Out of Darkness?

“Round to your left, please!”

There are ways of saying ‘please’, which vary from earnest entreaty to thinly-disguised threat.   This is the latter.

“Did you order online?”

She stands in command of her little empire of plastic bollards and fake crime tape, stockily built, belligerent and enjoying the anonymity of her paper mask.

“Do you have documentation?  In through this door and go to station 2.”

The image of state authority passes through my mind as I obediently follow the painted lines on the floor.   “Your papers!   What is your destination?  Why?”

Inside the emporium, I am told to remain standing on a yellow square.  I do so, making a mental note to never use this ‘click and collect’ service again.  Probably, I will avoid using this store again.   I have the possibly illogical notion that if I am ever to catch the benighted virus, it will be here.   It will float into my respiratory system on a cloud of vitriol.

‘Station 2’ Comes up with my merchandise and allows me to collect it from the counter while ‘Station 2’ hides behind her perspex screen.   The items are loose, four little germ hives that rebuke me for failing to think of my rubber gloves.  I depart.

“That way!”

“Yes, dear.”

Retreating to the safety of my car and my sanitizer, having run the gauntlet of a purchase that the retailer was so anxious I should make, I reflect that the traumatising nature of the transaction is not so much the fault of the retailer as it is the fault of staff who would rather not deliver this so-tight-the-pips-squeak routine, who, in fact, would rather not be there at all.

This is an outlet for a big company, of course; a concern with branches nationwide.  Edicts are issued from on high, executed (i can think of no more appropriate word) by those who see themselves as minions and to whom the paper mask has afforded the benefit of disguise.   

As I drive home I realise that I have been privileged to witness the death of the ‘retail experience’ as we know it.  The end of the Mall, of the High Street with its punitive overheads, its regimentation.  Lockdown has given us all a freedom which, having experienced, we should be anxious to preserve.

Here’s the tragedy.  This authoritarian solution is likely to become distinctly a big company drag shoe administered from well-heeled boardrooms with no appreciation of the latent enmity that exists between staff at floor level and their customers.  Now there are masks.  Now any element of personal contact has been eliminated.  Now we can say what we THINK!  It is not a philosophy shared by those dwindling ranks of independent retailers who have a genuine interest and would like to offer a friendly, warm avenue of communication with those who walk through their door; but they are the ones who will suffer most from the collapse of ‘Retail Therapy’.   

High Streets and Malls, gang-raped by the big corporations, were in trouble long before COVID came to call.   Malls do not make money.   Pillaged by rents and business rates they are the biters bit.  Recently those on the High Streets have done no better.  Only banks can be relied upon to make profits.

Of those who have passed their isolation working from home, four out of five have expressed their preference for continuing to work from home.  The removal of restrictions should mean a mass migration back into the town, a human tidal wave of relieved shoppers grateful the siege has been lifted.  It has not.   Apart from essential travel, we seem reluctant to return to the bean-can life.  If a vaccine is not quickly found, perhaps we never will.

A personal opinion?   We could be standing at the threshold of something massive.  There is clearly a need for some centralisation, but not as much – a need for towns (cities) – but not as many.  Maybe the twentieth-century commute is a thing of the past, the big office no longer an eight-hour prison sentence at the hub of each day.  Does the nursery belong in the home, rather than at some converted church hall or school?  And are the icons of the education industry ripe for scattering, now they are so much a source of foment for rebellion and unrest? 

Photo credit: Joe Stubbs on Unsplash

Blue Sky Thinking

This weekend the churches in UK will remain closed.  The tradition of congregating for an Easter Sunday Service will not happen.  

Now I have no particular axe to grind, but something so earth-shattering that it hasn’t happened since the twelfth Century shouldn’t pass unnoticed.

The reason, of course, is COVID-19, and it makes perfect sense.  Congregations tend to draw their numbers from the age group still reckoned to be most vulnerable to serious attack from this virus, those for whom social distancing is particularly important.

Canterbury Cathedral

Closure of buildings, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York assure us, does not diminish the significance of the Easter weekend.   The church is inside those who believe, the worshippers, rather than the shelter within which they worship.  Communications have rather improved since the 12th Century, and the church is able to come to its congregation on-line.  

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, will lead the Easter Morning Service from his London home.  It will be broadcast on BBC Radio Four, and available live from the Church of England’s website:

https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/church-online

This is more portentous than a mere historical milestone.  It is a chance for the church to measure the response of its parishioners, because I am prepared to bet the Archbishop’s audience will far exceed the average 1500 who attend his cathedral.  Why?  Well, not because an act of prayer from one’s own home takes less ‘effort’, but because it is more accessible to those conscience would be pricked by the pollution of a journey and the fear of infection.

If any good is to come out of this benighted little bug that besets us, it is in the chances it offers to re-think many outdated concepts.  Up and down the land more businesses are learning new ways of working that do not involve the daily trek to an office; more retail groups and sole traders are using the enforced leisure to improve their presence online, more fatted calves of the communications industry are reassessing their schedules, and we ourselves are discovering a renewed blueness to the sky.  The air is fresher, sunrises can once again be seen from the cities.  The whole world is taking a very deep breath.

And no, the church does not escape.  As its ancient buildings get older, they become increasingly frail, while the cost of their maintenance escalates.  Their congregations dwindle.  Yes, group worship in a full church is an uplifting experience, but the sad truth is cold stone and empty echoes in chambers where the dead outnumber the living.  As the priesthood gets older, fewer young people seem eager to study theology.  You can’t get the staff nowadays!

So why not take the message of Coronavirus to heart?  Why not redirect the vast resources devoted to renovating old gargoyles or replacing lead on roofs to helping the poor and the disadvantaged?  Keep the few great cathedrals, yes, but why not subsidize housing on the rest of the church’s estates to provide homes for those just starting out in life, or those with special needs?

Every act which benefits the lives of others is a prayer.  Isn’t that the true measure of belief?   Isn’t that what a church should be for?

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