Pilgrim out of town: Chaucer’s Modern Echoes

by Gail Ashton

St. Pancras, Gray’s Inn Road, to Holborn… Holborn viaduct with its knight flanked by two dragons guarding one of the old city gates…on to Cheapside, Poultry, Bankside…and there ahead London Bridge streaming with traffic and people: to the left, upriver, Tower Bridge, to the right St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the dirty old River Thames chopping and surging below and everywhere crowds walking as if they know where they’re going, contemporary buildings scraping the skyline. And, as if from nowhere, Southwark Cathedral tucked into a hollow, its perfect rising tower the centrepiece to long sweeps of stone fanning out on either side.

This is the oldest church building in London. It stands at the oldest crossing point of the tidal river Thames and was for many centuries the only entrance to the city this side of the river. Some believe there was a place of worship here as far back as Roman times but the ‘modern’ cathedral was re-founded in 1106 by 2 Norman knights. It has had a long and colourful history thereafter.

Yet, as befits this evening’s event with its title Chaucer’s Modern Echoes, this is not simply a medieval shrine but a building at the heart of contemporary life. It’s ringed by the Thames, by bridges and tenement-style wharfsides. In the closing years of the last century the Millennium Buildings were created where the priory of the religious community once stood. Soon there will be a new railway viaduct and the tallest building in Europe, the Shard, standing nearby. Around a corner and along an alleyway and here are the ruins of Winchester Palace, home to a host of medieval bishops. There’s a replica of the Golden Hinde ship, a sign to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and the Clink Museum, site of the former Clink Prison, the oldest gaol in England dating back to 1140.To the left of the cathedral, the small busy Borough market is crammed beneath the railway viaduct, and all the time trains grind along the track, postmodern structures in glass and steel mesh lean into the cathedral yard, straining for a share of its light.

This is a narrow cathedral, the eye drawn to the altar with its small high window. I almost overlook John Gower’s gaudy tomb tucked into the wall and just beyond it Chaucer’s window which depicts the Canterbury pilgrims about to set off on their journey. And before I can even get in to look around I have to wait for the close of a memorial service dedicated to one Michael Cox, master vinter and part of a family owned UK wine company; it’s as if Chaucer has just stepped from the shadows for a last glance at the evening to come.

Tom Eveson and Gabby Meadows intersperse the performances with extracts from Troilus and Criseyde and The Canterbury Tales, Tom in his fabulous rendition of Middle English and Gabby with her mellifluous modern readings. I speak about Chaucer’s literary heritage and his contemporary afterlives with special nods to the fabulous LeVostreGC aka Brantley Bryant and to the medieval meme rendition of the Mamas and the Papas (I never thought I’d be singing in Southwark Cathedral). Lavinia Greenlaw took us on a narrative journey through her haunting A Double Sorrow. And Patience Agbabi blew the roof off with her dramatic performances from Telling Tales: Harry Bailly’s fictional biography; the Prologue’s Grime Mix; her Prioress’s Tale or the amazing Sharps an Flats; the sassy Things alias The Shipman’s Tale; Unfinished Business or the Melibee, her clever and disturbing mirror poem; before ending with Makar, the Franklin’s Tale.

Best of all, as we take turns to speak, in my left ear all night is the rumble and clatter of trains, a helicopter whirring, and Patience stepping into her Sharps an Flats with its call to Damilola stabbed in real life and left to bleed to death in a stairwell, a police siren wailing in time to Chaucer’s still ticking pulse.

My warmest thanks to Poet in the City, especially to Isobel Colchester, Suzy Cooper and Gabby Meadows for hosting and organising this amazing event. And too to the Dean of Southwark Cathedral for bringing over 300 people into such an iconic space.

Watch out for audio interviews when they’re released.

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