Monday, 22 November 2010

Oranges and lemons, the bells of St Clement Danes

I'm walking, head down, lashed by Sunday afternoon rain, buffeted by a gusting November wind. An incessant spiral chiming of church bells lures me across the desolate street. I seek shelter beside St Clement Danes, an 'island' church in the middle of the Strand where Westminster greets the City of London.

The insistent bells peel relentlessly, mellifluously drowning out the rasp of a red double-decker bus - a number 23 - sloshing past the Royal Courts of Justice. Steamed windows conceal the driver. Lit up yet empty, the bus aquaplanes towards Fleet Street like an angry Mary Celeste on diesel.

I look up at the church tower, hoping to glimpse the swinging bells. I fully expect raindrops to splatter my face but I'm protected by a sullen coven of tall, dark, bare trees looming over the church. 
On one branch, two jet black crows stand side by side, like beady-eyed nightclub bouncers.
'You can't come in here, mate.'
- 'Your name ain't on the list.'

Cold and dripping, I defy the crows by pushing against the wooden glass panelled door. 
I step inside. The drama of the battered and whipped air outside evaporates as the church door shuts softly. The bells sound muffled too.

I walk through an inner doorway. A wide aisle lies before me, leading to an imposing altar and a dramatic stained glass window. My gaze is drawn through the semi-darkness towards a rack of small red candles. Tiny orange and lemon flames glimmer beside a pulpit hidden in deep shadow.

The church air, stilled by the stone walls and slate flooring, feels melancholy yet  distinguished, homely even. Danish settlers expelled by King Alfred (871-901) from the City of London built the original church of St Clement Danes. The Danes named the church after Clement, the Bishop of Rome, whom legend says Emperor Trajan ordered strapped to an anchor and lowered into the sea. 

St Clement Danes was re-consecrated as the central church of the Royal Air Force in 1958. Another air force - Hitler's Luftwaffe - had gutted the church with its fire-bombs dropped from London's hellfire skies in May 1941.

I shudder, sensing movement over my shoulder. I half-turn and see the shape of a man silhouetted against the shard of light stealing in through the front door.

I'd last clapped eyes on Ralph Straker twenty-five years ago. In those days, Ralph was a well-liked London community worker. Stout, dignified and proud, Ralph used to don a blaze red tunic, gold braid and coal black tails with shiny seams. He'd perform his duties as an accomplished Master of Ceremonies at flashy receptions and bow-tie dinners.

Ralph, still stout but slightly stooped, now helps out at St Clement Danes.
His dignified voice now carries a creaky quality. 
He doesn't look at me directly but focuses on the ground, listening intently. 
"Yes, the bells do sound lovely," agrees Ralph. "They practice on Sunday afternoons."

Ralph, a gentle soul, and I bid each other farewell. 
The names of over 150,000 men and women who died whilst serving in the RAF are recorded in St Clement Danes' Books of Remembrance.
Their kind and gentle qualities seem to have seeped into St Clement Danes' stone walls, slate floors and wood panels. The candles seem to breathe that gentility back into the church's air.

I feel a strong need to make some kind of gesture. 
I strike a match against a matchbox and light a candle. 
Carefully, I place the lit candle in the rack alongside its quietly and softly shimmering orange and lemon comrades.
The bells continue to chime, muffled now though, as if being rung at dusk from a hillside across a valley.
My mind now chants a refrain from an old nursery rhyme...
'Oranges and lemons, 
Say the bells of St Clement's..."
It's a refrain that's lain dormant in my mind since childhood.

My childhood, long gone, seems another world away.
Like this candle, life burns quickly, brightly - if I'm lucky.
Then, like a black crow rapidly vacating a branch in a tree, life vanishes.
Should I fear this rapid passage of time, of life being extinguished?
Perhaps, but not now, not in a place like St Clement Danes with its natural darkness quietly and softly illuminated by grace and tranquility.

Paul Coleman, London, November 2010.

Candles in St Clement Danes. Click on this link for more information about the church.

Listen to the bells of St Clement Danes, as recorded on Sunday, 14 November 2010. 
Press the play button in Listen to London Features Audio (right).

Click on images to enlarge.

Photos and sound recording: Paul Coleman
Copyright in these words, photos and sound recording is Owned by Paul Coleman.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful, touching piece. Thank you. I love the pic of the candles. Even as a photo on a screen it manages to capture and encapsulate as well as project much warmth and hope. As I first saw the candles I felt moved to light one had I been there and felt happy to read that you did. It reminds me of that a camel, oops, like a candle in the wind :)