City 11: Coventry

It’s a bright, warm, mid-September morning in Lichfield. Not a cloud in the sky, I note, as I lurch, rather groggily, towards the Fiesta.  It’s my first walk and squawk since April and I’m happy to re-introduce those urban notes into the musical score of my life once more. The intervening five months have seen me working as a tour guide in Scotland with its big mountains and open spaces. England, population wise, is bigger, much bigger. 45 miles out of Edinburgh the motorway ends and you’re into windy, twisty tree-lined roads where the Caravans and Camper Vans roam.

England has 50 cities to Scotland’s 7. In Scotland, half an hour out of Glasgow, Edinburgh or Inverness and you’re into wild country: within an hour you may find yourself in a mountainous landscape without people and without sound. In England you rarely leave the sound of the road. The car is ubiquitous and the city sprawls out through its suburbs, beyond the ring road and into the Wasteland beyond.

I have learned to love both locations for different reasons. City and Country, High Rise and mountain, inner city reservoir and wind-ruffled loch make up the yin and yang of my existence. It’s not an either/or but a both/neither paradigm. As Bill Hicks says, ‘love all of the people all of the time’.  

An 8.30 call at Fazeley, just outside Tamworth, to pick up Ma, and by 8.45 we’re fuelled up and ready to hit the M42. The congestion holds us back but not for long, and soon we’re chugging down the M6, without a Sat Nav, towards Coventry. The Route Planner, with that scheduled stop wants to take us another way but we end up entering the city via the A444 and then the Northside. It’s a little over 30 miles and with the congestion a fifty minute ride.

Blue Sky Thinking

We follow the brown and white signs, as soon as we vacate the motorway, and head towards the Cathedral, whose spires prick the air as if it were a balloon. I’m spinning round roundabouts and hopping lanes like a boy racer on speed, whilst Ma’s attention is tickled by the roundabouts which, according to her are covered in art and possibilities. Much given to gnomic utterances she once proclaimed that 'benches are the new gravestones', and close observation bears this out. Temporarily misplaced we stop, wind the windows down, and interrogate a bemused cyclist about our wheerabouts. He points out the road we need to take for the final leg of our journey to Location 1 the Cathedral Car Park and we thank him and power off. It’s glamorous in a tawdry, mock-ironic, nostalgic sort of way, and fills me with what Martin Amis once called ‘Street Sadness.’  I’m reminded of Spaghetti Junction and childhood journeys to both sets of Grandparents.  The Car Park is situated beneath a concrete flyover stained with ooze and as soon as Ma and I get out of the car we’re snapping away like paparazzi at the site of a celebrity car crash. It is two thirds empty and I appreciate the space. It’s uncluttered.

Grey, Modernist, Lego block buildings surround us as I slowly whirl through 360 degrees, as the traffic roars overhead. After a bit of faffing, with food and bags, we lock the car up and barrel along the road with only the vaguest of plans. Away to my right, a Highrise crane slowly gyrates and lowers a heavy load to where its needed. For a moment, I’m back in Thomas Land riding Cranky the Crane and my belly is being flipped over and over like a Shrove Tuesday Pancake. Location 2, I decide is the Mecca Bingo. We stop and do some Audioboo, dissecting the posters and the tinted glass. Ma is very knowledgeable about Bingo halls. I’m keen to enter but time forbids. Location 3 is the neoclassical façade of the Coventry Pool Meadow Bus Station that would have made Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer fill up with pride. Furrowed Doric columns and an architrave transport us back to Ancient Greece while the Sky Blue Buses rumble past.

All time is now I think: everywhere, both now and always. 

As distance collapses into a singularity I stare at Location 4 and it stares right back at me. The Britannia Hotel is another Lego building, blockish, drab, utilitarian, non-descript. “They’ll be a prostitute in every room,” Ma says. My laughter fills the air as pigeons speed between the buildings like fish amongst rocks.

Across the road there’s a cut through to Location 5, the University. The whole place looks like a film set. The University is not a singular entity though, it is modular and acquisitive, a series of set pieces, that control the black and white squares of this Chessboard City like a 1970s Grandmaster. A grey-brown highrise tower with black windows rears and scrambles up twenty stories, all Gothic and imposing like. It looms large, reaching out and pointing the way to a more lucrative and fulfilled future. Another, seemingly counter-poised building, at right angles to the Tower, looks like a kiddies robot toy. Infantile menace is the keynote here; it’s as if a box of abandoned toys, exposed to some exotic source of radiation grew into Stalinist buildings over the course of a single night. Powerful and cash rich institutions like this run cities now. Time and time again the good people of long standing chorus, it no longer feels like our city. But the indigenous are often overlooked and patronised, their voices marginalised or just out and out ignored. Liverpool was the same. Perhaps its inevitable that everywhere becomes the same with the same treasures on display, the same artefacts on shuffle. Multiculturalism is more important. It’s the face of Modern Britain.

Panorama of Coventry Cathedral

Panorama of Coventry Cathedral


 Location 6 is the money shot, and oh boy, what a shot. Beneath a concrete overhang we wander, past lozenges of yellow squares, with a tang of orange, towards todays obvious highlight, The Cathedral. All the way here and for days before, its been nagging at me. Why do it, why leave a ruin behind, why not rebuild like they did in Berlin, Dresden, Tokyo? So English, so infuriatingly English. Sorry, I’m jumping… I need to rewind, in case you don’t know or lack context.

In November 1940, the Luftwaffe did to Coventry what Hitler ordered them too; they bombed it flat. And they kept coming back again and again and again. As one of Britain’s most important manufacturing centres the city was too important to go unmolested and yet to bomb a Cathedral, symbol of England’s Medieval past just wasn’t sporting. Survivors report a city of horrors with the air reeking of burnt flesh, dogs feasting on human remains, frenzied women attacking firemen as everything continued to burn through the long night and well into the next morning. The scale of the devastation was mind-blowing, but then so is my response to the reality of the place, and not the idea I had fixed in my mind to represent it .  

For when I take the time to look and see, to feel and think I realise that I got it wrong.

In Coventry I thought I had found a symbol of England’s pettiness, its inability to move on; as the Cathedral was ruined so England was ruined. In fact I have found a symbol of its ability to reframe the worst that history had to offer and rewrite it as a tale of triumph.

Churchill, warmonger and inimitable genius that he was said it best; “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” And oh how right he was. England is England because it lives within the maze of its past, in the Day-Glo pageant of its history where all time is experienced as now. The future is uncertain, so best keep the past alive. It lends perspective and yet it is also a distorting glass through which we see our reflections albeit darkly. It leads us both to expand and contract our worldview and despite or perhaps because of our past, because of two world wars we come to the following conclusion. Europe isn’t England and England isn’t Europe. Better to leave than to remain at a party you never wanted to attend in the first place.

And so to Brexit. And so to now.

Beside the shell of the old cathedral with its brooding, towering Gothic steeple, is a connective porch that links the beautiful ruin with the Modernist Cathedral of Concrete and Brass and Wood. Its five pairs of stained glass windows, shoot up like fountains of ever shifting colour. It is a glorious display of vertical majesty in a vast space that links one with the Centre of the Universe via multiple dimensions and the concept of God.

Here all is God and God is just a Word. Or maybe image. Staring into space I imagine the Big Bang and the first few moments of our Universe; a massive release of energy and expansion on all fronts into a vast space of possibility and everything just spinning outwards then spinning together and meshing. This is what a cathedral should be, not a space for dusty rituals, but a place of wowness, of imagining. My word is a thought and that word might be splendour or dread or awe. It might be big or it might be small; it could be the largest thing in the Universe placed next to the smallest thing. It can contain infinity and eternity, and a thousand other abstractions that Science requires no God to explain.

After wandering round the space on our own, we even take the Official Tour, something I’d ordinarily run a mile from. Our guide Anne Marie is new to the job and clutches her folder of prompts and info like a drowning man clutches a lifeline. But she doesn’t need it. She’s best when she is just herself, telling her stories and giving her opinions about the Cathedral and its treasures. A woman of obvious faith she is charming and kind and amusing and we are left with a greater appreciation of the Cathedral than we arrived with.

Yes, the building is a triumph, a Victory for Modernism and for Tradition, for Science and Religion, for Art and Hope. To my eyes it’s a charged space. Somewhere to pray and worship if that’s your bag, or somewhere just to walk through and enjoy. Question or be silent. Believe or don’t believe. I also like the fact that through dialogue and negotiation it has become a space of reconciliation; the glass frontispiece with its etched etheric angels a gift from the German people who both knew and didn’t know what they did. One final symbol is the charred cross made from the burned beams of the decimated cathedral, woven together  and hung on a wall.

Of Lego and Naked Ladies

At some point in the tour we’ve seen enough and breakaway heading down to the ground floor for a cuppa and a bit of nosh. Location 7 is the Rising Café, an assemblage of 1940s memorabilia and an odd assortment of chairs and tables. Its snug and homely, a place of Chesterfield Sofas and models of Lancaster Bombers. Despite being bombed to smithereens during the Blitz it’s probably the moment in time, lots of English people feel proudest of. Withstanding the onslaught and not being broken in Spirit. Of course its become a nostalgia-fest of sorts but it makes me want to go and find out more about the place. History beckons and its back to the books. A baked potato here is two quid and tasty to boot. Cheap at half the price.

Back up to the entrance to sign the Visitors book and thank our guide Anne Marie.  As we part outside the cathedral I kiss her hand and tender blessings.. Location 8 is just down the steps and across the way, maybe 50 metres away from the kiss. Its called The Herbert Museum, but what is it if not a series of interconnected spaces, some gallery’s, shops, conference rooms and some modern art toilets a la Duchamp. We’re here to see one of the exhibitions.Kaz has found us a real treat. It’s called Brick Wonders and according to the legend, or banner of explanation, it sets out to show the wonders of the world-Ancient, Historical, Natural and Modern- in Lego. I’ll say that again IN LEGO. It’s the brainchild of a dude called Warren Elsmore who has the temerity to describe himself as a Lego Artist.

This is a guy who passes his time by doing stuff like recreating the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World in Lego. They’re all there, the Pyramids, The Colossus of Rhodes, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. They’re a world map, again in LEGO, which shows the spread of the Internet. This is a modern wonder. We have models of a waterfall, the Serengeti with elephants and other African animals, an operating theatre and even a LEGO wall on which to add your own creations.

My favourite though is the centrepiece; the airport with its runways and planes, cars and control tower, departure lounge, taxi rank and drop off point, its personnel and hangers. The kid is me is going crazy. It zips me back to how I felt when I went to see my first movies on a big screen.  I like that fact that its basically a white space with these bold lozenges of colour on the wall. As well as the exhibits, there are blown up photos of each of the models, and even time-lapse films of the Artist creating his works.

The most breath-taking film captures the artist building a scale model of the Cathedral we’ve just seen, with its vertical pairs of stained glass windows, its tapestry, alter and crown of thorns sculptures. It even has the Archangel Michael pinning Lucifer to the ground with his spear on the outer wall. I love seeing the process as much as I do examining the model. It’s amazing how creative Warren is with just the basic LEGO building blocks we all have access too. Some of the pieces I’m guessing must be bespoke but that’s fair enough.

Kaz says there are more galleries to explore but I’m almost done. Sometimes less is more. I hang around outside the LEGO exhibition whilst she goes off, letting my mind begin to digest the rich crop of images harvested today. In time I reluctantly follow into a space of sculptures. My eye is immediately drawn to the suspended form of a skeletal crow, Christ like in its moment of crucifixion, arranged and suspended in time by its Artist-Murderer, it is both exhibit and warning. I love it, being a huge fan of Ted Hughes ‘Crow’ and reflect that at its best Art leads you to other Art. In time a vast series of connections, both inter and intra are made, that both enhance life and steer you through the chaos of every day existence into spaces of light and energy.

And so to towards a point of closure. Location 9 isn’t so much a location as a web of images. It starts with a room and a series of paintings dedicated to the Legend of Lady Godiva and ends with a statue, bathed in sunlight. Godiva, wife of Earl Leofric, got her kit off just before the Invasion of 1066, and rode naked through the town to save the Good People of Coventry from the burden of Heavy Taxation. If only todays politicians were prepared to go the extra mile, as she did, they’d be much more appreciated and dare one say, even loved. Will they still be talking about Boris or Corbyn in a 1000 days, let alone a thousand years.

Exiting through the Gift shop we make our way to the town square to our final photo opportunity of the day and that sunlight statue of Godiva, first in a long line of English Strippers, heroine and now symbol of a City, risen from the ashes of war. 

Bricks of Wonder, The Herbert Gallery, Coventry. September 2016.

Bricks of Wonder, The Herbert Gallery, Coventry. September 2016.

Bricks of Wonder, The Herbert Gallery, Coventry. September 2016.

Kind regards

Stuart Goodwin


Stuart Goodwin

29.09.2016 23:29

Thanks for the comment and the link. Will chase it down post haste.


28.09.2016 19:48

Your thoughts on the cathedral remind me of the artist Cornelia Parker. What do we honor when we expose the broken? Lovely read. xox

Ma x

27.09.2016 14:05

Another adventure..... Another masterpiece of writing.....roll on the next one xx

Latest comments

14.10 | 16:13

I know. I see that it's all over but concealed. Not part of a cities authorised biography or daily propaganda.

14.10 | 16:09

Ah thia latter letter reminds me of a man Iknew in Lichfield - now departed totally - he too was being hounded and oppressed and taken to court for nothing. See it isn't just Leeds!!

14.09 | 02:52

A joy to read Stu. Not only an expert tour guide (I have walked the Scottish Highlands with you twice) but a masterful storyteller who merges time and place into a kaleidoscope of imagery & metaphor.

13.09 | 17:29

Its so lovely to hear from you Mike and Jan. Your offer is very kind as are your memories of the trip we shared.

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