Jason Goodwin: Keeping up with the Jehovahs

'I don’t get into theological debate with them; I simply like to bask awhile in their radiant happiness'

We don’t get a lot of casual visitors at this end of the valley. The man from Natural England will occasionally drop in to discuss ground-nesting birds or butterfly migration. Very rarely, a dehydrated cyclist comes looking for water, like an exotic bird on a ship’s rail. We get the inevitable couriers, of course, and our landlord silently and unobtrusively brings us the Parish News, but that’s about it. You can wait a long time around here for a little idle chatter.

That’s why I really had to put my foot down with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’m not quite sure how often they visit, but, every once in a while, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse their shiny red car coming down the drive. It’s far too late to ask them to remind me of their names, but he has a small moustache and she never gets out of the car.

Some people confuse the Jehovah’s Witnesses with the Moonies, the Scientologists or those chiliasts who drank the spiked orange juice at Jamestown, but as far as I’m aware they’re just ordinary Christian nonconformists, fired by a proselytising zeal that Anglicans might do well to study. Some of their ideas may seem a little offbeat, perhaps, and they often get into trouble because of their opposition to military service. Hitler persecuted them. Stalin, too.

Ordinary people can be quite rude to them. In London, our neighbour’s little boy leaned out of the upstairs window when the Witnesses called. He shouted ‘sniff my socks!’ and hurled something that made them jump back hastily from the door.

I don’t get into theological debate with them; I simply like to bask awhile in their radiant happiness. I would like to find out the name of their architect, so that I can avoid him – those Kingdom Halls look rather like Harvester restaurants – but that might spoil the mood. They always remember the names of our children and they’re getting quite good with the dogs’ names, too.

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Usually, we do a brief health review, shake our heads over the madness in this world and discuss the weather. I’m done by that point, which is when they rather diffidently move the conversation around to the cover story of their magazine.

I say magazine – it used to be two. I never worked out the difference between The Watchtower and Awake!. They were exactly the same size, printed on the same flimsy paper and they both seemed to contain articles about drug addiction, marital violence or fibbing.

The type was very clear and large and the articles came with calming colour illustrations, showing contented families, or maybe a lonely, troubled person or children playing basketball. However, a few years ago they stopped handing out The Watchtower and, now, it turns out, they’re thinking of back-pedalling on Awake! too.

We stood by the car and, as usual, he began by showing me the cover, ‘The Way of Happiness’, with a picture of a man walking into the woods. I nodded, with no inkling of the bombshell he was about to drop. He turned to the back and pointed to one of those meaningless squares estate agents use to make you go online on your phone.

‘We’re telling people they can get the magazine online from now on,’ he explained. ‘It’ll still be printed, if anyone wants it the old way, but we won’t be bringing it round any more.’

He glanced up then and caught the look on my face. ‘Unless,’ he added, hastily, ‘you’d rather we still did.’