More Tea, Jesus? has been perceived by some as rather a neat, parochial book. In fact, being the first novel I ever finished (if not actually the first one I ever started) it has a huge number of ideas and influences rattling around in it, so I’m never sure whether to be baffled or insulted when the ‘cosy’ or ‘neat’ epithets are applied; to my mind it’s a miracle if it feels like it has any sense of cohesion at all. Here are a few of the more obvious elements that went into the cocktail.
P. G. Wodehouse
Perhaps a foolish opening gambit, given that any comparisons will reflect negatively on my own work, but there is so much to admire in the greatest of Wodehouse’s comic writing that it would be wilfully deceptive to pretend I hadn’t been influenced by it. Probably a lot more obviously in earlier drafts. In its earliest form it opened with an introduction to the village through the eyes of an anthropomorphic sun, which I mercifully realised I had copied directly from a Wodehouse I read as a child (I’m pretty sure it’s Spring Fever) and expunged quickly (though some vestiges may remain). Although my breezy prose may all too often show Wodehouse peeping through at the linings, the way in which I was more consciously influenced was in the story’s structure; I love how Wodehouse builds up a whole community of characters in a novel through any number of subplots, which trundle alongside the main story and overlap with it when you’re least expecting them to. This is why I didn’t feel too guilty about spending so long on Bernard Lomas’ obsessive fads or his plot to steal Ted Sloper’s harpsichord. I suppose one might see more than a passing similarity between the scene in which Ted gets very drunk before the church entertainment and Gussie Finknottle’s speech to Market Snodsbury Grammar School, but it would be insane to invite comparisons with one of the finest pieces of sustained comic writing in the whole of English literature.
By the same argument, it would be extraordinarily foolish to write an entire blog about how basically my biggest literary influence of all is Charles Dickens.
The Church and Sexuality
This is the theme of one of the more substantial subplots and it looks even prescient now than when I was writing the novel. The way in which most of the priests in the story show thoughtful, accepting and supportive attitudes on the issue whereas half of the congregation have an unpleasant knee-jerk reaction towards the very idea of ‘an homosexual’, reflects the recent vote on women bishops in which the House of Laity showed themselves (again) to be by far the most conservative part of the Anglican Church. Different issues, of course, but they might as well be the same for the way a set of principles are clung to in the face of logic, compassion and even theology. I’m fairly certain that an immediate survey of churchgoers would show the biggest concentration of homophobia to be amongst ordinary heterosexuals who have never studied scripture in any great depth, whatever impression is given by very vocal handful of priests.
Through various twists of fate, I seem to have made friends with a large and growing number of priests over the years (once you’ve been invited to one ordination party you’re going to meet a whole new batch and several more invitations follow – they’re just so damn friendly, these priests). Much as I would like to take the credit for many of the stranger episodes in the book, they are most likely to be copied from real life. A priest drinking to the point that they become so red they think they have the stigmata? Check. A priest making an omelette in a family service? Check. A priest dashing to turn off a CD because the word ‘alleluia’ is about to feature and it is Lent? Check. Even though some of the characters on whom stories are based weren’t priests at the time, they have all become priests now. I like to think that I am in some way responsible.
The slightly barmy sad woman I met in a pub
I was once sitting with some trainee priests in a pub and a woman who was definitely drunk and probably a bit mad and who had just lost her mother decided to unload a lot of her unworked-through grief on us, perhaps because she sensed that trainee priests would make for a sensitive audience. In fact, I suspect we were rather less sensitive than we should have been, partly because what she said was so barking mad. Largely stuff about consenting animals. I already had plenty of human misery in my novel, but nothing at that point about consenting animals, so that’s the bit I borrowed.
An unlikely sounding one, but when I wrote the first draft I was still young and pretentious enough to be playing around with techniques I had no idea how to use, and the cut-and-paste thing appealed to me a lot. It came in especially useful when dealing with really tricky things I didn’t know how to write using proper sentences. Eventually I realised that the best way to write these bits, even if I did it by messing with the English language, was to do it deliberately, but the random approach was a valuable starting point. Most of those bits have, again, been rewritten altogether because they jarred so obviously with everything around them, but I remain quite proud of Chapter 14 which aims quite high and I reckon succeeds in its depiction of Gerard Feehan’s rude awakening into adulthood. It could so easily have been dreadful – mawkish or unpleasant or just plain pornographic – and I don’t think I would have approached it in the way I did if I hadn’t been so moved by the end of Cities of the Red Night once upon a time.
The vicars and tarts party
There is very little in the book that is even semi-autobiographical, but I once went to a vicars and tarts party and had a rather profound experience when I happened to glance at myself in a toilet mirror and realised I looked better as a vicar than I did as a real person (or indeed as a tart) and briefly contemplated taking the cloth purely out of vanity. Not only did I feel my evening as a vicar equipped me to write with absolute authority about what it is like to be a vicar, but the whole anecdote found its way into the novel pretty much unchanged, in the mouth of a vicar who actually had taken the cloth after the same experience.
All of the above, and much more, were rattling around my head as influences when I wrote More Tea, Jesus?. Surprisingly, however, one of the things that was not amongst them was:
I finished the first draft of More Tea, Jesus? a little while before I became an actual director of a parish choir. My lot were quite a talented bunch, so there wasn’t even any material to be incorporated into later drafts. That said, given that up until then I had very little experience either of singing with or listening to parish choirs, it’s amazing how much I got right about the rehearsal process.