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Of War and Sanctuary

I have a backlog of things to write about like the 9 days I spent in Paris, the dark and winding road of ethics forms and engagement, but right now all I want to talk about is London.

I arrived last week to do some work with the BSA and while there’s something tremendously jaw dropping about giving a talk in a room that has a Royal Charter on the wall and books that have some 150 years worth of historical record (original, by the way) just chilling there I keep coming back to the strange and airy in between bits.

You would think that having to take transit every day I go into the office back in the US would make me tire really quickly of it, but actually it turns out to be quite the opposite. Every time I’m in a country with mass transit I get excited about taking the metro. Scotland, Ireland, France, Britain… I grab my card and top up the cash and learn all the maps. What are the line terminus names? Are these eastbound or westbound? North or South? Which lines overlap? Do some of these stop running late at night? Tap on, tap off.

There’s something oddly calming about sitting on the tube in the middle of the day, buried under layers of music and staring at the metro map above the doors, watching the clever signs blur by through each station. The even measured voice over the speaker announcing each stop in turn, still audible over my headphones, telling me which doors will open, mind the gap.

Each station has it’s own personality with the people who load and unload there. Are they young? old? high fashion? daily business persons? hipsters? Where are they going next… bags with groceries, bags with shopping. Locals? Tourists? The strange three man klezmer-esque band playing Despacito and wandering the length  train as everyone stood aside and smiled for them.

It’s an unparalleled experience, the metro. It’s the veins of the city and you become the heartbeat when you dive down into it. There’s all sorts of parables or what have you about “it’s not about the destination it’s about the journey” but I think as travelers we only take that to heart when we’re getting to the place we want to go from our home. But getting around the place is part of the adventure, part of the experience, part of the journey. Are you walking? Taking the tube? Hailing a cab? Driving yourself? It’s important – it shapes your experience of a place.

Paris would be a completely different experience from the back of a cab – one that I don’t know if I could abide… but when I was spilling in and out of art nouveau styled metro stations and walking the dusty side lanes of the Champs Elysees that even the tourists had abandoned, it created an image of the city that is irrevocably different and more intense.

In London the utilitarian aspects of the tube are almost calming and reassuring as each new stop seems to be an overwhelming mess of sensory overload. Scents, colors, the crush of people in a hurry to get to their next destination. And then there’s me with my headphones on and ambling in a daze with no exact point in mind.

It’s how I ended up on the Jubilee Walkway on Sunday. I had tried a bit of a walk about in Shoreditch but given up when the city was overrun by hipsters that didn’t seem to be doing much of anything except judging each other’s outfits and hairstyles. I wasn’t dressed for that so I popped down to the underground again and emerged at Tower Hill. I thought I should at least have a look at the bridge and castle bits to say I’d done it, hop on, hop off – head off to Westminster maybe.

What I found instead was the Jubilee Walk which takes you over the bridge and all along the south bank. What was supposed to be a short look turned into an hours long jaunt through history.

I thought my favorite parts would be the Globe theatre, the Tower Hill castle and the London Bridge. I had no expectations really of what these places might look like I just assumed this would be what I wanted to see. But it turns out that my favorite spots were the Millennium Bridge, the Tower Bridge, and the Southwark Cathedral.

Lets skip a bit though, I could dally on over the historical Tower Bridge but the Southwark Cathedral stole Sunday out from underneath me completely. I was on my way around the bend to see some of the other sights and noticed a sign for this cathedral that said “come see our stained glass” — and I thought to myself, well I rather like stained glass …. can’t hurt just to pass through.

But then I walked in and they were just starting their Choral Evensong. I was told by an usher that there were no photos during the service, but I was welcome to join. Not really thinking about the time or commitment involved here I sat down in one of the back rows and listened to the choir. I’m not much for church anyways, not religious, and I can’t really remember the last time I willingly went to a service. I think I honestly thought if I walked into a chapel I might spontaneously burst into flames because of being some kind of heretic but I was willing to risk it. As long as I didn’t partake of the transubstantiated body of Christ I figured I might be in the clear.

I was just here to observe and wait to take pictures. I didn’t expect to be wrapped so fully in the experience that I sat through the whole service, listened with a tilted head to each gospel message and shed a tear when the organ struck up at various points.

In the end I barely took any pictures because there isn’t a picture you can take that accurately describes the experience. How do you put into words what it means to sit in a cathedral that’s on a 1,000 year old place of Christian worship? How do you marshall together a single thought about sitting there and staring down the long aisle towards the altar and noticing that half the stained glass windows on one side are blown out and it occurs to you that that side of the church faced the south part of the city – the part that got bombed out in WWII?

And here you are, year of our lord 2018 listening to a message about false gods and immature leadership and idolatry just wondering … does anyone else remember?

It’s hard to be a historian and hold the memory in your heart every day of what wars did to this world – knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt the evil that ran deep in the veins of the cities that we traverse now with our faces tipped towards the future. For decades we had reminders in the form of veterans but we’re coming to a period of time where we have … so few WWII vets still alive that who is left to stand witness? The children of the war vets have their own memories but they don’t remember the Nazis, they don’t remember the bombing of London, they don’t remember the continent going dark and as planes flew low and looked for targets.

There’s shrapnel damage still in the outer walls of the church… Southwark Cathedral stood through both London fires, and through WWII – it survived. It survived so much to still be there, to still be celebrated and explored and experienced. This magnificent structure, this testament to faith, but more than that a community center that sheltered, provided salvation, it sustained.

As I sat there listening to the organ trail chords up and down, to the gentle voices of the choir soar into the Gothic rafters, I wondered what we leave behind? The bombs of today aren’t what we had in WWII… what would survive a world war now? Would we just skip the missiles and move straight to nuclear disaster? It seems bleak maybe… to contemplate the end of times, to think of war and waste and death in so beautiful a place, but where else do you think about it. The great wars of the past were never fought on American soil they were waged here, we fought right here, and the proof of that, the scars are still there. What we lack in living veterans we have in pockmarked landscapes, ruins that stand as a testament to destruction.

If there was one thing I wanted to take away from it all, it was this: I wish everyone back home understood the magnitude of war. I wish they knew what it meant first hand. Not the version that we glorify, not the canned press-friendly part. I wish they saw shrapnel in a church wall, blown out windows of a sanctuary, heard children singing in a choir and thought it was all worth never fighting over again.

Lest we forget.



MSc in SciComm and Public Engagement, science communicator, equestrian, world traveler, PhD student

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