MILESTONES in a newspaper’s life have a way of creeping up on it while it is minding other people’s business — which is what happened when the Church Times approached its 7000th issue in 1997.
So unaccustomed were we to blowing our trumpet, that someone even forgot to invite the former news editor, Sir Edward Heath, to the party — or perhaps feared that he would decline the invitation, if he knew that it was not a slap-up do in the Connaught Rooms, as in the more expansive days before he was the PM.
The 1997 Easter number was still warm from the press; so one special issue followed another. Those hard-labour issues don’t look quite so “bumper” now that we produce so many 40- and 48-pagers.
Dr Bernard Palmer, our past proprietor, provided a rollicking account of the paper’s history, and David Edwards gave a run-down of what the 1000th, 2000th, and 3000th issues (etc.) had seen as fit to report. John Whale considered the courtesies of ecclesiastical debate.
More marvellous to behold were compliments — not unfished-for — from the great and the good, mingled with one or two comments we found a trifle barbed.
There were mixed feelings at that time, as we had just attended the funeral of a mainstay of the paper, Betty Saunders, whose last article was in the celebratory issue.
Since then, the charming Alan Shadwick, formerly assistant editor, once lumbered with the pseudonym “Squirrel Nutkin”, has gone to his reward. And we shall miss, too, Jane Palmer, Dr Palmer’s wife, a quiet influence and former director. Douglas Brown, another familiar name from the paper’s past, joins the roll of honour.
But the Church Times marches on. I have never seen so many young faces around the office — even younger than mine, I mean.
THE “oldest inhabitant” of the office here at 33 Upper Street is the editor himself, Paul Handley; for he joined the staff as a reporter in 1988, during Dr Palmer’s incumbency.
When I joined in 1989, he had already been installed for a year or so at the grand old offices at 7 Portugal Street, off Kingsway, and was only too glad to delegate the filing of the news photos and bromides — those gummy-backed versions of the photos, converted into dots for printing, which were preserved at that time so that they could make repeat outings.
In only a matter of months, Paul was headhunted by Lambeth Palace as press officer. He saw Robert Runcie out of office, and George Carey in (a few mishaps there, I recall), but was reluctant to stay at the gamekeeper end of the business.
In fact, he was soon back as our press reviewer, firing incendiary darts at traditionalists from the relative safety of the married quarters of a theological college in Cambridge. The consternation that this caused in the newsroom, the first port of call for complainants, we never liked to let on. So we had more than one reason to welcome the prodigal back into a more disciplined environment in 1994.
Paul had been news editor on The Church of England Newspaper, and John Whale recruited him for the same post here, with an eye to his own succession. One year later, the Handley era dawned, the Church Times burst into colour like The Wizard of Oz, and history came to a full stop — for to say more would be to let daylight in upon magic.
THE ANGEL has changed a great deal since the Church Times moved here from Portugal Street in 1989. Like much of London, it just gets posher and posher. Even when the Blairs moved out, we didn’t notice property prices tumble.
Chapel Market keeps its ancient place, though, and the CT staff can often be seen returning from their lunchbreak with a smelly foreign cheese or a handsome cauliflower that they have got for a song. But a smart shopping centre that could have been brought by angels from Hendon has opened where a big linen shop held an everlasting sale.
This has swept away, too, a nice little bistro, The Montmartre, which was just right for lunching visiting clerics; and a club for night-owls which was called Paradise. . . Two vast chain bookshops have driven out the small and idiosyncratic ones. Waterstone’s is in the old Collins’ Music Hall. The TLS crowd filled the Angel Bookshop for a party when it finally closed its doors.
The old Anglo-Italian cafés are vanishing so fast that a photographer recently made a book of them. We had our favourites. Alfredo’s on Essex Road made its own ice cream. It had a menu of “12 O’clock Specials”: boiled bacon, Vienna steak, and a beef pie that was certainly satisfying.
Another family with an Italian name ran the Angel Inn, popular with the theatrical types at Sadler’s Wells. One of their signature dishes was a liver-and-bacon sandwich. Now the café has been run for about ten years by the affable Selim. After the previous owner had explained what a buck rarebit was, there was no holding him. He has doubled the café’s capacity, and fills it every day.
We know a few of the clergy, of course. The Vicar of St Mary’s, in Upper Street, has his finger in all kinds of pies, including Fulcrum. Fr Richards has succeeded Fr Salter at St Silas’s, Pentonville, and offers his daily mass at the far end of the market. The late Fr Pauley, who used to assist at St Silas’s, said low mass at breakneck speed, often silently after the Sanctus, but loved to chat later.
One or two of my colleagues have connections with St James’s, Prebend Street, which is not quite as spiky. I have Islington in my blood, too, as my great-grandfather was a churchwarden at St Philip’s, Arlington Square, before the Second World War. The church, which was in the Evangelical tradition, is long gone, but the big old vicarage still has a vicar in it — for St Philip’s now comes in with St James’s.
THE Revd Gerard Irvine — who celebrated 60 years in the priesthood recently — adds a fitting coda to Sir John Betjeman’s centenary year in his contribution to Remembering Sir John: Some memoirs of Sir John Betjeman, compiled by John Heald, and published by The Betjeman Society*.
During the poet’s final illness, Fr Irvine took him communion. Because the room was so untidy, he had to stand the pyx on the ironing board. Shortly before Betjeman’s death, the poet, who could not speak, but could sometimes quote poetry, said to him suddenly: “I’ve written a poem. It goes like this:
“Of all the things within this
house that are by me possessed
“I love, oh yes, I love, by far, my
ironing board the best.”
Fr Irvine comments: “And I knew he was referring to his communion.”
*35 Eaton Court, Boxgrove Avenue, Guildford
A REAL STORY from a recent wedding. The bridegroom was stumbling over the words “till death us do part”. Eventually he managed: “until I kill her”. The vicar replied: “And this is your solemn vow?”