Another Country. April 2015.

Dear Rowley,

Won’t London be marvellous when they’ve finished it? I think we’ve all got to the stage where we accept that the sound of drills and demolition, the sight of high vis jackets and builder’s bums and the light coating of dust on suits and lungs is the norm. God only knows how many buildings that should have been listed have been flattened in the name of progress. The City in particular is becoming quite the most curious architectural landscape: as if the Death Star has been twinned with Bath.

The brutality of the modern Temples of Mammon looming over Wren church spires and towers like thuggish school bullies is so upsetting not least because they will stay in place for at least another generation when I will be ‘cold in mi crypt’. Mind you, maybe we should be grateful that the developers want to play sardines in EC4. It proves people want to work if not live in the City of London.

As you know I don’t get out of London much so any excursion is welcomed with similar enthusiasm to two weeks all-inclusive at the Cipriani in Venice. To Gloucester this week to visit Turnbull & Asser’s shirt factory. I am familiar with Regency Cheltenham not least for the racing and the literary festival but not Gloucester which by all accounts views itself as ‘the other Boleyn girl’ or, perhaps, the Lorna to Cheltenham’s Liza.

I will write a sonnet to the T&A factory in the book but suffice to say it made me want to defend the honour and skill involved in continuing to make in England. Most impressive perhaps was the lady who unpicked collars and cuffs that are replaced on the house for T&A’s bespoke customers. Can you imagine any other firm that offers what is essentially a casualty department for customers’ favourite shirts? I also learned the secret of why Turnbull & Asser shirt buttons never, ever fall off. One word: Spiderman.

Anyway, I digress. In the old days when I went on factory visits to see Canali, Zegna or Pal Zileri in Italy it never occurred to me to allow an extra day to see beyond the itinerary. Being a tad older I am aware that one may not pass this way again as t’were so I always allow hours if not days to explore. I tell you, I can beat the toughest National Trust battle axe armed with Pevsner, Trebor Mints or Mace to a church door or castle portcullis these days.

Gloucester, I was told, had the cathedral or the docks to recommend it. In my younger days – and perhaps dark nights – I would have channelled Querelle and headed straight for the docks. On this occasion I ordered the taxi to drop me off in Cathedral close. Gloucester Cathedral has been enlarged and aggrandised over centuries. The former Abbey’s fortunes were made when King Edward II was deposed, murdered and interred there in the early 14th century where his tomb became a shrine.

King Edward II is ‘of interest’ shall we say not least because of his love for Piers Gaveston that prompted his queen the ‘she wolf’ Isabella to take arms against him.  I recall seeing an RSC production of Marlowe’s Edward II starring Simon Russell-Beale at the Newcastle Playhouse. The death scene was so graphic it wasn’t only Mr Russell-Beale’s eyes that stood out on stalks.

Suffice to say I restrained myself from singing eight bars of Poker Face in front of the alabaster effigy in tribute to the king’s end. Seriously the tomb and the canopy intricately carved like Bruges lace is unrivalled according to Pevsner. The effigy itself is covered in a fretwork of ancient graffiti carved by countless schoolboys over the centuries. King Edward II’s shrine was visited by King Richard II who would also become a victim or regicide.

It is tempting to think that when King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries he spared Gloucester and allowed it to become an Abbey simply because it was one of the rare burial places of a British king not interred in Westminster Abbey or St George’s Chapel, Windsor. I was most taken by the many side chapels that formed a ring around the altar and choir. There is something humbling and thrilling about adding another footstep to hard stone and tile floors that have bowed with the weight of our ancestors.

I do love a church or cathedral don’t you Rowley? Imagine how much more well-endowed they all would have been if King Henry VIII hadn’t pillaged their wealth and the Puritans and Commonwealth whitewashed, smashed and burnt their beauties. A lucky survivor in Gloucester Cathedral is a wooden effigy of William the Conqueror’s favourite son the Duke of Normandy. He lies crowned in a scarlet robe over his chain mail and has one leg coquettishly raised as if posing for Velasquez like the Rockeby Venus. Lord knows why he is so elegantly draped over his catafalque.

Having wandered around the fan vaulted cloisters and emerged into the garden behind the cathedral tower I paused to think how lucky we in England are to still have sights that would have been familiar to King Richard II. The rest of Gloucester city centre held few glories except for a galleried ‘New Inn’ coaching house where Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed queen – that went well! – and the shop that inspired Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester. One simply must get out more Rowley!