Monday, 21 March 2011

A Visit to Lichfield

Photo: Roger Robinson. Released under GNU Free Documentation License
Went to Leicester on Saturday, to see my son, Daniel. We went off together to Lichfield for the afternoon: he'd never been there, but I'd spent most of my childhood there and I thought it would be good to go see where my parents used to live and where I used to go to school. If your family always live in one place you take this kind of knowledge for granted: if you are a fisherman and your father was a fisherman and you sailed from the same quay that your grandfather used to sail from you know -and probably take for granted- a lot about who you are and where you come from. If you live in a typical modern family where people have moved about a lot, all you know about your parents (and their parents) is what you see, then and there, as you grow up.

I went to the Cathedral School in Lichfield: a prep school attached to the Cathedral and which supplied the choir to the Cathedral, although I was never a member of it. It was a very musical school, though, and it was there I started to learn the double bass. Lichfield and its Cathedral left a deep impression on me. It's difficult to be accurate, because the mind plays all sorts of tricks, but I think it's fair to say Lichfield played a major part in shaping me into the person I am.

We parked round the corner from the Cathedral, at the end of the grandly named Prince Rupert's Way, a short street in a housing estate. The name alludes the major role played by Lichfield in the Civil War. We walked from there to the Cathedral Close, much of the way following the route I used to take walking to and from school. Apart from the personal associations, I was really keen to show Daniel the Cathedral. Whatever view one takes of religion, one has to accept that buildings like this are massively important parts of our cultural history.  For example, when you walk up to the West Door (that is, the "front door") you are immediately struck by the massive West face of the building - if I'm describing it like a mountain, then that is not wholly inappropriate. To stand at the foot of it is like standing at the foot of a cliff. (It occurred to me, as Daniel and I stood there, that part of my later love of mountains and rock climbing may well have its roots in the years I spent under the shadow of this massive, man-made rock-wall). Looking up at it, you're left in no doubt about the political role of the Church during the last milennium. The wall is covered in statues. All along the foot of the wall, standing on pedestals, are statues of the Apostles. A little higher, over the doors, kings of England sit on thrones. Above them stand row upon row of Old Testament prophets. Above them, at the apex of the wall, stands Christ. I spotted one woman in the wall - The Virgin Mary, over the main door (thinking about it, she may have appeared more than once). The effect is that, more or less, of a stone flow chart of the order of things as one was expected to accept it. Just round the corner stands a statue of Charles II, who contributed much to repairing the damage done to the place during the Civil War. During that war, since Lichfield lacked fortifications, the Royalists defended the Cathedral and its walled Close. The Parliamentarians  laid siege, and it was from the spire of the Cathedral that a Royalist sniper, "Dumb Dyott", shot the leading Parliamentarian, Lord Brooke. Life can be symbolic.

Anyway, we had a good look round, both inside and outside. As I don't have a video camera (and even if I had one I'd rather walk around looking than walk around filming) I had a look around Youtube later, too, to see if there was any good amateur footage of the place. I came across this amateur film: I was impressed by the choices the film-maker had made when it came to what to show us. If I'd had a video, I would have shot more or less the same things, although I would have included the tea shop opposite the South Door!

Having spent some time at the Cathedral, we went off into Lichfield itself. I lived there for years, but I don't ever remember going into Samuel Johnson's birthplace: it's now a museum devoted to Johnson. I also realised I'd never read anything he'd written, an omission I've since put right. Born in 1709, he wrote in an era few book-readers rave about. He's most famous -and known to all Blackadder fans- for writing his Dictionary of the English Language:

The most fascinating exhibit to anyone new to Johnson is found in the attic: a first edition of the dictionary itself. There is also a more modern edition you can browse through. Daniel -a QI fan- told me that Johnson had come up with 26 definitions of the word "set", and there they all were, pages of them. You can read it for yourself online, here. This site will even read the book to you if you ask it, in a Stephen Hawking-like electronic voice. However, no-one told it that in those days people printed "f" instead of "s", fo it ftrugglef with the old profe and I muft fay it  foundf a bit filly.

One of the great things about poetry is that most poems take less time to read than most works of prose so, if like me you're unfamiliar with what Samuel Johnson wrote, here's a quick one:

A Short Song of Congratulation

by Samuel Johnson

Long-expected one and twenty
Ling'ring year at last has flown,
Pomp and pleasure, pride and plenty
Great Sir John, are all your own.

Loosen'd from the minor's tether,
Free to mortgage or to sell,
Wild as wind, and light as feather
Bid the slaves of thrift farewell.

Call the Bettys, Kates, and Jenneys
Ev'ry name that laughs at care,
Lavish of your Grandsire's guineas,
Show the spirit of an heir.

All that prey on vice and folly
Joy to see their quarry fly,
Here the gamester light and jolly
There the lender grave and sly.

Wealth, Sir John, was made to wander,
Let it wander as it will;
See the jocky, see the pander,
Bid them come, and take their fill.

When the bonny blade carouses,
Pockets full, and spirits high,
What are acres? What are houses?
Only dirt, or wet or dry.

If the Guardian or the Mother
Tell the woes of willful waste,
Scorn their counsel and their pother,
You can hang or drown at last.

If you watched the video of the Cathedral, you'll have seen the pool: Stowe Pool. We walked back past it, back up to the Cathedral, and spent a happy half hour sat in the above-mentioned tea shop. They have a small wood-and-glass conservatory which extends into the back garden and we were lucky enough to find a table there. It felt like the sunniest day of the year so far and we could have sat there for a very long time. If it didn't close at 4, we'd probably still be drowsily propped up there.


Rachel Fenton said...

I don't recall ever going to Lichfield Cathedral though I can't be certain - part of me thinks I might have - it looks familiar but then you write of it in such a way, and other things you've written resonate - that I think my mind wants to invent a memory. You're right about the plasticity of memory.

It's a beautiful structure.

I loved Blackadder! Had a chuckle at the special fs

swiss said...

i will be the exception then re 18th century literature. as for johnson i say one word - rasselas

swiss said...

oh yes, meant to say the other day. have been tidying round the house and come across a vintage radio. a brandt mw/lw receiver (i think) from the late forties/early fifties, maybe appeard from romania. it's a bit dusty, the station window has a crack in it but it was working last i used it. was going to stick it up on the vintage radio forum but thought i'd give you first shout if you were up for that sort of thing

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for thefe comments. Apparently pre 19th century the "f" was a "long s" and was used in all lower-case cases except when the s was the last letter in the word. I might be wrong. Anybody know more?

RF: Memory's a funny thing - that's funny, by the way, not funny. Hang on...

fwifs: Yes, Rasselas. It's on my must read list now, along with Sterne's Tristram Shandy. I like the idea of the latter and keep picking it up in the hope that one day I won't put it down.

I think what I meant about the 18c was how I don't meet people on the whole who rave about Pope and Swift the way people do about the likes of Wordsworth and Shelley. I suspect this is a shame and keep meaning to get round to do some reading. This may spur me on.

Thanks for the radio offer - I've left a more comprehensive answer on your blog!

The Solitary Walker said...

This brought back memories of our own time living in Lichfield. Of course, we were married there, and bought our first house there, as you know.

When our son Nick - a toddler then - first toddled into the cathedral, he said it was like being inside a whale. I've never forgotten that.

Dominic Rivron said...

SW: Of course you were. I think I was there, and drank too much beer.

Don't kids come out with great things.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Oh yes - your photos certainly brought back happy memories of our days in Lichfield. Its funny how we don't realise what an influence places have on our lives until we go back years later - I have had the same experience with Lincoln.

Kat Mortensen said...

Perhaps this visit has had a residual effect on your dreams?

Love Blackadder! Hugh Laurie was brilliant as the dim-wit Prince, wasn't he?

In my mind, I was with you both, in the sunny tearoom, although admittedly, your son's face was a blur.