For The Someday Book

Archive for the ‘London’ Category

Hopefully you can tell that, even though the work of ministry is hard and demanding much of the time, I love it. This week, I got to experience one of the thousands of reasons why:

Because ministry puts us in all kinds of places, with all kinds of people, with both openness and obligation to invite real, deep conversation about things that matter.

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Also, I got to sit on a Harley Davidson.

In the last three days, I have had meetings or substantial conversations with:

  • A community organizer about engaging our church in the work of growing a public voice in Central London
  • A homeless member of our congregation about helping provide a security deposit for permanent housing
  • The leader of a local neighborhood association about the redevelopment of our block, including potential business partners who might help with our own building improvements
  • A church member who, in spite of a year full of her own challenges, agreed serve in a leadership position in the congregation
  • A bright, engaging guest in our weekly night shelter who is a recent arrival from Africa with no money, no right to work, and no recourse to public funds, who wanted to learn more about Christianity beyond his Roman Catholic upbringing
  • The producer of a West End musical renting our space for rehearsal and a preview night, about our shared perspectives on the creative process and leading audiences/congregations into a moving experience
  • The Harley-Davidson bikers who came to display their bikes in front of the church for the preview event, about the differences between Judaism and Christianity, the U.S. military in the UK and U.S. politics
  • A couple who won tickets to the preview on a radio show, about how they spend all their free time and resources going to live concerts, which is a spiritual experience for them
  • The head of my son’s international school, about diversity, social justice, and how our institutions find ourselves in similar moments of change and adaptation, as London shifts around us.
  • A church volunteer at the night shelter about a difficult situation at home, for whom I was able to offer a referral for outside support
  • An actor in the West End show, about his rural home and the tiny chapel only accessible by horse or foot, to which he goes to find holy peace

And those are just the significant conversations, lasting more than a few minutes or touching deeper notes of spiritual and community life. There were plenty of other conversation with staff, church members, Soup Kitchen guests, night shelter guests, theatre guests and members of the public, all week long.

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Theatre cast, bikers, commuters, night shelter guests and volunteers, media and DJs, radio contest winners, church choir members, crew and more, all mingling in front of the church

Aside from the church, it’s hard to think of another organization that breaks so many boundaries and brings together people from so many diverse walks of life. While the great privilege of ministry is the ability to stand in these intersections every day, the even better truth is that anyone can join in. The church community offers anyone and everyone a chance to gather with all kinds of people, in all kinds of places, with both openness and obligation to invite real, deep conversation about things that matter.

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London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd, London: Vintage, 2001, 822 pp.

London-the-biographyThis book topped my list of things to read to acquaint myself with my new city before I moved, but cancer treatment and all the overwhelm of moving delayed it until I’d already lived here for 18 months. In the end, I’m glad of that timing. I can’t imagine how I would have understood or absorbed much of the book’s content if I didn’t already have some sense of the geography and architecture of the city. This book is as much an interpretation of London as it is a history of it, and I would not have understood its meaning without first having known London itself.

Peter Ackroyd was unknown to me in the U.S., but he is everywhere here, a prolific writer of fiction, history, biography and TV documentaries. He is captivated by the way London’s history and personality live on, even though the city changes constantly. He has a particular interpretation of the city as a place driven first and foremost by commerce, wealth and glamor, with a constant underside of poverty, sordidness and anonymity that allow flourishing subcultures. This masterwork on London captures those themes throughout.

Bolstered by sources but unburdened by the need to prove a historical case, deeply researched but unmoored from the demands of scholarly thoroughness, Ackroyd’s biography unwinds a compelling narrative of London as though it was a living being, a creature carving out its identity across time, with some traits endemic and immutable, and others changed by its story. In spite of its length, the book’s short chapters, organized by topic or neighborhood or niche rather than simple chronology, made it seem like a very quick read. Ackroyd’s prose turns a tome into a page-turner.

As a lover of social history, I enjoyed his attention to London theatre, labor, protests, poverty, literature, crime and other topics, rather than just a litany of major events, leaders and decisions that shaped its history. I especially appreciated the way Ackroyd honed in on microcosms of people and neighborhoods. There are whole chapters dedicated to eccentric personalities that once inhabited a particular street. Each dwelled for 30 or 40 years in a tiny corner of the massive city of millions, but somehow, to Ackroyd, they capture something of London’s essence, so he tells us their stories. By the same turn, there are chapters that look at a particular small square or neighborhood across time, and the way certain traits seem to dwell there. For example, he talks about poverty and seediness in St. Giles, and revolutionary plotting or protest in Clerkenwell Green. Ackroyd sees a persistent, recurring pattern of social behavior that he links to various places in the city, as though the places themselves are inhabited by a particular spirit that shapes the people who dwell there. A more sober historian might scoff, but I found his case compelling and delightful.

In spite of its size, this is not a reference book. If you want to learn about the history of the Temple Bar or when a particular borough was founded, you won’t find that here. Instead, this is a book to read like a biography–cover to cover–in order to meet London and get to know its personality. Like any biography, you might not like the author’s angle, and you will have to rely on your own observations or the alternative perceptions of others to argue for another, truer personality. I found Ackroyd’s insights fascinating, and true to my own reading of the city in many ways. After reading the book, I look at the city differently as I venture out in it. I see layers I did not notice before, I find historical treasures not readily visible, and I am able to place myself within the city’s narrative in a new way.

I recommend Ackroyd’s book to all Londoners and London lovers, though I suggest it will be best appreciated by those who know the city, rather than as an introduction or prelude to a visit.

 

Before you read this post, if you commented on the original post about having cancer and moving to London, I finally had the chance to reply. Click here and go to comments to read my responses to your lovely prayers and good wishes.

The other afternoon, the Associate Pastor of my new church came rushing into my office. “I have to show you something!” Stepping to the window, she pointed to a man in the park next door. Wearing a full tuxedo, top hat and tails, he sat atop a speaker, holding a tuba on his lap.

As he began to play along to the oompah music blaring from the speaker between his legs, fire began to shoot out the top of the tuba. With each puff of sound, there also arose a puff of fire, spewing from the top of the horn.

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This is a fuzzy picture of Flaming Tuba Guy, without the fire. I promise I’ll replace it with a good picture, including flames, next time he’s in the square.

It was street performance at its finest, and a crowd soon formed. My colleague explained that he frequents this corner, and he has become, for her, a treasured part of the London landscape. After sharing her delight, she went back to her office to get back to work.

Not me. I’m like, “OMG, he’s got fire coming out of his tuba! It’s amazing! How does he do that? I’ve gotta stop everything and get outside and take a picture!” Because, really, what in my life and work at that minute could outdo a Flaming Tuba Guy?

I’m sure, as the weeks pass, he will fade into the background. The day will come when I also get annoyed that I can’t concentrate over the sound of the oompah music, or can’t pass the sidewalk because of the crowd. That first day, however, I had to stop everything and get a closer look, to pay attention and marvel at the spectacle of the Flaming Tuba Guy outside my office window.

As I contemplated Flaming Tuba Guy on my way home, I realized how much my breast cancer diagnosis is like Flaming Tuba Guy.

When it first happened six weeks ago, I felt like everything stopped. I couldn’t think about anything else, see anything else, do anything else except imagine myself as a cancer patient. Everything in the world shrunk down to a small hospital room, a blurry gray image on the screen, and pink ribbons everywhere. I stopped in my tracks, and so did all of you—my friends and family and community—to grapple with this unexpected thing confronting me.

As time has passed, along with more tests and doctor visits and procedures, breast cancer is slowly becoming just another part of the wider landscape. Some days, it’s there, and a big part of my life. Last Monday, I had a minor surgery (sentinel node biopsy), just 9 days after entering the country and three days after starting my new job. I spent a 14-hour day at the hospital, and the next day in bed recovering. Even then, I had lots of time to sit and wait, and I did some reading and planning for church.

Some days, it’s like the crowd in the street or the annoying earworm. By Wednesday after my surgery, I could spend most of the day doing what I love: ministry and motherhood. I had to juggle my schedule for a doctor’s appointment, deal with not wearing deodorant due to my incision, and get help lifting heavy objects for two weeks while I heal. Those things are annoyances, but nothing that stops my daily living.

Other days, it’s not a factor in my decision-making at all. By the weekend, I felt pretty good, and we took the chance of my good health and London’s rare good summer weather to explore the city. We spent the afternoon on Hampstead Heath, including climbing all the way to the top of Parliament Hill. On Sunday after church, we explored Oxford Street and Regent Streets, a major shopping area. Regent Street was closed to traffic, and there was music playing and thousands of people packing the streets because Magnum was handing out free ice cream. We explored the amazing Hamley’s Toy Store, which is the best I’ve ever seen. Other than the lack of deodorant, it was a cancer-free day.

While I know that the coming regimen of chemotherapy will make for more rough days ahead, I’m taking comfort in the claim that cancer is going to be like Flaming Tuba Guy. It’s gonna stop me, distract me, captivate me sometimes, because it’s breast cancer, for goodness sake. But not every day. Not all the time. It will be a part of my London landscape, but not all of it.

Thanks, Flaming Tuba Guy. Oompah on, my friend.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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