I had a few hours to kill before I met up with my brother for a little trip to the London Sea Life Centre after dark and was in a part of London that I had not been in for a while, Victoria. I noticed a sign for Westminster Cathedral and decided to make a little tour of this place, which I had never heard of before. I went in and was immediately struck by the scale of the building. It was probably one of the biggest places of worship I had ever been in. I walked over to the right and fumbled for my glasses in order to better observe the beautiful, painstaking artistic mosaics on the wall, all in blue and gold. Suddenly, a dignified old woman called Muriel came up to me, asking me where I was from. As I explained that I was from London, she launched into her description of the cathedral, enveloping me as the subject of her free tour of the building.
Muriel was a Catholic and in her talk, she focused on the oppression of the Catholics in English history which had formed the history of this Catholic building. She ended her talk with a reference to the current hatred against Muslims, comparing the two faiths. She told me that when she had been a little girl she had been scared to tell people she was Catholic because of the prejudice against the religious group. People would invoke images of Guy Fawkes and his plot to blow up the houses of Parliament. But now, they were accepted. In seventy years, she told me, taking the long, historical perspective, people would accept Muslims and do away with their Islamophobia. Muriel also told me some fascinating stories about the cathedral. It had been visited by the Pope in the eighties as a historical rapprochement between the Catholic church and the English and the Pope’s opening words to Prince Charles after centuries of silence between the two establishments had been ‘I have met your mother’. Muriel also had a grandson in the choir and they were internationally famous. Their voices were recorded and they even performed to the current Pope once a year.
I left the cathedral for the more profane confines of a pub in Victoria called The Plumber’s Arms where I met my brother and his work team. The conversation was dominated by a stout and very physically imposing man as well as another gangly man who looked much older than his age. He was actually of my own generation, although he didn’t look it. We left the pub after my brother finished his drink and slowly made our way down to the Sea Life Centre, stopping along some shops along the way. In the queue, we realised that the after dark exhibition was a popular meeting place for couples, who were all chatting happily together.
The entrance to the Sea Life Centre was breath-taking. There is a glass floor where you get a bird’s eye view of the fish. There was a shark underneath my feet. When I stepped on the glass floor I felt a delicious sensation of vertigo, where fear of drowning and falling mingled with the excitement of entering onto another plane of existence. There was a slight disappointment in not being able to see the octopus, one of my favourite animals, but the rest of the views were impressive. There were brightly lit jellyfish and turtles swimming in their tranquil grace. Frogs the size of my finger nails sat about while a gloriously massive lobster pushed its body against the glass frame of its confines. There were clown fish which a woman near me called ‘Nemo-fish’, after the movie. The most impressive part of the whole thing was a colossal tank in which there were a variety of sharks alongside other big fish. It was like a scene from an old movie where we had walked in a super villain’s lair. It was mesmeric to watch the fish swimming about and to encounter these alien life forms in such an intimate way. I told my brother how wonderful it would be to have a house to put such a massive tank in and to enjoy it on a daily basis.
As ever, the fun was tinged with a little sadness. There were many notices on the walls talking about the terrible plight of fish today because of the evils of needless, over-fishing. I was particularly struck by the absurd dimension in the plight of the sharks, the favourite fish of my little nephews. These creatures are being sought out because of the tradition of eating shark fin soup in Asia. But, absurdly, shark fin actually has no taste. Chicken and pork are used to give it flavour. The sharks are being killed for a taste which they don’t actually have.
Afterwards, we had a meal at KFC, then I wandered around London on my own in the night as my brother made his way home, people watching and lost in my own thoughts. It was a good day.