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1. Childhood and Youth

Only one thing about my childhood is extraordinary. The rest is ordinary.

I am the eldest of five children. I was born in Portsmouth, on the south coast of England, on 16 June 1951. We lived at Farlington, on the edge of Portsmouth, in a house from whose upper windows you could see the city, the harbours on its either side, the Solent and the Isle of Wight. When I was seven, we moved to Bromley, Kent. When I was fourteen, we moved again to a village in Bedfordshire. Both these moves were brought about by my father's change of job. He was a scientist, and my mother was a teacher, although she took a long break from teaching to bring us up. My parents loved me, and I loved them.

I was a keen reader from my earliest years. I learnt to read sitting on my father's lap. He had a book called Amphibians of the British Isles. On each left-hand page was factual text about the creature illustrated on the right-hand page. My father pointed out the illustration of a natterjack toad or an edible frog, or of one of dozens of other amphibians. Imitating his voice, I spoke the words 'natterjack toad' or 'edible frog' while his finger was next to the illustration. Then he ran his finger under the words where they labelled the illustration, and I repeated the phrase after him. Then he read to me the paragraph on the left-hand page, which (as I confirmed years later when I was a mature reader) was written in good plain prose, aimed at the interested but non-specialist naturalist. After a few encounters with these paragraphs, in which I listened with physical pleasure to my father's soft, reassuring reading voice, I began to read aloud words, phrases and whole sentences which I recognised. Each success in doing this was confirmed by my father kissing me on the top of my head. He used the same technique with other books too, mostly factual not fictional, and always illustrated, and within a few weeks I could read independently.

Thereafter, to read was (almost always — see below) pure joy. Reading consumed thousands of hours of my childhood and youth. I read anywhere, at any time of the day or night, in any position. If I had no book — a rare privation — any available newspaper or magazine would do. After we moved to Bromley, the presence nearby of a well-stocked public library both satisfied and further stimulated my appetite for books. I read fast and uncritically. There was no organised programme to my reading. I pursued enthusiasms: favourites in fiction were Jennings, Biggles and the Arthur Ransome books; in factual writing I loved Thor Heyerdahl's account of crossing the Pacific Ocean on a raft in The Kon-Tiki Expedition and his description of Easter Island in Aku-Aku, and Arthur Grimble's memoirs of his time as a colonial administrator on the Solomon Islands in A Pattern of Islands and Return to the Islands. I can see now that I liked children's fiction and adult fact. But I had no patience with the older fiction classics for children: R.M. Ballantyne or Robert Louis Stevenson. I found them too wordy; there was too much description in proportion to action. On the other hand, sometimes I enjoyed the theoretical and the arcane: during a dull sermon in church, when the only books to hand were the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and a hymn book, I could under the guise of piety work out the date of Easter for the year 2083 by following the instructions and charts in the early pages of the Prayer Book.

Two experiences caused me to realise that books could hold terrors as well as pleasures. My great-grandparents — he born in 1870 and she in 1878 — had a straightforward but impressive collection of books in their home in Drayton, Portsmouth. There was a complete set of Dickens, several of the Arthur Mee series about the counties of England, some histories of Portsmouth, and a multi-volume illustrated encyclopaedia. I browsed for hours in the encyclopaedia, hoovering up chunks of information in a manner whose only organising principle was alphabetical. In the volume on C, there was an entry on crocodiles. I could read the text with equanimity, but there then followed a double-page black-and-white photograph of dozens of crocodiles taking their ease beside some tropical river. This photograph frightened me so extremely that I became adept at turning over in one movement the two pages which contained the photograph. But, as with all horrors, there was fascination as well as repugnance in my knowledge of what the photograph showed, and sometimes I would part the two pages a little, and squint into the crack, only to regret immediately what I had done.

My great-grandfather, incidentally, who had been a policeman and then a bank clerk in his working life, and who had been born in the year that Dickens died, read the set of Dickens continuously. That is, he began at the beginning of Sketches by Boz and finished at the end of Edwin Drood. Then he went straight back to Sketches by Boz. The only interruption to this routine was another routine; wherever he was in the canon on 24 December of each year, he would put that book down and take up A Christmas Carol, which, being short, he would always complete over the Christmas season. The set of Dickens which my great-grandparents owned had been acquired in the course of the circulation war between the Daily Express and the Daily Mail in the 1920s, when readers who cut out enough coupons from their newspaper (the Daily Mail, in my great-grandparents' case) and sent them in, could receive the complete Dickens at a very attractive price.

The other occasion when a book brought terror with it will require a digression. An event which occurred to me when I was not quite 49 years old brought it back to my conscious mind.

In May 2000, I attended a conference in Toronto about children's television. The conference lasted four days, and I had given myself a clear fifth day before a night flight back to London. On that fifth morning I slept late, had a leisurely breakfast, and checked out of the Royal York Hotel where I had been staying. I had eight hours before I needed to check in at the airport. I walked across the road from the hotel to the train station, to look for a train to Niagara Falls. There were only two a day, one early morning, one early evening, and it was now nearly midday. I tried a car rental place. They needed to see a driving licence. I hadn't brought mine with me. So, a decision: should I miss my chance to visit Niagara Falls for the first time, on this last day of my trip, a beautiful day after four days of cold and rain and conference, and seek out Toronto's museums and parks instead? Or should I be extravagant? It was an easy decision, and within ten minutes I was in the front passenger seat (cream leather) of a black Lincoln Continental, driven by Mark, a stout, cheerful Jamaican Canadian, dressed in his chauffeur's uniform of black jacket, white shirt, black tie, sun glasses. My bags were in the trunk, my jacket was on the back seat, the window was down, and Lake Ontario sparkled to our left as we sped along the freeway. We chatted about Canada and Jamaica. Mark had arrived in Toronto from Jamaica at the age of ten. He was now in his mid-thirties, and an enthusiastic Canadian. Canada had given him his opportunity; this handsome new car was his own property; Canada was a kinder and more tolerant society than the United States, where some of his relatives had fared less well.

After ninety minutes, we arrived at Niagara Falls town. Numerous people over the years who have told me about their visit to the falls have warned of the crassness of the Niagara tourist industry. I was ready for the worst, but Mark managed to avoid the worst (or perhaps it's mainly on the US side of the river). We drove the last mile or two through pleasant parkland, with the gorge of the river downstream of the falls to our left, and came to the place. Mark drove past the facilities building and parked the car about 200 yards upstream of the falls. I left him and walked by myself towards the spray and the thunder.

I give this detail because, in the course of the walk from the car to the viewing point, I realised something which had been building up in me, not just during the drive from Toronto but during the days I had been in Toronto, after I discovered that the falls were close enough for a visit to be a possibility. I realised that Niagara Falls held a mysterious physical terror for me, a terror over and beyond the respect and awe one should feel for a wonder of the natural world. When I had ascended to the top of the CN tower in Toronto a few days previously, and had read that from that enormous height (which didn't worry me at all) you can sometimes see the spray from the falls across Lake Ontario, I had been afraid, though no spray was visible that dull evening. As Mark had driven into Niagara Falls town, and I had looked this way and that, wondering if I should be surprised by a sudden glimpse of the falls, and listening for their roar under or over the traffic noise around me, I had been afraid. As we had driven next to the gorge, and I had worked out that the river here was downstream of the falls, that they must be up ahead, and then when I had seen the facilities building, and I had known exactly where the falls were as we half-circled them, there was a stirring of long forgotten terror in me; under control, I had thought, being managed, I had thought, but there. And as I walked towards the spray and the thunder, the memory behind the terror jumped out of the unconscious, fully formed and as clear and intense as when I had last experienced it, 44 years before.

At the age of five, I had been impressed by a photograph of Niagara Falls in the N volume of my great-grandparents' encyclopaedia. Soon afterwards, I was given for Christmas a storybook recounting exploits of great pioneers of the West. In one of these stories, the hero is in a boat on a river. It is not clear where he is, other than in some part of North America. All is well. He is in control of the boat. Little by little the river widens and the speed of the water increases. His small boat moves more quickly, and he is no longer quite in control. Suppose there are rapids ahead? Suppose he hits a rock? On the other hand, he is making effortless, exhilarating progress. Then he begins to think he hears, faintly, a low boom, at first barely distinguishable from the background silence and from the immediate music of his boat in the water. As the minutes pass, the sound becomes clearer and louder. What can it be? Not the sea, surely. He knows he is many miles from the sea. He makes a decision; he will steer for the bank. But the decision comes too late. The bank is now distant, the river shallow and racing. In mid-stream, the boat sweeps around a wide curve, and there, in the distance, is a broad curtain of mist, reaching into the sky, and the thunder of water…

I can't remember how the story finished. It may be that I shut the book, too frightened to read further. That seems probable to me now, because, without its resolution, the story entered my dreams, and became a recurring nightmare for a few years. The nightmare always took the same form: first the events exactly as I have described them in the story, but with me in the boat alone, and then a dreadful climax, as the boat and I were swept helplessly to the very edge of the falls, where the water was clear and murderous, and then a final horrifying glimpse over the edge, into unimaginable heights and depths of cliff and foam and noise.

And then, as in the cliché to end all clichés, I woke up and it was all a dream. I never went over the edge, though I saw over the edge. And I never told anyone the dream, and when I was about nine I stopped having it.

This all came to me as I arrived at the granite wall on which you can lean your elbows while you contemplate perhaps two yards of river bank, just below you on the other side of the wall, then the edge of the river, where the water is indeed shallow (hard to guess its depth; between six and ten feet?), is indeed racing, clear and murderous, because if you lift your head, carefully, so as not to take in more than you want to at one look, you can see, only four or five yards from where you are standing, not more, the edge of the mighty horseshoe falls of Niagara, where there are unimaginable heights and depths of cliff and foam and noise.

For half an hour, I squinted sideways at the sight, not able to look the monster full in the face. The lovely day was now hot. On this weekday in May, visitors were not numerous, so I had the best (or the worst), at any rate the closest place to stand, with nobody between me and the monster. As the breeze shifted, I was alternately completely drenched and unsighted by the spray, and then dried out by the sun on my back. After half an hour, with a beating heart and gripping the handrail, I turned and gazed directly across to the other end of the horseshoe, in the United States, and then followed the deep interior curve of the horseshoe all around, slowly, back to where I was. I studied the edge. Then I looked to the right, to the immense width and speed of the river, running between the rocks and little islands until the very second when the clear water enters air and becomes foam. Then I looked to the left, down, where all you can see is white, white water, falling of course but also rising as spray, drifting on the breeze towards me, away from me, a few birds appearing and disappearing in the mist, and the outline only of a great brown rock rising from the river below. I looked and looked at it and it was all right. It was only a wide river falling over a horseshoe-shaped cliff. For two more hours I stood, my gaze uninterrupted, and took in the phenomenal beauty and power of the thing and the place.

Eventually I began to be distracted by the incidental: the boats that carry tourists in mackintoshes and sou'westers up the river as close as is safe to the base of the falls; the way the river, only 300 yards downstream, after the cataclysm it has experienced, is calm and quiet so quickly, until it encounters the American Falls tumbling into it from the opposite side; the American Falls an impressive sight in themselves but doomed always to be a supporting attraction after one has seen the horseshoe falls; and then how the river, after receiving the water from the American Falls, is quiet again as it flows on down the gorge and out of sight. Several couples asked me to take their photograph.

I walked back to the car. Mark had never known a visitor to stay so long. He could tell that something unusual had occurred. We drove for a few miles back down beside the gorge, until we turned off left and rejoined the freeway. Then I gave him the full story, memories, nightmares and all. I told him that he was the first person to hear it. He seemed complimented by a stranger's frankness, and then he told me at length the story he wanted to tell, about the failure of his marriage, his separation from his wife, their divorce, his overwhelming love for their daughter (now living with her mother), and his shame and incomprehension that such a thing could have happened to them, without infidelity or cruelty on either side, just two people, young black Canadians, full of hope, wanting to be a family, to be respected, to be stable, to live in a good neighbourhood, finding that somehow, in choosing each other, they had made the wrong choice. Canada couldn't be blamed. The fault was in themselves.

I listened and responded as best I could as Lake Ontario, now on our right, flashed by in the evening sunshine. Then the airport, an exchange of dollars, and we shook hands with a closeness and a warmth which we should have turned into an embrace, but didn't quite. He drove away, waving with his free hand as the car joined the stream of limos and taxis and private cars which had dropped their departing travellers. I pushed my trolley towards the check-in desk, full of good cheer, a man with an income allowing me, if I chose, to hire a Lincoln Continental, with driver, for the day; and not afraid of anything.

I return from the man to the boy.

Between the ages of 11 and 14 I was an ardent train spotter. The heroic years of steam were almost at a close, so I was reduced to spotting the four-digit numbers on the front and back of the electric trains which ran in their hundreds on the complex network of lines serving suburban south London, Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire. Despite the prosaic nature of this research, it felt good to be standing at the extreme end of a platform at, say, New Malden station on a half-term Friday, with a one-day Rail Rover pass in my pocket and a notebook in my hand. When I got home at the end of a day's spotting, I would transfer the information in the notebook to the printed reference books published by Ian Allen, and always welcome as Christmas and birthday presents, which contained the classifications and numbers of every train then operating on British Railways. I underlined in neat ink the numbers of the trains I had seen. As the sightings of trains in a particular classification increased, those not yet spotted assumed the glamour of rarity, and when there was only one number left unseen, that particular unremarkable four-carriage electric multiple unit came to carry such a charge of romance that it might have been the Orient Express.

There were one or two genuinely romantic trains still to be seen. At ten to eleven in the morning during the holidays, if I stood on a footbridge over the railway line between Shortlands and Bromley South, I could watch the Golden Arrow on its way to the English Channel and the Continent, one of the last of the fierce black steam locomotives hauling cream and brown Pullman coaches, each of which bore a woman's name. The names were literary, classical and mythological. I knew that I would have difficulty pronouncing some of them correctly if I were ever called upon to do so. Daphne was easy, for that was my mother's name.

And I had a chemistry set at about the same time. There was a tiny shop next to Bromley South station, hardly bigger than a tobacco kiosk, which supplied the needs of boys like me (and perhaps girls too, though I never saw a girl in there) for copper sulphate, potassium permanganate, magnesium ribbon, test tubes, splints and litmus paper. With equipment of this kind, I created coloured smoke and minor explosions in the cellar under the house. I don't remember receiving any advice or feeling any concern about my health or safety as I undertook experiments. I was engaged in an educational hobby, as good children were supposed to be. My mother knew where I was as she prepared the lunch upstairs. On one occasion, a non-standard concoction of chemicals left the test tube which I was holding and deposited itself as a large dark stain on the underside of the sitting-room floorboards which formed the ceiling of the cellar. I was a little shaken by this evidence of elemental power, and resolved to hold the test tube further away from my face in future.

When we lived in Bromley and then Bedfordshire, we usually took our summer holidays back in Portsmouth, at my grandparents' house (which was next to my great-grandparents' house in Drayton), with daily excursions to the beach at Hayling Island. Occasionally we went to the east coast, near Lowestoft. Once we camped in the New Forest. Once we went as far as the Gower peninsula. I am grateful to those seaside holidays for the indifference to cold which they gave me. Nothing in my adult experience of cold compares with the uncontrollable shivering which overcame me as I emerged from the sea and felt the stiff wind attack my legs and ribs. We had of course hammered a windbreak into the pebbles at our chosen station on the beach, as the first act on arriving there at about eleven o'clock. Now, I had to regain the family encampment via a short trip of foot-curling agony. Once there, I crouched behind the windbreak, towelling myself, trying to chafe some feeling back into my system. As soon as I was dry, I gratefully put on my shirt and pullover and lay on the towel. I almost closed my eyes and watched the rapid clouds through my eyelashes as they constantly frustrated the sun, giving it a minute or two to warm us before cutting it off again. Then it was time for lunch, and I ate the delicious tomato sandwiches which my mother had made, in the same position, resisting her suggestion that it would be healthier for me to sit upright while eating. After that, unless the tide happened to be very high, it was time to play cricket on a stretch of hard sand. That was the best part of the day for me.

Three activities which I discovered as a child came to assume a special significance which they have never lost. They are playing cricket, playing the piano, and reading and writing poetry.

I did well at school from beginning to end. The affirmation which this brought, from my earliest days at nursery school writing my name and forming strings of letters across a page, meant that, overwhelmingly, my experience of schooling was one of ease. I think I worked hard, but it seemed easy to work hard, and the pleasure of success provoked the desire for more pleasure.

Playing cricket and the piano, however, were two activities in which I longed to excel, but in which my talent was meagre.

I played cricket with great pleasure on the beach or in the park with my father and brothers or with friends. My father was prepared to bowl at me, or let me bowl at him, or throw a cricket ball back and forth with me, for hours. Of all his gifts to me, that and teaching me to read are those for which I am most grateful. But when I played at school, and particularly at secondary school, in competitive games, I was racked with nerves and I usually failed. I had no talent at all as a bowler at school, and so my place in any team depended on my being able to score runs as one of the first six or seven batsmen. There should have been no great problem. I have excellent eyesight, and am naturally athletic. But as I walked to the wicket, batting at number five or six, a deep sense of foreboding and dread would overwhelm me. My hands were sweating in my gloves, and perspiration was falling into my eyes, whether the day was cool or hot. My occupation of the crease was always that of a soldier under siege, not a man in command of a space. When the bowler delivered the ball, I no longer saw it. I was playing by faith, not by sight. When I scored runs, it was because the ball had ricocheted off the bat, not because I had played a stroke. I had no fear of physical injury, but a terrible fear of failure, and that fear brought failure with it. Scores of four, nine or fifteen were typical for me. There were frequent ducks. And I was supposed to be a batsman. Once, in an inter-house match of no great significance, I got to 35, my highest ever score by a large margin.

Meanwhile, I could see that cricket was a truly beautiful game, whether as played by boys at school who really knew what they were doing, or by county and Test cricketers. I went to The Oval sometimes to watch Surrey. I saw, unforgettably, West Indies beat England there in 1963. The experience ignited in me a flame of admiration for cricket and its best players which has never been quenched.

To follow the complexities of a Test match, with its changes of mood and fortune, with the space it provides for numerous displays of skill and courage, with its genius for producing moments and passages of electrifying excitement just when the game, even to the most patient onlooker, is getting a little dull: this is to me the highest pleasure that sport affords. Vivien Richards, my exact contemporary, the greatest batsman I have seen play the game, and one of the greatest batsmen the game will ever produce, is my sporting hero. No one else comes close. A few years ago, I commissioned a Channel 4 series teaching young people how to play the game, in which Sir Vivien appeared. I am the owner of a white cricket hat, on the broad brim of which is written: 'To John. Great commission! Sir Vivien Richards'. It is one of my proudest possessions.

I went to Manchester one day, to the indoor cricket school at Old Trafford, to watch the production of the series, and to meet its presenter Darren Gough, England's best fast bowler in the 1990s. I arranged for Darren to bowl at me, and asked him to deliver the ball as fast as he could. The first went past my off stump, on a good length, before I had lifted the bat from the ground. The second was virtually identical. I just managed to move the bat this time, but hadn't even considered playing a stroke by the time the ball had passed. The third ball was of fuller length, and on about middle stump. I lunged forward in self-defence, and the ball pinged off my bat and squirted away to the netting at the side of the arena. It was just the sort of shot from which I had accidentally scored runs as a schoolboy. Darren laughed and said, 'We'll call that a four.' Later he sent me a postcard with his picture on it, inscribed 'To John. One out of three in't bad. Darren'. Again, I treasure it.

I understand the game very well, and I'm a good judge of players. But I was never any good at it myself.

It was the same with the piano. I took piano lessons, I practised dutifully between lessons, and I came to be able to play hymns in the simpler keys and elementary classical pieces reasonably correctly. But with no flair. To this day I cannot sit down at a piano and play even the simplest tune from memory. I must have the notes in front of me.

I knew that to play the piano well could be one of the most glorious achievements open to a person. I sensed that there must be planes of happiness which a successful pianist could attain which I would never reach. That sense filled me with hopeless longing, a feeling which assails me still, especially when I hear Rachmaninov's Variations on a Theme of Paganini.

During my teenage years, I learnt the organ as well as the piano, and by the time we moved to Bedfordshire I had achieved sufficient competence to be asked to play sometimes as a stand-in when our regular church organist was on holiday. In the summer months, I often mounted my bicycle on a Saturday and rode off to other country churches to play at weddings. To stumble through three hymns and Mendelssohn's Wedding March was an easy way of earning ten shillings. However, whenever I played the organ at church services I knew that my performance was embarrassingly bad.

And the third activity which has special significance for me is reading and writing poetry. To say that you love to read poetry is not to take any great risk. To say that you try to write poetry is, however, to place yourself in some danger (hence the self-protective 'try to'). People's response to this admission is usually one of simulated bright interest. They would love to see something that you've written. If you show them a few poems, they will of course be complimentary. They will find it convenient to say that they 'particularly liked' poems X, Y and Z. There the matter rests. Hanging about you thereafter, in the reader's mind, is a faint aura of the odd, the other, as if they privately knew of a misdemeanour you had committed, such as stealing a book from Foyle's or performing an act of minor indecency in a public toilet (I have done one of these things but not the other), but are of course too broad-minded to hold it against you. I have never got to the position of telling someone that I write poetry in the same casual tone in which I might tell them that I like going to the Arsenal or that I love to eat a Melton Mowbray pork pie with a can of Boddington's bitter on a Saturday lunch-time.

For me, writing poetry, I am grateful and relieved to say, has been unlike playing the piano or playing cricket. However modest my talent and achievement may be, I do not feel that, as a writer of poems, I am a failure. The quantity of poems I have produced in my adult lifetime is tiny, considering how many years have gone by. But I am not consumed by regret that I will never be Seamus Heaney or Ted Hughes or Carol Ann Duffy or Tony Harrison, because amongst the poems I have written are some in the course of whose composition I have experienced the authentic joy which is given to those who have the power to create, however humbly. When you have known that joy, you do not need any other justification for living. You are just glad to have had the good fortune to be conscious. You reflect that you might not have happened at all.

I began to write poems when I was fourteen. I wrote a lot of them over the next eight years, and it was a good thing I did. Some of them were lush remote imitations of Keats. Most were free-verse meanderings on the wickedness of the world and the littleness of my place in it. A few, all written during my Anglo-Catholic phase at university (about which more in a moment), were attempts to link Christian theology and imagery to a world where God had been pronounced dead by the great thinkers whose ideas had made and were making the twentieth century: Marx, Darwin, Freud and — most recently and fashionably to me in the early 1970s — Sartre.

One day when I was 22, I put all the poems except the recent religious ones into a dustbin at number 7 Vincent Square, London SW1, where I was then living with my girlfriend. They filled about half the dustbin, which was admittedly quite a small one, of the old galvanised iron sort. In the sixth form at the school I had attended when we moved to Bedfordshire, my wonderful English teacher Peter Hetherington had introduced us to the work of Samuel Beckett through a class reading of Waiting for Godot, which he described as one of the two greatest plays written in English in the last 500 years (the other being King Lear, which we had read first). I had since read several of Beckett's other plays, and so the use of a dustbin seemed the most appropriate way of disposing of unwanted poems, so much more of the time than to burn them, which would have been a ridiculous, fake-romantic thing to do. When throwing away poetry now, I of course recycle the paper, but the environmental movement was in its infancy then.

I still have the religious poems. They are quite unpublishable, but they are interesting, at least to me, and mention of them brings me to the only extraordinary thing about my childhood.

We were brought up as evangelical Christians. My parents were not perverted or weird. They didn't deny us love. Happiness, security and routine were the keynotes of my childhood. But throughout it, I was benevolently force-fed a set of ideas about life, death, the hereafter, how the universe came to be, and the nature and definition of truth, which all these years later fills me with an amazement usually expressed in laughter, occasionally (decreasingly) in anger.

My very first memories of religious meetings are of a hall in Drayton, Portsmouth where the Plymouth Brethren worshipped. My parents, young people fired as they were with Christian faith and a desire to hear and spread the gospel, had left the local Anglican church in which they had been married, because it seemed to them insufficiently clear and enthusiastic about doctrine. It was the lazy old middle-of-the-road established Church, more of a social club than a centre of teaching and evangelism.

At the Brethren meeting which I attended twice on a Sunday in the mid-1950s, a large man in a grey suit which had huge baggy trousers with deep turn-ups would stand up before the sermon to give out the notices. He would say, in his Hampshire accent, 'On Tuesday afternoon at 2.15, if the Lord tarries, it will be the Ladies' Circle. On Wednesday evening at 7.30, if the Lord should still tarry, there will be a prayer meeting to which all are welcome.' And this seemed plausible to us. We believed it was quite possible that, before the Ladies' Circle on Tuesday or, if not by then, before the prayer meeting on Wednesday, the world might end. Jesus might return to claim his own. The righteous, both those formerly dead and now suddenly brought back to life, and those still living, would rise up and meet Jesus in the air. My mind did its best to embrace the vision of the Second Coming frequently offered to us in the course of the sermon. I had a sense of exhilaration but also of vertigo. The air would be crowded with people floating over the South Downs. The Book of Revelation said that at the end of the world there would be no more sea. Living on the coast as we did, I thought this loss would be a shame, but supposed that the state of bliss I would be in would more than make up for its disappearance.

Sixty years later, it is difficult to credit that grown people actually believed those things as unquestioned truths, and taught them to their children, and sometimes had theological disagreements about the precise order of events to be expected at the end of the world, disagreements to which they would prayerfully seek resolution through the intent scrutiny of verses in the New Testament identified in their black, floppy-leather-bound Bibles, with fine gold-edged India-paper pages and thumbnail-sized half-moon cuts down the side, for easy access to a particular book.

There are people who still believe these things, and still teach them to their children. Such fantasies become dangerous when embraced by the powerful. In 2003, there were advisers to George W. Bush who saw in Revelation a true prediction of the events which led to his decision to invade Iraq. As I write in the last chapter of this memoir, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was President of Iran he expected the end of the world imminently. Anticipation of an anciently promised Armageddon plus possession of modern destructive weapons is a terrifying combination.

Exhilarated vertigo may have been disconcerting to a five-year-old, but it wasn't, overall, an unpleasant feeling. Far worse, for those children who suffered it, was the fear of hell. The evangelical Christianity we were taught was quite clear; heaven or hell was the eternal destiny of all human beings when they died. Whether a person went to heaven or to hell depended, for each individual, not on whether or not he or she had lived a good life ('salvation through works', to use St Paul's language), but on whether he or she had committed his or her life to Christ, had asked to be forgiven for sins which, without God's forgiveness, would certainly condemn him or her to hell, but which fortunately had been atoned for by Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, granting each sinner an escape route to salvation during life and a place in heaven after death ('salvation through grace').

When we moved from Portsmouth to Bromley, my parents returned to Anglicanism, having found a church, far out on the evangelical wing of that tolerant institution, which was sound enough for them in terms of teaching, and enthusiastic enough in its efforts to bring souls to Christ. Though less exotic than the Plymouth Brethren in its manner of worship, its message on heaven and hell was identical. I came to realise, with every passing Sunday, that the simplicity of the choice facing each human being could not be starker.

The problem for me was not my own destiny; I had on numerous occasions, silently or aloud, uttered the form of words which, I was assured by my parents and other adults in the church, would guarantee my salvation. The problem was that, all around me, people were going about their lives in apparent ignorance of the urgent importance of doing the same thing as I had done. Some of these people were good friends of mine. Beyond my own circle, there were, I came to realise with mounting panic, millions of Roman Catholics, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Confucians, African animists and other assorted benighted ones, all facing the same awful and irrevocable agony, unless I got to them quickly and did something about it.

Our church supported a number of missionary societies which were already active in the world-wide campaign. Representatives of these organisations came to preach on particular Sundays of the year. Generally, they reported slow progress. The Bible Churchman's Missionary Society alarmed us with accounts of the spread of Islam in Africa. The China Inland Mission had not been able to do much since the triumph of the Communists in that country in 1949. The Irish Church Missions had to admit that Roman Catholicism was stubbornly entrenched in Dublin. The Church Mission to the Jews could record only occasional successes in the East End of London in persuading Jews that the Messiah had indeed come. Still, I thought as I listened to these accounts, I must do my bit. Perhaps I would have better results.

It was not to be; after two or three of my approaches to friends in the playground at school, in which I pointed out to them the perilousness of their position, had been rebuffed with a mixture of incomprehension, indignation and derision, I fell into a kind of despair, like a person witnessing a dreadful accident about to happen — say a runaway train, loaded with people, on the point of tipping into a rushing river — but unable to do anything about it.

The despair lasted until I was twelve. Although it was present in my mind for such a large part of my childhood, I would not wish to exaggerate its effect on my life. Most of the time I was the happy, normal, academically successful, head-in-a-book, tricycle-then-bicycle-riding, football-and-cricket-in-the-park-playing child I have described. But when I could not prevent the problem of heaven and hell, ever present in the back of my mind, from shifting to the front of it, often on Sunday nights, lying in bed before going to sleep, having had three doses of the eternal verities during the day, twice at church and once at Sunday school, the resulting unhappiness was so intense that I wished for oblivion. As a matter of fact, the prospect of the unending heaven which I faced frightened me almost as much as that of the unending hell which others faced. How could anything which never ended be other than horrifying?

Soon after my twelfth birthday, while listening one Sunday to a sermon on the usual theme, reminding us one more time of the fateful choices we were all called upon to make, I suddenly thought, 'Suppose none of this is true? Suppose the whole of Christianity, including the Bible, is something which has happened in history, just as many other things, including other religions, have happened in history, instead of being, as I have been told up to now, the thing that explains the whole of history?' Once I had had that thought, I was overcome by a quiet but blissful sense of relief (relief being, as my friend Paul Ashton likes to say, the sincerest of human emotions). It was not that all the deepest questions concerning the human condition were solved for me on that Sunday morning; nor have they been solved up to this date; it was just that I saw, for the first time, a reasonable possibility of escape from the remorseless logic to which my parents and their friends in the churches which we had attended had subjected me, with the best of intentions, since I had known the use of language.

The sense of relief was followed immediately by a realisation that I would need diplomacy, even cunning, to get through the rest of my childhood, through the remaining years living in my parents' house and depending on them financially, without being the cause of constant arguments and unpleasantness over my loss of faith. So, for the next six years, which included the move to Bedfordshire and another evangelical Anglican church, I was guileful. In both churches, I allowed myself to be regarded as one of the congregation's great hopes for the future; I was a young, slim pillar of the church. A church elder in Bromley predicted that I would be a bishop at 40. Although, when we got to Bedfordshire, my musical performances were deplorable, people told me how beautifully I read the lesson, which the vicar there sometimes asked me to do. I ran the church bookstall. I went away to Christian summer camps, as I had done since the age of 11.

At a camp in the Lake District one summer when I was 15, the leaders decided that it was time we were told about sex. This was not sex education in the secular, biological or emotional sense, but an exposition of the evangelical Christian position on sex, which has the same quality of simplicity as that on heaven and hell. All sexual activity outside Christian marriage is sinful. Within marriage, sex is joyful and a gift from God. The speaker one evening in the marquee, as we sat under hurricane lamps after supper, had an arresting visual aid to reinforce his message. He had gone to see the cook earlier that day (the cook was the only female at the camp, young and comely, and of great interest to me) and had asked her, I imagine to her great surprise, to take a full pint bottle of milk, remove the cap, pour a little vinegar into it, replace the cap, and leave the bottle out in the sun for the afternoon. By the time he held the bottle up for us to see, the milk had obediently curdled to a revolting mixture of yellow and grey. The speaker removed the cap again, and invited the boys near him to smell the contents. There were obliging expressions of disgust. This, said the man, was what would happen to our souls and bodies if we engaged in sex before marriage. We filed out into the night to our tents, impressed.

While thoughts of this kind were being poured into one ear, I was coming under the influence of a few sane, rational, cultured teachers at school in Bedford, who confirmed my growing realisation that I was in the process of leaving a small, automatic, self-referencing system of ideas, and that a wide world of thought awaited me. I had a close group of about six friends at the school who, by the nature of the conversations we had, told me the same thing. And suddenly, here was grown-up literature! Here was the whole of Penguin Modern Classics to gulp down, one paperback after another, several a week, always a book in the pocket or the school bag, read anywhere, but particularly on the bus to and from school, diesel engine toiling and gears crashing along the Bedfordshire lanes. I was glad when I arrived at the bus station in Bedford to find that the next bus home was one which took detours around hamlets before coming to my village. More reading time.

The bromide effect on me of the curdled milk image was short-lived. Although I didn't achieve full sexual intercourse until I was a few months short of my nineteenth birthday, all the preliminaries leading up to that moment, including walks up country lanes to discreet copses, lying down under trees or behind hedges and fumbling under a girl's clothes while wishing that she would more enthusiastically fumble under mine, were conducted, so far as I was concerned, without guilt. It was as if, after the suffering I had already experienced as a result of religious indoctrination, a Providential Benevolence (I don't believe this, of course) had decided I had suffered enough, and had decoupled the usual links between religion, sex and guilt. I knew that the evangelical Christian line on sex was nonsense. I had no difficulty reconciling the things I wanted to do sexually with the things I ought to do sexually, though of course a great deal of difficulty reconciling the things I wanted to do sexually with the things which girls permitted me to do sexually.

Angela, a girl from the village with whom I came to full sexual knowledge, was the only person I have ever been in love with dependently, in the sense of being utterly in her thrall. I think the feeling was mutual for most of the time we were together. We experienced the intense happiness of a first frank, unapologetic sexual friendship. Her father was a second-hand car dealer, who generously lent me one old Morris Minor after another as soon as I passed my driving test, which transformed the scope of our opportunities for taking sexual pleasure. We told each other in moments of ardour how much we loved each other. We discussed marriage and having children.

From the age of sixteen, I had become a junior officer at the sort of summer camp I'd already been attending for five years. One year, Angela came with me to one of these camps, to help with the cooking, of course. We'd just turned eighteen. The tension between our public purpose there (to help save the souls of about forty boys between the ages of nine and fourteen) and our private desire to fondle each other's bodies in the extensive Kentish woodland which surrounded the group of huts where the camp was held, was at once painful and exquisite. Angela distressed me one night, as we lay in each other's arms under a beech tree, hoping that no one would notice our regular simultaneous absence from our widely separated huts for an hour after the officer team had drunk cocoa, said a concluding prayer for the day, and in most cases gone to bed, by telling me that one of the two senior officers in charge of the camp, a man in his forties, had told her that God had revealed to him that his wife would die soon, and that he would marry Angela, who would look after his existing children and bear him some new ones.

Nothing came of this prediction, but the moment marked the ending of the period of innocent ease in our relationship. After that, there were weeks and months when I could not sleep properly for thinking of Angela. My sexual fantasies about her were constant and intense. Later that year, when I went to university and she moved to London to work as an au pair, and I heard rumours that she was seeing another man (not the senior officer at the camp), I was consumed by jealousy. The feeling destroyed the possibility of peace and quiet in my mind. Throughout my first year at Cambridge, I spent hours in telephone boxes, wretchedly pushing old brown pennies into the machine, having inconsequential and inconclusive conversations with Angela, sensing that she was impatient to put the phone down.

On the other hand, we did both lose our virginity one night in March 1970 in Angela's bedroom in the house where she worked, a dangerous coupling which I remember with intense gratitude. There have been more inept first times. I will go further and say we were quite skilful. We had, after all, been engaging in foreplay for about three years. And that summer, we and another couple went to Ireland for a week's holiday, where Angela and I (I can't speak for the other couple) experienced a full-scale sexual liberation whose pleasure remains with me.

At university I could for the first time openly abandon the whole apparatus of evangelical Christianity. And I immediately met people who, while calling themselves Christians, represented a strand of Christian thinking quite at variance with that from which I had emerged. I became a friend of Bishop John Robinson, who was Dean of Chapel at my college in Cambridge. When he had been Bishop of Woolwich and had published his book Honest to God, the vicar of our church in Bromley had denounced him from the pulpit as a spokesman of the devil. Suddenly, here I was in the devil's spokesman's rooms, drinking his port and Madeira, listening to him making a great deal of sense. John's example enabled me to realise that I could, if I chose to, be a Christian and an open-minded, sexual, secular being in the world, able to respect myself and worthy of the respect of others. Peter Adams, one of the chaplains at the college, became a close friend as soon as we met. Our friendship will be life-long. Peter told me about the great nineteenth-century Christian socialist F.D. Maurice, amongst whose many achievements was the foundation of the Working Men's College in Camden Town (still going strong for men and women, and with the historical good sense to have kept its original name), who had got into trouble with the church authorities for saying that he didn't believe hell existed at all. So, I thought, that sweating in the dark all those years had been completely unnecessary! (Peter, with perfect appropriateness, later became F.D. Maurice Honorary Canon of Southwark Cathedral.)

From my student days until I was 53 (I can be precise) I was an agnostic, taking the position that it is arrogant to assert that there can be no form of reality outside that which we can perceive via our mortal senses. In the sixth chapter of this memoir, I describe how the sight of my dear friend Albert Penhouët, dead, and the sudden, certain realisation that no part of him now existed, or would in the future exist, in any place or on any plane of perception other than our human memory, instantly changed my agnosticism to atheism. Charles Darwin's awesome genius has since explained our condition to my satisfaction. In particular, I can quite see how, once the human species had evolved to the point of self-consciousness (an achievement probably unique, so far, amongst sentient beings); once humans had to face the fact that they and their kind are born, live for a little while and then die, the realisation was unbearable. Religions were invented to console us. As T.S. Eliot — devout Christian in his later life — puts it: 'Human kind cannot bear very much reality.' He must have been referring to some other aspect of human self-delusion.

On the other hand, John and Peter and other Christians in that tradition, especially Canon Eric James, gave me a part of my mature outlook on the world which I hope never to lose. I cannot believe in God as a separate, defined person, force or entity acting in and on the world. I don't believe that Christ, who was undoubtedly an historical figure, was and is in some way related to the creator of the universe. But no one has ever given a wiser instruction than that we should love our neighbours as ourselves; that I do believe. (Founders of other religions may have given equally wise instructions in other words.) The extent to which we follow this instruction will decide the future of our planet, and affects the happiness and fulfilment of billions of human beings, in encounters with each other trivial and profound, every day. The founder of the Christian religion gave the instruction as the second of two:

'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.'

In other words, Christ said 2000 years ago that the whole body of the new religion inherited from and moving beyond Judaism boils down to two essentials: love God; love your neighbour. Being literal and mathematical about it, you could say that, atheist as I am, I am also 50% a Christian: the human 50%.

For many years, in recognition of this 50%, I used to have my cake — or rather my wafer — and eat it, by taking Holy Communion once a year with Peter, when we visited him for a weekend in July in Suffolk, where he took his annual holiday. We went to one of several country churches, depending on which had the 1662 rite at eight o'clock in the morning. Usually, the priest and about ten communicants were present. I am a hopeless case for those who actually have to manage the Anglican church and try to make it a popular institution in the face of the relentless march of secularism and consumerism, because I liked the fact that there were so few of us in the church, and I loved the language of the 1662 Prayer Book, whose qualities no modern effort that I have heard remotely approaches. I learnt from Peter about the politics which produced that book; how after the restoration of the monarchy the Savoy Conference reviewed Cranmer's magnificent editorial achievement of more than a century before, and agreed revisions which aimed to balance the doctrinal convictions of High Anglican and Puritan parties, which had riven the interim and fuelled the fires of the Civil War. I've read since that the High Anglicans were better favoured in the outcome than were the Puritans; however that may be, the 1662 Prayer Book has stood the test of the centuries in England. I like the fact that some of the greatest cultural achievements are political or bureaucratic compromises. (Another is Wren's St Paul's Cathedral.)

So, by an irony, I overcame the religious element of my childhood partly thanks to the influence of High-Anglican Christians who showed me the way to an exit from it. Eric James and John Robinson are dead. Peter Adams is still with us, I'm glad to say, and I see him occasionally. He's sorry that I didn't stay within the mystical, sacramental version of Christianity which he inhabits and which would be the only version to which I could ever return. But I won't. Peter no longer takes his holidays in Suffolk, and now I've completely stopped going to church.

I used to suffer from depression on Sunday evenings, but that period is long past. I have friends who had similar upbringings to mine. Some of them have needed psychiatric help to move beyond the mental turbulence which the religious indoctrination of their childhood has caused. The poems I have written about the religious aspect of my childhood and youth, published on this website and in my book My Proper Life — Poems 1975–2017, have had a similar therapeutic effect. I'm grateful that, with their help, I can cheerfully contemplate my life, my death and the certain and permanent extinction which will follow it.

My father's career as a scientist included distinguished work on the technology of magnetic resonance imaging, whose applications have brought great benefit to society. My mother returned to teaching when her last child, my sister, was five years old. She was for many years the head teacher of a rural primary school in Bedfordshire, where she and her work commanded the admiration and respect of all who knew her.

Both my parents died in 2009: my father on 6 April, my mother on 6 May. I imagine that it would have hurt them to read some of the poems in My Proper Life. I loved my father and mother throughout their lives as much as I did when I played in the garden with my brothers, and they looked on smiling from the kitchen window. On the other hand, when unhappiness is inflicted on a child, with the best of intentions, and he or she has the opportunity to purge the unhappiness through writing or any other kind of creative endeavour, a point comes when it is repressive not to take that opportunity.