A child in the 1950s

Memories filtered through an idiosyncrasy

These memories appeared in a booklet celebrating the centenary of Central Hall, home of Edinburgh Methodist Mission, in 2001.

So, Central Hall’s history now goes back a hundred years. And I am stunned to realise that I can remember half of it.

Then what was it like to attend Central Hall as a small child in the 1950s?

I have of course got many fond memories. I enjoyed Sunday school. It was large, consisting of 6 departments (Tiny Tots, Beginners, Primary, Junior, Senior, and Young People’s), and most of these departments were divided into several classes. Many of the teachers are still active members of Central Hall today: Kath Dyson, Ina Johnston, Mary MacDonald, Ella and Jean Penman, Bill Skinner, Robert Smith and Roy Stuart all spring to mind. From infancy I loved the music in church. I remember sunny Sunday‐school picnics and wet ones, Wolf Cubs (nowadays Cub Scouts), and lawn tennis on real grass courts in Succoth Avenue at 6d (2½p or about US4¢) for a whole glorious Saturday afternoon when I was barely big enough to hit the ball over the net. I remember carol singing round the doors at Christmas, with children like myself and teenagers like Ruth Warwick (Jackson) and Jennifer Reid (Quinn).

Yet, strangely, the most abiding memories for me are of the restrictions, the embarrassments, the misunderstandings, and the oddities.

Central Hall could be quite a forbidding place. Church was a place to be on one’s best behaviour, and very often being on one’s best behaviour meant, in practice, not daring to do anything at all. The Crush Hall really was a crush, and getting from A to B was fraught. “Don’t push through, wait for a space!” So you waited for a space and went through and then it was “Don’t walk in front of people!” or, “Don’t lean on the War Memorial!” And these corrections did not always come from one’s own parents or teachers.

The Methodist Church at that time was of course categorically against gambling, and ‘gambling’ was interpreted very widely. At one Sunday‐school party in the Lecture Hall, our hired professional entertainer had not anticipated joint winners for one game, and had only one indivisible prize. “Well,” he said, “Let’s toss for it.” Immediately a stony‐faced steward intervened and vetoed that form of ‘gambling’.

Many a time I embarrassed Mum and Dad, and consequently myself, with misunderstandings. In front of Dad, I told one of his work colleagues that “Daddy is taking me on Saturday to a Methodist Church raffle at Rosyth.” I had recently learned the two words “raffle” and “rally” and I got them mixed up. Mum felt mortified when I publicly confused Mrs Bone with Mrs Butcher, two very different ladies as I was later to discover, but perhaps I saw some facial resemblance, and certainly the confusion was exacerbated by the two surnames with their initial B and the obvious association of ideas. And then there was the time when, as a small child, on hearing a hymn announced in church, I exclaimed excitedly, “I know this one!” That was not tolerated, and I was roundly reminded afterwards to “keep quiet in church”.

triangle player counting sheep

I loved the Children’s Addresses. But how far removed they seem from today’s expression of the Christian ethic! So many of the stories did not encourage sociability, or helpfulness, or individuality, or warmth, or initiative, or even Christian love: instead they perpetuated the wartime ethic of reliability, and a quite unrealistic perfectionism. There was the one that likened the individual to a single tooth in a gear wheel: if he does not do his menial job reliably, the whole machine breaks down. Today the phrase cog in a machine evokes thoughts of soulless, mindless drudgery: yet then it was used as a positive metaphor. As for myself, I found the thought of one little mistake spoiling a whole enterprise quite inhibiting. Then there was The One‐Note Man, the story of a professional percussionist whose sole job at one concert was to touch the triangle once, but at just the right time and in just the right place and with just the right amount of tone. As for myself, I thought, What a waste of a clean white shirt, and Did he get paid the same as the rest of the orchestra? (Shades of Matthew 20:1–16) Then there was the one about setting a good example. A man had a precious vase but it had a hairline crack, and so he instructed a skilled craftsman to create an exact replica. If you’re too young to remember the outcome I think you can guess it: the craftsman created an identical vase with an identical crack. How could a small child dare to attempt anything when presented with such a dire warning of the perfection that was required of him?

Even the more enlightened Children’s Addresses left room for embarrassing misinterpretations. Sister Olive Garnett told a parable about racial harmony. If you are restricted to the white notes of a piano, she pointed out, you can’t play many tunes. And if you are restricted to the black notes, you can’t play many tunes. But what a great harmony there is when the white notes and the black notes play together! Up went a small hand. “Yes, Eric?” “Sister Olive, you can play far more tunes on the white notes than on the black notes.” It didn’t exactly support the point she was trying to make. She was my favourite deaconess.

So I learned to be quiet, and many more misunderstandings thankfully stayed inside my head. I thought all the ladies in the choir were nurses, because of the hats they wore. I thought the Sunday‐school teachers got paid. I thought the Lecture Hall floor deliberately had splinters in it to stop children playing games in their stocking soles.

Our minister was the Reverend Reginald J Barrow. Reverend was usually abbreviated to Rev, and Reginald was usually abbreviated to Reg. He was the only Rev I knew, and he was the only Reg I knew. And I knew that one of these words was his name and the other meant he was a minister. Which was which, I hadn’t a clue. But his manse garden parties were terrific.

Even God seemed rather forbidding, less of an Abba, Father and more of an Orwellian “Big Brother”. I found it quite oppressive, this notion that God was watching everything I did, all the time. What, even when I’m in the Gents’ Cloakroom? (as it was quaintly labelled). Well yes, these things were obviously very important to God. For didn’t we sing, “Holy Spirit, brighten/ Little deeds of toil”? And you can guess what a four‐year‐old thought that meant.

Having a father who was a steward, I invariably had to wait an hour or more after the service before it was time to go home. What was there for me to do, a small boy with a personality that (then as now) was more at ease with things than with people? I looked at everything on the walls, of course. I looked at the Cradle Roll, which had odd associations in my mind with rock and roll and The cradle will rock and Jesus tempted to turn a rock into a roll. I looked at the plaque in memory of our founder George Jackson: I didn’t know who he was, but I did wonder what terrible thing he must have done to deserve the letters B.A.,D.D. after his name.

I examined the myriad tiny cracks in the glazing of the white Shanks Trevor bathroom tiles and found that, if you looked at them very closely, they invariably met in T‐junctions at right angles. I discovered that all the names in the World War II Roll of Honour were in alphabetical order except the last one, and I looked at it and the name next to it, and I was amused that they were A Butter and JAM Scott, and that they were on a Roll. Now come on, you lot, the Roll is still there in the Crush Hall, by the door of the Lecture Hall, and I don’t believe that not a single one of you out there has ever noticed those two names! I examined Dad’s diary, which he used to lend me to keep me amused, and I discovered that in the little calendar for each month all the multiples of 5 formed a square lattice whose vertices were a knight’s move apart.

Yet throughout all of this, I understood that Central Hall was the House of God, and was a blessed place. Mum so often referred to it in front of Dad as “that blessed church”.

So, what has changed? Well, the church membership in 2001 is much smaller, and the Sunday school is very much smaller. While that is quite properly of great concern to us all, it may well be that it just reflects changing demography and lifestyles and that it was inevitable. But the biggest change, it seems to me, is that church is much more informal now. I don’t have the impression that today’s children feel oppressed as I did by restrictions and embarrassments. All‐age worship, for all its difficulties, has helped enormously. Ladies come without hats, and men without ties. Retired ladies rest their handbags on the War Memorial. And I fancy that if Alice or Jonathan or Letitia or Fiona were to exclaim “I know this hymn!” then it would not merely be tolerated: it would be positively welcomed as natural and appropriate participation in the worship of God. Now that is real progress.

Eric P Smith
19 March 2001