#190 Time Out 15×5 at the Union Chapel
We must have passed by the Union Chapel outside Highbury and Islington station hundreds of times, and we’d never noticed it before. It doesn’t help that the front spire of the Union Chapel is currently covered with scaffolding, making it even more of an anonymous hump in the London landscape. It’s not like it’s unimpressive, exactly; it’s just that in a land of endless well-behaved churches, mouldering politely into oblivion, it’s hardly unusual.
Passing through a shabby entrance hall for this Time Out Live event (which comprised five 15-minute mini-talks) we weren’t prepared for what we saw next.
The inside of the Union Chapel is immense. It’s an eight-sided gothic cavern, dripping with late-Victorian woodwork and dominated by a huge stained-glass window of ascending angels. We were dwarfed as we stared up at its high carved roof. Designed by architect James Cubbitt, it’s an example (apparently) of ‘Dissenting Gothic’ – when the stark and serious whitewashed Victorian nonconformist chapels finally let themselves loosen up and join the jolly old English neo-Gothic tea party. But on their own terms, which meant throwing out the concept of a cross-shaped trad church in favour of, for example, a round one, in which everyone was together in the eyes of the Lord.
It’s gothic style set free of gothic structure, is what it is, and combined recklessly with Byzantine forms here. There’s some kind of disproportionately honest, embarrassingly evangelical zeal being expressed here, if you ask me. If you ever wanted to know what a mosque designed by William Morris would look like – this is it.
The five 15-minute talks included film-maker Mike Figgis on the closure of the last real camera shop on Tottenham Court Road; Victoria Hislop (famous Ian’s wife) on her best-seller The Island, about a leper colony; ornithologist Mark Cocker about why we shouldn’t hate the grey old London pigeon*; Art critic Martin Gayford on what it was like having his portrait painted by Lucian Freud (scary); and mathematician Marcus du Sautoy on why maths is like music.
The overall theme? There wasn’t one. But that didn’t matter, as everyone had something to throw into the ideas pot. Crouched as we were on the pews, whispering and clutching programmes, it felt very much like a series of secular sermons. Everyone should be forced to limit their talks to 15 minutes. To be honest, so should this lot, as they tended to warble on long after the quarter-hour mark – but it was worth it. Especially to see the inside of the Union Chapel, one of those constant corners of London that comes complete with its own eccentric mythology. It’s a gig venue now, so try and get inside, and you’ll see what we mean.
*It’s a rock dove really, and an immortal symbol of love and peace, in case you were wondering. Not a nasty fuck-off street geezer bird at all.