Sunday, 1 April 2012

Talk of the devil

Sat 31st March 2012

A church outing from St. Martin’s, Ealing, to Coventry Cathedral. It was wonderful to see this monument to modernism again. 1960s architecture never got any better than this; in fact it seemed to go from this height of creativity straight to the depth of tat. The canopy connecting the old church with the new looks astonishingly inept, but apart from that the place is full of grace and majesty.
I love the face of Christ in the great tapestry by Graham Sutherland. Never have eyes been so well lit. That highlight seems to make the whole face shimmer with light.
I first saw this work when I was six years old, not long after the cathedral opened to the public. I remember waiting with my parents in a long queue in the cold. When we got inside we were some way back from the tapestry and my mother asked me if I could see the tiny man standing between Christ’s feet. I just couldn’t see it, or recognise it at all.
On this visit, a woman on the front desk, dressed in the rather unpleasant puce coloured surpluses they seem to wear there, presumably to match the pink stone walls, said the little man is five foot tall. This was surprising. She said it several times, as if she was trying to say that it was put there to show the scale of the work, which is still the biggest tapestry in the world. Not sure what she meant. Perhaps the word “scale” was deemed too hard for the public.
Someone mentioned the sculpture on the outside wall, by Jacob Epstein, showing St. Michael casting a skinny and obscene looking Satan down into hell. I was not too short sighted or dim to notice that as a small child. It was impossible to miss its dramatic message.
The lady in the surplus said, “In the old days they used to say it was the Archangel Michael casting the devil down into hell, but these days we prefer to say that Michael is saying to him, “You can come back, once you’ve got your life sorted out.”

Most of Epstein’s work looks terribly dated now, but it was nice to see his door knobs on the outside of the cathedral, shaped like the heads of scowling cherubs. The only time you will be able to hold one of his works. Apparently his widow didn’t like them, and gave them to the cathedral in the 1970s.

I sat for awhile in the Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane, the most lush and literally sparkling of the modernist chapels, with Michael appearing again holding out a chalice. I suppose what makes the place so special, and so cohesive, is its theme of suffering and redemption. There are thorns and nails everywhere, a drawing done by a soldier at Stalingrad, and some of the art work seems to me to have been influenced by Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which caused a sensation in 1945.

It’s impossible not to be moved by the work. I thought I’d also have a look at the Blitz museum in a corner of the nave of the old burnt out cathedral. I was a bit anxious about doing this as I feel rather emotional these days. My eyes well up at the slightest thing, and certain memories and music can bring on an attack of humiliating tears. Since the cancer arrived I avoid any TV, film or radio involving crying children, lost pets, the Titanic, and that photo of the three queens mourning the death of George VI. One of the doctors said that this was highly advisable. The museum was closed and I felt rather relieved not to see it.
The lady in the surplus said it was definitely open, so I hovered about for half an hour, looking more closely at the old cathedral remains and the buildings round about. Eventually I knocked again and the door opened. A startled looking man with his sleeves rolled up opened the door. He looked harassed and rather wild, the sort you used to see in garages up to their elbows in grease. “We can’t open today,” he said. “I’ve got trouble with my volunteers.”
Then he said I couldn’t come in because “they were expecting a tour.”
I peered in. The museum was the size of a small front parlour. There was no one else about so he reluctantly agreed to let me have a very quick look around.
His assistant, a plummy voiced young boy with thick wavy hair accompanied me as I walked past school desks, just like the ones I once used, and a kitchen interior rather like my mother’s and grandmother’s. There were a few uniforms on scorched looking old dummies that looked as if they’d met with a terrible decanting petrol into a jar disaster, ration books and gas masks.
At the end was a small dark room with a film showing bombers from the air, no idea which side we were looking at, cities from above, but the boy recognised Coventry. We saw more of the blitz, then Coventry after the attack, VIPs arriving. The King looking blank, Churchill furious and upset.
I might have been OK if not for Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata playing in the background. The boy beside me knew what it was, I didn’t I am ashamed to say. My eyes kept filling up, and every time I gasped with suppressed emotion, and dabbed at my nose with a tissue, he ran out of the room as if I was giving off toxic rays, or perhaps he just thought I was bonkers beyond the point of no return.
That all took about five minutes and the frantic looking man was soon seeing me out with an irritated grunt, to get on with what ever you get on with in an empty museum.
I hope they didn’t think I was a mad old bat. I am miles away from feeling it’s OK to show emotion in public, and when a woman gets to a certain age there is that creeping suspicion that she might easily be written off as doolally.
I have had these fears at least since early middle-age, not comfortable with how I appear. For years I felt uneasily that I was wearing the wrong make-up for my age, and my anxieties were as visible as too much rouge.
This got worse after I encountered George Galloway for the Standard, after he had appeared in the Big Brother house in orange tights lapping milk like a cat.
He decided we should meet in a Nando’s on the Whitechapel Road, the periphery of what became his Muslim fiefdom. I made my way up the street knee deep in fast food wrappers with an ominous feeling. When I arrived I was greeted by a strange assortment of people, some Irishmen who seemed to be guarding him, and some of the Galloway family.
He’d brought along his very Cockney working class daughter, her husband and their children. They sat next to us, staring ahead, not saying much, like chavs in a sit-com. He did not look at me much and I could tell he was not interested in doing the interview. I asked him why he’d brought his close relations along, no answer, just a tightlipped look.
“Well I promise not to ask you anything about your sex life,” I said, attempting to be jocular.
“I think you’re a nutter,” he said, levelly, sliding the words into me like a knife.
I instantly blamed my make up as he rose up from the table, slammed some cash down on the table in front of me plus a £5 note, and careered off into the litter strewn night. Was it too much eye-liner, too much foundation?
“It takes one to know one,” I suppose I should have said to his disappearing back, but I was frozen in horror. His family went on sitting there like the frog footman in Alice, not saying a word. One of the Irishmen appeared and said he’d sort it. I waited, still numb as he returned, sat quietly and did the interview as if nothing was wrong. He spoke to me about his life for over an hour.
I’ve never really got over that though, the way he was so astute and slashed me, straight in to the shank. Later one of the Irishmen took me for a drink. He seemed to like me, which I found astonishing, and pressed on me an old CD he said belonged to George. A small act of rebellion against his master perhaps. It was Joan Baez singing, Love Minus Zero, No Limit, which reminded me of my student days in Scotland in the 70s, when the whole world seemed to be full of men just like George.
I am of course since then his mortal enemy. I believe there are quite a few of us. When I remember that meeting I could kill him, but then again I don’t want to go to the devil, cast down into hell for someone like that.

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