Since my previous post we have been completing, bit by bit, our very protracted re-location from Cardiff to Leominster in Herefordshire so that is my excuse for not having been around as much as I would wish. Last week we finally shut the door on the vicarage, handed over the keys and drove away. Exodus. Return from exile. But with a little bit of the valleys in my psyche.
I wrote last time about a visit to Chomondeley Castle and my very first acquaintance with that place as a child. And I hinted at another thread to that story. I'll pick up a short length of that thread now – because it led eventually to the inspiration for my novel, Leaving Gilead.
Soon after our first visit to Cholmondeley, Mother began to develop her involvement with a religious movement she had encountered some years earlier. The Jehovah's Witnesses. Inevitably my sister and I were also drawn in. I have written elsewhere about my time as a JW so I'll not repeat it here, except to say that it very nearly disrupted my visits to Cholmondeley. I remember a time soon after our first school holiday there – it was coming up to the long summer holidays and we had earlier expected to spend a lot of time back at the Castle. Growing commitment to the JW cause, however, led to other plans. Like spending lots of time during the hols knocking on doors hawking the Watchtower and Awake magazines. We wrote to my cousin to say that we would not be able to visit so much as we had planned because we would be busy with other work. Hard to believe it now, that a ten-year-old kid would make that sort of choice.
I'll jump forward a couple of years now. What the JWs could not stifle in me was my love of bikes. My Dad had been a racing cyclist and I wanted to do the same. My first lightweight bike was an Italian job, a Doniselli. Just like this one, except that I had a rather nice Jean Aerts handlebar bend which had belonged to my Dad before the war. That bike gave me freedom which I would not otherwise have had. Freedom to explore the lanes and by-ways of Cheshire; freedom to visit Cholmondeley on a whim; and freedom, in due course, to begin building a new life after I became disillusioned with Jehovah's Witnesses.
It's hardly surprising that the bike, Cheshire, a stately home and, of course, authoritarian religion all figure prominently in my writing. They are there in Leaving Gilead. Cheshire is the setting for Whitaker's Basin, my current project. This time there is no extreme fundamentalist religion in view – but could it be that the liberal end of the spectrum throws up some of the same problems? Freddie Whitaker discovers that it can indeed do just that.