The Fire of London
As we all know, London’s cathedral appears uplifted. The dilation of the dome of St. Paul’s floats the fabric above the capital. Its peristyle columns have held it to earth for several centuries, but it seems ever at the instant of release and of soaring. The cathedral, in fact, surmounts Ludgate Hill. That hill was the nucleus around which London became. Amid the aboriginal spread of the Thames into marsh and mere, the rise on which the cathedral stands once made dry landing for the coracles of men dressed in wolfskins. Our fathers have told us the Romans had a temple to Diana on that hill while Paul was still at Ephesus, worried by her. It is possible a shrine topped it, even earlier than Diana’s, to a god whose name Londoners have forgotten, unless it was that of Lud himself, the river god of the Celts.
That hill was, and is, the heart of London. It is a traditional gathering place of citizens, and thither they still go to sing on New Year’s Eve, and did so, perhaps, at the winter solstice, long before the making of records. St. Paul’s is the only token of communion and fellowship known to every Londoner. It beckons to all of us. You can see that dome, its cross crowning it, from Hampstead, from the Surrey hills, and far off when in the Lea valley to the east, an elevated signal, constant amid the shifting glitter and the smoke. When approaching St. Paul’s from Fleet Street, poets, looking up, have fancied they saw more in the cathedral’s terminal golden cross held over the capital than the men of commerce busy everywhere below with their eyes looking to the future on the pavement. Yes, and Wren’s great masterpiece, majestic and imponderable, does ascend over London like an outburst of alleluia.
Not long ago we nearly lost it. The area of the city around the cathedral happens to be the western limit of a vast mart of the mercers. London is like that. The merchants in tea, spices, and sugar are down by Eastcheap, Oriental treasures are near Houndsditch, the fishmongers by Billingsgate, the shipowners and brokers around Leadenhall Street, money is in Threadneedle Street, wine near the Tower, and corn and coal are in Mark Lane. When you know what you want in London, you can be told where to go and find it, though I expect you would be watched. An area which includes the precincts of St. Paul’s, and goes east down Cheapside and north to London Wall and south along Cannon Street, is known to the fire brigade as the ‘danger zone.’ A warehouse for furbelows is a worry to a night watchman; but when many warehouses of that sort stand together — even before the days when anarchists could fly — those buildings set fire engines going by the mere show of a vagrant light, for embedded in the narrow passages dividing them are numerous ancient churches and other signs of faith and labor past.
I saw, when a youth, a complicated mile of those alleys going up like Etna when busy, in the Jewin Street quarter. A city bobby — amiable fellows, those City of London police, and giants — stopped me while I was making an artful cut through the yard of St. Giles, Milton’s church. ‘Let me pass,’ I pleaded; ‘I must get to my office.’ ‘Where is it, son?’ he asked, and I told him. ‘Pinch a day off,’ he advised; ‘it isn’t there this morning.’
In that particular patch of the danger zone, so long ago, it happened the only relics of the past were the place names; nothing was lost but ten acres of premises. But on the night of December 29, 1940, you could see, in hollow dismay, that more was burning than premises. It was one of the most terrible spectacles Londoners will ever witness. Devastation was loose. There is a suburban hill a few miles south of St. Paul’s, and its name is Beulah, though I cannot help that; the Victorians, if hearty, were pious. It was the wrong name for it that night, anyway. From that high ground, South London spreads low to the Thames and the City.
Christmas was over. We had returned to daily affairs. There had been no bombing. What was to come next? For of course we watch and wait for Hitler’s grand sortie, without much of an idea of what he will do, except that he will do the worst he can think of and we know the way his thoughts go round. As night fell, quite suddenly, he did something which, by the show of it, was intended, as a prelude, to break the heart.
A strange light was without, but no noise, except gunfire, and Londoners now accept gunfire as they do wet days, and rain is much less frequent. The glow penetrated the blackout curtains, as if the impossible had happened and day had returned because it had forgotten something; for you must know the rising sun sparkles through the severest of blackouts, praise God. What miraculous sort of day was this? And there, the blackout down, it was. We should not have to bother so much tonight about keeping our windows covered. All the City of London was radiant. The dome of St. Paul’s was afloat in mid-ocean flames. It floated, but at times it was engulfed, and we thought it had sunk; then the fiery tide lowered, and the cathedral was above the capital as ever, except that it was incandescent. There was no need now for a policeman to tell us what thing was this. Not only St. Paul’s, and the sky above it, but all Wren’s fleet of steeples and the treasured imprints and outlines of our heritage were ardent and reeking. London was extravagantly a furnace. Now we knew the emotion of Londoners in 1666, when they saw their immemorial city, the one Shakespeare knew, disappearing street after street.
What did we say? We did not speak. There was nothing to be said. St. Paul’s was going. We saw, in the light of that destruction, that we should have to begin anew, if we lived on, whatever our prejudices. The past was being blotted out. We only watched that. The barrage balloons sat aloft in the night, also watching, an audience of goblins with bright faces turned intently to the spectacle, and very still. We did not even curse Hitler.
St. Paul’s, when looked for next daylight, was there; it had survived, it still presided. But London had more smoke than was comfortable. The cathedral was there, but it had better be said at once that, as the Nazis have shown particular malice for it, we cannot promise you shall see it the next time you come. The wonder is it was there. The apparition of the flames engulfing it the night before was not illusory. It was the hub of a conflagration. It was near the fate of old St. Paul’s.
As near as one dared go, I have been revisiting the glimpses. I suppose I knew, when a youth, all the pavements between the Tower and St. Martin’s le Grand. There was the Guildhall, for one choice recess, in the midst of that region. It had a library, a silent refuge aside from the haste and botheration of commerce. If you dropped a slip of paper into a box, and retired to a favorite corner, very soon your book was put before you, as many books as you liked to ask for, and then, where nobody would have thought of looking for you, exempt for a spell from bills of lading and freight accounts, you could sit in a time coeval with the foundations of the Guildhall — and when they were laid goes back to near the beginning. A boy was in his ancestral home. After such an interval, he could resume duty upon documents for famous ships, certain of his part in the broad stream of life. His relationship with these old stones and those ships of London, if humble, was as sure as his name.
I have wondered since whether I did well to go over the ground again, after its second Great Fire. It was not the body that could stand no more of it, but the eyes, weary of seeing. Nothing wearies the spirit so much as a contemplation of waste, the waste of good. Malice is depravity. All seems undone. London this day is a warning against attempts to negotiate with evil. Londoners see and smell daily what happens if you try to appease that. How plead with men whose sole acknowledgment of virtue is to simulate it for the easier undoing of good ?
Did you know Paternoster Row? You would not know it now. There is no Row. I stood to view it where a famous publishing house used to be, but that house was only one high screen, perforated and tottery, of calcined limestone. Beyond it was vacancy, going back I could not see how far because of smoke and steam and oblique phantom girders. Some half-burnt books were filth in the gutters. The rest of the Row was impassable, and its smell was of finality.
Much else has gone. I attempted causeways once familiar to me down Cheapside; for one, that paved court with the pleasant name of Honey Lane Market, which used to have comfortable eighteenth-century shops. There was a sound this day of burning timbers settling, and the hissing of water. On a window sill of one vanished shop a jocular fireman had placed a white classic bust to overlook the wreckage, and had stuck a sport’s cap on it at a saucy angle. That fireman would be a young man; and let us hope — we shan’t be far out, either, if we do — that all young Londoners feel as he did. From there we turned, and had a peep through a narrow opening across Cheapside. It was just wide enough to frame the steeple of St. Mary-le-Bow, the church of Bow Bells — the bells heard once upon a time by Dick Whittington, so the story goes. We were told it was the last sight we should have of that Wren steeple, ‘ considered by some a uthorities to be the finest Renaissance campanile in the world.’ Maybe it was, so there must be another Renaissance, for the steeple must go. It has to be destroyed; today it is only dangerous.
Working a way through streets I fancied I had forgotten, I came unexpectedly upon the shell of the Guildhall, and beside it a Wren church which had an interior to accord with Bach’s fugues: St. Lawrence Jewry. It was roofless. Its windows were ragged patches of sky. Near by, in Coleman Street, I was reminded of scenes in the cities of Rheims, Ypres, and Arras, in another war. This is the second occasion for such vistas in the lives of some of us, and it is too much. One can only suppose some people hate the mellow civility of old cities, and will destroy them when they can; after all, if you think about it, the uncivil naturally hate the urbanity of gracious ways. We have had many books already to tell us why France and Belgium collapsed at a push, and why with such disheartening ease the Germans goose-stepped into Scandinavia and Holland; no halt at all till they had to stand before Dover’s white cliffs, which were some miles across the water. With a memory of the wreckage that was Rheims and Arras — hundreds of French cities, towns, and villages were reduced to muck, in the last war — recalled by the present spectacle of Basinghall Street, which is London, other reasons for the downfall were suggested. It is easy to be unfair to France, because of her surrender, for we never felt her torture as she felt it herself, in that other war.
The truth is, when the grisly head was uplifted as an oriflamme by the Nazis in Berlin in 1933, France did not want to believe what she saw. Nor did the British; nor you Americans. It could not be true. But it was Death. Clear into last April our good neighbors in Europe continued in their failure to recognize the brutish as its tanks were on the move, bringing doom along. They held desperately to their belief that this was not the age for perdition, that man in his progress to better things was well past the bone heaps, and that everybody knew it. Our friends could not bring their minds in time to the necessity for supporting with deeds their modern faith that light is to be preferred to darkness. They did not understand that the rumbling they heard was dire and phenomenal, was the coming of engines to put a stop to their development of a civilized order. They heard, in fact, the growling of the guns and tumbrils of another revolution on its way, a revolution contrary to that of the eighteenth century. This revolution was to end the nonsense of reason, liberty, and the rights of man. Our friends could not believe it. The liberty of the person was as unquestionable as the ordering of the stars. Indeed it had some relationship with the courses of the stars. That, I think, is why the German brass bands bashing out triumph in Oslo at first merely puzzled and amused the pacific Norwegians.
As for the French, I think I understand now that they never recovered from the grief and horror left when ‘Cease Fire’ sounded in 1918. You Americans and we British have not clearly seen that; it was not our treasures which were broken, not our fair lands mutilated and defiled. Ought we not to have expected abhorrence of war’s obscenity to abide with a sensitive and intelligent people? It did, anyhow. They shrank behind their fortifications from its recurrence. The Maginot Line was the measure of their dread. If that material defense was a mistake, what else was a folk to do that had been wounded almost to death? The French are still numb. I myself have seen what came over some British men and women, who suffered last time, when the black wings again darkened the morning. All the controlled emotion of four tragic years, which they had borne without complaint, came into their eyes. What, again? They could not believe it — they could not, though they accepted their gas masks. I myself, doubting the possibility of evil in the ascendant, worked and spoke for accord with the Germans through the last war, and up to Munich. Hitler’s descent on Prague to plunder it, a few months after his avowal that he wanted peace, told the most reluctant of us that Germany would work her base will, whatever her fair words, though Euroe were whitened with bones. It was repellent, but it was a fact. The revolution had begun which was to counter the revolutions of the English, the French, and the American colonists to end feudalism, and to win liberty for the humble. We were back in the dark.
I suppose I had better not speak too loudly of other ruins in London, and elsewhere; we don’t want to hear rejoicing in the wrong place. But you may tell your informant he is ignorant if he says the aim of the Nazi bombers is for military objects. They are attempting to do in London what they did on the continent — divide the people from their administrators, and direct the anger of the distracted multitude towards the government. These poor people never had much, but now that has gone, and sometimes the children with it. As I can say little about it, don’t suppose this affects me less than the loss of antiquities. Where this cruel destruction is I was born. And though those industrial dwellings ought never to have been built, and as they were never better than a shameless confession of inequity, so beauty does not suffer, yet the loss of a choice piece of Grinling Gibbons is nothing when Rachel is weeping for her children.
So let us go back through Cheapside. Here is Bird-in-Hand Court, where in 1816 Keats lived and wrote many of the poems of his first volume. Tom Hood was born near that court. That is Bucklersbury. Once it was a market of the druggists. You remember Falstaff’s comment? ‘These lisping hawthornbuds, that smell like Bucklersbury in simple time.’ In this other street Milton was born. The Mermaid Tavern stood here, and Shakespeare lodged near by. Barham of the Ingoldsby Legends was incumbent of St. Augustine’s over there; but whether that church has quite gone too I did not venture to see. One need not continue, for this heart of London touches so much of English literature, from Chaucer to Lamb, that silence is best. We may say, anyhow, that those names are all recent, relatively. Was there not Saxon work in Bow Church? Here London began to grow from wattle and daub, and Ben Jonson and Donne were only late comers. It is as if I sat turning over the works of those great fellows, in the Guildhall, not long after they had gone. You could feel, in the quiet of that place, that they were your contemporaries. Only when in the street again did you realize the present, which for youth is provisional, and all promise.
What else, when origins were long before King Alfred’s day? In his reign the moot or meeting place of Londoners was St. Paul’s. It must have been so for centuries before that, as there is a tradition of a Christian church on the summit of the hill in the second century. Therefore on the last night of 1940, immediately after their second Great Fire, the smoke still hanging about, Londoners gathered there as ever to greet their New Year with a shout, and some singing. The chance of more explosions made no difference; and because many of our Cockneys say they are Scotch, you must, in the finale, join in singing ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ You would have found no dismay, no gloom except the proper one of midnight, nothing to show these people stood in peril. There was rousing good cheer, greeting the future.
Yet anger, a reserved anger, the Nazis have engendered with their bombs and with some other devices, but it has not turned against Winston Churchill. In this affair Winston personifies forgotten residual national humors which are evoked when the going is hard; we know him, for he is akin. They must have queer minds, those Nazis. There is no doubt they are quite sincere, and genuinely incapable of understanding what your President, and Churchill, are talking about. They really have not heard of such men as Drake and Washington. To them Lincoln — his mind and his speech — is as incredible a myth as German dishonor. Now they see what the world thinks of them as a result of their honest zeal, they are as puzzled as though they witnessed the resurrection of the dead, who unwind their graveclothes in a way to show they mean to live again to somebody’s disadvantage. How is this? They do not know what it means. They are so made. But then, they would render the Golden Bowl for guns, and make merry with their tutor Dr. Goebbels over the absurdity of things that silence others into reverence and humility.
Mr. H. G. Wells is just back with us after a visit to the United States, and he reports gayly — and we always attend to what that great man has to tell us — that Americans are ‘not interested in stained glass, but only in successes.’ I feel rebuked. There may be more stained glass in this story than you want. As to success, we on this side also are plucked up when we hear of it. Our hopeful eyes are fixed on the horizon for it all day long. It cheers even a pacifist when the grandiose arrogance of Mussolini and his cohorts is deflated by quiet men who were civilians but yesterday. Mussolini today has new and better information about the senility of democrats, and joy may be wicked, but we are joyful. Our successes in Africa, unimaginable some months ago when Hitler was about to march through Syria and Palestine, or somewhere, to meet Mussolini at Suez, look as clean and decisive as the abrupt intervention of Providence when tired of presumptuous fools.
Still, what is meant by stained glass? Are we to understand that this metaphorical brick through an old church window indicates the relative unimportance of æsthetic values? Does it advise us that Americans do not care when the emblems of those values go under the gun wheels or up in smoke? Then I’ve been writing in vain, though I shall continue to feel how grievous is the loss. It seems to me that if certain imponderables, imaged by Mr. Wells as stained glass, are of trivial consequence and their loss may be disregarded, and all we need hear about is success, then victory may prove to be only the glad music of a brass band in a cemetery. Our outlook in triumph will be some economic dispensation amid ash and cinder, planned in a laboratory, with Euclid lifted up over all.
At this point let us be frank about the scarcity value of ecclesiastical glaze. We would give all of it, if that could restore the peace of mind of but one stricken man. I heard of such a Londoner yesterday. It happened that he lost his wife and three children in a recent raid, and he was taken to hospital. That place was bombed the next night, and he tried to fling himself from a window, but when in the flash of another explosion he saw the bloodsmeared face of the nurse who was struggling to prevent him, he came to reason, and was quiet. She carried him off. Life and reason are more important than property, even when it was shaped by the genius of Wren. Of course, I know that the wrecking of that man’s mind is as incidental in war as the burning of a Raphael. There is so much of it that it is commonplace. But oughtn’t you to hear of both, since they show what is going on? And what, after all, is success? The girl who saved that man was transferred to work in a quieter corner; as you will guess, she was upset; but that hospital, too, was crashed the following night, and she worked in her bare feet over broken glass to rescue other patients. Does that nurse in any way represent success? If not, what is victory?
If victory is not in the continuity of magnanimous spirit, then we are of all men most miserable. If fallen stones and broken life cannot be raised to a fairer city and fellowship, then we may resign ourselves to the midden. No flowers, by request! For how raise them if the standards are lost? But have no fear. The magnanimous heart is common. The bare promise in it of a regenerated community, if we will it, should be enough to quicken minds gone so dry that nothing is felt when loveliness is mutilated. Think of the army of men and women who went into London to do what they could when it was burning and falling asunder. They took the hazards that won’t bear thinking about afterwards. These people put in a day at their normal duties, and at night go to the front line in war; their night vigil over, they make straight for their desks and shops; for rest and sleep they must wait till the next night again. And they are unpaid, for the most part. Their only reward is survival, and they don’t always get it.
There is another thing they have done for us, though they don’t know of it. Let me remind you of that dreary old lie of the political economists, the lie which has corroded social life ever since money had a clear design to rule and to maintain its dominion: that never do we give of our best except for profit. The compelling incentive to gain — that numbing falsity of the political fabulists! We shall continue to hear of that supposed law of our nature, though all the best that society has, the things which set the measures in our culture, came of nobility in selflessness, and not of two cents for one. The Nobodies of my country, unaware, with no thought to the matter, give to a common cause what money cannot buy.
In London, one night in a recent heavy attack, a telephone call came from a hundred miles away to learn if the home was standing; a relative had heard that something was happening. Presently another ring, from a soldier on leave. ‘How is it with you? We’ve just put out a swarm of incendiaries about here.’ (Ominous pause). ‘Here comes a big ‘un!’ (Another pause, and a bump which jerked the receiver.) ‘You hear that? That’s a near one — I’d better go.’ A little later still, one in the room had a ring from his watchman. The school was there. Its fires had been doused. Still the raid continued. We waited, while the shells buzzed over the house from a near battery. You see, through it all, the telephone girls were at the exchange boards, the taxis and buses were plying, the bakers were at their ovens, and next morning we had our newspapers to the minute, though Fleet Street had been in the thick of it.
The incentive to gain! Luckily, in addition to old stained glass, that wretched incentive and other fallacies are going. Much of our treasure is with the potsherds, permanently extinct; but we may expect the energetic resurrection of the wrong things at the very time when we shall claim the right to fashion in freedom a land worthy of people who see in a new light. The parasitic, we can be sure, will survive with the magnanimous. This very day we hear of speculators who are buying up acres of ruin; they see a future there, but not for us. I think they will be disappointed, for there is a war beyond the one we now fight, and it has been going on since Magna Charta — or Cain and Abel — and today we know more about it than we did.
By Tower Hill there was a church which escaped the fire of 1666, mainly because of the efforts of Admiral Penn, father of William, founder of Pennsylvania; and Pepys witnessed that fire from its steeple. It did not escape this time. The old building held much of London’s long story. William Penn was baptized in it, John Quincy Adams married. There is a Roman pavement in its foundations. The Temple off Fleet Street, which was a London sanctuary, will not now bear looking at, if you used to know it. You may not be interested in stained glass, yet it is hard for a Londoner to say what he feels about the loss of it. Yet now he sees the gaps in his heritage, made so quickly that he has had no time to assess what has gone; he begins to learn, for the first time, that London is a palimpsest. Today is but a substitute for London yesterday. He notices this late serious alteration only because it came violently in a night.
When by St. Paul’s I was puzzled by a reference I had seen to St. Michael le Querne. Such a church, I discovered, does not exist; but it did in the thirteenth century, and corn, as you suspect, was sold near it. Sir Thomas Browne, of the Religio Medici, was baptized in it in 1606. Sixty years later it vanished, with most of the City, while Pepys looked on. Close to its site yesterday I noticed that the famous Wood Street plane tree, growing in the narrow yard which is all that remains of St. Peter, Westcheap, has absurdly survived this fire, as though the Nazis had known it was protected by statute. On the iron rails beneath it fluttered scores of paper notices advising me of the new addresses of business houses around that were burned out. For ‘the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy.’ But life will have its way.
Many of the ancient monuments, some with foundations in a past so remote that you may choose your year, went in the earlier fire which ended mediæval London. Wren did not rebuild all its churches; and the truth is — and today it is brought home to us — he did rebuild many which have been cast down since, from year to year, one at a time, because their sites were enviable, money being more attractive than beauty and devotion. Just before this war began, All Hallows, Lombard Street, for one, a church in which Charles Wesley preached his first extempore sermon, was destroyed. It was not the Nazis, but the Ecclesiastical Commissioners themselves who did it, despite the protests of the City Corporation and the Royal Academy of Arts. They sold it to a bank, very likely. Few people grieved over it then, but the tears of many flow fast when the Germans do in a few weeks what desire, when legal, has been doing in London for many generations. What angry outbursts if German incendiaries had destroyed Adelphi Terrace and old Regent Street, and not the desire for more and better rents!
Yet we need not fear that either war or the corrosion of the idea of profit will overcome the sense of the past, from which the ghosts rule us; we are aware of the invisible glory of great achievements, and the sacrifice they exacted of the body, and of the responsive liberality of the spirit of man. The form vanishes, the spirit endures. There is continuity. The common folk are usually better than their governors; it is they who are the heirs of the tradition. They are apathetic when times are easy, and government is venal; but they will look up, surprised by a gracious word should it chance to come, and will move to it, when things go ill.
There is a night shelter in central London, the crypt of an old church. Thousands of bones, piled breast high, were removed from it to make room for the living, and the late vicar, Pat McCormick, — he kept at his post so long that he died at it, for he was worthy of it, — told me that Nell Gwynn’s might be among them, as certainly she was buried beneath the church, nobody knew exactly where. That crypt now gives shelter at night to a big company, and a mixed one. There was a simple service that night. It would not have kept me but for the voices of the children. Their impersonal note came clear and easy through the singing of the congregation; as of the chanting of cherubs, ‘all heads and wings and no bottoms,’ if you shut your eyes, or looked at the dim groining. The light was not pervasive. One was underground, but children were singing. They were singing a familiar paraphrase of a psalm. In the obscurity of the vault from which their forefathers’ bones had been removed, the upturned faces of the innocents making a song of time sweeping all its sons away confused my philosophy. I felt I ought to begin thinking anew, and that I would, if I but knew where to start. I did try to believe that the voice of innocence I heard was only a meaningless echo in hollow eternity; but that, I felt, was unsatisfying and inappropriate. If there is not more than that in the appeal of loveliness, then we are deceived by music and poetry and architecture, and so ultimate a cheat was too much for me to accept. I believe in the Holy Ghost. To sin against loveliness is to sin against the creative spirit.
Then a man began to speak. I could not see him, but the simple urgency of his words might have been that of one of the friars when they, too, were innocent and unworldly, which was long ago. There was something strange in those words, in those surroundings. It is only now — not too late, but almost too late — that one begins to know that only righteousness can save our communities. We have been nihilists, especially we clerks and craftsmen. See what has happened because of it! I heard the speaker begin to read quietly the words of one of the earliest of statesmen. ‘See, I have set. before thee this day life and good, and death and evil; in that I command thee this day to love the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments. . . . I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.’
A raid warning had sounded long before, but he went on, as if work must be done, whatever happens, when a dream compels. And his people, unmoved by happenings without, listened to the words of a faith which has carried men through tribulation since there were swords, usurers, and taxgatherers. If any young artists were listening to him, and I think they were, then we need not despair of dignity and comeliness in a London that is to be.