Being Ordinary

18 10 2009

[You can listen to this episode here, or subscribe to the podcast by searching ‘James Townsend’ on iTunes Store]

Moving to a new city is probably one of the most exciting things a twenty-two year old can do. The financial burden is relatively insignificant, and there are a thousand and one new things to experience and explore. Consequently, I must offer an apology to regular listeners, if any, who have missed these letters in recent weeks. It turns out I cannot promise to produce every week, but I hope you will excuse me when I fail.


The positive side of the situation is that I now have a great deal to talk about. Rather than struggling to find something to say as has often happened in the past, this weekend I have wrestled what to leave out. Quite aside from my own life there have been a number of milestones, anniversaries and stories deserving attention, and which I’ve been itching to talk about.


However, the bright lights, shiny things and beautiful people of Manchester must take precedence. The first thing to strike one on first arrival in a new city is probably the smell. London, for example, has a particular range of smells in its streets. More often than is perhaps acceptable, the distinct whiff of rotting rubbish can be detected. Or the rather gross compound a smells emanating from the various fast food stalls around the place. Of course the more sophisticated areas have their own smells – I’m sure Knightsbridge can be identified by its distinctive lingering odour of cooked venison and Rolls Royce grease.


So far I can’t give you a particular smell for Manchester, but the smells I have identified seem to be broadly acceptable.


The next aspect to explore is the transport network. Manchester’s bus network is, I think, the only one I have ever seen to have a micro-market on individual routes. Rather than the conventional monopoly of one bus company serving a particular route, Manchester City Council has embraced the concept of competition. Consequently you can instantly identify the various types of passenger. The different bus companies serve the same route with the same frequency to the same destination. In this regard, all passengers receive the same service. Some, however, are prepared to fork out an extra eighty pence simply for the luxury of riding to work in a vomit-free bus.


By the same token, other passengers are, for the sake of a mere eighty pence, prepared to commute with their ankles sloshing around in a thick residue of the previous night’s revelries.


These are all easily identifiable characteristics which play an important role in building our impressions of a city. But there is something subtle, too. For example, the humour of one city can be very different to another. Sydney takes itself very seriously. London likes to laugh at others. Manchester likes to laugh at itself.


I heard one fellow complain the other day that somebody had told him it rained in Manchester every day. Not true, he said, though he conceded it was the only city he had ever visited where the buses were equipped with life rafts.


I can’t imagine that this is a common habit, but one of the first things I like to do in a city is suss out the statuary on offer. It is a little bit sad, but can offer some small insight into the nature of a place.


Manchester’s central square, Piccadilly Gardens, honours several personalities in Bronze: Robert Peel, the eminent Prime Minister who succeeded in repealing the Corn Laws, much to the delight of the people of the North West; James Watt, the man whose alterations to the efficiency of the Steam Engine powered the Industrial Revolution that was so central to the development of Manchester; The Duke of Wellington, military hero and Prime Minister (though his connection to Manchester is, I’m afraid, beyond me). Last but not least, the great Victorian City of Manchester commemorates Queen Victoria on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. She sits as mother to an empire and an age.


Crucially, all these figures were erected by public subscription – the people of Manchester chose to honour these figures, because they identified in them something fundamental about being Mancunian and Victorian. Today they are bronze reminders of the past, admired by some, ignored by most and evidently disrespected by the pigeons.


Statues serve a very particular purpose, in celebrating the great lives of great men (and very occasionally great women). This weekend Salford Cathedral, the main Catholic presence in Manchester, played host to a very different kind of celebration. The remains of Saint Theresa of Lisieux are currently touring the United Kingdom, and the Catholics are getting terribly excited about it.


The remarkable thing about Saint Theresa is not that she led a particularly dramatic life. In fact, it would be extremely difficult to make a Hollywood epic about Saint Theresa. She performed no miracles, founded no great orders. She built no cathedrals, wrote no great texts. She didn’t rewrite Catholic theology. She didn’t make any political statement.


The reason Saint Theresa is so revered is that she believed in being a good Christian without the fireworks – that you could get close to God simply by being ordinary and good.


As a result of taking this simple position, Theresa has endeared herself to great hordes of people. She is somebody with whom the ordinary Christian can identify. She has no pretensions for grandeur but is a simple and devout woman.


So as I arrived in Salford on Saturday afternoon to pay my own respects to her relics, I was expecting some excitement. I had not anticipated quite the carnival that evidently comes with such an event. Thankfully I was spared the queue at its peak (apparently six hours late on Friday night), but two hours was quite long enough to stand in line.


It is tempting to make some comparison with a rock star, or football event. Certainly, there was enough hysteria to justify one, but the mood was very different to anything like that. Theresa is not a mere celebrity. She is revered and adored. The queue of several hundred people were quite happy to steward themselves. Only a minimal police presence was required, and that only to manage the parking.


Some wise fellow had the cunning to set up a hot dog stall at the ‘one hour’ point and did a roaring trade all day. All in all, I’m sure you can imagine how surreal the situation was.


But it is no co-incidence that the visit of Saint Theresa should make such an impact today. Theresa is one of us, just as we could pretend that Princess Diana was one of us and not one of them. She is no Duke of Wellington, whose statue in Glasgow is


I doubt there will ever be a statue of Saint Theresa in the centre of Manchester. That’s partly because she is nowhere near mainstream enough to have any relevance to the average Mancunian. But it is also because to commemorate somebody in Bronze or in Marble is to make them part of the establishment. It is to hold somebody up, and say this person was special – you should all aspire to be like them.


What we celebrate with Theresa is that we are all special. There is no indignity in being ordinary. In fact, it is in being ordinary that most of us achieve our own little piece of greatness, whether we are a supportive friend, an inspiring teacher, a helpful colleague or just a decent human being.


Were Theresa around today, I suspect she would take great comfort in the current use of the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Ordinary people are invited to take their place on the plinth for an hour, and demonstrate to the world their own interpretation of how being ordinary is so special.




One response

5 01 2010

Lovely piece James! Like the use the word statuary.

“The queue of several hundred people were quite happy to steward themselves. Only a minimal police presence was required, and that only to manage the parking.”

I can just imagine you looking at this, nodding in approval, and saying “Actually, these are fundamentally GOOD people”. With hand gesture.

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