Five-minute memoir: Patrick Gale recalls almost becoming a priest


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All the traditional signs were good: I was the youngest of three sons, almost certainly gay and clearly not army or legal material. And the groundwork had been laid even before my birth. Both my paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were priests. I knew neither but they cast long shadows; ecclesiastical opposites that would have done Trollope proud.

Great-grandfather Isaac, who rose to be a canon of Wells, rejoiced in a magnificent rectory at Cleve and seems to have been rational jollity personified, as keen on archaeological research as he was on his calling. His nature was shaped by his having grown up in Wiltshire squirearchy, as heir to the handsome house and estate at Bolehyde, where our ancestors had lived for three centuries.

His son John, my grandfather, rector of Brenzett, amid the bleak beauties of Romney Marsh, appears altogether more severe. Thin of lip, unsmiling of countenance, he was surely not a man to whom one would easily confess a failing. His personality was encapsulated for me in a sunless photograph in his half-filled photograph album, captioned 'Mother's Grave (Back View)'. He may, of course, have been perfectly cheerful and merely camera-shy, but my father's stoicism and occasionally daunting severity of attitude were probably learnt at his knee.

My father was handed to a village wet-nurse at birth and packed off to boarding school at five, but was instilled with a profound love and respect for his father's employer, and church history and culture. And this despite such memories as having to gather for family prayers around the dining table every night, and being made to mark Lent by eating nightly slices of an acridly spiced, unsweetened 'supper cake' – a pious confection designed to prompt thoughts of Christ's bitter sacrifice.

Wise, honourable and kind-hearted, he would surely have made an excellent priest, but I suspect his harsh experiences fighting in the Second World War rocked not his faith in God but his faith in his own strength of spirit. Instead, he became a distinctly priestly prison governor. He was delighted when I won a 'quiristership' to Pilgrim's – Winchester's choir school – perhaps hoping that boarding (away from my brothers' impious influence and rock music) and daily involvement in church services would leave me inculcated.

I had been an obedient Sunday school attender up to now, albeit one who had occasionally to be bribed with cake, but the rigours of choir school took the spiritual significance of Sundays and spread it evenly out across the week. When we weren't singing morning service in a chapel packed with enforced worshippers from Winchester College, we would sing psalms in the college's medieval chantry for a congregation of two. The usual boredoms and intensities of a hothouse prep school were shot through with such regular exposure to holy ritual that it was perhaps inevitable that ordinary life was transformed.

I became profoundly godly for a year or two, a process intensified by the worry of a favourite sibling suffering a nervous breakdown and the shock of being involved in a car crash in which my mother suffered a brain stem injury which almost killed her. In the 1970s nobody offered counselling to apparently untroubled schoolchildren. So I took comfort from Mrs Stear's divinity lessons, and paid close attention, every day, to Jesus and the fury of Old Testament prophets.

I was confirmed at 13 and – fight it though I might in my revulsion at the church's enduring immaturity with regard to women and homosexuality – I find my faith in a loving Creator and in a life beyond this one unshakable 37 years later. Certain gospel passages, psalms and anthems can still fill me with a longing that leaves my eyes watery. I became a novelist not a priest, but it seems my parents and early schooling did a thorough job. My continuing astonishment that I make a living creatively is inseparable from my sense of that creativity as a gift for which I must be constantly grateful lest it be taken away.

These days, having married a man obsessed with church architecture to the extent of regularly curling up in bed with weighty monographs on Pugin or Hawksmoor, but vigorous in his scepticism of spirituality, I am more likely to enter a church as tourist than worshipper. My formal church attendance is sporadic at best, confined to Christmas, Easter and the occasional, solitarily greedy fix of choral evensong, a tradition which deserves to be cherished by believer and non-believer alike as one of England's richest cultural repositories. And a part of me is offering up the latest novel to those three disappointed forebears as a peace offering.

Patrick Gale's 'A Perfectly Good Man' is published by Fourth Estate