REMEMBERING THE ROYAL EXCHANGE

In the early days of the Eighteenth Century, after many a universal cataclysm, the British essayist Joseph Addison, writing in the May 19, 1711 issue of The Spectator, offered a bit of a paean to his fellow mortals engaged in commerce. “I am wonderfully delighted to see such a body of men thriving in their own private fortunes and at the same time promoting the public stock; or in other words, raising estates for their own families by bringing into their country whatever is wanting, and carrying out of it whatever is superfluous.”  Similar sentiments run through my mind when I see 21st Century businesses “stepping up”, as we are fond of saying, to help alleviate deprivations brought on by Covid 19 as it beleaguers The Family of Man. Sounds like capitalism at its best and most generous.

Addison’s observation was triggered by a visit to The Royal Exchange. He wrote, “(T)here is no place in the town (London) which I so much love to frequent as the Royal Exchange. It gives me a secret satisfaction, and in some measure gratifies my vanity, as I am an Englishman, to see so rich an assembly of countrymen and foreigners consulting together upon the private business of mankind, and making this metropolis a kind of emporium for the whole earth.”

Just how I feel as an American seeing Americans at their best. We are, as it happens, kind of an “emporium for the whole earth.”

The Royal Exchange, officially opened in 1571 by Elizabeth I, was a commercial marketplace founded by English merchant and financier Sir Thomas Gresham. This grand and busy hub ceased trading with the outbreak of the World War. Nothing like a global war — much like a global pandemic — to muck up the wheels of international cooperation and world markets (though, dubiously enough, war can be good for business in ways a pandemic is not).

The Exchange underwent what has been called a “sympathetic remodeling” in 2001. The grand eight-columned Pantheon-like structure in the old heart of London is, these days (according to the guidebooks) home to “an unrivaled collection of boutiques, dining places and cafes…and an exclusive retail center featuring over thirty stores selling luxurious brands.” (Though I have a niece living there, I’m ashamed to say I’ve yet to make it to the UK, so I’m dependent on those guidebooks to give me visions of the new Exchange. I’ll be many of YOU have been there.)

It’s fine to read what manner of exchange is carried on at the RE now — replacing the urgent, sometimes grim bustle of financiers, a la Wall Street, with the busy, generally happy buzz of consumers looking to their  bodily needs within personal budgetary bounds, carrying on in an iconic old structure. It’s still a scene of human beings getting along — though wary in our time of terrorists who love busy crowded places, as does a deadly virus. And I’m sure at the moment, due to pandemic concerns,  the old Royal Exchange — is royally dead. (Probably closed, but I’m not sure.)

Addison’s London had undergone a deadly plague only 46 years before he wrote those lines ( the Great London Plague of 1665). It killed an estimated 100,000 people — a quarter of London’s population at the time — in eighteen months. Like The Black Death, it was spread by infected rat fleas. Yuk!

Joseph Addison was born seven years after that horror, but did not escape early death, passing away only seven years after his particular Spectator entry at the age of 47. Life expectancy in those days was remarkably short. It should remind us all to live full, rich and productive lives before God as we are reminded daily of our mortality. ( It’s comforting to encounter that phrase “chronicles of wasted time” in Sonnet 106 by that most productive of fellows, William Shakespeare. Apparently even The Bard considered himself a slacker.)

In his busy life, busily documented, Joseph Addison wrote of the trans-cultural joy of being amid the mobs in that old Royal Exchange: “Sometimes I am jostled among a body of Armenians; sometimes I am lost in a crowd of Jews; and sometimes… in a group of Dutchmen. I am a Dane, Swede, or Frenchmen at different times, or rather fancy myself like the old philosopher who upon being asked what countryman he was replied that he was a citizen of the world.”

…a world, I’ll add, in which we must hope that every citizen, like the lamb and the lion, might one day join together — in sickness, and in health.

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