Meet the Parents

In which The Author confronts his inner
demons (and angels)

I mentioned in a previous entry that C— comes from a very religious family. In fact, her father is the pastor of one of the evangelical churches in the area. She herself professes to be a born-again Christian. Although it’s never been a topic for serious discussion between us, I don’t mind admitting that I feel slightly uneasy whenever Jesus raises his head during the conversation.
After all, I’ve never embraced any mainstream religion. When I was about four years old, my parents had to remove me from St Joseph’s RC Church in Aberdare during Easter Mass. I suppose I must have been bored to tears after two hours or so. It seems that they were so embarrassed at my infant heathenism that our family never darkened Fr Cahalane’s door again.
That’s partly (mostly?) the reason why I was baptised into the faith but Phil wasn’t. Dad and his brother Pat, being of Irish parents, naturally thought of the Holy Mother Church as a given part of their lives. That generation of my paternal family all did – although, in Dad and Pat’s case, they were lapsed at best. They both thought Father Ted was a work of genius, perhaps because they’d encountered Catholicism at close quarters and were able to see even more absurdity than the rest of the family.
My next encounter with the Catholic Church was at my cousin Josie J.’s funeral in London. I had a sinking feeling that it would be a pretty intense occasion. Josie used to travel to Westminster Cathedral for Mass every Sunday as she didn’t like the priest at her local church in St John’s Wood. Her daughter Mary teaches at a private Catholic school, and her children attended exclusive faith schools – in fact, Adam was at the London Oratory School at the same time as Tony Blair’s son Euan. Even Mary’s husband Les has embraced the faith. It’s serious stuff for them!
Josie’s brother Denis came up with me, as Dad wasn’t well enough to travel, to represent the Aberdare end of the family. Denis was my godfather, a lay reader at St Joseph’s, looked after the church finances, and was a governor at the local Catholic primary school. I was there as the token rationalist.
I think I’d psyched myself up mentally for three hours of bells and smells, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. The family members knew the drill, of course, and the priest invited them to sprinkle some Holy Water on Josie’s coffin. They went up in turn, genuflected, took the aspergillum, said a Latin phrase in a low voice, and sat back down. Denis looked at me on the way back, expecting me to do the same thing. I shook my head. I couldn’t. Not just because I didn’t know the correct form of service. I wouldn’t have felt right doing it.
After all, I hadn’t been confirmed. I hadn’t set foot in a Catholic church for three decades or so. If the priest had approached me beforehand, I imagine the conversation might have gone something like this:
‘So, my son, how long has it been since your last confession?’
‘If I were you, Father, I’d make some sandwiches and a pot of coffee – this could take a while!’
By rights I should have gone to St Margaret’s and Bishop Hedley schools, like my friends from the O’Sullivan, Servini and Brennan families. Instead Phil and I went to the local schools. We sang the time-honoured hymns, recited the prayers, and went to the annual Carol Service in one or other of the Nonconformist chapels in Trecynon. It didn’t really mean anything to me, to be honest.
By the time I was eighteen I considered myself an atheist through and through. I used to put ‘Christian’ on forms where one was required to declare an religious affiliation – mainly because there wasn’t a suitable alternative – but even they seem to have petered out over the years. If I were called to give evidence in court next week, I know I’d have to affirm, rather than swearing on oath, to tell the truth. I can’t take seriously the idea of the Big Man with the Big Book, sitting on his golden throne watching over (or even presiding over) human affairs.
When I started university the first time round, back in 1984, one of our lecturers gave an introductory talk in which he outlined the course structure. During his address, he referred to ‘the Generator of Organic Diversity – or G.O.D. for short.’ I really liked Dr Nodes’ little quip and still use it to this day.
There was no room for a Creator in my life. It didn’t need one. I was a man of Science, after all. Everything that happened was the result of clearly-defined particles interacting by dint of irrefutable scientific laws. By my mid-twenties, if it couldn’t be observed, measured, hypothesised, experimented upon, theorised, peer-reviewed and published, as far as I was concerned it didn’t exist. My principal non-fiction reading matter was Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, Ian Stewart and Stephen Hawking.
Even on the rare occasion that Profs. Gould or Hawking referred to ‘God’, it was implicit that they were speaking metaphorically – like talking about ‘Mother Nature’ or ‘Father Time.’ They were anthropomorphising the unknowable to make it palatable to a mass audience, after all.
By my mid-thirties I’d shifted position. I’d experienced a fair number of very strange incidents (most notably lucid dreaming, but also inexplicable coincidences and odd encounters) which didn’t fit into my scientific model. I reluctantly decided that God’s disappearance from my life was a cold case, worthy of re-examination in the light of new evidence.
I investigated other spiritual traditions and noted their common factors instead of highlighting their differences. While Mother, Denis and I were discussing Dad’s funeral, I suggested a couple of possible Bible readings. Denis was impressed by my knowledge of scripture. Mother was quite shocked, I think. When we discussed the Catholic view of cremation, I was able to ask a drinking pal of mine, Fr Martin Ellery, for the current doctrinal position. He was a very Anglo-Catholic Anglican priest whom I used to drink with in the afternoons sometimes.
Mother attended church in Glynneath for a while, but stopped after it became a rather expensive pastime. When it was the day before pension day, and the collection plate came round, she felt guilty about not being able to put a note in. Mother’s own beliefs, as one of the characters in Torchwood observed, never left primary school. I’m sure she thinks I sacrifice virgins at the weekend. Chance would be a fine thing in Aberdare. I’d have to find one first.
Some of the guys I know who’ve had mental health problems over the years are born-again Christians. I have my own theory on that, as I outlined in Inhibitions and Exhibitions. In fairness to them, they’ve never proselytised to me. On the other hand, Florence keeps nagging me to go to the Apostolic Church around the corner from my house, where she and her husband are members. Every time she does, I tell her she’ll have to come to the pub with me the following weekend. That seems to ward her off for a while.
Shanara, Naj and I have had lengthy discussions about the shared traditions of Christianity and Islam. Shanara and I love debating religion vs science. Last time I saw her, she was halfway through reading Dawkins’ River Out of Eden, which she borrowed off me in a moment of madness. But it was one very old friend in particular who made me speculate seriously about the gulf between Science and Spirituality, and whether they could be reconciled.
Ian W. is a year or so older than me, and grew up a couple of streets away. Oddly, we didn’t get to know each other until after he’d left school and I was doing my A levels. We kept in touch throughout my first year, exchanging notes on music and books. I was home from university in the summer of 1985 and bumped into Ian in Aberdare one lunchtime. He asked me if I fancied a pint and took me into the Carpenters Arms. (There’s a whole book to be written about that place. Suffice it to say, that’s where the rot set in.)
Anyway, Ian was involved with a fairly hardcore drugs set for a while. We only went to the pub so that he could score. I didn’t care. Live and let live, I say. While working in a factory he decided to clean up his act. He went to night school and sat his A levels – he chose the sciences, the same as I had. Then he went to Cardiff University to study genetics. (While at Cardiff, he shared a house with a guy I used to work with – yet another coincidence.)
After his degree, he went on to do his PhD. While studying and working part-time in a hospital in Derbyshire, he discovered a meditation group locally. He got involved with them and has never looked back. He’s now a Buddhist and uses a Tibetan name in his new life leading meditation classes. I’ve seen a photo of him in his robes. He really looks the part. I caught a fleeting glimpse of him in town over the holidays, when he was in mufti. It would have been good to catch up over a pint. To me, he’s still ‘Ian’ and always will be.
Another friend of mine, who died far too young, was Russell Chiswell, the vicar of Hirwaun. I met him through Cynon Valley CND, and we had some very interesting discussions during the five years or so that we knew each other. From time to time I like to raise an elbow with Rev Robin Wood, the minister of the Methodist church in Aberdare, and our conversations range far and wide as well. In fact, Robin has offered to lend me John Polkinghorne’s book on eschatology, which sounds absolutely fascinating – the end of of the world from the point of view of a leading physicist-turned-Anglican priest.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this all evening because of a rather strange conversation C— and I had a month or so ago, and which continued yesterday afternoon. We were having soft drinks in the Prince one lunchtime when (apropos of nothing) she asked me if I believed in God. I hesitated for a few moments before answering. It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked that recently.
I met the Catholic priest in Abercynon last May while I was taking some photos outside St Thomas’ Church. While we were chatting he asked me if I was a Catholic. I smiled and said, ‘I’m more of a lapsed atheist.’ That made him chuckle. He told me the church was open if I wanted to photograph the interior. I jumped at the chance. And although I’d only been into a Catholic Church three times in forty years – to discuss Dad’s funeral arrangements with Fr Walsh, and on two consecutive days after Denis passed away – I still felt the urge to genuflect as I approached the altar. I even lit a candle before I left.
And so, after thinking for a few moments, I told C— that I was ‘God-curious’. She asked me what I meant. I told her that it was the spiritual equivalent of being bi-curious. There’s always this deep-seated insecurity that someone somewhere is having a better time than you are.
But that’s not the whole story. I’ve never met her parents, and (to my knowledge) they’ve never met me. But I did bump into C— and her mother one day, when I was leaving the Prince. C—’s mother gave her the Third Degree about her new friend afterwards, apparently.
‘I’ve seen him wearing women’s clothes around town,’ she said. C— denied any knowledge of this, of course. (I’ve now set the record straight in that regard.) But my name had registered with her mother. I was bad news, needless to say. I’m the latest in a long line of loony blokes that her daughter’s got herself mixed up with.
My name seems to be fairly well established in her parents’ minds now. Over the holiday, C—’s father gave her a lift home from the pub. We were chatting outside when he pulled up. Once again, she got the full interrogation on the way home.
‘So, that’s “Steve”, is it? I know him by sight. Didn’t he use to write a newsletter or something? He’s about forty-five, anyway — why are you hanging around with him?’
In fairness she’s defended me, saying that I don’t get her pissed and make her do crazy things. If anything, I’m a bit of a calming influence. I don’t think they’re convinced.
Yesterday, C— and I were walking through town together when we passed her mother getting out of the car.
C— said, ‘Just keep walking, we haven’t seen her!’
Within a couple of minutes her phone rang. Surprise, surprise, it was her mother. What was her daughter doing walking through town with this mysterious cross-dressing man again? Then I had the biggest shock of the year so far. C— had been asked (no – instructed would be a better word) to invite me to a film show this coming Tuesday, in the function room of a pub in town.
‘It’s not all about God,’ she said, ‘it’s about the Universe and things.’
Yeah – right! Somehow I doubt that Prof. Brian Cox will be doing the voice-over. But C—’s parents seem pretty determined that I should turn up. Maybe I should go along on the night, be on my best behaviour, and let them see that I’m not trying to lead their daughter down the road to Debauchery-cum-Depravity.
I don’t especially want to go there myself. I’ve had plenty of chances to go there over the years. Ian showed me the brochures nearly thirty years ago. It’s never really appealed to me. Ian himself moved back after a couple of years there. It’s okay for a long weekend, but you wouldn’t want to spend your life there.
C— and I are about to embark on Operation Moviegoer. I’ve got a list of 100 Films You Must See Before You Die, and we’re going to work our way through them this year. After that, maybe I can start lending her some science books and start the gradual process of saving her mind while she tries to save my soul. If we meet each other halfway, that’ll do for now. And if her parents approve of me, all the better!
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