Every so often, for offences actual or hypothetical, my mother and father stop speaking to me. There’s a funny phrase for this phenomenon in England: it’s called being sent to Coventry. I don’t know what the origins of the expression are, though I suppose I could easily find out. Coventry suffered badly in the war: it once had a beautiful cathedral that in 1940 was bombed into non-existence. Now it’s an ordinary town in the Midlands, and if it hasn’t made sense of its losses, it has at least survived them.
Sometimes it takes me a while to notice that my parents have sent me to Coventry. It’s not unlike when a central-heating boiler breaks down: there’s no explosion, no dramatic sight or sound, merely a growing feeling of discomfort that comes from the gradual drop in temperature, and that one might be surprisingly slow – depending on one’s instinct for habituation – to attribute to an actual cause. Like coldness the silence advances, making itself known not by presence but by absence, by disturbances of expectation so small that they are registered only half-consciously and instead mount up, so that one only becomes truly aware of it once its progress is complete. It takes patience to send someone to Coventry: it’s not a game for those who require instant satisfaction. If you don’t live with your victim or see them every day, it might be a while before they even notice they’ve been sent there. All the same, there’s no mistaking this for anything less deliberate than punishment. It is the attempt to recover power through withdrawal, rather as the powerless child indignantly imagines his own death as a punishment to others. Then they’ll be sorry! It’s a gamble, with oneself as the stakes. My mother and father seem to believe they are inflicting a terrible loss on me by disappearing from my life. They appear to be wielding power, but I’ve come to understand that their silence is the opposite of power. It is in fact failure, their failure to control the story, their failure to control me. It is a failure so profound that all they have left to throw at it is the value of their own selves, like desperate people taking the last of their possessions to the pawn shop.
But perhaps it isn’t like that at all. I remember girls being sent to Coventry at school, a cold and calculated process of exclusion in which the whole cohort would participate. It was a test of an individual’s capacity for survival, of her psychological strength: if other people pretend you’re not there, how long can you go on believing you exist? This was elemental bullying, the deliberate removal of the relational basis of human reality. The group would watch their victim with interest, as she wandered wordless and unacknowledged through the days. By sending someone to Coventry you are in a sense positing the idea of their annihilation, asking how the world would look without them in it. Perversely, over time, your victim might cultivate exaggerated notions of their own importance, for this troubling fact of their existence seems to have an unusual significance. Sometimes, at school, a person could ultimately gain power by surviving a visit to Coventry. It is a place of fragments and ruins: I’ve seen a photograph of the cathedral the day after its bombardment, a few smoking walls standing in an ocean of glittering shards, as if the sky itself had fallen to the earth and shattered. What the image states is that everything, no matter how precious and beautiful, no matter how painstakingly built and preserved, no matter how apparently timeless and resilient, can be broken. That was the world my parents were born into, a world where sacred monuments could disappear between bedtime and breakfast, a world at war: it is perhaps no surprise then, that war remains their model. War is a narrative: it might almost be said to embody the narrative principle itself. It is the attempt to create a story of life, to create agreement. In war, there is no point of view; war is the end of point of view, where violence is welcomed as the final means of arriving at a common version of events. It never occurred to me that instead of sending me to Coventry, my parents might simply have picked up the phone and set things to right in person. That isn’t how stories work. For a start, it’s far too economical. The generation of a narrative entails a lot of waste. In the state of war, humans are utterly abandoned to waste in the pursuit of victory. Yet in all the many times I’ve been sent to Coventry, this question of waste is one I’ve never really addressed. Sometimes I’ve been surprised to find myself there again; at other times merely resigned. I’ve been dismayed, upset, angry, ashamed. I’ve felt defiant, self-critical, abject; I’ve gone over and over events, trying to see where I made the mistake, trying to find the crime that might be equal to the punishment, trying to see my own unacceptability like trying to see a ghost in the cold light of day. The thing about Coventry is that it has no words: nothing is explained to you there, nothing made clear. It is entirely representational. And what I’ve never felt about it, I realise, is indifference.
I have a woman friend whose children are starting to leave home. The eldest has gone to university; now the second is filling out application forms, as the others will do in their turn. It’s a big family, steady as an ocean liner. There’s been no divorce, no disaster; any minor difficulties or discrepancies that have arisen over the years have been carefully toned down and blended back into the picture. Sometimes, talking to my friend, it has occurred to me that even if there had been a disaster, I wouldn’t necessarily know about it; that in fact her very definition of a disaster might be ‘an event impossible to conceal’. This quality in her, this ability to maintain the surface, has always struck me as a form of courage; indeed, I have vaguely considered her to be the adult in our relationship, though we are more or less the same age. But lately things have changed – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, since change always implies at least some possibility of renewal, that they have deteriorated. Like an actor coming out of character onstage, there is evidence of slippage, of a loss of frequency in my friend’s persona, as though she is losing belief in what she is doing. She has started to talk too much, or not at all, or in non sequiturs; she produces observations out of unfathomable silences, as though laboriously drawing up from the bottom of a well things that have lain there undisturbed for years. It is clear her mind is moving on a different track, away into uncharted distances. One afternoon, at her house, she talks about a feeling she’s been having lately – that she’d like to see, piled up in a great mountain, all the things that have been bought and thrown away over the course of their family life. All the toys and the tricycles, the Barbie dolls, the babygros, the cribs and the chemistry sets, the outgrown shoes and clothes, the abandoned violins and sports equipment, the bright crumpled paper plates from birthday parties, the Christmas trinkets, the souvenirs, the tat from countless gift shops acquired on countless days out, the faddish electronics – everything whose purchase had at the time seemed to offer a solution to something, and whose disposal later on a better solution still: she would like to see it all again, not for the sake of nostalgia but to get the measure of it as objective fact. My friend is admittedly something of a materialist: from the beginning, her enactment of family life was played out amid a substantive and ever-changing set of props. She governed this world of possession with one cardinal rule: every time something new was acquired, something old had to be disposed of. Like a spring of fresh water running through a pond, this mechanism had seemed to avert the danger of stagnation. But now a different possibility appeared to be occurring to her: that it had all been, in the end, a waste.
Stories only work – or so we’re always being told – through the suspension of our disbelief. It’s never been altogether clear to me whether our disbelief is something that ought to be suspended for us, or whether we’re expected deliberately to suspend it ourselves. There’s an idea that a successful narrative is one that gives you no choice in the matter; but mostly I imagine it’s a question of both sides conspiring to keep the suspension aloft. Being sent to Coventry is perhaps an example of such a conspiracy: it would be hard to send someone to Coventry who refused to believe they were there, just as it’s hard to fight a pacifist. Much of my being in Coventry, I now realise, lay in my willingness to recognise and accept the state of being outcast. I suspended my disbelief and, having done so I jeopardised, in some sense, my relationship with reality. Like gravity, truth can only be resisted for so long: it waits, greyly, for the fantasy to wear off. My friend’s concern with the material evidence of her family life likewise seems to me to be a concern about truth. It is as though each of the many objects that passed through her home over the years represents a lost fragment of reality. She believed in all of it, at the time, believed passionately in the Barbie doll and the violin and the Nintendo that everyone had to have one year – and once the belief had worn off, these things were thrown away. But what, had she not believed in them, might she have seen instead? In the suspension of her disbelief, what did she miss? It is almost as if she feels that the true story of her family has eluded her; and that the mountain of discarded possessions, like a mountain of unopened husks, would represent the size and scale of the mystery.
My husband has observed that two thirds of our conversation is spent discussing our children. He is not the father of my children, and I am not the mother of his. We’re like the chief executives of a large corporation: we’re in the business of successful management rather than sentimentality. He is careful not to posit this claim as a Bad Thing – it’s just a fact, which may or may not be avoidable. Or rather, it’s a choice. In choosing to spend two thirds of our time talking about our children, we are perhaps choosing to re-enter the narrative paradigm. We are starting to tell the story again. We are suspending our disbelief.
He doesn’t imply that it’s my choice more than his, though history makes that the supposition. In marriage, the woman compensates for her lack of external power by commandeering the story. Isn’t that right? She fills the silence, the mystery of her own acts and aims with a structured account of life whose relationship to the truth might sometimes be described as voluntary. I am familiar with that account: I spent my childhood listening to it. And what I noticed was how, over the years, its repetitions and elisions and exaggerations ceased to exasperate its listeners so much as silence them. After a while, people stopped bothering to try to put the record straight: on the contrary, they became, in a curious way, dependent on the teller of this tale, in which they featured as central characters. The sheer energy and wilful, self-constructing logic of narrative, which at first made one cringe and protest every time the truth was dented, came over time to seem preferable to elusive, chaotic reality.
My husband and I have both come from other marriages: at a certain point our disbelief came crashing down on our heads like the roof of Coventry Cathedral. We live on the coast now, in a village holidaymakers of a certain age like to visit. In the local pub we watch tourist couples sitting in silence over enormous platters of fish and chips. It is unwise, I have learned, to put one’s faith in how things look, but it’s not often that silence presents itself as a visual event. And other people, it seems, notice the silent couples too. Like the seal colony out on the sound, it turns out they’re a sort of local feature. The waiters in the pub treat them with especial tenderness; children gaze at them with what might be wonderment or concern. Our friends discuss them, the men with nervous jocularity, the women with a remote and finely judged pity. Everyone agrees that it is sad. I notice that they are often very well turned out, the woman carefully made up, the man pressed and groomed. They sit erect among the untidy holidaying families with their shoals of tousle-haired children, their dogs, their footballs and frisbees and bicycles, their aura of action and noise as they pass through life like a company of soldiers going over the top. The families are on display – it’s part of how they function. Families tend to be conscious of being looked at: they perform themselves as though in expectation of a response, a judgement. I suppose they are exposing what they have created, as an artist feels compelled to do. The exposure ought, in a sense, to correct the subjectivity of parenthood, though it doesn’t always seem to work like that. There are families whose children run through the pub shouting and laughing and knocking over chairs. There are families where the children sit miserably at the table with downcast eyes while their parents relentlessly chastise them. Jacob, you’re annoying the lady, says one mother, mildly and with unmistakable pride, while her son fires his water pistol at another child across my table. Your needs aren’t a priority right now, a father is saying at a table on the other side. He is addressing a pallid girl of six or seven, with square-framed glasses and hair in tight, flaxen plaits tied with ribbons. You always get your own way, he adds, raising his glass slowly to his lips.
The silent couples display themselves too, but theirs is an exposure far more mysterious. They sit like monuments, like commemorations of some opaque history: in their silence and their stillness time seems almost to come to a halt. They are like effigies of the dead standing among the living, mute and motionless amid the helter-skelter families and the noise and bustle of the pub. They eat slowly, carefully; they don’t, as a rule, look at one another. It is as if, each in themselves, they are alone. I wonder why they have come to this public place to enact their silence. They seem to represent failure: have they come to warn us, like ghosts from purgatory might enjoin us to mend our ways lest we too get caught on the treadmill of our sins? Or have they come just to warm themselves for a few hours with the conversation of others? It could be supposed that they are unhappy, but I wonder whether this is true. Perhaps what they represent is not the failure of narrative but its surpassing, not silence but peace. They are all talked out: this is a notion other people find unsettling. It can be assumed that many of the silent couples have children, now grown up and gone away. What other people don’t like, I suppose, is the idea that on the other side of all that effort, all those years of joy and toil and creation, all that suspension of disbelief, there is nothing – or nothing palpable – to look forward to; that one might wake from family life as from a bacchanal into the cold light of day. I wonder whether the silent couples once spent two thirds – or more – of their time talking about their children. I wonder whether their silence represents the problem of reconnecting to reality once the story has ended.
In the day I often walk on the salt marsh, along the coastal path. The marsh is flat and low-lying: from a distance it is merely a strip of grey or brown, banded by the blue line of the sea. It is reached by descending through a copse of trees whose trunks have been sculpted and bleached over time into strange, pale forms by the coastal weather. They glimmer in the copse’s half-light like headless bodies held in curious, balletic poses; they are both sensual and unearthly, like a race of nymphs with the glade as their home. The path winds amongst them and out the other side, down to the place where the marsh meets the land. There is always something startling about arriving out of the trees on to the marsh. No matter how much you try to retain its image, the physical sensation of arrival there presents itself anew. It is a feeling of clarity and expansion, as though a word you’d been trying and trying to remember had suddenly come back to you. The marsh has many moods, so it’s curious that it delivers these sensations so unfailingly. It is an involuted landscape whose creeks form intestinal patterns amid the springy furze. Twice a day the tide fills these channels silently with water beneath the huge dome of the sky: narrow and deep, they shine like a maze of open cuts. If you try to walk out across it to the sea, you quickly find yourself unable to progress. In Venice, the uninitiated attempt to travel by following their sense of direction and unfailingly get lost, obstructed by the blank walls of culs-de-sac or cut off by a canal with their destination tantalisingly close across the water. Venice obfuscates the notions of progress and self-will, and the marsh does the same. There are paths, but so narrow and faint as to be recognisable only to those who know they are there. The one nearest our house is called the Baitdiggers, the product of years – perhaps centuries – of accumulated knowledge, the knowledge of men who had to trudge across the marsh in all weathers to dig in the distant sands for worms, and who finally identified the merest thread of land that travelled through the sunken archipelago in a more or less straight line from one point to the other. Knowledge is so slender and hard-won, and ignorance so vast and dangerous. Usually I keep to the coast path, a well-travelled route that skirts these tensions. Often I meet the holidaying families there, in their diurnal guises. From a distance, across the flat landscape, they are tiny figures moving untidily but with an overarching logic, like scraps being blown along by a directional wind. They advance slowly but inexorably, scattering and regrouping, occasionally pausing as though snagged on some obstacle. As they get closer the pattern becomes more readable and distinct; the figures acquire identity, the story begins to shape itself. They become recognisable as mother, father, children; their movements begin to form the integument of narrative. The scattering and regrouping becomes a meaningful drama of self and others, of human emotion. I watch this drama as it approaches across the marsh, as though on a moving stage. I notice that the adults are often separated: one will walk musingly ahead or behind while the other herds the children along the path. Occasionally they will change roles, like a changing of the guard. The herding parent is released and the solitary muser will rejoin the family reality. I often study the lone parent as they pass, noting the particular quality of their self-absorption. They don’t, as a rule, look like people taking in their surroundings: theirs is the self-absorption of someone driving a car through long distances, seeing the world but shut off from it, both free and unfree.
Like any drama, this one involves a lot of talking. I listen to the familiar lines, the cadences of call and response, the river of commentary, the chastisements and encouragements, the opportunities for humour and tension navigated badly or well. The parental script and the script of childhood are more or less adhered to; the performances vary. Excess, the writer Aharon Appelfeld said, is the enemy of art: and it’s true that from the outside the family drama is imperilled as a form by the exaggeration of any of its constituent parts, by too much love or too much anger, too much laxity or discipline, too much honesty or not enough. Sometimes, as I watch, the families cross one or other of these boundaries, and I am struck then by the difference between the people inside the drama and the people watching. Often the family actors aren’t aware that they’ve made their audience wince. I remember once, herding my small children through Paris, an elegant elderly man approaching us along the pavement, clearly intending to speak. I remember wondering what he wanted; I remember thinking, vaguely, that he might be going to congratulate us. As he reached me, he raised a long, slender finger to his lips and made a sshing sound. Madame, he said, too much noise.
I am a woman of nearly forty-nine, nearly fifty. My children are teenagers; they spend some of their time with me and some with their father. The family script we once followed was abandoned long ago: the stage was struck; that play is no longer performed. I am conscious sometimes of the fact that no new script has come to replace it. There have been pilots, synopses, ideas thrown around; but fundamentally, the future is a blank. For my children that blank is perhaps subsumed into the greater question of what and how they will be in their lives; a patch of thin ice, as it were, at the brink of a larger and more solid expanse of untried whiteness. For me, the possibilities are less clear. Throughout my adult life, I have used the need to earn money as the central support of a sense of self-justification: as a woman, that always seemed at least preferable to the alternatives. The need still remains, of course, but increasingly I find it less of a spur. I struggle to suspend my disbelief, but in what? What is there left to disbelieve in?
One weekend, my parents come to stay. It is winter; the coast path is frozen into ruts of black mud and the darkness starts to fall at four o’clock. My husband and I make the house as welcoming as we can. We turn the heating up and put flowers in the rooms. My husband prepares an elaborate meal. When my parents arrive we give them glasses of champagne. But when they leave in their car on a hard and sparkling Sunday morning, I happen to glimpse their faces through the glittering windscreen just before they round the bend and see that their smiles have already vanished and their mouths are moving grimly in talk. I know then that it has happened again: I am going once more to Coventry.
A week of silence passes. My husband is surprised and a little affronted. He had expected a card, a call. He is not familiar with this world in which people accept your hospitality, eat your food and drink your wine and leave with every appearance of bonhomie, then cast you into the outer darkness. Finally he confesses: he believes it is his fault. Late on the last evening, he reminds me, when the dinner had been eaten and the wine drunk, he had brought up the subject of honesty. He had put his arm around me and asked my parents where they thought my honesty had come from. This, he is now convinced, has caused the rift, though he has no idea why: but he remembers feeling it, he says, at the time, a retraction, a jolt in his audience. He blurts it out like a child who has caused damage by playing with something he didn’t understand; he wishes me to know it was unintentional.
While his comment may possibly have expedited my journey to Coventry, I know it wasn’t the cause of my being sent there; yet his remarks have a strange effect on me. In the following weeks, as the silence grows and expands and solidifies, I find myself becoming, if not exactly fond, then increasingly accepting of it. All my life I have been terrified of Coventry, of its vastness and bleakness and loneliness, and of what it represents, which is ejection from the story. One is written out of the story of life like a minor character being written out of a soap opera. In the past I have usually been summoned back after a time, because the scriptwriters couldn’t find a convincing enough reason for my disappearance: a family occasion or social event would arise whose appearance of normality my absence would threaten. And I have gone back eagerly, relievedly, like a dog being let back inside from the cold garden, for whom the possibilities of freedom are obscured by the need for acceptance and shelter. Once it has shown itself unwilling to be free, you can treat that dog how you like: it won’t run away. Sometimes, in Coventry, I would ponder the idea of freedom. I believed occasionally that I was free. Freedom meant living in Coventry for ever and making the best of it; living amid the waste and shattered buildings, the desecrated past. It meant waking every day to the realisation that what once existed has now gone. It meant living in the knowledge of waste, of all one’s endeavours having been pointless. It meant leaving the story unfinished, like a writer failing to complete the book that, whatever its qualities, has nonetheless been his life’s work.
But this time, I start to feel safer in Coventry, safer in the silence. After all, Coventry is a place where the worst has already happened. Theoretically, there should be nothing there to fear. If some kind of accounting is called for, Coventry strikes me as a good place for that to occur. And I wonder whether, if I looked, I would find that other people had decided to come here too; had, as it were, sent themselves to Coventry, searching for the silence, for whatever truth might be found amid the smoking ruins of the story. My friend with her imaginary mountain of tat, for instance, or the silent couples in the pub. Who knows, I might even meet the Parisian gentleman here, and this time impress him with my reticence, my subtlety, my peace.
When I first met my husband I often didn’t catch what he said. He spoke too quietly, or so it seemed to me; I’d ask him to repeat himself. He was often silent, and sometimes I found the silences unnerving. They caused me to feel panic, like a patch of thin ice: I feared it meant the story was faltering, breaking down; I feared it giving way beneath me. After a while they stopped making me nervous. It even gave me a sense of accomplishment to participate in them: like learning to ride a bicycle, silence was something that looked impossible from the outside but, once mastered, afforded a certain freedom. It demanded trust, trust in the dynamics. One can’t teach someone to ride a bicycle by describing how it’s done. A flight into the non-verbal is required. And so I tried it out, silence.
My husband, meanwhile, was trying out talking. After six months or so, he claimed that he had talked more in his time with me than in the whole of his previous life put together. I was struck by the quantity and richness of his vocabulary: it was as if he had opened a vault and showed me his collection of gold bars. I felt glad he’d decided to spend them on me. I have always lived among noisy people, laughers and bellowers, shouters and door-slammers; opinionated people, wits, people who tell good stories. In such company there were words that often got drowned out, shy words like empathy, mercy, gentleness, solicitude. That’s not to say they weren’t there – it’s just that one didn’t know for sure, and would forget to look for them in all the noise. My husband uses these words: I sit in Coventry, mulling them over. My parents send him an email, a birthday card, a card for his son; they seem to be inviting him to leave me there and rejoin the story. It seems they now feel they were perhaps a little careless, in how much they chose to waste; they’d like to recoup some of their losses. These approaches make him angry. He was adopted by his own parents as a baby: he does not take abandonment lightly. His father is dead now, but my husband tells me that in the days of their marriage his parents, on the rare occasions they went out for dinner, would often spend the evening in silence. They took pride in it; for them, he said, it signified that their intimacy was complete. When he and I look at the silent couples in the pub, then, we are perhaps seeing different things. My husband doesn’t worship silence but he isn’t afraid of it either. It is my parents, I begin to understand, who are afraid.
Summer comes: the marsh is dry, and warm underfoot. We take off our shoes to walk to the creek and swim. It is often windy on the marsh. The wind pours out of the flatness and the vastness, from the radial distances where the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea converge. The creek lies between the marsh and the beach, a desolate expanse of sand pockmarked with shells. It is a long, narrow declivity, good for swimming: we remove our clothes, anchoring them against the wind as best we can. I am shy of my body, even in this deserted, primeval space. It is the body of a nearly 49-year-old, but it doesn’t feel that way. I have never felt myself to be ageing: on the contrary, I have always had the strange sensation as time passes that I am getting not older but younger. My body feels as though it has innocence as its destination. This is not, of course, a physical reality – I view the proof in the mirror with increasing puzzlement – but it is perhaps a psychological one that conscripts the body into its workings. It is as though I was born imprisoned in a block of stone from which it has been both a necessity and an obligation to free myself. The feeling of incarceration in what was pre-existing and inflexible works well enough, I suppose, as a paradigm for the contemporary woman’s struggle towards personal liberty. She might feel it politically, socially, linguistically, emotionally; I happen to have felt it physically. I am not free yet, by any means. It is laborious and slow, chipping away at that block. There would be a temptation to give up, were the feelings of claustrophobia and confinement less intense.
The water in the creek is often surprisingly warm. After the first shock, it is easy to stay in. It is perhaps thirty metres long and I swim fast and methodically up and down. I don’t like to talk or mess around when I’m swimming; or it might be more accurate to say that I can’t imagine being able to mess around, can’t imagine being free from my own rules and ambitions, and more accurate still to say that I’m frightened of what might happen if I were. Instead I set myself a target and count the lengths. My husband dives in and swims for a little while, slowly, without particular direction. Then he turns over and lies on his back and floats, looking at the sky.
One day, over the summer, my parents send me an email. They have some furniture they’re getting rid of; they wonder whether I want it. I reply, thanking them and declining. A few weeks later, my mother calls and leaves a message. She would like to speak to me, she says. She says she misses the children.
My daughters are an interesting hybrid of characteristics I have always believed to be irreconcilable. They are opinionated, but empathetic too; scarifyingly witty, but capable of gentleness and mercy. They don’t waste these finer qualities on adults all that often – friendship is the ground on which they’re currently building their lives. But they’ve been anxious about my presence in Coventry. They aren’t familiar with war as the model for human relationships. They aren’t used to things remaining fixed enough for the possibility of their destruction to be created. My parents’ behaviour has caused them anger, but their forgiveness comes fast after it, like a dog chasing a rabbit: there’s barely a beat between accusation and clemency. I’m vaguely aware that something is lost in the speed with which they accept wrongs being set back to rights. Is theirs to be a world without feuds, without lasting conflict, without Coventry, but also without memory? I tell them they are free to communicate with and see their grandparents as often as they please – they are old enough for that to be a reality – but that I myself don’t wish to re-enter that arena. I don’t want to leave Coventry. I’ve decided to stay.
They nod their heads, slightly mystified. They don’t understand why I care so much. They don’t understand why it matters. These are old things, old arguments, old people: it’s so much ancient history. It is as though a moss-encrusted monument had suddenly tried to explain itself to them. I say to them, the thing about time is that it can transform the landscape without improving it. It can change everything except what needs to change.
They fidget, roll their eyes, check their phones.
That’s really depressing, they say.
My husband and I have a plan, which is to visit certain artworks in the British Isles. I have spent a lot of time looking at art in other places but I have never seen, for instance, Stanley Spencer’s paintings in the chapel at Burghclere in Hampshire. I have never visited Henry Moore’s house in Much Hadham. I have never laid eyes on Simone Martini’s Christ Discovered at the Temple, housed in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. We’d like to do a tour that takes all these highlights in.
It’s a good idea, though I don’t know if it will ever become a reality. It’s hard to find the time. There’s always something, some new development, some incident or issue, some theme that needs attending to: the story still insists on telling itself, despite our best efforts to block our ears. If it does happen, one place we’ll have to go is Coventry. In the aftermath of war, a generation of artists worked to create something afresh in the blasted city. A new cathedral was designed by Basil Spence to stand beside the ruins of the old: Benjamin Britten wrote his War Requiem to be premiered at its consecration. Graham Sutherland designed a vast tapestry for the interior; John Piper made the baptistry window, with its nearly two hundred panes; and John Hutton made his expressionist Screen of Saints and Angels. People were suspicious, apparently, of the cathedral’s modernist design: when what you’re used to is irretrievably gone, it’s hard to believe in something new. But they suspended their disbelief. The new things came to be, became reality. What needed to change was changed, just as the old things were destroyed – not by time, but by force of human will.
Photograph © Malcolm Crouchman
Thornham Marshes, 2009