Thursday, 11 November 2010

An unusual Remembrance Day

I returned to Bristol by train yesterday afternoon to look after James. Rather than ride into Temple Meads and take the 45 minute bus journey back out to Southmead, I got off at Filton Abbey Wood Station, and walked to Amanda's house. This took 50 minutes and thankfully I didn't get rained on. The last part of the walk took me across the sprawling campus of Southmead Hospital, which has a huge building site at its heart. Here I took a less than direct route for the last leg of thre journey, adding an extra five minutes, but door to door, it was still quicker than going in and out of the city centre.

This morning, I took the bus to Temple Meads to buy a rail ticket for James to travel to Cardiff on Saturday morning, there being no permanently open ticket office at Filton Abbey Wood, and James being nervous of having to obtain one on the train. The experience of travelling on his own is new to him. The day oscillated between heavy rain showers and bright sunshine.

At the bus stop there was an elderly blind man seeking the same bus as I was taking to get to his bank in Henleaze. He seemed less than confident of his destination bus stop, perhaps because going out with a white stick on his own still unfamiliar to him. Either he was recently blind or perhaps without his usual partner as guide. More by luck than judgement, and with a few anxious faces around the bus, the right stop was identified just in time. I spotted his bank across the road and got off with him and walked him over. 

As I returned to the stop to wait for the next bus, the heavens opened. A young woman sprinted in haste out of the rain into the shelter to join the three of us waiting there. Immediately we started chatting, and not just about the weather. She was a student heading back to her osteopathy training centre in Oxford, thrilled with enjoyment about what she was learning. She'd already travelled a lot and looked forward to being able to travel more with her future profession. We chatted all the way to the station, about healing, family, Tai Chi, the fast developing world of India and China. Her natural confidence and ease with a stranger the same age as her grandfather said a lot about the secure and loving family in which she had grown up. It was a most enjoyable if extremely rare encounter. 

I took advantage of my day ticket to hop on and off buses across the city centre in order to avoid the intermittent showers. When there was a prolonged clear spell, I walked into the St Paul's area, which I have re-visited only rarely in the 27 years since I was a parish priest there. St Paul's church and the late Georgian Portland Square enclosing it look spruce enough, but there are few if any residents in the Square, long ago converted into offices, many of which are empty. 

The church I resisted closing is now owned by Circomedia - describing itself  as the leading centre for contemporary circus and physical theatre in Europe. It's a training school for circus artists which boasts the largest permanently rigged flying trapeze in the UK. Not surprising when I think how high the ceiling was in that beautiful building, so hard to manage for the congregation of eighteen remaining when I became its priest in charge 32 years ago. St Werburgh's parish church, closed also after my time became an indoor climbing centre. Only St Agnes' Parish Church remains open. Huge sums of money were invested in the internal adaptation of the nave to provide community facilities under the same roof as the place of worship. It looks well cared for and well used. The adventure playground next door the the church has sprouted permanent buildings as well as amazing climbing structures. The park opposite has been re-modelled, and the street layout changed to integrate church and park to good effect.
There are new houses where there had been derelict land. Low rise apartments have been given a face lift with garden enclosures replacing open areas that once made them vulnerable to vandalism. All in all a great deal of investment in uplifting an area which still has a high concentration of people without employment or with instability in their personal lives. Yet, the many well looked after houses and gardens demonstrate that deprivation is not the whole story of life in the area.

In an open space at the junction of Grosvenor Road and Ashley Road, I found a sculpture honouring the life of Jamaican poet and playwright Alfred Fagon, who settled in St Paul's as a young migrant from the Caribbean, and obtained public recognition and the broadcast of his work in the 1970-80's. I made his acquaintance in the period when we were striving to develop new community facilities for the area, and he visited us at the Vicarage for tea and conversation. He died at 48, a couple of years after I moved on. It was good to see that he's remembered as one of those creative people whose creative labours helped introduce a new audience to the black immigrant experience.

I visited the site of the former St Barnabas school and long closed church (one of the first redundant churches of the post war era), where I had helped to get the first St Paul's Community Association off the ground before leaving. The old Vicarage building is still there and the old school building too, with extensions and adpatations to it. The church, never a thing of beauty, has gone, and is replaced by an all modern community centre, named after black activist Malcolm X. I don't think he ever visited St Pauls, but many inhabitants looked to him for inspiration.

As I was taking photographs of the site from down Ashley Road, a man started remonstrating with me abusively for doing so, telling me to eff-off. I had a touch of deja-vu at this point. Ashley Road, aka 'the front line', because of its location as one of the flash points in the 1980 St Paul's riots, evidently still has this 'territorial' identity or memory to it in the minds of inhabitants too young to remember the events at first hand. I recall my own indignation at the media assault in the days after the fateful night of April 2nd, and the resentment of the intrusion felt while the community linked its wounds and buffed up its pride. 

I crossed the road and tried to speak to Mr Angry, to tell him this was once my home too, the place where I worked, that I was remembering who I'd been thirty years ago, but my attempt to converse was ignored, blocked with more curses. Nothing about me or my past associations would have been of any interest to him with his passionate illusions. I'd love to have heard his opinion on the improvements I thought had been made to the area.

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