Listen to a Londoner: Fr Stephen Wang

Listen to a Londoner is a weekly interview with a Londoner – someone who lives in this city, born here or elsewhere. If you’re up for being interviewed, email littlelondonobservationist@hotmail.co.uk.

Fr Stephen Wang

Fr Stephen Wang is a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Westminster, London. He is Dean of Studies at Allen Hall seminary in Chelsea, where he also teaches philosophy and theology. His latest book is Aquinas and Sartre: On Freedom, Personal Identity, and the Possibility of Happiness, published by Catholic University of America Press. He blogs about culture and faith at Bridges and Tangents.

LLO: As a born and raised Londoner, what are the most noticeable ways the city has evolved in your lifetime?
SW:
It’s bigger and busier. I remember a study recently about how our walking speed has increased (they secretly time you crossing bridges etc). It’s more culturally and ethnically diverse. Immigration has enriched London immensely. Random landmarks that didn’t exist when I was born in 1966: the Gherkin, the Millennium Bridge, the London Eye, Oyster Cards, sculptures on the fourth plinth, Boris Bikes, Tate Modern, the ubiquitous CCTV camera. Tragic losses: the Routemaster bus.

LLO: Tell us a bit about your background and your blog, Bridges and Tangents.
SW:
I was born in University College Hospital just off Tottenham Court Road, when my parents were living in Chiswick. I grew up in Harpenden, near St Albans. I’m a Catholic priest and I work in the seminary in Chelsea, where we prepare men for the priesthood. I never imagined I’d start a blog. It happened quite quickly. I was thinking of writing a book, and a friend pointed out that if I really wanted to communicate and share ideas, then a blog would be more immediate and reach far more people. The penny dropped.

LLO: Freedom is your most used tag on your blog. In a recent post, you wrote “Perfect freedom is being able to step off the back of a London bus whenever you want, whatever the reason, and walk into the sunset without a bus-stop in sight.” Are there other London moments that give you a perfect sense of freedom?
SW:
The fact that London is a city for walking around gives me the greatest sense of freedom. Other random moments of exhilaration, freedom and space include: sitting at the front on the top deck of a double-decker bus; looking at the cityscape from the middle of any of London’s beautiful bridges; jaywalking with abandon — in the knowledge that this would be illegal in some countries; walking through the parks; and along the river at South Bank.

LLO: Can you recommend a few places in London to go for a sense of spirituality without stepping foot in a church/temple/mosque, etc?
SW:
Whenever the next Kieslowski retrospective runs at the British Film Institute; standing over the Greenwich Prime Meridian line, knowing that you are at the still point of the cartographic world; walking round the Serpentine; the Jubilee Line station at Canary Wharf.

LLO: As a catholic priest and philosopher, how important would you say religion is in people’s lives in London today compared to when you started out in your career?
SW:
There are various crosscurrents: some people are much more secular, hardened in their secularism, and dismissive of religion. Yet many more people seem interested in religion who are not believers — as if they are more open to spiritual and transcendent questions, more open to the idea of spirituality and prayer. And religion is a bigger cultural and political reality than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Plus the new immigrants tend to be people of faith (indeed anyone coming to London from outside Western Europe tends to be a person of faith!)

LLO: You recently contributed to a BBC Online article about celibacy, sharing your own experiences. The post on your blog includes tags “happiness” and “loneliness”. Is this commitment one you ever regret or are you content in your decision?
SW:
I don’t regret the decision I have made at all. The whole life of being a priest, including celibacy, has brought me enormous happiness. And the celibacy itself has given me a real freedom, a freedom of heart – to be present with other people in all sorts of wonderful ways; and to pray in a way that would be difficult if I had the responsibilities of family life. I couldn’t live this way without the love of friends and extended family and the communities I have lived in over this time.

LLO: Tell us about something, someone or somewhere you’ve discovered in London that you think the rest of us should know about.
SW:
One secular and unknown: The Clockmakers’ Museum at Guildhall, a single room containing the whole history of clocks and watches, including John Harrison’s 5th marine timekeeper made famous by the book Longitude. One religious and very well known, but I’m still amazed by how many Londoners have never been in it: Westminster Cathedral (not the Abbey), an oasis of calm and devotion near Victoria Station, full of amazing art and architecture.

LLO: With Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists and others living side by side in London, what sort of atmosphere is created when people of every religion mingle in this melting pot city?
SW:
The whole world is here in London, and probably every language and religion. It’s good that we can live side by side, and in peace. Perhaps people don’t talk enough: We occupy the same social space, but often stay within our own mental worlds – unless there is something like a school or sports club or whatever to bring people together. London Citizens is a wonderful grassroots example of people of all faiths and none coming together for justice issues and forming real bonds through that common work. When I get back from Lourdes I want to start talking to strangers in London, but very soon I realize I am becoming one of those crazy people that Londoners fear…

LLO: What do you say to people who are suspicious of religion as being manipulative or deceptive?
SW:
It’s true that religion can sometimes be manipulative and deceptive – we have to admit that and watch out for it very carefully. And as a Catholic priest I wouldn’t push the abstract idea of ‘religion’ for its own sake. But religions can also be sources of spirituality, community, liberation and healing for many people. That’s something to be open to and not afraid of.

LLO: What’s your favourite part about living in your postcode?
SW:
Being near the river; living close to three cinemas; the number 19 bus.

Thanks Stephen!

For more Listen to a Londoner posts, click here.

Advertisements

Listen to a Londoner: Marsha Moore

Listen to a Londoner is a weekly interview with a Londoner – someone who lives in this city, born here or elsewhere. If you want to be interviewed, email littlelondonobservationist@hotmail.co.uk. Always looking for new volunteers.

Marsha Moore, 36

A native Canadian, Marsha has lived and worked in London for the past six years. Her first book, 24 Hours London (Prospera Publishing 2009), was inspired by her love for her adopted city.

LLO: Where are you from originally, how did you end up in London and how long have you been in this fabulous city?
MM:
I’m from Canada originally. I came to London six years ago as a teacher, met my husband here, got married and stayed! I miss Canada but London is home to me now. As a full-time writer, it’s got a fantastic literary scene and I’ve been able to meet and network with lots of other writers.

LLO: As the author of 24 Hours London and 24 Hours Paris, which city do you prefer and why?
MM:
Paris is such a beautiful city that you can’t help but be stunned by how perfectly groomed it appears to be. It reminds me of entering my mother’s room as a child – you’re fascinated by everything but afraid to touch it unless you somehow mess it up. London is greyer, less appealing visually, and less ordered, but you feel somehow like you can dig in and get your hands dirty. So I have to say – as much as I like Paris – I love living in London.

LLO: I’ve got 24 hours to kill in London and want to get off the tourist track. What do you suggest?
MM:
While it’s not exactly secret, wandering along the Thames on the  Southbank – preferably in good weather – is one of my favourite things to do. You’ve got the British Film Institute, The National Theatre, the Royal Festival Hall and the Tate Modern all within a kilometer, as well as brilliant views over the river! London’s markets also can’t be missed – try Spitalfields and Columbia Road on a Sunday for flowers to frou frou (and don’t miss out Brick Lane along the way), and Borough Market for food. In the north of the city is Hampstead Heath, where you can wander through the trees, fly a kite and take a dip in a pond…and forget you’re in a mega-metropolis!

LLO: What’s your favourite late-night London venue/activity?
MM:
The energy in Soho is so amazing I could soak it up all night! The buzz of the streets, the swarms of crowds outside West End theatres… for me, it’s what London is all about. There are loads of great spots in Soho but I like LAB for drinks, Pulcinella for pizza and Balans for late-night (or early morning!) dinners. The Curzon also has midnight cinema once a month, where you can chill out and watch films until morning.

LLO: Where in London do you go for new inspiration if writer’s block strikes?
MM:
London has so many great green spaces and I always find a wander through them clears my head! I love the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, in particular – there’s nothing better than grabbing a coffee at the Lido and watching the boats drift up and down. But my favourite writing spot is my office, where I can stare out the window for hours watching the double-deckers storm by and absorbing the rhythm of the street.

LLO: Favourite bookshop in the capital and why?
MM:
London’s bursting with brilliant bookshops – John Sandoe and Foyles, to name a few – but my favourite has to be Daunt. Enter here and you feel like you’ve entered a shrine to the printed word! Books are arranged by country –  you can seek out your interest and browse the novels, non-fiction and guides with awe. The store also has branches in Holland Park, Chelsea, Belsize Park and Hampstead, but it is the Marylebone store – located in an original Edwardian bookstore – that is truly amazing.

LLO: What’s the best part about living in your postcode?
MM:
I live in Kensington, and I love it! It has brash new shops and restaurants mixed with small independent ones that look like they’ve been around for ages. Pubs are tucked away off busy pavements, and elegant terraced houses with private squares line the streets. You get a sense of what the city must have been like a hundred years ago. You’re also close to Kensington Gardens – where you can lounge by the gazebo in the summer and listen to music – and Holland Park, with its wonderful peacocks.

LLO: Best London discovery while working on your book?
MM:
I’ve found out so many great things about the city while working on the book that it’s hard to narrow it down! But one of my favourite locations is Lower Marsh Street, close to Waterloo. I’d been to the station so many times, but I had no idea this small street – full of gems like I Knit London (where you can drink beer and knit) and Scooterworks (a café in a former repair shop) – existed!

LLO: Which London-based writers do you most admire?
MM:
Tough question!  I am massive fan of chick lit (I have my own chick-lit novel being published next year), and London has provided a great setting for many chick-lit novels. Helen Fielding, the author of Bridget Jones’ Diary, used to live in Notting Hill. Sophie Kinsella, who lives just outside of London, is also one of my favourites. I love to see the city through the eyes of their main characters.

LLO: Most unusual restaurant or pub you’ve come across that’s worth a visit?
MM:
Definitely has to be Ye Olde Mitre! Walk down Hatton Garden and between numbers 8 and 10, you’ll come to an arched entryway into an alley with a sign stating ‘Ye Olde Mitre 1546’. Enter the alley and you’ll see a pub many locals have yet to discover. Although the current building only dates back to the eighteenth century, the pub has existed since 1547 when it was built to serve the servants of the nearby Palace of the Bishops of Ely. The trunk of a cherry tree has been preserved in the corner of the bar, and legend has it that Elizabeth I danced the maypole around it!

Thanks Marsha!

For more Listen to a Londoner posts, click here.