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