Saturday, 17 June 2017

Misspent Youth

This is usually a music blog but this next post's not really about music, though music will play a part - particularly singing.

Music often triggers nostalgia but, for me, it's not the songs I deeply cherish that have that effect, rather it's songs which I listened to repeatedly at one time, most likely on the radio rather than through choice, and have hardly or never listened to since; songs like Wouldn't it be Good by Nik Kershaw, Sleeping Satellite by Tamsin Archer, Tattva by Kula Shaker - I've heard them all recently and completely lost my place in the present.

This is, I suppose, because the songs are indelibly associated with one specific time, so I'm instantly transported to that time, rather than the song having a life of its own through its presence in my head over many years.

True nostalgia is a wondrous, often misappropriated concept. Nostalgia is not just remembering the past, it's not just those TV list shows, the awkward jocularity of "wasn't that shit", "wasn't that great" ... it's about pain, it's about loss, it's about something you'll never be able to get back - it's rough etymology is "pain when thinking about home" - it's more akin to homesickness than just taking a trip down memory lane.

I want to write with a hint of nostalgia - nostalgia in the sense described above - because this is going to be about a life I lived with almost no connection to that I live now, the details of which are, in one sense, very easy to see myself involved in, but at the same time, relate to a person with a wholly different understanding of life, a wholly different way of interacting and attempting to communicate.

I'm asking myself why I'm writing about this at this moment. When I consider who I am now and the persona I have (to the extent that I have one), it's above all about my life at home and the people in it, then my work in quizzes, then watching sport, pop music, films, political feelings, writing as a means to process all of the above and keep my brain from seeing things only in terms of quiz questions (!), being online all the time, checking my phone too much, keeping fit when I can, my local small-town environment. My physical state and the aging process also plays a part in my self-definition, worrying about the world going forward, lots of daft little stuff as well - and really, the funny thing is, none of that is what was most important to me back then, apart from, I suppose, watching sport and listening to pop music a little, but even then, less so than now.

So I know the answer. I'm writing it now because I don't want something precious to be lost.

I'm going to write about being a teenager - a specific part of it. Teenage nostalgia has, of course, been a rich seam for film makers for a long time (Stand by Me, The Last Picture Show, Dazed and Confused etc) - but, as yet, if I'm not mistaken, there are not that many early-90s nostalgia trips - by which I mean, a film where the clear intent is for a modern film maker to implicitly or explicitly glorify and mythologise growing up in that era. There should be.

It's perfect for such treatment, because the early 90s was the last time teenagers grew up without the capacity to capture each moment with a photo, so the memories we have are just that, memories - memories enhanced, distorted, mutable - not documents which are impossible to ignore. Sure, there are a few documents too - a few photos, letters, the music, diaries maybe, items which ground memories in truth and also spark 1000s of linked images. There are not 1000s of emails, texts and photos. The mind has to do the work.

It's the last era that can look like something different from the cold hard truth.

So,  bearing that in mind, what I'm writing about is bathed in a golden glow, elevated to a special place in my consciousness.

Not that I think of my teenage years as a whole like that, anything but. It was shite, a lot of it. A lot of not getting on well with people, being a twat, watching bad telly at home on a Friday night, thinking everyone else was out having fun, awkwardness, blandness, meanness, watching EastEnders and thinking it was good, not to mention all the usual teenage existential and concrete crises. Not all golden, a lot of grey.

But golden is there, I cannot deny it. It's there in a few places - it's there because my school was by Hammersmith Bridge and that's nice on a summer's day, it's there because of cricket, and sometimes football, it's there because the first few times you get drunk without puking your guts up (I was about 50/50 hit rate) are fun, it's there because of getting into pop music, it's there because I lived with my family who were nice people.

But, it's there, primarily, I think, because of this strange thing, this thing I've left it until this far into this post to mention, that I've hardly ever mentioned in this 8 years and innumerable words of blog, that I hardly ever mention in conversation, that is anathema to how I exist now. It's there because of faith. Or, specifically, Christian faith and its practice.

The strangest thing ...

I'm not a Christian now, I haven't been, depending on how I define it, since I was somewhere between 17 and 20. I'm not an agnostic, nor do I really think I "lost my faith" (in terms of losing something that could possibly have been retained). I'm pretty unromantic about that side of it these days. I came to a satisfactory conclusion, over a period of years, about the likelihood of any god, let alone the Christian god and, by the time I was about 23, I was completely happy with that. I haven't doubted since, not a tiny bit. I feel generally better for it.

But I was a Christian for those teenage years, and not in a woolly way, I was a proper one. Those years - 13 to 18 - are pretty fundamental for something to loom so huge and then disappear to nothing.

Yet there are several contradictions here. I am now cynical, indeed contemptuous at times, about Christianity, yet I look on that time with great fondness. I don't believe any of it anymore, but I'm enormously glad I went through it. I don't practice in any way, but I think that experience of faith had a more positive effect on my character than anything else at that time.

I feel the need to write about it, to give it dignity in my own mind. I haven't decided yet whether I will seek to encourage anyone to read this post or not - whether I do will dictate to a large extent how it's written - if I imagine a readership, I'll probably play it safe, cynical and concise, but if I feel I'm writing for myself, I'm sure I'll go on a bit - god, I'll go on a bit -  but I may actually do justice to the experience. If I do, I'll use words which no longer have a natural place in my vocabulary - like fellowship, grace, communion, contemplation. I'm troubled by writing about this. I'm troubled that the voice of the person I am now will keep intruding, or that it won't, I worry that I'll over-contextualise, politicise, under-romanticise. I want to romanticise.

So here goes with that.

It was, firstly, the singing, above all. Singing like I'd never heard before. The sound of 140 young male voices launching their voices into hymns which for years, to me, had just been undistinguished time fillers. Now, each hymn had character and meaning. These boys, they sang the words like they meant them.

That was when I first felt like this was something to show off - look what I've found, here in a school chapel in a field in Dorset on a still summer's evening.

I had no expectations. I was 13, in between the prep school and the main school - I'd only decided to go at pretty short notice because my mother suggested it might be a good way to get to know a few more people. The St Paul's School Christian Union Summer House Party 1991.

I wasn't a deep thinker then. I was sporty, precocious but naive, facetious, beginning to be wounded by the fact that I would not be, as I had thought for my first few years of my life, master of all I surveyed. I was probably the least cool boy in West London, too, though, hey, weren't we all?

Nor was I a Christian. I'd given it very little thought for a while. Educated in Catholicism when a small child, the churchy stuff at school between the age of 8 and 13 had kind of washed over me. After those first 10 days at Clayesmore, I was now a Christian. Again, I can't say it was a big leap of faith, a big spiritual awakening. At that stage, it was just, "This is great, these are Christians. Hence, I'll be a Christian".

That's often how it works. That's how they get you. That's what my cynical voice would interject now. If you're reading this with that voice yourself, I totally understand, it's here with me all the time too.

But hear again, I'm 38, I'm a person capable of utter contempt for almost everything, I reject religion in all forms, I question and feel guilty about every aspect of my privileged upbringing, I'm often tortuously compelled to pick over the bones of every word, every sentence, every thought, for the wider social context, yet there is no massive regret and negativity in how I think about this experience as a member of this boys' club, this patriarchal proponent of an ancient superstition, this bastion of elitism. There's only fondness.

It was a place of kindness. The top-down mood was of kindness and warmth, and it spread. Cross words and conflict were rare. That's not to say my own character was instantly transformed. One of the bittersweet elements of this detailed journey into a past rarely touched in recent years, is realising that if anyone there was a dick, it was me. Not once, but on several occasions over several years, I've remembered times where someone should really have slapped me/told me I was a little arsehole/told me to grow up/put me in a box for a few hours/suggested I look somewhere else for a summer holiday. But they didn't. They nearly always stayed kind.

But it was not an anodyne kindness. It was not that brand of bland, do-gooding English Christianity so easy to mock. As a 13 year-old, to be suddenly, unambiguously welcomed into a club of clever, funny, sarcastic, talented elders was quite something. Even as I look back and remember the people, most of whom I haven't seen for over two decades, I recall someone else, then someone else with a brilliance to them - people who had a spark then and would go on to be something - some are teachers and doctors, some are writers and actors, some are film makers and journalists, some are priests and charity workers, some are academics and musicians, some are mathematicians, none are carpenters' wives...

To start with, it was almost overwhelming. There were years of overlapping in-jokes you had to get up to speed with quickly. There were rules, games, odd bits of terminology, there was spontaneous outbursts of communal singing all the flippin time. It wasn't really explained, you just picked it up.

And there was sport. Thank you lord. Heaven for me was this - competitive cricket-like sport called podex in the morning, casual sport all afternoon, some tea, a bit more casual sport, then a bit more organised sport in the early evening. With individual racket and table football competitions to be fitted in alongside that. It's the sport, I think, that creates the clearest image in my head.

I haven't mentioned yet, but Clayesmore was beautiful. A public school with extensive grounds by the village of Iwerne Minster, Dorset, overlooked by Hambledon Hill, the 19th century main school building was a grand stately home. There were fields, there were trees, all green and yellow, all the best of idyllic England in high summer. It was like suddenly being let loose on the set of Mansfield Park ... and turning it into a massive sports complex.

It was ok to be competitive - not too competitive but fairly competitive - each day I sported myself to exhaustion - table tennis, padder tennis, touch rugby, podex (cricket/rounders-like, won't explain), cricket, football, tennis, swimming, croquet - just take your pick. Organised games, spontaneous games, wherever you looked, all day. I know the sport was meant to be about fostering teamwork and good spirit etc. I'm not sure I need to see it that way - for me, it was always just pure sport, but the fact it contributes so heavily to these memories says enough. There are still games of football and touch rugby, padder tennis, shots I hit, shots I saw, that I treasure. God was definitely in the sport, man.

God ... right, for the elephant in the room up to now. I'm finding it hard to write something which was real and now isn't. It's often what us unbelievers don't understand, just can't get to grips with, about people of faith. To believers, it can be a real, tangible thing that exists in the world, that you feel and see and hear. If you get that feeling, if you experience god, you'll go to any lengths to explain how that might be (or rather, sometimes, you won't).

I wouldn't say I understood anything about how I might go about feeling god's presence (I'll be using lower-case henceforth, as a deliberate personal choice, just to be clear) to start with - I think maybe it took me a few years. But gradually, I came to a sense of  something there in the small moments, in the poignancy, in the friendships, in the sounds and the rituals.

It wasn't all sport. There was a daily service, there were talks, there were regular biblical discussions, there was time for prayer and opportunities, first thing and last thing, for individuals to share specific ideas and thoughts. Prayer is a weird thing, isn't it, especially in the light of the way we live now? I think I went into it with the same attitude I have again now - as an awkward silence within which I'm very likely to burst out into spluttering, embarrassed laughter.

But, over the course of those years, I got the hang of prayer in all its forms - how to sound dignified and serious when praying out loud, how to stay calm and confused when others' prayers are a bit funny, how not to think of football, and, gradually, how to be silent, how to listen, how to keep my mind still, how to let my mind wander, how to consider myself and consider god.

At the end of the evening service, there was silence, and we'd all just gradually leave at our own speed. To start with, I'd be one of the first to leave and a bit baffled as to why anyone would hang around when there was still a bit of daylight for one last bit of cricket. I'd sometimes stand outside the chapel looking at people walking out looking thoughtful and pious 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes later. Hmm, extra piety points ...

But the stillness of prayer gradually became a part of my daily routine - I mean, I'm quite sure a few times I stayed behind to make myself feel godly and impress on other people just how serious I'd become, but I genuinely felt I was talking to god and being heard.

I'd also begun to read the Bible and other works of popular Christianity, I'd engage fully on discussion where I'd previously been merely disruptive and facetious, I'd give considerable thought to what it meant to live as a Christian in the world. It mattered the most to me then. Honestly, amidst all the things any self-respecting teenager ought to be thinking about, that was genuinely my main concern. What an idiot ...

The Christian Union was not prescriptive or doctrinal - certainly not straightforwardly so. Indeed, it made a big thing of being open to everyone in the school (a boy's school) - there were Anglicans, Catholics, there were plenty of agnostic and non-believers, there were also Jewish boys and Muslims sometimes.

Other faiths were respected, other paths to the top of the mountain, as it was put. So what was my path to the top of the mountain (which I was never to reach)?

Well, looking back now, I don't think there is too much to be ashamed of in what I believed, quite the contrary. Though I say the CU was not prescriptive, and had a place for all manner of beliefs and practices, I think, overwhelmingly, the mood that came across was of an open-minded, liberal kind of belief system - I don't remember anyone being anti gay marriage or anti women priests or too hellfire and damnation-y. I don't remember too many people who took every word of the bible as scripture.

Equally, I don't think it was all that lightweight and woolly - we talked of the atonement, we talked of sacrifice, we talked of how to live the good life, of what were worthwhile professions, of our sins and our pride, amongst many other things.

I'm quite sure it had a huge effect on the person I am even now. I tried to remake myself a little in those years. To take away the ghastly pompous show-off I pretty blatantly was and rebuild. In the end I, arguably, merely rebuilt as a slightly different kind of pompous show-off, but, you know, I think there was some improvement.

Also, I do wonder how much it affected me politically. To some, religion is highly conservative, to some the CofE represents a kind of gentle ineffectual liberalism, but the vision of Jesus that stuck to me was definitely that of a socialist firebrand, the man who destroyed the temple, who said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, all that stuff.

This is one of the main questions I ask myself even now - would I have been left-wing anyway, or did Jesus make me left-wing? Are my "principles", whatever they are, still informed by my understanding of the gospels. I had reached the conclusion that no, I put my stamp on my faith because that's the kind of person I'd have been, anyway. Right now, I'm not so sure. Thanks JC, you've a lot to answer for.

I developed for myself a fairly severe personal set of ethics - something that would eventually be pretty impossible to live by. I sometimes wonder if it was the high standard I set for living a Christian life that contributed in part to my faith failing. Did I subconsciously ask, "is this what it takes? If I'm going to do this, it's got to be serious, and I just don't know if i can or if i want to ..." Perhaps, that's something. Amongst other things.

My faith hit a high point in my last year of school, when I was by this point one of the leaders of the CU. I mean, I give myself credit, I was taking this shit seriously. I was volunteering, I was going to church every week, praying every day, I had arranged a gap year where I went as a guest of the church to Kenya (not a missionary, I hasten to add, there was no sense of converting anyone. They were perfectly well converted).

During that year, I had what one might call an experience of the holy spirit. The kind of thing I think I'd been asking/praying for all along. A physical demonstration within me of god's spirit, a rushing, overwhelming certainty. Even now, as I write this, it's a little harder to explain away than a few other things. But explain it away I do and I can, for what it's worth. The human body is funny. The mind plays tricks.

Immediately afterwards, I felt certainty, though. A certainty I'd never had before. Again, I wonder if that certainty was part of my undoing. Certainty passes, and when certainty passes, you have to hold on to confidence. And mine wavered.
Just a few weeks later, I still remember, I was reading something as innocent as an interview in a music magazine, I think it was with a band called The Longpigs, and something or other someone said suddenly hit me in the guts with my first ever, "No, it's not true, is it, none of it's true, there are better explanations for everything ...". I'd lived with doubt all along, I'd not been a blind believer, but I'd never had that crushing sense of an opposing certainty before.

I fought it. Very hard. For a few years. I flitted between renewed attempts at faith and greater doubt. The next year abroad now looked very daunting - I was nervous enough about going to a strange country to live without electricity and running water, but now, what was the purpose of my going? I was under false pretences. I'd have to lie to my hosts, just when I needed to be true to myself, it would be horrendous (as it happened, I lied a bit to start with, but gradually less, which was a bit awkward, but better).

The group through which I organised that gap year were quite evangelical - I was significantly confronted by people whose Christian faith was different than mine - who believed all of the Bible, who were so thankful, lord, and just wanted to praise you, lord, and just seemed to be talking fucking gibberish a lot of the time. And the songs were fucking awful.

That was not what I needed at that time. I didn't need to be regularly thinking "this is a whole load of hokum" in my crisis of faith.

Like I said, that wasn't the end of it. There was still the odd return to the fold. I even went to church quite often long after I'd given up any pretence at belief - I suppose for some hint of that sense of fellowship, of community and also of stillness.

But I never got back what I'd had for those five years. For me, now, I think my nostalgia, my active sense of loss, is not about the faith, it's about the experience, the comradeship and the innocence.

And the singing. Gosh, the singing. Firstly there were the hymns - the classics from the old songbook like Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, My Song is Love Unknown. You'll have heard them 1000 times, but never heard them sung like that, I swear.

And the other singing - one of the daily rituals, known as Sing-Song, a nightly congregation round the piano. I'm not sure I always enjoyed it that much. It was sometimes cheesy as hell, and there would be a bit too much swaying and eyes shutting in the front row sometimes. There was a bit too much of "this is the fun one, but hey, this is a serious one" ... but there was some great singing (solo and communal) and, above all, I think it added to my love of the song - the folk song and the protest song and the kind of song people can sing together. The kind of song that changes the world. It was the first time I sang a Bob Dylan song - Blowin' in the Wind - albeit not much like Bob Dylan sang it.

I've done my best to remember every song we ever sang there - i'm sure I've missed plenty - you get the idea - silly songs, children's song, folk songs, protest songs, religious songs, show tunes, changes of mood, all stuff designed for 100-odd voices to sing together.

  • You are My Sunshine 
  • Seek Ye First
  • Ol' Man River
  • What a Wonderful World
  • The Wild Rover
  • The Gypsy Rover
  • Streets of London
  • All My Trials
  • Blowin' in the Wind 
  • I Believe 
  • We Shall Overcome 
  • We Shall not be Moved 
  • Jerusalem
  • Inch by Inch
  • Teddy Bears' Picnic
  • John Brown's Body
  • Swinging on a Star 
  • Let it Be
  • Life is ...
  • Banks of the Ohio
  • Molly Malone 
  • Alouette 
  • Siffler Le Train 
  • Animal Fair
  • Kumbaya 
  • Yogi Bear
  • Camptown Races
  • Bridge over Troubled Water
  • You'll Never Walk Alone
  • Underneath the Arches
  • Green Grow the Rushes
  • Mack the Knife
  • It's a Long Way to Tipperary 
  • Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head
  • Pack Up your Troubles
  • Swimming
  • Heads Shoulders Knees and Toes
  • Rise and Shine
  • Day is Done
  • One Man Went to Mow

It's all a strange vision of what it is to be a teenager. What's missing from the standard teenage reminiscences? - girls, drugs, booze. It seems all the more remarkable in retrospect how all those teenage hormones were managed so seamlessly. I've found when I tell people about it that they are a bit querulous and that, to them, it sounds a bit a) cultish b) jolly hockey sticks c) ancient Athenian. But it wasn't. That wasn't the environment. It was refuge from the loss of innocence. It was grounded, but separate. At least, that's how I experienced it.

As the years passed and I had more of an organisational role, I of course saw that it wasn't all that innocent. It was extremely well organised, even calculated. The older folk who were being kind to younger lads to their face were taking the piss out of them in private (hell, I did!).

There were cheeky cigarettes in the woods and illicit trips to the pub, there were internal politics and personality clashes.

But, you know, you'd worry if there weren't. They were good people. There are so very many from that time I have some good memory of, people I'd trust implicitly even now.

My foul apostasy disqualified me from carrying on with it in any kind of organisational role. I felt a dreadful sadness then, I really did. But I was ready to move on, In my late teens and early 20s, I spent a lot of time with the connected PHSP charity - it was more grown-up, less idyllic, there were a lot more drunken arguments.

Even that, and the connections I made there, has begun to fade from my memory a little. I'm sure it'll get its own blog post some time soon.

As for this one, it would have been great to fill it with photos, but I guess the point is that I don't have any, apart from in my head. I'd be amazed and impressed if anyone's got to the end of this. I think I ended up somewhere between reserve and going all in.

I don't know how well I've done what I intended, how much I've communicated the sheer joy of those House Parties - the sketches by properly funny people, the running jokes, the elaborate parlour games, the quality of the sport sometimes, the ambling through the countryside, the trumpet playing in the moonlight, the custard, the team names, the match reports, the gradual descent from cleanliness, the reading the tabloids, the drinking fizzy drinks, the pop songs that were the soundtrack to each dormitory (that first HP of 1991 is indelibly connected to Right Said Fred's I'm Too Sexy, by 1993 it was the Manics' La Tristesse Durere - talking of the passing of innocence), the talks by seriously good orators, the cups of tea, the sunburn and tired feet, the friendships. No TV, no mobile phones, no laptops, no income tax, no VAT. Nostalgia.


  1. Obviously, I read this through to the end. Obviously! It's an excellent piece. One thing things strikes me now, is that I don't remember ever much wondering about other people's faith on those House Parties. I think I came into my own faith there much more slowly than you, but for whatever reason with me it stuck. I think I just assumed that everyone basically beleived to the extene that it helped them fit in, but didn't necessarily believe 'for real'. The few that very clearly did believe often seemed to be less liberal, which was off-putting.

    As you know, I largely hated SingSong, but perhaps if I hadn't had the experience I'd never have embraced karaoke, which remains one of the few places where I feel I can happily lose myself in something fun.
    Also, and I can't stress this enough, House Parties worked wonders as a place where the genuinely cool kids were forced to be nice to the genuinely weird kids. Both groups knew it was a pretence, but it was more effective than the Breakfast Club.

  2. Yup - i think i've overplayed the extent that there weren't people with more traditional views - they've begun to creep into my head - and i think you're right - when you're "playing" at faith, enjoying it without being completely entrenched in, it may be easier to hold on to your naturally liberal views - i've found a lot of strong Christians hold views almost reluctantly that might not be viewed as progressive. That's the battle (i guess that's the Farron situation).
    Re Sing Song - yes, totally, it was sometimes a bit rank, but just a great introduction to song and enjoying singing - "this might not work for me, but it's working for them, and i'm going to find this experience in some other way", perhaps ...
    Your last point, i wouldn't use the word pretending. Sometimes there was pretending, but i imagine it's established countless unusual lifelong friendships between people that wouldn't have hung out at school under ordinary circumstances ...

  3. David, this post is superb. I enjoyed every word of it - in particular how - despite no longer being Christian - you appreciate all the great stuff that happened on the House Party. I fully resonate with the discomfort that you experienced when in your gap year (for me, it was going to uni) and being in a much more evangelical group.

    I used to hate singsong when I started (mainly because I was too short to see the words!) but by the end of my time at St. Paul's, it was my highlight. All the songs you mention are classics. A few others I was able to think of (that I can remember them so long after is a testament to their power)

    Michael Row The Boat Ashore
    Auld Lang Syne
    Daydream Believer
    Where Have All The Flowers Gone?
    Swing Low
    Stewball Was A Racehorse
    The House of the Rising Sun
    My Old Man's A Dustman
    You'll Never Go To Heaven
    Ilkley Moor
    Sing Hosanna

    And the hymns! (I cheated a bit here; I wrote them down during some nostalgic moment a long time ago, perhaps on the boat trip)

    Thine be the glory
    Saviour, again to thy dear name we raise
    Let all mortal flesh keep silence
    Abide with me
    Be thou my vision
    Dear Lord and father of mankind
    At the name of Jesus
    My song is love unknown
    When I survey the wondrous Cross
    Guide me, O thou great Redeemer
    O Jesus I have promised
    Immortal, invisible, God only wise
    All creatures of our God and King
    Glorious things of thee are spoken
    I vow to thee my country
    Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty
    They Hand O God Has Guided
    Alleluia, sing to Jesus
    For all the Saints
    Praise my soul, the King of Heaven
    The day thou gavest Lord is ended

  4. Thanks for the memories Alex. That's great - I was trying to remember the hymns but could only remember a few ...