The Discontents of Empire (II)

Here is something I wrote in my journal nearly 17 years ago. At the time I was living in a large, Victorian, short-life house (council housing, unfit for council tenants, leased to a housing co-operative) close to the Brixton Road. I don’t think I’d change a word today. What troubles me is that I’ve been thinking about this for so long and I haven’t changed my life.

1.45pm, Thursday 16 March 2000

I have just had the most amazing experience. I walked into Brixton to buy some groceries, choosing to walk because I wanted to make it a prayerful experience, to confront in some way the feelings I usually get of immense anger and frustration and terror. I tried to walk more slowly, to look at people as people rather than as obstacles which impede the focused progress to my goal. Still, how often I became furious at people who stepped into my path without looking where they were going! I imagined that they were simply ignoring me; at a deeper level, I imagined that actually the experience of there being so many people together is so awful that we have somehow to ameliorate it and that one way to do that is simply to ignore others for self-survival.

Walking back from the shops, still in Brixton, my knee was hurting – as it so often is these days – and so I stopped at a bench by the bus-stop. I sat for maybe 15 minutes and simply looked. I very quickly became still and calm, unruffled by all that was happening around – the noise, the traffic, the dirt, the sheer ugly inhumanity of it all. I felt deep love and the presence of God, as if I were praying. I believe I was praying for the people I saw. I observed a woman struggle to get on a bus with her baby and the push-chair. For some reason, I didn’t help her: I was there to watch. I felt like weeping when a young man stepped out of the bus to help her. There was such beauty: awareness, love, care. As I walked back home, I still felt tearful, as if I too cared for the people I saw, and deeply moved by our plight.

London is destructive. It tends to smother the flowering of the human/divine spirit; it obliterates what is natural, the sheer beauty of Nature and all her creatures. Of course, God is here; of course creativity happens; of course people care for each other – I say, ‘of course’, because God is God and cannot be smothered. It is not good that so many people are crammed into so small a space. The cost is enormous suffering. Yes, society is composed of individuals and their creations – buildings, corporations, infrastructure and the like – and the sum is greater than the parts, but that ‘greater’ has no conscience, no care for the individuals: God has, but the city hasn’t. Our creation, the city, is a cancer which grows and devours.

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