War memorials, bombed churches and ‘Christian civilisation’

I usually summarise my articles here, but this older one has not had such a summary before now as it predates this blog. As I’ve had cause to revisit it in the process of thinking about London’s blitzed churches in fiction, here’s a digest.

Title: Beauty, utility and “Christian civilisation”: war memorials and the Church of England, 1940-47
Published: Forum for Modern Language Studies 44:2 (2008) 199-211
Read the final version (proofs)

The years following the end of the First World War saw an effusion of memorials to that war, to the extent that scarcely a village, school or regiment was without one. The impression that might be gained from a journey through much of rural England is that the stone cross, placed by the village green, was the predominant form of memorial chosen by English communities after 1918. In contrast (it has been argued) the years after 1945 were characterised by indifference, and indeed hostility, towards the building of further monuments in stone. Nick Hewitt has suggested that this ‘sceptical generation’ desired ‘practical’ or ‘useful’ memorials, such as playing fields, community halls or educational scholarships. The ‘artistic establishment’ was by 1944 out of touch with a utilitarian public. This article considers just this establishment and the part played by the Church of England in its deliberations.

It examines the moment during the last years of the war and immediately after, during which the interlocking ecclesiastical, artistic and governmental establishments began to imagine the general shape of memorialisation, and the part the bombed churches of London and elsewhere might play. It shows that there had been a much more lively debate on memorials than the eventual inventory might imply. Debate centred in particular on whether or not a beautiful but “useless” memorial was an appropriate response and (if it was) in which style it ought to be executed. Clergy, artists and architects and the committees and bodies that facilitated their interaction were keenly interested in the relationship between beauty, utility and the reconstruction of “Christian civilisation”.

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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.

Where were the churches after the Blitz ?

This week I made my debut as a reviewer for the LSE Review of Books. Since the Review is admirably free in the reuse it will allow, I republish it here under a Creative Commons licence. It is a review of an highly suggestive study of the lived experience of blitz conditions during the Second World War and patterns of planning and reconstruction afterwards. edited by Mark Clapson and Peter J. Larkham, and published by Ashgate.

From the point of view of my own research, there is one aspect of the question which the collection only touches very obliquely, at least in relation to England. These discourses of reconstruction turn on themes of modernity, efficiency, revolutionary change, the future, looking forward. How should we understand the rebuilding, repair or demolition of bomb-damaged churches: often ancient and mostly inefficient buildings, symbols of continuity and the presence of the past in urban spaces ? The collection very deftly opens up the complex processes in which national planners, local government and local opinion interacted in the creation of new urban centres such as Plymouth. Where, if anywhere, were the churches ? This article of mine from 2008 (available Open Access here) tried to open up some of the debates at national level; this collection reminds me of how many local stories there are still to tell.

Review, from LSE Review of Books, 1st October 2013

Mark Clapson and Peter J. Larkham (eds)
The Blitz and its Legacy. Wartime destruction to post-war reconstruction
Farnham, Ashgate, 2013

‘One of the most cherished popular myths of the Second World War centres on the London Blitz: a story of stiff upper lips, social solidarity and unity of purpose in the face of a terrifying onslaught; keep calm and carry on. Although this interpretation of the ‘People’s War’ has taken as intense a pounding from historians’ artillery as did London from the air, elements of it are left standing. This collection of essays examines two of them.

‘The first of these was that, at least in Britain, the experience of war turned the people into a ‘nation of town planners’. The utopianism that lay behind the nationalisation of key industries and the foundation of the National Health Service also produced a consensus that cities should not merely be repaired, but reimagined, and created afresh on clean and rational lines. The second myth refers to the reconstruction process itself, in which all the subsequent problems of urban Britain, all decaying concrete and thin social fabric, can be laid at the door of ‘the planners’. The contradictions between these two myths have not shortened their life or restricted their apparent explanatory power.

‘Britain was hardly alone in experiencing such damage, of course, and academic interest in destruction and reconstruction has been heightened in part by more recent conflicts in the Balkans and the Middle East. The editors, academics from the disciplines of history and of planning, have brought together an interdisciplinary team of specialists in history, planning, architecture and urban geography. There are valuable perspectives also from France, Germany and Japan, but two thirds of the papers relate to Britain, on which this review will concentrate.

As the editors acknowledge, the fourteen essays are highly diverse, on subjects ranging from the evacuation of disabled children from London to architectural style in a post-Hiroshima Japan. But there is design in this assembly of fragments, which points the way towards a reconnection of previously disparate literatures. The preoccupation of the book is to suggest how connections might be made between the lived experiences of individuals in blitz conditions, and the processes in which local populations interacted with local and national government to plan and then build. The social history of the People’s War has seldom been connected with the study of post-war planning. This collection begins to form those connections.

‘One such starting point is Mark Clapson’s essay on the London blitz and the dispersal of the London working class to the out-county estates within greater London, and the new towns beyond. Far from causing the fragmentation of the London working class, the Blitz only interrupted and then shaped and accelerated a longer-term process which can be traced back to late Victorian slum clearance and the Garden City movement. Part of that acceleration was caused by the experience of evacuation to the country, which to some extent prepared Londoners for suburban living. As Sue Wheatcroft shows, the evacuations also led directly to the post-war establishment of a system of residential special schools for children with disabilities.

‘Susanne Cowan provides a salutary note on the limitations of public enthusiasm for planning in the immediate post-war period. Whilst the enthusiasm for a ‘better Britain’ was genuine, it was short-lived; and the desire for change was at least as much directed towards older, more basic needs, such as for better housing, than any longing for more far-reaching change. Cowan shows that planners were proactive in shaping public opinion; but were ultimately mistaken in believing their own propaganda.

‘Catherine Flinn provides a wryly downbeat assessment of the real influence of “the planners”. Far from being set free to design new urban environments without constraint, the planners were in fact hemmed in by planning law itself, and by the inability of local authorities to agree amongst themselves. Reconstruction was also low amongst the priorities of those who controlled the supply of scarce building materials, particularly outside London; the members of the Investment Programmes Committee of the cabinet were clearly not among the ‘nation of town planners.’ Instead, much of the building took place slowly, and largely on private initiative, and so few post-war city centres bore much resemblance to the grand plans prepared for them. If later public opinion disliked these centres, it was not the planners who were to blame.

‘There are also case studies in which all these themes combine. Particularly interesting are those by David Adams and Peter J. Larkham on Birmingham, and on Plymouth by Stephen Essex and Mark Brayshay. Plymouth was perhaps the most fully realised modernist scheme for a new city centre, in which even those Victorian buildings that survived the bombing were demolished to allow the complete remodelling of the centre, with little of the street plan surviving. However, to view Plymouth as a straightforward victory for the ‘planners’ obscures a more complex and more interesting story. The site of a key naval dockyard, Plymouth was hit very hard by the bombing, and an early statement of intent to rebuild was felt necessary for morale. The initiative was seized very early by a tight knot of the elite, including Lord Astor, the mayor, and John Reith, minister of Works and Building. The Plan for Plymouth (1943) became as it were a local Magna Carta, which the objections of neither the local council, nor of city landowners deprived of their freehold, nor of the new Ministry of Town and Country Planning in London could amend. With a pleasing irony, the modernist scheme which allowed nothing old to remain, in recent years has itself become an object of conservation.

‘The editors have unfortunately been let down in the preparation of the text for the press. One essay contains the longest sentence this reviewer has ever read (running to some 75 words), and another so mangled as to be nonsensical. This is a shame, as this fertile collection promises to provoke and stimulate much fresh thinking about the connections between the experience of the blitz and later reconstruction. It deserves a large and diverse readership.