Sunday 25 February 2024

The Big Questions


What is art?

You can make a lot of arguments about it.  You can define it in all sorts of ways.  To me, art is something that serves no practical purpose.  It doesn't feed you or clothe you or put a roof over your head.  It's merely there to make your life a bit better.  It might educate you as well, tell you something about the world or human beings, but at its core art is one of those wonderful things mankind evolved to do purely to make our existence a little more tolerable.

It's why I'm always keen to see artworks at railway stations.  You're stood on a platform, waiting for a train that might be delayed, to take you to a job you hate.  And there's a small mosaic, or a mural, or a painting, and it lifts you briefly.  It makes you a bit happier.  (Please note: this does not extend to pictures painted by local schoolchildren, which I really despise, because I am a miserable old git). 

The southbound platform at Lichfield Trent Valley has a large sign inlaid in a crazy paving wall.  It tells you how far you are from Glasgow and London in miles.  It's not a glistening nude in a Hockney or a thought provoking Whiteread but it's a little bit of pep on the platform.  British Rail spent money it didn't have to putting in a tiny extra.  It's art.  

Which is why it's annoyingly poorly treated.  A picture from the other platform will make it clear why.

I would estimate there is something in the region of eight hundred and forty thousand other spots on the platform you could've put those benches.  Anywhere else for a seat.  But no: right in front of the Glasgow portion of the artwork, blocking it from view to all passengers and rail users.  It's disrespectful and it's plain annoying.  No wonder the Scots are so desperate to leave the Union.

I left the station via a convoluted route that took me up onto the Birmingham bound platform then down some stairs to the northbound platform.  Spoiler: over the course of the day I will use every one of these platforms, a fact that delights me way too much.  It dropped me into the station car park, alongside a silver box that served as ticket office and coffee bar.

I hate leaving a station through the car park, even more so when there's not even a path and you have to hop from one painted walkway to the next.  It makes you feel second rate.  You're going to walk from here?  What kind of loser are you?  I walked up to the road and took the sign selfie, much to the amusement of a gaggle of road workers across the carriageway.

In short, Lichfield had started badly for me.  I walked towards the city centre, past a sign welcoming me to the birthplace of Dr Johnson ("a Fairtrade city") and past grass verges dotted with crocuses, purple and yellow and white.  The early hint of spring.  Seeing a phone box at the side of the road was retro enough; its bottom half, though, was covered with an advert for London Midland trains, the small print underneath warning me that the offer may change in 2014.

The road was lined with buildings from all eras.  Georgian town houses ran alongside Victorian villas and then, constructed on what used to be their gardens, modern terraces and blocks of flats.  One particular row of 1970s homes was all twisted angles and living rooms above the garage, deliberately quirky, deliberately modern.  Lichfield's an ancient city and the architecture showed its development.

The Samuel Johnson Community Hospital appeared on my right and I sighed, knowing I was going to see that name a lot more over the course of the day.  The man was a genius and an incredibly important figure, of course, but you know guys, less is more.  (And before anyone complains, yes, I do also think there is way too much Beatles stuff in Liverpool).  

I'd reached the edge of the centre now, the road splitting off the traffic so I could descend the hill into the town.  A man passed me talking into his mobile phone, holding it at a distance from his face so he could bark into the loudspeaker.  Can I ask why this has caught on?  He wasn't the first or last person I saw doing this.  Is it because of The Apprentice?  Have people decided that bunch of weird, socially inadequate money obsessed losers are somehow also role models and we should all copy their amazing calling skills?  I wouldn't mind but these people are never having an interesting conversation.  If you're going to make your chat publicly available, at least have the decency to be discussing a dirty affair or something.

I could tell I was approaching the heart of Lichfield because there was a shift in the stores.  One minute it was a firework shop and a takeaway, the next there was a store called Paraphernalia and a place offering Beginners Tassel Making Workshops.  I was getting into fancy, aspiration land, and that was before I'd reached the private dining restaurant and the wood-timbered branch of Boots.  

I was being charmed by Lichfield, and if you're a regular reader (hello you!) you'll know that doesn't happen often.  It was historic but still felt alive, not an open air museum.  I turned into the Market Square, home of the Samuel Johnson Birthplace and, of course, the obligatory statue:

...but also the home of a load of banks, and people bustling about.  It was a market square I could imagine hosting a market, which is often a rarity, as local authorities seem far more keen to turn them into car parks.  I felt like this had been the hub of the city for centuries.

From there it was a gentle stroll past a man cutting carpet in the street to the Minster Pool, the city's former mill pond that divides the cathedral hill from the city.  Even on a cold February it was a centre for walkers and families, taking in a little break amongst the ducks.

I walked over the dam that created the mill pond and into the cathedral close, a cobbled street that curled past the kind of houses that turn up in period dramas.  I imagine the BBC has been here a few times, spraying fake snow in the road and having Martin Chuzzlewit wander about blowing into his hands even though it was actually June.  

Obviously, the cathedral was undergoing refurbishment works when I arrived, because this is my curse.  Still, it didn't prepare me for the West Front.

I actually gasped when I turned the corner and saw the main part of the cathedral.  Dozens of figures filling niches across the end, each carefully crafted, intricate and stunning.  I stood there for a few moments, staring, taking it in.  I'd been in two minds whether to visit the cathedral, as a dyed in the wool heathen, but that view convinced me I'd have to go inside.

Of course, it didn't disappoint.  There's been a place of worship here for over a thousand years and every inch of it resonated with history and pride.  A cathedral in a smaller city doesn't get lost amongst the mass of people outside - it stays a focal point.  I wandered the aisles, reading the plaques, glancing at the statuary, listening to the blunt honk of the organ as they tested single note after single note.  

I don't believe in God, never have, apart from a weird period aged about six when I became obsessed with Jesus as a sort of ancient Paul Daniels who could turn up on a cloud and practice magic.  Walking in the cathedral though I could see how it worked.  Imagine being a tiny medieval peasant and stepping into this house of the Lord.  You'd be overawed and overwhelmed by its size, its magnificence, its sheer power.  I felt tiny and I've been inside much larger structures. (Insert joke here). 

The most awe-inspiring element for me, however, was to one side, in the Chapter House.  Housed in a glass case, open to show a couple of pages, was the St Chad Gospels.  This is a religious text that has been in the possession of the Cathedral since at least the Tenth Century, and was probably written a couple of hundred years before that.  It contains some of the earliest written Welsh, as well as inked illustrations.

I stood and stared at the book for longer than was polite.  That book predated the Norman Conquest; it came from a time we know very little about.  It was there, in front of me, a piece of human history from 1300 years ago.  It had passed through thousands of hands, almost all of whom were now long dead.  We're a speck of nothingness on the planet, a fraction of its existence; each life is fleeting and insignificant.  This book transcended us all.

I stepped back out into the garden at the front of the cathedral, a little annoyed.  Why had nobody ever told me about Lichfield?  I'd known it as a name, in passing.  I'd seen it on signs.  Nobody had ever told me it was so charming, so pretty, so eminently visitable.  It was like a less pretentious Chester.

Back past the foot of the Minster Pool, into the centre again, to what seemed to be the nightlife part of the city, with restaurants and pubs trying to tempt me in.  There was that man again:

Samuel Johnson seems to look vaguely baffled in every single picture.  It's as though he thoroughly disapproves of whatever you're getting up to in several centuries time.

Eventually I reached the edge and the spell was broken.  The cars returned.  The buildings became more basic and prosaic.  The hustle came back.  I reached the station, and was initially impressed with it: a stout red brick building from 1882.

In close up, though, it disappointed.  The facilities for passengers were a tiny ticket office - the rest of the building was sealed away from sight.  I walked past the waiting cabbies and down a subway to the steps to the island platform.

At least here they'd maintained the historic look, with period-appropriate painting and nicely restored awnings.  The waiting room was locked up tight but still, if you squinted, you could just about pretend you was waiting for a steam train.

Lichfield in short then: nice city.  Shame about the stations.


hazelnicholson said...

I found myself wondering in Windermere if the artist meant to draw this woman looking like she's about to sneeze

diamond geezer said...

I've liked Lichfield ever since I spent two weeks there in the summer of 1978, and yes its frontage is second to none.

But I'm unexpectedly peeved by those disruptive benches.