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Homeward bound

21 June 2013


THE Lindisfarne Gospels are going home - for a few months, at least. When they were created, the small outcrop of land jutting into the North Sea which, at high tide, formed an island was an important political and cultural centre. Now, the north-east is more associated with ship-building; and the Jarrow of Bede is the Jarrow of the March. The centre of civilisation is London, which looks after this great treasure; and it is by special dispensation that the Gospels make their way back up north.

It was ruminations on authority and identity which made David Almond's Sunday Feature: The Gospels come home (Radio 3) a cut above the average documentary. Almond is a writer whose upbringing in Tyne and Wear, and as a Roman Catholic, gives him a sense of the contrasts and conflicts between centre and periphery, be it in politics or religion.

One of the essays that punctuated this well-informed account of the Lindisfarne Gospels recounted Almond's distaste for the garish authoritarianism of the Vatican. The spirituality instantiated in the Gospels is more in keeping with his sensibilities: direct and organic.

The Gospels are organic in the sense of their being created from the materials that Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne and principal scribe, would have found around him. Calves, bred in the community, were used to provide the parchment; and quills, presumably from local geese, carried ink and pigments created from plants grown in the area. The only element of the artefact in its present state which might not get the approval of the Soil Associ- ation is the heavy binding, strengthened with metal, which was added in the Victorian period.

Durham and the locality are making a big fuss over the homecoming; and so they should. Thousands of pilgrims are expected to cram on to the island for a special celebration, which will be marked by performances from a special Lindisfarne Gospels Community Choir. What St Cuthbert might have made of the invasion we cannot know. Would he have waded out into the North Sea in search of a remoter spot?

The anniversary of the First World War looms at least as large as the original event did to those living out the long Edwardian summer that preceded it. How dark that shadow was forms the central question in Michael Portillo's series 1913: The year before (Radio 4, weekdays). Did the British expect war, or did it take a complacent society by surprise? And what of the assumption that the war changed everything - politics, culture, religion, and society - in a way that could never have been expected?

Portillo was the presenter of Radio 4's series Things we Forgot to Remember; so it was likely that the answers to such questions were going to be a mixture of yes and no. All sorts of changes were being felt before the British Expeditionary Force set out in 1914, including female participation in the labour market, the rise of union self-confidence, and innovations in art, literature, and music. And Portillo could be given the luxury of a few straw men, in the interests of making a useful, if ultimately uncontroversial, case.

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