“Britain is losing its culture”, cried no less than a few provocateurs. A necessarily open-ended statement, it leaves much to the individual imagination. I pondered this on the verge of Brexit- Britain leaving the European Union and going its own way, turning its collective psyche back to the 1970s, or earlier. Is it regret for relinquishing imperial units (miles, feet, pints and pounds), or the pre-decimal monetary units of shilling and pence? Is it the loss of pub culture that is being mourned? That’s a loaded theme: you could point to gentrification and rising rents, workaholism cutting into pub time, the prevalence of Continental wines, or abstemious immigrants moving into traditionally working class neighborhoods. Does one, rather, miss national solidarity and the stiff upper lip of surviving Nazi bombers during the Second World War?
During that trying time, Westminster and Saint Paul’s Cathedral stood as defiant symbols of national resolve. Even as surrounding central London was bombed flat, these national symbols had to be defended, at any cost. During air raids, Architecture students manned bucket brigades in the highest crevices of Saint Paul’s to preemptively extinguish incendiary flares dropped from the sky. One large bomb did drop into the Cathedral’s nave: miraculously, it was a dud.
This week in France, sorrow and resolve, not apathy, came out of the conflagration at the 850-year old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. In a secularizing Europe, Notre Dame held firm as a national symbol. The heart of France, as described by some journalists, in a nation that has long celebrated a hard separation of Church and State. Dominique Venner, then a 78-year old historian and reactionary, took his own life at the altar of Notre Dame in 2013, in a protest against same-sex marriage and other cultural changes. Notre Dame was front-and-center in the 1944 liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation. Notre Dame was present, and suffered some damage, in the 1790’s French Revolution. The damage from this week’s fire is still being totalized, but it includes the central spire and several rose windows dating to the 13th century. In America, Notre Dame Cathedral features prominently in Western Heritage and History courses- especially in Catholic school. Paris, namely its most famous Cathedral, is a must-see on most every college graduate’s list.