or…

You don’t have to go to the Democratic Republic of Congo to find a good story

Though I don’t have as many notches on my Visa pour l’image belt as many, I returned home from this year’s event feeling like the most innovative and illuminating aspect of it was that they finally figured out how to print your name on both sides of the badge. 

Not sure what it was this year. At first (as usual) I thought it was just me and that I was not in the right frame of mind for it, but then as I spoke to lots of people I discovered many were having the same kind of feeling, a kind of ‘what happened’ sensation. More than one person said they would not be coming back after this year. Not in a foot stamping ‘this sucks’ kind of way at all but in a bewildered and rather mournful way. The rumblings have been going on for years and there were far fewer familiar faces in attendance than I can remember. Every year has its own flavour, mind you, and some years seem to have a dark cloud built into them by outside forces. The year that is indelibly seared into my memory is 2008, when a teenage girl jumped to her death from the Castillet on the Wednesday afternoon as people started congregating at the Café de la Poste, landing on the pavement in front of the eyes and lenses of a huge chunk of the world’s photojournalism community. I was not eyewitness to the event, for which I’m eternally grateful. We arrived when the body had been taken away and the blood was being hosed from the pavement, but that single event had a profound effect on everyone who was in Perpignan that year. Everyone remembered the sound she made when she hit the ground.

But what was going on this year? I wish I could time travel back to the early days of Visa before I ever knew it, when the whole thing was tiny and everything was based at the Hotel Pams and had a more DIY feel to it born of passion for the subject. When the Café de la Poste was so disgustingly wonderful and it was impossible to get the urine smell out of your shoes after a humbling visit downstairs to the loos. When it felt important, even essential to be there and to be seen there. Because this year it didn’t. 

Walking into the exhibitors’ hall, which has been steadily shrinking year on year, was a shock. SIPA and Polaris were there on the left in their usual spots, but where was everyone else? No Getty down at the end. Loads of agencies and companies I’d never heard of. Was it just me being out of touch? Had I somehow missed a whole chapter? A walk through this space was always one of the first things I did after getting my credentials just to see who was there and what was going on, but I did a loop and felt like I was walking through a memory, like Shelley Duvall walking into the Gold Ballroom near the end of the Shining and seeing the cobweb covered skeletons in the bluish light. There was no buzz, no sense of urgency or excitement, just mental silhouettes of a lost era.  I hate sickly nostalgia but had to confess to a twinge of it as I fled the room.

There’s no avoiding the obvious in terms of how technology has shifted the relevance of Perpignan. Not all that long ago, this was the annual (and often only) chance to speak to your international agents face to face, to have the opportunity to discuss business and make deals and be part of an industry that, unlike now, felt like it had a centre. You’d go with a list of people you needed to see and have meetings with and then get introduced to more people and year on year this would build until you forgot that there had ever been a first time when you didn’t know anyone. There was no real way to get to meet or know a lot of the industry gatekeepers back then unless someone introduced you or they knew your work, and getting them to know your work was dependent on events like Perpignan as a showcase if you were not with an agency or getting regularly published. Where Perpignan seems to have missed the boat is by not evolving and not acknowledging how different the world is in terms of how photographers get their work out into the world. They don’t need a show on a wall in Perpignan to have their work reach a global audience. I mean no disrespect to the talented photographers whose photography was on display, but I do query those who curated the shows like it was 2007. Walking through the Couvent des Minimes, an old convent that contains the bulk of the shows, I saw exhibition after exhibition that looked like exhibition after exhibition I’d seen in years past. Same aesthetic, same presentation, same stories…just, well, the same. What year was it? Had I not seen a nearly identical piece of reportage in 2009?  Surely there is more to photojournalism than endless framed images from conflict zones? And on top of that, endless framed images that needed a good edit. They could have fit double the shows in some of the spaces if only someone had made better editing choices. Smaller interesting human stories were hard to come by this year. That’s something that baffles me, that an interesting local story from anywhere in the world is not included. This is certainly not because photographers aren’t producing this work, it’s just not making the cut. Why? 

Back to the word gatekeeper. Photographers have more power than ever to share their work and get it seen by the people willing to publish it or hang it on a gallery wall or give it a prize. This democratisation of exposure is on one hand a fantastic opportunity for enterprising photographers but it is also a lot of work. As a photographer you really have to do everything yourself and that’s as scary as it is exciting, as not everyone is adept at relentless self-promotion. This is nothing new and has been the name of the game for ages now. But Visa is still behaving like an event whose institutional approval is somehow essential to a photojournalist’s career. The result feels bloated and out of touch and held prisoner by the specific world view of its own gatekeeper, the director, who seems unwilling to change a thing.

What to do about it? Well, get rid of the tragedy that is the Exhibitor’s Hall for one thing. It was like going into a restaurant that used to be popular but now had no customers and feeling that cringing sadness of wanting to shake the owners and start screaming ‘This is unsustainable! Start a food truck!’ In fact, the whole Palais des Congres felt redundant and empty. The ground floor contained Canon’s exhibition hall as always and the Charles Trenet auditorium had the talks, but the rest of the building was spottily used. Even the roof was nearly empty every time I went up there (so I stopped going up there) Why not center the whole thing back at the Hotel Pams and use some of the other venues around town for the talks? Why not the beautiful Art Nouveau Cinema near the Castillet for the talks?  If the Palais des Congres was no longer in use, the festival would take on a different center of gravity and there would be a greater density of festival goers making use of town and congregating in central locations. I can only assume that there is some political reason or perhaps a long-term commitment to use it, in which case the festival’s only recourse is to drop the expensive exhibitor fees, use the space for exhibitions and get more bodies through the door and make it a proper center. It’s only amplifying Visa’s problems by visually reminding everyone that not so many people are going anymore.

The other thing that has contributed to my feeling for the event is the abolishment, since the Visa of 2016, of the evening screenings in the Place de la Republique in the wake of the 2015 Paris bombings. Because the entire plaza is atop an underground car park, it’s hard to argue with the logic of this on the most obvious level, but on several other levels it seems like security could be increased for those 4 or so evenings. This has been such a loss for the whole festival because it democratised the screenings and allowed the general public to see the work and, for people like me who hate being penned up in that awful Campo Santo on those uncomfortable seats and getting stink eye from the director if I try to slink out, it allowed people to meander from bar to restaurant to bar and walk around as we looked at the projections. There was a lovely energy to it and it created an important mix of festival goers and locals. 

Yemen. Democratic Republic of Congo. Syria. Brazil. Guatemala. Libya. Iraq. All were well represented. Meanwhile, literally within a few blocks of the Visa pour l’image action, an ongoing drama was unfolding in the Gypsy community of St. Jacques in the oldest part of Perpignan. The city of Perpignan was in the process, over the past years, of demolishing ancient buildings in the community of thousands of Gypsies for urban regeneration, triggering protests and an outcry about the preservation of their lifestyles. I read this article whilst at Visa pour l’image in the Guardian:

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/sep/05/the-soul-of-perpignan-how-a-gypsy-community-halted-the-bulldozers

Aside from seeing the demolition debris and various areas boarded up on my walks around St. Jacques, I saw nothing of the story represented at Visa itself. Here was a local story, unfolding in real time during a purported celebration of photojournalism, and not a frame or pixel was in evidence. This is a rich story with legs reaching far beyond Perpignan itself in terms of the subject of the destruction of communities and the evolution of cities, but for some reason it was not being shown, even as a screening. Too political? Might it upset some officials whose grace and favour the festival relies upon? Don’t know. After all, photo reportage from the distance of Yemen won’t annoy the local politicians because they don’t care about it. It also won’t inspire people to turn their lenses on what is happening around them, and that’s where the best stories start. And the best stories are often the ones that scare people who want to keep things quiet and control the narrative.

Last year I was with a colleague at my favourite bar in Perpignan, Bar and Britz, which sits right on the Place de la République. It’s a bit of a dive and reminds me strangely of favourite old haunts from New York. We were having a chat with its owner, Barend Britz, a former rugby player from South Africa who was so massive it looked like he was standing up on a platform behind the bar, but he wasn’t. I asked him whether taking away the evening screenings during Visa had hit his business over the past few years and he said it definitely had, but  he wasn’t angry or nostalgic for the old days, things were just different now. His business was a year-round business supported by locals and also the large numbers of rugby fans in and out of town for the Catalans Dragons and so this was just one week out of the year for him. He had been in Perpignan for many years and had a take it as it comes attitude that was calming. I guess when you’re nearly 7 feet tall this attitude is a good one to have. 

After the second night at the Café de la Poste talking to friends from all over the industry and all over the world and picking up the general vibe that I was not alone in my feelings of unease about the festival, I decided to head over to the Place de la République to see Barend and see what he thought. I picked up my phone to check Bar and Britz’s hours and it was then that I found out that Barend had been murdered at his own bar at the beginning of the previous December, a week or so short of his 64thbirthday. While trying to keep the peace with an emotionally disturbed man who was in the process of wrecking the bar, Barend was struck on the head repeatedly and died from his injuries. 

The screenings in the Campo Santo are broken out by month, each night covering two months of the news from the previous year as well as showcasing other stories. On September 3, the screening covered the months of November and December, which would have contained Barend’s murder, this was the list of stories shown:

It’s a Dog Life

Saving Orangutans

The Manila Water Problem

Industrial Pollution in Bangladesh

Born Free-Mandela’s Generation of Hope

Delta Hill Riders

Sugar Moon – Texas Nature

White Nationalism

The Camp in Rivesaltes France

Isolated Tribes

You’re Not There by Chance

Trapped in Greece

A Desperate Will

Migrant Caravans

Exodus

If Visa pour l’image doesn’t pull its head out of its rump and champion local photojournalism and personal stories, then its relevance will continue to diminish and maybe we’ll all look back from our dusty collection of red and white lanyards holding credentials of years passed and say that it had a good run for awhile. Until local photojournalism is supported and celebrated, we are stuck in an echo-chamber of conflict porn. All global stories are local to someone and sometimes a small story (beloved bar owner murdered by man known to police and allowed to walk freely in the streets) can become a big story if we care enough about how to tell it. The New York Daily News is a poster child for how not to treat journalism and photojournalism in particular. No staff photographers, local beat reporters gone, no one with the inside knowledge to blow fresh air into the dark corners. It’s okay, a junior reporter can rewrite a press release for the web and use the picture they supplied. Nothing to see here. 

Jaws, 1975. Copyright Universal Studios

             

The world is coming back and a recent plateau of tranquility has been replaced with a dolly zoom of existential dread, with me in a supporting role as Roy Scheider in ‘Jaws.’ The civility and sensibility of the past three months is eroding and with that a return to the ambient noise I’d loved to live without. Neighbours’ power tools and housebuilding projects that have been on hold for months all roared back into life at once, transforming a human-diminished landscape into a daily symphony of power tools and radio, replacing the previous noise of nesting gulls and jackdaws with the motorised reminders that people were returning to dominate.

I’ve had a fortunate lockdown as we’ve both been healthy and I’ve continued to teach full time from home and so I’m writing from a position of privilege where I’ve been able to work and do meetings from my attic drawing table, my happiest place and where I choose to be most of the time anyway. I published my book and hand delivered it around town and became a home distribution mailing centre instead of speaking at the literary festival. I lost a dear friend in New York to the virus, a blindingly bright light switched off that I still have yet to properly process. Many of my friends work in hospitality all over the world, many own small businesses and some have been made redundant or lost their businesses. The economic landscape will not be the same when the machinery grinds back into operation but there’s been a kindness in the air, a levelling sense that we were are all in it together and it is the loss of that element that I’m grieving, like the melting of snow after a blizzard. Fowey has been a lovely place to be the past few months, with people looking out for each other and the local shops going out of their way to provide the essentials and try new ways to do things, not to mention a spate of magnificent weather that tricked us all, like it always does, into thinking it would stay that way forever. I have left town about 5 times since March, Melch has not left at all. I celebrated my birthday at the end of May with a comic but wonderfully socially distanced grouping on the Town Quay. Across the river, Polruan has ceased to be a three-dimensional landscape element and instead has flattened into the theatrical backdrop of my days sitting at my desk in the window at the top of the house looking out into the silence over the empty river. 

            I’m not an economist nor am I a super-forecaster or even a good guesser, but have been spending hours staring out the window, listening to the radio and consulting news and social media far more than is probably healthy in order to try to put my finger on why I keep seeing Mayor Larry Vaughn and Chief Brody and that woman who owns the motel out of the corner of my eye no matter where I turn. I keep looking for Quint but can never find him. I think it’s probably because I feel the ‘s-s-sh-shark’ girl with the red bandanna who is painting on the beach yelling futilely as she sees the shark going into the pond while the boys are in the water. I’ve been up here in my attic window watching the river fill up with boats and seeing more and more people walking up and down the Esplanade and wondering where it’s all going to go and what people are expecting to have happen.  I want town to thrive and all the businesses who have been struggling to spring back into life but am terrified in a way that I haven’t been for months, and that is because I fear the stupidity and entitlement of people in general. Call it the Bournemouth Effect. None of us have been anywhere in months. Taking a masked bus ride to Richards’ in Par to buy vegetables and frozen prawns was the highlight of June for me and it would never in a million years occur to me to book a holiday anywhere at the moment or to go into a crowded place for fear of getting sick or causing an issue. Not all of the pubs in town are opening on the 4th of July. Some are waiting a few weeks and some are taking a wait and see approach. The biggest problem I have is that the thing I love most about the local pubs in Fowey is the thing that is not going to be there, which is socialising. The alcohol, while not incidental, exactly, isn’t really the main reason I go. I can drink at home. It’s to get out of the house and see friends or unwind after a long day working. The last thing I want to do this Saturday or any time soon is be near strangers and have another anxiety channel to tune into at 3 am when sleep is elusive. I am worried for all of my friends in town who are working on the front line in various capacities and I hope that the visitors who will be descending show respect and understand that, no matter how beautiful this place is, it’s not their pasty filled playset to do with as they please. 

Runway View at Terminal 5

A trio in the lobby near me captured my attention. An older guy with a Bob Hoskins accent who could have been Tom Jones’ second cousin was talking to a gaunt hollow cheeked lad who looked like the smart one on the rubbish truck who didn’t get a chance to go to uni because of life circumstances but who was still determined to get more out of life. There was a woman with her back to me who had not yet spoken. Her hair was enormous and she was moving her head back and forth quite a bit, like a silent maraca. The older guy (bad dark hair dye…why do men continue to do this? Will someone have a word? Will they listen?) was holding court, talking about how he was doing well with his waste removal business but he wanted more. Any mention of the waste removal industry sends my imagination soaring skyward so I began to scoot somewhat closer so I could earwig more efficiently. The Young One said ‘you mean, something more creative?’ and Hair Dye nodded emphatically, checking his phone. The three were clearly all flung together for some kind of work-related thing but it wasn’t clear what it was. I have always lived in terror of having to participate in forced conversations like this (also conga lines) and wanted to understand the mechanics of how it happens and why people submit. A late-era husky voiced Joni Mitchell was singing Both Sides Now through the lobby speaker system, which made me feel wistful and think of Emma Thompson fixing the bed in Love Actually after the penny dropped. This distracted me momentarily. Hair Dye made a reference to the fact that he drove a Bentley, an unnecessary statement like ‘I am sitting on a chair.’ The Young One seemed to take this at face value and Maraca Head continued to shake her mane. I waited for context. Hair Dye went on about he talked to everyone he met even though they may only want to be friendly with him because of the Bentley. Everyone was a potential contact. It was like a creepy cockney Glengarry Glen Ross with no Jack Lemmon for relief. Or even Alec Baldwin with a set of steak knives. Or David Mamet with an axe. Then as I was continuing to try to figure out what was going on a girl came walking through the lobby wearing a black t-shirt with giant white letters referencing a property investment company on the front. ‘How Can I Help You?’ was in equally large white letters on the back. She was ringing a small silver dinner bell that evidently signalled the end to the conversation. I realised at that moment that there were other similar small groups conversing around the lobby. At the sound of the bell they all got up together and walked out of the lobby like Eloi and I was suddenly completely alone, wondering what kind of predatory nonsense I had been witnessing. Maraca Head had never spoken.

Prior to ensconcing in the hotel lobby I had been waffling and wavering in a sterile Thistle room at Heathrow Terminal 5, unsure of whether to venture forth to town on the Piccadilly line to escape the rain-spattered car-park-view grimness before me or whether to stay and glory in the horror of being at a hotel airport from the comfort of the lobby until the glamourous Runway View Restaurant and Lounge was opened for dinner and cocktails. The strange small voice that impels me out into the world in general was difficult to dismiss. What would I do when I got off the Piccadilly line at Leicester Square? I would go to Foyles and brave the danger of books I might purchase and then how would I fit them in my suitcase as I was about to fly to Houston with a bag that was already at the breaking point. After Foyles I’d go to Chinatown and eat soup dumplings and get sleepy and then have to come all the way back out to Heathrow and feel bad about myself. The internal waffle finally convinced me to stay put and get some work done, particularly as I would be back in London after Houston on Monday, so I could theoretically eat dumplings then if it was absolutely necessary. Plus I read that there were both dumplings and books in Houston, but it was really all about the dumplings.

I had a wander around the hotel, which was vast and arranged across two floors with endless Shining hallways spoking off into diminishing perspective beige and brown tunnels of despair. It had perverse ornate mouldings that almost tricked you into thinking that it had been there awhile and then your eye moved from the egg and dart moulding to the low dropped ceiling peppered with Legionnaire’s Disease air conditioning vents and you were suddenly reminded of where you were. In a hangar-like conference room called The Aviation Suite I stumbled across an enormous jumble sale of duty-free stuff that was only available to employees of Heathrow Airport. Hordes (I’m talking hundreds and hundreds) of ID-lanyard-wearing employees milled around endless displays of face serums, rolling suitcases, neck pillows, perfume, chocolate and all of the other guff I look at but do not buy in duty free. I was busting to go in just to look at everything…but the security guard informed me that it was not possible because I was not an employee of Heathrow. For a moment I contemplated hanging my Falmouth Mussel Card from a lanyard just to attempt to go in. Part of me also wanted to make up a story about how I was just hired and didn’t have my ID yet or chat up some hapless lanyarded soul in a hi-vis vest and prostitute myself into the sale just to score some Lancome under-eye circle serum, but reconsidered. So I began my lobby residency with a glass of Malbec and a packet of Strong Cheese and Onion crisps in a rather comfy sofa conversation pit at the far corner of the lobby feeling sorry for everyone who worked here or was attending the Property Speed Dating event and having my mind boggled by the strange decorative touches like the clear lucite icicle walls hanging in front of the windows and the glass urns holding cream coloured LED candles (not turned on) nestled in beds of red glass chips dotted around the room…were they supposed to make people feel better and more at ease or to create a vague terror at what horrors might later be reflected in their glass? As I contemplated my growing unease, each of the speed dating property people returned and sat alone dotted through the lobby on their laptops doing property research and cold calling agents whilst reading from a script that was branded by the dinner bell property company. 

All of these people seemed hopeful to make a change in their lives and there I was getting angrier and angrier at whoever this character was running the pyramid scheme. The idea that pyramid schemes still thrived and preyed on people in the 21stcentury boggled my mind, but I guess everything is a pyramid scheme when you think about it, all preying on our human need to try to make a better life and hopefully put one over on the man and usually getting screwed in the process. There was a cruelty to everything I was witnessing here and the benign blandness of these surroundings made it worse. I don’t know of any period in my lifetime where things felt so fundamentally bleak and slippery, where there was no reassuring sense that someone, somewhere, was going to put a stop to all of it. Even as a child, with Nixon in the White House and Vietnam and Watergate and Anita Bryant, I had a sense that there were people out there who would eventually make it all okay and that some moral order existed where idiots would be vanquished. National Lampoon. MAD. The Ramones. I fear our collective attention spans and the sheer noise of constant information is drowning out the voices of reason out there and that somewhere we’ve kind of stopped really caring and are just mocking everything and assuming nothing can or will change. The delectable panic cloud of the coronavirus hanging over everything keeps serving as a vague beacon of hope, my little internal Tony voice saying ‘now everyone will see how hideous the idiots we’ve elected are, Mrs. Torrance, because they’re going to screw everything up and now they will be forced to go.’ Then Tony hides in my stomach again next to the anxious butterflies and I’m left without an answer.   

I am grateful to live in Cornwall, with all of its petty inconveniences and lack of sushi and Vietnamese food. Living in Cornwall is essentially like living in the 1970s with high speed internet. I am connected to a fantasy future world just over the Tamar, like I’m Rod Taylor sitting in his time travelling machine (my phone) and marvelling at the modern world and wishing we had Uber while at the same time not wanting to venture there much at all and when I do have to go knowing that it’s just for a little while. Limited options, nature close at hand, the ability to wear absolutely hideous and comfortable clothing all the time because who the hell actually cares has become an addictive lifestyle and I am now having terrors that something will happen that will force me to learn to do property deals from con men and make chit chat with charity shop Tom Joneses in hotel lobbies because we’ve all collectively chosen to become Eloi and allow the Morlocks to take over. 

So our vicar has decided to leave the Anglican church and start up his own church in the same town. Considering the size of the churchgoing public here it seems surprising that there are enough people to break off and start another one but he’s gone and done it and now it’s hit the top three in town chatter. It’s like the franchisee of a McDonalds becoming disgruntled and opening a Burger King down the street. Do we really need that much fast food?

The vicar has been the vicar since we moved here and I’ve never thought too much about him and his beliefs as he is someone I see around town and make jokes with about cats and their evil. The only time I step foot in the church is for funerals (don’t get me started) or the occasional retreat with my notebook to sit alone in the cavernous musty-smelling space and let the history wash over me and remind me that this, whatever the ‘this’ of the moment might be, too shall pass. My engagement with and respect for religion since birth has been minimal and because my parents were on the old side when they had me they didn’t have the oomph to attempt to instill anything in me except the iron clad rule to (in my father’s words) not be an asshole. Not being an asshole is, I suppose, otherwise known as The Golden Rule and the best part of it is that you don’t have to haul yourself at a designated time to some building to prove your worth. Don’t be a jerk to other people and treat them the way you’d want to be treated as much as you can and there you go, it should all take care of itself. You’d think. This rule pre-dates most organised religions because it’s just such an obvious way to approach life but it has been co-opted and twisted so many times by organised religion that it’s been lost in the complex game-show rules constructed to justify various beliefs. And one of the key elements of the Golden Rule is empathy. 

Having worked for and with tabloid newspapers for much of my professional career, empathy was something I wrestled with on a daily basis and it wasn’t always easy to balance the need to tell a story with the idea that someone might get hurt in the process. Maybe that’s why I don’t do it anymore, maybe I just had enough internal wrangling and moral ambiguity for one lifetime. Maybe that’s why I chose to be an educator and to live in a little town in Cornwall where I get to spend more time in nature and work on my personal projects, far from the distracting noise and alone with my thoughts a little bit more.

Because it’s a port and because, despite its size, our town has been an international trading centre for over a millennium, there’s a strange kind of acceptance woven into the place because it’s no stranger to, well, strangers. And pirates. Lots of pirates. It does not have that terrifying Little Whinging/Sandford provincialism for the most part and people are allowed to be themselves here, for better or worse. Mostly better. The river, with all its fickleness, seems to act as a reminder that we’re all just here for a little while but it’s going to keep doing what it does while we live and die around it and it floods the Quay from time to time.

When I was doing the food at the sailing club I used to cook the monthly breakfast for the religious men of the vicar’s flock. This had nothing to do with me personally as a cook and everything to do with the venue and because cooking breakfast is actually quite pleasant because people aren’t as picky at 8 in the morning, I was okay doing it, mostly because there was always leftover bacon afterward. Except for the part where, after this men’s group had eaten, I had to listen to their talks as I was tidying up the kitchen (over the top symbolism not lost here) Sometimes they’d have a guest speaker, some religious man or a visiting vicar brought in to talk about scripture or current events or perhaps one of the locals would get up to say something. I would stand just out of sight in the kitchen, sharpening knives as they talked about women’s roles and how the bible wanted things done and one alarming day, there was a talk that included praise for Donald Trump. Had I dressed in a Handmaid’s Tale costume while giving them eggs, I’m not sure they’d have noticed anything was awry. I did always try to wear the worst inflammatory metal t-shirts I could find in the closet on those days, just to feel a little better, though stopped short of ever wearing my I Heart Satan shirt. The age of this group skewed older but there were some disturbingly young ones in there too and I felt so sad for them that they were being indoctrinated in this way and that their lives were being constricted and I had to wonder if they even realised how limiting it all was. The reason I’m thinking about the breakfasts now during this waning period of VicarGate is that I was reminded of a conversation I’d had with one of the organisers one morning as the event was wrapping up. There are a lot of older people in town, I had said, and because of the hills and various infirmities, it was difficult for many of them to get up and out and socialise and many were isolated. Wouldn’t it be nice if they (the church people) could organise a Sunday roast so that people could get out more and stay part of the community? It was a brief chat but what I remember the most about it (beside the fact that this idea never came to fruition) was how that organiser had looked straight through me when I was talking, with a slight look of indulgence. I was not one of them and I was a woman, and an American one at that. But there was something else that I couldn’t put my finger on until all this new church stuff started up and it clicked. Exclusion. I was suggesting that we include people and that was not registering.

So we have this beautiful old church that is the very heart of the town. That it is the heart of town has less to do with religion and more to do with history and architecture and beauty and tradition for most people. People have a relationship with the building transcending their relationships with their gods, whatever they may be. For as long as we’ve lived here, I’ve never felt completely comfortable in there as much as I love the physicality of the place (even my solitary sojourns with my notebook are tinged with the feeling that I might be chucked out at any moment) and that is because the whole place has been infested with a controlling interpretation of faith that finds ways to exclude rather than include and, biblical scholar that I am not, that seems to be somewhat counter to the whole game. In my perfect world, that church would be used for more community events, for film screenings and live music. It’s just a building, after all, albeit an ancient and beautiful one, and buildings are built to be used. By people. All sorts of people. Who are made to feel welcome and part of a community. Flies, honey, vinegar etc.

So now a new, more orthodox church is being ‘planted’ by the vicar down the road in a physical location that has long been a refuge for merchant seamen of many different faiths who come into port. This physical location, is, ironically, sponsored by the Anglican church which he is leaving. The vicar is hoping he can grow his new flock there. The fact that this building is behind a locked gate requiring a code to get in has not been lost on many people but, because I’m such an empath, I hope he finds some happiness there and that this whole thing moves off the mental front pages of the town, because we all have better things to do for each other. For the greater good.