Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Putney Debates, with Sally@StMary's by The London Archaeologist

Putney appears from across the bridge very much what it is. This illusion can only be dispelled by the closest inspection and a degree of luck.

My own encounter, though perhaps not repeatable, may serve as example.

It's clear from even across the river that this is a village encased in the city, the swelling city as yet unable to smother the village life out of it as long as the church, increasingly small in its little yard, continues serving tea, maintains the final barrier against the rising tide of chains, holds in barrista Sally that trump card, over Starbucks' biometric product personalisation or Carluccio's sheer nationality, beyond any froth or twist, which is faith.

As a parish, Putney is devoted to the river sports of a type unseen east of Wandsworth, aligning itself less with what might to the more central Londoner seem Thames proper than the upstream back-formed Isis or indeed the Cam, the soul of the place dependent on the hardy rowing of the crews to maintain sufficient westward pace never to hit land on a genuine London shore.

My latest visit was my first solely intended to gather information for the blog.

The only way you can know London is by exploring. To investigate, seek to ascertain or find out, search for, search out, to look into closely, pry into, scrutinize, examine by touch, to probe (a wound), to conduct operations in search for, hence explored. To explore has as many definitions as you might expect, from the talented crew of the OED, and, as usual, enough to make you hesitate: if each individual word in their volumes depends on so many others, are any to be trusted alone? Has nobody thought to seek out words sufficient to themselves? Not even proper nouns?

And so it is with London. To explore in use is open, requires no foreclosed knowledge, a certain blindness, touch. Where what is to be explored appears familiar, this appearance first, before exploration can begin, must be dispelled, and with the appearance the reality, the illusion of familiarity itself, must be foregone.

Putney, then, is not a parish ensconced in a city, the church not a parish church. This would be where investigation could begin and end, prejudice perhaps dispelled, perhaps in the church itself.

It is in large part thanks to the Guardian that, tucked in the heart of the church, the size of a passport photo booth, is a wonderful little museum in itself, where, alongside a (very) potted history, videoed politicos, historians, the parish vicar, and local students discuss the meaning, for the present, of the Putney debates.

At Putney, we know, one of the peaks in that peak moment that was the English Revolution occurred, the notion floored that political representation should be detached from property, at the time expressed most powerfully simply in land. In part as a result of world exploration, the rise of the new empires, in tune with increasing migration, the growing cities, but in tune also, as Tony Benn points out in his televised contribution to the display, with the still more radical notions floated elsewhere by the Diggers, that all private stake in the common property which is the earth is unacceptable domination, Putney briefly put itself at the centre of a rethinking of the meaning of land itself, its relation to representation, commonality, justice and truth.

The overall display is everything you might expect from its host, the Anglican church: space for most of the less radical positions, and even some of the more is found, politely contained in a central message only gradually put, that, in the opinion of the vicar, the men, if somewhat fanatical, were clearly Christian, ergo, the whole thing really came down to religion. Even at Putney, however, of course, the church being on the retreat from the high street, from encroaching chains trying to crowd the café and the church attached into the river with good riddance, what appears to have been the key funding had to come from the Lottery fund, the nation's money tossed into the hat of chance, and, despite the guiding hand of the minister, the visitor's basically free to decide.

As the defensive position of the church on the banks seems, though it can't, to imply, the titular Putney in Rainsborough's time was a village, the city only after grown around it. The revolutionary meaning of the word long since having drifted away from the place, the Guardian, Lady Antonia Fraser, the lottery, Benn, the local vicar have sought to bring it back, to return the debates to Putney, where they can be contemplated over a cup of Sally's tea.

Of course, I myself reflected, as I tossed a tip into a discreet little bowl at the till, that little Putney should have been, centuries ago, briefly at the centre of ideas beyond history even to the present to apply shouldn't surprise me as it must, with the differences in the land from place to place being themselves so different from what they might be. But until such a time as it doesn't, the little church with its gentle dogma must perhaps remain the basis of exploration.

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