What is Big Brother doing in Durham Cathedral?
I have just got back from overnighting in Durham. I had a gig talking to a splendid Summer School – 100 schoolkids and adults giving up a week of their vacation to learn Latin and Greek (and some heroic teachers giving up a week of theirs to teach them).
Shamefully I hadn’t been to Durham ever before. The somewhat grumpy taxi driver who picked me up at the station didn’t really see why I was bothering.
After all, he opined, Durham was just like Cambridge – only smaller.
He was wrong, of course. They might both be overrun with students (“posh” students as he put it). But Durham’s got the cathedral . . .
. . . which is where I headed in the half hour I had before supper yesterday.
I didn’t have a guidebook with me. But one of the advantages of being married to an art historian is that you always have the equivalent of your Pevsner at the end of the mobile phone. So I quickly found out that I should be looking at the ribbed vaulting and the treasury.
In fact by the time I arrived, the treasury was closed and choral Evensong had started. So I did my duty on the vaulting and stuck to the west end – which included a terrific Father Smith organ and a Lady Chapel featuring the (nineteenth-century) tomb of the Venerable Bede (on the right). This is inscribed with some ghastly Latin doggerel: hac sunt in fossa Bedae Venerabilis ossa. As an eminent Latinist friend has explained to me, this is a medieval “leonine hexameter” and it does have the advantage of being simple enough for even the beginner to translate. But, all the same, it must be making the learned Bede turn in his . . . fossa. Touchingly, yesterday there was a “best wishes” card to the Saint displayed on top, from a class of children at a “St Bede’s” school.
I haven’t plodded round many English cathedrals for years (though I have now discovered that the East coast main line gives you a fantastic ringside view not just of Durham, but of Ely, Doncaster and York too). When I do set foot on consecrated ground these days, it’s much more likely to be in Italy or Greece -- and for no more holy purpose than to see the Caravaggio in the third chapel on the left. That said, for anyone (believer or not) brought up in the traditions of mainstream Anglicanism, there remains something comfortingly familiar about the whole thing. I walked in at what was obviously the Second Lesson of Evensong – Peter had just denied Jesus again and the cock was about to crow. It was a script I already knew.
But as I looked round, the place turned out to be “familiar” in a much more surprising, more institutional and more disconcerting way. And much less like the cathedrals I remember. For a start, they had obviously got caught up in disability legislation – so every possible set of steps was kitted out with a ramp (I accept that when I come to be in a wheel chair I may be grateful for all these ramps – but I hope that even then I will prefer to have the building left in peace and a couple of burly guys to give me a lift).
Then I found that they had latched onto the idea of the mug-shot photo gallery at the way in, just like every university department in the land. For some reason the Bishop himself wasn’t included in this (was he too grand?), but everyone else it seemed was there -- from the Dean and Chapter, down to the vergers and the Development Director (so it really WAS like a university…).
But the final straw of familiarity for me was the CCTV (“CCTV operates in this cathedral” ran the noices, just as they do in college). What I wondered was Big Brother trying to spot? Someone nicking the candlesticks? Inappropriate behaviour in the Lady Chapel? Or was it the religious police, homing in on those not joining in with the hymns or saying the creed with enough conviction?
Give me back some of the mystery, I thought.