The Knave is de-slumbered by a text message:
“The hour is ungodly and yet we are off to visit a cathedral. Sirrah, how can this be?!”
He chortles, but then, squinting through matutinal rheum, notes that the time is 7:21! He panics: what black hole is it has subsumed the carefully preset 6:45 alarm?! He must make the 8:04 to Liverpool Street, or the plan to meet Thropplenoggin on the steps of St Paul’s is to be thwarted at the first!
The Knave is all headless chicken. Composing himself at 7:22, he allots 23 minutes for a truncated male cleaning ritual before deportation at 7:45. A shower can be taken but hair washing and coiffing must be foregone to allow sufficient time for moisturising – that most sacrosanct of morning rituals for any self-respecting modern male (and the Knave is certainly one of those).
So, I made the train. And you find me, reader, on it, skin a-glowing, consulting the *TOP SECRET* St Paul’s Cathedral dossier. Suffice to say, I can divulge neither my sources nor much of the information within – it is just too sensitive to share here – however, there are some more anodyne sections that may be of interest.
Were you aware, for instance, that ‘historically and stylistically’ Old St Paul’s was considered by many to be ‘the most interesting of all our cathedrals’?
And there’s no secret about what happened to Old St Paul’s is there? But then again…
In the devilishly inauspicious year of 1666, a man commissioned to restore a cathedral dilapidated by dissolution and Civil War was recorded as saying of the job in hand:
“It must be concluded that the tower, from top to bottom, and the adjacent parts are such a heap of deformities that no judicious architect will think it corrigible by any expense that can be laid out upon dressing it.”
A week later Old St Paul’s burned to the ground – tragic, certainly, but convenient, too, for the chap who uttered the above words, one Christopher Wren. Having swept away the ashes of the old church atop Ludgate Hill, our Chris was provided with the perfect opportunity to cement a reputation as ‘a judicious architect’ for all posterity. The new St Paul’s is his masterpiece – ‘in the foremost rank of the world’s buildings’ – and the only cathedral in England built from start to finish under the supervision of one man:
Christopher Wren: legend by means fair or foul? Architect or arsonist?! You decide!
9:30 on the dot and the Knave is at the foot of the steps of St Paul’s. He pulls out the Knaveseye, adjusts the settings and, at 9:31, is set to shoot when a beaming, be-rucksacked figure hies into the periphery of his viewfinder. What urban adventurer is this?! His idiosyncratic trot transposes to a brisk saunter and, momentarily, he is Knaveside:
“Apologies for my cunctatious arrival, sir, a most incommodious subterranean moratorium the culprit”
“Your tube was delayed?” the Knave responds then, as they embrace: “Tis nothing! Good to see you, old bean!”
Thropplenoggin is the metaphorically pith-helmeted-Colonial-throwback-alter-ego of the Knave’s good friend, Neil, a like-minded English graduate and logophile with a penchant for badinage and a taste for good ale. The interior of St Paul’s will be virgin territory for both of them.
The west front is all muscularity and priapic columns. As we ascend the steps towards the entrance, it puffs out its chest at us à la cocky Cockney pugilist Ricky Groves. “Does it feel as if we are about to enter a cathedral?” I ask Neil. “It has more than a whiff of the Tate Britain to it”, he replies. “Yes, quite, or the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge”, say I.
Into the sanctum we go. Handing over the entrance fee – a block of gold bullion – I ask the man at the ticket desk if I can borrow a pen and he hands me a ballpoint from the Holiday Inn! Astonished, I ask exasperatedly: “You have a uniformed army of salaried staff all emblazoned with the St Paul’s Cathedral logo and thousands of paying visitors each day and you’re offering me a pen pilfered from a budget hotel chain?” “You can buy St Paul’s pens from the shop. They are £8”, he rejoins, with a smile. “Next, please!”
We walk into the nave and are immediately grabbed by the scruffs of our necks.
“LOOK at my gleaming marble floors! LOOK at my bright Portland stone! LOOK at my symmetry! LOOK at my decorations! TELL ME I AM NOT A MASTERPIECE OF THE CLASSICAL STYLE!!!“
Thus are we harangued by Hyperbole!
Averting our eyes, we struggle free and flee towards the stairs. We need some perspective.
The stairway is unusually wide, so the two of us spiral upwards, side-by-side, the plain cream of the walls a welcome balm to our overloaded senses. We emerge in the Whispering Gallery, at 50m above the church floor, a safer distance from our antagonist below.
Taking a seat on the stone ledge that runs around the perimeter of the inner dome, at a distance of some 6ft from a uniformed female member of the St Paul’s army, I ask, “How does this work then?” She turns her head sideways to the wall and says something faintly.
A moment later, the spectral tickle of three words at my ear: “Just like that.”
Neil and I try the same, at ever-increasing distances, until, separated by the full diameter of the dome, a distance of 102ft, I whisper: “welcome to the 17th century control society.” After a few more minutes of whispery frippery we convene to talk cathedral business: what do we actually make of St Paul’s?
Looking down at the proud piers that hold up the dome – modeled on Ely, I’ve read – and at the balance of the transepts and the nave extending from the circular crossing below, we agree that it is simply impossible not to admire St Paul’s. Formally, it is sublime. It appears to be perfect.
But since when have cathedrals ever appeared perfect? Those to which I have become accustomed wear their scars proudly – scars that speak of suffering; scars that betray both a frailty and a will to endure. It is the human imperfection of cathedrals that moves me.
St Paul’s leaves me feeling rather numb.
And I’m not the only one. “It leaves me with a feeling of detachment”, says Neil, “it bespeaks itself with such force that it prohibits the space for contemplation.”
It prohibits photography, too, by the way, but as we are moving on, I fire the Knaveseye upwards from the hip, thinking myself at a fair distance from the army official now. But, no! The kuh-clunk of my shutter hurries around the dome straight into the ear of The Lady Whisperer: “No photography, please”, echoes the response, as the two of us scuttle to the staircase, headed for the roof.
The climb is far narrower now. Twisting their way upwards, the Knave and Thropplenoggin could be in an Escher sketch.
“It strikes me”, says the Knave, “that St Paul’s might just have easily been named St Pauline’s.”
“Pray, sir, expound!” says Thropplenoggin, “what wanton blasphemy is this?!”
“Tis mere logic, my friend, for here we are climbing upward between two enormous domes, the outer of which was built around a wooden crinoline. We are climbing up St Pauline’s skirt, to stand atop her celestial breasts.”
They emerge to a blue sky and a heap of shoulders; the view of London stretching out in all directions. Elbowing their way eastward, their path is blocked by a boyfriend-cum-glamour-photographer picturing an overflowing blonde in a rippling skirt, the City of London his backdrop. “It seems fate has proved your point, Knave”, says Thropplenoggin, then, as they move past, he can’t resist: “Mammon and the mammaries!”
Stationed at the dome’s south door are two more members of the St Paul’s corps, Justina and Louise. They are the friendliest and most attractive pair of Privates the Knave has ever seen. He strikes up conversation, as he swings his espadrilled leg up onto the 4ft high railing:
“Do you get many jumpers?”
The initial reaction suggests shock but then, from Louise:
“Would you pay £15 to commit suicide? There would certainly be cheaper ways to go.”
Five minutes later, the two of us have popped back into the Whispering Gallery for one more look and who should we find but the same cathedral-top twosome! Did they abseil?! I suspend my disbelief, prioritising a question about the quality of the light. Pointing at the cathedral-crowning lantern, beyond Sir James Thornhill’s Renaissance-style scenes from the life of St Paul on the walls of the inner dome, I ask Justina what Neil and I had both pondered earlier:
“What is it up there that creates that effect of mysterious, ethereal light, so tantalising that one might almost believe heaven was on earth?”
As if struck by the perspicacity of my question, Justina pauses, before responding:
Bidding farewell to our droll, rope-sliding friends, we wind our way down to the nave and, averting our eyes, dash for the Crypt – haste seeming the best way to avoid another encounter with Hyperbole.
Had she pursued us we would have led her to The Blackfriar, where you find us about to share our final thoughts. In front of us sit two beautiful, golden, froth-topped pints of beer. “Rarely do you see a pint look quite as good as that”, I say. “Cheers!” Eyeing the ale greedily, we lift it to our lips and drink of it deeply. It tastes of nothing. It has been well-brewed, well-kept and well-presented but it does not work the taste buds; there is no sensory response.
Says Neil, after a moment’s thought:
A perfect pint of St Paul’s.
 The St Paul’s Cathedral website, John Harvey in English Cathedrals and Alec Clifton Taylor in The Cathedrals of England.