“MOVE IT!” shouts a red-faced chef, shoving a plate into the girl’s hands. She weaves through the hundred or so waiting staff anxiously queuing to pick up plates. The makeshift kitchen—a marquee—is brimming with the smell of bubbling gravy pots, clattering of plates and the tuneful slamming of steel oven doors. Hundreds of chefs work in factory lines along trestle tables. They artfully work their magic on their stations, starters on one side, desserts on the other.
The uniform white plates are in rows of hundreds. Beetroot in rainbow colours accompanied by crumbled goats cheese, bright pink and green sauces piped by men with red faces, chubby hands squeezing piping bags in deep concentration.
A barely audible backing track mixes with the excited chatter of staff who are grouped together. It is an attempt to smother sound that might escape from the adjacent dining hall.
It’s time. Grabbing the plates in twos from the rows of tables, the waiters flood the dining hall, flowing past the hundreds of opulently apportioned round tables, trailing by the stage and arriving just behind the chairs of the guests.
Guests at the anniversary of the International Association of Scientologists.
Once a year, the Church advertises—with a snazzy video with a dramatic soundtrack—the anniversary of the IAS. This was the 28th such gathering. Members from divisions of Scientology churches all over the world come to the event to attend the two-day conference.
They will sit through talks on scientific therapies and attend workshops dedicated to brainstorming the development of the church and gain recruits in their home towns. In the evening, a gala dinner features an awards show and a concert. There is another evening dedicated to raising money for local projects in East Grinstead.
The majority of guests, of which there are a thousands, look like a west European blend, Swiss and some Nordic looking. There are Americans, Australians and English. But all seem to be of a different era. The women all have hair uncannily natural in colour, pasty faces and dresses and suits reminiscent of a time encapsulated by soft focus photography, poses and corsages in a oval cardboard frame. Dated. But not in a hip way.
The mix of languages fills the tent as the last stragglers take their seats. Nearest the stage are the most important guests. They are within the higher ranks of the church. They receive slightly better food and wine and watch the show. In thanks for their contribution to the church, tonight they will be able to watch the stage without a squint and will enjoy a more luxurious dinner then the plebs in the back.
Servers are restricted from approaching these tables. I guess Mr Travolta isn’t keen on gawkers. The word in the kitchen was that Tom Cruise usually shows up but none of the waitresses had spotted him that night.
Why am I here? Outside staff had arrived several hours earlier before the dinner began. Given an address in London to meet, I—like the hundreds of event staff, security, performers and crew—found myself shipped into the countryside and told nothing. I wasn’t that suspicious; usually, a lack in organisation and communication mean event staff are simply given a venue to turn up at.
And so a car journey later, two hours south of London, we pull into a carpark in East Sussex. There are huge gates, and trees shroud the area. As we walked closer to the gates the staff, some of them kids, were pointing and whispering.
It’s Legoland. But without the warm fuzzy feeling that comes with the donuts, fools gold mining and log flumes. There is a peculiar quality to the fantastical backdrop, something off. Our group is led down large winding paths, with 30-foot poles holding colourful international flags flapping either side of us. We come across a small square, and in it crowds of people walking with their children, taking photos, milling about like tourists.
A knight astride a white horse sits stoically as a German family posed besides him. He is wearing full silver armour. All over the place subdued Scientologists awkwardly pose against the decadent grounds. Selfies against medieval backdrops, selfies by the rose bushes. Heck, there were selfies just for the love of selfies.
Comic-con lover’s dream
Behind the eclectic mix of families lay a manor, crafted to look like the castles of your childhood complete with sandstone brickwork, flags and crimson red velvet detailing. Renaissance come Harry Potter come Lord of the rings. But somehow phonier.
We hit a security check. Friendly men check us, and our bags, up and down and we stumble through the large reception area, decorated like a Norman log cabin. We avert the gaze of the guests. With the staff in uniform, it’s pretty clear that we are outsiders.
It was clear that for the guests to this ethereal stately manor, this was a journey beyond what I could ever comprehend. A spiritual homecoming? Maybe. But the theme park vibe suggested otherwise. It looked as though people had come from all over the world to be in L Ron Hubbard’s home just to say they had.
There is merchandise. Souvenirs for all the family. Scientology: the gift shop. Neatly-stacked books line the shelves. They bear only one man’s name.
Memories of Hubbard
Bustled in the front door and out the back, we walk through the marquee in what was L. Ron’s—or LRH as he is affectionately addressed as by his followers—garden. There is a conference room just before the kitchen. It’s full of even more families. I say families, but who knows?
They fit the two-point-two stereotype, but I didn’t take blood tests. These are in formal dress but sitting at white plastic tables, eating catering and browsing more ISA goodies. Anti-psychiatry novels and DVDs in garish colours are neatly stacked upon counters.
The dining hall is set up like an awards ceremony. A huge, flashy stage flanked by two 50-foot statues of knights on horses in gold leaf. Huge gold lettering reads “We Are the IAS” dropping down from the ceiling. Behind the speaker’s elaborate gold podium is a huge lit up globe and colossal Olympic torches light it up.
No expense has been spared. The hall itself is on various levels, all purpose built, but the swathes of fabric, flags and opulent decor mask the fact that it will be torn down within a week, even days.
Later, during the dinner one of the waitresses tells me her table aren’t drinking. They had been late to sit down so she had to wait in the room to get all their drinks. As the rest of the staff were ushered out the lights went down and a video begins on the big screens. It was “like the VMAs,” she said.
Neatly stacked books line the shelves. They bear only one man’s name.
With music pumping, strobe lighting flashes across as self motivational messages pop up in a hypnotic manner. There are cinematic shots of knights on horses, riding form a forest. People are waving international flags and the room lights up. The videos depict Scientologists with different accents—for universality, natch—who are telling all the Scientologists how happy they are to be here.
There’s mention of the literacy and anti-drugs campaigns currently in play, but no gritty details. I wonder who they have actually helped. I couldn’t see any genuine case studies. But then I am shooed out by a manager. Back to the progressive jazz in the kitchen.
Waving the flag for Scientology
After the dinner a concert takes place, the performers members of the IAS themselves. It’s live pop-rock, crowd-pleasing stuff. The Scientologists are on their feet. This is why they came here, they say, waving their flags.
There are no religious references that I can recognise: only opulence. But unlike religions founded on shame or guilt, the guests—or disciples—are celebrating. It is the one-year anniversary and they are in their spiritual home. People have come across the world to spend time here, to greet fellow Scientologists they have never even met. They have paid money to travel across the world, paid for their tickets and bought their souvenirs.
On our way out we hear a rumour that a photographer was caught by security trying to sneak in. We trudge back to our cars and coaches in the rain, it’s the early hours and the Scientologists have left. Holiday Inn? Who knows. I wave farewell to Saint Hill.
I went home with knowing one thing; judging by his interiors, LRH (may he rest in peace) would have one big fat subscription to Dungeons and Dragons.
And I definitely left with more questions than answers. But IAS are offering a free six-month membership that might help work some of that out. I’m not sure it’s a better deal than the Catholics, but they do have Tom Cruise.
Mark Davies is a pseudonym.