. I contacted Archbishop Goody, to let him know, and then set about the apparently hopeless task of finding a future. The only thing I knew clearly was that I didn't want to go back to Australia yet, however homesick I felt.
At that time, I met among the students a young Benedictine monk from Ampleforth in North Yorkshire. I told him about my trouble, the sense that it was all wrong where I was but with no idea of a way forward, except perhaps to return to England, where I had spent a couple of months on my way to Germany. His response was to suggest that I come and stay at the abbey
for a few months, while I found my way - I could help out with some teaching at the abbey school. Thank God for the depth and practical wisdom of Benedictine hospitality!
In the routine, calm and warmth of the monastery's life (the monks made me welcome to share as little or as much as I wanted) I slowly began to get sorted. For the first time since childhood, I was not striving to achieve some visionary goal but simply doing what lay to hand and looking for the next step. Life had become bleak and the future empty, but at least it was clear what I had to do: look for work, and prepare to go where I found it. I was starting to experience life as an ordinary adult. I was given a couple of classes, in the junior and the senior schools, and some individual students to tutor, and to my surprise, I found I enjoyed teaching. It was an answer. I would look for work in England as a teacher. Still struggling with depression, I
Shades of green - a bit faded now
Landscape at Ampleforth
did not then see it, but in fact I had started to find the way out: taking life decisions not on the basis of some visionary future, but on the basis of what I liked doing now.
One of the Monks pointed me to the Times Educational Supplement and, by the end of winter, I had been offered a job in a new Catholic comprehensive school in Coventry, Cardinal Newman School. I don't think I could have made a better landing, although it's only in retrospect that I
Gerry and Heather Clarke
fully appreciate it. The headmaster, Harry Mellon, was a no-nonsense Scotsman with vision and the gift of leadership. He was dedicated to education, the pupils and his staff. He and his family made me welcome as a personal friend. Through the school, I also found myself at home in two other families: that of my colleague, Gerry Clarke and the family of a pupil, John Slater. Both were generous, welcoming families and have been my English families ever since. I have spent almost every Christmas with four generations of Heather Clarke's family, and countless camping holidays in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France with the Slaters (who broaden into the Slater-Malone-Evans conclannation).
Just as the Clarkes and the Slaters became my families in England, Coventry became my city. I only stayed there two years, but it was the first place I settled in England and was the home of my first and permanent friends. Coventry cathedral, and particularly the tapestry Christ in Glory, have inspired me ever since. It was in Coventry too that I took my first really ecumenical steps. I worshipped and prayed a few times at the cathedral and once joined in an awayday of reflection and discussion for members of the congregation and staff.
Ungratefully, I left Cardinal Newman school after two years and went to teach at Countesthorpe Community College in Leicestershire. Leicester being only twenty miles away, I kept up my family links in Coventry, and Coventry remained "my city". I
Camping in Scotland
the Slater-Malone-Evans conclannation
still suffered from a kind of bleakness close to depression, and a feeling of loss, that there wasn't a future to look forward to and plan for, but there were so many happy present activities with my two families that the depression was no longer a burden, just a background.
Much as I enjoyed teaching, I felt that there had to be something more. From before high school I had dreamed of writing novels and had made two or three beginnings. At Ampleforth I started on an adult fantasy with an Australian setting, aboriginal-like characters and animals that spoke. It had possibilities. Later I got to work on a novel about the early years of white settlement in Perth and the fortunes of an English woman who migrated there as a servant but became an independent entrepreneur. It too had possibilities. I no longer had dreams for my own life but in these novels there was still a world of imaginative experience to which I could turn.
After two more years I began to look again for a new school, but I found myself thinking, to my amusement, that it had to be somewhere in the Midlands. I had come half way round the world to settle in England, and now I couldn't think of going further afield than the Midlands! That was the effect that Coventry had had on me. In the event, it was St Gregory's middle school in Oxford. Oxford just counted as the Midlands, because it had a car factory and was served by the Midland Red bus service. From Oxford I could easily travel back by motorcycle to Coventry, or across to Dunstable, where the Clarkes now lived.
Although I now felt that teaching was my career, there were problems. I enjoyed relating to the children and explaining things to them, but I was not good at discipline. I was too relaxed with my pupils, and then, when things got out of hand as a result, I flipped to being ratty. Relationships which started off being very good could sour, and, as I couldn't handle it, the classroom sometimes became chaotic. Although I kept my teaching alive with a good deal of creativity and resourcefulness, discipline would break down far too often.
In Oxford, I began to look around for something intellectually and spiritually nourishing, a bit of theology or practical experience in which I could grow. I checked out Catholic organisations, talks and courses (Oxford, of course, had plenty) but I didn't find anything that might be helpful. Then I attended a talk on the charismatic renewal given at the Catholic chaplaincy by Michael Green, rector of St Aldates, which is an evangelical Anglican church just up the road from the chaplaincy. I was interested, and after the talk I spoke to Michael, who later introduced me to two groups from the St Aldates congregation, a local fellowship group for the Cowley area, and a smaller prayer group, co-ordinated by Judith Mount, a lay leader later ordained as a priest.
In the prayer group, I learnt to share prayer, linking it to the sharing of our expriences and needs. It was a very evangelical encounter: constantly reflecting on the scriptures, praying spontaneously, as a way of talking with God, and approaching faith as a matter not of doctrines but of listening to God as we make our way in life. It was all very different from the catholicism in which I had long been nurtured. My spiritual growth - not as some esoteric experience but as a dimension of psychological and emotional maturing - was exponential. It was an exhilarating ecumenical experience, as I realised that just by moving sideways into a parallel tradition, I was learning new dimensions of Christian experience from people to whom they were second nature. It showed me how much and how easily Christians can learn simply by taking up in some way with a very different Christian tradition.
Then, in 1976, I came in contact once again with the charismatic renewal movement. A Catholic prayer group that met in the convent at Bicester (near Oxford) were offering the "Life in the Spirit Seminars". These were a weekly series of reflections in prayer on the love of God, the work of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. At that time, the charismatic renewal was sweeping through many mainstream denominations transforming dull routines and rigid attitudes to worship into spontaneous, open and relaxed celebration. People and churches were being liberated, and a wave of new songs and choruses was spreading across denominational boundaries like a glorious infection. The Pentecostal "gifts of the Spirit", teaching, healing, prophecy, discernment and praying in tongues, were being rediscovered, not by the traditionally qualified leaders, but by ordinary members of the congregations and groups. It was a humble, healthy and liberating flow of fellowship and life - not at all like the bizarre antics of those self-proclaimed prophets who now, nearly fifty years later, parody the gifts of God as a television showpiece.
The climax of the Life in the Spirit seminars was a session towards the end of the series, in which the leaders in the group would pray one by one with those members who were new to the renewal, asking God to "baptise" them in the Holy Spirit. "Baptism in the Spirit" is an experience attested in the "Acts of the Apostles", Luke's history of the first generation Christians. It is not a sacrament, because you cannot regulate it and administer it as a ritual. You can only ask for it. And when you receive the gift, you know it. Your experience of God, of life and of other people changes, perhaps suddenly and dramatically, perhaps only by slow but unmistakeable beginnings. And the changes cannot be predicted, though when they come, you realise that they are just what needed to change in your character, attitude and relationships, and above all, in your experience of God. It's being reborn. (Though it has to be added that there are many "born again" Christians who mean something very different by it - an ugly parody of God's reality.)
When the group prayed with me for the gift of the Spirit, nothing happened. Nothing changed. I had been helped through being with the group, but there was nothing at this point which I could recognise as a gift or a new encounter with God. Then, a couple of weeks later, we held a session of prayer for healing. Inner healing, healing of the mind, emotions and spirit, was particularly in focus. Once again, members of the group came forward one by one, and others laid hands on them, as they talked of histories, concerns and feelings, and prayed for healing. When it came to my turn, it seemed again that nothing much was happening. It felt good, and I was glad of the experience, but there was nothing life-changing. We seemed to have finished, and I was ready to step down, when somebody said, "Let's be quiet for a moment, and listen to God." In the silence, I suddenly remembered a dream I had had at the age of six or seven.
A life-predicting dream such as children can have at about that age, it had frightened me at the time but had been largely forgotten since. In my dream, I had set out from my home in Newcastle Street to walk around the block - not the block our house was on, but the one on the opposite side of Newcastle Street. The journey took a long time, longer than I had expected, and when I got back to my house, I saw a girl, older than me, sitting on the front verandah. A little dog came running out of the front gate, barking. I woke up in terror. Now, as the memory came back, my life fell apart and I broke down in floods of tears. The group prayed with me.
There followed over the next few months a period of prolonged memory recall and healing. Events from my own life's experience and some from my father's (including the death of my older sister) came to life and called for healing. Again and again things painful, frightening or sad rose to the surface. Sometimes I met with the Bicester group; often I faced these things alone and often with copious tears, but the tears came with an enormous sense of relief, of healing and of the utter reality of God's loving presence. Everything that came up came up healed, touched by God.
My life, and my ability to face life, changed profoundly. It was as if many experiences and channels of experience had been shut down or checked within me, because they hadn't worked or were somehow threatening - but now they were released, and life was suddenly flowing free into wide-open dimensions where I could run and dance and sing. It's difficult to be specific, except by pointing to some more superficial but concrete and symbolic examples. At school, I had long been hoarding a cupboard of prized materials which I intended to use some time in the future when conditions were better. I let go. I hauled them out and let them loose in the classes as they were. As another example, I had always been fond of singing. I could sing lustily in church or in school, in the safety of a group. But solo was only possible when I was alone and no one could hear me. If I tried to sing solo in the presence of other people, I dried up and shrank. Now I could sing solo in company as happily and carelessly as ever I had done when alone.
A very big change, but one which came about in stages over a couple of years was my liberation from teaching. (It was even more of a liberation for my colleagues and pupils.) The renewal had not much improved my performance as a teacher. I began to feel that I had to move on from St. Gregory's school, hoping to do better somewhere else. Early in 1978 I went for a couple of interviews, without success. The conviction grew stronger that it was time to move on and I contiued looking in the Times Educational Supplement, but a conviction also grew that as I looked through the advertisements I should wait for a nudge from God, something to say, this is it. I stopped following up possibilities and waited for the one that would leap out as God's choice. The year wore on, and when the deadline for giving notice in my present post had passed, it became apparent that the two convictions were in flat contradiction. But I still felt that both came from God.
Then, one afternoon after school, the chairman of governors approached me in my classroom. He explained that, because of a decline in numbers, St Gregory's had to lose a member of staff. The county council had agreed to fund a year's sabbatical on full salary for any suitable course of study, to a member of staff who would agree, after completion of the year, to be redeployed to another school. The governors had felt that I was the staff member most likely to benefit from this opportunity. I agreed. I subsequently enrolled for a "Special Diploma in Education" with Oxford University. I embarked upon a glorious year free from classroom tribulations, as a student with a teacher's salary.
It was a year of developments. I started a bit nervously (after my experience in Germany) but the course went well, and I revelled in the oportunity of attending lectures in theology and scripture which had nothing to do with the Diploma. I was much involved with the Charismatic movement around Oxford, and I now took advantage of my freedom and comparative leisure to engage with my local Catholic church in Cowley. Little developed
there, so I looked to Blackbird Leys, the council housing estate beyond Cowley. Here, I quickly became involved in the Church of the Holy Family, an ecumenical church of four denominations, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed. David Rowland, the Baptist minister, made me welcome, and I was soon helping Audrey Rowland, his wife, with the church's youth group. I also joined David and Tony Moore, the Anglican vicar, for daily prayer. I started to get involved with a little drop-in and advice centre which Audrey had set up in the church entrance, and this led on to work with vulnerable people around the estate, often in conjunction
Holy Family Church Blackbird Leys
with social services. Holy Family became my church, and has been ever since (forty years).
members of Holy Family Church at Walsingham
Since I came to Oxford I had been lodging with Brian Watts (founder of the plumbing firm), but now I moved to Blackbird Leys, as a lodger with the family of a friend of his, Val McKiernan in Pegasus Road. Over the next ten years, Blackbird Leys became firmly and deeply my community as Holy Family was my church. I worshipped also at Sacred Heart, the local Catholic church, and was involved in activities there, but I was putting down roots in the Baptist, Methodist, Anglican and Reformed traditions which were all part of the life of Holy Family. I was also getting to know - an experience of warmth and generosity - the Caribbean community. The congregation at Holy Family was about 40% Afro-Caribbean.
By the end of my sabbatical, I knew that I would not be returning to teaching. I put in my resignation, and set about occupying myself with the church and the community I was discovering in Blackbird Leys. It was a step of faith, as I had little in savings and no regular source of income. Not long ago, the prospect of being without a career, the security of regular work and income, would have put me into a state of panic and depression. Now it was an adventure in which I felt complete confidence in God. And there was something else that added to the adventure.
Over the years, I had continued writing the two novels which had occupied much of the creator in me. They represented a future in which I could be something else, expressing and communicating as I created, and I still dreamed, from time to time, as I had done since my childhood, of being a successful writer. Now, however, I felt that God was telling me to give them up, to bin them both, because God would be showing me something else to write. Diving into my Jerusalem Bible, I found myself looking at the oldest, the most primitive, stories, those we find in the Book of Judges. It seemed to me the place where the revelation of God, the meeting of God in history, begins. I began writing a book which would be completed as The Warrior God.
Holy Family Church was deeply and widely engaged with the local community of Blackbird Leys. I became particularly involved with the "Neighbourhood Centre", the drop-in, advice and outreach centre which Audrey Rowland established in the church building. Audrey had a genius for involving members of the community, not in "her" projects but in realising the projects which they as a community wanted and needed. Her energy, enthusiasm and breadth of engagement were impressive. I learnt community work from Audrey. Unfortunately, I could not learn her genius, and when I later became, myself, the Church Community Worker, my best was, in this respect, a plodding imitation of Audrey's work.
At the neighbourhood centre in its first location, the church entrance room.
Hiroshima Day outlines on the pavement at Holy Family Church
I continued with the youth group, which linked up with other youth groups in the Oxford Methodist Circuit for larger activities, and I was variously involved with the annual Blackbird Leys Festival, the Easter liturgy (at Sacred Heart and at Holy Family), and public peace demonstrations on Hiroshima Day and Remembrance Sunday. There was also, around Christmas time, the church pantomime. I was freelance and a free spirit, engaged but not employed, appreciated, but not strictly accountable. On the one hand, I gave my time generously and enthusiastically (I was always getting a great deal back) but on the other, I was never officially responsible: no one could demand anything of me. For financial support, I occasionally took relief teaching work or stood in for the sheltered housing wardens with Oxford City Council. Otherwise, I survived on state benefits. These brought no great pressure to find paid work as, at the time, there was a surplus of teachers and inevitably some unemployment.
My involvement with the charismatic movement continued and grew, but it was somewhat apart from Blackbird Leys and Holy Family. I worked with the Bicester prayer group and a group that I started in Cowley with John and Veronica Brennan, from the Catholic church that had formerly been my parish. In Cowley, we developed our own version of the Life in the Spirit Seminars. I kept hoping for something dramatic, a breakthrough into some exciting new level of ministry with groups of people coming alive in the Spirit and new missions opening up and flourishing, as you heard about in many parts of the world-wide charismatic movement. I used to give talks, pray with people for healing and organise prayer days.
I had learnt to speak about God, Jesus and my faith without embarrassment, though I was always shy enough to wait for a lead or an invitation. I had taken to wearing a badge which said simply, "Jesus Saves" and I hoped that people would comment on it, so that that would be my lead. But they never did, until one day I was doing supply work at an Oxford high school, looking after a group of sixth formers who were getting on with their own work. I got into a long conversation with one young man who asked about it. He himself was wearing a CND badge (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and that too was part of the conversation. As we finished, we agreed to swap badges. I never met him again, so I do not know where the conversation took him, but I became an active member of CND and began to take part in protest actions, at one point getting arrested for obstructing the highway by sitting in front of the entrance to the American base at Upper Heyford, near Oxford.
Throughout this period, I was happy and relaxed, involved in many things, still feeling that I wanted something more, but happy to dream about it rather than worry. For my 40th birthday in 1984, I went back to Perth for three months, visiting my family. My father had died, but my mother still lived in the house at Bentley. It was good to be back in a land where summers are summers and a city where the river is a vast expanse of shimmering blue, but I knew that Perth would never be my home again. I had put down such roots and made such friends in England that England, Oxford and Blackbird Leys were my home. A year later my mother paid a return visit to the UK, which she had left some sixty years before as a young teenager. She got on famously with my English families and with members of the churches in Blackbird Leys.
Mum with Nanny, Heather Clarke's mother, at St. Jude's, the Clarke home near Dunstable
With some of the Clarke grandchildren
alice, Isaac and Imogen
Meanwhile, I continued writing. A big part of my creativity went into it and I was getting on in a way that I had not done with my novels. I finished The Warrior God (a reflection on Judges, Joshua and Samuel with a bit of I Kings - Israel's history from the invasion of Canaan to the end of Solomon's reign) and went on to write Too Close to God, drawing on I and II Kings, the period of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. I counted on geting these books published, and when I acquired some of the latest technology, an Amstrad word-processor, my writing took off. The facilities offered by word processing were ideal for the deployment of my particular skills in editing and assembling text. It was my way of writing.
I began to do the rounds of publishers, first with The Warrior God, then with Too Close to God, and as I sent them out hopefully, I got to work on my third book, Justice at the Gate. This dealt with the eighth century prophets, Amos, Micah, Isaiah and Hosea, and particularly their call for social justice. I looked forward to becoming a published author, a prospect which promised to fill the gap that was still there between everything I was and the something I still sought to be. I prayed that God, who had not yet called me to a big and exciting evangelistic ministry, might be going to bless my writing and open up the future there. But as the rejection letters piled up, I was getting more and more discouraged, and, what was worse, I found myself struggling with Justice at the Gate. I couldn't finish it - not for lack of material and ideas but from such an excess of both that I just couldn't get it under control. Particularly with the prophet Hosea, every time I set to to establish a pattern or give shape and direction to the work, ideas and lines of thought kept spinning off in all directions and I despaired of ever making it coherent and manageable.
In fact, I was heading into a crisis. I was less sure of my work in the community at Blackbird Leys, felt that it needed to be more focused but didn't know what to focus it on. I began to feel that my life, though I had been so blessedly relaxed about it for a decade now, just wasn't adding up to anything. I was feeling lonely, wondering if I should have married, then suddenly thinking that I very much wanted to be married now. (I should add that I am bisexual, but I only thought of heterosexual marriage.) But I seemed to have left it so late. I was forty-three years old. I began to feel, too, that I needed to be back in full-time work, earning a regular income. My pattern of flexible availability had been very useful to others (I had been called in frequently by social services for instance, to help with awkward cases that required some extra input of community care) and it had suited me to be free of long-term career responsibilities, free to dream and to write, but now I began to realise that it wasn't adding up to anything. It was neither me asserting my own identity and place, nor faithful commitment to a program led by others. It felt like nothing was happening. For the second time in my life, I found myself plunged into long-term depression.
with Fina Bello and other members of the Teresian Association
Following changes in Val McKiernan's household, with whom I had been lodging for some nine years, I moved to a rented room back in Cowley. It was a lonely time, in which I was less involved with Blackbird Leys and Holy Family Church, but I was helped by new contacts and friends at the University Catholic Chaplaincy. At that time, the two "lay chaplains" were members of the Teresian Association, a Catholic association of lay women, mostly teachers or members of the "caring" professions. One of the chaplains, Fina Bello, was very open to the charismatic movement and had started a prayer group at the chaplaincy. I joined this group and felt very supported by its members. At the same time I was taken on for a government-funded job at New Road Baptist Church in the centre of Oxford. My role, for one year, was to develop weekday use of the church and its facilities.
As before, and much more quickly this time, getting into the routine of a regular job got me out of depression, and by the end of the year, I was ready to start again. Audrey Rowland had announced her resignation from the post of Church Community Worker. (She and her husband David were heading for new ministries in Nuneaton.) When it became clear that the church
was looking for someone to start new lines of work, I applied for the job. I knew that I didn't have the skills to carry on what Audrey had been doing, but Audrey's projects, like the Neighbourhood Centre and the Adventure Playground, were well developed, with a number of people from the church and from the wider community able to keep them going. Audrey, as I said, was a first-rate community worker. When she left, she left projects that would continue.
The twenty years that followed (1989 - 2009) are what I would call my church and community work in Blackbird Leys, Phase II. My brief as Church Community Worker soon filled up. At the time I was starting, the idea of a Credit Union was floated – to be the first in Oxford.
Commissioning as Church Community Worker
Jack Argent for Holy Family Church and representatives of the Anglican, Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed denominations
with volunteers at the Blackbird Leys Credit Union
I soon found myself heading up the project, and although it took five years to get the Blackbird Leys Credit Union Ltd in place and active and registered, we got there, and the Credit Union became a significant part of my work, through to and beyond retirement.
Another area of work began with the Family Support Group, which Audrey had helped to set up as a playgroup with all-day provision to help working parents, mostly from the Afro-Caribbean community. In this case, I took up the baton, and it soon led, through a wider co-ordinating group enabled by Rosemary Knagg, from the County Council, to involvement with preschools and under eights groups across Blackbird Leys. Existing young families and a large
new housing development built onto Blackbird Leys in the 90s meant an exploding population of young children. Playgroup leaders employed by local committees established four preschools, and my role was to help with organisation and fundraising, which we did co-operatively across the four groups. The Family Support Group expanded from two to five days a week, with funding and other assistance from Mike O'Regan (an Oxfordshire businessman with a strong interest in early years education - he also began and inspired the Peers Early Education Partnership). A number of our projects were funded by the Church Urban Fund, set up in the wake of "Faith in the City".
Holy Family Church had a well-established tradition, which Audrey fleshed out in a major way, of assisting members of the local community to set up the organisations they wanted and needed, without making them “church” property. Over the 30 years of Audrey’s work and mine, there came into being the advice centre, now the Agnes Smith Advice Centre, the Adventure Playground, two of the preschool playgroups, the Credit Union and the Community Development Initiative (CDI) for youth work and groups for older people in the community. This last was largely the work of James Ramsay, Anglican vicar of Holy Family during my first ten years as Church Community Worker and had a major input from Ealing Family Housing Association (now Catalyst) the leading partner in the new housing development. Some other church members, Patsy and Bernadine Spencer, were leaders in the Saturday School, which offered extra tuition using an African/Caribbean curriculum.
In addition to all this, there was still the pantomime. I mentioned it earlier, though I'm not sure I should have.
Oh yes you should! ...
Oh no I shouldn't - pantomimes don't lend themselves to a verbal narrative.
You can do it in pictures then!
Oh no, I can't.
Oh yes you can!
All right then, here's Alladin. >>>>>>>>>
For my new job, I returned to living in Blackbird Leys. The Diocese of Oxford was persuaded to let me have a house they had acquired for a curate. A “fair rent” was established by an independent assessor, and as the arrangement was not tied to my employment, 15 Monks Close is still my home 10 years after “retirement”.
Though a confirmed bachelor, it was not my style to rattle around in an empty three-bedroom house, and the rooms have been variously occupied ever since I moved in. It started with an Indian couple, introduced by the local Catholic priest, then the Teresians asked me to put up some Spanish students on short courses, then a number of Czech and Polish young people were directed to my address by Sally Still. I had met Sally through my involvement with organisations for the homeless (an Oxford-wide dimension of my community work). I had given a talk on homelessness to a student group at St John’s College, at the end of which Sally introduced herself and asked for my views on squatting. Having ascertained that they were liberal, she proceeded to send me a steady stream of squatters. Sally has an amazing capacity for friendship, and for making her friends other people’s friends. We have been friends ever since.
I was designated (tongue in cheek) as Abbot, age being the only qualification required. Neville (as you would expect of a Northern Ireland Presbyterian) showed a gift for leading our prayer sessions (candles and all). Neil (a man of Edinburgh) organised a lively Burns Night celebration each year, training us in the traditions and ensuring that we carried them out with enthusiasm. Between Neil’s many friends and connections, friends from Oxford Youth Works and a good
Then another friend, Leo Thomas, introduced me to Neil Quinn, a social work student at Oxford. Leo knew I wanted to take community living further, and Neil had been in a student community connected with the University for two years. The outcome was that Neil came to live at 15 Monks Close and quickly transformed my warm but unclear ambitions for community life into practical reality.
Then Darren James, a neighbour who was a leader at Oxford Youth Works (a Christian training organisation linking to schools and communities) introduced Neville Louden. Neville had been a student at OYW and, having completed his
course, wanted to continue with his youth activities in Blackbird Leys. As a Northern Ireland protestant, it was felt he would fit in well with a Scots catholic and a community worker who didn’t know if he was catholic or protestant.
Burns night at Monks Close
To the words of the poet himself, Neil slaughters the haggis.
Leo, Neville and Darren in Ballymoney NI.
number of mutual friends from Blackbird Leys, our “community” was in fact an open house generating a wider sense of friendship, sharing and community. Neil also organised us into a trip to Cuba, Jamaica (where Leo Thomas was then working and from where his family had emigrated to the UK) Guatemala and Nicaragua, where we stayed for some weeks with people of the rural parish of Chacra Seca near Leon. (Leon is twinned with Oxford, and the parish had links with Sacred Heart, the Roman Catholic parish of Blackbird Leys.)
In due course both Neville and Neil moved on, Neil (as you would expect of a man of Edinburgh) to head up a community-based mental health project in Glasgow, Neville (as you would expect of a Northern Ireland Protestant) to work with a group of nuns in Nicaragua. I had started looking, praying and advertising for people to take their place, but while I was waiting, a friend asked me to take in a couple of young men from East Timor who were homeless due to a disagreement with their landlord. I carefully explained to them that they could only stay until I found people to share with me as a community. Twenty-two years later, my house is still a Timorese community house and Fataluku is the standard language. Man proposes, God disposes.
Another role that began soon after my appointment as Church Community Worker was that of a local preacher. All my life I had felt preaching in my blood, and I knew I had talents for leading worship. It was the one part of my reaching for the priesthood that had come from a well-founded impulse. Soon after my appointment as Church Community Worker, I looked into the possibility of becoming a Lay Reader in the Church of England. I was warmly encouraged by the Bishop of Oxford, but then the canon lawyers got involved. It turned out that, as I was not a confirmed Anglican (I had been confirmed as a Roman Catholic) I could do the course, but could not be accredited as a Lay Reader. I therefore approached the Superintendent of the Oxford Methodist Circuit, who took a more pragmatic line. As a member of the ecumenical Church of the Holy Family, I was part of the Methodist family, whatever
the preacher, at Littlemore Baptist chapel
my precise legal standing. I was accepted for training and in due course accredited as a Local Preacher in the Oxford Circuit. I am glad it worked out that way, as I have found myself very much at home in Methodist churches. Moreover, Heather Clarke’s parents were committed Methodists, so that I felt I had a family link as well.
For some ten years after becoming church community worker, I did very little in the way of creative writing. I had had the wind knocked out of me, and in any case, there were so many exciting, encouraging and time-consuming activities between work and home, that writing remained largely an aspiration only. But about the turn of the century I found myself at it again. I decided to write on the theme of Jesus as Messiah, drawing on the synoptic gospels. It seemed to me that the title had been neglected in Christian history and theology, and that, as a beginner, I would be safe from the challenges of weightier and more hotly debated areas: the Incarnation, faith and salvation. As I have said elsewhere, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The role of Messiah turned out to be the very lynch-pin and reality test of everything else.
Over the next few years I wrote a very long book on the Gospel according to Luke, which I called “Jesus Kyrios” and from there launched into the Acts of the Apostles, which I decided to cover in a trilogy. I got started too on Paul (I Thessalonians and I Corinthians). I set up a website, the original uruvacu.co.uk, and published there the books I had completed, offering free on-line access to my work. The offer wasn’t much taken up and I soon realised that, while it is easy to publish on-line, you still have a huge job of publicity to do if you want your work to be noticed. Eventually, uruvacu.co.uk fell into neglect and disrepair.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t complete my trilogy on Acts. It was done except for a chapter towards the end of part II, where I was trying to draw things together and bring out their relevance in the modern Church. But however often I went back to it, it just wouldn’t work. Eventually I realised that it wouldn’t work because most of what I was trying to do should have been done much earlier. In fact, I realised that I had to go right back into the Gospel and rewrite that as a trilogy. There was another 2 – 3 years’ work in it.
with Valerio, one of the first
It was in 1998 that the first of the Timorese moved in with me. They were Fataluku speakers from Com and Titilari in the Lospalos district. There are more than 30 languages in East Timor, and, with some 40,000 native speakers, Fataluku is one of the larger ones by population. Having long since reached a modest level of proficiency in four European languages as well as Latin and ancient Greek, I had long had the ambition of learning some out-of-the way language which almost nobody apart from the native speakers knew – perhaps some remote African tribe or an isolated community in the Swiss Alps. Now, here it was, and my house was full of people speaking it, for the East Timor community in Oxford was growing rapidly and there were many visitors. I had made a list of 3,000 words grouped by category and sub-category according to their meaning and
function – the best way, in my experience, of building vocabulary in a foreign language. My friends helped me to fill out this list in Fataluku, particularly Zequito Oliveira, who was quite fluent in English (and whose father, Pa’uno Kadomi Timor, features in my book “And On Earth Peace”). With the help of the Fataluku population of Oxford and some visits to East Timor, I became fairly fluent in the language.
Peter with some of the family in Dili
My first visit to East Timor was in the year 2000, slotted into a visit to Australia. My brother Peter and I flew up from Perth via Darwin. We visited Valerio's family in Dili, Titilari and Lospalos, where I also met Pauno Kadomi Timor. It was the first of four visits to East Timor, in which I spent most of my time in the Fataluku-speaking Lospalos district: in Lospalos, Asalainu, Homé, Lorehe, Mehara and Tutuala.
At some stage - I can't remember when - my Timorese friends gave me the Fataluku name "Halusó", which means, approximately, "warrior". I am usually addressed as "kaka", which means older brother or sister, and I address the Fataluku speakers as "noko", which means younger brother or sister. So I am "Kaka Halusó". Like all the East Timorese, the Fataluku people have a Portuguese Christian name and surname, but they also have a native name which is chosen carefully to reflect their family and clan identity. Parents are renamed after their first child. So Paiatiti's mother is spoken of and addressed as "Paiatiti inal", "Paiatiti's mother". Pari's father is "Pari ipal". Paiatiti, by the way, was born while her mother lived at 15 Monks Close, and lived here for her first two years or so, until her father was able to join them from East Timor.
In my involvement with the homeless in Oxford (where it is a very serious issue, due to the high cost of accommodation, the decimation of council housing and the abundance of very low-paid work on which Oxford’s economy depends - one reason why there are so many Timorese here) I played a minor role in setting up the Gatehouse and the Night Shelter, overnight accommodation for homeless adults and younger people.
Pari ipal (Timoteo)
with Marilia (Paiatiti inal)
My work with under-fives groups came to an end early in the 2000s, as an influx of national government money suddenly made the whole area more attractive to bigger players, including the County Council Education Department. Locally organised preschools which had done excellent service for decades, had to fold when they found that a last minute decision by the Council to open a facility in the local school took away most of their clientele at a stroke. Not on quality, but on economics, they couldn’t compete.
The Credit Union flourished, although it remained dependent on outside funding, from the City Council, local churches and national charities. Its main support came from Holy Family, in the form of my services as Church Community Worker. In 2002, we set up in the Blackbird Leys Community Centre, using government funds to refurbish the front part of the centre, which we then shared with two other groups, an IT hub (the Blackbird Leys Information Technology Zone, or BLITZ) and a community information and drop-in base. We had found by experience that the Credit Union worked best in shared facilities, where people were coming and going on a variety of business, hanging around, chatting, sharing coffee and generally catching up with their contacts. The very open layout of this part of the building helped to establish a very informal and friendly interaction of workers, users and visitors, a successful community meeting point.
Over the years, the Credit Union drew in a considerable number of volunteers, both as committee members and tellers or office workers. There were also a number of paid employees, some long-term, some for the duration of particular funded projects. Sometimes volunteers became paid workers, and sometimes paid workers continued as volunteers when their funding ran out. All were classed as “staff” and there was no hierarchy putting paid employees above volunteers. It worked, because we were a small credit union, each of us forming a variety of friendly relationships with members, mostly from Blackbird Leys, but from other parts of Oxford as well. The range of services covered savings, loans, cashing of cheques and management of benefit (welfare) payments, in all of which we were able to be flexible (more so even than larger credit unions) because we were in close contact with our members, most of whom were neighbours.
I was never able to match Audrey’s genius for encouraging and nurturing other people’s involvement, so that I tended to end up with more of the workload and responsibility than should be the case in good community work practice, but it worked, and projects went forward. In the Credit Union particularly, some very good people came to the fore – too many to mention, but there are some that I just have to mention. Marion and Peter Delaney were founder members of the committee. They went on to play a role in the Credit Union at
Teignmouth in Devon. Philomena Doherty was our ongoing chair and the volunteer teller who knew everybody. She works in the pharmacy over the road, where I think her role as the person who knows everyone is equally important. Geoffrey Richardson, a lay Franciscan, ex-army and retired, gave us hours of time as a teller and committee member. With the rest of his time he built a village in India. (By his raising the money to build a certain quota of brick houses, the village qualified for a road to be built to it.) He also supported a number of people in Sri Lanka and Palestine. Saul Goode joined us as a paid worker, served as manager for a number of years and continued giving voluntary help after funding for paid workers was no longer available. Saul's quiet unassertive way hides a strength of commitment, sharp common sense and a vision that also has an eye for details.
Credit Union: Geoffrey Richardson's retirement at 80
Ines Sasha Paula myself Philomena
< I think this was about 2007 - the Lord Mayor of Oxford's awards for "exceptional service to the city". Sasha East and I were among those receiving awards. When I dug out this picture, it struck me that here were five people any of whom might have received that award. Ines Kretzschmar, Paula Williams and Philomena Doherty would all have earned it. All five had contributed to and served the community in Blackbird Leys over the years, in a variety of capacities and a number of local organisations. Sasha later served as Church Community Worker for a couple of years.
In 2009, having reached the age of 65, I retired, which means that we had a big party in the Community Centre and I got a lot of presents. The next day, I was back at work. The church did not have the funding in place to immediately appoint a successor, and, in any case, when eventually there was funding, we looked for someone to take a new line, just as I had done after Audrey. The Credit Union was now my main involvement, but I was building up an increasing workload with the East Timorese community. Initially, this was translation for the Fataluku speakers, but it grew into support and advice for a whole range of necessary contacts with British society. I found myself transforming from a Community Worker (developing and assisting community organisations) to a Community Support Worker (helping and advising individuals in the community).
with Andrew Smith, Oxford East MP
and Val Smth, Oxford City Councillor
There are probably some four to five thousand East Timorese in Oxford, of whom some one to two thousand are Fataluku speakers. Oxford, though sometimes thought of as a quintessential English city, is and has been for many generations a city of immigrants: Welsh, Irish, Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Africans and Europeans of several nations. The Timorese came to Oxford as Portuguese, with a right to live and work here as EU citizens. The city's economy, with the University, three major hospitals, a car factory and a large tourism and hospitality industry, depends on armies of immigrant workers, as there is vastly more low-paid work (skilled and unskilled) than would normally be found in a city of Oxford's size (population only 150,000). Due to forty years of mismanagement by national governments, housing is extremely expensive, which is a brake on further immigration from within the UK and Ireland for all but well-paid professionals.
The support work began with translation for mostly young men applying for welfare benefits while they were looking for work, but unemployment became rare as numbers and networks of Timorese spread in many parts of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, wherever there was
labour intensive industry needing low-paid or unskilled labour. I was soon involved in employment issues, either translating or producing documents for employers who needed to communicate with their employees or supporting workers with a grievance. I soon discovered that, especially in the restaurant and takeaway business, it is not uncommon for owners to work their kitchen staff very long hours at little more than half the minimum wage. With the help of Sarah England, a first-rate employment solicitor in Bournemouth, we have won a number of cases in several parts of the country. I became known to the Timorese community throughout Britain as the "go-to" person for employment issues.
Another major area of work is healthcare. It includes helping people to register with a GP and translating, both at local surgeries and at hospitals in Oxford and in other parts of the country. There has been significant hospital work in London, Cardiff, Coventry and Gloucester and I am now familiar with most of the GP surgeries in Oxford. As I said, I have become in "retirement" a community support worker, and the job always goes a long way beyond translation. If cases are to be dealt with thoroughly, a good deal of advice, support, liaison and follow-up
Timor mocor ho kuca
Timorese friends and my trusty steed
comes into it. Even diagnosis - after dealing with a number of cases of TB, I found myself spotting the symptoms and drawing GPs' attention to a case - or even, when it looked more serious, referring them directly to the team at the hospital. As more and more young women joined the flow of immigrants, I found myself becoming much more involved in gynaecological issues and pregnancy than a confirmed bachelor might expect to be. On one amazingly privileged occasion, at the mother's particular request, I was present, together with her husband, at a birth.
Sadly, there were also deaths, one from heart failure and three from cancer. These always involved extensive work for repatriation of the bodies. For the Timorese, it was unthinkable that the deceased should be buried anywhere else than in their own villages. When Salvador (Telukoro), who lived with me, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he said that he wanted to go back to his people, to die there. Radiotherapy made him temporarily fit and able to travel, and it was arranged that I would accompany him. Holy Family Church, the churches of the Methodist circuit and some of the URC churches where I was known as a preacher raised the funds for both of us. Later, I wrote the following report for the Methodist newsletter, Kitbag:
The road, Asalainu
We returned to his home village of Asalainu, about six hours' drive from Dili on bush roads. There, his large extended family (about seven or eight houses) were very glad to have him home. We stayed with one of his sisters. For five days, Salvador was well able to get about, chatting and joking with family and old friends, and suffering no more than tiredness, but then his condition deteriorated. He had little pain, but became very weak and disorientated. He died four days later, on December 10th. His mother, several members of his family and myself were with him.
His body was transferred to his mother's house, prepared, dressed and laid on a bed. There followed a period of some days during which his mother and sisters loudly lamented his passing, frequently calling out his native name, Telukoro, while the house was filled night and day with
mourners. Preparations and the funeral itself were carried out entirely by his family and neighbours. People from the village made the coffin, dug the grave and for four days fed and sheltered about a hundred people who gathered to mourn him. At the burial, I prayed at the graveside, using the Fataluku language.
On the same night as Telukoro, in another part of the village, an old woman, ripe in years, had died, leaving children and grandchildren. I did not attend, but I could hear the celebrations: songs and vaihoho, traditional recitations of Fataluku poetry. It was something very different from the lamentations that surrounded the untimely death of Telukoro, and yet the two together, it seemed to me, represented a culture that coped with grief and bereavement in a very healthy way.
Throughout November and early December, the weather had been very hot and dry. The rains on which the people depend for half the year's food supply were five weeks late, and they were waiting anxiously to plant their corn, pumpkins, etelusu and beans. On the day Telukoro died, the first rains fell, and three days later it had settled into a steady pattern. In the sadness and blessing of life and death there is a poetry I do not pretend to understand, but it is the gentle and comforting work of God.
Work with the Timorese community in Oxford (and sometimes further afield) extended to housing, tax, immigration, education, legal and criminal matters, in fact, a range of issues each of which had its own specialists to contact and deal with: the city or county council, landlords, social services, government departments, the Home Office, customer services, solicitors and police. The experience bears out my conviction about communiuty work in general (not only where translation is involved): the need for community general practice, a bit like the Citizen's Advice Bureau, but much more local and able to go beyond advice to a more active role in the resolution of an indefinite range of issues.
At Windsor, with Philomena Doherty
and Cora Spencer
In 2012, I was awarded the MBE, for my services to the community in Oxford and to the Credit Union movement. I felt that "Member of the British Empire" was an anachronistic title, but that the honour was real. It was presented by Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle, of which I was very glad, as my life years fairly correspond with the Queen's reign and I have always, in Australia and in England, been conscious of her as the monarch. At Windsor, I was accompanied by three guests, Geoffrey Richardson representing the Credit Union, Philomena Doherty the Blackbird Leys community and Cora Spencer the Church of the Holy Family. My sister Elizabeth and my brother Ted came over from Australia for the occasion.
Celebrating at Browns Restaurant in Windsor
Us again + Geoffrey Richardson, Liz and Ted
I am a republican by conviction (not least because I think that no family should have to endure the prying dissection of enforced celebrity as the royal family now does) but I have always been aware of how difficult it will be to replace the monarchy. Its representative role is a very necessary one, and I feel (for instance) that the American Presidency increasingly bears the scars of the American people's deep but suppressed longing for a monarchy. I admire Queen Elizabeth II for her commitment to the role, the skill with which she fills it and the courage with which she has met its changing demands.
As for the British Empire, others have refused the honour because of its association with the imperial past, a stand I understand and respect. My own position was originally that one could ignore the quaint and now irrelevant label, but I have begun to think differently. In point of fact, I am indeed a member of the British Empire and cannot escape it. My history, my parentage and my past, my English, Irish and Australian roots were all shaped by the British Empire. In my body and my spirit, for better and worse, I am a product of the British Empire. That I could grow up in Perth, liberated by sunlight, space and distance, the wide expanse of the Swan River, the freedom of the bush at Bentley, cannot be separated from the brutal fact that this land was taken from its native people, that aborigines were slaughtered at Lake Monger and Pinjarra. That I could sit in the sunny corner of an Australian school ground absorbing Charles Dickens or Alice in Wonderland cannot be separated from the loss to the Noongar people whose stories of the land were all but driven from memory, concreted over by an invading civilisation. That I could uproot and replant myself on the other side of the world, finding friends and family in England, discovering a career and speaking, preaching, writing still in the language I was born into - all this comes with the British Empire. If the British Empire has any glories, I share in them, and I share the dishonour of belonging to the Empire that invented the concentration camp, used poison gas to subdue Iraqi tribesmen, and went to war for the right to sell opium in China. To my great advantage, and to my shame, I am a surviving member of the British Empire.
E larga munificentia
An Oxford College richly endowed from the sweat and exploitation of black labourers. The controversial statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College.
My hope is that over the years I have been helping to make amends, if not to the people my people dispossessed, at least to vulnerable people in other cultures and walks of life who also have been the victims or casualties of power. Perhaps in my doing and in my writing I can help to find the way to a world where empires, and power itself, are abandoned in favour of humanity and freedom.
In the last few years, the Blackbird Leys Credit Union has come to an end. For some time, we had been under pressure from our main funders, the Oxford City Council, to merge with a larger credit union, something that has been happening all over the country. We joined with Northamptonshire Credit Union, which later merged with an even larger credit union focused on Northamptonshire and no longer open to new members from Oxfordshire. My remaining work is to see that continuing local members are either happy with the arrangements (an entirely online and telephone service) or have managed to transfer their accounts elsewhere. It is, as I said, a feature of our times. The larger credit unions are more likely to be financially self-sustainable and can offer a range of services efficiently, but what has gone is the friendly local contact, case-by-case flexibility and a volunteer ethos that thrived in the feeling of neighbourhood engagement.
My brief autobiography (though it's a good deal longer than I intended it to be) has reached the point where it is present tense (opening, of course, into the future). I have now (July 2021) self-published five books and have seven more complete or nearly complete. I am planning a book launch (this website is part of it) although the coronavirus pandemic makes that difficult.
Holy Family interior as we now are. The one upside is that, as we are, among other things, a Baptist church, the water could come in useful.
The centre of Blackbird Leys (shops, flats, pub, library, church) is about to undergo a massive redevelopment. 1960s chic is to be swept away for 2020s modern. At the same time, Holy Family Church is collapsing and will have to be replaced. I never liked the exterior myself, but the interior was a marvel of 20th century architecture. However, it has to go. Over the decades, it has never been possible to solve the problems of leakage and seepage through the roof, and the timber beams that hold it, with a parabolic sweep of timber ceiling, have rotted. It was built with unique materials and techniques that no building firm is now prepared to replicate. Holy Family has been closed as unsafe for the past three years, and will have to be demolished. Heather Carter, our Vicar, has been working valiantly on the project for several years, and we have well-developed plans for a new church and community buildings (as you may see).
Holy Family Church - the now ruined interior.
On the bright side, as we are, among other things, a Baptist church, the water could be useful.
My work with the East Timorese community continues in its usual variety. As always, there's a round of hospital and GP engagements, and I am managing a series of group appointments for Covid 19 vaccination. A family has recently been housed, with the usual array of rent, council tax and utilities arrangements to be explained and put in place. Two major employment cases (from Lancaster and Reddich) are reaching a conclusion. Taxes are being paid, or refunds collected. There are a couple of particularly difficult bank negotiations to carry out for people who have returned to East Timor and, for complicated reasons, are now unable to access their accounts in the UK. A year-long dispute with one of Oxford's betting shops has just been successfully concluded. (They had refused to pay out some very large winnings entirely due to a mistake made by their
The mallow thrives in Blackbird Leys - a symbol of hope. I think it could be our local emblem - except that the blackbird already is.
The mallow's cousin, the mad mallow, thrives in my garden (see pictures below).
Holy Family, future tense - the architect's vision.
helping with vaccinations
Lee hafarika - Timorese neighbours
Ini lee mocoru
Friends and family at 15 Monks
Moggi and Inno
own staff.) It all goes to illustrate what I see as the job of a community support worker - to trouble-shoot, assist and advise on an indefinite range of issues (whatever has become a problem for your clients) up to the limits of your competence and experience, and to know how to engage with other professionals beyond that point.
I am still living at 15 Monks Close, Blackbird Leys. In fact, we have become a little East Timorese colony here, as number 14 now houses a family from Ira Ara in Lospalos. When the family first moved in, at the start of the pandemic, the children were unable to join a school, so I found myself reverting to the teacher role. I taught them English and some maths in short daily sessions, and Lusi, the oldest, improved my Fataluku.
Another Timorese family, Tetun-speaking, lives at 13. I am able to communicate with them too, as I have been building up my vocabulary in Tetun, the most widely spoken Timorese language, for some time now. I have hopes that the next time I visit East Timor I will be as comfortable in Tetun-speaking Dili as in Fataluku-speaking Lospalos.
With the advance of time - Anno Domini - I have grown tired of my naturally auburn brown hair and now use a rinse, as you can see. It's called "Distinguished Grey" - with snowy tints.
At the age of seventy-seven-and-a-half, one should be looking back on one's life with a mixture of satisfaction and regrets, conscious of what it has added up to and what one might be leaving behind. I can't see myself doing any of that.
Instead, there is a sense of life being about to take off, a career starting, a mission at last taking shape with some kind of clarity. I guess I'm a very late developer. (However, I'm rather encouraged by the fact that I'm about the age at which people now become presidents of the United States.)
Just last week, I found myself harking back to Coventry, with the very pleasant prospect of introducing a friend to Coventry cathedral. Darren James, who leads a church he founded ten years ago in Barton, Oxford, was speaking to me about my books, and ideas his church were developing for deepening their Christian experience. He wants to help them appreciate the part that ritual, representation and repetition can play in the journey. It struck me that a fine visual example of such an experience would be Coventry Cathedral. I'm looking forward to making that visit with Darren in the next week or so - back to where my English life and my English family began.
It seems to me that the cathedral's tapestry, Christ in Glory, says it all. I said up above that in many ways I am what I am and my life is what it is because of my place in the British Empire. However, on a much wider and deeper scale, I am what I am and my life is as it is because I am under the rule of the Messiah Jesus. I live in that distinctive time which the Bible calls "the last days", that period from the death and resurrection of Jesus to the end of history as we know it, in which God is remaking and restoring the world.
The good news of the Messiah Jesus is that God is with us, committed to our world and its dysfunctional history, to put it right: a crucified ruler for a world in which power only corrupts and destroys humanity; a leader risen from the dead for a world to which only the unquenchable life of God can give a future. We live and act and have our being in an age where that is the defining reality. Within this age of the Messiah's rule - Anno Domini - history has often been reshaped and set on a new course by reformation and revolution, and I sense that the 21st century will be such an experience. The strength, energy and adventure of God is all around us, and the world can't stay the same.
I have discovered that when you stand at such a point in history, there is no such thing as old age or retirement.