I haven’t written as much about the doing of my PhD on here as I’d thought I might, having spent the majority of my recent days actually writing it. But here’s something about my day’s work yesterday that involved walking to a cathedral and sitting in there for a while as I read something. Reading being a very big part of working out what I think about something beforeI write about it. Yesterday I sat in the Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool, one of my favourite buildings, and read about blue. Also taking the blue photographs I’m going to show you here as I write.
Blue as a subject had turned up in a book called ‘Utopia as Method’ by Ruth Levitas. Where she writes ‘A Riff on Blue’ and talks about blue long being used in stained glass and ecclesiastical paintings to signify the perfection of heaven in religious buildings. And goes on to specifically write it about it in the stained glass of where I went and sat to read the rest of her chapter. It being my habit now, when I can, to go and read or write about utopian places in the places themselves. This is what she says:
“In 1967, John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens designed the glass for Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, with its central lantern of three areas of colour, red, yellow and blue, each pierced by an area of white light conveying, rather than representing, the Trinity. The inspiration for this was Reyntiens’ reading of Dante’s fourteenth-century Paradiso, which uses colour and light as symbols for God. At Liverpool, the panels around the entrance are a golden yellow, but the glass panels in the surrounding walls are predominantly blue ‘in order to create an otherworldly light’. The experience created by this light is for Piper the fundamental purpose of glass design: ‘the function – the flesh and blood and bones of stained glass – its whole being – is to qualify light and to intensify atmosphere in a room or building, not necessarily to provide colour or a message’. Certainly they succeeded at Liverpool, where the effect is of being cradled in grace.”Excerpt From: Ruth Levitas. “Utopia as Method”
“Cradled in grace” is how I felt sitting there in all the Cathedral’s intense beauty. Not the Christian grace my upbringing once taught me to be in a constant state of, but the grace of the moment, yesterday, of being in the great good fortune to be there in such a place, thinking about my work on how us humans make better lives in better places. The neighbourhood utopias my PhD is turning out to be about. Reading such an inspirational book, the last of the writer’s academic life she says, about all of her life’s thinking and work feeling more than special. The grace of being able to devote the time I wanted to reading such a book in such a place as this.
As well as blue the colour of heaven Ruth Levitas riffs around blue in music, as the colour of humanity’s yearning for better lives. The longing in the blues for the freedom from slavery on the other side of the River Jordan. And in jazz the reaching, joy and uplift of a John Coltrane or Billie Holiday always has blue shadows within and behind it:
“Even the term ‘the blues’, usually assumed to be a metaphor mediated by the melancholy effect of flattened or ‘blue’ notes, may itself be deeply rooted in material culture and the social relations of its production. Indigo was cultivated on plantations worked by slave labour in Central America and in the Southern States. The dominant understanding of the trade triangle of slavery and the main uses of slave labour in the Americas involve cotton, tobacco and sugar. Yet indigo was also a major economic crop. Initially it was mainly imported from India, with seventeenth-century references to the East India Company’s ‘Blue Warehouse’ in London. By 1775, it formed thirty-five per cent of South Carolina’s total exports. Slaves were traded for indigo between Georgia and the Windward Islands as late as 1790.”Ruth Levitas. “Utopia as Method”
And, yes, much of this “Riff on Blue” probably won’t make it through to what I’ll write in my PhD. There are other parts of her life’s work that will do that. Though since much of my work is about what so many of us have been doing and getting changed in Granby this century, better lives in a better place, and since Granby has for so long been the welcoming place in Liverpool for centuries of arriving black people and brown people, then maybe the blues is a presence here in Liverpool 8 too. It’s worth a think.
I so loved the grace and time of this reading and thinking through blue, in the utopian blue of this Cathedral. Then later, having walked away down the long steps and along Hope Street, to find out that yesterday was fifty years since the release of Joni Mitchell’s glorious “Blue” album:
“Blue, songs are like tattoos…Joni Mitchell
Ink on a pin
Underneath the skin
An empty space to fill in”
Not consciously in my mind then during my sitting in the Cathedral. But always in my heart and my soul ever since I first heard it as a boy. More blue songs for a blue kind of day. But blue in a longing sort of way, blue as grace and blue as perfection.
That’s my own riff on blue then. One early summer’s day while I was thinking about utopias and Ruth Levitas.
More writing about doing this university work is here.