THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A FREE LUNCH

The Daily Mail article about my old school, St Joseph’s, and how it inspired my version of Judge Dredd and Torquemada.

The recent Daily Mail article, also featured in The Sun and The Express, described Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s time at my old school, St Joseph’s College, Ipswich. If they were trying to trash him for going to a ‘posh public school’, they failed dismally in my opinion. Nevertheless, they twisted the facts sufficiently so that Daily Mail readers would have all the fake news they needed to believe the worst of McDonnell.

That said, there were some real gems in the feature that will bring back memories for many old boys of our time at St J’s. And it also reminded me of how I built a successful writing career based on my experiences at the school.

I particularly enjoyed the Mail’s rather unlikely opening description of Chantry Secondary Modern ‘yobs’ doing battle with St Js rugby elite. Supposedly wielding cricket bats and golf clubs, the college boys sent the working class kids packing back to their council estate where they belonged. It felt more like a typical, fetid Mail fantasy, but perhaps it was true. But I lived on Chantry council estate at that time and cycled past the Secondary Mod every day, wearing my brightly striped St J’s blazer, with no problem and not one taunt or confrontation from anyone. In fact, three of us ‘Holy Joes’ – as the Mail enjoyed labelling us – regularly hung around the Secondary Mod gates chatting up the girls. The Secondary Mod boys were completely indifferent to us muscling in on ‘their territory’. But the Mail account suggested tensions between the two adjacent schools mounted until there was a massive shindig straight out of the Jennings and Darbishire novels by Anthony Buckeridge.

It was also good to read that John McDonnell described the school as ‘sado-masochistic Christianity’, a regime that enjoyed ‘kicking the shit out of you’. That is 100% accurate, as I relate in my autobiography ‘Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave!’. It was this kind of warped behavior by De La Salle monks that inspired my version of the 2000AD comic book character Judge Dredd and also Torquemada in my Nemesis the Warlock. I am, of course, the developer of Judge Dredd, not its creator as the Mail states. But I don’t think anyone really expects the Mail to get its facts completely right.

But I do wonder if McDonnell’s criticism of the school is the real reason the current regime no longer lists him among past alumni. They would doubtless prefer no one knows about the school’s dark past, which they do their best to disassociate themselves from.

So it transpires that John McDonnell was at St Js for four years, just a couple of years after I was there. I, too, was down for the seminary; I, too, had my school fees paid for by a church grant; and I, too, left at age fifteen when I ‘discovered girls’.s I used the exact same phrase at the time.

But the Mail article chooses to miss out on aspects that would explain why St J’s, whilst never a seminary, could often seem like one and how that misunderstanding may well have arisen. Because the college was motivated to send boys in the direction of the seminary. Highly motivated. I was very aware back then that, following the Second Vatican Council, there was a disastrous slump in vocations. Maybe I overheard adults talking about it, but I knew there was panic in the air. In a decade or two they were going to run out of priests! And this has, of course, come to pass. Consequently, every day we were regularly and fanatically harangued by Brother James, our form teacher, with fierce recruiting speeches to ‘answer God’s call’ which, he warned us, we ignored at our peril. God would not be happy, he told us sternly.

The psychotic Brother James, as readers of ‘Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave!’ will know, was one of the sources of inspiration for my version of Dredd and also Torquemada, a xenophobic, Darth Vader-like character who regards all aliens as deviants who must be ‘cleansed’ by his deranged Terminator Knights. The other sources were Brother Solomon, the notorious wannabe pop star known as the ‘Swinging Monk’ and a Catholic layman who I’ll call ‘Torquemada’ for now, as I’m still in the process of researching him and – unlike the Mail – I like to get my facts right. More on this gentleman in a moment.

Eventually I succumbed to Brother James’s passionate rants, signed up for the priesthood, and was forthwith taught Latin one-to-one by Brother Kevin. Once you sign up, a church grant is arranged as the Mail article rightly states. How that was done is a bit of a mystery, though, but I’m assuming that the Knights of St Columba – a group of successful Catholic businessmen – were most likely involved in some way. After all, according to the Catholic Herald newspaper, it was the Knights who arranged the original purchase of the St J’s school building from R and W Paul, a local Ipswich seed merchants. It was the start of a long relationship between the De La Salle brothers and the Knights.

So with that grant, the Church had invested in me and they expected a return on their investment, just like any business. And I guess that’s reasonable. So when I was observed snogging a girl at St Mary’s Catholic youth club, the Church worthies and the School went on red alert. A harmless kiss was really a big deal to them. To put this in context, when a dance was arranged at St J’s with a local school band (Murray and the Mints!) the college finally decided against the local convent girls attending in case we ran off with them into the wooded school grounds, which we doubtless would have done. So, instead, boys danced with each other, which was much wiser. The opposite sex was definitely taboo. Consequently, Brother Kevin was called to the youth club for an emergency meeting to discuss my disgraceful behaviour.

My case was then referred to a Church worthy, who I’m naming Torquemada because he was definitely a prime source of inspiration for the Grand Master of the Terminator Knights. His real first name also begins with ‘T’ so it seems appropriate. Torquemada spoke sternly to me about conduct unbecoming. He urged me to suppress my hormones, mend my ways, lead a celibate life from now on and stay away from girls. After all, the trouble began with that hussy Eve. He exhorted me… ‘Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave!’ Or words to that effect. He and I were unaware that one day this famous slogan would be scrawled on the Berlin Wall (No photos were taken at the time, alas. Sorry!) And become the title of the Manic Street Preachers documentary film.

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Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! is available as an e-book, paperback and audiobook. Find out more over at my Millsverse website.

 

The sensible thing for me to do would have been to shut up and obey. And to be a little more discreet in my dalliances with the opposite sex. But there were other factors at work and things were already getting out of hand.

To keep this brief, let’s just say I blew the whistle on the behaviour of some Church worthies who were definitely guilty of conduct unbecoming. I had good reason to do so, but I naively thought that telling the truth was the right thing to do. It was not. No one in authority was interested. ‘Best stay away from them in future, son,’ was the typical advice I was given. Whistleblowers, then and now, are not popular because most people are socially conditioned to keep their mouths shut and put up with shit. Somehow I seem to have escaped that process of omertà, both then and now. Speaking out is, unfortunately, hard-wired into my DNA. But ‘betraying’ these gentlemen and their sworn secrets did not go down well with Torquemada.

There then began an interesting battle of wits between me and the Grand Master, where we both progressively upped the ante. It was a process of action and reaction with – just as in fiction – each action and reaction becoming more serious than the last and potentially spiraling out of control as we attempted to defeat the other. Once again I was naïve to imagine I could possibly beat Torquemada. How dumb was that! But when you’re a kid you’ve only got three choices: fight, flight or surrender. I chose to fight. Always.

There were attempts to keep me on a tight leash, which only had the effect of sending me further ‘off the rails’. I had already witnessed some of these Catholic gentlemen’s dubious, neo-masonic and esoteric practices. If you find that unbelievable, let me assure you their rituals are a matter of written record. Although the particularly dubious ones have gone unrecorded. It was the latter that were the subject of my whistleblowing. If you’re curious, drop me a line and I’ll send you the link to a full description of their official rituals. These occult ceremonies – which continued until the late 1960s – still make for disturbing reading.

So, furious that my complaints had not been listened to, and as a mark of my defiance, in classic ‘juvenile delinquent’ manner, I became involved with what the Church might describe as ‘The Opposition’. It was typical teenage rebellion. That would show them all! ‘The Opposition’ was a group of adults with their own equally dubious esoteric and masonic practices who recruited me from the local library. Talk about out of the frying pan… But I needed to rebel in some way and it seemed preferable to glue sniffing. But Torquemada saw right through my less than convincing excuse that these people were actually okay because ‘they were into yoga’. So was Aleister Crowley.

Now I was thought to be ‘in grave moral danger’, it was Torque’s turn to up the ante. Accordingly it was decided to speed up the vocational process. It was the norm to go to the seminary at age 18, as the Mail makes clear. This would be after a truly excellent education, at which point I might well say, ‘I don’t have a vocation after all, but thank you very much and goodbye.’ Instead, there was a change of plan. To my horror, they were sending me to a junior seminary at age fifteen! Right away. No messing. To get me far away from those ‘bad influences’!

Whether I really had a vocation was academic – when you are brainwashed every day, who is to say? I guess I thought I could decide when I was 18, but now they’d called my bluff. I passed the medical exam for the seminary and my entry was planned with immediate effect. I agonised long and hard over whether I should go. It wasn’t concern over leaving home or even my friends that finally decided me against it. That didn’t worry me at all. I had a strong sense of adventure and I wanted to discover the world – hence why I had gotten involved with ‘The Opposition’. No, it was because I knew what was waiting for me at the other end. More moral danger, this time if not officially approved by the Catholic Church, certainly carried out by its devotees.

After all, I was already aware of enough perverted practices amongst priests and the Church worthies. Too big a subject to detail here. The Mail might relate just how delightful the St J’s yachting club on the River Orwell was, but I can tell you it’s no joke being trapped on the school chaplain’s personal yacht when he is after his droit du seigneur, there’s nowhere to run and you’re a lousy swimmer.

These were not minor or isolated incidents: they were widespread and endemic. It was the norm and a way of life, something that is still conveniently steered around when the Church’s appalling record is brought to public attention. Probably because it’s on the list of taboo subjects that our tightly controlled media has been told never, ever to write about. For instance, why there is never any media reference to Jimmy Savile and the Catholic Church? Some subjects are off limits and probably always will be and these seem to include the conduct of certain important Catholic lay people. If you imagine it’s just priests who were paedophiles and the congregation never knew or never joined in, there’s probably a bridge I could interest you in. Of course what was good enough for a priest was undoubtedly good enough for certain prominent members of his flock.

So I bailed. I wasn’t going. They tried damn hard to persuade me otherwise with endless – and I mean bloody endless – lectures from Torquemada and other Catholic worthies. Every time there was a knock on our front door there was another one of them standing there, like a Jehovah’s Witness, wanting ‘a quiet word’! I guess they were used to winning, but so was I. Neither of us would back down. My behaviour was ‘very naughty’, according to a relative. Damn right it was. Their guilt-tripping lectures ranged from ‘you’ll break your poor mother’s heart’, to ‘she’s sacrificed everything for you, you can’t let her down now,’ to ‘she doesn’t know how to cope with your wild ways anymore,’ to ‘the seminary will be the making of you,’ to ‘you’re throwing away a great future, your life will be ruined’. You see, as it says in the Mail article, it was the dream of every Irish Catholic Mother for her son to be a priest. But how many kids would willingly enter the PIE equivalent of Fagan’s Den? This was how I saw the seminary. And with good reason. Google them and you will see just what I mean.

So I stuck to my guns. In retaliation, I had to face the Wrath of Torquemada! Torquemada became Torquemadder. I was kicked out of St J’s with immediate effect at just fifteen, thereby narrowly escaping the humiliation of being sent to that Secondary Modern over the road for my final school year. But the only job I could find was as an errand boy riding a trade bike at the previously mentioned R and W Paul’s. I believe this was arranged by Torquemada himself although I still need to double check my facts there. (The full fictionalised story is recounted in my Read Em and Weep novel series). It had been a busy year.

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Torquemada knows when you’ve been naughty.
Nemesis The Warlock ™ REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, COPYRIGHT ©  REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

But, surprisingly, that wasn’t the end of it. Torquemada just wouldn’t give up. Really! I don’t know what went wrong at Vatican 2, but they must have been absolutely desperate for recruits to still want me. I’d have thought it was bleeding obvious I was beyond saving and I’d have given up on me long ago. ‘He’s a bust. Move on.’ My bad attitude alone surely wouldn’t suit a clerical life of obedience to authority. Maybe he thought he could finally break me in the end. So, after several months had passed, he actually offered me a ‘second chance’ to join the junior seminary and all would be forgiven. I recall meeting him at Grimwades restaurant (that posh outfitters mentioned in the Mail article. Although it was never the Savile Row set-up the newspaper made it out to be). He thought suffering the indignity of being a messenger boy would ‘bring me to my senses’. Maybe that was all part of his cunning plan. Perhaps now I would finally heed his dreadful warning: ‘Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave!’

Maybe he genuinely wanted to ‘save my soul’, but I just wanted to save my ass. Besides, I’d now discovered a new form of anti-authority delinquency to really piss him off that was much more appealing than my foray into the occult Opposition. Now it was Mods and Rockers. Mods were really cool, I excitedly told a sour-faced Torquemada as he scowled at my ex-army parka, desert boots and red socks. At last I’d found a group I could belong to. The Quadrophenia delights of Mod riots on the beach at Great Yarmouth were easily more attractive than fending off weirdo priests at the seminary, so my response to Torquemada was ‘Fuck you.’ Although not literally, of course.

I left home at 16, and thankfully, severed all connections with the Church.

So I don’t know how it was for John McDonnell, but, as you can see, from my experience, the Church do not give up easily. They want their pound of young flesh. To imagine that you can have an expensive, first rate education for four years and at the end of it all you simply say ‘I’ve changed my mind, I don’t have a vocation’ and walk away without any consequences is a little optimistic. Kids are, of course. I was. But adults are realistic. And these were very intelligent, very successful, very determined adults. I would not have been the first or the last recruit who tried to change his mind. And they would have their strategies in place to deal with them.

But, in the end, I guess I did beat them. I finally beat Torquemada. Although you don’t need to remind me it was a pyrrhic victory.

I don’t know whether McDonnell’s time at St Js helped make him a Marxist, but my experiences there certainly affected my beliefs – big time. Maybe the school affected fellow old boy Chris Mullin, too, and that’s really why he wrote A Very British Coup, one of my favourite novels and films because it’s about the underdog winning. I’m probably more radical than either of them and that’s undoubtedly due to my experiences with ‘Judge Dredd’, ‘Torquemada’ and the rest of that unholy crew associated with St J’s and now immortalised in the pages of 2000AD. So every cloud…

But let’s not forget about that ‘church grant’. If the Church thought McDonnell was going to be a priest then they would pay his boarding fees. Because he passed the eleven-plus, his local education authority would cover the rest. If the Mail article is a bit wooly there it’s because the process was a mysterious one but it would always be fuelled by an agenda.

However the fees were nothing like the Mail is mischievously trying to suggest. As a day boy, my fees were 21 guineas a term. Allowing for inflation, that’s approaching 2K a year in today’s money. Boarding fees would be more, but still a whole lot less than the ridiculous figures the Mail is implying McDonnell’s church or family would have had to pay.

My mother was a widow, and there was no way she could afford 2K. She was as poor as a church mouse and that comparison is deliberate because young widows with kids are always vulnerable to powerful male abusers and predators and doubly so in the Catholic Church. Especially in that era. It’s very likely that my hard-wired aggression developed at a very young from trying to protect her from dubious characters. To be ‘the man of the house’. Of course I didn’t always succeed, but there are ways… kids are still animals and animals don’t take any shit, so why should they?

So it’s no good saying – as one St J’s old boy said recently on my blog – words to the effect, ‘Well I was at St J’s and nothing bad happened to me or to anyone I know. So you and the other survivors must be making this up.’ Even if your dad wasn’t an all-in wrestler, if you had a dad, the chances are he would keep the predators at bay. These scum are cowards, after all, and they like to avoid a baseball bat in the face which is, of course, what they so richly deserve.

Anyhow, my mother sent my older brother and I to St J’s for a combined total of nine years. Even though neither of us passed the eleven plus. So our education was paid for solely by the Church. This was confirmed recently to me by my mother’s younger sister. They’re both deceased now, but the mystery remains. Why on Earth would the Church do that? After all, having two sons becoming priests seems a little excessive, even for an Irish Catholic family, although that was undoubtedly my mother’s dream.

It’s certainly rather odd, but these facts are beyond any doubt. So why? Is the Church really that generous with its cash? Not in my personal experience. On the contrary. When we were desperate and in need of charity, we turned to the local Rotary club for help and I’ll never forget their kindness and generosity. But the Church? Forget it. That’s a self-promoting myth they still spread to preen their egos. So why? The full answer lies outside this post and is connected with Torquemada. I’ll come back to him another time as I continue my researches into him.

But for now… Let’s just say, ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch.’

BREAKFAST OF THE VANITIES – Brats Bizarre recalled in Comic Heroes

The other night I had an e-mail from an American comic journalist asking me for British fanzine information about Jack Kirby.  I was baffled why he should contact me of all people.  My comic Gods are Tardi, Druillet, Caza, Ledroit, Bilal, Gal and similar European artists, and I know little about the origins of modern day superheroes.  So I gently explained this to him, but he insisted that maybe I could get in touch with my friends who, he was sure, would have the information on Jack Kirby he was after.  Of course I knew they wouldn’t – superheroes are not a subject often discussed in my social circle, unless it’s a negative view of them as in Marshal Law or Brats Bizarre.

Maybe because of this e-mail exchange, or maybe because I’ve been proofreading the deluxe collected edition of Marshal Law (due out next April from DC Comics), but I had the most extraordinary nightmare that night.  In it, a group of superheroes, splendidly cloaked and jazzled, were rushing down to breakfast, running on one leg towards me, in full “Crisis” mode, with mandatory gritted teeth and clenched fists.  Crying out “Aiee!” as they leapt through the air to seize a packet of cornflakes, desperately diving for the fridge to grab the milk, heroically helping themselves to toast, and then hurling themselves at the cooker to scramble eggs.

Mercifully, that’s all I can remember; I woke up with a start and couldn’t understand why I found this dream so disturbing.     Then I realised it was because someone was missing: a cereal killer.  Marshal Law.  He would have shoved those heroes’ heads in toasters, fried their asses and turned this Breakfast of the Vanities into a Bonfire of the Vanities.  Now that would have made for a most satisfying dream.

Okay, it’s easy to criticise, but how would I interpret superheroes if an editor foolishly let me loose on the genre?  Brats Bizarre – which appeared in Toxic!, brilliantly illustrated by Duke Mighten and co-written with Tony Skinner – gives you some idea.  Living in a sentient house run by their dubious butler Bates, they indulged in every imaginable teenage excess.  I’ve written about them in a recent issue of Comic Heroes and the images here show their very different attitude to their superpowers.  More recently, Channel 4’s excellent Misfits did it bigger and better and shows the Young Ones potential in telling it like it is, but I still think Brats has something pertinent – and certainly offensive – to say, to challenge the world of fantasy currently on offer.

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Marvel ran a limited series of Brats Bizarre in Epic Comics

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The new Brats Bizarre line-up.

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Life in the Brats Bizarre mansion, 2001.