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Diary: John Wall

13 February 2015

ISTOCK

Long-delayed bevy

SEVEN hours it took me to sand down the bar. If anyone spills beer on it, God help them.

Well, we've done it. People are always asking me "How's the Bevy going?" (Diary, 18 July 2014), and, I'm delighted to say, at long last it is open. The one and only pub in our notoriously dodgy area, "the Bevy", as the Bevendean Hotel is universally known, was closed by the police some four years ago because of drugs and violence.

I quite liked it (the pub, that is, not the drugs and violence), in a sticky-carpeted, spit-and-sawdust sort of way, and its demise meant that part of the heart of our community was lost.

So it was that three of us found ourselves in our church meeting-room (after being pushed out of the church hall by a Zumba group I had forgotten about), nervously waiting to see if anyone would rock up to a public meeting we'd called about the pub's future.

As it turned out, some 25 came, together with pledges of support from another 25; and so, after much slogging, by many people, three years on we pulled the first pint.

Fame, of a kind

THE strapline I always trot out is: "Every community deserves a decent church and a decent pub; we can do the church bit; so we need to support the pub," which has tickled the fancy of a number of journalists, not least the makers of an ITV Tonight programme on the pub industry, Losing Your Local?, which garnered a great deal of publicity nationwide.

We had had a proper camera crew, complete with lights, sound-man, camera, and presenter, which was fun, if admittedly rather surreal.

And so was the attention it generated. "You're a film star," the lady behind the counter in NatWest said when I was paying in funeral fees. "I've seen you on telly."

It's all grist to the mill. 

Local triumph

THE launch went really well, with a good crowd. Beer had been ceremonially delivered earlier by a horse-drawn dray from Harvey's, our supportive local brewery, complete with a barrel-riding dog, Barney. Elderly gentlemen appeared from nowhere, and took up seemingly allotted positions at the bar, which I rightly suspected they had occupied before the pub's closure - in one case, I discovered, since the 1950s.

Rather overdressed in alb, stole, and festal cope, I sploshed holy water around, and blessed it all with proper, if slightly anachronistic, Anglican solemnity, before raising the first official pint (Bishops Finger, if you're asking).

All in all, it has generated huge goodwill towards the church in the local community, because, it seems, we were the only institution that supported the project from the beginning. As I stood at the packed bar, surveying the happy punters, I had a feeling of amazement, together with not a little pride in our bunch of motley community activists over what has been achieved.

The challenge now is to move from campaigning for a building project to running a business - a very different skill-set. 

Surprise, surprise

I WAS sorting through a pile of post I had managed to mislay just before Christmas - cards, bills, junk - and then, on the back of one envelope, I came across the embossed words "10 Downing Street".

With growing excitement, I tore it open and read: "The Prime Minister requests the pleasure of the company of John Wall at a reception for Community Champions".

Now, I am aware that, for some readers of the Church Times, such things are common occurrences, but not for me. In parishes such as mine, we are more used to solicitors' letters requesting character-witness statements for court rather than stiff, formal invitations from the First Lord of the Treasury; so, to start with, I thought it was an elaborate practical joke.

I Googled the telephone number given, and found that it really was that of No. 10. Then (giving thanks that there was no RSVP date that I had missed) I replied by email and by hard copy, to be on the safe side.

On the town

SO IT was that, a few weeks later, I found myself in the Central Lobby of the Houses of Parliament, awaiting my MP, Simon Kirby; for it was he, I discovered, who had kindly nominated me. My fellow guest was another parish priest, the Revd Martin Morgan, the Vicar of Rottingdean, a parish just outside Brighton which is the social opposite of mine, having had such resident luminaries as Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Sir William Nicholson, and Rudyard Kipling.

Martin is a fun companion to have: in a former existence, he was a scriptwriter for Frankie Howerd, and his acerbic one-liners are a joy to experience.

We saw Westminster Hall, the House of Lords, the dining rooms, the bars, the Committee Rooms, and the terraces, as well as the beautiful little chapel of St Mary Undercroft, before walking up to Downing Street itself.

Mingling at No. 10

IT FELT quite surreal, going up Downing Street and through the iconic door. It felt, perhaps inevitably, as if I were a bit-part player in an episode of Yes, Prime Minister, or - especially going up the yellow staircase with all the photographs of previous residents - an extra from the film Love Actually.

There was plentiful booze with rather good nibbles. The Prime Minister was charming, and spoke to everyone, finishing with a speech in which he asserted that Jesus had invented the "Big Society" 2000 years ago (I shall remain agnostic on that one); but the most interesting thing was meeting my fellow "Champions".

There were other clerical collars, I'm glad to say, from as far afield as Thurrock and Lancashire, as well as a church administrator. I met the man who had organised the Yorkshire leg of the Tour de France; a woman who ran a community café in Bristol; and an inspiring head of a primary school, who had also suspected a practical joke and Googled the Downing Street number.

My favourite, however, was a wonderful woman who ran a stroke-rehabilitation unit. Her mother had recently died from a stroke, but not before she knew about her daughter's invitation. Sworn to secrecy, she had proceeded to tell all her sisters; it was this clear sense of her mother's pride in her which had helped her through the shock of the death and its aftermath.

As I made my way home afterwards, buzzing with the excitement of it all, it was this lady's pride in her daughter that stayed with me.

All in all, very different from seven hours sanding down a bar.

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

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