Who doesn’t love a celebration? Who doesn’t love a roaring fire? Who doesn’t love crazy fun things of a weekend? Oh London you just give and give and give. Though 350 years ago the mother of all fires took and took and took. As all year 2 school children know, the Great Fire of London broke out in a baker’s house on Pudding Lane, on 2 September, 1666. It had been a long, hot summer and the fire embers in a left-smoldering oven all too quickly turned into something completely out of control. It was so violent, ballads written after the fact described it as a demon, that “the fire flew with flaming feet,” the prevailing wisdom being that something so destructive had to be otherworldly. Slow response from authorities (the king said a woman could piss the fire out. Charming.) and strong winds allowed the fire to rage for 4 days, until the winds abated and the fire burnt itself out. Leaving a proper trail of destruction and misery. Yet out of the ashes……came 51 new Wren churches in addition to his great masterpiece, the still iconic St Paul’s cathedral. And a fabulous excuse for some fantastic installations 350 years on. It being London, it wasn’t just a rehash of Great Fire facts, but a starting point for interesting fire-esque fun.
How do you celebrate an event that was so catastrophic at the time? By positioning it against other catastrophes perhaps, using grains of rice, in beautiful Middle Temple Hall. Of All the People in the World was a thoughtful installation of piles of rice, each grain representing one person. Stats on the Great Fire, of course, and the Great British Bake Off, not least because the Great Fire started in a baker’s shop. Brexit: votes in, votes out, and the equally large mound of those who didn’t bother. The number of current day refugees resulted in line of rice too long to photograph properly. As was the number of dead in one day at the Battle of the Somme. The number of female victims of domestic abuse in the UK in 2014 was unacceptably large. But so was the almost as large pile for the male victims. Not the equal opportunity we hope for, certainly. These were set alongside numbers from the Archers, the long running Radio 4 drama currently featuring a storyline on the subject. But these chilling facts aside, it wasn’t all depressing, state of the world stuff. I learned the number of people who have left their skull to science (1). And how many teachers Ireland could employ for a year if Google paid their tax (lots). What was the point of all of this? Not sure really, numbers in action, maybe, but I do enjoy a bit of juxtaposition in a stunning location.
The second activity was much less cerebral: a giant domino display. Starting from the Monument, the memorial built by Wren for Londoners to remember the fire that broke out nearby on Pudding Lane, breeze blocks in three routes to mimic the path of the fire were set up. And on the dot of 6 the first was given a shove. In the pouring rain. With extremely drunk 20 somethings weaving in and out of the display. Where they all came from, no one knew, but they were staggering round in packs as eager volunteers attempted to deflect them. My favourite moment was when a small group of young men, with very posh accents, began digging round in the shrubbery across from One New Change, oblivious to the crowds patiently waiting for some dominoes fun. There was a triumphal shout as one produced a 2/3 empty bottle of true plonk, now warm white wine they had clearly secreted away hours before….for reasons known only to them. It was then that they noticed the rather spectacular dominoes waiting to fall, and this startled them so much they ran off. The rest of us enjoyed a good ole self-righteous laugh at their expense. And then the blocks started to fall and we cheered and cheered. When it was all over the volunteers looked a bit glum. Because now they had to clear them all up. “Does anyone want to take some home?” one asked wearily…..well, I didn’t need to be asked twice. Heavy, wet and rather crumbly, my teenager daughter and I lugged one home each. On the Tube. Lots of stares and comments. But now they sit, at a jaunty angle, in my front room. Art! Of course it is!
That same evening, when the rain had stopped, I went along to the Tate Modern. They had transformed all the area between the river and the museum into a huge and stunning Fire Garden. If I suffered pyromania, it would have been a peek into heaven. As I don’t, I kept a respectful distance and just took loads of photos. At the same time, on the other side of the beautiful Millennium Bridge, the dome of St Paul’s was lit, as if ablaze. Simply beautiful.
Throughout the weekend, a large and intricately carved model of the medieval City of London floated on the river, just across from Gabriel’s Wharf. On the Sunday evening, this structure was set on fire and allowed to burn away, the skyline of the new, shiny, tall, 21st century City of London visible further downstream. Resurgam. Out of the ashes. London. Always.