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Comedy and Catastrophe
How has it come about that I, who entered the monastic life for all the wrong reasons, and then, finding myself most unhappy, bored by the endless services and experiencing the half hour per day of private prayer that we were supposed to do nothing but an empty and hollow waste of time, nevertheless stayed for twenty-five years because I was too frightened and perhaps even too lazy to leave (for how we cling to our unhappiness as to a life raft, it is after all our unhappiness), until I finally plucked up courage to betray my vows and left; how has it come about then that in these last years I should have fallen head over heels in love with the resurrected Jesus, so that I enter into the secret chamber of my heart each day to commune with him with overflowing gladness, as a lover runs filled with joy to his darling’s bed (well something along those lines anyway)? How late have I loved thee I could say with St Augustine, but not, mercifully, too late. Along what broad highways and through what narrow passages have I passed to emerge at last, on the high hill of my old age, to this great wonder! Or could it all be a delusion? Yes, I think it could, for how mysterious is our engagement with our own lives and how easily we deceive ourselves. The whole point of faith is that you commit yourself personally and emotionally to a proposition that is intellectually uncertain, for otherwise you would not believe – you would know. I do not doubt that the atheists would say it is a consequence of an imbalance in my blood sugar levels, or a disturbance in the left temporal lobe of my brain. Well maybe. Perhaps, in spite of my dogged resistance to all that the monks tried to teach me, all that barren praying swelled up that part of the brain that fosters religious delusions, as the part that negotiates space is said to become enlarged in the brains of London taxi drivers. I have an answer to that. I don’t care what they think. This is just too wonderful.
* * * * *
I was born in 1937 and spent my first years amidst war and rumours of war, despite my mother, who had a hotline to God, declaring adamantly that there would be no war, or so my father told me later. I was born prematurely, and the doctor told my mother, apparently, that I was a little rabbit and would have red hair. My mother was horrified. I lived with my parents in Wellingborough, a small town where little ever happened, sitting snug as a jewel in its velvet box amidst the sweet green fields of Northamptonshire, a county where not much ever happened either, with its many spires too fast asleep to dream and its beautiful River Nene ambling unhurriedly towards the sea; winds blowing inconsequentially through its reeds murmuring messages that only souls as delicately sensitive as John Clare might decipher, and ripples busily scurrying to nowhere in particular on its shining water. I can remember almost nothing of my early life. I am surprised at this as other people I know seem to be able to remember quite a lot, and I have no idea why. However, rather like the co-incidental debris rising to the surface from a depth charged U-boat, some occurrences I do recall. I can remember walking along to school, aimlessly kicking the fallen bright scarlet and yellow leaves of, I suppose, a Virginia creeper, as enchanted by their brilliance as Newton must have been when he first saw the colours of the rainbow through his prism. I can remember being taught how to paint a sunset by wetting the paper and allowing the paints to run into each other (right up with you there, Newton). I can recall faintly, too, the first prickings of Priapus at the thought of the girls’ changing room – what went on in that forbidden sanctum? – although at that time Cupid was still a merry little fellow, and not the bullying tyrant wielding his whip of scorpions that he would later become. To get to my little bedroom, I remember, I had to be carried by my parents past a corner on the stairs where the black men of the night lurked. I was utterly terrified of them, but fortunately they never quite managed to get me. An evacuee called Pam Hardy came to stay with us. Nobody else would take her because she wet the bed, but as my mother already had one most copious bed wetter and, I now realise, over-flowed with a compassion as rare as rubies for the lost and the unfortunate, she did not hesitate. Pam was spotty and plain and wore glasses. I adored her. A woman lived down the road called Mrs Rabbit, appropriately enough, for she had a swarm of children that she kept in order with a cane hanging on her kitchen wall. Perhaps my mother thought she had been given the wrong baby. My father bought me a little toy Hornby train that ran round on rails. It whistled and emitted sparks as it whirred along. I nearly died of whooping cough, apparently, and dimly remember Dr Watson – why do I remember he was called Watson – standing gravely at my bedside.
I could not say that I actively hated my mother. But I was embarrassed by her, feared her and hid my heart from her, lovingly fingering and fondling my resentments as the disgruntled do. I have learnt, though, that we understand ends only by comprehending beginnings. These days, now I am not far off the mystery of death, I am fascinated by that other great darkness that bookends our brief lives, and seek to penetrate the primordial unconscious preface to consciousness, when our whole being was saturated by the presence of our mothers; and the secret of who we are that will unfold itself only gradually in our future lives is being literally secreted. Like a deep-sea diver seeking to enter a remote underwater cave I donned wetsuit and goggles and strapped on breathing apparatus, but could never understand the garbled bubbling signals I send back to the surface. Or, to vary the metaphor for it is only through metaphors that we can seek to approach these depths, I looked back through my meagre early memories as astronomers look back in time along the lights of stars, until the last gleams are lost in the vast primordial darkness of the beginning, until one day, as Proust when he tasted the madeleine suddenly remembered the night his mamma not only came to bestow her customary kiss but spent the whole night with him and read to him from François le Champi, so one day I suddenly remembered my mother showering me with love one night when I was ill, and I knew then that she had not failed to bestow on me that first and founding blessing which only mothers can bestow on infants and the adults whom they will later become. ‘The most exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses’ wrote Proust. Many years later, in that strange reversal when parents age, and the parent becomes the child and the child the parent, my resentment dissipated as nebulously as mist before the warming sun, and I finally made my way back to her in a last blessing of tenderness and love that was surely rooted in the first. I store up that sense of blessing in my heart now as I go about the this and thats of daily life, as a recusant priest might have hidden the blessed sacrament in his saddle bags as he galloped about the countryside.
Both my parents came from what is now Salford but was then east Lancashire. They lived their vivid and robust lives to marked degree, fiercely independent in spirit, endlessly talking and argumentative, firm in their opinions and not shy in expressing them. My mother’s side of the family, the Harrisons, had been rich brewers, or so my mother always maintained, although I found later that they had just run a pub in Chorley and doubtless brewed beer in the back room. They must have done quite well though, because they had invested in two houses in Boothstown that continued to yield ground rents. These ground rents were frequently borne aloft as escutcheons of the superiority of the Harrisons to the riff raff who pullulated all about, much as the Duke of Westminster, I imagine, might survey his sweeping acres and think I am not entirely poor. My Uncle Tom, my father’s brother, a man of scathing wit and perspicacious eye, did a splendid imitation of my mother saying grahndrents. To the mortification of the Harrisons, my grandmother had married beneath her, for love, a miner called John Naylor, who worked in the Duke of Bridgwater’s pits at Worsley and Astley. The Worsley pit was the one where Brindley had built the first canal running straight into the mine, from where it transported the Duke’s coal to Manchester. Today I sometimes look fascinated at the strange orange water of the canal at Worsley, still running into the black holes of the pit that had swallowed my grandfather and then spat him out. A pit disaster had left him a nervous wreck, unable to work with neither wage nor compensation. Nothing daunted, my intrepid grandmother opened a shop in Boothstown that sold, as was then common in the north, vegetables and fish. My grandmother charged high prices, partly to keep the riff raff out and to attract ‘decent folk’ in, who were only too pleased to avail themselves of this privilege. My mother had three brothers, all younger than herself. Of these the oldest was Willy, a resolutely cheerful man, witty, debonair, slightly rakish and always beautifully dressed. ‘Eeh, our Willy would look smart in a sack’ my grandmother used to say. He would fetch goods from Manchester wholesale market in a van, and a crisis ensued when it came out that he had been spending the money he had been given to buy the vegetables on backing horses, and, his borrowings eventually becoming unpayable, angry creditors turned up demanding immediate payment at the shop. My grandmother, who had never driven a motor vehicle in her life, got into the van and lurched and stuttered her way threatening life and limb to Manchester, where she sold the van to pay the debts. But Willy’s love affair with the horse did not end, as the van was replaced by a cart pulled by the amiable Dolly to whom he was devoted.
The two younger brothers, Wesley and Harrison, both suddenly announced that they had felt the call to the priesthood, and entered the theological college at Queens Birmingham. The fees nearly broke the family, which became entirely dependent on my mother’s teaching salary. My grandmother had a brother, Great Uncle Harrison, who owned a string of chemist’s shops round Chorlton-cum-Hardy that had made him rich. He had a glamorous housekeeper called Miss Bun. The Naylors hated Miss Bun, who would never sit down in our house lest her elegant bottom became soiled with residues of vegetables and fish. ‘Housekeeper? Pooh mistress you mean’ scoffed my mother. Perhaps she was right, for Miss Bun would accompany Great Uncle to Goodwood and Monte Carlo in most un-housekeeperly posture. In the middle of all this, Great Uncle Harrison nearly went bankrupt and the Naylors had to mortgage the shop to bail him out. Miss Bun never graced our house again, but one consequence of this even greater financial burden was that my parents were unable to marry for eleven years. Every weekend my father would travel back to Eccles from Wellingborough, whence he had been sent by the London Midland and Scottish railway, doze the Sunday night in a chair in the backroom of the shop, rise at 2 a.m. and walk from Worsley to Manchester Victoria, where he would catch the early express to London, which, conveniently, stopped only at Wellingborough in case Lord Vaux might be aboard and wish to alight. How he must have loved her. To add to the Naylors’ troubles, a new principal at Queens College tried to get rid of Wesley and Harrison on the grounds that they had not been to a public school. Breathing fire and smoke my grandmother travelled down to Birmingham and gave the principal an earful of the Ena Sharples. They stayed, and were eventually ordained and incardinated, if that is the right term, into the Diocese of Sheffield.
Harrison was High Church. He had adopted that rather sing song voice with a horse neighing in it somewhere that vicars use when announcing the next hymn – the next hymn will be number 196, All things bright and beautiful, number 196 – for most of his discourse. ‘The Bishop of Sheffield, a fine theologian, the Bishop of Sheffield a fine theologian’ or ‘The London Times, an excellent newspaper, the London Times an excellent newspaper’. Although a bachelor he was extremely handsome, and unmarried women buzzed round him like bees round a honey pot. One of them – Miss Pierce or Miss Braithwaite or the indefatigable Miss Fleming – would perhaps have ensnared him if they had not been seen off with ferocious defensive action by my grandmother, whose youngest child and ewe lamb he was. These hopeful ladies would come to the door of the vicarage and request confession from Father Naylor, who hears confessions so beautifully. My grandmother, who had by that time become his housekeeper, would answer the door. Unfortunately, Father Naylor was not in, nor the next day nor the day after that, indeed very difficult to say when he would ever be in. For years Miss Fleming cycled miles to hear his sermons – ooh our Harrison’s a lovely preacher – which were of the ‘Ye fat cows of Bashan lying on your soft couches and mincing along in your silken raiment, the Day of the Lord is upon ye’ school. Eventually even Miss Fleming gave up, although years later I was somewhat surprised to overhear him saying to himself, in a voice perhaps slightly tinged with regret ‘A fine pair of buttocks Miss Fleming, a fine pair of buttocks Miss Fleming’. To be fair, my uncle firmly believed that priests should be celibate, although where grandmother ended and God began it is hard to say. He felt he had a special mission to the miners. By the nineteen fifties coal had been nationalized and the nation’s need for it being urgent, the miners were earning gargantuan sums, but were so spendthrift and profligate, by the end of each week they were as skint as if it had still been the days of the Jarrow hunger march. Harrison’s asceticism sheltered them under his capacious loving wings, understood them, forgave them and blessed them. He loved them and they loved him. ‘Rotherham a modern Babylon, Rotherham a modern Babylon’.
My Uncle Wesley was very different, happily married and as broad in church as it was possible to be. His great hero was Stanley Baldwin. ‘Yes, we must compromise on this one as the great Stanley Baldwin advises’ he would intone in a voice rich with roast beefs of Old England and Devon cream teas, and rubbing his hands with glee and eyes sparkling with the all’s right with the worldness of it, would repeat his jewel of wisdom ‘Oh yes, we must compromise on this one’. His sermons were also very different. ‘Not too little and not too much, my dear brethren, the middle way, the way of the Church of England. We must seek moderation in all things. But not too much. We must be moderate even in our moderation. Perhaps only one spoonful of sugar in our tea this Lent rather than two’. He too was a lovely man and spread good cheer all about him.
My father’s side of the family were chalk against cheese. Whereas the aim of the Naylors was to escape from industrial northern-ness, the Jacksons celebrated it. Duke of Devonshire with yer big house and yer great estates? Pooh, we’ve got railway engines and the Manchester Ship Canal. My paternal grandfather was an engine driver running out of the sheds at Eccles. My grandmother’s maiden name had been Jones, so her origins may have been Welsh which perhaps explains why I feel so at home in Wales. I do not remember her, but by all accounts she was a most gentle soul. Every Friday my grandfather would get drunk and when he returned home would beat her up, with the consequence that my father foreswore alcohol and would never even enter a pub. He remembered a column of German prisoners being herded along the Eccles Road during the First World War and the jeering crowd throwing horse dung at them and shouting abuse and spitting. My grandmother wept. ‘They’re somebody’s lads’. It was from her, I don’t doubt, that my father inherited a universality of feeling and vision that transcended both tribe and plot, a breadth of view that my mother never appreciated. Or did she? How mysterious marriages are. There had been ten births, but of these children seven had died in infancy, as was not uncommon in those days. Of the survivors, my father had a brother my Uncle Tom. He was a man of sardonic outlook and sharp wit but also refinement of feeling. He was an accomplished pianist and would give wonderful renditions of Cole Porter and Ivor Novello. He was married to my Auntie Margaret, an ardent Methodist lady, definite in her opinions and robust in their expression. I can remember Tom playing Debussy with much tenderness of feeling – a delicacy of sensibility that he too must have inherited from Grandmother Jones – and my aunt saying ‘Can’t you play something with a bit of go in it?’ Shall I play you Down at the Old Bull and Bush? he wearily replied. My father also had a much older sister, Emily, who was already twenty-one when he was born. Emily was extremely contrary and argumentative. “If you said it were rainin’ Emily ud maintain it were fine” my father used to say. She got on her high horse as if she were saddling up for the Grand National. On one climactic occasion when my mother insisted, needless to say, that she be married to my father during the highest of high masses, to the fury of the Jacksons, when the bell was rung for the consecration Emily shouted out Fire! Fire! Is there a fire? She followed this up by calling my mother a bitch, after which relations between the two families were severed for years. But my mother could give as good as she got. It was a case, said my father, of Greek meets Greek. Emily was married to a most peaceable man called Ernest Bradshaw who had lost a leg during the First World War. Returning home to Emily must have been like going from one war to another. On my grandfather’s side, there were also three female Blears cousins. Of these the eldest, Ann, was elegant and sophisticated, sported a toque and long gloves, and smoked a cigarette in a holder like Marlene Dietrich. Her sisters, Polly and Flo, were, by contrast, unpretentious and easy going. Their habit of sitting out on their doorsteps on summer evenings was frequently brandished in my father’s face by my mother as evidence of their lowliness.
I adored my father. In my early years I saw little of him. He was not called up to the army because as a fitter on the railway he was on an essential works order, and when not working he was on exercises with the Home Guard. I have a vague memory of him standing in our front room in his uniform. ‘A’ never could do wi’ that Hitler’. After he left the railway in 1944 and opened a fruit, flower and vegetable shop in Northampton, he bought a half-acre of land in a nearby village called Creaton. It was sold to us by Mr Dowdy and was still then an undisturbed corner of old England, softly breathing a deep and orderly peace and a long untroubled happiness slowly accumulated during centuries. ‘What we were fighting for’. Opposite lived Mrs Clayton in a wattle and daub cottage, her garden sprawling untidily, choked with bright flowers and rambling weeds and surmounted by high poles of proliferating runner beans. The chimes of the village clock rang the hours. Life ran on tranquilly in a green heaven as it always had. Time slowed down. We grew soft fruit and flowers and apples, and had a colony of hens that were fed on fishes’ heads and tails from the next-door fish shop. The eggs tasted of fish, but who cared about that when there was a war on? My father would take me to his smallholding, this blessed plot, this jewel set in a silver sea, while my mother ran the shop, and to me it was like walking in the Garden of Eden with God before the Fall. I can remember picking gooseberries and the sky black with super-fortresses going over to bomb Germany. Alas, little did I realise that the angel with the flaming sword would soon expel us from this untroubled arbour of slow happiness.
My father was keen on cricket and would often talk of the great players of yesteryear. ‘Fa-ast?’ – he delivered the short northern a as if he were returning a ping pong ball at full volley – ‘Fa-ast? Larwood were so fa-ast he musta scorched pitch a’ reckon. Ball was elliptical by time it got to t’other end.” “ A’ saw Lionel Tennyson hit three consecutive sixes out of Old Trafford stret outer t’ground like he were swotting flies wi’ a newspaper”. He had the soul of a poet. My adoration of him reached a climax on Whitsun Monday 1949 when we went to see the Roses match at Old Trafford. There is a crowd of thirty thousand. The sun is hot. We are sharing an ice cream. And the great Sir Leonard – as Hutton was not yet but would soon become – his cover drive as elegant and noble as if it were straight off the frieze of the Elgin Marbles, is scoring a double century. It was also one of the first matches that the young Fred Trueman played for Yorkshire. ‘A’ reckon this young whippersnapper can bowl a lob or two an’ all”. It was only a few months away from the great catastrophe of my childhood that would sever him from me for ever. Seventy years later, I can see now that he constantly made overtures to heal the breach. But all through the years I resisted, held myself back from him and punished him by with-holding my love. It is only now that I can see that this is what I did. We do the really awful things that we do because somewhere deep inside ourselves we do not know that we are doing them. I never made up with him as I did with my mother and now he is dead. It is one of the great griefs of my life. I beat helplessly on the doors of the not now possible but they remain fast shut. I hang on grimly to that teaching of the Catholic faith that has now become so precious to me, that the dead are not lost. In my prayers I feel I am closer to them than I ever was in life. Am I? Who knows.
We moved to the shop in Northampton on March 1st 1944 and I can remember sitting at the front of the removal van with snow falling on the windscreen. I can remember little of the early days in the shop, although I do recall the corridor alongside it – by this time the U boats had been beaten – packed to the ceiling with scarlet Jonathan apples from Canada and oranges from South Africa. Nor could I ever forget my father’s shop windows. He was a natural artist. On Thursday afternoons he would dress his window, and on Friday mornings, with the sun pouring through the glass, the flowers and vegetables would celebrate their form and colour with great shouts of pride and joy, gleaming and glowing as if they were a van Gogh or a Matisse. My parents quarrelled and rowed virtually all the time, about the prices they should charge, whether to throw away rusty old tins or not – my mother was a compulsive hoarder and would fight tooth and nail on behalf of the rusty tins until, her fear of the health inspectors overcoming her hoarding instinct, she would suddenly throw away all the tins, shining new ones as well as the rusty ones, but then, as the governor on a steam engine is propelled by the extreme it has reached towards its opposite, her reluctance to throw away old tins would again overtake its now dormant polar alternative , until once again fear of the health inspectors would rise to the ascendant, and so over the years it went on – arguments not only about the rusty tins but also religion, of course, politics and art.
Much of their quarrelling was not unfriendly in nature, rather as jousters in a tilt yard might unhorse each other for sport –
“You’re common, you’re common, and shall I tell you something else for nothing, when you get up tomorrow morning you’ll still be common.
Don’t be so mardy woman, oo do you think you are? Duchess o’ Devonshire?
And will you please not shout. Gentlemen do not shout.
A bad attack of the miladies coming on is it?”
Some of their quarrels were serious though and I became adept at telling the difference. Their attacks on each other went straight through me like knives, tearing me apart. I would shrink away and curl myself up into a ball like a hedgehog. Please please please, let them stop! Let them stop! I wonder if they ever realised.
My father had once played a cornet in an Eccles brass band and had very definite views about music and art. “By gum couldn’t half write a tune could Tchaikovsky. Bach? Pooh fitter’s mate. Notes just go up and down”. He was not impressed by Bach’s failure to write a tune as lyrical as the Nutcracker Suite or even Ketelby’s In a Monastery Garden. We once visited St Matthew’s church in Northampton to see the celebrated Madonna and Child by Henry Moore that Canon Hussey, a notable patron of contemporary art, had recently installed there. My father was most disappointed. “ ‘e can’t do feet. Doesn’t ‘e know women don’t have big feet? A’ don’t know what they teach them in these art schools these days. All on public money o’ course”. Once a friend of my parents, Mr Pentilow, saw a bucket full of daffodils on our back room table and quoted the line from The Winter’s Tale, ‘daffodils that come before the swallow dares and take the winds of March with beauty’. “Take? Take? ‘e shudda said tame. Tame the winds of March with beauty. Still, a’ suppose even Shakespeare can’t get it right all the time”. He was full of fascinating stories. There were all kinds of safety regulations on the railway but of course people didn’t bother about them. One day a man went to work on top of an engine and the cap of the boiler blew off. When the steam cleared “it ‘ad tek all ‘is flesh off. Just a skeleton sittin’ on top o’t engine”. One time the Prince of Wales had visited the repair sheds at Eccles and a demonstration was laid on to show how the connecting rods, which were of great weight, were fastened to the tightly fitting spigots of the engine’s wheels. The fitters who had been chosen to perform the task tried several times but failed, and in desperation the foreman turned to my father and his mate who “picked it oop and slammed it stret on. If y’d thowt about it woulda tek a week. Laffed like a drain in a thoonderstorm ‘e did”. Another time Ghandi came to Lancashire to try to persuade the Lancashire cotton industry not to undercut Indian cotton, and he saw the great sage standing alone on Darwen station. “Like a sparrer wi’ glasses”. Another time there had been a correspondence in The Daily Telegraph as to whether fakirs could walk on fire and it culminated in the paper paying for a fakir to come over from India to perform a demonstration. My father having a few days’ holiday and, of course, free rail travel, went to see it. A trench the length of a cricket pitch was dug in Epping Forest and filled with burning charcoal. A doctor who was present gingerly put a toe into the edge of the trench and was badly burnt. “Hollerin’ like the Flyin’ Scotsman on full head o’ steam ‘e were.” But the holy man walked its length unharmed. “Alus summat o’ interest in Daily Telegraph”.
Both my parents were confirmed Conservative voters, but for opposite reasons. My mother favoured the Conservatives because they had nice manners and had been to public schools. One of her heroes was Anthony Eden, then the sartorial cynosure of Europe. “He dresses beautifully. I’m not surprised Herr Hitler was impressed”. Another hero was Sir Robert Boothby who made frequent appearances in panel games on our little black and white television. “He has perfect manners and has been to Eton”. What she would have said if she had known, according to M.I.5 files released in 2015, that Boothby was a crony of the Kray brothers who, allegedly, procured him rent boys and was having a long-term affair with Lady Dorothy Macmillan, I sometimes wonder. (“If I don’t have two women a week I get a headache” Kennedy is supposed to have said to Macmillan. “what do you do, Harold?”). I suppose she would have said that Our Lady will intercede for him with her divine son, and the shepherd of the sheep will leave the ninety- nine and return rejoicing, with the lost one – especially one with nice manners who had been to Eton – safe on his shoulders. My father, on the other hand, voted Conservative because they were the party of the one nation, upholding the honour and independence of the ordinary man against the tyranny of socialism. He was contemptuous of the aristocracy. They had filched the land of England from honest labourers and yeomen and had the morals of the farmyard. “Duke of Norfolk? Yer wot?” it is as if he has started on a cup of tea and found it has salt in it instead of sugar. “Duke of Norfolk?” No matter that the Duke of Norfolk is a Roman Catholic of blameless moral reputation and Earl Marshall of England. Get the Duke of Norfolk down a coalmine, soon see who’s Duke of Norfolk then. This vision of the Duke of Norfolk emerging from the pit with blackened face and wearily handing in his tally and switching off his miner’s lamp, gave my father much satisfaction. But the misdeeds of the aristocracy were nothing beside those of the socialists. During the sixties and seventies he endured with growing despair the proliferating tribes of do-gooders, Guardian columnists, women’s libbers, long haired louts, town and country planners, football hooligans, art charlatans and above all the pobs and the wallers, who were destroying old England where Hitler had failed. The pobs were la di da types who talked drivel on the BBC. The wallers were petty officials with clip boards who did everything they could to ruin his business. He would read out with incredulous dismay horror stories from The Daily Telegraph, which he regarded as a most trusty scripture for all his life. Pop music is blaring at top volume twenty-four hours a day in halls of residence at Essex University. We are bigger than God claim the Beatles. At Warwick University they are proposing an MA course in beekeeping. “Goin’ t’dogs is this country. Nay, gone already, gone”.
The war came to an end and everywhere about people were rejoicing. But I did not rejoice. It was also the time when the concentration camps were being uncovered. I read about them in the newspapers with morbid fascination and horror, dreading to read more and yet unable to resist. I surreptitiously ferreted out articles about them in the Daily Telegraph when my parents weren’t looking. I realised, with a sickening thud in the bottom of my heart that the Black Men of the Night were not fantasies on the bend of the stairs, but were real and ran the concentration camps. A man sitting on the bus next to my father had a whip he claimed had been used at Belsen. The Horror! The Monster! He has pursued me all my life. My first school in Northampton was at Stimson Avenue, a few streets away from where we lived. I remember almost nothing of it. To get there I had to walk about half a mile, I suppose, and I remember the smell of shoe leather which in that part of Northampton was over-powering. On the way, I passed a newsagents that every Thursday would display a copy of Health and Efficiency in the top right hand corner of the shop window. Dizzyingly, fascinatingly, there were nudes, actual female nudes, eating raw carrots and bouncing beach balls. Pretending no interest in the nudes in case some officiously prudish adult should pass, I became expert at looking into the bottom left corner – Angling Times, Motor World – and swivelling my eyes upward and right so I could just catch sight of the nudes. The Head Teacher was called Mr Smith. I was a little bit in love with a girl called eponomously Peggy Jackson. I remember tickling another girl who was called Vivian Dix in the playground. These days I suppose I would be hauled off to a juvenile remand centre and accused of rape. That is the sum of my memories of Stimson Avenue, but they must have taught me something because I passed the eleven plus with flying colours and went on to Northampton Grammar School. I spent a happy year there and made some good friends. We were taught how to play rugby football by Mr Johnson – who is the chap who gets into the team? It’s the keen chap who gets into the team – and history by Mr Trotter. A boy called Victor Sadler kept a grass snake in a glass tank and we would watch fascinated with the horror of it when he fed it a frog. The frog would leap terrified about the tank but the snake was always too quick for it. It swallowed the frog whole in slow motion and the bulge would get smaller and smaller as the frog progressed down the snake’s throat. The Horror! The Monster!
My father had been brought up a Methodist but on marrying my mother he had adopted her High Anglicanism, and at this time, when I was about eleven, they both decided to become Roman Catholics (an epithet I detest, for Catholicism, as the term implies, is not Roman but universal, but in a world so full of Protestants it was a useful term of distinction). I always imagined that my father had been dragged along in my mother’s wake –
Pooh, I don’t think you even believe in the Immaculate Conception
A’ can tek it or leave it me –
but I realise now that his faith was personal and profound and deeply committed. At the time, a clever little boy, I was reading Westward Ho! and had imbibed the Whig interpretation of history in a pretty big way. I was horrified by the idea of becoming a Catholic. Would I be hauled before the Inquisition and burnt alive? (I was right. The Black Men of the Night find few corners of the stairs more congenial than those in the Catholic Church). I screamed and yelled and kicked the sideboard, which bore the mark of my fury for years. But I was only eleven years old and judged too young to make up my own mind and was carried along. We went to instruction classes given by a priest called Father Taylor. I remember he took a watch out of his pocket and swinging it on its chain told us that God made the world as a watchmaker makes a watch. My goodness how I would tear into him today. Darwin? No? To this day my feelings about the Church remain deeply ambiguous.
My father was a man of vaulting ambition and restless enterprise, and would, I am sure, have become a millionaire if he had not always been held back my mother, which, looking back at it, was perhaps just as well, for I now realise that there are few fates worse than becoming a millionaire. He wanted to sell the shop and buy an orchard in Cambridgeshire. He wanted to emigrate to South Africa. My mother would have none of it, partly because as he was energized by risk she was terrified of it, but mostly because it would deprive her of her pulpit in the shop, from which she could harangue the customers about politics and religion. ‘England will once more become Our Lady’s dowry, Mrs Busby’ as she weighed out the potatoes. It was not good for trade. Taking a leaf from my grandmother’s book, my parents charged high prices to keep the riff-raff out and attract the middle classes, to whose station they earnestly aspired, in. There was Mrs Busby, the Misses Darby, Miss Doreen and Miss Betty Clayton (who taught me the rudiments of the pianoforte) and Mr Arnold, father of the celebrated composer Malcolm Arnold, most of whom lived in the then fashionable dwellings on nearby East Park Parade overlooking the racecourse. Fortunately, it turned out that the customers were mostly prepared to run the gauntlet of Our Lady as the produce was of excellent quality. My father stole a march on the other shops – there were three green grocers’ shops in our row alone – by going out into the country and buying fresh stuff directly from the growers. After a day or two it would be demoted to ‘seconds’ and when almost rotting labelled ‘not extra-specially fresh’ and sold off cheap. On spotting a clergyman passing by my mother would run out and cry ’One day England will once again become Our Lady’s Dowry’ but the vicars got wise to this after a bit and would take long detours. The stretch of road outside our shop must have been the most clergyman free highway in England. My mother met her match, however, in Johnny. This was an era before there were the homeless sitting cross legged on city streets with their dog and blanket and cap on the ground, but one in which there were still tramps who would tramp around their daily round each day. Such a one was Johnny, and as it happened his round took him past our shop. Just at that time – it was before the era of the Premiership – Northampton Town F.C. or The Cobblers as they were locally known, went from the old third division to the second and then the first and back again in five seasons. ‘England will once again become Our Lady’s dowry’ my mother would proclaim. ‘They’re among the goals missis’ Johnny would antiphonally reply, jerking his head from right to left and sending the ball straight into the back of the net. After I went to Downside my mother changed her mantra, puzzlingly, to ‘The Benedictines will rule’. Did she envisage the Abbots of Downside and Ampleforth slugging it out at Prime Minister’s question time? I often wonder.
My mother’s religious obsessions were such a prominent feature of her character, it would be easy to caricature her as a near religious maniac. But that would be most unjust. There was much more to her than that and when I forgot to hate her we had happy times. In between the arguments and the rows there was much laughter, and often on a Sunday in the summer we would make a trip to the Norfolk coast in a magnificent old Armstrong Siddley that my father bought. It boasted walnut fittings, curtains for the windows and hand holds with sashes. Characteristically, my mother was appalled when he bought it – the kind of thing get rich quick spivs waste their money on – but grew to love it so much she was equally appalled when he wanted to sell it. I loved these expeditions, especially the roadside picnics with scotch eggs and Bakewell tarts. My mother had a refinement of sensibility and a feeling for the greatness of things that I now realise was most remarkable. She implanted in me a love of literature and took me to see Donald Wolfitt playing Hamlet and then Othello at the New Theatre. I would like to say I had a Wordsworthian childhood, full of devotion to the powers of nature and the majesty of the universe but, I fear, that was far from the case. Instead, I spent much of my time throwing a tennis ball at a wall that ran down one side of our garden. If the ball goes above the blue brick it’s a run to Lancashire, if I miss and it goes below it’s a wicket to Yorkshire, present score Lancashire 28 for five. But years later when I was given Wordsworth’s Prelude to read when studying for A Level I immediately recognized the truth and grandeur of his experiences with great and, although I had never seen the Lake District, intensely remembered pleasure, and I owe that to my mother. It is only now that I appreciate how wonderful my parents were. They had many faults. But what strength of character, what resilience, what appetite for life, what honesty of person, what fidelity. How I now revere my mother’s compassion and love of beauty and my father’s rich command of language. What patient endurance, what greatness of soul, how they leapt out of the mundane, how they reached always towards the transcendent.
After they sent me to a public school – and what bursting of boundaries that people in their situation should even think of such a thing – I came to despise them with their rough northern accents and lack of social graces. I was ashamed of them. And how ashamed am I of myself now for my petty snobbery and blindness to so much that was honest and true. How I long to see them again and fall down and say I am sorry I am sorry. Is there another dimension in which we will all meet again and all will be well? Is there? Is there? The arguments of the atheists impress me so little I cannot but hope that there might be. One can only believe and hope.
The priests persuaded my father that I should have a Catholic education so I was withdrawn from the grammar school and sent, for two years as it turned out, to a boarding school run by the Franciscans in Buckingham. It was a nice if modest little school and I don’t think I was unhappy there. But two memories stand out for me. I had a handbook that purported to teach you how to learn Italian which I was trying to learn in preparation for my trip to Italy – of which more in a moment – and one day I was reading this book in the dayroom when Father Marcellus came up, saw what I was reading and said “You’ve got a hope”. Of course, he was right, I didn’t have a hope of learning Italian and the remark was not meant unkindly. But for some reason it bit deep into me and I still feel a resentment after all these years. How, in the old, cynicism and habitual surrender to defeat by life so easily blasts the blossom of hope in the young. Did I ever do the same when I became a teacher? I fear I might have done. My other memory is of a public beating administered to a boy called Kennedy who had been caught stealing, sweets I suppose, from a shop in Buckingham. The beating was imposed by the strong right arm of Father Benedict, a great sports player and the whole school was made to watch. I can still see Kennedy’s face all purple and crumpled, as if it had been reduced to the face of a frightened animal by the pain and the humiliation. It was horrible. What would St Francis have made of it? The reason always given for such rituals, of course, is that of deterring the onlookers from committing the same crime. But this is superficial. The real dynamic is the invitation to a collective feasting on obscenity that binds the onlookers together in a guilt bond and diminishes their humanity. It wasn’t meant that way of course, and what good men those Franciscan priests were, but how precarious and easily overthrown our humanity is and how quickly one thing leads to another. From little seedlings, great monstrosities grow. Hitler had already appointed a gauleiter to rule England after he had conquered Britain who was called, as if he was straight out of a James Bond film, Dr Six. Every male between fifteen and forty-five was to be transported to Europe. My father would have been worked to death in a slave labour camp. Would the Germans have risen against Hitler in the face of so appalling an iniquity? They would not. Would the English? Well we were prepared to burn alive 25,000 men, women and children in Dresden and another 40,000 in Hamburg. They have sewn the wind and now they must reap the whirlwind, said Bomber Harris. What would St Francis have said? Or Jesus? The monster cavorts and celebrates because ordinary ‘decent folk’ are morally collusive, allowing their leaders to do such terrible things because they themselves never would, but some deep part of themselves they do not know about would like to, as people who would never commit murders are fascinated by TV dramas about those who do.
My mother had a very special feeling of compassion for waifs and strays and lost wandering souls, of whom there is never any shortage, and a congregation of such were often to be found in the back room of our shop. My father was always uneasy about it but never actually forbade it, for so far as could be seen they did no harm, and I don’t doubt that my mother’s compassion was much of what he adored in her –
“Mr Lazenby is not able to dress as smartly as he would wish but he is a gentleman with perfect manners
Bent as a banana is that feller
He is an educated man and has been called to the bar
Bar of Golden Eagle.”
Looking back now, I can see that some of the men were paedophiles who were ready to run the gauntlet of Our Lady because they lusted after the pretty boy I undoubtedly was. My parents had never heard of paedophilia, still less had I, and even if it had been explained to them they would not, and perhaps would not have been able to believe it. One day one of them, let us call him Jack Swallow, came to my parents and offered to take me for a month to Italy. My parents, concerned perhaps that my cultural life was largely limited to bouncing a ball against the wall of the back garden, were delighted. How my horizons would be broadened. What art galleries would I visit. Best of all, it was Holy Year 1950, and Pius XII was going to proclaim the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into heaven as a dogma of the Catholic church.
“Our David was in St Peter’s when the Holy Father proclaimed the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven and it is now an article of faith, Miss Darby. Of course, we had always believed it in any case. And how is your sister?”.
But I didn’t want to go. Perhaps, as animals can detect what humans cannot, I already smelled his concupiscence but could not explain that to my parents or even to myself. Anyway, I wanted to go on bouncing the ball in the back garden. “Of course, at that age they don’t know what they want, come on David we want you to go. “ Unable to explain my misgivings I reluctantly agreed. It would, in other circumstances, have been a wonderful trip. I remember seeing the Alps in the distance hanging as flimsy as gauze against a pale violet sky. We did the art galleries in Florence – why do we have to go round seeing these smelly old pictures – and saw the Palio in Sienna. I can remember Pius XII being brought into St Peter’s on his sedilia, although whether on that occasion to pronounce the Assumption a dogma I neither knew nor cared, and the crowds going wild and everybody shouting Long live the Pope. They didn’t behave as badly in church like that in England. We spent a week on a farm in the Appenines with people whom Jack had known in the war when they were partisans. We all ate pasta from one big bowl, and even I, blind to beauty as I was, can remember how ravishingly the wind turned the underside of the olive leaves to a trembling silver. How fascinated I would be by all that now. But I was sick at heart. Miserably I hid in my bedroom and read and re-read my cricket books. I longed to be home, and wept with joy on seeing the white cliffs on the return ferry.
So far as I remember he didn’t actually abuse me on the trip to Italy but I could feel his smouldering hot breath. But he certainly did a few weeks later when he persuaded my parents to let him take me to Taunton. I cannot remember on what pretext, but it may have been to see Downside. “Public schools knock the corners of them, Miss Clayton”. We stayed in a hotel and he said he was my uncle, and we slept in the same bed. Perhaps nobody really knows why sexual abuse has such a devastating effect on minors, but I still think today that it was not so much the abuse itself, undesirable as that was, as the fuss the adults made about it that did the damage. Detectives came to interview me at the school in Buckingham. It was all in the local paper, names and everything. I had to go to Nottingham assizes and give evidence in the witness box.
It was devastating and would not happen today. I can remember being on the platform at Nottingham station with my mother, her face blank as a stone with bewilderment and disgust. I felt it was me she was disgusted with. And indeed, I believe that in cases of rape it is often the victim who feels guilty and not the perpetrator, who was probably a near psychopath anyway. It was certainly so in my case. I felt possessed by guilt, soiled and fouled and violated in the depths of my being. I felt smothered, as if I had been buried alive. I found myself shaking with fear and dread. I was possessed with terror that I had blasphemed against God and would go to hell. For ever and ever. The more I tried to stop thinking the blasphemous thoughts the more I could not stop myself thinking them. For ever and ever. Had not one of the priests said that blasphemy was the sin against the Holy Ghost and the one sin that can never be forgiven? Any sexual motion or thought was a nightmare of fear and guilt and shame. I was driven to distraction by compulsive anxiety obsessions. Had I failed to remove a rusty tin off the counter in the shop and might some customer have bought it, been poisoned and died? Was I bound to report it to the health authorities in Northampton? It seems comical now. It was atrociously terrible then. I felt compelled as an act of penance to get up in the middle of Mass and go out into the middle of the chapel in front of the whole school and kneel down, only too keenly aware of the jeers and titters. Other boys mocked me and pushed me around. The madman. Worst of all, there was now a complete chasm between me and my parents. They could not talk about it and nor could I. They didn’t of course, but I felt they blamed me. I cannot remember feeling that I blamed them, but I must have done, perhaps too deeply even to know that I was feeling it. I became terrified of my father whom I had adored so much, lest he should raise the subject and start castigating me for my disgustingly impure behaviour. All my happiness shrivelled away. I became miserable, sick, forlorn. My soul had been shattered.
All this was towards the end of my time at the Franciscan school. But then my father came to collect me at the end of one term. He could see how unhappy I was and, small things triggering great, was appalled by a tide mark that I had round my neck. With that decisiveness that was so marked a feature of his character, he marched straight up to the Guardian’s office, withdrew me from the school, as soon as we got home went down to the library and found out from Whittaker’s Almanac which was the leading Catholic public school in England, wrote to the Headmaster of Downside and put me in for the entrance exam. It was absurd. It was ridiculous. They wouldn’t possibly accept me. How could a green grocer’s son go to the leading Catholic public school in England? And how on earth would they pay the fees? But I passed the entrance exam and was accepted. As it happened, the passage set for precis was from Conrad’s Mirror of the Sea. I was enthralled. I remembered the trips to the seaside on the Norfolk coast. The majesty, the vastness, the endlessness, the great mystery of the sea! I hadn’t realized that I had felt these things until Conrad put them into words. These were the things that Conrad had felt and now, as in a flood of revelation, I knew that this is what I had felt too. I forgot my woes and also forgot that it was meant to be a precis and wrote an essay instead. My pen flew across the paper like an albatross skimming the waves. I was accepted and my parents celebrated by opening a tin of carnation cream. Of course, we didn’t know then that Passmore was doubling the size of the school and already had his sights on his assault on Oxford and Cambridge in 1954. He wasn’t going to let a clever boy who had written an excellent history paper and an inspired essay on Conrad slip through his fingers. I could feel my parents coming together again after the great cleavage. My father knew he had done the right thing. My mother was in a seventh heaven. I had been assumed into a public school. It was amazing that Pius XII had not proclaimed it a dogma of the Catholic Church. “By the way Mr Arnold, Our Lady has intervened with her divine son to get our David into Downside. I hope Malcolm’s composing is going well.” So my childhood ended with my heart burnt up with fear and terror and guiit, and my mind occluded by an encompassing darkness. But there was a spark of light at the end of the tunnel. I was going to Downside.