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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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