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Personal Story: The man behind the concrete

Before my grandpa was my grandpa, he was a child, born – as my grandmother was some years after him, and later their child, my mother – into the Exclusive Brethren, a Christian sect, in 1921.

The day after my grandpa died, I googled him. Ours was not a close relationship, and most of what we knew of each other was relayed to us by family members. Once the jitters of shock had faded I found an emptiness where grief was supposed to be, and so I went searching for pieces of him. His Wikipedia page (an unusual thing among grandparents) gave away little. He was an architect – this much I knew; many of my family are – and he designed brutalist buildings in the Sixties and Seventies that people tend not to speak of kindly. There was nothing of the man behind the concrete.

The lives of grandparents and parents before we interrupted them are endlessly captivating: where they danced, what they dreamed, who they loved. We cannot imagine their existence before us, but it is thrilling to try. Then, when they are gone, there is a sadness in the things you never asked, the minutiae lost. For me, the urge is deeper and more complicated.

My memories of Grandpa are primarily of his old age. I picture him sunk into an armchair by the fire, wearing the fleece and hat he rarely took off, slipping in and out of sleep. He was gentle and softly spoken, with an extraordinarily full head of hair right to the end, and those obligatory old-person twinkly eyes that suggested he’d have had great potential for mischief if only his body hadn’t been quite so tired.

When I think back to childhood days spent with him, I recall not him exactly but his home, Sark. The Channel Island, just three miles long, seemed like a Legoland model village to me: one school, one Post Office, no cars. I remember pressing flowers plucked from the hedgerows, and sitting in a trailer being towed by tractor up the Harbour Hill. It was there that I first read Enid Blyton and, captured by it, played Famous Five with my cousins in the caves on La Grande Greve.

Grandpa wrote me a letter when my parents divorced in 2007. It’s the only thing I have that is ours, that suggests we shared intimacy and knowledge. “I think today is the beginning of summer,” he began. He had been up that morning, walking, in time to see the “red, hot, huge” sunrise, while a butter-moon set in the pine trees to the west. “And the birds were singing their different, clever little peaceful morning songs, which all made me know the closeness and reality of God Himself.” Reading it now, it’s a funny, romantic thing to write to a teenager.

But this man, with his quiet spirit and kind pen, is only a piece of the story. Before my grandpa was my grandpa, he was a child, born – as my grandmother was some years after him, and later their child, my mother – into the Exclusive Brethren in 1921.

A Christian sect that takes an uncompromising stance of separation, members isolate themselves from non-Brethren people – “worldlies” – and all that they consider to be evil: no radio, TV, films or novels. It began in the late 1820s in Dublin, when a group of young men, horrified by the decadence they saw in the Church and convinced that the world was nearing its end, decided to return to the principles of the gatherings described in Acts – no priests, no rituals, no hierarchy; the Bible alone would be their guide. Together they started the movement now known as the Plymouth Brethren. By the end of that century, there were assemblies across Europe, Australia and the US.

In 1848, John Nelson Darby, a former barrister and curate, discovered that the Brethren had reintroduced priests and split from them to form the Exclusive Brethren – the first of many schisms. Darby believed that members had to separate themselves completely from the world in order to be saved. “Now God is leading some, a very few, to see that all this business, politics, education, governments, science, inventions, railroads, telegraphs, social arrangements, charitable institutions… are of the world-system,” he wrote. “Will it surprise anyone to hear that Satan is the god of this world?”

Things became increasingly esoteric and bizarre from 1959, when James Taylor Jnr took over. He ruled that members couldn’t eat with or live with non-Brethren, dividing families and ending “mixed” marriages. Then Taylor banned membership of professional associations, effectively preventing members from being pharmacists, bankers, engineers – and architects. Next he came for universities. And pets. The Brethren were to attend daily meetings. Female members weren’t allowed to cut their hair.

None of which much suited my grandpa, who had started his own architecture practice at the age of 26; in 1960 he was expelled for eating with “worldlies”. Those who left the Exclusive Brethren were “withdrawn from” – members were not allowed to see or speak with them; family was important, yes, but willingness to sever all ties if necessary was a measure of faith. My grandmother chose to go with her husband, leaving behind her entire family, including her five siblings, and everything she’d ever known. My mother, just one, was too young to remember any of it. But she does remember the aftermath: she met her mother’s parents, who remained in the Brethren, just once, briefly, when she was 11.

Three years later, without warning, my grandpa left my grandmother for another woman – his wife until his death – taking my mother, then four, with him. “I think I was very traumatised,” she told me once, of this time. “I remember looking out of the window and seeing my dad and his wife having dinner on the terrace – I suppose it’s a memory of the separateness that I felt, that they were together and I was on my own. I was quite scared. I felt adrift, at sea.” My grandmother, left without family, friends, money, a home, a job, wouldn’t see her child again for nearly two years, when she won custody in a court appeal.

I have gleaned all this in fragments from my mother and grandmother, who talk of my grandpa tenderly but who surely can’t help but wish that life had been kinder, simpler. The only evidence, the women he left behind. I never heard him speak a word of it. And so now he will always be this: two people that are somehow one, and a stranger to me because of it. I will never be able to put any of this to him; that is my failure – and, perhaps, his. 

Pippa Bailey is the New Statesmans deputy head of production. 

This article appears in the 06 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong