One more applause for George

By Dhananjaya Das - 9.8 2018

The last time George associated with a large group of devotees was when he and his wife, Olivia, visited the Manor in the summer of 1997. We had invited him to a celebratory dinner a few days after we got permission to build the new approach road.

This dinner was held shortly after we had another amazing fundraising dinner called “Prabhupada’s Dream”, during which guests and patron members of the Manor were invited to raise funds to buy the land for the approach road. That evening the target was to raise one million pounds.

We rented a large circus tent with a stage, set many tables, and served a nice dinner. There was a positive response—within two hours we raised 800,000 pounds—but we were 200,000 short until Michael, an Irish businessman patron member who imported Indian clothing, so appreciated Prabhupada’s Dream of having 150 acres of land for 150 protected cows, that he pledged 200,000 pounds.

Michael had only once before been to the Manor and at that time he had taken part in arati and heard a lecture, but that evening was the first time he had attended a special patron’s dinner and he pledged more than any other patron member.

What he pledged was a substantial amount of money for anyone, especially for a person of non-Indian origin. It was an auspicious evening. George agreed to come to our second dinner, but we didn’t know if his wife would come. Both were invited but Olivia never attended our public functions.

She wasn’t a great fan of the Hare Krishna devotees—she followed somebody else—and she left it up to her husband to go to such things. But this time she came. A Gujarati disciple of Shivaram Swami named Sruti Dharma and I went to the car park at the Manor to welcome them.

They had brought rubber Welly boots with them because they were enthusiastic to walk through the fields to see where the new approach road was going to be built, and we did that. We walked from where the main gate would be all the way to the Manor property, which is about a half a mile.

We stopped to talk along the way and George observed the fields, “How far does the property extend on this side of the road? How far on the other side of the road? Are you going to have any kind of hedges or trees so that the road doesn’t look ugly, so it doesn’t spoil the overall beauty of the farmland?”

We got into the details and when we were returning George said, “If you want to have a successful business, I suggest you start a garden center.” In England, garden centers are usually incredibly successful. Families who’ve just moved into their home buy trees and shrubs, flowers and herbs. George said, “If you do that, I don’t think you need planning permission for this.”

He’d put a lot of thought into this idea and as I said, he identified himself as a gardener first and a musician second. He said, “I’ll help you set it up and with whatever you need.” We were happy that he was so open-minded about our project.

Then we took him to the temple with Radha-Gokulananda’s altar, Sita-Rama, Laksman, and Hanuman’s altar and the little Gaura-Nitai Deities between Them. George offered his full dandavats to the Deities, Olivia offered her pranams and they both took charanamrita. Then we went into the dining room.

The history behind this dinner is that in 1982 the local District Council decided that it didn’t want to have the Manor as a public place of worship because the building hadn’t been planned as such. They wanted to close down the Manor.

Our 15-year campaign to keep the Manor open was basically a freedom of religion case. During that time reporters were always interviewing the devotees. We were in newspapers, on television, and on the radio.

At one time the Manor had been owned by Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital, an old hospital in London, for a nurse’s training college. Mrs. Ruffles had bought it from Saint Bart’s with the idea of turning it into a nursing home, but she couldn’t carry the financial burden and so she sold it.

Then we moved in and suddenly festivals were going on with thousands of visitors and many cars were in the village. We didn’t want the villagers to be irate with our festivals—we wanted to take the strain off the village.

After a long, hard battle, in 1996, the British Government’s Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, announced on television that, “the government gave permission for the construction of an access driveway which by-passed the local village, plus full planning permission for the Manor to be used as a place of public worship.”

Before that neither the government nor the District Council had recognized us. That was a great victory for us and that’s why we had this victory dinner, which was a nice feast cooked by my wife, Bala Gopala.

Everybody who had been involved in the campaign—over 200 people—were there, all VIP guests including some MP’s, legal people, newspaper people and so on. Akhandadhi mentioned all the different guests that were present and praised and honored everybody.

Finally he came to George and said, “We have to thank George because this would never have happened if he hadn’t agreed to donate this property.” George was an honored guest, but he wasn’t expected to say anything.

But before he spoke, Olivia stood up and said, “I am deeply touched by what I’ve heard and seen tonight, and I feel impelled to say that George has got true friends here, and I feel happy for him. And I feel happy that I didn’t miss the opportunity to witness this amazing gathering.”

This was the only time that Olivia had come to the Manor. Before, when I called George and she answered the phone, she would be rude. I used to pray that she didn’t answer the phone. She would try to stop me from intruding into their privacy by visiting her husband.

Olivia didn’t like us until that evening. After she sat down, Shyamasundar and Mukunda presented George with a little Prabhupada murti with a Prabhupada hat and glasses and a bead bag and a little book rest and a miniature size Bhagavad-gita, a little vyasasana and a sannyasi danda, and a little pair of kartals and a little pair of glasses. It was cute.

George cradled Prabhupada and said, “I’m going to take Prabhupada home with me tonight.” It really touched him. He said, “I didn’t want to say anything, but I feel I’ve got to. First of all, I feel ashamed that I never participated in this campaign.”

George hadn’t given any support, either verbally or in the press or in any other way. He said, “But I was following it on television or in the papers. I knew what was going on. In the back of my mind I thought if it didn’t work out, if you had to close the Manor, you could move over to my place in Henley and take over Friar Park—that could be your new temple.”

He was so moved by what he had heard that evening that he was talking from his heart. Everybody started clapping like anything.