The memoir of a Catholic childhood, with its familiar mix of mumbo-jumbo, deprivation, brutality and idiosyncratic sexual mores, is one of literature’s most overcrowded suburbs. I have as much of a weakness for the bells and the smells – the stockings and suspenders of spiritual desire – as the next man. But the interesting thing about Catholicism, beautifully evoked in this restless book, is not the pious paraphernalia but the stubborn persistence of its hold on the human imagination.
John Cornwell was brought up in Barkingside in the far east of the East End, the third of four children. His family belonged to the half-deserving poor. Tea was bread and marge on a kitchen table covered with newspaper. The children cleaned their teeth using soot from the chimney. John