The long arm of coincidence reached me recently when I heard that my sister's pastor in Norfolk had once been a lay preacher at Chelsea St Baptist Church in New Basford, Nottingham, the church of my early childhood. So here I am, reliving some of my life in those crowded, cobbled streets, soot-grimed brick houses, air heavy with smoke and noxious fumes from the gas works.
Our house was a few yards from the Church and from the time I was six until I was eleven I attended morning and evening services and the afternoon Sunday School. My parents thought this was good for me although they were not church-goers.
Mum was always hot and flustered on Sundays. It took her all morning to get the roast dinner ready. She was so hot and flustered cooking over the coal fire that she had to have a lie-down in the afternoon. Dad, although not hot and flustered, needed a rest too. My Sunday School visit was clearly convenient.
Sometimes Mum ran out of a vital ingredient and I had to run to the corner shop to get it. I hated doing this because I dreaded meeting Sister Hazel, the Deaconess of the church. She frequently told the congregation it was sinful to work on Sunday and to her, shopping was work. She walked past the corner shop with the lay preacher and I was petrified that she would see me carrying a packet of salt. She'd spotted me one day and I'd squirmed with guilt during the morning service when we were reminded of sin. I sometimes wondered how she managed to cook her Sunday dinner. I could never imagine her being hot and flustered. But I'd learned not to ask too many questions although at six I was curious about the world…
I'd once asked my Sunday School teacher who wrote the Bible.
She'd replied, 'God wrote it.'
Not satisfied, I asked again. 'I mean, who wrote it?'
She frowned and emphasised each word. 'God wrote it.'
I tried again. 'I mean, who actually wrote the words?'
Angry beyond belief, my adored teacher snapped back. 'I've told you! God wrote it! Don't ask me again!'
It would be twenty years before I found some answers.
In church I relaxed in the familiar routine. My mind meandered during the drone of the sermon. I dreamily traced the folds of crimson velvet in front of the pulpit. If I sat up straight I could see over the curtains that hid the organ and watch the grey, nodding head of Miss Bradshaw the organist. I longed to sit by her and work the bellows, but that was a privilege reserved for older boys.
The church year had its own rhythm with highlights in every season. Mothering Sunday and Easter in Spring, Anniversaries and Sunday School outings in Summer, Christmas party in winter and my favourite Harvest Festival in Autumn. The Harvest Festival filled the building with colour and an abundance of tongue-tingling smells. Small pyramids of polished fruits and vegetables, huge plaited loaves and a profusion of flowers transformed our church into a paradise that I knew could only be matched in Eden. Mum didn't have any spare food to donate but one year Dad offered the fruits of his labour, two buckets of coal. However, somebody decided that coal was not appropriate for the Harvest Festival because it was not the earth's produce. Dad, a coal-miner since he was nine, was bitterly hurt. Eventually opinion changed and his coal took its place on either side of the Harvest display, almost hidden by sheaves of corn.
The Sunday School Anniversary was special. Girls wore new dresses (mine invariably home-made and pink) boys strangely angelic in white shirts and slicked down hair. The Anniversary was a time for singing and recitation. The church would be packed with families and friends watching us perform, suppressing giggles when we forgot the words or sang off key.
Another tradition was the Sunday School outing. We travelled by train to a village in the country, a few miles outside Nottingham. At Lowdham we played organised games and ran egg and spoon, sack, and three-legged races. There were donkey rides in a field of grassy tussocks plus cow flop in which I always managed to sit or stand.
Mothers had special occasions too; my Mum enjoyed trips with the Women’s Guildry. One year they were going in a coach to Trentham Gardens and she needed a new pair of stockings. She usually wore lisle stockings but for this outing she wanted artificial silk. I was sent to get a pair from the draper's shop. When she was putting them on, her toe nail snagged a thread and a ladder spread up the leg. She told me to take them back and say the stocking was laddered when she opened the pack. My face probably told all, but the owner of the shop, stern in winged collar and black suit, grudgingly exchanged the stockings and Mum's dignity, at least for the outing, was saved. For my baby sister's christening Dad wore his best suit, a tie and collar and his false teeth. He embarrassed me during the service by holding a handkerchief to his red-rimmed eyes. His shoulders shook. I told my friends he had a cold.
In 1937, the year I won a scholarship and started High School, the Church closed at Chelsea St and moved to a building in a new housing area – a long walk from New Basford. I set out early, proudly wearing my High School uniform. My Sunday-Scool teacher and the Deaconess didn't welcome me and I felt an outsider among the people I’d known and loved for years. Worse still, some of my school mates looked me up and down and asked why on earth I was wearing my uniform on Sunday.
I never went back to that Church.
Before long a different religious group occupied the old church building. They believed in faith healing and jazzy songs. They were kind people but the old, secure traditions were no more.
In September 1939 war broke out. Three months later, while I was evacuated, Mum moved to another area. Life at New Basford and the Baptist Church was lost – like my childhood – forever.