A Canon’s Reflections
Durham’s Lumiere festival did what it said on the publicity tin: it gave us ‘four magical winter evenings’. Artichoke gathered artists from the corners of the globe to work their wonders of transformation on our buildings, to delight our eyes, feed our souls and to tease our imaginations. The first reflection must be gratitude: thank you!
We were, of course, astonished by the numbers. Never, probably never ever, have the winding cobbled streets been so full. As I ventured towards the Market Square on Saturday – usually less then ten minutes brisk walk from my home – I found my claustrophobia button being very firmly pressed. ‘It’s like India with coats and hats and scarves’ I tweeted. It was. There was that sub-continental sense of chaos in the air. Of too much humanity and of too much to see, too much to do. This was sensory overload.
And yet, by and large, it was dark. And that’s the strange thing. It was called Lumiere but this festival of light was if anything a festival of the mysteries of darkness. It was an occasion of shadows and shades. Like all great outdoor November events, it stirred the depths and troubled the soul. Memories were being raised and visions conjured.
The twitterverse loved it. But the emailers offering feedback to the Artichoke website were grumpy. The stewards were rude and the crowd control measures ill conceived, they opined. That was not my experience. I wanted to give the stewards hugs or medals. And to keep crowds that large and diverse happy and calm seemed to me a wonder at least as spectacular as Peter Lewis’ waterfall from Kingsgate Bridge. I take my woolly hat off to them all.
It was a festival of reversals. If the crowds at the Cathedral were all too much – then you could head for the top of North Road, enjoy its peace and see the calmly illuminated viaduct. While doing so you could stand on a roundabout or sit on the road. A botanical display called ‘metamorph’ was projected onto a Methodist Church. The background music both encouraged and covered our ‘ooos’ and ‘aahs’. Just down the road the neon lights on the Miners’ Hall told us that ‘Capitalism Kills Love’. Somehow you feel that the penny dropped here a few decades before it did in the south. But who is listening to whom? When? And why?
The art was messing with my mind. As art is meant to do.
And it was messing with the Market Square too. Lord Londonderry was locked up safely in a polystyrene snow scene with ‘I LOVE DURHAM’ in pink lights on the side. It was ha,ha,ha outrageous. It was tacky. It was terrible. And yet compelling. What are we meant to think or feel or remember when we see this disproportionately vast man on his horse? Good questions that will no longer go away.
And so on to Palace Green. It took the best part of an hour. The ‘crown of light’ son et lumière projected onto the north face of the Cathedral was as spine-tingling as it was two years ago. The Lindisfarne Gospels made massive and Bach’s Magnificat bursting joyfully forth after centuries of plainsong was almost too intense. And the whole story was told without words. We saw and felt how the monastery emerged from the marshes and winds and birdsong of the ancient north east. All of which are still part of our region today.
It took another fifteen minutes to get into the Cathedral. It is our Cathedral of course. The city’s, the county’s, the region’s, the country’s, God’s. Not to mention St Cuthbert’s. There is no turnstile here. It’s my Cathedral too. I am, after all a Residentiary Canon. But it was as strange to me as to the people I was coming in with. ‘Naa, I’ve never been in before man’.
My first thoughts were of India again. It was warm and humid with so many people. And dark but for the illuminated miners’ vests suspended through the height of the soaring nave. I remember a visit to the Dalit Temple in Trichy. How it heaved with people all day long. How it was dark, dank, mysterious and smelly. Nothing could be less Anglican, I thought at the time. But this was close. Down the side aisles tray after tray of votive candles blazed like uncontrollable barbeque grills. Prayers were being written on scraps of paper. Cathedral staff and volunteers, some in familiar gowns, most in high vis jackets, were constantly on the lookout for wayward flames and lost children. If my hat had still been on I would have raised it to them too.
Having seen so much electric light outside the naked flame was a surprise. But there was more to come.
The Cloister Garth had become a huge fire garden. Flames were licking from flower pots and an acrid smoke caught our eyes and throats. And outside in the College – one journalist called the area ‘chaste’ – French fire alchemists had created a scene of raw energy and excitement that delighted as it terrified. Was this a medieval scene that I was witnessing, or did it take us to the clunky mechanical energy of the industrial revolution, or was this a some kind of apocalyptic vision of postmodern mayhem? It was all of this and more. It could have been be a scene in a movie. Perhaps it will be.
A colleague from the Cathedral Chapter offered me a chip and we chatted away meaningfully in this transformed space, wondering what all this might mean. We often have polite conversations about mission and hospitality as a Cathedral. But suddenly the floodgates had been opened. Daily we sing and pray New Testament words which speak prophetically of the young Jesus as ‘a light to lighten the gentiles’. But this is not so much about being ‘a light’ as being ‘alight’. The Cathedral was glowing with the glory of God. So too was the town.
And so too were the hearts of those whose eyes had been opened by the interplay of light and dark, the joyfulness of community and the vision of peace and fun which was the magic of those four unforgettable winter evenings.
So the last word is the same as the first: more gratitude. Thank you.