The university town of Cambridge, 65 miles from London, 295 miles from Plymouth and 10,000 miles from Adelaide, was to be my home for the next year.
The first conundrum was where to live, as I could hardly stay at Westfield House, the Lutheran Seminary where Neil was to complete his studies. After some investigation we found a card in the window of the “Scripture Union” Christian bookshop, offering a room to rent. It seemed a good omen.
I was one of two “lodgers”, the other – inhabiting a generous upstairs bedroom – being a gorgeous redhead, Helen, who was in Cambridge to study post-graduate Criminology. Helen was tall, slim, attractive, bubbly, animated…and I could not understand a word she said. (Although she obstensively spoke English). Brought up in Merseyside, hers was a Northern accent that I hadn’t struck before. So in my first days with her, I relied somewhat on lip-reading and sign language, until my ear became attuned. Jimmy, who had spent most of his life in London, spoke excellent English, while Esther, a recent immigrant from Hong Kong, was less confident.
She would become frustrated when other staff at the retirement village where she worked would use slang expressions or figures of speech she did not understand, and would come home and quiz Jimmy, Helen or me as to their meaning. This led to some moments of hilarity, such as the evening in the kitchen when Esther broke from the Cantonese the couple usually spoke between themselves to declare loudly: “”Jimmy, you asshole!” Jimmy looked shocked, wondering what he had done. Esther then explained: “ Jimmy, I learn new English word at work today. Jimmy, what does Asshole mean?” Jimmy, suppressing a fit of giggles pronounced: “Come upstairs, and I’ll show you”…
Before too long it was the annual synod (church conference) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England (ELCE), which all the Seminary Students were to attend, so I was invited along “for the ride”. The synod was planned for the northern town of Sunderland. As the nearby University of Durham term had not yet recommenced, we had accommodation there for the weekend, which was an added bonus for me to experience another town (with more history).
Neil and I had recently bought our first car (a Ford XR3i, which, although reasonably old, had great “street-cred”) and so, after a cooked breakfast, drove to Sunderland independently of the “car pool” and arrived in good time. The Church was soon near-full with a large contingent of black-shirted dog-collared Pastors (I soon realized they liked it Conservative in the ELCE), and I sat at the back with the students, trying to be inconspicuous.
At 9.55am someone jogged my elbow. “You play the organ, don’t you?” asked a stranger conversationally. “Yes”, I agreed. “Good. You’re on” he declared, and motioned me towards a small electric organ console at the back. It transpired that the official organist, Jonathan, was running late and they were keen to get started with the opening Worship Service. I hurriedly found a few useful-looking switches (such as “Power On”) and somebody plonked a small red booklet and a large well-thumbed hymnbook onto the music stand.
This, then, was my first – sight-reading – introduction to the 1941 “Lutheran Hymnal” and the associated liturgies (service orders). Their use in Britain was a carryover from the 1950’s post-war mission activity from the ELCE’s much larger sister church, the American Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
The first thing I noticed was that the language of the text retained “King James” type forms such as Thee and Thy which had been “modernised” in Australia in the early 1980’s, and turns of phrase such as “Dearly Beloved”.
The second – more pressing – thing I realised, was that, although the basic format was recognisable, and the text of most of the liturgy was familiar, almost all of the tunes were new – to me – and I had NO IDEA what I was doing. Plus there were variants in several sections: “This…or alternatively this” and I had No Clue which parts were the preferred ones.
So there was a lot of hissing and whispering between the nearby students and me [“What do we do here?” “Turn 3 pages”] as I had one of my more exposed experiences of musically “Winging It”. In front of (well, literally behind) the entire Pastorate and Church Hierarchy.
By the way, after a time, the mysterious “Jonathan” indeed arrived, but instead of rescuing me, gave a brilliant smile, an encouraging “Carry On” and proceeded to sit in an alternative pew!
So much for flying under the radar.
On returning to Cambridge, I realized that I had no purpose.
Now, these days, this would be seen as A Bad Thing.
But, for me, it was incredibly refreshing. I had no responsibilities. No connection to most of these people – aside from being a vague girlfriend. I was no longer seen, collectively with my two beautiful sisters, as “One of the Bartsch Girls”. [Not that this was, in itself, a bad thing – I was happy to be associated with them and my wider relatives – but as a high-achieving musical family our reputation did somewhat go before us]. And Adelaide, at that time especially, was still a pretty small town. Musical circles and church circles were even smaller. So, adding all that together, there was little anonymity in my experience growing up in those various arenas.
In Cambridge, obscurity was my friend. In the words of the Masters Apprentices: ”Do what you wanna do, be what you wanna be, yeah”. I could succeed or fail on my own merit.
As I did. Both. Sometimes spectacularly.
But that’s for another day.
“Home was not the place where you were born but the place you created yourself, where you did not need to explain, where you finally became what you were.” – Dermot Bolger