In the 3rd or 4th year at Longslade, (what would be now year 9 or 10 I think), we spent time in what was then known as RE (Religious Education) being taught about Christian missionaries. The only one whose name I remember is Gladys Aylward. She went to China. Good. The object of this tuition was, I surmise, to inspire us with the bravery of these committed people who took the ministry to exotic and dangerous places. I would suggest that these people were little better than wimps compared to those who saw it as their vocation to teach RE in the secondary schools of Britain. These saintly men and women felt it incumbent upon themselves to venture into the sordid, sweaty, godless and frightening world of adolescence with a message that would only bring ridicule and scorn upon themselves. They did not waver in the face of utter apathy. They flinched not in spite of sullen hostility. They carried on their mission despite failing to influence anybody or anything.
Peter Bell was my first RE teacher. I seem to remember him teaching about something called “The Fertile Crescent”. I understood the word “the”. The Fertile Crescent was not a reference to a sacred sex manual, but rather alluded, unless I miss my guess, to the area of coast at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. He also tried to teach us the Ten Commandments by means of a little verse that he had composed. I will try to avoid criticism in this memoir, but would propose that it was unlikely that Mr Bell was Keats in a previous life. He also assigned homework that involved drawing pictures. Up until this point I could have been destined for the priesthood, but I do not possess artistic skill in any form. If, when I am introduced to St Peter, I am judged on my early grades in RE, then I suspect that I will be consigned to Circle 6. My companions in the burning tombs will probably be RE teachers, armed with crayons and a compulsion to describe scenes from the Old Testament.
I also vaguely recall being taught about one of the Old Testament prophets by Mr Bell. I think it might have been the prophet Amos, but I remember nothing of the content. If it was the prophet Amos, then I find it difficult to believe that we spent more than 5 minutes on the subject. The only biographical note about the prophet Amos that I can find is that he was not a prophet, but a herdsman and a ‘tender of sycomore fruit’. Imagine getting stuck in a lift with him. The prophet Amos was probably the most boring person ever to feature in a major scripture. Had the prophet Amos shown up at the time that the first edition of the Mahabharata was going to press, he would have been edited out. On the whole, the prophets of the Old Testament were a bunch of miserable buggers, and it is of little surprise that we did not spend much time in their study. They were probably slightly less popular than those eccentric souls who knock on your door wishing to discuss salvation just as Tendulkar is eight short of his century.
The prophet Amos was, however, possessed of an astronomically high IQ:
“Thus, the Lord God showed me: Behold, a basket of summer fruit.
And He said ‘Amos, what do you see?’ So I said ‘A basket of summer fruit’ ”
I remember none of this. Perhaps Mr Bell invented a version of the prophet Amos who was witty, interesting and spent his time driving criminals out of Gotham City.
For your homework assignment, read Amos, chapter 4 verses 6 to 13, and answer the question “What would you have done?”
Also try reading the first two chapters of the book of Amos, and decide whether an impartial observer might infer that the God featured therein might not be considered a tad vindictive. It was this God who was the God we learned about, and in consequence took sides, or for the most part were indifferent to.
What reasoning was there behind the inclusion in the 1944 Education Act of the requirement for the day beginning with an act of corporate worship and the inclusion of religious instruction in the curriculum? The one who devised it probably had some good intentions with which to pave his own road to hell, but even more probably had no understanding of child psychology.
Each morning at Longslade we would be crowded into the hall, squashed against each other in an attempt to spread infectious diseases, while some poor sap (I remember in particular the late Michael Bruce), played Chopin or Beethoven on the piano. Classical music was therefore associated with this tedious part of the day, and thereby was eliminated the possibility of our exploring that avenue of enjoyment. Then, the head and his two deputies would sweep in, gowns flowing, like Batman, Robin and Robin’s girlfriend, a signal for us to struggle to our feet. This was a cue for the more creative members of the congregation to break wind. I don’t think there was ever a formal scoring system: had there been, then points would have been awarded according to the size of the area vacated by those keen to clear the fall-out zone. We were then requested to sit down, in an area even more impossibly smaller than the previous one, while someone spoke. More of this later. We had hymnbooks, and I think were required to sing from them. This was a fitting tribute to the God of the prophet Amos, but it was hardly an expression of our appreciation of the efforts of the Creator of the Universe and His Infinite Love and Wisdom.
Had the author of the aforementioned provisions of the 1944 Act troubled to consider what 800 adolescents belting out hymns they neither liked nor understood, in a tuneless and decidedly reluctant way, sounded like, he would have repaired to the local W.H.Smith, and acquired a couple of heavy-duty erasers. As it was, very few of the boys in assembly sang, and there was an informal honour system to see who could be most disruptive without being identified. I think more of the girls did sing, but, equally, it could have been either those of confused gender, or those whose voices were in the process of breaking.
The speakers were usually teachers. Some of them made the effort to make the subject accessible to their listeners. They need not have troubled – the listeners were few in number, and unreceptive to the message. Occasionally, students would be co-opted to take part in assembly. I am struggling to avoid being cruel, but am compelled to say that these people were wet. They were so wet, that had God been faced with them instead of the Red Sea, He would have probably considered the parting thereof not worth the effort. Consequently, Moses would have remained in Egypt, and the prophet Amos and his mates would have been given a sound thrashing for being such a bunch of miserable whingers. Chris Stuart sometimes took part in assembly. Chris was a very pleasant, witty and intelligent chap. Unfortunately, he took part in assembly, and went on to become a DJ on Radio 2.
By the time I got to the sixth form, the head of RE was Keith Hardy. I have a great fondness for him. He once asked someone who was sitting in the corner of a room on their own, whether they were emulating Lord Salisbury. I was sufficiently geeky to understand this, and was in a very tiny minority. Mr Hardy had wit and learning and the benefit of the forum of RE lessons to display these talents - the words ‘pearls’ and ‘swine’ come to mind.
At the top of the stairs was a room called something like the ‘devotional room’. Only when the school got very overcrowded was it used for lessons. I seem to recall it had some kind of art work at one end that was so bizarre that I could have done it, failure to draw images Jacob and Esau distinguishable from each other notwithstanding. It was used for meetings of an extracurricular society called “Saints and Sinners”. Towels were provided for members. On one occasion, they distributed a questionnaire to the school. One of the questions was “Can you think of a better name for ‘Saints and Sinners’?” 91% replied “Yes”. I started going to meetings of Saints and Sinners when I was in the sixth form, because I enjoyed a good argument. The prophet Amos was infrequently discussed.
Also, in the sixth form, RE became interesting, becoming more of a forum for debate, and seldom was the prophet Amos mentioned. We were not required to write much down, let alone draw. We spent some time considering the dull topic “Christianity in a mechanistic universe”, which was meant to help us to understand that the practice of Christianity was not at odds with scientific methods. Or perhaps it was to prove that it was OK for the prophet Amos to tend his figs with a combined harvester.
Our teacher was Bill Davice, and I actually got an ‘A’ on my report. If only I could find that piece of paper, I could show it to St Peter, and face the prospect of spending eternity in the company of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia and other great saints of the twentieth century. As it is, I expect I shall have to pack something for a slightly warmer environment.
Love, peace, Shalom, Hari Om Tat Sat.