Libby Purves: What I owe my ‘crazy’ nuns

Some ‘remarkably cool’ Sisters taught in Catholic schools in the 1960s (AP)

I sometimes get into quite heated arguments about nuns. The problem occurs when I meet fellow 1960s women who went to bad convent schools. They relate horror stories of humourless (and, in some cases, dangerously stupid) nuns, who preached hellfire, imposed weird exotic punishments and daily excoriated the fearful, frightening, filthy world of sexuality. Not, frankly, the best way to the heart of a teenage girl, even a dreamy one with a picture of Cliff Richard on her wall.

And certainly not if her poster (torn down by Sister Evangelina with little cries of horror) depicted Mick Jagger with his shirt off.

Girls from such schools point accusingly to their own suffering, and conflate it with screen memories of the Magdalene laundries, Frost in May, Philomena and so on.

All of which was, indeed, reprehensible: human beings invested with authority and numinous dignity do risk succumbing to the temptations of power. No reason to think bad convents immune.

I spent three terms in a bad one when my Dad was posted to South Africa in the apartheid years. In Krugersdorp, the nuns pulled off a double by not only bashing us with rulers a lot but also being startlingly racist (“The kaffirs don’t clean the cheppel properly, they’re dirty people”).

It was useful to learn, at 13, that even people with great silver pectoral crosses clonking on their front could be unholy.

But the argument begins because once back in England, my other nuns were great. The Sacred Heart Convent, Tunbridge Wells (the one that’s less posh than Woldingham), was sparky, kindly and distinctly liberal.

Not in the extreme New Theology, modern way, but for a girls’ school in the 1960s they were remarkably cool. When there were occasional daft interdicts, they rapidly got laughed off: the ban on “vocals” in Saturday night pop sessions (one can get sick of the Shadows’ Telstar) was provoked by the Stones’ track Satisfaction. But we teased and teased until they pretended to believe that the singer was referring to political frustration in a materialist society.

In the sixth form we did have the gruesome Children of Mary sessions, but when I resigned from them nobody minded; nor did they when we argued points of doctrine (I was a convinced pantheist at 15). Mother Wilson also decided it would be a good idea to bring in a guest lecturer to explain communism. He wore purple gym shoes and gave us each a copy of The Communist Manifesto. I still have mine.

The next week he came back to explain anarchism. This homeopathic-size dose probably meant that at university we could look more coolly at the Revolutionary Socialist Party leaflets.

The same headmistress set treasure-hunts on high days and holidays, at one point dressing as a tramp to provide one of the clues (shabby overcoat, comedy boots, gardener’s old hat pulled over a full wimple). And on Halloween the whole school was always sent early to bed in highly theatrical disgrace for some imaginary crime, and then roused half an hour later by whooping sixth-formers and led in dressing gowns to be told ghost stories by candlelight.

For all the normal horrors of teenage years at boarding school – hockey, existential doubt, rows with friends, double Geography, soggy quiche – it was a benign second home.

And importantly, in our era, watching a healthy community of nuns taught us that strong-minded, well organised women can run things without being bossed about by men. The young visiting priest technically outranked them (and we resented that already), but face to face he was clearly well under the thumb.

When 10 years later Margaret Thatcher dominated her Cabinet, I suspect that Sacred Heart girls were the least surprised of anyone.

Down our lane, they’ve fixed the ruins. St Andrew’s was a 15th-century church, ruined through the Reformation and rebuilt as a smaller, neater structure alongside the towering old remains.

As a child I wandered about, enthralled by the dignified antiquity of arches and grassy nave, and did a village school project on it. But the ruins got dangerous, and were taped off for years. Until a splendid grant brought, all last winter, sensitive and careful restorers to make them safe. Now you can sit and dream and wonder there.

To mend ruins seems on the face of it crazy. Just as renouncing romance, children and domesticity to be a nun is crazy. But both put forth flowers, and dreams, and a sense of disciplined peacefulness. Long live crazy.