In our Coventry homes…

I’m not overly fond of books about war, but when Caroline announced that the April book for her Literature and War Readalong would be Helen Humphreys’ Coventry, I was immediately on board – for the obvious reason that it’s my home town 🙂  I’ll be posting a review of the book on the thirtieth, along with everyone else, but today I thought I’d take a little trip down memory lane and talk about some personal experiences, especially in connection with the cathedral.

The cathedral is the focal point of Coventry, the one real icon at the heart of the city.  It’s a place we all visited as schoolkids, and it’s cemented in local culture in many ways.  It’s one of the famous ‘three spires’ which appear in tourist guides and on various signs, and it’s even mentioned in a football chant sung by fans of the local team, Coventry City:

“We speak with an accent exceedingly rare,
If you want a cathedral we’ve got one to spare”

And you all know (or soon will know) why…
The Old Cathedral, burnt out in the Coventry Blitz in November 1940, is a stunning memorial, cleared of rubble, but otherwise left in its post-bombing state.  There is a cross of nails, made from nails recovered from the ruins, and the two pieces of wood fashioned into a cross on the morning after the bombings still stand at the far end of the church, with the words ‘Father Forgive’ emblazoned behind them.  I actually missed my school trip to the cathedral (my little sister was being born at the time…), so my uncle took me a couple of weeks later.  This turned out to be a good thing as we were able to climb the tower, something the schoolkids weren’t allowed to do (and which for many years was actually impossible).  I remember the view from the top, looking down onto the bare floor of the exposed church and then across to the left…

…where the new St. Michael’s Cathedral is connected to the old one by a covered walkway.  It’s best to approach the new cathedral from the ground-level steps though, taking in the size of the imposing building and pausing in front of the statue of St. Michael and the Devil, hovering above the wary visitor as both a welcome and a warning.

The moment you step inside the new cathedral, your eyes are drawn to one thing, and one thing only.  Directly opposite is the enormous Tapestry of Christ, designed by Graham Sutherland.  It has to be seen to be believed, taking up the whole wall behind the altar, grabbing the attention of everyone who walks through the doors.

There are other, more trivial, details I remember about the new building though.  On the floor, there is a trail of coins, pennies from 1962, the year the new building was completed and opened.  Children often walk slowly down the aisles, heads down , following the large coins embedded at frequent intervals in the tiles.  There are also several stained-glass windows along the sides of the church, which remind me of another personal experience…

You see, when I was a young boy, I was in the cubs for a few years, and every year we had a service at the cathedral for all the packs in the city.  Each pack had a flag, and one year I was chosen to be a flagbearer, a position of great prestige, but also one of immense responsibility.  The flag was mounted at the top of a pole, with the other end resting in a small holder strapped around my waist.  Unfortunately, it was a long pole, and I wasn’t the biggest of boys, so as I stood at the side of the church, it overbalanced several times, almost toppling me off my feet, and coming perilously close to plunging through one of the beautiful windows.  Luckily, I just about managed to make it hit the wall instead…

There’s one final part of the cathedral I’d like to talk about, and it’s situated under the new building.  There is a museum displaying artefacts from the history of both the cathedral and the city, and, as is to be expected, a major focus is the night of the destruction of the cathedral.  There is a short film about Coventry, which has recordings from the night of the attack and interviews with survivors.  Although the film as a whole is a little kitschy, the parts detailing the events of November 1940 are harrowing…

…as, no doubt, you have already discovered if you’ve finished Humphreys’ book.

So, that’s enough about me and the cathedral(s).  In a couple of days, I’ll be back with the real review.  Does the book live up to the story behind it?  You’ll just have to wait and see 😉


15 thoughts on “In our Coventry homes…

  1. Thanks 🙂 My hometown is a fair bit smaller than Melbourne, so I've been to the cathedral a fair bit.

    As for the book.. Well, I'll be posting my review on Monday, but let's just say that it is probably more up your street than mine (which is surprising seeing as it's set in my hometown!).


  2. Thnaks for this, Tony, I enjoyed reading it. I have just finished the book and had your comment in my head the whole time while reading (you called it “light”). We can discuss it on Monday hopefully. I'll try to have the review up earlier than normal, Danille and TBM said they will be on time as well. Should be interesting.
    I would love to see the cathedral. I think I know what you meant when you called it light but as I just finished I have to think about it some more.


  3. Marg – if you see this. Should you have the book you could still join. We post on Monday but the discussion usullay runs a day or two. Sometimes people join much later. I would still link your review even if you are late.


  4. Not living far from Canterbury, my experiences are based around that, it survived the war & Henry II grievances with Thomas, so is still intact, it also survived me as a choirboy throwing up over the alter. Have seen footage of Coventry during the war & it's not nice.


  5. Caroline – 'Fluffy' would be another word 😉 I'm sure there'll be some people with *very* different opinions to mine though!

    Gary – See, now throwing up over the altar is a much more interesting anecdote!


  6. Not really just a small child too much Xmas food, snacks etc & felt sick had the sense to leave but not the sense not to bob my head at alter whilst leaving, bobbed threw up then legged it to somewhere less conspicuous


  7. Gary – Probably not what was in mind when they said “'Tis better to give than to receive.'!

    Caroline – No worries – I'm looking forward to seeing what other people think of the book 🙂


  8. I visited Coventry cathedral once as a child – and was terrified. I can't quite remember what freaked me out, possibly the cross of nails or the statue of St Michael and the devil.


  9. Emma – That was what Hitler and his henchman had in mind, even creating the verb 'Coventrieren' ('Coventrate') to describe the destruction…

    Maryom – Probably the statue – I can easily see how that would be scary to a kid!


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