I AM a city girl at heart. I love the buzz of urban living: the sense that there is always something going on, the cultural resources, the availability of public transport.
The last teaching job I had before entering the Community was in Oswestry, a small town on the Welsh border with an extensive rural hinterland. It could not have been more different from the last two places I had lived: Liverpool, which embodies practically everything I could hope for; and Chester, which, though smaller and less exuberant, has history and culture in abundance.
To try to get the measure of what was to be my new home, I bought the local paper. The main story on the front page was, “Attempted vandalism of a telephone box”. Scouse vandals were, I knew, more efficient: when living in Bootle, I sometimes had to use my monthly bus pass to get to a working public telephone. Still, it looked as though I would be safe in Oswestry.
LOCAL papers, especially in small places, give an illuminating picture of life in their neighbourhood. They are notorious for their “parish pump” preoccupations: the local flower show, amateur dramatic production, school prizegivings, and, of course, the absorbing matter of the performance of local sports teams, even if nobody outside the paper’s circulation area has ever heard of them.
Such coverage gives the readership a comforting sense of belonging to an interesting and important place. Of course, the satisfaction is increased if someone the reader knows, or even a member of the family, is mentioned; still better, if there is a picture.
Derby, where I now live, comes somewhere between Liverpool and Oswestry in terms of size and urban excitement. It is a city, although a much smaller one, and made less impressive by its proximity to Nottingham, just as my original home city of Coventry suffered from being too close to Birmingham, which had everything.
Derby has those two hallmarks of civilisation, a cathedral and a university, and Coventry was also greatly improved by the opening of both of those, just as I was leaving school.
THE Derby local paper has its share of parish-pump news, and features that are designed to increase readers’ affection and loyalty. It recently gave our Community some excitement, when one of our Sisters won the “Star letter” prize.
From time to time, the paper includes a voucher for some modest treat, such as: “A sausage roll for every reader”. When one of these appears, I want to howl at the paper, “You don’t mean for every reader! You mean for one reader of each copy sold!” (I feel sure that when the paper’s owners are trying to sell advertising, they strongly urge the point that each copy may be read by several people.)
Shock and awe
IN THAT way, the Derby Telegraph does seem to be a soothing local paper. The front page tells a different story. There is no “attempted vandalism” here: day after day, the lead item is shocking or depressing. Murder, rape, armed robbery, fires, horrific accidents, gross medical incompetence, commercial failure of local employers — every day seems to bring its catalogue of disaster.
Anyone doing what I did, and reading the paper while considering whether to move here, might well have second thoughts. It sounds like a very dangerous place.
I WAS first alerted to the power of the press because my father was an inveterate writer to the papers, especially to the local paper, and sometimes his letters were published. He was not always satisfied with the result. I remember one letter in which he referred to “commuters”, which, in the paper, appeared as “computers” — very new and exciting things at the time. It made no sense at all, but nobody except him seemed to notice.
As a result of one of his letters, when I was about four, he was invited to record an interview for BBC Midlands Radio, in which he expressed opposition to the immediate rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. He was a churchgoer, and alive to the benefits of a glorious cathedral, but he felt that the first priority for the devastated city should be to build or repair houses, schools, and hospitals, to give some comfort and hope to the traumatised population.
As I listened (under strict instructions to be silent) while his interview was conducted, I was thrilled to hear myself mentioned. He said: “I want my daughter to grow up to see the cathedral as the beautiful centrepiece of a beautiful city.” His was, of course, not the prevailing view. The new cathedral was built as soon as possible, and made a huge contribution to the life of the city, and a national and international impact.
But my primary school, overcrowded and with a bomb-shattered playground, showed that he had a point, too.
The Revd Sister Rosemary CHN is a nun at the Convent of the Holy Name in Derby.