The Cenotaph is special
Beverley Minster virger ‘Professor’ Neil Pickford examines human psychology.
Now zen class, if you would sit strrrrraight unt pay attention ve vill move on to ze next slide…
Sorry, sorry, where was I?
I’m afraid I must have slipped into virtual-teaching mode while considering what constitutes a sacred space in the Minster, but please excuse me. This fantasy allows me to indulge in my favourite “arms-waving-about-and-talking-loudly” activity and is otherwise completely harmless.
Anyway, as I was saying last week before I was so rudely interrupted by a shortage of newsprint, the Cenotaph in Beverley Minster has become a very special place to me in recent years, and I think the way this has happened reveals a lot about what can be termed ‘sacred’ places in church. Firstly, let me just quote from the Minster’s own in-house historian from the 1970s, Thomas Tanfield: “In the central bay … is a Cenotaph designed by Mr F.L. Pearson and executed by Mr R. Dawson of Marylebone, London. It is modelled after the shrine of King Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey and is inlaid with mosaic and enriched with rare marbles of beautiful colour. The panelled niches contain the names of officers and men of the East Yorkshire Regiment, and the panels on the north and south screens contain the names of about 2,000 East Riding men who served in 120 other regiments...”
The cenotaph itself, the chapel it stands in and the huge dark blue coloured windows nearby were erected in 1921 after massive public donations to remember those who lost their lives on the battlefields of World War One.
When I started working at the Minster a mere four years ago this Cenotaph was just a big, rather gaudy monument with names on. I felt a certain amount of respect for it because I come from generations of military fathers: my own joined up as a young teenager in the 1930s to become a military musician and escape a life of poverty and boredom, only for Hitler to come along and make the whole experience a lot more unpleasant than he’d been expecting. So I was fully aware of monuments commemorating those who fell in various wars and had been silently present at many of them as Dad continued to play clarinet in the local ‘TA’ band on Remembrance Sundays.
But the Minster’s cenotaph wasn’t anything special to me: none of my family was associated with this part of the world and you won’t even find either parent’s surname listed on it. Yes, terribly sad and all that, but entirely theoretical. But then I started working on Tanfield’s book about Beverley Minster.
Tanfield himself spent 30 years researching our building, putting all his findings into a scholarly tome, then produced just six copies of his meisterwerk. One of these is the ‘bible’ of the virgers, providing the answer to any question about the building for which we can’t remember details, but our copy is getting very battered and fragile.
I transferred all this precious information into digital format, transcribing around 100,000 words with my own delicate little pinkies, converting it into an easily-searched publication available to anyone with a computer. Then I realised that, by creating a spreadsheet, I could do the same with the names on the memorial, so I started.
It’s only when I began entering the thousands of names listed that it started to dawn on me just how massive the scale of death and loss must have been. There are 7,514 names on the Cenotaph alone – all of them local boys who fought in various divisions of the East Yorkshire Regiment. The side walls record a further 2,261 East Yorkshire lads attached to other regiments, making a total of 9,775 deaths. And these are just the ones who died close to the spot where they were injured: since I made the list I have been informed of more than a dozen individuals who died of their wounds in hospitals back in Britain, but who are not listed here.
Suddenly these weren’t mere numbers – to me they became a weight of human loss that was tangible – roughly half a capacity crowd at the KC stadium for example. The cenotaph moved from being a dusty relic to a spot with real emotional overtones for me. I sometimes go in there now and think about the lives cut short, and the pain carried by those who came back as well.
My relationship with the cenotaph has evolved: it owns me now. And, I guess, that’s what really makes a place sacred to you.
And next week I may return to the subject of rabbits.
To be added, perhaps, if space permits: Electronic copies of Beverley Minster by Tanfield on CD, compiled by Neil Pickford, are available at Beverley Minster shop, priced £9.99.
First published March 2011