Yesterday I drove to Chichester to meet someone who had some books to sell. I only had half an hour to spare, but I managed to squeeze in a visit to the cathedral:
The cathedral is beautiful by any standards, but what makes it particularly stunning is its successful blending of the ancient and modern, thanks to the extraordinary vision of George Bell and Walter Hussey.
I love the way that medieval tombs sit alongside bold, Cubist-inspired tapestries. I know that these contemporary works of art ruffled a few feathers when they were installed, but nearly 50 years on, they seem perfectly at home. Bishop Bell's vision has ensured that the Cathedral is a living church rather than a museum piece.
When I returned to work, I tried to convey the excitement of Chichester Cathedral. "They've got a Marc Chagall window!"
"Who's Marc Chagall?" came the reply.
I had forgotten myself. Most of the time, my work persona is an amiable, two-dimensional caricature - one that allows people to fill in the blanks themselves. When people ask me what I'm doing at the weekend, I lie. It's much easier to say, with a world-weary sigh, that you're taking the 'kids' to the Sea Life Centre ("Isn't it expensive these days!") rather than talking about the new Paul Nash exhibition that you want to see. Paul Who?
Sometimes I wish I'd stayed in London.
However, it's not all bleak. I now have some bright young things working for me who want to talk about more than last night's match. I'm sure that they would appreciate this:
The medieval Arundel Tomb is remarkable. I have written about it before here, three years ago and quoted the full Philip Larkin poem, with its beautiful last line, "What will survive of us is love".
Chichester is nice. It has plenty of historic buildings and even the local Marks and Spencer appears to have had some sort of preservation order imposed on it. I haven't seen this font for years:
But I wouldn't want to live there. Perhaps that's because I associate the place with Waterstone's.
When Ottakar's was bought by HMV, my shop became part of a new Waterstone's area and I was required to attend monthly regional meetings at the Chichester branch. They were not happy occasions. I had left Waterstone's in 1994, vowing that I'd never work for them again. Suddenly, without my consent, I was back and this Waterstone's was far worse than the company I'd left 12 years earlier.
As Waterstone's managers had gradually had their autonomy eroded by a succession of retailers, the meetings had a very limited scope. We discussed burning issues like "How can we successfully promote the new loyalty card?" or "What's the best way to make people buy Waterstone's gift cards instead of Book Tokens?"
After enduring several hours of trivia, I used to sneek across the road to Chichester Cathedral and look at the Arunel Tomb. Every time I looked at the 700-year-old stone carvings, I felt grounded. The ephemeral nonsense of loyalty cards and campaign changeover would pass. The things that really mattered would remain.
Here is Philip Larkin himself, reading An Arundel Tomb...