Tuesday, 2 May 2017
May (and misericords) in Gloucester
Actually it was in early March when I went to Gloucester to give a talk on Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil (better known as the Vespers), returning to the place I hadn't seen since I was a choirboy 41 years ago when I fainted in the cloisters (not, as I quipped to my audience, in excitement at the Harry Potter film location, since he wasn't born then, but from being affected by the heatwave of summer 1976).
So the reference is obviously to Mrs Mayhem, and the graffiti artist enriching one of the city's many rack-and-ruin spaces has nailed it. A man was also looking at the artwork as I snapped, and he remarked, 'what a waste of talent, eh' - I presumed he meant of potential which might have been engaged in true artistry, to which I replied that at least it was being seen, if only temporarily. Banksy would approve. The composite work has been built in collective style, and how gratifying to see the EU flags. I presume it's the same artist's rat
and this cubist fox - is it a reference to an extant work? - is really very fine.
The centre of Gloucester is mostly a planning disaster of the 60s and 70s; whole rows of medieval houses were knocked down, all too typical a response of the times (more on that anon). So I thought that on my arrival in the early afternoon I'd go and see what had been made of the docklands. One part has been conventionally swished up to provide luxury flats
and the usual shopping-and-eating zone (where I was grateful of a Carluccio's for lunch). But just beyond is unreclaimed industrial archaeology, buildings which are presumably destined for the same treatment but which have a real atmosphere at present, with buddleia sprouting everywhere and pigeons all over the place.
I headed back into town
and straight for the cathedral.
The lovely close is currently an archaeological zone and will be for some years to come; in beginning to reclaim it from the car park which it had been for decades, can you believe, excavators came across treasures in old foundations.
Heading out of the 12th century St Mary's Gate gives a good ensemble looking east
but the old church immediately beyond the cathedral close is surrounded by a council estate, and if you head up Three Cocks Lane, you're soon into this.
Waiting to catch Evensong, conducted by the distinguished musician in charge of the Gloucester Choral Society who were supporting my talk, Adrian Partington, I had some time to potter around the cloisters
which within boast some of the finest fan vaulting in the country as well as the earliest (finished in 1412).
What stained glass there is turns out to be mostly Victorian imitation of the medieval,
but well done, I think.
It's clear that the cathedral proper is a 15th century encasement and adornment of a Norman building, but since I'm more attracted to the former, sitting in the choir for Evensong - a very ascetic one - and looking up at this
was a joy (I hasten to add the picture was taken after the service, not during). A shame it was too dark to see the glory of the east window. Afterwards I managed to lift up my own stall and others to look at a few misericords - must return to see the rest of the 58. Mine showed a young fox in the huge talons of an eagle
while a neighbour was one of the liveliest, two men playing with dice or coins.
Further along a boar and sow snuffle for acorns beneath a tree with a squirrel in it
and on the other side, there are hunting/riding scenes
and a recumbent man with an arm around a donkey, possibly a reference to Balaam's ass.
Even the 'modern' additions, though obvious like this Adam and Eve, are finely wrought.
A brief chance to walk around reminded me that back when I was a chorister here, this effigy of William the Conqueror's oldest son, Robert of Normandy, was in the middle of the choir - not so now -
and of course the immense importance of Gloucester, so diminished by the decadence of the town - the posh folk all seem to live in Cheltenham now - is symbolised by the tomb of Edward II.
By the time I came out it was dark
and I went to a very friendly pub in the main drag opposite for fish and chips before arriving for the talk, which was held in the timber-framed hall with remains of old wall-paintings.
My loss that I couldn't get to hear the performance of the All-Night Vigil the following week, but we have the splendid Latvian Radio Choir performing it in a late-night Prom on 13 August. Which leads inevitably to a second plug for my afternoon talk that day, which will be different from the one I gave in Gloucester but possibly with a few overlapping excerpts.