I was raised in a theologically confused and conflicted family. My maternal side was austerely Methodist but my paternal line was decadently lapsed Catholic. My mother resists all institutionalised religions but still believes in Paganism. My father remains a Catholic-sentimental agnostic in the Brideshead mould and attends Mass every Sunday. That said, on his deathbed, my maternal grandfather vocally apostatised from all religions.
One of the most articulate critics of religion, Christopher Hitchens, preferred to label himself as an anti-theist rather than an atheist. I like the distinction but I can’t help but remember the Woody Guthrie line that he believed in the validity of all world faiths. I believe there should be space for all world religions but I am myself an atheist.
My maternal line was most active when I was a child in trying to proselytise me. I remember being taken out on Bible buying missions and I spent more than a few Sundays at my grandparents’ local church. My grandmother was once a professional opera singer, though by the time I knew her her vocal chords had atrophied to the point where she sang everything in a warbling falsetto. We used to mock her by imitating her singing voice but now she is nearly quarter of a century dead, I wish I could resurrect her just to say how sorry I am for being an impudent little shit.
I was educated at a dysfunctional and defective Church of England school and this was my first and lasting taste of institutionalised Christianity. Vide Hugh MacDiarmid where he says that the most unchristian people are often those in high positions in the church or the society that surrounds it. It was a school where your success was based on hierarchy – if your parents were good bourgeois stock like medical doctors and lawyers, you were fine but if you came from more eccentric or downtrodden origins, it was a case of sauve qui peut. I was a mercilessly bullied fat child and my father was a manager of an Open Cast mining site a few miles away from the school. To say we were unpopular would be understating it somewhat. To contextualise this all, it was at a time when the (conservative) public was vehemently opposed to Open Cast mining and the damage it was supposed to inflict on the land. The fact is that the Open Cast, when it exhausted a site, often repaired and turned the land into a wildlife reserve, many of which are still used and enjoyed by middle-class dog walkers today.
That was quite an aside, I admit, but I must go into it because it remains a festering trauma. What I really meant to say was that I went to a feebly religious school. We had school assemblies, we had harvest festivals where we patronised already rich old people with donations of cans of crap food. We didn’t sing traditional hymns but rather drivel written by awkward men in the 1970s who thought that the teachings of Christ needed to be updated in the most square way. It was only in year four, the last year of primary school, that someone from a Jehovah’s Witness background came into our class. It was her exemption from the assembly that caught my attention. There were people who had different beliefs, even those who might believe in roughly the same thing but be willing to die because their reading or interpretation was the real one.
I started to question religion myself and recall a conversation with my mother when I was about 10 or so where she effectively told me it was all bullshit and that when I grew up I’d understand. I was totally confused and repulsed by what she said, thinking a life without the promise of salvation or lasting afterlife was not just pointless, it was horrific. But as the years have passed and taken their toll, I have come to completely understand what she said back then. I can’t even claim the solace of paganism that my mother subscribes to, as far as I see there is no God or afterlife. But that is also sometimes comforting, I once wrote a poem about being caught on a bus in traffic during the Rapture. How can people not stand each other for a short time or journey but they are expected to live in some supernal atrium together for all time?
I remember a critic of my poetry saying ‘Oh oh, Richie’s in the graveyard again’ and thinking how facile that was, as if I was a ghoul hovering around the charnel pit. The unfathomability of death and the mystery of existence is really what all poetry is about, even the stuff that masquerades as something else. All roads lead to it and attributing it to a creator is just too easy. I think poetry itself offers a real, viable substitute to religion, its authors hoping (invariably vainly) that something of themselves will outlive their own demise. Secular poets can be sacral too, in a place where the song and plainsong can meet.