Liverpool contrarian

Liverpool_Metropolitan_Cathedral

This is a longer version of a piece I published in the Guardian a few weeks ago on Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.

I see it every day, straight ahead, as I drive down Hope Street in Liverpool on the way to work. A ring of flying buttresses, like a tent’s guy wires, soar towards a central cone and a glass lantern tower topped with a crown of thorns. Medieval cathedrals were meant to stop the breath, to astound pilgrims and worshippers by defying gravity, human scale and other earthbound limitations. This younger version looks similarly unlikely: an upturned funnel of Catholic chutzpah. One might call its architectural style “Liverpool contrarian”. How odd that people can walk past it without even looking up.

50 years ago this weekend, at Whitsun, Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral was opened and consecrated. In 1967 many of the city’s buildings were scarred by bombs, marked for the wrecking ball or covered in soot. And here was this proudly modern structure, rising up out of a town of blackened stone. The architect Michael Manser likened it to “a gargantuan concrete aberration from the Apollo space programme”. Locals nicknamed it the Mersey Funnel or the Wigwam.

It was built cheaply and quickly, after Edwin Lutyens’s original plan, for a massive Romanesque domed church, was abandoned for being over cost and overdue. Even this more modest building seemed like a triumph of faith over evidence. Church attendance was in decline; the great age of cathedral building had ended 600 years earlier. The cathedral’s key ingredient, reinforced concrete, was being more commonly used to build multi-storeys, high rises and motorways. Seeing Almondsbury interchange under construction in 1966, the minister for transport Barbara Castle had declared: “These are the cathedrals of the modern world.” A planned inner ring road in Liverpool was about to cut the new cathedral off from the city centre. But this urban motorway never got built, and much of that brave new 1960s architecture of concrete and steel has since been bulldozed. The cathedral is still here. Unlike your average flyover, it was clad in white ceramic and Portland stone, so it still looks almost new.

Its opening coincided with two other events. On 25 May 1967 Penguin published the poetry anthology The Mersey Sound, bringing this underground movement, hitherto confined to the upstairs of Liverpool pubs, into the mainstream. A week later, on 1 June, the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper. A series of events on in Liverpool this May and June, “50 Summers of Love”, celebrates this triple jubilee. In truth, linking these three things—cathedral, anthology, album—is a stretch. By 1967 the Beatles had left Liverpool and belonged to the world. The Mersey poets’ manor was the art-school, Bohemian enclave at the other end of Hope Street. Their poems often namechecked “the cathedral”—Brian Patten imagined it dissolving in “a white-hot fireball”. But they meant the Anglican one, the sandstone, neo-Gothic goliath half a mile to the south.

From a distance, though, the Wigwam does look a bit like a piece of 1960s pop art. The writer Nicholas Murray, a teenager in 1967, recalls being bussed in to see it from his school in Crosby. “I have never forgotten the impression it made,” he writes in his book So Spirited a Town, “of newness and modernity and light.” Like Murray I was raised a Catholic and I associate it, like him, with shadows and secrets: badly-lit Victorian churches, low-wattage votive candles, knee-knackering confessionals with the priest’s face a pinkish blur behind the grille.

Now I work in a university building that was once a convent, across the road from the cathedral. From my desk I can see the lantern tower, and hear the four apostle bells cranking up, ready to slice the air with noise. YouTube has silent British Movietone footage of the cathedral’s opening, with a shot of the Sisters of Notre Dame waving from what looks like my office window. Working in this building, with its holy water fonts, leaded windows and Our Lady grottoes, brings it all back. Sometimes I think I can smell that familiar Catholic musk, made up of frankincense, candle wax, old missals and damp. The new-style lecture theatre consoles even look a bit like altars. “The mass is ended,” I feel like saying when I am stood behind one. “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

The cathedral over the road has a very different feel. “The ministers at the altar should not be remote figures,” Archbishop Heenan of Liverpool had written in his instructions to the architect, with the Second Vatican Council in mind. “They must be in sight of the people with whom they offer the sacrifice.” The architect, Frederick Gibberd, solved this problem with a single blow. He was doodling on the back of an envelope and the idea just came in a rush, he said, “like a composer with a new tune in his head”. Simple: a thin shell, like a tent, raised above an altar.

Unlike most cathedrals, which are partitioned into nave, transepts, sanctuary and choir, Gibberd’s is a single flowing space: a giant room, rinsed in warm reds and blues from the stained glass. “Architecture finds its highest expression in the art of enclosing space,” Gibberd wrote at the time, “and nowhere is this spatial enclosure more sublime than in the Cathedral.” For the altar he asked a local stonemason, Leslie Rumsey, to source him a single slab of white marble. After two years searching in Italian quarries, Rumsey found a nineteen-ton block near Skopje in Macedonia. This huge slab sits in the room’s centre, so that every seat is within 80 feet of it.

Along with many other non-believers I can take a perverse pride in feeling unillusioned—like the atheist in Jan Struther’s poem “Prayer”, facing “the flying spears of grief/Unarmed, yet proudly keeping/Faith with his unbelief”. These days my unbelief is faint-hearted enough for me to slope off to the cathedral now and then, to sit at the back while a service is on. The Dean has one of those soft Liverpudlian burrs that marry perfectly with the cadences of the King James Bible. I heard that, just before the cathedral opened, they fired blanks from a service revolver all round it, and timed how long it took for the reverberations to die away. It took six seconds: too long, according to those who know about acoustics. But I have come to like the elongated echo, the way the words bounce off the walls and wash you in a bath of liquid vowels.

The sociologist Grace Davie has argued that cathedrals appeal to us today because they offer “vicarious religion”, a “believing without belonging”. As we stand at the sidelines, taking off our cycle-clips in awkward reverence, the cathedral fulfils what Davie calls “the desire for anonymity—meaning the option to come and go without an explanation, or even a greeting, and to move gradually from one stage of commitment to another”. We have outsourced the job of worship to a dwindling core of professionals. At cathedral evensong, even the singing is sub-contracted to the choir. And yet you never feel left out. Instead you feel as if a space has been carved out for the mind to wander and find its own equilibrium, before you are decanted once again into the noise and haste of your own life.

Others seem to use this building in the same non-committal, no-strings way. On the piazza that Gibberd built over the roof of Lutyens’s crypt, impromptu games of football break out. On the outdoor plinths, packed lunches are unfurled. On the 56 steps up to the entrance, the same man jogs eternally up and down, like Rocky Balboa on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“The ancient temple was made only for god; the cathedral is made for all,” wrote the French art historian Marcel Aubert in 1937. “Vast, high, protected by its vaults, amply lit, it shelters all its children who come there to hide, to seek reassurance or information.” The cathedral was never just a place of worship; it was a little town, offering both sanctuary and community. When Amiens cathedral was finished at the end of the 13th century it could fit all the city’s population, nearly 10,000 of them, inside it. Until the department store arrived in the nineteenth century, cathedrals were the only lavish building that was open to all.

Nowadays public places can feel almost too welcoming. The cathedral invites you in but without seeming needy like this. It never asks you to “get involved” or “have your say”. It does not offer free Wi-Fi. It has none of that jazz-hands jolliness where everyone is “excited” and “passionate” to be serving whatever it is they are serving you. (The same tin-ear jauntiness led Tesco to claim, in an advert this Easter promoting its offers on cider and beer, that “Good Friday just got better.”) Unlike the Apple Store in Liverpool One—a bit like a cathedral, I think, with its grand entrance, light-filled nave, and huge altars where believers come to worship the iPhone 7—there is no danger of being pounced on by evangelists seeking converts to the techno-faith.

The cathedral is a place to go, in other words, when the rest of the world feels shouty and oversold. It asks nothing of you, other than that you match its quietness with your own. Since libraries became spaces for “social learning”, and the quiet zones on trains became just slightly less noisy zones, a cathedral is now almost the only public place where us deep introverts can inhale that scarce and precious drug, silence.

Before I begin to sound like a full-time miserabilist, I should say that what really draws me to the cathedral, since I do not believe in God, is my faith—battered but basically intact—in other people. You don’t need to believe in an afterlife to find solace in Gibberd’s church-in-the-round. But you do need to believe in this life, and in the value of spaces that show an unspoken solicitude for others, that feel solid and anchoring, that allow us to mark time against them and give shape and form to our existence.

The final element of Gibberd’s plan, the ceremonial steps up to the main doors, was not completed until 2003. (An ancient plaque bolted into the brickwork tells the story: “This project is funded by the European Union…”) Like Rome’s Spanish Steps, these steps draw the eye but also lead your gaze up and beyond them. You can best feel their effect by walking along Hope Street in the late afternoon of a December Sunday. It’s dark and cold and you have that stomach-tightening, fag-end-of-the-weekend, work-in-the-morning feeling. But the tower is brightly lit from the inside, the bells are calling people in for carols, and the steps motion you up to warmth, light and hope.

Photo: West elevation of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral © Andrew Dunn, 4 December 2005, Wikimedia Commons.

Welcome to the real world

A phrase I’ve come to hate is ‘the real world’, as in ‘you should try living in the real world’ or ‘welcome to the real world’. My world is just as real as yours; or rather, there’s only one real world and we’re all of us in it. This is what the American poet Richard Hugo (1923-82), who worked as a technical writer for Boeing before becoming a poet and creative writing teacher at the University of Montana, had to say about this ‘real world’:

‘I hate that phrase “the real world.” Why is an aircraft factory more real than a university? Is it? In universities I’ve had in my office ex-cons on parole, young people in tears racked with deep sexual problems, people recently released from mental hospitals, confused, bewildered, frightened, hoping, with more desperation than some of us will ever be unlucky enough to know, that they will remain stable enough to stay in school, and out of hospitals forever. I’ve seen people so forlorn that I’ve sat there praying as only an unreligious man can pray that I don’t say something wrong, that I can spare their feelings, that I might even say something that will make their lives easier if only for a few moments. Sad drug addicts too. Not people you usually meet in industrial offices. Often they are coming to me because I’m a poet and I’m supposed to be wise, to have some secret of existence I can pass on to the forlorn. In some ways the university is a far more real world than business.’

(From The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing (New York: Norton, 1979), p. 99)

Colour-coded sentences

coloured-sentencesIn his book Pale Blue Dot (1994) the late Carl Sagan wrote about the famous 1990 photograph taken from Voyager 1, showing the earth as a tiny speck of colour in a square of black. As part of something I’ve been working on, I colour-coded one of my favourite passages from this book according to its parts of speech so I could see them more clearly. I thought it looked pretty so I’ve posted it below. The results are surprising. Style guides often tell you that the verbs should drive a sentence and you should avoid overly nouny sentences. But that last 80 word sentence of Sagan’s (which the style guides would also say is far too long) is full of nouns, and has only one verb – and it reads like a dream.

Key: Nouns Verbs Articles Adverbs Adjectives Prepositions Conjunctions

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived thereon a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The most comforting speech in the world

rain

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk who spent almost all his adult life in the Abbey of Gethsemani in the Appalachian region of northern Kentucky. For the last part of it he lived alone in a hermitage, a cinder-block cabin in the nearby woods. In his essay ‘Rain and the Rhinoceros,’ he writes beautifully about rain, both in cities and in his own woodland:

‘Meanwhile the obsessed citizens plunge through the rain bearing the load of their obsessions, slightly more vulnerable than before, but still only barely aware of external realities. They do not see that the streets shine beautifully, that they themselves are walking on stars and water, that they are running in skies to catch a bus or a taxi, to shelter somewhere in the press of irritated humans … But they must know that there is wetness abroad. Naturally no one can believe the things they say about the rain. It all implies one basic lie: only the city is real. That weather, not being planned, not being fabricated, is an impertinence, a wen on the visage of progress.

Of course the festival of rain cannot be stopped, even in the city. The woman from the delicatessen scampers along the sidewalk with a newspaper over her head. The streets, suddenly washed, become transparent and alive, and the noise of traffic becomes a plashing of fountains. One would think that the urban man in a rainstorm would have to take account of nature in its wetness and freshness, its baptism and its renewal …

The rain that I am in is not like the rain of cities. It fills the woods with an immense and confused sound. It covers the flat roof of the cabin and its porch with insistent and controlled rhythms. And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world turns by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer …

The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows!’

Effete betrayers of humanity

From Mark Forsyth’s book The Elements of Eloquence, here is a list from 1953 of words approved by the East German government for describing the British:

‘Paralytic sycophants, effete betrayers of humanity, carrion-eating servile imitators, arch-cowards and collaborators, gang of woman-murderers, degenerate rabble, parasitic traditionalists, playboy soldiers, conceited dandies.’

And here comes Hurst

world cup

The World Cup final of 1966 had the biggest audience in British television history: more than 32 million. This is probably an underestimate, since the collective watching in public places and living rooms that occurs during big sports games does not register well in ratings systems. The figures were even more impressive because only one of the home nations was playing: many Scottish viewers did not watch, like the Man United striker Denis Law who took himself off to the golf course for the afternoon.

The 1966 World Cup had brought in new audiences for football, especially women. For the final, the gender gap among viewers had almost closed. Two men who were watching on their own were the novelists Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge, neither of whom had a TV, and who saw the final in the flat of Lodge’s Birmingham University colleague Stuart Hall, who was away that weekend and lent them the keys to his flat. As one of the founders of British cultural studies, Hall obviously did have a television.

The 1966 World Cup was also the moment that televised football developed its own visual and verbal lexicon which made it ever more unlike the experience of watching on the terraces. It was when TV began to surround the match with commentary – half an hour of verbal overture beforehand and twenty minutes afterwards. Tyne Tees Television also pioneered low level cameras to show the players as other players saw them, in the thick of the action.

The BBC first used its new slow-motion ‘action replay’ in the opening match between England and Uruguay. They were waiting to use it for the first goal but none came, so towards the end they used it on a near miss. Everyone, including the commentator, was taken aback, and the BBC’s duty log was besieged with calls from confused viewers asking whether the match was live or recorded. ‘This sleight of hand with time – that’s how it seemed to me – added an entirely new dimension,’ wrote a critic in The Listener.

Halfway through the first period of extra time in the final, with England and West Germany tied at 2-2, the BBC made crucial use of its new technology. But even an action replay, and a camera positioned low down behind the goal, could not prove conclusively whether or not Geoff Hurst’s shot had crossed the line. The England right-back watching from the halfway line, George Cohen, later confessed that ‘the relatively infant TV technology wasn’t really conclusive but when all the emotions had drained away I had to concede that the most beautiful goal I have ever seen was also one of the most dubious’.

As Hurst’s final goal went in, Wolstenholme said: ‘And here comes Hurst! He’s got – some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over – it is now! It’s four!’ These words did not resonate immediately with viewers, no doubt because they were drowned out by millions of living room cheers, which was probably just as well since they inconveniently drew attention to the fact that the goal should have been disallowed because there were spectators on the field. It was only when the whole game was repeated on BBC2 in August 1966 that their concision and neatness caught the public mood. As a piece of Wolstenholme commentary, it was atypical. He was best known for his clipped RAF tones and meaningful silences, for he believed that words should merely annotate what was on screen. Wolstenholme’s standard response when a player scored was ‘it’s a goal,’ a phrase so familiar to 1960s TV viewers that the Beatles, none of whom were football fans, sampled it on a loop for an alternative mix of the song ‘Glass Onion’, which later appeared on Anthology 3.

Over on ITV, only about four million viewers heard Hugh Johns’s more prosaic celebration of the winning goal: ‘Geoff Hurst goes forward. He might make it three. He has! He has! And that’s it, that’s it!’ But Johns’s voluble commentaries, delivered in a rich voice honed in theatre rep, coarsened by chain smoking and lubricated with Brain’s Bitter, became the default commentating style.

In his book 4-2, the film critic David Thomson recalls watching the World Cup Final at home and seeing Hurst’s final goal fly in: ‘I roar in the living-room in Isleworth in front of the black-and-white TV. Mathew [his son] cannot quite yet know the grace that has touched Geoff Hurst. So he cries in alarm. But I was crying first. His mother comes into the room and tells me not to scare him so.’

Of the end of the game, Thomson writes: ‘All over the land, people were going to the bathroom, walking out into the garden to breathe the air, dashing off to neglected shops before they closed. The collective kettle was being put on. Old balls were fetched out and kicked around in the noble knock-on of victory.’

The students pack and go

It’s our graduation ceremony next week. It’s reminded me of this great passage from Peter Davidson’s collection of essays, Distance and Memory. Davidson has written a couple of wonderful cultural histories-cum-lyric essays on the idea of north and on twilight. Until fairly recently he was a professor at the University of Aberdeen. This is what he writes, in an essay called ‘Summer’, about the high-camp of the graduation ceremony rituals there and everywhere:

‘The academic year moves to a graceful close, the students pack and go. Suddenly there are empty car parks and the high street of the Old Town is silent, but for the garden fountain opposite the crown spire of the chapel. Then, graduations, with the proper Scottish flaring of scarlet gowns against grey stone. It strikes me (as it has probably struck every Latin-literate academic in northern Europe one summer or another) that the point of the Gaudeamus Igitur, locally “the Gaudie”, which our students sing as we come in, is that it says two completely different things to two different audiences. To the students … it says things are good now, and the future uncertain:

Gaudeamus igitur.

Iuvenes dum sumus.

The suspended rhyme is held to the end of the verse: Nos habebit humus – the grave will get us.

To the professors coming in as they sing the last verse,

Vivat academia!

Vivant professors!

Vivat membrum quodlibet;

Vivant membra quaeliebet ;

Semper sint in flore

it turns year by year into a memento mori. It is the university that will stand and flourish, while, like all the generations of Principals, Humanists, Civilists, Mediciners, Regents, Magistrands, Tertians, Semis, Bajans and Sacrists, we ourselves will follow all those whose signatures are on the flyleaves of the books in the old library, to the grave. The young are singing truer than they know.’

Happy graduation day, everyone …

Some words click and others moan

‘We must remember how wide the word “Iowa” is. We must bear in mind how some words are closed at both ends like “top” or are as open as “easy” or as huffed as “hush.” Some words click and others moan. Some grumble. Listen to the way the word “sister” is put together. Can you feel the blow which chops off the end of “clock”?’ – William Gass

The letter is an act of faith

letterbox

I liked Vivian Gornick on the difference between talking to someone on the phone and writing a letter:

‘When we talk we each cradle the receiver, stare unseeing into the emptiness of the rooms we occupy, and concentrate on the exchange … The telephone conversation is, by its very nature, reactive not reflective. Immediacy is its prime virtue. The immediacy delivers quick company, instant stimulation; the stimulation is cathartic; catharsis pushes back anxiety; into open space flows the kind of thought generated by electric return. The letter, written in absorbed solitude, is an act of faith; it assumes the presence of humanity; world and self are generated from within; loneliness is courted not feared. To write a letter is to be alone with my thoughts in the conjured presence of another person. I keep myself imaginative company. I occupy the empty room. I alone infuse the silence.’

(From Approaching Eye Level (1997), pp. 152, 162)

The pleasure of a graceful sentence

Caring about how the words in a sentence slot together can feel like a lonely business. There is an early scene in the film Broadcast News, in which the young Aaron Altman (who grows up to be a brilliant but spiky news reporter, played by Albert Brooks) is being beaten up in high school by the class bullies. As he struggles to his feet, he comes up with what he believes will be a devastating putdown: ‘You’ll never make more than nineteen thousand dollars a year!’ They grab him by the hair and carry on punching him. He tries again, this time with a mouth full of blood: ‘Okay, take this: You’ll never leave South Boston and I’m going to see the whole damn world!’ As they twist his arm round his back and scrape his face against the concrete, he delivers his coup de grace: ‘You’ll never know the pleasure of writing a graceful sentence!’ They punch him in the stomach, he sinks to the ground and they walk away.