When it comes to processions with gorgeous robes the Roman Catholics are frighteningly efficient. Congregations in the Church of England sometimes venture out in order to bear witness in shopping centres, usually assisted by Christmas carols and acoustic guitars, but they are tentative and embarrassed excursions by and large and one feels that those involved will be only too happy to be back indoors in church pulling the gates shut behind them. No such tentativeness was in evidence however once the decision had been made to hold a procession with gorgeous robes in Stratford.
I was deluged with emails from Popes Я Us. I occasionally wondered what it had to do with me, but my curiosity always got in the way of any request to be removed from the circulation list.
Before I knew it they were on my doorstep. (This is not literally true: they were staying not with me but at a seminary close by; the aspiring priests were away on their holidays.) Why, I asked Popes Я Us, had it been necessary to ship them all in? Weren’t the local Catholics up to a procession with gorgeous robes? They muttered something about necessary experience, executive positions ‘and, of course, invaluable assistance from the laity at ground level’. As things were to turn out, the contributions at ground level were indeed to be crucial to the day’s experience.
The procession was to be led by a Cardinal named V-. With hindsight, I believe that the haste with which the event was planned had something to do with Cardinal V-. Even at the time Popes Я Us remarked on his enthusiasm to come to England on such little notice.
Pederastic beast and thief, they added – sotto voce, as they would probably have put it in Italian.
Cardinal V- rather monopolised the gorgeous robes, though they certainly were gorgeous, all red silk and lace. All he needs is to give a little scream, I thought as he preened himself in front of a handy mirror, and who’d need Francis Bacon?
The other main character was huge, a taciturn man who was to carry the cross. This must have been ten feet in height and was to form the centrepiece of the procession and had been shipped separately. I must have heard his name but I forgot it and I thought of him as Mongo.
The cross was the main prop but not the only one. There was a bell, lugubrious in sound when tested in the seminary garden, cymbals, whips and some banners expressing views on the desirability of induced abortion. It was altogether, I thought, a solid response to the suggestion that Sharia Law should prevail to the exclusion of the Common Law in the London Borough of Newham, though not necessarily a conclusive one.
You’ll be there, said Popes Я Us.
Do my best.
Will you play your saxophone?
Please, said Popes Я Us. We all have to stand up and be counted.
No, I said. First, I am an Anglican, and Anglicans do not play saxophones in processions in shopping centres. Secondly it would contravene the bye-laws of the London Borough of Newham, which, remember, this is all about.
Bye-Sharia-laws, said Popes Я Us, and there was an unmissably sarcastic edge to their voice.
Possibly because of this slight unpleasantness, we did not speak again until it was all over.
We were due to set out after lunch on the day chosen but the preparations were interminable. Mungo dressed himself in a friar’s outfit, thick serge from cowled head to foot and gathered together with a rope belt. It was a very hot day, one of those where they announced later on the television that it was the hottest of the summer so far. Several nuns appeared from nowhere, chattering excitedly with each other and telling their beads during the intervals.
The main cause of the delay however was Cardinal V-. He couldn’t decide about his gorgeous robes, trying on surplice after surplice and throwing the discarded ones into the corner with, usually, a moue of displeasure. There they lay, a pile of lovely lace, foaming, as art historians sometimes say.
Then it was his shoes. He kept tripping into the room wearing two crimson pumps from different but practically identical pairs.
Left or right, he would demand of me.
In the end I told him that if we didn’t set out soon all the shoppers would have gone home. He finalised his choice of pumps with bad grace and I put the others away before he could change his mind. By this stage he was in a state, of course the heat didn’t help, and it was necessary to have a restorative tisane, with I suspect a little something added, before we could set out.
The seminary gates opened with a creak, Cardinal V- installed himself at the front and put his best pump forward, Mungo hoisted the huge cross and someone struck the bell – a doleful sound for a Saturday afternoon in the Romford Road. The nuns settled in behind everyone else, as was only proper.
I’ll go ahead and check that everything‘s all right at the shopping centre, I said. I may not have been exactly standing up to be counted, but at last the procession with gorgeous robes was on its way.