To those of you who identify as English, I wish you a happy St George’s Day, though I am advised that it was the Scottish economist and philosopher, Adam Smith who first expressed the view that the English, or that the British, were a "nation of shopkeepers". This was in "The Wealth of the Nations", published in March 1776, but it was of course Napoleon Bonaparte who famously quoted this, using it as an insult. I quote: "Your (the British) meddling in continental affairs and trying to make yourself a great military power, instead of attending to the sea and commerce, will yet be your ruin as a nation. You were greatly offended with me for having called you a nation of shopkeepers...I meant that you were a nation of merchants and that all your great riches and your grand resources arose from commerce, which is true. What else constitutes the riches of England? It is not extent of territory, or a numerous population. It is not gold, silver or diamonds. Moreover, no man of sense ought to be ashamed of being called a shopkeeper."
But whoever first said this, and whatever was meant by it, the phrase stuck and has been used to describe the people of these islands ever since. Although perhaps we would no longer see ourselves as a nation of shopkeepers, certainly not over these past twelve months. Recently, so called "non-essential shops" have been permitted to open again. As my local Roman Catholic colleague pointed out to me last year, it was not lost on many of us that churches and non-essential shops were put in the same category in terms of Covid restrictions in 2020, begging certain questions as to how perhaps the Government may assess our contribution to this country.
Purely for research purposes of course, I undertook some retail therapy when some shops reopened recently on 12th April, in order to play my small part in the recovery and revitalisation of our economy! The retail sector has been an effective barometer of the health or otherwise of this country for centuries. It is knit into who we are, how we transact our business and how we live our lives. It forms a significant part of our day, or at least our week. It is often how we interact and socialise with others. It is not merely a transactional process, it is also a relational one.
Some choose to catch a bus into town, go for a coffee, visit the chemist, butcher, bookshop, library. Whilst doing this we bump into neighbours, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and stop on the pavement for a chat. It is not just a commercial venture, it is a communal one in which we engage; it is not just prompted by practical needs and requirements, it is something far more pertinent to who we are as social beings and, in that way, we are sustained and stimulated as a result of these random encounters. We may come home from such a visit to the shops having exchanged far more than merely money for goods, we come home renewed in relationships, better informed about other people’s lives, but for most of this past year, this component in our lives that links us to the lives of others, has been denied to us and that has made a significant difference to our mental health and social wellbeing.
For most of the past year, yours truly has been limited to going just to Waitrose, Iceland, the chemist and the bank. I have ordered some things online or by ‘phone, but not that much. Suddenly, last week, I like many of you, was let loose on the High Street. Marvellous! In short, what I found was that in the shops that had been allowed to stay open, for example food shops and chemists, the staff there were exhausted, they had little energy left other than that informed and inspired by politeness and good business sense. Many of those working in such shops have worked longer hours and been required to take greater risks, they have had to change their working patterns and sometimes had more difficult journeys to make to and from work. Many of these people on whom we have relied so heavily are completely "spent" and need a long holiday to recover. They have also had to work as unofficial counsellors to those who have confided in them and have had to deal with the sickness and death of many customers, which has all taken its toll.
On the other hand, I noticed that those who have been "furloughed" for weeks, months, came back to work as though to a marvellous party. One lady I spoke to a couple of days after "non-essential shops" were reopened said to me when I asked if she was glad to be back at work, "Oh, I’m like a little girl in a sweet shop dear, I haven’t been this happy in ages!" Their eye contact was bright, their conversation equally so. You could feel the buzz, even the adrenaline, in the air as though they were given permission to live once again. Some though were tentative, I met one lady who had closed down her business a year ago as she had to shield due to her compromised immune system. She was back at work but struggling, having spent so long on her own. She found it exhausting making herself available to people all day again and chatting. However, there were other shop keepers who were longing to chat, keeping you there talking long after it was obvious you were not going to buy anything. They held one’s gaze, found new things to say and latched onto you as though you were the only other person alive or else a life belt! All were for the most part courteous, grateful, excited, liberated and it was good to be in their company once again.
But there was another category of shopkeepers, as well as those who had remained working and those who had been furloughed from working and that was, unfortunately, those who were no longer there and they perhaps above all others, deserve to be included in this letter.
For years I have been visiting an obscure little shop which looked nothing from the outside yet was an Aladdin’s cave on the inside. For those like myself who are addicted to beauty, it was Heaven. It called itself an "Oriental Rug Shop" and inside it was a different world. The thickness of the walls and the angle at which the door was set, meant that when you entered, the sounds of the outside world were muffled into nothingness. There before you were rugs and yet more rugs, just laying on top of one another in great mounds of wonder. Some sagging pieces were stretched on the walls, where also hung a large map of the countries from which the rugs came, stuck on by ancient, ambered Sellotape, peeling away from the wall. There was a faint smell of joss sticks lingering in the air, the owner would sometimes be found strumming a battered guitar, badly! He looked like a dishevelled Francesco da Mosto, the Count from Venice who has filmed many series about his city, also of merchants. He was direct, he was challenging. I heard him once saying hello to some people who had dared to wander in, worked out from their accents that they were American and then started to rant about their country under the leadership of Trump. He was better informed than most, so the poor potential customers were completely overwhelmed and undermined by his detailed attack on their homeland, whatever personal politics they may have had themselves. Then, as they retreated, battered by his words, he added, "You don’t want this stuff anyway, this is quality, from countries which have contributed positively to the culture and beauty of the world". No sale that day, unsurprisingly, but I honestly don’t think he was in it for the money. He loved the rugs he sold, his particular passion was for tribal rugs and, having visited the countries from which they came several times over several decades, he could tell you almost to a village where a rug would have been made.
They lay there, spread around his shop, surrounding him, protected by his leonine presence, shimmering with gentle, ancient beauty, each resonant with lives spent in hard conditions in harsh regimes. In their culture of course, the rug was one of the principal pieces of beauty as well as usefulness in their homes. Many made the rugs that decorated their homes, themselves, weaving into them the story of their family, their village, their people, using dyes from the surrounding vegetation, animals, insects, soil. The rugs were so much more than objects of commercial worth, they were cultural portraits, portals, significant sensory ways in which we can access a different way of life, experience of life, philosophy of life.
Duncan, as the rug man was called, had spent his early life teaching "difficult boys" in a city secondary school. He cared far more deeply about someone’s wellbeing than his outward demeanour suggested. He reflected long and hard over the crucial issues of the day, as though it were personal to him. No politician ever measured up to his exacting standards, they were all intellectually inept, weak, shallow creatures, self-interested, short term in their priorities and limited in their vision. There was a local MP however, whom he had to admit, had a good eye for a decent rug, which seemed momentarily to take the wind out of his sails.........He cared deeply and passionately about the world in which we live, the culture in which we are cocooned, the opportunities we are offering to our children.
"Youngsters don’t need counselling for their problems," he insisted, "they just need to come in here and look at these rugs, understand how they were made and the people who made them. They don’t need computers to play on all the time, they just need to lose themselves, which of course means finding themselves, in these". The rugs were his friends, perhaps the only ones who truly understood and appreciated him as in turn he understood and appreciated them. They were his life. And, having been graciously allowed by our Government to visit this shop for the first time again in months, perhaps to buy a rug but more probably to buy a cushion which he would make out of scraps of old rugs others would have thrown away as commercially worthless. For him, they were more precious by far than that and he would garner the small areas still intact and create from fragments, small cushions which continued to pass on the story, sing the song, like an icon admitting the onlooker to a stranger and more beautiful world with greater reverence and respect for life and for living. As I say, I went to see Duncan once again and to enjoy the contents of his shop last week, only to find that since I was last there last Autumn, this wonderful, eccentric, maverick man had died, as so many others during this cruel year have done. His shop is now a "buy today, put in the draw tomorrow" women’s clothing boutique: drab, colourless, unimaginative stuff in comparison, sacrilegious given what had preceded it there. But commerce must go on, for after all, we are a nation of shopkeepers are we not?
Perhaps over this past year, favourite shops or shop assistants you have known and cared about have also disappeared and our lives as well as our High Streets are diminished as a result. I will miss my visits to Duncan, that caring, perceptive, well informed, imaginative, intelligent man, encased in a gruff, socially prickly, shell. A man who shared dreams with others, though suffered with nightmares himself; a man who swore more than anyone I have ever met, and yet also spoke with eloquence and with awe; a man of business who had little business sense at all; a fit man, who ate only health foods, swam every lunchtime, jogged every evening and yet who died, suddenly, in his sixties.
It was years before I told him I was a priest and when I did, I realised he had saved his most colourful language especially for that occasion. Then I remember, he turned his eyes to look at an imagined horizon far away and, using a different register in his tone, said quietly, "I was blessed by the Dalai Lama once. Years ago. I can still feel it, the peace, the wellbeing, spreading through my body, all of me. I can’t describe it, but that’s what it’s about isn’t it, feeling that sort of peace."
May Duncan and all those who will no longer be around as a result of the events of this past year, all find that peace and may we have a similar sense of peace as, with gratitude, we remember them.
With blessings and best wishes,
ZOOM AND MORE
Please join us this Sunday for our Zoom service at 9.30am by clicking on the following link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/85685339742 or in person in church at 6pm, by booking on: email@example.com
We will also be opening the church for Private Prayer 10am-11am on Wednesdays from 28th April.
The readings this Sunday are:
Acts Chapter 4 verses 5-12 and John Chapter 10 verses 11-18.
The Collect: Almighty God, Whose Son Jesus Christ Is the resurrection and the life: Raise us who trust in Him, From the death of sin To the life of righteousness, That we may seek those things Which are above, Where He lives and reigns With you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. AMEN.
ANNUAL PAROCHIAL CHURCH MEETING (APCM)
10.30am, Sunday 25th April.
Our APCM will again take place via Zoom this year. All members of the congregation on the Electoral Roll are very welcome to attend and participate.
Note: the Zoom link is different from that for the 9.30 service.
The APCM link is:- https://us02web.zoom.us/j/86793573759?pwd=N2pzVmFsKzdPbVk0U0V4b1NQUEo2UT09 Passcode: 102309 The agenda and papers for the meeting are on the church website Noticeboard https://www.stmarytwick.org.uk/notices .
This year there are six vacancies on the PCC. If you would like to stand or would like to discuss what is involved, please get in touch with our Vicar or Church Wardens.