Good nuns laughing

LIBBY PURVES, in conversation with DEBORAH JONES

Libby Purves is a novelist and a radio presenter of such programmes as Midweek and The Learning Curve, which focuses on education in all its aspects. Her recent autobiographical book Holy Smoke* was written, partly, to counter the current convention for former pupils to denigrate their convent schools. She feels she owes much to her religious upbringing, even if now she plays no active part in Catholic parish life. Deborah Jones, our Assistant Editor, goes to interview Libby in her home in Suffolk to find out more about her views on Catholic education.

I find the old farmhouse up a winding lane near the east Suffolk coast. Greeted with a mug of tea, made in the spacious and comfortably cluttered kitchen by Libby's husband, television presenter and farmer Paul Heiney, I then follow Libby through another room into the sitting room where we sink into softy chintz sofas. I begin by asking how much she feels that her own parents influenced her religious views.

'One never understands the extent of one's parents' influence,' she says in that famous radio voice. 'It's always there, like the weather, like oxygen, keeping you alive. Inevitably there's always lots that's somewhat muddy, something negative. You always rebel against what your parents do. I was extremely lucky in that there was always a background of denial. My father thought religion was a lot of rubbish. But he was not unspiritual; he was intensely ethical. I can't tell you how tormented he was by what the government was doing while he was a diplomat. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act upset him very much: promising passports to Kenyan Asians, then going back on promises.

'So on the one hand there was morality without faith in God and, on the other, there was my mother's influence, which was a strand of Catholicism that was not strict, not hell-fire, more Graham Greene-ish, with room for the whiskey priest. Her own early life and background in Northern Ireland had given her an utter hatred of sectarianism, ever since she was thrown out of Girl Guides for being a Papist, despite polishing her buttons brilliantly. So I had both: rectitude without religion, and a sense that, within religion, not everyone lives lives of total rectitude. Father's influence was as important as mother's, with his constant testing of everything. I swing emotionally between the right-brain attitudes of my mother: emotional, unreasoning; and my father's left-brain analytic, challenging attitudes. Which is why when, in the sixth form at school, I had this sudden gagging in my throat — I couldn't stand the sentimentality of a lot of what went on. If I heard "Sweet Sacrament Divine" again I would lay about me with an axe!

'And yet I can be terribly moved by some deeply sentimental aspect of religion and religious education — I think that one of the great tricks of educators is to know just how much each pupil can take of sentiment. None of us can live lives of constant sugar — milk and saccharine. There was a stage I reached when I had drawn, once too often, a diagram of a cross with the thorns and a Host, with all the other symbols. And the way people talked about Communion would drive me right up the wall. That's my father's legacy. It is useful to pare off levels of childhood to the bare essentials.'

Religious education: not to cure behaviour

'When my own children start laughing at me and saying, "Don't raise that subject or mother will go off onto one of her moral flights," then okay; that's fine. They're not listening to the moral flights, but they know which way the moral flights would fly. So there is something that combines family affection, family love and, as in both my parents' case, underlying attitudes: it is so important to know the underlying attitudes. But can that be called religious education? It is something which really flies beyond the boundaries of anything that can be laid down. I feel strongly that it also concerns the nuns and teachers who taught me. I have constantly banged on about this when, under the last government, there was this curious call that there should be more RI or RE in schools, as a sort of cure for ram-raiding, something that would stop children growing up anti-social. Learning right from wrong would somehow be on the curriculum: "Right from Wrong". I wrote constantly that they won't "get it" unless it comes from people who, in their everyday lives, conduct in the school and everything, are real exemplars.

'The sex-education policy written up by the head of our local primary school is an absolute model of right thinking. The head explicitly said that, before the children have any sex-education, they would be taught to show respect for one another. They would see it, for example, in their teachers not ever criticising each other behind their backs, or not showing impatience. The policy was to show respect for the individual. I think that there would be a better charge from religious education if the teachers showed that that is their attitude. It's like you'd get more of religious education in ten minutes talking about, er, badgers with Cardinal Hume, than in eight hours talking about pastoral theology with a less holy person.'


With such an endorsement for the late spiritual leader of the contemporary Church, I wonder if Libby had become reconciled with the Church and had resumed practising as a Catholic. She considers for a moment, then replies:

'There are still strong barriers between me and being a mainstream Catholic, but when the barricades go up at the end of the world I hope to be reconciled. But some of the painful points have been aggravated by this Pope, and some of the problems and attitudes over women, say, bother me.'

I wonder, from the emphasis in Holy Smoke on Libby's negative reaction to the promulgation of Humanae vitae, whether there was more contributing to the 'barriers' than that one document. 'There was more,' she agrees. 'Humanae vitae is certainly part of it, though there are many beautiful things in Humanae vitae. In Holy Smoke I tried to tell honestly how I felt then, in 1968, when, as with other girls of my generation coming to that moment, when everything was falling most beautifully into place, we found that this one thing was barred. Our reaction was not really for our sake, so much as for those people in much harder situations in the world.'

Reject all?

When some people are troubled by aspects of church teaching, they reject all expressions of Christianity and Church. Not so, Libby.

'Something of this negativity in my head is still there,' she declares, yet 'on the other hand, I like going to church! At the moment I go to quite a lot of chapel in my [two teenage] children's school — heavy-duty High Anglican stuff. They're at the Royal Hospital School, which involves quite a lot of laying of cutlasses on the altar on Remembrance Sunday, "Eternal Father strong to save", that sort of muscular Christianity. Also it's a very open-hearted, loving sort of school, with a good community spirit.'

As her own experience of Catholic schools was largely positive, I asked if she had considered sending her children to one.

'I wouldn't have minded their going to a Catholic school if I could have found one which I could applaud in every way. It's all deeply unsatisfactory, that part of my present divergence from the Catholic Church makes me feel I couldn't take them through the system. I think also they'd have had far more aggravation from me over religious education in Catholic schools. As it was there was, at one of their schools, some aggravation from me over religious education, when one teacher, who was very, very conservative, spent two whole terms on Jacob. "We shall be doing Jacob for most of this year," he'd said!'

Liberty of thought

'But I've been incredibly struck by some of the things they'd brought back from their schools,' she enthuses. 'These were state schools, not church schools, but with strong religious backgrounds; church-wardens on the board of governors, that sort of thing. I'd have been very unhappy to have brought them up totally without contact with religion, or knowledge of religion or the basic grammar of it. The schools had to be Christian, but I have a problem with the amount of liberty of thought that children need now — and I regard now as different from then. I want my children to have a sense of the spiritual, a sense of the numinous, a sense of the four last things — death, judgement, heaven and hell, — a sense of a lot of the things that are in the Catechism actually, the sort of things they're getting as part of conversation.'


We discuss briefly the attraction of Catholic certainties for me in my teens which led to my own reception into the Church. That leads back to Libby's children's situation:

'They're now getting formal religious education and they're doing a lot of singing hymns. They've always been keen on that in a lot of the schools they went to. But if they don't choose to call themselves Catholic or Anglican or Christian tout court or to have a late-teenage conversion, well, I'd rather leave those ways open, in a sense. A lot of people try to reproduce their own religious upbringing, in fact their own education in every way. But because I never could have done, and because my husband's world is so utterly different — a working-class Sheffield family with a Polish father, where no one explained the first thing about religion — we've just taken it from where we were and where we lived and from what schools there were locally. But we've always gone with them to church at Christmas and Easter and other services.'

Another course?

Although Libby had seemed satisfied with her own upbringing and background, I began to wonder if she had not wished that she could have followed another course. I ask her. Libby replies quickly: 'Oh no. One of the reasons I wrote the book is that I get so annoyed when the usual suspects are wheeled out to whinge about their convent education and how it warped them, although I'm sure there were some very warpy nuns. I had an interesting conversation with Michele Roberts after the book came out — she's always saying how dreadful the nuns were and I'd say that she'd just fallen in with the wrong sorts of nuns. We came to realise that there was something of a class thing about it, that her nuns were poor Irish ones who didn't want to be there, who'd been shoved into it.

'That was still possible back in the 1940s: the one who wasn't very pretty was shunted into being a nun. She said there was a sort of atmosphere of poisonous resentment and I can quite understand that because the nuns in my South African school didn't want to be there. It was a privilege to have witnessed this "bad" convent because I was old enough to separate in my head that experience with real Christianity and to realise the fact that these nuns were plainly "doing it wrong".

'I had wanted to write the book mainly to tell of the many good things there were to being brought up by nuns. I've had the most wonderful letter from some elderly Ursulines in this country saying how much they liked the book and to say sorry for their sisters in South Africa! But I've also had some communication from people telling me about nuns who were sent out to South Africa to work within the apartheid system and who cracked up under it because they couldn't maintain their inward integrity.'

Libby comes back to the question again, 'I don't regret anything about my upbringing but — you think that everyone had the same kind of upbringing that you did, until you're quite old and suddenly find yourself saying at dinner: "Hey, remember when they'd say that terrible old thing 'Spiritual pride', how, if you got a gold star you shouldn't be proud of it, nor be proud of not being proud of it, as that would be spiritual pride" and the others would say "What?" and you'd think, um, well, that was a bit bizarre. Then I'd had all the international cultural, multifaith background as a "diplobrat". I'd been so used to seeing rabbis and buddhas and so on, and with my mother's antibigotry, I thought that's how it always was.'

French pupils, not trusted

I ask Libby about the quite different educational and cultural experience she had undergone as a child in France.

'My French experience was enjoyable. French Catholicism has this tremendous social side, all tied up with food, like being given sugared almonds when you're confirmed. But our French education seemed like something left over from Charlotte Brontë's Villette with all the Supervisors, the Surveillantes, the sense that you are constantly being surveillée. You're not quite trusted, you're not expected to internalise the discipline (which I sometimes think we can see in the behaviour of French schoolchildren around tourist attractions). I think the difference between that and the English tradition is that in France you are not "put on your honour". We have a long tradition of "you're on your honour" here. I think there's a non-conformist streak: "Thou, God, seest me" — whereas in France the moment the surveillantes' eye is off, they run wild. There are all sorts of other cultural differences.'

We divert for quite a time with anecdotes and memories of French customs and attitudes, then resume the question of just how children learn and take in from their surroundings. Libby suggests that 'Children pick up inconsistencies, but they tend not to talk about it at the time. It must be very difficult for religious educators. They don't have a radar to track what it is about their behaviour or teaching which is actually going in, what the effect is if this man is culpably boring and is keeping you in … I like the attitude they have at our local Catholic secondary school. I saw they had a kind of hip-political religious education, all about the Third World and our responsibilities to other countries and so on. It was all very lively and good, and had a vitality and freshness. Good, because whatever they're taking in, while doing the usual crosses and IHS and symbols for Easter, the pupils will associate it with a kind of youthful breeziness and optimism and kindness. Whereas, if you associate religious education with a kind of stuffiness, that's what will stay in your head as much as the actual theology.'

The Penny Catechism, for good and ill

Hearing Libby pay such attention to the significance of attitudes and to what educators tend to call 'process', makes me wonder how important to her is the actual content, the material, of education. She is quick to assert the value of content. 'There have to be the basics,' she insists. 'Another reason I wanted to write the book was to talk about the Penny Catechism. There's been much whingeing in the papers about this "dreadful Penny Catechism". Incidentally,' she adds as an aside, 'it's very hard to get hold of a copy. Reading through it again I found streaks of considerable nobility in it. I cannot get over "What are the four sins crying out to heaven for vengeance?" I try them out on everybody and everybody gets murder and then the sin of sodomy (and everyone goes "Uh huh, my God, these people!") but then — it's defrauding labourers of their wages, and oppressing the poor — up there, with murderers and sodomy! But there are a lot of completely gonzo things in it, for example, on going to bed, preparing yourself with thoughts of death — for young children!' Libby adds parenthetically, 'Yet I still don't see death in the same way as quite a lot of people I know see death — they go very quiet on the subject. It is having all those certainties, all the comforts and so on, on the other side.'

Simplicity and certainty

Libby seems drawn to the Penny Catechism at the same time as being slightly repelled. 'In it there is both fantastically simplistic stuff and some objectionable which has got to be modernised,' she explains.

'All the same, it was a very strong and certain way of getting the content through. Things like the seven corporal works of mercy and the seven spiritual works of mercy and so on are the most-wonderful list which Médecins sans frontières could carry in their knapsacks with no problem at all. I like that simplicity and that certainty: this is right, this is not right, which has oddly passed away from religious people into people like environmentalists. It is they who now are saying to us "You're using up more than your share, that's wrong. Think of the consequences of your actions upon other people; if you chop down a tree etc." Certainties like that were laid out in the Penny Catechism and so once you'd known them, they could be put out of the way so that you could think about things wider and more wonderful.'

I ask Libby for examples of what, in her education, had lain beyond the scope of the Catechism. She smiles with the memory and begins to describe the most fruitful time of her schooling:

'We had Mother (now we're to call her "Prue") Wilson's wide-ranging philosophy class and we had encouragement to read everything there was. Especially we had the nuns. At Tunbridge Wells they were so clever and this is what attracts me — bright nuns, for whom everything relates to everything. Thanks to them, when I went up to Oxford, I could be discussing a completely trashy novel with a professor and I'd think, ah! "The way you use that goes all the way back to Henryson", or whatever, or "Shakespeare would have liked that." They taught me to make connections.

'When Yoko Ono cut off all her clothes on stage, before she married John Lennon (Yes, we'd heard of Yoko Ono down at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Tunbridge Wells! This was something we'd read in an art magazine), we then did a project on Art and Destruction, with sculptures made out of clocks taken to pieces and so on. Quite effortlessly, one or two of the nuns would come by and make a connection, talking about the idea of poverty, of paring away the outside, the idea of things being made of things, and yet the very components themselves … "This cog, God is as much in the one cog as in the whole clock, just as the whole clock…" They wouldn't do it a heavy kind of way, but they'd be happy just to pick up on anything.'

Nuns laughing

I wonder whether that description simply indicates a good education. Libby agrees: 'Yes, free-minded education, yet you had before you the simplicity of nuns and the central fact of what they had willingly and joyfully given up. This goes right to the core. We were not stupid. We could see that the young nuns were terribly interested in our hair rollers and that kind of thing. We saw how it was when an old girl would bring in a baby, and how the young nuns would hold it. They weren't ogresses: they weren't outsiders. They were our daily companions and we knew pretty well what was uppermost in their lives.

'One fact is that we never saw them eat, they ate in communion, but we suspected that their food was not as good as ours and we had a pretty good idea that their beds were not as soft as ours. The hours they kept were difficult, and I saw, as I stayed over the holiday in school once, the intensity of the Holy Week observances. That sense of monasticism, of what they'd given up and that it didn't matter, was highly significant.'


'A favourite story of mine is of when I visited them, long after I'd left school, and the nuns were all out of their habits by then. Someone had brought a box of chocolates into the room. One of the younger nuns saw it and asked how long it'd been there. Another nun answered, "Sister, how long have you been in the religious life? Surely by now you know that, in a convent, a chocolate box is always full of cotton reels for the missions." They were sending up themselves and all that about sending cotton reels to the missions, and the fact that, in the past, they'd quite fancied some chocolates and weren't to have any. They were just breaking up laughing. I do think there's no better sound than a group of good nuns laughing.

'If you have that around you, the laughter, the giving up, the "Dominique, -nique, -nique..." singing through the lanes, if that's around the people who give you religious education and who profess religion around you, then you never really lose it. You know that there's another way, and however preoccupied you become in your daily life of getting and spending, and being middle class and struggling, and being held up for ages on the Chelmsford bypass, at the back of your head there's the simple, singing way of approaching it all. And when you have the strength, or your life changes, you might go down that path.

'I think a lot of people do not have that opportunity to see that path, and that's why the thing that makes me uncharitable, and outspoken and vile in columns, is when you get rows like at Westminster Abbey and the really bad one at Lincoln Cathedral. Clergy — how dare they! The Irish situation as well, the stand-off at the top of the Garvaghy Road: I can't see that that is any form of Christianity. That should be "Oh do march up our road." "Oh no, we couldn't possibly, it might upset you." "Oh, after you, Alphonse!" What I loved, after all the scandals of the Bishop Roddy Wright affair had blown onto the papers, was the way Cardinal Winning and everyone in Scotland said: "We hope he's well!"'

The one great commandment

We both laugh, then Libby goes reflective: 'After all the sacraments and everything, it's really reductive to the one great commandment, and the truth that God is everywhere, that all things are sacred. That's something that came to me throughout our time here of organic farming, being with the lambs, some living, some dying; the simple virtues are what matter. There's a platonic yearning, brought on, for example, by beautiful scenery, when a great melancholy comes over you, being reminded of somewhere, somewhere you've never seen. It's so strong in so many people, a reminder of what lies beyond — but that you have to wait. And that again is very much part of a religious educator's job, to acknowledge that everybody has these inchoate yearnings towards the eternal. How do you bring these out in the classroom? Poems, I suspect, poetry, great books, great Christian writers, great imaginative writers, Pilgrim's Progress…?'

On this reflection I give my thanks and take my leave, driving back along the long country lanes.

*Holy Smoke is published by Hodder at £14.99. It will be reviewed in October's issue.

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