Thinking allowed — 19 February 2019

Most of us would derive some amusement from watching a wedding cake disaster on YouTube – well as long as it wasn’t our own – but for the inspiration of the tiered wedding cake that we know today it is no laughing matter.

The extraordinary tiered spire of St. Bride’s Church just off Fleet Street was used by a local baker, a certain Mr. Rich, as the inspiration for the bridal cake design that we now take for granted. St. Bride’s didn’t get its name from the cake; the cake design copied the church spire and made the baker rich in more than just name.

Now the church spire is starting to collapse and the building has become so precarious that an appeal called INSPIRE has been formed for crucial maintenance.

Designed by Christopher Wren

The present building is probably the seventh St. Brides to stand on the site dating back to the 7th century and is one of only six churches that Wren is believed to have worked on alone: St Martin Ludgate, St Antholin Budge Row (which is now demolished), the incomparable St Stephen Walbrook, St Clement Danes, St Mary-Le-Bow and St Bride’s.

St. BridesSt. Bride’s Church’s famous spire was added in 1701-1703 and originally measured 234ft but in 1764 a lighting strike knocked off the upper 8ft.

This section was bought by the owners of Park Place, Berkshire, where it still resides.

The estate of Park Place was recently sold for a reported £140 million and also featured in the St. Trinian’s film.

Benjamin Franklin’s conductor

Presumably in an effort to stop the steeple being damaged again, the surviving spire has a lightening conductor designed and fitted by the American republican and inventor Benjamin Franklin (he was also a printer), but only after a row about whether American blunt-ended conductors or British pointed-end conductors should be used. I haven’t as yet climbed to the top to find out who won the debate.

Printer Wynkyn de Worde set up his first press beside the church and diarist Samuel Pepys was baptised there and was a regular member of the congregation. The church’s association with printing and journalism go back to the times that Fleet Street was the centre of Britain’s newspaper industry.

But where news gather Reuters former building has a sparkling clean stone frontage, St. Brides, lying just behind, stands mouldering away, with cracks appearing inside and out, with many of its lions’ heads and other grotesques high on the spire eroding almost unrecognisable and in danger of falling to the pavement.

Despite previous restoration efforts, St Bride’s has faced major problems since the Second World War. In 1940 it was almost completely destroyed by German bombs. The roof was lost, as was the original interior, and a long-sealed crypt was blown open. The bodies found there are now objects of study for the Museum of London. In the basement of the church today are the skeletons of hundreds of medieval Londoners, lying beneath the new concrete foundations.

The Fourth Estate

As the journalists’ church, St. Bride’s is a poignant reminder of the profession’s connection with Fleet Street and the importance of the Fourth Estate. An altar in the north aisle commemorates journalists who lost their lives in the line of duty.

Marie Colvin

Marie Colvin who died in the Syrian city of Homs made this speech at St. Bride’s on 10th November, 2010 on the importance of war reporting:

Your Royal Highness, ladies and gentlemen, I am honoured and humbled to be speaking to you at this service tonight to remember the journalists and their support staff who gave their lives to report from the war zones of the 21st century. I have been a war correspondent for most of my professional life. It has always been a hard calling. But the need for frontline, objective reporting has never been more compelling.

Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death, and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash. And yes, it means taking risks, not just for yourself but often for the people who work closely with you.

Despite all the videos you see from the Ministry of Defence or the Pentagon, and all the sanitised language describing smart bombs and pinpoint strikes, the scene on the ground has remained remarkably the same for hundreds of years. Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers children.

Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice. We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?

Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price. Tonight we honour the 49 journalists and support staff who were killed bringing the news to our shores. We also remember journalists around the world who have been wounded, maimed or kidnapped and held hostage for months. It has never been more dangerous to be a war correspondent, because the journalist in the combat zone has become a prime target.

I lost my eye in an ambush in the Sri Lankan civil war. I had gone to the northern Tamil area from which journalists were banned and found an unreported humanitarian disaster. As I was smuggled back across the internal border, a soldier launched a grenade at me and the shrapnel sliced into my face and chest. He knew what he was doing.

Just last week, I had a coffee in Afghanistan with a photographer friend, Joao Silva. We talked about the terror one feels and must contain when patrolling on an embed with the armed forces through fields and villages in Afghanistan … putting one foot in front of the other, steeling yourself each step for the blast. The expectation of that blast is the stuff of nightmares. Two days after our meeting, Joao stepped on a mine and lost both legs at the knee.

Many of you here must have asked yourselves, or be asking yourselves now, is it worth the cost in lives, heartbreak, loss? Can we really make a difference?

I faced that question when I was injured. In fact one paper ran a headline saying, has Marie Colvin gone too far this time? My answer then, and now, was that it is worth it.

Today in this church are friends, colleagues and families who know exactly what I am talking about, and bear the cost of those experiences, as do their families and loved ones.

Today we must also remember how important it is that news organisations continue to invest in sending us out at great cost, both financial and emotional, to cover stories.

We go to remote war zones to report what is happening. The public have a right to know what our government, and our armed forces, are doing in our name. Our mission is to speak the truth to power. We send home that first rough draft of history. We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians.

The history of our profession is one to be proud of. The first war correspondent in the modern era was William Howard Russell of the Times, who was sent to cover the Crimean conflict when a British-led coalition fought an invading Russian army.

Billy Russell, as the troops called him, created a firestorm of public indignation back home by revealing inadequate equipment, scandalous treatment of the wounded, especially when they were repatriated – does this sound familiar? – and an incompetent high command that led to the folly of the Charge of the Light Brigade. It was a breakthrough in war reporting. Until then, wars were reported by junior officers who sent back dispatches to newspapers. Billy Russell went to war with an open mind, a telescope, a notebook and a bottle of brandy. I first went to war with a typewriter, and learned to tap out a telex tape. It could take days to get from the front to a telephone or telex machine.

War reporting has changed greatly in just the last few years. Now we go to war with a satellite phone, laptop, video camera and a flak jacket. I point my satellite phone to south southwest in Afghanistan, press a button and I have filed.

In an age of 24/7 rolling news, blogs and Twitters, we are on constant call wherever we are. But war reporting is still essentially the same – someone has to go there and see what is happening. You can’t get that information without going to places where people are being shot at, and others are shooting at you. The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people be they government, military or the man on the street, will care when your file reaches the printed page, the website or the TV screen.

We do have that faith because we believe we do make a difference.

And we could not make that difference – or begin to do our job – without the fixers, drivers and translators, who face the same risks and die in appalling numbers. Today we honour them as much as the front line journalists who have died in pursuit of the truth. They have kept the faith as we who remain must continue to do.

It is a monument to a city in flux, retaining the memory of the great press men and women who once made Fleet Street a unique place. St. Bride’s must be saved. Support the appeal and preserve one of London’s greatest buildings.

To find out more about the INSPIRE! appeal or to donate, visit www.stbrides.com/inspire

Featured image: Marie Colvin by Democracy Now (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 US)

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 2nd March 2012

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(2) Readers Comments

  1. Her name is Marie Colvin

    • Thanks for pointing that out, my typo has now been corrected.

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