When in London I often work in the London Library – now transformed from a peaceful haven for shuffling scholars into a buzzing hub for twentysomething freelancers – and have coffee breaks in a nearby café. I have been following this routine for decades, and the café has always been there, though it has gone through various changes of franchise. Part of its charm, or character, is that the outside tables are on the flagstones of a churchyard, shaded by a grove of lofty plane trees, which on certain weekdays becomes something more like a souk. On the whole, though, the place gives off a sense of immemorial English settledness and calm.
Such an impression is, of course, partially misleading. On October 14 1940 the peace of the churchyard was disturbed when, in the heaviest raid of the Blitz up to that point, 380 Luftwaffe bombers unleashed devastation on London, and high explosives and incendiary bombs turned Wren’s exquisite St James’s Church, Piccadilly, beneath whose tower my café tables are placed, into a smouldering ruin. In the words of Helena Lambert, “fire gutted the interior, and little was left of the roof beyond a few charred beams. The steeple crashed, destroying the smaller of the two bells.”
Most tourists and visitors probably don’t know that the peaceful space they are wandering through, perhaps buying costume jewellery or excellent South American street food, was once, not all that long ago, transformed into one of the circles of hell, as brick, stone, mortar and plaster collapsed. The wooden pews and stalls went up in flames like so much kindling, though not the exquisite reredos carved by Grinling Gibbons, which had been protected by sandbags.
The church, including its superb plaster ceiling designed by Wren, has been expertly restored and looks good again. Perhaps not many visitors to the church or café notice a stone plaque set into the porch wall that reads as follows: “This church, built by Sir Christopher Wren, consecrated on July 13 1684, damaged by enemy action on October 14 1940, was rededicated by William, Bishop of London on June 19 1954.” The stone, with a peculiarly English combination of reticence and pride, carries the names of AE Richardson, architect for the reconstruction, Charles E Lambert, rector 1922-April 1954, and Geoffrey Bostock and Janet Scrutton, churchwardens.
The month and date April 1954 betray the fact that Charles Lambert, the third-longest serving rector of the church in the previous 270 years, died in his sleep on the morning of April 1 1954, a couple of months before the church was rededicated. A touching tribute was paid by the churchwarden Geoffrey Bostock in the parish magazine: “In [this] terrible desolation our rector did not lose heart but bent his energies on keeping the congregation together, first by services in St Peter’s, Great Windmill Street, and then, as soon as repairs could be carried out, by using the south aisle of the church.”
In fact, as Lambert’s widow records in her history, “the voice of worship was silenced for only six months”. Lunch-hour music recitals, a feature of St James’s from prewar times and still continuing, resumed in 1943. The musical tradition of the church, with its splendid 17th-century organ, which was saved from the worst of the blaze, was always strong, counting Leopold Stokowski among its organists.
I tell this story at length partly to remind myself not to take for granted the English peacefulness and calm of my London working haunts – including the London Library itself, which lost 16,000 volumes as a result of bombing in February 1944. Three or four years ago at the Salzburg Festival I talked to a young arts journalist from the Czech Republic who seemed to find my idea of the European Union as a bastion against conflict and war in Europe rather quaint. “People of my generation don’t think much about that – it is too long ago,” she told me.
I am not sure whether she would be revising her view now, as the annexation of part of a sovereign nation on the fringes of Europe by another nation has taken place, with only the limpest of objections from European leaders. Someone a generation older, who had witnessed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, would perhaps be less blasé.
Wars and annexations seem much less likely to happen within a union of nations dedicated to peaceful co-operation and mutual prosperity. But such pious sentiments and hopes are being undermined not so much from without as from within. Throughout Europe the mood seems tetchy, fissiparous, unco-operative, even xenophobic. Spanish-speakers I know in Catalonia feel discriminated against as Castilian is increasingly marginalised in schools. Even in Scotland I do not think it impossible that excessive nationalistic fervour could lead to ugly results.
Writing these words at my table in the café, I offer two seats to an elderly German couple. I am glad they are here, sitting in peace as I am.
More columns at ft.com/eyres