Placards announce that the Beginning is Nigh; the model of an Imminent End — whether it be Resurrection or Revolution — is buried deep in the Western psyche: we hurtle forwards, perpetually about to fall off the cliff. But the end is also the beginning, and at St Paul’s they are rushing to roll the world back in deep time: stop the future, I want to get off.
First, there’s the ancient nature of this site. The top of Ludgate Hill has almost certainly been the site of the cathedral of London since the earliest decades of English (as opposed to British) Christianity, when it stood in a liminal zone between the lost kingdoms of Kent and East Anglia. And there was a cathedral for London, site unknown but very possibly here, before the Romans left Britain (as opposed to England) to self-government after a few centuries of nation-building occupation. The country promptly reverted to a pre-historic state.
So this hilltop has seen every insurgency and objection to How Things Are from Boudicca’s rebellion onwards; more than that, well before the Norman Conquest it had emerged as Paulsbury: much more than the emerging city’s sacred enclosure – bringing with it the overarching, besworded protection of the apostle most widely assigned, today, with Christianity’s revinvention as a faith of law and authority — it was the city’s premier public space, the embodiment of its community.
So until the Guildhall emerged as a centre of lay, civic power at some point in the late medieval era, and long before modern conceptions like Trafalgar Square, Speaker’s Corner or Greenham Common where even dreamt of, this is where everything happened. Here, beneath an enormous freestanding belltower, was held the Folkmoot, an informal but politically powerful institution of rough, citizen’s democracy. Here stood Paul’s Cross, where bishops and others vied to grab an open air pulpit for sometimes controversial, often game-changing preaching: Lollards preached here, Reformationists, the opposition to King John. And here where other, just as populist, but more spiritually focused and equally unique, institutions: the outdoor passage to the north transept, with its great ‘people’s cloister’, where burghers vied to be buried before the Dance of Paul’s, a collossal painted reminder that the end is nigh and all finery would imminently be dust, before making their way towards the Black Rood found miraculously washed up on a Thamesside beach, and the gloriously transgender St Uncumber, patron saint of the abused wife. Other cults celebrated here also fused the irrational, the imaginative and the inspired in equally varying ways, from the anti-Edward II Thomas of Lancaster to the putative tomb of rebel-leader London Boy Thomas Becket.
And now here they are again: bedecking the area between the west front, the north transept and the Chapter House with bunting, temporary art, a cluttered photocopy refuge of message from the inspired, the committed, the angry, the artificially intoxicated and the plain barking. As opposed to Barking. Cramming their way onto the York stone flags until the twin anti-puppies of the apocalypse, Health and Safety, run in terror before them.
A week ago, there was a buzz to all this: our curious globally overheated Indian Summer shone off the Portland facade and Grinling Gibbons swags of free bounty, the golden orb of Queen Anne and her supplicant native peoples, the half-empty shanty of freely decorated tents. People spoke in open-sided tents, announced spontaneous and creative actions from the steps, slept out on the hard stone. Nows the place is more sombre, and crawling with people from news agencies in search of voxpops. the sky is overcast, a police helicopter poises with metallic-eyed surveillance above Wren’s dome, like a hovering steel raptor; and at some point in the next few days this temporary, threatening, righteous bloomage will be washed away.
Of course all this was meant to happen in Paternoster Square. I don’t know at what point this aonze of offices left Paulsbury and became a privately owned development in the heart of the city, but the city traders based here acted swiftly when Occupy London first descended. All routes of access are sealed with crowd barriers, gaurded by police, security goons and a small army of female staff hoping to entice punters into the various high-end shops and restaurants therein, who must be losing money hand over fist. They stand there with menus, hoping to beckon passing bankers in to the empty concrete fake-Classical wasteland beyond, where a lone police car stands next to a miniature monument to the Great Fire of London.
So just how nigh is this beginning?