Of course the first thing I looked for was the fire watch stone.
Connie Willis’s novella Fire Watch, which takes place in Saint Paul’s during the Blitz, has been my favorite short story for years now. Finally visiting Saint Paul’s provided a strange combination of fiction and history to explore, given that most of the characters in the story actually existed; after much searching I finally found Dean Matthew’s memorial stone in the Crypt, and the fire watch stone is real, which I hadn’t been completely sure of. Looking at it gave me a weird sense of reality slipping, just slightly.
Saint Paul’s has been a prominent feature of the London skyline since its creation by Wren, so it was intensely targeted during the Blitz, especially during the night of December 29th, 1940, when thousands of bombs fell on London and the whole City went up around it. Murrow reported in a live radio broadcast, “The church that means the most to London is gone. Saint Paul’s Cathedral is burning to the ground as I talk to you now.” He was wrong. The next morning it still stood above the rubble, thanks to the courage and commitment of the volunteer fire watch who stood on its roof every night of the Blitz after the sirens had gone, putting out incendiary bombs that would have burned the wooden dome and crumpled the entire structure. I climbed all those steps to the top of the dome, and it’s vertigo-inducing even without knowing that the Luftwaffe are explicitly aiming at the structure under your feet. But the fire watch stood there, night after night, and Saint Paul’s stunning survival became a symbol of British defiance. The image of the cathedral rising above the smoke as its entire neighborhood burned became a defining image of the war and provided a critical boost to morale in the darkest days of the Blitz.
I’m really not sure what it is about time travel literature that viscerally connects me to history, but discovering that has opened up the past. I was always vaguely interested in certain bits, but a lot of history is thrown at you as major political events and battles won, especially when you have a younger brother who’s really into WWII tanks and civil war munitions. It never resonated with me. Risk is a boring game. But history as a place I could go? As events happening to families who love each other, to students, to the cowardly and the paranoid and the innocent and the corrupt? That’s not dry. Imagine how you — actually you, not some abstract historical figure — would feel in an air raid shelter as the walls shudder. Imagine experiencing history while knowing its context. That’s not dates and exploded diagrams of machine guns, that’s people, that’s what they did about birth control and how they got up in the morning when their son was in a trench in Pas-de-Calais, it’s civilians standing on the roof of the biggest target in the City of London as eight other Wren churches around it burn to the ground. It’s using the most extraordinary circumstances to explore how humanity actually behaves. Experimental literature, if you will.
Sources: Photography is not allowed inside the church, so the second image above is borrowed from here. That’s also why the photo of the fire watch stone is blurry — I had to sneak it on my phone, but I’ve been looking for it online for years, so I knew it wasn’t available. The incredible image from the Blitz is by Herbert Mason, and found via this shockingly good Daily Mail article (I know!). The last image is a two-color plate lithograph from about two years ago, when I traced a detailed image of the cathedral. It was disorienting and stunning to see in person the architectural details that I’d memorized, to find the same viewpoint from the Whispering Gallery, and to walk on all those damned black and white tiles. I got a bit of vertigo when I first came out from the stairs and looked down, and my brain tried to align the images in my head and my eyes.