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17 May 2013

By John Wall


I NEVER thought that I would be upset over the closing of a Starbucks. But I am.

The café in question was attached to our local Sainsbury's, in Lewes Road, Brighton. A good two or three times a week, for the past seven or so years, after fighting the good fight in the shopping aisles, I would stagger into its agreeable, plasticky identikit interior, and collapse into a comfy chair.

As any cleric can tell you, a great deal of pastoral work goes on in your neighbourhood supermarket: you are pretty much guaranteed to encounter a baptism family/bereaved relative/member of the congregation while prodding an avocado or surveying the wine section; so it has always been with a sense of earned reward that I would settle down for a minute or so with a nice, hot, steaming cup of something.

It was not just the coffee in our little Starbucks: it was the friendly baristas who knew me by name - and I knew them. I heard about their holidays, day-off plans, and the gigs that they were organising, or playing in, or going to. They would remember my regular order (a tall skinny latte, with a shot of sugar-free hazelnut syrup on high days and holidays, if you're asking).

I was not the only one: indeed, there was a whole raft of regulars who now feel cast adrift in a comfortless world.

ON THE café's last day, at closing time, we were all invited to a little party - "The last hurrah", as one barista put it. They had made an effort, and there were balloons, glasses of wine, and brief speeches after the last coffee was served. Someone had drawn cartoons of the staff, and they had had them printed on T-shirts, which they all wore - even the ones not on duty, who had come back specially.

The manager, Liz, thanked the customers, the staff, the supervisors, and "the residents", as she called them - the ones who were there more often than she was. "They're my friends," she said to me afterwards, when I was saying thank you. "I see them every day, and they tell me their lives. Some have given me their email addresses," she said.

I remember watching her one day as she sat with a confused old man who was complaining of leg pains and demanding an ambulance. She sat and listened as they waited for the cheerful young paramedic who breezed in a few minutes later. I think the chat and listening ear were all he really needed.

COMMUNITY is a fragile thing, made out of many little strands of belonging, which anchor people to the place they find themselves living in. I am always haunted by the memory of a head teacher I once knew, who, a lifelong Methodist, had drifted away from his church, and who said that he found more genuine community spirit and sense of belonging in the local rugby club.

I am keenly aware of the chapels and churches that have closed, and are facing closure, and grieve for the loss of the sense of belonging which they have given.

Now the café is gone, boarded up as if it had never been; there are no more rewarding skinny lattes. And, in our bit of Brighton, a few strands of community have unravelled.

I WAS so proud of myself: despite being a natural technophobe, I had looked forward to upgrading my iPhone 4 to an iPhone 5, and I finally achieved it. It came in a chic black box, like an expensive perfume, and I spent a happy day downloading my apps, photos, and music. I played merrily with the new wide-angle camera, and marvelled at the light sleekness of the thing. I was proud of it - and of myself, too, for having one.

We all know what pride comes before. Five days later, I dropped the phone down the lavatory. And they do not like water.

To begin with, I thought I had got away with it, and for a few minutes it worked. Then, plaintively, it fizzled out, and died.

With increasing disbelief and desperation, I looked up on the web "iPhone 5 in toilet", and found a surprising number of handy hints. Buoyed up by the knowledge that clearly I was not the only one stupid enough to do this, I duly stuck it in a bag of rice (to suck out the water), and put it in an airing cupboard for a few days (ditto), and waited.

The result? It remained resolutely dead. With drooping spirits, I rebooted my old phone (my dear, it's just so last year) and carried on.

I look back to those balmy days when I was first ordained, some 25 years ago, when there were no mobile phones, no laptop computers, and no iPads, and I would sally forth into the vineyard, armed only with the latest edition of The Parson's Pocket Book. . .

The Revd John Wall is Team Rector in the Moulsecoomb Team Ministry in Brighton.

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