I am intermingling writing this article with packing my case for a trip to Poperinge. This must be almost my thirtieth trip to Belgium since my first in the late eighties and it’s all because of the strangely named charity that entered my life and stayed.
I was first aware of Toc H as a child when my friends and I played in a derelict Nissan hut in a field in Goffs Oak, Hertfordshire. When I asked my mum why there was a hut in the middle of a field she said it used to be the Toc H hut. I don’t recall enquiring as to what that meant but the peculiar name lodged itself somewhere in the recesses of my mind.
Fast forward some 20 years and I am working at Cuffley Youth & Community Centre helping my dear friend Richard run some of the youth clubs and other activities. A tall man approaches and talks to Richard about using the youth centre as the venue for some parties for various groups of young and disabled people. Soon afterwards groups of underprivileged children or people with learning disabilities started showing up in holidays or at weekends and were entertained by a very mixed bag of people who arrived with rucksacks, sleeping bags and weird senses of humour. As a shy and still somewhat naïve 25 year old, I tended to hide out in the youth club office and not got involved with these people. I mean, some of them were quite scary! One girl even had this hard-core Mohican – she scared the bejesus out of me. This was my introduction to the Toc H project scene and I didn’t really get involved at first.
Then the tall man – his name by the way is John Burgess and he will be familiar to many reading this blog – suggested to Richard that we take some of our young people out to Belgium in the summer. If I’m honest I probably wasn’t sure where Belgium was and I was not widely travelled in those days. It should probably be noted that I was developing a serious drink problem at the time and the thought of leaving the comfort of England and its pubs was quite frightening for me. However Richard could be very persuasive when he wanted and in the summer of 1989 or 1990, I can’t quite establish which, we took a group of young people (15-17) to some place with the English name of Talbot House in the town of Poperinge (formerly Poperinghe) in some place called Flanders in Belgium (I was already confused).
Now, some context! My sole interest in the Great War at this point was the poetry. I studied Owen and his ilk for O’ Level English and their graphic descriptions of the horrors of war fed my growing pacifism. I knew very little about the causes, progression, or outcomes of the war. I certainly knew nothing of the people who lived it. At Talbot House this would change; in the hop loft turned into a chapel, a Flemish man by the name of Jacques Ryckebosch told me stories of some the people who passed through Talbot House during the Great War. He opened my eyes and in the next few days I learned much about the beginnings of Toc H though it would take many years for me to learn how a soldier’s club inspired people with rucksacks, sleeping bags and a weird sense of humour to turn up time and time again to help others.
So, the youth club trips became a regular occurrence, and in time we took drama shows to Belgium (and the Netherlands). Groups from Poperinge came to visit us in Cuffley. We also started to meet others from Toc H in the UK such as the Hackney crew from Prideaux House or those looking after the campsite at Rickmansworth. The Youth club and Toc H became firmly interlinked.
Personally my loyalties still lay with the youth club but when my friend and mentor, Richard Gentle, died – way too young – in 2001, John Burgess reeled me in for Toc H. Soon I was getting involved with projects in the wider Toc H family as well as the projects at Cuffley.
I should also point out that in 1997 I found sobriety and in some sort of penance I was throwing myself into charity work. I was fortunate enough to be earning a good wage and so would think nothing of jumping into the car Saturday morning in Essex, driving to Bradford for a two hour Toc H meeting and driving home again the same day..
At Cuffley kept the long-running Jimmy Saville mini-handi dances (now rechristened Jimmy Saville Danceathons) alive. In 2003 I even managed to get Jimmy Saville to attend………well none of us are perfect are we? I found myself chairing Lea Valley branch; joining the South East Region Project Committee and working with HQ on some publicity and IT issues. I discovered great places such as Lindridge in Devon and went there with various groups. I made a great many friends through Toc H and in 2002 – on the Aga Khan Foundation’s Partnership Walk which Toc H were providing stewards for – I met my future partner, Hazel.
I continued to go to Poperinge regularly, again with different groups, and have many, many good friends in this lovely Flemish town. When we moved to Norfolk in 2005 I took over the Norfolk Activities Committee from the wonderful Alan Brook (Such impossible shoes to fill) and for eighteen months was even a paid Development Officer for Toc H.
I think it was safe to say I had immersed myself in Toc H. However it was not just a hands-on thing. I was also reading everything I could on the organisation and there is a lot of literature out there. It would be this literary absorption of everything Toc H that would lead to my first intellectual conflict about the movement. Toc H was clearly a Christian based organisation and I was a devout atheist. How could I rationalise my devotion to the cause? I clearly wasn’t the first person to have this issue as much was written about it in the seventies and eighties in particular. There were, for instance, different ways to interpret the Four Points if the Compass if necessary. The important point I was told is that Toc H is open to everyone and all are equal within it. Well, that’s not quite what history tells us and the reason I mention it is that in one of the future essays in this centenary series I hope to explore tolerance in Toc H…..or rather, occasional intolerance in Toc H. Amongst other things I will be looking at issues that drove George MacLeod from the movement and also Alan Paton’s concerns that Toc H didn’t take a strong enough stand against apartheid. I should stress that I am not knocking Toc H simply examining different facets of its existence.
And so what other essays will unfold over the next four years? I hope to include a look at the Foundation Women members of Toc H. Alison MacFie is well-known but what of the others in this small band of women? I also hope to write down a short history of the various Marks and other houses of the organisation including it’s many homes on Tower Hill. I started this research for a tour of the Hill when some of my Belgian friends came to London a few years ago. I’ll also be taking a look at the many ‘celebrity’ or well-known members of Toc H particularly in its early years. Authors in particular seemed to be attracted to the movement but it also attracted politicians and others. Henry Willink, a warden at one of the Marks and chairman of Toc H for many years is barely remembered as a politician yet as the Conservative Minister for Health during the wartime coalition government, his white paper on a health service actually laid the foundations for what Bevan would take forward after the war. I digress – get used to that if you plan to keep reading this blog.
The point I this: Toc H is an important part of my life and I am still passionate about it. I like to explore its history and when I can, take part in its present and its future although this is most often in Belgium these days. I am no longer a member of Toc H UK because I didn’t see eye to eye with my fellow trustees when I was on the board a few years back. However, I belong to Toc H Belgium and continue to visit Poperinge each year. However, Toc H is a family not a membership card and so many people in my life came to me through Toc H. I have just had a 20 minute phone call with Joan, a 95 year old lady who used to come on the Toc H LEAF holiday that I led in Norfolk; next week I will meet with two or three dozen old friends from the UK, Belgium, South Africa and Australia as we come together at the place where it all began. Oh, and remember the scary girl with the Mohican from back in the youth club days. Sally is one of my oldest friends in Toc H and will be with me in Poperinge as we celebrate this centenary.