Summer in the city

I was informed last night in a speech at the East London Mosque by the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs, that ‘this summer, the summer of 2017, has been the hottest summer the UK has seen since the summer of 1976, when [he] graduated secondary school.’ Whether or not this is absolutely true is the business of meteorologists and record-keepers; I can only attest to a pleasant, hot proper summer that has visited the southern UK over the last few weeks.

The week before my ordination to the priesthood in mid-June, I went to one of my favorite places THREE TIMES: the Hampstead Heath ladies’ pond.


Although going to the seaside is lovely and I’ve been lucky enough to make it to Margate on a sunny day, I must confess that I really prefer wild swimming in fresh water. Having grown up in a place where opportunities for river- and lake- swimming were plentiful, I have never quite been happy with salt-water swimming. Hence my deep and abiding love for the ponds up at Hampstead, which are (a) within 90 minutes journey from my house by public transport, (b) include a trip to the Heath, (c) deliciously cool and unsalty. The ladies’ pond has the added advantage of being a strictly women-only space, and the relaxed attitude to clothing makes my inner nudist happy.

This summer is also my first full summer back in Bethnal Green, with windows perpetually open to the noise of east London: a school across the road, too-sensitive car alarms going off at all hours, foxes shagging in the churchyard, junkies arguing on my front step, the distant sound of stringed instruments from the Duke of Uke and the muffled chatter from people drinking outside the pub at the end of the road. I remember writing a poem whilst living in Cambridge about the annoyance of the road crossing beep noise on Jesus Lane going off at all hours…how spoiled I was in that quiet little corner of the fens!

I was up in the fens last week — in Ely — for a mini-residential for Stepney area clergy. I had meant to go to the cathedral for a pray and a look-round and to visit Toppings for some books (always more books!) but the retreat house where we were staying was working its magic and making me feel very sleepy indeed. I find that whenever I spend more than a day in a retreat house I start going into retreat mode — the first couple days of which are always dominated by catching up on sleep.

In summer it’s hard to make myself go to sleep early, because I still glory in living in a place with no (or few?) mosquitos where I can sit outside, put on some candles or fairy lights, and enjoy the warmth still radiating from the paving slabs in the garden ( / glorified parking space). I know that six months from now I’ll want to roll into bed at about 8.30 because of the dark evenings — but of course in autumn and winter the evenings are busier. City people seem to accomplish a kind of anti-hibernation, hustling and persevering in the cold months, only to disappear during the warm, to holiday destinations, if they can.

I’ve had my big holidays for the year already; January in Marrakech and April in Lisbon. The year has felt slightly front-loaded with travel because of it. It has been wonderfully indulgent to travel so much and to be a two-income couple, but the period of spending and settling in feels like it is ending. Max & I have married, we’re settled in to east London, I’m feeling more confident in my work in the parish and Max is taking the next steps in his own life and career. Sometimes I have to pinch myself and be reminded: this is real life — my real life — and that although there are always changes to be weathered, getting through training, ordination, and deployment is done. For the next two years (-ish) my job is just to be the best I can be as a curate in Bethnal Green, to keep figuring out what it means to be a good partner in marriage, to give myself space to enjoy this city, to learn, to be with friends, to be a neighbor.

I’ve always felt a little bit grumpy when Christians nick the passage in the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah about ‘seeking the welfare of the city’ in order to justify their community-developing efforts — not because I think Christians shouldn’t pour their time into developing their communities, to being neighbors, but because that passage is about a displaced people who have been carted off into exile by their enemies and are being held in captivity. The prophet’s instruction to ‘seek the city’s welfare’ is a hard saying indeed, to a people who are living in ‘the city’ as spoils of a conquest. Contemporary urban-dwelling Christians simply are not in the same place as the ancient Hebrews, no matter how much some may like to spiritualise the concept of exile/captivity in the present day.

However, the welfare — the well-being, we might say — of the city of London does desperately need seeking, by Christians, by atheists, by all people of faith and conscience. Just how I can best use my time and energy in this project is a project of exploration for me in the years to come.

This summer, and especially the recently-ended fasting period of Ramadan, has seen quite a lot of unrest: violent attacks by (those who claim to be) Muslims, and on Muslims, as well as the Grenfell tower fire. In some ways these disasters and tragedies have only served to bring together people who want to seek London’s well-being. London is tough and Londoners are tough in crises. But what the Blitz spirit / the stiff upper lip is giving way to, I hope, is something more multicultural and nuanced, and something which reaches beyond London.

Londoners, after all, voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU during last year’s referendum. The diversity of London, the sense of it being a European city, a global city, is strong at many (but not all) levels. I can’t help feeling that many who call London home would feel more in common culturally with Paris, Amsterdam, Chicago or Milan than they would with parts of rural Norfolk, leafy Berkshire, and so forth. Is this just what is meant by globalisation?


Speaking of Paris, I was watching a little bit of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset yesterday: the second in his excellent series of Before… films featuring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. I was happily surprised to realise that several of the streets that featured in this film, set in Paris in summer, were little back streets in Le Marais which I had walked down with Max as we started out our honeymoon this year, en route to Lisbon. ‘Look! I remember that gate, and that fountain, and that bookshop!’ ‘It looked even posher in April, though, didn’t it?’ The film came out in 2004 which seems a long time ago, but isn’t really.

London is a city which in my head is as much a city of cranes and perpetual construction as a city of fog and rain, pie and mash, an assortment of villages and mindsets. Thus I can make few comments about my city’s ‘timelessness’, or indeed the timelessness of Paris, whose back streets — at least a few — remained unchanged from 2004 to 2017. But I think there is something timeless, or at least enduring, about the experience of a hot summer in a city, especially a city that also knows freezing cold (New York and Berlin, I’m looking at you, too!) It’s the reason that so many songs are written about ‘summer in [whichever] city’, a small selection of which I leave you with, to ponder & enjoy.

Ah, the Lovin’ Spoonful. See also great covers of this by Joe Cocker, Quincy Jones and B. B. King.

Regina Spektor’s glorious, graphic anti-folk-jazz tune.

Robbie Stuart’s very 21st century pop with strings, autotune and sampled monologue.