Break, blow, burn and make me new
– John Donne, Holy Sonnet: Batter my heart
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
– Matthew 3:11-12 (ESV)
I was standing on the roof of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, that great domed wonder, looking down upon the city when I met an old man whose name I forget – he was the security guard. He was also looking out onto he city, and he asked me where I was from. “Singapore,” I said, and he smiled.
“Sir Stamford Raffles, 1819,” he said, “Independence in 1965…” He proceeded to rattle off an impressive concise history of my country. I was surprised, and gratified – most people have vaguely heard of the place, but I was glad that this man, at least, had taken care to know about my far-flung bit of what used to be the British Empire. I mean, I suppose the whole reason I had made the pilgrimage to St. Paul’s was to see the legendary cathedral which John Donne ministered in, the place where Donne gave his sermons, where he wore his red vestments as Dean of St Paul’s, and administered the sacraments, was kind of because I had done my GCSE ‘A’ levels on his poetry and fallen in love with it. And I had been taught my ‘A’ level subjects by British men in a program that groomed young Singaporeans to go to Oxbridge on government scholarships. Which, in turn, is all traceable, in a way, to that fateful day that some Scotsman stepped foot on my little island, drew up a treaty and planted a flag. History is funny like that.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, looking out at the city spread out like a map before us. “Can you tell me what’s your favourite cathedral, other than this one? Maybe one that most people wouldn’t know about?” He pointed a few of them out, which I duly took note of to visit later. “You like cathedrals, then?” “I think they’re very beautiful.” “Sir Christopher Wren built quite a few – in fact, a whole lot of them, you know.” “Yes – he built this one, didn’t he?” “Yes, after the Great Fire of London.”
“1666,” I said, remembering the hysterical Puritan father in Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, who stood in the flames of the city and laughed with a certain vindicated glee, for he had thought it would be the year of the end of the world. “Yes, indeed – the year of the devil, as they say.” “It was the year of the plague, wasn’t it?” “Yes, 1665, the year of the plague. Then 1666, the great fire.”
And I remembered what I’d read about the bubonic plague – the despair, the corpses lining the streets, how mysterious it was, how prevalent, how inescapable. It must have seemed like the end of the world, I thought. It really must have seemed like it. I imagined wooden carts on the streets below me, wheeling little hills of corpses out into the further reaches of the city, and shuddered. They didn’t know it was the fleas on the rats, I thought. They had no explanation. They fled one city, and they simply brought the horror with them. People wouldn’t receive them. The doors were barred against them. They were locked inside their own houses, a red X marked on their doors, condemned to live or die – and who knows if it was better to live than die, amongst all that rotting human flesh? It must have seemed inescapable, incurable, it must have seemed like some divine judgment – judgment on a city that did not care for its poor, that left them wallowing in dirt and filth, that abandoned them to disease with its muddied water, its stinking streets.
And then the fire. Two thirds of London was brought to the ground by the great fire. The thing is, only the fire could rid the city of the plague. Plague and fire – like divine or infernal twins, razing the city to the ground. And everything that is shoddily built, everything cobbled together of wood is consumed, is razed to the ground. But only the fire could rid the city of its great disease – the fire purifies, knocking down everything that was not built to withstand it. And the fire disinfects – it eats up the bodies, rids them of their plague. And it raged and raged, and the city went up in flames. But in due time this also fades to embers, and fear gives way to mourning. What was burned down is cleared away; those who had died are mourned. Those who survive are amazed – having stood through plague and fire, they slowly decide it is their task to rebuild. The city must rise again, like some enormous phoenix, renewing itself out of the ashes. Despite the despair, out of the dust, here is something new – a new chance to build a new vision of a city, a city that will have better fire safety, a city that has better sanitation, that will house its poor better.
And among the builders was Sir Christopher Wren, charged with planning the architecture for the new churches that would be raised. As King’s Surveyor of Works in 1669, he was personally responsible for the building of 51 churches, many of which still stand today – among them St. Paul’s Cathedral, that beautiful dome I perched on, surveying the great city I have always loved, long before I had ever seen it.
“The Germans didn’t touch it during the blitz,” said my new friend. “Even though they tried. It was a kind of miracle,” he said. “A great big dome like that. Of course it was a target. It was bombed twice, but each time it missed, or was defused.”
“And it’s your job to protect it,” I said.
“Well, mine and His,” he said, and smiled again.