We must keep faith with the metropolis: the horror of the Grenfell fire illustrates some of the defining features of a modern city

21 June 2017 | by Ben Quash

City in crisis


The shock and horror of last week’s fire in a London tower block illustrate some of the defining features of the modern city, where anonymity and co-dependence exist side by side / By Ben Quash

That great “imagineer” of London, Charles Dickens, in The Un­com­mercial Traveller, was first nauseated by, and then addicted to, the “strong kind of invisible snuff” that he found himself breathing when he visited the almost-empty City churches of London on Sunday mornings.

The dust clogging the bellows of the organ and tumbling down from the sounding board above the preacher’s head at every gust of air was, he suddenly realised, not just the dust of decayed “matting, wood, cloth, stone, iron, earth”. It was the dust, he wrote, in a phrase that was desperately difficult for me to reread this week without a very sharp pang of pain, of “dead citizens” themselves.

I used Dickens’ description last week, when, on the night after the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower, my co-editors and I launched Visualising A Sacred City, a book which looks at the way that London is in so many respects a testimony to the material influence of multiple religious traditions on its past history and present life.

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