When I was a kid I was loony and my school teachers were loony la la bonkers. My whole world consisted of insane people telling me insane things, which I believed.
No, I didn’t grow up within the precincts of Bedlam Hospital or in an American cult. It was far worse. I grew up as a practising Roman Catholic.
From the moment I could comprehend, I was informed that I was a wicked sinner who would go to hell. Every morning at school we would pray to the old man in the sky and on feast days a priest would come to say mass in the school hall. Many of my teachers were nuns and they were rather nice, if a little obsessed with Jesus. To be honest I think they just wanted him to come down from the clouds and stick his magic god wand up their holy holes.
The boss priest in our parish was Canon Timothy Coughlan. He was a baldy man who looked quite like Pope John Paul II: The Wrath of God and it was assumed by many of his congregation that his passing resemblance to the pontiff made him ‘extra holy’. To me he was just a scary man with an Irish accent. In fact all the nuns and priests at that time were Irish, as were the parents of my friends and some of my own family. If Sam Becket had leapt into my body back then, he could have been forgiven for thinking that he’d landed in Ireland, a strange Ireland where all the children spoke with a Halifax accent.
Even in Yorkshire there were different dialects and accents. I spoke with a Halifax accent and one of my friends spoke with a colourful Huddersfield patois. A few years ago I spoke to a retired Yorkshire policeman, who in his day worked with the Metropolitan Police to reunite run-away kids with their families. Apparently he could place a child from Yorkshire within 25 miles of their home, based only on their accent. Most of these dialects have gone now, replaced by a more London friendly and generic accent.
The lunacy continued as I progressed from first communion to confirmation. Confirmation was a bizarre ceremony for which you needed a sponsor. The sponsor stood behind you in the church while you said some mumbo jumbo to a bishop who slapped you around the face. To be honest, I’m not really sure what it was all about. I was no doubt told at the time but my brain deposited this knowledge in a dark locked room and lost the key. All I can remember is the name of the Bishop who slapped me around the face. He was called Wheeler and he’d married my parents and christened me. As my parents eventually divorced and I became an athiest, he had a 100% Wolfenden family failure rate. Also, I remember he signed his name with a cross at the end, perhaps he didn’t want to use his slave name.
Eventually, as is the way of things, I became a teenager, which is when my troubles really began. At 14 I’d been identified by various teachers as possible priest material and one sunny afternoon I was called into the school chaplain’s office to discuss the possibility of my entering a seminary, when I left school. Of course I was very flattered and quite liked the idea of flouncing around in a dog collar and silk robes on a Sunday. However there was a gnawing feeling in my gut and it just wouldn’t go away. Instead of telling my parents that I’d been considered for the priesthood, I hid it from them. You see, something was happening. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it but eventually it became startlingly clear.
I fancied the boy who sat next to me in English!
He had curly hair and big brown eyes and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I’d take detours to lessons to get a glimpse of him through a classroom window. What was happening? All my friends were talking about the girls they fancied and all I could think about was this boy, a boy who only a few months before had been nothing but another lad.
Oh my god, I’m a poof!
Almost overnight, religion vanished from my life. What was I thinking? There was no god! I wasn’t even sure that any of the stuff in the bible had even happened. It was like waking from a horrible nightmare. Happily my school had a fantastic science department and I became fascinated by chemistry and physics. I listened to Science Now on Radio 4 and read as many science books as I could borrow from the library. To be honest I didn’t understand any of it but it felt good to read something that didn’t tell me I was an abomination. Science told me that homosexuality was neither good or bad, it was simply a fact of life. Good scientists looked to understand it but only because they were curious. I say ‘good scientists’ because there were plenty of bad scientists trying to cure it.
Anyway, that’s how I escaped the catholic menace.
A bit extra.
I happened upon this article from the Catholic Herald’s archive about a scandal at my secondary school. It pretty much sums up the insanity.