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Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Lord Sugar at the Kerith? Thanks, Ascot Baptist...

Jeff (name changed) appeared suddenly at Bracknell Baptist Church during late summer, 1978. He was tall, extraordinary good looking, had longish hair, wore a orange satin silk shirt which was open at the neck to display a silver cross on his chest, and played his part well as a proud strutting peacock. He certainly performed well as a group of young ladies, including his future wife, swooning over him and baying for his attention as any female fan of a well known pop idol such as David Cassidy, Englebert Humperdinck or Cliff Richard, would have done a decade earlier.
In turn he boasted of his university degree and his prospective career as a Computer Programmer at a high tech company, one of several that had set up office to trade in what would become the Silicon Valley of Britain, straddling across the M3 and the M4 motorways (freeways) branching out of London.
But Jeff did not only attract the unmarried ladies in the church. He also caught the attention of the Elders, or Deacons as they were called in those days. In next to no time they were swayed by his charm, confidence and high level of education. He became the only unmarried house-group leader, a status looked with seriousness in those days, with conditions that the leader should be married and have full control of his children. (For those not in the know, a house-group, sometimes called cell-group, or as today, life-group, is a group of church members who meet at a private home during the week. Usually the leader is the host himself, but that was not always the case. We hosted house-group on several occasions, and allowed the guest leader to continue in his duty as normal.)
But the bane of all this was during singles evening, when we all met at a deacon's home on Sunday evening, after the service. This particular elder, who moved away from Bracknell during the late 1990s and no longer at the church, was a devout Englishman and a Tory, and I believe, a devotee of, or at least sympathetic with the school tie and the class system. It was through him, in the late 1970s that my delusion with Englishness has had it roots, along with a rotten sense of self-esteem.
Activities were organised at his home to strengthen fellowship and our spiritual health. One activity was tennis. Who arranged it? Jeff. And who learned the intricate switching of the church heating system? Jeff. And who organised other group outings or activities? Jeff.
When I offered to take on a responsibility, I was told that I was not capable of it. How did he know?
"You don't look confident" was his reply. "You're not even sure of the task, aren't you?"
And not to mention that my speech and accent in no way convey confidence!
What a put down! And how all this made me feel small and insignificant.
And that despite that on one evening Jeff was actually called a big-head by the Pastor himself, right within earshot. More than once as well.
All this was the theme of my last blog, Come on, Lord Sugar... where I demonstrated the consequence of the British class system and how it could influence the local church back in the '70s and '80s, a period when I was still looking for my personal destiny.

Kerith Centre

But in this blog, which could be considered as a follow up to my last one, I want to portray the positive side of having fellowship with Christian believers. Most of my friends were and are Christians.
But should the reader get the impression that I was a castaway in the fellowship, this wasn't true. There was Derek, who told me that he was impressed with my knowledge of the Bible and the faith I had in it. A lovely complement. After moving to Milan as part of his employment contract, he invited me over twice, in 1981 and again in 1982. He hosted me for a few days both before and after a stint of backpacking around Italy, including Sicily.
Also in 1981 a new friend, Geoff, arrived at Bracknell. He took up employment at the same company as Jeff. He also took up residence with two other graduates, Jon and Tim. Geoff was keen to learn to play squash, and it became a custom that every Tuesday Geoff and I would pair up and play squash together. After this, we walked back to Jon's house, where he lodged, for a coffee and toast. It was here that Jon, Tim and Geoff became good friends, much to do with teasing each other. Jon came down one late evening with a hot water bottle, a specific Englishman's companion when bedding on a cold night. It became the butt of constant joking and laughter, but it bonded friendships.
Tim was to play an important role in my life. In fact, I can credit him for changing my life altogether. An accountant, he played rugby, became a coach then team manager of a football club and a devout Christian, Tim was the one who directed me to my destiny. In more ways than one. Aside from wrestling with each other and trying out our physical strength, he also become my house-group leader, and he was the one who would open the door to let a little of the Alan Sugar in me to come out, after being shut in for so long after being told many times of my incapability.
Tim eventually left Bracknell Baptist Church, the forerunner of the Kerith Centre, and joined Ascot Baptist Church, of a town three miles from Bracknell. But by then he was already Chairman of Bracknell Saints Football (soccer) Club, consisting of players both from Bracknell and Ascot Baptist Churches. While still at Bracknell, Tim became involved with a hospital therapeutic broadcasting station, Radio Heatherwood. (Heatherwood being the name of the hospital.) In truth, it was a cable service, not a proper radio. But after become team leader for the Friday Crew, in Spring, 1981 he invited me up to give it a go as a Presenter. From that first Friday evening I became hooked, and I was to be presenting for the next five years, during that time Tim had moved on, mainly due to his temporary work location, and team leadership was thrust into my hands by the Chairman of the League of Friends (which owned and ran the station).
It was on one occasion that Radio Heatherwood began to run low on funds. So I made the decision to run the 1984 Bracknell Half Marathon, collecting sponsors from both Bracknell Baptist Church members and window cleaning clientele. As a result, the funds were raised which restored the station's financial balance.
It was also then I began to get to know two more Christians, Keith of Ascot Baptist and Gareth from Warfield Parish Church (of the Church of England). Gareth, who worked in a Bank, moved into Tim's house which, like Jon's, was also near my bachelor's apartment. All committed Christians, we had something in common between us.
So there were times when Tim, Gareth, Keith, sometimes Paul (another Christian from Ascot Baptist) and I went out cycling together, both in the UK and abroad. One of the most remarkable trips we did together was Holland, Belgium and Germany, one long circuit which linked all three countries.

With my Christian mates

Then in 1986, I completed another half marathon, which in the same race was a friend from the Reading Life-saving Club. He was the one who introduced me to the sport of Triathlon, a multi-discipline race of American origin, consisting of swimming, cycling and running, normally in that order.
I handed the reigns of leadership of the Friday broadcasting crew to my successor, another Christian, this time from Bracknell Baptist, and joined Thames Valley Triathletes, one of the UK's largest triathlon clubs which was based in Reading, and soon after I was training with them and competing in triathlons across Southern England. Venues included Swanage, Bournemouth, Winchester, Newbury, Farnham, Arborfield, Reading, Hampton Wick, East Grinstead, Romford and Eastbourne.
It was at Winchester of Summer 1986 that while competing in one event, something of a vision took place in my mind. There was no triathlon in my area, whether in Bracknell, Ascot or any other locality.

Winchester Triathlon, inspiration for the Bracknell Triathlon

As I was pondering on this, the penny dropped. Do I need sponsors to finance a triathlon? No! It's paid for by the competitors themselves, but capital must be available to kick start in the organising.
And that's when I raised the issue with Tim at his home. He was at first sceptical but he did suggest holding a mini event over at the nurse's pool at Heatherwood Hospital.
But I preferred the idea of an event for Bracknell, based at the pool at the Sports Centre. When Gareth arrived home, I shared the vision, and he was more keen, but equally cautious, and suggested we share the idea with Keith.
So a few days later, all four of us were at Tim's home. When we told Keith our prospective vision, he jumped with enthusiasm and began to spout that we must get this and we must get that and this and the other...
Whoa! We have the biggest obstacle to tackle first, hiring the swimming pool.
I turned up at the Sports Centre Administration Office without an appointment one weekday morning during the Autumn of 1986. I had to wait as a man in a suit was being seen to, amidst a group of faces all smiling and nodding of approval. Luckily for me, it was an issue which had nothing to do with pool hire. When it was my turn to sell my idea of a triathlon in Bracknell and that we would like to hire the Competition Pool for the occasion, I was told flatly, no. But I suppose "No" really meant "Wait" and I explained with detail how the event would be organised, the details of the cycle and run routes, and any other connecting matters would be submitted in due course. The Administrator then called in the General manager. The three of us talked and discussed the idea, and eventually the Manager offered us one lane of the pool for a certain Saturday in June of the following year. I was excited! Single lane feeds are possible if the field is very small or the swim leg is short. Arborfield Triathlon used this method. But the deal would be signed only after I submitted everything they asked for.
Soon afterwards, I contacted Tim and Gareth and told them the news. Tim, Gareth, Keith, along with Dan and John and I met at Tim's home, and a Committee was formed, of which I was Chairman. I began to draw up what could be called a constitution - all in the Committee must be born-again Christian believers and each attend a church of their choice. Tim, Keith, Dan and John attended Ascot Baptist, Gareth at Warfield Parish and myself at Bracknell Baptist. All members of the Committee, except myself, were members of Bracknell Saints Football Club, hence we named the Triathlon after the name of the Committee - Bracknell Saints Triathlon.
We targeted the field to 300 competitors. I also drew the plan for the cycle and run routes, both highly complicated, easy-to-get-lost circuits, the run route being the one used by the Bracknell half-marathon. I contacted the Police to submit the routes to them, and I received their approval. The St John Ambulance was also arranged, the officer of this came to visit me at my home. But most important of all, the event had to be sanctioned by the British Triathlon Association (BTA) a move which would make the difference between success or disaster.
When entry forms were dispatched, using the BTA-affiliated club master list, together with our event listed in the BTA annual event guide, entries began to come in, which I registered on Tim's desktop Computer. Soon I had to return to the Sports Centre Administration, and by explaining the situation, they were willing for us to use the whole pool, which was divided into four lanes, with six swimmers per lane, giving a feed of up to 24 swimmers in the pool at any one time.
The entire Committee - all Christian believers - sacrificed a day's holiday from their jobs to help me set up the two courses the day before the event. Along with the colour-coded swim hats, direction arrows, trophies, finisher's medals, tons of paperwork and everything set for the event the next day, we were so excited that we failed to see that a disaster was looming! We were short of volunteers for stewarding, or marshaling.
And sure enough, when the competitors arrived, about 260 of them, there were no pool marshals, so each swimmer was left to count his own laps in the pool, leaving the door wide open for cheating.
But worse of all, some of the carefully placed direction arrows were torn down, leaving the run route difficult to navigate, some of the runners getting lost and the event would have come to ruin had not a few friends stepped in and saved the day by getting a result.
Afterwards, I went home thoroughly dejected. I lay on the bed for a long while. Utter failure.
Then suddenly, as if by inspiration, I telephone the Sports Centre Administration and there and then booked up the pool hire for the following year, 1988. Hope flooding back into my soul.
I found it so amazing that after the failure of our first triathlon event, all Committee members were raring to give it another go. Some months later, we had our first meeting at Tim's house and each committee member were assigned specific tasks, and I asked them all to be dedicated to their position, and not switch from one to the other as with the previous event. The set up was as follows:
Keith, then a Porter, and Dan, a Financial Advisor - Marshal Coordinators. They were responsible of making sure there were enough stewards to guide the competitors, and to assign them to specific positions along the two routes.
Gareth: Time keeping coordinator. In charge of the three timekeepers.
Tim: Entry tabulator, Programme publishing and Results.
John: Assigned by Keith to be in charge of the drinks station located on the run route.
Myself: Event promoter, take in entries of all competitors, relate to all serving bodies, e.g. St John Ambulance, Police, Commentary Caravan, Market stall, Palmers Scaffolding Hire (for the bicycles to be attached to a horizontal rail by the handlebars, leaving the front wheel just a tad above ground) as with the BTA and Media publishing (Bracknell News, Bracknell Times, Reading Chronicle, national Triathlon and Running magazines, BTA Event guide, national and international.)
All six of us made up the Bracknell Triathlon Committee spanning social class and professions. Not only this being a good model of a church, we also worked together in harmony and even allowed a joke and some laughter during our pre-event meetings.
To cut a long story short, the 1988 event was a flying success!
Two of the big changes were of the two routes. The cycle route was simpler, faster and safer in relation to the traffic. The run route was an out and back system, although I had to make it safe by creating a small circuit after Gareth warned me of a potential danger of tired runners finishing being hit head on by fast cyclists fresh out of the pool.
Also Paul, who accompanied us on our bikes to Holland, took care of the Registration Station we set up just outside the pool changing room.
We staged the Bracknell Triathlon every year for seven years. What I found so encouraging was that the majority of competitors forgave us for the fiasco of our maiden event and despite almost doubling the price of our entry fee, the field swelled in size, reaching more than 360 by 1990. Also the coffers at Bracknell saints Football club began to swell - and that's despite paying fees to organisations such as the Rotary Club and to the charity, Wells for India, for sending volunteers as marshals. One Triathlon club even made our event their annual Championships. News of it spread through the international Triathlon media as far as the USA and Australia.
But what's behind all this?
The love and dedication of fellow Christian believers, mainly from Ascot Baptist, who caught the vision. It took sacrifice, taking time off work, working into the night, even the need to spend our own money if necessary. But most of all, I believe that they lived up to Jesus' own mission:
A bruised reed he will not break, neither will he quench a smouldering flax.
Back in the seventies and early eighties I was a bruised reed or a smouldering flax. I was of average or below average educated among a church of graduates. I felt small. God felt differently. He inspired some of his own people to fan this smouldering ash to a blazing fire. But not merely that I feel good about myself, but rather that I could benefit from his love and on rebound, learn to trust in him more and to honour him better.
Just this Sunday I visited Bracknell Community Church (after leaving it to join Ascot Baptist in 1990). Gareth and Keith were there, and after the service I chatted to them both. With Simon Benham as present Pastor, I can see great hopes for this church for the future. I wish it all God's blessing.
Lord Alan Sugar started his career as a seller of flowers at a street stall.
I would never be like him, but it's good to see a little bit of him in me come alive.
Thanks to the support of other Christian believers.

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