The Songwriters – Jimmy Webb

It is probably true to say that all songwriters would like, or would have liked, to be stars themselves, singing their creations rather than giving them to other people. But somewhere along the line they decide, or the decision is made for them, that their talent lies in the composing, not the performing.

In Jimmy Webb’s case it took a long time – a fairly long, unsuccessful solo career even after he was an acknowledged great writer, with nary a sign of crossing over from provider to goalscorer.

The 1960s was Webb’s heyday, with a string of hits for Glen Campbell, the Fifth Dimension and others. His material was a mix of pop and country that veered alarmingly close to the  middle of the road but retained some credibility for the more critical, rock-oriented listener, by dint of beautiful melodies and creative, thoughtful lyrics.

His career in music really began in 1966, when the singer/producer Johnny Rivers recorded By The Time I Get To Phoenix, a supreme example of Webb’s craft, with a story that takes us along through a day where the singer leaves his girl, as he has threatened to do many times, and imagines what she is doing at various times while he journeys further and further away. She won’t believe it at first, he thinks, “She’ll laugh when she reads the part that says I’m leaving,” although the realization will grow throughout the day and when he reaches Oklahoma, she’ll find herself in bed and sleepily reaching for him:

“She’ll turn softly and call my name out low
And she’ll cry, just to think I’d really leave her.”

It’s one of those rare songs that does something millions of others could have done but didn’t, and turns a simple “I left her” into a drawn-out song of sorrow, pain and perhaps guilt.

It wasn’t Rivers who had the hit, though, but Glen Campbell, originally a much sought-after session guitarist who grew into a singer, and Jimmy Webb can take much of the credit for his flourishing. Songs of the calibre of Phoenix, Wichita Lineman and Galveston, with  restrained  orchestration and the top-drawer, unsung contributions of his former session buddies, proved a potent mixture.

Webb’s lyrical skill shines again in Wichita Lineman. We’re talking, don’t forget, about an engineer climbing up a telegraph pole to fix a problem with the line, and it is his thoughts that the song is giving us. He’s thinking about his love life, as we all do during our working day. He could do with a holiday but he’s not going to get one because of the weather. The context, the background information, the way it draws us in: this isn’t your average pop song by any means.

A lesser hit but an equally great song is Dreams of the Everyday Housewife, in which Webb – again via Campbell – takes us into the daydreams of an ordinary woman, thinking about how her life has turned out and how it might have been.

The Fifth Dimension benefited from such gems as Up Up And Away, Paper Cup and the underrated Carpet Man, with its depiction of a man badly treated by his girl, the narrator giving him a frank assessment of things he is too blind to see. A different perspective.

All of these were simple, unpretentious pop songs, albeit with a PhD in insight, and in theory should be overshadowed by the neo-psychedelic nightmare that is MacArthur Park, a song that stretched the sensibilities of many a young music fan. It was great, it was exciting, but what was it about? It was about weirdness – it belongs in John Lennon’s yellow psychedelic Rolls Royce along with Lucy in the Sky and Strawberry Fields.

And then, as the Simple Sixties turned into the Troubled Seventies, Webb’s bubble burst and he headed off on that fruitless solo career. And when that failed, he was back being a songwriter, but what does a songwriter do when he’s not having hits? He sits there writing and then he sits there not writing. You can see why they want to be performers – just for something to do.

I’m going to finish not at the end, but somewhere in the middle, with a song Webb wrote about a songwriter friend of his, P. F. Sloan. Here was a strange character with a flair for melody but without what it took to be really successful. Sloan wrote Eve of Destruction and the Herman’s Hermits hit, Must to Avoid, and played guitar on a few things – the acoustic intro to California Dreaming, for instance – but his fame, such as it is, is down to his friend Jimmy Webb and the search for a different angle, a different subject.

This version is by Unicorn, a British band of the late 60s/early 70s whom I saw at the Cellar Club in Guernsey in 1970 or 71 when, for some strange reason, they came to the island for a two-week residency. With those sweet high harmonies it sounds like they wanted to be Crosby Stills and Nash, and they never amounted to much, but, again thanks to Jimmy Webb, they gave at least one person a brilliant little song he’ll never forget.

 

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The Songwriters: Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich

When someone told Ian Dury he had written some great songs, his reaction was that he didn’t agree. To him, a great song was something that could be successful when other people sang it, and his material was very reliant on his voice and persona for its effect. This series is dedicated to writers who do or did that, whether or not they had hits in their own right.

With any record produced by Phil Spector, it is easy to think it was all his own work. Even the singers can seem almost irrelevant:  he would have one masquerading as another if the one he wanted was unavailable, so what chance did the writers stand of gaining any recognition?

And yet it is they who provide the raw material from which recordings are built, and although Spector’s name always seems to figure on the writers’ credits, whatever influence he had on the crafting of the words and notes was probably more of a tweaking job. Refining, he might prefer us to say.

Wall of Sound songs often feature the names of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, he from New Jersey and she from New York. They met in 1959 and became partners both musically and professionally.

The early Barry/Greenwich triumphs were the Ronettes’ Be My Baby and Baby I Love You, along with Da Doo Ron Ron, a massive hit for the Crystals. It’s the simplicity of these songs that is so striking. The big production lends them a sort of weight, but the message couldn’t be more basic.

Head Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who was in competition with Spector at the time, freely admits that when he first heard Be My Baby on his car radio he had to pull over, such was the impression it made.

Ellie Greenwich, though, was disappointed that Be My Baby was released ahead of the couple’s ‘Why Don’t They Let Us Fall In Love’.

These sorts of lyrics are never going to win you a Pulitzer prize, but we all respond to a singer being in the same situation as us, and Ronnie Spector’s plea to her potential long-term love says what we want to say, but with an emotional power that drives a Grand Canyon through any possible opposition.

Like many songwriters who like to work in pairs, Barry and Greenwich also had successes with other partners,  such as Barry/Ben Raleigh’s Tell Laura I Love Her and Greenwich’s joint work with Spector on Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts, by Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans, featuring Darlene Love.

But after they married in 1962 they naturally decided to work exclusively together, coming up with a torrent of material including Do Wah Diddy Diddy, originally recorded by The Exciters, a typical Motown-style vocal group of the time, before Manfred Mann, scouring the US charts for material, as people did in those days, gave it a very different stamp.

Leader of the Pack was a highly influential piece of musical drama in an age when motorcyclists diced with death and occasionally lost through not wearing a crash helmet, and even now, when we know full well it’s just a pop song and we’re not 12 years old anymore, it still makes a spirit-dampening  experience.

The one that brings a lump to Ellie Greenwich’s throat, though, is Darlene Love’s (Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry, which is interesting, as she and Barry also wrote The Dixie Cups’ far more successful Chapel of Love.

Here are both of them: see what you think. (I’m a Chapel of Love man.)

And then there was the majestic River Deep Mountain High, the performance credited to Ike and Tina Turner, although Ike wasn’t on it because Spector had barred him from the studio. The song shook the British pop public to the core and made number three, but somehow in the US it failed to take off and limped to a paltry number 88, sparking fears that the Wall of Sound was about to fall down.

For Barry and Greenwich, River Deep marked a progression from  adolescent sweet talk to something a bit more substantial.  Spector considered it his best effort so far, and such failure in his homeland prompted his disappearance from the spotlight for a couple of years and quite possibly the mental /emotional decline that turned him into a legendary maverick rather than the consistent hit maker he had been up to that point.

The Barry and Greenwich partnership, too, began to fall apart and they were divorced in 1965, but by then they had created a body of work it would take most people a lifetime to accomplish.

The Songwriters – Sandy Linzer

To kick off a series of articles on songwriters, you might expect to see a name like Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney, and I will probably get around to them eventually. But this series is dedicated just as much to the lesser known writers whose little gems are in our memories and our music collections even though we may think of the songs as belonging to the people who sang them.

So how about this guy: Sandy Linzer.

Sandy Linzer (left) and Denny Randell

Who?

Well, there was a song by a vocal group called Odyssey in 1977 called Native New Yorker, a very singable dance tune back in those disco days, and the songwriting credit was Linzer/Randell. Sandy Linzer was primarily a lyricist, and as such he must take most of the credit for a song that has a bittersweet message hidden within.

This was originally recorded  – with a very similar arrangement – by Frankie Valli, but while from a man it is a song of compassion and pity, the subject matter makes it far more effective for a woman, singing about herself and other girls of her age, living in her part of the world. “No one opens the door for a native New Yorker,” she sighs, having introduced herself as “young and pretty New York City girl, 25, 35”.

It’s a brutally frank, quite heartbreaking little tale of a hard-hearted place and accepting your lot in life even when you’re taken for granted and underestimated because you’re standard-issue local rather than some exotic species.

Whether it’s true or not I can’t say, because the only time I visited NYC I went straight to Times Square, bought an acoustic guitar and left again, not pausing to allow any passing girls to pour out their heart to me.

But the function of the pop song is to whisper in our ear, whether in passing, on the radio, or late at night after a few drinks, and this one is a small precious stone in a many jeweled crown.

Sandy Linzer also co-produced the record – he produced a lot of Odyssey’s music, in fact – and the partner attached to his name on the label is Denny Randell, who also teamed up with him on another Odyssey hit, Use It Up And Wear It Out, which made liberal use of that odd musical instrument, the referee’s whistle.

The Frankie Valli connection

Unbeknown to me, Linzer had made his mark a good 10 years earlier with material for the Four Seasons (Let’s Hang On, Working My Way Back To You) and, along with Randell, a minor masterpiece by The Toys, A Lover’s Concerto, based on the melody from a classical piece, Minuet in G Major, which used to be thought of as Johan Sebastian Bach’s work but some now believe to be by the much less famous Christian Petzold.

Too much information? Sorry. Just spend  a few minutes alone with some of Linzer’s stuff and if you’re ever challenged by a tall, thin humanoid with a head like an ostrich egg, as to the merits of “tis popp music you laik so march”, play him Native New Yorker.

Why do the atheists bother?

Last night I felt like watching a documentary, so I had a look at what Netflix had to offer. The one that caught my eye was called The Unbelievers and was about a couple of atheists: the Englishman Dr. Richard Dawkins and an American, Dr. Lawrence Krauss.

Why would a Christian want to watch a documentary about atheists? Because they were bound to be talking about us, so I wanted to see what they said.

Something from Nothing? A Conversation with Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss Critically-acclaimed author and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and world-renowned theoretical physicist and author Lawrence Krauss discussed biology, cosmology, religion, and a host of other topics in a free ranging conversation at ASU's Gammage Auditorium February 3rd.
Okay Richard, time for a damning pearl of wisdom

Dawkins is an urbane, rather old fashioned kind of Englishman: smart suits, wavy hair a bit longer than you might expect, and he is reserved: an introvert.

Krauss is very different: he wears a smart jacket but likes to team it with jeans and canvas sneakers in wacky colours. And his wide mouth is always ready to burst into a smile. An extrovert.

They complement each other very well, making up for each other’s shortcomings in any given situation. If you want gravity and intensity, you’ve got Dawkins. You want a wisecracking man of the people, here’s Krauss.

The documentary followed them on a country-hopping tour, doing TV talk shows, live shows and lectures.

I couldn’t help liking them both. Dawkins might be quite interesting, and perhaps even fun when he’s had a few drinks. I was slightly surprised to find that he is married – on his second one, in fact – to an actress most famous for playing a Time Lady in the BBC scifi series Doctor Who.

And Krauss is a born entertainer.

atheists 2
Haven’t you got anything better to do?

The way they approach their atheism is through science: they’re both PhDs, Dawkins an evolutionary biologist and ethologist – dealing with knowledge of human character and its formation and evolution, and  Krauss a theoretical physicist. Clearly hyper-intelligent people, and they use their brain power, their ability to grasp details when everyone else is struggling to hold onto the general idea, to hack their way through the jungle of belief.

Dawkins found himself on an Australian talk show with the Archbishop of Sydney and proceeded to run intellectual rings around him, until you could see the brakes come on and a look in his eyes that said, “Ease up or they’ll thing you’re a smartarse and a bully”. He seems to find it frustrating talking to people of only above-average intelligence. How would he relate to a room full of people who, whatever their gifts, are not deep thinkers?

We saw him taking a telephone call and trying to keep it simple while whoever was on the other end tried valiantly to keep up.

We saw Krauss impressing and amusing a concert hall where the audience obviously considered it a good night out. He can make them laugh.

What the two doctors also did, though, was  a series of shows in which they sit together on stage on comfortable chairs and dismiss religion in a mocking way, teeing each other up to deliver witty putdowns and unanswerable conclusions.

atheists 3

The justification for this, they revealed by chance later on, was that on panel discussions, when two people are having an intense debate, they don’t like it when the chairman butts in and invites someone else to have a  say.

By implication, they are almost always the two cleverest people in the room, so why should anyone else be allowed to get in the way?

Religion, they both firmly believe, is similarly dimwitted and should not be permitted to muddy the waters of science. Incidentally, they seem to have mainly Christianity in their sights, rather than other religions – perhaps because they were brought up with it and are therefore better equipped to analyse  and ridicule it. And as they pointed out, nothing should be above ridicule. If we can make light of any other subject, from politics to sex (they dropped that sparkling, free-spirited word  in several times to show how much cooler they are than we are), why not religion?

What they didn’t explain was why they bother to tour the world, broadcasting their views in this way. If they don’t agree with religion, that’s up to them. You don’t suppose it’s anything to do with money, do you? Money from books and DVDs and touring shows.

atheists 4
This is why we have to stop fighting each other

For all their studying and theorizing, Dawkins and Krauss can’t point to any concrete proof to back up their opinions. But scientists keep discovering things and to them the Bible looks increasingly absurd. Maybe one day they or one of their hyper-intelligent ilk will accidentally stumble on something that proves to them what billions of us know from a much simpler source. Maybe they will look in their microscope and see God.

The English Pedant – Feeling fine is a fine feeling

 

A little while ago we looked at the potentially confusing word “quite”, with its various meanings. Another one in that vein is “fine”. It’s the sort of thing that the TEFL (English as a foreign language) teacher dreads a student bringing up, because when they ask what it means, there is more than one explanation. Even native English speakers can get confused when they start to think about this one, as I found early in my magazine-editing career when the secretary, with whom I had been at primary school, attempted to show me that education counted for nothing and anything I could do, she could do too.

So when I described a cricketer as being a fine player, she took issue with the word. Fine, she stated, meant okay. And it does. Sometimes. How is your burger? Fine. How was your day? Fine, thanks. Nothing special, just okay. Don’t worry, it’s fine.

But what about fine art and fine wines? What are they? Just average? No, they’re fine, they’re top class, exquisite. And Brian Lara, the subject of my discussion with the secretary, was a fine cricketer, as was Ian Botham and Joe Root is now. Lionel Messi isn’t just a fairly good footballer. He has a level of skill and “footballing intelligence”, if you like, that makes him exceptional. He’s a fine player.

But fine can also mean thin or very small. There is a fine line between very good and great. Sandpaper that consists of fragments of glass so small it actually feels smooth is known as fine, and its opposite in that case is coarse.

We strain fluids through a fine mesh, a fabric of very slim strands that allows liquid through but catches any solids.

Some people have fine hair. That doesn’t mean it’s just okay or even that it’s beautiful. Each strand of hair is just very thin, that’s all.

In a business document we may look at the fine detail, a close relative of “the small print”.

Then there is the weather. If that is fine, there is no rain about. There might be the odd white fluffy cloud passing through, and it might even be a bit windy, but it’s fine. Plenty of sunshine.

If someone “picked a fine time” to do something, we mean it ironically: they did it at a very inconvenient moment.

Then there is the noun; nobody wants to have to pay a fine, because it is a penalty imposed for breaking a law or rule.

And finings are substances added to beer, wine etc. to get rid of any lingering sediment or other particles, making it perfectly clear.

If we refine something, we improve it, except in cases such as sugar, where the process of removing impurities is said  to produce something that is harmful to health. It’s similar with flour, where the refining process removes the “bits” that are good for digestion and contain nutrients.

So, have you ever wanted to be teach English as a foreign language? Just steer the students away from this kind of thing, because it is almost unexplainable to an English speaker. To a Chinese speaker or even a Spaniard, it must sound a if you’re making it up as you go along.

Even writing about it, it’s the sort of thing that makes you wish you’d never started.

And by the way, have I missed anything?

 

The English Pedant – Guess what second guess means

Dear Teacher,I have created a word it is parronk and it doesn't mean anythink but who says words have to mean sumfink_ There's no lore against it I'm allowed.

There’s a term that seems to cross my path every couple of years: second guess. What makes me notice the frequency is the fact that I have never found out what it means – if indeed it means anything. I think the reason it comes and goes as it does is that no one really understands it.

The Online Oxford Dictionary, The Pedant’s preferred reference work now that too many long-distance moves have resulted in the loss of all paper books (apart, bizarrely, from  one by the late Peter Taylor about his football management partner, Brian Clough). For decades no desk of The Pedant’s was without The Concise Oxford and a Roget’s Thesaurus, but the internet makes such things expendable.

Anyway, second guess. The Online Oxford gives these examples:

Anticipate or predict (someone’s actions or thoughts) by guesswork: he had to second-guess what the environmental regulations would be in five years' time

More example sentences
  • Good art institutions should not be about second-guessing the public's taste.
  • But while clothes shoppers are revelling in the dozens of new alleys open to them, manufacturers are despairing as they try to second-guess the kaleidoscopic public mood.
  • We've been trying to second-guess Augusta all week but there's no sense in trying any longer.

I don’t know about you, but to these eyes they look like examples of the single word ‘guess’.

There was a glimmer of hope a couple of years ago, when someone somewhere suggested it meant literally having the second guess, or prediction, so if the question is who is going to win the European Championship in football and one person says Germany, you can use your guess, i.e. the second, to say Belgium.

Merriam-Webster Online offers:

 “to criticize or question the actions or decisions of someone”

which at least is different, even if it is not convincing.

Meanwhile over at Urban Dictionary, infamous home of the puerile and crude, they racked their brains and cobbled together this attempt at grownupness:

To predict, criticize often after results are know. This normally occurs from a person who you are having a conversion with and is trying to demerit someone else or you.

From Showtime series Weeds Season 3 Episode 7-He Taught Me How to Drive By 
 Marvin: Are you second guessing me bitch?!

Thanks, guys, you really are the natural reference work of the illiterate internet.

So, I guess, as the Americans would have it, that second guess doesn’t mean anything at all. Somebody used it once and it sounded good, so other people used it, but only once, because they couldn’t make it work.

It’s nonsense, it’s a myth. Unless you know better, in which case please let us know with a comment or email.

 

The English Pedant – Why fun is not funny

Funny is a funny word, isn’t it? Funny haha or funny peculiar, that is the question. Or it’s one question, anyway: there is also the similar but not identical concept of fun.

Lots of things in life can be fun but don’t make us laugh. A trip to the zoo or a game of darts. Flying a kite. Having sex. These things are fun, but they don’t necessarily cause us to giggle, cackle or any of the other variants of laughter.

To the non-native English speaker, though, it’s not so much that the two words are interchangeable, but more that fun doesn’t exist, or doesn’t need to exist anymore. They experience something that is what we would call fun and they say it’s funny.

Anyone who has ever explained the difference will know the look of disbelief, pity, almost contempt, on their face. “I enjoyed it,” they’re thinking. “And English adjectives often end in y. Therefore it was not fun, it was funny. Fun is a noun.”

We can and do use it as a noun, in fact. That was fun. We had fun.

So it can be “that was fun” or equally well “that was funny”?

Well, you think, it’s funny you should say that, because I’ve been speaking English all my life and there has always been that difference.

So no. It was either fun or it wasn’t. Unless it caused hilarity, in which case it was funny.

And then there’s the “peculiar” meaning of funny. How did that come about? Probably simple misuse a few generations back, because it doesn’t mean hilarious or even mildly amusing. It means puzzling. The Pedant’s ancestors would have been hard at work, pointlessly pointing out that the King’s English was being corrupted. Or the Queen’s if it happened in Victorian times.

There’s another strain of the word, too, which is particularly prevalent in British English: meaning awkward, difficult, or argumentative. You find “I’m not being funny” or perhaps “I’m not trying to be funny” as a disclaimer before a question or statement criticizing something. “I’m not being funny, but are you going to wear that cap in court?” or “I’m not trying to be funny, but haven’t you got any decent CDs?”

It’s a losing battle, of course, just as resisting any language change is. Many Americans are now saying funny when they mean fun. You get swamped with it and start doing it yourself.

With the worldwide issue of immigration  as prominent as it is, we come to the question of whether people settling in a new country should be obliged not only to speak the language but to speak it properly.

And that, frankly, is unenforceable, because there are so many variants among the native population. When there are Scots asking “How?” when they mean “What?”, we haven’t got a leg to stand on.

When there are millions of African Americans saying “Ah ight” instead of “All right” how can we insist that Spanish speakers learn the difference between v and b, so they can differentiate between very and berry?

But shouldn’t we at least try? And shouldn’t newcomers at least listen to what we’re saying, just as we try to pronounce their language properly?

I once worked with a Polish woman, well-educated and highly intelligent, who insisted on pronouncing salmon as sal monn. And when I say she insisted, I mean I pointed out to her that it was one of the most common mistakes among non-native English speakers, and that it should sound something like sammen, but she said, “Well, you say it your way and I’ll say it mine.”

The cartoon Brit in France turns up at a campsite and is looking for the office. “Essa kerr – eel ee ah – ern byoroe eecee?” If he’s staying, should the French let him labour in this way or should they teach him how to say it correctly? Surely a polite and helpful demonstration would be better for all concerned.

Shouldn’t we accept we still have a lot to learn and keep trying?

The English Pedant – The right to be wrong

Rod Yard-Kipplin

There was something on Facebook last week about common English errors – you might have seen it before, because we all see different things. It was a list including there, they’re and their etc, explaining what each one meant and asking something like “Is it really that difficult?”

It’s the kind of thing we look at every week on The English Pedant, but whereas here it is just pointing things out, that appeared to be one person’s one-off attempt to get it off their chest. This being the internet, where there is freedom to express an opinion, along with the messages of agreement there were two people who defended their right to write badly.

Oddly, both claimed to be “a writer”, and both said they could write perfectly well but chose not to do so on Facebook because, as one said, “this isn’t school”.

I’m not going to quote them verbatim, because for one thing the standard of their English in this context is likely to be an amalgam of being sloppy because it’s FB and wanting to show they are not morons. And the other thing is I would have to go hunting for the posts, and I’ve actually got more important things to do.

The point is, if these people are to believed, there are those who can write perfectly well but actually choose to write badly, which begs the question: is it easier to do something badly than to do it well? Is it easier to write a sentence with no punctuation than to put in the occasional comma? Can somebody’s brain be so tired that they don’t have the energy to select one from there, they’re and their?

Perhaps it’s a question of habit. On Thursdays on this blog you will find Kaycee’s Klasic Films , which I write in the character of a 30-something London woman, Siobhan Kennedy-Clark (her mates call her Kaycee), who didn’t have much of an education and can’t write to save her life. She is different from me in several ways: she’s a woman and I’m not, she’s younger than me, she’s unmarried, didn’t do well at school and all in all she looks at the world very differently, but her views and opinions come out in a way they wouldn’t if I was just being me.

Because I spend most of my time trying to produce clean, flowing, clear work, it pains me to deliberately make mistakes and I have to go through sentences and remove punctuation, because I’m in character and this woman doesn’t know the rules, so to be convincing I have to break them. Her paragraphs can be two or three sentences long and often the thread changes in the middle of them, whereas one of the purposes of the paragraph is to let the reader know you’ve changed tack. Siobhan’s writing is almost like stream-of-consciousness.

When I have bashed out 600 words as Siobhan, I read it through and see how it’s come out. And funnily enough, it’s not that hard to follow what she’s saying, sometimes to the extent that I find I’m slipping when I move on to the next post, which is meant to be written properly.

Here is how she would wrap up this post:

So what do you think is it okay to not try when your on Facebook cos it ain’t like being at school is it we had enough of that when we was kids and I no if I had of listened a bit more to the teachers I would of been able to do it without thinking but their’s no point worrying about it now is they’re what’s done is done and you no what I’m saying so who cares.

 

How faith came and got me

alpha

Many of my old friends know nothing of my Christian faith, because when I got to know them I was a mickey-taking unbeliever. I even once wrote a column for the Guernsey Press with some disparaging comments and skeptical smartarsery about the Ten Commandments.

That changed around 2005 when, while working as a journalist, I was asked to look into the Alpha Course, which is a one-evening-a-week get-together in small groups, in which anyone interested in finding out what Christianity is all about can go along and ask any question they like and be given an answer. It’s mainly for adults who have let the church pass them by and wonder if they’re missing something.

I phoned the head of the Church of England in Guernsey, the Dean, and he told me I should go and talk to Rev. Gerard Storey at Holy Trinity. So I phoned Gerard and arranged to meet him at the church the next day.

Standard procedure: I turned up with a photographer (who, as it happened, was a musician, as I am). We were both surprised and impressed to find a band’s gear set up in a corner at the front: drums, amplifiers, guitar, bass, a keyboard, microphones. Ady took some pictures and left, as press photographers do.

I interviewed Gerard for half an hour and it was funny; I just felt good listening to him and being in that environment. I decided there and then that I would go to the first meeting, which wasn’t part of the assignment. I was supposed to just find out what it was all about and write  a few hundred words on it. But actually going to a meeting would give me an extra insight, and I told myself it would be like going undercover, infiltrating an organization.

The meeting was out in a particularly beautiful part of the island, up a narrow, winding road that led to a cliff with a car park where people often went just to admire the view of the sea and some smaller islands.

This was Sue’s house, and I didn’t realize I had met her before.

It’s not that easy to find, but there in the darkness was a baseball-capped figure out in the road, looking for slow-moving vehicles with drivers peering at the houses. Under the cap was Gerard, the vicar of Holy Trinity.

Sue greeted us at the door and I recognized her immediately. I had met her briefly at my son’s school sports day and she had given me a warm, beaming smile and talked in a friendly way, while most of the other mums seemed reluctant to acknowledge my presence. Maybe they were in mum mode and afraid that talking to any man except their husband could be misconstrued. But that smile had made my day and here it was again.

There were about a dozen of us plus Gerard and a church pastoral worker called Wendy, who , on hearing my surname, announced  that she had known my Dad; and she had obviously liked him. She spent the evening introducing me as Eric. A pastoral worker, for anyone who doesn’t know, is an established member of a church who helps the minister out, doing things like visiting people who are sick or housebound, or who just need someone to talk to.

After a few weeks, Gerard dropped out and Wendy took over the meetings. She knew her stuff about the Bible and religion in general, and we all took a huge liking to her. She is far too modest and humble to accept this, but we hung on her every word as if she were the Archbishop of Canterbury.

It was a mixed group of people: a painter and decorator, a dentist, a teacher, a couple of stay-at-home wives with high-earning husbands, a nurse and a hotel worker, among others. And this journalist, taking it all in and writing an extra article about it because I liked it and wanted to pass it on.

We grew into a tight-knit little group and I looked forward to Wednesday nights – but I still wasn’t going to church. I had grown up in a church-going family but had opted out at 17 and my parents soon stopped going too. It just didn’t mean anything to me.

I had drifted away, still nominally believing in God but only involving him when I needed something. When I was about 30 and living in London my younger brother had been a bit of a worry: great guy, good person, decent job, but he was lonely and life was passing him by. I prayed for him, but rather than having his life transformed by God, he had been stabbed to death. Not run over by a bus, but murdered violently and terrifyingly.

That was the last straw for me: how could there be a God if he allowed such a thing to happen? And in flagrant contravention of my prayers. I joined the mouthy majority with no respect for religion. And that is how I was when I had that first meeting with Gerard Storey. Then suddenly the cloud lifted.

But I still wasn’t going to church. I wasn’t going to muscle in; I needed to be invited. And one Wednesday night it happened. As we walked to our cars in the car park after a meeting at Wendy’s house, the painter and decorator, Mark, said, “Why don’t you come to church on Sunday?”

HT

That was all it needed. The next year I was baptized (in the sea, beautiful day, warm as bathwater).

So that’s how it started for me. Everybody’s got a story – and that is mine.