If they are lucky, most readers will not even know what is meant by “a catechism”, much less “The Catechism”. A catechism is a question and answer session. The word derives from the Greek katēkhéō “I din (something) into (somebody)”, hence to teach by word of mouth or to teach the elements of religion. The Catechism is the prescribed set of instructions given in Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer as made compulsory by Queen Elizabeth in the first year of her reign. Casual historians will be aware that Thomas Cranmer was burnt at the stake in Oxford on the instructions of Queen Mary. My own copy of this book (Oh yes, I own one!) is the 1936 edition which contains a prayer for the welfare of King Edward VIII, a lost cause indeed. Unless one's parents withdrew their offspring from religious instruction, it was compulsory for first year boys at Watford Boys' Grammar School to attend Catechism lessons. Our class suffered these on Wednesday mornings. The year was 1954-1955.
Catechism lessons were held in a room called the Physics Lecture Room. Seating was arranged in tiered benches, unlike normal classrooms where the floor was horizontal and boys sat at individual desks. The master in charge was a humourless, spiteful individual known to the boys as Peewee. Because of the layout of the seating, my friend Syd and I found the first opportunity to resume our game of knee fighting that summer holidays and a change of school had interrupted. We were caught, and I was made to sit thenceforth in the very pit of the theatre right under the master. Thus I took no further part in Catechism lessons. Other boys were more subtle. Some played “Howzat”, a game requiring simply two hexagonal prisms, one representing cricket scores – nought, nought, one, two, four and Howzat? - and the other the umpire's decision – Not Out, Not Out, Bowled, Caught, Stumped, Run Out. Two pieces of pencil could be suitably inscribed with the point of a pair of compasses, and they made less noise while being rolled than the heavy metal equivalent that were available in toyshops. Cards could be played, too, but only in the top tier, and the sudden flurry of an accidentally spilt pack of cards inevitably led to detention.
The object of the lesson was to prepare boys for Confirmation in the Anglican Church. As it says in the Prayer Book:
that is to say,
AN INSTRUCTION TO BE LEARNED OF EVERY PERSON, BEFORE
HE BE BROUGHT TO BE CONFIRMED BY THE BISHOP
The Catechism starts like this:
What is your name?
Answer, N or M.
The catechumen (wahey! The Greek for “the one who is dinned into”) is then required, following a prescribed form of words, to recite the Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, and in some detail the Two Sacraments. The Church of Rome recognises seven sacraments, so this bit is specifically Protestant. The catechist (“ the dinner into”) asks the candidate to explain the meaning of each section, also in Cranmer's required formulation. I am able to tell you this because I have just read it, not, as you will see, because I learned it at school.
After settling the class, warning us of dire penalties if we misbehaved, the master started by explaining that N or M derived from a printing convention. M was really two N's run together, and the whole should be read Nomen or Nomina, or “Name or Names”.
“Please, Sir, what happens if your name doesn't begin with N?”
“Yes, Sir, yes, Sir! My name begins with J.”
“Stupid boy!” You are only being asked for your name”.
“Please, Sir, what if the geezer has three names? I know a bloke what has.”
“Please Sir, Please Sir, I know a bloke what has free nymes”
“Will you be quiet!”
“But he doesn't use all of 'em, not always, anyhow.”
By now the boys in the top row have worked out how to turn on the gas taps that supply the bunsen burners. More threats, and a boy is sent to obtain the detention register from his usual classroom. Time is wasted waiting for him to come back.
With pen in hand, ready to write in the detention register: “What is your name, boy?”
“N or M, Sir”.
“Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha!!!”
Next week is slightly different. I am still seated below the master's eyeline, and am practising how to slow my heart down and enter a state of temporary hibernation.
“Please, Sir, why does it say N or M, Sir?”
“We went through this last week.”
“I'm sorry, Sir, I was off sick last week.” (He wasn't).
“All right, just for you, I shall explain it once more.”
“Please Sir, Perhaps his name was Norm, Sir”.
“The bloke we was talking about last week, Sir.”
“The word is not bloke, it is man.”
“But I thought it was a boy, Sir.”
“Ha Ha Ha!!!”
Next week is just the same. I shall be seated in the nethermost regions for the rest of the school year. I have perfected the Yogi's trick of closing down the functions of my essential organs to a point where I could probably survive total immersion in water for the period of the lesson and still resuscitate. Some boy has forgotten his book. Fifteen minutes to reach suspended animation.
“Please, Sir, why does it say N or M ?”
“If anybody else asks that they will go straight into detention.”
“Please Sir, I've got an uncle called Norman.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Please, Sir, my Auntie calls him Norm like that bloke you was telling us about.”
“Ha Ha Ha!! Normal, more like!”
“Potts ain't normal. Ha Ha Ha!!”
I can assure you that Catechism lasted for two whole terms. And in the course of two whole terms we never progressed beyond N or M. The third term of Catechism lessons was devoted to the travels of St Paul. Or at least it was supposed to be. By that time a newsagents (read pornography shop) in an outlying part of the town had started to supply, for the outlay of one penny (one two hundred and fortieth of a pound) a piece of bubble gum accompanied by one quarter-size playing card emblazoned with the image of a young woman not wearing very many clothes. The Queens in the series were completely naked. Exchanging these cards to achieve a full set was much more interesting than St Paul's travels. But I was completely switched off. Since it is my intention to tell the absolute truth to my readers, it has to be said that Catechism lessons were abandoned after our year. In our fourth year, Peewee took us for French instead. This was the year before we started working for 'O' Levels, so he was put where he could do the least damage. Even so, I had to unlearn things he taught us because they were just plain wrong, and in a Manchester accent too.