Thursday, 5 December 2013

A STRANGE BEREAVEMENT by Eleanor Updale

I was going to start this post with an invitation to join me on a visit to an unusual member of my family - but suddenly he's gone. Without him, I wouldn't be here today, and my children would never have been born.  I can hear you sighing already (other people's genealogy can be as boring as their holiday photos) but stick with me.  The real reason I'm talking about this ancestor is that he lived at a site where something extraordinary happened.  The event is worth hearing about in its own right, but I've just come across a re-telling of it that raises an issue close to the heart of readers and writers on this blog: can fiction writers sometimes convey the feel of an event better than mainstream reporters or historians?

I may have mentioned before that one of the driving forces behind my latest book, The Last Minute, and the website that goes with it (www.eleanorupdale.com/minute) is the laziness of the way disasters are reported.  Too often, cliches of language, format and tone cheapen the suffering of those involved, reducing them to stereotypes, and inoculating us against horror.   There's one BBC correspondent, often sent to bloody or desperate locations, whose reports are all so similar, and so bathed in an apparent enjoyment of gloom, that I'm ashamed to say I have to suppress a giggle at the very mention of her name.  But she is simply the extreme.  I'm sure I'm not the only person who feels uncomfortable  about the how images of warfare, and the way they are packaged for us, have become so routine that any shock is short lived - or, worse still, replaced with a feeling of impotent despair which can too easily drift into indifference.

It shouldn't be possible to watch reports from Iraq, Egypt or Syria and continue with what you were doing before they came on screen, but I can, and do, day after day. And I'm ashamed of myself.

I was in the news business for many years.  I know some of the reporters, and I'm certain that they care desperately about the events amidst which they bravely work, but even the best of them can't always get though the screen.

When it comes to TV history, violence is often glamorised or used as wallpaper - with am-dram extras staging sanitised reconstructions to keep our eyes open as the pop professor yacks on.  The pain is no greater than in a children's cartoon.
That's why I was overwhelmed by a fictional account of an event in wartime London which suddenly made me realise what it must be like to be caught up in one of today's episodes of random, merciless killing.

At this point, I had better introduce my late ancestor.  He's about my height but even broader.  This is almost exactly what he looked like.
He was the mighty pillar box behind which my father took cover when a German V1 landed on the Aldwych in London on 30th June 1944.  It saved his life. 
From Edwardian times, he stood on the south side of the Strand in London, not far from St Clement Danes Church.
Now, as I think I've mentioned before, my father spent his entire childhood in institutional care and hadn't a clue who his parents were, so I grew up rather short of forebears.  As a result I have a (possibly rather unhealthy) attachment to some objects, and this pillar box (my 'grandfather') was one of them.
I always used to give him a loving stroke as I passed by. You could still see and feel where the shrapnel hit.  I assumed that he would be there forever, so you can imagine what a shock I got on Monday when I went to photograph him for this blog, only to find that he had gone. A massive building project is underway, and it seems he has  been a casualty of redevelopment.
'My' postbox was where the envelope sign is, by St Clement Danes church at the right of the map.  The other double box is marked by the envelope by St Mary le Strand at the bottom left.

There's another box, a little further down the Strand, near King's College and St Mary le Strand.

I'm afraid that one has a rather doomed look too.  Even so, I think I will adopt him as an honorary uncle.

As you'll have gathered, I always thought of 'my' pillar box as a rather jolly thing, and of the bombing as a minor event at the fag end of a long war.  As far as I could tell on Monday, there is no memorial anywhere nearby.  The attack is unmentioned in St Clement Danes church (which had already been bombed in the earlier Blitz). There's no memorial at the building on the corner of Kingsway which took the worst of the blast, and in which many died (it was then the Air Ministry, and later - as St Catherine's house - the registry of births, marriages and deaths.  Now, it's a rather austere office). For me, my father's V1 was the bomb that didn't kill, and my mother's story of him staggering into a pub in Essex street caked in dust seemed rather comic. I didn't know they were protecting me from the truth.

It took a fictionalised account of the blast, in the novel The Secret Fire by Martin Langfield, to bring home what it was really like to be in that London street just a few weeks after the exhillaration of D-Day.  Of course, The Secret Fire is a novel, and you don't have to read far to realise that much of the plot must be pure invention, but when it comes to the framework in which that fiction operates, the feel seems to me rock-solid, and the more official records I've looked at since finding the novel bear this out.  The stark facts (at least 48 - perhaps 200 - dead, hundreds more injured, tremendous damage to buildings) bear out the strategic significance of the strike, but Langfield's account of the human consequences is compelling.
Here are some extracts:

The Air Ministry’s 10-foot-tall blast walls, made of 18-inch-thick brick, disintegrated immediately, deflecting the force of the explosion up and down the street. Hundreds of panes of glass shattered, blowing razor-sharp splinters through the air. The Air Ministry women watching at the windows were sucked out of Adastral House by the vacuum and dashed to death on the street below. Men and women queuing outside the Post Office were torn to pieces. Shrapnel peppered the facades of Bush House and the Air Ministry like bullets...

Part of the casement of the bomb lay burning at the corner of Kingsway. The dead and dying lay scattered in the street. Groans and cries of pain filled the air, though many could not hear them, deafened by the concussion. Some of the victims were naked, their clothing blown from them by the blast...Banknotes blew in the breeze...

People walked around dazed, blood pouring from wounds some didn’t know they had, the crunch of broken glass under their feet ubiquitous. One woman walked down seventy-nine steps of an Adastral House stairwell to the street, not realizing her right foot was hanging sideways, feeling no pain, stepping over bodies...
 

One man stepped from a doorway after the blast and was sliced vertically in two by a sheet of falling glass.

A news editor of the Evening Standard who came upon the scene couldn’t take his eyes off the trees. Their leaves had all been replaced by pieces of human flesh...


At the end of the book, Langfield describes his sources for this passage.  He has done his research, just as any serious writer would.  But there's something in the writing that gives his account a charge that is lacking from the 'official' sources. 
You can read more in the book, or visit http://secretfire.wordpress.com/the-aldwych-v-1-blast-june-30-1944/
There are some photographs (not used here for fear over copyright) at this site: http://www.westendatwar.org.uk/page_id__10_path__0p28p.aspxhttp://www.westendatwar.org.uk/page_id__10_path__0p28p.aspx
And there are better pictures at http://www.flyingbombsandrockets.com/V1_maintxtd.html though sadly on this (and only this) page of that site, the date of the attack is wrong.

When I knew my father (who died more than thirty years ago) he was passionately opposed to the glamorisation of conflict.  I always assumed that was because of his experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War.  Now I wonder whether it wasn't, at least in part, due to what he saw in his lunch break in London on that summer day in 1944 - horror he never spoke about In detail.
This chimes in with the immediate reaction of the poet Danny Abse, who was also in the street when the bomb hit.
...the Aldwych echo of crunch
and the urgent ambulances loaded
with the fresh dead...
Abse, then a medical student at Kings College, carried on with his day, walking though the mayhem to get to the dissecting room. It was nearly fifty years before he felt able to analyse his response to the event in his poem Carnal Knowledge, which you can read here.
http://litmed.med.nyu.edu/poems/carnal.knowledge.da.htmlhttp://litmed.med.nyu.edu/poems/carnal.knowledge.da.html

Martin Langfield's image of the body parts in the trees, and the sense of an 'ordinary' day transformed will colour the way I watch and listen to news reports now.  That scene could be a street in Baghdad or Damascus. Just as constraints on reporting during the war meant that the true horror of 30th June 1944 was not widely known at the time, our sensibilities limit what can be shown on the screen now.  The panting reporter, often taking up much of the frame, tells us an event is shocking - and we may even be warned in advance of distressing scenes before a news item starts- but sadly I have to admit that it took a fictionalised picture of an event almost seventy years ago to make me realise how numb I had become to the horrors of our own day.  That's just one reason why it's worth reading, and writing, historical novels.


Map from OpenStreetMap.org
www.eleanorupdale.com
I'll be back with you on Christmas Day - and I promise you something more cheery.


10 comments:

Laurie Graham said...


Terrific post Eleanor. This will chime with any writer of historical fiction who's ever paused and wondered about the value of their fictional accounts.

Penny Dolan said...

Agree with Laurie! Reading gives you time to think, which other media doesn't. It may inspire thoughts, but it doesn't leave time for them, or the details. What a dreadful incident - and no wonder it was under-reported at the time.

Sorry about your red-faced grandfather. Can't you leap in and capture your uncle for yourself?

Lydia Syson said...

Such vivid accounts. Thank you. I had had no idea about this, and I must have stepped through the ghosts on the way to work for years at Bush House.
Of course I'd love to know more about your grandfather's Spanish Civil War involvement - I believe there's a plaque in his memory in Worthing?

Eleanor said...

Yes, there is a plaque in Worthing (a place my father never mentioned to me). I've done some investigation, and there's an extraordinary story there. But I'm keeping it to myself for now!

Eleanor said...

Yes, there is a plaque in Worthing (a place my father never mentioned to me). I've done some investigation, and there's an extraordinary story there. But I'm keeping it to myself for now!

michelle lovric said...

Eleanor, never fear. I have used that 'doomed' looking pillar box recently and the letter duly arrived. It is alive and well even though it looks as if it is destined for the casualty ward. Wonderful post, thank you.

aman said...

Hi
Wow what a lovely idea! I will definately have a go at making my own home fragrance soon! ecofriendly construction

Sandy said...

Fantastic post. How terrifying for your dad.

The civilian war dead are often forgotten really aren't they.

Petrea Burchard said...

Thanks for your sensitive telling of an event I'd never heard of before. It doesn't surprise me that your father didn't talk about it much. I think Penny has a good idea; perhaps you can adopt your uncle?

Frances Bevan said...

What a powerful piece of writing!