I accidentally heard an immensely Tasteful and very Cultured programme on the Beeb about Durham Cathedral. It pulled out all the stops. There was music; history; poetry; a truly wonderful Cultural celebration of that amazing building. And, when I say amazing, I am not exaggerating. I can still remember the first time that, walking along the Thames embankment, I saw the Baroque accumulation of buildings at Greenwich. Similarly, I will never forget when first I saw Durham, its Cathedral, its Castle. There can be few places in the world where architecture so combines with landscape to make such a statement.
In this Tasteful and Cultural radio programme, I heard so much marvellous and evocative stuff. About the monument to England's worst ever mining disaster and the miners' galas; about the monks carrying there the body of S Cuthbert; about the Chapel of the Durham Light Infantry; about the Scots captives locked in and starved to death after the Battle of Dunbar in 1650; about the great embracing forest of deeply chiseled Romanesque columns; about the emaciated faces of the Green Men in bosses; about the pre-Christian as well as the Christian; about the 'simplicity' of the lives of its early Saints. I heard snatches of plainchant to remind me of the monks. We were invited to have an intelligent opinion about whether the marked line beyond which women were not allowed to go should be discerned as Exclusive or Inclusive. And the narrator's reverential, deferential, tones never violated the respect due to such a building. Awe was made audible.
Amongst all the history and literature, only once was there a very slight allusion ... so fugitively allusive that you'd miss it it if you weren't looking for it ... to the reason why that building was built at all. I mean: the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The voracious anthologist who put the programme together, apparently, did not notice, or certainly failed to understand, the heart of the building, the High Altar. As she walked behind the Shrine of S Cuthbert, she did not see, or did not understand, the great expanse of the Chapel of the Nine Altars with its ... well ... nine altars. The Cathedral, you could be forgiven for concluding, is an incredible building in which there happens to be an unaccountably large number of pieces of table-like furniture which, even in combination, even in their strange, repetitive profusion, do not even begin to add up to Something which a Cultivated person of Taste might deign to notice, still less to mention.
The title of the programme was Something understood.