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London Pride

On Sunday 19th June I spoke in a Fathers Day service. My sermon was based on this post which I had already worked on. If you were at church in Billingham that day you might find some of the following familiar. But since attendance was small (maybe they got a whiff that I was speaking), it will be new for most of you.

In the spring of 1941, at the height of the Blitz, a man sat on a seat in Paddington Railway Station. There’d been heavy bombing the previous night and the station’s glass roof was badly smashed. Glass was everywhere, yet crowds of Londoners were going about their business as usual, crunching over the glass on the platforms to get to the trains to take them to work, where they would no doubt find additional devastation, as though nothing unusual had happened. And I suppose that for that dark period and place, nothing unusual had happened.

The man was a songwriter and as he sat, gazing in admiration, a song began to compose itself in his mind as a tribute to the courage and endurance of ordinary men and women who lived and worked in London. It became one of the most popular of World War 2. The man was Noël Coward, and the song was London Pride.

Here’s a few lines:

There’s a little city flower, Every spring unveiling, Growing in the crevices, By some London railing. Though it has a Latin name In town and countryside, We in England call it London Pride. London Pride has been handed down to us, London Pride is a flower that’s free. London Pride means our own dear town to us, And our pride it forever will be.

London Pride in my back garden

It’s a cultivated weed. It colonised the piles of rubble at bomb sites, becoming the symbol of tenacity and endurance of the song. I have a variety of far more beautiful flowers in my back garden, including some magnificent roses and a profusion of clematis, but a small, insignificant clump of London Pride that a visitor probably wouldn’t notice, draws my attention. Not just because of the song but because it reminds me of my grandad—my English Grandad Marshall. For the first five years of my life my parents didn’t have a house. We lived at 26 Northern Road, grandma and grandad’s small terrace house in Middlesbrough. There was a tiny back garden, mostly growing vegetables, but there was a small clump of London Pride. When I was told the name as a toddler for some reason it lodged in my memory and ever since it’s been a memory marker for Grandad Marshall.

My Scottish grandad was a gardener too. I remember Grandad Dowell for two huge current bushes outside the kitchen window. In summer the window was usually open, the the scent of the current bushes blew in through the house. Whenever I smell that distinctive smell, it takes me back to that house in Glasgow and my grandad. He also grew peas. One of my earliest memories—I could only have been three or four, was crawling on the soil between the rows of peas. If I found a fat pod, I pulled it off and split it open. Then I scooped out the peas, threw them away and chewed the pod. Grandad wailed to the family: “Ah widn’ee mind sae much if he’d only eat the peas!”

I remember those two grandads with great fondness. They were examples of the bye-gone age of a wartime generation, when ordinary people took pride in their work. Having a job and a wage was a privilege. Idleness was frowned on. Hard work was praised. Historically even the poorest had “standards”. In the “two-up, two down” terraces of mining towns and industrial cities housewives would be seen daily, scrubbing the front step. Cleanliness didn’t cost anything but slovenliness cost social standing. Traditional standards from that past era have been diluted to the point of extinction. Oh, there were problems of course: hunger marches, the General Strike of 1926, the Jarrow Crusade of 1936, constant friction for better treatment and conditions. But despite this the concept of a “fair day’s work for a fair days pay” and a spotless parlour were ubiquitous. Now I realise that didn’t apply to everyone; society isn’t universally virtuous, but a majority of people accepted it, even if they didn’t always practice it. Sadly attitudes have changed. The almost universal gardening habit of my grandad’s generation, the habit of self-reliance instilled after two World Wars and the Great Depression, is a minority interest today.

So, where am I going with this? You may remember Elder Gerrit W. Gong’s talk in the Church’s April World Conference. The title was “We Each Have a Story”. I’ve just shared a small fragment of mine. Here are some quotes from his talk.

Do you know your story? What your name means? . . . Can you think of a special, sweet memory with a grandparent or other family member? . . . . . . Still very much alive, our ancestors deserve to be remembered. We remember our heritage through oral histories, clan records and family stories, memorials or places of remembrance, and celebrations with photos, foods, or items which remind us of loved ones. Connecting with our ancestors can change our lives in surprising ways. From their trials and accomplishments, we gain faith and strength. From their love and sacrifices, we learn to forgive and move forward.

The last two verses in the Old Testament are well known, from the prophet Malachi:

5 ¶ Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: 6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

It’s rather important for children to remember their fathers don’t you think? So, coming back to the flower, the song and the Blitz. That’s all in the past now. But World War II was really a battle in the continuing war of good versus evil, still fiercely contested. Today we’re bombed in a blitz of a different kind: intolerance, incivility, abuse, sexual license, and especially an all-out attack on family values, the truth of who we are and the love that binds families together. When we walk out the front door our feet crunch on the broken shards of faith and the teachings of Jesus Christ.

A few more lines from the song.

Cockney feet Mark the beat of history. Every street pins a memory down. Nothing ever can quite replace The grace of London Town. In our city, darkened now, Street and square and crescent, We can feel our living past In our shadowed present. Ghosts beside our starlit Thames Who lived and loved and died Keep throughout the ages London Pride.

Do our feet mark the beat of history? Do we remember our living past in our shadowed present? Do we remember our fathers and mothers who lived and loved and died? Can we find a path through the world like our fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers, walking across Paddington Station. Thing is, the song was in praise of my grandads, grandmas, my mum and dad. Very ordinary people coping with extraordinary events which might have crushed them. But the weren’t crushed and in the end they were victorious. Oh, they weren’t perfect, far from it, but they carried on and kept the faith. They won their battle and we can win ours. As we find our own path in a different kind of conflict, perhaps a hidden songwriter will compose a song about our journey, and write with admiration how we carried on, ignoring the shards of splintered ideals, the bombs of criticism and the machine guns of ridicule from the Great and Spacious Building.

Our success will be certain if we choose to walk with Jesus Christ, allow him to lead us, and turn our hearts to his Father, who is also our Father. And part of that walk is turning our hearts to our own mortal fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers.


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