Even though I had family who were part of the Jehovah’s Witness thing, I had no interest in joining them in what I considered to be a sort of half-arsed death cult. Well, death cult might be a bit strong but most of what they seemed to do was related to death. Or being dead, anyway.
Stonesy had done her best to indoctrinate my parents by talking about nothing apart from how marvellous it was to be a Jehovah’s Witness with no notable success. Well, unless you count them not wanting to have anything to do with the Jehovah’s lot as a success, which I didn’t, but maybe she did. There was a mild hoo-hah a couple of years ago about how Jehovah’s Witnesses were ‘shunning’ people who didn’t go along with everything they said, so maybe she was just carving out her own little piece of the planet for herself and her fellow believers, I don’t know.
I don’t know how much communication goes on between the Jehovah’s lot in terms of a list of people who they’ve tried and failed to convert goes but I suspect the answer is, not much. How could they, really? Anyway, Stonesy wasn’t the last one who wasted her breath on me.
A year or so later, while I was at Dave and Gill’s flat on Mayfield Street, there was a knock on the door. Dave answered it to a literally and metaphorically wet man in a cheap suit who asked him if he’d heard the good news. Poking my head around the flat door to earwig, I smirked at the incongruity. He looked like a man about to be hanged who laughs at the crowd and tells them that they won’t be laughing in a minute because they’re all going to get hanged.
Dave invited him in and offered him a cup of tea, both of which were greeted with a suspicious sort of acceptance. It was a bit like encouraging a tormented dog to come towards you for a pat: he wanted it but it was obviously the opposite of what he was used to.
Dave and I sat on one settee while his visitor – George – nursed his cup of tea and moistened the chair he sat on with rain and perspiration. He had with him a briefcase he rummaged in to produce three books and a couple of magazines which turned out to be The Watchtower.
George was, in some ways, far less stupid than Stonesy and, in others, far more stupid than her. Whatever brains he’d managed to hold onto throughout his life as a Jehovah’s Witness had apparently been hard earned through rejection, abuse and misery. Some religious types have that sort of suspicious happy-clappy, ‘isn’t everything just wonderful’ aura about them but he didn’t. He looked like the day of judgement couldn’t come soon enough for him. With hindsight, if Stonesy had been Happy out of Snow White, George was like Softy out of the Anthill Mob who wept at every opportunity.
Not that I could really tell whether George was actually weeping or not because he made no attempt to dry his head and rivulets of rain dribbled sadly down his cheeks as he looked up at us. There was no hope in his eyes, no possibility that this would be a fruitful encounter. George knew what he was letting himself in for and perhaps he viewed it as a form of penance but even if he did, he didn’t bother to try to keep the look from his face. He was resigned, he was broken. The closest thing that I could see to hope in his eyes was that being dead wouldn’t be as bad as being alive. Which is why I consider Jehovah’s Witnesses to be part of a death cult. It’s what they want, isn’t it?
George mainly did the talking: who were we, what did we do, what did we think about the world? That sort of getting-to-know-you shtick that never feels especially genuine because they’ve probably been on a training course about it. Not a good training course of course, but very few are, are they?
Once we’d gone through all that, George asked us if we’d be interested in being on the receiving end of a series of visits from him and other Jehovah’s people over the next couple of months. Dave and I looked at each other and back at George.
“I’m interested,” Dave said, “But I think you ought to know that I’m not going to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses so, you know, if you don’t want to bother because you won’t get a recruit out of it, that’s alright. I wouldn’t mind.”
George nodded and looked at me.
“Yeah,” I said, mildly, “Same for me.”
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that a twinkle of hope appeared in George’s soggy peepers when we said that, but there was a slight glimmer of something. At the time, I thought, regardless of what we told him, he probably thought that, providing we were prepared to sit there and let him say his piece for a couple of months, we’d go for it, nevermind our pathetic reasoning that we would be interested in listening, but not actually acting on any of it. You know, a bit like people who think they can try heroin but won’t get hooked on it. Looking back, I don’t think I was right about that. I can’t have been. Even though Karl Marx said that religion was the opium of the masses, I don’t think George could reasonably have been described as Marxist in any way, certainly not in terms of viewing his religion as heroin. Because people who take heroin must enjoy it, at least on some level. For a bit. George didn’t look like he’d had a moment’s pleasure in his entire life. Maybe he was determined not to enjoy anything at all so that he would have a better chance of becoming one of the citizens of Heaven on earth. Thinking about it, George was probably happy because he could engage in his futile pursuit of converting people to Jehovah inside someone’s house with a cup of tea instead of getting told to fuck off back in the rain every couple of minutes.
He left us a couple of copies of Watchtower and arranged to come round at the same time next week.
I made a point of being there before the arranged time and, when George knocked on the door, he had a kid with him who would have been about Dave’s and my age. George also seemed a bit happier. Mind you, it wasn’t raining either so maybe that was it.
Inside, tea on the go, George and his young companion sat opposite us, smiling inanely. George had the look of a man who was trying to wordlessly communicate something truly obvious. He’d shift in his seat, look at the younger lad and then back at us, expectantly. It was a bit like George knew that this lad fancied us and he was trying to encourage Dave and me to make a move on him.
I think I knew what was going on: George had brought a lad about our age to see us as if to say, “Hey look! Groovy young kids – just like you – are Jehovah’s Witnesses too! Look! See!”
As Dave and I just mirrored their dopey grins back at them so George was going to have to do something unless he thought we were going to convert through osmosis or something. He introduced the lad – whose name I’ve long forgotten, I only met him once – let’s call him John and asked him if he’d tell Dave and me about what it was like being a groovy young Jehovah’s Witness.
The kid told us about all the events that the Jehovah’s Witnesses put on for the groovy young Jehovah dudes and dudettes and how you met lots of girls and they only wanted to go out with Jehovah’s Witness lads and all that. Gill, Dave’s girlfriend lived there too but wanted nothing to do with it. I gathered that George’s impression from his first visit to Dave’s flat was that we lived together and there were no signs of any girls.
Once he’d finished, Dave and I did what Dave and I almost always did which was to give a faux naïf display of stupid questions that gently and relentlessly took the piss.
“Do you get a membership card to prove that you’re a Jehovah’s Witness so these lasses’ll go out with you?”
“Does it have a photograph of you on it? If it doesn’t, what happens if a Jehovah’s Witness girl gets off with a non-Jehovah’s Witness boy? Do they go to hell?”
“There isn’t a membership card.”
“Does it have a photograph of Jehovah on it?”
“There isn’t a membership card.”
“I had a membership card for the Dennis The Menace Fanclub when I was a kid and you got a couple of badges. Do you get a Jehovah badge?”
“No, you don’t get a badge either.”
“What happens if you lose you badge? Do you get another one or do you have to pay for a replacement?”
“You don’t get a badge.”
“Do you get a gold badge if you’ve been a Jehovah’s Witness for a long time?”
“No. There are no badges.”
“Are you keeping quiet about the badges so that you can give people a nice surprise when people join?”
“But you would say that, wouldn’t you?”
“No. There are no badges.”
“If I join Jehovah’s Witnesses, can I join another religion as well?”
“Well, what if it turns out that Hindus are right and you’re not? Wouldn’t it make more sense to join more than one religion?”
“That’s not how it works…”
“Do you have a Jehovah’s Witness girlfriend, John? What if she gets sick of being a Jehovah’s Witness, do you have to dump her?”
“I do have a girlfriend and she is a Jehovah’s Witness but she won’t get sick of it, it doesn’t work like that.”
“Oh, doesn’t anybody ever leave, or do you kill the ones who start looking bored when you’re singing hymns?”
“No! We don’t kill anybody!”
“Do you have to kill yourself if you leave?”
“So, you can just leave whenever you want?”
“No! Yes. Well, you can leave but nobody does.”
“Do you do something to their brains so they don’t leave? I read this comic once, right, and it said…”
And that’s more or less how it went. Just talking crap to people who pretty much had to answer your increasingly stupid questions and not shout at you for taking the piss. I know it was infantile and pointless, but I figured that so was their religion, so I was sort of doing them a favour.
To try and drag us back to what they wanted which, it turned out, wasn’t answering stupid questions that didn’t go anywhere they gave us one of their bibles each and we read a bit and then talked about what it might mean.
What I thought it meant was that they were stupid for following something that was so clearly a load of woolly bollocks, but I didn’t say that. I just continued asking idiotic questions to test their patience. That was the second visit.
On George’s third visit, he brought his wife with him. George would probably have been in his forties and was no Adonis. His wife, no Aphrodite but still a lot younger and better looking than he was.
While she was obviously a Jehovah’s Witness, I gauged that she was less thick than Stonesy or Tina or Donna and also far less tolerant of people taking the piss as the likes of Dave and I did.
George sat next to her and behaved in exactly the same way that he had when John was with him. You know, “Hey look! Groovy young chicks are Jehovah’s Witnesses too! Look! See! They marry you!”
It had become evident that George had a metaphorical toolbox, the contents of which he would utilise in order to attract young converts. His wife was obviously just the next tool he’d chosen after the prospect of male companionship had resulted in no joy for him. George, whatever else he did or didn’t do, hadn’t paid attention when we’d told him that we wouldn’t be signing up for his religion. I suppose you can’t really think like that or you’d go mad. Evidently there was some faint semblance of hope lurking in George’s tired, worn out brain even if its presence hadn’t been immediately apparent when I first set eyes on him.
Anyway, it was exactly the same thing: we just pretended that we were even more simple than we actually were and gently took the piss by asking stupid questions. I won’t go into details, I’m sure you get the drift. His wife didn’t say a word though, she just glared at us with a look on her face that told us, I know what you pair of fucking idiots are pissing about at. Aren’t you both terribly clever? I didn’t care.
The next week, George brought with him a woman who must have been about a hundred. The impression this gave me was that George was saying, “Alright, smartarses, I get it but you’re not going to take the piss out of a woman who’s about a hundred, are you?”
Naturally we did. In fact, it got so bad that the woman demanded to be let out of Dave’s flat which is probably some sort of record for Jehovah’s Witnesses. What happened was that she was telling us about how we should think of Jesus Christ as not only the son of God, but as a very charismatic young man.
“Does that mean that charisma’s a good thing then?” I asked.
“Of course it does, Middlerabbit,” she said, giving George a sideways look that said, ‘You’re shit at this, watch and learn’. “Charisma’s a gift from Jehovah.”
“Oh right,” I said, pleased at her swallowing the bait, “Does that mean that Hitler was good then?”
“What? No! Of course it doesn’t mean that! Why would you even say that?”
“Well, I know he did bad things but he was a charismatic young man too, wasn’t he?”
“No Middlerabbit,” she shouted, “He was an evil, wicked man.”
“Oh yeah, I’m not saying he wasn’t,” I said, “But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t charismatic as well, does it? All those people voted for him, didn’t they? Have you seen the newsreels of him speaking? He drew people to him, whether he was a nasty bastard or not.”
“No he didn’t,” she said, “He made them. He forced them. They were frightened of him.”
“Aren’t people frightened of God?” I asked.
“Jehovah. Only sinners and people who don’t believe need be afraid of him.” She said, snappily.
“How does that work?” I asked. “People who don’t believe in God – Jehovah, whatever you want – can’t be frightened of him as well, can they?”
“Well they should be.” She said.
“Maybe they should, but they won’t be, will they? You could be scared of him if you believed in him. Are you scared of, I don’t know, King Kong?”
“King Kong’s not real,” she said, smug as you like.
“So you’re not scared of him because he doesn’t exist.”
She just looked at me.
“Look,” I said, “All I’m saying is that if charisma is a gift from God…”
“…Alright, Jehovah, then Jesus and Hitler have some similarities, don’t they?”
“They do not!” she said, in that angry and childish voice old women sometimes have.
“Course they do. I mean, yeah, alright, Jesus wasn’t all that popular…”
“What!? Jesus not popular? I’ve never heard such rubbish.”
“Popular people don’t get crucified by popular request, do they?”
“Pilate let the crowd choose whether they freed Jesus or Barabus and they chose Barabus over Jesus, didn’t they?”
“So Jesus was less popular than a thief.”
“Not now, he isn’t!”
“It’s a bit sodding late for that now, isn’t it? He’s been dead nearly two thousand years.”
“You cannot compare Jesus to Hitler!”
“Course you can,” I said.
She stood up and announced to George, “We’re leaving. I don’t know what you were thinking George. They’re clearly homosexual degenerates anyway.”
“What’s wrong with being gay?” Dave asked.
“Oh, you’ll find out soon enough young man,” she said, giving us filthy looks. I held Dave’s hand, gave him a peck on the cheek and grinned insipidly at her as she stormed out.
George gave us a funny look as he left.
The week after that, George turned up with an elder, who didn’t look anywhere near as old as the woman I’d upset the week previously. I can’t remember his name either, I’ll call him Elvis.
Elvis, to be fair to him, radiated a certain something. I don’t know what it was, but it was there all the same. He was quiet, calm and much better than all the rest of George’s second bananas at dealing with a pair of nobheads taking the piss. The conversation was much less entertaining than with the old woman because he didn’t get wound up, even when Dave started leading him down a blind alley regarding his cup of tea.
“Do you think the world is a perfect place?” Elvis asked us.
“I think it’s alright,” Dave said.
“Don’t you think it could be better though?”
“Dunno. Maybe it can’t be any better,” Dave answered. “Maybe this is as good as it can possibly be at this moment in time.”
“What’s stopping it being better then?” Elvis continued.
“Well, I’m not the one complaining about it,” Dave replied. “That’s what you’re doing. How do you think it could be any better at this precise moment?”
“Oh, I think it could be much better in many ways,” Elvis calmly said.
“Are you enjoying your cup of tea?” Dave asked.
“Oh, yes thank you,” Elvis replied. “It’s lovely.”
“Well, maybe it’s you then,” Dave suggested.
“Me? How do you mean?”
“Well, you’re saying the world could be much better in many ways and yet here you are, enjoying a lovely cup of tea, having a chat about things and you’re still complaining. What’s wrong with you?”
“Well, David,” Elvis began, setting his cup down as if to distance himself that little bit further from a brief moment of joy in his otherwise miserable world, “A cup of tea is all very well, but it’s hardly the most important thing in the world, is it?”
“Maybe it should be,” Dave suggested. “If it makes you happy, why isn’t it? Maybe you just like complaining about things while you’re busy ignoring all the good stuff.”
“It’s just a cup of tea,” Elvis said mildly.
“I gave you that for free,” Dave said, “I made it for you and now you’re saying it’s not good enough because there’re people out there murdering people and that? I don’t think you want to be happy.”
“What do you think, Middlerabbit?” Elvis asked.
“About God? Jehovah? The state of the world?” I asked.
“It’s not my cup of tea.” I answered.
“And what is your cup of tea?” Elvis probed, smiling beatifically.
“This,” I held up my tea. “My cup of tea’s a cup of tea. Cracking brew, this, our kid.” I nodded at Dave.
“How much happiness do you think that cup of tea will bring you Middlerabbit?”
“I’d be less happy if I didn’t have it.” I said.
“But what about tomorrow?”
“It’ll have gone cold by then,” I said.
“So your cup of tea won’t bring you lasting happiness?”
“This one won’t, but what does?”
“Following the teachings of Jehovah.”
“Well, it doesn’t seem to be making you all that happy even though you’ve got a cup of tea.”
And that’s pretty much how the conversation continued. Just inane, really.
When they finally decided they’d had enough and left, George shook our hands and told us it had been good to meet us, even though it won’t have been.
And that was the last time Jehovah’s Witnesses tried to convert me to their religion. Well, not quite, but the next lot who knocked on our door got told to piss off because I’d heard it all before and I thought it was a stupid religion for stupid people. It also seemed to be a very, well, brown and grey religion too. I’m not synaesthetic or anything as a rule, but when I think of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I think of winter. I think of rain and sleet. Thinking about it, I don’t really think of other religions in terms of colours or weather and maybe it’s because George seemed to revel in being drenched by wintry rain when we first met him, but mainly I think it’s because of the bleakness of its followers.
I used to enjoy Alexei Sayle when he had his comedy programmes on the telly and one of the jokes he told in particular stuck with me, and I must have heard it about thirty years ago now. It went along these lines:
“People think Photo-Me Booths just take your photo, but they don’t. Photo-Me Booths are a gateway to an alternate dimension where everything is just like it is in our dimension, except a lot worse. So when you put your quid in a Photo-Me Booth, you don’t get a picture of yourself, you get a photograph of a version of you that lives in this dreadful alternate, parallel dimension which is why everyone looks so miserable on their passport photos. Also, it’s always raining in this other dimension which is why your photos are wet when they come out.”
And when I think of that dreadful, parallel dimension that Alexei Sayle talked about, I automatically assume that it’s a dimension in which the dominant religious organisation are Jehovah’s Witnesses.