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I wrote my first book when I was 8 years old. A fictional journal, its title was misspelled 'Dairies of the Future', and it purported to be the first-hand account of a boy living the dream in outer-space. My dream. When I watched Lost in Space on TV, I wanted to be Will Robinson, struggling against one-eyed giants, invisible aliens, and violent meteor showers, my trusty Class M-3 Model B9 robot by my side.
Despite shifting motives and mediums, in the young years that followed, the written word and my imagination kept colliding with polymerous frequency. At 14, I began to write poetry. By my early twenties, I was the proud author of a poetic prose novella, The Lonely Spring. I was also writing lyrics to perform both as a solo guitarist and as co-lead-singer of a three-piece new-wave band called Eat Organic.
However, my musical and literary ambitions were both cut
short when, in June 1988, I became a father.
While my partner was pregnant, I read everything about parenting I could lay my hands on. But it didn't make me any less terrified of the impending responsibility, and shortly after my eldest daughter was born, I ran away. Not only was I still a kid myself, I felt ill-equipped to be the breadwinner. Following a disastrous attempt to train as a psychiatric nurse, I hadn't held down a full-time job for nearly four years. With only a handful of GCE 'O' levels to my name and two-and-a-half million unemployed, the prospect of adequately remunerated employment seemed remote. Fortunately, in September 1988, having returned home, I was lucky enough to be accepted onto a nine-month access-course designed to prepare adults with a good general education for a Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng.). I enjoyed the course immensely and received ‘A’ grades in all modules.
So how did I end up reading for a BA in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds? The institution itself attracted me: a library holding two million books invoked visions of hours, even days, exploring obscure texts in sparsely lit cellars. And it was an ambition I realised -- although not all my reading was about God and religion! The Leeds course also impressed me with its breadth: ancient languages and history, with sociology of religion as well as Theology. Last but not least, it was an opportunity to extend my intense interest in religion and spirituality, which at that juncture was a muddle of drug-fuelled new ageism. The only good thing about engineering was the money, but I reckoned a decent degree from a world class university would be meal ticket enough. So when I started at Leeds September 1989, it was one of the happiest times of my life.
Moving from technical study to the liberal arts was never a problem. The real challenge was to discuss my thoughts and opinions in a rigorous way, sometimes for lecturers who routinely expected students to write in support of their personal perspectives. Taking a tip from a friend reading English at Sussex, I tried to follow the adage, ‘give them everything they want and then tell them what you think’. Consequently, I received two distinctions in the first year, including one for my subsidiary, Biblical Hebrew. Altogether, I found it a disciplining experience that did much to build my confidence and competence as a reflexive reader of academic texts.
My three years at university were not untypically a time of great personal change, but complicated by a difficult marriage and a growing family. During my first year, I began to develop a deeper relationship with my daughter Leanne and then, in June 1990, my second daughter Johanna was born. However, in my second and third years, I began to devote much more time to more personal exploration and my official studies slowly became sidelined. It was in this context that, shortly before the first Gulf War in 1991, and wracked by overwhelming self-doubt and drinking heavily, I made a giant leap of faith and converted to Islam.
The year that followed was formative intellectually, although most of my studies were conducted outside the remit of the BA course at Leeds. First of all, I immersed myself in popular Muslim tracts, educating myself in the various Muslim observances, mostly in the Salafi tradition. At the same time, out of sight of my Salafi brethren, I was obsessed with the works of Sufi Idries Shah. I was also fortunate enough to discover the writings of Michel Foucault. These three reading threads -- popular religion, spirituality, and the sociology of power -- quickly defined my interests when I stepped back on to the path of academic, exploratory learning in 2004.
But serious study was about to be put on hold. By the time I graduated in the summer of 1992, I had two children and a third on the way. I had committed myself to making family life work, which ironically had been further sidelined by my conversion to Islam. I bounced back in my studies, but my rekindled interest in academic achievement came too late to make good earlier predictions of a first or even an upper second, and I had to make do with a disappointing 2:2 honours degree. It seemed my ambitions to study further would not be realised, and with a young family to fund, I decided to move on and seek employment in teaching.