Assessing the value of St Paul’s Cathedral

Excited by a startling feature on the BBC website last week, several newspapers were falling over each other in serving up the same shock horror story, straight out of the broadcasting corporation’s shrink wrapping. St Paul’s Cathedral, one of “our”iconic tourist sites may have to close. Covid killed off tourist revenues, fabric is “rotting”, rainwater is being collected in buckets, staff have been furloughed, and what about the choirboys?

With all that is going on in the world as we attempt to haul ourselves beyond the economy shattered by Brexit and Covid, we might be more than customarily open to a little circumspection.  Close the cathedral to whom, and for how long? Close all of it, or some bits of it for a time? We are talking of a genuinely world-class tourist site with a world-class choir; are we planning on forgetting how to derive revenue from people seeking world-class experiences and world-beating music?

Further perspective arises from understanding the value of the property and investment portfolios that have been developed in and around this site over the course of the millennium during which there has been a cathedral sitting here. The City of London Corporation and the Church of England – in the years since its rebranding by Henry VIII – have established investment funds between them worth in excess of £10Billion.

Granted, not all of that money is earmarked for rainwater buckets but, in the spirit of never letting a good crisis go to waste, this month’s flurry of performative panic might just inspire some cultural soul-searching among those of us who have an appetite for joining up the historical dots. We may not have access to the forensic accountants of the City and Church investment funds who, we can be sure, can look after themselves. But maybe we can come to a clearer understanding of what it is about St Paul’s Cathedral that makes it truly world-class, and worthy of our respect and support for ever and a day.

No account of its stellar history will be without references to historical and Hollywood royalty, to grand processionals marking weddings and funerals, and a storied crypt that makes clear the connections of this place to England’s imperial history. All of these considerations are vital, but also problematic, as the increasing din of falling statues will attest.

What is not contestable is the reputation of St Paul’s Cathedral as a gathering place in which to see and be seen: a repository for hundreds of years of social energy that literally crafted the culture through the millions of books that were displayed and sold over the book stalls over the centuries in this particular churchyard. Together with the printing presses of Fleet Street, the booksellers of St Paul’s bequeathed the legacy of a language that remains free for appropriation by anyone who wishes to use it and speak it.

And see what the world has made of that social energy. This can be as good a week as any to salute that fact.

No, London has not peaked

An article in The Guardian last week asks “If we really have passed ‘peak London’, what does that mean for Britain?” The sub-heading concedes that the capital may have fallen on hard times but, as if this were a compelling counter-argument, “. . . it still offers a defiantly different version of Englishness.”

After regaling the reader with the many ways in which London is experiencing what English understatement might characterise as a “sticky patch”, the writer moves past any concern for what London might do about its current diminishment, and wonders instead about the implications of central London’s “obsolescence” for the UK’s allegedly delighted non-Londoners. While tougher times would render the capital “less-privileged”, the writer argues that it might “narrow the north-south divide” and make England “feel more united, and less like half a country with a huge city-state attached”.

The London characterised in this article is the very definition of the big frog in the small pond that could do with a bit of tactical shrinking for the sake of getting on better with all the smaller frogs and tadpoles. That definition is not what lifted the city out of the mid-17th century mire induced by war, plague, and fire; nor was it what marked the recovery from the last century’s wars and aerial Blitz. It did not constrain the reach and appetite of the English (and Scottish) Enlightenment, nor did it rein in the ambition and entrepreneurial energy that inspired Fleet Street and the City of London to become the Silicon Valley of the 18th century.

What distinguishes London from the rest of the country, and indeed from most of the rest of the world, is not the size of the population as some random conglomeration of the smug and privileged. All those people are in fact a community of communities, many of them world-class businesses, universities, research institutions, publishing and media companies, museums and art galleries. What these people have done is define a culture that has shaped and will continue very largely to shape the way the world thinks, relaxes, works, and plays. And what they have accomplished is in no way “defiantly different in its Englishness” – what does that even mean? – but in fact is suggestive of what can be accomplished in a world where people are bound by a common language.

Those who are content with populist prescriptions determined by national borders fail to grasp that human problems have scaled rapidly and globally in their resonance and reach. Communities of all types and sizes need the imagination and energy that respects this wider hinterland of chaos and opportunity. Think global, act local as the old saying has it. When the UK government awakens to the stupendous potential in soft power, perhaps then it will see that London unleashed will be a force for good in the world, globally and locally. Deploy more language teachers, drama coaches, artists, and musicians: bring home the nuclear submarines.

Far from peaking, the city’s best days lie yet ahead.