The Enemy of the Good: Extract
The painter, Clement Granville, has been commissioned to produce a preliminary design for a stained glass window in Roxborough Cathedral. He here shows his sketches to the Dean and Chapter.
‘Noli me tangere doesn’t apply to painters,’ Clement said with a forced grin. The Dean and his allies laughed, while Major Deedes and Sir Brian MacDermott sat with faces as stony as the cathedral bosses. Clement shifted in his seat and thought of all the indignities heaped on artists since the first cave painter had seen his antelope mistaken for a bison.
He was in a fusty Roxborough consistory room to present his sketches to the Dean and Chapter. The Dean had described it as a mere formality, but so far the formality had been shown in their treatment of him rather than their endorsement of his work. The committee consisted of two lay canons and three clergy and their degree of support for the project reflected the professional divide. The first stumbling block was the fee, which the Dean assured them would not come out of cathedral funds. Nevertheless Sir Brian, a local poultry tycoon, was appalled by the figure of £75,000. ‘For one window?’ he asked, glowering at Clement as if he had caught him stealing lead from the roof. Struggling to stay calm, Clement cited the expense of his fabricator and materials. ‘We’re in the wrong business, eh?’ Sir Brian said to a neighbouring canon, who looked outraged at the thought of being in business at all. The Dean took it as a grudging acceptance and moved on to discuss the design.
It was now Major Deedes’ turn to take the offensive with his claim to be deeply disturbed by the juxtaposition of the clothed Adam and the naked Christ. It reminded him of a painting, whose title he failed to recall but which, from the self-revealing description, Clement identified as Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe. He had anticipated such objections and outlined the thinking behind the image, explaining that he did not accept the existence of Hell, either physical or metaphysical. Just as his father believed that the concept of God was God (a statement that sent the Major into a fit of coughing), so he believed that the concept of Hell was Hell. Human beings were condemned to eternal suffering in a doctrine of their own making. They could be freed from it by their faith in Christ, not the traditional Christ who came laden with two thousand years of baggage, but the essential Christ, unvarnished and free.
‘And this Christ will be – how shall I put it? – in a state of nature?’ the Major asked.
‘Absolutely. Although I’d prefer “a state of grace”.’ Clement thought he heard the Dean suppress a snicker. ‘What’s more, it avoids setting him in any particular period. Or would you prefer him in biblical robes?’
‘And why not?’ the Major asked.
‘Because it immediately restricts his meaning. It makes him remote to ordinary visitors who may not possess your grasp of history.’ Clement bit his tongue. ‘Adam wears a suit because he’s our contemporary, but Christ will be clothed in nothing but light.’
‘Yes, let’s not forget, Major,’ the Dean added in voice at once unctuous and steely, ‘that we’re talking about a window. I might take a very different view if it were an altarpiece or a statue, but this will be as insubstantial as air.’ Clement smiled, grateful for the backing if not the analogy.
‘That’s all very well. But how do we know that it won’t attract the wrong sort of people?’
‘Like who?’ Clement asked disingenuously. ‘You might as well ban Van Gogh’s Boots on the grounds that it would attract shoe fetishists.’
‘Well I think that about wraps it up,’ the Dean interjected quickly. ‘Thank you all for a most interesting exchange of views. I really don’t think that we need take up any more of Mr Granville’s time. I’m sure he’s eager to return to London.’ He cited the capital with the wistful air of one who had felt his talents wither in the provinces. After shaking the committee’s hands, by turn limp, fleshy, clammy, cold and calloused, Clement took his leave of the Dean, who promised to ring him as soon as he had a result.
Clement returned to London in an overheated train opposite a sulky ten year-old who sucked her plaits. He had barely begun making dinner when the Dean called with the news that the majority view had prevailed and the design been accepted. Shrewd as ever, he insisted that unanimity would have been a sure sign that the image was bland. After restating his belief that the window would be a splendid addition to the cathedral, which Clement, anticipating future guidebooks, read as a splendid monument to the Dean himself, he sounded a note of caution. ‘We still have to gain approval from the Fabric Advisory Committee over which I have no – I repeat, no – control. But I trust that that won’t deter you from celebrating.’
‘As soon as he saw my face, my boyfriend brought out a bottle of champagne,’ Clement said, emphasising the relationship.
‘Quite right. Water into wine, as I always remind the Methodists,’ the Dean replied, leaving it unclear if he were diplomatic or deaf.
Although the imminence of the meal forced them to open the champagne before it was chilled, Clement professed not to notice. Mike proposed a toast to the window, which he insisted on interpreting as an allegory of a repressed man being liberated by his bolder self and calling Coming Out.
‘It’s The Second Adam,’ Clement retorted.
‘Oh sure! And St Teresa never had an orgasm.’
Mike’s marking and his own self-restraint meant that they drank only half the bottle, so he took the rest in his saddlebag when he made his way to Dartmouth Park the following morning. He was having lunch with Carla, ostensibly to discuss the window, but he knew that she was preoccupied with thoughts of the child. He was anxious not to leave her in suspense and reckoned that, while a full bottle might raise her hopes, a half-full or, rather, half-empty one would let them down gently. In the event he miscalculated for, as soon as he opened his bag, her face lit up.
‘Oh Clement, thank you.’
‘Please, wait a second! It’s only what’s left over from last night.’
‘I think it’s great news. Really great,’ she said, in a voice so flat that he was eager to fill it with bubbles.
‘I thought we could have it at lunch. But if you’d like a glass right now.’
‘No, lunch is good.’ She led him to the spacious workshop which, without his qualms about working at home and with no Crown Estate Commissioners to object, she had built in the garden. A faint odour of linseed oil hung in the air. ‘Sit anywhere,’ she said, switching on the heater. ‘I’ve laid out some samples.’
‘You look stressed. I’m sorry. Shall we leave the window and discuss the other matter first?’
‘If you think it’s appropriate.’
‘I think it’s essential.’ Carla paced the room, as if anticipating the worst.