Monday, 18 August 2014

St Nicholas Cole Abbey

There is that scene near the end of ET where the FBI arrive - big burly men shouldering in, the house taped up, a kind of tunnelled life within what had been the comfort of the home  - and this is what our life feels like at the moment except much, much smaller, with more dust and dirt and East European accents not American.  Our kitchen and bathroom are being replaced  ( which I keep reminding myself will be great ) but life is meant to carry on, everything dirty, everything boxed up, nothing where it should be, most things coated in plastic - still getting the boys off to school ironed and pack-lunched with homework done, me to work for a national newspaper smiling.  All of this living out of one tiny room with dust and dirt everywhere.  As if matter itself has been released - there is a pointlessness, a futility to the human endeavour of a dustpan and brush and something in me feels as if it is giving up, needs a flying bmx bike, to find a good and solid home.

The weekend before the work starts I am packing the kitchen into boxes I bought from Rymans with the boys away when it dawns on me - we are too stressed for this - how are we going to cope.

My eldest son did not get the secondary school choice he/we wanted (despite a slightly odd certainty he would.)  I did not get a Jerwood/ Arvon writers mentoring scheme award - though I was of six to be interviewed for three places.  I am waiting for the tax credit tribunal though bailiff letters still arrive.  I have got used to them but it is still frightening as I fold them away under an increasingly dusty pile of papers .  You are trying to bully me.  I think.

On the first day of the works - when every part of the kitchen and bathroom was ripped out - it is as if our family wounds are re opened -  anxiety is very high - the boys are angry that we live in a tiny flat - that the home that has been made has been trashed that something about our lives is broken.
I put up the camping table with a brightly coloured table cloth in the crowd of boxes and stacked furniture of the main room - and think of the invention and courage of the make shift shelters of disaster zones, refugee camps and at the edge of war.  Women making a kernel of home in the chaos.  I know I am lucky, that this is temporary, that we are safe but can see the trauma that being without home brings.

The results of both the school application and the mentoring award came through on the same day. I had hoped for good news.  ( after all the last post was so  bleak a friend texted support as if I was on suicide watch )  I had thought we have been through enough - this is the day the tide turns:   At about 4.30 I hear I haven't got the mentoring.  ( I knew by then I hadn't -  I just knew you would leave the bad luck calls to late )  An earnest and kind young woman keeps telling me all the positive things about why and how I haven't got it.  I just want to get her off the phone with her lingering good luck messages sticky as a boiled sweet found in a pocket.  Oh, oh.  I don't care I think  - bartering with who? - I need the school place most - I will settle for just that - though I am crazily confident he will get it.

That night I sit up keeping vigil to the secondary school application email.  The cutoff is midnight but at midnight no e mail has come.   I stay up - slightly manically but repeatedly hitting the refresh button - but nothing comes through.    Oh I keep thinking.  I need to know.  hit refresh nothing hit refresh nothing.

Eventually at 3am I think to try the edu site - where there is a note saying yahoo sites are not working and I obtain access with an old stored password to find out my son has got his third place school.  Out of the upset of the day and the confusion of the night it is like seeing the world through a tangle - not what I thought would happen at all.

I absolutely thought that this day our luck would change.

I have been reading a biography of the writer Penelope Fitzgerald.  I borrowed it from work - exhilerated to find the story of a woman who had her first book published at 60.   Clever, from a clever family,  she married a man who became an alcoholic then brought her children up in baffled but stoic poverty.   Though they lived on a boat and it sank.  My life has felt like that boat but it isn't literally true.   I start to read the novels and the writing is sly but perfect,  I don't always love it but I am always impressed by it - she just hangs characters a little bit out of reach, doesn't explain too much.   She also loved the writing of Samuel Beckett ( I used to struggle to get a character through a door then reading Beckett realised a reader will believe much much more than you think, that the narrative can be almost abstract, suspended in space - a mound of earth, one room with wind at the door.)
I have promised the woman I borrowed it from that I read fast/will bring it back but I thought I had read that PF believed you can't work off your bad chance - there isn't a finite amount - you have to just accept the load you are given but I can't find the quote.  I had marked the things I liked with tiny torn scraps of paper and copied them in my notebook but couldn't find this one.  I keep dipping to find it, then start to read the book again, what I do find is:
'The death of the spirit is to lose confidence in one's own independence and to do only what we are expected to do.  At the same time it is a mistake to expect anything  specific from life.  Life will not confirm.'
and 'Experiences aren't given to us to be 'got over', otherwise they would hardly be experiences.' is the nearerst I can find.

 I had hoped that I would remain calm and pragmatic throughout secondary school applications - the finding what is best for my very bright, wild, creative, angry, enquiring son and obtaining it.   Though most children just want to be with their friends - he was adamant he didn't want to go the local and assured place comp.  So I started reasonably early with an application last year for a really exceptional public school - working with my son night after night on practise papers - though discovering on the internet that this preparation that I  started a month before the exam - should have been worked on for years with a tutor.   wa wa waaa I thought - though we did it together - enjoying the process - reaching a regular score of over 90% on the vr. It wasn't enough and i knew he cldnt alwys spell v well  and the phone call to interview never came.  Later I thought  about the braying parents and slightly odd staff -  the stooped and over-charming, the aneroxic and the florid and it made me think of the wounds of public schools, the damage done to boys and I didn't trust the process - though the facilities and ambition was incredible - I felt sheepish I had put my son through so much - after all we didn't just need a place but a 100% bursary too ( filling in forms of financial details that would have made the stooped and thin wince at the bravery and madness of my life.  )  What I really wanted and liked best was the access to the Thames - the freedom for a boy to explore the river, to feel free alongside the moorhens and strong currents.

I spent hours and hours and hours researching schools on the internet - though the truth was there was very little choice -  but at the last minute I found an across the border-borough-option with an art scholarship exam to take and my son went and took the exam.   That morning after dropping him off for the test I bumped into the Momdel - a beautiful Russian mother that I used to talk about Tolstoy and Dostoevesky in the playground after school though my certaintity that she had been a model had been confirmed when she took her daughters out of our school when she got a job presening ' Next top model' in Georgia.   She introduced me to her companion - a Russian artist that had been tutoring her daughter for the art exam. Oh I thought glumly I am so naive.   Then I found £15 pounds in the gutter and met a friend for breakfast.   I could see that this was the best option we ( it would mean my younger son could get in on sibling policy ) had by miles.

Afterwards when I met my son at the school gate in the hoards of tense parents ( I saw others I knew or had known - a girl I had waitressed with, a newspaper editor )  he was excited and confident - look he said as if bringing out a bag of brightly coloured sweets for a  greedy toddler - I took a picture on my phone - OH - I say - I am certain you are not allowed to do that - yes, but no one saw he said and look -  my hands clamouring he showed me a really beautiful drawing of his hand drawing on paper - the task he had been asked to do - the determination of the drawing, the confidence and variation of line - oh I thought - there is no way he won't get a place with that drawing.     All the art teachers came and stood behind me to look at the drawing he said then described a girl the only other one he thought  had done a good drawing - getting frustrated and scribbling over her work.  Maybe they will be able to see how good it was underneath her scribble he said with concern.

I can't really explain my certainty - though I do have an MA in fine art - but I thought he was sure to get a place, though I understood and indeed accepted that the test was to cook the books of a truly 'comprehensive intake' and to design the school to be middle class.  Somehow - our address?  being a single mother? we didn't add up.

Ironically the head teacher at my son's primary school tells me that it has been  'an astonishing year of 100% bursaries for private schools from this Y6' - she thinks it is because the charitable status of public schools is under attack - and the disadvantage of the children from our school is exactly what they want to look philanthropic - but children that do not get the results of my son have obtained them. I still don't think that this would have been necessarily the right option for my son but I feel sick that I have failed to obtain a secondary education that will suit him.

PSM says she chanted OM  every day for the 100% bursary place her son has received.
wa waaa

On our street, the dark cut through once known as Duck Lane, a camp of homeless guys has set up.   More organized than the normal sleeping-bag-solo-sleepers they have mattresses and layers of cardboard and somehow their structures remain even when they aren't there.  When I close my bedroom curtains one night I see them all tucked into sleeping bags but clamouring around a box of beer like a Daumier sketch, faces lit by street light, though in the morning when I walk past the sleeping forms I see a pair of shoes like slippers laid neatly at the side of the bed, a water bottle and a book nearby like items placed on a bedside table.

I also read that Penelope Fitzgerald writes notes of herself as a Becketian old woman called Mrs Thing 'Nietzsche complained of the 'smell of failed souls' in modern civilisation.' And yet is is all the same - so terribly the same, every morning one must get one's body up, consult it, wash it, somehow.....'
'When Mrs Thing was 47 years old a fairy appeared and said 'You need never do anything you hated doing again: you need never find on catching sight of yourself that your face is red and foolish, you need never not quite catch what is said, never try to keep up with things........'

I feel like Mrs Thing.   An old woman working hard, failing to quite pull off the normal things of life, a fool. Now squandering the assets of my son not just myself.

On the day I go to find a city church I catch myself thinking unexpectedly if I get into church today I will pray.   That morning I had run and caught up with a mum whose son already attended the school my son has a place for.  Her son too is bright, confident, slightly warrior and I thought her reaction would be a good gauge.   Her face distorts - it is a terrible school she said, terrible, there is trouble and bullying,  and fighting, they give no homework and they have all had letters to say year 7 is failing.   Oh I say not quite expecting this onslaught.  Oh. 

I cycle close to St Paul's Cathedral - there is a church close to the river I think - remembering yellow spots on the map I have by my computer marking the churches.   I find the austere Welsh Church dipped down from the road by steep steps but it is closed.   Back up to the dual carriageway I find a church further up on the side though it no longer seems to be a church but a cafe  - The Wren. I have to go I think, it is a Christopher Wren church - but I feel a bit disappointed - just today I was prepared to pray.   I think it would have been a quick fumble - an embarrassed crouch to the knees and some muttered words - but I was prepared to do it.    I walk up the steps - into a beautiful airy white space with wood pannelling and stained glass windows -  people milling around, tables and a wooden counter with coffee machine, and cakes on glass stands.   The room is beautiful - but but but - It all looks so 'lifestyled' - the fetishism of those bloody artisans I think grumpily, just walking round the edges looking at the original carved garlands left on the walls.  It isn't that I don't like nice things - I just want things to look insouciant - or more exactly - where they should be.   I don't even sit for a coffee though later I read the cafe has won an award for the best new cafe, that the coffee is very good.   But again - I like a casualness to excellence and there is something over done to the over-crafted modern intervention to the beautiful space.

Researching later I find out it is still a church  -  but it seems to be an experiment - a very good cafe that hosts talks about God at lunchtimes - like an instagram version of a church it looks good in pictures travels well by social media and via wedding pictures.

Though I also discover it has been a church that attempted ( and suceeded ) in obtaining huge congregations in the past by such radical moves.   In 1881 the congregation was down to one man and one woman but when Henry Shuttleworth, a Christian Socialist was appointed in 1883 - installing a bar, a huge music programme and making the church a centre of debate the number attending grew to 450 on a Sunday evening.

The first recorded mention of the church was in a letter from Pope Lucius II in 1144-5.   Named after St Nicholas of Myra the patron saint of children and fishermen, Cole Abbey was a derivation from Coldharbour - a traveller's shelter or shelter from the cold.  Deeds in the time of Richard I report a new fish market close by and during the 16th century several fishmongers were buried here.  John Stow reports during the reign of Elizabeth I that a lead and stone cistern, fed by the Thames was set up against the the north wall 'for the care and commodity of the Fishermongers in about Old Fish St'.

During the reformation protestant worship was decreed though when Mary I came to the throne returning Catholicism to England it was the first church to celebrate Mass.  The incumbent Rector Thomas Sowdley had in the meantime taken a wife in the reign of Edward VI and lost his job only to be reinstated under Elizabeth I.

The church was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666 and rebuilt by Christopher Wren between 1672- 1678.  Noted in the building accounts are 'Dinner for Dr Wren and other Company - £2 14s 0d and 'Half a pint of canary for Dr Wren's coachmen - 6d.'

Destroyed again on May 10th 1941 in the worst air raid of the war.    The church remained a shell until restored by Arthur Bailey in 1962.   Recently restored it opened as a coffee shop and lunchtime meeting place for office workers to hear the word of God through 'Nick's talks in 2014.

Weeks later  - I don't even remember how we hear about it but we go - on the last day - to Selfridges temporary skate park.  This is London I think!  This is amazing!  Watching one son skateboard and the other rollerblade down Oxford St then turn down Orchard Street at the side of the huge department store to find the entrance.   I skateboarded as a kid.   My childhood next door neighbours ( one dead, one a heroin addict, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh I miss them both so much though one was always absent ) and my younger brother skateboarded.  We bought skateboards through classified ads, started on a small slope infront of the next door neighbours house then graduated to a really steep street nearby.  We went to the empty multi story car park every Sunday.  It was just us  down the spiral curve.  We skateboarded and skateboarded - though it was surburban hills and carparks and the only time we came to London to Skate City we didn't know the basic flip turn to be allowed on the bowl.   All that money for the train and the skate park entrance and we just mooched round the periphery-  hicks from the sticks.  But here years later- just after 10 in the morning my sons and I go up some abandoned hotel stairs at the side of Selfridges and into a temporary but huge skate park on the first floor.  No rollerblades allowed though so my younger son  who is always sensibly defining himself as 'other' from my eldest can't skate.  Though they have skateboards to hire but not until after 12 when the lessons finish.  My eldest son skates and skates - he is very good - and it is a beautifully designed space and almost empty to begin with - though later it fills up.  My youngest son and I mooch around - go to Selfridges foodhall and have an ice cream, then back again.   At 12 we go back to the desk to rent a board for him. There isn't a queue but it feels like one because I am thinking - ask for one for yourself - go on, go on, go on, go on.   I get the board and helmet for my younger son, then just as I am about to turn away - funny mrs thing - I turn back to the pretty blonde girl and say - could I get another board - could I get another board for me.

On the smooth concrete I start to skate.   I can do a very old fashioned but I believe very elegant skateboarding - and when I start my heart is banging - I feel it is a performance  ( because there are dads watching from behind barriers and young people surprised as I weave around corners )  oh oh I am worrying I am de masculating my sons oh oh I think I am embarrassing them/myself  the funny Mrs Thing is now on a skateboard  oh oh - but then the music starts and the dj has put on I guess for me - old woman - when I'm 64 'When I get older losing my hair many years from now.....    I feel I am flying.  The park is beautiful -  the concrete so smooth that I can go fast, pick up speed lean into  the corners.    I say to my sons am I embarrassing and they say - you can skate a lot better than most of the kids here - then the eldest trys to teach me to drop-in and I fall - Mrs Thing without dignity and bashing my elbow.

It doesn't matter for a brief time I lose her - I  feel really free - really happy.

Things are about to get better I think.

My son gets a place at a newly opening Free School - I dust off my principals and accept the place.  I worry and worry that this post is boring that what I have to say is only the grouching of a failed pushy mum.   Then I think I wanted to write about London and the madness of education is part of it.  Something is wrong though I take part in it.


Saturday, 22 February 2014

St Martins within Ludgate

I am squeezed on the wrong side of some railings alongside a dual carriageway on London Wall.   The pavement has just petered out and the cars are passing fast.  I am walking the perimeter of the old walled City of London.  I am approaching the Barbican/ Museum of London and I am certain there are some remains of the city wall here but I can't get to them.  I have a new smart phone and I have just checked a vintage pair of patent Prada wedges that I want to bid for on ebay pleased to discover I have 6 more hours to bid and that the price is stationary at £7.50.  I am increasingly anxious that I shouldn't be on this crazy mission, that I am going to run out of time to do all the back-to-school jobs I need to do while exh's mum is doing the last couple of days of school holiday childcare.  Then out of nowhere I remember my brother's unkind girlfriend saying years ago,  'You should get a boyfriend before you get too mad.'   I think - near to being run over - playing hookey on motherhood and domesticity - keen to bid money I don't have on second hand shoes and looking for traces of the City of London Wall on a solitary, slightly manic walk around the complete perimeter of where the wall once was -  that I have gone way beyond the point she meant then - way beyond a point I imagined for myself.

I curl around the railings into a side street and then see a concrete staircase under the concrete walkway I have been trying to reach.   As I climb the piss-smelling stairs to an abandoned and boarded mini shopping precinct that looks like a 70s cowboy town I think quite clearly - oh I am going to be murdered now - for this place just seems so abandoned, so desolate, so unsafe.  In a cutaway from the walkway a flint arch rises through the curve of paving slabs and it is possible to look down over the ruins of a medieval church alongside brown-dog coloured dug earth, with building machinery littered around.    There appears to be a plan for this area but it isn't apparent what it could be.  Nor is the wall I think, though I am certain I am near.

I woke up this morning a bit hungover ( PSM came to dinner the night before / it's in the name first time readers / a joke when she became a SM too and we shared a bottle of wine, discussing our children and our woes and became The Pissed Single Mothers Club though occasionally we are disturbingly good to our name )  I sat and wrote a list - make chicken pie, wash and iron sheets, sort out cupboard under the sink, clean bathroom, buy boy's socks from John Lewis, type up changes to novel, walk perimeter of City of London wall.   Then  I made a cup of tea, found some paper and just wrote for 5 hours solidly.  I kept thinking - I have to stop and do one of the other things on the list - watching helplessly as the day evolved into a completely different one than I had planned and the things I needed to do gathered behind as if crooked fingers wagging disapproval.

At 3.30 I cycled out.    I had dithered about where to start my 'London Wall'  walk - near to Newgate where I would approach it from Westminster - or from the Tower of London ( so I can find a chuch to enter near to the end of my walk? )  It is solved by Peter Ackroyd who describes exactly the walk I want to make - from Tower Hill to the river by Blackfriars.   On the bike the journey to Tower Hill is ridiculously quick.  Passing through the City I can see churches tucked everywhere though St Pauls is like a white cliff face, a whale, an enormous thing, and all I can think is how am I ever going to find time to write about that? I circle around at Tower Hill looking for a docking bay for the bike.  Unexpectedly through the glass grand foyer of a hotel I see a section of the wall sandwiched into a back carpark - like a zoo animal too big for it's enclosure. I don't have a map and though I have brought the Peter Ackroyd book - the huge tome is in a backpack with some apples and some chocolate - I am trying just to work it out.    I remember vaguely there is a section right near to the Tower of London itself - and follow tourists down a walkway starting to doubt myself.   But there under the 1970s concrete bridge is the ruins of a gateway and on the wall alongside a plaque numbered one, with the history of the wall  and a numbered map on how to complete the walk.   Oh I think breezily with the confidence of the hangover I will just follow the plaques.  My plan is to trace the boundaries of the city before visiting the churches within the City.   I notice a bird with a really bright eye sitting on the railings as if talking to me and realise a slight mania to my thoughts - I am overwhelmed by this trail of history - overwhelmed by everything I am meant to be doing.
The journey starts well - number two - a huge slab of wall by Tower Hill tube station - where the layers - roman, medieval are clear and the ditch the other side still exists.   Then the section behind the hotel - a cut through alongside the valet parking.   Here behind the facades of buildings I can see an untidy route, scraps of overgrown waste ground squeezed and then stunted by office blocks then set off to find the next part of wall.   I lose my way.   I find myself in a dead end thinking there is an alleyway only to find the backdoor to a pub.  The route becomes hazy - I find a scrap of wall by Aldgate roundabout, then a part alongside a church with gravestones flush to the bricks of the wall.

The wall was initially built by the Romans circa AD 200 the second largest construction in Britain after Hadrian's wall, made from Kentish ragstone, brought by water from Maidstone.  It has been  calculated that some 1,300 barge journeys would have been made to transport the thousands of tons of stone necessary to build the wall that stretched for 2miles and incorporated an existing Roman fort at the NW corner.   The wall had many 'gates' that opened to important Roman roads leading to other towns in the country.   Initially: Aldgate, Bishopgate, Cripplegate, Newgate and Ludgate though Aldersgate was added later  and Moorgate an even later medieval addition.  In Saxon times some of the wall decayed but was built up again in medieval and tudor times though as London grew, its defensive role became no longer necessary and much of the wall was demolished or disappeared beneath shops and warehouses.  By 1760 parliament chose to remove the city gates and much of the structure disappeared through the evolution and building of the City.  Like a historic tide the wall has been built and disappeared: during WW2 when London was bombed and some remains were demolished in other places great chunks of the wall were unearthed under flattened buildings.

Alongside the abandoned concrete shops at the edge of the Barbican I haven't found a plaque since number 6 and I am tired and frightened.   I can't explain exactly the feeling of real dread - though perhaps it is just 'cutting myself off'  the feeling of walking further and further into an empty dead end.  On another piss smelling staircase but going back down now I notice a strange growth on the floor of a landing - a small smooth mound in the shape of a small foot like a scrap of ice.   A drip, a repetitive leak of water has formed the base of a stalagmite on the 1970s staircase.  By the side of a children's protection service office I find a patch of park with a plaque and the wall.   A church had been built here to venerate the murdered archbishop St Alphage.  The word murdered confirms the fear I feel.   I am forcing myself to explore the wall, to look round the park I can hear running water from the overgrown corner of the park, through a gateway, cutting myself off further and further as I go deeper into the small park.   It is a fountain, an innocent babbling magical thing  only spied through undergrowth but I am relieved to be able to leave the area, leave this place behind.   I have friends who live in the Barbican and I make myself laugh by imagining them looking out of their window to see me rooting around the undergrowth of a scabby park on my own.  I look up to the flats and see on a walkway a trendy group - a pretty girl flanked by two men and see that they are taking a picture of me.   I am not sure what the picture they are taking means to them but I feel very alone though very observed.  I feel I am too far out of reach.  Perhaps she is who I would like to be, taking a picture of who she doesn't want to be I think and see them laughing.
Further into the Barbican ( along concrete walkways marked by bike tracks like sand erosion, and squeezing past Pizza Express where the walkway is nearly cut off )  there is a huge part of the wall.   I am still completely alone in a garden walking the perimeter, still scared but overlooked by luxury flats and alongside another water feature - much more modern with sprinkling fountains.    The wall has alcoves in the exterior like sentry posts, thickly covered in ivy.   On the interior side it is richly planted and in a wooden box like a bird hut there is a leaflet about the bishop's garden with a sign saying 'please return after use'.
Above a muslim family are taking pictures of the wall with me in their picture for some reason they make me feel anchored, in their pictures, in history.   Perhaps I think when I am writing this the whole journey is about being inside or outside of the wall.   It is an odd historic concept - the included and the excluded - and the city wall is the line that denotes it - I feel I am moving between both.  Much later I am surprised to find this on wikipedia:

The suffix words "Without" and "Within" denote whether an area of the City – and usually applied to the wards – fell outside or within the London Wall, though only Farringdon and (formerly) Bridge have been split into separate wards this way (Bridge Without falling beyond the gates on London Bridge). Some wards – AldersgateBishopsgate and Cripplegate – cover an area that was both within and outside the wall and, although not split into separate wards, often the part (or "division") within the Wall is denoted (on maps, in documents, etc.) as being "within" and the part outside the Wall as being "without". Archaically "Infra" (within) and "Extra" (without) were also used[12] and the terms "intramural" and "extramural"[13][14] are also used to describe being within or outside the walled part of the city.

I had been thinking about the excluded that historically lived outside the wall - the lepers and cripples though I also find mention  of 'The tenement of the Hermit of Crepelgate' and a suggestion there was a structure there for a hermit even before Roman times.

Still dithering around I find a long section of wall  on Noble St -  though I have got to plaque 20 unexpectedly - the last one I found was 13.  I don't really understand either how I could have wandered in such a huge area around the Barbican and then find a long intact piece here but I have to accept what I can see.  Later I realise this is where the Roman Fort was so the route does kind of bulge and then fall back into a line.    Though  I also discover that the wall walk - created in the 1980s  hasn't been maintained, that the plaques do indeed peter out in places like the crumbling battlements of the wall itself - the tide of time has swept away some of the jaunty typeface plaques of the walk.  Indeed an IRA bomb in 1993 took both the plaque 8 and the remains of the wall it described.   I order a London Wall Walk 1985 vintage guide book on ebay and also Walking London Wall by Ed Harris - published in 2009, who introduces his book with dismay at the historic marginal interest the wall generates and the trouble of writing a guide when buildings change and disappear leaving co ordinates like sand. 

I am feeling increasingly melancholy - I can't seem to fit the day, can't find what I thought I wanted.  Though walking alongside the low wall of what seems to be a public park I can see graves.  I once heard on the radio about a park in London with a memorial to citizens who lost their life helping others.   I always imagined it in East London but for some unknown reason - I think - looking through the railings - oh it is here.   At the gate there is a simple sign - fascinating enough - saying 'Postman's Park  A Christian Open Air Meeting is held here Monday 1.15pm from May - Sept by kind permission of the church.'   I walk in - there are a few people milling around but I keep walking. I am  not sure how I knew - but there - under a wooden roofed structure - are the tiled memorials to 'Heroic Self Sacrifice'.   Conceived of by George Frederic Watts in 1887 to celebrate ordinary people who died while saving the lives of others, there are beautiful arts and crafts memorial tablets with messages, almost like haikus of heroic acts and consequent deaths.  Each is a short story:  'Thomas Griffin Fitters Labourer April 12 1899 in a boiler explosion at a Battersea Sugar Refinery was fatally scalded in returning to search for his mate.'   'George Stephen Funnell Police Constable Dec 22 1899   In a fire at the Elephant and Castle Wick Road, Hackney Wick after rescuing two lives went back into the flames, saving a barmaid at the risk of his own life.'   'David Selves aged 12 Off Woolwich supported his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms.'   'September 1886, Ernest Benning Compositor aged 22  Upset from a boat one dark night off Pimlico Pier   Grasped an oar with one hand supporting a woman with the other but sank as she was rescued.'     Inflammable dresses, unmanageable horses, the dangerous entanglement of river weed - the dangers of mortality are vivid and selfless.   Later I  discover that a mobile app has recently been launched with detailed accounts of the 54 dramatic incidents and intend to take my sons.

I fiddle around now passed the bombed remains of the tower of Christ Church Greyfriars, round the back of the Old Bailey, then out to St Sepulchre where a plaque claims there is a ghost of a black dog that stalks the churchyard.  I am trying to find a church that is open now - there is barely any trace of the wall left  - finish up and get home and on with those chores stacked up behind me still to do.

On Ludgate, I find the church of St Martin's at Ludgate and the door is open.  I climb the stairs but a Chinese couple are locking up and won't let me in.   I walk around the back searching for the last traces of the wall.  At a locked gateway a black dog sat flat like a shadow bays dolefully and I do actually think for a second that I am through some doorway of sense or time everything just seems so heightened though the Chinese couple who wouldn't let me in the church calm the dog and myself to reality.   Finally I find a scrap of wall packed between office blocks then straggle the last vanished outline of the wall to the Thames and I have finished.

At home I wash my hands and make the pastry -  then sit with a cup of tea and write a list of this journey - I am still slightly manic - but I can't actually write the blog until the pie is made and the under sink cupboard cleaned.
There I find the ice cream boxes kept for paint mixing, the out-of-control but wrong-sized tupperware,  slightly dirty jam jars that I am scared to thow out in case I need to make jam (though I have never made jam), old school trousers torn to make dusters, paintbrushes, cleaning products in classified boxes,  and redundant water bottles (it is the holy grail of motherhood - a water bottle that doesn't leak or get smelly.)   I have had an-end-of-school-holidays epiphany that if I could sort out this crap I could have clean wiped kitchen surfaces and spend less time fighting the madness of disorganisation. I am trying to move the detergent box, the fabric conditioner and the chemistry set off the surface by the sink and into this cupboard.

Afterwards I make a roux sauce - and cook the bacon garlic and onions - roll the pastry.   Briefly I feel really, really annoyed that the thing I want to do - just write this - is on hold for this pie that I have to make.  But I can't waste the meat leftover from a roasted chicken and want to prepare this meal for my sons for the night before they go back to school.

Later, much much later when my life has swamped me I look back to this day like the shore I have departed from.   Late that night - the cupboard clean, the pie cooked I sat and wrote most of the city wall journey.  Then like a tidal wave as the new term starts -  fighting the tax credit people, secondary school applications for my eldest son and just worrying takes over my time late at night. This is the slot, the tiny part for saved for me, saved for writing and I feel it vanish like the glitter of salt in water.   As I watch it disappear, then recede to a memory I run out of the confidence in the blog, in my writing, in my own fun and optimism. Secondary school research takes all the diligent fiddly-fingered late night internet investigations that this blog takes.  Fighting the tax credit people takes the sense that things can be fair, that one day everything will get better, that we will be alright.  Though at a crazy point I send the tax credit people pages from this blog - for it details so exactly what has happened - that exh does not live here,  has been housed in a hostel then moved to illegal commercial properties - all so hard to prove when it is true.  I imagine them stuck up in an office in Preston as an example of the loony lengths benefit cheats will go to though a lawyer friend I tell looks horrified at my madness.   A letter threatening me with the bailiffs arrives though I am still in appeal.  It is a mistake they say coolly when I ring to remonstrate.  Yes they say they are targeting single mums when I ask if they have targets to reach.

Oh. oh.  I think I don't deserve this.  No single mum deserves this.  Every bit of surviving, of bringing up those two boys with little money and little support, of holding back the flood of chaos that all these things brought has been done with determination and fun and dedication.  Now I am exhausted.   I find myself unable to talk or even think about it without crying.  Friend's turn their faces kind to my tears and tales of misfortune though I am embarrassed that it doesn't seem to end.  Being a working single mum is tough - hard work and sometimes lonely - and yet the worst of it is that however hard you work or try you do a bad job of almost everything.  That despite the relentless good cheer and dogged work - everything is only tidy for a second, the children only well-behaved briefly and one son is angry and the other one anxious.

Sitting down now five months later to write about visiting St Martin's within Ludgate I realise I remember very little of the visit.  Rebuilt by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire, in the shade of St Paul's he designed it to sit against the city wall, designed it in juxtoposition to the Cathedral.  I went in a lunchtime a few days after my perimeter walk, climbing the steps up and into the church from the flat-facade that sits tight to the pavement.  There was a man just infront of me going up the steps, both of us in a hurry both gazing around the dark interior together though he then sits to pray.  I sense we are both slightly annoyed that the other is ruining the peace of the place for the other.   I remember a really lovely quietness and some old wooden racks that were used for bread to be left for the poor.  Though I discover that St Martin of Tours was the patron saint of travellers and that churches dedicated to him always stand just within city gates.   The earliest mention of a church on the site is from 1174  though the legend is that "Cadwallo King of the Britons is said to have been buried here in 677".   Cadwallo's image was allegedly placed on Ludgate, to frighten away the Saxons.   I remember I still want to see the statue of Lud that decorated a later Ludgate and now sits in a dark arch within the churchyard of St Dunstan's of the West and I think briefly I should go back to see St Martin's and then cycle out of the reach of these old city walls  to see the statue now 'without /extra'.    But I don't.  I still have very little time though I am writing again which makes me feel happy.    

Saturday, 17 August 2013

St Dunstan in the West

Sitting at my opposite neighbour's table drinking good coffee and trying to get my bearings in a mirror version of our own flat I listen to a truly terrible tale of betrayal.   I find out too, almost in passing that the other neighbour on our landing is David Bowie's stylist.    I feel like a Stella Street fantasist writing these words for it seems so extraordinarily unlikely though it appears to be true.
In this scruffy block I am sandwiched above and below by gentle single mother's of grown up daughters  - who barely conceal their timid but thorough disapproval of me and my noisy boys.  Opposite on our landing there used to be a very nice gay couple but one partner returned to Australia and though the other man was meant to join him he never went.  After a while a trans - something ( not sure if transvestite or transgender pre or post op? ) woman/man moved in too though somehow I sensed he/she was a lodger rather than a partner.   Squeezed between us is the tiny flat with the single, charming, confident and warm man who is never there.   He lives mainly in New York only coming back very occasionally.  Perhaps understandably Exh has always been annoyed that this man leaves the flat empty and seems to lead a glamorous life elsewhere but this was before this new SUPER piece of information and I just daren't fuel his irritation by telling him - though he would love the second hand proximity to a superstar.

I have always been slightly miffed that none of the gay guys want to be my friend as I could do with an occasional cup of tea/glass of wine friendly neighbour though I think my tired face and truculent boys don't make me look a good bet as a fun pal.    But I had tipped off the man opposite when Peabody came to our door asking questions about who lived there so now I am here in the looking glass flat listening to his terrible tale.    Having escaped Croatia from the war 'I saw people killed', he studied art in the UK and has lived in this flat ( a friend's)  for 12 years.   When his boyfriend returned to Australia he believed he would join him later but was dumped by Skype.   Shortly after he found out he had cancer - and around about this time offered the spare room to the trannie he only refers to as her.   When the tenancy-holding friend put up the rent a few months ago 'she' was furious - believing my neighbour to be double crossing her and making a profit himself.    She took her things and left owing the rent and a really nasty letter.   Worse she stole bank statements and took everything as proof to Peabody - proving that the flat was sublet and that he lived there illegally.   Consequently he is losing his home of 12 years - being instructed to leave in only a couple of weeks.

I return to my own flat having discovered all this and start writing - it seems to be given to me on a plate - with the jaw dropping opening that David Bowie's stylist lives next door.   But as I write I am not sure what I am allowed to say - could an ardent fan work out exactly where it was and stalk my neighbour -  - though to be honest he really is never here so it seems unlikely.   Am I somehow monstrous to sit sympathetically at my neighbour's table to return to write such a terrible tale so gleefully.
It seems increasingly the same with the children - recently my eldest son said accusingly peering over my shoulder 'Why did you write about Sparky's death?'  In principle it all seems fine - I write warmly and anonymously about them -  but I wonder how advisable it really is - what the cut off point should be?   I am their Mum not a reporter on family life and I don't want to turn into Julie Myerson.

It is nearly the summer holidays and I have a daily school uniform crisis - somehow one son has ended up with almost no wearable school trousers and the other with no shirts.   I probably should just buy extra items but I am trying just to get through before the summer growing break - it means I am washing one pair of 10 year old trousers every night and mending rips on the 7 year old's shirts.   Also for a few months I was in a sock regime where my eldest son wore socks with the name of the day on - oh my for a few months I was good - monday meant monday socks, tuesday tuesday etc and it gave me a feeling of well being and organisation to the daily rituals but a few socks got worn then a few lost - and now I am fobbing him off with crazy mix of tuesday and thursday socks ON A WEDNESDAY.    Then finally the weather turns hot and they both wear shorts that for once I was organised enough to buy when they were still in stock but as the cold summer drifted on I had given up hope of being worn.

I go to St Dunstan's in a hot lunch break.   The exterior is a lovely deep sand colour with fine carved details, a small courtyard with one of those coffee stalls and a few tables set out.  There is a huge clock with giants that move to hit bells on the hour and the bells of the church are ringing out.    I see all this as I cycle around and around searching for a bike docking bay.   In the hot weather it is always much harder to find somewhere to park but this is the worst I have ever experienced.   I am cycling around for  over half an hour getting hotter and more frustrated - I had planned to sit and have a coffee in the shady old courtyard but it looks increasingly likely that I will have to just ride back to work without getting into a church at all.   I try all the docking bays - near St Mary le Strand, up near St John Soames house, on Carey street - this area that I didn't know at all until recently but it is now becoming familiar.  Though I turn one corner onto Fetter Lane and see a castle like building - that I have never ever seen before though like Lincoln's Inn Field it seems unlikely that such a huge building or area could remain tucked away out of my sight -  later I find out it is King's college Maughan library.

Finally a man takes out a bike at the first bay I tried - the one I used for Temple church and St Bride's too - we smile and chat about the hopelessness of finding a space now the weather is good.

In the church I had almost hoped to catch some sort of service - what were the bells rung out for?  But there are just two women church wardens who smile in welcome.   The light in the church is pigeon grey an unexpected contrast after the warmth of the sandy stone outside.   The church is octagonal,  a little bit jumbled somehow uglier or more ordinary than I had imagined despite the odd shape .   I patrol the edges.   The two women are talking somehow competitively of tracing family history - I am at the end of their church warden welcome stint and hear them pack up and their elegant tales of the trails of dead relatives disappear with their footsteps.

In the clutter of plaques there are some beautiful things - including a male and female kneeling bronze with a kind of speech bubbles appearing from their mouths ( later I find out they are probably the earliest monuments left from a much earlier church ), a bouncer like bust of Cuthbert Fetherstone and a marble likeness of a very poetic young man, curls resting on his stone pillow, hand on his heart.   Edward James Auriol 'was drowned in The Rhone at Geneva on the morning of the 19th of August, having just completed his 17th year.......Bright, loving and dutiful, in simplicity and Godly sincerity by the grace of God, he had his conversation in the world.'

Looking him up I find this very odd piece:

There is an ornate carved wooden altar screen sandwiched into an alcove next to the main altarpiece to the side.   I discover the church has hosted the worship of the Romanian Orthodox Church of London since the sixties and that this iconostasis ( a perfect fit ) was brought from the Church of Antim Monastery in Bucharest in 1966.   Strangely in the side chapels there are other altars too - Roman Catholic , Assyrian, Oriental (Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, Syro-Indian) and Lutheran for the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Geoffrey Fisher in the 60s conceived of St Dunstan's as a centre of prayer for Christian Unity - a meeting place for Western and Eastern churches.

I look around the church quickly with no time for the coffee I had hoped for - though I clamber around the small tables packed into the courtyard to see a fine Queen Elizabeth statue above the arched doorway at the side of the church.    Back on a bike over Blackfriars bridge I am disappointed somehow by the jumble of the church, disappointed not to sit in the warm shade.

Later I discover the church was rebuilt on the site of an early medieval church in 1831.  The original church was built in honour of St Dunstan - who was elected Archbishop of Canterbury in 960AD though he had previously been a hermit at Glastonbury - he 'sought peace with the aggressive Danes and the promotion of monastic living which had calamitously declined.   A bookish man, he also established the library at Canterbury Cathedral.'   The church is believed to have been built between the death of St Dunstan and the consecration of Archbishop Lanfranc in 1070 though the earliest reference is from a document held in Westminster Abbey dated 1180.    The church escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666 when the Dean of Westminster woke forty royal scholars ofWestminster School in the middle of the night and they brought water buckets and extinguished the flames which had come within three doors of the church.   However the church was pulled down in 1829 and re built.  The tower later badly damaged in the Blitz though rebuilt in 1950.

Pepys worshipped occasionally at St Dustan's though his report from 1667 seems to hold little devout prayer:
'Being wearied turned into St Dunstan's Church where I heard an able sermon of the minister of the place; and stood by a pretty modest maid, whom I did labour to take by the hand and the body; but she would not, but got further and further from me; and at last I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again - which seeing I did forbear and was glad I did spy her design.  And then I fell to gaze upon another pretty maid in a pew close to me, and she on me; and I did go about to take her by the hand which she suffered a little and then withdrew.  So the sermon ended and also the church broke up, and my armours ended also.'

Paradise Lost was first printed here - in the first edition its title page inscribed as printed 'under St Dunstan's Church in Fleet Street, 1667.   Sweeney Todd the fictional murdering barber 'lived' next door to the church at 186 Fleet Street cutting the throats of his clients and then selling their flesh to Margery Lovett the owner of a pie shop on Bell Yard though there appears to be a nudging belief that the tales are true and that the bodies were disposed in the crypt of St Dunstan's the guide book quoting a book with the Attorney General saying -  'Into old coffins, the tenants of which had mouldered to dust, there had been thrust fresh bodies with scarecely any flesh remains on them.'

I also find out that the statue of Queen Elizabeth came from the nearby demolished Ludgate - the entrance through the city walls into the City of London and that I had missed seeing the statues of King Lud and his two sons from the same gateway that are tucked under the side doorway beneath her statue - crumbly mysterious figures in the photographs like worn teeth.

I really want to see them - to finish this blog before going on holiday - though time is running out and I am super stressed and feeling really down.   The tax credit investigation has taken up my time - preparing documents to send - finding unobserved time at the end of the day to print out months of bank statements at work - though I am mortified to find an american heiress that I work with standing at the photocopier reading them - surely bemused by the lurching lunacy of my overdraft.   There is also a sinking feeling that the truth cannot be seen that however true my claim is that I have no proof.   With the documents sent I wait and wait.  Eventually I phone  -  it takes over an hour hanging on the phone to speak to anyone  - though a nice helpful woman tells me when I finally get through that more phone lines have been added - as more people are being investigated - though she has no news she can give me.    Finally just before going on holiday a man rings to say just as I feared that they do not believe my claim - that I have no proof that exh does NOT live here - for foolishly I have let him keep his bank and work details going through this address - though when I think logically about it I suppose I have wanted to help keep him on the straight and narrow through the chaotic days, the hostel years and now at his illegal industrial address.  I have kept him involved in the boy's lives - on their side at least - and the policy has really worked for all of us really -  despite a really terrible anxiety dip in May he is doing really well - still not drinking- a much more centred man.  When I take the final call telling me I am not believed, that I need to pay the money back I am making the beds in the boys room and I howl like a dog on the phone  - I am doing the best I can I sob - I have worked so hard - to keep everyone going - what on earth am I going to do  - the man on the phone softens slightly - you can pay the money back slowly he says - but I haven't done anything wrong I wail.

On a trip after work to Piccadilly Sport's Direct to buy cheap hand luggage wheelie bags for we are going by Ryanair to Sweden - to stay in a friend's house - I think cunningly that I could stop quickly and have a look - it seems really important - some sort of key to what I am writing that I see the statues.  But when I cycle past the gate is locked and I can't see anything at all in the shadowy archway set back from the road.
I find out however that:
"Ludgate is commonly accepted as having been named after the mythical King Lud, who according to legend founded London. King Lud who is said to have been buried at Ludgate appeared in texts such as Geoffrey of Monmouths (born circa 1100 – died circa 1155) Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain).
Lud, the eldest son of King Heli is supposed to date from around 66BC. Though he in turn is supposed to have had two sons, Androgeus and Tenvantius, they were not old enough to succeed him when he passed away and Lud’s younger brother Cassibelanus became King. According to medieval tradition the two princes assisted in the defence of Britain against the Roman legions of Julius Caesar, Androgeus as Duke of London (Trinovantum) and Tenvantius, Duke of Cornwall. The eldest of the two, Androgeus, followed Caesar back to Rome and following the death of Cassibelanus, Tenvantius finally gained his fathers throne.
Lud’s name has been linked, by some, either rightly or wrongly with the etymology of London itself in the form of Ludd-deen (Valley of Ludd) or Caer Ludd (Ludd’s Fortress). Ludd’s original settlement was said to be in the area of Ludgate Hill, where St Paul’s Cathedral now stands. This hill was one of the three ancient hills around which London was formed and Lud Gate was the principal of the ancient six gates into London. There are other explanations and arguments to the origins of the name Ludgate however: ‘According to old Geoffry of Monmouth's fabulous history of England, this entrance to London was first built by King Lud, a British monarch, sixty-six years before Christ. Our later antiquaries, ruthless as to legends, however romantic, consider its original name to have been the Flood or Fleet Gate, which is far more feasible. [Walter Thornbury in Old and New London: Volume 1 (1878)]
Cementing the link with Ludgate and Lud in 1260, King Henry III (born 1 October 1207 – died 16 November 1272) had the Lud Gate decorated with iconic images of the legendary king and his two sons Androgeus and Tenvantius. These statues were beheaded during reign of King Edward VI (born 12 October 1537 – died 6 July 1553) and repaired a short time later during the reign of his successor and catholic sister Queen Mary (born 18 February 1516 – died 17 November 1558). Then in 1586, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (born 7 September 1533 – died 24 March 1603), the aging Lud Gate was rebuilt afresh and new statues of King Lud and his sons were put on the eastern side.
Beside the gatehouse was the famous Ludgate prison. After being severely damaged during the Great Fire of London in 1666, the prison and gate were demolished in 1760. The statues of Lud, Androgeus and Tenvantius were then gifted to the City of London by Sir Francis Gosling. Unused the statues were eventually bought by the Marquis of Hertford and can now be found, along with a statue of Queen Elizabeth I (made at the same time as the Lud family statues in 1586 and could be found on the west side of the gate) in the courtyard of the church of St. Dunstan-in-the-West, Fleet Street.'

Back from holiday - Sweden and camping in Dorset - a really lovely time - the boys really happy and well - the eldest finding a really decent ammonite specimen in the cliffs of our campsite, the youngest producing like a rabbit from a hat - a skill for story telling.   Though in the shock of going back to work and climbing back onto the saddle of my complicated and stressful life I think - ah it is the gateway opening into the city - I am nearly into the old history - though I also think - how am I going to find the time to balance all the elements - the druids, the romans, the whole history of the City.

Checking facts in Peter Ackroyd's London the biography I find out a woolly mammoth was discovered in 1690 beside what has become King's Cross - though Dryden had written earlier of this invisible landscape of London

'Yet monsters from thy large increase we find
Engender'd on the Slyme thou leav'st behind'

marking other discoveries found in the clay of London - sharks in the East End, the skull of a wolf in Cheapside and crocodiles in Islington.

Like scale I find the enormity of time an obliterating twist of focus of a microscope.   I thought I had put this up already but OL sent it to me again recently so maybe I hadn't:


Friday, 5 July 2013

St Mary Le Strand

On the morning of Margaret Thatcher's funeral I cycle over Lambeth Bridge as three swans fly low overhead, their long necks following the river, heavy wings beating.  Backing up along the Embankment the re-directed traffic coming over Lambeth Bridge is at a standstill.   Policemen guard closed roads with traffic cone roadblocks like flimsy hurdle tracks.  I can see flags flying half mast at the MI5 building and the Houses of Parliament  though Lambeth Palace has opted strategically for no flag rather than lower one.

I had heard the news of her death on the radio on the Monday morning as I washed up and just made a little gasp.   We had returned the day before from a bank-breaking ski ing holiday.  If you have kept with me year in year out - my brother has a flat in France and I throw all the holiday money I have at teaching the boys to ski BUT this year exhausted by work I didn't check the passports until three days before and my eldest son's was only valid for the day we travelled out. It was the Easter weekend.  Panic, extraordinary stress and then determination set in.  A long story but I took my eldest son on a tightly-timed road trip - on a coach to Newport to get the passport, to Cardiff to get a flight to Paris and on the metro to the opposite side of Paris where we took a night train.  I have always had a romance about night trains but with a ten year old boy in a carriage with four strange slightly hobo men below us it was hard to get him to see it/ perhaps even believe it.  Though tucked in -  ridiculously high - across the small gap we smiled - we had done it.  We woke in our couchettes in the early morning as the train rumbled through the beauty of the mountains.  Then drank surprisingly and ridiculously good coffee and hot chocolate from a machine on the train and exh and my youngest met us on the rural platform and we drove for 15 minutes to join our friends.   We ski ed all day - so happy to be there.  Tipping on the edge of  tiredness and sanity and sense - glad to have our odd and separated family to make it work.

We have returned relaxed though it may be a thin veneer for the money I have spent was brave but foolhardy and I am trying to get all the washing done before going back to work the next day.   Perhaps I am holding my breath making all the calculations as the news comes in.   In our flat all sounds can be heard but are not always noticed.  I don't think the boys registered the sharp intake of breath.  And I am not sure how to describe to them my historic and instinctive dislike of Margaret Thatcher.   She must look as if from an old world to them/ ding dong pussy bow down the well.  I grew up with her, didn't  trust her and don't think I like the England she made though I notice these days I turn instantly and vehemently right wing in any post office establishment where the hopelessness and surliness of the strongly unionised staff and the 'do not attack the staff' signs seem the last and lousy bastion of the 70s so I wonder as others gather to say that they did - if I support what she did more than I think.  I also admire the clean, well painted England with cared for homes though increasingly I think there is a fetishism to the Fired Earth and Farrow and Ball middle class lifestyle fantasies and wonder how high the fence keeping out the have nots has become.  After all I peer over the wall on an extreme ladder between both worlds - I go on ski ing holidays and work for a national newspaper and then go home to find shit smeared down the stairs of our block and a homeless man stood motionless and vulnerable in the corner of the bin shed as if a naughty school boy had been told to turn to the wall.

On the day of Margaret Thatcher's election as conservative leader I was just a little girl but I can remember saying to my Mum while I was having a bath -  isn't it good to have a woman leader?  My Mum was unexpectedly and unusually vehement and angry  'She has done nothing for women and will do nothing for women.'  though her fierce off guard reaction was more surprising than anything -  something honest in the repressively dutiful face of motherhood.

Looking at pictures of MT published in newspapers - there is a certain charm to the textures of the age - the soft silks, hairspray halo, nubbed knits and masculine have-a-go photo opportunities of her certainty.  I read too that she made a Windsor Castle birthday cake for her children long before she became leader of anything and wonder if at her core was a strange narcissistic childhood mirror of the Queen.  I then spend quite a bit of time reading about their strained relationship - the queen hissing at a BBQ at Balmoral that MT should sit down -   though also described is a strangely touching scene when the Queen realises Mrs T's dementia and breaks with royal protocol to take her arm and gently walk and chat with her.   Though I wonder if this comes from the kindness of being the winner of a previously strong and despised adversary.   Also later when I am having a bath I think my Mum is from the same generation as both of them - just a few years younger - and there is some mirror to her sense of duty and hard work and perhaps there was an envy of these women's power.

Carol Thatcher recalls 'My mother was prone to calling me by her secretaries names and working through each of them until she got to Carol.'  though she also said that Margaret Thatcher had told her 'I think my place in history is assured.'  I imagine the emphasis on 'my'.  Perhaps that is why I resent the stacked up traffic and dipped flags that this vain boast is being honoured.  I do not feel represented at all by this state fanfare though when I get to work and voice my badly thought out resentment I am surprised and horrified that a girl I work with has gone to stand and watch the coffin go by.  Though I shouldn't be surprised - not by where I work  - not by the nice, bright, young woman in sloaney gear - for I imagine she must find the semblance of certainty comforting.

When I visit St Mary le Strand it must only be a day later and the metal fences still line the route.  I park the bike on Kingsway  I have tried so many times to get here but still I go all the way around Aldwych, - I don't even cut through by India House just doggedly walking round the whole half moon traffic island though it is the first hot lunchtime and I am dressed warmly in tights and jumpers and layers as  for so long it has been cold.   I am convinced the church sits at the mouth of the Strand and Waterloo Bridge but it doesn't, it forms it's own thin traffic island in heavy traffic further back like a rock in a stream, the cars moving around.   The thin pavement is hooped by railings with a tumble of pretty garden and a magnolia like a fecund wedding bouquet in a high spray over the entry to the church. Blooming and dropping there is a snow globe of blossom skiddy on the thin steep steps.  I enter the church to find a much much smaller space than I imagined.  This is a church that I thought ( possibly because it  has  taken me so long to get into ) that I think will be really important- a link between Westminster and the City - but in it - I think - oh it doesn't seem that important just an incidental place -  a waiting room - like an ornate bedsit room for God.

Inside, gazing at the ceiling is a couple with a very chatty guide at their side.   I am trying to hear what he has to say but not get embroiled.   Walking around the church I notice a strangely cluttered corner near the altar - glasses case and books all just tumbled on a chair - then a mirror by the hymn books.  I imagine the guide to be strangely vain before meeting his captive audience then realize it is to view the  intricately painted and modelled ceiling carved with white and gold flowers.

This church was one of the 50 New Churches of 1711 known as the Queen Anne Churches built mainly for the fast expanding suburbs of London that included the Hawksmoor chuches in East London and the spread of the disciple named churches to the South.   St Mary Le Strand ( to replace a church pulled down much earlier -  more later ) was designed by the secretly Catholic architect James Gibb who was trained under the Papal architect Carlos Fontana in Italy.   His building is seen to reflect the Italian and Catholic Baroque influences apparently combining elements from the  Palazzo Branconio dell'Aquila designed by Raphael, Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence the church of SS Luca e Martina in Rome and the Cortona's St Maria della Place in Rome.   Though complaints of traffic noise from the Strand even in the eighteenth century meant Gibbs designed the walls of the main church with no low windows.

It is a place where high handed decisions knocked things down and took them away - the early church ( first mentioned in 1222 called St Mary and the Innocents ) was pulled down by the unpopular Edward Seymour 1st Duke of Somerset in 1549 so that he could use the stone to build Somerset House.  Later a maypole that existed on this site for hundreds of years was taken down by the Puritans in 1644 when all Maypoles were banned  though erected again in 1661 after the restoration.

'The Maypole, to which we have already referred as formerly standing on the site of the church of St. Mary-le-Strand, was called by the Puritans one of the "last remnants of vile heathenism, round which people in holiday times used to dance, quite ignorant of its original intent and meaning." Each May morning, as our readers are doubtless aware, it was customary to deck these poles with wreaths of flowers, round which the people danced pretty nearly the whole day. A severe blow was given to these merry-makings by the Puritans, and in 1644 a Parliamentary ordinance swept them all away, including this very famous one, which, according to old Stow, stood 100 feet high. On the Restoration, however, a new and loftier one was set up amid much ceremony and rejoicing. From a tract printed at the time, entitled "The Citie's Loyaltie Displayed," we learn that this Maypole was 134 feet high, and was erected upon the cost of the parishioners there adjacent, and the gracious consent of his sacred Majesty, with the illustrious Prince the Duke of York. "This tree was a most choice and remarkable piece; 'twas made below bridge and brought in two parts up to Scotland Yard, near the king's palace, and from thence it was conveyed, April 14, 1661, to the Strand, to be erected. It was brought with a streamer flourishing before it, drums beating all the way, and other sorts of musick. It was supposed to be so long that landsmen could not possibly raise it. Prince James, Duke of York, Lord High Admiral of England, commanded twelve seamen off aboard ship to come and officiate the business; whereupon they came, and brought their cables, pullies, and other tackling, and six great anchors. After these were brought three crowns, borne by three men bareheaded, and a streamer displaying all the way before them, drums beating and other musick playing, numerous multitudes of people thronging the streets, with great shouts and acclamations, all day long. The Maypole then being joined together and looped about with bands of iron, the crown and cane, with the king's arms richly gilded, was placed on the head of it; a large hoop, like a balcony, was about the middle of it. Then, amid sounds of trumpets and drums, and loud cheerings, and the shouts of the people, the Maypole, 'far more glorious, bigger, and higher than ever any one that stood before it,' was raised upright, which highly did please the Merrie Monarch and the illustrious Prince, Duke of York; and the little children did much rejoice, and ancient people did clap their hands, saying golden days began to appear." A party of morris-dancers now came forward, "finely decked with purple scarfs, in their half-shirts, with a tabor and a pipe, the ancient music, and danced round about the Maypole."

By 1713 it had rotted so much it was removed to make way for the new church  and another set up opposite what is now Somerset House.  This one didn't last long - being bought by Sir Isaac Newton and sent to Wanstead Park where it supported Huygens 37 metre long telescope.

In 1802 three people were killed when a man standing on the roof of the church during a procession of royalty to St Paul's on the proclamation of peace with France lent on part of the parapet and it crashed down on the crowd below.   In 1809 Charles Dicken's parents were married here.

And here in beautiful copperplate writing are the details of an enquiry into the conduct of the St Mary Le Strand temporary watchman to a robbery in 1822

History seems like so many things a matter of scale - nearly 200 years ago can be concertinaed by some small human detail - 'and the window of his Kitchen having no fastening'  I feel my ears whistling with the speed of the journey just as when my eldest son says as I kiss him goodnight  'Mum do you know there is a hurricane on the planet Jupiter that is big enough to contain three planet earths?'    'IT IS JUST TOO BIG TO COMPREHEND.'   I want to shout though of course I don't, my lips just press the warmth of boy skin and I say 'Get to sleep now.  I love you.'

This post seems to finish on a coach trip back from Wales through the pouring rain - when it started after a completely different coach trip to Wales to get the passsport.  A whole half term has elapsed - and I am now on my own on the way back from a camping trip leaving the boys with exh and friends still camping in a forest.   I have had to come back early to get back to work though a little sneaky part of me feels lucky to be warm and guilty to have left them in the cold and wet.   My spirits are truly low for I am going back to many difficult things - a bitter battle with work about how much I should be paid for the job they want to give me.  What should have been a celebration has turned unpleasant and savagely unfair - they say I am lucky to get a job but want to pay me much less than anyone else is getting.   I also received a letter the night before going camping saying I am under investigation by the tax credit office because they think exh lives here - I don't even get very much money from them - but for some reason this has floored me - I have worked so hard to keep everyone going and reasonably stable and they have suspended my payments and my mobile phone bill and the water rates have bounced.

I didn't think I would find room to describe the shock of Newport city centre on a Sunday night when I arrived with my young son in April - the boarded up, closed down town where a shop we went into for a sandwich just had a few chocolate bars spread out on the shelves.   But coming back this time on the dawdle of a National Express coach, through exhausted and deprived Welsh towns, the houses somehow familiar from tv murder investigations and last seen missing children I feel I need to report it.   It makes the have not where I live look really comfortable but perhaps it is just the cheek by jowl of opportunity - by living in a vibrant city anything seems possible.

Then in a tesco supermarket in Swansea I watch a large white seagull with the raw and bloody headless carcass of a pigeon.  Sharp beaked and impassively bright-eyed it repeatedly bangs the squirm of pigeon guts from the grey splayed feathered body against the wet tarmac.

I see too in a place called Cross Hands a man stood still at the thin edge of a demolished church - his boots at the tip of a black hole left at the side of the building  It is such a strange sight - like a french realist painting  - a Millet or Courbet - and I am not even certain I have described it well enough for anyone to understand.I text exh and another friend to say that I am going through a dark journey of the soul.

Finally moving the computer screen to dust the little alcove where I sit and write I notice the dense cloud of purple spots that mark the churches I have visited on the map behind - how many of them there are for the shape of my chiefly Westminster endeavours are tucked behind the screen - wow I think - briefly impressed by my own commitment to the project - and then I see that St Mary Le Strand is the belt of the figure of eight between Westminster and The City - just one more and I am through to the City churches.


Friday, 19 April 2013

St Bride's Church

Sparky our hamster is dying.  Life just slowly ebbing away from the poor little thing.   Each night I check to see if he is alive, thinking he will be dead by the morning  but when I check again first thing I am surprised to find him still breathing.  He drinks water from a bottle I give him by hand.   Before I tell the children he is dying  (manipulatively calculating grief and homework to be done ) I check quickly and can't see him breathing  - RIP Sparky - I text exh - then see the fur whispered by breath.  I have made a mistake I text again.  Don't bury him! he answers.

It is something to do with the attendance to life departing - the spirit still contained within the little body but tipping on a precipice - plus subtefuge to the children that causes me such distress. Also I am not completely sure my instincts are good - friends text to say I should have him put down at the vet or even hurry nature myself though he doesn't look to be in actual pain, just weakening and weakening - but for so long now that it has become completely normal and completely horrible at the same time.   I can't stand the cliff top to grief - though I have a malteser box ready to bury him in - but for some reason - work, money, just balancing everything I feel I just can't cope with anymore, just can't face the extremity to the children feelings and I feel slightly manic.  Then I discover a mum I like very much from school  has had a breakdown and her children come to stay for a few nights and another sadness and stress and subterfuge takes over/alongside. The hamster lying almost still in a cage cloaked in a blanket in the corner of the flat as the four children play.

The mum and dad are splitting up and the mum is in hospital - but the children have only been told she is exhausted.  I can only ask the children what they normally do at home - if they are ok - if there is anything we can do to make them feel more comfortable.   They are beautifully behaved - the boy in my eldest son's year and a little girl of 5.   I am unused to the absolute willingness of a little girl as she offers to clean the chairs and dry up  ( it is true though i am reluctant to collude ) but also children that go to sleep like light bulbs.   The little girl takes to bed the valentine bag she has made her mother though it spreads a new form of glitter - thinner like worms across every part of our flat as if love tries to escape in the night leaving the squirm of shiny trails.

I laugh with exh that we are the patron saints of separated families - suddenly helping other people in the place we have come from though and this is difficult to say - I feel two things - absolute pride that we came through but also looking back at the tightrope  - I can't see how I came out still walking.

Sparky dies finally but peacefully. and the children's grief is raw.  We sit and read the Michael Rosen Sad Book and draw and cry.  This seemingly small grief feels like a preparation for all grief, taps into the grief that they already feel  and it is horrible to watch.  I think I deal with the emotions well though I am unable, completely unable to pick up the little corpse.   Exh says - you manage so many difficult things it is surprising you can't handle this.   I just can't I wail then watch my youngest choke sobs with the upturned, stiff, little body in his hands, it's claws clenched.

I wake on a Sunday morning when the boys are with exh's mum and think unexpectedly I will go to an Evensong.  As a child it was my favourite service, I liked the light at that time of day - either electric lit or light evening and also the lilt of the service.  I wonder if it was because it was just shorter though I think somehow children know what is authentic and the old words seemed more true than the fuss of family services with the vicar meaning well but seeming insincere.   Once I have come up with the plan I am determined though somehow nervous to stick to it.   Still trying to get into St Mary Le Strand I google for service times but there is no evensong.   St Brides does.  Though the website's strap-line is 'spiritual home of the media' and I have some fear that I will walk into a work situation, like an office  leaving do where I don't know anyone.  Though when I park the bike I think excitedly I have reached the shadow's of St Paul's.

 'He just didn't find me'.   I hear the very, very intelligent woman that sits behind me at work say about God.   ' Though I wish he had.  I went to church every Sunday.  Sometimes twice when I was singing in the choir.  Though I never understood 'The meek shall inherit the earth.   It just isn't true.'

I am surprised and fascinated by this open and casual discussion of religion in a newspaper office.   Even thinking about it seems a dirty secret sometimes for there seems always to be an assumption that religion is not just not cool but ' non intelligent ' though she is older and grand.

It is nearly dark as I wind around almost empty narrow back streets and alleys to get to the church.  I wonder why I have made this rather odd cut through from the side street BB bay but the church bells are ringing out and I am nearly late and as I turn into a passageway that runs alongside a tall wall by the churchyard the bells stop. For just a breath in the gloaming I think oh this is the oldest view I have seen but part of it is to do with what seems the ancient hurry of the bell.   I scurry down the old steps dipping down from the level of the graveyard to a high shored up wall that keels over a narrow curved street.  In this dusky light it feels like I have gone back in time.   I can't quite work out how to get into the church but a man infront of me turns off from the narrow curved street and I follow him up some more steps alongside railings and then left into the church.    Out of the dark the church is bright lit with shiny chequered floors and I have to move between screens with huge woodcarvings balanced on top into the main area of the church like venturing into a warm kernel.   There are little lampshades at the side pews, an eagle lectern and an altar like a big ornate wardrobe.    It is almost full, people sat in the pews and on extra chairs and vergers moving forward, the choir processing to their stalls whilst everyone sings.  I rustle into a pew and find the hymn book and sing too.

Next to me are a handsome languid couple nestled to each other like a cashmere catalogue photograph. Behind them a resolute blonde girl hand in hand with a proud looking young man.   Media couples showing up as their preparation to marry here I think.   The rest, mainly people on their own in the pews or seats look intelligent, intense and reasonably good looking.   A good place to find a boyfriend I think briefly.  Then realise there is a real peace here.   The singing is beautiful, and just as I remembered there is something special to this time of day - the night drawing in and a feeling of safety and celebration in a beautiful place as if all dark is kept outside by belonging here.

Later I laugh that I wrote that everyone is 'intelligent, intense and rgl'  as if describing how I would like to be/'my own kind/ a tribe'.   Though I have rarely felt myself to belong to a 'set'.  But then I think about other professional 'packs'.    I hardly know any lawyers but once I went to a friend's child's christening ( she is married to a barrister ) and I was bundled into the back of a tiny car to get a lift back to the house/lunch after the service with two in the front.  A man and a woman but not a couple - old friends - though possibly some sexual arrangement/historic flirtation between them - she appeared to be a middle aged anorexic and he had to stop to buy coca cola he was so hung over.   Once the car doors were slammed shut they laughed so cruelly at the hostess, my beautiful art school friend for being so eccentric  - and yet they seemed a crazy couple - something from a guinness world record challenge - how to fit so many awkward arms and legs in a tiny space.   Eccentric too that they didn't know how to be polite.  Later I thought they were just a tribe, a gang and that my friend just didn't belong in their world and neither did I - sat in the back of the car I just didn't register, was almost invisible just not 'one of them'.

The Verger taking the service ( the Vicar is ill ) starts by apologising for not having lit the altar candles and then says when he was trained he was told if mistakes happen to ignore them in a grand way and not to lose the authority of the service but that the world had changed - it is a disarming start and he carries on to quote Nigel Benn the boxer and a feud with Chris Eubanks.

Unexpectedly I had chanced on the radio someone talking about Mystery Worshipper and it felt like another guilty secret / area of expertise being aired in public.   I peruse the MW website regularly to check reports on the church services of the churches I visit -  like 'entertaining angels unaware' the radio guest said for if God appeared in any guise he should be made welcome - though secret shoppers might be a better analogy.  I had been thinking anyhow about the home / guest aspect of churches after visiting Bloomsbury Baptist Church - when the minister replied to my unkind and snipey post - kindly asking if I had received a warm welcome.  I was embarrassed to be caught out as a rude guest - reporting on the icy atmosphere of a guest bedroom or the nylon sheets on the bed when the welcome had been friendly and sincere.  Though rushing to get the post written I had failed also to mention the really good works the Bloomsbury church carried out for the homeless.

Though the mystery worshipper seemed to have the same gripes about the atmosphere that I did:
'Recalling other interiors of a similar style (churches, lecture rooms, school assembly halls and meeting halls), and wondering whether they are intrinsically stultifying to the imagination, since I found myself unable to imagine anything else while in that setting.'

Though giving high praise for the sermon.

And on St Brides:
'Walking down the passage that led from Fleet Street to St Bride's and hearing the choir rehearsing as I approached the church. I instinctively felt that I'd discovered somewhere that reflected spirituality and warmth.'

Only when I got home and started looking up the history of the church did I find out that whatever I and Mystery Worshipper felt was ancient.   There has been a place of worship on this site since Roman times, certainly from the 5th century when St Bridget or her followers founded the church.  Also that I had missed the crypt that housed the medieval chapel and roman remains that had been discovered when the church was rebuilt after being bombed in the war.

On a Wednesday lunch time I go back along the narrow passageways and streets - Magpie Alley, Primrose Lane -  the names of covered over and disappeared things - dropped feathers and pale yellow faces paved below.

Back in the church ( still shiny and chequered )  I find the crypt down narrow stairs though I seem to be in a haze because I don't really understand the stone remains uncovered from the earth.  A 'bridge'  crosses over the curve of stone foundations, then tucked in a corner is the display information for an iron coffin with patented clasp found in the graveyard though the space is empty.  Invented to keep out body snatchers in the 19th Century it was a faddy invention too expensive for most to use and slow to rot -  at present on display at the Museum of London's exhibition Doctors, Dissectors and Resurrection Men exhibition. At the end there is a medieval chapel - a beautiful and peaceful small, vaulted cave but cluttered with modern blue glass altar candles and modern wall hangings that I really don't like.   I do sit there for a minute but another man is coming in and there doesn't seem enough space for two strangers to sit together.   

In the other room ( the layout is quite odd - there are more remains but with mirrors fitted so it is possible to see areas out of view.   I don't really understand the mirrors ( perhaps not tall enough to view what they are arranging to show? ) though I am really vague about the whole exhibition - I don't understand the diagram with coloured outlines showing the church from roman, twelfth century, thirteenth and fourteenth century and Wren's seventeenth century building - perhaps because I am rushing, perhaps because my concentration is exhausted by work and children.  I had expected to be really moved by what was here underground, discovered after the devastation after the war but I am slightly baffled.   I see the fragments of roman life, the remains of fortification walls, but I can't understand the structure or the history.  I am disappointed because I had thought I would see the well that the church was built alongside but this isn't accessible to the public.  Also when the crypts were opened there were skulls laid in rows and a chequerboard made of bones but there is no trace of this.

I discover however that King John held his parliament here in 1210, Thomas Wolsey was St Bride's parson, Samuel Pepys was christened here and emperor Charles V lodged in Bridewell Palace alongside the church when he visited Henry V111 in 1522 and that the church has been destroyed and rebuilt many times.  From the Roman traces and original 6th century church it was replaced 5 times before the 15th century church that became known as the 'printer's church' was built.  In the 1500s Wynkyn de Worde brought the printing business he inherited from Caxton to St Bride's bringing his business to the clergy who had big houses nearby.  As the trade burgeoned the church became known as the printer's church and later as Fleet Street developed as the home of newspapers the journalist's church.

The guide book claims a crossover in language between trade and theology.

'The printer 'justifies' a line of type, meaning that he makes it fill a space neatly.   Theologically, justification is to have all spaces filled with Christ's righteousness and thereby be freed from the penalties of sin.'

In 1666 the plague hit:
'...the parish had been sorely tried by the Great Plague which reached it in mid-June. The normal mortality had been about nine deaths per week, but these increased to four times that number at the end of July, to over 150 at the end of August and 238 in the week in mid-September when the pestilence was at its height. From that time the figures fell quickly and the danger had passed by November, but it left the parish desolate and many houses tenantless. The vicar, Richard Peirson, stayed at his post, although both his Churchwardens died, and carried through the heartbreaking task of giving what relief was possible and burying the dead.'

And then fire:

'For two days and nights after the hour before dawn on Sunday, 2 September 1666, the inhabitants watched the fire approach with growing alarm. By Tuesday morning, the third day, it had reached Blackfriars, and on that day the parish of St Bride was overwhelmed. 'Ye parishe was burnt downe', wrote the clerk in the Burial Register, 'but sixteene houses in ye brode place by Newe Street.' The plague had wrought havoc among the parishioners, now the parish itself except for sixteen houses had been destroyed. The Church had become a blackened skeleton, its belfry empty and its stones shattered.'

Only melted metal from a medieval curfew bell and the eagle lectern which was rescued from the church survived.  Afterwards t
he churchwardens wisely took Dr Wren out for dinner at the Globe Tavern at a cost of £12.17 od and the church became one of the first post-fire churches ready for worship.   Only after  the church was again destroyed on 29th December 1940 was it discovered that Christopher Wren had just built over the remains of the six previous churches forming extensive crypts had been used for burials and layered the history of the church.

Cycling home from work one night I notice suddenly that the disputed line of pavement and grass in Parliament Square is bald, shaved of tents.   At home I look it up - the last tents - left unmanned were cleared away on the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.  It seems a spiteful date.

I think of Brian Haw's symbolic vigilance for peace cleaned away, his 9 cold pavement years leaving no trace.  I discover his Dad worked in a betting shop and committed suicide by gassing himself when Brian was 13.  He had been one of the first soldiers to enter the Bergen Belsen concentration camp at the end of WW2.

Brian Haw's  'rectitude was a mirror that the people in the building opposite couldn't bear.' said Mark Wallinger.

Watching  - dead bodies dragged to a pit like a bucket slowly filled, the healthy and practical stoicism of the living like ants - I think we should all hold the mirror up. 

I tell the boys I am going to make tiny temporary peace sculptures and place them surreptitiously on the the posts that rope off the pavement from the grass in Parliament Square opposite the House of Commons.   Guerrilla art I say and they are keen to help.  But I haven't done it.   Yet.