Saturday, 2 October 2010

I Saw the Pope (But I Didn't Touch Him)

During the Pope’s recent brief visit to London, I managed to see him. I didn’t touch him or anything, and it certainly wasn’t an audience with him or an encounter where he greeted me with glee. I just watched as his fantastic popemobile passed by. Was it a moving experience? Not really. Not at all. It was kinda neat though.

I am not Catholic, and whilst I respect the comfort that their faith gives my Catholic friends, I have strong problems with many of the Pope’s preachings about, for instance, homosexuals, women, the use of condoms to prevent disease, the treatment of innocent girls who have been raped and don’t want their rapist’s child…and of course I am disillusioned by the past cover-ups of the abuse of children by priests who were then just moved to a new place of trust where they could abuse again. That sort of thing. So this wasn’t going to be a spiritual quest for me.

Nor any sort of quest. Basically, I stumbled upon his path. I had been in town for the Open House weekend, and at about 5.30pm was wearily headed for my train home from Charing Cross station, but decided to walk via Trafalgar Square in case anything interesting was going on. Indeed there was, in the shape of a sort of robotic-armed squid, or a metal Venus Flytrap that occasionally sprang to life, an installation called OUTRACE, designed by Clemens Weisshaar and Reed Kram for the London Design Festival from 16 to 24 September (this was 18 September). Apparently, OUTRACE ‘empowers the general public to take control of eight industrial robots on loan from Audi's production line’. Visitors and people on the web could book a slot to interact with the installation via the website, and somehow the vacuum-attachment-looking light-heads attached to the synchronised mechanical tentacles allowed users to create a light trace in the air of messages they wrote. A bit baffling, a lot slick.

Standing so near Admiralty Arch, it occurred to me that the Mall, just on the other side, might be decorated for the Pope’s visit, as I believed he’d travelled down it earlier. I popped through to have a look and found the Mall bedecked with alternating flags--union jacks and the yellow and white ones of the Vatican City, all with miniature jewelled crowns on the tops of the flagpoles. The enormous number of people lining the Mall down to Buckingham Palace behind policed barriers made me realise that the Pope had not yet passed by, and my smartphone revealed that he was due at 6pm on his way to his Hyde Park Vigil. I took a few photos and found myself on a bit of grass on a small slope by the National Police Memorial by Horse Guards Road and realised that, without any jostling or struggling with the crowd (I have leanings towards enochlophobia) lining the barriers, I had a relatively good look-out position, and surely even impatient I could wait for 15 minutes.

The atmosphere was initially peaceful and somehow warm (in the ‘and fuzzy’ sense). There was a young family across the road cheerfully waving Vatican City flags even though there was no sign of the Pope. There were loads of foreign tourists from all sorts of backgrounds who seemed, like me, to have just wandered onto a potential spectacle. Others were middle-aged intellectual types or cyclists who seemed to have stopped to soak in the view. It was a glorious sunny day (I wouldn’t have braved it in the pouring rain) and everyone seemed happy, patient and a bit excited. A murmur of cheerful conversation filled the air, even from those who were on their own as they were chatting on their phones, telling people they were waiting to see the pope. Everything was delightfully pleasant and comfortable until the couple who’d been lying sprawled over each other on the grass behind me decided to force on everyone around them their hideous booming ‘music’ that seemed to be of the Hip Hop Bangra ilk, which I gather wasn’t to anyone else’s taste given the many hateful looks they were given, which I think added to their own pleasure. I sound like an old fogey, but with so many great headphones these days, and given that no one could easily walk away as they were waiting for something specific in limited space, I have little patience for forcing one’s noise on unwilling others. It turned the previously soft yellow-filter type atmosphere rather crusty and unpleasantly surreal.

We suffered that for quite a while. I kept my eyes on a vertigo-inducing high platform nearby that held a television camera and crew, noting that the cameraman, who would surely get a cue when the Pope was on his way, was relaxing in a chair some feet away from the camera.

The Pope was due at 6pm, and 6pm came and went. As did 6.10pm, 6.20pm…..I thought as I had just been passing, I wouldn’t wait much longer, but it became like waiting for a bus, where you fear that as soon as soon as you walk away, it was bound to come. So I continued to wait, struggling with the dreadful ‘music’, watching time tick past slowly on the clock tower housing Big Ben that I could see in the distance. I eventually said some things in my head that I’m not proud of like ‘Damn you, Pope, get on with it!’ for which I shall probably be struck by lightning.
Eventually, the police helicopters that had plagued London with their constant Pope-protecting din all day appeared overhead, which was a sign. I checked the towering telly platform, and the cameraman was leaning over his camera. Four police outriders drove past (the Pope’s no David Cameron, wisely) followed by—not the Pope—but a racing Jag then Range Rover. After that burst of excitement, we all had our cameras ready, and….nothing. More shameful grumbling in my head. Still nothing.

It seemed that another hour passed, but I suppose I was just frustrated that my initial plan to devote a casual 10 minutes to glance over this Papal parade had become an hour of my time, standing doing nothing, clutching heavy bags. Worse, people were now encroaching on my space. I got that frustrated feeling I get when I’ve queued for aeons at Marks & Spencer’s only for them to open a new till at last, enabling people who just walked up to be served before I could get there. Silly, but real. I felt the need to protect even an inch of my vastly diminishing potential view. I’d visited Princi’s on Wardour Street on my way there and loaded up with cannolis, cannoncinis and some pumpkin and feta salad, which had cost a rather startling amount, but I decided to risk sacrificing that fine food by placing my bag by my feet to prevent someone standing directly in front of me and blocking the view I’d been protecting for a while now. Happily, no one kicked my pastries away, and I later enjoyed pigging out on my goodies.

Finally, finally, finally, I could see down the road past the Horseguards Parade that a motorcade was heading our way. I’d imagined it would race past us and just be a papal blur, but it had clearly been acknowledged that it meant a lot to people just to see the Pope, so it crawled along, making sure that many could. Another Range Rover type of vehicle moved in front of the papamobile, and on its roof was what looked like two giant eye-like round webcams facing opposite directions, presumably enabling security to spot any potential assassins in the crowd. Several men in identical navy suits and ties, who looked more like church ushers than security, walked alongside the Pope’s vehicle.

The Popemobile was remarkable. It was a modified white M-class Mercedes sport utility vehicle, licence plate SCV1 (standing for both the Italian and Latin names for the Vatican City State, eg Status Civitatis Vaticanae), which might have been like an American pick-up truck with a camper shell, but instead there was a tall, clear rectangular bubble rising over its rear area. Sensible, as Pope John Paul II was shot four times in 1981 by a sniper when he was paraded around St Peter’s Square, exposed in an open-top car. Amazingly, he survived (guess he was blessed!), but people learned a lesson. Now the Pope was safely encased in a bullet-proof bubble, his throne a plain, plastic-looking white chair (which apparently rises into the glass ‘room’ by hydraulic lift after the Pope climbs aboard). It struck me as something like a Barbie’s Dreamboat vehicle, with a Barbie doll propped up inside on display.

Two ‘papal aide’ men were seated in the bubble, facing the Pope (I couldn’t have that job or I would be vomiting all over the pontiff, riding backwards like that, and I expect one would be shot for that or at least banished to hell), and he gave the impression of being a sweet little old man, waving cheerfully to both sides of the road, almost glowing in his white gear.

Naturally, as he came near, all the men up front who were over six feet tall suddenly lifted their children on their heads, becoming 10-foot tall obstacles, and everyone naturally held up their phones and cameras directly where I supposed the pope would be, and others wandered behind the row of people trying to get photographs, all of them blocking my way and my plan to get pictures myself. Ah, so standing on the slight hill rather than trying to fight my way towards the barriers was not as good an idea as it had initially seemed, but I did get to see the Pope as he slowly passed by. I just didn’t get a good photo, as you can see. The close-up ones are crops of distant photos and thus are low-definition blurs. But it’s enough to remember him by, in case I forget.

As the papal motorcade travelled down the Mall towards the Palace, it no doubt touched the lives of the many more people who were cramped against the barriers on that route, and my elevated cameraman carried on working as the rest of us started to disperse. Nearly everyone got on their phones again, saying in several different languages: ‘I’ve just seen the Pope!’
I warned before that this was never going to be spiritual for me. I did not feel touched or moved. But it indeed was kinda neat. This was the first visit to London by a Pope in 18 years, and I was there. I only needed a few minutes of it to make me smile. And despite my typical lack of patience, even the overlong wait standing amidst people full of the same anticipation on a lovely end-of-summer’s evening in London was in itself rather agreeable, apart from the cacophonous music that seemed a symbol of the rudeness and lack of respect of the yoof of today (but I know I am making too much of it). And hey, I stumbled upon two Barry Flannigan hares in front of the British Council building, which I never realised were there (I go to the Palace rarely these days!).

Later that night, I saw a few minutes of the televised mass being held in Hyde Park, which I wouldn’t have bothered to look at if I hadn’t seen the man in person a few hours before. In fact, I’d said to colleagues about how I would never ever have stood for the treatment of those people who had attended the mass in person and who, amongst other rules, were required to be in place several hours before the Pope was due to arrive—though at least they were allowed to sit, unlike the schoolchildren who were not allowed to do so as they’d waited hours for his visit that morning. (The Hyde Park vigil information said that Pilgrims must be prepared for a very long and onerous journey to the celebration and home again; well, we all must make sacrifices. And hey, an ‘outstanding range of official merchandise’ was on sale as consolation.) My main thought, watching him administer communion to the pilgrims, was wouldn’t you feel cheated if you went to take communion and ended up on the left side when the Pope was only doing the right side, so you had just some ordinary priest (or monsignor, but still). I guess that’s not very Christian of me. But I bet I wouldn’t be the only one thinking like that.

I was interested, the following day when I was passing through Hyde Park from Horseman’s Sunday at St John’s en route to Berkeley Square, to see how massive the papal mass area had been, which I had to manoeuvre around. What made me smile was the huge toilets sign, as even that had a little prayer of sorts beneath it. (Although I later learned that the ‘prayer’ was the theme of the Pope’s visit, the motto that Cardinal John Henry Newman, whom the Pope beatified during his visit, chose for his coat of arms). The giant sign in Hyde Park read: ‘TOILETS. Heart speaks unto heart.’


No comments: