What is it about those small cathedral towns, which in England are by definition cities, no matter how tiny? Recalling those idealized places of perpetually mild weather and well-mannered people brings peace of mind. I’m hardly alone. The small English town, typically with or nearby a cathedral, is the setting of many popular novels and PBS-broadcasted dramas. In such a series, there might be a murder or two, but the understated, even genteel violence is a small splash caused by a perfectly rounded stone skimmed across a pond.
Yesterday was the first warm, sunny day we’ve had in a while, and I was eager to get outside to our terrace. First I had to tackle some financial matters, some email, finish proofreading some documents, and so on. Some of these tasks could conceivably have been done outside on a laptop, but I know myself better. Once out there, I’d drift off into daydreams and the process would slow to a crawl.
I finally did get out. I took with me the forty-year-old mechanical device that is my braillewriter and oiled it. Then I read a chapter or two in the first volume of Dan Jones’ history of the Plantagenets. Though nine floors up in Brooklyn, just a few blocks away from tonight’s Democratic Party debate, I found myself in that cathedral town atmosphere. Politics were remote. I was content to read the stories of the Plantagenets without worrying too much over that vexing question, why people with vast power and wealth so often want more. There was just the soft embrace of a warm sun and the air’s playful movements.
Dorchester, on the River Thames, was the church town that I last visited. We were on the way from Oxford to another location on our itinerary, but we stopped in because Laura’s father fondly remembered its abbey from his time serving with the USAAF in the forties. We studied the abbey’s interior, talked to some people, then returned to the car. We didn’t exactly rush, but we also didn’t linger. Even so, the feel of that afternoon stays with me, along with all the small English communities that preceded it in my experience, my reading and television viewing.
Geographical locations endure in our lives as physical representations for our states of mind. We aren’t granted lasting stays in any one of them, not even our mental cathedral towns. Most of us would get bored if we actually lived in such a place. Why else do tales set in small English towns so often involve murder? And how else did I end up, after growing up in the suburbs, here in the heart of New York City? We may be seekers after peace, but we are driven by drama. Still, I’m always glad when I find myself back in the cathedral town in my mind.
This will be my last post for a month or more as we prepare for our upcoming trip to northeast Italy. I’ve never been to Italy before, though I’ve read any number of novelists and poets from that once fragmented peninsula, as well as listened to its music. I wonder what new places will establish themselves in my mind’s geography.