Seminary Boy by John Cornwell
After reading John Cornwell’s The Dark Box, in which he trawled through the history of the use, and abuse, of the confessional box in the Catholic church, I was prompted to dip into his memoirs as a junior seminarian, in his book Seminary Boy.
Cornwell’s teenage life had so many parallels with my own that, a couple of chapters into his memoir, there were times when I felt I was reading about my own life during my teenage years. The differences being that Cornwell is nearly a decade older than me, and he attended a different school………..but those things apart, I recognised and understood much of what he described.
Brought up in a working class family amongst the ghetto Catholics of the East End of London, his early years were blighted by his tough, violent background, his mentally ill father, grinding poverty and a sexual assault by a man in a public toilet. By the age of 13, he somehow emerged from all of this with an invitation by his bishop to go to a junior seminary, whose style of education was deeply rooted in old public school curricula, but with a decidedly classical orientation, the purpose of which was to steer candidates towards the priesthood. In my own case, I started this phase of my life at the age of 11, and four of my eight O levels were classical: Latin, Ancient Greek, Greek history and Roman history.
I fully expected this to be yet another ‘misery memoir’, or a ‘how I made good from an appallingly enclosed background’ autobiography. Cornwell obviously went through the pains of losing his faith and his respect for what happened to him in Cotton College, but in later life he was able to reflect on his experiences more objectively, and see them in the context of the world at the time…..especially the Catholic world.
He successfully portrays all the trials and tribulations of living as a teenager in a quasi-monastic environment, where contact with the outside world only came with brief holidays at home during vacations. It is unnerving to see how young boys could be so easily swayed to adopt a lifestyle so alien to the ‘normal’ sentient human being…….yet they were. Some survived, even escaped, and went on to fulfilling lives in other spheres. Others, however, carried the scars of their experiences to their lifelong detriment. In my own case, several of my class mates were so hurt by the experience of their seminary days, that they refused ever to allow their shadows to darken the threshold of the college in later life.