On Saturday night we were sitting on some very hard chairs in the nave of Winchester Cathedral, mere feet from the burial place of Jane Austen, listening to The Deer's Cry, a performance by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen of choral pieces by Byrd, Tallis, and Arvo Pärt. My partner, on whom nothing is lost, nudged me as they trooped in, and muttered, "There are 18 of them!", which there were. High above them hung something (a microphone?) draped in a dangly white cloth, and I made a joke about the cathedral being haunted by the Holy Ghost. Heh. It's what makes me such good company on such occasions.
It goes without saying that the concert was pretty good. The Sixteen are a world-class ensemble, and the mighty vaulted nave of the Norman cathedral delivers a perfect acoustic environment for choral music. Although on a hard seat a little Byrd does go a long way, to be honest. And the polyphonic wall-of-sound experience delivered by the ancient stones did become a touch unvarying. But, partway through the first half, something happened.
Oddly, although I am a short man, when seated – especially when sitting bolt upright with a dodgy back in a sternly unforgiving chair – I become rather taller, and can actually see over the heads of most of the audience around me. Consequently, I noticed a disturbance off to my right, and saw someone, apparently collapsed, being extricated bodily from the seating. Naturally, this became more interesting to watch than the vocalists arrayed what seemed like a quarter of a mile away.
A woman on my side of the nave – a doctor, I presume, and not just some busybody overwhelmed by curiosity – quickly got up and went over to the side aisle, where the body and its attendants were out of sight. Shortly after, a young cleric in full-length black cassock appeared striding purposefully along some passageway behind the choir and the altar. A minute later he strode purposefully back the other way. The eighteen sublime voices of The Sixteen sang on. Another minute later he reappeared, this time with a red medical backpack slung incongruously over his clerical garb. Over on the right, I saw him again, pulling his cassock off over his head, revealing a plain white shirt. Despite the possible tragedy happening over on that side aisle, it was all getting a little Python-esque, not least because of the obliviousness of most of the audience, and the overwhelming surround-sound accompaniment.
I began to wonder what it would be like to die under such circumstances. Laid out on the cold memorial slabs of an ancient cathedral floor, head propped on a hastily folded clerical robe and gazing up at the vaulting 80 feet above, surrounded by a few friends and well-meaning strangers, ears ringing with Byrd's Miserere mihi, Domine, with a large, like-minded gathering nearby, also listening, rapt, unaware of your plight. Compared to a hospital ward, or a care home, or some anonymous street corner, it didn't seem so bad. In fact, it seemed rather pleasant. Not a bad way to go, even if a little too camp and stagey for my taste.
Then the interval came, but a side door had already been discreetly opened, and the incident – whatever it was – was already over. I was dying for a pee, so made my way quickly in the opposite direction, striding purposefully over the vaulted dust of Jane Austen and sundry other locals and dignitaries, notable in their time.
I appreciate you have even less reason
to trust me than Steve McCurry, but
I swear this uncanny image has not
been altered in any way.