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Thursday, 26 November 2009

Of devils, saints and martyrs.



Yesterday was a very peculiar day for me. I had a job interview in the same complex I had worked in a number of years earlier. Fortunately, the new firm had offices in a different wing. I used to tell friends that the building must have been built on the site of a pagan temple given over to ritual blood sacrifice and devil worship. It was the only logical explanation I could come up with to explain the collective madness that seemed to seize everyone within a short time of working there.

When I arrived at the complex I found the same old security guard still sitting behind the front desk. He recognised me and we had a brief chat before he escorted me across to the new firm’s offices.
“The interview itself is going to be held in another wing, “the receptionist explained.
It was with some foreboding that I followed her back across the courtyard, into the other wing, up the stairs and in to the very offices I had worked in all those years ago. My glass partitioned office had long gone as had all the furniture and fittings, save for a table and chairs for the interview, but the view from the window remained disturbingly the same. It seemed the floor I had previously worked on was now vacant and so other tenants would use it from time to time on an ad-hoc basis. Truly my past was coming back to haunt me. I did not need to rake through the entrails of a freshly sacrificed animal to know that it was not a good omen.

After the interview I decided to visit the Guildhall Art Gallery and Roman Amphitheatre, as it was one of those places I knew of by reputation but had somehow never quite got around to visiting. The top gallery had some fine paintings of views of London, as expected from an institution set up to house the City of London’s art collection. The symbolic designs for the Lord Mayor of London’s gilded state coach were also on display. I had seen the coach itself at the Museum of London and also when I had watched the annual procession of the new Lord Mayor as a child. However, I had never realised the significance of the painted panels, representing as they did various virtues as well as London itself in the form of a young woman wearing a crown in the shape of the walled city.

For those not aware of the distinction, the ancient title of Lord Mayor of London is bestowed upon the Mayor of the City of London Corporation, who is elected by the residents, now predominantly businesses, residing within the square mile of the original walled City. By contrast, the Mayor for London is the title given to the Mayor for the whole of the metropolis. The latter has more power but the former gets to ride in an opulent 18th century gilded glass coach and frolic around in a black tri-corn hat, tights and a fancy scarlet coat bedecked with lashings of the finest lace. The 15th century Lord Mayor of London, Sir Richard Whittington, who was later immortalised as a prominent character in English pantomime, had the Guildhall rebuilt. I have indirectly been a beneficiary of Sir Richard Whittington’s largesse as I was born in the hospital named after him in North London. My mother never gave me reason to suspect she was anything other than happy with the treatment she had received there, so I was intrigued when a friend’s mother told me that she had been threatened with having her next child delivered there rather than in a private hospital if she extended her brood beyond her current four.

The upper gallery also contained a statue in marble of Margaret Thatcher. From a distance it looked gauche compared to the craftsmanship of work carved from marble in earlier centuries. Close to, I was impressed by the attention to detail of the artist. He had managed to expertly mimic the texture of Thatcher’s jacket. Her right foot peeped out beneath the folds of her long skirt reminiscent of the pose adopted by statues of Ancient Egyptian deities and pharaohs. From her arm hung a marble handbag.

The ground floor of the Guildhall Art Gallery was given over to an exhibition by the English painter Sir Matthew Smith. At first I was not particularly taken with the collection. But after I had been seated on a bench for a while and could peruse the paintings at leisure, I began to like them more and more. Sir Matthew Smith used to despair that he was forever being described as a great colourist but that was one of the main appeals of his paintings for me. The highest accolade I could possibly accord is to say that I would not mind having some of the paintings adorn my own humble garret. There was a time when Matthew Smith was also living in a tiny flat although he went on to enjoy pronounced commercial success. I fear I am more likely to follow the route of the eighteenth century poet Thomas Chatterton but without the extreme youth or the arsenic.

When I walked along the corridors I was able to peek into the Guildhall itself. Much restored over the centuries, many famous prisoners have stood on trial here including Anne Askew the Protestant martyr, whose death I saw commemorated in the Cradle Tower at the Tower of London, and also the 9 Day Queen, Lady Jane Grey, who was not much younger than Thomas Chatterton when she too died. As a seminar was being held, I contented myself with viewing the hammer-beam roof from the doorway.

I returned to the lower galleries, which held a series of Victorian paintings by such artists as Tissot, Alma Tadema, Millais and Rossetti and seemed relatively busy compared to the near empty upper galleries. Visitors were open in their admiration of the traditional figurative art on display.

I then went down to view the remains of London’s Roman amphitheatre. Although the foundations were of stone, the seating and the upper structure of the amphitheatre were made of timber and therefore have long vanished. As I walked onto what would have been the floor of the amphitheatre, I recalled the last occasion I had walked around a gladiatorial arena at Pompeii. There, having only just finished reading Robert Harris novel ‘Pompeii’ I assumed I had come across the viaduct. Only when I was inside did I realise where I was. As it was late in the afternoon and the coach parties had long departed, I fished out my MP3 player and listened to the theme from Gladiator on my ear piece and then strode around silently challenging all comers to moral combat. The wild beasts in the form of a few stray dogs kept well clear.
“ My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius” I intoned, repeating the rest of the quotation from the film. The 18th century poet Thomas Chatterton used to go by the pen name of Decimus. Neither he nor Russell Crowe combined would have been able to defeat Margaret Thatcher, armed only with her handbag.

After the Guildhall, I lunched on soup and bread in the café at Mary le Bow before spending some time sitting alone in the adjoining 11th century chapel. I then made my way to St Paul’s Cathedral where I sat in a stone niche by the entrance, listening to the Choral Evensong. God knows, I need all the help I can get when it come to getting my career back on track.
Sir Matthew Smith Exhibition at the Guildhall
London's Roman amphitheatre

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