Joe's in English Literature.

Joe's features in at least three novels, Kicking Around  by Terry Taylor, the ironically titled Leave a Light on for Jesus by Vincent Cobb (RIP), The Woman in Blue by Elly Griffiths and The Boy in The Boat by Brian O’Raleigh .


Kicking Around  by Terry Taylor follows the life of the protagonist through childhood to adolescence, in a series of hilariously comical vignettes, centred around playgrounds, classrooms and soccer and rugby pitches. The action takes place in the city of Southpool, a soubriquet for Blackpool, a name modification in the style of Thomas Hardy. At St John of The Cross Primary School (St John Vianney's), soccer is the preferred sport, while at St Michael's (Joe's), rugby is taught by Oliver Xavier O'Connell, known to the boys as Oxo, an amalgam character composed of  features of several typical teachers at Joe's. This is the author's description of Oxo.

'In youth probably built like a mountain, by middle years Oxo's figure had suffered major landslides, resulting in a shape not unlike a gargantuan pear-drop.  ........  On a rugby pitch, civilisation ceased at his hairline, above which nestled a full head of neatly coiffeured fleece greying to the perfect shade of leaden silver which can complement real looks and mature sophistication. Below Oxo's scalp squatted two hundred and fifty pounds of raging moo-cow. He was a large flabby animal with a film-star hairdo.'

Joe's is neatly summarised in this succinct passage.

'Like most grammar schools with pretensions, St Michael's had a small chip on its shoulder about not being a public school. So we had our prep school, and, though in a very small minority, boarders. And also a range of school traditions in the Tom Brown vein. some unique - the single sanctioned deviation from a strictly-enforced school uniform was the green cravat worn by the head boy. Some pious - fasting in lent and a week-long religious retreat prior to Easter. Some mundane - sports days, speech days, masters' gowns, a choir, an orchestra and a school song with a chorus in Latin. And some frankly eccentric - an unswervable insistence that Friday lunch consist of fish cake, chips and beans, considered nourishing, rather than peas, considered common.'

As you will see, the work has a style of its own rather than following in the pattern of Classical English comic writing. It owes more to Mark Twain than to Jerome K Jerome. I don't believe it is autobiographical although it does contain autobiographical material and it has the air of truth about it, despite some palpable exaggerations. But as Mark Twain himself says 'There was things what he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. ...That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly or the widow.'

ISBN-10: 0552998095

Leave a Light on for Jesus by Vincent Cobb (RIP) is a scarifying indictment of the Catholic school and clergy system. The protagonist is a boy, brutalised by his sadistic father and by the Christian brothers, and later sexually abused by the clergy. In the opening chapter, we are introduced to his austere school.

'St Joseph's College - or Holy Joe's jailhouse as it was commonly referred to - was situated on the top of a hill, on a main road, about a half mile from the Catholic church St Kentigern's and approximately two miles from Blackpool's town centre. It was a singularly depressing building, constructed of grim, grey, quarry-stone slabs, sometime in the last century. It was also a part boarders' college, and whenever Erin felt overly sorry for his lot, he only had to consider the plight of the boarders, who had no means of escape, to lift his spirits.'

Three of the characters are instantly recognisable. There is 'the Headmaster, Brother Woodhouse, or Woodpecker, as he was sarcastically referred to', a vacillating character who recognises that a boy in his charge is suffering abuse but whose ultimate solution is to try to have him moved to a state school. Brother Phillips (actually Tubs Phelan) sees the boy as 'a cocky little runt' and his teaching methods include beating the boy about the head with a strap. Some time after the setting of the novel, Phelan disappeared from Joe's after accusations of sexual abuse of boys. Another character is Brother Murray who, 'as a rule, cared for the general welfare of his pupils'. Murray  struggles ineffectively to defend the boy, pointing out to Woodhouse that 'someone has to come bottom of the class', but his pleas are rejected by the headmaster, who seeks to place the blame for the boy's troubles outside the school, and exacerbates the boy's plight by writing to his father, accusing him of  neglecting his son's education. The actual Murray became sickened by the attitude of his fellow  Christian Brothers, and some time later left the order. Woodhouse's letter acts as a catalyst for the father's indignation, causing him to explode and perpetrate more violence, which obliges the boy to leave for London, where he encounters other abusers and other forms of abuse.

The text is often excruciatingly explicit in detail but the narrative allows the reader to empathise with the protagonist, who maintains a positive attitude, despite all that he encounters. A fine story and a good read, but not for the squeamish reader.

ISBN-10: 0954728017

The Woman in Blue by Elly Griffiths is a post modernist detective story, possibly influenced by elements from Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. The mystery is enclosed within Walsingham, a pilgrimage centre in Norfolk, where all the characters are imbued with some form of religious belief or remnants of it. There are priests and vicars and lady priests, in abbeys, chapels, a cathedral, churches of multi denominations and a lunatic asylum where the inmates talk of angels. As if this weren’t enough, the beginning of the work introduces a Druid and a cat called Chesterton.

There are two murders which are investigated by an assiduous but inept police team, headed by the stalwart Inspector Nelson, who was at ‘a Catholic boys’ grammar in Blackpool called St Joseph’s, but inevitably known as Holy Joe’s’, and is the least religious of all the characters possibly on account of his upbringing. Nelson’s patience and diligence in the line of duty is countered by a character flaw as the reader is told of a previous affair with another protagonist, Ruth the archaeologist, who conducts her own side investigation and feeds clues to Nelson on their frequent but platonic encounters.

The result of the long finished affair is a precocious winsome child called Kate who craves her mother’s company night and day and protests vehemently when Ruth departs to join a hen party of seven lady priests. The presence of Kate endears Nelson and Ruth to the reader but when Nelson’s wife’s dalliance with his sidekick comes to light, Nelson’s bitterness and unforgiving nature marks him as a hypocrite.

The several and differing strands of the plot are neatly woven until the dénouement when many of the characters, including police officers on duty, dress in biblical gear as actors and bystanders in a Passion Play. The solemnity of the occasion is rudely disrupted when Nelson receives a message that the suspect is elsewhere, just at the poignant moment when Simon of Cyrene is pressed into service for cross carrying duty. The police team, still in their biblical guises, are obliged to desert the sacred scene, wading through the crowd of onlookers, shouting and cursing along the way.

At last the strands of the plot come together and the murderer is revealed and dutifully confesses. The murderer goes to jail, the sidekick is posted to Essex and Nelson goes back to his wife but the reader is left with a tinge of suspicion that he would rather be with Ruth and perhaps will be involved with her in the next or subsequent novels. With Joe’s boys, you never can tell!

ISBN-9: 781784292379

The Boy in The Boat by Brian O’Raleigh is one of those coming-of-age novels in which the protagonist passes through a series of crises and eventually finds redemption. ‘The Boy’ is trapped in a dystopian environment with a brutal drunken father, a lifestyle of penury and a horrific school, St Joe’s!

The Boy lives at the Alexandra Hotel, South Shore (it is still there). His father is a drunken bully who beats up the kids and the mother, who struggles to make a precarious living taking in and feeding tourists. The boy and his brothers go to Mass and Benediction at St Cuthbert’s but his parents rarely attend church. The prospect of Divine retribution for the sin of recusancy adds to the despondency in the background. Br. Sheehan, the head at Joe’s, and Br. O’Rourke persecute and beat him at Joe’s. When the father goes to complain to the headmaster, he is soft-soaped out of the grievance which makes the boy’s life even worse. His tribulations are somewhat eased by the arrival of a Yorkshire terrier but the animal, sensing the hostility in the environment, escapes and makes its way back to Yorkshire.

He takes refuge from the vicissitudes of life in a boat called the Kathleen R., one of an assembly of craft apparently abandoned by their owners. In the boat, he is the captain and in this shelter, he is safe from the cares of the world. After a while, his father dies, he is released from Joe’s, and then the Kathleen R., a symbol of sanctuary, is no longer required and is sailed off to sea.

The boy, now a man, embarks on a series of adventures to prison, Australia, back to Blackpool and then London. He even tries to take up residence in Israel and fight for the Zionist cause but is thwarted by his lack of Hebrew ethnicity. During these enterprises and misadventures, he is haunted by his past and lives in a fog of drunkenness and irresponsibility.

In his final adventure, he returns to Australia where he buys a boat, naming it the Kathleen R., and embarks on a series of exploits including several storms and a crash with a tanker. Redemption comes after he is rescued by a tug from imminent death and he finds God and a path to sobriety. Now all the ghosts are exorcised, including his afflictions at Joe’s, and he can take up a normal and regular life.

The book is a good read, somewhat lacking in verisimilitude and dated in its format, but with powerful symbolism and well structured, with continual waves of pathos and emotion. Altogether a fine work of stylish literature.

If you know of any other novels that mention Joe's, please contact me at: If you don't know of any, why not consider writing one?

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