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Posts Tagged ‘London’

Moving

I moved to Newman House last week, and I haven’t had a chance to post since then. It’s great to be here after all the anticipation of the summer. Things are pretty quiet, in the sense that most of the students have not arrived for the new academic year yet. There is a handful of medics (those who have begun their clinical training start at the beginning of September), departing students from last year, and summer guests. The rush of the new year begins properly in about two weeks.

londonmap

It’s a fascinating part of London to live in. Euston and Regents Park to the north; Bloomsbury, the British Museum and all the university colleges to the east; the hubbub of Covent Garden, Soho and the West End directly to the south; and the high energy of Tottenham Court Road (and the restaurants of Charlotte Street) to the west. I’m having great fun exploring the local streets, working out where to get my hair cut, where to post a letter, which cafe is good for reading or meeting or surfing the net.

And above all, I’m beginning to get my head and heart round what it means to be involved in university chaplaincy. I’ll report back in a few months…

bt

The local landmark is the BT Tower. Not a pretty building, but one that seems to hold its place in the affections of Londoners, if for no other reason than that in its Dalek-like way it has always been there (i.e. been there for most of our lives). You can see the top of the tower from my bedroom window. (The photo is from the street round the corner). Now I get a thrill whenever I see it from some distant part of London and think ‘that’s my home!’

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rio

Many, many congratulations to Krakow for being named as the host city for World Youth Day 2016. There are no hard feelings from us here in London and the UK: this is clearly the Lord’s will; Poland will be a fantastic host country; and we will be there in our thousands. I am already working out how many coaches we can get to go from the University Chaplaincy in London.

If you want to see the development of the WYD London 2016 idea, you can read my original post from last year here, and an update here. I’ll close the London 2016 Facebook event soon, in case it confuses anyone! But of course I couldn’t resist setting up a World Youth Day London 2022 Facebook event (there are 17 people going as I type now…).

Why 2022? Traditionally, World Youth Day alternates between Europe and outside-Europe. 2016 will be in Krakow. 2019 will probably be outside Europe. So 2022 will be the next chance for London and the UK to host WYD. Theoretically, there could be a gap of just two years between one WYD and the next (as there was between Madrid 2011 and Rio 2013), but personally I think three years is much better.

2022 seems like a long, long way away – but it gives us something to work on and look forward to for the next nine years.

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Spirit in the City

Spirit in the City takes place in central London from Wednesday to Saturday this week. See the website here, and I’ve copied the full programme below.

There is a wonderfully creative YouTube video doing the rounds, with ‘graphic novel’ images of a woman’s search for meaning and how she stumbled across Spirit in the City taking place.

Spirit in the City 2013 e-flyer | poster

 

Wednesday 12 June 2013

19.30 AWAKENING
A dazzling opening show in the Leicester Square Theatre. 

6 Leicester Place, London WC2H 7BX

Click here for more details and to book your tickets.

 

Thursday 13 June 2013 – St Patrick’s, Soho Square

12.45 Opening Mass
Afternoon workshop
13.45-18.00 Sanctuary in the City: adoration in the church & street outreach

Evening Programme, St Patrick’s, Soho Square

19.00 Praise and worship & 

London Premier of ‘Child 31′ by Grassroots Productions

Talk by Magnus McFarlene-Barrow, Founder of Mary’s Meals

20.00 Marian street procession followed by night prayer and social

 

Friday 14 June 2013, Notre Dame de France, Leicester Place

12.15 Mass followed by adoration
13.15-17.30 Sanctuary in the City: adoration in the church, street outreach and workshops

Evening Programme, Notre Dame de France, Leicester Place

19.00 Prayer, music, talk by Fr. John Armitage
20.30 Eucharistic street procession from Notre Dame de France to Corpus Christi followed by a time of adoration, benediction and night prayer

 

Saturday 15 June 2013
Leicester Square Gardens & Notre Dame de France

13.00-20.00 Live entertainment and street festival
* Stage programme with LIVE music
* Workshops
* Prayer Tent, adoration
* Reconciliation tent
* Information stalls
* Prayer Chair Ministry
* Activities with face painting and more!
18.00 International Mass in Notre Dame de France
20.00 Close of programme in Leicester Square Gardens

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OK, the reviewers were right, Total Recall is verging on the truly terrible. [Warning: Plot spoilers to follow] They even had the nerve to steal one of the best scenes from the first Bourne film (you could hardly call it a homage), when a man without a memory finds a code that leads him to a safe deposit box that happens to be full of passports, cash, and lots of other secret and mysterious stuff about his secret and mysterious former identity. I had to see it, of course, because I have an inability to not see (forgive the grammar) any new film involving time-travel or implanted memory. It’s a childhood thing. (See my Five Greatest Time Travel Films of All Time post).

But the great thing about even a terrible sci-fi film is that it still makes you think; in the way that a terrible Western or rom-com or road movie is simply terrible full stop. In case you don’t know the story, Colin Farrell is a guy who may or may not have had his memory completely erased and replaced by another set of artificial memories, making him unsure about his true identity; and this whole ‘who am I’ identity crisis, which is most of the film, may be taking place in the ‘real world’ (whatever that is), or it may be an artificially implanted memory created by an amusement company called Rekall to ease the boredom of his mundane life – a freely chosen escapist fantasy.

This is all very familiar, but I still find it fascinating! And the final scene, despite being so predictable, sent a shiver down my spine – when we think we are in the real world, at the end of a moderately satisfying drama, but we see Farrell catching a glimpse of a poster advertising Rekall, and we wonder whether anything real has happened at all.

So it raises the obvious questions, that have been raised a hundred times in sci-fi short stories: Is there a ‘true self’? Does it matter whether our ideas and memories about the past, and especially our experiences and personal identity, are true or not? Does it change the person we are today if we discover that something we thought was true turns out to be false, or if something we never knew or imagined turns out to be true? There is a nice moment when the baddie asks Farrell: why can’t you just accept who you are in the present, without worrying about who you might have been in the past?

Part of me is attracted to this. The whole notion of human freedom, and conscience, demands that in some sense we are not completely determined by the past, however much it influences us. We can to some extent remake ourselves, re-invent ourselves, make a new start, experience a conversion.

But here is the rub: there is no such thing as the pure present. We are always moving from a past to a future, making sense of the present and future in terms of the past, even if it is a conscious repudiation of that past. But there is no such thing as ‘no past’, because even ignorance or forgetfulness colours how we experience the past, and how we understand our identity.

All of us have moments of remembering things we have forgotten, or finding out that some powerful experience didn’t happen in quite the way we remembered it. Some of us have powerful, liberating, or terrifying moments when we are brought face to face with a truth from the past that so disorientates our world that we are unsure who we are any more. Our identity is fractured and even fragmented, our understanding of ourselves is transformed. This is often the case with deep and dark family secrets, and it’s why – as I understand it – the present philosophy within social work is to let adopted children know that they are adopted, rather than hiding it from them, or springing it on them later in life.

There is something about faith here as well. Part of coming to know God is discovering, perhaps for the first time, that what you thought was your beginning, your identity, is not the whole story. You are not just a random evolutionary product, or the fruit of a human relationship, but child of God, created by him out of love, cared for within his loving providence, and destined for a life with him for all eternity. Baptism is not, like Rekall, the implanting of false memories; it is the uncovering of memories much deeper than our own, and then the creation – through the grace of the sacrament – of a new identity. And this new baptismal identity is not imposed like an ill-fitting mask or a forged passport that has no connection with our former self, it is the fulfilment of that former self, the raising up to new life of a life that was always secretly longing for it.

If you want to see a really good movie about these themes, get hold of Moon, which I saw over the summer for the first time. (Just to make a contemporary London connection, this is by director Duncan Jones, who is the son of David Bowie from his first marriage, who – David Bowie – is the subject of a retrospective at the V&A which is just opening.)

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I grew up in Harpenden, a small town off the M1 about half an hour north of London, with St Albans just a few miles to the south, and Luton to the north. I was back there at the weekend and took a walk along the River Lea, where I used to play as a kid. It was a place for swimming, fighting, fishing, general splashing around, and finding hidden treasure. Now and then it was a place of danger and nasty accidents – usually caused by the broken bottles on the river bed, or some unseen stretch of barbed wire.

The River Lea in Harpenden

Harpenden is only a few miles from the source in Leagrave, on the edge of Luton, so the river is only about 12 feet wide – not much more than a stream. But the walk got me thinking about its huge historical significance. I was oblivious to this as a child.

In the late ninth century the River Lea formed one part of the boundary between the Danelaw, the eastern area occupied by the Vikings, and Saxon England to the west. West of the Lea was the territory that King Alfred managed to hold, and to the east the Vikings had the run of the place. This was all codified in a treaty between Alfred and Gurthrum. So Harpenden (or the few hamlets in the area in the late ninth century) was right at the ‘national’ boundary between England and Scandinavia, between Saxon and Viking.

The Lea, with its course much altered over the centuries, runs through the Olympic Park at Stratford, and into the Thames near the Millennium Dome. You could never guess at its historical significance today, but there are a few remaining boundaries that betray its larger meaning. Part of the border between Essex and Hertfordshire, for example, follows the river’s course. And it’s interesting that when they were cutting off the Diocese of Brentwood from Westminster, the dividing line through east London is marked by the River Lea. So the ecclesiastical boundaries of the twentieth century reflect over a thousand years of territorial dispute, compromise, and eventual agreement.

Just for the record, I was born on the right side of the River Lea (Alfred’s/Westminster’s) at Tottenham Court Road, and lived on the Saxon side of the small valley that cuts through the eastern edge of Harpenden!

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People are still arguing about the root causes of the riots last summer, but no-one seems to deny that they reflect some kind of profound dysfunction or social malaise. You don’t loot a sports shop or set fire to a furniture warehouse just because you are bored or want a pair of new trainers.

I’ve just finished reading Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat. I found it terrifying and heartbreaking in equal measure. Terror at the realisation that this violent underworld is an ordinary part of so much contemporary urban life. Heartache at the suffering and alienation of the teenagers whose lives are documented here.

It reads like a thriller, and it’s packaged under the label ‘True Crime’, but it’s really a piece of investigative journalism. Knight spent two years ‘embedded’ with the police, talking to social workers, interviewing gang members and disaffected teenagers – slowly building up a picture of life on the margins of British society. The book is written as a non-fiction novel. It speaks about real experiences and real people, in their own voices; although many names have been changed, and one or two characters are cleverly created composites.

Here is the blurb:

In Moss Side, Manchester, detective Anders Svensson is on the trail of drug baron Merlin and his lieutenant Flow, a man so dangerous his type is said to appear only once in a decade. Among the bleak housing estates of Glasgow, where teenage boys engage in deadly territorial knife fights every Saturday night, police analyst Karen McCluskey is on a mission to bring a new understanding to the most violent city in Europe. And in Hackney, 19-year-old Pilgrim has made himself one of the most feared gang-members in East London, wanted for attempted murder and seemingly condemned to a life of crime – until he starts to help kids like Troll, a Somali child-soldier turned enforcer, who runs drugs through the Havelock Estate in Southall . . .

In Hood Rat these narratives interlock to create a fast-moving experience of a contemporary British underworld that ranks with Roberto Saviano’s bestselling Gomorrah. Gavin Knight was embedded with frontline police units and has spent years with his contacts; here he tells their stories with sharp observation and empathy.

Knight has been criticised for his style (present tense narrative; short sentences; jumping between viewpoints), for the lack of social context, and for the fact that this kind of ‘factional’ documentary writing is more fictional than it cares to admit (the composite characters, etc) – see these thoughtful reviews from the Guardian and the Scotsman. None of this ruins it for me: I like the urgency of the style; I think the aim is not first of all social context but seeing the reality of individual lives, and then drawing some wider conclusions from that; and he is honest about the creative element in the writing. It doesn’t take away from the authenticity.

It’s been more than a good read or an eye opener for me; it’s disturbed something deeper inside me. It’s made me see how naive I am about the reality of day-to-day life for many young people and families in my own city, and in other cities around the country. And it’s made me wonder what on earth can heal this kind of social disintegration, and what can help the ordinary families trapped in these cycles of dysfunction and despair. There is very little hope in the book, despite the last chapter about pioneering work from Boston to help deal with gang crime in Glasgow.

Andrew Anthony gives you a taste of what the book is about:

Throughout history, young men have fought senseless territorial battles, but over the past two decades Britain has seen an alarming growth in lethal youth gang violence. Stories of drive-by shootings and teen killings, once thought of as distantly American, now arrive with dispiriting regularity from our own inner cities.

In the majority of cases the perpetrators are male and black (as are their victims) and almost without exception they are products of dysfunctional backgrounds with poor expectations and limited education. Often the most reliable employment for young urban Britons is the illicit drug economy, with all its inflationary brutality and social corrosion.

But once these bald facts have been established, where can the story go? There are arguments to be made about reforming drug laws, improving housing, raising educational standards and fostering a stronger sense of social inclusion. But what can be said of the gang members themselves, their core values and codes of behaviour, that doesn’t simply rehash gangsta rap cliches?

Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat is an unflinching account of life and death in the sink estates of Britain. It penetrates environments that most of us only glimpse in local news reports, and addresses the kind of people that we fear encountering on a dark night or, indeed, a bright afternoon. The question is, does it amount to genuine insight?

The book contains plenty of shocking anecdotes but few if any surprises. Anyone, for example, who followed the recent case of Santra Gayle, the north London 15-year-old who was hired to kill a stranger for £200, will be aware of the phenomenon of teenage hitmen. That’s no reason not to look deeper into the circumstances and motivations that lead adolescents to become assassins, but Knight seems less concerned with depth than focus.

He writes in an elliptical, impressionistic style, jumping around, stealing into the minds of young men and their police pursuers (we’re given access to a drug dealer’s concerns, a hitman’s internal monologue, a cop’s marital crisis). The book strives for a kind of urgent authenticity. The sentences are short and simple and framed in a relentless present tense that makes few compromises to chronology.

Knight is at his strongest in offering a gang member’s eye-view of the world, the sense of danger a street in the wrong postcode represents, the need to present a confident front, and the self-glorifying yet self-nullifying acceptance that career prospects are a choice between prison and death.

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Yes, there has been a lot of noise over the last few days. I went down to the river on Sunday afternoon, and it was ten people deep on the Chelsea Embankment; I just managed to see the royal party by standing on tip-toe, and quite a few people around me couldn’t see a thing. And walking through Victoria on Monday evening, quite by chance, I caught the post-concert fireworks just a few hundred yards away.

But my abiding sensory memory of the weekend was the early morning silence on Sunday. Battersea Bridge was closed for the flotilla, which meant that our street – which runs down to the Embankment – was also closed to traffic. It was eerie, waking up to silence. No buses, no cars, no sirens. It was as if London itself had been suspended, as I lay on my bed taking in the unusual atmosphere; as if there was less – less noise, less activity; but also more – more presence, more awareness of the place itself and not just what’s happening within it. This is what Sundays used to be like!

#76 - empty streets  by cliff_r

No, this isn’t London! Midtown Manhattan after Hurricane Irene hit the city

I’ve experienced this twice before here in Chelsea. Once was a glorious period of a few months when Battersea Bridge was completely closed for repairs after a boat crashed into one of the arches at high tide. Every morning had this same quality – as if we were living in a cul-de-sac. The other time was during the ash cloud when all the Heathrow flights were cancelled, and the very early mornings – 5 or 6 o’clock – even though I’m not up then – weren’t tarnished by the subconsciously-heard roar of planes overhead.

Another random connection: A Jesuit friend of mine telling me recently that in his community they agreed to completely disconnect the WiFi for one day each month. You might say this isn’t too radical, and perhaps once a week would really hurt. But once a month is better than not at all. And they seem to have appreciated it. Rather than being a burden, it seems to have been a liberation – you simply can’t attend to the emails – they are not ‘there'; sure – they are somewhere, but not there, now, in your computer.

We need a completely car-less day in London once a year. Does anyone know about this? There must be some kind of movement dedicated to this – a campaigning group, or a philosophy/cult – that proposes closing every road within the M25, or at least within the North and South Circular, for 24 hours. To pedestrianise the whole city just for a day. Wouldn’t that be amazing? It could be national street party day, and it could be combined with a bunch of other days that already take place, that would benefit from the no-traffic day, like the Open Gardens day. Let me know any links you know to such a proposal (I just haven’t bothered to look myself yet); and if there isn’t such a proposal, I might start a petition or another Facebook event/group. Does Paris already have an empty street day or something?

Later addition: Two wonderful comments that deserve copying into the main post here. One from David:

This is on a par with Down With Telly Zappers – never mind the elderly and the not so elderly but bed- or chair-bound for whom a  zapper is a god-send. Closing down transport in London may be a bonus for some, but it would be a day’s misery for people on minimum wage or paid by the day. And what about  tourists and all the people who depend on them for a living?

The other from Ttony, whose astonishing memory for 1970s Punch articles, or his clever search techniques, unearthed this:

I don’t know whether there is a campaign today, but this is what Cliff Michelmore wrote in Punch somewhere around 1971-73.

“THAT did it. I know my dream holiday. Not for me the wine dark sea, burning sands and browning bodies, the counting of calories and minks. I shall dream.

By noon on Friday next, all vehicles (except bicycles) will be removed from the precincts of London and taken at least forty miles from Charing Cross and are not to return until noon the following Monday. All aircraft are forbidden to fly within sixty miles of the aforesaid Charing Cross and no chimney has permission to smoke within the same area. There shall be no television or radio transmissions nor shall there be any newspapers, magazines or other such matter published. No cinema shall show any film other than one having a U certificate. All employees of and owners of joints, strip, gambling, clip, bingo etc. to take the weekend off.

All public buildings, including Royal palaces, Government offices to be open to the public free of charge, and at all times throughout the weekend. It is the intention of my dream Government to allow families to see London as it should be, to take a long parting glance at it before the whole lot goes up in blocks, to walk the streets without fear of being knocked senseless by senseless drivers, and to breathe air without fear of being choked to death.

That is my dream holiday, with the family, just drifting around London. I have no great love of London, in truth I find it as comfortable and warming as a damp overcoat, but this weekend of standing and staring and drifting may just halt our idiot rush to nowhere.

And back to the dream for a moment. We have already booked Sir John Betjeman as our guide and companion for the weekend – so hands off!”

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Spirit in the City is coming up soon: June 7-9 in central London. I gave a talk to the team about ‘practical evangelisation': what does it mean to evangelise and how do we actually do it, with particular reference to the various forms of evangelisation that are a part of Spirit in the City.

You can listen to the talk here. It’s only half an hour.

The full programme to Spirit in the City is here.

And in case you haven’t seen their new video, take a look at this – it gives you a real flavour of the event:

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Wow! It is absolutely breathtaking, and well worth a detour if you are passing nearby on the tube, or even a dedicated trip! The new Kings Cross concourse, stuck on the side of the station in the most unlikely manner, somehow works; and of course it’s all in the roof. I wandered round with neck craned upwards like a child seeing stars for the first time. It’s awe-inspiring, and intimate, and gloriously silly and funny at the same time.

Here are some of pictures:

Here is a more sober but equally positive reflection from Rowan Moore:

With the new western concourse at King’s Cross station, designed by John McAslan and Partners, the big metal roof is coming home. It is sited between two famous examples of the genre, King’s Cross station of 1852 and the later, more daring, St Pancras station, of 1868, and it is part of the £500m creation of a “transport super-hub”, completed in time for the Olympics, when hundreds of thousands will pass through here on their way to the Javelin train from St Pancras to Stratford.

It is a large semi-circular addition to the flank of the old station, with a basic if essential purpose: to allow enough space for increasingly large numbers of passengers to move freely and smoothly as they emerge from the underground or enter from the street, buy tickets and catch their trains. It is a departures space only, as in airports, with arriving passengers exiting through the original front door of the station. It replaces the existing concourse, a low, crowded 1970s structure of dim design, that has never been loved for the way it blots the view of the plain, handsome twin-arched front of the original station. This structure will disappear later this year, allowing the creation of a new forecourt.

The concourse distributes people in one direction to the main line platforms, in another to suburban lines, and also allows a more leisurely route up some escalators, along a balcony where you can dally in various restaurants and on to a footbridge across the tracks of the old station, from which you can descend to your platform. It smooths out knots and anomalies in the previous arrangements and triples the space available for circulation. It also has space for shopping, without which no contemporary public work would be complete.

Meanwhile, the original glass roof has been cleaned up and had its glass restored, while unnecessary clutter in the space below has been removed, making it more bright and airy than it has looked at any time since it opened, 160 years ago. The effect is dazzling, of seeing this familiar, eternally grubby place transformed. It is as if you had just popped a perception-enhancing pill or been granted an extra faculty of sight.

But the main event of the new work is the half-cylinder of the new concourse and its roof, which has a span of 52 metres. Its structure, engineered by Arup, rises up a great steel stalk in the centre and then spreads into a tree-like canopy of intersecting branches, before descending into a ring of supports at the circumference. In so doing, it avoids the need to drop columns into the ticket hall of the underground station underneath the main space. Beneath the canopy, a sinuous pavilion in glass and tile takes care of the retail.

“It is the greatest station building, ever,” declares architect John McAslan, who is not shy of speaking things as he sees them, and it is certainly impressive. Its main effect is a mighty oomph as you enter, from whatever direction, caused by the abundance of space and the unity of the structure. It is big and single-minded and has a generosity to which we have grown unused.

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The answer to all these questions (which I know have been troubling you for many years) is: sort of.

I’m sure you spotted this years ago, but I have only just discovered the ‘Traffic’ box on the right-hand side of Google Maps, where you can tick the Public Transport option, and – hey presto – see exactly where the tube lines run in relation to street-level reality. I’ve seen these ‘real geography’ (there must be a technical term for this) maps before, and I know that the very first tube maps – like the present Paris Metro maps – were more or less real, without the present simplification, and so with the kinks and the corners and the vast expanses between suburban stations left in. But I haven’t played around and explored the detail in this way.

What it doesn’t show is the zillions of miles you have to unknowingly walk when changing between lines that are theoretically at the same station – e.g. Green Park, Kings Cross, etc. At least Paddington, Bank, etc, have the honesty to have multiple white ‘station dots’ (more technical vocabulary needed please)  linked with the white lines to announce that they are not really the same tube station but no-one has had the nerve to admit it yet.

There must be some site or app that brings to light these dark secrets of the Underground system. Do post one in the comments if you can find it.

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I gave a talk about baptism this weekend at a retreat, and by sheer coincidence/providence I happened to visit – for the first time ever as an adult – the church of my own baptism in west London. I knew it was there; I’d just never made the time to go and find it.

The talk was part of the wonderful Expression 2012 – a retreat for young people in Salisbury, now in its third year. The topic I had been asked to speak about was ‘living your faith in the world’. So instead of making up my own list of ‘spiritual resources’ that could be helpful for any young Catholic trying to live their faith, I spoke about the ‘resources’ that the Church herself gives to each one of us at our baptism: a set of godparents (representing the support of the whole Church), a creed (representing the richness of the whole Catholic faith), a baptismal robe (representing our new-found dignity as a children of God and the purity of heart that we hope to preserve), and a baptismal candle (representing the light and love of Christ).

I know we are given many other things as well, but these very concrete and visual gifts gave me an opportunity to talk about some of the habits that make living one’s faith easier and more joyful than it might be, and make it less likely that we will lose it: trying to find Catholic friends and groups that will support you; reading the bible and learning about your faith; trying to live by your Catholic values and be a person of kindness and charity; and coming to know the love of Christ in a personal and intimate way through prayer and the sacraments.

So baptism was on my mind this weekend, but not particularly in a personal way. Then I got a lift back to London with a friend, who dropped me off at Gunnersbury station. Then I find that the tube is closed for the weekend, and there is the dreaded bus replacement service in its place. I try to ‘relax into’ the ordeal, as I’m in no rush to get back. The bus comes, and it drops everyone off at Turnham Green station to pick up the District Line. And there, directly opposite the station, is the Anglican church where I was baptised 45 years ago! St Michael and All Saints, Bedford Park.

It was incredibly moving to step inside for the first time in all these years, especially after the reflection at the weekend, and after being very touched by the adult baptisms in  Westminster Cathedral at the Easter Vigil. This is the place where my Christian faith began – where I was clothed in Christ all those years ago, cleansed from original sin, adopted as a child of God, incorporated into Christ’s body the Church, and made a sharer in the life of the Most Holy Trinity. I had a good look at the font – I assume it was the one in use back in the ’60s – and said a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving for the grace of baptism, and for the faith of my parents and godparents that brought me there.

It’s a beautiful and highly distinctive church – see the image above. The font is at the back, with an enormous ‘lid/cap’ (technical term please?) hanging from the ceiling. I pushed it aside a couple of inches to see inside, but then became terrified that the whole contraption would collapse around me.

The church seems to be very Anglo-Catholic, but I’m not very good at telling these things: the seven windows in the east wall depict the seven sacraments; there are votive candles and Stations of the Cross; a tabernacle above the high altar in the sanctuary; and even a statue of St Joan of Arc!

In case anyone is confused – my parents were both Anglican when I was born, hence my baptism here at the Anglican parish church in Turnham Green (off Chiswick High Road).

I’m always telling parents to celebrate the anniversary of their children’s baptisms each year, with as much festivity as they would their birthdays. It was good to remember my own baptism this weekend.

[Update: I just found a photo of the baptismal font on Flickr! Here it is:]

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Following on from the Elephant Parade two years ago, when over 250 brightly painted life-size elephants were displayed throughout London, multicoloured eggs have been appearing around the city as part of the Faberge Big Egg Hunt. Despite the apparent ‘commercialisation’ (I mean sponsorship), I was excited about the idea and longing to get my first sighting.

The problem is that the eggs simply aren’t big enough. They are not so much ‘public works of art’ (as the elephants were), but ‘works of art that happen to be displayed in public’. Maybe the criticism is unfair, and it reflects my own unrealistic expectations. But I went in expecting something as stunning and provocative and bold as the elephants.

They are about two and a half feet tall, mainly on a podium or even in a display case. Some of them lovely objects, but none quite huge enough for the full, glorious impactful ridiculousness of having gigantic coloured eggs scattered around London. How tall would they need to be, in my humble opinion?At least four feet, maybe five. Six would be getting a bit scary…

So yes, it’s a fun venture, a nice addition to London life, a pleasant distraction, and I’m sure it’s all for good cause. But it could have been so much more!

What do you think? Am I being churlish?

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It’s here! The new Routemaster bus took to the streets this week.

I blogged about this two years ago, as a matter of existential concern for Londoners:

Perfect freedom is being able to step off the back of a London bus whenever you want, whatever the reason, and walk into the sunset without a bus-stop in sight.

Here are some pictures:

And here is the new all-important platform at the back:

And a few thoughts from the BBC:

The mayor called the bus “stunning” and “tailored to the London passenger”.

Following the new driver-and-conductor vehicle was a “protest” bus covered in slogans attacking the rise in public transport fares in London.

Mayor Boris Johnson has been criticised by the Labour, the Lib Dems and Green Party over the cost of the buses.

Mr Johnson announced plans for the new buses, which run on a hybrid diesel-electric motor, in his 2008 election manifesto.

In total, eight buses with an open “hop-on, hop-off” platform at the rear, costing £11.37m, will run on route 38. They will be staffed with conductors and will not run at night or during the weekends.

The last of the popular, open-platform Routemasters was withdrawn from regular service in December 2005, although some still run on tourist routes.

It costs a fortune:

In an open letter to the mayor, Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy said each new bus costs £1.4m compared with the conventional double-decker bus which costs about £190,000.

The original Routemaster buses were withdrawn from regular service in 2005

“Riding this bus is surely the most expensive bus ticket in history,” he said.

“With 62 seats at a cost of £1.4m, the cost per seat is £22,580. At £22,695, you can buy a brand new 3 series BMW.”

But Mr Johnson defended the new bus, saying: “When ordered in greater numbers it will make a significant economic contribution to the manufacturing industries, while also helping deliver a cleaner, greener and more pleasant city.”

“It’s not just a pretty face,” he added.

“The green innards of this red bus mean that it is twice as fuel efficient as a diesel bus and the most environment-friendly of its kind.”

TfL’s surface transport director Leon Daniels said: “This vehicle really has set a new standard.

“It utilises the latest cutting edge engine technology to deliver phenomenal fuel economy and emission performance.”

It’s on my agenda, together with the new fourth plinth, for when I am in central London next.

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It’s easy to exaggerate the significance of a single architectural project, but I don’t think anyone can doubt that London will never be the same again when The Shard reaches it’s final height of 310m – just 14m short of the Eiffel tower.

We’ve all been watching it rise up above the Tower of London for the last few months of construction, and it’s already visible from Battersea Bridge at the bottom of my road; but what really made me appreciate it’s presence was a recent drive into London from the west on the A40. I was miles out, at Hangar Lane, and even there, with the rest of the city skyline flattened by the distance, it stood out and made itself known. London is different: however far away you are; whatever angle you look from.

For some breathless statistics, we need the Sun, and writer Carl Stroud:

DWARFING everything else in sight, London’s latest landmark is now officially 800ft tall.

The sleek lines of The Shard dominate the capital’s skyline — and it’s growing ever higher.

When it is completed at the end of the year it will reach an incredible 1,016ft into the air and will take the title of Europe’s tallest building.

But for now, with 72 floors complete, it is just Britain’s tallest building and remains an imposing presence close to the River Thames at London Bridge.

From its summit views stretch for 50 miles in every direction.

Westwards you can see as far as Wembley and, beyond, Heathrow’s control tower. To the east you can see across the whole of the 2012 Olympic site to Dartford.

The £1.3billion glass pyramid will be open to the public when it’s finished.

There will be a viewing gallery at the very top, on level 72. Beneath that will be 12 floors of apartments — expected to cost £10million each.

Then there is the five-star Shangri-La hotel and spa, a restaurant and shops, which will sit above 595,000sq ft of office space.

The statistics for this extreme construction, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano and mainly Qatar-owned, are mind-blowing.

They have already poured the equivalent of 22 Olympic swimming pools of concrete, reinforced with 5,000 tons of steel rods to complete the central spine.

Late last year they did a 36-hour continuous pour of concrete — enough to fill the clock tower of Big Ben.

Now the outside surface is being clad with reinforced glass — 11,000 panels of it.

Do I like it? I think so, but I’m not quite sure. I’m biased, because I love monumental architecture, and I’ve thought for ages that we need a really big building in London. I like its simplicity and poise; its non-Mies-van-der-Rohe-angles; its place by the river – so daring to be so close to the Tower, instead of hiding it away in Docklands.

I wish it was slightly more interesting. This is going to be our Eiffel Tower, whether we like it or not; and the Eiffel Tower is far more beautiful. But let’s wait and see. I’ll pass judgement when it’s finished.

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I was at St Patrick’s in Soho Square yesterday evening, for the middle part of a three-day celebration to mark the re-opening of the church after extensive repairs and refurbishment, and a complete remodelling of the crypt area.

St Patrick's from the outside - I can't find a shareable image of the new interior!

The overwhelming impression is of light, order and grace – qualities that I think are much-needed in this part of London.

It’s interesting that the re-opening has been reported in the secular as well as the Catholic press, a recognition that the event, and the church itself, have a particular significance for the wider London community and not just for Catholics.

This is how Riazat Butt in the Guardian reported it:

A former bordello and music hall owned by one of Casanova’s mistresses is perhaps an unlikely site for one of Britain’s oldest Roman Catholic churches, St Patrick’s, which sits amid the bright lights and fleshpots of London’s Soho.

“It is not a conventional parish,” observes Father Alexander Sherbrooke, who has overseen a 14-month, £3.5m project to restore the church and rid it of the damage caused by damp, dry rot, urban pollution, incense and candlelight. It reopens this week with a specially composed Magnificat from James MacMillan and a mass from Cardinal George Pell, who is flying in from Rome for the occasion.

The traditional nature of the celebrations – vespers and canticles – highlights the contrast between the orthodoxy of St Patrick’s and what lies outside it.

Sherbrooke says: “You get a knock on the door and it can be someone who is successful in business, someone who wants a sandwich or someone caught up in the sex industry. We leave our SOS prayer line calling cards in telephone boxes – where you might see other services advertised.

“One man who called said he was a pimp and wanted to break out of his occupation but that it was too lucrative for him to leave. Do we just accept the way people are? People get into ruts they find it difficult to break out of. We can say, as Christians, that God can and does intervene.”

Butt is impressed by the openness and outreach of the Catholic community at St Patrick’s:

The restoration work includes the creation of a crypt, classrooms and a cafe. St Patrick’s and a team of volunteers feed 80 to 90 homeless people a week with the Groucho – a private members’ club – supplying the puddings.

The work to the church will allow the team to cook and serve food from one location instead of having to prepare the meals in their own kitchens and drive them into central London.

Space will also be provided for alcohol and drug counselling. St Patrick’s will be the only Roman Catholic church offering this service in London [...]

Migrant communities continue to be the lifeblood of the parish. On a typical Sunday St Patrick’s – or rather its temporary location at the House of St Barnabas – will attract around 700 people to five services, two in English, one in Spanish, one in Portuguese and one in Cantonese.

Alexander says: “In this part of London you don’t have resident parishioners. There are tourists who know we are here and workers. It is a place where they can rest their weary feet. There is a little bit of bucking the trend going on. The loneliness of this city is more intense than you can imagine. Soho has a darkness as well as the bright lights.”

Parishioners believe the church is important to Soho and to London. Pauline Stuart, who has been part of St Patrick’s for nine years, says: “We’re not the establishment – we can do things that Westminster Cathedral can’t. I do get comments sometimes – you know, ‘what’s a nice girl like you believing in all that mumbo jumbo’. But for me it’s true. I don’t care whether they convert or not. That’s God’s problem.”

It’s open all day, every day, so do pop in if you are in central London over the next few weeks – or indeed any time. There is a map and travel details here.

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I’m just back from a night in Chester – two hours from Euston on the train. In fact the hotel I stayed in was just over the Welsh border;so I wasn’t just out of London, I was out of England.

It’s good to be reminded that London is not ordinary life for everyone in Britain. I expected the “it’s too big, too busy, too brash” attitude. One man I met, brought up in Chester, reflected on a recent trip to London, and told me how he was amazed that you had to stand on the right-hand side of the escalators so that other people could rush past you on the other side. Why not just take your time and let the escalator do the work? Why not indeed.

I remembered that just this week I was standing on an escalator behind two people who were talking to each other – a very ordinary and beautiful thing to do – but they were on the same step, and so one of them was standing on the left-hand side! And I was thinking at the time ‘are you crazy, just standing there blocking the clear line of the fast lane?’ When someone came racing down and wanted to pass, he moved out of the way immediately, but then he went back to his position on the left!

You can tell how mad my stream-of-consciousness thinking has become in the apparent normality of this London madness. And how right the good people of Chester are to be bemused and a little concerned by all this.

But the other conversation I had about my home city surprised and heartened me a lot. When I was talking about the escalator conversation later in the evening, someone else said that they had visited London recently with friends, and they had all commented, reflecting on their different experiences, that London seemed a friendlier place than it had been a few years ago – for them as visitors. People were more helpful, more willing to talk, happier to engage.

If it’s true, isn’t that great? And if it’s true, I wonder why? Is it because London is more multicultural, so the natural English reserve has given way to the openness that perhaps comes more easily to people brought up in different cultures? Is it because customers have higher expectations about how they should be treated in shops and restaurants and entertainment venues, and businesses are better at training staff and responding to these expectations? Or is it because of some deeper shift in the zeitgeist? I’m not sure. But it warmed my heart to think that one or two random people from outside London had gone home with good impressions of the city and of those of us who live here, despite our obsession with standing on the right of the escalators.

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Following on from the last post, here is the section of the interview I gave recently that dealt with questions of faith and religion in a city as multi-cultural as London.

LLO: As a catholic priest and philosopher, how important would you say religion is in people’s lives in London today compared to when you started out in your career?
SW:
There are various crosscurrents: some people are much more secular, hardened in their secularism, and dismissive of religion. Yet many more people seem interested in religion who are not believers — as if they are more open to spiritual and transcendent questions, more open to the idea of spirituality and prayer. And religion is a bigger cultural and political reality than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Plus the new immigrants tend to be people of faith (indeed anyone coming to London from outside Western Europe tends to be a person of faith!)

LLO: You recently contributed to a BBC Online article about celibacy, sharing your own experiences. The post on your blog includes tags “happiness” and “loneliness”. Is this commitment one you ever regret or are you content in your decision?
SW:
I don’t regret the decision I have made at all. The whole life of being a priest, including celibacy, has brought me enormous happiness. And the celibacy itself has given me a real freedom, a freedom of heart – to be present with other people in all sorts of wonderful ways; and to pray in a way that would be difficult if I had the responsibilities of family life. I couldn’t live this way without the love of friends and extended family and the communities I have lived in over this time.

LLO: Tell us about something, someone or somewhere you’ve discovered in London that you think the rest of us should know about.
SW:
One secular and unknown: The Clockmakers’ Museum at Guildhall, a single room containing the whole history of clocks and watches, including John Harrison’s 5th marine timekeeper made famous by the book Longitude. One religious and very well known, but I’m still amazed by how many Londoners have never been in it: Westminster Cathedral (not the Abbey), an oasis of calm and devotion near Victoria Station, full of amazing art and architecture.

LLO: With Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists and others living side by side in London, what sort of atmosphere is created when people of every religion mingle in this melting pot city?
SW:
The whole world is here in London, and probably every language and religion. It’s good that we can live side by side, and in peace. Perhaps people don’t talk enough: We occupy the same social space, but often stay within our own mental worlds – unless there is something like a school or sports club or whatever to bring people together. London Citizens is a wonderful grassroots example of people of all faiths and none coming together for justice issues and forming real bonds through that common work. When I get back from Lourdes I want to start talking to strangers in London, but very soon I realize I am becoming one of those crazy people that Londoners fear…

LLO: What do you say to people who are suspicious of religion as being manipulative or deceptive?
SW:
It’s true that religion can sometimes be manipulative and deceptive – we have to admit that and watch out for it very carefully. And as a Catholic priest I wouldn’t push the abstract idea of ‘religion’ for its own sake. But religions can also be sources of spirituality, community, liberation and healing for many people. That’s something to be open to and not afraid of.

LLO: What’s your favourite part about living in your postcode?
SW:
Being near the river; living close to three cinemas; the number 19 bus.

[The clock pictured above is not from the Clockmakers' Museum, but (I think) from the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. This is the tag that comes with the photo: "Peter Clare, a local clockmaker, made this clock for Manchester Corporation. From 1848, this was the official clock for Manchester, showing the current time as measured at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. At first, astronomy was used to regulate the clock to Greenwich Time. After 1852, the Royal Observatory transmitted the time hourly by telegraph. The clock stood in the Town Hall on King Street where people could use it to set the time on their own watches and clocks. Greenwich Mean Time was not adopted as the national standard time until 1880. The clock was moved to the City Art Gallery in 1912. It was moved here in 1998 when the Art Gallery closed for major building work."]

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Stephanie Sadler runs a lovely blog called Little London Observationist. Her tag-line is a quote from Robert Brault: “Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.”

She has a series of posts called ‘Listen to a Londoner’, and I was honoured to be the subject of her interview yesterday. Some readers might be interested, although I mustn’t assume everyone is as London-centric as I am. It’s too long to paste in one go. The first half of the interview was about general London living – so let me copy it here. And then I’ll put up the reflections on religion which came at the end.

LLO: As a born and raised Londoner, what are the most noticeable ways the city has evolved in your lifetime?
SW:
 It’s bigger and busier. I remember a study recently about how our walking speed has increased (they secretly time you crossing bridges etc). It’s more culturally and ethnically diverse. Immigration has enriched London immensely. Random landmarks that didn’t exist when I was born in 1966: the Gherkin, the Millennium Bridge, the London Eye, Oyster Cards, sculptures on the fourth plinth, Boris Bikes, Tate Modern, the ubiquitous CCTV camera. Tragic losses: the Routemaster bus.

LLO: Tell us a bit about your background and your blog, Bridges and Tangents.
SW:
 I was born in University College Hospital just off Tottenham Court Road, when my parents were living in Chiswick. I grew up in Harpenden, near St Albans. I’m a Catholic priest and I work in the seminary in Chelsea, where we prepare men for the priesthood. I never imagined I’d start a blog. It happened quite quickly. I was thinking of writing a book, and a friend pointed out that if I really wanted to communicate and share ideas, then a blog would be more immediate and reach far more people. The penny dropped.

LLO: Freedom is your most used tag on your blog. In a recent post, you wrote “Perfect freedom is being able to step off the back of a London bus whenever you want, whatever the reason, and walk into the sunset without a bus-stop in sight.” Are there other London moments that give you a perfect sense of freedom?
SW:
The fact that London is a city for walking around gives me the greatest sense of freedom. Other random moments of exhilaration, freedom and space include: sitting at the front on the top deck of a double-decker bus; looking at the cityscape from the middle of any of London’s beautiful bridges; jaywalking with abandon — in the knowledge that this would be illegal in some countries; walking through the parks; and along the river at South Bank.

LLO: Can you recommend a few places in London to go for a sense of spirituality without stepping foot in a church/temple/mosque, etc?
SW:
 Whenever the next Kieslowski retrospective runs at the British Film Institute; standing over the Greenwich Prime Meridian line, knowing that you are at the still point of the cartographic world; walking round the Serpentine; the Jubilee Line station at Canary Wharf.

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I was in Trafalgar Square and got to see “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle”, the new fourth-plinth sculpture by Yinka Shonibare.

It’s what it says on the tin: an enormous scale model of Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory from the Battle of Trafalgar, inside a 5m long perspex bottle. Shonibare writes:

For me it’s a celebration of London’s immense ethnic wealth, giving expression to and honouring the many cultures and ethnicities that are still breathing precious wind into the sails of the United Kingdom.

It’s great fun! The only shame is that you can’t see the ship very well because of the height of the plinth, and because they have painted some fake sea on the bottom of the bottle that obscures the view even further.

It made me reflect on how certain objects don’t just represent particular moments in history, they actually change them. This is part of the theme of the wonderful Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects which I posted about a few weeks ago.

And it made me wonder about the boat that brought my Chinese grandparents from Hong Kong to the UK in the early 1930s. (They were from mainland Canton, but had to stay in Hong Kong for 18 months to wait for their visas.) What kind of ship was it? What was it called? Where is it now? It’s part of my family history, part of my own personal story. I wouldn’t be here to write this post without it.

These are Adrian Searle’s reflections on the work:

Nelson on his column looks distant and far away. Yinka Shonibare‘s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, which has fetched up on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, looks delicate and small in its clear plastic bottle, stopped by an oversized cork and sealed with wax. Less a sculpture than a symbol, it is almost kitsch, and mounted on a vaguely nautical wooden stand whose portholes are actually air vents, whose hidden whirring fans prevent the whole thing from steaming up with condensation – though I rather like the idea of the ship looming in a bottled fog. Shonibare’s work is the sort of thing one might come across in a coastal shopping mall, and it sits on the plinth as though on a mantelpiece. I suppose I oughtn’t to like it; but I do, very much. It brings out the little boy and the sailing pond admiral in me. Perhaps it appeals to a rather conservative sort of artistic taste, like Jeff Koons’s giant, flower-covered puppy, which stands outside the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao (and which has led locals to dub the museum “the doghouse”). But then I’m fond of the mutt too.

Shonibare’s Victory aims for seafaring accuracy, though those bright batik-print sails would have been unwise should Nelson have tried to hide from the enemy. Nor is Nelson recorded as having said: “Pimp my Victory.” But for all its seeming obviousness and disconcerting, almost camp, appeal, the latest fourth plinth commission does manage to celebrate both Nelson’s success at Trafalgar and the postcolonial multi-ethnic mix and mingle of Britain today. It is an ironical corrective to Rule Britannia patriotism, as is the artist’s insistence on using his MBE, which is printed on the wax seal alongside his name (the British-born Nigerian artist was awarded the title in 2004). But the thing about ships in bottles is that they’re not sailing anywhere. Perhaps this is a further symbol of Britain today: a message no one wants to read.

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I was coming home on the bus past Green Park and saw a line of multi-coloured elephants over the fence. What a beautiful sight!

Elephant Parade is a conservation campaign that shines a multi-coloured spotlight on the urgent crisis faced by the endangered Asian elephant. Brought to you by www.elephantfamily.org, the event sees over 250 brightly painted life-size elephants located over central London this summer.

Each decorated by a different artist or celebrity, the elephants brighten and beautify the city, enhancing every park, street corner and building they grace. Running from May to July 2010, this is London’s biggest outdoor art event on record. With an estimated audience of 25 million, we aim to raise £2 million for the Asian elephant and benefit 20 UK conservation charities.

All of our elephants are for sale by auction and every bid you place is a bid for habitat. Mini elephants are available at Selfridges, 80 Regent St, 36 Carnaby St and Greenwich Central Market or at the elephant parade online shop. Happy elephant spotting!

You can see a slideshow of some of the more interesting designs here. There is a routemap here. And here are some photos:

 

 

 

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I learnt a new word on the radio this morning: psychogeography. Even after a bit of research, I’m still not sure what it means: anything to do with the way we respond on a non-rational level to the urban environment.

Someone from the Ramblers’ Association presented it as a way of walking the streets around you with more attentiveness – with the interest and focus you would bring to a visit to an art exhibition. Noticing things; appreciating things. This seems beautiful and harmless.

London by cod_gabriel.

But on the internet there are stranger theories about ‘drifting’ (letting yourself be guided by the ‘psychic’ or psychological contours of the geography) and ‘algorithmic wandering’ (walking to a formula, e.g. “Take the first street left, then the second right, then the second right” – then repeat this sequence until the time runs out).

I’m uneasy about the New Age aspects of this, but attracted by the invitation to go somewhere without going anywhere. And I like the idea of a programmed/random exploration. It’s the same fascination of being a taxi driver – the mix of uncertainty and fate, that you never know where you will be going, even though your destination is determined beforehand. Or is it?

Here is one summary of the meaning of psychogeography:

The word psychogeography was coined by the situationist poet Guy Debord around 1950. It describes the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.

The sudden change of ambience in a street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the ground); the appealing or repelling character of certain places – these phenomena all fall into the field of psychogeography.

One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive [literally: "drifting"], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

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