About five years ago I took a call from a producer of television at the BBC. It was a not uncommon approach, with them wanting to film a segment of a programme in St Matthew’s Church in Bethnal Green, where I serve. I asked, as one would and should, what the programme was to be about. I was told it was called Who Do You Think You Are?
A pause followed. In those days when my wife and I did not have a television in the house – we still don’t, but you can catch up with lots of stuff via the web – the naming of the show could not have been evocative. I had never heard of it, I had no idea of its remit and, to be honest, I was not gasping to find out much more.
However, here we had the national broadcaster seeking to film in the church I serve, so I asked for a potted summary of the programme’s ambitions. In short, it’s about the exploration of people’s backgrounds, of the distance travelled between those who came before us and ourselves. ‘That’s sounds quite interesting.’ And then I sighed, ‘I suppose that ordinary people aren’t involved. It will be a celebrity?’
My assumptions were correct. The programme was on the actor Patsy Kensit, the daughter of a villain caught up with other 1960s East End ‘celebrities’, the Krays, who, through the workings of the programme, learned that one of her ancestors was the Reverend James Mayne, the seemingly saintly and hardworking curate of St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green in the nineteenth century. Among the amazing feats he is renowned for in a parish that was much larger than the current one I serve, he would officiate at up to forty baptisms and ten funerals in one day.
I have spent a bit of time on this because it points to something that anyone who works in an ancient parish will recognise. At some point in almost any family’s life, there will be a push to find out about ancestry, interesting as it is for oneself, but also because it gives you a sense of who you might think you are.
I have a personal connection with this. I have long known of my dubious Irish pedigree, with progenitors on both sides having been transported to Australia after convictions for manslaughter. On a trip to Australia earlier this year I learned of an English connection in my ancestry – alas, of no higher fibre than my Irish forbears.
The couple in question, one a thief whose defence was that the goods in his pockets jumped there when he fell drunk into the pub cellar where he was arrested, and a woman who seemed to be involved in a complex operation of robbing a man who thought he had contracted with her an arrangement of a sexual nature.
In all this I have been able to make good a claim I have made repeatedly over the quarter century that I have been in the United Kingdom. ‘Why on earth did you come here?’ I am asked. ‘For the weather,’ I will often say. Or, ‘I thought it was about time that some of the rubbish came back.’ The missing link I need to supply you is this: those in my family tree who came from England did so from what is probably a fifteen minute walk from where I now live.
Staff at ancient parishes are used to enquiries, visitors and requests about people baptised, married and buried in and from their churches. Those beating this track are trying to find out about their past. They are seeking to learn more about who they are.
Indeed, part of my going to Australia this year was in line with this quest for trying to understand more deeply something about who I am, in particular in relation to my father. This is about identity and, over the years, as a playwright, unpublished novelist and religious non-fiction writer, there is an element of identity that is never far from the surface. I write because that is who I am, and in doing so often explore ideas of what is like to be who we are.
The Australian writer Bob Ellis in his play, A Very Good Year, has the two main characters discuss the concept of a sustaining fantasy. This construct, be it personal, mythical or sociological, allows people to live their lives in a way that gives them, and the society they live in, meaning. So says Elkins, the character scarily recognisable as the author’s alter-ego. For people of faith, religion is a vital component of what Elkins would deride as a sustaining fantasy or, as we might look to the television series on the BBC, as something that tells us who we think we are.
Sociologists, psychologists and many other –ologists have seen strengths and dangers in this kind of living underpinned by the faithful quest and, indeed, in much of my published non-fiction I have sought to work out how our faith, our mythology - a word I use in the broadest sense – relates to our lives. What can the stories we use in the practice of our faithful living tell us about where we have been and where we might go?
Three of my books have had particular emphasis on the passion of Jesus. The passion of Jesus – the narrative moving from the last supper, his agony in the garden, his betrayal and arrest, his torture, trials and death – make up a substantial part of each of the gospels. To that end, we focus on this aspect of Christ’s mission from Passion Sunday until the glory of Easter.
These stories are important. As it says in the hymn Blessed Assurance, and echoed in Eucharistic Prayer D in Common Worship, ‘This is our story. This is our song.’ Maintaining religious narrative is one way for us to deepen our understanding of who we are. By listening to scripture, by entering into a conversation (both literal and metaphorical) with it, we can find out more about ourselves as individuals, as a church, as a part of the wider society in which we live.
Identity is a recurrent theme in my dramatic work as well. The challenge of getting people in and out of places and situations where issues are not being played as signposts to the Big Issue of the play is part of the craft. How successful a writer is at that is up to the critics and, like most playwrights, I have been praised and vilified for the same work.
On my sabbatical research I found a passasge written by my father Ken, who was a poet and wrote under the pen name John Dawes. He addressed these issues in an article entitled An Angry Young Man Who Is No Longer Young (Or Towards an Australian Poetry).
'For that I have been alternately praised and bashed about by professors and poets, pedants and peasants. I have had my strengths likened to those of R.D. Fitzgerald and been condemned for my use of clichés. I have been hailed as a thinker (in a minor way) and incinerated as an idiot. I have been accused as an imitator (particularly of Eliot and Donne, even plagiarising a poem of Yeats which I have never read), of ignoring metre and of straining stresses, of despising iambic forms and of cleaving to the ballad firmly. I have won, for one of my poems, the blessing of the Pope and have had my stuff printed in five Australian States and India. I have had it illustrated and been consoled that it has given heart to nuns. I have even had letters from simple old ladies asking me to write something on their favourite themes. I have been thanked for inspiration and attacked for not having any – and from all of this I think I can humbly, but truthfully, say I no longer have any illusions.’
I want to suggest that illusions are the stuff of writing and, to a certain extent, the product or purpose of our identity. It is not necessarily deceit, as faith would not be commensurate with deceit, but it can be an exploration of the complex nature of our thoughts, beliefs and relationships.'
Understanding the relationship with my father has been a long-term project which captures my identity. Which segues to what I would like to do next, which is to read an excerpt from the work that I am currently trying to sell. It’s called Three Angry Men. Those of you who have read Simple Gifts – Blessings in Disguise, will have learned that the book itself opens with these words:
'I have spent much of my life in fear of three angry men: God, my father and myself. '
Here is an excerpt from the book, from a chapter titled The Cult of Perfection:
In some ways writing seems to feed some inner monster, a demon that demands to be placated. Ken typed, wrote, scribbled on clean pages, waste paper, the backs of envelopes, torn off TAB tickets, margins of newspapers. The archive holds some which were penned as he lay in his bed in the months up to his death. Some were speculative, the grumpings of a bedridden grouch. Others were no doubt intended to be uplifting to writer and reader. They take the form of little rhymes, ideas, the sort of material that would, had he been that kind of writer, have been entered into a commonplace book. Quite a few of them are distinctly theological. Some managed to combine a few or even all of those elements.
'Sometimes I feel that man whom God made in image and likeness of himself tries to make God in the image and likeness (literally thought) of man. '
Dad’s knowledge of this was worn on his back. For all his awareness of the dilemma of perfectibility, his personal grooming and haberdashery were statements of the distance yet travelled. In two photographs Dad cuts a dashing figure: one in the cassock and cloak of a novice Passionist, and the other in an open-necked soldier’s uniform. Such trim presentation was abandoned with age, whether as an outward sign of an inward eschewal of dandyism, or that he plainly did not care, was hard to determine. Perhaps as a retort to this I have, at times, found myself more concerned with my appearance as I age than I was in younger years.
It was certainly a puzzle to his children. Ken would wear outsized jackets, weighted down in each pocket by notebooks, pens, wallets and various bits of paper – jottings, news clippings, receipts and other assorted ephemera. His trousers over time went from the unconcerned to the outright repugnant. At one point Dad went off to Campsie and returned boasting over the purchase of a couple of pairs of trousers for the price of one. These overlarge confections of some manmade fabric would put his family at risk when he would drop burning ash from his cigarette. They were spectacularly hideous, rivalling only his plastic duck-shooter’s cap that he wore to the rugby league, when his children would sit some yards away from him out of embarrassment. I suspect his criteria in choosing such garments were simple. The clothes he chose were cheap and came even more so if he bought them in twos. Every now and then Norma and the children would seek to improve his sartorial display. But, for the most part, he was incorrigible.
Dad was designer-blind. He took to wearing a car crash of checks: jacket, trousers, shirt, tie, each in a different shade and design. Such was the impact that one Anzac Day he became a flittering celebrity in the televised march. Dad had not marched in over twenty years in what has become the most evocative national day. It has so many disparate elements: celebrating the achievements, failures and resilience of the members of the Armed Forces. Ken had taken the train to Sydney from the Central Coast where he had planned to take his place in the taxis provided for ex-servicemen unable to cover the couple of miles’ march on foot.
Dad had been a member of Lark Force, whose most celebrated claim was to have lost more men per capita than any other Australian fighting unit in World War Two. On his arrival in Sydney Dad, who by this time was sedentariness personified, was informed that he could provide the vital component to allow his comrades to march behind their regimental marker. Without him Lark Force would not be on the streets. So it was that Dad got more exercise that morning than he had had in years.
He was dressed in his traditional cavalcade of checked clothing. As he paraded along the route a broadcast camera caught Ken in a close-up. At home that night this shot made it in the highlights shown as part of the evening news. Dad was bemused. He asked what he had done to have been singled out by the vision mixer. As a former television journalist, I was on hand to give the expert explanation. ‘Dad, no-one has ever seen such a combination of checked clothing on one man on the streets of Sydney.’
For many years I followed this path of non-regard for preening. I would buy baggy, ill-fitting and fashion-defying clothing. Part of that was, and remains, an aversion to spending cash on manipulative trends of mode makers. No doubt the wide lapelled jackets, flared trousers, fat ties and platform shoes of the 1970s were contributory to this backlash attitude. I spent a lot of money to look like a man about town. As with many retrospective glances, a look at photos of the time makes me cringe with embarrassment. Dishevelled chic was a statement: no amount of dressing up would improve my lot.
I do not know when I embraced the timeless – or so I consider – but well turned out appearance I seek to sport now. Perhaps it was at ordination or came with the adoption of a style, such as imbibing dry martinis when Adey and I first visited New York City. It may also have a deeper psychological cause. Perhaps I just did not want to end up looking like the sartorial plane crash Ken was. That he was so well turned out in his coffin was our revenge.
The inherent irony is not lost on me: in seeking to be unlike my father, I am conscious of his influence. In striving to be our own person, we can be aware how much of our behaviour is affected by those who have gone before us. My brother-in-law, Chris McGinley, who became perhaps Ken’s closest friend and saw a placid side of him that his family was denied, once quipped, ‘Just because someone has left their footprints in the ground ahead of you, you don’t have to put your feet into them.’ It is true. You don’t have to. But in many ways I seem to.