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Writing the Blitz

Xandra Bingley

Filed under: Non-fiction

Juliet Gardiner and Laura Feigel on love and literature among the ruins

‘At least it isn’t a bomber’s moon,’ said Peter Parker on an ice-cold night as he introduced the speakers for this Roy Jenkins Memorial Meeting supported by King’s College London: Juliet Gardiner, author of Blitz: The British Under Attack, and Laura Feigel, author of The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War.

The narrative of the Blitz was 57 consecutive nights’ bombing that killed 43,000 London civilians and made half a million homeless. ARP Warden Barbara Nixon wrote in Raiders Overhead of East Enders drifting miserably westwards carrying bundles of belongings, with nowhere to rest, to get clean or to eat. On a number 38 bus a frightened, bombed-out family clambered aboard and a lady passenger moved from her seat saying loudly to the conductor, ‘People like that shouldn’t be allowed on.’

Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Henry Green, E.M. Forster and Evelyn Waugh all wrote about the Blitz – how in the extreme days and the exhaustion people acted out a new hedonism. Bowen recorded how the wicked had stayed, the good had gone, people moved in little shoals; everybody in London was in love, in the noisy nights and the unmarriedness. (‘Who are you going out with tonight darling? Is it someone you want to die with?’) E.M. Forster’s locked diary, lately published, tells of his sexual opportunities with servicemen willing to do anything for a warm bed. Illegitimate births doubled.

Laura Feigel observed that writers have a natural gift for living in the present. Graham Greene – who set The Ministry of Fear in the Blitz – wrote his diaries knowing that they would be published, while for Rose Macaulay the daily attentiveness of diary-keeping was a way to overcome fear. As the city was bombed, novelists, poets and film-makers saw aesthetic beauty in the ruins, as in Anthony Powell’s The Soldier’s Art and Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen. (Powell recorded that he got rid of half his characters in A Dance to the Music of Time by using the War.)

Juliet Gardiner read from her own book about how most mothers were deathly gay, in a daze of giving. What came through was ordinary people’s absolute exhaustion. The working classes suffered terribly because they lived by Luftwaffe targets – a factory or the docks – and public shelters were dangerous and filthy.

Mass-observation records were all the while ‘getting it down’, and citizens’ diaries had an immediacy and unpolishedness, a feeling of living in extraordinary times, like Housewife 49’s marvellous daily record of her life. John Strachey, an ARP warden, kept a diary that told of dumped bodies becoming part of the fabric of buildings, describing the hell that working people went through – people, he felt, who had very little reason to give so much for their country. W.B. Reagan, a fire warden on the Isle of Dogs, wrote diaries that, Feigel said, are as fine a piece of writing as any; never published, they are stored in the Imperial War Museum.

Blitz writing revealed the anguished voice of an immigrant, Hilda Speil, grieving in a fishmonger’s in Wimbledon, terrified and clasping her baby in the dirt of fallen buildings, listening to music to drown out sounds of bombs dropped by her countrymen and relatives. Returning to Vienna in the late 1940s as a war reporter, she recorded, ‘I feel suddenly alive seeing the Austrians in their grinding poverty.’
On 10 May l941 the Blitz was over, though no one realised. Peter Parker quoted from E.M. Forster’s London’s Burning: ‘Better get it down quick…a thousand literary masterpieces will be written.’

Xandra Bingley is the author of Bertie, May and Mrs Fish (HarperCollins)

Meeting was on 11 March 2013