The Bohemian Republic of Jericho

Lyra aboard a canal boat

Philip Pullman on a place made to human measure.

Posted - Apr 21, 2013

In a little book I wrote a few years ago, Lyra’s Oxford, I inserted a fake page from an imaginary guidebook to an Oxford in another world describing part of the Jericho in that other universe, and I called this part of the city “the coastline Oxford shares with Bohemia”. Bohemia, of course, is the land where the bohemians live, which includes the Paris celebrated in Henri Murger’s novel Scènes de la vie de Bohème, later the basis of Puccini’s opera; and it’s also the place on whose coast the ship was wrecked in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. Apparently there is a “real” Bohemia somewhere in the vicinity of the Czech Republic; but what does that matter? I believe there is a “real” Jericho too, somewhere even further away. I have never lived in Jericho. But I count myself a citizen, and I bristle with indignation when this vivid and interesting part of the city is under siege. I lament the loss of every curious corner, I deplore the creeping invasion by the forces of Greedi-Build plc, I abominate the disappearance of old landmarks and familiar views. Some years ago, the City Council decided to spare Jericho the sort of wholesale clearance that had taken place in St. Ebbes. The result is that we can still walk through the little streets between Walton Street and the canal and feel that here is a place made to a human measure. That’s not to say that we should preserve everything as it always was, and never change at all. It was right, for example, some years ago, to clear a space for St. Barnabas’s School; and the green space of the playground and the sound of children’s voices are a valuable part of what Jericho is now. It’s important to build doctors’ surgeries and decent community centres. There was a time before St. Barnabas Church rose in its Romanesque splendour; and no-one could say that Jericho would be better off without it. Jericho was better when it had Lucy’s providing work for local people, with those crazy eagles guarding the gate; and there was a time before Lucy’s too. But as with all places that we cherish for their value to us as human beings, we have to be ready to defend them against those who can understand only the value of money. And unfortunately, people like that are in the ascendancy now; we live in a theocracy whose god is Profit. If Jesus were alive now, it wouldn’t be ritualistic Sabbath-observance he’d be criticising, but the worship of money: “The market was made for man, and not man for the market,” I think he’d say. And that remark would make him just as popular as the previous one did. I used part of Jericho and the canal in my trilogy His Dark Materials, because people who lived and worked on the water, and the network of canals that spread through the whole kingdom, were useful for my story. (I hope that the gyptians and their life will be given full value in the forthcoming film). But I didn’t realise how much the present-day life of the canal was under threat until recently, when the boatyard business came to a head. I’ve always enjoyed walking along the canal, and looking at the activity – useful, human-scale, craft-based, untidy, interesting – in the boatyard, with the campanile of St. Barnabas watching over it, and the calm water in front. And the other day I was in the Ashmolean Museum and I saw a lovely painting by Canaletto showing the Brenta canal, near Venice. It’s a scene of everyday activity: some elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen out for a walk; one man fishing, another sitting on a pile of sacks of what might be corn or freshly ground flour; a lock; sunlight on the water; the spire of a church … Anyway, as I looked at it I was struck by the odd fact that only a few minutes away from the place where the picture hung, I could see exactly the same sort of thing, in real life. And the painted one was catalogued and cherished and valued, and rightly so, because it’s beautiful. And the real one was going to be wiped out. All that useful social activity had to be done away with, because it was not making sufficient profit. Well, we’ve gone wrong somehow in the way we live. Jericho is a place where it ought to be possible to maintain a working boatyard, to give a meaning and a focus to the life of the canal. If it does go, something irreplaceable will go with it. It would be a thousand pities if the only way of experiencing the sort of ordinary, age-old, decent, priceless human activity that the boatyard represents were to look at it in a painting on a museum wall, or to read about it in the pages of a novel. This article first appeared in the Jericho Echo, June 2006