A Sociological Autobiography: 8 – God and Girls

The ends of sociability through my secondary schooldays were met largely via ecclesiastical means. There was a moment of religiosity too, an embarrassment now, but an interval to which I return below. It was in my early teens that I first visited St George’s Church in, appositely, St George’s Road, East Worthing. The trigger was not a surge of impressionable religiosity but a youth club sensibly managed by the curate, Ken Barham, as an open facility. The draw was Saturday evenings, when the main church hall became a badminton court, table tennis tables were set up on its periphery, and girls as well as boys hung around (I was, remember, in a single-sex grammar school at the time). In primary school I had not been entirely immune to the presence of girls, but they were on the whole enigmatic beings better kept at bay: during dancing lessons for example we lads fought to be at the rear of the queue so we could dance with each other (ah well).

All this was common middle-class fare in the 1960s I suspect. There are two matters worthy of further attention however. The first is my religious episode. I am unsure now how I bit the bug, but there are moments of recall. I went by coach with my church/youth club consociates to Wembley to hear American evangelist Billy Graham address a primed crowd of all ages. His oratory was extraordinary. It has something to do with self-belief, timing and the timbre of the voice, I now assume, this capacity to enthrall and solicit (Hitler had it too); it opens the door for Weber’s charismatic authority. But I didn’t respond to his beseeching, although a few of our number did. This was not my moment. But somehow or other I got on board. Maybe the agent was the Vicar, the Rev Thomas Hewitt, who ‘confirmed’ me into the C of E. He was a short, craggy, in-your-face man of theological bent and I found him congenial. He gave me a copy of his translation of the Acts of the Apostles, having run out of Scott’s standard text for novitiates. He had two sons. Garth Hewitt seemed to have swallowed his dad’s faith: he accompanied himself on the guitar at our youth club events and was beginning to compose and to write his own lyrics, an evangelist in the making. Gavin Hewitt, now a well-known, roving BBC foreign correspondent, seemed as semi-detached as his autobiography suggests he was (what was the dynamic of the Hewitt household?). Thomas could have been the precipitant if not the cause of my flirtation with superstition.

Whatever the mechanisms, I was briefly hooked. And I changed personally: looking back I think I was more decent, or possibly more obliging or receptive, during this prayerful interlude than either before or since. Institutional and doctrinal encasing soothes and life becomes simpler. Boundaries, as we know, protect. Shy as I remained, I stood by Splash Point on the Worthing seafront, mimed hymns and listened in on my more extrovert friends’ exhortations to local pagans to mend their ways. I edited my account of all this to my parents, Ron and Margaret, who – I am sure knowingly, and without doubt wisely – bided their time in the shadows. My Christian experiment survived into undergraduate days. As is quite common I believe, my eventual abandonment of this experiment led to an increasingly militant, Dawkins-like atheism. Doubtless I shall return to this in a later fragment.

The second matter I should address is the discovery of girls. Sometime and somehow my little-boy inclination that they were to be avoided at all costs was displaced by a more positive attitude. And they clustered at the youth club. My initial tentative excursion was ‘asking out’ a short, black-haired and slightly podgy girl called Anne. We remained together in the loosest possible sense of the term for approximately three months before she traded me in for a rival. Oddly all three of my schoolboy liaisons lasted for the same period. Frances, Roberta and Junia all attended the local girls secondary school, Davisons, which had replaced our disused nursery playground at the bottom of Colebrook Close. There were all delightful girls, a touch less feisty than Anne. It seems strange now – during times in which it is not unusual for pre-teens to experience penetrative sex – just how restrained we were then. I am sure my shyness and the intermittent presence of my new buddy Jesus helped curb my lust. Others were bolder: Kieran and Alison from Colebrook Close days, it might be remembered, took audacity to its logical endpoint. But for me the female body was to remain largely enigmatic, if a matter for avid speculation. We did kiss, after a fashion. Either despite or because of this reticence, Roberta inscribed in a gift of a book of poetry: ‘I think I love you, or am I destroying everything by saying so?’ In a sense she was. I moved on to Junia, by then head girl at Davisons and up to that point a friend of Roberta’s. Junia lived with her mother, the love-child of a past affair. Her mother, whom I met over tea (one did then), was a forbidding woman who would have been quite at home in one of Dickens’ novels. She bought and rented properties, a female pioneer of sorts. Not a day went by, I later discovered, when Junia was not physically chastised by her mother for some imagined offence. I guess she was a permanent reminder of a past mistake. You would never have known. For me Junia was a goddess paying a fleeting visit to planet Earth. I wondered later if her mother engineered an end to our few months of walks, talks and kisses. Maybe not: apparently Junia assumed I was heading for a career in accountancy!

I ought to mention Julie. If Junia was slim, elegant and fair, Julie was a glossily attractive, dark, buxom single mum. I met her while working at Bentalls to earn some cash during the year I re-took my A-levels. In an uncharacteristically forthright moment I invited her to accompany me to London to see Hair. It was a good evening and trip, although I returned anatomically none the wiser. As a sociologist I have grown aware that the swinging sixties swung less insinuatingly for many of us than its myths imply. It was a fun decade though: has there been a better before or since for adolescents?

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