The waistcoat, the ham and the bad-tempered Tory: a lesson in friendship
London Letter: An intimate moment in a less religious, lonelier Britain
Emptying churches: more than half of the British public now say they have no religion, and more than nine million people say they are often or always lonely. Photograph: iStock/Getty
The church was almost in darkness, lit only by the candles handed out to worshippers on the way in, which cast darting, flickering shadows that frightened a couple of children into howling and sobbing. There was a shuffling of feet and a rustle of vestments at the back and a treble voice sang the opening words of Once in Royal David’s City, beginning the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.
The congregation in this gloomy, Victorian Gothic church was a good reflection of the social mix in Pimlico, just south of Westminster, in central London, with young Sloanes straight out of Made in Chelsea sharing pews with pensioners and families from nearby council flats. There were too few hymn sheets to go around, so we were asked to practise Christian charity by sharing them, an experience complicated by the fact that all the pages were in the wrong order.
I shared mine with a young man in russet trousers, a brown tweed jacket with a red pocket square, a Viyella shirt with a narrow silk tie and a waistcoat the colour of clotted cream. He joined in the singing in a thunderous bass, taking on each hymn with great enthusiasm and a melody all his own, the waistcoat swelling and waning as he belted it out.
Throughout the first reading, delivered in a sad whisper by a man who looked like a handsome, ageing sheep, my neighbour in the waistcoat checked his phone and looked around anxiously. Suddenly I felt a shove as another young man pushed into the pew next to him and the waistcoat yanked the hymn sheet away from me in a frankly un-Christian manner and turned to gaze admiringly at his friend.
Freighted looks, portentous pauses
Some of the readers were coming fresh to their material, sounding almost surprised by the words coming out of their mouths, like Donald Trump reading one of his prepared speeches. But the old gentleman allocated the fourth reading may have rehearsed too much, bringing more creativity to his performance than the occasion demanded. In different circumstances, his freighted looks into the congregation, portentous pauses and idiosyncratic prosody might have impressed the critics – but not here.
“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots,” he declaimed.
Some theatre actors choose someone in the audience to play to each night, and it was with a mixture of gratification and unease that I discerned that this one had chosen the waistcoat, his friend and me. He would glance down at us with a little smile as he delivered his best lines and fix us with a long, searching look during the pauses.
The waistcoat began to tremble, and soon he and his friend were shaking, just about holding it in, while I searched for a sad memory to focus on
“And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins and faithfulness the girdle of his reins,” he said.
The waistcoat began to tremble, and soon he and his friend were shaking, just about holding it in, while I searched for a sad memory to focus on.
“And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.”
And that was it. The waistcoat snorted, his friend spluttered, and within seconds the three of us were drowning in convulsions of laughter. The pew in front of us turned to glare, but it did no good, and we were still shaking when the reader stepped down from his lectern.
Church attendance in Britain has been falling for decades, and more than half of the British public now say they have no religion. Just 15 per cent say they are Anglican, half the proportion who said this in 2000. At the same time, according to a report by the Jo Cox Commission last week, loneliness has become a social epidemic, with more than nine million people saying they are often or always lonely.
It’s a particular problem for people over 65, 3.6 million of whom say that television is their main form of company, and a third of over-75s say their feelings of loneliness are out of control.
After the service, when they served mulled wine and mince pies, I left the waistcoat to fuss anxiously over his friend and avoided the hammy old reader’s eye. I fell in instead with a former Tory councillor who lives near me, a woman of firm opinions that she expresses with unwavering bad temper.
As we left to walk back together, I saw in front of us the waistcoat leaning into his friend, who reached across after a moment and gently placed a hand on his shoulder, leaving it there as they walked away.