I seek out the solace of my favourite church, St James in Piccadilly – for “all faiths and none”. Gorecki hangs gently in the high air. Candles glimmer softly on the bereft, “our homeless guests”. They snooze in pews facing Piccadilly, their extremities poking out from sleeping bags, faceless beards and laceless boots. All men – most drunk or drugged or both.
I stare at a crucifix and essay Deep Thoughts and fail.
A young woman teacher comes in with an alligator line of 7th years. They’re here for some history, art and a bit of Blake. She ushers them hushed down aisles past Mary Magdalene, an annunciation and a rather grim Pieta – and our comatose, wheezing, horizontal congregation. A couple of girls stare, but do not giggle.
Who are these broken malcontents? With their marks of weakness, marks of woe? Supine, like Medieval Exempla, they could surely afford the teacher a trite riff on sin, like one of those government citizenship modules?
She resists this. There but for fortune go we all.
How did they get here?
Are they pupils, who didn’t meet their targets? Who failed their grades and therefore failed in life? Like my Dennis Plum or Dave Mania? Or the still tragically missing Charlie Johnstone? Or are they my old English department, for whom one more Gove edict was a bridge too far? Or just the undeserving poor? Scroungers? Benefit Cheats? Bulgarians? Gypsies? Or Blake’s “vagabonds”?
The tots sit silent and draw with charcoal and pencils. Erratic snores punctuate their endeavours. A florid fellow rolls audibly off a pew. Another gets up and gazes at a girl drawing him. He smiles with a mouth like a Halloween pumpkin. Then the teacher leads her flock to a font, full of the usual, desperate messages. “William Blake was baptised here,” she informs them. “The Baby Blake? In this actual font.”
“Blake’s bum was ‘ere?” says a boy. “Yes,” whispers the teacher, “Billy Blake’s very bottom.”
She smiles and I smile back. She recites The Little Vagabond. They light candles, send messages, gather their work and leave in an alligator line. I light my atheist’s candle and beg any deities for a kinder world – or, at least, one in which the present minister for education does not occur. I wander back into those chartered streets, considerably cheered once again by teachers, all god’s children and that lovely church.