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Sucking Sherbet Lemons by Michael Carson

January 12, 2016

SSLIt’s hard for me to remember how I felt fifty years ago when I was the age of the boy portrayed. I imagine that I was not so naïve but suspect that I was. The author is only 5 years older than me

We are presented with the Roman Catholicism of the past, before the liberal reforms of Vatican 2. We also see superstition – avoiding walking in the cracks between paving stones.

He isn’t James Joyce though he shares the idea that mortal sins mean you go straight to Hell if you die before going to confession, where the slate is wiped clean and you get a pure, white soul

Missa Luba is all the rage. I remember saving up to buy the LP.

The protagonist (the author as a teenager?) is an overweight Irish Catholic who dreams of heaven as a place where Mars bars grow on trees. He has an astonishing lack of sex education and is living proof that parents shouldn’t be free to remove their children from it in school, nor choose a ‘faith school’ which indoctrinates them.

We rejoice that he finally finds a friend who introduces him to questioning the received ‘wisdom’ of the church. This friend also takes him to an orgy – I was not aware that such things went on illegally in the 1960s.

SSL 2 We get the advertising jingles of the day – call at the Esso sign. But surely they didn’t use Tide for washing up? It was for clothes

Homosexuals are seen as men in macs as the alterative to marriage.

I hadn’t heard of Osmiroid pens before.

The author should have known that ‘cotta’ is not spelled ‘cotter’. Also that you don’t wear a ‘surplice and cotter’ – they are variants of the same garment.

A good comment about extremism: Novvy did not seem distressed at the news. “Where is this chain, Brother Henry?”

“Around my waist,” replied Brother Henry, Brother Joachim thought, at his theatrical best.


“I thought it would help me.”

“How did you think it would help you?”

“To mortify my flesh. If I don’t mortify my flesh it will mortify me.”

“Well I suppose you’ve got a point there, Brother. But isn’t the chain rather tight?”

“Yes, Brother.”

“And doesn’t it hurt?”


Novvy said in a rather tired voice, “Go and take it off and bring it to me please, Brother.”

Brother Henry left the room abjectly. He returned carrying a heavy piece of chain which he gave to Novvy.

“It’s still warm,” observed Novvy, gesturing Brother Henry to sit down. “Now, Brothers, there you have an example of extre­mism,” said Novvy, “and extremism is a great enemy to the Spiritual Life. I do realise that all you novices are of an impres­sionable age and get strange ideas about things. I know exactly where Brother Henry got his hairbrained idea for the chain. It was Matt Talbot, wasn’t it, Brother?”

SSL 3 An interesting and novel penance:

“Well for your penance say ten Hail Marys. No, on second thoughts, don’t say ten Hail Marys. You must be fed up to the back teeth with Hail Marys. Instead, say a prayer of your own for me and Miss Harper and, for good measure, you can say one for all my friends in Afghanistan. Who knows, the prayers of a young novice faraway may do more to convert them from the wretched heresy of Mohammedism than a lifetime of my waffling.”

“Is it true you didn’t convert anyone?” asked Joachim.

Father O’Callaghan frowned but his eyes twinkled almost merrily. “Yes, it’s quite true. But don’t go telling the whole place. It might get back to the relations at home. They think they came flocking in to be baptised in their thousands. Well they came flocking in all right, but only for the antibiotics and the milk-powder. The trouble with the Afghan is that he is as certain about his religion as we are about ours. It’s the very devil to shift them.”

“They sound a silly people!” exclaimed Joachim.

“Maybe. Anyway, that’s by the way. Now make an Act of Contrition and we’ll eat some of Miss Harper’s seed cake.”

Father O’Callaghan recited the words of absolution over Joachim while the boy made an Act of Contrition. As always happened, he felt a huge weight being lifted from him and a feeling of light elation taking its place.

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