Friday, 13 January 2012

24. Jesus v Lenin - the unlicensed tongue of a teenage boy

In the New Year of 1959, when I was eighteen, I kept a diary in which I made regular entries for a few months. I had left school in July 1988 and had two years to fill before taking up a place at Cambridge University. This was not some prescience about the benefits of what are now called gap years but merely an accident of age. I was a few months too young to be called up for compulsory National Service in the armed forces, which was scrapped in the UK about that time. Those called up in the university entrance cohorts ahead of me were coming from their National Service into the universities so there was a delay for leavers from school. It was probably the best thing that ever happened in my education since it gave me an opportunity to work in different jobs, to travel and to read anything that took my fancy.

My first job was suitably bookish. I was a library assistant in the local Willesden Public Library system and lived at home. I earned the princely sum, to me, of £5, ten shillings and tuppence a week, out of which I gave my mother £2 for my board. My 1959 diary entries stem from that period. Later in the year I joined the night shift as a machine operator at an ice cream factory for the summer season at eleven guineas a week. By the end of the year I was working at Harrods as a warehouseman (eight guineas a week), taking Italian evening classes and saving up to hitch hike to Italy and back.

Thirty years ago I played with the idea of writing my 1959 diary up as The Autobiography of an Adolescent. Not because what I wrote in that diary is any good, but because, by and large, it’s grotesquely bad. Gauche. Cliché-ridden. Full of a banal literariness and the delusion that world-shaking truths are being discovered about love, happiness, life itself. Written by someone I scarcely recognise, someone corroded with guilt and self-doubt, struggling against the pervasive Puritanism of school and family, using literature as a filter for life. It is full of intellectual pretension and adolescent postures, insecurities and inhibitions. On display are an all-pervading self-consciousness and self-centredness, the earnest humourlessness of the young, a blindness to contradictions and inconsistencies in behaviour and attitudes, and, beneath a carapace of tolerance and broad-mindedness, the characteristic vehemence of youth, that peculiar form of teenage authoritarianism that, with no foundation of knowledge or experience, prescribes and imposes rigid moral codes with an unshakeable self-righteousness.

Mercifully, by the middle of April 1959, I abandoned daily entries and thereafter filled the diary with notes on books I was reading and accounts of my income and expenditures.

Here are a few of my diary extracts.

Thursday 1 January 1959
Read Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons” over the holiday. Interesting ideas surrounding Bazarov and his nihilism. Bazarov allows no place in his mind for love. Refuses to accept anything at face value and wants everything tested in the light of reason and experience - his experience, not that relayed to him as advice from his elders.

Sunday 11 January
Nothing I would hate more than to be an American. Judging from the newspapers, they just live in fear – of the Russians winning the space race, of Communism in their midst, of the wrath of God being visited on the corruption in their cities, of the Negroes’ civil rights demands. But then newspapers are all war and lechery, lies and propaganda. This week we were told the English Electric P.I (now the Lightning fighter jet) went faster than Mach 2; some consolation for the poor Test Match batting.
Last night’s New Year Social in St John’s Crypt was surprisingly enjoyable.

Tuesday 13 January
Am planning to write a play with the chief character a mix of Bazarov, Richard II and myself. I shall be outspoken about women, the church and Western society. The hero is a young man who does not know what he wishes to do with his life. He loves truth, beauty and love, yet can see none of these in the world around him. He is determined that it is his own experience that matters but when confronted with death (of which he has no experience) finds himself a man, his thoughts no greater, his strength no more lasting than the next man’s, and dies reconciled to the absurdity of the world and accepting of its immutability.

Wednesday 14 January
Father keeps telling me I must have an aim in life, an ambition, someone I would like to emulate. Of course he means Jesus and says so. I suggested how about Lenin, but he wasn’t amused. He thinks my lack of religious conviction is just a pose, my angry young man phase, and that I’ll grow out of it. I respect what he believes in, but he doesn’t reciprocate.

Monday 19 January
Extract from Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway”: ‘Well, I’ve had my fun; I’ve had it, he thought, looking up at the swinging baskets of pale geraniums. And it was smashed to atoms – his fun, for it was half made up, as he knew very well; invented, this escapade with the girl; made up, as one makes up the better part of life, he thought – making oneself up; making herself up; creating an exquisite amusement, and something more.’
FA Cup. Chelsea 4, Newcastle 1.

Thursday 29 January 1959
Quite a fog this evening, real pea-souper smog, ‘a London particular’. London is an uncanny place during the fog - dank, dark, dirty, quite Dickensian. And so still. Shadows loom from the fog and pass noiselessly, and the light from houses, cars and streetlamps gleams gingerly through the gloom. Sounds travel as though from the bottom of a deep pool. I feel the clammy hand of death as the fog stings my eyes, burns my throat, makes me cough and cough and cough. No wonder Robert Browning linked the fog in his throat with death. And a lot of old people have died this winter. Again. But home from the fog there’s the warmth of a coal fire, hot soup and a cosy bed.

Friday 13 February
9.45pm. BBC Third. ‘The Devil’s Bible’.
Intriguing programme about tarot cards. Cards were introduced into Europe by gypsies (not Egyptians). Twenty-two cards in the major arcana – among them the fool, the lovers, the sun, the empress, the hanged man, the devil, the tower, death, the hermit, the magician, the wheel of fortune. Four suits in the minor arcana - pentacles, cups, wands, and swords – each with fourteen cards. Lots of symbolism associated with fertility rites, witches, maypoles, ribbons, rags and tatters, Tom ‘o Bedlam, the moon, the holy grail, Robin and Marian, fools, mummers and Morris dancers, dances with horns.
Must read “The White Goddess” by Robert Graves.

Wednesday 25 February
Jean had her faced slashed in Ladbroke Grove on her way home from work last night. She is only seventeen and last month was married to Tony De’Ath. To see beauty so violated is pitiful and saddening. All so pointless – just some Teddy Boy showing off his flick-knife to his friends. One of life’s spiteful tricks.

Friday 27 February
Collected my new glasses this morning. Am still trying to get used to them.

It’s not as though I believed in the tarots. How could I? After all at sixteen I spent months untangling myself from Mum and Dad’s Christianity. With an arrogant confidence in science and rationality, and the rude profligacy of a teenage tongue, I make it clear to them that the virgin birth, the resurrection, the ascension into heaven, the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ in the act of communion, are, in my opinion, a lot of hocus pocus. It irritates me no end that Mum and Samantha, my Ballet Rambert School girlfriend with the strong ankles, dismiss something I’ve given so much thought to as just a pose, my angry young man phase, “just a stage you’re going through – you’ll grow out of it.” But my father is dismayed and hurt that such apostasy should surface in the bosom of the family and feels compromised with his parishioners in preaching a faith so manifestly rejected by his eldest son’s absence from church. Not that I care. I’m unsure which authority I’m bucking, the parental or the divine. Sometimes I think there’s little difference since Dad’s arguments are laced and buttressed with the word of God as revealed in the scriptures. But buck it I do, forcibly and insensitively, taking to heart Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian and the literature of rationalism. I ridicule creationism. I scoff at a designer universe. “So who made God? If the world sits on the back of an elephant”, I ask, unashamedly plagiarising Russell, “what does the elephant sit on the back of?”

Even before I abandon my faith I’m embarrassed by being the son of ’The Vic’, ‘The Rev’. At fourteen, the twenty-minute walk with Dad, Mum and Elizabeth from our Kingswood Avenue home to the church at Kilburn Park is a torture to me. To be seen in the company of a man wearing a dog collar. Particularly of a man having, in my view, the awful penchant for talking to strangers in the street, regularly spreading the gospel to the motley crew of street sellers on the bridge outside the Queen’s Park Station ticket office. I take an inordinate interest in the train timetables as Dad chats to all and sundry: Albert, with the hacking cough and the Woodbine hanging from the corner of his mouth, selling newspapers and cigarettes from a tiny kiosk; Jack or Trudi waving the communist Daily Worker at indifferent passers by; barrow boys with trays of whelks and live and jellied eels; in summertime the Walls Ice Cream vendor; in winter, the tramps hanging around the roasted chestnut stall warming their hands. Dad doesn’t even cross to the other side of the street to by-pass the Teddy Boy gangs so assiduously avoided by Elizabeth and I when on our own, me with eyes down in the hope that I will escape attention and not be called a four-eyed git. I can laugh now at the embarrassing agonies of being a teenager as I recall Kim’s story of how she used to duck under the cover of the dashboard in case any of her school friends saw her being driven by her mother.

When it’s wet or cold we might take the southbound Bakerloo Line train the single stop from Queens Park. But that’s no better since Dad, an insomniac, invariably cat naps during the two minute journey, his head lolling over towards the shoulder of whatever unfortunate happens to be sitting next to him before jerking back upright with a start and a grunt a second before contact is made. It’s an antic we watch with horror even though we try to disown him by sitting on the seats opposite out of harm’s way and, on arrival at Kilburn Park, rushing out the doors ahead of him. Perhaps it’s my desire to save face that triggers my loss of faith.

In his prayers, Dad searches daily for guidance and the revelation of God’s plan for his life, for my life, for our family life. To me, even though I once accepted personal prayer as much a part of the routine of my day as grace before meals, it now seems embarrassing and silly. “How come”, I inquire provocatively at the breakfast table discussion of our holiday plans, “Dad’s prayer and guidance always comes out with us doing what Mum wanted to do in the first place?"

I have tried to be a good Christian. Been a godly child. Taken my confirmation seriously. Struggled with the idea of some divine purpose in my life. After repeated coach trips with the St. John’s congregation to one of Billy Graham’s crusades at Haringey, and against the grain of my reluctance to give public expression to my emotions, I finally give myself to Jesus. Whether this conversion is triggered by filial duty, the power of the evangelist’s words, the choir’s singing of The Old Rugged Cross or my wish to ingratiate myself with Samantha, who has already gone forward for Jesus that night, is impossible to unravel. I later ascribe it to mass hysteria and berate myself for being so susceptible. But even after my rejection of the Christian faith in all its guises I continue to top Divinity classes at school, though my school Divinity reports move in two years from ‘Excellent plus (if that is possible!)’, to ‘Not as interested as I should have expected’, to ‘Never very serious in his questions and answers’, to a despairing ‘Still without any real interest. I say things to please him – and things to shock him – but he doesn’t move an eyelid.’ I learn that in some circumstances silence is a powerful form of dissent and that some feelings and opinions are best left unexpressed. It’s not a lesson I take home to London for the school vacations.

“You need some guide to your life, John,” Dad says repeatedly.

“You need someone to model your life on. Jesus says, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’. You see, you need Jesus in your life, John. You need a role model.”

“How about Lenin?” I grouch.

“I fear for your soul, John,” my ever-forgiving Dad comments sadly as he leaves my room.

So I jettison the idea of a soul as more mysticism and later take mischievous delight in asking Dad what he thinks of those Christian heretics who believe that on death the soul departs through the anus.

If I no longer want to seek God’s plan for my life then neither do I want to accept Dad’s guidance in matters sexual, dressed as it is in parental infallibility.

“You can learn from my experience, you see, Bob. I know best in these matters."

I do not see.

“Like the Pope I suppose?”

Even Dad has no time for the doctrine of papal infallibility and not much for the pope either in those days, although later his ecumenicism does stretch to embrace the Catholic Church. As a boy on a family holiday in Benburb, Northern Ireland, I watch the Orange Day parade with Dad and the local priest Dougal and listen to them jest about the “The Pope’s Horns”, the twin spires of Armagh Cathedral poking up above the hills in the distance.

What is it about being a teenager that gives the tongue such a terrible self-righteous licence? A licence reserved for home use. “John’s such a nice young man, vicar. You must feel very proud.”  How I hate that epithet ‘nice’ defining everything I don’t want to be or to become. Everything I feel I’m not. My youth club friends might need an infallible father – mine - to tell them how to live their lives but I just wish ‘The Vic’ wouldn’t persist in telling me how to live mine.

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