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Interview: Margaret Beetham, author of Home is Where

01 November 2019

‘I realised very early that I had to separate myself from my father’s world’

I spent most of my life teaching English and cultural history in a polytechnic, which became a university. Before that, I taught in secondary schools, and gave day-release classes in a factory and evening classes in further education; and I set up and ran a playgroup.

I loved it, despite its difficulties. My generation assumed that middle-class women would be full-time homemakers. I was deviant and went back to full-time paid work when my children were still young.

I still write academic work, but I wish I’d given more time to writing of other kinds. I love gardening, but that gets harder as you age.

Recently, I have thought that I’d like to have been an immigration lawyer. When the kids were little, we invited a pair of Chilean refugees to live with us for more than a year, and, in the past few years, I have offered homeless asylum-seekers short-term hospitality. I’ve seen what goes on in immigration tribunals, and it can be terrible.

During my first 26 years, I lived in three different places in South India Kanchipuram, Madurai, and Kodaikanal — and in Edinburgh, Huyton in Liverpool, Sevenoaks, Eastbourne, Bristol, Manchester, and New York. In childhood, India felt like home, insofar as I had a sense of home. When I left school, I was homeless for a few months, but I did not think of myself as such because homelessness was my usual state.

Since my late twenties, I’ve lived in Manchester, with an eight-year interlude in Leeds. Now, I identify as Mancunian, British, European, and an internationalist. We’re all interdependent. The European Union isn’t perfect, but it’s hugely better than the Little Englandism which seems to be emerging. I want to help find a way to restore trust in each other.

I began my memoir, Home is Where, after my sister’s death (which coincided with other big changes in my life) to explore aspects of my childhood which I’d found it impossible to speak about — perhaps even to think about. It took about ten years, off and on, while I was writing and publishing other work.

Now that I have grandchildren, I want to listen to children — and that includes my child-self. The book also explores the riddle of the present self, which is obviously continuous with the child, but also very different if you are old, as I am. Also, the deaths of family and friends invite us into a different way of living. I notice the world around me more. Seeing the harvest moon the other night felt like a gift.

The book is partly about the tensions implicit in being Lesslie Newbigin’s daughter; but it’s also about becoming ourselves, as we all must. I realised very early that I had to separate myself from my father’s world. I spent most of my working life in settings that were indifferent or actively hostile to any faith tradition, particularly Christianity, and I didn’t belong to a church for a chunk of my adult life.

Using the third person enabled me to write things which I found hard, and opened out the possibility of this not being just about me (though, of course, it is about me). A lot of people in the world, old and young, feel displaced because we’re separated from the places, people, food, and language which was our first place, our first love.

Secular organisations all have their “mission” statements now; so, for most people, the term has a very different meaning. I’ve had colleagues who were hostile to faith, and friends who were damaged by the Church in some way — for example, by being regularly beaten by monks at school. I share some of their scepticism about some claims that church leaders make for mission, though much of it is creative and loving.

In my church, we see our mission as being a worshipping community open to those who come in, whoever they are. The building is at a busy crossroads with a very migrant population.

I’m not competent to evaluate the work of missionaries in the past — which anyway covers a huge spectrum and historical span. I’ve done some research on how British mainstream missions presented their work at home, and read historians such Catherine Hall and Vron Ware. Their work shows how missionaries were often simultaneously caught up in colonial racism and exploitation, but also struggled against those aspects of their own culture and privilege.

It saddens me that the legacy of missionary work in parts of Africa has led to homophobia, and that the struggles of missionaries in India against the caste system often ended in failure, with the Church itself a caste-ridden institution. The tares and wheat are utterly entangled. Some of my dad’s letters show how much he was struggling with the racism he met: some of his predecessors wouldn’t let an Indian sit down in their house.

From my earliest memories, experiencing God meant saying our prayers with Mum every night, going to church, reading the Bible, and hearing sermons. I’m not sure I ever had some kind of sudden moment of conviction or conversion.

My practice now is very different from my family’s. My father came from the Presbyterian tradition, which places great emphasis on the preaching of the Word, and I do value sermons that don’t talk down to the congregation. But, for me, what’s crucial is the eucharist. I think my father’s work with others on devising the liturgy of the newly formed Church of South India opened out that aspect for him as well. I’m agnostic about some church teaching, and, though I enjoyed John Barton’s recent book [A History of the Bible (Books, 5 April)], I didn’t need to read it to be deeply sceptical of any over-literal interpretations of the Bible.

I live on my own now, with a large and very loving family among Newbigins and Beethams. We keep in touch regularly, though we’re geographically scattered and I’ve rather given up remembering all the third generation’s birthdays. Most days, I have time with my friends. My street is like a village and I rarely walk down it without someone greeting me by name. My neighbour’s family have adopted me and call me Mama. My other family is my church community. I feel extraordinarily blessed.

Lying politicians make me angry, and the Home Office’s Hostile Environment [policy], the way that it assumes that everyone’s lying and must be treated as a potential criminal, as indeed does the benefits system. And drivers who go down our suburban street too fast. And the language of “impact” used by universities, which assumes that knowledge is their exclusive possession and can be used to hit people.

I’m happiest in my garden on my own or with friends, being with my children and grandchildren, walking in the hills, reading an engaging book, enjoying a meal with friends, singing in the university choir, and listening to music.

I listen to a good deal of music, recently the Proms most nights. I love Bach, both to listen to and play. I still have piano lessons with a wonderful piano teacher who is a force of nature. She makes me play contemporary music, too. I love the blackbird singing in my neighbour’s tree.

Politically, I’m often in despair at the moment, but then something gives me hope. My grandson, aged ten, and his classmates are thinking about climate change and what they can do. My godson, a choral director, enables glorious music. There are bees in the nasturtiums by my back door. Iranian refugees and asylum-seekers maintain our church, administer the chalice, and share their skills and energy as well as their problems. We’re developing a practice of quiet days in our church, and open sessions called A Quiet Place in the Eye of the Storm, where we take a hard subject — like mental health or climate change — and meditate on it together, with an introduction, structured discussion and silence, and the option of staying for a eucharist at the end.

I pray most for forgiveness, for myself and for my part in our collective injustice and lack of care for each other and the earth. And I do feel more and more thankful for how extraordinary and wonderful the world is: our bodies, the universe, that particles can be in two places at the same time. Amazing!

If I was locked in a church, I’d probably choose to be by myself. I might take an Office book, perhaps Ward and Wild’s Rhythms of Remembering, or Jim Cotter’s little books of morning and evening prayer.

Margaret Newbigin Beetham was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. Home is Where: The journeys of a missionary child is published by Darton, Longman & Todd at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.70).

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