Today is Freedom Day in England. No, I have no idea what that means either. Just another lurch toward something, I guess. But here we are 16 months later and what has changed, everything and nothing. A recent visit to beautiful Ely Cathedral made this paradoxical point well.
Currently, in the nave of Ely Cathedral, just before the crossing above which the extraordinary lantern dazzles, hangs Luke Jerram’s GAIA, a replica of planet earth, using NASA imagery, revolving slowly. I was lucky enough to see this installation in the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College back in September 2020. It was a majestic sight there, and while the Greenwich write up says it was meant to give viewers ‘a sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment,’ I only remember feeling awe, for the work itself, the work in that location and the artistic accomplishment. Nor do I remember the accompanying soundscape. Ely Cathedral did not allow such omissions. Entitled, Heaven and Earth – The World in Our Hands, the message is very clear: the earth is in trouble and it is our fault. Set against the surrounding pillars were toy animals and a pop-up book of Noah’s Ark, so tiny against the stone and the adjacent globe, rather like our feeble efforts thus far. The soundscape, of nature noises interspersed with media chatter brought home the fact that we do an awful lot of talking. Talk and talk and talk. Not so good on the action part. As I type, much of this fragile planet is either flooded or on fire.
Remember way back when, at the beginning of the pandemic, when we all stayed home and nobody went any distance and we noticed how loud the birds are and how beautiful spring is. The skies seemed clearer, pollution levels plummeted, the air was fresher, the animals took to the streets happy to fill the human void. We were optimistic that we had found a new way to live. The Greenwich installation highlighted the fact that so many of us were using nature as a way to cope with the stresses and insecurities of the pandemic, that we were appreciating the environment in ways we hadn’t before.
We were finding our own little gardens of Eden everywhere. A bit of heaven here on earth, not unlike the peeks at heaven that cathedrals hope to offer in their architecture, not least in the extraordinary beauty of Ely’s octagonal tower and lantern, with its starburst of colour and musical angels and Christ’s image gazing down from inside some rather mushroomy looking clouds. If we are capable of creating something like this (almost 700 years ago!) surely we can learn to clean up after ourselves a bit more. Sadly, these thoughts didn’t last long. Heaven on earth got quickly buried under even more plastic waste (the LFT kits alone!) and we resumed our careless habits with gusto.
Those memories of hopeful times are not the only Covid-era time capsule at the Cathedral. Upstairs in the Stained Glass Window Museum are a fantastic series of 8 stained glass panels by artist Rachel Mulligan based on the Tinker, Tailor nursery rhyme, with a pandemic twist. Very clever each one, they nonetheless weren’t immediately obvious in reference. It took me a few seconds to ‘get’ each one, yet in every single case what was being shown was incredibly relevant only a few months earlier. How fast our minds move on. The Tinker is banging a pot outside his shop (remember those Thursday nights for the NHS, no, not so much). The Tailor is furiously sewing PPE, while the Soldier is building a Nightingale Hospital, facilities that were, for the most part, left unused. The Sailor is hoisting the Quarantine flag. The difference between the Rich Man and the Poor Man, both clearly in a medical care setting is reflected in their PPE, rich with the full gear, poor with nothing at all. The Beggar Man is standing in a foodbank queue. Requests for this service went up as much as 700% in some councils during the pandemic, the label tells me. Shocking, for many reasons. The Thief, more light-heartedly, is stealing loo roll. Of these 8 vignettes, the only one that doesn’t seem a distant memory is the Foodbank queue…hmmm, does that suggest another area of inter-connectivity at which we are failing?
So what does all this mean? Nothing. We seem to be right back to where we were before the pandemic, which I suppose, if one is giving it the name ‘Freedom Day’ is a good thing. Except I don’t think we really believe that. Maybe the only thing we have learned from the last 16 months is that we don’t learn, and, putting the pandemic behind us now, we can continue to free ourselves from responsibility for the planet and each other. Sigh, in the famous words of Bob Dylan, ‘how many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?’ More than we ever thought possible.