Seminary Boy, By John Cornwell

Faith, hope and clarity

Catherine Pepinster
Friday 08 September 2006 00:00

According to Freud, love and work are the cornerstones of our lives. For 13-year-old John Cornwell, well on the way to a life of thuggery and hooliganism in the East End of London, there was little love and not much by the way of work. But there was God.

God emerged in the unlikeliest of ways. Brought up in a large, feuding, poor Roman Catholic family, Cornwell's sharp intelligence and imagination went unrecognised. Nobody gave him the time, constant affection and attention that he needed. It is somewhat ironic, given that the Catholic Church is now so tainted by sexual abuse scandals, that a chain of events beginning with a sexual assault inspired in him the idea of a vocation.

Roaming the streets of London, he was picked up by a man who abused him, and he reacted by turning with increasing piety to the Church. As was typical for Catholic boys in the 1940s and 1950s, Cornwell was an altar boy, assisting the Irish priest at Mass early every morning in an East End parish. Eventually, he was put forward to the local bishop as a possible candidate for the priesthood, and was sent off to a seminary for schoolboys to begin the long preparation for ordination, something the bishop warned him "alters your entire soul".

Cotton College was to be found in that part of Britain that now draws thousands of daytrippers thanks to the theme park at Alton Towers. A pleasure-dome it was not: although set in idyllic countryside, Cotton was a place where boys endured a rigid routine. There was early rising, long hours of study, cross-country running, manual labour, no talking between supper and breakfast, no newspapers and no wireless. Even the one afternoon a week without classes offered the option of either spiritual direction or "handicrafts", which consisted of making rosaries and crucifixes.

Cornwell's account suggests that the place was an alarming combination of boot camp and religious indoctrination centre. When he first arrived, he discovered the boys "like a regiment of young undertakers", whose "eyes were bright, as if with a kind of inner excitation". In its hothouse atmosphere, the boys were absorbed by "a daily pageant of music, rituals and rapid rhythmic prayer".

God filled his every waking moment, the constant presence who governed his life through prayer, fasting and penance. And then there were the liturgies - mysterious, dramatic, a feast for the senses with their incense, Latin, music and candles. It is hard for even a Catholic today to imagine quite how all-enveloping this kind of religious life was, yet, from Antonia White's Frost in May to the memoirs of Terry Eagleton and Hilary Mantel, the Catholic childhood has an abiding fascination for readers. This latest addition to this particular genre is both absorbing and alarming, for Cornwell's memoir serves as a reminder of how easy it is for children to be isolated and robbed of childhood.

Cotton, bar a few nuns, was an all-male establishment, with the inevitable homoerotic overtones. The boys developed passions for their teachers and each other. "His rump is like ripe peaches," one boy described another to a startled Cornwell. Then there were the overtures of some teachers; the threat of abuse hung over this cloistered world. Obsessions developed about sin, there was overscrupulosity about wrongdoing and impure thoughts, and anxiety about natural sexual development.

Yet there were kindnesses, too, by boys and masters alike. And Cornwell the East End loser had a world of books and thought opened to him. From the Mass to the ravishing countryside around the college, Cotton also brought beauty into Cornwell's life.

And what of work and love, Freud's cornerstones? The work that Cotton prepared Cornwell for, that of a priest, he abandoned. Instead, the education it gave him helped to bring success in three careers - journalism, academia and books, including major critiques of the Catholic Church.

As to love, the need for a father is obvious on every page, from Cornwell's relationship with God to the priests in his life. His story culminates in an extraordinarily moving reconciliation with his own father. This is a fiercely honest account of a long-vanished world, which makes clear why Cornwell has become such a trenchant critic of the Catholic Church, but also why he is still drawn to it so powerfully.

Catherine Pepinster is editor of 'The Tablet', the Catholic weekly

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments