WHAT would you do if your beloved church caught fire? Would you instantly transform into heroic-action mode (decades ago, a friend of mine in such circumstances dashed into the flames to save, at all cost, the Blessed Sacrament), directing operations, calming and supporting everyone? Or would the shock root you to the spot and remove all hope of thinking clearly, making you more a liability than a help?
I regret that I’m sure to which of these categories I would belong; and so, alas, if we can believe The Night Notre-Dame Burned: Storyville (BBC4, Monday of last week) (News, 18 April 2019), was the cathedral’s Rector. But, in striking confirmation of the fact that Christ’s Church is so often best served by those other than his chosen ministers, heroic competence was, that terrible night, in abundant supply — from the fire brigade, the Paris pompiers.
This remarkable documentary by the film-making Naudet brothers used footage from helmet cameras and personal testimony to take us the very heart of the action: to feel the disbelief that such a thing could actually be taking place; incomprehension that the fire could spread with such speed; and the terror of creeping forward, laden with equipment, through tiny spaces, unable to see through the smoke what was happening, unsure whether your hope of retreat had already been cut off.
All unworthy stereotypes of French culture were utterly trounced: these firefighters spoke modestly and lucidly, reflecting with philosophical analysis and poetic metaphor on what, by immediate and decisive courage, they had achieved. We saw also — this was particularly moving — the profound moral dilemmas of those controlling the action from the ground: as the danger grew and grew, should they insist that the crews draw back to save their lives, or continue, at potentially appalling cost, with the struggle?
It was additionally impressive that the President himself, M. Macron, was present and engaging in that decision. When, finally, in the small hours, it became clear that the fire had been contained and Notre-Dame saved, the exhausted and traumatised crews returned to base. The next morning, an inspection was scheduled; so, rather than stagger immediately into bed, they stayed up until 6 a.m., cleaning and polishing every piece of kit until it gleamed and sparkled, as though nothing unusual had happened.
Human behaviour at its opposite extreme — vicious self-centredness; ritual humiliation of the weak; sexual, class, and colour prejudice flaunted; and absolute determination to succeed at whatever cost to others — is all on display, splendidly realised and entertainingly presented, in the new drama series Industry (BBC2, Tuesdays).
I don’t know whether this is an accurate depiction of London investment banking, but there is an authenticity about how our species can so easily allow a goal — here, to make as much money as possible — to overwhelm every basic virtue.