At the end of March 2012, I went with my cousin to St Paul’s Cathedral for a service to mark the centenary of Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole. My cousin is of an adventurous disposition and had been in Antarctica, qualifying him for two tickets to the service.
He did not go in a comfy cruise ship. He went with three friends from a southerly point in South America in a small fibreglass boat made in Ipswich oinks ago. They had a rough crossing and then had to fend off ice floes that threatened to crush their hull. He earned those tickets to St Paul’s. The service was attended by descendants of members of Scott’s expedition, the Princess Royal, the Foreign Secretary (William Hague) and about 2,000 riff-raff like us.
After the service we took a cursory look around the cathedral but this week I went back for a longer visit. The bronze Scott memorial is underwhelming, everything else is magnificent. The grandeur of Wren’s baroque creation is breathtaking, only slightly diminished by a milling crowd of visitors.
The memorials lining the walls are worth more than a glance. An example is Flaxman’s sculpture depicting Nelson in his parliamentary robes. He had been created a Baron and Viscount in Britain and Duke of Bronté of the Kingdom of Sicily.
Beneath him, Britannia looks after two boys (midshipmen?) and a lion looks growly. There are many other sculptures in this vein paid for either by public subscription or at the taxpayer’s expense. Many commemorate warriors on land and sea but there are medics and artists. Quite a lot celebrate the lives of people I’d never heard of making me wonder what the qualification is for a place in St Paul’s. The structure of the Cathedral is so huge that even the giant memorial to Wellington does not dominate.
In the crypt are tombs, the two most famous and impressive of which are those of Nelson and Wellington. The former was originally intended for Cardinal Wolsey and when he fell out of royal favour was set aside until a suitable incumbent could be found. New plaques are added. The ones for Duff Cooper, Max Beerbohm and Walter de la Mere are all mentioned in Rupert Hart-Davis’s letters when he attends their unveiling. There is a plaque to a former chorister at St. Paul’s who perished in the World Trade Centre. The only person commemorated who I have met (once, briefly) is Hugh Casson.
James Lees-Milne on Saturday 14th March 1942 writes in his diary:
I walked round St Paul’s Cathedral. It was full of little brown men, Burmese or Siamese, herded by kind English drago-ladies. The ambulatory and the transepts are closed to the public, and there is a great chasm where the bomb fell in the north transept. The inner screen wherein used to be the “Si monumentum requiris circumspice” is totally destroyed. The Duke of Wellington’s ornate monument is bricked up with iron stays from one side to the other. All the sculpture covered with dust and dirt
I walked through the devastated area to the north of the cathedral. It was like wandering in Pompeii. The sun was shining warm and bright. There was not a breath stirring, only the seagulls wheeling and skirling over the ruins. Not a sound of traffic when I was in the midst of the isolation. From one spot there is waste land visible as far as the eye can roam. It was most moving. Unfortunately the ruins are not beautiful, too like scarred flesh, and as yet intoned by time.
Suitably sombre sentiments on this Good Friday.