Tuesday, February 25, 2014


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.

Monday, February 17, 2014


I thought I’d hate this book, I really did. I kept coming across reviews of it and mentions of it in Books of the Year, and it seemed like the worst kind of smug literary in-joking. It – Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life – is a collection of letters written to her sister by the nanny of the children of Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books. Mary-Kay (MK in the letters), previously married to film director Stephen Frears, lives on Gloucester Terrace, NW1, the same street as Alan Bennett,
playwright and actor, Jonathan Miller, writer and director, novelist and screenwriter Deborah Moggach, Claire Tomalin, writer, and then latterly Michael Frayn, writer and partner of Claire Tomalin. You see what I mean? A load of North London literary types scratching each other’s backs in ignorance of the rest of the world, and then repeating the experience when their chum’s book comes out.

But it’s not like that at all. The author, Nina Stibbe, comes to London from rural Leicestershire as a twenty year old, having left school at sixteen. This makes her not naive, but a wonderfully fresh and perceptive voice. She loves London, but as it is, not as an idea. She takes everyone and everything exactly as she finds them, with a provincial directness and an outsider’s clarity that cuts through any kind of pretension or literary star-worship. The characters might be striding across the pages of the TLS and the LRB in their professional lives, but here they’re discussing the relative merits of new and old potatoes when it comes to the topping for Shepherd’s Pie (old much better, as softer), bickering over who should be doing the hoovering and borrowing the neighbour’s saw and forgetting to return it. In other words, they’re living family life. Nina Stibbe makes us care about the family and all the details of their lives by noticing everything and wanting to share it all with her sister, with whom she obviously has the best kind of relationship; the one that consists of telling someone everything, great and small, of simply thinking and feeling in their sight.

Nina Stibbe, and her charges Will and Sam Frears
While she’s there, Nina decides she should get an education and takes English Literature A-Level remotely. She concludes that The Winter’s Tale has a ridiculous plot, that the Wife of Bath likes shagging and bossing men around and that Thomas Hardy was a miserable, self-important old sod who was vile to his wife. In the end, she gets an E, though she pretends to the family that she got a C (and foolishly tells a few people she got an A). None the less (this is the 80s), she gets a place at Thames Polytechnic, with all her fees paid, to study English Literature, and starts to enjoy the subject after a while. She has a teasing, competitive relationship with a helper in the Tomalin household, Mark Nunney, always referring to him as ‘Nunney’, and leaving notes for him on the windscreen of the Tomalins’ car. After a while, you realise that they are girlfriend and boyfriend, and at the end of the book you discover that they are now living in Cornwall with their kids. Nina lies quite a lot to save herself embarrassment, but she is always completely honest about the people around her.

And she gets things. She has an edgy friendship with a fellow nanny called Pippa. When Pippa switches from drinking tea to drinking coffee she is annoyed with her, because she thinks it is pretentious, and because it means she can’t drink coffee for a year for fear of seeming to be influenced. She explains this to MK, but MK doesn’t get it. ‘That’s the trouble with these writer-types,’  says Nina. ‘They understand Shakespeare and Chaucer but they don’t understand about people switching drinks and why they do it.’ She understands, though; above all, she understands family life. I kept wondering what she would make of our family if she was our nanny. Without trying to (because she doesn’t try to) she invests the ordinary and the everyday with a kind of magic, and makes you grateful for it. And I think she’s probably right about Thomas Hardy.

Monday, February 10, 2014


On a storm tossed Saturday night, with rain pounding the South and West of England and the Thames running so fast and so high rowing crews were barred from the river, I was transported to the far north of Britain, to an island at the edge of land and the edge of light.

St Peter's, Eaton Square hosted a recital by the wonderful Elysian Singers, directed by Sam Laughton. The other worldly feel began as soon as I stepped into the church. Destroyed by a fire started in 1987 by an anti-papist arsonist who mistook the classical High Anglican building for a Catholic chapel, the church was rebuilt from scratch in 1991. The arsonist may have been a blessing in disguise, as the interior now has a very welcome cleanliness, purity and intimacy, with seating clustered in circles round the altar. The stand out feature of the church, though, is the sanctuary: a simple concave area painted all in gold furnished only with a tabernacle and a lit lamp hanging from the ceiling, it draws the eye wherever you are in the building, and is a simple statement of the numinous. St Peter’s was therefore the perfect setting for a performance that combined simplicity with transcendence.  

One of the UK’s leading chamber choirs, the Elysian Singers truly live up to their name; there is something heavenly about their singing. The first half of the programme featured Scottish love songs set by the contemporary composer James MacMillan, establishing the northern theme from the start. The second half was devoted to a piece which brought together two men from Orkney, one a native and the other an incomer: the poet George Mackay Brown, and the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. It was a setting of a long poem by Mackay Brown covering the history of Orkney from its pagan Viking days, through the arrival of Christianity to the encroachments of the oil industry, and closing with an invocation of St Magnus, martyr and patron saint of Orkney. Both the music and the words spoke of the extremes of light and darkness, both literal and metaphorical, that inhabit such a northernmost point, and bring an intense clarity and simplicity. For the duration of the piece, I felt washed clean by its words and its music, taken out of the clutter and complications of London life. Stepping out into the street afterwards, where the glare of the street lamps, the orange glow of the taxi lights and the brash red of the buses all shouldered the darkness of winter aside, I felt briefly like a visitor in my own city. But then another gust of wind blew up, shaking the naked trees in the churchyard, reminding us that, with the floods moving steadily east, and getting closer to the city with every hour, London no less than Orkney can be shaped by the elements.

Monday, February 3, 2014


Fog returned to London on Friday. It was pressing its nose to the window when I woke in the morning. Cycling to work, along the Thames towpath from Richmond Bridge to Hammersmith Bridge, it cut my visibility to ten metres or less. Thick, damp, enfolding, it left my glasses streaming with moisture, and riding through it felt like continually pushing aside curtains. It seemed to rise off the river and seize the land. Traffic noises continued, but cars were invisible; the built structures of the city, from twenty first century office buildings to thousand year old churches, melted into its undifferentiating anonymity.

Dickens’s Bleak House famously opens with a crushing fog, standing for the obfuscation and corruption that has so many citizens in its grip. (‘Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.’)

But Friday morning seemed to go even further back into history. There was an almost primeval feel to the morning. Bumping along the rugged path, dodging the hanging branches, climbing over fallen trees still not removed since the October storms, I imagined London as it was discovered by the Romans: a tiny settlement carved out by the river bank, a cluster of huts, smoke from a few fires rising into the sky, while danger and darkness lurked in the endless forest beyond. Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness describes a nightmare journey up the Congo River into disease and mayhem. But it opens in London, with the hero, Kurtz, sitting on a barge at the end of the Thames, imagining the barbarism of the place before the city was built. ‘this also ...’ he says, ’has been one of the dark places of the earth.’

Then, in the afternoon, the weather broke. Torrential rain cleared away the clouds. Cycling home, every corner and crevice of my clothing, every dip and turn of the road, seemed to have turned into water. There was a relentless, inexhaustible quality to the rain; we just stood in its path, and it could sweep us away if it wanted. Mercifully, London has, as yet, escaped the floods afflicting much of the country. But Friday was a day to be humble in the face of natural forces oblivious to the cool control of civilisation.