ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

Ask Not For Whom

The question of this moment

A line-drawing of St. Paul’s caherdral amidst the wreckage of war-torn London, Sept. 1941 (image source: Hanslip Fletcher, from the author’s own collection)
St. Paul’s London, amidst the rubble of wartime bombing, September 1941 (image source: Hanslip Fletcher reprint from the author’s own collection)

It was entirely appropriate that the very first thanksgiving service in the wake of our Queen’s passing was held at St. Paul’s cathedral.

St Paul’s, rebuilt after the Great Fire of London (1666) and much repaired after the blitz during World War II, is where the unifying spirit of the nation can be expressed — and never more so than at times when the nation is rocked and feeling unsteady.

Pleas to be forward looking and aspirational are not heard when the past, and what has been lost, is dominant. Here in the UK we wake today (Sept 11th) to a post-Elizabethan era, in a post-Covid, post-Brexit, post-governable, post-Johnsonian, post-populist, and, some would say, post-democratic state, reluctantly puzzling how to conjure a post-capitalist economy.

Now, our hearts are broken as well and, in mourning the loss of a great monarch, we are grieving for ourselves and for survival through massive climatic disruptions and soaring energy costs — unavoidable consequences of addiction to fossil fuels and woefully inadequate investment in renewable energy sources.

Before the Great Fire of London, the nation was not a happy place : diseases were rampant, life-expectancy short, (even if you survived infant mortality), poverty and poor housing was commonplace. It would be another 200 years before the engineer Joseph Bazalgette would get to grips with investment in sewage treatment and clean water supplies. At St Paul’s there remains a stone effigy from the burned building that pre-dated Wren’s domed masterpiece. The effigy adorned the tomb of the old cathedral’s Dean — the reverend John Donne. But more than that, Donne’s words survived and have since become well-known — not least because Ernest Hemingway borrowed them.

Which brings me back to yesterday’s gathering, and the realisation that John Donne had preached from the very same spot and pointed out that there was little point in asking for whom the funeral bell was being tolled — because it was ringing for us all. And yesterday a peal rang noisily through outside news broadcasts as people of all religions, and none, streamed out into London’s evening gloom. Donne had written a sermon that very perceptively captured that basic need for neighbourliness and working together. ‘No man’, he said, ‘is an island’ — a statement of the obvious to people of a small island nation dependent on trade and travel with its continental neighbours. None of us are sufficient to ourselves — a message that now, once again, strikes at the heart of the individual selfishness that is deeply embedded in modern capitalism, the me-me-me and mine that fuelled demutualisation and Brexit, and powered the convenient facade of ‘free’ market growth. History does not record whether Donne’s congregation took any notice.

If there is a time for renewal, a time to revalue our purpose, a time to unite in common endeavour to combat climate collapse and revive that post-war spirit that built our National Health Service and bolstered welfare provisions to address massive inequalities — if there is a time, then surely these sobering moments of grief provide opportunity to wake up, smell the coffee, and crack on with a global mobilisation — call it, if you really must, a Carolinian restoration — not a replica of past glories but a dedication to do better for our planet — and, possibly, for all life forms including our own.

Perhaps best, that we ask not by whom that resolve — that purpose — will be wilfully misunderstood.

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Image: St. Paul’s cathedral surviving the wreckage of war-time bombing, 1941 (Drawn by Hanslip Fletcher, from the author’s own collection)

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David Brunnen on Governance (Communities, Sustainability & Digital Challenges} PLUS reflections on life in Portchester — the place that he calls home.