The Texts - John Constable
'It's a load-bearing structure that bears a lot of grief... a place which is never empty... such immense power of recollection... '
Canon Flora Winfield, conducting the new writer in residence on what she terms her "cursory" tour of the Cathedral.
'Remember I was saying that there are different densities in the spirit of this place... and I think this is a place where the spirit is particularly intense... the Venerable Chapel where the Sacred Sacrament is reserved... and here's one of my favourite gravestones. You don't often see this in a 17th century gravestone, the body of someone's wife described as "precious": "Here is laid the precious body of Elizabeth, the entirely beloved wife of Charles Dingley... " and somewhere behind that, I think, is a very tragic story, so powerful... '
Let us conceive that, in this House of Restitution, there are Angels who record these names - the names in the chapels and chantries and the Books of Remembrance, names on marble plaques and tombstones set into the floor for the unwary to walk upon, the carved initials, even the libellous graffiti scratched in the stone:
'WILLIAM EAMES IS A POPE A LIAR AND A FLATTERER'
Now let's imagine a back-room, a studio where Angelic technicians patiently rewind and replay these antique cassette recordings, tirelessly labouring to restore a particular day in the life of the Cathedral, to retrieve a lost world from the crackle and hiss:
'People come here with all sorts of complicated burdens and leave some of that behind... On this board there are intercessions and prayers, the full story of human suffering spelt out, and in all kinds of languages. This is German week. Last week it was Italians. And these are collected at the end of the day, and offered up in a basket on the altar when we say Mass in the morning, so that when we offer Mass we're also offering these prayers... '
On the recording, the Cathedral organ wells up - full, rich, dark chords - what Sarah the organist terms her "death-row" repertoire. Canon Flora's voice drifts in and out of the boom and wash, apologising for the din. Then, close to the microphone, louder and breathier, our writer in residence:
'Just hope we don't lose you in the mix.'
Canon Flora's heels clack on the flagstones. The echo changes as she moves, recreating the journey in our Angelic mind's ear, through contoured soundscapes - from the sturdy Roman arches in the south transept, into the nave with its more severe, pointed arches of the late English perpendicular:
'The great stained-glass window was destroyed by Cromwell's troops during the Civil War. Then the people of Winchester came in the night with sacks and picked up all the fragments, took them away and kept them safe? and with the Restoration, when the building was restored? because it had lain empty and derelict, the haunt of bats and owls? they realised they couldn't put all the pieces back together again, so they just put it back as best they could? and I think there's something so powerful about the broken glass being made into something new. It's completely abstract, but if you look closely you can see every now and then a face, or an eye, or a hand, or a fold of garment? and when the sun comes through it, it is absolutely transcendent. I'm sorry it's such a dark, gloomy day?'
Canon Flora, apologising on behalf of the Almighty, a Recording Angel made flesh, releasing the spiritual forms locked in stained glass, wrought iron, marble. From her celestial perspective, the Cathedral unfolds in Space and Time. In the 1960s, a plaster skim is removed from a wall in the Holy Sepulchre Chapel, revealing a pristine 12th century mural. Above: the crucified Christ, on the hill. Below: the dead Christ laid in his tomb, the disciples touching his body.
'Such tenderness and intimacy... And, look there! What great hats!'
And here, let's envision our Angels in the studio editing the recording: not just cutting out the clicks and clunks that primitive recording equipment is prone to, but selecting and juxtaposing specific fragments of dialogue, distilling and imbuing them with new meanings. So that now we're with our Recording Angel, gazing down from the Triforium Gallery:
'It's like a basket of eggs.'
And here, before the shrine of St Swithun:
'You can hear the satisfaction in Cromwell's voice when he reports that the shrine had been "broken and smashed and utterly obliterated."'
The writer interjects:
'We're talking here about Thomas Cromwell? The Reformation.'
'Yes, and these modern icons were painted about ten years ago in situ by a Russian Orthodox painter, and set in the empty alcoves to rehallow the space, after all the violence and desecration... And down there's what we call "the holy hole", where people would crawl in to get close to the shrine.'
'So those marks round the arch are from the sweaty hands of all the pilgrims?'
'Yes, and see up there, those chests? They're full of the jumbled bones of Saxon Kings, Queens and Bishops. Cromwell's men used the bones to smash the windows.'
'Yes, and jumbled them all up. The Victorians then tried to reorder them methodically - as heads, arms, feet etc.'
'This seems to be a recurring motif.'
'Oh, yes! Things smashed apart and then put back together.'
The organ fades as they go down into the Crypt. We hear a muffled fragment: Canon Flora explaining that she'll try to arrange for the writer to see the Holy Well, but that, for the time being, they're not allowed to walk on the fragile stone floor, even when it's not flooded. And the writer says:
'I'd think twice before I stepped on that.'
And we see, in mind's eye, that spectral surface, like ice or quicksand, a lime-pit. We hear them lapse into silent contemplation. And, recorded on tape, a specific density of silence, magnified, granulated. In its textured depths, we decipher the bone-white arches receding, a space rendered all the more empty by the lead statue - a naked man, utterly introverted, staring at his hands as if into his own soul, listening.
Then, out of the ether:
'Is it meant to be a ghost?'
The voice of an irate Lady Visitor, interspersed with Canon Flora's attempts to mediate:
'It's whatever you think it is.'
'This is a modern-day addition is it?'
'Anthony Gormley, the man who did the Angel of the...'
'I've seen so many new additions to this town and frankly I think they're a waste of money. There's that flashing thing. There's a piece of scrap iron claiming supposedly to be a crucifixion?'
'Absolutely appalling? and now that!'
'I fully expected him to do a dance. In fact, if he did, I'd be pleased. That really is... not right... not right at all... Beautiful building but good gracious me! Anyway, there we are. Thank you.'
Receding footsteps. Long pause, in which we hear the writer and Canon Flora exchange knowing smiles. Yet, in the Angelic mix, this House of God belongs to the outraged Lady Visitor no less than to the cultured Canon, not to mention a transient writer in residence.
'What do you really think... '
'I like it, only I wasn't about to... ' CLUNK!
The recording ends abruptly.
it was built
around a well,
a pagan place.
the crypt floods,
an underground lake
doors, false floors.
a blank ouija-board
to vanished footfalls,
the lost songs of divers.