Friday, 16 April 2010

I was a Methodist, Or: The past is a foreign country

Snow at Christmas stopped me paying my annual visit to Wealden Kent to see my dad. I went yesterday instead, in glorious spring sunshine and enjoyed it all the more for that! It was lovely to see my folks, plus lambs in the fields, blossom in the hedgerows, etc, thrown in.

My dad picked me up at Marden station (57 minutes from Charing Cross) and drove me around a bit. We drove through Marden Beech, the hamlet where I lived for four years. My mum remarried when I was 15. Her new husband had a nice house in the countryside.

Now the little-used transport cafe and truck stop on the corner has been razed to the ground (dodgy insurance claim?) and five detached houses built on the site. Our house in Sheephurst (!) Lane is still there, though the hedges have grown much higher. The Methodist chapel nearby has been converted (rather badly) into a small house.

My mum's second husband was a Methodist, a lay preacher, forsooth! For the first two-three years of their marriage, until we led him astray, my mum and I joined him at the Sunday service at Marden Beech Methodist chapel.

This was a fascinating epidsode in my life, though it didn't always feel like it at the time. The congregation was tiny - 12? - mostly elderly, but it was a proper little church, with a small organ. A friendly, plump old woman called Jessie played this, she had to work extremely hard pumping wind into it.

They say the past is another country, and I agree with that. It is not as though one can test the hypothesis by visiting the past, but sometimes, very occasionally, by being with older people, and getting a glimpse into the way they have experienced the world that is different from how it is today, you can get a sense of just how foreign the past is.

I've only experienced that a couple of times. Once was around the 50th anniversary of V.E. day (the end of the Second World War). There was a massive commemoration event in Hyde Park, over a bank holiday weekend, and I got tickets for it. I found this a very strange event, but looking back felt it an enormous privilege to have been there.

This was not because of the usual reasons that people give on these occasions such as "past generations fought and died so that we could be free". But simply because there were a lot of people there who did experience the war, because they were remembering it on this weekend, and because they allowed a load of other younger people to hang around while they did it. I felt very keenly then how "the past is a foreign country".

And the other time? Once every year, the congregation at Marden Beech Methodist chapel swelled to several dozens, almost a hundred! The occasion was the harvest festival service, which we held in the evening. One of our congregation was Wilf C, an old ex-farm labourer. He wasn't very articulate most of the time, but around harvest festival was his time to shine.

He would vist the farms roundabout and elicit donations from them; on the evening of the service the chapel would be packed with produce. After the lusty singing of harvest hymns, accompanied by Jessie on her small organ, some prayers, and a sermon from the visiting minister from Maidstone, the real business of the evening began: bidding for the produce.

Wilf C took up his gavel and became a very efficient and vocal auctioneer to sell off all the produce to our new "Methodists for one night", and raise funds for the church. This was clearly a ritual that had been enacted many times over the years, and testified to a very different way of life, when the chapel had a decent sized congregation and when most people in the villages worked on the farms, and to a time when Wilf had been a lusty young man!

I feel privileged to have witnessed this, and enjoyed my visit on the shores of the past (no passport required, just some imagination and an open mind).

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