18 NOVEMBER 2000, Page 78

Now and then

H.V. MORTON'S collection of essays The Heart of London was published in 1925. Morton's London is compared with that of today: Down in the crypt of St Martin's Church, the church whose doors never close, I saw a remarkable sight . . Lying, sitting upright, and huddled in every position of which the human body is capable, were men and women, homeless wanderers over the hard face of the earth.

The poor are always with us. But the crypt has now been converted into a stylish cafe, subtly lit by minimalist lighting. In a separate room, St Mar- tin's still offer daytime food and drink to the homeless. But H.V. Morton's midnight scene is no longer played out; for sleep, today's wanderers must seek the doorways of the nearby Strand.

There was a grey-haired woman sleep- ing upright in a pew . . . [men] lay hud- dled with their tousled heads on hassocks. Today an American tourist reruns the morning on her digital video camera. A businessman drinks Chablis as he scans the Financial Times.

A church warden explained to Mor- ton why they never judged anyone a scrounger before feeding them: 'You can't expect to hear the truth on an empty stomach.' The crypt's modern occu- pants pay £2.25 for a bowl of soup. But though their stomachs may not be empty, can we be sure they are telling their companions the truth?

Morton gazed on the sleeping home- less, each man and woman midway in that Valley of the Shadow through which all lives, spiritually or materially, must pass. Seventy-five years on, a middle- aged man, seemingly well-balanced, suddenly starts muttering to himself. Materially comfortable, he is clearly passing through a spiritual valley.

The crypt's stone floor commemo- rates those buried underneath. Anne Bradbury died in 1771. Her inscription bears reading by today's café-goers just as much as it did by the homeless of 1925:

Remember, Man as thou goest by As thou art Now so Once was I As I am Now, so must thou be Prepare thy self to follow Me.

Mark Mason