John Cornwell's account of his teenage years in Cotton, a junior seminary in the West Midlands, skilfully captures the strange, paranoid world of English Catholicism in the 1950s. It was almost compulsive reading for me, brought up as I was in the same archdiocese at almost the same time. Cornwell tells his story in calm, understated prose that contrasts effectively with the fervid piety of Cotton, where the boys' religious and sexual transports were undercut by the grim, brutal pragmatism of the clergy who were training them for the priesthood.
Growing up in an impoverished, dysfunctional family, well on his way to serious delinquency, Cornwell became an altar boy and found the magical rhythms of the liturgy a seductive counterbalance to the violence of the London streets. With the help of his parish priest, he entered Cotton at the age of 13. From the very first evening in that "cold, unadorned place", surrounded by "vast, chilly space", so different from his turbulent family life, Cornwell decided that his only hope of survival was to "throw himself" completely on the person of Jesus.
This strange mixture of frigidity and a religi osity that regularly evokes near-sexual swoon exactly captures the tenor of much Catholic devotion at this time. On his arrival, Cornwell was bewildered to find that none of the priests seemed at all interested in him; nobody even asked him about his journey. As he watched the seminarians file into church, "like a regiment of young undertakers" in their sober clothes, he noticed that they knelt "ramrod straight", but that "their eyes were bright, as if with a kind of inner excitation".
Women are supposed to be the more emotional sex, but my convent was very dull compared to Cotton. It, too, was characterised by a chilly impersonality, which chimed discordantly with the fervid rhetoric of some of our public prayers, but the coldness went deeper - almost all the way through - and we certainly had none of the erotic adventures that seemed part and parcel of life at Cotton. Cornwell's memoir shows how seminary life became such fertile ground for the sexual abuse that has since scarred the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church.
Even though the boys were forbidden what we in the convent called "particular friendships", Cornwell was courted and became infatuated with a fellow seminarian in his second term; his outrageously camp spiritual director made a pass at him; and a highly disturbed boy climbed into Cornwell's bed in the infirmary, lay on top of him, arms outstretched in the form of a cross, sweating profusely and muttering that Cornwell was the tree of good and evil. He later explained that he had been regularly abused by his parish priest before entering the seminary.
There was an entrenched and pervading disdain for the female at Cotton, sex education was crude to the point of obscenity, and the official devotional life had an unpleasant undercurrent of sadomasochism. Prominently displayed in the chapel was a large print of Botticelli's St Sebastian, "a youth whose naked body had been punctured bloodily with arrows". Cornwell was advised by his director to read the biography of the saintly Curé of Ars, who believed that dancing was the root of all evil, flogged himself, wore a hair shirt and subsisted on a diet of rotten, wormy potatoes.
Yet for all their overt spiritual ambition, Cornwell noticed that the priests' piety lacked depth and interiority. They seemed to live "on the surface . . . content to perform the externals", saying Mass "with almost perfunctory precision". The educational standard of Cotton was high - after he left the seminary, Cornwell was able to get into Oxford University to read English - but the religious life of Cotton was starved of serious intellectual content. The priests gave rambling homilies on "what a splendid and maligned leader Mussolini was", or mind-numbing, barely audible talks on the religious history of North Staffordshire.
It is difficult now to recapture the entrenched and defiant conservatism of English Catholicism at this time, which saw enemies everywhere and was hyper-conscious of past persecution. At my convent school, there was intense devotion to the English Martyrs who had died under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I; the stories of their agonising deaths were recounted in grotesque detail. So, too, at Cotton, which, as Cornwell was informed on his very first day, was founded "in secrecy" in 1763 by Bishop Richard Challoner, when Catholics were forbidden to practise their faith. The boys acted plays about the Catholic resistance and were regaled with pruriently gruesome accounts of the torture and disembowelling of the Jesuit martyrs.
But the Church still had powerful enemies. Cornwell was recruited by the League of Christ the King (Lock), formed to fight the communists, who were not only attempting to wipe out Christianity in the Soviet Union, but had insidiously penetrated the free world. As part of their counter-offensive, Lock was setting up a network of cells in English schools to promote loyalty to the Pope and spread Catholic action at "grass roots" among the young, who were to be "watchmen" against the dangers to come.
My own spirituality was crushed in this type of atmosphere; Cornwell did better and seemed able to pray easily and with fervour. After a year at Oscott, the senior seminary, he gave up the idea of the priesthood; though he left the Catholic Church for a time, he has recently returned to the fold. He tells his story without self-pity, does not seem to have been scarred by the experience of Cotton, but recognises that it saved him from poverty and a possible life of crime. He concludes that he would not be the person he is now had it not been for those formative years in the seminary. I would say the same of my own time in the convent.
Karen Armstrong is the author of "The Spiral Staircase: a memoir" (HarperPerennial)