Once upon a time, in the 1980s, I had quite an ordinary childhood in the east end of London, with two parents who liked each other and me, and a small sister who liked our parents but wasn’t that keen on me (to be fair, it was entirely mutual at that point).
My small-sister jealousy aside, I have good memories of that time. I had a shiny red and yellow tricycle and we went to the park a lot, where there was a very high slide. My dad played vinyl records loudly — the Beatles, the Doors, Simon and Garfunkel — and chocolate biscuits were in regular supply.
My mother’s parents lived within an easy walk of our home and we spent a lot of time at their house, where I’d scuttle with my cousins up and down their four flights of stairs while all the adults chatted and smoked in the garden (it was the 1980s, and cigarettes were everywhere). It was a very ordinary London life.
Everything changed when I was four. My parents began to argue more, for one thing. They did not seem entirely in accord with their ideals and ideas. For another thing, my mother suddenly acquired a batch of new friends, who seemed fun and interesting, but they brought with them a lot of strange foods (sauerkraut, anyone?) and a lot of strange words and habits.
When we visited my mother’s new friends I noticed that my father didn’t always come with us, and after a while, every visit to them was characterised at some point by a session of hymn-singing and prayer. I was not familiar with hymns, or indeed with prayers. I had not been exposed to religion before. I didn’t know what to think of it, except that I found it strange and unsettling and boring. It felt like a really pointless use of time, particularly when climbing frames and rope swings existed in the garden outside. I was baffled by all of it.
After a few of these visits to the new bunch of friends, it was decided. My tiny, fierce-looking Cockney mother explained to the rest of us that she was going to devote her life to the service of a new religion, one which was so freshly minted it didn’t even have a name yet. “The Message” was the vague title that everyone gave it in those days. (It’s called the Sabbath Rest Advent Church now. Google it. You probably won’t want to join).
The leader of The Message was based in Australia, but there were some German elements wafting around too, so it was all quite international. Many pamphlets appeared through our letterbox, from Australia and Germany and New Zealand.
My father did not approve of the concept and didn’t want to get involved. (I think honestly that he thought that it was a phase my mother was going through, like that time when she got really obsessed with lentils and then the pressure cooker blew up on a Thursday afternoon and coated the whole kitchen with lentils and they never got mentioned again).
It was not, as it turned out, a phase. This was now my mother’s actual life. She stopped smoking and credited God (via the Message) with her willpower. She stopped eating meat because God doesn’t like it. (Soon afterwards, we all stopped eating meat, because she did the cooking). She stopped drinking any alcohol because the Bible says no. She stopped swearing, even when I stood in dog mess for the hundredth time on Upton Lane.
Chocolate biscuits got binned permanently, like the Satanic poison we learned they were. My mother started singing all the time and summoning my tiny sister and me to regular prayer sessions.
Because the Message was so new, and there were only five other “believers” in the whole of the country, there was no church, no meetings. Just lots of phone calls and Bible reading and the introduction of many, many strict new rules in our lives. And every year, we had a long “conference”, where all the Message Believers gathered together for a fortnight to sing and pray and have lessons.
The people I met there were pretty much my only childhood friends. I am still in touch with some of them.
In the following September, I should have started school, but the Message didn’t really like the way mainstream schools tended to encourage broad analytical thought, so after a chat to the Message elders, my mother explained to my father that she thought she’d home school me. He didn’t protest, although she had no formal qualifications (yeah, cheers, Dad).
(Also, if we’re being totally honest she didn’t actually home school me much, she just kept me at home for more prayer. But I could read really well and people kept being impressed with my vocabulary, so it was all fine. After all, I was only four).
Life went on. Prayers happened with increasing and alarming regularity. Hymns became earworms, and my mum quietly disposed of most of my dad’s records, because they had sinful lyrics. The TV broke and was not replaced, because the World is sinful, and the TV is a window into the World.
That Christmas, my mother was visibly uncomfortable with the bin bag full of presents which arrived as usual from my grandparents. She tried to bin them, but I caught her, so we were allowed to open them after all. We did not have a Christmas dinner. I was too young to realise that this was a break from the way things had previously been and much too young to understand that we would never have a Christmas again, but that is how it panned out. I’d dressed the last Christmas tree of my childhood, and for some reason, coloured fairy lights would now always make me sad.
The next year, my great-grandmother died, and with his inheritance, my father decided to move us all out of London. He’s a hippy at heart, his job could be done anywhere, and he had dreams of self-sufficiency and creating Kew Gardens in miniature on his own land. The prospect of isolation, miles from civilisation, was music to my mother’s ears. It would be so easy to be godly when surrounded only by fields! No temptation exists in nature! Consider the lilies!
They were in rare harmony on this decision and with terrifying speed, my sister and I were whisked a 3-hour drive away from London and everything we’d always known. I was mollified NOT ONE IOTA by the fact that the new house was big. It had concrete floors, no central heating, and a driveway made up of bits of crushed chalk. It was a dump.
But it had acres of fields around it, and this made it a heaven for my parents. They wasted no time extending it and adding an Aga and then they had another baby, because why not? There was plenty of room. We got another sister. So then there were five of us, and apart from the postman, we could go for weeks at a time without seeing another human being.
You could not imagine a better location in which to lovingly but completely brainwash your three daughters into believing that the world would definitely end before they grew up and that — unlucky! — their dad wouldn’t be in the new world, because he continued stubbornly to refuse a Message membership.
It wasn’t a bad life, being ruled by a strict religious cult, whose laws were enforced by my mother. But one thing rankled for me.
I was obsessed — obsessed — with reading. It was a cruel irony, then, that one of the things The Message really didn’t like was for people to read for pleasure. If you were reading the Bible or one of The Message’s pamphlets or one of the books written by Ellen G. White then everything was fine.
Borderline books were things like atlases, photo journals about the natural world, and for some odd reason, any of Jane Goodall’s books about her life at Gombe with the chimps.
Nudging into the “probably offends God but we’ll think about that later because after all, animals are involved” box was Gerald Durrell’s accounts of life in Corfu and of his later life building a zoo. Those got banned in the end, but I managed to read them all first.
And then in the “satanic, definitely evil, at risk of having you banished or turning you into a murderer” section, there was absolutely everything else. Biographies of the non-godly; any and all fiction; story and picture books for children that didn’t deal exclusively in Bible parables or animals; everything else. I pined for it all.
Here are some other things The Message told my mum that God doesn’t like: cinnamon. Chilli. Paprika. Coffee. Tea. Chocolate. Sugar in any form. Alcohol. Meat. Fish. Eggs. Cream. Dairy products in general, in fact. Games, if not specifically non-competitive and very educational. Popular music, or indeed any music that was not Radio 3 or hymns. Entertainment of any kind. Toys that didn’t serve a clear educational purpose. Slip-on shoes. Anything that seemed “worldly”.
One by one, things would disappear from the house or the cupboard or the toybox, new rules would be introduced, and thus we’d be made aware of another restriction. We were expected to be grateful because God had made us aware of the new rules, and because we were busy obeying them now, so we’d be going to heaven. Lots of less lucky children wouldn’t even have the option, so we needed to count our blessings.
Blessing-counting was a big thing for The Message. (Blessings should be counted daily, if not hourly, and do NOT get me started on how much blessing-counting would accompany the appearance of a rainbow). I’ll be honest, though, I didn’t feel especially lucky. I tended to feel more like I had had quite a normal life in London which I’d enjoyed and now it was unrecognisable and had far fewer books in it. No day was ever any different from any other day.
Meanwhile, my father remained unmarked by the religious experience. I will never understand why he allowed my mother so free a rein on her bannings and banishments, but at least he made it clear he didn’t agree with them. “God hates alcohol,” we’d cheep, and he’d say “I’m fairly sure he doesn’t. Have you asked if he’s ever tried a cold lager on a hot day after doing an awful lot of lawn mowing?”.
“God is our doctor so we don’t need medicine,” we’d gravely inform him, and he’d say “Well, I’m not so sure. Let’s have a secret trip to the doctor’s and get all your inoculations anyway, just in case God’s a bit busy to make sure you don’t get measles. No need to tell your mum.” He was benign and gently mocking, but he didn’t contradict.
If my mother intercepted a parcel from a grandparent sending me, say, a copy of Little Women and put the sinful book straight in the bin, my father would not retrieve it — but he would never inform on me if he noticed that I had sneaked it into a wardrobe and was reading it by torchlight.
The years went on, and our lives grew further and further from the lives of other children our age, but because of all the banishments, we had very little contact with the outside world and thus no idea how “weird” we really were.
We sort of knew, but we couldn’t fully understand, that other children’s mothers didn’t buy bags of dried seaweed and make seaweed scones for breakfast, or that it was possible to own a My Little Pony that you hadn’t found marooned on some rocks in a local stream. (We adored that found My Little Pony, it was our favourite toy. It was so deliciously worldly, but no one could stop us having it because we’d found it in Nature. As I write this, I’m suddenly wondering if my father actually hid it for us).
Anyway, if we’d been under any illusions about the weirdness, they were about to be well and truly shattered. When I was twelve, I made my usual impassioned annual plea to be allowed to go to school, and for some reason, my mother listened. We went to look round schools (for these tours, I was, of course, wearing my usual brown Birkenstocks. It was the 1990s. Let us say no more about this) and I got special permission to leave school early on Fridays in winter, so I’d be home in time for the start of Sabbath.
Sabbath had been the last hurdle, so I was allowed to go to school. I was thrilled. I was so excited. Even when my mother tutted at the uniform list and sourced me some random rogue items because she disapproved of so much polyester, I was still delighted.
And then the momentous day finally rolled around and I loaded a silver Thermos full of lentil soup and a chunk of homemade oat bread into the multicoloured rucksack I’d been given when visiting The Message headquarters in Germany. (I’ll say it again. It was the 1990s. Pop-Tarts and Findus Crispy Pancakes were food goals. No one had heard of artisanal loaves). And thus equipped, I flagged down the school bus and headed off for my first day of formal education, out in the World.
It was, to use language I was familiar with, an immediate baptism of fire. My shoes were wrong. My clothes were wrong. My references were wrong and my accessories were wrong. I had no TV, so I couldn’t quote adverts. I wasn’t allowed fiction books, so I couldn’t share memories of Enid Blyton or Judy Blume.
I learned on that day in 1992 that I did not fit in and from that moment on, I have pretty much never fitted in. The thing is, though? I’m fine with it. I’ve never really wanted to. The upbringing I had has given me an awful lot of benefits, even though I feel like I’ll never catch up with the fiction books I missed out on.
So yes. I was raised under the strict rules of a religious cult, in the middle of nowhere, and it was a strange experience that changed me forever. But actually I’m genuinely not sure I’d change anything, even now. It made me unique.