19 December 2005

And So To Salisbury

Partly because I'll be out of the country for the next couple of months, the West Country Walking Society scheduled an extra outing for December. Our destination was the cathedral city of Salisbury, about which I knew very little except that, well, it had a cathedral. I must also admit to harbouring a niggling little prejudice toward Salisbury, owing to having occasionally as a child been fed something called Salisbury steak.

I've never had any experience with Salisbury steak in England, but in America, it was, as near as I could tell, hamburger without the bun. Not very appealing, especially when you've been led to believe you’re having steak. Sadly, the city of Salisbury appears to have a bit in common with its namesake steak, coming off a bit less grand than its status as major tourist destination would suggest.

There is a cathedral, yes, and a very fine cathedral it is. And the cathedral's immediate surrounds are pleasing, too, a sedate collection of houses dating in some cases back to early medieval times. Apart from that, Salisbury offers a pleasant but small town centre replete with Ye Olde Twee Tea Shoppes, and also does a marvellous line in car parks, roundabouts, and mid-80s housing estates.

In other words, it’s not as pedestrian-friendly as a Walking Society might hope for, but luckily we had decided in advance that this wasn’t to be one of our “serious” walks, but rather more of an urban stroll, with, as Bella had requested last time, “lots of nice shops and cafés to stop into.” We arrived with no itinerary, and muddled our way through the entire day without acquiring one. That left Danny at a loss for what to do with his GPS unit, apart from informing us where we were at any given time. But the gloss was taken off this technological marvel by the fact that the GPS-less among us could obtain the same information, usually more quickly, by examining the nearest street sign.

It was not a street sign per se, but a wall inscription on a lovely old street leading away from the cathedral that set Danny off into a bout of mild contentiousness. “Life’s but a walking shadow,” it read. “You know where that’s from, don’t you?” Richard asked. “No idea,” said Danny. Richard heaved a perhaps exaggerated sigh, causing Danny to bristle ever so slightly before I intervened.

“It’s not Shakespeare, is it?” I said. “I mean, it sounds very much like Shakespeare, but I don’t think that’s quite how it goes.” Doing his best to contain his exasperation, Richard silenced me by reciting the entire passage. I thought that was rather admirable, but Danny let it be known that as far as he was concerned, Shakespeare was rather useless.

This discussion evolved or devolved, depending on your point of view, into me extolling the virtues of Coronation Street as a window into contemporary British culture while Danny dismissed any and all television as worthless. “Its only purpose is to sell advertising,” he said. “What about the BBC?” I asked. “Or to serve as a conduit for government propaganda,” he retorted.

And it wasn’t just television, he continued. Pretty much all contemporary culture was devoid of lasting substance. “Don’t you think that in future centuries history will have sifted out certain books and films, perhaps even television programmes, as being illustrative of our times?” I asked. “I think all of it will be completely forgotten,” he concluded.

“What about your own writing?” (Danny writes for the newspapers.) “Are you acknowledging that the only purpose of your writing is to sell advertising?” “You’ll notice there usually aren’t any adverts on the same pages as my articles,” he said. “That’s because they know nobody reads them,” said Bella sweetly, putting an end to that discussion.

It was that sort of afternoon, jovial but a bit catty. Speaking of catty, an enormous black cat strolls freely around Salisbury Cathedral as if it owns the place. Presumably its job is to keep the rodent population down, but you’d think a Christian church might have chosen a cat of a different colour. We were near the front of the sanctuary watching some people trying to control an unruly dog (no, none of us have any explanation as to what the dog was doing there) and wondering if perhaps the cat would turn up at the moment to enliven the proceedings, when Shely glanced down and noticed that we were standing on a gravestone that had been freshly laid in the cathedral floor.

“I wonder how this bloke managed to get buried here?” she said. “I suppose by giving a shedload of money to the church.” I read the epitaph for one “Edward Heath, 1916-2005, statesman, musician, sailor,” and suggested, “Maybe because he was the Prime Minister?”

There was a service going on when we arrived at the cathedral, “Mattins,” the notice board read. Misspelled, both Bella and I sniffily noted, but as I pointed out, you can’t expect English heretics to have kept up with their Latin spelling after all these centuries. There was some lovely hymn singing and some majestic organ, but absolutely no congregation apart from a couple dozen Japanese tourists, nearly all of whom got up and left when the music stopped and the sermon started. Later on, while we were standing on Ted Heath’s grave, the organ came back at twice or three times the volume with a sudden blast of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” causing a couple of us to jump halfway out of our skins.

Adjacent to the cathedral is the exquisite Chapter House, which houses one of four surviving copies of the Magna Carta. Bella and I were hunched over it trying to make heads or tails of the highly abbreviated Latin, when Richard strolled up and pointed out that we were examining a poster rather than the document itself, which was around the corner. Danny then wanted to go off in search of something called the Water Meadows, from which one could allegedly see the best view in Britain. We found a roundabout and a river, but nothing resembling the best view in Britain, or, for that matter, in Salisbury. We tried to follow the River Walk, but it kept deviating away from the river, and wound up wandering past a particularly old-looking building, which Shely, Bella and I stopped to gawk at.

“Can I help you?” called a Hyacinth Bucket voice. Its owner, also bearing a more than passing resemblance to Mrs. Bucket, came toddling over to give us an unsolicited yet mostly interesting history of the building’s past 800 years and quite a few of its inhabitants. “We’re a Christian community,” she confided with eyebrows raised ever so slightly as if to suggest that perhaps we should consider selling all our earthly goods and joining them on the spot, “and we’ve been living here since the 13th century.”

She didn’t look quite that old, but her long-suffering husband, waiting patiently in the car as she told us about their new pastor (“a Navy man, and rather a bit different to what we’re used to”) and explained that although their building was called a hospital, it had never been a hospital (“hospital is used here in the ancient sense, meaning a refuge for pilgrims or guests”), could have been forgiven for feeling that way. We kept expecting him to impatiently drum his fingers on the steering wheel or give the engine a quick rev, but he sat there like a 21st century Buddha until his wife was quite finished, and drove slowly away so that she could wave to us one more time.

As it began to get dark we finally found a spot where the River Walk emerged from a car park into some open country, and had a nice stroll, pursued by some swans, ducks and a couple of coots, apparently hoping for a handout. Shely told me that when a coot is riled up, the white feathers on top of his head stand up like a punk rocker with a Mohican, but try as I might, the coots took no notice of my various insults, so I never got to find out if this was true.

By now it was going on 4 pm, the sun was setting, and we had to hurry back to town. There was still time for yet another argument lively discussion, this time between Bella and myself on the nature of civilisation as opposed to barbarism. As a thoroughly post-modern scholar, Bella refuses to acknowledge such categories on the grounds that they’re all subject to individual interpretation. Danny pointed out that hot and cold running water and central heating could be considered among the hallmarks of civilisation, and that he was certainly in favour of them.

I added that if it weren’t for modern civilisation, Bella wouldn’t very likely be able to have a job teaching impressionable students that civilisation is essentially a meaningless construct, but then the discussion veered off into the way that human beings have allegedly demonised animals. Shely in particular was exercised about how foxes had been painted as devious and predatory, thus providing fat Tory bastards with an excuse to brutally hunt them down. I mentioned that some animals – rats, for example, might partially deserve their bad reputations, but Bella quickly rose to the defence of all animals, rats included.

“So you wouldn’t mind rats living in your house?” I demanded. “In your kitchen cupboards, sharing your food?” “There’s nothing wrong with rats,” she staunchly insisted, but by now we were back to town, where it seemed untoward to go on arguing about the merits or demerits of rats and/or barbarians, so we piled into the café at Salisbury station and drank coffee and talked about upcoming holidays and birthdays while I waited for my train back to London. As we said goodbye, I must admit to feeling a warm glow of friendship and camaraderie, but of course it wouldn’t do to openly express such sentiments on the platform of a windblown, bone-chilling English railway station, so we solemnly shook hands, exchanged air kisses, and promised to meet again when I return in the spring. Though I couldn’t say it there, I can here and will: how fortunate I am to have such lovely friends.

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