Magazine article The Spectator

Oasis of Calm

Magazine article The Spectator

Oasis of Calm

Article excerpt

A 2,000-year-old thoroughfare, St Martin's Lane, and certainly one of my favourite places; contender, any time of year, for the world's most festive location. On Saturday afternoon, a carnival of mad shoppers, confused sometimes, crossing roads without looking; arguing, pointing, dashing this way and that, laden down and worn out or grinning and just holding on to each other, half-drunk and completely in love. In another life I lived at the top end of the lane, at Seven Dials, and it was thrilling to be there again all of a sudden, after a frozen morning as still as a picture in the countryside. Now, all this grime and glamour were in perfect counterpoint, countless theatres lit up like permanent Christmas trees boasting huge, friendly faces and spelling out happiness in big, bright letters. Endless open invitations to linger, and networks of tiny alleyways, some so small you could miss them for years.

Acres of bars, clubs, pubs, restaurants: a sea of faces in endless intimate encounters.

At the bottom where the lane meets Trafalgar Square sits the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. I haven't been in there for years. I used to go on Christmas Eve to sing carols when I lived in the neighbourhood but this time I was back to assist Sarah Tenant-Flowers, the eminent choral conductor. She was leading a chamber orchestra and a large choir in an evening of carols by candlelight.

The choir were singing as I arrived, rehearsing 'In dulce jubilo', a song I was unfamiliar with until two weeks ago. Now it was heart-stoppingly beautiful. The choir had invoked a parallel universe of calm, mere feet away from the world's busiest street on the busiest weekend of the year. That's one of the things I love about this part of town.

All manner of delights are available, but heavenly peace is absolutely the last thing you'd expect to find here. I simply walked off the street through an open door into a completely different world. There was a lot of shopping going on outside, and I'm all for that, but this was a different class of experience. I've always liked those big Christmas tunes, and, since junior school, the glamour associated with Christmas concerts has been untouchable. But I'm not sure if music has ever sounded this good. Maybe it's my age but I couldn't imagine or remember sweeter music. …

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