Christopher Wren in the wasteland

Iris Murdoch’s The Time of the Angels (1966) is a dramatisation of the crisis of belief of the 1960s, and her two clerical characters deserve their own blog posts. But here,  I want to dwell on the setting of the novel in London and the atmosphere it creates.

A little while ago I wrote about Penelope Lively’s London churches of the mind: how the churches of Lively’s late 1980s are bearers of meanings imprinted by the past, but with no present life, and no future. As the redevelopment of parts of London is in full spate, these buildings are stranded, mute islands of memory in a sea of forgetting and obliteration. Murdoch’s London is of the mid 1960s, when pockets of land still remained uncleared of the rubble of the Blitz twenty years before. London’s population continued to fall, and it was only town planners that thought parts of the city had any future.

St Dunstan in the East. Image: Peter Webster

St Dunstan-in-the-East.
Image: Peter Webster

Although an invention of Murdoch’s, St Eustace Watergate is (or was) a Christopher Wren church, only the tower of which survived the bombing. The tower, and the nearby rectory are the only remaining buildings in the midst of a building site on which there is no building, shrouded by the London fog that makes day night, cut off from the city that surrounds it. The scene is the London docklands, close to the City but yet at the same time isolated on the peninsula of the Isle of Dogs, hemmed in on three sides by the river.

There were many blitzed churches, several of them of Wren, but by the 1960s the Church of England had more or less found ways of dealing with them, a cluster of fine buildings without parishioners to serve. Some were abandoned, their demolition completed and the sites sold. Some that could be rebuilt were rebuilt; others such as St Dunstan-in-the-East were left in ruins and converted into public gardens, both war memorial and public utility. Even those that were intact were no longer typical parish churches, but lived only during the working week: ‘lectures and concerts and shut on Sundays’ (p.13).

Murdoch’s St Eustace, neither rebuilt nor demolished, is ‘a niche for problem children’ (p.13): clergy whom the bishop can neither make use nor be rid of. There is half-hearted talk of an appeal to wealthy Americans for funds with which to rebuild, but we hear little of it. St Eustace is half a church: stranded amidst the debris of an old order, an empty shell which looms in the gloom, the only thing yet to be cleared before rebuilding may begin. But that rebuilding is itself stalled, stymied, by the withdrawal of planning permission for a skyscraper. All is becalmed, frozen in the half-light of the fog and carpeted in snow. It is both symbol and backdrop against which Murdoch develops her theme of the loss of faith and the directionless search for something with which to replace it.

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London’s churches of the mind

Twentieth century British fiction features a good few fictional clergy of the established Church of England, and some (if fewer) accounts of religious life itself. Rather fewer again are the number of church buildings. And those that there are tend to be anonymous and stylised if set in a real town or village. Penelope Lively’s novel City of the Mind (1991) is a rather beautiful meditation on London, and its architecture in particular; its buildings invested and reinvested with meaning by the successive generations of people who encounter them over time. Unusually, the novel is populated with several churches, and although none of them are integral to the plot, they are all but one of them named; all of them real buildings rather than merely symbols.

The blitizd church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden. Image: Peter Webster

The blitzed church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden.
Image: Peter Webster

Most iconic of all London’s churches is of course St Paul’s cathedral, and although part of the novel is set during the Blitz, Lively avoids using St Paul’s as other novels have, although her character, an air raid patrol volunteer, is at work in the same area. Instead, it is Christopher Wren’s church of St Bride Fleet Street that he sees, largely destroyed in December 1940, its spire ‘lit from within like a lantern’ (p.10). St Paul’s is a church of the mind in a city of the mind; when her Elizabethan explorer encounters the massive ice floes of the North-West Passage, it is in the shape of St Paul’s that he sees them, a ‘cathedral in the ice’ as ‘time and space collide’ in the imagination (pp.48-9). The novel’s main protagonist, Matthew Halland, stands mesmerized in a Charing Cross Road bookshop by a photograph, taken by Herbert Mason on the same night as St Bride’s was gutted by fire, 29th December, of the dome of St Paul’s framed by black smoke but intact.

Halland’s London is that of the late 1980s, as the processes of demolition, redevelopment and gentrification are in spate; Halland is an architect rather reluctantly engaged with a tower of glass in the Docklands. Elsewhere, Spitalfields is the shoreline of the tide of change where ‘a reconstructed past and an inexorable future are fighting it out amid the estate agents’ signs and the cement mixers’ (p.92) Here the spire of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church fights for the skyline with cranes and new office blocks. Round the corner is the former Huguenot church on Fournier Street, an immigrant church itself already overwhelmed by waves of later immigration: subsequently a Methodist church, next a synagogue, now a mosque. The churchyard of St Anne Soho is being redeveloped as a paved shopping precinct, the bodies of generations exhumed and deported to a cemetery further out of the city. Nothing may obstruct the progress of redevelopment (p.36).

Lively’s churches point always to the change that surrounds them, rather than drawing any attention to themselves. The caryatids on the north side of St Pancras’ church on Euston Road are to Halland redolent of the classicism he understands; to his daughter they are nothing so much as ‘ladies wearing bath towels with books on their heads’ (p.87) What these churches never are is alive; places in which real breathing Londoners meet and worship. There is an implicit contrast between the rural, where such things may well continue, and the ghostly Christianity of the city. The German immigrant Eva Burden, who undertakes an engraving in glass for Halland’s tower, was first inspired to work in glass by the west screen in Coventry cathedral by John Hutton: a declaration in the early sixties that the urban church was not dead; the ‘Phoenix at Coventry’ (the phrase is of Basil Spence) could rise from the ashes of the blitzed city. In the late eighties, her only church commissions are of saints and angels for country churches; in the metropolis her work is mere decoration, decanters for the corporate boardroom. In Lively’s London, the churches are bearers of meanings, objects for the imagination, but without present or future. This is a thoroughly secular city of the mind.