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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Julian! Loved this article. My Dad had such fond memories of the blitz! He loved moving into his Aunt Ida's big house with the extended Turner family. Told hair raising tales of climbing up onto the roof with his cousin (and sandwiches) to watch to watch a 'dogfight' between Messerschmitts and Spitfires overhead. He was an RAF cadet and would turn up at the local airfield to diligently polish the noses of the planes to make them go faster - kind of like shaving your legs if you are a racing cyclist! Granted he was too young to take an active part in the war and his memories were certainly enhanced by Colonel Bogey and The Bridge Over the River Kwai. But he told me when England won the World Cup in the 60s that he had felt such a strong sense of patriotism in that moment that was akin to the war days. One of my last memories of Roy was on his 81st birthday standing in front of a Spitfire on display at the Seattle Museum of Flight. It was a true Biggles moment, all the other fighter planes of that time he said simply didn't measure up.

    For my generation, raised on the Great Escape, more relevant war films were from the U.S. Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, depicting the inglorious US war in Vietnam. I think perhaps there was a tremendous sense in my father's generation that WW2 was simply a matter of good v. evil...it is still thought of that way. The US movie The Monuments Men does exactly that, rekindles the old belief that the allied forces were pitted against the Dark Empire!