Oranges and Lemons:
the candles of St Clement Danes
Trying to walk, head down, I’m lashed by Sunday afternoon rain and buffeted by a gusting November wind, writes Paul Coleman. An incessant spiral peal of church bells hints at possible shelter inside St Clement Danes, an ‘island’ church in the middle of the Strand where Westminster greets the City of London.
The insistent bells mellifluously drown the rasp of a red double-decker bus – a number 23 – sloshing past the Royal Courts of Justice. Steamed windows conceal the driver. Lit up yet empty, the bus aquaplanes towards Fleet Street like an angry Mary Celeste on diesel.
The church tower conceals and protects the swinging bells. Raindrops try to splatter my face but I’m shielded by a sullen coven of tall, dense, bare trees looming over the church. On one branch, two jet black crows stand side by side, like beady-eyed nightclub bouncers.
‘You can’t come in here, mate.’
– ‘Your name ain’t on the list.’
Stone the crows, I’m too cold and dripping. I shove against the wooden glass panelled door and step inside. The church door shuts softly and the drama of battered and whipped air outside evaporates. Even the bells sound muffled. Through an inner doorway, a wide aisle leads to an imposing altar and a dramatic stained glass window. Small racked red candles, flickering tiny orange and lemon flames, glimmer beside a glowering pulpit veiled by deep shadow.
The church air, stilled by stone walls and slate flooring, feels distinguished, homely even, yet melancholy. Danish settlers expelled by King Alfred (871-901) from the City of London built the original church of St Clement Danes. The Danes named the church after Clement, the Bishop of Rome, whom legend says Emperor Trajan ordered strapped to an anchor and lowered into the sea. St Clement Danes was re-consecrated as the central church of the Royal Air Force in 1958. Another air force – Hitler’s Luftwaffe – had earlier gutted the church with fire-bombs tipped from London’s hellfire skies in May 1941.
I shudder, sensing movement over my shoulder. I half-turn and see a man silhouetted against a shard of light stealing in through the front door. I’d last clapped eyes on Ralph Straker twenty-five years ago. In those days, Ralph was a well-liked London community worker. Stout, dignified and proud, Ralph used to don a blaze red tunic, gold braid and coal black tails with shiny seams. He’d perform his duties as an accomplished Master of Ceremonies at flashy receptions and bow-tie dinners.
Ralph, still stout but slightly stooped, doesn’t look at me directly but focuses on the ground, listening intently.
“Yes, the bells do sound lovely,” agrees Ralph. “They practice on Sunday afternoons.”
Ralph’s dignified voice now carries a creaky quality. Ralph, a gentle soul, bids me farewell.
The names of over 150,000 men and women who died whilst serving in the RAF are recorded in St Clement Danes’ Books of Remembrance. Their kind and gentle qualities seem to have seeped into St Clement Danes’ stone walls, slate floors and wood panels. The candles seem to breathe that gentility back into the church’s air.
Some gesture is needed. I strike a match against a matchbox and light a candle. Carefully, I place the lit candle in the rack alongside its quietly and softly shimmering orange and lemon comrades.The bells continue to chime, muffled now though, as if being rung at dusk from a hillside across a valley. My mind now chants a refrain from an old nursery rhyme…
‘Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St Clement’s…”
A refrain that’s lain dormant since childhood.
Childhood, long gone, like another world away. Like this candle, life burns quickly, brightly – if we’re lucky. Before – like a black crow rapidly taking flight from a tree branch – life vanishes.
Should this rapid passage of time, of life being extinguished, be feared?
Maybe, but not now. Not amidst the natural darkness of St Clement Danes, tranquilly charmed by chiming grace and quietly glimmered by candled hope.