Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Paternoster Row.

I was noodling on the internet and thinking about James Agate's laconic diary entry which I posted on my Blog yesterday. 

He posted a statement of account from his publishers, Messrs Hutchinsons, which showed that after taking account of 'bomb damage', his book had sold no copies in the previous year.

Hutchinsons, like most other major publishers, had their head offices on Paternoster Row, a busy city street in the shadow of St. Pauls Cathedral.

It had been named because the local monks chanted prayers on daily walks around their monastery, which meant that the local maze of streets eventually all had religious names.

When I used to commute to London, I walked past the cathedral every day and struggled across a vast, empty windswept square surrounded by 1960's office blocks - this was Paternoster Square.

The wind cut into you on the stillest of days and in winter it was icy cold. Just for our benefit, every December, the Police put a smashed up car in the middle of the square as an example of the perils of drink-driving.

It was a truly depressing place.

By 2003 it was completely rebuilt in the mock 18th century 'Disneyland style', favoured by architects with no imagination.

Or in this case by a Japanese real estate company. It's now the home of the London Stock exchange and a variety of merchant bankers and other thieves - it is definitely not the place to get a cheap snack.

In fact it's become 'privatised'; what was once an open space is now private. You can pass through but hanging around isn't welcomed by security.

In 2011, this was intended to be the site of 'Occupy London', which I visited and supported. However by Security, Police and injunction, the protestors were forced to set up at the entrance to St. Pauls instead.

But the story of the square starts here, on the night of the 29th and 30th December 1940 when the whole area around the cathedral was destroyed in what became known as 'The Second Fire of London'.

Clearly, the cathedral was a target and even though there were wharves and industrial buildings along the river, this may well have been the inspiration for the later 'Baedeker raids' of 1942.

This extraordinary picture was taken by Herbert Mason, chief photographer of the Daily Mail, who was 'fire-watching that night on the top of his paper's building on Fleet Street.

Clearly all the buildings around St. Pauls were destroyed; in fact the cathedral was only saved as a result of a special team of firewatchers who worked through the night, putting out the incendiaries that landed on the roof. They were determined that the cathedral, which had been destroyed in 'The Great Fire of London', would not be burnt down again in the second.
To the north of the cathedral was 'Paternoster Row', a medieval street that had once been lined with lace and cloth sellers but soon became a street of stationers, book sellers and publishers.

By the 19th century every major publisher was there and on the night of the attacks, some 5 million books went up in smoke. As Hutchinsons were there too, this probably included much of the stock of James Agate's "Speak for England", which probably wasn't really too much of a loss.

Neil Harris
(a don't stop till you drop production)
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