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For Remembrance Day

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‘It was freezing cold in the ice and snow on our second morning in the Italian Alps, and that’s when the Germans attacked. They came roaring down the hill, in a hail of gunfire, grenades and mortar bombs.
It was 1943 and I was the 20 year-old toff who’d just taken command of this platoon of the London Irish Rifles. In the trench, with my sergeant, I did as I’d been taught and sat up and shouted, ‘Enemy coming through the woods. Open fire!’
No-one opened fire. I thought, what the hell is happening? At officer school they hadn’t told us what to do if you say ‘Open fire,’ but no-one does.
My sergeant, who’d been hit, said, ‘If we open fire we’ll all be damn-well killed!’ I thought, ‘Well, this is war, isn’t that what we’re here for?’
Then a mortar bomb dropped, I was flung into a snowdrift, and the next thing I knew, we were prisoners, being marched over the hill toward enemy lines.
I’d always thought the war was futile, that if I could just be captured, then I could get on with writing my novel. But marching through the snow, with my hands in the air, I knew I had to get away at any cost, and I didn’t mind if I died. There was still gunfire and shelling, so I did a wonderful Shakespearean death dive, pretending to have been hit, and I rolled down the hill until I reached a rock. I lay stock still behind it. This German soldier came marching down the hill after me, and some lines of TS Eliot, from The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, came to me: ‘And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
 And in short, I was afraid.’
But I wasn’t afraid. I looked up at this German standing over me with his gun, and I heard a bang and a thump, and I thought, Is that me? The soldier fell down dead, shot through the heart.
I stood up, frantically waving at the British soldiers across the hill. They’d seen that our platoon had been captured, and one of them had shot the German. It turned out that it was Mervyn, an officer I’d become friendly with because of our love of TS Eliot. He was also a good Christian man and, 20 years after the war, I asked him, ‘What did you think, when I stood up from behind that rock and waved, and you recognised me?’
‘To tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘I thought you were another German and I had you in my sights with my finger on the trigger, but I suddenly thought, no I don’t want to do any more killing, and so I didn’t pull the trigger.’
When people ask me, ‘Why do you believe in God?’ I say, well I’ve had certain experiences in my life in which the presence of God is much the best explanation. I feel that God has been there. I’m a novelist, a storyteller, and I see life in stories – stories of the war, of my father Oswald, of God and the Church, stories of love. Stories that are so intermingled, it’s hard to see where one starts and another ends. But that moment, in the Italian Alps, was a story that altered my life.
When we were children, my sister and I had a wonderful Christian nanny who took us to church and made sure we said our prayers every night. We knelt by our beds and said ‘Our Father. . .’ and ‘God bless Mummy and Daddy, and Auntie and Uncle, and please make us a good boy, a good girl. Amen.’ I accepted that sort of Christianity, and when I was confirmed at public school, I took it very seriously.
It was only once I was sent off to North Africa and Italy in the war  that I began to have my doubts. On Sunday, a priest would lead a service in the open air and, after we’d all said mass, we went out to kill a few Germans. It seemed bonkers to me, a bonkers God for a bonkers world.
After the war, I became quite anti-Christian. I wrote about it to my father Oswald. He was imprisoned in Holloway, with his wife – my step-mother, Diana Mitford – for being a fascist and national security risk. My father was a deist, not a Christian, he didn’t believe God comes to us, but that humans must work their way up to God.
I’d lost my faith and, when an army friend wrote to say he was becoming a monk, I told him he’d gone around the bend. But he persuaded me to hear a priest called Raymond Raynes, who was giving some talks to restless agnostics and atheists in Surrey. Father Raynes was the superior of the Anglican community at Mirfield in Yorkshire. A tall, gaunt man, with a twinkle in his eye, I appreciated his talk, but Christianity still made no sense to me in this world of madness and violence.
‘If you think the world is mad,’ he told me. ‘You’d better get out of it quick.’ I was outraged and all set to leave, but my friend persuaded me to have a personal word with Raynes. I planned to give him a piece of my mind, about how evil the world is, and that God does nothing. But something was happening inside me. Instead, I simply asked Father Raynes, ‘What should I do if I want to change?’
‘Just do the stuff,’ he said, ‘Go to mass, make your confession, take communion.’
Later, I visited him at Mirfield and we had long talks. I was married, with two young children and wrestling with dilemmas in my personal life, struggling with what I believed. He didn’t tell me how to behave, or what to believe. He said, ‘Act as though you do believe. Go to mass. . .’
There is a strange, Anglo-Catholic church in London called All Saints Margaret Street, and on Saturday evenings there will always be some priest hanging about for people wanting to make their confession before Sunday morning. I’d never done it before, but one day I turned up, made my confession and, whoever it was, said, ‘Well that’s a very sad story, but you’ve made your confession, so I absolve you in the name of etc etc.’
I remember coming out of the church afterwards, feeling different about the way my life should go than I’d expected. Father Raynes would say, ‘Don’t think about morals, about the right and wrong course, but make your confession and see what happens.’
I was discovering that, if you confess and take the sacraments, things will happen that you might not expect, and you may see life differently. After all, what’s the point of taking the sacrament if you’re already telling God that you know what you will do? Instead, say to God, ‘I will take the sacraments, and then it is up to you.’
Our friends couldn’t believe it when, a couple of years ago, Verity and I moved to Holloway. They said, ‘You won’t know anyone there.’ I said, ‘Well my father was in Holloway for four years.’
I’m a writer, a storyteller, and sometimes people ask me me, ‘How can you believe in Christianity, the idea of God becoming human?’ I say, ‘I can believe it because it’s such a good story. God as a baby? It’s such a good story that it’s lasted for 2000 years. It’s either completely incomprehensible, or else it is this thing we call T.R.U.E.  I don’t know whether things happened exactly like that but to me this is such a good story that it must be true.’

Edited extract from The Gospel According to Everyone, Volume II
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