BY DR DENIS BRASS
A walk on the wild side
AN 18TH CENTURY guide book to London shows Wandsworth, where I grew up, as one through road: East Hill and West Hill, each today crowned with a Catholic church.
The two hills join in the middle with incoming Garret Lane, an ancient thoroughfare leading north from Tooting with the river Wandle alongside, its waters helping early riverside "manufactories" and flowing into the Thames under the present-day High Street.
It is not too fanciful to suggest that perhaps Admiral Lord Nelson may have travelled by coach from his temporary home in Merton, following the same lane that we took to school a century and a half later, on his way to London and Trafalgar.
As a teenager I used to serve early Mass, loving the Latin responses, and hurry through the narrow passage that separated the church on Fast Hill from the 17th century Huguenot cemetery. It was what you might call an early ecumenical run, for in passing, I would read the prayers on the tomb-stones. The church also served Wandsworth prison where there was a Catholic chapel dedicated to St Peter's Chains and built by German prisoners of war in World War I.
Wandsworth prison. There is menace in a name that has echoed in the consciousness of generations and figured in film. Like a dark Victorian sphinx, its massive twin columns like two giant paws at rest, frame the double entrance, threatening any attempt at escape.
The front of the building faces the short cut to Trinity Road, the main thoroughfare linking Balham to Battersea. On this short slip road a band used to play on Sunday mornings, and I used to wish that the prisoners inside might hear and enjoy the music.
Also on Sunday mornings I used to play the organ in the Catholic chapel. The Catholic chaplain and I would ring the bell at the wicket gate at the entrance of the prison to be admitted by a warder sitting at a high desk who would sign us in and escort us through the various heavily barred steel gates, unlocking and relocking behind us as we went further into the precinct. After many years the sound of jangling keys, each unlocking thrown into greater relief as we went further into the prison, stays with me.
Having arrived at the chapel in the open area beyond the gates, we felt surrounded by a special solitude, a lack of everyday sounds which over the years must add to the monotony of life inside.
We went into the chapel through the sacristy which faced out onto the yard. The sacristan-trusty would be setting out Mass vestments and preparing the cruets.
The first we saw of the congregation was when, with the chaplain vested, we would go into the sanctuary and I would take my seat at the organ at right-angles to the Gospel side of the altar. The men would already be in their places with four warders, one standing at each corner of the chapel. Directly opposite the organ on the Epistle side was a prie-dieu curtained off from the main body of the chapel, where on rare occasions, a condemned prisoner flanked by two warders would be present at Mass.
The chaplain would read the Gospel from a pulpit near the sacristy and follow with a short homily, and then read out from a newspaper football and other news.
Mass ended; and the men would sing the final hymn while the chaplain was unvesting. As the men were leaving the chapel I would play a Voluntary: often the sacristan-trusty would steal into the organ-loft and watch. He was fascinated by the magic of the black and white keys moving through eyes and fingers to issue in harmony and rhythm from the organ. In my teens this keen interest, as with many others things I noticed inside the prison, seemed nothing extraordinary. Now I look back and wonder how long this man had served, and why. How much of what I took for granted he had missed in his life before.
The chaplain and I would leave, passing through the several unlockings. He was a lonely man and would tell me of his wartime experience. He had been wounded in World War One and still walked with a limp.
He was clearly at home in his work at the prison which took him away from ceremony and gave him freedom to live alone in a flat ironically opposite the Anglican parish church.
At 16, I was grateful fer the small fee I received. But my first and exciting fee came earlier when I used to practise the organ at the church on East Hill early on Saturday mornings.
At this time the church was usually empty of people, but on this particular morning I could hear whispering. Looking through the curtain to my left into the body of the church I saw smartly dressed men and women moving about and greeting one another.
Suddenly the door on my right leading to the church hall flew open, and a young man with a huge buttonhole stood there. "Keep playing," he said. "Can you play the Wedding March?"
Of course I could play the Wedding March. The score was there. He would give me a sign when to begin.
I continued to improvise. The wedding ended. I played the March. The church emptied and I continued my , practice.
The door flew open again and the young (best) man thanked me and pressed a pound note into my hand. I walked home on air. I had earned my first fee.