Motley Notes | Ian Jack | Granta

Motley Notes

Ian Jack

Generalisations about the national psyche – supposing there is one – must always be treated with suspicion. In 1997, the great crowds who mourned the death of the Princess of Wales with their tears, flowers and candles were taken as evidence that British behaviour had utterly changed. We were at last in touch with our feelings, prepared to show them, to hug strangers, to weep and tear our hair. We would never be the same again. Eight years later, in July this year, our alleged conversion to the open emotions of (say) Brazil had been forgotten. The traditional strengths of stoicism, resilience and understatement hadn’t, after all, died with the princess in her Paris car crash. They were merely sleeping, to spring awake when three terrorist bombs went off in London tube trains and a fourth on a London bus, killing (as I write – the toll may rise) fifty-six people and injuring hundreds of others. London’s response to the bombs showed what Londoners were made of; we would be cheerful, we would not be cowed, we would carry on as usual. We showed ‘the spirit of London’, the same spirit of our citizen forebears during their bombing by the Luftwaffe – ‘the Blitz’ – in 1940 and 1941.

How such conclusions are reached, from what evidence, it is always difficult to know, but on 7 July they were reached very quickly, perhaps with the understanding that the wish can be father to the fact. Speeches by politicians, messages to websites, pieces to camera by television reporters, columnists in the next day’s newspapers – all of them spoke of the calm and quiet resolution of Londoners. One commentator daringly ascribed it to the domestic, unthreatening scale of London’s architecture; many others saw it exemplified by the sight of hundreds of thousands of Londoners walking quietly home that evening in the complete absence of buses and tubes (and those crowded pavements of one-way human traffic certainly were a striking sight, unknown even in the Blitz, though caused by pure necessity rather than feelings of communal solidarity).

For the sociological record, my own very commonplace experience was this. That morning I got to the bus stop much later than usual, around 10.30. For that time of day there was a surprisingly big crowd – the orderly London bus queue disintegrated years ago – and very few buses, all of them full. My mobile phone wouldn’t work. I got a taxi and the driver pushed his window back and asked me if I had heard the news, and I thought for a second that the Queen must have died, and then he told me about the bombs – three or four buses hit, an unknown number of tubes, no casualty figures, lots of rumour. ‘I’d fucking hang the fuckers, no questions asked,’ he said. ‘I’d fucking hang them, whoever did it.’ Even for a man in an England football shirt, he was an exceptional swearer and ranter and I was glad to step out of his cab. In the office, people were listening to the radio and looking at the BBC website. On a landline – the mobile phone networks were still jammed – I checked that my wife and children were safe at work and in school. They had no reason to be on the number 30 bus or on the Piccadilly or Circle lines, but we use all of them sometimes and their routes and stations are very close; King’s Cross under a mile away. And then I worked as usual and in the evening walked home to watch the continuous news on television, following the same pattern the next day. Many kind emails arrived hoping that we were safe and well. It was only then, perhaps, that I understood that seen from far away (Tel Aviv, Delhi, New York) I was at the centre rather than the fringe of a global drama. On Friday night, my wife told me of the passenger on the number 30 who, before he got impatient with the bus’s slow progress and got off, had noticed a young man next to him who kept fiddling with something in his backpack. I had a nightmare in which I saw a similar thing but couldn’t leave the bus. Then, in Saturday’s newspaper, I read an account of one policeman’s experience working underground in the narrow tunnel of the Piccadilly line, in the carriage where so many had died. Blood, oppressive heat, a multitude of body parts (the blast had nowhere to go). When the policeman reached the surface after his day’s brave work he said that he had felt ‘lonelier than I thought was possible’. I nearly cried at that, and for most of the day I felt sad and fearful, ‘unhinged’ might be the word. The attack on London had inevitably come; others would follow – would they ever end? – and, much though I like London (my home for thirty-five adult years), there are safer places to live.

The mood passed. The next day, Sunday, I took a friend from Chicago who is interested in railways to have a look at the civil engineering works at St Pancras station, where the new fast line to Paris will start, stopping on its way at the site for the London Olympics in 2012, which were announced the day before the bombs. We walked around new embankments and looked at the cranes and the earth-movers. A forgotten swathe of London, once occupied by freight yards and more recently by crack addicts, is being redeveloped and spruced up. This is London as an advertising agency might see it – confident, multicultural, new and yet old, the fancy Victorian gothic of the old terminus surviving among undecorated concrete and glass. Then, more or less by accident, my friend and I got to King’s Cross. Outside the station, relatives had pinned up pictures of men and women who could only be described as ‘missing’ because they were not yet confirmed dead. There were flowers, messages of support, and television crews. It was a hot, sunny day. As we stood on the pavement across the road, I realized that no more than a hundred feet or so under my feet, men were still working in the tunnel to retrieve pieces of the bomb, and of the tissue and bone of the people, the ex-people, whose friends and relatives hoped against hope were still alive.

How can we bear such a thought, such proximity? I don’t know, but we do. Later in the day my children passed though King’s Cross on the Victoria tube and were interested to see that the train slowed at the station but didn’t stop. Nothing much more was said about it.

In this, there is nothing special about London. New York, Madrid, Jerusalem, Baghdad; people there have suffered equal (or far greater) terrors and carried on. That London has a special spirit must be a myth. But myths can be helpful – their point isn’t their trueness – and to imagine that you are part of some resilient tradition – that you are resilient simply because of where you live – may help rather than harm you, so long as you don’t buy it completely, remembering that you are only flesh and blood.

The myth came out of the last months of 1940. Just like this year’s terrorist attack, the German bombing of London had been long awaited, and with an even greater fatalism. As the historian and anthropologist Tom Harrisson wrote thirty-five years later, ‘The idea that attack from overhead would become the final, totally devastating stage in coming wars grew [to] near-obsession – comparable, say, to the one-time belief of strict Christian sects in a burning hell for the unredeemed.’ The first big raid occurred on ‘Black Saturday’, September 7, a fine day towards the end of a fine summer. Another writer, Ritchie Calder, watched it from his garden on the Surrey Downs ‘with a detachment which surprised and rather shocked me’ – until the sight of London, apparently on fire from end to end, filled him with ‘dread and horror’. As more German planes came in from the coast, the family (they had been playing cricket) took a break for tea. ‘How silly that sounds! How callous and inconsequential! Yet how much in keeping with the strange unreality of it all!’

Calder wrote that in a small book, The Lesson of London, published in 1941 as one of a series called the Searchlight Books, which were edited by T. R. Fyvel and George Orwell and also included Orwell’s famous essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’. Calder ‘s book is very good – a mixture of eyewitness reporting from ruined east London and a castigation of poor planning by the authorities – and in it he notes that ‘the old standards of courage disappeared in the common and unconscious heroism of ordinary individuals’, often meaning people who did no more than continue to come to work. Very early on in the war the celebration of quiet ‘ordinariness’ became a dominant theme – the thinking British patriot’s weapon of choice – which was a kind of miracle given that Britain then was a most class-conscious country with the largest empire the world had ever seen, and quite literally pompous. But it was lucky in its writers, its radio-producers and its film-makers, men such as Harrisson, Calder, Orwell, and Humphrey Jennings who had in the 1930s made journeys from backgrounds of relative privilege to discover and document the working class. Their commitment to a certain demotic idea of Britain, at war or at peace, gave British propaganda (or at least Britain’s advertisements for its cause) the ring of modest truth, and an appeal to the egalitarian instincts of Roosevelt’s America.

The key contribution was made by Humphrey Jennings and another documentary director, Harry Watt, in a ten-minute film called for foreign audiences, London Can Take It, and for British audiences, Britain Can Take It (presumably to prevent resentment of the capital in other British cities which were also being bombed). As Kevin Jackson writes in his biography of Jennings, the film was ‘perhaps the most influential work he ever made – one of the few films that have played some small part in changing the course of history’. It was shot in September, 1940, soon after the night bombing started and when the outcome of both the Blitz and the war was far from clear. The British army had been evacuated from Dunkirk only months before; France was occupied; the Soviet Union and the United States still non-combatants. In Britain, a terrorized population and defeat were strong possibilities, though not ones countenanced by London Can Take It. The film showed ordinary people coping – old people asleep in air-raid shelters, a woman kicking broken glass aside as she collects milk from the doorstep, commuters continuing to commute across the rubble – as on the soundtrack the American journalist and broadcaster, Quentin Reynolds, delivers his fiercely optimistic commentary. ‘I am a neutral reporter. I have watched the people of London live and die .  .  . I can assure you, there is no panic, no fear, no despair in London town.’

It was finished in ten days, and Reynolds took it immediately to the United States, where a special screening was arranged for Roosevelt. Soon afterwards – by October 25 – it had taken enough at the American box office to be judged ‘a wild success’ by the British Ministry of Information. ‘The Spirit of the Blitz’ had been born.

The film was not untrue to its subject; many diaries and records from the period attest to a remarkably matter-of-fact reaction to being bombed. But like any piece of art it was highly selective in its truths: no body parts, no grief in a city where, between September 1940 and May 1941, about 20,000 civilians died from the detonation of 18,800 tons of high explosives dropped from above.

Other British towns did not react so stoically. After severe raids on Plymouth and Clydebank, smaller targets than London where the effects of bombing were more obvious, many in their populations (from bombed-out homes and otherwise) took to camping in the nearby hills. And it is also fair to wonder how long London would have continued to ‘take it’ had the bombing gone on at the rate of the first few months. A film called ‘Dresden Can Take It’ would seem unlikely, though ‘Fallujah Can Take It’ must never be ruled out.

About a mile away from my house there is a cemetery, the Abney Park Cemetery, which was laid out by a private company in the nineteenth century to accommodate the growing numbers of the London dead who failed to qualify for burial in the graveyards of Anglican parish churches – that is, for Jews, Atheists, Nonconformists, and I imagine Muslims too, had any of their bereaved come knocking. It has some large and well-tended memorials, including those to the Booth family, who founded the Salvation Army, but mostly it is overgrown and tumbledown. Nicely so: it looks like a wood rather than a cemetery, with rambling paths though the trees, crazily tipped gravestones, and cracked monuments in the shrubbery.

One neglected memorial – and quite hard to find – was erected by the Metropolitan Borough of Stoke Newington to those people in the borough who died in the wartime bombing. A lot of the lead has been picked from the stone, but it’s still possible to read the inscription, death is but crossing the world as friends do the seas, they live in one another still. Underneath, the dead are listed beneath the names of the streets they lived and died in. The street that suffered most grievously was Coronation Avenue, where on October 13, 1940, a bomb (more probably a stick of bombs) landed and killed ninety-five people. The names suggest it was quite a Jewish street: two Coopersteins, three Edelsteins, one Katz, two Danzigers, two Krakowskys, etc. Perhaps one of them was the man described by Ritchie Calder in his chapter, ‘The Courage of London’: ‘the little German Jew who looked up at a dog fight over the East End, his tattered beard quivering with excitement, and cried, “Our Spitfire boys are wunderbar.”’

I’ve never seen flowers at this memorial, or any other sign of care. It all seems so long ago. What most remains is a folk memory of that time, the stoicism that has been so beautifully enshrined in films and literature.


Image © Commons

Ian Jack

Ian Jack edited Granta from 1995 to 2007, having previously edited the Independent on Sunday. He has written on many subjects, including the Titanic, Kathleen Ferrier, the Hatfield train crash and the three members of the IRA active-service unit who were killed on Gibraltar. He is the editor of The Granta Book of Reportage and The Granta Book of India, and the author of a collection of journalism, The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain. He is working, not very quickly, on a book about the River Clyde.

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