The New Canterbury Tales

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To generations of English students set the task of unpicking his antique English, with its whiloms, eeks, anons and by my trouthes, Chaucer has sometimes seemed aptly named: a chore. But he is indisputably the father - or mother - of English literature, and his work remains, more than half a millennium after it was written, by far the cleanest and brightest window onto the life of the Middle Ages.

To generations of English students set the task of unpicking his antique English, with its whiloms, eeks, anons and by my trouthes, Chaucer has sometimes seemed aptly named: a chore. But he is indisputably the father - or mother - of English literature, and his work remains, more than half a millennium after it was written, by far the cleanest and brightest window onto the life of the Middle Ages.

He may not be much read now, but he has not been forgotten: in London alone there are eight Chaucer roads, two Chaucer Houses, a way, a drive, a close, a court, an avenue, a garden, a green and some mansions. Today is the 600th anniversary of his death, on 25 October 1400, an event marked last Sunday at a service in Westminster Abbey (he was the first occupant of the literary pantheon now known as Poet's Corner) and by a series of plays running all week on Radio 4.

He was a scholar, a diplomat, a bureaucrat and an artist, and his Canterbury Tales have for centuries been a byword for the picturesque heartiness and variety of English life. Anything but prim, they are garrulous stories of love and death, murder and deceit, as much concerned with bottoms thrust through windows as they are preoccupied with sacred principles or knightly valour.

The world has changed a bit since Chaucer's day. The piked heads of traitors do not line London Bridge in the 21st century. Rats no longer carry the Black Death through the markets and sewers of the city. And of the three million or so visitors from around the world who trek to Canterbury each year, few are hoping for miracles when they get there. But if Chaucer were alive now he would easily comprehend the impulses that tug these modern pilgrims towards Canterbury.

As his Tales make clear, the quest was above all a damn good holiday - a word that dates back, after all, to the medieval celebration of holy days. And then, as now, holidays were above all a chance to cut loose, to eat, drink and make merry. If anything, his pilgrims were the medieval forerunners of today's package tourists. As the Wife of Bath makes clear, even a holiday fling was not out of the question.

So here, in a commemorative spirit, are some tales that Geoffrey Chaucer did not write. But first, in the traditional terminology: I prey yow for your curteisye, that ye n'arette it nat if I am unmanerly of speche, and speke not hir words proprely.

The most Chaucerian way to go would be on horseback. This was the journey, after all, that gave rise to the term: to canter. But there are few green fields left along the pilgrim's traditional way between the cathedrals of Southwark and Canterbury, and even the fastest rider would be several horsepower short of what is required on a modern motorway.

Anyway, hardly anything remains of that original route. The Tabard Inn, where Chaucer's pilgrims roared the night away before the start of their trip, is now a newsagent and a sandwich bar on the corner of Talbot Yard, a wrecked inlet off Borough High Street. And though the A2 to Canterbury still follows the arrow-straight trajectory of the ancient Roman Watling Street (and is even called Watling Street off and on) it has largely been supplanted as a route by by-passes and motorways. With reason: I trundled slowly down Watling Street this week, and it took nearly four hours.

In Chaucer's day, traffic-calming schemes, cones and helpful signs saying "Delays possible" were rarer than wolves. South of Bean, near Greenhithe, I was warned of width restrictions, which might have been awkward for the Abbott, but which the Fiat slipped through without mishap. And the motorway near Rochester carried adverts for "Free recovery", which even St Thomas never offered: miraculous cures, even in the Middle Ages, didn't come cheap. But the traffic... if Chaucer were able to revisit, he could hardly resist giving the last, slow queue on to the ring road an epic name: the Canterbury Tailback.

The traditional Canterbury trail stopped overnight at Deptford, Rochester, Sittingbourne and Faversham (regional winner of the England in Bloom awards). It is recalled in certain roads in Southwark - Tabard Street, Pilgrimage Street, Becket Street, Pardoner Street. But otherwise we can only imagine what Chaucer's travellers would have made of the urban jumble. They would have averted their eyes from the swirl of heretic messages - Sikh temples and Muslim mosques, the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministry, the Christ Faith Tabernacle, the medieval-sounding Psychic Fayre. They would have wondered at the bizarre 20th-century language responsible for Toys R Us, Cards N Things, Carpet Rite and the Discount Flooring Centre; and would have been baffled by the promise of a "pizzaburger".

The inns at which they stayed were rough and ready: they'd have killed for a Travel Lodge or a Little Chef. The Chequer of Hope in Canterbury had 100 beds, but slept 600 - a strategy favoured today only by saucy seaside resorts in Ibiza. But these were bawdy times: people didn't mind sharing a bed. A modern marketeer might well be able to put together a sexy holiday package for 14th-century pilgrims, and call it Club 1380. And when it came to her hairdo, the Wife of Bath would have been spoiled for choice: Phenomenal Hair, Debonair, Sophisticuts. She could have had a new style every day, just to tease the Knight.

The underlying point of the medieval pilgrimage was to seek intercession from the "holy martyr", St Thomas à Becket, murdered on the King's orders in 1179 by four knights who strode into the cathedral and hacked at his head. Immediately, reports of miracles began to circulate through the medieval world. Mad Henry of Forthwick was led screaming to the tomb, and walked out with his wits restored. As supplicants began to wend their way to Canterbury, the miracles multiplied. Blind Robert of Essex was en route when he was run over by another blind man on horseback. He pleaded to the martyr, suddenly found that he could see, and sprinted the rest of the way. And so the leading Faith Zone of the last millennium was born. Merchants sold relics (holy water, mixed with the saint's blood) and sins were forgiven - for a price. The church grew fat on the proceeds.

These days, the religious flame flickers only weakly. A goodly if not a godly crowd of tourists still packs the cathedral for choral evensong, to listen to the choir and marvel at the magnificent vaulted roof. But last Sunday only a few doleful votives huddled in the Chapter House to celebrate the service giving thanks to the work of the United Nations. The Sheriff of Canterbury recited the original UN charter, to remind the tiny congregation what a good idea it was, and spokesmen and women rose to read prayers on behalf of human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Jubilee 2000 ("Stop the debt"). The Fair Trade representative prayed "that hearts of stone be turned to flesh". It all seemed soberly Christian and resolute. But it also seemed like a very frail light indeed. "I like the UN service," said one elderly lady, stepping out into the wintry night. "All that hope-for-the-world sort of thing."

The modern tribes who flock to Canterbury bring few holy thoughts, and certainly do not come to remember Chaucer. "Most of the interest comes from America and Japan," said the owner of the Chaucer bookshop. "And it's mainly antiquarian, a matter of bindings." And most of those who are here for literary reasons, the parties of schoolchildren stampeding through the Canterbury Tales visitor attraction (and giggling at the German word for pilgrimage: pilgerfahrt) have little say in the matter.

My own straw poll of six young people in the precincts of the cathedral was hasty and not very professionally conducted, so I stress that these are unofficial figures. But they still produce a shocking statistic. Half of those polled had never even heard of Chaucer. Worse: neither had the other half.

They can't have been from Canterbury, because the city has certainly done its utmost to memorialise the long-dead poet. Apart from the audio-visual Canterbury Tales experience and the Chaucer Centre, there's a Chaucer bookshop, a Chaucer Hotel, a Chaucer Lodge Guest House and a Chaucer Hospital. There's Chaucer Insurance, Chaucer Homecare, Chaucer Taxis, Chaucer Motors and Chaucer Garage Equipment. There's a Chaucer Housing Association (plenty of good victuals and merry company), a Chaucer Technology School and - the poet's ghost must have swelled - a Chaucer Thermal Insulation Contractors. If you fancy some lokkes crulle (curly locks) like Chaucer's squire, or to be Ful round yshorn (shaven-headed) like the Reeve, then you can check out Chaucer Hair. History pressed down on the town centre. The cathedral stands in its cloistered precincts, surrounded by a well-scrubbed, higgledy-piggledy pedestrian zone of historic remnants: Norman walls, Roman pavements, Tudor houses, Georgian terraces and literary resonance - Marlowe was born here, Conrad lived nearby. It's a strong brew of different ages and nationalities: the Elizabethan cottages built by Huguenot weavers are now an Italian café, serving traditional English tea. And the heritage museum gives less space to Chaucer's 600th anniversary than it does to the 60th anniversary of another local celebrity, Rupert the Bear.

The main Chaucerian attraction is The Canterbury Tales, a mock-up of the stories in a made-over Norman church. Clever lighting picks out figures in the gloom, while headphones deliver brief versions of the stories told by the Knight, the Miller, the Wife of Bath, the Nun's Priest and the Pardoner. It certainly smells authentic. "Christ," murmured the American beside me, catching a whiff of 600-year-old manure, and pressing a scarf to her face. "That's taking realism too far."

The travel bug, today, is a more powerful prompter of journeys than mere religious zeal. But even this pales into insignificance beside the true quest of the modern pilgrimage: the shopping centre and DIY paradise. To Chaucer's ghost, it must seem as if we really do prefer home-improvement to self-improvement (let alone world-improvement). Canterbury itself is a thriving warren of upmarket shops, but the true temples of modern life - shopping malls - need more room, and bigger car-parks.

So it is quite appropriate that Britain's swankiest new consumer zone, Bluewater, is bang on the old pilgrims' route, just off the A2 near Gravesend. I approached by motorway - the only way in - and circled down into the old chalk pit (a hill, in Chaucer's day), close enough to the Dartford Bridge to see that the traffic was not moving. There, below, lay this astonishing moated, turreted, castellated thing.

Bluewater opened in March last year. The millionth pilgrim, or customer, arrived a fortnight later. The authorities reckon that nine million people live less than an hour away, and they are coming thick and fast. They come not for St Thomas à Becket, but for St John a Lewis, or even for St Michael (an enormous Marks & Spencer fills one corner of the site).

High on the walls stand symbolic busts of trades that Chaucer might have easily have included in his pageant of English life: Coopers, Bricklayers, Fletchers, Wheelwrights, Musicians, Cordwainers and even Scriveners. All human life, it seems to suggest, has gone into bringing us this amazing bounty. The huge halls have that distinctive fast-food whiff of Coke and fries - better than ancient manure, but not by much. Who needs holy water, when you can have the real thing?

It would take a Chaucer to describe the hearts that beat behind these daily transactions. He died, alas, 600 years ago - but his work flickers on in the bookshops and the Canterbury Tale is still going strong. Life may be short; but sometimes Art really is long.

Radio 4's series '2000 Tales' continues today at 2.15pm