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Author Jan Carson: Britpop, bible camp, Ian Paisley and me

Growing up in Ballymena in an evangelical household left an impression on Jan Carson’s psyche that’s not always easy to reconcile with the way she lives now.

It’s 1993 in provincial Northern Ireland; Ballymena to be precise. If you’re not familiar with the concept, Ballymena’s a market town, 30 miles north of Belfast, known for producing chickens, Liam Neeson and a particularly stern breed of Protestantism (Ian Paisley’s a pin-up in these parts). I’m 13 years old, rocking acne, curtains and a pair of canary-yellow DMs. 

I’ve spent my birthday money in Woolworths, deliberating between a UB40 cassette and Blur’s Modern Life is Rubbish (my early music tastes were quite confused). In the end I go with Blur though my heart truly desires Suede’s eponymous debut. I can’t possibly bring it home because it has two ladies kissing on the cover. My parents will have a conniption if they find such a thing in my possession. Three years later, I’ll finally get up the guts to buy Suede by Suede, in the new-fangled CD format. I’ll turn the cover inside out, just in case someone takes a notion to rifle through my music collection. 

I, like many other Ballymena kids, am living in an evangelical Protestant household. I’m a born-again Christian. I go to church four or five times a week. I’m part of the scripture union in school and spend my holidays at Bible camp. There are some benefits to this. Ulster’s church ladies do an unrivalled line in baked goods. We get gift tokens for going to Sunday School. And, though the Troubles are raging outside my door, I never feel anything but safe and loved in my church community. I’m surrounded by people who think like me. I’m convinced that we are right. 

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The internet’s just a twinkle in the future’s eye. I’m not very far travelled – we spend summer holidays in England and autumn half-term in Edinburgh – so it’s hardly surprising that I’m mostly unaware of the people, in places, not far from the ’Mena who hold values quite different from ours. I’m being facetious. I know there are people who aren’t born again. Our church sends mission teams out to save them. We run door-to-door evangelism campaigns. There’s a family of Roman Catholics who live down our street. Though mortified, I’ve invited them to our Holiday Bible Club. 

It’s not just our family who’ve taken an evangelical stance on everything from dancing (forbidden), to chewing gum (decidedly wanton), to the cinema (spelt with a sinful capital ‘S’). Ballymena’s against almost everything. Worried for our mortal souls, they’ve just banned ELO from performing at the Showgrounds. The park swings, previously chained up on the Sabbath, are only recently liberated. A large banner covers the wall of the Seven Towers Leisure Centre: ‘Ballymena Still Says No!’ I’ll be 17 before I work out it’s a united Ireland we’re taking exception to rather than the craze for line dancing, currently being widely condemned in the local press. I’m beginning to wonder about the sense of it all.

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I’m not a wean any more. I’ve graduated from ski pants to jeans. I stay up late, taping Britpop off the Evening Session (my ghettoblaster hidden beneath the duvet so no-one else in the house can hear). I’ve had enough country gospel to last a lifetime. I’m ready for music that asks questions and makes me feel like there are other questioners out there. I’m reading. A lot. Mostly pretty unsuitable stuff. A well-meaning librarian, concerned that I’ve read everything in the children’s section, introduces me to adult fiction. I read Agatha Christie, the Brontes, Martin Amis, Stephen King and, somewhat bizarrely, Tennessee Williams’ biography. In 1990s rural Northern Ireland, I might as well be reading science fiction. It’s like escaping into another world. I spend my lunch breaks in the school library copying poems into a pink satin notebook, embellished with sequins. I am in love with TS Eliot. I gurn my eyes out over Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I play Automatic for the People on repeat. I feel things I’ve never felt before. I think these feelings are sort of holy. But they don’t sit well with the tight and serious holiness I’ve grown up with. 

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Jan Carson’s The Rapturesis out now
(Doubleday)

I’ll spend the next two decades wrestling to align art, cinema, literature and all the wonderful people I’ll meet with the only worldviews I’ve ever known. It will be an excruciating process. It will feel like shoving a square peg into a round hole. In the end, like many of my Northern Protestant peers, I’ll just give up and draw a line between the religion of my childhood and whatever it is I’ve grown into. Doubt-addled faith? Hard-won contentment? The freedom to be fully myself? 

At almost 40, I’ll write a novel set in a village outside Ballymena in ’93: a young girl’s struggling to reconcile an expanding world with the religion she’s inherited. She’ll close the novel with a promise, “eventually things are going to get better”. I will mean every word she says.

Jan Carson is a writer and community arts facilitator

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