BOOKS: Faith, Hope and Clarity
Pepinster, Catherine, The Independent (London, England)
Seminary Boy By John Cornwell
FOURTH ESTATE pounds 1 5.99 (339pp) pounds 14.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
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 un-likeliest of ways. Brought up in a large, feuding, poor Roman Catholic family, Corn-well'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, crosscountry 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". …