1957 proved a truly life-changing year

1957 - 50 years ago, when I was 17 and worked as office boy in the Norwich bus garage - was one of the happiest years of my life. St Peter's Methodist circuit had given me 'a note to preach', and authorised me to accompany a senior local preacher and thus acquire instruction and experience.

1957 - 50 years ago, when I was 17 and worked as office boy in the Norwich bus garage - was one of the happiest years of my life.

St Peter's Methodist circuit had given me 'a note to preach', and authorised me to accompany a senior local preacher and thus acquire instruction and experience.

I was assigned to David Allison, a working man in charge of roof-maintenance at Lawrence and Scott's. He had been brought up in the Primitive Methodist tradition, and came from Hindringham.

The Church doesn't always get things right - but this was an inspired pairing. Not that our outlooks were identical. Dave couldn't understand why the Cathedral attracted me so deeply, while I felt he showed a regrettable indifference to Eucharistic and, indeed, ecclesiastical matters in general. These were trivialities. My world was different from that in which David had grown up. To his caustic asides about Walsingham - the village next to his own - I smilingly turned a deaf ear. (Fifteen years later I was to arrange for him to preach at St George, Colegate. He was very good - and, secretly, he enjoyed himself.) Eagerly and enthusiastically, I watched, learned, and took from him all that I could, of value.

David Allison was a fluent public speaker - with natural skills as a communicator. He preached without notes. I have thought of him, times without number, over the years as I have listened to preachers (and other speakers, often in positions of great authority) tied to their excrutiatingly boring manuscripts - and nearly wept.

Here was a Norfolk country boy, whose heart had been touched in the morning of his days with a love for Jesus Christ, a commitment to His Way, and a commission to preach Him to all.

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He rose very early, and his preparation was undertaken while his mind was uncluttered and the dew was still on the roses. 'O God, early will I seek thee,' (Psalm 63).

Sunday after Sunday I accompanied him to (mostly) country chapels, including Surlingham, Barford, Newton, Lingwood, Westfield Mission (Brundall), East Tuddenham, St. Faiths, Upton, Gildencroft, Sprowston, Acle, Costessey (Hill Road), Blofield, Mattishall, Besthorpe, and Sprowston Road.

We averaged more than one service per week. Some appointments were 'doubles', where we were taken home to tea before the evening service; some chapels we visited more than once: we had two doubles at Lingwood.

David was everywhere received warmly. Sometimes, he played his mouth-organ; I knew I would never manage that! Often, he sang one of the old Sankey hymns; I absorbed hundreds of these - and, sometimes, we sang a duet. ('Have you been to Jesus?' became our party-piece.) I looked and sifted and became my own man - but my debt to David Allison is immense and irrepayable. He and Joyce - who made delicious fried-egg sandwiches which fortified the inner man - live in retirement in Lincolnshire.

Over the years, I've stood in pulpits made famous by others - from Glasgow University and St. George's West, Edinburgh, to Great St. Mary's and Corpus Christie College, Cambridge.

But the foundations of my craft were laid in those village chapels - and I learnt at the feet of a master. He didn't get many appointments at the city churches; that's the Church's other face.

From July, on David's recommendation, I was placed 'on trial', with 10 engagements on the first quarter, including three doubles. My first appointment alone was in the old chapel at Salhouse, long gone.

The following Sunday morning I was planned at St Faiths, that little gem of Regency architecture with its potent Wesleyan ambiance. There, my attention was seriously distracted by the girl I would eventually marry. (But the chapel was not designated a listed building on our account. I remain profoundly ashamed that recently I failed to save it from those who come, and spoil, then go on their way.)

My 1957 scrapbook reveals that: - in January I bought (on HP) my only new cycle - a trade-bike! - and cycled 3,406 miles during the year. There was a national bus strike; Debbie Reynolds sang Tammy; I saw the Queen when she visited Norwich for the Royal Show, held at Costessey; and there's a beautiful picture of the civic coach leaving the cathedral…

Our new Lord Mayor is my wife's cousin, and at a Castle reception in May, his invitation to welcome the senior past Lord Mayor, Mr Tom Eaton, drew sustained applause. Across party divides, Tom is recognised and respected as a true lover of the city, and stalwart of St. Peter Mancroft. He was the Lord Mayor in the coach in my press cutting!

For me, 1957 is summed-up in the witness of these two Christian gentlemen, DG Allison and TC Eaton - one clambouring precariously over roof-tops, the other a trusted solicitor in Upper King Street. Now that's the Church!

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