Emily Barker at St. Peter’s, Tandridge

Earlier this year we attended the first pop concert in 800 years, at St. Peter’s church, Tandridge village. It was an unseasonably cold night in March, and late snow lay on the ground. Tonight, we returned, in mid-October, on what was another unseasonable night. This time, however, the weather was very warm. To be able to walk around on a mid-October night in shirt-sleeves is most unusual.

This event, like it’s predecessor, was a benefit gig aimed at raising money for the fabric of this wonderful and ancient church.  In this case, money is sought to install a much-needed loo: prosaic, but a vital human need.  And this evening was both human and prosaic, warm and uplifting, but friendly and community-oriented.  The Rector, Andrew Rumsey, introduced the evening with a warm-up act of a brace of autumnal songs that might have even been written for the occasion.

The actual support act for Emily Barker were two gents called Roy Hill and Ty Watling. These gents looked and sounded like characters from Mark Knopfler’s “Sultans of Swing”

…Check out guitar George
He knows all the chords…

Mind, Ty Watling did indeed know how to make his guitar cry and sing, and that he went on to do.  Roy Hill was of indeterminate age, and was in good voice, and made banter with the audience about how much better this was than their usual pub gig.  They started dark, with a song about pain beginning, and finished with a deeply moving number about failing mental health, yet, they were always somehow encouraging, humane, and uplifting.

Emily Barker came on and immediately impressed everyone with her beautiful clear voice and her guitar playing.  This evening has seen a series of guitarists bringing great joy and beauty into the world through their playing, song-writing and singing, like Chet Atkins:

…Money don’t matter as long as I scatter a little bit of happiness around
If people keep a grinnin’ I figure I’m a winnin’…

In between the numbers she told us stories of her early life with a discernable Aussie twang.  It is always engaging when pop stars do that – you want to know that they do go to the shops, that they were once kids in the back of a car going on holiday, singing along to cassettes.  She performed an old Bruce Springsteen number – “Tunnel of love” – to illustrate this story.

Somehow, the fact that she is a supremely skilled professional guitarist and pianist, a powerful and gifted singer and a talented songwriter did not discourage or demotivate. After the concert I was speaking to a lady in the audience who has Downs Syndrome.  She wants to write songs – and she was saying, by no means demotivated, how high the bar has been set by Emily Barker.  The lesson is, everything is possible; anyone can do anything if they set themselves to it.  A lady you might pass in the street, wearing blue jeans and a cardigan, has a voice like Aretha Franklin, a solo voice so beautiful, so powerful, as to carry an entire church in stunned silence.

“To one, he gave five bags of gold, to another, two, to another, one bag, each according to his ability” – Matthew 25:15.  It’s what you do with what you’ve got that matters, not how much you’ve got.

There’s a pattern emerging here with these concerts: Not so much inspiring, as inspirational.  Do new things. Dare to create, dare to do something new with your bag of gold.

Lorien street

“In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien, there was no stain.” – Tolkien

A wave of grief washed over me as I crossed the street. Just as I stepped off the curb, I noticed a young woman walking along the other side. She couldn’t have been 20. She was showing a little too much leg for such icy weather, and she didn’t give a damn. The look on her face, at the same time confident and fragile, so reminded me of my daughter, I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from crying.

It was that time of day in deep winter when the light was just starting to fade. When evening and late afternoon are one. The wind was harsh and unkind, cutting at my neck. I pulled my scarf tighter about me. The legs of my trousers whipped about my ankles. Bits of litter spiralled around in eddies. It was the sort of day when snow always seems imminent, but never actually falls. Pushing south, walking blindly, almost at random, I continued into Mayfair. Here were antique dealers, discreet fine art shops, vendors of ancient vellum manuscripts.

All I knew, in my mourning, was to walk through the winter streets of this great city. It was my therapy, my treatment, my medicine. If I stopped even for a moment, I should end up thinking. And if I allowed myself time to think, I’d be lost. I would think of my daughter, who was gone. I could not bear to do that, not just yet. I knew that, in time, I would: I would pause, own what had happened, and move on. But not yet.

I found myself in Berkeley Square, walking down the west side. The trees were bare, and brown, twigs and branches flung accusingly out against the grey sky. I barely noticed myself crossing Curzon Street and continuing into the little maze of secret streets that led out onto Piccadilly. Here, my best efforts not to cry failed me, and the tears came flooding out. For a few moments, I stumbled along in tears. A big city is no bad place for a grown man to cry: you can be on your own, lost in the crowd. Maybe you want to cry alone; maybe, really, you secretly long for someone to notice.

As darkness fell, I stopped to look into the window of a little bistro. A few flakes of snow were just starting to appear.  Inside, an Italian looking man of about my age, caught my eye. I’m not an impulsive man, but I turned nonetheless and straightaway went inside, out of the cold, biting wind. The waiters’ gaze through the window had seemed to contain, in a single split second, all moments. Though nothing was said, something mysterious passed from him to me. Some complicit understanding, some unspoken empathy.

The first thing I noticed as I came in out of the cold, was a cheap framed print of Rembrandt’s “The raising of Lazarus”. So out of place did it look, my eye was drawn towards it. The waiter, already moving to greet me, noticed my looking at the picture, and murmured very quietly, almost under his breath, “anche Gesu piange“. Then he spoke in English, and louder, with words of welcome. I glanced at my watch, and saw that the time was a little after 4pm. I ordered coffee, and after a glance at the menu, some form of cake I cannot now recall.

It seemed to me that the waiter lingered when he bought my coffee, and we spent some time talking, but I cannot recall what we were talking about. Outside, snow fell, and the darkness was complete. But inside, in the warm pools of light, there was friendship. The waiter’s brother arrived, and we got talking. I talked my heart out, I spoke at length. They listened to me and they hardly said a word. I talked about my whole life; about my former wife, about my daughter. They nodded solemnly as I told them about the tragedy of her sudden death. One of them put his hand on mine. The other touched my shoulder.

I thought I ought to get up to leave. I was in a kind of daze. But not so dazed that when I moved to stand up and get my coat, I didn’t spot the lady behind the bar shaking her head minutely. Then she smiled at me like I was the only person in the universe. “But…” I started to say.

“Stay” said the waiter.

Later, more people arrived, and there was dinner. A hearty dish of meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce. Sphaghetti, Garlic bread. Red wine. I could never afterwards recall the conversation at that dinner. It was as if I was an honoured guest at an intimate family dinner, an outsider made welcome at a private occasion for just a few close friends and relations. For a brief while, the burden of my grief was put by.  It was laid aside, like the scarf and overcoat hung up in a little alcove by the door. It was like when someone carrying a huge and wearisome load for many miles, lays that burden down.

For a while I was sat at the bar, talking to the barmaid, the one who’d smiled at me so winningly. She was telling me about her profoundly disabled son, and the struggles they had getting him dressed, or strapped into the car. I sipped a glass of some Aniseed spirits – Pernod, perhaps, or more likely Sambuca, in an Italian restaurant. “Don’t miss”, she said, a London barmaid to her fingertips, “your train”. I gave a start. Then she did something quite startling. In a quite intimate way, yet somehow in no way suggestive or inappropriate, she took hold of my hand, and said something. She said this:

“Don’t look at your watch.” She looked right at me and said again, “Don’t look at your watch. Just put your coat on, and walk.”

I put my coat on. The wonderful Italian waiter shook my hand. I opened the door and stepped out of the warm restaurant, into the cold night air. The snow must have stopped a while ago; I must have been in the place for hours, yet there was just the merest icing sugar dusting on the roofs of the cars. At the corner, I saw the name of the street: Lorien street.

Walking away through that hidden quarter of lost streets, I turned a corner and found myself in the bustle of Piccadilly.  Something was not quite right.  It was too busy for late evening; I’d been sat in that bistro all night, talking, eating, drinking, until after 10 o’clock. Yet here were buses, taxis, pedestrians, tourists. Automatically, I shot the cuff of my overcoat and looked at my watch, and saw that it was just after 5pm. Thunderstruck, I wondered what had happened. Was it even the same day? 

I turned round, and retraced my steps. But of Lorien Street, or of that little bistro, I never found any sign. I’ve been back that way several times, and never found so much as a trace.  Nothing could be found of that hidden place of healing, where those people made me so welcome and were so generous to me in my time of grief. 

Green Park

Here is a young man sketching the skeletal outlines of winter trees, using a blue pencil. Here is an older man, quietly reading a book. Here is an arrogant ass, sprawled on a park bench, with an expression like a King, as if he somehow owned the whole park. Groups of ladies run up and down. A helicopter buzzes somewhere up above – this is SW1.

A little yellow-breasted bird swoops down and lands two feet away from a Smartie, abandoned on the path. It hops smartly forward, picks it up in its beak, and flies off with it. A lucky find! Two men go past, of Mediterranean or possibly near Eastern origin, sharing the same bicycle.

A blonde lady of unknowable age, but svelte and curved in Lycra, is performing somewhat distracting (to me, anyway) stretching exercises on a nearby fallen tree, pressed in to service as a park bench.

Passing the Grand Sheraton on Picadilly, I spy a single open window amongst dozens, set against the sunlit white Portland Stone.