Saturday, December 27, 2008

Ambient Love - poem 5 December 2008

I lie next to your warmth
One arm placed over you
In a silent, gentle communion.
And in those moments
The clock barely ticks
Time’s escalator runs slow
And this could be eternity
Or at least a glimpse.

A Landmark Closes: My final visit to St Peter & Pauls Church, Wallasey - September 2008

The green-domed church at the top of Atherton Street, in Wallasey, is a major landmark in Merseyside, a prominent sight for those approaching or leaving by ship. For me, it represented a different kind of landmark, in my childhood. When it was announced, following much rumour and a long campaign, that this would definitely close on August 17th 2008 (bar a wedding later in August), I determined to visit this for one last occasion.

Much ambivalence surrounded this visit. My Mother was (and is) a Roman Catholic, from a family that was so rigidly Catholic that her own mother was reluctant to talk to people who were Protestants. Marrying my father, who was CofE, she talked about this as a “mixed marriage”, and some of his family had opposed it for a time. It did matter more in the 1930s and 1940s, when separate education was a critical issue, and when the founding of the Irish Free State, explicitly Catholic, was a recent event. For my grandparents, it was important to identify themselves as Irish in some way. However, my grandmother was born in 1890 in Barnstaple in Devon, as her father was a customs officer), and my grandfather some years earlier in Liverpool. My sister, the family genealogist made one amusing discovery – that it was likely that one of them was descended from Irish Protestants…happily a long time after both had died. But the divisions, and the identity, were strong. My father collected rents in parts of Liverpool Walton in the 1950s, and recalled asking one tenant if she or he knew a tenant in the adjacent street. The reply was that they never went into that street, because its inhabitants were of the opposite religion. It was only slum clearance in the 1960s that scattered “communities” that were in fact extremely divided and exclusive; I recall reading in the 1960s about a Protestant Party that had council seats, and indeed this party won its last seat in 1973 before it was dissolved and absorbed into the Conservative Party.

As a boy, I was told that I was a Roman Catholic, and attended the relatively modern churches at English Martyrs (which my Mother still attends, and where she reads the lesson), and the later one in Leasowe Road. Sometimes, we went to St Peters & Pauls, partly so that we could visit my other (Protestant) grandparents, who lived in Wellington Road. This was much more ostentatious, built in 1935, and bigger than some cathedrals. Despite confirmation, I had given up my involvement with the Church by the age of 18, and have since moved into a different religious affiliation; both my weddings were conducted in register offices. My differences with the Catholic Church are many and continuing, but these are not for discussion here. My concern is my feelings over the loss of a personal landmark.

My sisters had been married in the Leasowe Road church in 1981 and 1982, and I had attended English Martyrs for my grandmothers funeral in 1974. I had returned in 2002, to attend a requiem Mass for my first wife – an odd occasion which again belongs in another essay. My previous visit to St Peters & Pauls had been to my cousin’s wedding there, about 1979. When in 2006 , it seemed to be under threat of closure, I photographed the exterior, but on 5th July 2008 it was announced that the church doors would close on Sunday August 17th (when I would be away), and this presented a final chance to photograph the interior.

It had not really occurred to me that I would be re-visiting the church service as well as the church, until I was inside the building. It seemed inappropriate to walk in, camera in hand, at the end of the service, and so I walked in and sat on the one of the same wooden pews that I had sat as a child. On the way in, a group had handed out what I assumed to be an order of service, but which was in fact a letter of protest. It would be odd to watch the priest come in at the front of the church in the knowledge that protests were being made at the back.

I had read that the whole place was falling down, with estimates of over £1 million to repair it, yet, apart from signs of a leaking roof, it seemed in better order than it had been in the 1960s and 1970s. It was odd to sit there and see that the space itself, and its embellishment, had not changed. Somehow I had thought that the whole place could be in ruins.

I could recall services being in Latin, before this was set aside after the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Sadly, the service in English held little meaning for me now, but it brought back memories of endless chanting and responses. I remembered an elderly priest droning on with sermons that I could not hear through the amplification. The present priest, however, made a short sermon that could be heard, in a familiar Merseyside accent – something that I did not recall from the rather prissy priests that I encountered in childhood. His sermon made sense, simply expressing the conclusion, from a short New Testament passage, that God is nearest when people are still rather than manifested in storms. This was closer to my current religious affiliation, and I would ponder this when I attended a very different service two hours later. I was not sure what the reaction would be if I was to relate what a Catholic priest had stressed, so I was to keep quiet.

Sadly, the service mostly raised memories of the sheer boredom of childhood, sitting hoping the whole thing would end. I did note the grilles in the floor of the centre aisle – still there, of course – and wondering whether anyone ever dropped money down them. Then, in a departure from my previous experience, almost the whole congregation queued up to go to the altar for communion. These included wafers and wine – the latter something I would have had to refuse, as I am strictly temperance. In my childhood, however, you could only attend communion if you had previously been to confession, which involved a small lone child telling a single man about all the sins that he had committed. I remain glad that this practice has been set aside.

After the service, I gingerly waited for most of the church to clear, and took a few digital photographs. I expected someone to object, but then noted that someone else was taking photographs, so took some more. And then I walked out, for the final time, with a gathering sense of loss. I have photographed many places that might disappear, or even when the bulldozers were already on site, but this represented more than just architecture. The inability to return to that building, to rekindle the contact enabled by that last visit, reminded me of the finality of much loss. More importantly than my sense of loss, my Mother later told me that, attending the nearby convent, she was there when the foundation stone was laid and when the church opened in 1935. And she was there, later on in the month, the night before it closed. It holds a very different meaning for me, but I can sympathize.

The affairs of the Roman Catholic Church should really be of no concern for me. It could also be said that the buildings with which it is encumbered do not represent the religious message and the pastoral care that a church should provide for its members. I have been involved in other churches in which the buildings seemed like expensive millstones, getting in the way of the religion that they supposedly housed, and a more radical view of the purpose of religion is more likely to attract my sympathy. With falling numbers of priests (one priest now services three churches), falling congregations, and shifts in personal and social morality, the Church has more to contend with than buildings that were developed for a different approach to church authority, involvement and liturgy. The lack of democracy has upset many local Catholics, although autocracy is the principle on which the Church operates. And yet – I cannot help feeling that for many people, another part of their past has been uprooted, another partial sense of homelessness has been evoked. I feel this visiting many churches – their congregations and buildings represent some kind of community that could and should exist, not for the reproduction of arcane religious principles, or for domination and repression, but for the benefits that community and belonging, at their best, can bring. Ironically, the Church facilities are to be shared with the nearby CofE church, All Saints. My father’s funeral was conducted there, with my Mother’s approval. This is, happily, a far cry from the kinds of division between Catholic and Protestant that characterized many parts of Merseyside.

My wife Sara said tonight that to stay in the same place, to walk through the same park, along the same streets, and indeed visit the same church (had my religious views not changed), might be seen as failing to progress. In many ways I agree. Both my parents, born in the 1920s, lived in Wallasey all their lives, as did my first wife. So many landmarks from my earlier years have disappeared – the cinemas, the Victoria and Grand Hotels, the Tower, both Piers, both open-air swimming pools and the theatres. My old primary school is round the corner from where I live, as is English Martyrs Church. The removal of landmarks has hardly taken away facilities or features for which I cared; indeed in some cases, these represented places that I despised. The loss is of places that might have held meaning, for the landmarks that could have existed and could have provided a sense of belonging. To leave Wallasey would be to make a new start, but to regret the loss of an obscure potential. Such, perhaps, is the ambivalence of space that we could inhabit but can no longer.

Machynlleth and me

Written more as a diary entry.

Today I began a break in Machynlleth, stopping in a holiday “cottage” that is in fact an end terraced house, one of four that have been recently constructed. It has been an interesting day, fraught at the start, because I had left my camera at home and had to turn round at Ewloe, 22 miles away. We began in sunshine and ended, below Cader Idris, in swirling rain.

Our eventual route went via Gledrid, where we filled up with petrol at what are now reducing prices, and Welshpool, where we turned to take the route up the valley served by the Welshpool & Llanfair Railway. Just before Welshpool, traffic was held up while a section of highway is raised to mitigate against flooding from the nearby Severn; given the forecast rain for most of the week, it may well be necessary.

The route through the Llanfair valley was not one with which we were familiar; I think I had travelled it perhaps once before. Sara commented that this was typical UK scenery, and did not agree with my view that it was “low key” or “quiet”. It was not long before we were driving into Machynlleth and finding our accommodation. We then walked into the high street looking for the Co-op store and for the two charity shops that we had found on our previous visit. Alas, not only did it start to rain as we approached the Spar shop, but both shops had gone – the Severn hospice one, that had specialised in books and videos, very carefully cleared. In torrential rain, I stood outside the Spar shop with the dog, and talked to a middle-aged lady from Birmingham who also had a dog to tend, She had lived there for one year, an it was very different from the city, very much less diversity, she said, but she thought it would be a good place o be if you were writing or retired – both of which I hope to be before too long.

It occurred to me that this was only the second occasion that I had stopped in Machynlleth for a holiday, and that brought me back to the very first time that I had seen the place, on a short holiday with my mother and father. I was, at the time, a student, and this must have been in the summer of 1975 – or so memory suggests. [I was able to drive the car, but had not passed my test, so this places it as before January 1976]

We had followed a different route down, via Llandegla (I think) and travelling, in the dark, through Dolgellau, what seemed to be very narrow streets, at a time before the whole place was bypassed. We stopped in the Wynnstay Arms Hotel, then a Trust House Forte place, which Dad liked to patronise. I do not especially recall where we went from there, but I do recall the main road north of Dolgellau, being newly widened, before a further section north was widened. And I do recall a long drive on narrow roads through the hills behind Machynlleth, when we came upon a reservoir; I was shocked that a reservoir should have been constructed to drown another Welsh valley, but Dad grew annoyed and gestured at an empty cottage that we passed – “that’s your Welshman”. He may have had a point.

My main memory was of the Wynnstay Arms, then not as scruffy as it became later, We talked to a middle-aged man from Birmingham, in a room with a roaring open fire. As I recall, he was commenting on an odd development when an entire group of people engaged in a car rally had turned up, seemingly unannounced, and had expected an evening meal to be laid on, much to the anger of the manager. Later that night, much the worse for drink, there was a lot of noise and disturbance with this group.

I don’t recall this being a particularly happy occasion, but it was in my mind when, with marriage to Brenda impending, we began to arrange our honeymoon. I was keen to go to this part of Wales, while Brenda wanted to go abroad; so we compromised, with two nights in a hotel near Machynlleth, and then a few days in Paris. Brenda was very dubious about West Wales, which she had never visited, but I recall setting off in my red Datsun in mid-afternoon, on 6 November 1982, in some trepidation. It was a journey we would repeat many times until 1988, and so I recall few details, but I think we followed the route over the Llandegla moors and past Bala and Dolgellau, the latter now by-passed. What I do distinctly recall is going past the bridge at Machynlleth, and slowly up the hill on the road to Pennal, finding a narrow lane to our left. We drove slowly down through trees, wondering where on earth the place was, until we went through two gateposts into a car park in front of a large stone house. The front door, large and built in heavy timber, was not open, and I remember trying it gingerly and stepping through into the welcoming space beyond. The new life that began beyond that door will be recounted separately.

It was through that door, however, that I stepped on one of the grimmest days of my life, in October 1986. I had been called, early in the morning, down to the reception desk, where my sister Hilarie told me that my father had had a fatal heart attack. I recall vividly the feelings I had on the 100-mile journey home that day, but less of the journey. The only distinct memory of the latter was travelling near Corris and commenting to Brenda, who was deeply upset, that Wales somehow, remained a beautiful place. And so it was, even on the worst of days. Maybe Machynlleth should have been associated with sadness and shunned after that day, but Dad had been to the same hotel at Christmas 1985 and enjoyed it so much that a booking was made for 1986. Mum soon decided to follow this through and so, 10 weeks later, we were back in the Machynlleth area, on a sadder occasion, but still one with some enjoyment.

After the hotel closed, Brenda and I visited Machynlleth less frequently, although the secondhand bookshops and the Centre for Alternative Technology drew us. After she herself passed away, I visited myself, sometimes passing the place by train, sometimes venturing into the town. After I met Sara in March 2005, and especially after she moved to Wallasey that November, we visited the place on several occasions, by road and rail. I am stopping in accommodation that is very near the White Lion, a pub that we spent a pleasant hour between changes of train at the station.

What draws us now is a different prospect. I cannot be too far from retirement, and Sara has been retired, effectively, for over 3 years. We have thought of moving to another area to start a different life. Shropshire seemed inviting, but house prices are way too high, and it is too far from the coast. Llandudno is a possibility – indeed, earlier in the week we met a youngish man in Port Sunlight who said he had moved from Llandudno to Egremont (Wallasey) and had really liked Llandudno. What attracts us to Machynlleth is something different. Low house prices, for quite extensive accommodation, has to be one draw – to a place we could spread ourselves out. But the real attraction is the impression that the place is a Welsh Hebden Bridge – with a lot of middle-aged hippy types moving to a place that seems to suit. The CAT seems to have quite an influence here. And that lady said that this was not a commercial town, by which I think she means that money does not count, and maybe other values prevail. The age and condition of parked cars suggests this. Sara and I are reluctant to move, but don’t want to dismiss it, so maybe the best approach is to investigate.

A Lost Photograph Discovered - December 27 2008

Often I ruminate for a long time and work on successive drafts of a piece. This one was written in part of an evening; reproduced as written.
Not so long ago, Sara found a photograph from her childhood. Looking for something else, she found, completely unexpectedly, that it fell out of a packet of papers. She was astonished and called me to see it. There had been one other childhood photograph, of Sara lying down on a beach with her sister, but this had gone missing; she found that abut a week ago. Sara had had no idea that there was any other photograph, and one reason for the contact that she had established with her sister was to seek images from her childhood. This contact had proved to be fruitless, and has ceased for the time being.

I have missed the whole first 53 years of Sara’s life, and there are only photographs and recollections to evoke her adult life. Her childhood, an unhappy one, has proved to be much more elusive. So any evidence of her earliest life has a special poignancy, assigning much to imagination. It remains uncertain, with no individual or cultural guidance, how far any of her past, as with anyone’s childhood, should now matter to me. Much of my own childhood seems irrelevant to my adult life, and to re-evoke its narrative could be to bring forward an account that neither explains my present life, nor provides a portal to an enjoyable or pleasant story. No doubt much of Sara’s distant past is of similar quality. But this photograph proved, literally, a snapshot that could take my imagination into an era long gone.

Sara did not recall the taking of the photograph, or the place in which it was taken. There is nothing unusual in that, as most photographs do not betray any provenance. But it is clearly not one that was passed round the family, celebrated, or discussed; it is simply a survivor, with no indication as to how it has survived.

There are four small children, looking, as Sara and I have agreed, like those tragic photographs of central European Jewish children that did not survive the Holocaust. What makes this so sad is the knowledge that there was tragedy ahead – Simcha, the boy on the left, was to die of cancer, and the two little girls would soon lose their mother, whom Sara regarded as her favourite adult. Judy and Annie’s mother would be succeeded by a stepmother who would isolate them from Sara and her family. The group is obviously Jewish – Simcha is wearing a skullcap and Sara a ribbon in her hair. The confidence displayed by Judy, the stocky girl at the back, and her little sister Annie, in front, suggest that this was a photograph taken by their father, and probably in an environment familiar to them.

Simcha, on the left, is holding Annie’s hand, and Annie, a very pretty child, has her head slightly on one side. Much more uncertain, and holding noone’s hand, is Sara, the figure on the right. Her face is partly in shade because of the light, but it seems to convey an element of wariness. It is almost as though she knows what would lie ahead, and it is certainly the case that she knew what lay behind her and what would probably be there in the near future.

She is a serious figure, displaying an isolation from the world that, I feel, underlies her present integrity. She lacks a smile, even for the camera. Her father had made it clear that the children of holocaust survivors should rarely laugh or smile, and should always be serious. The seriousness that Sara featured was not all derived from her father’s public view; much more derived from his private, dark self.

What is my reaction to this photograph, the only one that has survived from 50 years ago? At first I was curious, to finally see what Sara’s lost brother and cousins looked like, and I was delighted that Sara had, at last, an image of her childhood and especially her beloved brother. But, enlarging the image of her, and looking much more closely at it, I was struck by powerful emotional responses, even a sense of grief. Some part of me wishes that I could have known Sara then, been able to reassure her that the nightmares would not go on for ever, to hold that child and tell her that, one day, she would be safe. And indeed, that she would be more than just cared about, that she would be loved, deeply loved, and loved for herself. It might be possible to analyse and rationalise such feelings in an intellectual fashion, but I do not think that this would be appropriate here. Writing tonight, this is a time for emotion, not analysis.