It’s morning break at school, some time in the early 1970s. I turn to my friend and say, ‘It would have been fun to have been in the Blitz.’ ‘No it wouldn’t,’ he replies. ‘We might have been killed.’ I feel decidedly crushed, if not a little betrayed, by his prosaic response. There goes the break time game I’d had planned.
He was right, of course. It wasn’t fun living in London in the Blitz. It was bloody awful. The fact that it occurred to me as the subject of an exciting game is testimony to the ubiquitous cultural grip the Second World War had on the 1970s. It was everywhere. War movies covered the conflict battle by battle; war comics depicted plucky British chaps outwitting clumsy Germans who used a curious hybrid language never used by any actual German (‘Achtung! Donner und blitzen! Englischer schweinhund – for you ze var is over ...’). No self-respecting boy could be without a meticulously catalogued collection of plastic soldiers (the more dexterous would paint on their uniforms); no sitcom could go longer than a series without an episode in which the characters were locked in somewhere overnight and, as they shared their last bag of chips, invoked Dunkirk, the Blitz, D-Day. I can no more remember learning the major events of the Second World War than I can remember learning to speak English; it was just there. It was the period that had shaped our parents (and, by extension, those in power). Set against the colourless, drab bickering of the 70s, and the inevitable compromises and disappointments of middle age, it seemed heroic in retrospect, and they weren’t going to let go of it without a struggle.
Lately, though, I’ve been digging deeper into the rubble of that time as I research a novel I’m writing set in London during the Blitz. It went on for nine months, from September 7th 1940 to May 10th 1941, almost the length of a school year, with raids every single night, except Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. An estimated 43,500 people were killed. Shelters were not cosy places where people gathered to share a cigarette, a joke and a song; they were unfurnished, overcrowded and swimming with faeces and urine. People did not unite cheerfully in defiance knowing they were engaged in a noble struggle against the evils of Nazi anti-semitism; they bitched about the Jews taking the best places in the shelters, cheating them in shops and dodging military service. Local councils were blamed for not doing enough, and in January 1941 a well attended and popular ‘People’s Convention’ called for the overthrow of the government. We weren’t all in it together; the Savoy Hotel offered shelters more luxurious than most people’s homes, and the King and Queen escaped to Windsor Castle every night in an armoured Daimler, while houses in the East End were more prone to damage because they were so cheaply built. Rationing was resented and often evaded; crime thrived as people stripped bombed out houses of their contents, or took advantage of the blackout to settle old scores.
And yet, there was also superhuman heroism: a woman dug out clutching her dead baby after over a hundred hours under rubble; the socialist priest Fr. John Groser, who’d lost his job for supporting the General Strike, walking the streets bringing food, comfort and his wife’s cocoa to the victims of the bombing, loved everywhere; numberless Air Raid Precautions staff, despised before the Blitz as officious busybodies, now risking their lives night after night. And, yes, it was often exciting: women in particular were often liberated from their traditional roles and given real responsibility for the first time; transitory, intense relationships flourished in the half light of the burning buildings; and many people reported a paradoxical sense of euphoria at the thought that each night might be their last. One of the most telling aspects of the story is that those who coped best were those who did most for others. The best way to banish the fear was to put on a uniform and have something to do.
I’ve been reminded of all this lately by the response to the recent floods. There is the same jumble there of point-scoring, buck-passing, stoicism and heroism. None of us can know how we will respond when disasters outside our control hit us, but there is something clarifying about these events, highlighting what is important and essential. Maybe that’s why I wanted to play the Blitz at break time. Or maybe it was just an excuse to make a lot of noise in the playground.