09 March 2008

The Crack is Mighty

It's been a brilliant day.

Bagels and bacon are surely an auspicious start to any day, and as the morning wore on the Blogmother and I headed into central London, getting out by St Paul's, where I wondered at the origins of the charmingly named Knightrider Court before we set off to cross the river to the Tate Modern, one of London's must-sees that I have somehow contrived never to visit.

It took a bit of effort getting there, the Millennium Bridge being closed while a film was being made -- a helicopter seemed to be shooting it from above -- but we eventually made it over, and ambled in, with me hoping that I was going to enjoy the crack. The Brother's a big fan of it -- he specifically went to London for the crack a few months back.

Well, despite all my usual discomfort about modern art, I liked it a lot. To be honest, I'm happier just looking at it, and walking along it, and watching others do the same, and just thinking of it as 'The Crack' than remembering that it's actually called Shibboleth, and is by Doris Salcedo, and is apparently 'addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world.'

This is what I learned at the Tate today. Do not read labels. I'm perfectly capable of enjoying non-representative works of art, but the moment I read what the artist says he or she had in mind I get confused, and anxious, and start staring at whatever the artwork is, just thinking 'Really?'

Anyway, we strolled around the Turbine Hall for a while, and then worked our way around the building, with me feeling a bit embarrassed that I've delayed so long in visiting. Without a doubt the highlight for me was the Juan Muñoz retrospective, all the pieces in which were eerily, unsettlingly beautiful. Curiously, other than that I think my favourite pieces were two paintings by Meredith Frampton, marked by an almost icy precision, a frozen elegance with more than a hint of Van Eyck about them.

Over the Millennium Bridge then -- and how have I never set foot on that before? -- and off to Earl's Court, there to dine at The Troubadour, inspirationally discovered by the Blogmother only the other day. I'm not sure what was the best thing about the place -- the food, the wine, the setting, or the company -- but I was sorry to slip away to mass, leaving my hostess to the delights of coffee and the Sunday Times.

The Oratory would probably have been the nearest Catholic church, but I had no idea what time mass was there, so I reckoned the best thing to do would be to grab a tube to Victoria and go to half five mass at Westminster Cathedral. I was impressed by how packed it was -- sadly, the Pro in Dublin never seems to get crowds like that, except at Christmas. Mass was wonderful, though I must confess that the inevitable side-effects of a heavy Sunday lunch rather meant it took all my efforts to focus during the homily, and afterwards I slipped for a few moments into the Chapel of Saints Gregory and Augustine, where Cardinal Hume is buried.

Although I first visited the Cathedral during my first trip to London, as part of a school tour when I was fifteen, it wasn't until August last that I actually set foot in the church proper; as schoolboys we'd attended mass somewhere in the warren at the back of the building. I was captivated -- enchanted, even -- by the place, by its beauty, its prayerfulness, its grandeur, its solemnity, and its warmth. I think I've spent maybe ten days in London since last summer, and I've visited the cathedral on maybe eight of them.

If the Cathedral is one of my favourite places in London, the Chapel of Saints Gregory and Augustine is my favourite place in the cathedral. The chapel, the theme of which is unsurprisingly the conversion of England, is dominated by Clayton's neo-Gothic mosaics of the two saints. This week's Catholic Herald conveniently answers a question I've long pondered about the depictions. Aidan Bellenger, Abbot of Downside, in a column arguing that we need fewer dioceses and more monasteries, says 'Augustine of Canterbury's missionary props included a beautiful icon of the Lord and the book of the Gospels.'

It's an icon. I'd always wondered why he was depicted carrying a picture of Christ. Is this a conventional attribute for the saint, I'd wondered, like Peter's key and Paul's sword, or even Zeus' thunderbolt and Hermes' staff? Well, leaving aside the fact that saints always point to Jesus, it's certainly intended that way. It seems that when he landed in Kent in 597 AD with his forty monks, he brought with him a cross, a book of Gospels, and an icon. The emphasis on the visual is important, especially in view of how almost all those he was to convert would have been illiterate! That's worth remembering when blowhards like Christopher Hitchens attempt to claim that the defining characteristic of a Christian is having personally read the New Testament. Even allowing for St Jerome's famous assertion that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ, I'm pretty sure that literacy -- however desirable -- has been demanded of the Faithful. Our Lord never instructed his disciples to write anything, after all -- he told them to baptise, and to teach, and to break bread in memory of him, but he never told them to write a word!

Anyway, I returned back to Earl's Court to rendezvous with my delightful hostess, and settled in with her to watch Brick, an extraordinary film which successfully -- if jarringly -- marries high school dramas with film noir. The Blogmother's a big fan, and I can see why. The director's probably going to be someone well worth watching over the next few years.

And so to bed, as good old Sammy P would say. Tomorrow's going to be busy.

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