I’m lucky to have not been so personally, physically oppressed enough by churches that I can’t still find them beautiful. I don’t go inside them often, aside from weddings or funerals, but I do like encountering one, especially if I’m not expecting it. Turning a corner, noticing the run of terraced houses is broken by a spire or a squat tower, filthy with the grandeur and false modesty that religious buildings do so well. Or, even better, to look up and see one right at the of the street I’m pedalling along, buttresses and gargoyles and stopped clocks waiting for me, door wide open like the jaws of salvation. Darker evenings, you might see a glow though stained-glass windows and maybe even a tinkling note or two of evensong, or whatever happens inside churches when there’s no happy couple or wooden box hogging the limelight.
I’m not too interested in what happens inside them, actually. I do what anyone else would do with a beautiful thing you don’t want to know anything further about – I stop, take a photograph and move on, although I do like to wander round famous churches. Ever the starfucker, I’ve trooped round celebrity churches like St Paul’s, and Sacré-Cœur, and even Notre Dame before its hypocrisies caught up with it and gave it a fiery warning that nothing lasts for ever. (Sacré-Cœur wins, by the way; it’s dark and intimidating and even when overrun with tourists manages to remain an air of charm, and disdain at its own situation as an attraction.) I remember being fourteen and going on the French exchange – my first ever trip abroad, I was preternaturally uncool – and being shown round Orléans by my host’s mother, repeating all the names of the various bits of it back to myself in my French accent honed on years of listening to Yvette from ‘Allo ‘Allo. Religion sounded much sexier, yet also more foreboding, in French; I certainly understood why Orléans’ own poor Jeanne d’Arc, renamed the more matronly Joan for frigid British ears, experienced her religious ecstasy while God apparently whispered sweet nothings in her ear. All that catholic repression, replete with cedillas, and acute and circumflex accents – delicious. I didn’t think much of religion even back then, but I think if God themselves had appeared to me and told me in French that my homoerotic dreams were sinful and that I was a very naughty boy beyond redemption, I’d have believed them – and also been a bit more excited for the future. For years, I kept the cheap little leaflet I received on entry to the cathedral, with its well-meaning translations and grainy, badly photocopied pictures and excerpts of whatever supposedly holy scriptures were held there. Bad photocopies – that’s all much religion is, I suppose: ideas, rules, and false promises xeroxed again and again and again until they’ve lost all meaning, like a compressed jpeg.
But if I’m not one for hanging around belltowers or making eyes at vaguely attractive priests like some dreadful ITV Sunday evening murder mystery, where else can I find my religious raptures? Lord knows – there is no escape from the Almighty – we need them more than ever. In my twenties, while I didn’t quite ‘get’ why you would sit catching hypothermia in a draughty nave while a man who’d never had a consensual hand-job read bits of the Bible out to you, I certainly understood the escapist appeal of rampant, faceless, glossy consumerism. Regardless of the contents of my wallet – and there have been many more fallow years than I would like – I’ve still loved stalking the aisles of department stores like I’m on a sacred pilgrimage. When I was younger and more idealistic, the idea of being amid all that money, and newness, and the possibilities it afforded you, was dazzling.
Even now, as a jaded older man whose bank account has seen countless booms and busts, I still get a thrill from walking around a clothes shop and seeing what’s new, running my (freshly sanitised) hands over fabrics, making tiny exclamations of delight or derision as I hold things up to the light to check their cut, imagining how much of a dog I might look in each and every outfit, before swishing away to see if they have any of it in a darker shade. (I’m trying to reintroduce the colour I enjoyed in my youth but I really do look good in navy.)
But the real king down of raven for me has always been Christmas shops; they’re the closest I get to feeling a religious experience. It isn’t even the association with a religious festival as such, but the peace, and hope, and brightness of them. They are unashamedly decorative and colourful too – even in the middle of a pandemic, when everyone else is downplaying their messaging and being serious, Christmas shops just… can’t. And of course their transience makes them even more exciting. Okay so they seem to open earlier every year, but just three short months is all the time we have with then before the displays are torn down and replaced by garden furniture and barbecues or hand blenders. This is one of the things I’ve really missed during the last few weeks of lockdown. In a way, finding yourself lost in the middle of a Christmas shop is just like shopping for clothes – running my fingers along garlands, picking up baubles and cooing in delight – but I know everything will fit me just fine. It doesn’t matter whether I’m bumbling through Liberty trying not to break anything or marvelling at the sparkling plastic orbs in the little Sainsbury’s round the corner, every bauble gets the same reverent touch. Even if I wasn’t buying, which I usually wasn’t, if I needed a few minutes of calm, I’d duck into a nearby Christmas shop. Even if I’d been before, and knew every display, the only difference being some empty tools or racks where popular decorations had already sold out, I never got bored with the view. Quite what the laughing families and angular fashionable people must’ve made of this middle aged woofter bumbling round the place taking it all in with a fawn’s enamoured eye I don’t know, but you can get away with almost anything at Christmas, can’t you?
What need for choirs in dazzling robes and a well-meaning pensioner hammering away with arthritic fingers at the organ, when you can have the gleaming tree displays in John Lewis slowly rotating to the tune of an acoustic strep-throated cover of I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day burbling out of the PA system. As devoted as she was to a simple life serving her creator, even the Maid of Orléans herself Joan of Arc would be spellbound. Add in the festive tang of an M&S frankincense and myrrh scented candle, the satisfying clank from another tin of Quality Street being opened at the overpriced personalised gifts stand, illuminated plastic stags whose lights strobe alarmingly fast, the distant tinkle of broken glass as a toddler drops a bauble, and the shop assistants still managing to smile beatifically and be festive and polite even though they hear the Kylie version of Santa Baby in excess of fifteen times every day – and there you have it, my place of worship, my holiest of holies. I am home.
In a time where the future is a shrug, we must take our tonics where we can. There has been too much time to think, nothing new to say, staying in all time obliterates randomness – you just are, until something happens.So when the doors to the shops are thrown back open, I’ll go, just once, to a Christmas shop and spend twenty minutes in a room that sparkles, feel the hope that comes from twinkling lights, take comfort from the oppressive and unstoppable consumerist juggernaut. In a mask, of course. This Christmas is going to be tough, but it needn’t be our last.
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An early and rather different version of this piece went out a couple of months ago in my newsletter, a not-that-regular-tbh email called The truth about everything*. You can subscribe to get things like this before anyone else, at tinyletter.com/theguyliner
The bauble in the main image is from John Lewis and, no, this is not an affiliate deal or an #ad or anything hahaha – we bought it and it photographs really well. In fact there is a whole story about this bauble and what a nightmare it was to buy, but as it’s the season of goodwill I shall save that for another time.