On Monday evening the 850-year-old Parisian cathedral which Victor Hugo described as a “symphony in stone” went on fire. Despite substantial damage the main stone structure of Notre Dame survived, as did the exquisite rose glass windows and other historic items. However, the roof and spire collapsed, and the mediaeval woodwork of the interior was completely gutted in the conflagration.
Not just France, but any number of countries regarded this as an unimaginable loss. In the Middle Ages Paris had been the epicentre of the Gothic imagination which had found its expression all over Europe, and in its latter-day incarnations has left its imprint even in the wooden public buildings of Georgetown.
As the inferno enveloped the stonework, wealthy French citizens pledged money to rebuild the iconic structure. Thousands of Parisians and others gathered in silence, many weeping while they watched disbelievingly as the symbol of France’s cultural soul was devoured by the hungry flames.
The great material heritage of older nations is regarded by their populations as a part of their cultural identity; an articulation in a manner of speaking of who they are as a people. When a loss such as that of Notre Dame occurs, therefore, it is felt as diminishing them in some real sense. And it has nothing to do with the fact that the cathedral is Catholic; the building per se is a part of the cultural inheritance of all French people, and in fact, a part of the artistic, intellectual and historical endowment of the peoples of the world as a whole. So it was too, for example, with the Sumerian and other early artefacts in the Baghdad museum during the Iraq war that the Americans so shamefully and inexcusably left unprotected, or the Bamyan Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Guyana is a very young country, and Indigenous timehri, tramen and archaeological artefacts and structures aside, it has nothing in the way of an ancient historical heritage, let alone an ancient built heritage. That should not mean, however, that we should not learn to appreciate what our forefathers created, whoever they may have been, and that we should not make their accomplishments a part of our cultural identity and pass them on to the next generation as a component of our social and historical bequest.
It might be noted, for example, that the present British Houses of Parliament is younger than our Parliament Building. With the exception of the Palace of Westminster Great Hall, the former was burnt down in 1834. In its present form it was completed in 1870, although the House of Commons received a direct hit in the Blitz in 1941, and was not reopened again until 1950. Yet there would be an outcry should anything untoward happen to the edifice now; it is the symbol of parliamentary government in the consciousness of the nation.
Our own Parliament Building was completed in 1834 and has been in continuous use since then, although Cesar Castellani’s exuberant ceiling came later. Yet one does not get the sense that the whole Guyanese nation identifies with it as a historical structure in the way the British do with their Houses of Parliament.
Guyana’s urban areas are wooden, of course, which has made them extremely vulnerable to fire, while a tropical climate imposes unusual challenges of conservation. As a consequence it may be that our built landscape has been too ephemeral, denying the population the time necessary to absorb it as an identifying element in their cultural heritage. There is speculation that Notre Dame’s fire may have been a consequence of the renovations that were being currently undertaken, and Georgetown has its own story in that regard. Its first Catholic cathedral, the beautiful wooden creation of Fr Ignatius Scholes and Cesar Castellani, was burnt down in 1913 because a workman engaged in repairing the tower spilt some coals from a coalpot and didn’t manage to retrieve them all.
But there are also stories of extreme carelessness, one of them the recent case of the pretty Sacred Heart Church, which was burnt down on Christmas Day in 2004 because a bulb was left on in a crib during a period when the electricity supply was unstable. The fire spread rapidly, arguably because the fire extinguishers were not easily to hand. One wonders if the fire brigade undertakes special inspections of buildings identified by the National Trust as official or unofficial monuments, and whether they have special practices in the case of such structures. The Parisian fire brigade does so, which may be why they were able to save the stonework, artefacts and some of the interior of Notre Dame.
But of course as mentioned above, fire is just one hazard. There is also the destructiveness of the custodians of historical buildings to consider. Most of our unique octagonal temples with their fretwork have now gone, for example, usually replaced with constructions which lack the attractiveness and creativity of their predecessors. Only one or two still remain – one of them at Providence – to remind us of the cultural responses of our forebears, who recreated their religious universe in an innovative and artistic way in an alien land. One wonders too if the second oldest shivala in the country at Woodley Park has survived. In 1975 it was given money by the National Trust to assist in its preservation; have later generations continued to honour that duty, or have they too succumbed to the temptation to rebuild?
With the exception of the public buildings which were erected in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, those who made Georgetown the most beautiful city in the British West Indies were not contractors, but skilled carpenters. Their professionalism and virtuosity had been inherited from the Winkel carpenters of Berbice, who had worked in enslavement under the Dutch. Strands of their tradition are still with us and have filtered into the pool of artisan skills, and even although their names are not known, we should appreciate what they handed down to the generations which came after them.
The matter of money is always raised when the preservation and restoration of older buildings is under consideration. Governments do not regard that as a high priority, particularly in a poor nation where there are so many other pressing demands. And in our case, there is no government which has a respectable record where the conservation of our material heritage is concerned. But the life of a society is more than just providing food and a quantum of material goods for the inhabitants; it also encompasses the spirit of a nation. It is important, therefore, to sensitise people to the cultural world which gives them their social identity, and part of that cultural world is their built artistic, aesthetic and historical inheritance, no matter to which ethnic group they belong. All of it – Indigenous, African, Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, European or whatever – has its place in the cultural soul of all Guyanese.
They owe it not just to themselves to preserve that heritage, but also to future generations and the world at large. In the end, culture is universal, as the case of Notre Dame, among others, demonstrates, and our obligation is to look after our own local expression of it for humankind.