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The smoke this time

An encampment around St Paul’s Cathedral in London casts a new light on this icon of British wartime defiance. But the epic days of the 1940s may have something to teach the protesters in return, says David Hayes

David Hayes 1 November 2011 2642 words

OccupyLSX protesters camping out in front of St Paul’s Cathedral. Loz Pycock/Flickr

A FAMOUS photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral in London shows the great dome of Christopher Wren’s late seventeenth-century masterpiece rising proudly above the smoke of the German Luftwaffe’s rain of fire during the intense bombardment of the city on 29 December 1940 – a living architectural symbol of civic and national resistance to an existential threat.

Seven decades on, the extraordinary protest encampment that has been occupying the vicinity of St Paul’s since 15 October is casting a more unforgiving light on the cathedral and its place at the heart of the nation’s iconography. But the epic days of the 1940s may have something to teach it in return.

The image of the cathedral’s heroic survival amid surrounding destruction captures the mid-point of the sustained aerial assaults on Britain’s industrial cities – “the Blitz,” as it came to be referred to in the country’s copious wartime folklore – that lasted for eight months from September 1940 to May 1941. It was taken by the Daily Mail photographer Herbert Mason from the roof of the newspaper’s building off nearby Fleet Street, carefully retouched to maximise its effect, and presented on the front page on 31 December (right) as “War’s Greatest Picture.”

The photo often features today – in books, exhibitions and media stories – in the company of an equally iconic shot taken by Fred Morley in October 1940, showing a cheery white-coated milkman stepping over the bomb rubble of a working-class neighbourhood to deliver his crate of bottles. This artful stunt by a photographic agency, which also entered the historical record via publication in the Daily Mirror, tells a similar tale of how the visual representation of the war effort was instantly shaped in the interest of reinforcing national morale.

The interweaving of the terrible reality of the Blitz with a compelling narrative of collective defiance and endurance has long been explored, notably in Angus Calder’s pathbreaking book The Myth of the Blitz (1991), Malcolm Smith’s Britain and 1940: History, Myth and Popular Memory (2000), and Juliet Gardiner’s comprehensive The Blitz: The British Under Attack (2010). Yet the protean recycling of these two images in particular, which respectively confirm the “national” and “popular” narratives of 1940–41 – the “battle of Britain” and “the people’s war” – is also testimony to how impervious Britain’s modern memory often seems to the complications of actual historical experience. So glorious and all-encompassing is the portrayal of the originating point that even the hard-won achievements of the decades that followed are experienced as a diminuendo.

THE protesters’ discovery of St Paul’s in 2011 started as an accident, when the 200 assembled activists were prevented from reaching their planned location – neighbouring Paternoster Square, site of the London Stock Exchange and thus the heart of the city’s financial district – and downed tents at the point of exclusion. There, in a half-moon on and to one side of the open square in front of the cathedral, “OccupyLSX” began to organise the by-now familiar routines of the transnational phenomenon of which it is part (a food bank and cooking unit, health centre, toilets, information area) and to festoon the space with slogans, posters and statements proclaiming its case.

This ambiguous starting point helped to shape much that has followed. The ownership of the land around St Paul’s is a medieval patchwork in which the cathedral itself and the City of London Corporation – a peculiar mix of local public authority and wealthy private administrator of some of the richest segments of real estate on the planet – each has a stake. These two bodies’ slowness in responding, and the police’s reluctance to intervene, handed the protesters an initiative they were to keep for a week. The de facto public space became theirs, the site of a diverse, friendly, fluid and peaceful gathering that set about discussing its plans in a daily round of meetings on and in front of the cathedral steps.

The media were slow to take notice of a phenomenon that was unfolding a short distance from Fleet Street, once the buzzing heartland of Britain’s newspaper industry. (The London office of Scotland’s homely Sunday Post is the street’s sole remnant of that era.) The turning-point was the announcement on 21 October by a notably ineffectual cathedral leadership that it was closing its doors because the camp represented a “fire hazard” and “public health” concern. This meant the loss of a reputed £20,000 per day from tourists’ admission fees as well as a suspension of religious services, and gave the print and broadcast media – hitherto lacking a clear narrative of an apparently static story – its opening. This was most pungently expressed by the almost (but only almost) comically right-wing Daily Mail, forever in search of enemies within as well as outside the national tent: “Surrender of St Paul’s: Protest rabble force the cathedral to close, a feat that Hitler could barely manage.”

The shutting of the doors provoked intense controversy, which evidently extended to the heart of the cathedral’s governance. Its “canon chancellor” (and many of us are these days learning more about the Church of England’s administrative hierarchy than we ever expected to) – a jovial, media-friendly figure of leftish persuasion, Giles Fraser – had responded to the initial encampment with a welcome mat and a gentle warning to the police to back off; on 27 October, he tweeted his resignation; the next day, the protesters’ cheerleader-in-chief, the Guardian, led its front page with an interview with him under a majestic headline of its own: “‘I could imagine Jesus being born in the camp.’”

Thus, if OccupyLSX was left in relative freedom to engage in an impressive experiment in direct democracy during its first week, in the second week the camp found itself but one item in a burgeoning set of interests, agendas and personnel.

Its consciously decentred structure (albeit with some modifications to accommodate the newly intense press interest) has proved well able to respond to the three issues that have dominated coverage – aims (what do the protesters want, and is their diversity of focus a strength or a weakness?), timeframe (is a prolonged occupation justified, or is the achievement of putting the argument that “the current system is undemocratic and unjust” in an imaginative way enough for the moment?), and law (how to respond to the forthcoming legal action to clear the tents, which the City of London Corporation – the power behind the altar – has said will proceed if the campsite is not cleared by 2 November).

But after the initial spurt of autonomous momentum, the scenery and the characters have changed. Over the course of a fortnight there has been a gradual loss of coherence as other forces have encircled the protest: media, tourist London, and the competing interests (including financial) swirling around St Paul’s. In part, this is the result of the endless flow of people in, out of and around the camp. (The flow is at the core as well as among the many sightseers and drifters: a much disputed police and press claim based on infra-red photography is that most of the approximately 180 tents have been unoccupied at night.) In part, too, the change reflects the increasing salience of the cathedral itself, and its internal divisions, in the drama. Events on successive days – a “flashmob” evensong by St Paul’s parishioners, a multi/no-faith “sermon on the steps” (a sort of popular front of the soul), a public dialogue between protesters and the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, and the resignation of the cathedral’s highest authority, Dean Graeme Knowles – mark the shift of orientation.

A symbolic embrace between the protest and the cathedral, capped by shared acknowledgement of concern over “corporate greed” and associated evils, may yet offer both a potential escape route from the deadlock with honour intact. The cathedral, notwithstanding the widespread media condemnation it is enduring for its ungodly marriage to mammon, is attempting to perform a classic feint of Britain’s establishment when in trouble (not least when faced with would-be revolutionaries divided or unsure over exactly what they are doing): regaining its poise after an initial shock.

Again, the accidental nature of the protest location – no one has to be at St Paul’s, which may explain at least some of the overheated rhetoric about why everyone is – continues to influence the course of events. It is hard to create a moral–political association, and thus to become an instrument of genuine change, without a binding connection between will, need and land.

Perhaps the permanent reclamation of an extensive and resourced urban space where citizens can exercise democracy, activism, research and economic activity – the sort of “community of fate” that only time, work and deeper human bonds can make – would be one fitting outcome of the St Paul’s occupation. True, not everyone could or would wish to participate. (Hearing a report back to the main “general assembly” from the “99 per cent outreach group” was my moment to recall Oscar Wilde’s dictum that the trouble with socialism is that it would take too many evenings.) But a London unable to rise to this modest challenge would be poor indeed.

The more overblown elements of OccupyLSX – the ubiquitous conceit (“we are the 99 per cent”), the grandiose moralism (“what would Jesus do?” goes one slogan), the universalist claims (“We are not some special interest group. We are you.”) – have fed multiple supercharged readings of its revolutionary potential, the political equivalent of a sugar-only diet. Yet when it disbands or moves on – as a section of it already has to nearby Finsbury Square – its creative focus on excessive wealth and social inequity will surely continue to make waves.

BUT what kind of impact will the argument for systemic transformation have, and how extensive will it be? Britain’s current economic circumstances – a combination of indebtedness, austerity, zero growth, growing inequality, decreasing social mobility and concentrations of vast wealth at the very top – make a case for substantial reform of its model of capitalism that even the more intelligent establishment outlets (such as the Financial Times) are advancing.

An emerging consensus for change looks like the beginnings of good news for a battered public, even if the Conservative–Liberal Democrat government is as yet impervious to calls for a new course. There is also no shortage of practical proposals. Yet the obstacles to a change of strategy remain formidable.

Here, the experience of the Blitz and after may offer a lesson, insofar as the fire and suffering of 1940–41 played a crucial role in catapulting Britain’s political and administrative elite into active contemplation of a different order that would meet people’s needs, based above all on planning. This process culminated in the welfarist social democracy established by the Labour Party after 1945.

The writers, journalists and artists of the time were among the first to gauge the shift. George Orwell’s essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius – delivered to the publisher in November 1940, published in February 1941 – is the most brilliant individual effort to think through and beyond the social experience of war. The war was forging a new awareness of the nation’s qualities, exposing the infirmity of its ruling class, eroding class distinction and privilege, and heralding a fusion of “patriotism and intelligence” that would allow it “to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.”

If England was a “family with the wrong members in control,” a potent theme of the period was to put its other members – the “common people,” Orwell called them – at the centre of the national (and not merely their own) story. The novelist J.B. Priestley’s weekly BBC radio talks, the documentary films of Humphrey Jennings (especially London Can Take It, made with Harry Watt, and Fires Were Started, his diary of a London firefighter), the drawings of Londoners huddling in underground shelters and the paintings of their gouged streets by Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland, the vivid reports of Ritchie Calder (father of Angus) – all saw those displaced by bombing and those working round the clock to sustain the living city as being at the heart of the war effort. London’s working-class “Cockneys” had usually been seen as a problem, says Robert Colls in Identity of England (2002). “It took the Blitz to turn East Enders into natives.”

The path from 1940–41 to Labour’s landslide victory in 1945 was bridged by an immense effort of research and public persuasion whose landmarks included William Beveridge’s proposal for a new system of social insurance. (The report, published in December 1942, sold 630,000 copies in an abridged version.) The shared understanding across the liberal-left political spectrum (and reaching into the conservative) that there must be no return to the poverty and mass unemployment of the interwar years was reflected in the title of Labour’s 1945 manifesto, Let Us Face the Future, written by Michael Young, the liveliest public intellectual and (before the term was invented) social entrepreneur of later decades.

Yet this path was far from straightforward. Those responsible for planning the postwar world measured their objectives against the often variable evidence of what the “common people” wanted, feared, would bear. Even by 1942, the tide of what to some had seemed the purgatorial egalitarianism of the previous year had receded. David Kynaston’s brilliant social history, Austerity Britain, 1945–51 (2007), charts the “overlaps and mismatches” during these and later years between the expectations of the “activators” and those they sought to serve (or at least administer), and finds copious wartime evidence that “the outriders for a New Jerusalem – a vision predicated on an active, informed, classless, progressively minded citizenship – were going to have their work cut out.”

The achievements of the post-1945 Labour government – the creation of the national health service and a national insurance system, and the taking of major industries into state control – were historic. They were rooted in the prewar legacy and the destruction of war, emerged from years of preparatory work and research, were reached through intense struggle in the everyday – and utterly exhausted their architects. Even then they fell far short of inaugurating a social-democratic utopia.

The 1940s remain the political lodestar for many in Britain today, and understandably so. Precisely for that reason, rather than being seen as an imaginative refuge from later disappointments the era can be a reference point of how major political change in a complex modern democracy was achieved, how much detailed and coordinated work was done to seed it, and (especially) how broad popular consent and support was won and kept.

The “myth of the Blitz” of 1940–41, with St Paul’s Cathedral at its heart, became one foundation stone of a national myth that proved capable of being bent to a progressive politics. The protest of 2011 cannot claim the epic scale of the earlier event, but in pursuit of its ambitious aims it might find something of use there. •

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Photo: Jonathan Nalder/ Flickr

Above: Banner at the Yirrkala State School in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.
Photo: Jonathan Nalder/ Flickr