London feels different on an early Saturday morning. There are few people around and the streets can be appreciated without the domination of motorism. To study Victoria and Pimlico in more depth I am walking up and down streets, exploring each road that leads off, looking behind the facades at the delivery areas, walking in a circle around the base of high rise buildings. It is slightly disorientating but I am beginning to see the landscape differently. The differences and sameness are becoming more apparent. Without people and motor vehicles it is possible to get a better sense of buildings within their space, how they were designed and what they were designed for. Distinctions are beginning to appear too. Victoria Street is a particular place; Victoria Station another, as is Cardinal Place.
I’m standing in Artillery Row. I want to stand here as long as possible before some mysterious force takes over and suggests that I move. But until that happens I will stand here. Police vans cruise around. Two blue vans with Tactical Support Group written on them. These are hard-core police thugs make no mistake. What goes on in their minds? Dare we ask. I should have taken a photograph of them just to annoy them. They are suspicious and fearful of cameras, notebooks, sketch books, pens and pencils. I am inventing witty comments in my head; ‘oh you don’t want to stop me, you should be going to Downing Street to investigate illegal parties’. One becomes conspicuous when the police pass. No one else creates this sense.
I look at the buildings in Artillery Row for some time. I am waiting for cars to stop parking outside so that it’s possible to get a picture without cars in it. By standing for so long in one place just looking, one may notice more. I have been looking at the buildings for some time before I notice the artillery cannon above the doorway. It’s a particular statement. There was a great deal of anti-war feeling before 1914. It temporarily grew smaller in the August of that year as the British State and its supporters created a jingoistic carnival that made being a democrat within a so-called democracy increasingly difficult. By 1916 the anti-war mood was becoming bigger and more intense. Soldiers in uniform could be seen nodding their heads in agreement at street corner meetings organised by socialists and the Women’s Suffrage League. In 1917, Revolution in Russia and then a year later, Germany, Austria, Hungary; political upheavals in Poland and throughout Europe. There was a great deal of anti-war sentiment immediately following the war and throughout the 1920s and 1930s. I wonder where the idea of that artillery gun had come from and whether those involved had served in the trenches? There is a certain ratio where those who have been closest to bullets, bombs and death are often those most opposed to such things. And those who have never experienced such things are those who claim to remember war the most.
* * * * *
I am lost in thoughts in Denbigh Street and Denbigh Place walking towards Westminster Cathedral. A Big Issue seller is standing outside feeding the pigeons. I half want to go and see the Eric Gill sculptures. I want a space without all that social media shouting. I’m trying to find space where it’s possible to talk, to have conversations, to listen, to feel ideas and opinions change through words which travel through the air rather than fibre optic cables and satellites.
A service is taking place. In the main body of the church a scattering of people which is gradually increasing in numbers. I’m scratching notes in a small pad bought from Morrisons for 50p. These are excellent resources and are bought in bulk.
An elderly Irish man stops and says, ‘would you like me to explain what’s going on here?’ I would very much indeed. He leads me towards the entrance of the cathedral and away from the altar. He takes me into St Andrew’s Chapel (as he later points out). He explains the different histories of the Catholic Church in Ireland, England and Wales and Scotland, the survival of Catholic families after the Reformation, the impact of the Catholic Emancipation Acts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the biography of Cardinal Wiseman.
‘A lot of Irish people came to England to work here’, he said, ‘particularly to Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and London. And where else did they go?’ he asked staring at me intently with his crystal blue eyes set in his red face.
‘America’ I replied,
‘That’s right’, he said, ‘Boston, New York’.
‘And everywhere the Irish went, they built their churches. Eighty percent of the money for this Cathedral was contributed by Irish workers’. He looked at me as to if to ask with his eyes, ‘do you understand what that means?’ And then he added, ‘And there were some rich benefactors as well’.
‘This the Latin mass and it’s held every day at 10.30 – except on a Sunday’, he added. He looked at me and we both understood why Sunday’s might be different.
‘But today there are Cantors here too’. And as the priest spoke – or lightly sang the mass – they sang a counterpoint.
‘Yes, the Irish workers went everywhere to seek their fame and fortune, and I was one of them. I came over here when I was fifteen’.
‘Did you find it?’ I asked.
He smiled. ‘Well, I found my fortune. That’s my wife’. And he nodded in her direction in the assembly of people. ‘But fame….’ his voice trailed off and he smiled again.
‘Where are you from in Ireland’, I asked.
‘Belfast’, he said. ‘So I was bought up with all the discrimination against Catholics. But more Nationalist than Republican’.
I hesitated with the next question because he had outlined a great deal of history in a knowledgable and perceptive way. Sometimes one regrets not asking this question, and other times, one wishes that it had been left alone.
‘What did you do for work?’ I asked.
He looked at me closely.
‘Now that I’m not telling you’, he said.
This was an excellent answer but I wish now the question had been left unsaid. How can a person be reduced to their ‘job’. It feels in some ways to sully a person’s character. To judge someone, to make all sorts of assumptions. Sometimes this comes up naturally in conversation, or someone volunteers it. But people have pride and dignity which they do not want to be impinged upon with ‘job’ and therefore ‘salary’ and ‘wage’ and ‘value’ and a whole heap of other things. It’s why so few of us know what each other earns. It is a personal and private matter and we do not want to be judged by it. It creates a money value which has little if anything to do with our character, personality or any other qualities. If someone wants to parade around on the basis of their ‘net worth’ well that’s up to them but no sane society would consider that meant anything at all.
‘I’m going to rejoin my wife’ he said. We went to shake hands and then stopped just short.
‘We’re not supposed to do this are we?’ We both chuckled. We bumped elbows instead. I thanked him for his time and conversation.
I joined the congregation and stood when everyone else did and sat back down again when they did. Words could be picked out of the Latin such as ‘unitas’. The Cantors sang, the Priest intoned the mass. I looked across the crowd of people. All of the world was here in a way. And when people stood it wasn’t a mystical experience but a very material one. As if this was the real thread of humanity, a continuity of people sharing a belief, of sharing the idea of the Life of Jesus and the scriptures, of certain ethics and morals and standards of life. The crowd of people seemed timeless, it was as if standing in a stream of time in which the poor people stand, never with the power to start wars or shape the political discussions, but always in this stream of time, the ones who grow the food and dig the soil and work the machines and build the houses.
An invisible blanket fell over us all. If this unity needs a name then it could be called God but that has too many difficult associations. But there was something in that moment that felt quite rare. A unity, something universal about being human. Within this public space all involved shared a personal, private and intimate moment. There was a great stillness during the intonation, a sense of peace, of the possibility of some greater force that might end war, conflict, poverty and want. Those of religious inclination will assign that force to something they label ‘God’. The existence of ‘God’ can be disputed; but it should not be disregarded that a unity of people is itself a powerful force which might achieve great things.
There was much more to the day. Talking to two young security guards outside a derelict office building. They were both so intelligent and thoughtful. One told me he’s a street photographer. ‘You have to walk really slowly’ he said.
I took his advice and walked slowly along Carlisle Place, Stillington Street, Greencoat Place, Willow Place, Warwick Way, Tachbrook Street and Churton Street.
That generated yet more pages of notes and photographs and several half formed ideas and a new set of questions. That will be my research for the week.