The travel pod skimmed quietly through the streets of London. There were more people around now as we got towards the centre of the city. “Where are we going now?”
“Dilly-hub,” said Helen.. “Sorry?” “Dilly-hub,”she repeated. “Picture Plaza.” “Um...run that past me one more time,will you?” “I thought you knew London,”she said. “I do. Or rather ,I did. But I don’t know what you’re talking about. Places change, you know.” “Yes,” she said. “Sorry. I forgot. We’re going to Dilly-Hub. Can’t remember what it used to be called. Has that strange statue in the middle of the guy with the arrow.”
“You mean Piccadilly Circus ” “That ’s the one.” She paused. “Why did you call it circus by the way?”
“I think it came from circle,” I said. “Just an obsolete term that got stuck, you know how it happens.” “Yes,” she said. “I know how it happens.”
Piccadilly Circus – Dilly-hub – had certainly changed. The buildings looked the same, but the lights. The entire space was a riot of lights and shapes, filling Piccadilly Circus like huge, multi-coloured jellyfish. The lights were no longer the large flat screens of memory, these were huge, pulsating, three-dimensional images. Advertising logos floated around,or bounced off buildings, or danced little jigs. As I stepped out of the travel pod, a huge Coca-cola logo floated right through me. Across the road I could see a 30 – foot high Ronald MacDonald climbing the side of a building while eating a burger – but this was no solid model, but a huge shape of light through which you could see the building behind it. The people in the square walked, almost oblivious, through the pulsating sculptures of light that were coruscating and crackling around them.
“This is amazing ”I murmured. “It... it’s beautiful...” Helen smiled and shrugged.
“I suppose we get used to it.” “But look at it ” I shouted, as a huge gin and tonic bounced off the buildings. “How do they do it? How do they create these shapes?” “Holographic imaging,”said Helen, walking casually through a seven–foot wide pair of luminous M&S underpants.
“It ’s just advertising.” “It’s not like any advertising I’ve ever seen.” “No,”she said. “It wouldn’t be, would it? Every age creates its own communication, its own language, music, art. And it’s never like anything that has gone before. Wait here. I’m going to get us something to drink.”
As she walked off across Dilly-hub, I stared open–mouthed at the light display. Many of the images were familiar to me – the major multi-national corporations that had dominated my time were still very much alive and kicking. But along with Pepsi and the Burger King and the Sony there were new products. ‘EZ-Brite Electro Kleen Aid ’, ‘STS -The Straight To Synapse News Service’, ‘Virtumanity -The Artificial People People’. The colours, the shapes, were completely disorientating. Suddenly a strange figure appeared in front of me. “Hello,Citizen!” It said. “Just a reminder to buy Pixie!” I blinked. I was looking at a three foot high elf. It had all the elf stuff – the beard, pointy hat and a little pipe sticking out of his mouth. He inhaled and sighed happily.
“I’m sorry?” I said.. “Pixie Products make the best marijuana you can buy.” “Are you trying to sell me drugs?” I asked. “Only I thought people usually saw the Pixies after they’ve been smoking.” The elf didn’t appear to hear me. Instead it disappeared completely. But from another part of the square I could hear the voice,“Hello,Citizen, Just a reminder to buy Pixie...”
I was shocked to see drugs sold so openly, but as I looked around I realised that a whole load of products like it were now freely available and openly advertised. Not just marijuana and recreational drugs, but more graphic images, images that, in my time, had been mainly found plastered inside the phone boxes of Piccadilly, rather than depicted thirty feet up in full colour. Times certainly had changed.
“Hey Man,Wtch yr stp.” In my distraction I had walked straight into another man. A big man. Around six–foot. Wide. He probably weighed less than a tank, but it would have been a close-run thing. “Sorry,”I said. “I’m a stranger here...”
“Yr gng 2 b sry,”he said.“F U dnt gt outa my wy.” I shook my head. His speech was such a rapid flow of words it sounded like someone gargling. “Nope. Didn’t get that. Could you speak a bit slower please?” It was the wrong thing to say. He started to turn pink. “U bazzin me?” He snarled.
“U tkng it ,u ltl jfry?” I shook my head again.“If you ’re going to insult me, it would be better if you could do it in English, I said. “Then I can have a go back.” He came very close and held up a fist the size of a leg of pork. “U wnt sm f this?” “Ah,” I said. “I understood that. Kind of a universal language there, fat boy.”
The pink turned to crimson. “Wht U say? Wht U say 2 me?” he stuttered. “You ’re a big man,” I said. “But I ’m faster.” And I turned to run. Or, I would have, if I hadn’t swerved and fallen, trying to avoid a tiny figure with a pointy hat and tripped. “Hello Citizen,” it said, “Just a reminder to buy Pixie...”
Fat boy grabbed me by the collar of my jacket and lifted me off the ground. “I should warn you that I’m a dead man,” I said. “So technically what you are doing here is desecrating a grave...” One hand held me there, while the other hand drew back. I shut my eyes waiting for the blow. Which didn’t come. Cautiously I opened my eyes. There was a strange expression on the man’s face. He appeared to have gone cross-eyed and his face was purple.
A long,slow hiss escaped from his lips and he started to collapse. It was like watching a hot air balloon deflating. He dropped me and sunk to the ground in a heap, revealing, behind him, the slight, white-haired form of Helen.
“Now,” she said kindly. “I ’m very sorry to have had to kick you. But you see, my friend here, as well as being hugely irritating, is a stranger. So he simply doesn’t understand our ways.” She reached down and patted him on the head. And suddenly her voice changed:
“And F U cm nr us agn,”she gargled,“U cn hv sm mor F it.” She turned to me sweetly.“Shall we go,”she said. We walked out from Dilly-hub and started to make our way down what I recognised as Haymarket. “Honestly,”she said.“I can’t leave you alone for a minute, can I? What did you have to go and get into a fight for?” “I didn’t start it,” I protested. “I couldn’t understand him. Anyway, how does an old lady get the strength to kick like that?”
“It’s not about strength,”she said. “It’s about strategic placement.” “I didn ’t mean to get into a fight. I couldn’t understand what he was saying. It was all garbled.” “He was speaking txt,” she said.. “Sorry?” “Txt,”she repeated. “It’s a kind of dialect. Like English with the vowels taken out. It all started on mobile phones in your time. People started writing it and now they talk it.” “You mean they turned text messaging into a dialect?” “Why not? It’s only another way of communicating, after all.” “Well I didn’t understand a word of it.” “No,”she said. “It’s a language. And you have to learn it.”
At the foot of Nelson’s column we sat and looked around ‘Picture Plaza’ as Trafalgar Square was now known. “We had to rename it after the EU Pacification Ruling,”she said. I looked baffled. “All places named after battles were deemed to be incitements to violence and racial conflict,”she said.
“Trafalgar Square was lucky. You can’t imagine what they renamed Waterloo.” I imagined. “It’s because of all the galleries,”continued Helen. “Not only the National and the National Portrait, but all the new ones. We’ve got the National Gallery of Graphic Art over there, the Gallery of Poster Art in that corner and over there –” she pointed at a church building, “the National Gallery of Graffiti.”
“Graffiti? People go and look at graffiti?” “Of course,”she said.“We recognise it as a unique late-20th century art form.”She smiled. “You should see the ‘Kilroy Was ‘Ere”exhibition last year. Some great work.” I looked at the gallery,which was now advertising an exhibition entitled ‘Roy Luvs Sharon - Romantic Graffiti of the Late 1970s’. “That used to be a church,” I said. “St.Martin’s in the Fields.” “Yes,”she said.“But places change. And languages change. And if you don’t learn how to speak to the people around you, you end up getting badly beaten. Like the church.” She sighed.. “By your time the language we were using was still so anachronistic,”she said. “All those images that meant something once, but which meant nothing now. All those theological words that we never bothered to explain, because we though that people still knew our language.
All those songs we sung...” “I know what you mean,” I said. “I mean, I liked the hymns, but some of the language was obscure...” “I wasn’t talking about hymns,” she snapped. “At least when the hymn writers wrote they were using the language of the people around them. ‘Redemption’ meant something in the 17th century, because people were still being kidnapped into slavery and had to be bought back. So they were using contemporary terms. The writers of your time hardly made that effort.”
“What do you mean?” “I remember sitting in your church once and looking through the song book,”she said. “In all the songs, I couldn’t find one 20th century image. Not one. I mean, there we were in the era of the jet plane and the space ship and we were still singing about two-edged swords and bunches of grapes and sheep.” “Biblical images,” I protested.. “Just because they’re in the Bible doesn’t make them sacred. Jesus used those pictures because people knew what they meant. People could look up and see vineyards and sheep and soldiers with swords. They were images to convey holy truth. But we canonised the images and turned them into the truth itself, so that you couldn’t have a worship song unless it was filled with biblical images, and we didn’t feel happy singing anything else.”
“What we really needed were new metaphors,”she said. “We needed new images that would convey God’s love. And new words to convey the truth in. I mean people would walk into churches and not understand a single thing from beginning to end. And I don’t just mean the traditional services, I mean all of them.” “So are you suggesting that we should change the language we use?” “If it doesn’t alter the meaning, yes. I mean, words change over time. Circus might have meant ‘circle’ to the people who named Piccadilly, but in our time it meant a large tent with very, very unfunny clowns. We should have kept checking that the words were working. Instead we were sloppy and lazy. It was far easier to fill our songs and our sermons with antiquated images that meant nothing. Thinking up new metaphors is hard work.”
“But surely there are some images that are eternal.” “I suppose so,” she said. “But even then you’ve got to keep reminding people. After all what did a cross symbolise to people of your time? Didn’t it symbolise Christianity rather than Christ? Didn’t it symbolise a slightly soft, slightly archaic folk-religion. When it really was two pieces of wood where they nailed God. Two pieces of wood where God proved how much he loved us.” She pointed to the top of the gallery, where the timeless image still stood. “An image is only effective if we can see the reality it points to. Language is only effective if people can understand truth through it. When you get back, tell your people to keep talking about the cross – but make sure people understand the meaning.”
“That’s the thing about language,” she said. “Get it right and the symbols are incredibly powerful.” She smiled. “It’s not strength. It’s strategic placement.”
To discuss if when I get back.
- What language do we use when talking about Christianity? Is it accessible?
- Are there images or symbols which would get the point across better?
- What would best communicate to the people around us? Should we be using entirely different methods and words?
- Are there words or phrases – or even actions – in our church that are completely incomprehensible to the outsider?
- Are we sure that the congregation actually understand the words?