On Jessica Hoff’s blog I am posting an exposition of Buyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. When I was a lad it was one of those books everyone had on their bookshelves, bit like those sets of Dickens. Back then even humble homes like my own had books on the shelves, and they were serious books. However much historians rubbish the idea of there being ‘respectable’ and disreputable parts of the working class, they weren’t there sixty odd years ago and I was.
My father was not a believer, but my mother was, and he was happy to let her take my bothers and myself off on a Sunday morning to chapel where we’d go off to Sunday School and be taught the basics of Christian belief. Brain-washing? Not at all. Neither of my brothers retained an ounce of Christian belief, so if it was, it was unsuccessful. I remember nowt about it, save being taken out of the service and then coming back in later – and feeling conspicuous both times. But I took in the sense that when I first read Bunyan I knew what he was writing about.
Our horizons were narrow ones. We never went on a holiday, and beyond our bit of Yorkshire was mysterious and might well have been China for all I ever saw of it. But that was the physical horizon. Mentally it was quite different. Books took me to worlds I knew nothing of and might never see – but in the hands of a good writer I saw it all in my imagination. What I had seen with my eyes was little – what I saw with my imagination was everything.
So for me, Pilgrim’s Progress was very real. I knew allegory instinctively, but I saw how it applied to my life and my very limited experience. I’d a natural desire to be good, but an equally natural instinct to be naughty. That certainly matched what I was told in Sunday School; it also matched Christian’s journey. I found his mishaps and mistakes helpful. I was like that. I meant to do something and got distracted and led astray. It was good to know that that did not put me beyond God’s love.
I didn’t have a problem with the hell-fire stuff which causes sensitive souls now to run off. If I misbehaved my father clouted me. He didn’t tell me I was an evil little child, or that I’d go to hell, but he did clout me because I’d done wrong. That didn’t mean he didn’t love me – it meant he did. There were those whose fathers didn’t care what they got up to; I was glad my dad wasn’t like that.
Expectations were low. I went to the local primary school where, it was rumoured, someone had once passed the 11 plus. When I did so there was amazement – not because of me, but because schools like that never had anyone who did. That always made me sad. It was back then I said I wanted to be a teacher. When asked why, I couldn’t rightly say then – except that I knew I wanted to be of service.