Bow's modern incarnation of a library, off the Roman Road, offers a warm and welcoming place to be. Outside the electronic doors a lady in a wheelchair is having a one-sided chat with a small dog on a mobility scooter. Just inside the entrance a security guard perches on a high chair, lest any departing user should should set off the beeping sensors. I somehow manage to set it off on the way in. Most of the tables in the main lobby are occupied by the elderly - singly and in groups - having a nice chat and/or a cup of something. One lady by the window is reading a red-top tabloid. One man in a wheelchair is holding a shaky latte. The main display of new books includes "Joe and Clara's Christmas Countdown", which it seems is proving hard to shift. A sign on the main desk apologises Sorry we have run out of bags, as the council's recycling provision quietly falls apart.
Some of the shelves are still empty after a recent reshuffle. The long desk amid the fiction section is filled by students of all ages tapping on their laptops, two with chunky headphones poised. My attempt to scrutinise the spines from L to R involves standing rather too close behind some of them, making all of us uncomfortable. I make do with an Alan Bennett and an autobiography instead. Over in science fiction a lady is wrapping her mother in a shawl while relating tales of shootings in the Caribbean over her phone. "Have you got your card?" asks a much younger mother of her small daughter as they emerge from the all-gender toilet. The pair progress slowly to the main counter, where several picture books are scanned, and the library habit is passed on to another generation. I do not beep on the way out.
Monday morning in the park
Now the snow flurry is over, the walled garden is almost quiet. Three grey-bearded men are deep in conversation on one of the benches, one with a walking stick and another surrounded by a ring of carrier bags. On a separate bench a lone drinker sits with bottle in hand, staring forwards, a drooping black hood concealing most of his face. A magpie lands on the railings surrounding the memorial cross, jerks its head a few times, then spots something and flies away. In the far corner a tiny handful of snowdrops foreshadow the passing of winter, while hundreds of purple crocuses have made it out of the ground but remain unfurled. A three-storey skeleton of floors and foundations rises behind, which by the end of the summer will support an array of unaffordable balconies, if the men in their hard hats get a move on.
Here comes a mother in a headscarf, pointing out the signs of spring in the shrubbery to a child too young to be interested. He pulls and tugs, and she leads him off to the playground for a go on the bouncy horse. Council contractors are carrying out drastic chainsaw surgery on some perimeter trees whose branches hang low over adjacent gardens. Their white van and mulcher are blocking the main footpath, which has been temporarily coned off, forcing a crocodile of nursery children onto the grass. They toddle round the obstruction very slowly, holding the hands of their carers in no-more-than-threes, before heading towards the gates. Across the lawn a staffie in a studded collar squats for relief, genitals dangling, while his bagless owner looks elsewhere. Step carefully.
Monday morning in the supermarket
Hurrah, at this time of the morning the supermarket actually has some small trolleys left. Ungrabbed copies of Friday's Evening Standard are piled up in the dispenser beyond the first set of automatic doors, awaiting replacement. A smartly dressed member of staff lurks just beyond the second set, waiting to interest shoppers with a leaflet about the in-store pharmacy. By lunchtime it'll be a lot busier in here with schoolkids and sandwich grabbers, but for now my progress remains mostly unobstructed. Three brands of catfood are on special offer this week. Someone has abandoned a basket of bananas and oranges in the washing powder aisle. Several trays of chicken thighs emerge from the storeroom at the rear. "Where are you then? Where are you then?" shrieks a teenager into his phone as he heads for the exit.
The dried food Reduced to clear section is a mess of leftovers, including an Advent calendar, dozens of commemorative Bisto tins, and a Decorate Your Own Gingerbread Dog Biscuit. Numerous jars of mincemeat have been slashed to 80p, or 40p if you hunt more carefully on a lower shelf. Early Easter eggs are lined up opposite the frozen ready meals, still two months off being discounted. A middle-aged man with a loud hacking cough wheels by, then leads his wife over to the lottery desk for some cigarettes. I hunt down what I'm looking for - pasta, baked beans, tea bags, pasta sauce - and head for the checkout. Self-service has a queue, because some customers prefer to put staff out of work, but I head to an empty conveyor and get served straight away... and enjoy a merry chat.
Monday morning at the food bank
The only exterior clue to this food bank is a chalkboard positioned by the churchyard gate for three hours every Monday. That and an intermittent stream of people going in, and later walking out with extra bags. Two ladies are sat on the bench halfway down, laughing raucously and clutching Iceland carriers. Another lady emerges through the great oak doors and lights a cigarette. I'm not sure quite what I expected to find within, but am amazed by the bustle ahead of me across the main body of the church. There must be fifty people in here, around half of them volunteers, the others taking advantage of free warmth and weekly compassion. Hot drinks to the right, chairs for socialising along the aisle, and a trestle table at which a Legal Aid advisor offers free consultations. Truly this is Food Bank Plus.
I'm funnelled to the far end, where the choirstalls are laid out as if for Harvest Festival, only with more dried goods and fewer fruit and vegetables. Those in need are offered ten items of their choice, from tins and cereals to nappies and shampoo, rather than the pot luck jamboree bag some other food banks offer. I hand over my donations to the lady in the chancel, who's graciously welcoming and genuinely thankful on behalf of those who'll benefit. She also tells me it was a lot busier earlier, because for some nine thirty can't come round soon enough, and nobody is ever turned away. Laid bare within these ancient walls is poverty not usually seen in plain sight, not only the homeless but those in temporary or permanent struggle to make ends meet. I walk out with my eyes more widely opened, and a pride that my local neighbourhood is doing something about it.
Bow Foodbank is a registered charity based at St Mary's Church on Bow Road, supported by a multi-faith and non-faith coalition of local organisations, including a group of student volunteers from Queen Mary University. It opens every Monday between 9.30am and 12.30pm, bank holidays excepted. Non-perishableitems can be delivered to the church between 9-11am, or on Sunday afternoons between 4-6pm. Alternatively money can be donated here... or you could contribute to your own local food bank, because even in 2018 there's bound to be a need for one.