I was a Teenage Christian: Church Youth Culture in Liverpool is a guest post by Jonathan Walker. His book The Angels of L19 draws on his experiences to tell the story of Robert, a young music fan who is receiving some extraordinary visitors.
The Angels of L19 is out now from Weatherglass Books and will be reviewed in a future post!
In the 1980s, I went to an evangelical church in south Liverpool, which was the centre of my social life. Below are some photos depicting my church friends and our world from 1987–92. A fictionalized version of this world also forms the backdrop to my new novel, The Angels of L19.
The first photo shows Phil in my Liverpool bedroom in 1987, in impeccable 80s stonewash denim and (possibly) fingerless gloves, and surrounded by a collection of 80s ephemera (the cassettes on the bed, the posters on the walls).
Phil was in my class at New Heys Community Comprehensive until fifth form, after which he left to do his A-levels elsewhere. He was the one who invited me to an outreach meeting in the run-up to Billy Graham’s visit to Liverpool for Mission England in 1984. After I ‘went forward’ at that meeting, I joined Long Lane Church in Garston, where he was a member.
Long Lane Church was originally part of a particularly austere denomination: the Brethren. It was already beginning to outgrow that association by the late 80s, but it retained some distinctive features: the church members collectively owned the building, and there was no minister or pastor – no professional religious leaders at all. Even before I joined, the church was familiar to me because Richie, my next-door neighbour, also went there.
I’d moved from the Wirral to Liverpool in 1981 to live with my aunt and uncle after my mum died, and since Richie lived next door to them, I’d known him longer than any other of Liverpool friends – we used to play together whenever I visited as a child. One of the memories I used to kick-start my novel is of hearing his extended family, who often came round for lunch on Sunday afternoons, singing grace through the common wall that both separated and joined our semi-detached houses.
This is Richie on a Sunday evening c. 1987 at the after-church youth group.
My note on the back of the photo below says ‘After church 1988’. Certainly everyone here went to Long Lane.
The many Brethren (or ex-Brethren) churches around Merseyside were all independent, but they shared a collective endeavour: Merseyside Christian Youth Camps. Each week in summer during July and August a different group of young people, and a different set of leaders – the latter all volunteers – took over a semi-permanent campsite in north Wales, with a changeover via chartered coaches from Liverpool every Saturday. This was the main way my friends and I met young people from other churches.
From 1986–9, I went to MCYC twice each summer, once to ‘Campex’ for older teens in July, and once to the concluding Bible Study Week in early September. Of course, all the camp weeks featured Bible discussion, but Bible Study Week was even more hard-core. The campers at both these weeks were roughly 16–21 years old, but many of the leaders weren’t much older, in their twenties and thirties.
The campsite had basic chalets with bunk beds for female campers, but the boys had to make do with army cots in mouldy tents. The boys’ field had a single permanent structure: a washroom with sinks and flush toilets – but no showers. The toilets stank atrociously – as, probably, did we.
Here are some choice 80s fashions from Campex in 1988.
Remember this chicken. He’s important.
All my friends from Long Lane went to MCYC, where we usually shared a tent. The picture below shows most of this group in the dining room at Campex 1989. Richie (in the red top here), Dave to his right, Andy opposite, and Ian mid-way between Richie and Andy were all sons of church elders (Richie and Dave were first cousins; Andy and Ian were brothers). Daz and Diddy with the perms were converts like me.
Note the yellow mugs, which were manufactured for Norwich City Football Club, but sadly advertised the club’s nickname as the ‘Cannaries’, so MCYC acquired dozens of them cheap.
Alan, with an ice cream in his face below, was also from Long Lane. He was one of the leaders at Campex 1989, and the mastermind behind the Lead-Free Pencil Show.
On most of the occasions I went to camp, there was a single concert on the last night, where campers could show off their talents (sing a song, etc.), or perform a skit, often related to personalities or events from the week. Alan extended this tradition to include every night of the week, so that the Lead-Free Pencil Show formed a running commentary on the events of each day.
I like to think his self-administered ice cream was encouraged by me.
Note the guy photobombing the background (possibly Hayden, whose birthday is being celebrated on the wall). We called this ‘gegging’, though the term was not limited to violations of photographic etiquette. It meant butting in anywhere without an invitation.
My own contributions to the camp concert each year were – even if I do say so myself – infamous for their audience-baiting incomprehensibility. Most of these performances were based around poems I wrote deliberately badly in the style of Adrian Mole (‘O daffodils, / You give me thrills’).
The sketch shown below was the ‘Folk music and dancing of chickens’. I was inspired in part by the chicken costume I am wearing in one of the previous photos, but that was for outreach to local kids (who it surely must have terrified), and I wasn’t allowed to use it here. I am wearing a blindfold because one of my rules was that either the audience must not be able to see me, or I must not be able to see them (I usually appeared with a paper bag over my head).
By 1989, no one except Andy (to my right) was willing to appear with me for fear of damage to their reputation, so the role of the dancing chicken was played by an individual who shall remain nameless, and who tried to preserve his anonymity by putting a bin over his head and wearing other people’s clothes.
Andy and I are using spoons to play the ‘salmonellaphone’, an instrument composed of eggs that emits ethereal sounds inaudible to the human ear. The climax of this sketch was a homage to Jimi Hendrix smashing and setting fire to his guitar at Monterey Pop, in which I similarly destroyed the salmonellaphone by throwing raw eggs around the stage.
I got banned from future concerts for this – the eggs made quite a mess.
In the photo, the logo on the wall is for the Lead-Free Pencil Show. The yellow dot pinned to my shirt is a badge with the same design.
A retelling of this sketch – in which I belatedly give myself permission to wear the chicken costume onstage – is the final scene of my novel.
The photo below is from a 1989 visit to a dilapidated (and very cold) holiday cottage in Yorkshire owned by the family of one of the Long Lane gang. I don’t remember us actually doing anything here: just messing about, and debating the merits of various Dylan albums. (Bob Dylan at Budokan, guys? Really?) Here we are using the kitchen serving window as a theatre featuring puppets made from oven gloves and utensils. A sort of Punch and Judy show. I’m not sure if the puppets here are kissing or fighting, but as with Punch and Judy, there probably wasn’t much difference.
I went to church every Sunday – usually twice – but I also went to a youth event at Gordon Hall in the town centre most Saturday nights, and to an informal Bible study at the house of one of the church members on a weekday, where the photo below was taken. It’s the opposite of what you’d expect: not sedate contemplation, but barely controlled chaos. Obviously this was after the ‘official’ part of the evening had ended.
1990 was the last year the whole gang went to Bible Study Week at camp (we’d already given up on Campex). Here two friends and I are pretending to be hippies on the coach for one of the daily outings to legendary attractions like the local slate mines.
In the photo below, Richie is playing the role of the ‘worm with a face’, the subject of a song I adapted from a Frank Sidebottom original (I attended several of Frank’s ‘lectures’ at Liverpool Poly Student Union in the summer of 1989).
Frank’s song was ‘Hey you, street artist!’, but I changed the lyrics as follows: ‘Hey you, worm with a face! / Wadda ya think you’re doing? / Cos you’re a biological monstrosity / And that’s against the laws of nature!’ The second verse was the same, except the phrase ‘mutant obscenity’ was substituted for ‘biological monstrosity’.
Jeanette was one of the people we met at camp. She had her birthday in the middle of Bible Study Week, so on the day before, a small group of us sequestered ourselves in the craft room with a pile of photocopies of her primary-school portrait, and turned them into ‘Wanted’ posters, invented adverts, or other whimsical statements – each copy had a different slogan or defacement – which we then stuck up all over camp during the night, so they’d be waiting for her when she went to breakfast the following day. My favourite had her head as a balloon, with the caption, ‘Jeanette the human helium balloon will float into the ionosphere for your pleasure’. Another friend later had this made into a T-shirt as a present for me.
Below Jeanette is copying the hairstyle and costume from her old school photo to say thank you to all of us.
This story encapsulates for me why camp was such a special experience.
The photo below was taken in 1992 in the same cottage as the puppet show above. This may in fact have been the last occasion we all went away together – even in 1992, several of us had to journey here from other places where we’d scattered.
The 80s were a very innocent time for me: no drugs, barely any alcohol (if only this abstinence had lasted!). There were plenty of teenagers in budding romances at church and camp – and some of them were no doubt going beyond handholding and kissing – but sex wasn’t a subject for gossip or boasting. So the Long Lane gang weren’t a particularly laddish group, which I’m thankful for now.
What strikes me about many of these photos now is their gentleness and silliness. There’s a lot of laughter and affection. That’s a great legacy.
I achieved a lot in the years that followed: a PhD, a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship, two prize-nominated books. But I also dug myself farther and farther into a very dark hole, from which I’ve only emerged in the past few years. And one of the things that got me out of that hole was the distant memory that I was once accepted, valued and loved.
Jonathan Walker is the author of The Angels of L19 (Weatherglass Books, 2021): a novel set in an evangelical church in Liverpool in 1984. You can find him at jonathanwalkersblog.co.uk, or on Twitter as @NewishPuritan