I’m not religious. I’ve never been religious. I’m not going to stick my neck out and say “…and I never will,” because, unlike many religious people, I understand the difference between ‘believe‘ and ‘know‘.
My family isn’t religious either: I wasn’t even christened. However, it would be wrong of me to claim that I’ve never been given the opportunity to get religious because several religious organisations have wasted their time and effort attempting to save my soul from the eternal torment that they know will be my destiny if I keep on ignoring them/pissing them off by asking stupid questions.
My first exposure to religion was at school. Like most kids of my generation (I started school in the mid 1970s), I sang hymns and was told Bible stories in assembly. I didn’t mind quite a lot of hymns, to be honest. My favourite was There Is A Green Hill Far Away although the popular choice at my junior school was Onward Christian Soldiers. I didn’t mind some of the Bible stories either, even though I was discouraged from asking stupid questions like, “Why didn’t God just not make the blind man blind in the first place, instead of making him blind just so Jesus could cure him?” Normal questions that normal kids ask, probably.
The first time I realised that there were enormous gaps in my knowledge of The Bible was one Easter at junior school. There was a quiz with one kid from each form on the stage where you got caned on Fridays if your name was in The Black Book and none of them were me. I don’t remember being asked if I wanted to be quizzed on The Bible which was unusual because my general knowledge was pretty good for a kid but I was relieved after initially feeling badly done by because I knew absolutely none of the answers to any of the questions that our class representatives were being asked. Not one.
Later, I realised that these kids probably went to Sunday School. My friend Nutty did, which he found a bit annoying because you only get two days off a week and 25% of it seemed to be taken up with being told you were going to hell.
So, no, I didn’t go to Sunday School or church. Well, not church services anyway. My parents seemed to quite enjoy churches and we often went looking round ones when we went out to various places. I could name the different parts of a church and tell you things about some churches in particular, but practically nothing about what went on in them. I didn’t consider that to be odd.
At secondary school, the first assembly of the year in September was always given by our headmaster, who was a tiny Asian chap whose name I’ve forgotten. I only saw him five times in the entire time I was there, all of which were in assembly, all of which consisted of him reading us the creation story. He used to look up and say, “And God said… that’s good!” really nicely.
While I was at university, my Grandma died. We weren’t close. That could cover a lot of possibilities couldn’t it? I’ll clarify. It’s not that she didn’t like me or I didn’t like her, she just had no interest at all in my existence. None. To be fair (to me) I think that stemmed from the fact that her interest in my Dad was similarly non-existent. It wasn’t that we didn’t get on as much as we just weren’t in the same room often enough to develop a relationship with each other. In itself, that implies that I just never visited her which is also untrue because I went round every Friday with my Dad which, thinking about it, I’ve written about before. She just used to go and faff about in the kitchen, picking bits of wallpaper off the walls. It wasn’t like we never went. It was every week for my entire childhood. Until I went to university really. Or maybe a bit before that.
Sometimes, my Dad’s brother – my uncle Alan – would come round on Friday evenings too. Alan was alright. I felt sorry for him actually. The reason I felt sorry for Alan was because of his wife, Pam. My parents called Pam Stonesy, which I now realise must have been her maiden name. At the time, I thought it was representative of her cold, black heart. Not that she was horrible to me because she wasn’t. I found her a bit creepy, really.
When they first got married, Pam was looking into joining the Mormons but at the last minute she decided to be a Jehovah’s Witness instead. Again, with hindsight, I suppose she was looking for a religion that would pretty much encapsulate her entire life which some people want, don’t they? One New Year’s Eve, I stayed at their house because my folks were at a party. We played a game that involved trying to work out what these ultra close up photographs actually were. I was interested in records, even though – or possibly because – we only had about seven at our house. Pam and Alan had a copy of The Osmonds’ grand concept album ‘The Plan‘. Which might have been what drew Pam to consider joining them. Or perhaps it sent them to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t know which. I sure as hell wasn’t going to ask, having been briefed earlier by my mother: “Don’t mention religion, whatever you do,” she told me. I didn’t.
They had a couple of kids, Tina and Donna (who our Aunty Val took, along with me, to my first concert: Gary Glitter at Brid Spa in about 1978) and we didn’t really see them all that much.
The reason we didn’t see them very much wasn’t because they lived far away because they didn’t: they lived less than a mile away from our house. The reason we almost never saw them was because Pam wouldn’t stop talking about being a Jehovah’s Witness. My parents ended up writing them a letter saying, more or less, ‘We’d like to be friends with you all but only if you stop talking about being a Jehovah’s Witness all the time.’ Pam apparently didn’t want to stop talking about that and my folks didn’t want to listen to it, so that was that.
Which seemed harsh on Alan really because Alan never actually became a Jehovah’s Witness. He told me it was a load of bollocks when I older. I used to see him because he played cricket locally until he was pretty old. People at cricket were always asking if I was related to him, as we were both Middlerabbits. I felt sorry for Alan because even though he was going to burn in hell along with the rest of my family and me, he still didn’t get to have a birthday or a Christmas. Well, I say they didn’t do Christmases, but they did really. They’d just decide to give each other presents and have turkey and all that on Boxing Day instead. I know, right? Beats me. How fucking stupid do people want their supreme being to be? I wouldn’t join some religion if I was going to try and be a clever twat about the rules. If your God’s that great, you’re not going to pull the wool over its eyes by pulling stunts like that, are you?
Also, Alan used to cycle to work, which was about six miles away from their house. In all weather. They had a car, but Pam needed it to go and get told to fuck off by whoever’s doors she was knocking on that day. I felt sorry for Alan, but it was also his own fault, so I didn’t lose much sleep over it either.
After I’d left university been teaching for a few years, my Grandma died. Bad as it sounds, I wasn’t overly bothered because, as I say, we didn’t really have anything to do with each other. The best thing about her house was her coal fire, which I’ve written about before.
Her funeral was an eye opener though. Well, not really, but I ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would – funnily enough.
There weren’t many people there: my Mum and Dad, Alan, Pam, Tina and Donna and Donna’s husband, Dean. As the priest was doing the usual reading, you know, My father’s house has many rooms and all that, I noticed Pam wasn’t reading along with one of the Bibles that the crematorium provided. She’d brought her own along. Every time the priest said ‘God‘, Pam mumbled ‘Jehovah‘ to herself, which I mildly enjoyed.
Even better, on the way out, as he was shaking people’s hands, Tina thrust some Jehovah’s Witness leaflet into his hand and told him that he should read that because he could learn a lot from it. My mother was mortified. I like to think she was mortified by Tina’s arrogance rather than by my laughing at her for doing it. Who knows, eh?
The wake, if that’s what it was, was back at Alan and Pam’s house. I’ve been to more wakes than I’d have liked to have really – who hasn’t? – and this one wasn’t all that similar to any of the other ones. At most wakes, people tell stories about the deceased – often funny ones and I think that probably helps a bit, doesn’t it? There wasn’t any of that at my Grandma’s though. Mainly because, I suppose, she never really did anything. She didn’t appear to be interested in anything either. She wasn’t funny. Well, she might have been but as she probably said a grand total of about fifty words to me in about twenty five years, I didn’t hear much in the way of humour. Actually, she used to be interested in boxing and wresting. She was one of those women who used to go and hurl abuse at wrestlers and boxers. The only thing I remember her telling me about any of that was that, in her opinion ‘…the coloureds shouldn’t be allowed to fight the white fellas because the coloureds don’t bleed...’ Maybe I should have brought that up.
Anyway, I got talking to Dean because my folks were talking to Pam and Alan and Tina and Donna were, I already knew, pretty dull people. I expected Dean to be a dullard as I expect all people who join these all encompassing religions to be: if they had any ideas of their own, they would hardly be spending all their time being told what to say and think, would they?
Dean’s opening gambit was to whisper conspiratorially to me that, as a Jehovah’s Witness, he’d been given the choice of Tina or Donna as his bride and he thought he’d made the right choice with Donna who, to be fair, was fractionally better looking than Tina, who’d obviously inherited a bit of our Aunty Val’s looks. Val was alright: she was a hell of a lot more entertaining and interesting/interested than my Grandma (her sister, she was actually my great-aunty Val, although we never called her that) but a looker she wasn’t. I didn’t say anything to that, but evidently Dean and Donna weren’t going to be burning the midnight oil talking in words of more than one syllable too often.
The conversation went on and I kept getting the impression that Dean was sort of testing the water with me in terms of the old ‘Maybe Middlerabbit would be interested to learn about being a Jehovah’s Witness‘ chestnut. Like I said, Dean wasn’t overly burdened with brains.
After I’d steered the conversation away from any of that nonsense, I was wondering if he’d have enough about him to work out that I wasn’t going to discuss anything relating to any of that there and then and I’d decided that there was no way Dean was going to work it out for himself and I didn’t want to cause a scene, so I mainly kept my mouth shut.
Eventually, he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a science teacher, which I was at that point. I asked him what he did and he told me he was a window cleaner (Jehovah’s Witnesses are often window cleaners. I suppose it’s the flexible hours that give you the opportunity of preaching the rest of the time) and in the same breath, he asked me which science I mainly taught. I told him, “All of them,” because you do when you’re a science teacher. I mainly taught Biology but I didn’t really want to tell him that because I knew where it was going, this conversation.
Sure enough, Dean asked me if I taught any Biology. I told him that I taught all of the sciences, which he ignored and said, “Oh, I bet it’s a bit awkward, having to teach all that evolution stuff, isn’t it?”
Inwardly groaning, I realised I wasn’t going to be able to avoid the subject and decided to just go along with it.
“Why would it be awkward Dean?” I asked him.
Dean snickered. “Well, you know… not being able to tell them the truth. About Jehovah…”
I sighed and said, “Dean, this is my Grandmother’s wake. Are you planning on ramming your Mickey Mouse religion down my throat every time you open your mouth?”
Dean said, “I was only trying to make conversation Middlerabbit.”
I said, “Yes Dean.”
Because, in a way, that’s what he was doing and that’s all he had to talk about. Which is both the up and downside of religion: other people who want to talk about that all the time.
It’s not even just religious people, it’s anybody who gets obsessed with anything. The religious just want their obsession to be life and death, but mainly about death.
Anyhow, that was the last time I saw Dean.
It wasn’t the last I saw of the Jehovah’s Witnesses though.