London: A spiritual history
Church Times Bookshop £8.10
THIS is as much an account of a spiritual journey by the author as it is a spiritual history of London.
Under cover of historical narrative, Edoardo Albert tells his own story of faith lost and faith rediscovered via a circuitous route. Like a meander of exploration through the back streets of the capital city, Albert takes several dead ends, and for a time finds himself exploring such cul-de-sacs as atheism, occultism, astrology, and a form of Sufism.
Atheism is not, Albert concludes, a disbelief in God, but “savage fury at the world and people God has made”. And his dabbling with the dark arts did not end with horrors, but a returning belief in God, which “crept up on me sneaking in through the openings made by my interest in the occult”.
When the book focuses solely on history, it is a romp of a read through the ages from pre-Roman paganism to a world city of many faiths and none. The style blends quirky anecdotes with wild generalisations, but all is forgiven as it is such an entertaining read. The book is not to be taken as a serious history, but, as a personal account of the son of immigrant parents, struggling to make sense of the cultural confusion around him in the huge urban sprawl of modern-day London, it is fascinating.
Albert is not the first Londoner to have sought truth amid the chaos of the city, to have “met God face to face amid the teeming hordes”. He devotes a long section to reflections on William Blake, who, he says “saw visions of eternity clothed in the smoke and grime of London”.
Albert was raised as a Roman Catholic but became convinced of the emptiness of faith when at his first communion nothing spiritual in him stirred. “‘Taste and see that the Lord is good,’ sang the choir. The Lord tasted . . . dry. He wasn’t even bread, more like a cream cracker.”
The book ends with Albert’s coming home to “a suburban church with no great pretensions and a priest . . . an imperfect man in service of a dangerous God, hearing my confession”.
Yet it does not feel like the end of the journey. “I pace the pavements treading prayer into stone,” Albert writes. There is no end to discovering London. It is a city full of hidden secrets, as faith is full of mysteries awaiting discovery.
Ted Harrison is a former BBC religious-affairs correspondent.