Inner City Pity

ONE OF THE HAZARDS of living in the inner city is the compassion one receives from friends who do not. They motor in from Shropshire or Dorset or West Sussex, take in a show, visit a Conran restaurant or two, and say how sorry they are. Sorry for what? Sorry for you, living a life of deprivation in an environment of squalor and violence. And the worst thing is that they genuinely believe it.

So what is life in the inner city like? I can give you only a snapshot of Lewisham, and certainly it is not Brixton, or Mosside or Croxteth; but for what it is worth, I will tell it as it is.

I have lived here now for twenty years, in a side street off the idiotically designed roundabout which is at the heart of it all. Though tramps find their way to my rather prominent front door in droves (I put it down to the statue of the Sacred Heart immediately above it, which is something of a give-away), I feel neither threatened nor apprehensive. And thefts from the Church, I suspect, are not more frequent than in some rural areas. Vandalism extends to the occasional broken window.

Our congregation is lively, ninety per cent ethnic (West Indian, West African, Indian, Chinese) and, by the standards of the rural church, large. Of the 100-120 people in church on Sunday at 10.00am (or shortly thereafter) about 50 will be over 60, 40 between 35-60, 20 below 35. There are about 30 children. In response to a diocese of Southwark enquiry about what we are doing to ‘welcome ethnic minorities into the life local church’, my (black) churchwarden recently replied that she was working hard to make the church more welcoming to white males. They are certainly our most under-represented ethnic group – which brings us into line with the rest of the CofE.

During my twenty years here I have seen four Bishops of Southwark, three Bishops of Woolwich, four Archdeacons of Lewisham and five major diocesan plans for ‘pastoral re-organisation’. Mercifully none of these has had much impact on the life of the parish; though recent increases have brought Quota to a level four times that which I inherited from my predecessor. My salary has not seen an equivalent increase.

But you will want to know, not just about church life, but quality of life.

Tastes vary, of course; but I enjoy it. People are friendly and helpful. The market traders, in particular, seem determined to live up to their reputation for cheerfulness and homely wit. Pat (who comes to the 12.15 on Wednesdays when she can get someone to mind the barrow) has marvellous grapes and oranges; Curly keeps the church stocked with flowers and deals with the special order for Mothering Sunday. Steve (who has a completely shaved head and formidable tattoos) is courteous and gentle. I have buried both his dad and his mum. His father’s funeral was one of the events of the year – with four black horses caparisoned with silver braid and black ostrich feathers, drawing a glass hearse straight out of a Hammer Horror movie. Ron the undertaker and I rather enjoyed walking the length of the High Street (he in a black top hat swathed with crepe, I in the best purple cope) in order to stop in prayerful respect beside the green veg.

And of course I have my favourite shopkeepers. Genaro, his wife and mother run the Italian shop, which stocks everything you cannot buy on Steyning High Street, or Cheap Street, Sherborne. There you can discuss Italian politics for as long as the other customers will allow.

Mario and Franco, round the corner at the barber’s, are more into football. Mario is president of the London Italian Association, and hobnobs on a regular basis with the Italian ambassador. They come from Apulia and Sicily respectively, and their shop doubles as an informal advice bureau.

The Swallow Dry-cleaners, by contrast, is Turkish, and Jo, the ebullient manageress, steam-presses the servers’ albs three times a year as her contribution to inter-faith dialogue (diocesan enthusiasts, please note!). She is reading English now, at the University of Greenwich, and I am enjoying giving her some extra tuition in Milton and the Metaphysicals (which helps to keep my hand in, and is, by the by, introducing her to Christian theology). Her cousin up the road runs a provision shop with excellent Turkish bread, and in season the cheapest Anatolian figs in South London.

For a foodie like myself, Lewisham has most things you might want and everything in abundance: fresh fish daily (though a little sparse on Mondays), and, of course, a most spectacular array of fruits and vegetables from every clime. The mangoes are especially good here, and the sweet potatoes. Good boiling fowl (a rarity these days), plenty of shellfish, salted fish of various kinds and dried squid; they are laid out along the High Street beside the pak choi, mouli and ripe papya. Parish lunches (six to eight times a year ) give us ample opportunity to taste each other’s cooking: anything from crisply fried Caribbean jack-fish to shepherd’s pie to Malaysian lahksa.

We have excellent ecumenical relations with our immediate neighbours which makes for additional fun. The May Procession is a joint affair with St Mary’s (at the other end of the High Street) and St Saviour’s Roman Catholic Church. The statue of Our Lady of Walsingham makes her annual journey from one end to the other, with rosary meditations in each of the three churches. Pastor White (of the Bibleway Tabernacle) is a regular visitor in the Vicarage, and I to his splendid church (once our daughter church of the Transfiguration).

The parish hall has played host to a number of independent Pentecostal groups over the years, whose salvation by decibel is on the whole tolerantly received by local residents, and is an additional subject of conversation for my guests at Sunday lunch.

Our parish school is a treasure, and Anne its headteacher, a hero. So good was the recent Ofsted that David Blunkett’s guide dog brought his master for an official visitation. Paula, the music post-holder has successfully challenged the Lewisham establishment (which had an inexplicable desire to confine children in our part of the borough to percussion instruments and guitars). We now have some budding violinists and some accomplished keyboard players. Which is as well, because we want the next generation at St Stephen’s to enjoy the repertoire (from Haydn through Gabriel Fauré to Herbert Howells) that we presently enjoy from our organist David Lloyd, himself a deputy head in a primary school, and his sextet (oft augmented) of good singers and good friends.

Inner city pity? Well, pity me!

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.