Noughty Nativity


I walked through Ruskin Park just as the Kent Air Ambulance lifted off alongside. At 50 feet it pivoted to the east and set forth towards the oncoming snows.

Making my way across Denmark Hill, I watched the scene from a noughties nativity. By then it had darkened and a new mother and father emerged from the maternity wing of Kings Hospital carrying a bundle. They both had that doe-eyed look of relieved but nervous parents who then grimaced as a cold push of sleety wind hit them in their faces. Across the road the Salvation Army’s own nativity shed looked industrial behind security railings: a plywood mule leaning cross-legged against the corrugated iron, a cow and a waiting wheelbarrow to help transport baby Jesus to the 185 bus stop for Victoria and Heathrow.

General Booth was about to be sealed in, shielded from a morally-degraded society. Two Sikh workmen were drilling in long screws for his temporary sarcophagus and all three had long beards of the same bushiness and length. This was once the site of the Prince of Denmark’s hunting lodge but is now a 7-acre shrine to the General, a training college for aspiring soldiers of the Sally Army. The army mother, Catherine, stands alongside her husband and is already enclosed for the afterlife, or after scheduled works by Bob the Builder. Together their Christian Mission preached to the ragged and the poor with a ministry of wholesome temperance.

But at 9 years-old, in the vain hope I could learn the cornet, I too traipsed along to Salvation Army Sunday School where I sang along to the marching hymns of Onward Christian Soldiers and Fight the Good Fight while staring up at a framed painting of Jesus carrying the cross, a romantic portrait of suffering: a Caucasian with taut muscles and piercing thorns that might have mistakenly been of Spartacus. I just sinfully worshipped one of the Major’s daughters and when I wasn’t given a cornet to blow, let alone a tambourine to rattle, I left unrequited.

The old Victorians stood on their plinths below Gilbert Scott’s 190-foot tower that dominates south London from this escarpment. Below them is Denmark Hill station on the south London train link. On the wrong side of the rails is the infamous Maudsley, the mental health, substance misuse institution where the socially-vulnerable and the lost arrive, the very underclass that William and Catherine’s troopers tried to reach in the pubs with The War Cry.

Under the light of the Booths’ spiritual beacon, a disturbed young man shuffled behind me. He spied my camera and snarled a warning. A weary mum shunted a pushchair laden with children and shopping past the stern General whose preaching right hand stretched towards the declining numbers of strong and pure.

And from this happy atheist, a merry Christmas to all.


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