Shaken, Not Saved
It’s not so much that Father Keane’s sermons were boring, sermons were boring anyway. There’s something about the bobbing, melodic quality of an Irish priest’s voice in full flow, just warbling on the background, as your thoughts drifted from the promise of eternal salvation to more worldly affairs, until the first line of the Nycene Creed triggered muscle memory and up you sprung to join in with the Catechism, “We believe in one God, the Father, The Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…” a sure moment of danger for all the adolescent males trying to subdue their 98th erection of the day.
There was a real gusto to Father Keane’s voice when he launched into the Nycene Creed, a complete contrast to the cough wracked mumble that preceded it. I would resolve to listen to his sermons, probably because he always took me for confession since I was seven years old.
I must admit that I had a little confession scam going since that tender age, I’d answer dishonestly to all his interrogations,
“Have you used any naughty words?”
“Have you had any impure thoughts?”
“No. Especially not during your sermons”
“Have you been lippy with yer Mam and Dad?”
“Yes, I have lied”
I like to think that, somewhere up in the heavens, God was preparing a thunderbolt for me for lying during confession before being forced to retract it after I confessed to lying. I didn’t dwell on the paradoxical issue of God being powerful enough to create a law that he wouldn’t be able to break.
Father Keane would then tell me that I was a little angel before sending me off with my penance of two hail Marys and one Our Father which was the best score of the day.
And so I would sit there, hair neatly combed. C&A shirt buttoned up tight and hands on my cordroyed knees, ready to take it all in.
Now, I’ve been a part of the London poetry scene for fifteen years, so I know what it’s like to talk to a room full of people and not have a single one of them listen to you. So I try to see the congregation through Father Keane’s eyes; the children thinking about being Superheroes, the teenagers thinking about sex, the mothers thinking about whether the teenagers were thinking about sex, the Fathers thinking about being Superheroes. I wonder if he took in their boredom, savoured it for a second before delivering that line that would ensure their upstanding, shit the bed compliance.
I can only imagine what our faces looked like, on that one Sunday evening, when, after his pre-Eucharistic reading from the Gospel, Father Keane uttered these cataclysmic lines,
“I will not be delivering the Sermon tonight because James Bond’s on the television.”
No doubt there would have been a mixture of barely concealed glee and abject horror, not because anyone listened to his tergiversations but because he was the external vessel, the one who believed, obeyed and abstained on our behalf. Buddhists had prayer wheels, we had dog collared men from the West Coast of Ireland with fifties haircuts, thick rimmed glasses and a sixty a day smoking habit.
But the other half of the congregation would secretly let out a little cheer, not just because we weren’t going to miss James Bond tonight, but because Father Keane was also one of us.
I knew of James Bond films through playground whisperings way before I first watched one. I remember having my own mental image of the gun barrel opening, when Bond, viewed from the swirling interior of a pistol, would fire a bullet of his own, triggering a sudden stream of blood, turning the rest of the screen black as the gun barrel’s aperture became a wandering pinhole into the forbidden, fantasy world, or to put it in the playground parlance of the time,
“There’s these eyes looking at James Bond and then James Bond shoots the eyes in the eyes and all blood goes down them cos they’re dead.”
Then it was only a matter or time before I saw The Spy Who Loved Me on ITV and it was a sure case of You Hard Me At Lotus Submarine. After that there came Live and Let Die, which started me off on the habit of shouting, “Keep Your Hands Up Honky!” when taking hostages during playground war games.
Your first Bond is always the one that you stick to and so, Moore became Bond to me. You can imagine my disappointment when getting home from that fateful Mass to see Bond being played by some tall, dark, alpha male imposter. Who the hell was this Sean Connery anyway? Where was the cowbell during his gun barrel? Why didn’t he wear safari suits? Where were the hover gondolas and double taking pigeons? When he defused a bomb, why didn’t he dress up as a clown?
But Father Keane must have been in a different mindset, finally sacking off the suburbanite gobshites for an evening of high adventure. As vices go, this one would turn out to be the least of the Church’s hypocrisies – especially with Father Rafferty being quickly moved on to pastures new after his work in offering shelter and sustenance to rent boys was discovered a few years later.
For all we knew, those hacking coughs that Father Keane emitted throughout his sermons were not the work of those sixty John Players a day but the work of those sins that we administered to him through the slatted wooden grill of the confessional. A true Shakespearean shot of poison to the ear.
No-one could begrudge it of him at all, to spend at least one night staring through a gun barrel portal into a world of clear-cut good and evil; where the orchestra struck up whenever death was evaded; where stray bullets only struck the deserving and outlandish gadgets were always ensured their moment of utility.
Father Keane is almost certainly consigned to the earth by now, but an image of him still plays in my head to this day, not of the vestment clad patriarch of Langley’s sizeable Irish community, the last to enter and the first to leave the Mass before the gossiping and suburban sniping could resume. The image that sticks with me is the sight of him sat alone at the counter of the local chippy, saveloy and chips splayed out on greasy paper, and how his first word of inquiry to me was not about whether I was being good or saying my prayers. No, the first thing he asked after looking up from his single man’s supper was, “Are you watching James Bond on the television tonight?”