Popular Posts

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Little Chapel That Cried

"I wonder who will be the last, the very last, to seek this place for what it was."
--Phillip Larkin, 'Church Going'

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Platt Fields Unitarian Chapel.

I call it "The Little Chapel That Cried".

Derelict, it stands across Wilmslow Road from the college where I am doing my ministerial training. It was built in 1702, and held Unitarian services until 1972. After that, until as recently as three years ago, it was home to the Manchester Amateur Photographic Society.

Now it's for sale, a snip at a mere 350,000 quid. "That's for nothing," says Eddie, the current owner. I met him last time I wandered by. He tried to sell it to me, complete with the attendant graveyard, holding all that was mortal of several Lord Mayors of Manchester as part of the bargain.

Every time I have to do my shopping at the local Sainsbury's for the past six months, I've walked past this gently crumbling reminder of the arc of history I find myself in. I've been reading the book The Death of Christian Britain by the social historian Callum Brown. The statistics he marshalls cover about the same time frame through which this little chapel has travelled, and the numbers point to the same inescapable conclusions the chapel bodies so palpably: mutability, decline, and transformation.

I have been away from the UK twelve years. This doesn't quite make me Rip McWinkle, but at today's accelerated rate, it's been long enough to see things are heading south here. It's not just the economy, the "Broken Britain" malaise...it seems generally accepted that its best days are behind it, if for no other reason than the PM ("CallMeDave" Cameron) insists the opposite is true. (A thing is true when a coalition government vigorously denies it, is my motto...).

You already sort of know the story: post-world-war disillusionment, the rise of consumerism, the advance of scientific knowledge producing an increased sense of human sufficiency, greater social mobility and freedom. The pros and cons of all these are debatable of course, but together, their inertia has created a sense of inexorable undertow, like the pull of the sea.

An indication of this is that vast majority of the cultural industries here are turning out antiquarian and history-based material--game shows, tv drama, films, reality programming, documentaries--our own little Hellenistic period. Feeling there is no future, we lose ourselves in dreams of the past, which are always rosier dreamt of than actually lived through. Don't get me wrong, I like nothing better than costume drama, but I thank my lucky stars I live in a world of anti-biotics and anaesthetics, and that my daughters aren't condemned to servility in marriage or developing rickets from 12-hour-day factory shifts.

Our denomination, for all its uniqueness and progressive foresight, has not been immune to this tidal pull, its glory days having reached their height just before WW1, a mere century ago. Once, the Unitarians boasted a social impact massively disproportionate to its numbers, counting as it did some of the empire's best and brightest amongst its adherents. But today, the heritage-listed buildings we joyously threw up in our heyday are like financial millstones, as the damp sets in, gravity and erosion work their patient transfiguration, the famished packs of vandals steal the copper-piping and the lead from the roofs, anything, in fact, from which the most meager profit can be wrung--even if only as firewood for a cold night. With declining numbers (our statistical truth), there is less and less we can do about this. It's a jungle out there, and the chapel has been gnawed at by scavengers over the past 30 years.

But Eddie, my Virgil in this dark netherworld, tells me there's hope, of a kind.

He's pleasant enough, bluff, chatty, and sharp, and wants me to know (having discerned my accent) that he loves the states and has been to Graceland several times. And like a true Elvis man, there is no irony when he tells me he looks at The Little Chapel That Cried and sees not decline, but opportunity.

The chapel sits next to a large public park, and he takes me out the back and, with his arms waving, sketches in the air his vision of the restaurant the place could become, with an imaginary back deck area, sweeping across and above the gravestones, to take in the full view of the green fields beyond the hedge-rows. "The sun sets right behind those trees,' he swoons. "Glass of wine. Lovely."

And just like the vandals, Eddie looks at this place where centuries of Mancunians were hatched, matched, and dispatched, where generations of free-thinkers revelled in the worship of mighty forces, where thousands of human souls' depths were plumbed--and sees not history, but money. The principle is the same whether you're a junkie looking for a pew to chop up for warmth or a property developer trying to ramp your margins: acquire, asset-strip, profit, move on.

He senses I may not be interested in buying a picked-over antiquarian shell, so tempts me further. He tells me that the Manchester Police department have set aside a 100,000 pound grant for anyone who buys this site with an eye to developing it. This makes sense, I concede to him. A derelict building, even on a main road, is an invitation to criminality.

"Oh, it's not just to save the building. The 100 thousand quid is for anyone wanting to turn this into a licensed rave venue. Keeps the kids where you can keep an eye on them. Police reckon it's money well-spent."

And so from one kind of (ahem) ecstasy to another, this little chapel will transform. Religion to rave. From the ringing of the bell that called the faithful to new music ringing out. Plus ca change?

If I were a better writer, I would compose a dapper little elegy on the ironies of fate, like the Hellenistic poets, who also sensed their ancient gods being co-opted by the uber-slick Romans, and transmogrified into a strange new service.

Maybe later. Right now I want to run...

So I take my leave of Eddie, who presses a business card into my hand. On the back of it, scrawled in ball-point, it reads: "Swinton Police Station", the name of a P.C. and gives a phone number. He claps me on the back and starts to croon in Elvis baritone "Glory, glory hallelujah..."

What is going on here? Police approved raves, white-van-driving property developers, vandalised chapels, gravestones...

As I look back at the chapel shrinking into distance, the lines from the Larkin poem, cited above, rang in my ears:

For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

For some reason, all our compulsions have met in this little spot, then as now. The chapel is a screen upon which we continue to project whatever it is our compulsions are, and thus says more about us than about it.

And I note that, as I move far enough away to cover the chapel with my hand, there's one thing no one's managed to strip and sell. Look in the belfry in the photo above, and you can just about see it.

Yes: it's the 17th century bronze bell, silent now and for a long time. Too hard for easy pickings.

Suddenly, I want to pick up a rock and ring it, hard and loud and unendingly.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

To the mysterious phantom readers...

Dear reader(s) in:

et cetera,

Blogger's stats function tells me you're out there. Common sense tells me you read English well enough to surf English-language sites.

Why not become a follower (not my ideal choice of words) of the blog?

You could then tell us about yourself. We might get to know each other, share ideas, have a conversation, even.

For instance, I am surprised that my most-read entry "Govinda and the Heartbreak of the Bentley", a piece I wrote rather quickly and without the usual agonising self-relfection. Why is this so? Anyone?

It used to be thought that the inter-tubes were a revolutionary means of creating communities of shared interests that transcended the tyranny of distance, made the world smaller, helped us all feel a bit less alone. I say "used to be thought" because it's since become co-opted by capitalism, and now is mostly a new way to collect marketing data.

The few unobtrusive ads I attach have so far netted me $0.00. Message: I ain't doing this for the money.

Marketing isn't what this is about. You have to click on an advert to attract the attention of marketers, so there's no chance of cookies or viruses or anything else infecting your hard-drive, unless you take that fateful step. So don't click on them.

Becoming a follower just means we can talk and get to know one another. No traps, no gimmicks, just (virtual) human contact. I've even adjusted the settings so that ANYONE can post without even being a follower (I still retain editorial control, of course).

So why not post?

Don't lurk: talk.

Don't just see something; say something.

Be a 'with-ness', not a witness.

I know you're out there...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

An Island of Time

For years I've dreamed that one day I could get myself into a position to do nothing but read, reflect, and write. That one day I'd manage to slough off, just for a year or two, the endless rounds of work and getting and spending and the thousands of distractions that conspire to yank you out of purposefully exploring an inner life. I thought if I could manage that somehow, all the stuff I've done and all the roles I've played (on stage and off) over decades of workaday life would somehow coalesce and resolve into something like an integrated self. And once coalesced, like the colours of the rainbow, it might become a white light to see more clearly with.

Somehow (and it took some doing), I have actually managed carve out a little island of time, a year or two at best, before returning to a structured working life again. Those close to me know that getting here has not been easy. I chucked my good job like a bad suit of clothes, cannonballed into the lake of under-employment, and dog-paddled for 18 months doing part-time teaching, voice-overs, some preaching and some acting. Then I got on a plane, and here I am, at distance from my much-beloved wife and daughters and my good Australian friends.

To call ministry a 'late-life career change' is accurate but superficial, as it involves a bit more than learning a new skill set. An inner journey cannot be taught, but must be learned, and it rightly requires a lot of reflective time. Hence the temporary disengagement from routine, alone and reflective on this island of time.

"Sounds great; lucky sod" I hear my working friends think.

But let me tell you--I'm not so sure this was such a great idea any more.

It's not the lack of accustomed comforts, nor even the visceral ache or being apart from those you love, nor the navigation of strange new vocational waters with incomplete maps. The really big shocks and challenges are entirely existential and to do with time itself. Here are just a few that leap presently to mind :

1. You realize how prodigal you've been with the time allotted in your one, finite little human life. "Wise men grieve most for the loss of time" said John Donne. I haven't done the mental arithmetic, but I'd venture that out of 54 years on earth, I may have spent nine months of it drifting in traffic jams and slow queues. Enough time for a whole human being to gestate. I don't even want to contemplate what might turn out to be years watching tv, or doing things I've actively loathed.

2. Time moves faster than you think. Call me old-fashioned, but one of my all-time favorite plays is still Thornton Wilder's Our Town. In the final act, the deceased heroine Emily Webb, looks back at the place she spent her life and has this epiphany, which I still find moving:

"I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another…I didn’t realize....Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it– every, every minute?"

To which the Stage Manager replies: "Saints and poets. They do, some."

Like stepping off one of those moving sidewalks after a long spell, your feet hit the solid earth and pwang!--your body has to catch up with itself for a split second, and you realize how fast you were travelling, and how used to it you became. No wonder most of us are tired most of the time.

As Kurt Vonnegut would say: "Where's the fire, son?"

3. Time only moves forward. Just because you (well, me) happen to have more past than future, doesn't mean you get visiting rights to what's been. Memory-soaked places in our past we call "old haunts", but it's a little misleading, because what haunts them is you. The place has moved on but you have not somehow, and swirling around and occupying and pulsing through what you thought, for a time, was yours, actually belongs to others now. The house you raised a child in is being tended and dreamed in by others. A bridge where you fell helplessly, totally in love is choked with scurrying office workers. The past becomes another country, and you don't speak its language or know its customs. The river looks the same, but you can't step into it twice and have it be the same river.

I don't pretend these are great revelations. We are already aware of them, however dimly. But the felt truth of them makes you want to plunge back into the current of the everyday and swim along with everyone else, abandoning the island of time to the splendid isolation of itself.

Or just maybe, you're able to swim with this gift of awareness in mind, more sensible of each stroke, each rippling wave, each plash of fellow-paddlers, each gull-cry above the broad and fathomless water, carrying as it does all the living and the dead, sweeping it all fast and forward into who knows what.

And maybe, just maybe, my own voyage--the only one in which I have any agency--can be directed and matter in some small but affirming way:

One ship drives East,
and another drives West,
With the self-same winds that blow;
Tis the set of the sails, and not the gales,
Which tells us the way to go.

Like the winds of the sea are the ways of fate,
As we voyage along through life;
Tis the set of the soul that decides its goal,
And not the calm or the strife.
--Ella Wheeler Wilcox