In hindsight, my first brush with the world of employment taught me nearly everything about the relationship that me and work would have over the coming years.
These days, I suppose you’d say that I was an unpaid intern – learning a trade but receiving no money in return for my labour. Back then it was called “being an altar boy”.
Looking back, I can’t remember how I ended up being an altar boy. Even then I had little to no interest in matters spiritual or religious. So I can’t think that I volunteered, which leads me to believe that I was somehow drafted in the manner of a young American, although my enemy wouldn’t be the Viet Cong but would be “remembering stuff” while looking vaguely saintly.
If you could see me now you would think that it would be the second of these tasks that would defeat me, but in my youth I was reasonably cherubic and my innocence remained largely intact. No, it was the first – remembering stuff – that would be my downfall. The thing was, I was actually good at remembering things that interested me but any discussion of things that didn’t interest me – dinosaurs, Formula 1, Jesus – would immediately make me tune out and start mentally wandering onto subjects that did interest me – Leeds Utd, mud bombs, insects.
So I’m not sure whether I was ever actually shown what was required of me in terms of when to do what. I knew that at various times I was supposed to kneel, at others to stand up and that there was also a small object that I now know is called a sanctus bell (I googled it) that I had to carry and every now and then shake, causing it to ring, presumably at key moments during the mass. Anyway, the upshot is that if they did teach me, I wasn’t listening.
Now, at this point I need to digress slightly and reveal that, unbelievable as it is in these days of phenomenal wages, two of the Leeds Utd team were living in Middleton, a couple of doors away from my mate. Gordon McQueen and Joe Jordan both stayed in lodgings in North Lingwell Road. What’s more, Joe Jordan was a devout Catholic and ours was his local church.
This brings us back to my first working day, or as I saw it, my debut. They’d put me on the Sunday evening mass, a gentle shift with a small and undemanding crowd of punters who could be expected to give the new altar boy an easy ride. It also happened to be the mass that Joe Jordan attended.
There I was, before my first gig (this is how I’d started to think of it) and trying on my stage clothes. I wanted to look my best for Joe Jordan but I was having a problem finding gear in my size. Maybe this was a “new boy” prank, like those carried out on apprentices the world over. I was fine with the white surplice but the red cassocks were all about 8 inches too long. In the spirit of Saint Sebastian, who didn’t let a load of arrows in his torso deter him from his beliefs, I decided not to be fussed about wearing something that was ridiculously too long. There wasn’t much running required, I’d be grand, I thought to myself.
Out I went, in front of my first live audience. I resisted the urge to shout “Middleton, I love ya!” and let the priest take the lead, as I assumed a lesser position at the side of the stage, which he insisted on referring to as the altar, where I’d seen other altar boys stand on the rare occasions I’d been paying attention. And so it began.
I quickly realised that I hadn’t a clue what to do and decided to take all my cues from Joe Jordan, who I’d spotted in the congregation. If he stood up, so would I. If he sat down, so would I. If he knelt, so would I. And if he looked at me, or did anything cool like revealing his seldom seen false teeth in a smile, I decided to ring the bell.
As the mass progressed I became aware of the priest becoming distracted from his priestly tasks in order to shoot looks in my direction. These started off as what I think you could call “questioning” but escalated quickly to “incredulous” followed by “insane with rage”.
Despite the priest growing more and more exasperated, something which in later years I would get accustomed to my employers doing, we managed to get through to the end of the mass without him breaking Commandment number 5 (one of the biggies – Thou Shalt Not Kill). And thus we trooped off. Or rather he did. I found myself in a predicament caused by the extra long cassock.
I had knelt (either because Joe Jordan had or because I’d been suddenly overcome by the Holy Spirit) and now discovered that I was unable to get up. And thus the priest had to come back onto the altar – not for an encore but to drag me unceremoniously to my feet and rush me to the sacristy where he gave me an ecumenical kick up the backside.
It was my one and only appearance working the stage for Jesus and, a few short years later, me and the bells and smells of Catholicism parted company for good, with the exception of funerals of loved ones.
But I still laugh when I think about it and if Jesus was watching then he probably thought it was a hoot.