How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished! —II Samuel 1:27
Item: St. George’s Chapel, Biggin Hill, Kent, Daily Mail, 4 January
“With its magnificent stained-glass windows, it stands as a fitting memorial to the Battle of Britain pilots who gave their lives to save the nation from Nazi invasion. But the ornately furnished chapel Sir Winston Churchill insisted should remain a ‘permanent shrine to the glorious Few’ is to be closed down and boarded up. Defying the wartime leader’s express wishes, defence chiefs have decreed that the £50,000-a-year cost of running St. George’s Chapel of Remembrance is an ‘inappropriate’ use of resources.”
Item: The War Office, 57 Whitehall, London, Daily Mail, 16 December
A key site during both World Wars and home to secretaries of state for war Lord Haldane, Lord Kitchener, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, the War Office has been sold to be redeveloped into a five-star hotel, residential apartments with private function rooms and a fitness facility. Built in 1906 for £1.2, million, the Grade II-listed, 580,000 sq. ft. property changed hands for £300 million. According to the Evening Standard, the buyers are Hinduja Group, chaired by S.P. Hinduja and co-chairman G.P. Hinduja, in partnership with a Obrascon Huarte Lain Desarrollos (OHLD), a Spanish industrial company.
Nowadays, everything is “iconic”—a word that should be abjured, along with “issues” (the PC substitute for “problems”) and “reaching out” (which replaces “contacting” in the Age of Niceness).
The Chicago Cubs are “iconic,” even though they lose every year. Winston Churchill is “iconic,” but there are better ways to describe him. Enough of the iconic. Every April finds us “reaching out” to the Internal Revenue Service; doesn’t mean we love them.
The demise of the War Office is unavoidable. At 580,000 square feet, it had become a costly white elephant, fiscally unsustainable. Declarations of war are out of fashion. We don’t even have War Ministries or War Departments. Nowadays, their old functions are performed by “nicer” icons like Ministries of Defence and Departments of Homeland Security. At any rate, the need for a building that big to fight the skirmishes of the 21st century is clearly past. Unless of course all hell breaks loose, in which case it won’t matter.
Full marks, then to the British government, which granted a 250-year lease on the War Office with the proviso that “the heritage and security of the building is well managed.” And to the Hinduja brothers, who “reached out” to the past by declaring: “We will make every effort to honour the heritage and restoration of this national monument, elevate its status and reconnect it with the public.” (The building has long been closed to the public; the Hindujas vow to open it again.)
The loss of St. George’s Chapel would be indefensible. Biggin Hill is the “iconic” (er, immortal) site where the Royal Air Force sallied forth to beat the “Hun raiders” (as Churchill called them) out of the daylight air and win the Battle of Britain.
£50,000 a year is a trifle for governments which waste that much every hour. St. George’s does not stand on invaluable real estate; it is not needed for a fitness center. Surely a charitable enterprise could be funded to prevent the ignominy of it being boarded up?
I do not share the Respectable Tendency toward smarmy expressions of “support for the troops,” even what some of those who cheer say are inappropriate battles. (Times have changed: I wore the uniform when we were compared in public to baby-killers.) Cynics may wonder why the armed service that lays more lives per capita on the line than all the others every day, the police, is not similarly worshipped, instead of excoriated.
But the fliers of the RAF, who rose to confront a seemingly invincible enemy in 1940, saved Britain, and much else besides. They “held the fort alone,” as Churchill put it—”till those who hitherto had been half blind were half ready.”
They deserve their remembrance at Biggin Hill.