London – Before, During and After

Bombed LondonI have just bought this amazing atlas-sized volume of maps of London created by the London County Council during the Second World War. Compiled for Thames and Hudson by Laurence Ward and costing £48.00, it is a collection of street maps marked with colour to show bomb damage during the air raids of the Second World War. The coding goes from Total Destruction, through Damaged Beyond Repair all the way to Clearance Area, with two other codes indicating V-2 and V-1 Flying Bombs.

Why on earth is this interesting?

Two main reasons, both entirely personal: I am of an age when the London of my childhood was still badly damaged, whenever we came into town we would pass – on the way to the dentist (Wimpole Street), to the hairdresser (Ebury Street) and shopping (Oxford Street) and not to mention friends and relatives all over London – buildings with gaping wounds showing wallpaper, even sometimes the faded shadows where pictures had hung, fireplaces forever cold and all sprouting with new life, buddleia, evening primrose, forget-me-nots, bomb-site lilies (Rose-Bay Willowherb) and Michaelmas daisies.

For London children this was their playground. Where I live now there were many destroyed and partially damaged warehouses, a real adventure playground (seemingly for every taxi driver who ever deposits me to my home). Did we think about what went before? Of course not, we were children. Even standing in Edwardes Square where my grandmother had lived, she moved to Sussex to be safer just weeks before a bomb went straight through to the basement, left us baffled rather than shocked.

The second reason is that my mother drove the Chief Fire Brigade Officer around the city, during and after the raids. I am not sure if there was one or many, but she drove this one around the city, examining the damage and making recommendations for (and I think) bravery awards to some stations and finally visits to the widows of fire fighters who had lost their lives, which she remembers as the worst thing of all.

This Atlas is utterly colossal, full of maps and photographs and some text explaining the context and the way it was compiled. Apparently, they used the street maps that appeared many years earlier made by Charles Booth in which he mapped the poverty or affluence by colour, these appeared recently in a BBC documentary called The History of Our Streets.

Using the same system of colouring in each house you see the build up of damage from 1939 through to 1945, the mind bends at the industry, but also at the fortitude of the people who stayed put, either for their jobs or for lack of an alternative or simply out of determination not to be beaten. Truly it must have been terrifying.

NoondayI have also bought Pat Barker‘s final volume of the trilogy that started with Life Class.Life Class These novels followed the fortunes of mainly three people, Kit Neville, Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke (later Tarrant), they meet as the title suggests in the life classes of Professor Henry Tonks at the Slade School of Art. The trilogy takes them through youth and on to their First World War experience, largely covered in the second volume Toby’s Room Tobyand finally finishes off with Noonday which has only recently come out.

The three main protagonists cover the ground so to speak, first they are carefree students exploring life and their varying talents, then war come along and they get damaged physically or mentally and then there is a brief peace, where they re-group and pick up their shattered or sheltered lives and finally in Noonday they are back in the thick of the war, this time the Second World War.

For any one who has read A Crisis of Brilliance by David Boyd Haycock or A Terrible Beauty by Paul Gough or anything about Stanley Spencer this will be familiar territory. The gradual realisation that artists had something to contribute to the war, apart from fighting that is, and that this carried on into the Second World War in a much more organised manner is to some extent what this trilogy is about. Several artists including Elinor are recruited by Kenneth Clarke to paint but not, to his fury and chagrin, Kit Neville. In Noonday, Paul goes to an exhibition (now famous) of paintings of the war by official “war artisits” in the National Gallery, denuded of its treasures – there he sees Laura Knight, John Piper, Henry Moore et al.

This is Pat Barker in a slightly different territory to her Regeneration Trilogy, in that she imagined a fictional meeting and conversations between two real people, surrounded by a whole panoply of completely fictional but fully realised other characters. I don’t know what this new trilogy will come to be called, but here she has completely fictionalised the lives of some famous people, Dora Carrington, Charles Nevinson and Paul Nash and replaced them in a different context. I am not convinced it works, unless presumably you know nothing about the ‘real’ characters. In Noonday by far the most rounded character is Bertha, a grossly fat medium who benefits from the growing need to “channel” the dead.

Which is not to say that these are not very readable books, there are moments of captivating horror, sublime joy and beauty, it is just a pity that the inhabitants do not spring living from the page.

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