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Memoirs of a backslider

C.R. Hopkins

Copyright © 2017 by C.R. Hopkins

C.R. Hopkins has asserted his right under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

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ISBN: 978-1-86151-708-1

In gratitude to Fred, Marjorie, Alan and Bill

But once in a while the odd thing happens

Once in a while the dream comes true

And the whole pattern of life is altered

Once in a while the moon turns blue.’

W.H. Auden



Chapter 1 Oh My Godfathers

Chapter 2 Barnet Fair

Chapter 3 Time for Bedfordshire

Chapter 4 Sprouts

Chapter 5 Let Us With a Gladsome Mind

Chapter 6 Out of Darkness Cometh Light

Chapter 7 Fishers of Men

Chapter 8 Rocket Man

Chapter 9 Will You Go With Me?

Chapter 10 Pass the Cruet

Chapter 11 Never on a Sunday

Chapter 12 American Pie

Chapter 13 The Torchbearers

Chapter 14 Sid

Chapter 15 Spick and Span

Chapter 16 I’m Glad I’m Saved

Chapter 17 Who D’ye Think Ye Are?

Chapter 18 Cambridge Mists

Chapter 19 Match Point

Chapter 20 Thon Must Go

Chapter 21 First Love

Chapter 22 Clocking On

Chapter 23 Out of the Sighs

Chapter 24 A Pint of Water Per Day Per Man

Chapter 25 Bara Brith on Beryl Ware

Chapter 26 Pearls Before Swine

Thirty-Five Years Later

Chapter 27 Promotion to Glory

A Letter From My Father

Afterword – Orchids and Limericks

About the Author


I wrote ‘Marching Orders’ while living in New Delhi. My wife had a job there and I moved out with her from London, having retired. I travelled back in time and found a treasure trove of memories while I experienced the magic of India – with its vivid colours, warm people, honking car horns and cries of the peacocks. I reflected on life growing up in the Salvation Army for my children and grandchildren. I wanted to try and capture a lost world and for them to know that my father was a remarkable man.

Some of the stories seemed to write themselves. It is all broadly true but I changed a few names and details to avoid any embarrassment. I have quoted from Salvation Army Regulations 1936 which are now strikingly out of date. But these were the rules that guided my parents and I mean no disrespect to the Salvation Army who do great work.

I am more grateful than I can say to Jon, June, Sam, Roz and Yasmine. I would never have completed it without their help and encouragement. Many thanks also to close friends who read the draft. And to those with whom I have lost touch: thank you for the memories.

November 2016

Chapter 1

Oh My Godfathers

November 1951

‘Is this all right, Dad?’

My brother Alan had put the rocket in the empty milk bottle on the garden lawn. After he struck the match and lit the blue fuse, the bottle started to wobble.

‘Watch out, dash it!’

Salvation Army Officers are forbidden to swear, but they have to have some outlet. Saying ‘dash it’ was my father’s way. I had no idea what it meant, except that he was cross. The milk bottle toppled gently over, in what seemed like slow motion. The rocket fizzed and soared like an arrow through the open back door of our house into the living room, where my mother and I were watching. Thrillingly, it streaked furiously round and round the walls at about the height of the picture rail, emitting a deafening screech in its fiery orbit.

‘Oh my Godfathers!’ screamed my mother. Salvation Army Officers must not blaspheme either, so my mother always added the word ‘fathers’ after ‘God’ to assuage her own potential sin. She screamed hysterically, flapping her skirt. The rocket at last fizzled out and expired, burrowing into an armchair before exploding loudly with a fearsome bang. A plume of acrid smoke rose from the black hole in the chair.

‘Oh my Godfathers, Fred, come quick!’ said my mother, petrified. My father arrived and surveyed the scene, comforting my mother. He carried the remains of the burnt armchair into the garden and after a short interval the programme for the evening was resumed. My father knew how exciting the prospect of Bonfire Night was for us kids and we were not to be denied.

It was the custom then for families to celebrate the fifth of November by holding bonfire parties in their back gardens, rather than attending public displays. As the date approached, my mother and I would go once a week to the local toy shop and buy two or three fireworks of my choice. I stored this collection of mildly lethal explosives in a cupboard in my bedroom – rockets, sparklers, roman candles, catherine wheels and jumping jacks. Every day, I would take all of these precious purchases out of the cupboard and arrange them on the carpet in serried rows.

On the eve of the great night, my father, Alan and I stepped out into our frosty garden under the early evening stars and built the bonfire from the materials gathered over the previous weeks. The final act in this was to perch our model of Guy Fawkes on the top in an old armchair. He was wearing a check shirt of my father’s and a pair of my brother’s trousers, each stuffed with newspapers. His head was made of egg boxes and, somewhat incongruously given his pending fate, he wore a Groucho Marx party mask of glasses, nose and moustache, capped by my uncle’s old battered trilby hat.

My father lit the bonfire, which soon blazed splendidly. I started the show running round the garden with a sparkler in each hand. We worked our way through the fireworks, one by one, with my brother positioning each firework and my father lighting it ceremoniously. Alan nailed the catherine wheels into a post erected for this purpose. When it was time for the climax of the show – the exploding big rocket – the honour of lighting it was granted to Alan. I had been sent indoors with my mother, unaware that by this means I would in fact be in the very room where the unforgettable real drama of the evening was to take place.

When my mother had recovered, she brought out into the garden a tray of restorative baked potatoes wrapped in silver foil. We sat by the bonfire on the garden chairs and ate the potatoes in their jackets with salt, pepper and butter, an annual treat as the flames roared. These were followed by a piece each of homemade toffee, known fondly as ‘stick-jaw’, and mugs of hot tea.

Nothing beat the finale of the fifth of November in nineteen fifty-one in the back garden of our house in Overstone Road, Harpenden, the quiet suburb where we lived. No jacket potato tasted sweeter. The evening was the perfect end to the longing of previous weeks. And my brother became my hero.

Chapter 2

Barnet Fair

January 1952

‘Do you want to go outside?’ my mother asked my brother Alan.

Alan was six years older than me, a big gap when I was young. He had large dark brown eyes and a shock of thick black hair. He was a handsome boy with a long nose, like his paternal grandfather. Alan had a rebellious nature, always against compliance on principle and fighting with my parents, provoking them with acts of defiance. He once farted loudly in the house at the top of the stairs and then kept it going all the way, heroically, as he ran down the stairs.

My mother put the question with a frown. ‘Going outside’ was a reference to the outside lavatory. She often asked the more sinister question ‘do you want to go real?’ as though there was some artifice involved in just wanting a pee. ‘Going real’ sounded darker to me than going for a shit, which was what it meant. At night, I took a torch down the garden and there was the danger of spiders. Torn pages of newspapers served as lavatory paper and reading material, although lingering for a moment longer than necessary was unthinkable.

My father, Fred Hopkins, was born in the East End in nineteen thirteen, the year before the outbreak of World War One. ‘I was born within the sound of Bow Bells,’ he would say, with a grin. ‘I’m a Cockney and prahd of it, mate.’

He would use Cockney rhyming slang sometimes – ‘Rosy Lee’ (tea), ‘trouble and strife’ (wife), ‘plates of meat’ (feet) ‘and ‘barnet’ (Barnet Fair, hair) were among his favourites. However he disapproved of Alan’s later use of ‘bristols’ for breasts, which emanated from Bristol City (titty), and other more earthy examples.

My father’s parents had moved to Tooting in South West London when he was a baby. By the time he was sixteen he was over six feet tall and thin and lanky. ‘My legs were so thin I had no visible means of support,’ he would say.

An embryonic paunch emerged in his thirties, the existence of which he always denied, even as he struggled to do up his trousers. He had blue -green eyes, and a rounded nose, which became reddish later in his life. The Salvation Army was strictly teetotal and did not allow smoking or gambling. My father had no sense of smell and liked strong -tasting food like Gorgonzola cheese or Bovril. He was bald, having lost his ‘barnet’ in his twenties. He had a big jolly smile and his eyes twinkled as he made the puns and corny jokes that he repeated all of his life with undimmed enjoyment.

My mother, Marjorie Gogarty, was born in nineteen fifteen at home during an air raid, when a Zeppelin dropped a bomb which badly damaged the family home. Fire and ambulance services came to the rescue and nobody was injured. My mother was tall too, about five feet ten inches and pencil slim in her youth. She had a good complexion, with cheeks that reminded me of peaches. She was striking in her Salvation Army bonnet, with her dark brown eyes and hair. In her thirties she would try new diets to lose weight. She once kept to one strictly for a month and triumphantly lost a stone.

‘Then I was given a big box of chocolates by someone and I thought “I’ll just have the one”. I ended up eatin’ the whole box in one go – both layers,’ she said, ‘even the ones I didn’t like,’ shrieking with laughter. There was an intensity about her and a ready and infectious laugh when amused.

It was when we lived at Harpenden that Alan first had problems at school. Though quick-witted in a streetwise way, he did not take well to academic lessons. Frequent changes in schools added to the difficulties for him. It is hard to turn up as a new boy with a different accent from some other part of the country. Teachers were ignorant about learning difficulties and put them down to laziness, something to be beaten out of children. All children took the Eleven Plus exam to decide whether they went to a grammar or secondary modern school.

My parents were summoned to the school to discuss Alan’s prospects. ‘The headmaster said there was no point in puttin’ Alan up for the Eleven Plus,’ my mother said. ‘Said he was hopeless. He didn’t even know his address.’

We moved house so often that that was not surprising. But my parents seemed a bit ashamed of Alan’s learning difficulties. They referred to him, in hushed tones, as ‘backward,’ as though he had some disease. They decided that he needed stability in education and so the news was broken to me, while we were living at Harpenden, that he was going away to a boarding school in a village called Badby in Daventry, in the county of Northamptonshire.

Shortly after Alan started at Badby, my parents and I visited him. We did not have a car – my parents never owned one – but travelled with a Salvation Army Soldier who offered a lift on his ancient Norton motor bike and sidecar. My father sat behind the driver on the pillion and my mother and I squeezed into the sidecar. It had no roof and my mother’s headscarf flapped wildly in the wind. The sidecar seemed to be made of balsa wood. The journey was gripping because we were so close to the ground. It felt like we were rocketing along, although I doubt if we exceeded forty miles per hour. My mother was frightened stiff and clung to me with her eyes shut tight as we weaved through the traffic.

The boarding school was annexed to a vicarage and housed a small group of boys with learning problems. They all slept together in a dormitory, which we went to visit. It was dark and forbidding, like a prison. The school was run by a religious zealot who thought the answer to learning difficulties was to thrash boys severely for trivial offences and then make them recite prayers of repentance. The stories Alan told me were frightening, but somehow he survived and the few boys there stuck together in this house of horrors. At least there was stability and no exams, with all of the boys having been written off. Alan was at Badby from age eleven until fifteen. I missed him and longed for him to come home.

I learned later that my mother had tried to persuade my father to leave the Salvation Army when we were at Harpenden, to give Alan and me a more stable education. She wanted him to train as a probation officer. This might have suited him and would have paid him better too. In most things he would give in to her, but he would not budge as far as the Salvation Army was concerned.

‘Marjorie, I was called to do this work by God,’ he said. ‘I can never give it up.’

My mother and I listened to a daily BBC radio programme called ‘Listen with Mother’. This consisted of nursery rhymes and a story. It started with the lines: ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.’ The stories were unmissable – I could not wait for them – but the nursery rhymes were sung by tenors or baritones or sopranos and seemed ridiculous. ‘Ride a cock horse’ sung by an opera singer was alien to me, as it must have been to any working-class child.

My mother played the role of a traditional housewife, making pies, cakes and puddings. I would help her in the hope of being allowed to lick the bowl afterwards. She would do all of the domestic duties herself while also playing her part as an Officer. Gifted as a musician, she was able to play the piano and the accordion without any sheet music. She also had a fine singing voice. These were helpful attributes in running a Salvation Army Corps, as the meetings depended on music. The Salvation Army was specific that a wife should be younger than her husband so as to have the requisite energies to play the role:

A man Officer should choose a partner younger than himself since great demands are placed upon the physical powers of both men and women Officers. A woman usually ages more quickly than a man. Engagements will not be permitted when the woman is more than five years older or more than fifteen years younger than the man.’

(Regulations for Salvation Army Officers, 1936)

My mother and I were in the kitchen on the sixth of February nineteen fifty-two when the BBC Home Service announcer said, gravely, that King George the Sixth had died, at the age of fifty-six. ‘The King is dead. Long live the Queen.’

‘Oh my Godfathers,’ said my mother. ‘Elizabeth can’t be more than twenty-five.’

My mother spoke warmly about how the Royal Family had behaved throughout the war, visiting families in the Blitz. She revered Churchill and his bulldog spirit.

‘We put up with a lot from that Adolf Hitler. But Winston said, “if you touch Poland then that’s it”. If it wasn’t for good old Winston and his blood, sweat and tears, you’d be speakin’ German now.’

‘Why did everybody say “Hi Hitler” as though he was a nice man?’ I asked.

‘It’s Heil Hitler, not Hi,’ said my father, ‘and it means ‘Hail, my leader’ in German.’

Sometimes, after a meal, my father would get a red leather box out of the sideboard. The box was packed tightly with miniature paper scrolls, each standing vertically. In turn, we each picked one out and unfurled it. It would have a biblical text written on it, to be read out loud:

‘So now faith, hope, and love abide; but the greatest of these is love,’ my father boomed.

‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from unrighteousness,’ said my mother with a tremor in her voice.

My parents seemed moved when they read them and my mother would sigh, misty- eyed. After each reading, the scroll would be carefully re-furled and put back in the box. They were beautifully crafted, so I felt momentarily excited when the time came for this ritual – but I was always disappointed, because the texts meant nothing to me. When it was my turn to take one, my father read it out loud: ‘Thou shalt worship no other God: for the Lord is a jealous God.’

‘What’s a whirr ship?’ I asked, puzzled.

‘It’s not a ship, Clive,’ said my mother. ‘Worship means praisin’. God likes to be praised and you mustn’t praise any other gods.’

‘But are there any other gods?’

‘No but there is the Devil and he wants to be God. And take your elbows off the table.’ References to table manners or other shortcomings were often used to end uncomfortable discussions.

At breakfast, there were letters to be opened, the postman arriving early in the morning. One day in March nineteen fifty-two, my mother told me that we had received our ‘Marchin’ Orders’. These were in the form of a letter received from Divisional Headquarters instructing my parents as to when and where they would next be stationed. My mother showed me the Orders in the letter instructing us to move in May to a place called Stotfold in Bedfordshire.

Chapter 3

Time for Bedfordshire

May 1952

‘Welcome to the Stotfold Army, Captain. God bless you. There’s a nice hot tea waiting for you.’ said the portly Sergeant Major with a broad smile. His buttons threatened to pop off his tunic as it strove to constrain his gargantuan stomach.

My father sometimes said ‘time for Bedfordshire’ when it was bedtime, so I was surprised to learn that Bedfordshire was a real place. A collection of soldiers in Salvation Army uniform with brass band instruments were waiting outside our new home in Stotfold. They played a melody to welcome us and we waited until they had finished before going into our house. The tradition was to move on a Thursday. High tea would be waiting and then we would go to the welcome meeting that evening. My father led the meeting with an address and there was music played by the band. A women’s choir, known as the Songster Brigade, sang some hymns. My father was in his element at these events, larger than life, full of jokes and relaxed.

Stotfold is, or was, a village near Luton. We lived in a pebble-dashed semi-detached house in Regent Street, not far from the village green. When we moved there, there were a few months to go before I would start school in September at the age of five. There was a long summer before then. I counted the days until Alan would come home from school.

Next door to us lived a farmworker and his family. He kept chickens and I heard the cock crow every morning. It was my job occasionally to go into the chicken coop and find some brown eggs in the hay to put in a basket. The eggs felt like magical discoveries and they were delicious for breakfast with toasted soldier boys. The farmworker happily shared them and was famously said to have six fried eggs for his own breakfast, every day.

One day Alan and I got a ride in his cart to the farm where he worked, with us sitting either side of him. He flicked the carthorse’s hindquarters with a whip and we set off. As the horse trotted along, it farted for what seemed like five minutes, without losing pace, outdoing even Alan’s effort coming down the stairs. I was impressed. The farmworker turned to Alan and said with a straight face, ‘Was that you, Alan? You should say pardon.’ We all laughed.

His two teenage sons also worked at the farm and they would swap comics with Alan. He got the Dandy on Tuesday and they got the Beano on Thursday. I could not wait to learn about the latest adventures of the Bash Street Kids, Roger the Dodger and Desperate Dan, the surreally strong cowboy. He shaved with a blow-lamp, had a pillow stuffed with rubble and tucked into his favourite meal of cow pie, with a pair of horns sticking out of the crust, from which he got all his strength.

The Salvation Army Hall was within walking distance on the other side of the village green. The Corps there was thriving. When the collecting bowl came round during the meeting, people had their cash ready in little sealed envelopes. The process of making these weekly donations was called ‘firing cartridges,’ the money collected being considered as ammunition in the War against the Devil.

Another military metaphor in use was ‘fixing bayonets’. This meant raising the right arm to signify agreement to a proposal made in the meeting, such as a new Soldier being sworn in. I learned later that this was dropped because of a perceived similarity to the Nazi salute.

The brass band played on Sundays in the village in meetings called ‘Open Airs’. A large crowd would assemble. After they had played, the band marched to the Hall for the meeting there. The drummer would set the pace, banging on his drum. My father marched at the front shouting ‘left (pause), left (pause), left, right, left’. Sometimes the band would play as they marched. My heart swelled with pride on seeing my father lead the band. It made him seem so important. I had a small drum in my bedroom and used to bonk out the beat, imagining that I was leading the band myself.

There were a number of churches in the district and my father arranged a sports day in which all would compete. He also organised a cricket match between the Salvation Army and the local Methodist church. The rivalry for this proved as intense as between England and Australia. My father was an artful spin bowler and I saw him complete a hat- trick as the Salvation Army won a fiercely competitive match against their deadly Methodist enemies. ‘Howzat!’ he shouted, dancing a little jig after splaying the stumps with his third delivery.

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