Winter takes a long time to disperse from Derby. Perched below the southern end of a spine of hills that runs through the center of England up to the Pennines, the westerly pushing damp air from the Atlantic rises over the town, and transforms itself into interminable banks of heavy grey cloud. It's depressing. It can be like this for weeks on end. Even if it rains it doesn't clear the air. The dampness simply lingers.
At least there was some predicatability. The old adage said that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. By and large that seemed true - then - before the world's climate was jinxed by over-abundant carbon emissions and mankind's craven folly in ruining the rainforests which function both as a sink for carbon dioxide and a massive generator of oxygen for the world. So the March of 1958 would have been like many another. I cycled to Derby Central School for Boys, and if it rained I got wet. With the other damp kids we steam dried as the day passed. With luck it wasn't raining when we went home.
The school was set in the lovely grounds of Darley Park, the building itself being at one time the grand home of a local mill owner, but requisitioned during the War to be a school. Its spacious tiled hall with mahogany fireplace often sported a log fire during the colder days of winter. The wide, winding staircase would have been the scene of many a splendid ascent for the gentry in past generations. Now it was a gully for disgorging teenage boys from the classrooms upstairs. If no-one was looking you could slide the entire length of the bannister rails and shoot off the end with a flourish projecting yourself several feet further across the hallway. If other boys were on the bannisters, you could race down, three steps at one stride, with flawless accuracy so that you never fell. Time it badly and meet the headmaster in the hallway and you were an instant candidate for a swish of the cane, or an hour of after school detention. You had to play this game carefully.
March - and the daffodils grew thick by the pathway that led to the school, guarded by the stout old park keeper, Bill Bailey, whose steel spiked cane was as good for picking up litter as warning tempestuous students not to walk on the grass. But March 1958 became special for me when I learned from my friend Roger Finney that a 17-day Christian Challenge Crusade was being held in town in the Co-operative Hall - where we also held our annual school Speech Days.
Roger stunned me with his stories. For a boy whose only awarness of church was the sombre liturgy of the Church of England and a family full of aging clerics, the thought of hundreds of people joyfully singing, of huge choirs and soloists, of preaching that seemed to go on for ever and of people streaming forward to get converted was incomprehensible. He urged me to come. He was a Methodist, he told me; this was not like the Church of England at all. So we argued. Me, anti-God; him, pro.
I had already outgrown what religion I ever had when I was confirmed in the C of E at age 13. No Holy Spirit had zapped me as the bishop laid his hands on my head, I still could not remember the Ten Commandments, and the sins of the flesh - which included lasciviousness - were a mystery yet to be unfurled and enjoyed. In any event I was now well into science and knew enough of chemistry, physics and evolution to know that the world was very old and was certainly not created by God. To cap it all Boss Swain, our Head Master, had taught us how in ancient days men had sat on the edge of huge deserts - like the Arabian desert - and asked huge questions about cosmology. These men, these ancient philosophers, invented the idea of God. And no wonder. Gaze into the pure desert sky at night with a billion stars shining unfiltered by today's pollution and you've got to be impressed. That was the basis of my world view, and apart from the fact that I was an insecure, lost teenager with no idea as to who I was, what I would be like or even why I was here, that was a good grounding for life. So I thought. And with these arguements I sought to repel Roger's insistence that I come to his Crusade.
But I gave in and went. I sneaked out of the house and didn't tell my parents where I was going. How could I? I was the rampant atheist, the avowed iconoclast who had renounced his confirmation, thrown fire crackers into the parish church after choir practice and insulted the hapless Sunday School teacher whose name happened to be Mr. Fogg. Why, what else could a boy do, sent against his will to Sunday School, but cough demonstrably and request in a loud voice that the door be opened to let the fog out! And having not long previously set the tables on fire with distilled meths just to show that with the burning temparature of alcohol being so low this did not actually char the wood not hurt your hand, the teachers were quite glad to see the back of me. I was on a roll, but not with religion. So my exit from home to go to Roger's meetings had to be very hush-hush. This was embarassing, a contradiction of my declared position.
I went to the crusade not just once, but time and again. Something there niggled at me. I had never heard singing like this. Nor did I know at the time how easily influenced I am by music. So the rising choruses of Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine blew me away. Not that I could sing the words - of course not. I was only there to fight, to prove Roger wrong. The massed choir facing us from the stage seemed so young, and clean and other-worldly. People came up to give personal testimony of God's dealing with the. They were funny, vibrant and full of conviction that what they spoke they believed, and what they believed was true. And then we prayed. Perhaps we is the wrong personal pronoun. They prayed. Nobody was going to catch me praying. Talk about reversal: that would be the limit.
The preacher was the Rev. Stephen Olford, who went on to become the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, New York. No Anglican clergyman I had ever seen preached like this. There was none of the boring reading of a little irrelevant homily from the pages of a small black notebook. There was no hiding behing a clerical collar or pulpit. With suit and tie, Stephen Olford strode from side to side of the platform and seemed almost to reach out and grab us by the lapels to make sure his points made sense. And when he'd finished he invited people to come forward as an act of wtiness that they were ready to accept Jesus as their personal saviour and Lord. For absolute sure, this I would NEVER do!