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185. Retreat (V)



The altar was made in the shape of a cross; it had been made from concrete and it had split to the sky in four pieces under the jagged remains of the roof. I thought that this was a judgement on the whole monastery, now a ruin open to the vines and birds and covered in graffiti. Before we become too romantic, understand that this was no venerable abbey; no, not in the least—it was built sometime in 1968, but it had been a ruin since the mid-1990s. We live in a society where the ruin value of a building approaches quickly—and this ruin looked just like a multi-storey carpark from the 1960s; it was just a place to stack monks, not cars. The monastery was a ruin on a ruin. There had been a Victorian mansion on the same site, but it had burned down in the 1930s. A ruin on a ruin; it felt cursed, perhaps the old gods were worshipped here in a time we forgot.


The Victorians brought in rhododendron bushes and, once the monastery was gone, the bushes had taken over; every part of the garden was a rhododendron bush. The outline of the actual grounds and garden were only visible under the bushes; and I ducked as I walked through what had once been a lattice walkway, perhaps with trailing flowers draped lightly about it. The bushes had taken over the passage as well; now it was reduced to a dark tunnel. At the exit was an ornamental lake that seemed stark against the distant Scottish waters—each crisp and dark blue wave was tipped by spume; each showed the definite deep blue of Scottish water, blue as their flag. It was in these waters that our nuclear submarines found home after patrol, but there were only cargo ships, almost static, that day.


To access the monastery itself I ducked through a small crack in what had once been a service window. I slid down the concrete apron, only a half a man’s drop, and landed by the concrete rubble. I do not hate modern architecture; actually, I once lived by a large inverted concrete ziggurat that was a library. They said it was a place to burn books, not read them; but I loved it, it was as if the Mayans had been at work in the West Midlands. It had a shadow mystery—and, as with the actual Egyptian pyramids, it was meant to be clad in white marble, but they ran out of money and pulled it down at last. If a few millionaires had built modern buildings here and there, we would care for the style; but modernism came with the age of the mass bureaucratic state: it was to be imposed without regard for situation—and, on top of that, it was done on the cheap; and this is the curse of modern architecture.


I moved with one eye to the floor; in parts of the building, there was a drop straight down two storeys; and the stairs to the upper levels terminated in air. After the monks evacuated in the late 1980s, it was used as a psychiatric hospital and drug rehabilitation centre; then, around 1994, it was shuttered. It was then the ravers took over; perhaps the former addicts remembered the place—the asylum belonged to the inmates now. It became a concrete temple to Ecstasy; and so the graffiti, some Satanic, was Day-Glo: the colour of the mid-1990s, the colour of Prozac and Ecstasy—a world in lightning blue. Now the ravers were gone, too. The altar had broken. Satanists? Ravers? Another force? The rumour was that a victim of the monks, molested as a child in the Catholic manner, had returned and smashed the altar in a cathartic act. I thought it was a little too perfect. No, we had just forgotten what the Romans knew—there is a sacred calculation in all calculations, if you build to last.

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