Winter is fading today in the blush of an unseasonally warm February. As I write I’m sitting in a café in Norwich Cathedral the sun blazing in through the windows, the stained glass casting rich patterns across the cobbled and uneven surfaces. Norwich is a beautiful city. I lived here once, back in the day when I was just beginning to explore words and the craft of writing, the start in many ways of my journey as a writer. I never came to this cathedral though and wonder now how I came to miss this place of peace and sanctuary.
I was born in a city with two cathedrals so they have always loomed large in my imagination. I remember being taken round the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool when it was still being built. I had a bag of small sweets in my pocket with a hole in, that scattered a trail through the aisles which I followed all the way back to the entrance with its strange bronze cast doorway with its abstracts shapes and sculptures. Sometimes I like the vast swagger of a cathedral, their grand proclamations with history their ceilings of vaulted gold reaching up to the heavens. In others I like the silence of the side chapels, the ones tucked away, a corner turned and a calm descends, the candles lit and something folds you in its arms. It’s like theatre, the moment the lights go down and you think – what is going to happen now.
For a writer, these are rich pickings – the names on the tombs, barely readable blur into a past you can only imagine. You run a finger along a name, along a well-polished marble edge and start to make up who they might be and what their stories might have been as barely heard voices whisper when you pass, ‘pick me, pick me, I have a story you can tell. Listen to me…’
I came here early today, killing time; the cloisters were flooded with sunlight, the voices of the past even more insistent in the silence. And if I listen carefully I feel I can hear them, the tap of a hammer on stone as the foundation stone is laid, the mumbled prayers of the monks making their way through the corridors towards the chapel at each of the holy hours of the day: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. I imagine their February was colder than this one all those hundreds of years ago, I see the snow whirling through the stone arches, the figures hunched up against the cold, the poverty of monastic life, the daily grind of it, the corruption of it too.
On the way in, I came across an exhibition by the Norfolk artist, James Kessell, ‘Gethsemane’. A small but immensely powerful exhibition in diverse media from print to digital to charcoal and coal on paper, the artist creating the work as the public wander about him. Images from Aberfan, which reminded me of my own griefs as no doubt it is meant to, the prayer from Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane ‘Thy will be done’, projected in broken words on the bare brick wall reminding me that I can’t change what will happen to me, what has happened. I just have to accept it. The exhibition is only here for a week, I’m glad I caught it. This week marks a new beginning for me, one I thought would never come.
I want to write so many things, have so many ideas but some speak louder than others. I have an idea for something, it’s been in mind for the longest time and today in this space, it inches forward from the mist of thinking into the act of writing. From the stones and the names long forgotten on the tombstones, from the faces in James Kessell’s extraordinary drawings, the slant light across lapis lazuli windows and rubied glass, something is starting to emerge…