Impressions of Britain 2

2008-07-28 00:00

To me, the cathedrals and ruined abbeys number among the most fascinating of Europe’s material achievements. Gazing at these tremendous structures, every one a feat of engineering and a work of art, I unceasingly wondered where those ancient builders got the inspired vision, technical know-how and the means to conceive, design, plan, build and run such places. They tower up, soar above, arch over, and engulf the mind. I was always but a cockroach beside a Grecian urn.

Where did the money and other resources come from when populations were thin and people mostly poor, whereas amid today’s teeming wealth there is a never-ending plea for a few alms just to preserve what the ancients created? Progress isn’t necessarily always upward. Could modern architects and builders with their clever computers and mighty machines put up anything approaching the aesthetic durability of Salisbury Cathedral or Glastonbury Abbey, or indeed scores of others? Would anybody even want to do it?

The several airports through which I passed surely offered enormous scope for their builders to create something comparable, but they are without exception ugly, soulless expanses serving Mammon.

Modern universities and sports stadia are no better — bland anonymity at best. A 1 000 years hence, people will gaze in wonder at few of today’s buildings — should any survive — when the doubly ancient façades and halls of Winchester, Christ Church and the like will still inspire awe in pilgrims from all over the world.

There are discordances. The extensive wooden pews of many old places of worship — including mighty Salisbury itself, no less — have been replaced with frightened little huddles of chromed chairs clustered below an imposing pulpit. Glass ticket booths sit incongruously in the foyer (sic) of many an ancient edifice; I imagined the spectres of one-time bishops or dukes vexedly wringing their ghostly hands at that humiliation. It pays for the upkeep, but does it have to be so tastelessly jarring?

The centres of most towns consist of twisting alleys defined by little shop fronts that brim with personality. When mentally juxtaposed next to our characterless malls and our streets lined with mostly featureless buildings and labelled with unmemorable, politically correct names, those venerable places are fresh bouquets compared with plastic posies, or a Mozart concerto with police sirens.

Their antiquity and embedded culture can almost be breathed in and tasted as well as seen and touched. All towns seem to have a street named “New Road”; the one in

Winchester reputedly was new in 1428 — or was it 1482?

My main memories of Britain include high prices and, more pertinently, a troubling awareness of the baseness of our Third World currency, the feeling of safety without the trappings of security (no burglar bars, electric fences, armed guards), the orderliness of rustic villages and the poetic beauty of quiet countryside, the unbelievable ages of many towns and buildings (once we dined in a pub built in 1147) and the pervading sense of history. I sometimes unwittingly happened on a magnificent ruin or a monument to some famous person, disused stocks, a place where a king was beheaded or witches hanged or a martyr burned at the stake, where Roman armies marched, the Normans landed in 1066, or from where the long delayed counter-invasion of Normandy was finally launched in 1944.

Nine weeks in Britain was tremendous, both too long and too short. Sleeping in a flimsy tent with only one’s own company and dining on cold pies, gets boring. Even on a bicycle, and especially when alone, one cannot absorb everything. Before long, experiences melt into a confused blur — each new vista, although different, is somehow the same. On the other hand, many years

wouldn’t be enough to enjoy, explore and assimilate everything those wonderful islands have to offer.

I went there still sad and depressed after the loss of my wife last year. I came back refreshed and uplifted with a gallery of memories to play for encores, but wish she could have been with me.

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