Saturday, 9 August 2014

The visitor book

     For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
     And palm to palm is holy palmer’s’    kiss.

     Take my hand. Come with me. I want to take you back in time. Let’s go to Binham. It’s a halfway place. Ancient and modern. It’s not just in the here and now, so whilst we’re here, neither are we. We’re in the middle. And it’s not just the building that’s here. The people are too. Half-glimpsed ghosts, even the builders. Don’t believe me? I’ll show you. But patience first.

     G Drake Nov 26 ’99. Disgraceful. Vandalism. Shocking. Fifteen years old.

     P Astor, 1993. Disrespectful. A desecration. Shouldn’t be allowed. 21 years old.

     Herbert Burton 1948. Doesn’t seem so shocking, does it? Doesn’t seem like such an intrusion. 66 years old.

     And now, a mystery.

     Who were you, G Smith and P Hooper? What’s the significance of ‘FD’? What was in your mind to make you scratch this into the surface of the wall of this church? And why add ‘NFK’? The church won’t change counties. Why was it important to you to include that? Does it mean something that it was 1941? Significant that it was in wartime? What was happening in your lives that you needed to record your existence in this sacred place?

     It’s a very human thing, graffiti. Not just in terms of a name, scratched, written, or otherwise recorded. But because of what it tells us about people, their need not to be forgotten. To say ‘I was here’. This place, this spot, this floor upon which you, the reader, now stand. Someone else was here before you. Maybe only a short time before. Maybe yesterday. Maybe centuries ago. But just by viewing these marks, you are connected to them, in a way you might not realise or appreciate.

     There are other markers of people past at Binham. The truly old stuff. Steps worn smooth by feet that used them, long ago.

     Text so faint it’s barely possible to make it out with the naked eye.

     Things I don’t understand and can’t explain.

     Things that might have been made deliberately, or just happened by accident.

     I’m not well informed enough to know. But these marks were made by people. People just like you and I, people who lived, who came here, who were in this building. People who may never have considered the possibility that others would come here, so many years later. Ten years, twenty years. A century. Centuries. And look upon these tiny little traces. These little fingerprints of life. We can reach out, touch and be touched by these people, palm to palm.

     But the inscription that moved me most was unexpected. I had read about it. Seen pictures of it. I knew where to find it. This wasn’t a graffiti hunt. I wasn’t seeking a prize, or something new. Whilst the others looked around the church, I found it.

      One of the men who helped to build this church did this. As he stood and planned the window, one day, centuries ago. Just getting on with his work. I didn’t expect it to move me. I didn’t expect to cry. I didn’t expect something so simple to leave me feeling so overwhelmed, that something left by a man, standing here, so long ago, could have such a profound effect. But it did. The connection. He stood, just as I did, here, in this spot, in this place. And he helped to construct a building that has housed so many people, their hopes, their dreams, their prayers. Their existence. Everyone who has crossed the threshold since then, owe that man something.

     And by standing, right there, just as he did, in 2014, I can reach out and touch him. And all those who came after him, and left their mark, their shadow of their presence there. It’s not just an old building, a church, a haunt of ancient peace. It’s very walls contain a visitor book of humanity through the ages.     

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