Thursday, 31 January 2013

The glory of Norwich

WHAT is Britain’s finest building?
I don’t mean the most famous or the most iconic – so no, not Big Ben or Tower Bridge. They are good examples of Victorian engineering and triumphalism, though I prefer the Natural History Museum and the Crossness sewage pumping-station.
And please don’t say Buckingham Palace, which – whatever you may think of the institution it houses – must have a claim to being Britain’s ugliest building.
London gets more than its fair share of attention. And frankly, though many of its very street names ooze with history, and many of its common homes have a certain aura, most of its well-known buildings are more famous than fine.
So forget London and come up quickly, if you can, with a mental list. A Top Ten of great British buildings.
I’ll bet it consists of one or two castles, maybe, and a load of cathedrals. Perhaps, since this after all is sylly (i.e. ‘holy’) Suffolk, your local parish church.
And I’ll bet most – very likely all – of your private list were late medieval. That is, built between say 1100 and 1600.
First on my list would be Durham Cathedral. Other contenders would be King’s College Chapel, along with the cathedrals at Lincoln, York, Wells, Canterbury, Salisbury, Gloucester and – topping all of those – Norwich.
It’s not just the structure itself that is so lovely, though it is a particularly elegant example of Gothic airiness in beautifully warm Caen stone. What makes Norwich really stand out for me is its unrivalled collection of roof bosses.
All up the superb length of the high nave, and right round the cloister, every intersection of the vault arching has a delightfully carved scene, most of them biblical.
There are scenes from the life of Noah (at least one of which, below, might surprise you by its, um, ‘explicit’ nature), Salome dancing with the head of John the Baptist, exuberant musicians and feasting monks.
They are, taken together, probably the best collection of in-situ medieval imagery in Britain. Yet bizarrely little known.
When you add that the great east window of St Peter Mancroft rivals King’s Chapel for the finest stained glass in the kingdom, it may seem ironic that Norwich was revealed last month as the least religious city in Britain.
No cheap partisan jokes, please. To my mind, this distinction is another thing for our northerly neighbour to be proud of.
At least it would be if it weren’t simply a chance matter of demographics.
The 2011 Census figures showed religious affiliation across the country at a new low, with self-confessed Christians clocking in at 59 per cent of the population and those claiming “no religion” 25pc.
That’s Christians down 13 points from 72pc at the previous count, no-religion up ten points from 15pc. Those describing themselves as Muslim went up from 1.8pc of the population in 2001 to 4.8pc in 2011.
But those figures are misleading in several ways.
For one thing, the question of religion was only introduced into the census in 2001, so it’s hard to say anything meaningful about any trend.
For another, as Richard Dawkins and the British Humanist Association were keen to point out, there wasn’t actually a question “Do you have a religion?” If there had been, it’s fair to assume the figure for Christians might have been a lot lower.
“Christian” is, after all, the default position in this country for a great many people who never set foot in a church for any purpose other than weddings and funerals.
If the question had been about regular active participation in religious ceremonies, the non-religious would surely have been a large majority.
Meanwhile, in addition to that glorious cathedral, Norwich has more medieval church buildings put to new, non-religious, uses than any other. And that really is something to be proud of.
The reasons for it being bottom of the religion league table are, I suspect, two-fold.
No strong Roman Catholic tradition (in recent centuries, that is – all those churches, including the cathedral, were Catholic when they were built). And fewer adherents than most other British cities to the one religion that is really “trending” these days – Islam.


ONE long-tailed tit and one fieldfare – lovely to see, but these are not birds that usually travel singly. Where were their flocks?
In fact, where were the other birds? The finches in particular. One solitary female chaffinch is scant consolation for the flocks of green and goldfinches I’ve noted down in previous years.
The weekend’s Big Garden Birdwatch was a worryingly disappointing one for me. If my severely slimmed-down list of sightings is typical, it will look like a disastrous for the RSPB – and the birds of Britain.
  • Footnote: The day after I wrote this, my birdfeeder - sadly virtually ignored all winter - attracted a pair of siskins; my gardening was accompanied by three robins, one of which settled on my hoe almost as soon as I laid it aside; and I saw the first two housesparrows I've seen in our garden in all the seven years we've been here. Signs of spring (I'd better get on with that hedge-laying!)

WHAT a small world it’s become. And what a weird one it would seem to our ancestors – even our grandparents or our younger selves.
There I sat in Suffolk with my breakfast, watching a tennis match between a Chinese woman and one from Belarus, taking place in Australia.
Gobsmacking, really, when you think about it.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Armstrong comes a little cleaner - but he's still just as disgusting

“HE’S got no morals and he’s a disgusting human being.”
I really don’t know enough about Lance Armstrong – and neither, I suspect, does she – to endorse the first part of Nicole Cooke’s verdict on the man who may be sport’s biggest cheat. Any moral sense he may have is hard to discern from here, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Just, perhaps, that it’s a little different from mine or yours.
The second part of Cooke’s assessment would be hard to disagree with, though.
He certainly disgusts me. And nothing he said in his much-trumpeted “confession” to Oprah Winfrey lessened the depth of that disgust.
Serial liar, hardened cheat who gained fame, fortune and glory – not once, but repeatedly over several years – by the use of drugs that he knew were illegal.
Nothing he may say about “air in the tyres and water in the bottles” changes that.
His gaining of those rewards by illicit means deprived who knows which non-drugged riders of the opportunity to come by them fairly.
And then there is the bullying of team-mates, officials and journalists – those few, like David Walsh of the Sunday Times, who persisted in chasing him as well as the greater number who chose instead to report the lies they were told.
In a fairer world, Armstrong would be answering to his many and varied victims in a court of law not in the relative comfort of a celebrity TV interview.
In contrast to the unspeakable Armstrong, David Millar is one of the good guys.
He too is a confessed drug cheat. His reaction to being caught, though, was rather different from Armstrong’s.
Rather than years of aggressive denial, followed by a grudging and self-serving admission, he has spent the past eight and a half years campaigning to save other cyclists from going down the same sorry road as himself.
That cycling may now indeed be – as Millar optimistically says – one of the cleanest of all professional sports is at least in part down to his efforts.
Unlike Armstrong, he’s a nice guy too – as is shown by his response to Armstrong’s belated and partial confession.
“I do feel for him,” Millar said. “His life is never going to be the same. He’s got kids and they’re going to have to go to school. A couple of years ago their dad was the best in the world and now he’s a pariah.”
For that reason, I can sympathise with the kids. But I wouldn’t go as far as Millar in empathising with their dad.
Like Cooke, British gold medal-winner on the cycling track at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I have more sympathy with the riders forced out of the sport because they refused to join the drug culture.
In fact, one thing Armstrong told Oprah left me feeling if anything more disgusted by him, rather than less.
It was his claim that he only became a bully after being diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996.
As if that made it all right.
As if that justified his decision to give his body a great deal more abuse – and pressurise others into doing likewise.
It was not just a nauseating attempt at emotional blackmail, which he is something of a specialist in.
It was also an outrageous slur on all those cancer victims who have not responded to the diagnosis by mutating into disgusting human beings.

NOT so long ago I was still one of that dwindling number of people who had never seen Les Mis. Now I’ve seen it on the West End stage and the movie screen and am very much looking forward to next month’s production in Woodbridge.
I confidently expect the Farlingaye High School pupils to outperform nearly all the film’s stars in the vocal department.
The biggest surprise in the film was the superb performance by Anne Hathaway in the crucial, heartstring-tugging role of Fantine.
Elsewhere, the decision of director Tom Hooper to cast actors rather than singers in what is actually an opera is not always so well vindicated.
In the central roles of Valjean and Javert, Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe prove they can act and sing. Unfortunately, they only do one of those things each.
Crowe sings surprisingly well; Jackman, a fine actor, is no surprise at all.
Among the lesser roles, most are actually very good, while Sacha Baron Cohen is unspeakably awful as Thenardier. You can unspeak that in either the nasal drawl of a cod-Jewish villain or an Allo Allo mock French accent. He can’t decide which to go with, either.
Even worse is a camera that can’t keep still. If you’re not swooping round and round the performers at sickening speed, you’re either peering down from the sky or up from the floor at a crazy angle.
I’m not sure why it should be, but some of the plot’s less convincing twists seem less preposterous on stage than on screen. And you don’t get motion-sickness in the theatre, or the school hall, either.


Wednesday, 16 January 2013

We all suffer from culture of distrust in the wake of Savile and his seedy kind

WHEN her uncle put his hand up her skirt, the child complained to her grandmother.  Who told her: “Don’t make a fuss, dear, it’s only Uncle Jimmy.” Or words to that devastating effect.
It is a great shame that Jimmy Savile managed to evade justice by dying before his decades-long career as a serial child-abuser came to light. Or was allowed to come to light by all those who must have known, or had some inkling.
Had his 200-plus crimes ever come to court, how many other defendants might there have been? Not, in the vast majority, to face similar charges to the wicked uncle himself, but as accessories before or after the sordid fact.
The posthumous “Savile case” has already cost the BBC a lot of soul-searching, public denunciation and its governor general.
So what should the consequences be for those hospitals and various charitable institutions that we now know provided Savile with more of his victims and more of the venues for them to be assaulted?
And which, in too many cases, assisted in the hushing-up of “Uncle Jimmy’s” predatory behaviour – either from fear of his undoubted influence or, like Grandma, fear of losing a share in the riches his outsize public persona generated.
Revelations of the full extent and nature of Savile’s sins have surely shocked the nation.
One acquaintance tried to tell me Savile’s guilt had been exaggerated and that those of his victims who have come forward since the TV documentary that opened the can of worms were “just trying to cash in”.
That, I’m sure, is a minority view – and a deeply, sickenly wrong one.
It seems to me far more likely that – as the police suggest – the full extent of Savile’s wrong-doing remains hidden because many more real victims have not come forward.
There could be a variety of reasons for them keeping quiet, from long-endured feelings of guilt and humiliation to the sense that ancient history hardly matters now. Some, no doubt, will have gone to their graves before him, their bitter secrets never told.
Amid the national hand-wringing over Savile and the culture in which he flourished, some comfort has been taken in the fact that times have changed.
They surely have – but not entirely for the better.
Yes, the routine objectifying and humiliation of women and children – both physically and verbally – is, thankfully, no longer socially acceptable as it once was.
But an important baby has been thrown out along with that bathwater.
In these paedophile-obsessed times it is no longer professionally safe for a teacher to comfort a crying child with an arm around the shoulder.
By that sad fact alone the child, the teacher and all of us are made poorer, and sadder.
It weakens the relationship of genuine care between young people and adults who might be as far from Savile-like proclivities as I am from flying unaided to the moon.
It’s part of the same altered culture that leaves teachers vulnerable to disrespect from parents as well as pupils.
And it’s not only teachers who suffer from this climate of seedy distrust. In effect, it’s all of us.
It’s an impoverishment of our whole sense of community. An assault upon the old value of “loving one’s neighbour as oneself”.
And while one cannot pin the whole change in the culture on Jimmy Savile, I think one can hold him – and those who for so many years let him get away with his nauseating behaviour – partly responsible.
If I believed in Hell, I would be tempted to hope he rots there forever.
I rather hope he believed in it himself.


ALL India was horrified, as well it might be, by the attack on December 16 that left a 23-year-old woman dead after being gang-raped on a moving bus.
It’s hard to put the extent of one’s revulsion into words.
But I am also made uneasy by the way it has put “rape in India” onto the news agenda of the world.
There is – tragically – too little newsprint and too little air-time to report in every paper and on every radio bulletin every rape that happens anywhere in the world. So why all the attention on India?
In the words of last Friday’s New York Times, the December murder “has become a symbol of all that is wrong with how India treats its women and girls”.
Fair enough. In India.
But the debate in New York – or here – should be about such issues everywhere, not reported as if the problem was unique to the sub-continent. Sadly, it isn’t.
One shock headline revealed that there are, apparently, 14 rapes in Mumbai every day. Which sounds a lot – 14 more than would be acceptable.
But according to British Crime Survey figures it is about a fifth of the rate rape in Britain, where 230 rapes a day are recorded (Britain’s population is about three and a half times that of Mumbai).
Of course, it may depend on exactly how you define rape. And, perhaps more pertinently, on how prepared its victims are to report it.
But even such reasonable doubts about the statistics show how complex this whole issue is. And that it shouldn’t be ghettoised as purely an Indian problem.