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.
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