Oh, what a beautiful evening!
THE ancient can be comfortable but is often cramped. The hotel room was both. It was small and asymmetrical as though it had been made, just under the oak-beamed eaves, out of a forgotten space, ignored by the original builders of this ancient inn. Bending to look out of the diminutive window, I saw a broad lawn - entirely English - peacefully bordered on two sides with old houses of fine, low proportions. But straight ahead, like a cliff, was Wells Cathedral.Skip to next paragraph
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Later that night, when it was floodlit, it had a fairy-tale aspect. It was just the West Front I could see from here, a high screen of elaborately carved stonework. It is a splendid showpiece, a sculptured festival of pilasters and niches, carved figures, and pinnacles, towers and windows, and the central doorway. In spite of its powerful verticality, it is rich and lively rather than simple and grand. This visual complexity is at present increased by scaffolding. Like so much of what is very old in Britain, and greatly valued, it is being meticulously restored and cleaned.
Half an hour before, a friend and I had sat (unfamiliarly) inside this impressive edifice listening to a visiting school choir, which happened to include her son, as it sang evensong. There were a great many more human beings in the choir than there were in the congregation, and as the interweaving voices ascended the brightest heaven of invention, expanding into the scrupulous vaults , one was struck by the paradoxes of time. With certain modifications (among them a modern setting for an anthem, and the inclusion of schoolgirls as well as boys among the singers) we were witnessing a tradition practiced over so many centuries that it actually links the 1980s with the Middle Ages. It was also an indelibly English experience, with a sense of decorum, a sense of private devotion, and a winter-evening coziness which suggested that the serving of hot buttered crumpets would not go amiss at some convenient pause in the proceedings.
But of course these devotions were not private and round-the-hearth; they were public, external, an exercise in musical finesse and honed performance in a sacred context. The line between piety and art did seem fuzzed, and on the very modern faces of the young singers (some of the girls might have been sisters of Jayne Torville, ice dancer extraordinary) was written a strong desire for correctness, certainly, but little overt awareness they were perpetuating something that not only was religious tradition but that, by its very age, assumed an aspect of veneration.
Not that I want to misconstrue. There is in the very Englishness of England an attitude to the past that is a great deal more than nostalgia and - however much we exploit it and visitors from other countries admire it - is more deeply embedded in the national character than a merely touristic face. It is even hard for those of us who live here to gauge the extent to which this love of the past is a need, and to what extent it is a luxury. It seems more than ever that we are reassured by the appreciation of visitors for our traditions; but is this so that we can sincerely continue things essential to us or are we grasping at the chance (and the income) to go on indulging qualities that we enjoy solely because we have had them for centuries?
Quite probably the evensong at Wells should not have been the appropriate occasion for such questionings. Yet, somehow, it was unavoidable. What uplifted feelings may have been alerted in the hearts of both singers and listeners were not in doubt. No, it was the outward, demonstrative recurrence of a peculiarly English tradition (it might just as easily have been the state opening of Parliament, the Royal Windsor Horse Show, or the Eton and Harrow cricket match) that gave one pause. Is it a determination to hold the present in the grip of the past? Is it a national delight in theater as escapism from this country's altered role in a baffling century? It is probably pretentious and oversolemn to voice such questions.