John Cornwell decided to become a priest at the age of thirteen, a strange choice perhaps for a boy who’d been sent to a ‘convalescent home’ for having whacked a nun about the head. Growing up in a chaotic household, sharing two rooms with his brothers and sisters, his hot-headed mother and – when he was around – absconding father, John spent his time roaming the war-torn streets of London looking for trouble. One day, at his mother’s suggestion, he responded to a call from his local parish priest for altar servers. The ‘dance of the rituals’, the murmur of Latin and the candlelit dawn took hold of his imagination and provided him with a new and unexpected comfort. He left post-war London for Cotton, a seminary in the West Midlands. In this hidden, all-male world, with its rhythms of devotion and prayer, John grew up caught between his religious feelings and the rough and tumble of his life back in London; between seeking the face of God in the wild countryside around him and experiencing his first kiss; between monitoring his soul and watching a girl from a moving train whose face he will never forget. Cornwell tells us of a world now vanished: of the colourful community of priests in charge; of the boys and their intense and sometimes passionate friendships; of the hovering threat of abuse in this cloistered environment. And he tells us of his struggle to come to terms with a shameful secret from his London childhood – a vicious sexual attack which haunts his time at Cotton. A book of tremendous warmth and humour, ‘Seminary Boy’ is about an adolescent’s search for a father and for a home.
Reviews of Seminary Boy
‘“Seminary Boy” is a complex story written with beautiful and brutal exactness…an intensely involving, carefully paced book by one of the most thoughtful and well-informed of Catholic writers. A story about the loss of faith and its eventual return, it has the hold of good fiction and the grip of sober truth.’ Guardian
‘What makes it so gripping (and it is one of the most gripping memoirs I have read for years) is its incisive style.’ Sunday Times
‘Apart from its beautiful writing, what stamps “Seminary Boy” as a classic story of growing up is the kaleidoscope of perspectives it offers on the mystery of being…Layer after layer of art and truth compete for your attention, and the ambiguities are intrinsic to the power of the writing.’ Spectator