I imagine many people woke up this morning thinking about Notre Dame de Paris. I know I did. I was taking a break from watching the news last night, but saw a tweet by @janh1 which alerted me to the disaster. Fire is something I dread, and to see the flames leaping skywards, the black smoke moving across the spring sky, was horrific. Channel 4 news was taking calls from eye witnesses, trying to put together a picture of what was happening. The moment when the spire fell was heart wrenching. Parisiens and visitors to the city stood side by side, watching, helpless. But there is solidarity in a crowd, and at some moment someone must have started singing, and suddenly the internet was full of videos made on mobile ‘phones of the crowd en masse singing Ave Maria as Paris’ cathedral burned. It was beautiful, it was moving, it was intensely sad.
I have visited Paris a fair few times, but not in recent years, and I haven’t always gone inside the cathedral. When I woke up this morning I was remembering a visit there over thirty years ago. I was teaching French at a comprehensive school in West London. We were on a school trip, this was not a school where the pupils were widely traveled or sophisticated. One day I visited Notre Dame with a small group of girls. I have no memory now of where the other teachers or pupils were or what they were doing. We strolled through the cathedral. There was a wedding in progress in one of the chapels. One of the girls came from a southern European catholic family and compared the cathedral with others she knew in her parents’ country of origin. I had been reading a book I’d stumbled across in the library about the history of Notre Dame. We talked, shared our knowledge, stopped, looked, admired, emerged into the sunshine and I remember pointing at the gargoyles. I almost certainly bought postcards of them. It was an unexpectedly successful visit, girls who had been indifferent before we went in, now moved by the place. So I wonder if they last night or this morning, watching the footage, remembered that visit, and felt a sharp pang of sorrow and personal loss. I suspect they did.
Places like Notre Dame, while in one country, belong to all of us. When they are lost, we all lose. In the same way, the destruction in Syria has hurt all of us, though repeated bombing and loss, human suffering, has for the moment dulled our appreciation of how much those losses affect us. When the crowd sang hymns and prayers together in Paris, it made the fire a thing of unity, and as people from around the world have expressed their grief at the dreadful damage, that unity is multiplied. I’d rather unity don’t come at such a cost. But you don’t often get to choose these things.