NORMAN AND OTHONA
Janet asked me to write something about the Community whilst we were both at the camp on the occasion of Malcolm’s and Angenita’s wedding. I agreed and have put together these thoughts which are personal to me, others will have a different view but when all are taken together a rounded picture will emerge.
I have headed my recollections ‘Norman and Othona’ as to me, and I suspect many others of my generation, the two are indivisible. Without Norman’s vision and action (one of his favourite texts that I heard him preach on on so many times was ‘faith without works is barren’), there would be no Othona. He put everything he had into its creation and maintenance, career, money, time and much else. Once a quite senior churchman said to me, “If Norman had not been such a thorn in the flesh to the powers (of the church), he would have been a Bishop by now.” It may have been true, almost certainly was, but knowing Norman I know which he would have chosen. Othona or a Bishopric? There was no contest.
I first came to Bradwell in 1953, not by design, but as a result of a ruse. In 1952, just a few days before my 18th birthday, I moved because of my job from the north east to Buckhurst Hill. Alone in digs I joined a youth club, attached to the Congregational Church a few yards up the hill from where I was living. I had no connection with any church but soon became friendly with the minister, Harold Johnson. In the early summer of 1953, he said to me one day that he knew of a place nearby that I would like. I had also joined the Scout troop and he had told me it was a camp, by the sea. So at what was the start of the 1953 season I took his advice and, along with one other member of the youth club, Betty Garner, who also fell for his line, set out one Friday evening for Bradwell, to spend a weekend at the camp.
Betty and I left Buckhurst Hill tube station shortly after I had finished work and went via Liverpool Street to Southminster, then to Bradwell by bus. Outside Bradwell church an old Landrover was parked, with a man in khaki shorts standing beside it. Seeing our cases he asked, “You for Othona?” and when we nodded, slung our luggage in the back and we climbed in beside him. In those days the track led from East Hall Farm and then, where the new track now starts, turned left and went for about two miles, first north then east, then finally south behind the sea wall. On that first trip it seemed to us that we were much further from the village than we really were when at last we bumped into the camp. The warden at that time was Burt and he first took a hesitant Betty off to the women's hut and then led me to the men’s Nissan. He instructed me to find a vacant bed and left me at the door. I went in and saw a row of old metal beds down each side, most made up and obviously occupied. At the far end were a few with bare mattresses and I made for them. The hut was empty except for one man sitting on the first bed on the left who had greeted me as I entered. As I put my case down on a bed he called out, “Take me to the toilet, mate.” Unsure I looked at him and saw that resting against the end well next to his bed was a bicycle. This was my introduction to Robbie, who had polio, and spent every summer at the camp in those days. I had to hoist him on to the bike and wheel him across the field, over a plank bridge, and up a path to the men's toilet, a makeshift affair with two elsans, wait and then wheel him back. Shortly after our arrival a bell rang and we were told it was for the evening meal. The camp and therefore the dining hut, another Nissan, was full but the welcome was friendly and soon Betty and I were feeling more at home. After the meal Burt came over and told us that as we hadn’t got any duties, Betty could help with the washing up and I could go with him to see to the oil lamps. When we had finished filling and cleaning them he asked me to help him empty the elsans. This involved carrying them from the men’s and women’s toilets and tipping them into a foul smelling pit. Shortly after this the bell rang again and Burt said that was for Chapel. I said I was not under any circumstances going to a chapel service. Betty had come under the spell of Tigram, a white Russian from Paris, and doyen of all the girls in those days, and went off with him and some others. In the end I was left alone in an empty camp in the fading evening light.
Just what had I come to? What was I doing here? I cursed Harold for conning me into coming. At least it’s only until Sunday evening, I thought. Slightly unnerved at being left all alone I went up to the sea wall and trailed along behind the others going to the chapel. Burt, who was the last one, turned and saw me and waited for me to catch up. I had a lot of contact with Burt that first visit and we soon developed a friendship so that often during my subsequent visits, I found I was ‘Warden’s assistant’ on the duty list.
It was the experience on entering the chapel that first time that triggered something inside me and changed my life for ever. The chapel was full and in the gathering darkness the light of the candles seemed to cast an eerie glow over everything. The silence was almost tangible and the clang of the door as Burt closed it behind us was, though I did not know it then, the end of my previous life and the start of another. From that moment I was hooked, both to Othona and Christianity. It was not as easy as that of course, nothing altered at once, but that moment was the start of a journey.
On the Sunday morning after breakfast, Norman rose and tapped on the table with a spoon, and the dining hut fell silent. I had seen Norman of course, a slightly overweight person in khaki shorts and shirt, who was always at the centre of a group of campers all trying to talk to him, but this was the first time I heard him speak and he was clearly not in a good mood. His first victims were those who had gone to the pub the previous night. I was astonished. There were only two vehicles in the camp, the landrover and Norman’s own car, neither of which had left the previous evening and I thought it was far too far to walk. Even later when I found you could go along the sea wall to the chapel and then up the track to the road, it was still a long trek, much further than it is now using the new road. I found out later that it was only ‘the spivs’ who had gone to the pub, but Norman harangued everyone, at length, on the evil of leaving the rest of the community behind and going for a pint.
The second victims included me and left me feeling wretched. I had experienced my ‘conversion on the Damascus Road’ and was now looking forward to coming back to Othona the following weekend. There was a whole group of ‘weekenders’ in the camp and I knew that many of them came regularly. Norman’s second tirade was against that group. Weekending, he said, distorted the camp, stretching its facilities for two days and then leaving the place half empty. Those who only came Saturday and Sunday did not follow through the lecture series and were not welcome. “Come for a week or don’t come at all” was his message. I only had two weeks’ holiday, one I had already spent on the Norfolk Broads with friends from my home village and the other was spoken for. I was thoroughly disheartened.
Later that morning Norman accosted me. “Well, John,” he began. How did he know who I was? I wondered. “How have you enjoyed the weekend?” I managed a reply and he went on, “Are you coming back next weekend?”
“I’d like to, but....,” I remember beginning then stopping.
He smiled. “Can you get to Brentwood? If so, you can come with me.” So it was arranged I would go straight from work to his house and he would bring me down with him. His last words were, “Don't be late, we want to get here for dinner.”
The next Friday therefore I caught the train to Liverpool Street and then Brentwood, and walked up the hill and down the other side to his house on London Road. When I got there he was in his study and Violet gave me a cup of tea and a sandwich, whilst telling me we would not be leaving for a while as he was busy. We didn't leave for hours, far too late to arrive in time for chapel never mind the evening meal. When we reached Bradwell he stopped outside the Cricketers.
“We’ll just nip in for a quick one, John,” he said, then smiled at me in a conspiratorial way. “Don’t tell anyone where we’ve been.”
When we walked in the landlady greeted him like an old friend. “Evening, Norman, red eye as usual?” Red eye was a favourite of his in those days, a whisky mixed with a red juice of some sort. That was my first real introduction to Norman. One day laying down the law about going to the pub and weekending, and then the next breaking those same rules himself.
Over the next few seasons I became a regular weekender and even managed a week each year as well. I joined the ‘Manor Park Crowd’ who also invaded the camp every Friday, and who I discovered had been the target of Norman’s remarks on my first visit. It did not stop them coming, or his welcome for them. Amongst this group were some who will be known to many members today. Brenda Brooks who later married Norman’s brother Reg; Gary Davies who was ordained some years later; Jill and Janet Willings; Johnson Dyer, Barbara’s son, who married Jill Willings; Sylvia Stoddart who I later married, and her friend Beryl Greystone, and many more. I was, in those days, the only weekender from Buckhurst Hill, Betty Garner never returned, and no others could be talked into it. Several years later of course a large group from there followed in my footsteps, at least two of them, Sally Martin and Janet Higginson, from my Sunday school class.
Gary Davies and I became good friends and used to argue all the time. He and his parents, who were caretakers of the mission in Ilford where I now helped run a youth club, were British Israelites and as such fundamentalist. Over time Gary changed and by the time he was ordained he was quite broad church in his beliefs. Shortly after his ordination, I met him at Bradwell and he told me how sad he was, because his parents could not accept this change in his beliefs and believed he had been taken over by the Devil.
During this time I usually spent a good deal of my time at the camp in the kitchen and for some reason was tolerated by all the cooks, getting to know Norrie Robson and Grace Taylor quite well. There were two others, found by Norman for one season each, who deserve a mention.
The first was known as ‘Sailor’. Norman told me had bumped into him one day in the West End. Sailor was on the run from Jack Spot’s gang. Spot was an early version of the Krays, and somehow Sailor had got into his bad books and was in fear of his life. He wanted somewhere to hide for a few weeks and Norman wanted a cook. Sailor had at one time worked in a ship’s galley and so Othona got its cook for the season.
The other was Ivan, a large heavily built Russian who spoke English with a strong accent. He had two lovely young children and a wife who lived in a cottage in Steeple, and who occasionally came to the camp. Despite the size of his hands, large and clumsy, he made tiny wooden clogs about half an inch long as brooches, which he painted in delicate patterns. He did not like people in his kitchen and used to frighten them off by wielding a large knife and shouting “Get out of my kitchen”. For some reason he took to me and I worked as his assistant when I was in camp. Like Sailor, he had some secret in his past that Norman used, to tempt him to the camp so that he could lay low but I never discovered what it was except that it was some sort of financial trouble. There were some money problems between him and the camp too, and he left at the end of the season under a cloud. The last view of him I had was standing at the side of the road in Steeple with his two children, after we dropped him from the landrover.
One other regular at the camp that deserves a mention is Lady, Norman’s large black Labrador, who had a penchant for eating stones and having to have an operation to remove them. Dogs of course were not allowed at the camp, but Lady was an exception, if the camp wanted Norman they also had to have Lady who obviously could not be left at home alone. In those days the afternoon lectures were held in a timber sectional building, the one that is still in the old field. It was painted black with a felt roof and on sunny days got incredibly stuffy, a condition that lulled many into a slumber, especially if the lectures were a bit dull. Norman used to keep an eye on the worst offenders and jerk them awake with some sarcastic comment, though I have known him to nod off himself on some occasions. One day the hut was filled with a loud snoring, and look as he might Norman could not see the culprit. Finally he discovered that it was Lady, which he thought a great joke. He was not so amused when, sometime later, she did the same thing during one of his sermons at Sunday Communion.
Water was always a problem in those days and had to be dragged from a tap near the chapel in a dustbin mounted on wheels. This, together with Robbie on his bike, had to be hauled along the sea wall and over the field at morning and evening chapel time. Before the service it was put under the tap and left to fill. If the service was too long it overflowed and if it was too short then several men had to hang about waiting. The ideal, which many tried to achieve, was when the time of devotion equalled the time of filling. The water was needed for drinking and washing up, with what was left being available to wash in. It was a Bishop who wrote on the wall “In this place you either stink or swim”.
Norman often invited me over to his house in Brentwood, usually on the Friday to go down to the camp with him, or on Sunday on the way home. One Sunday afternoon he was leaving the camp early and asked me to go with him and then go on to Navestock, where he was taking evensong. We arrived at Brentwood where he changed into a suit and set off in his large Rover. On the way we met a small car which because of the narrow lane we could not pass. Norman, who was late for the service, started to fume, waving the other car out of the way. The driver in desperation drove off the road on to the verge, which as it rose steeply to the hedge put his car at an alarming angle. As we went past Norman, dog collar and all, leaned out of his window and waved a fist at the hapless man, shouting “Grrrrr” at the top of his voice.
The evening service was harvest festival and Norman gave a sermon that I have never forgotten, and you can’t say that about many sermons. His text was “Unless a corn of wheat fall on to the ground and dies, it remaineth alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” The church was decorated for harvest and next to the pulpit was a large sheaf of wheat, and every time he repeated the text, which was often, he plucked an ear of corn and pulled a grain out and threw it to the floor. It taught me the value of visual aids which I never forgot and which came in useful when years later I became a lecturer.
On one other visit to his home, this time I think when he was living at Gidea Park, he took me up to his study and opened the door of a large cupboard. It was full of American whisky. He was apparently the middleman between the American and English Bishops. Each year the Americans would send a shipment of whisky to their English brethren and it was Norman's job to distribute it. There was always some over and this explained his ready supply of bourbon which he shared with me and with others in his room at the camp.
In 1958 Sylvia and I moved to Norfolk and for the next decade I became a normal summer visitor, when most years we came with our growing family for a week in the summer. One year stood out vividly as during our stay in an exceptionally wet period the field flooded. We had a very young child, Andrew I think it was, and the warden put us in his own room in a Nissan hut. Every morning we would get out of bed into a pool of water which was about 1½ʺ deep over the concrete floor of the hut. Later we moved from Norfolk to north Yorks and we visited the camp perhaps every other year.
Then in the summer of 1969 I had what was my worst holiday ever at Othona. The camp was in the process of moving from the old field to the new, with the huts up but some still to finish. The weather was poor and the numbers in camp low, as they had apparently been all that season. Norman was ill and unable to stay long at the camp, I saw him just twice during that week. There was a new warden, Rodney, and although he was very good at keeping the camp running could not, indeed did not want to, oversee the ‘spiritual’ side. During that week there was no speaker and things just drifted. On one of his visits Norman, in very low spirits, said to me, “John, it’s all gone to pieces, I can’t come down much now and perhaps will never be able to do so again. I think unless I can find someone to help run it, I’ll have to close it.” He paused here and I looked at him in dismay.
“No,” I replied. “There’s bound to be something you can do. Not close it.” I’ll never know if he was serious in this as he then said, “If only you were a bit nearer and could give some help” and without a thought I said, “If you’re serious, I’ll get a job down here and help all I can.”
Later I talked it over with Sylvia who agreed. Once back at work I hunted through the situations vacant in quantity surveying. In those days there were many and it was easier than now to change jobs. I wrote off for three straightaway and within days got the first reply. It was for a lecturer at the Mid-Essex Technical College in Chelmsford. It was ideal, close to Bradwell and with long summer holidays that I could spend at the camp. A few weeks later I stayed with Norman at Gidea Park and went for the interview. We were both disappointed when I came second, the job being offered to another candidate. I was told there was some problem over salary level and if he pulled out, they would contact me. A few weeks later they rang me and offered me the job. By February of 1970, I had moved to Chelmsford and was at the camp every summer after that until 1979.
There was a problem about my role. Rodney wanted me to become warden and work under me, but I didn't want that. There had been much criticism of him and he said he would be happier if he was responsible to someone. I did not want that as he was there all year which I was not, so we agreed that I would be his deputy but at the same time stand between him and the executive committee. Norman was even more unsure of what my position should be and his stance changed with his relationship to me. I varied from ‘Warden’ to ‘Deputy Warden’ to ‘Deputy Leader’. This can be observed by reading his letters of October 197O and October 1971 in his book ‘Letters to a Community’. His mood towards me was also clearly revealed by what he called me. If he was in a bad mood and I had displeased him I was ‘John Harvey’ though he knew me well enough. If things were a little better I was ‘John Hardy’, when we were on good terms I was simply ‘John’ and when he was in a really good mood I was ‘dear boy’. A lot of Norman’s bad temper during this time was due to his ill health and his subsequent inability to stay for long spells at the camp which was where his heart was. I knew this, for he often told me at the many sessions we had together in his room, usually drinking his American rye whisky. What worried me more was when he turned on others more vulnerable and who perhaps were not so aware of the real reason for his ill temper.
One Friday evening we saw the lights of his car enter the car park at the corner of the field, and two middle-aged women went across the field to meet him. Shortly afterwards they came into the dining hut, where Sally and I were, in floods of tears because of Norman’s rough reception. They couldn’t understand what they had done wrong. For several weeks after that I made a habit of watching out for his headlights and then going to meet him. After a week in the city, tired, ill and grumpy, I would walk him to his room whilst he poured out his ill-humour. Later after a rest and a period of silence, the storm would have blown itself out and he would smile at me, and pour us both a drink. Then I would leave him knowing it was safe for him to be in normal company.
When Norman managed to get a few days away from the city and stay for a longish period at the camp, he used to relax and was more like his old self. He also lost all sense of time. I remember one day when he asked me the date. When I had worked it out, he said that he was supposed to be in London conducting a funeral for an important city figure. In the event one of his curates at St Michael’s, Bishop George Appleton I think, stood in for him at the committal. Another funeral service that he missed because he was in the camp was that of Tom Driberg, but we both attended the actual burial in Bradwell graveyard. Amongst the friends and family who came down from the Westminster service were many senior Labour Party figures. Norman and I mingled amongst them and the villagers at the graveside, dressed in shorts and open necked shirts, which whilst it embarrassed me didn’t seem to trouble him at all. It was at this internment that Norman told me the story of how, after the cremation of a friend, he had taken the ashes as he had promised, to throw over a cliff into the sea. He finished the tale, “As I threw them out over the edge the wind got up and blew them back towards me.” With an evil glint in his eye he concluded, “So I swallowed my friend.”
During the early 70’s the community began to experiment with hosting groups. Norman thought that now we had better accommodation it was inherent on us to use it more, both as a witness and so that the facilities were not wasted. Many people have said to me, especially after Colin and Kate left, that Norman never wanted the camp to run all year round. I know that he did as he often discussed how this could be done during this time, and we flirted with the idea by having some groups out of season and by encouraging some like Paul Mears and Graham Smith to live at the camp over the winter, with Rodney at the cottage and me visiting once a week on my ‘day off’ from college. Part of this attempt was to bring in groups both out of and in season. The idea was that the groups could ‘do their own thing’ but also be integrated into the ways of the community. This brought certain tensions depending on the group and its aims.
One such was from an Anglican church led by their vicar who was also a monk. He always brought his group pre-season, usually at Whit, and he was quite content for the community to run the programme as usual. He had no trouble with the few members who were in camp. We always tried, even out of season, to tempt some of the regulars to come at the same time. Dave James and Al Fitzjohn were usually there and one or two others, together with Rodney, Anthea, Sal and myself.
A group we had more problems with was the Methodist youth club from Chelmsford who came for a weekend several years running. On their first visit they wanted to run their own programme and even brought their own cook. We always provided the cook, either Anthea or Sal, as this was one way we could begin to do as Norman wanted, give the group in his words ‘the Othona experience’. I as his stand-in was then supposed to run the weekend on the normal lines. Their first visit, as you will imagine, brought quite a lot of tensions as their leader tried to run his own thing and exclude Dave, Al and the others, and ignore our daily pattern. The dynamics were interesting and his group in the end rebelled and insisted on joining in our activities and not his. The following years were much easier but he was never fully reconciled to the community, although his youth club members were and insisted on coming back quite a few times.
Two German groups also came several times in these years, one led by Max Von Heil and the other by Gunter. It was with Max’s group that Martin Riemer first came to the camp. These groups were no problem as they both came with the intention of fitting in fully with the normal Othona programme. A third German group who came one year were much more of a problem. They were on a two week visit to England, the first of which they had spent in the homes of various families second came to Othona. They were not a church group and in fact had no religious connections at all. Their organiser, who did not come with them, simply thought they would benefit from the experience and sent them. He gave them no information about Othona at all and they did not even have suitable clothes. From their point of view it was most unfair and they were naturally upset and angry, and not inclined to fit in at all. There were about fifteen of them and as such had to join in as far as we were concerned. I had to sign a form at the end of the week to say I was satisfied with them and if I didn’t then they would not get the trip paid for by the German authorities. They didn’t want to join the morning work parties, go to chapel or lectures or anything, but I couldn't have a section of the community opting out and insisted they did. I sympathised with them and cursed their absent organiser, but had to hold the week together.
All went well, or reasonably so on the surface, until the Wednesday morning when I was woken up at about 7.30 am by a group of those staying at the camp. The Germans had apparently got up in the middle of the night, eaten quite a lot of food and were now refusing to join in with anything. I am not at my best in the early morning without a cup of tea, and went in a bad mood to talk to them. They were all crammed into one of the small square huts we had in those days. They gave me all their complaints which should really have been directed at their leader, and then said that as they were all communists they had had a vote and decided to opt out of all camp activities. I told them that in my opinion they were not communists but fascists (not a polite thing to call Germans), and that they would join in all camp activities or I would not sign their form. Their spokesman, a likeable young man, told me that what I was doing was not right, which was perfectly true. However, I had had no morning cup of tea and there was a mutinous community outraged at their behaviour outside the hut, so I simply said I didn't have to be right just resolved. In the end, they agreed to join in for the rest of their stay and the week continued in a fairly satisfactory way.
There were two other groups who were regular every year during this time and both favourites of Norman. The first, the CMP, were never any problem and both the leaders during my time, Colin Gough and Christine Clavering, became good friends to the community. The other was the 70 for the 70's. An Anglican priest from Chelmsford cathedral, Peter Elvie, devised the scheme that 70 young people would meet together in various ways over a year to develop a deeper understanding of each other and their faith. The crowning period was to be a week spent together in community with each other and he chose Othona to host the event. Peter was a past master in group encounters and a manipulator. At a meeting before the first group came to the camp, he told Norman, Sal, Rodney and myself that he wanted us to run a normal week with other members there. At the same time, as I found out much later, he had organised his own helpers, several vicars and curates, who had been leading the group the rest of the year, to run a special programme. He had deliberately set up a week that was bound to end in friction. When the group arrived, he was with them and over the first couple of days he and I, Norman not being at the camp unfortunately, chaired several meetings where his and the Othona staff clashed, trying to work out a common course of action. Then he ‘got called away’ and left the camp. The tensions between the youngsters and the 'Othonarites' built up until there was a tremendous row which brought a release of feelings. He had counted on this happening and reappeared on the last evening to orchestrate a final day of what I can only describe as animated joy.
He repeated this pattern, in different ways, every year. He would come for a few days and stir up tensions, then go off and leave his hapless assistants to try to cope, and then return at the end after the spark point had been reached. On one occasion whilst his group were near to hysterics in the relief after the crisis he had built up, I found him alone outside and challenged him about his tactics. Both Sal and I had done this several times over the years and he had always denied deliberately engineering these crises. That night, he seemed very down and admitted to what he had been doing but still defended his actions, which he claimed to be aimed at producing a spiritual state. We never agreed, but remained good friends even after the 70's stopped coming to Othona when he developed his own centre at Asheldam some miles away.
In 1975, Colin and Kate arrived at the camp and its nature changed again, this time with more attention being placed on ecology, food, lifestyle and the Christian relationship to them. With the healing of the rifts between the different Christian denominations well underway, more emphasis in the community became focussed on the differences between the world’s religions. With Colin and Kate came Adrian and a full time group at the camp, and I became a buffer between them and the executive and the new house committee. In many ways, I became more involved with the camp, and spent many more winter weekends there and most of my ‘days off’ from college. One myth I would like to dispel is that Norman was against the direction the camp was taking and opposed to Colin. Of course there were tensions, when wasn't there at Othona? But the idea was his in the first place and he supported it all the time. He set out some of his views in his letters in the newsletter and a
careful reading of those of October 75, March 76, and June 77 published in ‘Letters to a Community’ bring out his thinking on these issues.
I would like to finish on what I believe Norman’s feelings were on the purpose of the community and what over the years made it important to me. He believed the community should bear witness to Christ in the world and be a place where, to use his own words taken from St John ‘The spirit bloweth where it listeth’. At the same time it should be open to all, from whatever religious or political background, or none. He was himself to the left politically (see his letter of June 75) yet refused to impose his views on others and it was for this reason he lost the support of Oliver Wilkinson, who wanted the community to take an anti-nuclear stand alongside CND. He also believed fervently that the community be open to all classes in society and not just become the province of the middle classes. Because of this openness and because he saw the need for the community to touch all areas of life, he was adamant that all the factors of the day, work, worship, play and study, should be maintained at all times. And because he feared that this openness and the relaxed atmosphere could result in a breakdown of order, and the camp become a second grade holiday camp, a retreat for sloppy, messy layabouts, he insisted on a degree of authority and structure. He also had a horror of the camp becoming over-materialistic and concerned too much with physical comfort and buildings, he believed in ‘travelling light’ and thought that when the real questions became too hard, the church turned to maintaining its physical fabric rather than its spiritual one. Othona, in his view, must not follow this route. He also had a great sense of humour, which I hope I have brought out in some of the stories, and believed the Othona experience should be a happy one, which together with the rest would lead to wholeness and healing.
If the community today and in the future holds to these principles, it will be doing His will and open to His spirit as well as following in his (Norman’s) footsteps. If it does not, then its life will have come to an end.