Crowds on the streets in bloodied pyjamas. Buildings sliced through by high explosive, their contents surreally rearranged. The “mean little stink” of domestic gas as the firemen arrived. Clocks shocked into stillness.
The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War
by Lara Feigel
Bloomsbury, 519pp, £25
For a while, the London of the Blitz seemed – at least to those caught up in it – to exist in its own timeless world. The rest of the world – the Germans getting their grips into Romania, Quisling setting up government in Norway, even the convoys making their way east across the Atlantic – were part of the same struggle but it didn’t seem to matter quite so much. How could it, compared to the Nazis’ existential threat, “the nightly routine of sirens, barrage, the probing raider, the unmistakable engine (Where are you? Where are you? Where are you?), the bomb-bursts moving nearer then moving away, hold one like a love-charm”?
That last sentence is Graham Greene’s, and of all the five writers Lara Feigel concentrates on in this excellent group biography, he was the most easily seduced by the love-charm of bombs. Yet wartime London was the closest any of her other four – Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Henry Yorke and Austrian-born writer Hilde Spiel – had come to death too.
They weren’t a clear group, differed widely in age and background, and they didn’t all know each other. Yet as the phoney war turned real with the kind of sudden twist that could wipe out 100,000 houses in a night, as the skies above London became a battleground and its streets became full of the dust of pulverised buildings, their own stories started to count. To Feigel, they are the equivalents of the soldier poets of the First World War, not just witnesses but – as firefighters, ambulance drivers and air raid wardens – participants in an even more dramatic conflict.
More dramatic? Yes – and for two reasons. First, because this was recognisably our world that was being pulled apart, not a field in Flanders but a modern city, where traffic lights were covered by metal plates with three small crosses in them for the light to get through, where shoppers at night would bump into each other in the blackout, or trip up over sandbags or be hit by cars whose headlights were reduced to two small horizontal slits. These were our streets, these were our roofs that incendiaries – a thousand per bomber – clattered down on like so many tin cans. And those bombs fell everywhere – just look at bombsight.org to see how completely they carpeted London.
Secondly, because they were people like us too – not an all-male army stuck in trenches but civilians suddenly no longer thinking of the future but living for the present. On the Tube, people looked each other directly in the eye. Class consciousness waned. “We have almost stopped talking about Democracy,” wrote Elizabeth Bowen, “because for the first time we are a democracy.” One has to be careful about accepting such statements unreservedly – Bowen, for example was an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who didn’t particularly like democracy when the people made their choice at the polling booths in 1945 – but she was undoubtedly right in one respect: war intensified life, and enhanced romance. “It came to be rumoured,” she later wrote, “that everyone in London was in love.”
In 1942, she certainly was (not with her husband but a Canadian diplomat she loved until her death in 1973). So, for the first time, was Graham Greene, though it wasn’t his wife of 13 years or his mistress Dorothy Glover, who often accompanied him on his rounds as an air raid warden, but a love of the proximity of danger. So too, in admittedly a more diffident way, was Henry Yorke (writing as Henry Green), who was then working as an auxiliary fireman. All of them wrote the war – and their affairs – into their fiction, The Heat of the Day and The End of the Affair being the most famous examples, although Green’s Caught makes the connection clearest of all, opening with a character reflecting on the allure of servicemen. “War, she thought, was sex.”
It wasn’t – or not completely. War was also destruction – although again, not as complete a destruction as the British in their turn rained on the Germans later in the war, when in three nights over Hamburg in 1943 they killed almost as many people as died in the entire Blitz. (In fairness to the wartime British, mass bombing of German cities was never a hugely popular policy, and there were campaigns against it).
Feigel’s two other writers offer a useful corrective to any hint of Blitz nostalgia. On 11 May 1941, Rose Macaulay returned from sorting out the clothes of her dead sister (cancer, not war) to find that her flat had been destroyed. The love letters from the married man who was her companion of the last 20 years and who was now dying in hospital (again, illness not war) had all gone in the flames. That’s the point about war: there’s no time to recover from ordinary tragedies; even if you are rebuilding your own life, yet more destruction will pour down, randomly and remorselessly, from the skies. In the “Little Blitz” of 1944, this happens to Hilde Spiel: there she is one morning in Wimbledon writing a novel about war when a stick of bombs wipes out the pensioners’ home across the road from her, killing 25.
After the war, London became drab and dull again, and Feigel’s five writers all left it and tried to find echoes elsewhere of the intensity of their wartime love affairs. Rose Macaulay buried her grief in travel, Greene found a hint of wartime London’s dangerous allure in post-war Vienna while working on The Third Man, and Elizabeth Bowen retreated to her Irish home in Count Cork.
Of them all, she was the one who best described what it was like to live through wartime London, and her prose, both pithy and wonderfully descriptive, lights up Feigel’s book. Towards the end of her life, a new generation of historians led by Angus Calder was beginning to question some of the “Blitz myths”. You had to have been there, she said. “Existence during the war had a mythical intensity.”
On VE Day, when the searchlights danced across the skies in celebration, Bowen and her husband walked the streets that she once used to patrol in the dark. They came across Marylebone Town Hall, floodlit. “To Elizabeth,” notes Feigel, “it looked so much like a building in heaven that she burst into tears.”