This is nature’s nest of boxes. The heavens contain the earth, the earth cities, the cities people. The common centre to them all is decay and ruin. Only that survives which was never made – that song, which is the very voice of God.
Jonathan Holmes, Into Thy Hands
I saw the play of which the above are the opening lines this week, in a beautiful old music hall named Wilton’s, in the City of London.
If you’re looking for an allegory of life emanating from decay, Wilton’s is the perfect choice.
Originally 5 terraced houses, John Wilton opened Wilton’s Music Hall in 1858. Since then it has been home to the missionaries, survived two world wars, been a rag warehouse and unfortunately become derelict. Wilton’s heyday as a music hall was short-lived: just twenty-two years. Several landlords followed after John Wilton and, in 1880, performances ceased when his final successor was unable to renew the licence due to new fire regulations. It was taken over by a Methodist Mission, which continued to occupy the building until 1956. The Methodists served 2000 meals a day during the first ever Docker’s strike of 1889 and allowed Wilton’s to be used as a safe house during the 1936 Battle of Cable Street. During the war it provided shelter for those bombed out of their homes and, in the 1950s it became a sorting place for rags. In one way or another, Wilton’s has always been at the centre of its community.
Miraculously, the building seems never to have been renovated. No developers have snapped it up at a knock-down rate and made it into luxury apartments. No town planners have swept it aside to make way for shiny new car-parking spaces. The world around it has changed beyond recognition, but you get the impression that John Wilton could walk back through the doors at any moment and still recognise his creation.
The building, though, is crumbling and decaying. The current owners are urgently trying to raise £4m to shore up the walls, fix the roof and strengthen the floor boards. They are committed to doing it in such a way as to keep the character of the building intact as the sense of history in the building really is incredible. The walls seem to glow with the memory of 150 years of life in all its rich variety.
Part of me – most of me – thinks it would be a tragedy if this amazing building were to disappear. If the necessary funds cannot be raised, it won’t be long before the building is utterly unsafe to enter. It will have to be knocked down before it falls down, and all the history, the memories and the atmosphere of the place would disperse with the dust and be lost forever.
And yet, they wouldn’t. There is One who sees and remembers far more clearly – and truly – than we ever could. He is not reliant on walls painted with faded images, or floorboards etched with the stains of decades to tell him of the lives and loves and losses of the people who have passed through those doors.
Decay and destruction are part of life, and in a worldview which has no room for God, they are sources only of despair. Yet in a worldview which allows for the existence of something never made, that something endures and brings hope in the despair, light in the darkness and order in the chaos. Heaven and earth – and Wilton’s Music Hall – will pass away, but one thing will never pass away: “that song, which is the very voice of God.”