Message: Shifting history

In this month’s parish magazine, Rector Alan reflects on what the history around us means in a period of dramatic redevelopment:

Daily the block of flats rises up opposite the gates of St Giles like a concrete hive busied over by worker bees, each intent on completing their own tasks (scaffolding, shuttering, pouring concrete; more scaffolding, shuttering, more pouring of concrete, floor upon floor), guided and goaded by the unseen lines of an architect’s drawings and a foreman snapping at their heels. Over them all the slim arm of a towering (bird-like) crane calmly moves steel girders and reinforcement ironwork from here to there, all to form the bones and sinews of what the developer has chosen to call White Lion House, after an 18th century inn of that name on the site or thereabouts. Everywhere the past is put to use brazenly for our own purpose, unashamedly claiming a heritage we scarcely deserve.

Crossrail Site

Meanwhile, on the other side of St Giles High Street, the whole of the street side of grubby York Mansions is now supported solely by what looks like a giant steel brace, because everything behind it has been smashed, hacked and spirited away and its land lies flat and barren waiting for the pile drivers to move in and something all together newer to rise from the dust and ashes. Here the past has been reduced to a thin veneer of old-ness, of non-modern-ness, has become a mask, a façade, a cosmetic, a kind of scenery for the street, like the theatrical back cloths for which the Elms Lester studios in Flitcroft Street next to St Giles itself were first built. Eventually, I suppose, everything will be put back together again and cleaned up, and from the outside it will all look more or less the same as it was before: but whose past will it be?

Someone will remind me that the only changeless thing in the West End is change itself. True enough. But still I fear that our vision of the past is no more than a shadow play, and a gallery of carefully selected surface impressions. The only changeless thing in the West End that I can see is the driving force of capital wealth which has determined, and still determines, the contours of our shared habitat. It uses the past crudely though cleverly, beguiling us with a thin version of history. The area around St Giles was a shocking place to live in for much of the time yet this is where the gospel was preached and lived, where souls and bodies were fed. In St Giles we walk through this complex and multi-layered past all the time. Still it speaks to us. Still cracks appear in the edifice of modernity.