City mouse, country mouse

IMG_0240Once upon a time, a long time ago, I used to go to London at least once a month. I loved it. I have never worked in London regularly, but once a month or so, I became part of its energy, became part of its rushing, seething humanity. It was both energising and exhausting, but it helped me to feel connected.

Yesterday I went to London for the first time in a few months. Over the last couple of years I have become more confident walking around the city, more aware that places which look miles apart on the tube map are only a few minutes’ walk apart – so although I did some of my travel by tube, I walked too. Plenty of walking, wearing my clerical collar. Just like being at home. Except of course, it wasn’t like being at home at all. Because at home, I walk, I smile and say hello to everyone I meet as I walk. It’s part of who I am and what I do, as well as being within the scope of the role of the Rector here. In London, I have to remember not to make eye contact, not to smile, not to speak. Of course, some of that is made easy because there are so many people. But I have to remember that in cities, people preserve their personal space in different ways, they don’t look you in the eye, they don’t acknowledge other humans, they assume their conversations are private even if they are loud and public. It is a different way of being.

The divide is profound – between places where people acknowledge each other because there is space, and where they don’t because there isn’t. The pace is different, the interactions are different. Wearing my collar (and shocking pink clerical shirt) made me stand out from all the sober suited people dressed for city office life. My casual conversations yesterday happened in shops, in cafes, not in the street. I am encouraged that they happened at all. But this difference might help explain some of the divide between how I see church portrayed in the media, and how I perceive it is perceived on the ground. Most people writing for national media are based in cities, and so are used to operating in that fast, self-preserving bubble. Whereas the conversations I was having yesterday afternoon about rural ministry were all about the relationships we form with our communities. For me, some of those relationships are street based. Maybe I should wear fluorescent yellow jacket and redefine myself as a street pastor when I walk? It’s one of the older Fresh Expressions.

The dominant discourse in the UK is very south-east centric. It takes less than 90 minutes for me to get to central London by train. But my normal world is years away from that frantic city life, and the dominant discourse does not reflect much of life here. Remember the relationships, remember that people still greet strangers in the street. It’s what makes us human. And if you see me in London, do say hello!

4 responses to “City mouse, country mouse

  1. I’ve found that a determining factor about whether or not one smiles at another is not necessarily location, but the physical substance that is underfoot. Walking through the small Sussex village my parents live in, if one is on pavement, there is as much interaction with others as I get on the high street in the London borough of Southwark. Yet in my nearby Sydenham woods, as soon as there is mud underfoot, smiles are more forthcoming and the loosening of a tongue in conversation with a stranger is as easy as one experiences after 4 glasses of wine. Though in those woods, I am the only mouse amidst many rates, which one tends to find less common outside the M25.

    • Interesting observation, and accurate for the south east I suspect – the closer one is to centres of dense population, the more that idea of what’s underfoot holds. However, in one place where I used to wander during curacy (a few miles out of my patch) people still didn’t speak even though they were out in the countryside – it was often quite busy (i.e. another family in sight), I wonder if that makes a difference too. But here, surface is irrelevant, and so is age….

      Keep clear of the rats as far as you can!

  2. Claire, you give a fair representation of London, the one that I was born into, grew up in and went to school in, and worked in for the first part of my independent life until I joined the Army. Londoners can be quite insular when waling to and fro, perhaps they’re in a hurry, or perhaps they’re resisting any personal interaction because you meet some strange types while wandering around, even random Clergy, with pink shirts and a collar. 🙂

    I don’t think that it’s a deliberate ‘setting out to be unfriendly’ rather a defensive mechanism against being drawn into engagement with others, which might take them away from what they’re doing or coming from or going to. I think that it’s something that is inherited in a way, because their experience is such that becoming engaged often leads to rebuff.

    I found similar attitudes in other UK Regional cities or bigger towns and even in Western European countries such as Germany, Holland and Belgium. But, also that people didn’t rush past and were interested in engaging if you were as well. The people of germany, often depicted as without humour are in fact some of the friendliest, most engaging and helpful people that I’ve met in my lifetime journeys.

    I live in an Urban Village setting. My parish is an Urban Village on the outskirts of far, South East London, Until the 70’s we were part of Kent (under Dartford) until dragged kicking and screaming into the metropolis by the local government reforms. Somehow this change hasn’t really worked it’s way out from the inner suburbs to us just yet. We acknowledge that we live in a GL Borough, but identify with our village – Belvedere. We think of community within our village and when necessary with the borough, who we pay our rates etc too. But like to think of them being on another planet as far as we are concerned.

    We speak of going into town (meaning local shopping centres) or Up to London when we are obliged to visit – but actually resist being described as Londoners. We’re still Kentish people, living in a Kentish Village, among other local Kentish Urban villages.

    We maintain a sense of community, similar to that I experienced in the rural villages that I was privileged to minister in around Canterbury, and people do acknowledge each other, people do know each other and the more that I get to know my new parish people – I can see ample evidence of the village life and connections in evidence in more rural communities. Active WI for instance, local societies. Our Church hall used by local groups and uniformed organisations. Good ecumenical relationships between the local churches who work tightly together in building community. We have a weekly coffee call where charities have small sales, combining with church groups doing the same. Many come to us or can go to the local baptist church for a Soup and roll meal (free of charge). All this reflects what I experienced going on in rural villages, and is clearly identifiable as a real, local community.

    On 1st June we’re sharing a Churches together event in the grounds of our parish church, with a luncheon in the grounds being run on a bring and share basis.

    My experience of other surrounding urban villages is much the same, and I don’t doubt that other localities within London do similar things. Community still alive, if not as visible as in a rural parish, but there if we go looking for it.

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