John Bird: Memory and peace are as delicate as any old cathedral

Symbolically Notre-Dame bursts into flames at a time when so much destructive hot air has been expressed by the French president over the inadequacies that our Brexit process has thrown up

Is Paris Burning? is a film and a book about Hitler’s plans for Paris which involved a ‘scorched earth’ policy, leaving nothing behind. After the arrival of the brave men of the D-Day and subsequent landings, who were staring directly into the face of death, Hitler realised he had to give up Paris. But instead of surrendering it to the conquering Allies, he instructed his generals to burn it down. To obliterate it from the Earth.

Fortunately Hitler’s military commander General Dietrich von Choltitz did not follow orders, especially when the Resistance rose up and fought heroically. The US army was notified that Paris stood perilously near mass destruction and the race to save the city began.

I can’t have been the only person watching the appalling fall of the roof of Notre-Dame de Paris last week who could rekindle the image of that dreadful time, if only in film alone. Fortunately this time it is not the menace of madness we have to cope with but the dangers of rebuilding and protecting the old fabric. For it was during its repair that the roof became vulnerable to fire.

But it seemed to me a symbol of the vulnerability of not just our old buildings but also our not-so-old peace. That symbolically Notre-Dame bursts into flames at a time when so much destructive hot air has been expressed by the French president over the inadequacies that our Brexit process has thrown up. The kind of words that have not been used between two allies since the days when the UK was pliantly genuflecting its way into being acceptable to an increasingly strong European unit. De Gaulle, never entirely ‘forgiving’ of what was then called Great Britain for being his safe harbour in the war years, never wanted us in. It took his death to remove that monumental French obstacle.

Then President Macron recently endeavouring to score local electoral kudos by blasting our parliamentary stupidity; and then the fire, deeply symbolic of more than just itself.

I do hope we can put Notre-Dame back together; along with any long term damage done between us and our neighbours over the rollicking and rolling road we are on out of Europe.

The space of a single lifetime has seen the possibility of Notre-Dame being obliterated by a crazy German expansionism, and a peace restored to Europe, with its nations allowed to reconfigure; largely because others came from without to rescue them. Memory and peace are as delicate as any old cathedral.

I myself am what I call an ecclesiastical architectural aficianado: a lover of all holy buildings. I know Notre-Dame well, and go not just to the Eiffel Tower – in fact I have never ever been there – or Sacré-Coeur when visiting Paris. I often went to look beyond the Pompidou Centre and travelled around Paris and its neighbouring towns to see the great Chartres and Amiens cathedrals, for instance. Or the cathedral at Rouen, almost once planning to live within its medieval shadow.

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France has an immeasurable host of truly great buildings and I have seen many of them. But Notre-Dame, placed as it is on the little isle in the middle of Paris, cannot be equalled. And to see it burn conjures so many horrible images of war and bitter empire building, and torture, that I hope it makes us recoil from any of this in future times.

Wars are made by people who neglect their politics; because prosperity, out of which grows our tranquility, if shared out, is inspired as much politically as economically. The under-involved politics of recent times has led to the limited political nous of our leaders, and their seeming inability to rise above things.

You only get what you pay for, politically. Under-involvement in politics and decision making, leaving it to others, produces the flaccid world of “representational politics”. And a cowering of our true potential for engagement and political development.

We may not like to see people ramming the limitations of our current political and economic climate down our throats – viz the Extinction Rebellion – but surely they speak the truth about our political neglect of climate.

Please forgive me if you feel I have an over-exaggerated imagination but I can never seem to see a fire just as a fire, especially one so spectacularly drawing our attention to the centre of a Paris that just before my lifetime was overrun by Nazis. And the Nazis could have so wilfully done to Paris what they did to Warsaw, a city that they raised to the ground in a grand act of spite and hatred. Don’t think those human destructivenesses are not still there in the ether and in the education.

For my own peace of mind I have identified that prosperity, if guaranteed for all, is the greatest balm to be applied to the human soul. And that is why so many ‘remainers’ are recoiling over Brexit, because they can see their prosperity exiting with it.

I do hope we can put Notre-Dame back together; along with any long term damage done between us and our neighbours over the rollicking and rolling road we are on out of Europe.

And Monsieur le Président: Please sht the fck up! You only add to the damage.