Seminary Boy by John Cornwell
July 2, 2006
'Seminary Boy,' by John Cornwell
Review by NORAH VINCENT
Catholic life, especially young, devout and zealous Catholic life of the kind described so painstakingly in John Cornwell's memoir, "Seminary Boy," is filled with arcane masochisms and bizarre prostrations that only a Catholic can fully appreciate. Whether lapsed or not, Catholics understand the way other Catholics think, and they tend to carry for life the same wounds and baggage as their fellow initiates. Those of us who have renounced the Roman Catholic Church in adulthood never call ourselves ex-Catholics. We declare, with all the sardonic bite we can muster, that we are recovering Catholics. The grip of Rome never lets go, which is why the trajectory of Cornwell's young life in a seminary for boys will seem painfully familiar to Catholic readers, but may remain largely obscure to most others.
Insight is the linchpin of a spiritual coming-of-age memoir like this. Keen, unflinching insight into abstruse matters of the soul, and this is especially true when we are talking of a journey as singular and strange, as vehemently insular, as Cornwell's. If the writer cannot give us that — if he cannot explain in sufficiently considered detail how he went from being an under-age East London thug, who took part in the gang-molestation of a girl and threw bricks at the windows of passing trains, to fervently declaring a vocation to the priesthood at 13 — then he is wasting words.
Cornwell, the author of the best seller "Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII," gives us only bare indications of his transformation, halfhearted stabs at catalyzing events. He provides no thoroughgoing analysis of the process by which those events would, first catastrophically and then by seismic increments, overturn a boy's sense of self and purpose in the world. In a story like this, God is indeed in the details, yet Cornwell offers us only rough sketches with glaring gaps between, such that we catapult cluelessly — as it seems does he — from the base to the sublime.
"The end of my delinquency and the growth of my devout life," Cornwell writes, "followed a trauma that I was unable to confide in anyone." Thereupon, in a mere four terse paragraphs, he drops with an audible kerplunk the pivotal tale of being sexually assaulted by a strange man in a public restroom. This is followed awkwardly, almost as if the subject were unrelated, by the recounting of a dream in which Cornwell has a presentiment of utter evil, a vision of a ruinous force in the world closing in on him. This, apparently, is what motivates him to change his life, yet we are not told how. We simply move on to the next scene, wherein the delinquent is suddenly an altar boy, and the fomenting calamity in the restroom, the supposed key to his religious conversion, lies at the center of his story as inert as a defused bomb.
Cornwell's time in the seminary — five years in all, during the 1950's — is filled with the grueling asceticism and self-flagellation, libidinous sublimation and pained homoeroticism you'd expect to encounter in a cloister full of devout pubescent boys. Cornwell finds his new home a "cold, bleak place," where he must address the priests as "sir" and endure canings at their hands for missteps as minor as studying with a flashlight under his covers after lights out. His meals consist of gray porridge in the mornings, and for lunch, "greasy mincemeat" called "slosh" and "boiled, blemished potatoes" called "chots."
Only the surrounding countryside is uplifting and seemingly filled with the presence of God. Inside the chilly walls of his newfound prison there is nothing but joyless routine. Cornwell dutifully struggles with his Latin declensions, takes compulsory long-distance runs around the grounds, fulfills his daily quota of manual labor by digging ditches in the fields above the school and, as if this delicious punishment were not enough, develops suppurating chilblains from being ill clad in the freezing confines of the music room. He compounds his own discomfort by the grave sin of being a healthy teenage boy, bedeviled almost constantly by wet dreams and involuntary erections, a condition to which he responds in horror by tying his wrists at night so as to avoid participating in any "irregular motions of the flesh." He tortures himself in penance, wearing a sort of starter hair shirt and binding a spiked wire tightly around his upper arm beneath his clothing.
There is nothing surprising or enlightening here — just run-of-the-mill Catholic misery. As you'd expect, Cornwell develops "special friendships" with other boys, courtly love rituals that assuage some of his crushing loneliness, but leave him brokenhearted and shamed in the end. And finally, yes, you guessed it, there is the stock character we've all been waiting for, the flamboyant predatory priest, nicknamed Father Rainbow, who attempts to seduce our hero, only to be righteously rebuffed.
Finding sexual predation within the walls of the very place he went to take refuge from it in the outside world undoubtedly spelled doom for Cornwell's vocation. Yet true to form, Cornwell leaves this crucial territory only cursorily explored. He renounces his pious life as quickly and inexplicably as he began it, essentially saying that he suddenly found himself unwilling to submit to its "outrageous and dogmatic demands." Sadly, this is a conclusion as deeply unsatisfying and disappointing as the rest of Cornwell's account — an account that serves only to confirm the worst stereotypes of Catholic life without elucidating any of what even a recovering Catholic can acknowledge are that life's profound mystical attractions.
Norah Vincent is the author of "Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again."
September 03, 2006
by John Cornwell
Fourth Estate £15.99 pp340
Fanaticism and brainwashing tend to be associated nowadays with other religions, not Christianity. John Cornwell’s memoir of his adolescence in a Catholic seminary in the 1950s may help to correct that. Cornwell is best known for Hitler’s Pope, his critique of Pius XII’s relations with the Nazis, and for The Pontiff in Winter, his hostile biography of John Paul II. Both books angered Catholics, but Cornwell’s earliest ambition was to be a priest, and he had a sound Catholic upbringing. At his east London primary school, run by nuns, his class teacher told the children that a V2 rocket that had landed on a nearby Anglican church, killing most of the congregation, had been sent by God to punish them for not being Catholics. Despite her pious guidance, little Cornwell went to the bad for a while, lobbing bricks through train windows with a gang of older youths, and attempting to derail an express. His Irish Catholic mother sent him to the parish priest, and he was recruited as an altar boy. It changed his life. His new status gave him self-respect, and the elegant rituals of the sanctuary provided an escape from his cramped and violent lower-class home. From the age of 11, he cycled two miles every weekday morning, in all weathers, to serve at 7am mass. When he was 13, after an interview with the bishop, money was found to send him to Cotton College, a seminary housed in a country mansion among wooded hills in north Staffordshire.
It was like a POW camp, only with round-the-clock prayers. A wire grille separated the exercise area from the free countryside beyond. There were cold showers, freezing dormitories, iron beds, beatings and vile food, prepared by nuns who, in the masculine spirit of the place, were dubbed “witches”. No newspapers or radios were allowed. The recreations were compulsory cross-country runs and digging drainage ditches. Inmates were under surveillance day and night, and were forbidden to speak from evening prayers until the next morning. The aim of these austerities was to subdue the flesh, but, in fact, the place simmered with furtive sex — crushes, flirtations and grotesque attempts to sublimate natural urges. “Has anyone ever told you that you have a beatific aura?” one of Cornwell’s friends inquired. Another became obsessed with female saints and their legendary feats of self-abasement — licking the sores of lepers, or drinking a cup of pus to show solidarity with the sick. Cornwell himself fell in love with an upper-class seminarian called Charles, and longed to climb into bed with him, though they only exchanged chaste kisses.
By contrast the teaching staff (“profs”), all but one of them priests, enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle and ample diet. They boasted that Cotton was “the finest school in England”, but their pedagogic skills were limited. The chortling sadist who was Cornwell’s Latin master managed only to reduce him to helpless panic. He was saved by an older boy who gave him private tuition. Despite their academic reputation, the profs resorted to the crudest superstitions in order to terrorise their charges. When several seminarians absconded, the headmaster lectured the school on the divine vengeance that had overtaken previous defaulters. One had developed a brain tumour within weeks of leaving, another was killed in a cycle accident, a third went mad and was locked in an asylum. A priest called in to give special passiontide pep-talks warned the boys that if they allowed their thoughts to stray in impure directions a demon would take over their bodies. It had happened, he said, in Rome, where an unwary young man had been possessed by a demon and, in the midst of his ravings, pressed his hand against a wooden panel, leaving its imprint burnt indelibly into the wood.
But Seminary Boy is not primarily an indictment of Cotton. It is a spiritual autobiography, a form little practised now, but popular in previous centuries, and one that produced an English masterpiece, John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding. As a good evangelical Calvinist, Bunyan believed that the Pope was the Whore of Babylon, and he would have dismissed Cornwell and his co-religionists as devil worshippers. For all that, Grace Abounding and Cornwell’s book are essentially similar, centring on feverish accounts of temptations and occasional moments of supernatural intervention. Bunyan felt Satan standing behind him and tugging at his clothes when he prayed. Cornwell hears Jesus Christ telling him in a “low, kindly voice” to become a priest, and after a three-hour vigil on his knees before the blessed sacrament he has a vision of God as an “intensely bright spark”.
As puberty advances “rocketing concupiscence” assails him. He takes to wearing a sweater next to his skin as a makeshift hair shirt, and twists wire round his arm so as to stick a spike in his flesh. At night he ties his hands to the bed head with pyjama cord to stop them wandering. He is terrified that, should he weaken, he will be plunged into Hell for all eternity. The haunted faces of boys queuing for confession each day assure him his problems are shared. In the event, it was not lust that undid him but rage. He was made school captain and, puffed up with grandeur, answered back angrily when one of the masters, who had always had a down on him, voiced a reproof. Too late he realised that he had offended against hierarchy, and that even if he were ordained it would never be forgotten. After a brief spell at a senior seminary, Oscott, he became an agnostic, abandoned his calling, and went to Oxford instead.
On the book’s cover, the novelist Tobias Wolff praises Seminary Boy as “the true journey of a soul”. But with spiritual auto- biography it is hard for anyone to tell what is true, including the author. Given the homosexual atmosphere of Cotton, the shock Cornwell says he felt when a friend praised a junior boy’s “gorgeous little rump”, or when an outrageously camp priest, whose hospitality he had accepted, made an indecent suggestion, seems surprising. Can he have been so innocent? But most of the time you are convinced of his unsparing honesty as he charts his painstaking development into what his mother called a “sanctimonious creeping Jesus”.
It must have been hard to confess, as he does, how he betrayed a friend in order to curry favour with a favourite teacher. The friend had wanted to enact a sexual fantasy involving simulated crucifixion, and Cornwell blabbed, though he had promised not to tell, with the result that the boy was expelled. The blurb commends Seminary Boy’s “tremendous warmth and humour”. But in truth it is as warm and humorous as an ice floe. What makes it so gripping (and it is one of the most gripping memoirs I have read for years) is its clipped, incisive style and its ruthless exposure of embarrassments and gaffes and gaucheries that most people would gladly forget.q
At his senior seminary, Oscott College, John Cornwell ‘fell in with a set of would-be intellectuals in first-year theology who would sit around . . . smoking and drinking instant coffee after lunch. We talked abstruse topics. For example, would one break the Eucharistic fast by chewing a piece of mahogany? Or swallowing dust? . . . Would it be possible to eat without sin . . . on a fast day by travelling from Louvain in Belgium to Oscott via Paris, thus passing through different canonical abstinence zones?’
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September 02, 2006
by John Cornwell
Fourth Estate, £15.99; 352pp
IN THE BLOOD
by Andrew Motion
Faber, £16.99. 312pp
HERE ARE TWO boyhoods — and two very different books about them. John Cornwell grew up in East London just after the Second World War in a poor home where they used soot from the chimney to clean their teeth.
The family was dominated by his mother, a working-class Irish woman who muddled her cliches — “it’s so quiet in here you could hear a bomb drop!” — and frequently used her fists, but who was fiercely loyal to her children, and slaved to bring them up decently.
At 13, John escaped from this world to an utterly different one. He entered a Roman Catholic boarding seminary in Staffordshire with the intention of becoming a priest. Most of his book is about the life of rocketing religious emotion that he lived through there. He records it in a brisk and forceful, sometimes staccato, prose that drives his story rapidly along.
He was awestruck at first by the deep ascetic harmony of the life of priests and pupils, by the beauty of church music (he had a good voice and was soon singing in the choir), and by the sense of God’s presence that he felt in the steep, wild countryside all around.
But the doctrines preached by some of the priests were very harsh, especially concerning sexuality. It was not long before he believed that he would be damned for all eternity if he felt even the slightest stirring in his penis. He was rescued by a gentle visiting priest who told him that Jesus “did not expect the impossible”. Afterwards, he says, he felt that he had “been touched by Jesus himself”.
His love for the seminary returned. He made friends with the genial priest who taught English literature, and found a place for himself among the different kinds of boys there. Some were as agonisingly devout as he had been, some totally cynical.
He felt what he thought must be love for one handsome and rebellious boy, at first without any idea that there was any sexual guilt involved — but guilt was soon injected into him again by the priests. Meanwhile, in the holidays, he struggled to fit tactfully into the life at home that was now so strange to him.
He became the “Public Man”, the seminary’s traditional name for school captain. In the end, especially after two bruising encounters with priests, one a boy-lover, the other a boy-hater, he lost his faith. He describes this change in a dignified and thoughtful way. Afterwards he went up to Oxford, and eventually became an historian, especially of the Catholic Church. Some readers will be glad, some sorry, to read that later in life he found his faith again.
Andrew Motion, now Poet Laureate, suffered in his boyhood in a different way. When he was 16, his mother had a serious riding accident — at just about the moment when, on holiday away from home, he was giving his first girlfriend a shy kiss.
He describes this accident in his first chapter, and the rest of the book tells the story of his earlier years. A shadow and a tension hang over his tale, especially as his constant references to “mum” make clear how much she meant to him.
Motion has remarkable recall of detail, from his very young years in a country house in Essex to his prep school days, his first experiences in the hunting field, and his holidays with his father, fishing and shooting.
He tries to represent everything through a small boy’s eyes, and this is often very effective: “When I went with mum to buy feed for the horses, the miller turned from a ghost into a man. He let me run after his cats as they dawdled across the floorboards with their tails in the air. He slipped his hands under my arms and hoisted me so I could peer into the rafters and see the mice paths in the flour dust. He let me hold one side of the sack as he opened it under the grain-shoot, and the bran whooshed out like heavy snowflakes.”
But he sometimes wobbles here, and slips into observations that could only have been made through older eyes.
Unfortunately, too, he presents himself throughout as a sensitive, anxious boy. This may be truthful, but it means that he never conveys much excitement in anything he did, and is almost entirely unable to see any comedy in the scenes around him.
Motion does not try to show how his childhood contained the seeds of his growth into Poet Laureate. We hear of his delighted discovery in school of poets such as Wordsworth and Hardy. But this book is not an Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.
At the end the story returns to his mother’s accident. Here, in a strong, spare way, he tells how he came to accept that she had suffered irreparable brain damage. It is the most impressive, and most moving, chapter in the book.
Give the church a rest
Andrew Rosenheim reviews Seminary Boy by John Cornwell.
At first glance, John Cornwell's Seminary Boy would seem to be another candidate for what is becoming a vast, disposable roster of confessional memoirs. It fulfils so many criteria of the genre: impoverished childhood, sexual abuse, inspiring teacher, eventual rise through education to… fame?
But Seminary Boy is much more than a boarding-school tale with a Catholic twist. It begins in post-war east London, where John is a religious boy in an unhappy home. A precocious sense of calling to the priesthood, perhaps accelerated by a horrific experience when, aged 11, he is molested by a man in a lavatory in Kensington, leads to his leaving home two years later for a junior seminary in the Midlands.
His decision is greeted with bemusement by his gentle, groundskeeper father, but supported by his spirited, loving mother, who "had unqualified respect for the priesthood". One senses that if his parents had got along better, Cornwell might have found a less dramatic expression for his boyhood faith.
Arriving at Cotton, a junior seminary in the west Midlands, Cornwell encounters a Dickensian cast of characters who come alive in this memoir with great vividness. There is the kindly James, assigned to help Cornwell in his first days as a new boy; the roguish, middle-class Charles House, who eventually does a bunk; the transparently psychotic Moreland, who is sent away when Cornwell reports his unwelcome overtures; even Oliver Stack, who tries to bully Cornwell until the tough side of the East End boy surfaces and he squares up to him. Stack flees.
What is most striking, however, is not the diversity of the boys, but their relative kindness to each other – far gentler than the behaviour of their counterparts at secular schools. There is little bullying at Cotton (the practical jokes described are very mild), and the corporal punishment seems paltry by the public school standards of the day.
What may strike non-Catholic readers instead is the commitment these young boys were making, and how much their spiritual development occupied their own minds, as well as those of their teachers. Excessive piety was met with mild derision (such boys were known as "sanctebobs"), but doubts went largely unexpressed, and were not encouraged.
What Cornwell conveys is how much of their time was spent in prayer, liturgical study, spiritual retreats, and various forms of religious instruction. The sheer detail of the boys' observance makes unusual reading today, but is the more evocative for that.
As Cornwell gets older, he and his fellow seminarians feel the stirrings of a sexuality that has no female outlets – the only women around are nuns who work in the kitchen and live in segregated quarters. But the clichéd hot-house of homoerotic passion and pederasty only makes a fleeting appearance in Seminary Boy; one senses instead a constant struggle, for the priests and boys alike, against any sexuality.
The torment of boys taught that even the thought of sex (much less its indulgence) can constitute a mortal sin is dismayingly portrayed by Cornwell, and this unwillingness to accept adolescent sexuality is the chief failure of the Cotton regimen.
Yet even then, there is as much gentleness as harshness. Tortured by sexual fantasies, Cornwell is convinced they are linked to his molestation in Kensington and are somehow his own fault. He pours his heart out to a revered English teacher, the motorcycle-riding Father Armishaw, who reassures him with characteristic gruffness and urges him "to give church a rest".
Most of Cornwell's other teachers seem equally well-intentioned, tolerant, benign and distinctly unpederastic, with one notable exception whom Cornwell manages neatly to avoid. Known as "profs" and called "sir" rather than "Father", they include memorable characters, like the Greek master Dr Warner, who stopped short just hours before entering the priesthood ("like a bridegroom who changed his mind on his wedding day") but feels bound by the vows of celibacy already made.
With much encouragement, Cornwell prospers at Cotton, becoming its equivalent of Head Boy, before a sudden rush of teenage ego leads him to insult an ill-disposed teacher and ruins his chances for further education in Rome. Attending a second-rate Catholic college in Birmingham, he finds his faith rapidly expiring and his fantasies about women growing.
Within two years, he leaves, going to Oxford to read English and opting for the secular world. A final postscript indicates a return in recent years by Cornwell to the faith of his youth, though the accounts of his adult rejection of and middle-aged return to Catholicism seem unsatisfactorily abrupt.
Overall, however, this account of his early life is richly satisfying, one that cuts across the grain of the expectations its seminary setting arouses. There is a sensitive intelligence at work in this book. Moving yet unsentimental, and stunningly well written, it begs a sequel.
Split between the sacred and the profane
Alexander Waugh reviews Seminary Boy by John Cornwell.
Among those young Catholic men who choose to enter the priesthood many do so for the barmiest of reasons. Not because they really believe in the doctrines of sin, redemption, eternal damnation etc, and have calculated that a priestly life will deliver the best odds for salvation – but for reasons that are frequently illogical, sad and frivolous: because they are drawn to the exotic costume, because they desire to be close to children; because they need to 'feel like Jesus'; because they are lonely, frightened, psychologically or sexually bewildered – and always because they have fallen, during their time at school, under the domineering spell of some irresistible, charismatic adult.
The author John Cornwell was himself a schoolboy when he took the great leap toward becoming a Catholic priest and this, according to his extraordinarily frank new memoir, is ostensibly how it happened: 'One morning as I knelt before the Blessed Sacrament, the world of my imagination and the world of daylight reality came together. I heard a low, kindly voice. I thrilled to the sound of the voice, which was even more real than the motor of a passing car on the high road outside. "Come John," said the voice. "Follow me, I want you to be one of my priests." It was the voice of Jesus.'
After that the boy cycled home in a 'glow of happiness'. He did not stop to question what he had heard, to ponder why Jesus had chosen to speak to him in English rather than in his native Aramaic, or why he happened to be calling upon the services of little John Cornwell just at the very moment when John so obviously and so desperately needed him. But these reflections are not the sort to prick the conscience of a young Christian mind intoxicated, as this one was, by readings of Thomas à Kempis and the rituals of the Catholic Mass.
So why did Jesus ask John to become a priest that day? The answer can be found cryptically layered across the whole structure of Seminary Boy. In the first 40 pages we learn that John was part of a large East End working-class family. His grandfathers were a pub landlord and a boiler repair man. His father was a Walter Mitty fantasist with a bad leg, eager to escape family duties, to disappear, eloping with other women into a world of his own silly fibs; his mother, overburdened and exasperated, was strict with her children. She blackened John's eyes, bruised his limbs and shoved a bar of carbolic soap down his throat for calling his brother 'a shit'.
John, perhaps more intelligent than others in his family, became a restless rebel, stealing cigarettes, whacking a boy over the head with a cricket bat, hitting a nun with a blackboard, lying to get other boys into trouble and, on one occasion, urging his friends into a sexual assault on a young girl in a disused bomb shelter. At a special school for disruptive and unruly pupils he was tied to his bed by the teachers and electrocuted by another boy. Shortly afterwards he was forced into committing lewd sexual acts with a middle-aged man in a tweed suit who accosted him in the South Kensington underpass and afterwards beat him up as a warning not to tell the police what he had done.
And so it is that both the reader and John Cornwell are extremely pleased and relieved when Jesus cuts in to ask our young hero to become a priest. In the train on the way to his seminary the boy is overwhelmed by a 'delicious sense of sadness' as he is carried 'farther and ever faster away from Mum and the whole family, from the huge bruised city of London. From the World.'
Had he known exactly what seminary life would entail perhaps he would might resisted Jesus's call and chosen instead to remain at home with his tough and dysfunctional family. At Cotton, a seminary in the West Midlands, he is both beaten and abused. One night he is awoken in his bed by a fellow novice nutter and asked to lie on his back with his arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross. The novice clambers onto him, staring deeply into his eyes, kissing him on the lips and calling him the 'tree of Good and Evil'.
In the end John wisely decides not to become a priest and I don't think I am giving away too much of the plot by revealing that detail because the book is not really about the author's spiritual journey. At heart it is about the author's relationship with his father – a man who is paradoxically absent for 45 years and who features only at the very beginning and at the very end of the book. But it is he who creates the huge emotional void, who lives in a world of unreality, and who inadvertently plants the voice of Jesus into his son's needy and impressionable ears.
With echoes of Big Fish, the Tim Burton film in which a son is driven to despair by his father's exorbitant fantasising, John Cornwell, over 120 short, riveting, lucid chapters, succeeds in producing one of the subtlest and most moving books on the father-son predicament that I have ever read – and I couldn't recommend it more strongly.
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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
The narrow corridors of faith
Hilary Mantel is gripped by the beautiful and brutal exactness of John Cornwell's Catholic memoir, Seminary Boy
Saturday September 2, 2006
by John Cornwell
402pp, Fourth Estate, £15.99
A chat with the bishop, a biscuit and a glass of milk, and it's done; John Cornwell, aged 13, is en route from his poor London home to undergo "a process that alters your soul". Sanctity begins at St Pancras: "incense steam clouds, amplified pulpit-voice announcements, grand cathedral arches, shafts of lantern-light". A few hours later this tough little boy, baptised during the Blitz, has arrived at a minor seminary in Staffordshire to begin his preparation for the priesthood.
This is no misery memoir, but a complex story written with beautiful and brutal exactness. The family John leaves behind are ghetto Catholics, grindingly poor, crude, violent and helpless. Light is shed here on the strange phenomenon of working-class Toryism; his mother loathes socialists and the unions because they are "against bettering oneself". Occasionally she betters John with her fists. At other times she stares out of the window and sings: "Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger ..."
Her son already has - a man who sexually assaulted him in a public lavatory. He has been visited, also, by a manifestation of evil, which comes to him as "A presence in the waves of sound, like an ageless dark being ... it gathered strength and purpose in a series of sickening, irresistible pulses." He feels something close to despair as he grasps that the withdrawal of this force is only temporary; it's a case of reculer pour mieux sauter. The devil is biding his time. All he has to combat him is the ingested communion wafer, the "slimy little god inside me". No wonder he is keen to pack his bags for a fresh start, and "Dr Warner's remedial class for Greek beginners".
Product of a sink school, he is doomed to struggle with the curriculum. He had been thrown out of his primary school's scholarship class because, when one day a nun hit him, he hit her back. He had been fingered as having a "black streak" and was "put away" for a time in a home where, if the children misbehaved, they were tied to their beds with bandages. He has to outrun both the prince of darkness and his stubborn little personal demon, and if he is to be safe anywhere, it must be under the constant and practised scrutiny of the seminary priests. At his new school there is penitential porridge - grey, salty, lumpy and stirred by silent nuns. There is cross-country running, a clanging bell and naked lights burning in the freezing dormitories. There are glow-in-the-dark chilblains and the cultivation of ruthless misogyny. There are theatricals in which the boys impersonate the women who frighten them so much; there is an evening of operetta, in which John and his chorister friends sing "We are dainty little fairies".
It is an English public school education with a Roman twist. In their time out of the classroom, the boys are constructing a drainage system for the playing fields. "Ditching ... is, of course, an opportunity for self-denial," his friend James murmurs. John wears a scratchy pullover under his clothes, as a "junior hair shirt", and in time he adds to it a spiked armlet. On free afternoons there are handicrafts: making rosary beads, prayer-book covers and pipe racks. The smell of the priests' tobacco billows from the page. The picture of the "study place", its receding ranks of hard chairs, its bare boards, squeezes the heart small; it is like a room in a barracks or prison, anguish dangling from the beams. The priests are enthusiasts for the cane. Suffering should be "offered up" for the souls in purgatory, in a peculiar process of exchange by which the fresh stinging of the backsides of young boys works off the stale transgressions of the dead and allows them to pass into paradise.
To those not brought up with such grotesque transactions, the institution Cornwell describes seems both cruel and intellectually perverse. But though John is often lonely and afraid, Jesus is a fatherly presence, more fiercely present than his earthly father; there are moments of inspiration and joy, when he feels the ritual and liturgy "expanding my soul". After the first term is over, he feels a stranger in his own family, whose affairs go from bad to worse. His father develops depression and petit mal seizures, his mother takes up ballroom dancing; one vegetates on a locked ward while the other bespangles taffeta with sequins. Released, his father leaves the family, and because their house goes with his job as a groundsman, they are homeless. The reader develops a grim regard for Cornwell's pugilist mother, and for his lame, sad father, too.
Cornwell peoples his book generously. He has a neat talent for capturing how personality and circumstance show in quirks of appearance. The priest of his shabby London parish displays his poverty with his "blood-raw eyelids" and cracked, wipe-clean celluloid collar; the face of a young girl he glimpses on a station platform is delicate, piquant, a reminder of what he has lost or can never have. As he wakes up as a sexual being, he goes through agonies of conscience, caused less by theological difficulties than by a complete lack of information about human biology. A few priests offer the boys a wary companionship, try to introduce them to music other than the sacred, books not on the lists prescribed. Through the agonies of adolescent infatuations, dashing young Father Armishaw is on hand to assure John that God only asks us to do our best. Nevertheless, evidence of "interiority" is missing; the fathers are uniformly prosaic. One must look outside the seminary for glimpses of the numinous. A priest who leads a spiritual retreat exhales "an atmosphere like a pure fragrance" - altogether a change from the tobacco.
Cornwell writes about individual priests with sympathy and insight - perhaps more insight than they showed when he was young. The boys' isolation - no newspapers, even - makes them prone to fearful fantasising about the outside world, and as "particular friendships" are forbidden, it is difficult for them to know how to mediate normal emotions. Their inner world becomes super-heated, and many, like John, are tormented by scruples that drive them to daily confession. Doubts, and any attempt at independent thought, are dealt with briskly - when he points out to one priest that Catholics did their share of martyr-making, he is told, "Oh, burning at the stake is nothing ... it only takes a few minutes".
In the end he seems to have the devil beaten. He is promoted as "Public Man", or head boy - like all self- contained institutions, this one has its private and puzzling vocabulary. But a number of factors draw together to convince him that he is not meant for the priesthood. There is a sexual approach from one of the priests, there is the "countervailing influence" of the books he reads, and some petty but lingering misunderstandings in the frequently petty world of the seminary. These make him realise that "a thread had loosened in the fabric of my vocation; it might take a long time unravelling, but it seemed to me the process was irreversible".
There are no minor seminaries these days. The child abuse/Catholic memoir has become a genre, and a shoddy one. It would be a shame if any prejudice about its content made readers miss this lucid, intensely involving, carefully paced book by one of the most thoughtful and well-informed of Catholic writers. A story about the loss of faith and its eventual return, it has the hold of good fiction and the grip of sober truth.
Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black is published by Fourth Estate.
There and Back
A Pilgrim’s Vivid Progress
Seminary Boy, by John Cornwell. Doubleday, 321 pages, $24.95.
By: Charles Taylor
It’s not the Antichrist who tempts those who write memoirs about losing their faith, it’s the Anti-Groucho. Their sin is yearning to belong to a club that would never have anyone like them for a member.
John Cornwell’s Seminary Boy is a vividly recalled but impersonal journey to the inevitable destination shared by all memoirs about leaving the fold. Mr. Cornwell, born in London in 1940 to a family that could ill afford another child, entered a Midlands seminary at the age of 13 and, five years later, after transferring to a senior seminary, gave up the idea of entering the priesthood in favor of a life in academia. (These days, Mr. Cornwell directs the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge.)
This apostasy is brought on by the usual causes: an inability to reconcile intellectual curiosity and a normal sexual appetite with the strictures of the Catholic Church; the growing conviction that life required something more engaged than the bloodless detachment of the seminary; and just being sick and tired of constant acquiescence to authority, no matter how petty.
If Mr. Cornwell is willing at first to submit to all that, it’s because religious education saved him from much worse: not just from poverty but from the vicious little thug he was on his way to becoming. His delinquency went well beyond rebellion; he was an incipient sociopath. Only the fortuitous appearance of the police prevented him and his gang from derailing a train by placing an iron girder on the track. And there’s worse: He tells of luring a girl into a bomb shelter and holding her down while he and his friends put their hands down her pants. “She was in my class at school and she had earlier shown a liking for me,” Mr. Cornwell writes. “She looked at me in silent sorrow as I urged the others on.” And he himself was abused, raped by a stranger he met in an underground subway passage on one of his surreptitious trips into London.
Given all that, you can understand why a place at a seminary school might seem a godsend—literally. And Mr. Cornwell was treated considerably better than many of the Catholic Church’s other charges (his experience with sexual abuse taught him to rebuff one priest’s clumsy pass). He was also, quite simply, susceptible to religion’s visceral appeal: Taking part in church ritual, he writes, “calmed me and soothed me.”
Seminary Boy dependably contains the descriptions of bad food and primitive lodging that have been the staple of accounts of English boarding-school life since Orwell’s essay “Such, Such Were the Joys.” Mr. Cornwell’s account of his first meal at the seminary gets at the combination of pointless discipline and soul-crushing dreariness that would define his life there:
“The boys were standing in silence, hands joined. Near the double doors there was a table where three nuns stood with ladles poised over enamel serving pans. After Father McCartie said grace we sat down while the students assigned to be servers queued in front of the nuns. Each boy received a portion of beans and a hunk of bread. They fell hungrily on the food, eating at speed. After several minutes there was a sharp rap as Father McCartie struck the serving table, and the boys began to talk all at once.
“James said: ‘Did you have a pleasant journey?’ No sooner had I answered and begun to tell James about my home parish than Father McCartie rapped the table again and the boys fell silent and stood up, heads bowed for grace.”
There’s an unintended irony in the presence of the word “grace” anywhere near this graceless existence, and it hints at the unintentional contradiction at the heart of Seminary Boy.
Mr. Cornwell writes as if the gray, cheerless drudgery he encountered were an affront to the very idea of a loving Christ, and he’s not wrong. His description of his home parish (probably a good deal sharper than what he told his friend James) is a definition of religion as soul-starving ritual. His priest, driven by poverty, ekes out the instruments of the mass so sparingly that, at funerals, “the charcoal was a morsel of white ash by the time we reached the graveside.” This note-perfect detail can stand for all: “At Low Mass he would ease a teardrop of wine into the chalice.”
In part, this is merely the minginess of poverty, and we all know that a degree of pageantry embellishes the Mass in wealthier parishes. But Mr. Cornwell can’t quite bring himself to admit that the flinty rituals of his home parish are also an expression of the self-denying, comfort-withholding Catholic Church.
Though Seminary Boy is ostensibly the story behind John Cornwell’s eventual realization that “the shape of human history … depended … on the responsibilities of individuals and groups,” he can’t bring himself to discard “all that accumulated religious experience.” There’s a further twist to the tale.
He writes, “This is not the place for the narrative of a life journey that, twenty years on, would find me a returning Catholic—except to say that my marriage to a Catholic woman, and the birth of our children whom she brought up as Catholics, kept the spark of faith alive in me.” Why is this not the place? Because it would utterly contradict the journey Seminary Boy describes?
Plenty in Mr. Cornwell’s later experience must have confirmed for him the arrogance and disdain for the outside world that led him to leave the church in the first place: His other books include histories of Pope Pius XII’s coziness with fascists and Pope John Paul II’s intransigence on social issues. And he’s of course aware of the revelations of sexual abuse and church cover-ups, and the church’s use of unwed mothers as slave labor in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries (ditto the child evacuees from England in Australia during World War II). He must know, too, that the church refuses to moderate its views on contraception though it has an enormous influence in Africa, where AIDS is rampant.
This may not be the place for a narrative of Mr. Cornwell’s later life, but if that later life seems to contradict both his own experience and certain damning historical facts, then Seminary Boy is less a spiritual and intellectual journey than a U-turn—it’s the story of how John Cornwell discovered a way back into that club that didn’t want him in the first place.
Charles Taylor has written for Salon, The New York Times, The New Yorker and other publications. He’s a frequent contributor to The Observer.
Seminary Boy Author Responds
To the Editor:
Charles Taylor’s suggestion that in my book, Seminary Boy, I have failed to grasp the irony of my own descriptions of Catholic institutional austerity denoting a lack of spiritual “grace,” gives me scant credit for insight into my own work, let alone a lifetime’s practice of attempting to show rather than state [“There and Back Again: A Pilgrim’s Vivid Progress,” Book Review, July 24]. Reviewers of books about the Catholic Church tend to bring their own heavy agendas to the task. Mr. Taylor cites a catalog of Catholic malfeasance, from the pedophile-priest crisis to the banning of condoms even among victims of AIDS in Africa. He credits me with knowledge of all this, as well he might: I have written of them myself often enough. But he is nevertheless wrong in assuming that the hidden story of Seminary Boy is an inexplicable U-turn on my part—and a return to a club that never wanted me in the first place. Despite his claims to a superior grasp of irony, he has failed to recognize the repeated exemplification of the powerful sources of “grace” to which I was exposed as a seminary boy, and from which, despite everything, I benefited through the rest of my life. In returning to the faith, I no more engaged in a U-turn than did the church itself in the process known as the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps I can be criticized for not “showing” this well enough. But then, if a reviewer can accuse a writer of showing themes of which he was unconscious, a writer can also accuse a reviewer of failing to attend properly to what was being repeatedly shown rather than merely, and obviously, stated. Despite all this, I valued Mr. Taylor’s review for its well-intentioned seriousness.
Monday 18th September 2006
John Cornwell Fourth Estate, 352pp, £15.99
Cornwell's account of his teenage years in Cotton, a junior seminary in the West
Midlands, skilfully captures the strange, paranoid world of English Catholicism
in the 1950s. It was almost compulsive reading for me, brought up as I was in
the same archdiocese at almost the same time. Cornwell tells his story in calm,
understated prose that contrasts effectively with the fervid piety of Cotton,
where the boys' religious and sexual transports were undercut by the grim,
brutal pragmatism of the clergy who were training them for the priesthood.
Growing up in an impoverished, dysfunctional family, well on his way to serious delinquency, Cornwell became an altar boy and found the magical rhythms of the liturgy a seductive counterbalance to the violence of the London streets. With the help of his parish priest, he entered Cotton at the age of 13. From the very first evening in that "cold, unadorned place", surrounded by "vast, chilly space", so different from his turbulent family life, Cornwell decided that his only hope of survival was to "throw himself" completely on the person of Jesus.
This strange mixture of frigidity and a religi osity that regularly evokes near-sexual swoon exactly captures the tenor of much Catholic devotion at this time. On his arrival, Cornwell was bewildered to find that none of the priests seemed at all interested in him; nobody even asked him about his journey. As he watched the seminarians file into church, "like a regiment of young undertakers" in their sober clothes, he noticed that they knelt "ramrod straight", but that "their eyes were bright, as if with a kind of inner excitation".
Women are supposed to be the more emotional sex, but my convent was very dull compared to Cotton. It, too, was characterised by a chilly impersonality, which chimed discordantly with the fervid rhetoric of some of our public prayers, but the coldness went deeper - almost all the way through - and we certainly had none of the erotic adventures that seemed part and parcel of life at Cotton. Cornwell's memoir shows how seminary life became such fertile ground for the sexual abuse that has since scarred the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church.
Even though the boys were forbidden what we in the convent called "particular friendships", Cornwell was courted and became infatuated with a fellow seminarian in his second term; his outrageously camp spiritual director made a pass at him; and a highly disturbed boy climbed into Cornwell's bed in the infirmary, lay on top of him, arms outstretched in the form of a cross, sweating profusely and muttering that Cornwell was the tree of good and evil. He later explained that he had been regularly abused by his parish priest before entering the seminary.
There was an entrenched and pervading disdain for the female at Cotton, sex education was crude to the point of obscenity, and the official devotional life had an unpleasant undercurrent of sadomasochism. Prominently displayed in the chapel was a large print of Botticelli's St Sebastian, "a youth whose naked body had been punctured bloodily with arrows". Cornwell was advised by his director to read the biography of the saintly Curé of Ars, who believed that dancing was the root of all evil, flogged himself, wore a hair shirt and subsisted on a diet of rotten, wormy potatoes.
Yet for all their overt spiritual ambition, Cornwell noticed that the priests' piety lacked depth and interiority. They seemed to live "on the surface . . . content to perform the externals", saying Mass "with almost perfunctory precision". The educational standard of Cotton was high - after he left the seminary, Cornwell was able to get into Oxford University to read English - but the religious life of Cotton was starved of serious intellectual content. The priests gave rambling homilies on "what a splendid and maligned leader Mussolini was", or mind-numbing, barely audible talks on the religious history of North Staffordshire.
It is difficult now to recapture the entrenched and defiant conservatism of English Catholicism at this time, which saw enemies everywhere and was hyper-conscious of past persecution. At my convent school, there was intense devotion to the English Martyrs who had died under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I; the stories of their agonising deaths were recounted in grotesque detail. So, too, at Cotton, which, as Cornwell was informed on his very first day, was founded "in secrecy" in 1763 by Bishop Richard Challoner, when Catholics were forbidden to practise their faith. The boys acted plays about the Catholic resistance and were regaled with pruriently gruesome accounts of the torture and disembowelling of the Jesuit martyrs.
But the Church still had powerful enemies. Cornwell was recruited by the League of Christ the King (Lock), formed to fight the communists, who were not only attempting to wipe out Christianity in the Soviet Union, but had insidiously penetrated the free world. As part of their counter-offensive, Lock was setting up a network of cells in English schools to promote loyalty to the Pope and spread Catholic action at "grass roots" among the young, who were to be "watchmen" against the dangers to come.
My own spirituality was crushed in this type of atmosphere; Cornwell did better and seemed able to pray easily and with fervour. After a year at Oscott, the senior seminary, he gave up the idea of the priesthood; though he left the Catholic Church for a time, he has recently returned to the fold. He tells his story without self-pity, does not seem to have been scarred by the experience of Cotton, but recognises that it saved him from poverty and a possible life of crime. He concludes that he would not be the person he is now had it not been for those formative years in the seminary. I would say the same of my own time in the convent.
Karen Armstrong is the author of "The Spiral Staircase: a memoir" (HarperPerennial)
See reviews of The Pope in Winter by John Cornwell, here and here