Only one of these five memoirs can be fairly called secular - quite unconcerned with the consolations of religion, untroubled by the complications. This is From Early Life by the oldest of the five authors, the novelist and scientist 'William Cooper': he was born in 1910 and brought up (as Harry Hoff) in the town of Crewe in Cheshire. Seniors in his family were determined chapel-goers, but Cooper-Hoff looks back at his childhood, over eighty years, with the quiet smile of a tolerant agnostic: his light, amused impressions illustrate the way England has become more secular than other nations, during this century. Though he claims to have an unreliable memory, he can remember being a beautiful baby of two, in 1912, and screaming at a parson who approached his pram, saying: 'Hello, my little man.' He can remember moving up from the Infants to the Big School, where the headmaster brandished his cane at the morning assembly, announcing: 'You're going to sing " 'Oly, 'Oly, 'Oly" - I'll cut some of you in two.' The boys were trundled across the road for an Anglican church service once a week. He remembers being baptised when he was nine, at the instigation of his piano teacher, who wanted him in the church choir. Young Harry was quite pleased with the fuss. Though his father came of a 'good Baptist' family and his mother from a 'good Wesleyan' family, neither was 'given to going to chapel' and only rarely did they threaten young Harry: 'If you go on like this, you'll be sent to Sunday School next week!'
LRB 20 December 1990 | PDF Download