As is often the case, a large part of our evening was taken up discussing health. Next day, no doubt prompted by knowing that I was once a doctor, Erica took me aside to ask my advice – she was very anxious. She told me about her symptoms and her treatment; I took her pulse and listened to her heart, and then reassured her – there was no emergency. At this point she asked whether I had told her the truth. It was hard for me not to feel hurt. After a lifetime in which honesty had been a priority, why should I do anything but be truthful. I calmed down and repeated my reassurance.

Just as I strive for honesty, I assume that others would do likewise. But there is a downside – when people are not honest with me, let’s say they cheat, I get upset, even angry. It was just such a feeling that arose in Edinburgh when a few taps and a light nudge on first one, and then a second, ‘marble’ column shattered a treasured image. I had been fooled.

For years I had believed that the twenty-four ‘marble’ pillars supporting the ceiling of the Great Hall of Edinburgh’s Royal College of Physicians were genuine. I discovered them in the 1970s when, in their awesome presence, I sat taking the oral part of an exam to become a member of the college – to be an MRCP. The stakes were high – if successful I would be  promoted. I passed and the image of that Hall with its iconic pillars was etched in my mind. The Hall was, as I saw it, a model of nineteenth century grandeur.

I returned years later to have a second, and closer, look. To my amazement, the sound I heard when I tapped – with its hint of reverberation rather than the dull, unyielding thud of stone – told a different story and, when the columns moved a smidgen on being pushed, my suspicions were confirmed. The columns are not made of marble but of ingeniously painted and shaped mouldings that loosely encased support columns probably of cast iron. Yes, the room looked imposing, but its most distinctive features, the free standing pillars, were false. I had been cheated and now felt very angry.

My anger at this ornate and complex trompe-l’oeil was made worse when I realised that others will probably have been duped too. Although a detailed architectural survey written for the College states that the pillars are made of marble, and when seen in real life or in photos, they look the part, on its website the College makes no statement either way as to their nature so leaving visitors to make assumptions. This lack of clarity – or is it obfuscation? – is in strong contrast to the way it promotes the use of the Hall for weddings and the like, boasting about the “grand” and even “stunning’ pillars which make up part of the Hall’s “lavish” and “magnificent” “Victorian interior”. A few weeks ago I re-visited the College and couldn’t bring myself to go inside the Hall for another look.

Although very different in nature from the College hoax, and tiny in comparison, on another occasion I felt cheated over the appearance of an item of clothing – albeit the delusion was of my own doing. A neighbour came for coffee and I was about to compliment her on the very pretty pattern on her cotton blouse when an unexpected discovery stopped me in my tracks. I lent forward to give my usual greeting kiss and, as is my habit, rested my hand on her shoulder. I quickly realised that her blouse was not made of cotton but, with its tell-tale slippery, cold feel, of polyester. My discovery threw me so much that the once-admired pattern immediately lost its appeal.

To others, my responses might well seem excessive, but this is how it takes me, and there is a positive side – the enormous pleasure I get from objects or events in which I can trust. At an exhibition on the Arts and Crafts movement, I was hooked within seconds of seeing a jacket made by Ethel Mairet. Its colours, its cut, its whole aura were simply beautiful; I stood and stared. When I learned that it was handwoven from carefully selected, vegetable-dyed silks, my opinion gained added depth, a feeling further enhanced when I discovered that the buttons were made of wood specially turned by Mairet’s husband. Then, on discovering that it was made almost 100 years ago, in 1920 to be precise, and with the stated intention of defying fashion, my pleasure grew again. What wholesome materials, products and ideals the arts and crafts artisans adopted. Just seeing the jacket was a real tonic

Erica will probably never know the impact of her doubting my honesty, but it remains the case that the notion of living in a world of dishonesty and cheating, at whatever level, appals me. The horrible discomfort that most people feel when politicians and others invent convenient truths, so making cheating and lying legitimate pillars of communication (the post-truth phenomenon), suggests that views such as mine, though perhaps not to my degree, are very widely shared.


The photo of the Great Hall at the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh was taken by Johnson twj on 16 May 2016

10 thoughts on “Pillars of the Establishment

  1. Like you, Joe, I react to dishonesty in a similar way. Nothing seems to rile me quite so much. Anything that attempts to deceive is deception, and art without integrity is mere artifice. One is justified in feeling cheated.


    1. Dear Harold, That we share the same point of view on cheating is reassuring and, knowing you as I do, comes as no surprise. It would be so much better if the College in Edinburgh took advantage of what they have and described the columns in the Great Hall as “Twenty-four magnificent trompe-l’œil Victorian marble pillars”. Do you agree? Yours, Joe


  2. Dear Joe,

    I’m not surprised to read how you respond to being doubted, duped or subject to deceit… you are (not appear to be), a solid, value driven and respectful person. We all want to be treated how we treat others, when I encounter similar situations my starting point is often self doubt, upset and then anger when it persists. It’s not fair or just, values that we both hold and have and will always fight for.


  3. Dear Carolyn, In our wish to share basic standards, it is interesting how we both adhere to the Law of Reciprocity – do unto others as you would want others to do to you – which was enunciated both by the Greeks and the Egyptians. Joe


  4. It’s something we all have to wrestle with. There are occasions when we are forced to choose between being honest and being kind.
    I recall Bonnard saying that after commenting on a student’s work in art class he would sometimes agonise over the effect of his comments on the student’s psyche and development, wondering if he had said the wrong thing.
    And there are times when whatever you do is wrong.
    It’s an area where so many things have to be taken into account, including humanity, empathy and common sense. Once again, you’ve set us thinking Joe.


  5. Dear Robert, You are right – but when choices present and several responses are possible, the approach I adopt will be based on the principle of hierarchies, and here honesty trumps almost everything else.
    As to your kind final thought saying how I set you thinking, as always in your responses, you do the same for me. Joe


  6. I was in a Welsh chapel last Sunday (at a Gymanfa Ganu – a community hymn singing festival). It was a tiny little Victorian building which looked very plain from the outside, but inside was beautifully decorated with wood panelling, including a herring-bone parquet ceiling. It also had thin pillars holding up the gallery. They looked like marble, but I sat right next to one and realised straight away that they were fake (they had a seam and a metallic sound). I would say that honesty is my most important value. But I can’t see anything wrong with trying to make something look like something else, unless the intention is to harm someone or make money through deception (e.g if the college was charging people to see their ‘marble pillars’). In contrast, I can feel admiration for the cleverness of trompe l’oeil. In some cases, it’s not possible to replicate the real thing – hand-knit jumpers can always be recognised. In the case of the blouse – that is more about your assumption/expectation than dishonesty. If you had had a look at the label in blouse, it would have honestly declared its material!


  7. Dear Andrea, It is no surprise to hear that you are more tolerant, more forgiving, than I am. Had I been in your position, finding out that the pillars were fake would have upset me greatly, as they did in Edinburgh. Sometimes, if we’ll done, trompe-l’oeils are fun, but in general they do not work for me. As for the blouse, I do, in fact, say “albeit the delusion was of my own doing”. Moreover, I was rather surprised at my reaction, but as always, I try to say it as it was. Joe


  8. We saw Ibsen’s groundbreaking play “Ghosts” last night. When it was first staged in 1882 critics described the play as shocking and indecent. The Daily Telegraph referred to it as “Ibsen’s abominable play…An open drain: a loathsome sore unbandaged…Gross, almost putrid indecorum…”
    I suggest that though perhaps ‘truthful’, such responses were really knee-jerk reactions to the shock of the new. Had these critics suspended their judgement, they might on mature consideration have come to see the play as a landmark in modern thought.
    Being truthful to one’s immediate response could be less socially useful than reserving judgement pending further thought, and more encouraging to those irreplaceable people we depend on to think differently.


  9. Dear Robert, As always, you raise many interesting points. Here are my immediate thoughts. 1) The thrust of my article was about cheating and pretence. In Ibsen’s play, like in any other, the audience knows it will have to suspend disbelief, so their is no cheating as far as the public is concerned. As for the critics, their job is to sell newspapers and with that, excesses and extremes are recognised parts of their currency. 2) I am very keen to change my mind, indeed I do it all the time, but, as I see it, changing one’s mind has little to do with being dishonest. For years I taught that the benzodiazepine sleeping tablets did not cause dependence. but when when new data arrived saying that they did, my teaching changed and with it a careful explanation of my new position. 3) I expect that there are lots of things that I see as cheating and pretence which would not concern many others. I come from a position in which veneered wood, leatherette bags, dyed hair, breasts augmented surgically or dubbed singers on screen etc all exercise my mind and perturbe me.. However, if someone I am very fond of dyes her hair, for example, my worry recedes.
    Love, Joe



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