Monday, 3 March 2008

writer's cramp

If England does one thing well, it’s ecclesiastical architecture. This has got to make the most die-hard heathen want to break into a triumphant chorus of “Hold the fort! For I am coming/ Jesus signals still…” (And then shuffle his or her feet in embarrassment for the outburst, because we are English after all, and anyway we don't know the rest of the hymn).

Most of England oozes centuries of history, but Lincoln has to be just about the ooziest. Cathedral, castle, Edwardian terraces, industrial revolution terraces, mills, Victoriana, Roman mosaics, medieval guildhalls, Magna Carta and all. It's like Historical Pic-n-Mix. The Cathedral’s library dates from 1422 – it still has the original roof and a good proportion of the original (extra comfy) furniture. The reading desks have bars across the top, to which the books could be chained to stop anyone wandering off with them. Of the original 109 chained books there remain 88. There is also a considerable collection of several thousand sort of misc-ish volumes shelved – yes, really – by size. Little ones at the top and big ones at the bottom. The cataloguing system is brilliant – if a book is on the third shelf up and twelve books in, its catalogue number is 3.12. Foolproof. I will be implementing it into the bookselling world post-haste.

Magna Carta is all very well; I mean, it does form the basis of almost every other constitution that exists on the planet and everything, but. The original document was little more than the minutes to a meeting of moneyed thugs who, if King John didn’t agree to their demands, probably wouldn’t have let him get out of Runymede alive. The Pope annulled it more or less right away when King John went to him boohooing that the big mean barons bullied him and it wasn’t really fair (especially as they added a bunch of clauses after he’d gone, one of which I’m pretty sure said “and I’m a big idiot and I smell, signed King John”). It was only reinstated a couple of centuries later, with revisions that made it almost unrecognisable from the original agreement. And it was four hundred years before it was actually meaningful to any other human being in England except for wealthy landowners. And, let’s face it, it has never been meaningful to women, who were effectively legal children up until the 1970s.

But it is very, very old. It has 3500 words, written in ink on vellum. And someone had to write it all out by hand forty-one times – can you imagine? It’s the mother of all after-school detentions: “for pratting about in my class this afternoon, Luke, you will write out Magna Carta forty one times.” “Aww, miss….”

No comments: