London’s Burning: Our Red-Hot Tradition

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london fire

For a city so often associated with grey skies and rain, London sure burns easy. You don’t know just how easy until you start looking at the facts. Its Roman incarnation, Londinium, was razed to the ground in AD 60 and AD 125, creating what archaeologists call a “fire destruction horizon”. Under the reign of the Normans, St Paul’s Cathedral blazed into ash. It has caught fire another three times at least. London continued to burn, bursting alight in 764, 798, 852, 893, 961, 982, 1077, 1087, 1093, 1132, 1136, 1203, 1212, 1220 and 1227. R.S. Fitter, writing London’s Natural History noted that, “The constant laying to waste of large areas of the city must have made the aspect of medieval London often a good deal more like the blitzed London of 1945 than most people realise”.

The march of time did nothing to quiet the flames. In the mere nine years between 1833 to 1841 there were 5,000 fires, “yielding an average of 556 per annum, or about three in two days”. In 1993, the Greater London region recorded 46,000 fires that had struck up in outside locations or public spaces, along with 215 chimney fires. The Houses of Parliament, London Bridge, the Royal Exchange and Guildhall have all been reduced to dust at one time or another. There was the Great Fire of London (Pepys’ “bow of flame”) in 1666, and the Second Great Fire of London during the Blitz. There were ersatz fires, like the decimation of Crystal Palace, the 990,000-square-foot exhibition hall built in 1850, a beauty of glass and cast iron, with an interior height of 128 feet (39m), which was rubbed off our horizon with a blaze so tall it could be seen from eight British counties.

Equally crazy were the many underground fires, prompted by the city’s prolific taste for wooden escalators and the population’s prolific taste for smoking on transport. One nasty little inferno in 1987 was started by a dropped match on a platform of Kings Cross tube and killed 31 people. Then there are incidents that feel closer, more harrowing, like Grenfell Tower. London has been burnt by accident, by arson and by the IRA. We even have our own nursery rhyme for the occasion, called (surprise, surprise) London’s Burning.

One might be tempted to argue that the sheer length of London’s history is to blame. A city that has stood for several millennia is bound to have more fires than a younger model, like New York. Not so, I’m afraid. Paris has never burnt as frequently or as ferociously as London – no European city has. Nor has any single place in the New World. A piece in the 1897 Scientific American smugly tells us, “The average fire loss in London in a year is $6,000,000, whereas the average loss from fires for the city of New York has been so steadily reduced in late years that it only amounts to about $3,500,000”. They were already better at damage control.

Has London’s been an attitude of negligence? True, Grenfell was negligence. But the Great Fire of London started accidentally in a bakery and spread quickly due to a summer of droughts which left the thatches and timber of buildings as dry as, well, kindling. Bad luck? Sure, but how much of it can one place have?! Yet if London has been overcast with some devilish Conflagration Curse, then why the fetishistic aggrandizement of fire? Why are people fighting to get into the Chiltern Firehouse, the hotel and restaurant converted from a decommissioned fire station into that sultry preserve of socialites and the moneyed class? Given our fiery history, shouldn’t it be tasteless, not voguish? And why was an anthology of lamenting poetry published in the wake of the Great Fire titled London in Flames, London in Glory? I think we can all agree that “glory” is a maniacally inappropriate word for a disaster that left 70,000 homeless. (Especially when you learn the entire population was 80,000 at the time.)

I appear no closer to the mystery of London’s flammability, so let’s take a moment. Let’s picture London alight. The most fantastical descriptions are those of the Great Fire: “The smoke stretched for fifty miles, so that those leaving the city could travel for hours in its shadow”, take this darkness, combined with redness. The Thames was showered continuously by “fiery drops”, the molten lead from the roof of St Paul’s “ran through the streets”. The ground was too hot to walk upon, the bars of prison cells melted and any water left in fountains boiled endlessly, fiendishly. London’s nickname became the “Great Oven”, Mirbeau called it a “furnace”, Machen went further still, “all the fires of London reflected dimly in the sky, as if far away awful furnace doors were open.” In the 1920s writer V.S. Pritchett confessed to feeling “smoked and kippered” in our turbulent city.

Looking at this vision of London – the scorching, scarlet death-trap – it’s hard not to compare it to hell, nor am I the first to do so. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “Hell is a city much like London”. No need to decipher hidden meanings there. But what does this say about Londoners? Who, exactly, takes up voluntary residence in hell? Well, according to a visiting Frenchman in 1880, Londoners are “fire-worshippers” and London itself our “temple”. In one of Nesbit’s novels, the fires fuel “the sacrificial alter of London”. And though it’s difficult to imagine the stiff lipped British as pagan zealots, early firemen called “watchers” were praised for “their liveliness and devilry”, and other sources discuss desensitised crowds who wandered excitedly up and down burning streets at night. Even John Evelyn, writing of the Great Fire penned the curious phrase, “roaring noise by the fall of so many houses together, that was very amazing.”

Just imagine London as a bubbling inferno, erupting constantly in ever-smoking conflagrations, a mighty pyre around which Londoners dance, revering and reviling in it. Quite the vision. Yes, the thought of London glowing, like a lit cigarette in the night, for over 2 thousand years is a heady one. So, what can this relentless bonfire mean? Perhaps the devil really is here, alive, roaring up and down our streets. It feels that way sometimes.

But let us not forget, whatever the root of London’s red-hot tradition, when something is demolished, there is a chance to rebuild. After the Great Fire, people started anew. Charles II issued a decree that future buildings had to be brick or stone in a bid to guarantee his subjects future safety; Christopher Wren had his chance to fill our skyline with his magnificence; and the vitality of the populace asserted itself by rebuilding 1200 homes in a mere two years. One more thing happened. A blanket of yellow-flowering plants proliferated across the ruins. The fire flower is a wild tradition; pyrogenic flowering plants thrive after fires because all competition has been destroyed. Our version, the London Rocket, grew “abundantly” over the damaged capital. A chance to do better is always a welcome one. Far from fire-worshippers, slaves to the furnace, shackled to a city that can feel choking and perilous in so many ways, Londoners gain strength from disaster, seizing the chance to grow, just like London Rockets.

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