Monday 7 August 2023

London Symphonies - Solace in Southwark Cathedral and bopping with the Bard!

 Sometimes, you just find yourself having a perfect moment of calm, when there is a storm raging all around you. It is impossible to explain, but I am sure we all have experienced this occasionally. I'd been planning an installment of this series featuring Southwark Cathedral since the inception of the whole idea for London Symphonies crystalised. I had planned a very different episode, taking in the surrounding area, Borough Market, London Bridge and the South bank. As it turned out, this episode is very different and I hope immeasurably better. The London Symphonies are not intended to be history pieces, although there are historical elements in many. They are an explanation as to why a part of our city is living and breathing. It is a celebration of the now, albiet with a nod to the history of this city.

Today was a strange day. I had to attend the London Bridge hospital at 10am, for a pre operative assessment. I'm having surgery on Wednesday and they needed to check me out and sign me off as fit for an operation. I was done by 11am. I'd made no plans and I was in a very strange frame of mind. I neither wanted to go home, nor stay where I was. I used to work around the corner on Park Street, so it's an area I know well and love. I've spent many wonderful times in the pubs and restaurants around London Bridge. I often ate at Borough Market and I occasionally took advantage of the quiet traquility of the Cathedral for a moments reflection when I was working there, without ever properly exploring it. Sometime, I just needed to get ten minutes on my own to regroup. This morning, when my appointment was done, I decided to slowly amble back from the hospital to Blackfriars, to catch the train to Mill Hill. Writing an episode of this feature was the last thing on my mind.

As I walked past the Mudlark Pub, I felt a desire for a pint. As I am having surgery on Wednesday and have been advised to not drink for two days, this was not the best idea, so I walked on. I've had many a pleasant beer with friends in the Mudlark. It is perhaps the cheapest pub in the area and one of the less busy ones. I reflected on these with a degree of nostalgia and sadness. I won't be having a beer with anyone for a few weeks.

Southwark cathedral The next item of note on my travels was the  Southwalk Cathedral. There is a pleasant coffee bar/bakery in the courtyard. As I don't really have a sweet tooth I'd not been in previously. Even though I'd had my porridge this morning,  I had a strong urge to have a double espresso and a plain croissant. I almost never drink coffee. It doesn't agree with me and makes me feel very weird, but in the circumstances, I felt that anything that changed my mood was probably better than the gloom I was mired in. So I ordered a double espresso and a plaing croissant and sat in the sunshine enjoying a moment of peace. 

As I sat enjoying the Sun,  I started to appreciate the fine architecture of the Cathedral. It is a place I knew nothing about until I worked around the corner. I've often felt that my schooling let me down, not educating me about our great city. This has been a motivation for this series, exploring places that give me great pleasure but that were deemed not worthy of a mention in our geography or history classes. 

When we were at school, they taught me that a City has to have a Cathedral and London was really two cities, Westminster and London. There was never any mention of Southwark, just over the river from London's St Pauls. Whether this was just a North London thing I don't know, but I was quite surprised when I first discovered that London had a third city and a third cathedral. 

Southwark cathedralI had not intended to stop, but, on a whim,  decided that it would be a very good thing to have a proper look around the Cathedral and take some pictures. As I entered the Cathedral, there was a morning prayer service taking place. A simple service, with prayers for NHS workers, peace in the world and everyone's private intention, followed by The Lords Prayer. I sat down, near the back and listened, taking in the beauty and magnificence of the building.

It took me a very long time to enjoy such buildings. As a child, I was forced to go to church and found such buildings musty and intimidating. Now, I find them peaceful and reassuring. This is not really a religious thing. I had a Roman Catholic education and we were brainwashed to be suspicious of other faiths, their buildings and their ways. As Londoners, we are lucky. We are exposed to other creeds and cultures on a daily basis. Any lingering secratrian distrust has long since gone. I can see beauty wherever it is and find fascination in all manner of places that my teachers would have been appalled by. London won that particular war with my blinkered teachers.

SouthwRk cathedralI had not previously noted the monument to William Shakespeare within the Cathedral. Whilst my schooling tried very hard to put me off C of E  Churches, they put a huge amount of effort trying to persuade me that William Shakespeare was the best thing since sliced bread. We were forced to read the Bard. As we yawned, we were endlessly lectured on his wit, his wisdom, his talent. We were shown videos of his works, featuring actors in silly costumes, speaking in stilted accents, on the old Philips video system that it seems were only ever bought by schools. We would have to write essays eulogising his works and praising his geniues, whilst all the time counting the seconds to the bell for playtime. 

I finally left school at eighteen years old. Five years later, I met my now wife. I was spellbound by her beauty and intelligence, but perplexed when she informed me she loved the work of William Shakespeare, suggesting I gave it another go. It took me a very long time to realise that she had a point. It was only when I realised that Shakespeare invented most of the insults in the English language, that I realised she may have a point.  

SouthwRk cathedralAs a blogger, a song writer and a poet, I have come to appreciate the work of the Bard. I will never be his biggest fan, but I have realised that our teachers failed miserably to explain the true magnificence of his work. If I was given such a task, teaching miscievous eleven year old boys about his talent, the insults would be the first place I'd start. I think I'd also explain that his work was seen as mass entertainment in Elizabethan times, it was not highbrow or exclusive and the snobs of the time looked down on him. 
Shakespeare wrote for a living and earned money entertaining the working people of England. Much as we repeat the catchphrases of our famous comedians, such as "He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy", they would leave exclaiming quotes such as  “Villain, I have done thy mother” (Titus Andronicus Act 4, Scene 2) tittering wildly. It is amusing to me that the same English teachers who would put down punk singers such as John Lydon and Rap/Hip Hop poets for such lyrics, would laud Shakespeare for his wit.

I made my way to the garden. I don't know if I've never noticed it before, but there is a bench where you can sit with the great bard and exchange pleasantries. Of course he doesn't say much, he doesn't have to. I got to thinking "What would William Shakespeare think of my work with The False Dots?" Now I am not comparing my work with his, but I suspect that we'd get on just fine. I suspect he may feel more at home at one of our gigs (once he got used to the noise) than he would at many modern productions of his plays. I sat down next to him on the bench, went to take a selfie and got a strong feeling that he was saying "Come on then son, give me your best!!!". I was quite taken aback for a second by this feeling. Now I am not saying I was communicating or channelling, but I felt, for a second, a warm glow that I was in the presence of a master and he wanted to help me (yes I know this was a delusion, but I'd rather have a pleasant delusion than a miserable reality).  So I gave him my best shot. I sat for a while, trying to think what poem was most Shakespearian. Then I thought, no, lets give him a blast of pure Roger Tichborne. I'm not and will never be a tribute act. I do my own material! I think he appreciated that. Can you imagine how bored he must be with people sitting there and saying "Foresooth, alas poor Yorrick I knew him well"?

I cannot pretend that making this video didn't give me a massive buzz and very unexpected buzz. Was it the mind bending effects of the coffee? It was completely off the cuff, but it just felt like the right thing to do. A bunch of tourists stood and watched and probably thought I was either a madman or part of the furniture, I am not quite sure. For a few seconds, I felt a kinship with Billy. If only we could adjourn for a flaggon of grog around the corner, the world would be perfect. 

As I walked back to the train, I wondered what he'd make of London in 2023. It is a very different City. I suspect that he'd do better than many other historical figures. He strikes me as a forward looking man, ahead of his time. His plays are timeless. His humour cuts to the heart of the human condition. He was not a puritan or a prude. His work was not the work of a little Englander. 

For me, this was a transformative experience. This may sound silly, but in London we are surrounded by the ghosts of our rich history. We cannot see them, we cannot feel them, but they are there and in places such as Southwark Cathedral, we can share a space with them. It would be one of the few places that the Bard would find vaguely recognisable today. This is what London does to you. You go out for a pre op check up, you stop for a coffee and you end up with a deeply spiritual experience. 

The sounds of London are there if you listen. That is what London symphonies is trying to capture. If you are interested, here is the full photo album from the visit to Southwark Cathedral. It is well worth a visit and the coffee and croissants are wonderful.

Southwark Cathedral

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