Author Archive

An art history of handwriting?

December 11, 2014 4 comments

‘Style’ is a curious thing. As an art historian its a major concern: trying to understand the twists and turns of this or that motif, from the way a given artist’s personal way with a brush changes over time, to the choices made by architects about entire buildings: Gothic or Classical? Ionic or Corinthian? These architectural decisions of course, are relatively self-conscious: I want it to look like this. Painterly style is seen as less so — as being a side-effect or expression of personal choices driven by self-expression and aesthetic preference — but even here there is a strong element of conscious choice: one of the reasons we are able to look at something and call it Impressionist, or Quattrocento, or whatever. But I’d never really thought of handwriting in this way before. In some cultures – the Islamic and Chinese worlds, for example – writing is the highest of arts; but even there, much writing is much more workaday than that: simply a way of recording information, of fixing words for future reference, of communicating the prosaic. Yet handwriting, like art, moves in broad stylistic waves; and each of us develops a way of writing that is to some extent an expression of our personalities, but which also, consciously or not, fits into a broader cultural context of how the handwriting of a particular kind of person ought to look. There is a sense then in which all our handwritings render us artists. I’m struck by this as I crawl my way through these churchwarden’s accounts, watching the C16 inch its way into the C17, and the C17 make its way forwards to the modern world. These are workaday attempts to record ingoings and outgoings, likely to be scrutinised at the end of the financial year and then ignored for the rest of human history. Until a trainspotter like me comes along, trawling dull lists of payments for insight into the past. Here they are, stacked up in great volumes in the record office, recording the ‘bread and ale’ bought for the bellringers after they marked the mayor’s entrance into the city in the 1680s, a treat that becomes ‘tobacco and ale’ by the 1700s: newly fashionable drugs (2010: ‘line of coke and lager?). Marking the purchase of ‘nayles’ to fix doors, the constant repair of bell ropes, the purchase of ‘gunshot to kill birds in the church’. Becoming fuller and more exacting as they move into the pomp and red tape of the C19. And all the time, the handwriting gradually evolves. It changes its style. And what is so striking is that it moves in broad phases that align with the broad developmental patterns of art itself, and which in turn are somehow hung from the great invisible superstructure of History. So these wills and title deeds from the 1490s are carefully written by trained clerks, rounded, squashed and relatively legible, in spite of often being written in another language: Latin. Forty years later, the Latin has vanished except as an occasional word; so too have the trained clerks. Everything is written in Secretary Hand, which sounds very efficient but is in fact, in the hands of the local churchwarden, one of the hardest things on earth to read – even though it’s now in English. This curious, slightly nightmarish way of writing, all to-us distorted and compressed letter forms and unfamiliar ways of making marks, it strikes me, is the handwriting equivalent of Elizabethan and Jacobean art. This is a world in which Classical motifs are squashing themselves into a way of thinking about how things should look that is still late Gothic. A world in which a Great Disjuncture has occurred, the mass extinction of the monasteries, and is still being played out; in which every aspect of visual, religious and increasingly political culture is being violently contested. A world in which visual things are rarely beautiful, and can be even rather nightmarish, if certainly impressive. One might better call this Jacobethan Hand than Secretary Hand. This does not mean that the words themselves have problems. It’s a version of Secretary Hand that Marlowe, Shakespeare and others presumably used to form some of the greatest combinations of letters into words and words into sentences ever attempted in the English language; in which the King James Bible and its predecessors were, I imagine, first drafted. Thank God that printing is by now reasonably commonplace, or we’d have trouble reading words which underpin so much English literature and song ever since. Indeed printing, I suspect, is one of the  reasons for all this: people are no longer dependent on handwriting to make books: if something needs to be legible and understood by enough other eyes, it can be printed. Indeed I suspect handwriting is deteriorating for comparable reasons right now: as everyone is word processing, and every text can be spellchecked and published automatically, we are each, when writing by hand, increasingly likely to fall into a C21 version of sixteenth-century writing. Post Modern Hand. When did you last see someone’s handwriting? We used to see it all the time. But then, in the 1680s and 1690s, look what happens: it’s still Secretary Hand, but somehow it’s stretching out, becoming legible, reasonable, straightforward. By the early 1700s its morphing into a kind of italic, fully-formed by mid-century. I’m sure there are all kinds of reasons for this that historians of palaeography, or education, of whatever, have uncovered: what strikes me now is that again, ordinary writing is lining up rather neatly with broad phases of development in artistic style, and in turn, with history itself. The backdrop, then, to this change in the way the sexton and the carpenter write out their receipts to the churchwardens is Wren, Hawksmoor, the belated but brilliant tide of a truly understood Renaissance; Newton, the Royal Society and later the Enlightenment; the gradual, painful accommodation both religious and political that marks the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution, etc. The term Italic is right: the culture that comes from Italy. These are Whiggish historical clichés, of course, yet it’s very hard not to read these men keeping their accounts in no-doubt rather cold parish rooms, and watch the way the letters move out of the nibs of their pens over the striding decades, and not see history itself come into focus, or feel the modern world hurtling into being, as Jacobethan Hand becomes English Baroque Italic, and before you know it the age of machines and Empire and near-universal literacy is upon us: I have yet to study Gothic Revival Hand, Historicism Hand, let alone Brutalist Hand. But perhaps I’ll know them when I see them.

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Jon Cannon tours 2015

December 1, 2014 Leave a comment

‘You have an extraordinary talent for rendering your erudition accessible’; ‘This has been the trip of a lifetime for me’; ‘Jon Cannon is as good as it gets as a scholarly authoritative lecturer’; ‘In a word, extraordinary’; ‘ a sensitive, funny man who brought to life … the medieval world.’… just some of the comments received from my 8-day Cathedrals of England extravaganza. If you’d like to share in this experience (I couldn’t possibly comment!) here are the dates for 2015.

Also be aware of events upcoming in 2016: A two-day residential ‘dayschool’ on Canterbury cathedral; the four Martin Randall Travel Cathedrals of England tour, and a newbie from MRT, Sacred China.

West Walton-Jon Cannon and group

A group play ‘where’s the church?’ at West Walton. We never did work out where it was.

 Dates for 2015

This year we will have two new residential tours, Anglo-Saxon England in May and Essential China in September, as well as all the well-established favourites …

Dayschool on Medieval Architectural Style (venue: Bristol cathedral), 10 January 2015 

Each of the main styles surveyed, in the classroom and in the flesh, or should that be stone. Contact me to find out more:

Dayschool on Hereford cathedral, Abbey Dore and Kilpeck23 May 2015

A beguiling cathedral, and two of the country’s most famously wonderful churches. Contact me to find out more:

English Cathedrals, 22-30 April 2015

Luxury hotels, epicurean meals, exclusive musical recitals — and an expert 8-day show-round of ten of the greatest buildings on Earth.

Early Medieval England: Anglo-Saxon & Norman History & Architecture, 8-10 May 2015

A journey into the roots of English architecture, visiting a selection of the country’s finest surviving Anglo-Saxon churches, plus such Romanesque gems (with ancient roots) as St Albans, Waltham abbey and more. Excellent food and accommodation.

Medieval East Anglia: Cities, Towns & Villages, 1–5 June 2015

From mighty Norwich to exquisite Lavenham, discover a lost world of medieval life and architecture. Excellent food and accommodation.

London Day: Seven Churches & a Synagogue, 23 June 2015

London in a nutshell, from Romanesque to High Victorian.

Medieval Churches, Monasteries & Cathedrals of the Fenlands, 4–6 September 2015

Some of the most famous churches in the country. Excellent food and accommodation.

Dayschool on Cirencester, Fairford and Inglesham, 3 October 2015

Two extraordinary late medieval churches, including a detailed exploration of the famous medieval glass at Fairford. Plus one perfect unrestored gem. Contact me to find out more:

Essential China, 20 October–2 November 2015

Classic China, including all the key sites of Beijing, Xian, Shanghai and Hangzhou, with all the Martin Randall quality you’d expect as regards food and accomodation
I am also lecturing, mostly to NADFAS groups, in New Zealand (a three-week tour!), Malmesbury, Monmouth, Wey Valley, Newick, Welwyn, Liverpool, Cockermouth, Hexham and Stratford-upon-Avon. Contact me ( if you would like to attend one of these talks, which are open to the public for a small fee. Also regarding private tours, if you would like to arrange something.

People rave about these tours: I hope you’ll come along.


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The great Scots circuit

September 29, 2014 2 comments

The Highland Boundary Fault seperates Lowland from Highland at Stirling

The aim of these trips is to move around the island on which I live, getting a sense of the lie of its land. At all times I am alert to two things: the underlying geology, (especially as it affects the shape of the landscape on the surface); and the resulting shifts in human things: buildings, history, culture. It’s the calibration between the two that interests me.

The aim is to re-enchant our relationship with and understanding of the land beneath us: in an age of identikit towns and sat navs, to reveal the power and specifity of place — and to reveal the human element in that grand and elemental storyAnd also to explain: this is how this island fits together, and what makes Humberside different to Caithness, Dorset different to Cumbria. To turn places into Places.

This trip over to Scotland — at a remarkable, if rather anticlimactic, point in its history — is a case in point, and also a challenge. I was ignorant, I realise, of basic things like Scottish counties and major rivers (how is Angus different from Argyll, the Don from the Dee?), and daunted by the scale of the landscape. There’s a lot of Place up here. And I’m doing more or less what I did with Northern England a week or two ago: casing the joint, getting a sense of the shape of things, with lots of research combined with a certain amount of gut-feel *that’s* where I’m going today.

The border is not a specific point in the landscape, like the Pyrenees in Spain; but the Borders are well named. Underneath this entire region lies a great mass of Carboniferous sandstone, separating the Pennines from the Southern Uplands, great and linking the wide mouth that is the Firth of Forth — one of the geological structural keys to the whole island — and the lesser one of the Tweed. The geology of the Borders seperates, but does so gradually, creating a region with an identity in its own right; and arguably the existence of uplands from the north Pennines to the Midland Valley is one of the reasons for the survival of Scotland as an entity.

After all, this is not a large island, and England has ultimately been richer and more powerful: over centuries, in many parts of the world, this has resulted in the extinguishing of smaller polities. Yet Scotland is unquestionably a nation, and not (like Wales, until recently) a nation whose identity depends on cultural identity alone: this is a nation that even at the height of the Britain/UK project retained its own institutions, its own laws, and whose constitutional relationship to the whole depended on a deal-between-monarchs that is very much not the submission of poorer northern to richer southern partner. That is, it is a nation institutionally, too, and has never ceased to be so.


Granite city: Aberdeen

Perhaps that is why things change as soon as you cross the border. The little ashlar bungalows and big Grecian hilltop monuments or public-spirited institutional buildings of Coldstream could just as easily be in Morayshire or Galloway, and would look weirdly foreign even 50 miles south. There are continuities, of course, not only of architectural style but of regional specifics: those little ashlar bungalows are a case in point, prevalent in the Northumberland Cheviots, too; Newcastle, with its Grecian Grey monument and grand sandstone streets is on the way to being a Scottish city. As well as being on the way to actual Scottish cities.


The distinctive dark stones of Portnockie

They mark out the elements of a series of things architectural that make the Scottish landscape distinct from the English one. I haven’t fully got to grips with all of them yet, but certainly some can be seen everywhere from Thurso to Forfar. The medieval and Roman dimensions of the landscape, so often the visible root of everything in England, are often absent and even when present not nearly as obvious: instead, it is the C17 and C18 from which the landscape apparently derives itself. Places are often planned: they are often planned in England, too, but because the plans there were laid out in the  C10-C12 they have had time for each structure on each plot to be rebuilt several times over, and the underlying directed nature of a settlement thus becomes less explicit to the eye. Perhaps they were always slightly less ordered in any case.  There is a bigger range of grand public buildings, institutions, collective projects created for the good of all (or at least of their members), than even in the north of England, and they are Neoclassical, a rare style to the south. A bigger range of places of worship, too; of course there are nonconformist chapels aplenty in England but one is rarely in any architectural doubt that we have an established church. In Scotland, the architecture of one branch of Christianity does not dominate, or provide the tap root of places, in the simple way it does in England: churches crop up in (to an Englishman odd) places. Graveyards are often set aside from them, cropping up as plots on the edge of cities or by the roadside in rural areas. This may be a pattern with old roots: where the churches are ancient, they are in non-nucleated sites in the middle of groups of farms, or outside the centre of the modern settlement. And finally, within Scotland there’s a separation between two landscapes: the Scotland in which scattered crofts overlook the seas, and the Scotland of scattered farms set inland around kirktowns and chapel towns. (There’s a grand imperial city and post-industrial Scotland too, but not particularly part of this trip. And there’s more, but that will do for now).


Rubislaw, the hole from which Aberdeen was ripped

And everything is made of sandstone and granite. Indeed there is so much of the former that one might begin to tire of it. A shame, because on closer examination the variations and uses of these stones is one of the great qualities of this built landscape, and its most immediate debt to the natural one. The purple-brown sandstones of Angus are different from the sand-coloured ones of Morayshire; a stone of one colour will be used as decorative dressing in a build made of stone of another. These variations, for example along the north coast of Moray and Aberdeenshire, often move subtly in step with that of the underlying geology, a sequence marvellous to move through.

Indeed, this whole country is made of sandstone and granite. That’s a massive generalisation, of course, but in Scotland the English story of a generic sandstone ‘midland’ around which everything else can be seen to fit is turned around. The sandstones of the Midland Valley (and elsewhere) are the key to the country’s prosperity and, arguably, statehood: here are Glasgow and Edinburgh, for example. North of this are the highlands, to the south the Southern Uplands. Here the story is unendingly complex (and exciting), but igneous rocks play a vital role in it: witness the great massif of Cairngorm. Indeed the great lava whins that erupt throughout the country play a key role in giving even the most verdant arable landscape an edge of drama, and making Stirling and Edinburgh such impregnable seats of power.


Pictish symbol-stone in Elgin cathedral

That’s the big picture, as it currently seems to me. What specifics have stood out from this 5-day recce of the country’s eastern side, from Edinburgh to Caithness and back? Firstly, I’d barely clocked neither Aberdeenshire nor the area immediately east and north of Inverness before, but these are heartlands from the Pictish era onwards, and even in prehistory they veer from the reassuringly familiar — the prevalence of long mounds, henges, round barrows and hillforts suggests that the concept of Britain might have been understood all those thousands of years ago — to the fascinatingly new. The result includes Pictish carved stones, of course, but also recumbent stone circles (only one stone is recumbent, but it’s an important one): both of which are very geographically specific phenomena. With regard to the latter, the whole area around Inveruie in Aberdeenshire is one of this island’s great sacred landscapes, doing everything such Places should: react to the water, the meeting of Don and Euie in a great fertile bowl; react to mountains, the great peak of Bennarchie; mark out and sacralise the more fertile land, in twenty or more stone circles scattered on the hills around a central henge; reveal internal continuities and stratigraphies, such as in the reuse of stone circles as later cairns or the recarving of individual standing stones by the Picts, several millennia later, but still ancient to us; and respond to the rocks beneath. Easter Aquhorthes was a gem: the great one-off lump of pink granite almost glistening in the evening light; the curious quartzite skin on the moon-facing main recumbent rock very suggestive.

The monuments of Caithness were almost as impressive: here the epicentre looks north, as if Caithness was a suburb of Orkney Mainland, only attached to the boring old Continent to the south by misfortune; and geologically, both are part of the same ancient sandstone basin. To crawl inside the round mound at Camster is an experience not to be forgotten, with thousaands of tonnes of dry stone powered and domed above one.

Medieval monuments were intriguing, too. Elgin cathedral as serious a work as any in Scotland, telling the same stylistic story: Romanesque and Early English a highly sophisticated offshoot of the latest practise in Northern England; from the mid-C14 everything changes and England is conscpicously ignored. As we ignore it: the chapter house, visually 1390 but laid out in the C13, is not in our ‘grand narrative’ of polygonal chapter houses, which is bonkers. Montrose cathedral an intriguing demonstration of how a decent designer with few resources could use a few early C13 bangs and whistles, all of them as far as I can see derived ultimately from Lincoln and York — to good effect.

As for later stuff, every town and village is stuffed with it, and the better-off the area, the more of it there is. But for responses to local stone, there is little in Britain to beat the sequence of fishing villages that run along the north coast into Banffshire, a geological map on a stunning coastline; or Aberdeen, glistening with mica, a city of granite, cold, inward looking — as Bath is a city of Jurassic limestone, warm and inviting. The great hole of Rubislaw from which the city was lifted, now a hidden lake surrounded by offices and high fences, was a sight in itself.


Ultima Thule: Duncansby head, Caithness

Then there are the places that struck for their unexpectedness: the curious country around Caithness, a brief 10 miles of arable struck with tooth-like sandstone slates after decades of highland and peat bog. Fraserburgh, a functioning fishing town in which Tagalog and Doric seem to be the two main langauges, the latter only slightly easier to comperehend than the former. And much, much more. Some of which is on Facebook, because I’m running out of time.

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The great Northern circuit

September 18, 2014 3 comments

The next book is about landscapes, really, but I find myself itching to get down the highlights from some of the more striking buildings I discovered during last week’s 1500-mile grand tour through Yorkshire, County Durham, Northumberland, the Borders, Cumbria and Lancashire. The aim at all times was to discover the unfamiliar, and the landscape-rooted, but these included some architectural/art historical gems of the medieval (and other) world/s.


Stained glass at Horton in Ribblesdale

The first of these was Horton-in-Ribblesthorpe: a classic dark, bleak Dale-land/Pennine church, externally all Perp but with C12 arcades so simple they could as easily have been poor man’s C17. The highlight here was three tiny pieces of late medieval glass, high up in the west window and barely visible, yet striking in their implications: the head of the Virgin Mary; the head of Thomas Becket; the arms of Jervaulx abbey. These are arguably the two most aggressively proscribed images of the 1530s/40s, combined with the arms of a dissolved institution; not only that, but to retain just the heads — the part of an image most thoroughly focused on by iconoclasts, and equally a part most easy to slip from some shattered pile and spirit away — is a remarkable act; when combined with the badge of the dissolved monastery, one that surely has purpose. There was something very moving about the unknown backstory of these (apparently carefully preserved) fragments: one is reminded that here we are in the heartland of the anti-Reformation Pilgrimage of Grace.



Lastingham crypt

Lastingham, nestled in a verdant valley of the North York Moors, has strong connections to the early church and one of the less-known monuments to the remarkable years of the 1070s and 1080s, the earliest decades of the Romanesque in England. The highlight of this church is the extraordinary crypt, presumably associated with the cult of St Cedd, and one of the most significant monuments of a couple of decades from which, outside the cathedrals, very little survives. It is in a brusque early Romanesque rather reminiscent of the early castle chapel at Durham, and like that building, the simplicity and heaviness is combined with some determined attempts at decorative variety: in this case, every capital is different, and one of them is surely one of the earliest dated cushion capitals in the country. Upstairs the remarkably effective ‘restoration’ by Pearson preserves intact a top-rate Norman apse but seems to occlude the archaeological evidence for whether the enormous groin vaults are based on any evidence or not. All in all this was a small-but-rather-fine priory whose development, complete with crypt, halted in mid-build, leaving a structure which only has the stump of a nave to this very day.

I’m going to pass over Reivaulx (and Jervaulx, and Middleham) — but mention must be made of the chapter-house at the former famous church, a kind of miniature apsidal basilica perhaps associated with the cult of St Ailred: an odd place for a shrine, but he was buried there, and there surely can’t be another reason for the provision of an ambulatory? Perhaps the insertion of a little shrine-setting to the north of the central door in the C13 was an attempt to provide pilgrim access without having the hoi-polloi troop through the chapter-house itself? Another moving Dissolution-moment here, too: axe-marks on the stumps of the columns. I wondered offhand whether there was another religious building in Europe closer in plan to a C3BC Buddhist caitya hall. Which was also a gathering-place for monks, if rather more devotional in function.


Dod’s Law

Dod’s Law, Northumberland is not a church: it is a pair of iron age hillforts on a hilltop overlooking the distant domes of the Cheviots, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is something ritualistic or religious about the remarkable, probably Bronze Age, rock-art  — like graphic maps, or Native Australian images of Dreamtime landscapes — laid out painstakingly on the great blocks of Fell Sandstone that litter the site.


Jedburgh abbey, east end

Next up, two great abbeys close to the border, in southern Scotland: Kelso and Jedburgh. Both are testament to a series of generalisations one can (perhaps) make about medieval Scottish architecture: that these buildings are not large by English standards, and until the C15 even the greatest of them lack the high stone vaults that were standard to the south by 1200; that by 1400 they have stylistically gone their own sweet way, almost pointedly ignoring developments in England — and that c.1150-1250 a great wave of building and rebuilding swept this country, resulting in structures of such inventiveness and sophistication that the story of architecture in the British Isles in those crucial years is incomplete without them. Witness the remarkable westwork, a richly-arcaded mini-Ely, at Kelso; and the handsome Giant Order, part of a story which is otherwise restricted entirely to southern England (Tewkesbury, Oxford, Romsey, ?Reading), in the east end at Jedburgh.

From here to Cumbria there is a B-road of spectacular beauty and emptiness, snaking for 30-50 miles through mountain fell and dales running with peat-black streams, with barely a hint of village or farm. Then, barely in England, and still in a landscape untouched by signs of tourism or Leisure Activities, one comes to Bewcastle. This is a tiny church at the centre of a cluster of farms, a pre- high medieval kind of setting, preserving much that was normal before the invention of the ‘village’.


The Bewcastle cross, among the gravestones

This is a place of astonishing silence, but don’t be deceived: enclosing the ruined Border castle and the churchyard alike is the earthwork of a major Roman fort, with a road connecting back to Hadrian’s Wall. In the C7/C8, therefore, this could easily have been a nodal point in a post-Roman, Christianised landscape — explaining the presence, still standing proud in the open air among the tombstones,  of one of the major works of the era of the Lindisfarne gospels, Cuthbert and Jarrow: a mighty, headless cross, covered in Runic inscriptions, well-carved late Roman decorative scrolls, and figures of such hieratic clarity they could be by Eric Gill, rather an anonymous craftsman of 1300 years ago. This is partly a commemorative monument, as the inscriptions demonstrate; the great flock of C18 and later headstones from which it rises, all their names pointing optimistically east, powerfully demonstrative of the continuance in the Christian tradition of the ‘commemorative standing stone’.


Sarah Losh’s church at Wreay

Then, firmly back in a more recognisable England, the extraordinary church built at Wreay south of Carlisle by local gentrywoman Sarah Losh in 1842. Losh guided every detail of this building (and the associated landscape of school house, mortuary enclosure, well-heads and funerary chapels, as well as a few domestic buildings), constructed entirely by local craftsmen with local materials. The result, infused by symbolic imagery drawn from personal, Christian and non-Christian sources alike, and powerfully informed by the early C19 understanding of early Christian art, is a testament to a convincing and unique aesthetic vision.  In other words, this was a revelation: there is a moment of spiritually-infused formal originality in the eC19, most purely embodied in the post-Blakean work of Palmer and his Ancients, arguably present in Turner, but not as far as I know expressed architecturally in any other religious building (Watts managed it later). It should be one of the most famous churches in the land: Losh as a kind of Victorian architectural Kate Bush (or Sir John Soane, for like Bush this is an art that transcends gender, will arguably being suffused by it).


Looking down the scree-slope, Pike of Stickle

West of here, in the great ice-scoured post-Volcano of the Lakes, the peak at Pike of Stickle has hanging down its vertiginous rampart a colossal scree slope that appears to be almost entirely man made. Though this entire upland was a terrifying third-world desert to medieval people, it was a place of great human significance in the late Neolithic, with a plethora of henge monuments all lying within 20 miles or so. And here, at the top of an often frost-and rain-shattered peak, stone axes were knapped from the landscape in such number and traded with such keenness that their products can be seen in many parts of Europe, and the axes deemed to have *failed* produced in such number that 100s of thousands, perhaps millions, still litter the hillside to this day, their sharp edges and knap-fractures intact.

Pike of Stickle has a special status in the great narrative of the anthropocene: just as this is when people first began to shift stones around so as to make permanent structures, this is also the first time that the products of a single place were spead so far and wide that the result is at once often found and entirely divorced from its geological origin. For the hand-axes of Stickle Pike or Grimes Graves, read Barnack limestone, York paving slabs, Welsh roofing slates, Portland stone, Italian marble, and every mineral product of the modern third-world mine that goes onto be spread around the world in laptops and handsets.

On to Furness, for more revelations. Here is a landscape on the way to nowhere, but also a mini-country of it is own, with its historic towns (Ulverston), dramatic industrial sandstone capital-city (Barrow), moors, wetlands and beaches, all overlooked by lowering Lakeland peaks. First there is Cartmel, not quite as eccentric a smaller priory church as Dorchester or Oxford but on the way, and with excellent glass and a remarkable C14 tomb to boot; and then there is Cistercian Furness abbey itself.


Furness abbey chapter house

I had expected this building to be somewhat provincial, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Of course, like so many of its peers, it is in a beguiling landscape, a valley near (but not in) a medieval ‘desert’, but presumably bearing a comparable relationship to the centre of serious power at Lancaster as Jervaulx does to Middleham, Rievaulx to Pickering or Helmsley (?), and Tintern to the Marcher lordships (and, further back, Lindisfarne does to Banburgh).  Like our Border abbeys, and indeed Lanercost to the north, it includes major examples of late C12 work, as well as the C15 stump of a prodigious western tower and a cliff-like east end, and a series of conventual/precinctual buildings of the later C12 that really should be better known.

The edge-of-precinct chapel and infirmary extension capture the mannered quality of some late EE/early Dec work, otherwise associated with very cosmopolitan buildings – Bishop Burnell at Wells and Acton Burnell, bishop Aigueblanche at Hereford. And the chapter-house, even in its current roofless and vaultless state, is extraordinary. This was once a hall-‘church’, its three rows of high stone vaults supported on vertiginously slender columns, its edges a series of mighty blank-tracery panels, like the York chapter-house vestibule blank ‘arcade’ filling an entire wall. Polygonal chapter houses are knockout, of course, and some of the more traditional rectilinear examples of the Romanesque era (Bristol is the best-preserved) clearly were, too. But I haven’t come across a Gothic-era rectilinear-planned chapter house in England of anything approaching this beauty and ambition. Wow.

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Elemental England I

July 19, 2014 Leave a comment

I’ve not blogposted from the top deck of a bus before; neither have I even begun blogging fragments relating to my next book. Something of a first, then: whether I can publish this between Shrivenham and Swindon is another question.

I have followed the A420 many times; too many for this impatient driver, as its a road on which one is guaranteed to be struck behind a queue of lorries. But from the top deck of a bus everything changes. It slows down, for a start (!). More to the point, the lie of the land opens out. What had always felt like a low-slung, characterless drive through the clay plains of middle England reveals itself as a tour of the Corallian ridge, a switchback ride along a snaking spine of limestone that is easy to overlook, so undramatically does it slip itself between the higher uplans of Jurassic Cotswolds and Cretaceous chalk Downs.

From up here, the shape of these hills is more beguiling than I’d expected; while low, they have the cool smooth openness that gives all limestones their tang. The knowledge that this was all once coral reef in some warm ocean gives the landscape an extra tang. But so is the significance of the ridge itself. It’s the setting for a cluster of hilltop towns, rare itself in this counrt: Wooton Basset, Swindon, Highworth, Malmesbury. Not far from Brinksworth it forms a watershed which divides Severn-headed Avon from mighty Thames: the rain only has to fall the wrong side of a low hill to end up in the Atlantic or the North Sea. And as was reach the head of he Vale of White Horse, I realise something I’d not noticed before.

Uffington: famously extraordinary. it’s White Horse a work of near-abstraction, surely partly the result of the mind-boggling 3000 years of scouring that have stylised it while keeping it visible. The nearby church is almost as remarkable. But from up here, suddenly the white horse makes sense. From the clay vale of the valley, you can barely see it, let alone read it: but from up here, it, and the curiously visceral Dragon Hill with its bare, dragonsblood-drenched summit, seem to rise just above the eyeline, at once powerfully legible and all-dominant. In other words, these are works of art in compact with nature that are designed to be seen from up, perhaps on horseback. This ridge has been an important route for no little time, then, and the tarmac snake of the A420 must follow natural ways of great age. So here’s to the Corallian, as we crawl through low humid rain towards Swindon bus station.


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Medieval church architecture

July 7, 2014 Leave a comment
beverley  (40)

Decorated-era crocketed ogee arches at Beverley Minster

It was the lucky inheritance of a pile of Victorian and early C20 handbooks which served as my way in to the inexhaustibly rewarding subject of medieval architectural style. Now (ie from this week!) my new Shire handbook makes a very attractive modern equivalent. For more details have a look at the relevant page in the Buy My Books section of this website:

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Unpacking Glastonbury II

June 27, 2014 Leave a comment

Glastonbury abbey: stub of the south transept, a shattered Giant Order elevation of 1184; Tor behind

Preparing for a Glastonbury dayschool, I’ve been able to revisit some of my thoughts on Unpacking Glastonbury (

In a funny kind of way, I’m less exercised by the origin of it all than one might expect. What do we know? That there was some reasonably serious Roman activity on the site of the abbey. One would expect there to be Christians among such people by the C4; here we certainly know there were Christians in the Somerset area. That in the C5/C7 the Tor site was a centre of power that still maintained awareness of, and was able to trade with, Mediterranean cultures. That the first historical church on the abbey site, Ine’s church of the early C8, is clearly oriented on an existing structure (and arguably an associated well) which remains the tap root of the entire complex from then on; that by Dunstan’s time the legend of a special origin had developed.

All the business about miraculous/crypto-Biblical origins is recorded much later, and is by-the-by: I see no problem with the proposal that there was already something on the abbey site that people in the C8 might understand as being special for some kind of antiquity or earliness; that is, proposing a Christian *something* of say the C3-C5 (say starting as a place of worship in a villa and persisting into something more self-consciously a religious community or cult site as Rome itself recedes), is not quite putting 2+2 together to equal 5.

Hell, we even have archaeology for such continuities in the area, barely 10 minutes drive away at Glastonbury’s great rival Wells, where there are no legends at all — but plenty of proof of just such a sequence, with the present cathedral its final result. Many have taken all this further, and I’m going to resist the temptation, except to additionally point out that, if the power-centre on the Tor was a scene of resistance to the Anglo-Saxons (no evidence, but reasonable supposition); and if local leaders/kings (call them what you will; and leaving aside whether the Tor site was religious or secular) were traditionally buried next to the Christian-thing on the abbey site (again, the Wells Christian-thing was a place of high-status burial); that would be easily enough for people of the late C12 to dig one of these burials up and call their find Arthur.

But in a way what interests me is what happens thereafter: how all these rolling mythological/hagiographical/pseudo-historical stones keep rolling from the C11/12 to the present, bumping into each other, swapping hoary mosses, like an enormous communal, sacral game of Chinese whispers. I’ve outlined that story in my previous post; but this time round I’m struck even more by Glastonbury’s oddnesses. It’s reputation as a mighty centre of sacredness has come down to the modern world vital and intact; yet the medieval story is more strange and contradictory than that.


Glastonbury abbey: south door and interior of the sacred Lady chapel. Finest work of sculpture of the 1180s?

Firstly, there is something restless, almost insecure, about all these rolling hagiographical stones. Our Ancient Christian Thing is the absolute nub of that, morphing from Vetusta Ecclesia to standalone Lady chapel to combined Lady chapel/chapel of All Saints to chapel of St Joseph over four hundred years, even as the stories of its origin get gradually more outlandish. There is a whole cultural history here, from the context of the C12 events in the rich culture of Anglo-Norman England and the ‘Twelfth Century Renaissance’ to the late phase, where the hollowing out of its crypt to create a new, tomb-like devotional focus and the visceral associations with the man who project-managed Christ’s burial is powerfully redolent of late medieval religious culture. The point being that Glastonbury cults have an oddly fluid quality. What is this Vetusta thing? Not a saint, exactly: it’s a structure, a vessel, a receptacle: that’s what sacred spaces do. No wonder it’s so fluid. Do we have Patrick, or is he in Ireland? Dunstan, or is he in Canterbury? Is Arthur a saint? Has anyone ever heard of this minor host of Celtic saints and Wessex kings? The contrast with mighty Cuthbert or Etheldreda (or later, Thomas of Canterbury), iconically bestriding their respective communities, is curious. What did this place actually mean?

Secondly, Glastonbury has a curious way of consigning its own story to oblivion. The astonishing, casket-like richness of the Lady chapel (and equally astonishing scale of investment by the king in 1184-9 — shades of Westminster abbey sixty years later) is at once deeply a fireproofed recreation of its feted predecessor and a consignment to oblivion of all trace of it to; if any sign of that remained below ground, it was in turn vapourised by the hollowing out of the chapel’s crypt in around 1500.

It’s patterns like this which fuel the remarkable story since, in which small-scale, organic features of the abbey’s (remarkable) surrounding landscape – a thorn tree, a well – features which have the slenderest evidence for mattering to anyone particularly before the early C16 — become the fuel for the twisted (in the sense of complex and knotty) resacralisation of a Dissolution-shattered landscape from the C19.

There is, then, something going on here throughout about forgetting, or half-remembering; something as analgous to sleep and its dreams as it is to real history.

One is tempted to riff further, on the fate of medieval religious enclosures, post-Dissolution. These are basically the walled enclosures of a mighty but vapourised institution: Swindon railway works, Detroit Motor City, but making prayers not engines. Some (Tewkesbury) have continued to be graveyards dominated by a church; many (Durham, Ely) have become that icon, the English cathedral close. Bury is a public park. Bristol a civic centre. Walsingham has been reconolised by self-conscious claimants to its original raison d’etre, even as the monastic enclosure itself remains an aristocrat’s garden: the Dissolution in a landscape-nutshell. Glastonbury…


Glastonbury Tor, with the tower of St Michael’s church: dealer in myth since the C5, or before?

Back to my theme. There is another aspect of Glastonbury that’s oddly overlooked, and that is the art-historical significance of what does survive. We actually know a fair amount about this building: Bligh Bond and Harrison are unfairly vilified, if over-enthusiastic in filling in the dots; Jerry Sampson is doing heroic work as I write. Firstly, the Lady chapel is arguably the most drop-dead work of small-scale architecture of the febrile 1170s-1200s, as significant in its way as Canterbury, Wells, Lincoln (or, perhaps its closest comparator, the Durham Galilee). Secondly, the great church, also designed in 1184, is no strippling. It has the last in the great sequence of C12 Giant Order elevations, always a little too clever for their own good: is that because the previous church, ie the early/mid C12 one had one, too? (shades here of the relationship between post-1173 Canterbury and Anselm’s east end) In the mid-C13 we have a west front and a functionally intriguing Galilee that might have looked Wells in the eye for richness of articulation — and contextually from here on a fascinating sequence of events around an image of Mary from the  Old Church that had been miraculously preserved in the 1184 fire. Not to mention all those other rolling stones. The consequences of some of this are the biggest gap of our knowledge: given the significance of late C13/ec14 architecture in this part of the world, the loss of the north porch extension, the nave and galilee vaults, de Taunton’s pulpitum, etc is a tragic one. Even more so as Monington’s work in the choir was arguably one of the most significant and ambitious early essays in Perpendicular, applying the grid idea to the existing church with a determination that can seem almost extreme, given the way it must have left the C13 clerestory as a series of dark holes. It could be 1340s, astonishingly early; it is unlikely to be latter than the late 1360s (Monington dies in 1375), which still makes it the first Perp great church after Gloucester (neck and neck with Winchester); indeed Gloucester is itself only just drawing to completion. Equally impressive is the careful late C12/C13 retrospection of Monington’s retroquire, arguably a model for that other remarkable piece of backwards-architecture, Yevele’s Westminster nave (Westminster-Glastonbury is almost as fun a riff as Wells-Glastonbury — don’t get me started).

After that, evidence continues, but assessing significance gets more problematic: the Renaissance inflections mooted for the Loretto chapel seem to be entirely invented; the palpable links between the Edgar chapel and the Gloucester and Westminster Lady chapels make the proposal that it was an exceptionally rich structure convincing; the archaic design of the Lady chapel/Galilee crypt/s is fascinating — but also, prosaically, a very similiar design to that of the lost dormitory undercroft. There is much to learn.

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The Sleep Project IX: West Woods bluebells

May 16, 2014 3 comments

Image Three tawny owls chatter to each other with fledgling insistence, the calls bouncing from branch to branch, as if continually checking each other are ok, or saying hello, then forgetting they said hello and saying it again. Above them, but not very far above them, helicopters make practice night flights low over the woodland.

Moonlight, low and full, twists perception: bluebells are rendered invisible; a shrub low across the path becomes a physical barrier; a great pool of brightness is merely a slight gap in the forest cover. Paths are clear: you could go for a long walk in this strange, tingly, silvery lightfall. Wansdyke makes a spotlit linear opening in the trees; the stars that shine through this are close, cold, mineral-hard. I reach out and stick one in my bivvy bag, and spend the night wishing it would warm my toes up. It seems unfair to chuck it out: Betelgeuse eaten by midges and deer tics.

Between two overgrown wheel-ruts I make a perfect bed, dry, soft, supportive. Whether it be the crushed bluebells and nettles, the thin soil, the ceramic quality of the clay-with-flints, or the light, friable depths of chalk beneath, the ground seems curiously light, like a mattress.

In the depths of the night the helicopters return, their chopping blades scything the air and making an answering echo from the forest floor. It’s as if a freight train is slamming towards as a metal beast descends from above. Fugitives scatter between trees in frozen woods; orange poisonous fire vapourizes Asian villages. A six-foot black horse is hunting for us through the trees; it is ridden by a tall blond man with a frightening long-spiked Mohican. The helicopter circled for hours, but it seems I only slept for five minutes. Then I went for a walk, and found a café open among the trees: coffees, biscuits, a friendly café-lady. I realise the whole wood is full of people unicyling, cycling, running: it’s always like this at night, she says; people just don’t have time or space to practise during daylight hours. That was another five minutes of sleep that might have been two hours of fully lived reality: then, finally deep cold oblivion closes in.


5.30am, West Woods, Wiltshire

I’m surprised, as dawn sparks the chirping of the birds, at how quickly, long before the sun is visible, the air begins to warm. Bluebells, Wild Garlic, my Doc Martins and Nikon blur from smudges to hard volumes and swaying stems. The birds are no louder here than at home; no deer come and lick my face; the air is not rich with the scent of the flowers, not could it be until there is some real heat. I realise the wildlife wants to be on the forest cover, not down here in the dark below. There’s just us, the blue-smeared undergrowth, and the bivvy bag, which has left a flattened temporary archaeology of my passing the night among them all.


The archaeology of sleep

Chinese architecture: what makes it different?

April 30, 2014 2 comments
Central axis of the central kingdom: the Forbidden City, Beijing

Central axis of the central kingdom: the Forbidden City, Beijing

The very term Chinese religious architecture, which I’ve written about here before, and spoke about in Beijing a couple of weeks ago, is a misnomer. Pagodas are religious; imperial sacrificial altars, of which only a handful ever existed at any one time, are religious. All other building types in Han China before the C17 are barely distinguishable from each other: there is one way of doing architecture, and buildings are classified by status, not function. Exceptions are subtle: for example, Taoist temples are often on high platforms; Confucian temples sometimes have moon-shaped pools outside them; mosques of course have Arabic inscriptions and Qibla-facing prayer halls, sometimes of stone. But this kind of thing is small beer.

This is remarkable. In all the other Major Civlisations (Ancient Rome excepted) there is a country mile in terms of scale, materials and/or form between religious buildings and other types of buildings. A Hindu temple could never be mistaken for a Buddhist one; from ancient Egypt to the ancient Khmer, the only buildings to be made of permanent materials were places of worship, leaving a landscape dotted with temple ruins in which the remains of homes are barely traceable.

There are several reasons for this perfectly rational but very unusual Chinese approach to architecture. The two most pat ones both have some truth to them; firstly, this is a precociously humanistic culture, in which religious conviction is very varied and not the defining feature of society in the way it was in medieval Europe (or, traditionally, in Tibet); secondly, and in contradiction, religious ideas — spirituality, the desire to encourage efficacious and beneficient responses from a spirit-world, small daily rituals — suffuse architecture/culture of all types, so there is no reason to separate a house from a temple. This is true of many, perhaps most, traditional cultures, but in China it has had a profound impact on buildings. If the temple is a home, the home is also a temple.

Perhaps an extension of this, while the Song-era Chinese building manuals, the Yingzao Fashi, make no distinction between a temple and any other kind of building, they emphatically distinguish imperial buildings, palaces and temples alike, from others; and by the same token the oldest buildings to exhibit the key characteristics of Chinese architecture, around the start of the first millenium BCE, seem to have been at once temples and palaces.

In other words, one of the reasons for this cross-functional approach is that traditional Chinese culture placed huge store in the religious role of the emperor as the ritual glue between heaven and earth. There thus is a sense in which palace and temple are overlapping categories. One can push this too far: the notion that royal power is also divine power is the motivating force behind many great temples in many great cultures without their also literally being palaces, but nevertheless there is much in it.

Finally, there is the simple fact that China achieved an infinitely modular and flexible architectural tradition and had good reason to consider it good for any kind of building, resulting in structures grand, flexible, beautiful and practical enough to suit all needs.

The Buddhist temple at Nanchansi, Shanxi, one of the oldest complete buildings of timber on the planet.

The Buddhist temple at Nanchansi, Shanxi, one of the oldest complete buildings of timber on the planet.

Allied to this is the most striking thing about these buildings, compared to their peers in other cultures. They are rarely enormous: in all China, as far as I can see, the Temple of Confucius at Qufu, Shandong is (as far as I can see) the only emphatically religious complex to bear comparison in terms of size with (say) the great medieval Christian buildings which are frequently seen in Europe. Perhaps, if the scale of their surviving comparitors in Japan (such as the Todaiji, Nara) is anything to go by, this was different under the Tang. We don’t know — and we don’t know because  the Chinese, very remarkably, as well as never going for the truly gargantuan and emphatically religious structures which, from Angkor to Thebes, from Baghdad to Cordoba, from Tieotihuacan to Samarra, were seen elsewhere, never developed an aspiration to permanency; that is, they never did what everyone else did, which is convert an architecture of timber to one of stone, brick or tile.

This is most remarkable. It reminds us that this step, while it occurred everywhere else, is actually rather odd. What made the ancient Americans, the Buddhists, the Greeks and the Egyptians respectively, to take four early and clear examples, decide the religious buildings, unlike any other kinds of building, should be made of permanent materials, even if the result was simply a carbon copy of an archjitecture that already existed in timber or mudbrick or bound reeds or whatever, is one of the world’s great architectural mysteries, and the answer, it seems to me, is likely to be bound up with religion itself. But in China, in spite of perfectly excellent traditions of masoncraft, and various interesting exceptions-to-the-rule, this simply never happened.

This has enormous implications. It means little in China is genuinely old. In an ancient culture — while by no means the oldest architectural tradition on earth, Chinese traditional architecture is still with us, and has arguably been around longer and with even greater continuity than the nearest (just-) surviving competitor, the architecture of Classical Europe —  it is odd to find few buildings older than 2 or 300 years. It is also hard to ‘read’ structures that will look identical if renewed yesterday or thirty years or a century ago, and whose maintenance in any case requires constant replacement of parts. It creates an enormous perception gap when people from China come to view the genuinely ancient, multi-layered structures found elsewhere on earth (especially in ancient Egyptian, Christian and Islamic cultures). It plays games with outsiders’ approach to what they are seeing, and perhaps with locals’ understanding of what is old (and whether ‘oldness’ matters), too: the whole shebang of authenticity gets mixed-up.

It also means that in China we are seeing, still being built today (if ironically often in very permanent concrete), the equivalent of pre-Doric Greek temples, pre-Imhotep Egyptian temples, or pre-chaitya cave Buddhist prayer halls: a surviving mature architecture of impermanent materials. It is as if the architectural history current elsewhere is here being read backwards.

These major exceptions-to-the-global-architectural rule must also reflect centuries of lost conversations, in which incoming Buddhist, Islamic and Christian architectural traditions have to adapt themselves to the architecture of the far east, rather than vice versa; ie that their practitioners have to accept the local way of building over that they might have brought with them. The churches built by the Jesuits in China in the C17 are the first buildings to successfully insist that their way of doing things is superior to, or must be used for the religious buildings of, their culture rather than the Chinese alternatives. And all this is in spite of the existence around the borders and within the bounds of the empire, of the opposite, more globally normative, tradition. Architectures of stone, in which religious buildings emphatically stand out from other types of building in all kinds of ways, following south-east Asian traditions in Yunnan, central Asian traditions of Arab and Persian origin in Xinjiang, and a distinctive and unique blend of Indian and Chinese and indigenous in Tibet.

The Circular Mound Altar at Tiantan (the Temple of Heaven), Beijing, midwinter solstice 2012: unique survivor of an ancient tradition.

The Circular Mound Altar at Tiantan (the Temple of Heaven), Beijing, midwinter solstice 2012: unique survivor of an ancient tradition.

I’ve written before about the significance to all this of the imperial sacrificial altars. While always few in number, they are the only building type to be both emphatically religious and indigenously Chinese. The Temple of Heaven is by far the best surviving example of a kind of building that can only ever have existed in small numbers near to an imperial capital. Here the world famous and beautiful circular Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is more of a one-off and was often less important, both as an example of the type and in terms of its original ritual role, than the other main Circular Mound Altar.

The latter structure bring up a whole range of themes: firstly, this is an architecture of open-air ritual settings, a manipulation of a landscape, of a type that was commonplace at the birth of architecture — the henges of north-west Europe bear illuminating comparison — but which nowhere else was preserved into the modern world (it was last used about a century ago) and in the process became a sophisticated and complete architectural form in its own right. So once again, China is turning the global chronological picture on its head.

Secondly, it is a reminder of the significance of landscape in Chinese architecture: the setting of buildings is crucial, and charged with sacral ideas about how buildings and landscapes should interact if man is to be in harmony with the forces of the natural world. This wider sacred landscape survives in China’s network of sacred mountains, etc, and more crucially from an architectural point of view, it survives in the footprint of the capital city. In spite of its violent makeovers of the 1950s and since the 1990s (it’s still underway), the great north-south axis and nested enclosures of a carefully-laid out imperial capital, every detail of which reflects religious ideas about the architectural setting in which imperial power would be most divinely efficacious, survives: the ring roads and grids of the modern city are extending it out into the surrounding plain. Such planned ‘sacred cities’ existed in other cultures, but I don’t know of anything surviving of this scale and sophistication: it is in itself a work of global significance.

How many of those who visit the Olympic park know that its site is on the symettrical north-south axis at the core of the city’s cosmology? How many of those who go boating on the lake in Behai park, with its pretty Nepali/Tibetan dagoba, realise the protective role of the park itself in this layout, or that Qionghua island is a giant 3-d model of a Buddhist mandala?

Much more ubiquitous in the Chinese landscape than the imperial altars, however, was the other uniquely religious building type of traditional China: the pagoda. But this, the stretched-out and sinicised Buddhist stupa, is not indigenously Chinese: in function and symbolic design, at least, it is Indian, albeit given a strong East Asian twist, its tower like form combining the elaborately composed and tower-like stupas of Central Asia with indigenous watch towers or ges.

Pagodas existed in great variety, and were often of brick or stone: their rapid spread in the first millennium BCE must have had a dramatic impact on the appearance of the country, introducing permanent and distinctively religious structures for the first time.

It is not often noted, however, how they diversify, being placed in the landscape for all kinds of reasons not originally intended and not at all particularly to do with honouring the Buddha (such as to bring good feng shui), and ultimately almost disappeared, being replaced by the Buddha image as the essential feature of a temple in a manner not seen in other Buddhist architectures, where the stupa remains the defining structure of a temple.

I guess two buildings of ancient China are known across the world: the pagoda and the Great Wall. The two make an illuminating compare-and-contrast sequence, in which the Wall symbolises a closed, inward-looking, bureaucratic and autocratic picture of this society, while the pagoda, as well as providing the most concrete link between Chinese traditional architecture and the traditions that developed in the other major civilisations, embodies China’s oft-overlooked historic phases of openness, variety, experiment and spirituality.

In search of St George

April 23, 2014 1 comment

ImageTo mark St George’s day, an unpublished essay on his cult, al-Khidr, and a trip to his shrine at Lod, written in 2006…

Ogbourne St George, Wiltshire spent most of early June 2006 preparing to party like it was 1952. Cream teas for all villagers! Bunting! Warm beer! 

During the celebrations at the village school (3 legged race, sack race, sweeties whether you win or lose) I stared down at my daughter’s face. She beamed back, but looked more like a target than a person, her mixed-race features obscured by a red cross on a backdrop of creamy white face paint.

The Cross of St George: twenty years ago, I’m not sure many people had much of an idea what it was. When did it start reappearing? It seems to me that it was around the time Scotland and Wales got their own parliaments. Did the latest antics in Westminster really have an impact on popular culture?

Whatever the cause, the cross has had something of a resurgence in the last five or ten years, an increase in popularity which came to a head over the period of the World Cup and the Royal Jubilee in June this year. It’s as if the symbol was lying dormant, waiting for the chance to reassert itself, like some relic of the True Cross.

A brief inventory of the bunting visible from my home this June: the retirement bungalows opposite had Union Jack paper plates nailed to the posts of their garden fence. The big thatched cottage next door had a full-size cotton Jack fluttering from a telegraph pole, and bunting everywhere. The thatched cottage opposite it had a flag of similar size stretched between – and nearly covering – its two dormer windows.

In all these flags, George’s Cross crowds out its Celtic co-crosses with imperial self-assertion. On the cottage just down the road it has taken over completely: an 8 foot Cross of St George, red cross on white, dancing in the sun. My journey home is like driving down the deck of the Victory: England expects….

Our babysitter comes: she wears a Cross of St George zip-up top. The bold red line of the cross is split by the zip, running either side of her neck and on to the hood. She looks like the page for some medieval knight. People are walking around with heraldry blazoned on them: the more I think about it the more medieval the whole business seems to be.

So who is this St George, anyway? And where did this simple, powerful graphic – a red cross on a white ground (officially, argent a cross gules; or – as has it – a cross of Pantone 186 on white) come from?

Googling for George turns out to be a highly appropriate way to chase this particular saint and his dragon. George is as amorphous and constantly-changing as the world wide web itself. Here, he is an honourable Palestinian of the third century AD; there, the reinvention of every hero-God of the ancient Middle East. His story and its locations moves from age to age and from location to location, fragmenting and changing shape according to local circumstance.

What is certain is that any search for the ‘real’ George is the least interesting aspect of the saint. The oldest stories of his life date to about 150 years after his death, and are more interesting as a reflection of the mythical needs of the fifth-century church than as a statement of historical truth.

These stories present him as an upstanding Christian from Turkey – Cappadocia to be precise – who lived in Palestine, probably at Diospolis, where his remains lie. The town is today known as Lod and is in Israel. George had some standing –  he was a military governor, or the son of one. Until modern scholarship rendered even this account uncertain, this was who people thought St George was, albeit with a liberal sprinkling of miraculous powers.

Interesting to reflect that our football fans are painting their faces with the badge of an honourable, intelligent and multicultured Middle-Easterner. Perhaps they should just update the story, adopt Edward Said as his modern equivalent, and run around Wembley, Shizouka or the Stadium of Light with the crest of Columbia University picked out on their faces.

While the person these early stories describe is reasonably everyday, the things he does are not. Although the names of places and characters vary from version to version, the outline of the narrative remains the same. An evil ruler – in some versions called the governor ‘Diadanus’, in others the emperor Diocletian – unleashes a furious persecution of Christians, and George objects. What follows is a game of ‘My God is Stronger than Yours’ that does little for the idea that the new faith had an abstract moral programme worth defending. 

The evil emperor tries to kill George three times before he finally succeeds. Each time, George is brought back to life, and then performs a miracle. Each miracle is more extraordinary than the last, the punishment meted out more violent. Some of these stories have a certain poetry: George visits a poor widow and provides her with free food for life by making a wooden column in her home bud, put down roots, and grow into a huge tree – the highest thing in the city – full with ripe fruit. The size of the tree draws the authorities’ attention, and soon George is on back with the evil emperor, being tortured to death once again.

Any poetic quality the miracles may have is compensated for by the extremity of the ensuing violence: sixty nails are driven into George’s head; his body is crushed ‘like particles of dry summer dust’; his brains pour out of his nostrils like milk. That kind of thing. 

Each time George is killed the emperor tries to ensure his remains are untraceable, to avoid anyone finding them and building a shrine over them. Each time they are found and reconstituted by God, making a spectacularly cinematic appearance accompanied by various saints and angels. Each time, a few thousand more locals decide to abandon Apollo and follow George’s God, only to be slaughtered in their turn. And each time, the revivified saint goes on to perform an even more audacious miracle. He is only finally martyred after destroying all the idols in the Temple of Apollo and converting the evil emperor’s wife to Christianity, by which time 28,680 new martyrs have been created.

The quality of the story, with its one-dimensional characters, its fantastical special effects, and its X-certificate cartoon violence, is to the modern reader most reminiscent of a modern Manga cartoon or some of the more extreme games available for PlayStation 2. But however fantastical the stories, they are not unusual for their period. There is a whole crop of early saints with similar qualities: a Middle Eastern origin of uncertain historicity; dramatic miracle-making powers when pitted against the most dastardly of baddies; mass slaughters and mass conversions; a certain militarism. George originally appeared as part of a subset of these, the so-called Military Martyrs – introduced at who were especially popular in areas throughout the Middle East where Christianity had achieved some strength in a given community but was still under violent assault from the powers that be. In other words, the stories tell us more about the needs of their authors (and their audiences) than they do about any ‘real’ St George.

Googling for him, I am astonished by the range of resources available. Many are published by academic hagiographers, or Catholic organisations whose main interest is in establishing the historical ‘truth’ of a given saint’s story. There are complete translations of the earliest legends and first-rate bibliographies.  At is a good summary of the only definite conclusion all this scholarship has come to: ‘all that can safely be said is that a martyr suffered at or near Lydda [another name for Lod] before Constantine’ – that is, the stories have their roots in a real human being, name unknown, associated with Lod and killed for his Christianity sometime in the period 300-320.

Much of the study of saints seems to be driven by this interest in proving the historical truth – or otherwise – of their stories. It is hard to find anyone – in print or on the web – with much intelligent to say about these legends as literary or cultural artefacts in themselves.

The lack of similarly detailed analysis of the legends is not simply a matter of doctrinal bias. Finding something intelligent to say is not easy: myths appear and grow in ways that are as amorphous and chimeral as culture itself.

It’s astonishing, for example, to realise that the one thing everyone knows about St George- that he killed a dragon and saved a princess – doesn’t appear until nearly a thousand years after the death of the ‘real’ George. The story appears fully formed in The Golden Legend, an extraordinarily influential collection of saint’s stories compiled by Jacobus de Voraigne and published in 1275. 

Here, a terrible dragon threatens a city ‘in Libya’; his breath is venomous. To keep him at bay, the citizens send him a sheep every day. Soon, all the sheep have been eaten, and they have no choice but to select people: first men, then the young, selected by lot. When a lot falls to the king’s daughter: the king protests, sparking a popular uprising. The king relents, sadly sending his daughter to the marsh where the dragon is, dressed ‘like as she should be wedded’.

As the dragon approaches, a stranger on a white horse is passing: St George. The girl warns him to leave, but he stays with her and attacks the dragon. George quickly proves his superior strength. With the dragon cowed, he asks the princess to put her garter round its neck. Tamed by underwear, the beast submits pet-like to the will of the man and the woman. They lead it to the city, where George says he will kill the beast if the people convert to Christianity. They eagerly do so (this time just 15,000 new Christians are made, none of whom are martyred), and the dragon’s remains are scattered on the fields around the city.

Where does this story come from? There are hints of it in the original martyr’s myths: Diadanus the evil emperor, for example, is in one version also referred to as ‘the dragon’: add five hundred years of retelling, a few mistranslations, and a new cultural context and one could perhaps end up with the George and dragon story.

Whatever its origins, the story has the edge on all its predecessors in one crucial way: unlike them, it is a proper story, with dramatic tension, two or three memorable characters, a beginning, a middle and an end. The early George’s ability to call down miracles on demand is replaced by a real heroic struggle: the king refusing to sacrifice his daughter, then bowing to popular pressure; the isolated and terrified princess trying to get St George to leave before he, too, is eaten: and George himself, man against monster, unaided by deus or machina – unless you count the garter.

I have objective proof of the superiority of the ‘new’ George story over the ‘old’ one: the three-year-old-daughter test. I showed her the early images of St George – a hieratic figure with a sword and a lance – but they were of little interest: I then showed her Uccello’s George and the Dragon, which hangs in the National Gallery. It immediately prompted an interested ‘What’s that?’. I have now been asked seven or eight times to ‘tell the story again, Daddy’.

This Very Good Story leads us into some very deep waters. Agendas seem to lurk in it that take us far beyond conventional Christian moralising: why must the princess be dressed for marriage? Why does she tame the beast with her garter? Some doctrinal symbolism may be encoded in these images, but a sexual agenda is surely part of their appeal.

The story is strikingly similar to those of several Middle Eastern pagan gods, from the Egyptian Horus to the Persian Mithras, who battle with beasts and win. One of these is even associated with a spot about 10 miles from George’s shrine at Lod: the battle of Perseus with the sea monster to save the princess Andromeda is said to have taken place at the nearby port of Jaffa.

By playing a game of ‘this story is a bit like that story’, writers from the nineteenth century on have presumed much: George as pre-Christian Levantine hero-cult, grafted onto the martyrdom of some hapless local; George as an archetypal hero, representing all our struggles with the animal within. It’s attractive stuff, but the problems are historical: the George and the dragon story doesn’t occur until centuries after the period when ‘the problem’ was Christianity versus paganism.

Writers of the tenth or eleventh century, when the story is presumed to have its origins, had little need to reinvigorate long-dead pagan cults: they were more concerned about the new monotheism in the East. Islam was young, successful and  – unlike early Christianity – very happy to establish itself through political and military struggle. The battle with Islam demanded new myths: it also led to new waves of cultural translation, as the Franks of Western Europe discovered the eastern church – where St George was already a major figure – and the Saracen world beyond.

The embattled Christian cultures went on the offensive. The Crusades they launched required a new breed of morale-boosting sacred hero. A heroic, far-travelling holy soldier fitted the bill perfectly. Indeed, a new cult of religious warfare was being born which would flower into an entire culture – chivalry – and George’s reputation snowballed as it did so.

The first signs of the rebirth of George came in a battle in 11th century Sicily, where he appeared before the Norman army which took the island from its Muslim inhabitants. He pulled off a greater and more influential version of the trick at the siege of Antioch during the First Crusade in 1098, appearing before the Christian armies shortly before the city fell. The ‘appearing before the army God wants to win’ trick has been something of a Georgic staple ever since: he made miraculous appearances in Russian villages throughout Siberia prior to the 1906 Russo-Japanese war, and appeared before the English armies at Mons in 1914.

Around this time his cross appears, too. The Golden Legend describes George cutting a cross of blood on the dragon’s head; the same source tells the story of George making an appearance at the siege of Jerusalem, bearing white arms with a red cross.

It is via the crusades and chivalry that the new cult of George – and his new symbol – reached England. Although the ‘old’ George of the miracles and the evil emperor was known here from at least the eighth century, Saint George did not play a major role before the thirteenth. His reinvention as our national saint – and the adoption of the red cross as his symbol – is another example of the way St George moves from culture to culture, constantly being re-invented.

This time, the audience was the English people: the author, successive Kings and their fourteenth-century spin doctors. The academic Jonathan Bengtson has pointed out that before this time, England had no truly national saint or symbol: saints like Edward the Confessor and St Edmund were more patrons of the Royal family than of the nation; Thomas à Becket was a more populist figure, but his cult posed some thorny political problems for the Crown. The heraldic badge of the Royal family likewise symbolised ruler rather than ruled. Indeed it is doubtful if the nation in the modern sense existed at all.

The gradual creation of a semi-official cult of St George thus played a key role in the process of building an English national identity – a process which, in this instance at least, may have been quite a ‘top down’ one.

Although it was probably Richard I, returning from the Crusades, who brought the ‘new’ Saracen-swotting George to increased attention, it was Edward III – or his advisors – who realised the special potential in the story. The institutions of the feudal system had been shaken from within by the murder of Edward II by his barons; the country was also under attack from without by both Frenchman and Scot. Edward founded a new chivalrous order, the Order of the Garter. The Order bolstered the relationship between Crown and aristocracy by creating a special new group of knights. It would be headed by the King; its myths and rituals would evoke the full richness of chivalric culture. Its patron would be St George.

The Order was founded in 1348; by 1388 St George’s red cross had become a kind of corporate heraldic logo for the English army: known as ‘the George Jacque’, it was compulsory wear for every soldier. By 1416 this spiritual migrant had been fully assimilated into the national culture: the Archbishop of Canterbury officially confirmed his role as ‘special protector and patron of the English nation’.

The Fifteenth century was the overripe peak of popular ritual in pre-Reformation England, and St George appeared as the patron of guilds and the hero of mumming plays across the country. By the next century, George had merged so deeply with popular culture – and our own native stories of dragons and other beasts – that it was possible for popular tradition to have replaced Silene, Libya with Uffington, Oxfordshire as the site of the dragon battle; and for St George to turn up as a native of Coventry in Richard Johnson’s 1608 The Most Famous History of The Seven Champions of Christendom.

England is not the only culture to have adopted this saint – with his good story and simple, graphic symbol – as a special patron. Genoa, Moscow and Georgia are just a few other places who have done so: indeed, his cult travelled east as effectively as it did west. He is claimed, for example, as a special protector by the Christians of Kerala, who see him as a protector in spite of having colonised twice by George-loving nations – first Portugal, then England.

I can understand how George has taken such a deep hold in so many imaginations. Simply while researching the saint, the over-familiar story of his encounter with the princess and the dragon has become something rather compelling. I can see now how myths mutate from ‘story’ to ‘belief’; I start to wonder if woolly words like ‘archetype’ are the only way my rationality can tame this particular beast.

But perhaps it is not the story’s ‘universality’ that gives it power, so much as its openness, its mutability. Once a legend has been reduced to such basic components – a man, a woman, an animal, a struggle – you can graft just about any cultural associations onto it.

I have started to crave some fixity as I watch George shape-shifting between cultures, in libraries and art galleries, and on the internet. A couple of years ago, as part of a visit to Israel, I took the opportunity to visit the only place on earth unquestionably associated with the ‘real’ St George: the town of Lod, which lies on the coastal plain between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

It was not a great time to visit the country. Four weeks into the Al-Aqsa Intifada, many of the key sites of Israel and the Palestinian Authority were closed, and tension was everywhere. One day, we went to the beach: we were the only people there, apart from a lonely-looking Arab man who whose very presence made my liberal Israeli hosts so nervous we departed almost soon as we arrived.

The journey to Lod revealed an Israel far from both headlines and tourist trails; an Israel that was on the surface a beguiling mixture of first- and developing worlds. Markets heaved with Arab Israelis; newly arrived – and highly secularised – Jews from the former Soviet Union; black Jews from the Horn of Africa. Pale Orthodox Ashkenazi herded on and off buses, switching from Yiddish to Bronx English when necessary. Young Sephardim supped coffees in shades and designer jeans, the guns of military service slung over their shoulders. Music that combined Middle Eastern rhythms with the latest dance beats thundered from open car windows.

I watched this world as my bus circled the concrete estates of Lod. The town seemed to consist of endless housing blocks, indistinguishable from the 1950s estates of Brooklyn, Hackney or Vladivostock.

Soon we doubled back on ourselves. I began to think how foolish it was to expect to stumble on St George’s shrine by peering out of a public bus. Then an unmistakable landmark slipped into view: the familiar red and white flag of St George flapping in the hot air, a church tower next to it, just like home.

I left the bus, and walked across a large and rather neglected square surrounded on all sides by housing blocks. It was if some planner wanted to make a central urban space here, but the money ran out. The square was overgrown with dry yellow grasses. Hulks of ruined and ancient looking structures stood by the cracked tarmac of a playing field.

As the flag drew nearer, I saw it was flying from the roof of a house. Next to the house was a handsome church of white Jerusalem limestone, but the tower next to it was not a bell tower at all: it was a minaret. The church and the mosque shared a wall, as if trying to occupy the same piece of land.

An efficiently friendly woman from the house with the flag – an Orthodox Christian institution  – let me into the church. The interior was well-tended but a little soulless, the icons and candelabra of Orthodoxy dark beneath the crisp Byzantine-styled domes and arches. There have been several churches on this site: this one dates only to 1875. 

A whole group of early legends tell the story not of the saint’s life, but of the importance of this place. They focus brazenly on a very limited series of messages: give to the church of St George at Lod, or found a church of St George yourself, and God will repay you with a miracle or two. Jews, Saracens and pagans will come to Lod to mock the cult, but will leave both punished and converted.

The relics of St George on display here included a stone column, used in his torture. Blood was said to flow from the column for three hours each year, on the anniversary of his death; it had a gap in it which functioned as a kind of supernatural lie detector, only letting people through it if they spoke the truth.

In a small room beneath the church, I came upon supposed tomb of St George: a dark space, occupied only by a small icon, a burning candle, and some empty censers. Some legends say this spot marks the site of his home, that his body was brought here at death and successively greater churches built around it.

Standing in his presumed burial place I was struck by the impact this man, obscure in life, had in death. If only by providing a moral uplift and a dose of faith at key moments, he has had an impact on history: giving courage to an embattled early church; supporting Crusaders in their fight against the Saracen; helping build nations; and spreading images, stories and ideas from culture to culture.

There was one fringe benefit to visiting during a new Intifada: I could experience for myself just how alive many of these issues still were. Diadanus, like the modern Israeli right, wanted to stamp out the enemy in his midst; in doing so he merely created new martyrs. If St George is any example, it is perfectly possible for a martyr to be more effective in death than in life. 

A crowd was emerging from the mosque as I left the church. Mid-afternoon prayers had just finished. I approached the Imam to ask if I could go in: he looked me up and down with the gaze of one who cared little for unbelievers, then assented.

Inside, one of the worshippers was curious about my interest in the building. He was welcoming in a gentlemanly, almost graceful way; I warmed to him. We walked around the mosque together: it was a plain structure, one that had seen better days. Two large and ancient-looking Byzantine pillars frame the qibla niche that marks the direction of Mecca. I noticed that both were painted green. There was a small dome over the prayer hall and a large entrance door with an Arabic inscription on it: these, too were painted green.

I asked him if there was a reason the mosque shared a site with the church. In reply he talked of both buildings under one name. I found hard to enunciate this name correctly, so eventually he wrote it down for me, first in Arabic and then in Roman script: al-Khadir.

He said that the mosque was dedicated to this figure, and that local Arabs – Muslim and Christian alike – refer to St George by the same name too. I was fascinated: are they the same person? Does St George play a role in Islam? I sensed that these questions tested the limits of his English, and perhaps of his knowledge; but it was clear that the connection between the two figures was a deep one, and that this al-Khadir was more than an incidental figure.

Outside, I tried approaching the Imam for more information, but he was surrounded by people. I quickly started to feel like an irritant. Eventually his attention turned to me: ‘I am extremely busy’, he said, ‘Please come back at some future point.’ 

I headed off towards the bus station, feeling like a frustrated, disorientated outsider. I came to Lod hoping to pin St George down: what I found was that that somehow, he extended into another culture. A whole new world of stories and histories to grapple with. Perhaps Google was the best place to hunt for him after all. 

Back in Ogbourne St George, I learn more about Lod, and begin to understand why it looks like more like Crawley than Jericho, and perhaps why its Imams are more interested in the concerns of local Muslims than of an ignorant traveller.

At I find eyewitness accounts of one of the most ignoble episodes of the 1948 Israel/Palestine war: the evacuation of Lod. The Israeli army found themselves with the armed inhabitants of the town to their rear; with the authority of David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, then a Lieutenant Colonel, gave a clear order: ‘the residents of Lydda must be expelled quickly, without attention to age’. Sources say between 250 to 426 people were killed, scores of them while taking refuge in a mosque. The Chicago Sun Times spoke of ‘Blitz tactics’, and of many more deaths among the thousands of refugees. [I have checked this account against several more impartial histories of the period].

The pre-1948 Lod looked utterly different to that of today, with palm trees scattered between a maze of low, traditional houses; its souk and its mosques, and its 18,000 residents, all Arabs. By 1950 the town was in the process of being ‘modernised’: of a population of 10,450, only 1,050 were Arab. My little complex of church, church house and mosque is an island of ‘heritage’ in a town that has been ‘cleansed’ both ethnically and culturally. 

It’s not the first time, either. The Jewish town of Lod was razed by the Romans in AD66; Caliph Abdel Malik had the (then largely Christian) town destroyed in 870. Or the last: some Muslims believe the end of the world will be marked by a battle between Jesus and Satan at the gates of Lod.

 Sobered, I point Google at al-Khadir. As with St George, the resources are considerable: al-Khadir, it turns out, is both mysterious and important. A children’s book tells his story, available from; meanwhile, an Islamic scholar gives his opinion on the subject at From English versions of the Qu’ran and other core texts, to mystical commentaries by Naqshbandi sufis, there is much available. 

Al-Khadir is held by many to be one of the prophets, yet he only crops up in passing in the Qu’ran. Just about everything else about him is the subject of debate: as the Islamic scholar Ibn Katheer puts it, ‘the real name, lineage and status of al-Khadir are controversial.’ I’m reminded of Pope Gelasius who, as early as 495 claimed that the legends of St George where so historically unreliable that his ‘actions are only known to God.’

In Sura 18 of the Qu’ran, The Cave, ‘Musa’ – probably Moses – makes a journey to the ‘land where two seas meet’. Here he encounters a being endowed with special wisdom by God. This figure, unnamed in the Sura itself, is Al-Khadir.

Al-Khadir leads Moses on a further journey, during which he carries out three baffling acts: he scuttles the boat in which they both are travelling; kills a young man without provocation; and rebuilds a fallen wall, in spite of having been made unwelcome by the locals.

Moses cannot understand these actions: al-Khadir explains the reason in each case. This story, presenting Khadir as a mysterious traveller who can discern the inner meaning of events, one who can advise one of the greatest of prophets, has made him particularly important in Islamic mysticism.

Beyond the Qu’ran, the tradition of al-Khadir expands as giddily as George’s did. Many believe he still exists, and from time to time – like St George – manifests himself. He buried Adam when he died; travelled with Alexander the Great on a quest to find the spring of eternal life; and meets Elijah in Mecca every year. He is said to have saved Palestine from floods at the turn of the century; a mosque dedicated to him in Baghdad was mysteriously protected, like St Paul’s in the Blitz, from the ravages of Desert Storm.

Al-Khadir is said to turn land green when he prays, or to appear dressed in green, or to make fruitful any patch of earth he passes. One of the most widely-accepted statements about him is attributed to Mohammed himself: he said that al-Khadir ‘sat on a barren white land and turned it green’.

Images like this give him things in common with St George: some scholars – not all – translate al-Khadir as ‘the green one’; some scholars – not all – claim ‘George’ means ‘tiller of the earth’. It is often said that churches of St George and mosques al-Khadir are located in similar kinds of places: promontories, hilltops, islands. These apparent similarities are both fascinating and tantalising, begging as many questions as they answer. Only one thing is definite: all over the Middle East, the figures of St George, Al-Khadir and the prophet Elijah elide with one another. Shrines to one are often shrines to the others; stories and popular rituals concerning them are shared. These three figures bring Jews, Muslims and Christians together.

In trying to find a clear explanation for all this I come up against the limits of the sources: most comparative study of al-Khadir is driven by a religious imperative to demonstrate the uniqueness of the Qu’ran – ‘the uncreated word of God’ – rather than its cultural interconnectedness. I am reminded how my reading about St George was similarly limited, with much scholarship focused on a Christian interest in establishing which elements of his legend were historically true. Hardly anyone seemed interested in the significance of those parts that were legend.

As I write this, extracts from The Dignity of Difference, by the [British] Chief Rabbi, Jonathon Sacks, are being published in the Guardian and the New York Times. A passage jumps out at me: ‘I believe that globalisation is summoning the world’s faiths to a supreme challenge, one that we can no longer avoid. Can we find, in the human other, a trace of the Divine Other?… there are times when God meets us in the face of a stranger’. George/al-Khadir/Elijah, a wise traveller moving between the three Abrahamic religions, doesn’t always make life easy; he veers between inclusiveness and militarism.  But perhaps there’s life in the old martyr yet.

It’s the evening of 2 June, and a Jubilee bonfire is burning on the Down above Ogbourne St George. My daughter runs with the other village children in the dusk; we parents queue for overcooked sausages. Similar beacons jump hotly on the horizon. Suddenly, a group of locals push through the crowd carrying an effigy: the atmosphere shifts subtly from community bunfest to The Wicker Man.

The mask on the effigy is oddly familiar: a big wide grin between big wide ears. Are they really burning Prince Charles? Does the issue of the Royal succession matter so much to the farmers and retired bankers of the M4 corridor? No – they’re burning the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

I know Foot-and-Mouth didn’t go too well around here, but I didn’t expect this. I wait for something to happen.  There’s a bustle in the hedgerow: is Al-Khadir coming? Perhaps he will tell us why, during a once-in-a-generation celebration of national unity, it is proper to burn your elected leader. The flames crackle: is that Elijah, come to lecture us on our Glorious Constitution? Something moves up the Aldbourne road: is that St George, horseshoes striking sparks on tarmac, come to rescue the poor PM?

But no miracle occurs. This home-grown act of symbolic terrorism goes unremarked, and the flames jump around poor Tony. Our children watch, red crosses painted on their faces.