Skip to content
Jan 9 / Simon

‘Who can tell me about Britain’s bloody religious history?’

The Times, 7 January 2017
A former medieval monastery in London where Thomas More studied for four years is opening to the public for the first time. Simon Tait writes

Clerkenwell was the bustling heart of medieval London. Outside the jurisdiction of the city fathers, it was a place of entertainment known for its brothels, taverns and “houses of unlawful and disorderly resort”. It had three prisons as well as plague pits, and a well around which parish clerks performed mystery plays, near where farmers came to sell their livestock at Smithfield.

In its midst stood the convent of one of the strictest orders in an age of monasticism, the Carthusians of Charterhouse, whose reclusive occupants were respectfully left to their devotions in peace. “All around was bustle and trade and power positives,” says Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, “while inside the Charterhouse you were standing challenge to that way of being human”.

This tranquil spot is the point at which the Middle Ages ended, over which two of the most powerful intellects of the age, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, battled for – as they saw it – the souls of the English, a battle that ended with the moral authority being wrested from the church of Rome by the state of Henry VIII.
The Charterhouse monastery was built in Edward III’s reign and was later a school and almshouse. On January 27 it will open to the public for the first time with tours and a museum created by the Museum of London telling how, after Cromwell’s victory over More graphically detailed in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and the expulsion of the Carthusians, it was a stately home and a court for two monarchs.

“The opening of the Charterhouse will be a great opportunity to reconsider particular themes, such as the Suppression story, and the huge sweeping change that occurred to London from 1536,” said Roy Stephenson, head of archaeological collections at the museum, which plans to move to Smithfield in 2021. “Approximately a third of the land in the City, and that immediately surrounding, changed hands and vital social support was terminated swiftly for the urban disposed. When the Museum of London becomes part of West Smithfield in the middle of a monastic landscape, with the Charterhouse to the East, St Johns and St Marys Clerkenwell to the North, and Barts to the South, we hope to be better placed to tell that story.”

The Charterhouse was first home to a handful of hermits known for their poverty, austerity and scholarship. In 1084 a German monk, St Bruno, established a closed silent order on a desolate rocky plateau called Chartreuse, above Grenoble. In Latin it became Cartusia, in English Charterhouse, and though the monks devoted themselves to a life of isolation, a chain of charterhouses grew across Europe until by 1200 there were 37.

The London Charterhouse was built on the Smithfield plague pit, consecrated in March 1371 with a prior and six monks. It was established against widespread objections, not least from London’s many other monastic houses that were competing for patronage, and from the meat sellers of Smithfield who were being deprived of 13 acres of valuable grazing land.

The monks’ guiding precept was isolated ascetism. They spent most of their time alone in “hermitages” consisting of a bedroom, an oratory and a study. There were 24 such cells by the start of the 16th century, partly paid for by wealthy patrons, set around a large cloister garden, a place for silent communion with nature. Eating was a necessary evil, a potential source of corruption; their one meal of the day, at about 10am, was bread and water, occasionally vegetables and perhaps cheese on Thursdays, and fish on Sundays. Lay brothers passed the monks’ food through a grill, one of which survives.

The brothers went to bed at 7pm and were woken for prayer at 11. At midnight they met in the chapel for up to three hours of matins, lauds and the offices of the dead, returning to bed until rising again at 5am for high mass and then retiring once more for study before vespers at 2.45pm. They wore undyed woollen habits with large cowls hiding their faces; on Sunday afternoons they processed together outside the precincts, when they were permitted to talk to each other.

“They kept their standards which was really difficult to do in a religious community,” says Professor McCulloch. “The tendency is always to make life a bit easier, to rub along more comfortably. The Carthusians, by a simple structural device of making their community a collection of hermits, avoided that. They lived most of their lives in solitary fashion, to grow their own food or have it delivered in a totally impersonal way through those grills, and otherwise they met or worshipped for formal business in the chapter house (which survives as part of the present chapel) or the vanished medieval chapel”.

The powerful were wistful for the hermits’ holiness, lavishing endowments on them and often seeking their advice. “There is a powerful Carthusian literature addressed to the powerful,” says Professor McCulloch, “a sort of medieval safety device giving them a sense of perspective”.

And so it was for Thomas More who lived among the Carthusians for four years as a student, and contemplated becoming a brother before an aversion to celibacy – he feared he would have been “an impure priest” says his biographer Peter Ackroyd – led him to the law instead. In the library More could read, as well as the classics, Thomas à Kempis on simplicity and purity.

“More was a man who was stoically torn between two worlds, whether to go forward and be the glittering statesman he was or disappear into this world of self-denial,” says Prof McCulloch. “He couldn’t hack it and yet it always drew him back, and in the end that denying of worldly power was what brought him to the scaffold”.

The Charterhouse prior, John Houghton, refused to sign Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy, bringing down on his community the full wrath of More’s immediate successor as Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell. In May, 1535, Houghton was taken out to Tyburn and hanged, drawn and quartered. Sixteen of the monks were either executed or starved to death in prison. From his own cell in the Tower More was able to see Houghton and two other Carthusian priors being dragged to Tyburn on hurdles. “Look, Meg,” he said to his daughter. “These blessed fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage”. More was beheaded two months later.

At the 1538 Dissolution the building’s stones were used to create a Tudor mansion with a great chamber in which Queen Elizabeth held her first court in 1558, as did James I in 1603. In 1611 it was bought by a merchant, Thomas Sutton. As well as founding a school for impecunious scholars there, who in the cloister created the rudiments of the rules of football (the school moved to Surrey in 1872), he turned Charterhouse into an almshouse or, as John Aubrey described it in 1657, “an old neate, fresh solitarie Colledge for decaied Gent.”
And so it remains, with about 40 secular brothers – there is no religious requirement now – subsisting on Sutton’s generous endowment. It was not, however, designed to cope with the expensive 21st century upkeep of a group of Grade I listed buildings, and Charterhouse needs to establish a new fund.
There has always been a chaplain, known as the Preacher, who today is the Rev Robin Isherwood. The Act of Supremacy, he says, was cataclysmic for a world where the church was the final arbiter, where what happened after death was more important than what occurred in life. “In their eyes the church was the divinely ordained authority pushed aside in favour of someone who eventually believed in the divine right of kings,” he says.
Charterhouse and the Museum of London hope the extraordinary story will bring 35,000 visitors a year. Combined with the museum, admission to which will be free, the paid-for tours will fill in gaps left by the lost medieval fabric. “Combining notions of what More and the Carthusians did,” says Mr Isherwood, “will bring it alive for them”.

Jan 9 / Simon

Rattle Hall is not dead in the water

January 2017, Opinion
Simon Tait
It looked like it was curtains for Rattle Hall – the Centre for Music – when the Chancellor changed his mind plan, Or rather, the new Chancellor changed the old Chancellor’s mind, and cancelled the Treasury grant of £5.5m to create a business case for the £278m Centre for Music, to give it its proper name. Having believed in the promise of the project and welcomed the positive results of a feasibility study, the government has now decided that, bluntly, it does not offer value for money for the taxpayer, and is therefore not affordable.
That feasibility study, also sponsored by Osborne, reported more than a year ago and the grant was seen as a green light for the project, with an opening in 2023. Now the government wants its money back, and we can assume there won’t be any more government bunce – maybe as much as £100m – as might have been hoped.
There are plenty who will agree with the u-turn. Some, like Julian Lloyd Webber, said the money would be better spent on music education – will it be? Others said it would be built in the wrong place, a much better site would be on the Thames opposite Tate Modern at Blackfriars as part of a new cultural hub with the Globe and Nicholas Hytner’s new Bridge Theatre. Then there was the argument that, as the home of the London Symphony Orchestra, the other four main London orchestras (if you count the BBC’s) would be disadvantaged. “London is already home to world class culture and music venues, from the iconic Royal Albert Hall to the Barbican Hall and the Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre” a government spokesman said, laughable to anyone in the music-making business.
The whole issue arose a couple of years ago when Simon Rattle complained that there was nothing in London to match the modern halls of Europe, like Vienna and Amsterdam; then it was announced that he had agreed to be the LSO’s next music director, but that the new hall was not a condition of his taking the job. The LSO’s managing director, Kathryn McDowell, said the orchestra had to play in other cities just to find out how good they were. Then the Barbican, LSO, Guildhall School and the Corporation of London came up with the new plan. Also involved is the Museum of London’s long yearned for move to West Smithfield, vacating the London Wall site for Kenyon’s hall for a £150m development in Clerkenwell.
What Kenyon and McDowell are proposing is not just a concert hall. It would be built for the digital age, said the Barbican’s MD Nicholas Kenyon, with education facilities that would offer “immersive” experiences for London youngsters and communities, plus digital recording facilities. “As the study demonstrates, the Centre for Music is not just viable but could be transformative, significantly raising the profile and visibility of music and offering world-class arts and learning opportunities for all” he said when the feasibility report was published. “The elements are all there now to create a unique opportunity: we want to work with all our partners to shape and realise the vision in a way that can be inspirational for all”.
There is no reason for it not to go forward. The loss of the government money and its imprimatur will hurt but will not need to be fatal, especially if Brexit can awaken the interest an American billionaire, with the planners at liberty to name it after them. The project was started long before Osborne got involved, the feasibility study has been done and rendered a positive report, and the richest local authority in the country, the Corporation of the City of London, is still four-square behind it.

Jan 9 / Simon

Time to roar

January 2017
A small city with a large past. Hull is pushing the boat out as City of Culture 2017. Simon Tait reports

“Everyone back to ours” is the homely, welcoming slogan for Hull’s year as City of Culture in 2017, but the city’s front parlour is so crowded that its director, Martin Green, has only announced the first quarter’s programme.

At the end of this opening period, though, will be what promises to be the most extraordinary event of them all, occupying the ethereal and beautiful Humber Bridge, the longest single span suspension bridge in the world when it opened in 1981. In April the orchestra and chorus of Opera North will turn it into the biggest concert stage ever with a musical installation presenting a new piece by Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen and collaborators Jan Bang and Eivind Aarset, with the sounds of the bridge itself caught by Hull-based sound artist Jez Riley, all experienced by the audience through earphones during a walk across the 2,200 metre bridge.

It’s an ethereal, futuristic offer from a little city, population 258,000, with a large past. Kingston-upon-Hull was invented by Edward I as a supply base for his campaigns of Scot hammering, at the spot where the rivers Humber and Hull meet the North Sea, and through the Middle Ages it became the main port to import cloth, iron ore, oil seed and timber from northern Europe. It, and its merchants, grew rich. When Charles I tried to take control of the city’s arsenal in 1642 he was turned away at the gates, laid siege and after five weeks was defeated, thus providing the first action of the Civil War. Later in the 17th century the poet Andrew Marvell was Hull’s MP; so was William Wilberforce a century later, launching his anti-slavery campaign from here.

With whaling coming to the port in the 18th century it continued to flourish, and fishing generally became Hull’s main source of prosperity through the 19th century, with railways making distribution relatively easy. With prosperity went civic pride marked by the creation of buildings like the majestic Guildhall.

After the First World War housing estates were built and there was more urban development, but overfishing in the 1920s and 30s set off an industrial decline. In the Second World War Hull was devastated by bombing raids, and post-war reconstruction was slow and laborious, while fishing declined more. The old docks were closed, a new dock to handle container traffic opened in the 60s, and Scandinavian super-ferries operate from there. But unemployment is now among the highest in the country, and the floods of 2007 made thousands homeless. Hull needs this boost, and it has recruited battalions of music to give it a fair wind.

The City of Culture has already worked its magic, with more than £1 billion of industrial investment coming in since it was announced in 2013, and there’s a £100m cultural infrastructure programme under way. The great musical legacy will be Hull’s new £36m 3,500 seat music and events centre, Hull Venue, but that won’t be finished until 2018 so the multiplicity of music on offer will take place in the city’s existing venues.

However, Hull University’s Middleton Hall has just reopened ready for 2017 after a £9.5m refit which includes a 400-seat concert hall where, on February 9, Chinese guitar virtuoso Xuefei Yang will give a recital, and where a week later Schubert’s Winterreise will be sung in a new English translation by the baritone Roderick Williams, accompanied by Christopher Glynn. On February 23 The New London Ensemble will give a wind quintet’s take on Mozart there, and the following afternoon the actor Simon Callow joins the band with musical stories from Prokoviev’s Peter and the Wolf to Martin Butler’s Dirty Beasts for a family show. The ensemble deNOTE reveals some secrets of 18th century chamber music, using period instruments, on March 2, and on the 31st Mica Levi brings to the Middleton the London Sinfonietta who she will conduct in Under the Skin, her Bafta-nominated score for the sci-fi film.

For the time being Hull’s principal venue remains the magisterial City Hall, former municipal nerve centre and now august performance venue, where the Royal Philharmonic will make its contribution on February 2 with the film music of John Williams, and on March 16 the Hallé brings Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.

At the Ferens Studio from March 10 to 12, the Sinfonia UK Collective will reveal the work of Hull-born musical pioneer Ethel Leginska (born Liggins) who died in 1970 aged 84 after a career in which she was the first woman to conduct many of the world’s orchestras, a composer, founder of the Boston Philharmonic, teacher and performer.

Looking forward into the summer, there is to be the first part of the New Musical Biennial in Hull, when the PRS for Music Foundation joins with Hull, the Southbank Centrem, BBC Radio 3 and NMC recordings to commission new work from composers as varied as folk star Eliza Carthy, the composer Gavin Bryars and jazz ensemble GoGo Penguin.

But the big event that will fit most cosily in Our Place in this first quarter takes place at the City Hall on February 25, when the Hull Philharmonic has its big night. The amateur orchestra has been part of the city’s cultural landscape for 130 years, and resident in this venue for a century. It was founded in 1881 in an age when music was performed in everyone’s front parlour to varying degrees of proficiency, with 27 members. There are now 80 and the Phil is acknowledged as one of the finest in the country, and will show its quality by performing the world premiere of a new work by Sir Karl Jenkins, with the pianist Martin Roscoe as guest.

“Hull has always had a unique cultural voice,” said Green in launching the year, “and in 2017 it will roar”.

Sep 27 / Simon

A people person

We talk local life with East Dulwich councillor Charlie Smith, who has recently been appointed deputy mayor of Southwark
By Simon Tait, Dulwich Diverter, Sept-Oct 2016

He was almost a star several times, Councillor Smith. A little known fact about the cheery gent with the permanent grin known throughout East Dulwich as Charlie is that he isn’t Charlie at all. And it would be nice to think that the actual Arthur Smith had changed his name to avoid confusion with another well-known Londoner, but the truth is more prosaic: “My dad was Arthur Charles as well so if anyone in the house shouted out ‘Arthur!’ it was me dad,” he says. “So I got to be Charlie, and it stuck”.

Born in 1948 he married his childhood sweetheart Sue in 1966 when he was “17 and a bit” at the place to get married in the 60s, Chelsea’s Caxton Hall, almost standing in the queue between Ringo Starr, Barry Gibb and the other celebrities who chose the Central London Register Office for their nuptials. Charlie’s younger brother was the Radio Caroline DJ Tony Allan, who died from cancer in 2004 but is still a legend in pirate radio heritage.

Charlie’s own claim to the centre stage comes next year, when, barring mishaps, he is invested as Southwark’s 116th Mayor.

This year he and Sue celebrated their golden wedding anniversary surrounded by their three daughters and five grandchchildren. Londoners both, born and bred, Charlie and Sue came to East Dulwich 20 years ago, both hailing from Pimlico where they met as teenagers. He had left school at 15 to become a joiner in the building industry, but after five years of evening classes – “In the job application box for certificates I didn’t think I’d impress anyone if all I could put was ‘25 yards swimming’” – he found himself with A levels in English literature, criminal law, sociology and economics, all handy for a lifetime of public service.

He became a surveyor for a Paddington housing association working with the homeless, and then did the same with the government’s Property Services Agency and then for the Peabody Trust. He worked for Westminster Council’s Cash Incentive Scheme, helping council house dwellers find appropriate accommodation. He worked with the homeless in Croydon and for the last 12 years before his retirement in 2012 was a surveyor with the Hyde Housing, the association set up 50 years ago to help people excluded form the housing market.

Early on, local politics became an abiding interest. Charlie made the tabloids in 1990 when he was standing for Westminster Council the leader of which, Lady Shirley Porter, was standing alongside him at the count. “The press were all there, Mrs Thatcher was expected, and they asked me if I was going to win. I put up Churchill’s victory sign. Then they asked me what I thought of the Poll Tax and I reversed the sign – and in the photographs that were in the next day’s papers it looked as if I was aiming the gesture at Shirley Porter, with the headline ‘No way to treat a lady’,” he recalls with a chuckle. He didn’t win the seat.

But years of calling on needy people in some of the poorest corners of the capital has provided invaluable experience through three terms as a Southwark councillor. “You learn to observe things, and how to take care – we learned a lot about not taking unnecessary risks from the Suzy Lamplugh case (a young estate agent on a routine call who disappeared in 1986 and has never been found),” Charlie says, “and now from the murder of Jo Cox. You never know what’s going to come, but you have to learn how to deal with folk, how to behave. Being able to listen and take people and their problems seriously always puts you in good stead”.

He stood for Parliament for the Cities of London and Westminster South in 1992, coming second after the Conservative, and tried again for Chichester five years later with a similar outcome in spite of garnering 10,000 votes, but his heart has been in local affairs. In 1998 he was elected for the Ruskin Ward, now Village Ward, and in 2002 continued as the councillor for East Dulwich, serving until Labour lost control of Southwark Council in 2006. In 2010 he stood in another Southwark ward, Cathedral, without luck, but was elected for East Dulwich in 2014 and shares the ward with two Lib Dem councillors.

“The place has changed almost out of recognition since 1996,” he says. “House prices have spiralled up, and East Dulwich is much more prosperous than when we first came here, but you shouldn’t make assumptions that the people change. Snap judgements about age and class are nearly always wrong, and you need to listen to what people want to tell you before you know how you can help”.

There have been major changes in our high street, Lordship Lane, with the largest Foxtons estate agency in the South East on the site of the old Social Security office, restaurants and wine bars opening, and Marks & Spencer to comng soon in place of Iceland, a new primary school where the police station once stood, key worker housing where a cinema was, a Picturehouse at what was St Thomas More Hall, and beyond East Dulwich Station a complex development going through the planning process to give his beloved Dulwich Hamlet football club a new arena.

“Planning is a challenge in East Dulwich and I have to keep an eye on developers to make sure they stick to what has been agreed,” he says.

In East Dulwich the issues of housing and benefit entitlements of 20 years ago have faded away in favour of property development and parking. He has experience on the borough’s education and planning committees and is proud of the ward’s schools and how they have developed. Although local councils are no longer education authorities, they can still play a part by helping to buy sports equipment or to fund school outings.

He is a popular guest at school prize days, preferring not to resort to the bromides of many speakers as they exhort children to work hard and pay attention. “No, the last one was at Heber School where I decided to talk to the children about Syria and refugees, and to think about children less fortunate who had been forced to leave their homes”, Charlie says. “It was going very well, and then the head, David Block, said ‘I know about that too, my parents were child refugees from Nazi Germany’, and suddenly it was so much more real for the kids. It was a good moment”.

Now he serves on the licensing committee and often spends his evenings in the back of a police car, touring alcohol outlets and checking that their business equates with their licence. “Licensing has to take into account where the outlet is – is there a reputation in an area for problems with drink? – and their hours to make sure they’ve closed sales in accordance, as well as not serving alcohol to under age customers,” he says. “It’s important to see for myself what’s going on, and we’re not slow in taking people’s licences away if they’ve broken the rules.”

But at a civic ceremony in Southwark Cathedral in May the Labour group appointed him Deputy Mayor of Southwark, a largely ceremonial role “visiting everywhere in robes and badges” as an ambassador for the borough, which puts him in line to succeed Kath Whittam as Mayor next year.

“I love it,” Charlie says. “Last week we were at Hornchurch with all the mayors at an outdoor concert, before that there was an indoor cricket competition at Lord’s in which a team of autistic children competed – marvellous, and so well disciplined.”

He tries not to let his civic duties interfere with his pastoral ones, however. “It’s being on the doorstep, talking to people, not just at election time but all year round, that makes the difference to people here and it’s an honour to represent them”, he says. “Sometimes I can’t help but sometimes I can, and that makes it worthwhile”.

Sep 26 / Simon

Grand Lodge marks its 300th anniversary

The Times, 24-9-2016
Simon Tait
Although its origins lie deep in the Middle Ages, British Freemasonry as an organised network of egalitarian gentlemen’s clubs, or lodges, takes its foundation from a meeting at the Goose and Gridiron pub near Sir Paul’s Cathedral on June 24th, 1717, when the members of four lodges got together to create a Grand Lodge. Sir Christopher Wren, a member of the St Paul’s Lodge who had effectively been the Masons’ chief organiser, was seen to have “neglected his offices” – he was in his 80s by then – and was passed over as the first Grand Master in favour of Anthony Sayer, a gentleman of which little more is known.
Principally, says Diane Clements, director of the Freemasons’ Museum and Library, their aim seems to have been to arrange a decent feast of which they had felt a lack, but the tenets set then are principally the same today: brotherly love, community charity and moral truth.

To mark the tricentenary the Grand Lodge, a dominating Art Deco temple in London’s Covent Garden, is opening a new gallery that dispenses with some of the myths about Freemasonry and for the first time relates the story of a much misunderstood society.
Since 1717 the Freemasons have been accused of secrecy – Diane Clements prefers the word “privacy” and it is not a secret society, its rules being open to public scrutiny – which has allowed myths to develop and accusations of undue influence in public life. There are no blood sacrifices, Roman Catholic Freemasons cannot be excommunicated, there is absolutely no connection with ancient Egypt or the Knights Templar, and the secrets are about nothing more than modes of recognition. Since 1908 there have been women’s lodges whose first “Most Puissant Grand Commander” was the women’s rights leader Annie Besant.
Many members of the royal family have been members, and the exhibition has the enormous gilded throne made by Robert Kennett in 1791 for the then Prince of Wales when he became Grand Master. Celebrating his own anniversary next year of 50 years as Grand Master is the present Duke of Kent, who will open in the exhibition on September 29.
But there are rituals, from one of which we get the word “hoodwinked” from the practice of placing a bag, or hoodwink, over an initiate’s head during enrollment. The exhibition has photographs of some of them, showing that trouser legs are indeed rolled up by candidates to prove they are flesh and blood, and there are three degrees of membership, admission into the third being the most testing and giving us another common phrase.
In 1723 the first rules were drawn up. The only religious requirement is that Brothers believe in a single god and its roots are in the Old Testament; there are many Jewish and Muslim members; religion and politics are never discussed at lodge meetings where the only recognised ranks are those of the fraternity. The symbolism of recognition that dots the ceremonies and apparel of Masons mostly derives from the tools of the stonemason’s trade, his square, compass and plumbline, and chiefly the mason’s apron, their “jewels”. The prisoners of the Japanese in Changi Jail in the 1940s fashioned jewels from metal taken from a derelict bus; during German occupation Jersey Masons made aprons from paper; at the Siege of Ladysmith in 1899-1900 Brothers fashioned their aprons from linen napkins.
Freemasonry had a prominent place in public life, but it was effectively forced underground by Nazi persecution. Hitler even obtained a list of lodges in the UK for targetting, and the Grand Lodge sent microfilms of its most treasured documents to Canada, Australia and New Zealand for safety in case Britain should be invaded.
But the Freemasons have taken on a much more public charitable role since the 1980s, and far from in decline membership in England, Wales and the Channel Islands (Scotland has its own organisation) now stands at over 200,000 in 6,800 lodges, and 6 million worldwide.

Three Centuries of English Freemasonry opens at the Freemasons’ Hall, 60 Great Queen Street, London WC2B 5AZ on September 29.