Rescripting religion in the city

Jane Garnett and Alana Harris (eds)
Rescripting Religion in the City. Migration and Religious Identity in the Modern Metropolis
Farnham, Ashgate, 9781409437741, 2013

I have just submitted a review of this very useful volume of essays, for the Journal of Belief and Values. It begins:

‘The city, and in particular the metropolis, has always been key to local, national and international networks: of trade, of communication, of governance. And the briefest acquaintance with the history of London, for instance, shows that the same applies to networks of religious exchange. ….. London has acted as a node in the networks around which money, information, material objects and people have flowed. As this new collection of essays shows, these interactions have only become faster and more complex as empires were dismantled and the former colonial powers gave room to significant immigrant populations who might or might not share the inherited faith of their hosts.’9781409437741 Rescripting Religion in the City

The volume includes contributions from ‘historians, theologians and sociologists, and from scholars of music, social and cultural geography and anthropology… organised in thematic sections, on languages, place and space, gender and generation, and public policy, with editorial introductions to each… In this diversity lies the volume’s strength. There are rich connections to be made between essays that deal with native and migrant Christian experience across several denominations, and those on Jewish, Hindu and Muslim cases. London figures heavily, alongside studies of Paris, Warsaw, and of Australian and North American cases…’

The essays that stand out are those that engage most with historical context: in particular, those by Matthew Grimley, Gil Toffell, Nazneen Ahmed, Michael Keith and Abigail Wood. Thomas Hodgson wins my prize for best article title of the year with ‘”Do what the Qu’ran says and stay away from crack”: Mirpuri Muslims, rap music and the city.’

Other were less successful, not so much for the content as for the style, being:

‘poorly structured and lacking a clear analytical thrust. … Others are heavily larded with some rather rebarbative jargon, and plain bad writing; the sentence that must be read three times to be understood is a bad sentence.’

It is a shame that in a policy environment focussed on ‘impact’ outside the academy, some authors make their readers, even the initiated ones, work so hard.

See the list of contents.

Badalia Herodsfoot and the Curate

Another post in my occasional series on clergy in British fiction; this time from a short story by Rudyard Kipling, ‘The record of Badalia Herodsfoot‘, first published in his Many Inventions in 1893. Both posts in the series so far, from H.G.Wells and George Orwell, have featured clerical characters working in prosperous and settled areas of England. Kipling’s character, by contrast, is an example of a recognisable type in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century: the ‘slum priest’.

The Reverend Eustace Hanna is curate of an unnamed parish in London’s East End (it is always the East End). He works amongst the poor of Gunnison Street, dispensing aid as best he can, both material and spiritual, but mostly material. He works alongside the Little Sisters of the Red Diamond, a house of Anglican religious, as well as Brother Victor, of the (Roman Catholic) Order of Little Ease. He must also stay in the good books of Mrs Jessel, of the Tea Cup Board, who ‘had money to dispense, but hated Rome.’

What this group of do-gooders, partly co-operative, partly competitive, come to recognise is that they need help. While the residents of Gunnison Street need material help, they are considerably less interested in any religious attachment that might go with it; although some are not above feigning a conversion for a bite to eat. Hanna and the others are interlopers; not despised as such, but tolerated at best; separated by an insuperable barrier of class and outlook.

And so Hanna enlists the help of Badalia Herodsfoot, a deserted wife of indeterminate age, childless, who shifts for herself by ‘a mangle, some tending of babies, and an occasional sale of flowers’. Once a week Mrs Jessel subvents a sum of money for the poor, which Badalia dispenses, and records the details in a book which Hanna must sign. Mrs Jessel is concerned about Badalia’s godlessness of speech, but all recognise that her local knowledge is too useful a means that they should question her conduct.

It is important that Hanna is a curate. The rector of the parish is more concerned with altar-cloths and a new brass eagle lectern for the church, and (we are to understand) would rather the curate did not spend his time pauperizing the poor by dispensing charity to them. But Hanna is young, and still tender of heart. And his heart is particularly tender towards Sister Eva, ‘youngest and most impressionable’ of the Little Sisters, alongside whom he works and whom he would rather be able to protect. All of them work themselves hard, with a faintly desperate determination, ‘since time is precious and lives hang in the balance of five minutes.’

Hanna is a more sympathetic character than either Wells’ curate, or Orwell’s rector, but there is still moral complication. It is as a direct result of Badalia’s involvement with Hanna that she is beaten to death by her degenerate husband Tom, returning to her after a desertion of two years. This is partly because she will not hand over the money for him to spend on drink. But Tom is disposed to believe the gossip that Badalia is the subject of more than just the charity of this ‘aristocratic parson’. But Hanna and Brother Victor are able to put aside their differences, and the denominational demarcation of death, to both be at Badalia’s deathbed as she succumbs to her injuries. Kipling’s curate is a good man at work with limited success in an alien environment.

Where were the churches after the Blitz ?

This week I made my debut as a reviewer for the LSE Review of Books. Since the Review is admirably free in the reuse it will allow, I republish it here under a Creative Commons licence. It is a review of an highly suggestive study of the lived experience of blitz conditions during the Second World War and patterns of planning and reconstruction afterwards. edited by Mark Clapson and Peter J. Larkham, and published by Ashgate.

From the point of view of my own research, there is one aspect of the question which the collection only touches very obliquely, at least in relation to England. These discourses of reconstruction turn on themes of modernity, efficiency, revolutionary change, the future, looking forward. How should we understand the rebuilding, repair or demolition of bomb-damaged churches: often ancient and mostly inefficient buildings, symbols of continuity and the presence of the past in urban spaces ? The collection very deftly opens up the complex processes in which national planners, local government and local opinion interacted in the creation of new urban centres such as Plymouth. Where, if anywhere, were the churches ? This article of mine from 2008 (available Open Access here) tried to open up some of the debates at national level; this collection reminds me of how many local stories there are still to tell.

Review, from LSE Review of Books, 1st October 2013

Mark Clapson and Peter J. Larkham (eds)
The Blitz and its Legacy. Wartime destruction to post-war reconstruction
Farnham, Ashgate, 2013

‘One of the most cherished popular myths of the Second World War centres on the London Blitz: a story of stiff upper lips, social solidarity and unity of purpose in the face of a terrifying onslaught; keep calm and carry on. Although this interpretation of the ‘People’s War’ has taken as intense a pounding from historians’ artillery as did London from the air, elements of it are left standing. This collection of essays examines two of them.

‘The first of these was that, at least in Britain, the experience of war turned the people into a ‘nation of town planners’. The utopianism that lay behind the nationalisation of key industries and the foundation of the National Health Service also produced a consensus that cities should not merely be repaired, but reimagined, and created afresh on clean and rational lines. The second myth refers to the reconstruction process itself, in which all the subsequent problems of urban Britain, all decaying concrete and thin social fabric, can be laid at the door of ‘the planners’. The contradictions between these two myths have not shortened their life or restricted their apparent explanatory power.

‘Britain was hardly alone in experiencing such damage, of course, and academic interest in destruction and reconstruction has been heightened in part by more recent conflicts in the Balkans and the Middle East. The editors, academics from the disciplines of history and of planning, have brought together an interdisciplinary team of specialists in history, planning, architecture and urban geography. There are valuable perspectives also from France, Germany and Japan, but two thirds of the papers relate to Britain, on which this review will concentrate.

As the editors acknowledge, the fourteen essays are highly diverse, on subjects ranging from the evacuation of disabled children from London to architectural style in a post-Hiroshima Japan. But there is design in this assembly of fragments, which points the way towards a reconnection of previously disparate literatures. The preoccupation of the book is to suggest how connections might be made between the lived experiences of individuals in blitz conditions, and the processes in which local populations interacted with local and national government to plan and then build. The social history of the People’s War has seldom been connected with the study of post-war planning. This collection begins to form those connections.

‘One such starting point is Mark Clapson’s essay on the London blitz and the dispersal of the London working class to the out-county estates within greater London, and the new towns beyond. Far from causing the fragmentation of the London working class, the Blitz only interrupted and then shaped and accelerated a longer-term process which can be traced back to late Victorian slum clearance and the Garden City movement. Part of that acceleration was caused by the experience of evacuation to the country, which to some extent prepared Londoners for suburban living. As Sue Wheatcroft shows, the evacuations also led directly to the post-war establishment of a system of residential special schools for children with disabilities.

‘Susanne Cowan provides a salutary note on the limitations of public enthusiasm for planning in the immediate post-war period. Whilst the enthusiasm for a ‘better Britain’ was genuine, it was short-lived; and the desire for change was at least as much directed towards older, more basic needs, such as for better housing, than any longing for more far-reaching change. Cowan shows that planners were proactive in shaping public opinion; but were ultimately mistaken in believing their own propaganda.

‘Catherine Flinn provides a wryly downbeat assessment of the real influence of “the planners”. Far from being set free to design new urban environments without constraint, the planners were in fact hemmed in by planning law itself, and by the inability of local authorities to agree amongst themselves. Reconstruction was also low amongst the priorities of those who controlled the supply of scarce building materials, particularly outside London; the members of the Investment Programmes Committee of the cabinet were clearly not among the ‘nation of town planners.’ Instead, much of the building took place slowly, and largely on private initiative, and so few post-war city centres bore much resemblance to the grand plans prepared for them. If later public opinion disliked these centres, it was not the planners who were to blame.

‘There are also case studies in which all these themes combine. Particularly interesting are those by David Adams and Peter J. Larkham on Birmingham, and on Plymouth by Stephen Essex and Mark Brayshay. Plymouth was perhaps the most fully realised modernist scheme for a new city centre, in which even those Victorian buildings that survived the bombing were demolished to allow the complete remodelling of the centre, with little of the street plan surviving. However, to view Plymouth as a straightforward victory for the ‘planners’ obscures a more complex and more interesting story. The site of a key naval dockyard, Plymouth was hit very hard by the bombing, and an early statement of intent to rebuild was felt necessary for morale. The initiative was seized very early by a tight knot of the elite, including Lord Astor, the mayor, and John Reith, minister of Works and Building. The Plan for Plymouth (1943) became as it were a local Magna Carta, which the objections of neither the local council, nor of city landowners deprived of their freehold, nor of the new Ministry of Town and Country Planning in London could amend. With a pleasing irony, the modernist scheme which allowed nothing old to remain, in recent years has itself become an object of conservation.

‘The editors have unfortunately been let down in the preparation of the text for the press. One essay contains the longest sentence this reviewer has ever read (running to some 75 words), and another so mangled as to be nonsensical. This is a shame, as this fertile collection promises to provoke and stimulate much fresh thinking about the connections between the experience of the blitz and later reconstruction. It deserves a large and diverse readership.