A few weeks ago, I did something completely different. It was a spontaneous idea because it is highly unusual that I am awake before 9:00 on a sunday morning, yet for some strange reason, I was sitting up in bed, bright eyed and bushy tailed at 7am! Good lord!
I looked out of the window at the spotless blue sky and thought what a lovely morning it would be to go for a walk through the chilly streets of deserted London. London is never wholly deserted but there are parts of it in the city, around Bank and Temple that are ancient and beautiful, with narrow lanes and old leaning buildings, tiny churches nestled down cobbled lanes with names like Hanging Sword Alley. It's filled with history and ghosts and I love it. For some strange reason it doesn't attract too many tourists either, especially that early on a weekend. It is fairly near St. Paul's cathedral though.... that was when I realised it was Remembrance Sunday. So I decided that as well as my walk I would pop in to the Cathedral and attend the service. I texted a few friends to see if anyone wanted to come with me but was greeted with complete silence as everyone else, quite sensibly, was still asleep.
Now I'm not the most regular of church goers. I was brought up Church of England and nearly always went to Christmas, Easter and Family services. I was made, by my Mother, to deliver parish magazines in my village and asked to do the occasional reading in Church. The alternative was to be in the choir, but that meant being clean and well behaved and I was much happier racing round on my bike, going door to door with the magazines. Every wedding and funeral I've ever been to has been a Christian service yet there has always been something that hasn't quite clicked with me. I suppose the years I've spent travelling, experiencing different cultures and seeing how other people live their lives has rubbed off on me. Meditating with Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka, being blessed by Hindu priests in India, sitting next to a catholic nun on a plane for 9 hours and chatting to Muslim elders in my local cafe... all have impacted on the way I think. I have Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim friends and work with all sorts of people with very diverse backgrounds and upbringings. Over time, I seem to have taken a little pinch of this and a sprinkle of that and cooked up my own religion. I certainly have my own God. He is a he, not sure why, but he's not white or really old and he doesn't have a beard. I picture him about sixty, with a kind olive-skinned face, a large belly and always relaxed and wearing pyjamas. Ha ha, I've just realised I may have described my future husband! Some people call it pick-and-mix religion... greedily taking what you need from each belief system. The other day I actually googled "what religion am I?" and up popped all these websites, each offering to help you find out just what religion you are, based on a few pages of questions. There were moral questions, political questions, sexual questions... It took about 20 minutes and a few clicks later, there was my answer. Apparently I'm a Hindu. Well hello there. Namaste.
But back to the other day. Just because I'm a little confused as to how to label what I believe, I still adore going to church. Maybe it's the tradition, the pomp and circumstance, maybe its the drama? I see all the same things in a church or cathedral that I see on stage and as most people know, I'm never happier than in the theatre. The leading actor is of course the Archbishop, Dean or Vicar, his robes are his costume, his sermon his dramatic monologue... able to hold the attention of the audience with sharp delivery and humerus overtones or lose everyones interest with a bad script and monotone voice. So going to St. Paul's, on a very special day like Remembrance Sunday, was like seeing a sold out play, except its free with better seats and much shorter!
I arrived about half an hour before the service began and realised I needed the loo. Churches, even St. Paul's, do not have loos, and so I was sent out and around the corner to some public conveniences. A pee for 50p. Bloody hell. What I find extraordinary is that the Church of England constantly complain of dwindling numbers and lack of interest, that the average age of a regular church goer is 60-80 years old but even they are on the decline. I'm not surprised... they are the same people that need the loo a little more regularly. Maybe if they put a discreet Holy 'portaloo' at the back of churches, more people would attend.
I walked out into the crisp bright morning and watched the soldiers and officers of different ranks and regiments congregate, before marching down to the Cenotaph. There was a beautiful moment when they all were suddenly in place, perfect silent lines of men and women, their buttons and swords and spurs shining in the sunlight, buffed boots and spotless uniforms, chins strong and lifted. I asked a policeman if I could quickly step into the middle of the road to take their photo. He looked at me, smiled and said "Go on then, make it quick". I stepped passed him and strode across the street, stopped and faced the proud line of faces. I held up my camera as they began marching towards me. The noise of 500 pairs of boots on the cobbles was explosive. At the front were three dashing naval officers. The one leading suddenly looked terribly familiar, and at this point was only 10 feet away from me. I slowly lowered my camera as his face came into focus. Oh no. I sprang back behind the policeman, and crouched down slightly, muttering expletives as I realised it was my ex boyfriend. Thank god they were all 'eyes forward' because it would have been utterly humiliating if I had made eye contact. The policeman was not so reserved, turning around to give me the most peculiar of looks as I cowered behind him. The other people around me all stepped back a little too, giving a bit of space to the 'crazy lady'. It was fine by me, when I plucked up the courage to stand up and look, I had a very good view for the rest of the procession.
Anyway, by the time I had found change, had my pee and was back in the cathedral it was packed, but because I was on my own, I managed to find a spare seat on the aisle very close to the choir. Aahhh, the choir.... That's the other reason I love these services. There has been a boys and gentleman's choir at St. Paul's for over nine centuries, since 1127... That's extraordinary. Originally, a choir of 40 boys and 18 men were thought essential to achieve the necessary vocal power to fill the cathedral, nowadays, they have 30 boys and ten men. Are they louder now? I have no idea, but when they sing, the hairs go up on the back of my neck and invariably I'm in tears within seconds. Thank god I had been to the loo because I remembered how emotional I get and grabbed a bunch of loo paper for such moments. I was in the most beautiful cathedral in the world, listening to the most exquisite music and heart-wrenchingly pure voices, surrounded by the heads of the church in their finest robes and on an occasion where we remember those that have served and are serving our country in wars around the world. I was an emotional wreck. Silent tears ran down my face and a huge lump remained in my throat for the whole hour. At the end of the service the choristers filed out, these sweet little boys aged 7-13, some still with ruffled bed heads, others picking their noses or fiddling with their high starched collars, others yawning or itching their bums... Boys will be boys no matter how angelic they sound.