Thursday, March 19, 2015

On London's greatness past

It is interesting to compare the fate of two St Paul’s Churches. The one in London was famously and mercifully intact and mostly unharmed after the German bombing during the blitz. Which was a pretty darn lucky outcome:

The Paulskirche in Frankfurt (which I wrote about here), however, was bombed out, and rebuilt hurriedly afterwards in a deliberately modern style to strip out nearly all of the original church elements. As a result, it’s a bland whitewashed circular room, where the only parts of interest are the flags from different regions and an organ at the front. It’s as if the post office were charged with building an assembly hall.

St Paul’s in London manages to capture both the glory and tragedy of Britain. The glory is in the rich history from when it was a world-bestriding empire. The tragedy, of course, is that the modern version of Britain is a shriveled, diminished entity, squatting in the remains left over from when it was still a serious country. Instead of Winston Churchill or Pitt the Elder, we have David Bloody Cameron. Put briefly, there is almost nothing good in Britain – institutional, architectural, cultural, literary, even for the most part scientific - dating from after 1945. Ponder that, if you will. Even the graffiti these days is worse. Consider the relative elegance of the lettering on this carving inside the stairwell of St Paul's.

But if you want to see what Britain once was, look at St Paul’s Crypt. What an inspiring monument to great men! The statues and plaques tell you what the society at the time valued. Most of them are tales of heroism, sacrifice, and leadership. Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington are justly revered, as are a number of military figures who died securing what was ultimately a victory. There is a large proportion of people from military backgrounds, but important people from other walks are represented too – Joseph Turner, John Constable, Christopher Wren, William Blake, Samuel Johnson. The only category of greatness that seems relatively underrepresented, for some reason, is science. If you are any kind of historian, it won't escape your notice that some of the accounts tend towards hagiography – you probably didn’t want to be on the receiving end of Lord Kitchener or General Gordon, for instance. It also becomes apparent that the men were drawn largely from the nobility. But rather than this fact being a source of embarrassment, as it would be today, it was a source of pride. This was how things were meant to be – nobility meant the requirement to perform acts of valor and leadership, often (in the military context) ending up killed in the process. These are not the tombs of kings or idle nobility. These are the tombs of citizens who were beloved enough by their countrymen for their deeds to warrant a place in the halls.

To take one random example that made my Australian heart glad, I was pleased to see the memorial to our former Governor General, the great Viscount Slim:

What kind of testimony does such a person produce from his contemporaries?
George MacDonald Fraser, later author of the Flashman novels, then a nineteen-year-old lance corporal, recalled:
"But the biggest boost to morale was the burly man who came to talk to the assembled battalion … it was unforgettable. Slim was like that: the only man I've ever seen who had a force that came out of him...British soldiers don't love their commanders much less worship them; Fourteenth Army trusted Slim and thought of him as one of themselves, and perhaps his real secret was that the feeling was mutual."
Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely has recommended Slim's memoirs (Defeat into Victory) (1956) describing Slim as "perhaps the Greatest Commander of the 20th Century"

Military historian Max Hastings:
"In contrast to almost every other outstanding commander of the war, Slim was a disarmingly normal human being, possessed of notable self-knowledge. He was without pretension, devoted to his wife, Aileen, their family and the Indian Army. His calm, robust style of leadership and concern for the interests of his men won the admiration of all who served under him ... His blunt honesty, lack of bombast and unwillingness to play courtier did him few favours in the corridors of power. Only his soldiers never wavered in their devotion."
That, my friends, is what greatness looks like.

But you will notice, if you look closely, a subtle change in the recent memorials. The last monuments to specific heroism date back to World War 2. Society is now so pathologically egalitarian that greatness often makes us uncomfortable. The only modern military memorials in St Paul's crypt are for groups, not individuals – lists of the dead from wars. What is celebrated is their sacrifice, not their achievement. And this is why all the dead are listed equally, as is common and indeed appropriate to war memorials. But St Pauls Crypt was formerly not primarily a war memorial, whose function was solemn remembrance of loss and sacrifice – it was a triumphal place of individual greatness and heroism. And that is something we no longer do. The only individual greatness we celebrate any more is athletic, and to a lesser extent, commercial (Steve Jobs, for instance). But neither would appropriately be described as fields of heroism. Instead, heroism, to the extent that the now-devalued term is used, is identified with actions mostly formed on compassion, rather than on achievement. Today's "heroes" are more likely to be people caring for the unfortunate, or looking after a sick or dying relative. That is noble, and praiseworthy, and admirable. But it is not heroic.

One view you might form is that such heroism no longer exists. But it does. If you doubt it, read at random some of the recent awardees of the Medal of Honor or the Victoria Cross. We simply do not celebrate it.

Doubt it not, if St Paul's had been destroyed during the London Blitz, whatever version they rebuilt would have never had most of the current monuments inside, if they included any at all. It seems more likely that they would have scrapped the whole idea altogether.

More shame us.


As if to emphasise the contrast, here's a modern individual memorial they are willing to include:

Working for nuclear disarmament, eh? How's that going? How would you compare that with, say, the Battle of Waterloo?

Are you, like me, embarrassed on behalf of modernity?

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