If you had reason to be at the United States’ dead centre, you’d want to end up somewhere around Kansas – where all the big, boxy-shaped states are. I was born in one of these boxes, roughly the size of Great Britain, called Colorado. I grew up not far west of Pueblo in the subtly-named community of Pueblo West. It welcomes visitors with a stucco sign: “Pueblo West, A Planned Community.” I have no idea what they planned, but they ended up with several thousand houses scattered across the semi-arid desert of Pueblo County.
The ever-present features of my childhood were dust, wind and sun. Colorado’s big rectangle is roughly half lovely mountains and half dry wasteland. Some of my fondest – and earliest – memories are leaving the desert and spending time in and beyond the foothills. Up there, things grow – the land itself and all that lives on it: trees, shrubs, deer, elk, bears, and streams. The desert below is brown, grey, and yellow. Plants are stunted, twisted and tortured. If not tortured themselves, they’re built to torture others with spikes, thorns and scent.
I wasn’t meant to live in the desert. I spent most of my time pretending to be elsewhere – somewhere green and inviting. I gathered most of the context for this vast, rainy escape-world by reading. I was always waiting for my parents to finish their latest books, so I could get on with the unfinished series or meet a new author. I devoured C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, David Eddings, and James Herriot.
At about the age of seven, my parents decided I needed a challenge, and worked out that if I were to work through two school-books at a time, I could skip the third grade entirely. For my part, this was easy. That is not a boast, really. It’s a reflection of the hugely repetitive curriculum for kids before sixth grade. Each year seems to cover more or less the exact topics of the previous, adding little novelties toward the end. They call it review, and it’s meant to provide a solid foundation. For me – and I imagine many others – it awoke an unidentified feeling that I later put a name to: “condescension”. I felt patronised, and annoyed that the course refused to understand that I could remember last year’s lessons. Not doing homework was a cry for help – or so my parents inferred. “The boy needs a challenge!” They were probably right, but I didn’t really mean it as a cry. I was just bored. Much more interesting were real history books, with bibliographies. In the end, I was taught at home until I had finished the curriculum at 16.
I have been told I was a “strong-willed child,” which is a psychologically-sound way to describe a stubborn ass. For example, when I was five, I decided I was going to be a drummer. For one year – I think possibly to the day – I harangued my Mom and Dad to let me become one. They finally agreed and bought me a flat, sound-crushing invention looking like a drum head without a shell. The practice pad was designed to emit no noise whatsoever. The deal was, if I played that for a year, they’d buy me a proper drum, and the muffled disk came with lessons.
The instructor managed patiently to teach a six-year-old to hit a round piece of plastic rhythmically for several years. After another year, we made a long trip to Denver for a proper drum. We found an old Ludwig snare, and my parents were grossly overcharged for it, but it was a step in the right direction. Upon setting it up, I found the drum so loud, I played it with a big rubber disc over the head to avoid flinching every time it was hit. Later, I learned to play the Djembe, and learned a new way to escape with nothing but rhythm and a drum.
When I was thirteen, I spent a couple weeks in Juarez; which sprawls just across the Mexican border. Its impoverished population of several million stares over the Rio Grande (at this point, a dark, dirty trickle in a concrete culvert) at what seems to be the most affluent area of El Paso. I met people living in houses built from pallets and tyres whose children’s teeth rotted from drinking Coca-cola because the water was not safe. I remember open sewers and flea-bitten dogs and kids. I remember the heat. We did puppet shows for children in a square and felt pretty good about ourselves for having taken the time out of our lives to make the effort.
I spent the next three years working summers for the organisation which sent us there and learning that what Christians call ‘Mission’ is more about giving back than giving out.
For two summers I worked at a retreat camp near Trinidad, Colorado. It was surrounded by mountains and full of strange people. I met people from all over the world – I loved it. This is an anthropological experience to many western Americans, and looking back, I can’t help but think they all thought we were laughably ignorant (I think some of them did laugh, actually). I learnt a lot about Christianity there, but something about it confirmed in me the desire to be elsewhere. Not necessarily “not there” at that time, but some pull to experience the things that made these people different yet familiar.
I also learned about the majesty of worship. It is a counter-cultural thing to worship intentionally: to tell someone they are worth your time to the point of giving up all else. Through the entertainment we’ve devised for ourselves, maybe we’ve created our own version. As a society, we seem to spend a lot of time at the alter of celebrity: Pop Idolatry, perhaps? I think, however, that it is an integral part of humanity. Giving up time for something more important and powerful is something we do naturally. The frightening thing about this trait is that it requires absolute trust, and we don’t always choose the right places to surrender.
When I was 16, after a devastating church-split and moving to Calvary Chapel Pueblo, I began saving up for a six-month discipleship course in Scotland. Throughout that time, I had been playing in the church band and working for the Solid Ground Cafe. Solid Ground was the church’s beautiful coffee house and kiosk at the local university. I worked behind the kiosk, manned the cafe and organised promotions for live music on weekends. It was the “coolest job in the world!” as my wife said the other night when I was reminiscing about it. Imagine a 16-year old hanging out behind the bar at a cafe in a local university providing extraordinary quantities of caffeine to scholars and reading free books from the university book shop! It began a lifelong habit of espresso and good conversation which I am never going to quit.
Exactly 11 days after 11 September, 2001, I flew for the first time. Nervous of the armed police but petrified of the plane, I boarded an AirCanada flight to Toronto. My practised air of nonchalance dissolved into what can only be described as a rictus of fright as the plane took off. I had always been afraid of heights – acrophobic, I liked to say as a prattish teenager. Three hours later I landed in Toronto to have my bags given back to me and told to walk 600 yards to another carousel and deposit them. Nine hours after that, and I was catching my first euphoric glimpses of the most stunning sight I had seen: Scotland. I loved Glasgow airport. I loved Glasgow car parks, shops, cafes (shit coffee and all). I found Glaswegians the most amazing people on earth. Americans really should get out more! For six months I learned Scottish dialect. I had to, because I was surrounded by it and for the first three weeks I kept having to say: “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that” and being completely baffled when asked “Where d’ye stay?”
Most of what I learned was by way of struggling with the system of the course. I didn’t like the doctrine, and found it difficult to be around people who were ‘believers’ but were so different from myself. I fought internally to the point of tears and panic. It was a valuable series of lessons, I think. I could only learn them by coming up against my own inconsistencies and letting my foundations settle down again.
It was at this time I met my now wife, Wendy. I had never had a girlfriend, and had never dated. I knew after several months of late-night talks and through opening up to this amazing girl that I never would. Wendy and I made plans for me to visit her house in Hertfordshire, and she made plans to fly out to the desert and experience America. It was only during my visit at the end of my six months in Scotland, that we discovered there was no way we weren’t going to be together. That summer we were engaged. Through over a year of trans-Atlantic correspondence and expensive phone calls, we got to know each other more and were married at St. Paul’s in 2003. (I should point out that’s St. Paul’s church in St. Albans, and not the slightly more well-known building at the top of Ludgate hill.)
I moved to the United Kingdom in 2003 at the age of 19 to embark on a strict regime of losing my accent at Kings College London. I took the course: “English Language and Communications”, which turned out to be a degree in applied linguistics, and now hold a BA(hons) in same.
Realizing that this is now the third document page length of this bio, I will leave it there for now. I now live in Shropshire, and work, ironically, as an Evangelist for Talis. I consider myself less equipped for life than I did when I was seven, and think that that’s probably a good thing!