AFTERMATH: journeys to go on
Head over to Things to Watch to enjoy some highlights of our Rogation Walk held on Sunday 30th May and the fascinating topics that the St James's community shared as we 'Beat the Bounds’. Read on for Diane Pacitti's report on the day.
Report on our Rogation Walk around the parish boundaries on Sunday 30th May 2021 by poet Diane Pacitti.
Lockdown restrictions may have eased, and public places are getting busier. But what kind of world will emerge after Covid?
As we emerge from our own disaster, the Aftermath project invites us all to consider what we might learn from the 42 ‘weeds’ which sprang out of the bombing of 1940. You might be fascinated by the plants, but wonder what thistle and sallow, vetch and fat hen have to offer a world still in shock from the pandemic.
In my poems, I look at the weeds from different viewpoints. After the Bombing picks up the theme of Sara’s Seed Prayer banners, and presents the weeds as a blessing or ‘unpredictable gift’ descending on a grief-stricken, war-exhausted London. In Rhymes of the Blitz, my church bells chime out a message for hope. But at the time most people probably saw them as unwelcome intruders unleashed by disaster, occupying the personal space of a home or, in the case of St James’s, the sacred space of a church. This idea of aggressive interlopers is developed in my poem Trespassers.
When any disaster happens, the established order is threatened or destroyed. This opens the way for newcomers, who are often seen as troublesome and threatening. Looking back to the Second World War, in the aftermath of the 1945 election the country rejected the Conservative party of the war leader Churchill, and gave a shock landslide victory to the Labour Party, who had never been in majority government. Like all governments, Attlee’s post-war government had its failings, but is generally recognised as one of the great reforming ministries, laying the foundations of a welfare state including the creation of the National Health Service. Of course, the elite political establishment saw the Labour politicians as dangerous interlopers.
During our Rogation Walk on Sunday, I was struck by the fact that many of the people who embodied the seeds of change in their time were hidden, ignored or actively persecuted. In fact, they were treated in the same way as we treat weeds.
During the walk, we passed many grand houses occupied by people of wealth and influence. Cornell told us about John Gladstone, father of the Prime minister William Ewart Gladstone, who owned plantations worked by slaves. We stopped in front of the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall, which until it allowed women to become members in 2002 was a bastion of male privilege.
Also in Pall Mall was the house of Richard Cosway, artist and Royal Academician. Cosway’s musical parties were famous, and the glittering guests might have seen, and ignored, a black servant. That servant was Ottobah Cuguano, a former slave who at the age of sixteen was baptised at St James’s, and will soon be commemorated with a plaque. Captured by slave traders as a child, Cuguano poured his anger and sense of outrage into Thoughts and Sentiments of the Evil of Slavery, the first British publication in which an African argued for the freeing of all slaves.
Black Lives Matter was and remains one of our significant experiences during Covid. We are all heirs of Ottobah and his passionate beliefs. Later in the Aftermath project, we will be looking at migration, imperialism and slavery. We will question false hierarchies, the systems of classification which designate some plants as weeds, and which within human society marginalise, silence and actively persecute by classifying certain people as dangerous or inferior.
Walking round the parish, I noticed that even privileged individuals living in wealthy houses can be persecuted if they step out of line. Sir Francis Burdett, who lived in Piccadilly and St James’s Place, campaigned for many radical causes including electoral reform. Yet he was twice committed to prison. On the second occasion, he was accused of ‘seditious libel’ for expressing in print his anger at the Peterloo Massacre, in which the militia charged at a peaceful crowd who had gathered to hear speeches in favour of parliamentary reform.
The voices and gifts of women were mostly unseen and unheard. A cluster of women stage performers lived in Golden Square in the second half of the eighteenth century, and also the artist Angelica Kauffmann, one of the two woman founding members of the Royal Academy. (At the moment in Golden Square there is a subversive exhibition by woman artist Kalliopi Lemos featuring a huge corset and bras.) The arts were one of the few areas in which women could enter the public arena. Ada Lovelace, who lived in St. James’s Square, would have been known as Lord Byron’s daughter and not as a pioneer in computing. Good to think of Ada meeting up with her friend Florence Nightingale at the London Library.
A powerful presence in both St James’s and the neighbouring parish of St Anne’s Soho is William Blake, baptised at our church. An outsider, he was not part of the Royal Academy, and in fact his one exhibition, above his brother’s hosiery shop in Broad Street, was poorly attended and savaged by the one critic who bothered to write a review. He was also tried for sedition at Chichester assizes, and was in danger of a stiff sentence. Yet Blake, a poet, artist and visionary, is now recognised as a genius. Only now, in the twenty-first century, are we beginning to glimpse the implications of the warnings he articulated through his art.
As we walked around the parish, we saw that in London wildness and expensive cultivation exist side by side. We walked down the narrow back street Bridle Lane, so near Golden Square designed by Sir Christopher Wren. In Golden Square itself we learnt through Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater about the underworld of homelessness, hunger, prostitution and drug addiction in the early nineteenth century. And Deborah found moss and lichen in the most unlikely places.
What might we learn from these examples of weeds and human wildness? They show us that people whom we initially see as threatening outsiders might be the very people who will create a more just and open society after Covid. They show us that we must not guard the spaces in which we have been used to holding influence and power. They teach us to attend to people who are hidden away or marginalised, because they might hold the seeds of renewal.
The weeds which blew into St James’s in 1940 were pioneer plants. Some of these plants are able, over a period of time, to repair the terrible damage which humankind has inflicted on the soil. That is a wonderful metaphor for the troublesome or unnoticed human pioneers who lived in the parish. Long after their lifetimes, they can inspire, challenge and suggest ways in which we might heal the divisions and injustices of our society.
And, as Ivan pointed out, they teach us that a later generation might see the flowering, but that we can be part of the process.