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Travelogue I37

December 11, 2016

After we had finally taken leave of the plaques, the building’s inside revealed itself as sumptuous as the outside. A set of dark wooden doors separated the outer entry from the entrance hall proper. As we stood there, said doors parted, and a tour group flowed to either side of us, their visit at an end. Through the doors’ glass insects, my companion and I watched another group form up for the next visit. Without a word between us, it was decided that we would not be among their number.

It is at this point that my memory begins to fail me, the first touches of forget setting in at the corners, worrying the whole. Were the walls of wood or stone? Were niches set in the walls around? If I am incapable now of recalling details of some importance, how far is my memory to be trusted on all else that I saw or felt that day? Such doubts once admitted do not take leave lightly. As it is, I will, for once, try to restrict myself to that which comes back to me most clearly across the interval of these many months.

Though I no longer recall much of the entrance hall, from the waist up, as it were, I do keenly remember certain mosaicked stretches of the floor. At its center lay the city’s coat of arms, the familiar mosaic bits and bobs picking out a shield with bird, tree, bell and fish itself flanked by a pair of fish and topped by helm and holy man. Below, an unfurling banner read “Let Glasgow Flourish”. As I later pieced together from information panels elsewhere in the city and internet accounts once back home, the elements making up the arms captured the legends surrounding Glasgow’s patron saint, Saint Mungo, legends likewise memorialized in verse:

Here’s the Bird that never flew
Here’s the Tree that never grew
Here’s the Bell that never rang
Here’s the Fish that never swam

It must be said that, at that time, I contented myself with merely admiring the fine shading on leaf, scroll and fish and paid the relation between the symbols little mind. Now, coming back on this rhyme, I cannot say with any certainty what I might have made of those symbols, had I been presented with them on site. Perhaps I would have wondered whether Saint Mungo’s miracles were temporal in nature. Perhaps I would have, as I find myself musing now, contemplated whether the rhyme posed an identity question. What was a bird that never flew or a tree that never grew? Were they still bird and tree despite it all? Or did they take on such indeterminacy that they could as easily pass for bell and fish as bird or tree?

Clearly, my memories of those interiors are more ridden with holes than I would care to admit. At some point, G. and I transitioned from the entryway’s mosaicked floor to the glistening tile of the City Council Chambers’ Carrara marble staircase. Rather than follow the stairs up, my attention shifted immediately from black and white floor tiles to the stained-glass dome topping the staircase. Set in an oval opening and bounded by rich cornices, the glass was backlit at that hour, such that I could make out nothing of the glasswork itself. So harsh was the light that I briefly entertained the thought that I looked not on a window but an eye, albeit one in which pupil and iris had shrunk to a single point, wherein the brave might look on eternity.

I was not so brave, so my attention worked its way back down from the heavens to glance over the staircase of Carrara marble and alabaster, buttressed by granite and marble pillars and ceilings worked with gold leaf. In truth, I had little idea what precisely the term “Carrara” was meant to impress upon the viewer. Only later would it occur to me to look the word up, at which time I learned that it designated a point of origin in Massa, in northern Tuscany, a one-time hotbed of 19th century anarchism. Of more interest than the origin or anarchism was its current distribution, for that Glasgow staircase had not been my first encounter with Carrara. Indeed, I could, with some difficulty, trace its veins back to the Sarcophagus of St. Hedwig, 14th century queen of Poland and current resident of Wawel Cathedral, whom I must have come across some five years earlier with a different companion. I would have given much to hear the marble speak, as Hedwig had heard, one night deep in prayer, the crucifix address her, if only to know whether Carrara was the same everywhere.

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