Crossing the Line - Part 7
For all the charms of the vicarage at Blackrod, the parish was less welcoming. In the past it had been a small mining community with a high mortality rate, and there was still a seam of hardness in many of its people. A previous vicar had been chased around the church by a local man with a shotgun when an old overgrown corner of the churchyard had been turned into a small car park for the church.
We stayed there for over 12 years, but within a couple of months there were ominous signs of things to come. PCC meetings (Parochial Church Council) had traditionally been held in the infants’ classroom at the church school. The sight of adults sitting on tiny chairs for 5 year olds discussing church business must have been hilarious. My father’s study at the vicarage was huge, and could seat 20- 30 people comfortably, so he invited the PCC to meet at the vicarage in future.
The night of the first meeting at the vicarage was surprisingly tense. Church members arrived looked uncomfortable. Then at the start of the meeting, someone stood up and said “I’ve been asked to act as spokesman”. He went on to say that it wasn’t right for PCC meeting to be held at the vicarage and when dad asked him why, he replied, “PCC’s should be held on neutral ground”. To say this was a shock to my father was probably an understatement. Despite his newness to the village and the fact that he hadn’t done anything to upset anyone (as far as he was aware) he saw that the vicar was seen as the enemy in some long running war between church and people – and he had just been typecast as the villain!
Dad struggled on with the meeting until just before the end, when my mother came in to ask who would like a cup of tea. For several PCC members, this was the last straw and they resigned on the spot with accusations of bribery!
That pretty well set the tone for our 12 years there – and I was not immune. I made some good friends there in my teens but until then, things were not easy.
I discovered what it is to be the “vicar’s kid”. At the church primary school, if I did something wrong, teachers would chide me with phrases like “I would have expected better from the vicar’s kid”. Outside school, I had to be careful where I went because there were parts of the village where it was fair game to chase me down the road throwing stones at me because I was the vicar’s kid. In church, parents expected me to set an example to their children in how to behave – no wonder so many children in the village hated me! There was one boy from another school in the village, whose path I crossed every day on my way home from school. As we passed on the street each day, he would punch me in the stomach and carry on walking. This went on for the best part of a year until finally one day I gathered up the courage to hit him back.
|Photo taken by the Daily Mail after dad was accused of telling |
children there was no Father Christmas.
I also found out what it was like to be on the receiving end of people’s prejudice. There was a travelling fairground which visited the village for a week each year. It was an annual highlight for all the children of the village and used to set up on some empty land opposite the church. Then one year, the land had been set aside to build a new library and health centre and when they arrived the local council refused them permission to use it. Tempers started to get heated and my dad stepped in to mediate. He successfully negotiated for the fair to use a field by the cricket ground and all appeared to be well. When I turned up at school the next day however, it felt like every child in the school was looking daggers at me. Some of them had witnessed the heated exchanges between the council and the travelling fair and seen my dad there. They made the assumption that the vicar was there because he didn’t want a fairground opposite the church, and was trying to drive them away. All day, other children were practically spitting in my face and saying “Your dad has kicked the fair out of the village”. Nothing could be further from the truth but the lie had found a home and nothing would change it. I went home in tears but there was a silver lining. When I went to the fair a couple of days later, on the field by the cricket ground, the fairground families wouldn’t let me pay for anything. I went on all the rides for free and was even given a bag of change to play on the machines. They knew what my dad had really done and this was their way of saying thank you.
In one sense I didn’t mind being on my own. I was a bit of a loner and could always amuse myself. I also had lots of toys. My mother had gone back to work as a teacher when I started school, so there was money around - and I was an only child. To any outsider I must have looked like a spoilt brat. In this huge vicarage I had a play room as well as a bedroom. In the centre of the room was the large Hornby train set made for me by my grandad. In many ways they were right – I was precocious and over confident; I was too grown-up too young; I found myself not belonging, either at school with other kids, or at home among adults. Physically I was a bit of a wimp and useless in a fight but I sounded cocky – not a good mix.
And there was another problem. My mum loved being a teacher, and I was her star pupil. She instilled in me a curiosity about the world for which I am grateful for to this day and she taught me to read well before I went to school. This might not sound like a problem, but it set me apart from most of the other kids at school. Arriving at school age 5, able to read books for 9 year olds, put me far ahead of most of the other village kids. The teachers didn’t know what to do with me and I kept being put up an age group into the older classes above. By the time I was 8, I was facing 2 years in the oldest class with 11 year olds, having already repeated a year in the class below, just waiting to be old enough to go to secondary school.
As I grew through these formative years, I also saw the cracks in my parent’s relationship. Dad was a workaholic, often working 7 days a week, for weeks on end. Every Saturday morning, they would have the most almighty rows – shouting and screaming at each other like clockwork, before storming off in opposite directions. Dad desperately wanted to fulfil his calling to be a priest in this difficult community and mum wanted a husband, not a workaholic vicar.
By the age of seven, I had decided that being a vicar was the last thing in the world I would ever do and I was waiting for mum and dad to split up. By eight, I had decided that they wouldn’t get divorced because, even though neither of them were happy, they couldn’t live without each other. By my ninth birthday, I was becoming obsessively neurotic about things that didn’t matter and often found myself sitting on my bed in the evening with a knife, wondering if I had the courage to kill myself.
I was brought through all this by three things:
|Benny and Chris - some years later|
First there was Chris. In those formative years he was the only long-term friend I had. He was different and he wasn’t fazed by the big vicarage. He arrived on the doorstep one Saturday morning to play and came round every Saturday from then on without fail. He was 18 months older than me and wasn’t afraid to tell me when I was winging or being a brat. He was also hugely trustworthy. He heard my parents shouting and screaming at each other every Saturday and he never told a soul. In fact he understood - his own home had its problems too. Chris gave me someone to be with and to trust. He was also the person who staggered with me through the streets of Blackrod after midnight the first time I got drunk (some years later) shouting “Hey everyone – this is the vicars kid and he’s drunk!” – but that’s another story.
Second, I changed schools. Faced with years of repetition in the village school, I took the exam for an independent prep school, a few miles away in Bolton and somehow I passed.
The difference was dramatic. I went from top of the class in Blackrod to bottom of the class at Bolton Prep School and it took me years to recover. It had a strict uniform policy where the village school had none. There was military style ‘Sergeant’ who kept discipline and there was definitely no running in the corridors! It was also miles away from the village. Almost no-one from the village went there and I didn’t need to be the vicar’s kid anymore. No-one there cared who my parents were or where I lived. I could be myself – or rather, find out who ‘me’ was.
Third, I discovered willpower and decided to change. I learned to face my neurotic compulsions head on and discover that they didn’t have to rule my life. For example, I could not sit in a room with the door open – it had to be closed. It is hard to describe the emotional agony which something as simple as an open door can create. Over time, I learned to face this fear by sitting on my bed night after night staring at an open door until the pain faded away. I also put the knife away.
Then overarching all of this was my faith. As a child I always knew God was part of my life and I know that he was a big part of helping me to face my fears.
I never minded going to church. Sundays were church days – I knew that and accepted it. I enjoyed our annual stay in the convent at Wantage and one year, the nuns gave me huge collection of Bible comics from the USA which had been bound together to make a kind of multi-colour graphic novel of the Bible. I read them regularly back in Blackrod.
The only time I put my foot down and said ‘no’ was when I went to Sunday School for the first time. Like many churches it was held during the morning service and soon I was old enough to go. At the end of the first hymn I filed out with the other children across the road to the Church School. The only problem was I hated it, and I mean I really hated it! I can’t remember why but I can still remember the feeling. I came home after my first Sunday there and said in no uncertain terms, “I am not going there again!” My parents looked at me and they knew that I meant it. After a few moments of awkward silence they replied “Ok, you don’t have to go” and that was the end of it. I didn’t go to Sunday School.
Looking back, I am so grateful to them for that moment of wisdom. If they had forced me to go, the seeds of resentment would have grown and I am quite sure that I would have longed for the day when I could put all that church stuff behind me forever, consigned to a file in my brain called ‘unpleasant childhood memories best forgotten’. As it was, I went to church quite happily every Sunday and God continued to be a part of my life in a natural, unforced way – a way which ultimately helped me to break free from all the other knots which were tied around my life.
As I look back now, too much of my life was ruled by fear – fear of failing – fear of not being the perfect vicar’s kid – fear of authority – fear of being found out – fear of being singled out for being different. It was in those years before I was ten that I began to learn to face those fears and became determined not to be ruled by them. I know that God was in that, holding me, protecting me, and slowly setting me free.
Now I was ready to be myself, whatever that was!