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Monday, 30 April 2007

Westward Ho and Hot Protestant Dinners.

The Young Walter Raleigh. I loved this picture as a child. Now it epitomises the robust certainties of an England past.

My Jansenist fears of hell slowly foundered. I remember as a child cheerfully telling my Aunty Lily that all Protestants were damned. She laughed merrily. “Well that’s not very nice. I’m protestant, so is most of your family.”

I was thunderstruck. How could this be? My mother looked embarrassed.

“Are you going to tell him, May?”

Aunt Lily was grinning.

It was true. The Parry’s were protestant and my mother to escape eternal damnation had married my father. I tried to make sense of it, then put it to one side as something inexplicable.

By about twelve the cracks began to show. Protestantism was rich and savoury. It smelt good, like steak and kidney pie and hot roast dinners. I was being tossed upon the sea of Satan’s wiles. I knew it, and yet…in contrast, Catholicism seemed stern and cold; it smelt of camphor and myrrh, tobacco, its mysteries hidden by certainty. Despite all the statues and flowers, it frightened me.

The book that really shook things up was Westward Ho, by Charles Kinglsy. I was Amyas Leigh, the protestant hero who sailed with Drake, fought Spaniards on the Spanish Main. I cringed at the villainous Eustace. Was this what it meant to be Catholic? Eustace. Catholic and slimy. Eustace.

Amyas was the Sun, the one who got the girl, the beautiful Rose Salterne. Eustace was the moon, treacherous and cold, and Catholic to boot.

Such confusion and fears. The irony was that in adolescence I exchanged one set of certainties for another: Marxism , and the process began all over again. I’ve since outgrown certainty. I just know that life is very short.

So, what have I learnt? The church is something to hang on to, but not to embrace. It has the power to smother, burden you with guilt and restrictions that change with time and circumstance. When I was a child I feared hell and religion was cold and smelt of candles, rattled with rules and celebrated deprivation. Now it is about love, but part of me waits for the wheel to turn.

I remember the guilt, not the love

In Monmouth parish the priest inaugurated a Mao tse Tung initiative, reminiscent of ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’. It was part of the ‘listening church’ or something like that. Parishioners were encouraged to write their thoughts and suggestions on small post-it notes and stick them on a cork board at the back of the church. Week to week it made fascinating reading. One suggested woman priests. The following week it had a reply beneath written in block capitals. ‘Impossible. The church represents the body of Christ and Christ was a man.’

It’s a bit like a fire or a pit. Get too close and you’ll burn or fall in. At the same time, take away faith and you'll limit a culture, close a door, cripple an instinct - replace it with a different kind of authority. For me the Church is the grit that nourishes pearls. The alternative smells worse.

Here endeth the lesson for today.


johnf said...

Hi Mike

I was interested in your reminiscences of Blessed Sacrament School and Sister Kevin and Gregory, Mrs Lewis, Canon Ormsby etc. I attended from 1946 - 1952. I can't recall whether we met.

I last met Father (by then Canon) Ormsby in '66 when I had to go to the Presbytery for a baptismal certificate on my getting married. He gave me one without demur, and I, slightly embarassed to have troubled him, asked whether it was customary to give a donation. 'No' he growled, waving me away and I made my hasty retreat. Sounds completely in character.

Sisters Kevin and Gregory - where they Sisters of Mercy or what order? I know that they were keen for boys to go to St Mary's in Crosby, but this was outside the educational area so I went to SFX. (Just as well. I prefered the J's)

John Fannon

Mike Keyton said...

Hi John,
Great to hear from you. I imagine you were leaving as I was coming. Still we survived.

It's startling how clear those memories are. If you have any pictures of the school or pupils I'd be eternally grateful. The church is still there but the school has become a cul de sac!

johnf said...


The only picture I have got is of my first communion day Corpus Christi, 24th May 1948 where all the children were photographed together in the school playground with Fr Ormsby in the middle.

The photograph is taken from a distance and its quite difficult to see faces. But you can see the school building OK.

However, I've also got to find it!

The Church has been improved since we were there, but I dont know if the school is still used on this site. The main school is now near the Black Bull

johnf said...


I have now found it. See it on

I can only identify one or two of the children.

I wonder how life treated them?



johnf said...

Apologies: should be

Mike Keyton said...

John, do you accept very late apologies? I don't seem to have answered this or thanked you for your picture - and I don't understand why because I'm usually courteous enough. And grateful. I'm sorry, and thank you very much for such an evocative photo