Every witness was expected to go out on the preaching activity each week and so every Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon we were out in the street come rain, hail and shine. Naturally, living in the U.K. meant that shine was as rare as a Rabbi’s foreskin, but that was okay. We children loved the inclement weather because it gave us a genuine reason for wearing our hoods up, hiding our true identity from anyone who might have recognised us. As mentioned previously, Angus wore his up when it was sunny too, something which tended to scare the elderly and the occasional small child.
I hated the preaching work with a passion and just before going out into the street the emotions that flooded through me were akin to how someone must feel just before throwing themselves from a plane with their 'packed by someone else' parachute strapped optimistically to their back. You see, there’s a strange irony to the preaching work. Firstly, the witnesses know perfectly well that the public don’t like them, but that’s okay; they like us even less. Secondly, knocking on a stranger’s door to warn them of their imminent death is not the most fun part of life as a witness. Credit where it's due, they fake it well whilst out there, with their super-Christian smiles and happy-go-lucky (1) demeanour. Yet, despite appearances, they don’t preach for the love of it, nor for the love of you, even though that’s what they might tell you. They do it only because it’s the law. They believe that it’s a direct command from God and that if they don’t warn the nations of their imminent death, then they’ll be joining them in the final destruction at Armageddon. In all fairness, as a job, it’s a bit of a bummer, and the only real way of managing the stress is to develop good coping mechanisms. During the twenty years I spent preaching, I managed to come up with boatloads of them!
As said, at first I only ever went out preaching with my Dad. For me, the whole thing was truly horrible but, as he was the one who did all of the talking, I guess I just resigned myself to it. So it hit me as hard as an unexpected brogue to the testes (2), when he informed me, one day, that the time had come for me to take part in the preaching work. I was around seven years old and still in the ‘wrap me up in cotton wool’ stage of my development when he dropped that bombshell. Frankly I couldn’t believe it! I had never begun to imagine myself actually talking to people about this religion thing. I’d lived, I suppose, in the patently naive belief that I could have continued forever as the no-mark Christian I so enjoyed being, allowing my Dad to spread the Good News, whilst I supported him morally yet very much from the rear.
He was insistent, however, repeating with nauseating frequency, as he often did, that my passage to paradise depended upon selling the societies magazines. In truth, the only passage that worried me was my back one, which twitched every time I pictured having to talk to someone. It wasn’t that I had to do anything terribly difficult, of course. Young witnesses start their door-to-door training by simply distributing the society’s literature. Primarily, this consists of the infamous Watchtower and Awake magazines, which are released on a monthly basis, rather like versions of the Hello and Heat magazine but without any of the sex, stars, gossip, photos, entertainment or interest.
After much coercion on his part and an equal and opposite reluctance on mine, I finally agreed to give it a go. It really was less an agreement and more a capitulation on my part as I wasn’t sure what was actually worse, having to knock on a door, or having to listen to Dad wittering on about my doing it over and over again.
I can recall as though it was yesterday the moment in which I actually gave the door knocking its first go. The whole episode began with a number of false starts, due to the rigid criteria I’d set in place beforehand. I had told Dad that I wasn’t going to do the door if it was answered by a man, a woman, or a child. I was, I clarified, only going to do it if an elderly person answered. The aged, I felt, were too focussed on the next life to be particularly bothered about what was happening in this one. This somewhat limited range of acceptable householders dramatically cut down any chance of a smooth start to my preaching career and to give Dad his due, he managed to step in at the very last moment as each door was flung open to reveal someone of the incorrect gender or age.
After about twenty minutes without having spoken a word my good luck took a turn for the worst and it finally happened. I rang the bell whilst I clutched manically at my two magazines which were now completely wrinkled and damp from the sweat that had been oozing without pause from my shaking hands. The door opened slowly and from behind it appeared a small wrinkled old lady who looked like someone had shrunken her in the wash. She smiled at me pleasantly and then looked at Dad in the clear expectation that he was going to be the protagonist in all of this. But this, I knew, was to be my show and Dad took a couple of small steps backwards to emphasise that this time he was keeping well out of it. Taking a deep breath and then holding it, I launched headlong into the pre-prepared speech, my trill explosion of a voice puncturing a hole in the silence, “Good afternoon” I squeaked, “My friend and I…”
Before we go into what happened next, it might be useful for the benefit of you the reader, to describe a little of the training we witnesses received before being sent out on the work (3). We were taught from youngsters a standard introduction which was to be used when greeting the householder which, word for word went like this:
“Hello there, my friend and I are just doing a Christian work in the area…” (4)
This lead in was perfectly designed to, firstly, create a nice flow at the beginning of our presentation, explaining why we were there and secondly, to show the householder that, well, even though we were witnesses, we still had some friends. Occasionally, when deciding who was going to work with who, we’d find that there was an odd number of us, meaning that one person would have to go on their own. This was when the problems would start, for despite being alone, that standard introduction was so entrenched in our physique that we would inadvertently say, “Hello there, my friend and I”… there would then be an interesting pause whilst the householder, somewhat intrigued, would look from left to right wondering just where the devil this friend was. Realising their folly, the lone witness would have no alternative than to blindly continue with the presentation, unable to move from the rigid script that had been rehearsed a thousand times before. We became very well known for this and apparently people would see us coming up the street and say to each other, “Ah look, here comes ‘my friend and I’ ”.
1. Because ‘luck’ was associated with gambling, it was seen as the work of the Devil and so every witness had to drop from their vocabulary both the word ‘lucky’ and the word ‘fortunate’ This left quite a gap in their language and they found themselves obliged to find an expression that maintained the sense of the word lucky without any of the demonistic connotations. ‘Jammy’ seemed to be the favourite innocuous replacement and so these days it’s not uncommon to hear one witness remarking to another, “Brother Smith… you are one jammy little bastard!”
2. I’ve only once been accidentally caught by a rogue brogue in the testes and it was for me, a truly life altering experience.
3. The Freemasons give the name “work” to their secret rituals in which they regurgitate word for word what it says in the little book produced by their society. With startling similarity, the witnesses have their “work” too, which is made up of phrases regurgitated from their books. Unfortunately for us all, they are by no means secret about it. Many wish they were.
4. Every Thursday evening we had an hour’s training on how to preach correctly during what was called the Ministry School. This involved each of us taking turns to make a presentation to the whole congregation from the bible. We would then have our typically shoddy performance picked to bits in front of everyone by the Field Service Elder. Years later, following the same principle , the X Factor was invented.