03 July 2022

Never getting tired
in the search for
diversity, bookshops
and hidden London

Searching for Hodge the Cathedral Cat in the souvenir shop in Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Samuel Johnson once told his biographer James Boswell, ‘Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’

Above the north-west door of Southwark Cathedral, a stained glass window depicts Samuel Johnson, creator of the first great English dictionary, who was familiar with Bankside and Southwark. It seems appropriate that the Cathedral Cat is named Hodge after Johnson’s own cat.

Visitors to Southwark Cathedral are invited to search for Hodge, and during a recent visit I found myself exploring some hidden and often unknown places in Southwark and other parts of London.

Southwark is known for its links with Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims and the founder of Harvard University. But do tourists ever hear about Cross Bones Graveyard? In mediaeval times, this was an unconsecrated graveyard for the marginalised, including the ‘Winchester Geese’ or local prostitutes, paupers and the ‘Outcast Dead.’

An early campaigner to save the graveyard was the Irish philanthropist Lord Brabazon, later the 11th Earl of Meath. But the burial yard only received the church’s first official blessing on Saint Mary Magdalene’s Day, 22 July 2015, when the Dean of Southwark Cathedral, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn, conducted ‘An Act of Regret, Remembrance, Restoration.’

The Harvard Chapel in Southwark Cathedral recalls the founder of Harvard University, baptised here in 1607 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Cultural diversity in
Soho and Chinatown

Greek Street, between Soho Square and Shaftesbury Avenue, is famous for its restaurants and cosmopolitan nature. Greek Street takes its name from a Greek church that was built in 1677 in adjacent Crown Street, now part of the west side of Charing Cross Road. The church is depicted in William Hogarth’s ‘Noon’ in Four Hours of the Day.

The name of Greek Street and its Bohemian atmosphere reflect the diversity that is flourishing in London, even in these post-Brexit days.

Maison Bertaux, at 28 Greek Street, is the oldest French pâtisserie in London. It was founded in 1871 by a Monsieur Bertaux, a communard from Paris. He arrived in London as a political refugee and opened his shop in the heart of the French community in late 19th century London. The French Protestant church is nearby in Soho Square, while the Catholic Notre Dame de France is in Leicester Place.

Three of the mirrors in the shop contain the inscriptions Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Each year, the shop creates a tableau vivant on 14 July to celebrate Bastille Day.

Nearby on Frith Street, Bar Italia is an Italian café that was opened in 1949 by the Polledri family, and is still owned by Veronica and Anthony Polledri today. Bar Italia inspired the song of the same name by the band Pulp, the last track of their album Different Class (1995). The song describes the café as ‘round the corner in Soho’ and ‘where other broken people go.’

Dave Stewart, formerly of the Eurythmics, once said, ‘This coffee shop is very small but what goes on in there is as big as the world.’ Bar Italia has been named at times as London Coffee Shop of the Year. Next door, Jimmy’s opened at No 23 in 1948 and was the oldest Greek restaurant in Soho until it closed in recent years.

Maison Bertaux at 28 Greek Street is the oldest French pâtisserie in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)


Chinatown borders Soho and Theatreland, in an area around Gerrard Street, off Shaftesbury Avenue. It includes Chinese restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets, souvenir shops, banks and other Chinese-run businesses.

London’s first Chinatown was in Limehouse in the East End and the present Chinatown only dates from the 1970s. After World War II, the increasing popularity of Chinese cuisine and the arrival of immigrants from Hong Kong led to an increasing number of Chinese restaurants opening in the area that became Chinatown.

The Chinatown gate on Wardour Street opened in 2016. It was made by Chinese artisans in the style of the Qing dynasty and assembled in London.

Chinatown grew up around Gerrard Street, off Shaftesbury Avenue, in the 1970s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The lost bookshops of
Charing Cross Road

Charing Cross Road, north of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields and Trafalgar Square, is still known for specialist and second-hand bookshops. From Leicester Square station to Cambridge Circus, the street is home to antiquarian, specialist and second-hand bookshops. Between Cambridge Circus and Oxford Street, the street includes more generalist bookshops.

Foyles was once listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest bookshop in terms of shelf length, at 30 miles (48 km), and for number of titles on display. It was a tourist attraction in the past and was known for its literary lunches and for its eccentric business practices.

Foyles moved from 111-119 Charing Cross Road to 107 Charing Cross Road, once the premises of Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design. It was bought by Waterstones in 2018 and now has a chain of seven shops in England.


No 84 Charing Cross Road is no longer a bookshop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The New York-based writer Helene Hanff had a long-standing correspondence from 1949 with Frank Doel, the chief buyer of Marks & Co, antiquarian booksellers on Charing Cross Road. She was in search of obscure classics and British literature titles that she could not find in New York.

The books she bought ranged from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and John Donne’s Sermons to the writings of Samuel Johnson and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.

Their exchange inspired her book 84 Charing Cross Road (1970). It has been made into a film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins (1987), and also into a play and a BBC radio drama.

Like so many other premises, 84 Charing Cross Road is no longer a bookshop; it eventually closed in December 1970. It is now part of a McDonald’s outlet, with its entrance around the corner in Cambridge Circus. A brass plaque on a stone pilaster facing Charing Cross Road commemorates the former bookshop and Hanff’s book.

The two sets of caryatids at Saint Pancras New Church were inspired by the Erechtheion on the Acropolis in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Caryatids and
Old Saint Pancras

Walking between Euston Station and King’s Cross, many visitors to London have noticed and even been challenged by Saint Pancras New Church and the sight of its two sets of caryatids, inspired by the Erechtheion on the Acropolis, and its vestibule and tower inspired by the Tower of the Winds in Athens.

The church was completed 200 years ago in 1822, to serve what was then a fashionable end of Bloomsbury and with seating for 2,500 people. It cost £76,679 to build, making it the most expensive church to be built in London since the rebuilding of Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

When Saint Pancras New Church opened in 1822, Saint Pancras Old Church, about 900 metres away, fell into disuse, and it was virtually in ruins by the 1840s. However, the industrial expansion of London brought in a new population, and the Church underwent a complete restoration in 1847-1848.

Local lore claims that church is of a very great age, perhaps even the oldest church in England. Although little remains of the original medieval church and certainly one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in England, possibly dating back to the early 4th century.

The present building has been there since the 11th or 12th century and is close to the River Fleet, which was culverted in the 19th century. The church was ruinous in the 13th century, rebuilt in the 14th century, half abandoned in the 16th century, restored in the 17th century and again substantially rebuilt in the mid-19th century, when the 13th century West Tower was dismantled and the new bell tower added.


During the English civil war, the church was used as a barracks and stable for Cromwell's troops. Before the troops arrived, the church’s treasures were buried and lost, only to be rediscovered during restoration work in the early 19th century. The items included a sixth century altar stone said to have been used by Saint Augustine of Canterbury.

The burials there include Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, the parents of Mary Shelley. The Soane Mausoleum was designed by Sir John Soane, the celebrated architect of the Bank of England, following his wife’s death. Charles Dickens refers to Old Saint Pancras Churchyard in his Tale of Two Cities (1859).

Sadly, the churchyard is about to lose the Hardy Tree, which is being felled due to disease. The novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) once studied architecture in London from 1862-1867 under Arthur Blomfield.

When the railway line was being built over part of the original Saint Pancras Churchyard in the 1860s, Blomfield was commissioned to supervise excavating 10,000 graves. The task fell to his protégé Thomas Hardy, who placed the headstones around the ash tree that became known as Hardy’s Tree.


On the river embankment close to the north entrance to Southwark Cathedral, a plinth is inscribed with well-known words by Sir Walter Raleigh: ‘There are two things scarce matched in the universe, the sun in heaven and the Thames on Earth.’

For the visitor, London continues to display a delightful diversity and has many hidden corners to explore and discover. As Johnson told Boswell, there is no need to tire of London, ‘for there is in London all that life can afford.’

Thomas Hardy placed the headstones around ‘Hardy’s Tree’ in Saint Pancras Old Churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

This two-page feature was first published in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) in July 2022

Praying with the Psalms in Ordinary Time:
3 July 2022 (Psalm 130, ‘De Profundis’)

‘De Profundis’ (1943), the haunting Holocaust tour de force by Arthur Szyk (1894-1951), draws on Psalm 130: ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord’

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Third Sunday after Trinity. In the Calendar of the Church, 3 July also celebrates Saint Thomas the Apostle.

Later this morning I hope to attend the Parish Eucharist in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford. But, before today begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 130:

Psalm 130 is the eleventh in a series of 15 short psalms (Psalm 120-134) known as the ‘Songs of Ascents.’ These psalms begin with the Hebrew words שיר המעלות‎ (Shir Hama’a lot). In the slightly different numbering system in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this is counted as Psalm 129.

Psalm 130 is often known as De Profundis from its opening words in Latin in the Vulgate. The psalm has been set to music by composers such as Handel, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Purcell, Schoenberg, Bach (as part of the Cantata BWV 131), Franz Lizst, John Rutter and Arvo Pärt, and it has inspired a famous love letter from prison by Oscar Wilde, a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle, and poems by Federico García Lorca, Alfred Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Baudelaire, Christina Rossetti, CS Lewis, Georg Trakl, Dorothy Parker and José Cardoso Pires.

This is one of the Penitential psalms, recited during the Ten Days of Repentance. It is a prayer for deliverance from personal trouble, but it ends with a message to all people.

The psalm opens with a call to God in deep sorrow, from ‘out of the depths’ or ‘out of the deep,’ a graphic phrase signalling closeness to despair or death, used only in one other psalm, Psalm 69. These depths are the chaotic waters, symbolising separation from God, as in Jonah’s prayer from the stomach of the great fish (see Jonah 2: 2). May God be attentive to my pleas.

God forgives, so he shall be revered. The psalmist makes the powerful and paradoxical point that God is to be held in awe not because he punishes but because he forgives. If God were to record all our misdeeds, how could anyone face him? He is merciful by nature, so I eagerly await his help, his word. I wait for him as watchmen guarding a town from enemy attack.

Perhaps the psalmist has now received a message for the people:

O Israel, wait for the Lord,
for with the Lord there is mercy;
With him is plenteous redemption
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins

Psalm 130 was long associated with funerals and the prayers for the faithful departed. In deep sorrow, the psalmist cries to God (verses 1-2), asking for mercy (verses 3-4). The psalmist’s trust (verses 5-6) becomes a model for the people (7-8).

The depths from which he cries in verse 1 is Sheol, the place of the dead, or a metaphor for total misery; the depths of the sea are an image of the realm of death. In verse 3, the use of the phrase ‘our sins’ is a shift from the singular/personal to the plural/communal, which occurs again in the final two verses. In verse 4, the experience of God’s mercy leads to a greater sense of God.

De Profundis (1943) is the title of a deeply moving illustration by the Jewish and Polish-American artist Arthur Szyk, and it is his haunting Holocaust tour de force.

It was created spontaneously in the midst of war, as reports surfaced of the atrocities of the Holocaust but while an Allied victory was still uncertain. It was distributed widely in the US in an effort to combat anti-Semitism in the US.

Like so many other Jewish artists, Szyk drew on the Bible and Christian iconography to create his Holocaust imagery. In 1943, he made use of several different allusions to Biblical passages and the figure of Jesus for De Profundis, a work that dramatised the mass murder of Europe’s Jews and raised the issue of the painful legacy of Christian antisemitism.

In this work, Szyk draws on Psalm 130: ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.’ With its gripping picture of dead and dying Jews, this is a cry for divine, or perhaps allied, intervention to end their tragic suffering during World War II.

In the Genesis story, God asks the murderous son of Adam ‘Cain, where is Abel thy brother?’ (Genesis 4: 9). From late antiquity or even earlier, through the Middle Ages and after, Christian writers and artists frequently compared Cain to the Jews, as a people rejected and cursed by God, and they compared the killing of Abel to the crucifixion of Jesus.

However, in De Profundis, Szyk turns this analogy upside down, pointing the finger at the non-Jewish world. He included Jesus and the symbolic ‘Wandering Jew’ among the mass of the dead and dying in De Profundis. The artist seems to be reinterpreting how those who see this should view the two, investing them with new meaning.

Since the late 19th century, Jewish artists had depicted both Jesus and the ‘Wandering Jew’ in far different ways than had Christian iconographers or rabbinic authorities. Painters such as Maurycy Gottlieb and Marc Chagall reclaimed Jesus for Jews, seeing him not as the Messiah but as a representative of his people who maintained Mosaic traditions.

Szyk’s Jesus in De Profundis, holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments, is in this tradition. Yet Szyk also wanted the viewer to see that Jesus was a Jew and the Nazis would have murdered him just like the two Jews he holds. He wears the crown of thorns and bears the marks of the cross on his hands, the traditional symbols of his torture and death.

In De Profundis, Szyk produced an image designed to sear the eyes and scour the soul. The personal passion and professional purpose driving De Profundis are extraordinary. It is a damning statement, yet it is endowed with grace and beauty worthy of the dead.

Szyk died in New Canaan, Connecticut, on 13 September 1951. In the decades after his death, he received little attention from museums and galleries, and his life and work were largely overlooked, apart from a small number of collectors, curators and scholars in the field of Judaica. Yet, generations of Jewish families at Passover were reading from his popular illuminated edition of The Haggadah.

Recently, Szyk’s De Profundis (1943) was paired with Marc Chagall’s pre-war lament, White Crucifixion (1938), to spark a discussion within Christian scholarly circles about Holocaust responsibility.

‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord’ (Psalm 130, ‘De Profundis’) … in the depths of a cave on the Greek island of Paxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Psalm 130 (NRSVA):

A Song of Ascents.

1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
2 Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!

3 If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
4 But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.

5 I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
6 my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

7 O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
8 It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) this week is ‘Tackling Poverty’ and is introduced today by Niall Cooper, Director at Church Action on Poverty. He writes:

‘All of us can help end poverty in this country. As Christians we are invited to celebrate a vision of life in all its fullness.

‘And we can end poverty. Even in these daunting economic times, we have the wealth, expertise and resources to refashion our society so that everyone can live with dignity, agency and power.

‘2022 marks 40 years since Church Action on Poverty was founded, but rather than dwelling on past achievements, we are using the anniversary to look ahead.

‘For millions of fellow citizens, things are likely to get significantly harder over the coming months as they face the biggest drop in living standards for a generation. In these difficult times, where do we find our hope?

‘That is why, over the coming years we will be working with people and communities struggling against poverty across the UK to build dignity, agency and power together. Our goal is to expand the Your Local Pantry network to over 200 member-run Local Pantries, enabling over 30,000 members to access good quality food, giving them dignity, choice and hope.’

Sunday 3 July 2022 (Trinity III, Saint Thomas Apostle):

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Creator God,
Grant to us, like Thomas, who have not seen,
That we may also believe
And confess Christ as our Lord and our God.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org