Dabbler Diary – The Winchester Dead

At a quarter past one on Monday afternoon I descended into the crypt. The heavy door closed behind me and I was alone, facing a long pool of water in which the low grey-green ceiling arches were reflected to create an optical illusion of a tubular tunnel. In the middle of the tunnel, up to its knees in water, was a lead cast of the body of the sculptor Antony Gormley. It was examining its cupped hands (ambiguously, this being Art). Fresh snowflakes were melting into my coat and I was cold in the way that feels like one can never be warm again. All around me were the cold dead, and the cold statue was in front of me, and I alone in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral bore the temporary flesh of the living. But I could feel my bones cold beneath the meat and fat, and the statue looked like it might at any moment make a lurching movement, surely with violent intent, to send a lead palm crashing through my frail skull then with lead fingers grip my legs and pull me down beneath the water to join the dead. I went hurriedly back up the steps.


The only time I have flown any class other than the cheapest was on the way back from Florida in 2008, when a check-in cock-up yielded us a free upgrade to Premium Economy. Premium Economy is Virgin Atlantic’s petty-bourgeois class, sandwiched between the Upper Class elite and the proletariat of Economy. The pleasure of being upgraded – as the hostess leads you through the forbidden curtain into a world of faux-leather seating, superior booze, and legroom – is a delicious mixture of raffle-winners’ glee and schadenfreude at those left behind. How you chuckle at the poor sods still cramped enviously in cattle class as you settle back and sip on your complimentary brandy…. But wait: that pleasure is soon tainted, for in front of you is another forbidden curtain…. Behind it lies Upper Class, where the real luxury is… What on earth are they getting up to in there, you wonder, those flash assholes. The free Premium Economy mixed nuts, so tasty a moment ago, turn to ashes in your mouth.  One nearly forgets that the uppity bastards in Upper subsidise the air fares of the rest.

I was reminded of this when reading Bryan Appleyard’s epic rant against the super-rich in the New Statesman. Some of it I agree with: numerous bankers should be in prison; gross inequality in society is, theoretically, corrosive. But as to the awfulness of the rich, their  braying voices and hideous taste in Lamborghinis  – well that stuff doesn’t really impinge upon my life. Seemingly it does on Bryan’s – bumping along as he is in life’s Premium Economy class (wandering “in an idle moment… to the Ralph Lauren shop at Brompton Cross” et cetera) – but there are simply too many curtains between me and the nouveau mega-riche for their ghastly table manners to bother me. I don’t doubt that ghastliness, mind (Taki similarly rants about it every week in The Spectator), I just feel no envy because I don’t know it firsthand. But what I do know, and have mentioned before to no warm welcome, is that the top 5% of UK earners contribute 45.2% of the total UK income tax take. The top 1% alone (which includes the super-ghastly super-rich) earn 11.7% of the total UK income but pay out 26.5% of the tax. Everything the average New Statesman reader most values (the vast public sector; the labyrinthine system of benefits, thresholds and credits of which no reduction or even reform is permissible) is therefore utterly dependent on the people they most hate. Not only that, but thanks to Gordon ‘Prudence’ Brown we have spent it all and borrowed recklessly and bottomlessly against the hope that the rich will continue to live here for the foreseeable future, badly-parked orange Lamborghinis and all. ‘Taxation doesn’t work’ states Bryan, a propos of not very much at all. He must mean that taxing them doesn’t make them less vulgar. But we must all pray that the flash bastards who subsidise the rest of us don’t abandon us yet.


I am belatedly reading Hilary Mantel’s all-conquering Wolf Hall, about the rise of Thomas Cromwell and his battles with, inter alia, his arch-enemy Stephen Gardiner. It is a brilliant book, vivid and weird. After exiting the crypt of Winchester Cathedral in haste I crossed the north aisle and found myself quite unexpectedly at Gardiner’s tomb. Turns out he became Bishop of Winchester, perhaps in the sequel. Gardiner’s stone effigy is horrific: a Hallowe’en skeleton with thrust ribcage exposed to the building’s cruel cold; a sightless, jawless skull screaming silently forever at God in His Heaven. Oh dear, oh dear… I hurried on again.


I concur with Nige’s remarks on the ubiquitous Dr Brian Cox, and also with the various comments mentioning the popular physicist’s immense punch-in-the-face-ability. This quality isn’t necessarily his fault, i.e.it isn’t his fault that he has, as Caitlin Moran once brilliantly put it, “the odd, querulous feyness that the Lancashire accent often brings to pronouncements… which sometimes makes it seem as though Cox is on the verge of ending a speech on gravity with “It’s dead magic, our mam”, giving a thumbs up and riding off the stage on a trike.”

But he is part of that whole Robin Ince/Infinite Monkey Cage, secular carol service gang, and when I think of them (or worse, these buffoons) I experience a severe Cultural Cringe. If scientific truths really are sufficiently beautiful, awe-inspiring etc that we can dispense with religious or spiritual art, then it shouldn’t be necessary to keep insisting that this is the case because it should be self-evident. Show, don’t tell. Contemplating the scale of the universe and the meaningless deaths of galaxies billions of years old may indeed be awe-inspiring, but it might also be bleak and alienating. Is an abyss ‘beautiful’?


Jane Austen became unwell in 1816 and in May the following year she and her sister Cassandra drove 16 miles in torrential English rain from Chawton to lodgings in Winchester. They hoped to find some sort of cure at the newly established Winchester Hospital. But Jane’s illness rapidly worsened and she died in her sister’s arms early in the morning of 18 July 1817. It might have been Addison’s disease, or Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or bovine tuberculosis or Brill-Zinsser disease ­- one of those. She was 41 years old. Four people attended her funeral. Her brother Henry had sufficient clerical connections to arrange for her to be buried in the nave of the Cathedral, where a simple gravestone praises her sweet nature but makes no mention of her writing. Later, long after her flesh had rotted away and her empty eye-sockets were quite blind to the sunlight through stained glass and her skull deaf to church bells on spring mornings, her works became more famous. In 1900 a memorial window was added, to go with the small brass plaque erected by her nephew in 1870, which begins: Jane Austen, known to many by her writings…


I was perhaps not in the best frame of mind to visit Winchester last Monday. A lingering lurgee poisoned my mood and sleet alternated with snow as I trudged from the pig-ugly Friar’s Walk carpark through the up-its-own-arse shopping arcade. I paid a bearded man £7.50 to enter the Cathedral but he neglected to inform me that the library, containing the famous illuminated Bible, was closed. I walked over gravestones and between tombs. Death on all sides. There is a traumatic chapter in Wolf Hall in which Cromwell watches both of his daughters die of a plague. I have two daughters. Usually England’s great Cathedrals provide me with an approximation of religious consolation, which is a centuries-old perspective on one’s mortality: millions like you have gone before and millions like you will come after and all faced the same abyss.  But in Winchester on Monday I thanked God for modern medicine and vaccines and the secular geeks who have pushed death right to the peripheries of life; and I felt an impatience with morbid Christian obsessions. I headed for the refectory through the now faint snow and though my soul did not swoon slowly exactly, I did fancy, as I passed the war memorial, that I could hear the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. I ordered an Americano with milk, which is what they call white coffees these days even in Cathedral refectories.



William Walker put on a monstrous diving suit and lowered himself into the cold muddy waters beneath Winchester Cathedral. Using his bare hands to feel his way around in the total darkness, he slowly and painfully dug narrow trenches and filled them with bags of concrete. This gruelling labour he performed for six hours a day, every day from 1906 to 1912, to save the Cathedral from collapse. At lunchtime they lifted off his helmet only (removing and donning the suit took too long) and he smoked a pipe to ward off germs. He died aged 49 in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. A small statue of Walker wearing his diving suit stands at the far end of the building, if you care to stop and look at it.

Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.
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26 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary – The Winchester Dead

  1. Worm
    February 18, 2013 at 09:20

    The diary hits new heights! Terrific writing Brit, and very Larkinesque in your universal angst amidst the dusty tombs. Although now I’ve started monday with a gnawing fear of my impending unremarked death, so there’s that.

    Your comments on Prof Cox allows me to point you towards another one of those wonderful words that germans seem to specialise in – Backpfeifengesicht literally “a face that needs to be punched”

    • Brit
      February 18, 2013 at 13:18

      Thanks for that brilliant word, Worm, and sorry for the todesangst.

  2. JonHotten
    February 18, 2013 at 10:14

    On the great list of all-time shit jobs, William Walker’s must rank high, noble though its ends were.

    • Brit
      February 18, 2013 at 13:14

      Visitors really ought to pray to his statue, since if he isn’t a saint, who is?

  3. markcfdbailey@gmail.com'
    February 18, 2013 at 10:18

    You get better and better, Brit.

    Bryan is getting angrier these days. Maybe he needs the release of regular blogging, rather than the snarky little world of Twitter.

    I believe a lot of the annoyance – to use a mild word – with the super-rich expressed by those like Bryan, stems from a disbelief that people who are less educated, less cultured, less literate, and less intelligent than them have more money than they ever will. See the legions of academics who regularly rail against the injustice of mere tradesman getting more of the resources available than they – practioners of a higher calling – will ever receive. It’s a combination of snobbery, intellectual elitism and a good chunk of envy.

    And yes, those dumb, materialist oiks do pay the bills.

    • Brit
      February 18, 2013 at 13:21

      All the evidence I’ve seen strongly suggests that Twitter rots the brain and turns great bloggers or columnists into addicts of immediate inanity. From Nick Cohen to James Delingpole, the list gets longer by the day…

    • mcrean@snowpetrel.net'
      February 18, 2013 at 15:59

      What’s so bad about anger, at least in this context? It get things done and it is good at saying “enough”. There is a distinction, which perhaps the NS article didn’t entirely make, between bankers acting within the law in a democracy and the mafiosi and kleptocrats for whom London offers such an agreeable welcome and world-class facilities for washing the money. The first is open to a change in the law but the second requires hands in cuffs, I think.

      Besides, it is hard to think of a successful journalist who has risen to the top because he or she bristles with complacency. I’ll take anger any day. A few nights in the crypt at Winchester with an utterly rigid Antony Gormley might be a memorable experience for the Lambo-lovers of Knightsbridge and Chipping Norton.

      I’m with Brit (thank you for your brilliant diary today) about Twitter. It’s like the shouts of the drowning. Freaky.

      • Brit
        February 21, 2013 at 14:02

        Thanks Mark. I think anger is ok if it’s directed.

        Personally I think it would be best directed at Gordon Brown, and therefore also at Ed Balls.

  4. Worm
    February 18, 2013 at 11:06

    There is probably some truth in that Recusant, although I will counter by saying that only yesterday I was stood in a crypt in similar circumstances to Brit,(the tomb of the various earls of Warwick, in St Mary’s church in Warwick) and I remarked to my friend that at least the superwealthy of medieval times built big churches and alms houses with their money. I don’t think the current batch of douchy arabs spraying champagne on each other in Mayfair are quite as useful

  5. john.hh43@googlemail.com'
    John Halliwell
    February 18, 2013 at 11:46

    As someone partial to using ten words where three would do, just one: superb!

    • Brit
      February 18, 2013 at 13:15

      Thank you very much.

  6. peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
    February 18, 2013 at 12:41

    I recall years ago reading a Marxist historian who argued that the British aristocracy repeatedly forestalled revolution by cleverly sacrificing a few of their own to the gallows in times of popular revolutionary zeal. Bryan’s inflammatory shotgun rant based on neo-medieval zero-sum notions of wealth (those overpriced shoes I once admired were paid for by Mum’s stolen pension!!) is impossible to answer, so perhaps the banksters would be wise to follow suit to lance this populist boil. Sweet as it is to fanatcize about a mob of the righteous waylaying a Lamborghini and stringing the owner up, my thirst for social justice would be better quenched by witnessing the drawing and quartering of the predatory insect whose toddler snaps his fingers at waiters.

    • george.jansen55@gmail.com'
      February 18, 2013 at 13:52

      I should have thought that most of the British aristocracy who went to the scaffold did so as a consequence of struggles among the top tier, and that the strength of the English system was in the comparatively easy transformation of economic power into social standing. That way they avoided the French problem of a broke aristocracy confronting a bourgeoisie that had been stuck once too often with bad government paper. The British enthusiasts for the French revolution confronted a system that ran from the crown down to the grand juries and juries, and which had no interest in changing the status quo, and no compunction about jailing those who wished to change it.

  7. bensix@live.co.uk'
    February 18, 2013 at 14:30

    Brian Cox is only the beginning.

    I think it is unfair to reduce ill-feeling towards the extremely rich to envy. (Which is not, of course, to say that some people are not envious.) Hundreds of millions of people across the world exist in a state of suffering that a redistribution of money and resources could end. People who buy sports car and rare wines, then, are effectively saying that their luxury is more important than other peoples’ basic comfort.

    The two problems, of course, are (a) that it is hard to see why those of us who just buy normal cars and average wines are immune from blame under these standards and (b) it is hard to see how this could be changed without the unfortunate consequence of making everybody poorer. But neither of these makes me feel much better about people who snort cocaine in Belgravia.

    • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
      February 18, 2013 at 18:42

      Hundreds of millions of people across the world exist in a state of suffering that a redistribution of money and resources could end.

      That’s the rub. Bryan’s account of all these trashy, repulsive behaviours hides the fact that the world is suffering much much less than before all this financial fever and free trade. You can repeat the shibboleth about the rich getting richer and the poor poorer all you want, but the world has been steadily pulled out of poverty over the past thirty years at a pace never before seen. The gap that is widening is the one between the Lamborghini owner and the Ford Escape owner, not the one between the Model T and the rickshaw owners. That shouldn’t be ignored, but somehow I don’t think redistrbuting income and resources is going to broaden the base of Lamborghini owners.

      I must say Bryan’s ill-concealed fantasies of a financial collapse to help everyone see the Truth as clearly as he is, to put it charitably, millenialist. That he isn’t really talking about economics at all is revealed by his confession of how he used to enjoy window-shopping those expensive baubles, but now they make him splentic with dreams of revolution and retribution.

  8. mail@danielkalder.com'
    February 18, 2013 at 22:16

    For a year or two I tutored members of the super rich elite class in Moscow and went through a revolutionary phase, perhaps similar to the Appleyard rage. But over time I found that a lot of them were actually very well educated and clever people, entertaining company even, so I grew much more relaxed about their BMWs and silly obsessions with prestige. Every now and then I’d meet an unutterably vulgar boor, but they exist at all levels of society.

    Their pampered children on the other hand, still irritated me. At least the adults went to the effort to steal something, I thought.

  9. Beren87@gmail.com'
    M. Jacobs
    February 18, 2013 at 23:18

    Just a quibble. The super rich (and normal rich) earn that percentage of income, but they own much more than that percentage of the wealth of the nation. The tax percentage is about the same for the percentage of all wealth they own and the percentage of tax they pay. Makes a bit more sense.

    As an American, though, I’ll take being poor in the UK over being poor here. You, for the time being anyway, give the poor health care and a bit to live on. Here they mainly get snide looks and watery soup with a side of religion.

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      February 19, 2013 at 06:20

      A quibble with your quibble. Private individuals might be subject to income tax, capital gains tax on assets, stamp duties on property, inheritance tax on their estates when they die, and they pay VAT on stuff they buy. We do not have a ‘wealth’ tax.

      The figures I’ve quoted relate to income tax. I gave you the link. The top 1% of UK earners earn 11.7% of the total UK income but contribute 26.5% of the tax. The top 5% earn 24% of the total income but contribute 45.2% of the tax.

      They therefore contribute a disproportionately large amount of the income tax.

      I hate to hammer you with boring stats, but I am getting really fed up with people feeling they can chip in to the currenrtly-fashionable ‘tax debate’ without making even the smallest effort to understand tax; despite taxation being crucial to the welfare they value so much.

  10. alasguinns@me.com'
    Hey Skipper
    February 19, 2013 at 00:32

    I was reminded of this when reading Bryan Appleyard’s epic rant against the super-rich in the New Statesman. Some of it I agree with: numerous bankers should be in prison; gross inequality in society is, theoretically, corrosive. But as to the awfulness of the rich, their  braying voices and hideous taste in Lamborghinis  – well that stuff doesn’t really impinge upon my life. Seemingly it does on Bryan’s – bumping along as he is in life’s Premium Economy class (wandering “in an idle moment… to the Ralph Lauren shop at Brompton Cross” et cetera) – but there are simply too many curtains between me and the nouveau mega-riche for their ghastly table manners to bother me.

    I have never been a ‘Yard fan. To my taste he is a sloppy thinker, and a scarcely better writer. Yes, he is right, I can’t have a McClaren. But, and I hope this doesn’t come as a shock to him, the masses have cars that will get them from Land’s End to John o’ Groats just as quickly, and probably in greater comfort, as his hated über-rich. As for the business about their manners and children, this amounts to nothing more than the kind of group hatred that has so often come to such bad ends (three comments in, and someone was, in all seriousness, calling for the guillotine and, if not that, then at least flogging), and would, if applied to any other group would gain him a richly deserved boxing of the ears.

    I am belatedly reading Hilary Mantel’s all-conquering Wolf Hall …

    Until a half hour ago, I had never heard of Hilary Mantel, and now this makes twice.

    The first time was courtesy of the London Review of Books, to which, in a very unfortunate confusion with the Times of London, I subscribed for a year.

    Based upon this:

    But Kate Middleton, as she was, appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished. When it was announced that Diana was to join the royal family, the Duke of Edinburgh is said to have given her his approval because she would ‘breed in some height’. Presumably Kate was designed to breed in some manners. She looks like a nicely brought up young lady, with ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ part of her vocabulary. But in her first official portrait by Paul Emsley, unveiled in January, her eyes are dead and she wears the strained smile of a woman who really wants to tell the painter to bugger off.

    She seems a pretentious, nasty, piece of work who is far too fond of the passive voice.

    Unlike outstanding writing—and this Dabble Diary is an excellent example of the genre.

    • Brit
      February 21, 2013 at 14:03

      Apparently in context her ‘attack’ on Kate M isn’t really an attack. But she’s right about that awful portrait.

  11. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    February 19, 2013 at 20:25

    Great post Brit.
    Anyone remember the New Vaudeville Band?

  12. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    February 20, 2013 at 18:32

    Lovely post Brit, like sipping a respectable Barolo that has been left for some days, once the the cork is removed.

    Looks like the old obstmeisters name is about as popular as an NHS detractor in the Guardian comments section. I blame a surfeit of eduction, wears ’em out in the end, a bit like a dollop of carborundum paste in the gearbox. Still, apart from bemoaning the fact that the Lauren shoes looked like three hundred quid jobbies and the label said seven hundred, hey, hair splitting or what, the old lad did at least mention Bowater House, used to be the HQ for British Nylon Spinners, an ICI subsidiary that employed hundreds and yes, you could see the Epstein sculpture through the tunnel, bloody awful, as I used to say, disappearing into that Watneys pub behind the Scotch House, on the corner.

    Briers is dead? I thought he went years ago. Oh no, not another set of post mortem reruns, I’m away back to the Rhine.

      • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
        February 20, 2013 at 20:00

        Worm, the 1965 photie, left hand block, the love of my life at the time worked there, I used to wait, with bated breath, in the Watneys pub, among the guardsmen from the barracks, demurely turning down their propositions. Because the building was thought progressive modern it was often used as a backdrop by the advertising industry.

        • Wormstir@gmail.com'
          February 20, 2013 at 20:23

          I remember Bowater House well Malty as I used to see it every day when I walked in and out of Harvey Nicks, where I worked in the fifth floor restaurant for a summer, also turning down propositions from the local luvvies!

    • Brit
      February 21, 2013 at 14:06

      I’m sure the obstmeister isn’t beyond a post-Twitter redemption, Malty, but that bit about the shoes was indeed unintentionally funny – and very New Statesman-y.

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