A faith confirmed by East End promise

<i>This Bright Field: a travel book in one place </i>by William Taylor (Methuen, &pound;15.99)
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Spitalfields is a district in London's East End, next to the City; it is "no bigger than Wembley Stadium" but has been many different things to different people. To William Taylor, a young Church of England priest, it is "where the treasure is buried". This Bright Field is Taylor's account of his 12-year love affair with Spitalfields. He has dubbed it "a travel book written in one place", though he might have called it a spiritual autobiography - for its real theme is his commitment to the church and the ways it was shaped by the time he spent in Spitalfields.

Spitalfields is a district in London's East End, next to the City; it is "no bigger than Wembley Stadium" but has been many different things to different people. To William Taylor, a young Church of England priest, it is "where the treasure is buried". This Bright Field is Taylor's account of his 12-year love affair with Spitalfields. He has dubbed it "a travel book written in one place", though he might have called it a spiritual autobiography - for its real theme is his commitment to the church and the ways it was shaped by the time he spent in Spitalfields.

In 1987, in his last year at university, Taylor decided that he wanted to become a vicar. He was rebuffed by the Bishop of Oxford, who told him he was not ready: "I think you need to learn a little humility." Yet the bishop launched Taylor on a new course when he told him that graduates considering holy orders had often gained "parish experience" in the East End. Months later, when Taylor found himself by chance in Spitalfields, he fell in love with it and decided he would test his vocation by going to live there.

Spitalfields, which Salman Rushdie recreated as "Brickhall Fields" in The Satanic Verses, is the ultimate inner-city melting-pot, where different faiths and cultures collide. In the past 300 years, it has played host to a succession of immigrant communities: Huguenot weavers, who built its much-loved Georgian houses; Jews fleeing from persecution in Eastern Europe; and, more recently, Bengalis and Pakistanis.

Taylor relished the idea of "disappearing, like some undercover detective, amongst all those hidden worlds all jumbled together". In 1988 he took the first in a series of jobs that afforded him a privileged perspective on Spitalfields - as a delivery driver in the old fruit-and-veg market. Later, he worked as a barman in the Jack the Ripper pub and a footman in one of the period houses maintained by the "neo-Geos" - the heritage vultures intent on preserving Spitalfield's Georgian streets and squares. He also moonlighted as a "community development consultant", acting as the eyes and ears of the developers who planned to convert the market into offices.

This Bright Field is filled with vivid portraits of the district's inhabitants, such as the market traders - "pertly defiant, capable of showy self-parody and merrily on the make" - and the activists, artisans and entrepreneurs of the Bengali community. Yet its real subject is Taylor's own journey toward ordination. When he charges a local estate agent with disrupting the fabric of the area by driving out poorer tenants, he finds his own motivation called into question. "Who do you really work for?" the agent asks, and the question rings in his ears "like a stone rattling round an empty pail".

While in Spitalfields, he has "put on a wardrobe of unfamiliar roles", and he realises that the experience has hardened his commitment to the church. In 1990, he leaves Spitalfields for theological college in Cambridge, but the East End has lost none of its appeal. He revisits repeatedly before returning permanently as a chaplain to London Guildhall University.

Taylor is not the first person to have written about Spitalfields; in the last few years, it has become a touchstone for a cabal of writers preoccupied with the evolution of the modern city. Iain Sinclair, Rachel Lichtenstein and Peter Ackroyd have all conducted thoughtful excavations of the myth-encrusted streets and squares of E1, but the unique strength of Taylor's book lies in its forthright honesty. This Bright Field is a lively, outspoken and sometimes funny account of his spiritual education. Gradually, Taylor comes to see that his vocation for the church is not "something terribly austere and absolute" but "much more rooted in the evolving relationships within a community than a single me-and-my-God thunderbolt from the heavens". His vocation, in other words, is caught up in one small area of London: "I clearly had something to work out... Spitalfields presented itself as the place to do it."

The reviewer's book 'Leadville' is published by Picador

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