Don Cupitt interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 16th February 2009

0:09:07 Born in Oldham, Lancashire, in 1934; paternal grandfather was a plumber, maternal, a butcher; father was an energetic man who later ran a metalwork factory in London; during the War he made fuselages for war planes, and landing ships; mother worked for Singer sewing machines; she married at eighteen and I was born when she was twenty; they died in the 1990's; after the War my father was earning a good income and decided that their four children should have  private educations; my brother became a chemical engineer and my two sisters both became doctors; the boys went to Charterhouse and the girls to Cheltenham Ladies College; my parents believed they had done the best for us and that, I believe, was the main work of their lives; they were a bit unhappy in old age partly because our education distanced us from them culturally and physically

2:57:09 They moved around the country during the War; my father was very busy as a sheet metal engineer, establishing factories in various places; in the early years of the War we were living near Birmingham, and later were living in west London at the time of the V1s and V2s, so I saw a bit of the War from a civilian viewpoint while growing up; I remember hearing the first V2 landing in Chiswick near where we lived; there I went to a prep school in Gunnersbury;  I remember the English teacher; he gave me a book called Dodd's Beauties of Shakespeare which I still have; also remember the mathematics master, Mr Blake; he lived in Earls Court in great poverty, an old man who had returned to teaching because of poverty and the War; he lived in a house with only gas lighting; otherwise there was nobody of note whereas at Charterhouse there was a very high class staff with some notable figures

5:33:23 Mother was quiet, very dedicated to her children; she had only a few friends and in later years we tried to get her interested in the world, but outside her family life she had few interests; she had not had enough education whereas my father had night school and work; neither had any interest in religion so I had no religious upbringing from them; the only religious influence was from my grandmother, Emma Cupitt; she had got a scholarship as a girl to go to medical school from a poor family in Nottingham; the family would not allow her to go as she was the eldest of twelve children; she had to stay at home and help her mother to raise them; all her life she was under-educated and frustrated; she took up palmistry, reading tea leaves, divination from dreams, theosophy - all sorts of occult kinds of knowledge; remember being taken by her to a spiritualist meeting; perhaps my rather critical interest in religion owes something to her for whom religion provided a sort of knowledge for people who had not had the opportunity to encounter real knowledge; I never attended a séance but do remember at spiritualist meetings, a medium would get up and claim to be hearing voices from the other side; for me at the age of ten or so it was obvious that this was a bit of a con where everybody was complicit, including the medium; so my religious scepticism owes something to that early influence

8:33:24 All my life I have had a succession of fads and crazes and have picked up a lot of my general education simply by being very keen on something for a short period; an early interest was butterflies, which I collected, and I am still a member of Butterfly Conservation to this day; it was one of the means by which I got into natural history and birds; I also became very keen on Italian opera and assembled a large collection of gramophone records, and by that way learned something about music and at Charterhouse got a master to teach me Italian; my interest in opera started at about twelve; before I was thirteen I had read all of Dickens and was a voracious reader from an early age; I used to haunt second-hand book shops and certainly had nearly all of Everyman's Library as a small boy; until I was thirty I probably read a novel a day in addition to academic reading; it is the best way to learn language and writing; we were lucky in that way as it was a better education than the modern child's equivalent which is having a thorough knowledge of cinema; I have only got interested in cinema late in life; in my generation television hadn't yet arrived and it was the novel through which you basically learned about the world; I had no particular encouragement from my parents to read; I would not describe any of my siblings as intellectuals but they have had good careers; I was rather exceptional in being rather reflective and having a huge appetite for language, and having fads and crazes; I remember another, architecture, which really started at school when my housemaster took me church crawling; I have always been a Pevsnerite and always had the latest volumes; I have taken a pride in being able to read a city historically; only very much more recently have I learned to read landscape in the same way

11:48:02 I won a foundation scholarship to Charterhouse and was a boarder; I remember the names of some other scholars including Geoffrey Lloyd and Richard Swinburne; I started reading general subjects and did eight O levels, and then switched to science at A level; there were some excellent masters who did influence me but I did become aware of religion and religious thought at school; of the masters - Oleg Polunin, an eminent field botanist who wrote most of the standard books about the Himalayan flora, Wilfred Noyce, the poet and mountaineer, taught me Italian, Percy Chapman taught me zoology, Bob Arrowsmith was my housemaster, and very good on architecture - but there were many interesting and talented characters; I was taught English by W. C. Sellar, the author of '1066 and all that', and I remember the way he talked about Browning to this day; the upper middle-class world of school was strange to me at first but I took to it culturally, even though many of the boys came from class-conscious well-to-do Surrey families that would have not normally been my first choice of company; I was not bullied, always physically large and able to hold my own, not particularly combative, and never had a problem with the relics of a north country accent; I was only a moderate games' player and only captained the school at chess; coming up to take my scholarship exam in June 1947 I strayed out on the cricket pitch and saw P.B.H. May make 180-odd runs against Eton; that was the most physically beautiful display of sport I have ever seen; he subsequently captained England; of course, the school in those days did have high class professionals, for example, the cricket professional was an England spin bowler called George Geary from the 1930's; I was no good at cricket but quite liked football; oddly enough I never had a decent musical education though I picked up a little on my own; music has never been a major thing in my life, I am predominantly a verbal person, an articulator; a few years ago it seemed that my sight was deteriorating very badly and I would have to listen to music more, but just recently surgery has improved my eyesight so I expect I shall stick to the word from now on; the last music craze I had was for modern music, Stravinsky and after, including a lot of modern minimalism

17:03:09 Between the ages of eight and eleven I had a craze for railway engines; I joined those small boys who knew their way through holes in the fence into every engine shed in London; remember their names to this day, where you would go with Ian Allan's guides and tick off every engine when you had seen it; this craze then got me interested in Victorian engineering, a love of bridges and Brunel; I was not a performer as a boy, was probably too shy; I was eventually head of my house and a school monitor, and was seen when young as a potential leader; later, as a national serviceman I was best cadet of my year despite being not at all military; I did have the air of a leader when young and was no doubt expected to be a church leader at one time; that is perhaps where my talent was thought to lie which was possibly why I was easily assimilated into a higher class than I had been born into; when I first became a practising Christian after my confirmation, I saw myself as a liberal Anglican Tory, in the Harold Macmillan or Rab Butler style; I only became aware of being more socialist in my twenties; when young, I was attracted to readers and writers like Britten, Eliot and C.S. Lewis, those after World War II who still hoped it might be possible to reconstruct Christian Europe; I was only a Tory in the sense that people in Europe were Christian Democrats; we looked at Fascism and Communism and didn't want either of those; in the fifties, many in the West thought it ought to be possible to rebuild a Christian society in England; I was fifteen when I was confirmed, after which I became a weekly communicant and sometimes went once during the week as well in the old chapel at Charterhouse; I was pretty devout around the ages of fifteen or sixteen, then when I did a lot of Darwin and zoology I drifted away from it, then returned to religion very sharply at eighteen at Cambridge; much of my time at school I was very interested in religion and in religious thought; the two great influences were Plato and Darwin; I met Plato's 'Republic' by reading it aloud with the headmaster in his study with the other school monitors, it was our induction into being leaders, and I met Darwin through doing zoology; Plato's top-down vision of the universe and Darwin's British empiricist, bottom-up vision of the universe, were in conflict in my mind from the age of sixteen-seventeen onwards; I knew that I was very religious by the time I was fifteen-sixteen and also knew that religious thought was going to trouble me within a year or two; did not go to religious camps until I got to Cambridge; I wasn't touched by evangelical, twice-born Christianity, until Cambridge; all my life I have been liable to religious experiences I think caused by a kind of overspill of joy, often associated with the sense of sight and sunshine; when I was first converted I remember what I took then to be an experience of God with a feeling of almost continuous warmth, a curious sensation which mystics often report; they link it with actual dilation of the capillaries; if you are a Tibetan lama one of your practical exams consisted of drying out a damp sheet with your skin because you can meditate to the point that your capillaries dilate just keeping warm; I knew what it was like feeling a sense of religious exaltation that made one physically warm; the earliest religious experiences I have actually put in my books were ones that I had as an undergraduate; they were usually extravertive and visual in the sense that they were outside myself and seen as something like a brilliant painting of Vincent van Gogh, a sort of super-vivid sense of colour and of the brilliance of the world; in some recent books I call that ‘brightness’, the fact that our visual experience is more conscious than our other sensations; when visual experience is most highly conscious and the world takes on a kind of glory; a lot of English poets describe it, it is experiences like that which have been my most common; I still have that, experiences something like Protestant joy when the feeling of God's grace boils over in my soul, a feeling of an extraordinary sense of exaltation; it is often associated with Methodist hymns; I think it an extinct kind of religious experience now, but I knew it when I was young

25:13:30 At A level did botany, zoology and organic chemistry; the school recommended me to try Trinity Hall, Cambridge, I got an Exhibition there and came up in 1952; the Exhibition was in those days £100, so a significant chunk of the fees which probably helped my parents, and they were very pleased; in those days Cambridge was simpler and less congested and I do remember that every term my father delivered me by car to the porters' lodge, unloaded my suitcase and drove out again; that was the old modern Cambridge where buses went down Trinity Street, rather than the post-modern, present Cambridge, which is as the film industry would like to see it; in those days the buildings were sooty and you could drive and cycle anywhere; felt intellectual exhilaration, of course, and great freedom after school; for someone like me from a modest background it was exciting, visually because of the beauty of the buildings but, above all, intellectually; there was a huge range of interesting people; I used to say that Cambridge was the best youth club in the world, now I say that in many ways it is the best place for the elderly as I am a life fellow of my college; somehow the colleges manage to be both a superb youth club and day-centres for the elderly; it is an environment that I have enjoyed so much that I really wanted to stay; the Master of Trinity Hall was Professor Dean, Professor of Pathology, one of the last professors to be appointed before the retiring age came in, and he was already in his eighties; the best known of the fellows was Owen Chadwick, the Dean of the College, and he was my supervisor when I changed to theology; as a supervisor he was quiet, conscientious, a good teacher, very hard-working and serious-minded; amongst undergraduates it was believed that he had had a riotous past when he had been a considerable rugby player, but when I came up he was already in his mid-thirties and sobering down; thought he was going to be at least Archbishop of Canterbury and probably much more important than that; amongst the fellows, Louis Clarke of the Fitzwilliam Museum; also Ronald Fisher, the celebrated biologist, who produced a methematical Theory of Natural Selection', in a book that saved Darwinism at a time when its intellectual prestige was rather low because no answer had been found to the question of how mutations which are recessive could ever spread through a whole population; Fisher did the mathematics of natural selection and then people following in his footsteps could demonstrate it by looking at big seabird populations; of the other fellows, I remember Tony Chaplin, and my director of studies, George Kenner, a scientist; Kenner had a big influence on me as in my second year he suggested I should do the history and philosophy of science which had just then begun as a Cambridge subject; I did so and it had a big influence on me as it turned me to philosophy; the lecturer in the history of science was Rupert Hall who lectured on both the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries; the philosophy of science was Russ Hanson who looked like the young Orson Welles; he was a young American who had listened to Wittgenstein and was rather a distinguished young philosopher of science, who, unhappily, died prematurely and tragically in a plane accident in America; I learned a lot from him because he introduced me to Wittgenstein's ideas, and to the way I would eventually come to think in philosophy, in 1953 when I was still barely twenty; I went to supervisions in King's with Donald Parry; my botany supervisor was John Scott, but I also met Max Walters and Anna Bidder; in organic chemistry, a chap called Saunders at Magdalene; I well remember going to supervisions with Hanson, which were very exciting; he lived in a bed-sitter in Parson's Court or somewhere; in those days Cambridge was short of accommodation; underneath his bed was a large wooden box, and one day he pulled it out and it was full of brass scientific instruments; this was the beginnings of the Whipple Museum for the History of Science; he was a delightful man and the one book he did publish was 'Patterns of Discovery'; one of the things he picked up from Wittgenstein was that seeing is already interpreting; that was leading away from pure empiricism, the eye doesn't just photograph the world, it interprets it; through him I got interested in language and interpretation, and the post-empiricist line of philosophy; I also learned that science is a cultural activity and it has a history; a lot of scientists seem to think that it exists in a platonic world of its own; scientific ideas reflect the society that produces them and they have a certain life-span and are superseded by other ideas; reading history and philosophy of science was a useful transition subject when I turned to theology

34:30:02 At the end of my first term I became an evangelical and was caught up with them for about a year, then I drifted away and went first rather liberal, then rather Anglo-Catholic; why I was converted, I don't know; in retrospect I suppose that in my first few weeks in Cambridge I was lonely and a bit vulnerable and was taken to the usual evangelical sermon on Sunday evenings in Holy Trinity church and was converted on the spot, and joined CICCU; I began to feel they were too narrow almost immediately and by the end of my first year I had broken away from them and had begun theological reading on my own; by the end of my second year I knew that I wanted to be ordained and was reading rather widely in theology and drifting away from science; it was rather surprising that the evangelicals should have been the means of reviving my concern for religion, but it is often said that British theologians are evangelicals trying to work their way out of it; it has been a bit of a blight on Cambridge and, to some extent, Oxford as well, in that this has been such a prominent feature of the undergraduate religious scene for over a hundred years; Moody and Sankey conducted an evangelical mission to Cambridge in late nineteenth century, from that the Intercollegiate Christian Union grew; in my undergraduate days much of the University was very religious; the leader and guru of CICCU was Basil Atkinson, an under-Librarian of the University Library, and he was the organiser; he was rather like a Victorian Calvinist; it was a rather grim, puritanical, kind of religion but worst of all it was totally anti-rational and still is to this day; I quickly found myself rather horrified and could not make sense of the language you were required to use; there was a version of evangelicalism in Cambridge in the early nineteenth-century deriving out of the evangelical revival of the Wesleyans in the eighteenth-century, and the equivalent of continental Pietism with an emphasis on personal experience and holiness in your personal life; in London, the Clapham Sect evangelicals, of whom Wilberforce was a member, were very influential in doing good works; you could not call them irrational as they had a big influence on ethics in the nineteenth century; Charles Simeon was Vicar of Holy Trinity and established the  tradition of Cambridge evangelicalism but it got the rather oppressive quality from the Americans with the strong emphasis on conversion; having become converted you became an instant expert on everything as you now had the true godly point of view on all matters; missionary societies also had an influence; remember that Charterhouse had a school mission to the East End which was almost a class mission, with boys of the privileged classes taking kids from the slums to camps; Cambridge had one too; as an undergraduate I remember going on one hop-picking mission to Kent, where undergraduates lived alongside hop-pickers in the fields and supposedly talked to them about religion; I came eventually to see that as really inspired by class and feeling rather absurd, not something I really wanted to be involved in; it had a sort of respectable intellectual origin in the 1740's; when early British empiricism, especially in the sciences, was at its height there was a desire to show that religious belief could similarly be verified in personal experience; that influenced the evangelical tradition in theology; it was claimed that you could have personal experiences that in detail verified your approximately Calvinist religious belief; this is now obviously not true; by the 1960s people began to publish books saying that your religious beliefs shape the kind of experiences you have, therefore of course your religious experiences verify your religious belief, just as, if somebody has a vision of the Virgin Mary it is pretty certain that the somebody is an adolescent Catholic girl and not a Muslim; if you ask the young girl how she knew it was the Virgin Mary she would say the vision was like the statue in church - Belief shapes experience; I had come to see that myself by the 50s and was not persuaded by the argument, but that was why such rationale as evangelicalism came from that origin; of course, today's evangelicalism as promoted by Holy Trinity Church, Brompton, isn't even that rational, though very popular still

42:23:24 Despite doing natural science and Darwin being a hero, my interest in religion was stronger; I shared my room as an undergraduate for three years with Neil Alexander who became a celebrated professor of zoology at Leeds; I knew Jonathan Miller well, who became a doctor and then a comedian, and I knew Francis Darwin, so I had a lot of friends in the sciences; why did I go towards ordination? - I suppose my religion was so strong in those days that ordination was what I wanted to do, I wanted to study theology; I had got interested a bit in Anglo-Catholic writing, a bit in Dean Inge and liberal platonic Protestant writing, and quite a lot in the mystics; this I did while still trying to do science in which I got a 2:2, terrible, but by that time I wanted to do theology; I remember Jonathan Miller well, young and red-haired, gawky and looking a bit like me; although it was the great time of Footlights in Cambridge I knew none of those people at all as they operated in the English Faculty which wasn't our concern; Cambridge was intensely sociable in those days and I do remember that in my second year I knew every other undergraduate in the College; I knew Jonathan Miller because he had been at the same school as my room-mate; after Part 1 I changed to theology and Owen Chadwick became my supervisor and taught me nineteenth century church history; George Woods taught me the philosophy of religion, he was Dean at Downing and a moderate in the tradition of William Paley and Bishop Butler; he said he was ‘a Cambridge Latitudinarian’; the Part 1A syllabus was very demanding, and I probably worked too hard but enjoyed doing it; I attended King's most weekdays at 5.30 for evensong; my room was on the corner and I could see and hear the Chapel from there; I was very absorbed in religion; I was not ready for women although some chaps were good at making friends with them; one friend had many girlfriends from Girton and you went to his rooms to meet them; a few I have remained in touch with; George Woods once told me not to keep so busy that I never got round to getting married as he regretted doing; being ordained and becoming a Cambridge don and a lecturer, with very heavy pastoral responsibilities in the College, meant you worked seven days a week and thus no time to marry; I took his warning seriously and married at twenty-nine

48:57:08 I did very badly in the Part1A theology and got a 2:1 and not a first, but Owen Chadwick encouraged me and thought I might have a future in theology; I got a place at Westcott House to train for the ministry but before that I had to do my military service; I was twenty-one and had just graduated with what the Army saw as a science degree so within days I had to present myself at Catterick Camp and join the Royal Signals; having been at boarding school the hardship of the army wasn't all that strange; my school had had no central heating and you washed in cold water in the depth of winter, also you had to keep the window open at night and I remember frost on blankets in the morning; curiously, public school boys like me found basic training in the army less harsh and alarming than ordinary kids from northern cities who had never been away from home before; the depressing thing was losing two years of one's life when there was so much else to do; the whole culture was much more militarized than today; you grew up with war memorials, in institutions which had seen whole generations sacrificed to war and believing that it was a good thing to die for your country; now we live in a civilian culture and the old military values mean nothing; I hated military service but was able to profit a little from it; I did believe that the Second World War had been a just cause though the First World War was a catastrophe that should never have happened; the gradual running down of the British Empire that followed was a pretty untidy business; I got sent out to Cyprus but I was able to take a lot of philosophy books with me which I read; I passed out of officer training as top cadet and even won in heavyweight boxing; demobbed in 1957 so we were one of the last generations to do national service; have talked to Bruce Kent who did it a couple of years later about the winding down of empire; I coincided with the Suez invasion; my Signal troop was attached to a gunner regiment which was sent to Cyprus to relieve Commandoes who went to Suez; what a waste of time that was; remember fearing nuclear war for a few days; it was a catastrophic mistake, and a disaster for the Conservative party and its values

55:44:14 Back in Cambridge I was sent back to Trinity Hall to do Part III in the philosophy of religion; it was a post-graduate qualification then and for that I returned to George Woods; I worked very hard and got a decent first at last; people then suggested that I would be pressed to take up an academic career but the Principal of Westcott House, Kenneth Carey, also asked me to be vice-Principal there when called upon; he later became Bishop of Edinburgh; the vice-Principal then was John Habgood who became Archbishop of York, and previous to him was Robert Runcie who became Archbishop of Canterbury; in those days it was a strong liberal Anglican college with a high class student intake; it had been a bit left-wing in the 1930s when Joseph Needham went every Sunday morning from Westcott House by coach to Thaxted where the celebrated Communist Conrad Noel was the Vicar - a great English stronghold of Communist English Catholicism, and a lot of Westcott House people were keen on that; these were people who could still see in communism a little bit of the Kingdom of God on earth and they wanted to change English society; thinking of William Morris, there were connections between Victorian medievalism and socialism; nowadays there is indignation that Cambridge chaps could have got mixed up in such things but it didn't seem like that at the time; Victorian social concern morphed over the generations into sympathy with far left ideas about rebuilding society; I was turned in a socialist direction a bit while at Westcott House; we believed in the welfare state and things like that; living through the Attlee government after the War I noticed the hatred of the conservative press for it, but also the stupendous achievement of people like Aneurin Bevan, who in six months in the teeth of opposition, managed to get the National Health Service established, and within two or three years we saw a spectacular improvement in public health; this made one believe that social reform really could transform society; it is hard to remember now, but you can't make a film about the Second World War using the same uniforms because people are a size bigger than they were then; we really believed that Christian ethics could build a better society; another example of this was my friend Ralph Lapwood, a Fellow of Emmanuel, who was with Chairman Mao on the Long March and was also an English free churchman and a good mathematician; he reminded one of the ease with which a person of that period could combine communism with Christianity; we took them both seriously as projects for making a better world; the profound disillusionment with communism and Maoism that occurred during the sixties has blurred our recollection of the earlier period when it really could be seen as a project for realizing the Christian gospel on earth