It was music which first took me to St. Bride's church, as it has taken me most places. A rookie showbiz reporter in the early Eighties, I found myself hustled there one December for the annual Fleet St. Carols. Hot off the Wine Press and with more than good cheer on our breath, our hack pack spilled through the church's North Doors to be tidal-waved by the choruses of Christmas, a sound which both thrilled and stilled. At that time of life when it seems irrelevant whether you have one, it stirred my soul.
Thus began a long association with the journalists' church – 'the Phoenix of Fleet Street', they call it, a church having existed on the site since the 6th Century and St. Bridget of Ireland. Destroyed during the Great Fire of London, it was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1672. Its later addition, a remarkable tiered spire, has since inspired wedding cakes from Tokyo to Bogota. Gutted in 1940 during the Blitz, it rose yet again from the ashes, restored to magnificence at the expense of newspaper proprietors and journalists. In 1950 it became a Grade I listed building, and in 1957 was re-dedicated, in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen. It is a place which means much to me.
I served at St. Bride's for 7 years as a Guildsman. My marriage was blessed there, my children were baptised and confirmed there. This was where, after a decade of marriage, we re-made our vows. I withdrew, eventually, when my husband left us. That calm cathedral of refuge became for a time a cavern of unbearable memories. I could not cope.
Christmas, for so many, is a time of not being able to cope; for whom the enjoyment of traditional festivities and goodwill is rendered impossible by personal agony and heartache. It is so for our postman, whose mother passed away one Christmas morning, and who has never been able to handle the ritual since; for our friends whose 8 year-old daughter fell off her new bike on the common, a cerebral aneurysm extinguishing her life before their eyes; for the cab driver who took me to Chiswick this week, who lost his wife 3 years ago and who has never got the hang of 'doing it all'. 'Me missis, she done everything', he explained. 'All the buying, the wrapping. Christmas comes round, and it feels like I'm losing her all over again. I've done it all meself this year, not that I wanted to. I've made meself. I've even got a little tree up, just for me'.
The ghost of our own Christmas Past is the tragic image of my sportswriter father Ken Jones making his way to London Bridge station after The Independent office party, being swallowed by a swell of stampeding passengers responding to a platform change, then spat onto the tracks just as the late train rolled in, right over him. He lost his arm. This happened 19 years ago. The pain has not waned. The feelings of horror and helplessness which we experienced that night lie dormant for most of the year … but they haunt us at Christmas-time. And yet: he is still with us. Back at St. Bride's last weekend for the occasion of my youngest daughter's Confirmation, I was struck by the sight of my 80 year-old father, eyes glued to his granddaughter as she knelt before the Lord Bishop of London. Watching intently as the Bishop took Bridie's tiny face in his huge hands, my father raised his only hand to wipe a tear.
Even believers stand in churches at this time of year and ask themselves who God is. I rather like the Bishop's turn of phrase. 'God is a field in which our lives unfold … an unfathomable ocean which our minds simply cannot contain. It is in ordinary life – the birth of children, the call of love – that we sense Him. God communicated. He was generous. God so loved the world that He gave us the icon, the image, of the perfect life'. Might God also be about listening? In which case, can we ever be quiet enough to hear?
A feast for thought, as much as a time for questions. No easy answers. Whatever Christmas means to you, may there be much love in it.