November 15 2015
There’s a moment when a building becomes its architectural self again. It is happening to the church now: the Museum has closed for the development project to begin, and we are taking out postcard racks, and files, and the partitions which seemed so urgent and essential whenever they were put up. The light through the windows slowly steals back the floor.
You understand why visitors look up: when the church was rebuilt in the 1850s the architect doubled its height. In cities height is precious; that’s why developers buy the sky. This stone and wood roof tented in a bit of London for no practical purpose at all. Except to be a space in which people, and light, move more slowly.
We closed to the public on the weekend of All Souls, a Festival which has been all but screamed away by the orange glare of Halloween. For centuries 2nd November was the night you listed the dead whom you knew, and prayed. Edith Wharton – so Hermione Lee told us in her brilliant talk at this year’s Festival of Garden Literature – went into her garden to think of – and wonder about, I suppose - her friends.
Staff from years ago came to the closing party, shouting news of their current jobs. Shouted, because it was a crowd of staff, volunteers and suppliers, from the IT support service to Giles of Soapy Joe Ltd., from whom we buy cleaning products and whose mother is – at over one hundred – the longest-standing Friend of the Museum. Each week, a two metre high stack of loo roll is deposited in the middle of the galleries; it continued in exactly the same place after, in 2008, we built the first phase of the interior, and won an award for stylish refurbishment. In fifteen months’ time and seven million pounds later – and the interior re-floored and re-lit – I expect he will stack the loo rolls in exactly the same place, as cheerfully indifferent to the slick public image we hope to give. But tonight that continuity is nice. Binning old files you realise just how many strategies and plans have been discussed, written and enacted in the last seven years. Soapy Joe has been oblivious to them all.
By ten thirty it is too dark to see the cakes baked by volunteers, so time to leave. In this porch, at All Souls, you would have sat and watched the souls of the dead pass by. ‘Mary of Modena sheltered in this porch, in her arms the infant Prince of Wales – he who would become the Old Pretender – as she awaited the carriage on the stormy night of her flight into exile’, reads the flourishing language of an old history book.
I first heard the Queen’s name working in Bath: who’s that lead cherub in the red-painted niche by the Cross Bath? The relic of a monument erected by Catholics to celebrate the role of the spa waters in conceiving an heir to James II, himself the heir to his older brother Charles II.
A contemporary says that she was ‘so innocently bred’ in an Italian nunnery that she had not heard the word ‘England’ until Louis XIV of France paid for a marriage which would reclaim the land for Catholicism. She fled on a stormy December night in 1688 in reaction to the unpopularity of her infant son, crossing the Thames from Whitehall to Lambeth on the ferry, and waiting in this cold stone porch for a carriage to Gravesend and the sea to France. But we know so little about her that the porch feels cold of her presence. In this electronic age we generate more information of ourselves in a week than a Queen did in a lifetime. Sometimes the past is lost. Sometimes it’s good to be indifferent to it, like the river surging by, or that fat-bellied cherub chortling in his niche in Bath.
But sometimes history snaps back, like a branch you’ve pushed aside. Taking down the sign has revealed the parish notice board for 1970, the year of de-consecration. The times of service, and the names of Revd. J. B. D. Chittenden and Churchwardens Mr G. Barman and Miss M. Ablett are lettered in gold on a sea-green background. You can almost hear the vanished bells ring through the leaves in the churchyard. I’m going to put the sign – split into three planks – in the temporary office into which we move next week.