Bomb site, East End, 1962. Photo © Estate of Evelyn Hofer.
V.S. Pritchett writing in London Perceived *, 1962:
To the Londoner of my generation, the London sky has another dramatic significance which – once our present boredom with the whole subject is overcome – is memorable. It has been a battlefield. One day in 1940 in the entrance hall of the BBC I heard the sirens howl. One of the maternal ladies at the reception desk called out “Air raid please” (one is inclined in London to say “please” for everything, and one must certainly sauy it out of deference if a VIP like the Angel of Death is announced), but she was in fact telling the boys to close the steel shutters. I shall not forget that large white cloud bellying against the blue in the afternoon and, as my stomach turned over, seeing a flight of silver Spitfires dive into it. I froze with fear, hope, anger, pity. Many times afterwards, Londoners in the black-out heard the sky grunt, grunt, grunt above them, then howl and rock, or saw it go green instead of black, the whole 700 square miles of it twitching like sick electricity and hammered all over by millions of sharp gold sparks as the barrage beat against it like steel against a steel door. The curling magnesium ribbons that came slowly down were a relief to see, in that unremitting noise.
The sky shook London like a rug; the floor boards, the furniture, pictures, the glasses and plates, the curtains, the favourite vases, ferns, clocks, and photographs, the pens on the desks, the ink in the pots danced in their places throughout the night in evil monotony hard to endure. The sky was extravagant; the earth would occasionally come to life in scattered carrotty fires, and on the bad nights, when the docks, the East End, and the City were burned out, the tide being too low to give the firemen water, London turned crimson. Even then, people made the “historic” remark, the remark of experience. Nothing like this, they said, had been seen since 1666. One cloudless August afternoon near the end of the war, green snow fell in minute insulting particles over Holborn. We saw them when we got up from under our desks, where we had ducked when a bomb had fallen a mile or so away in Hyde Park and had blown the leaves off the trees into these mysterious smithereens. It had seemed for a moment, like a new venture of the London climate, which we knew to be capable of anything.
Several hundred thousand dwellings were damaged in the County of London, that is to say more than eighty per cent of the total. And of these, nearly a third were totally destroyed. Little was left of the docks or the City. And about 30,000 people were killed; more than 50,000 injured. On December 29, 1940, all Paternoster Row went, and a favourite phrase, imported from American films, was that “London could take it”, whatever that may mean. London did nothing so exhibitionist, showed none of the characteristics of the prize-fighters’ ring, as seen by publicity agents. London was quite simply morose, fatalistic, frightened, depressed and fell back on that general practicality of mind that counts as calm. The climate had predisposed us to expect the worst and disbelieve in the facts. Fatalism is the English religion. “London can take it” is just the beer talking. At the George in Great Portland Street, I do recall two drunks discussing the kind of funeral they wanted, with a lot of circumstantial detail about the correct amount of flowers, during a bad half-hour. And there is no-one who could not supply a list of old aunts, grandmothers, and so on who stuck the whole thing out, immovably, sustained by a vigorous social disapproval of the whole shemozzle. Private life rules the world.
It was the silence of London in the early evening that struck one. One had never known it to be dead quiet before. The machine had stopped. One walked down mile after mile of empty streets to the sound of one’s heels only, and voices carried far, as if across water. I remember two painted old crones sitting out alone on a bench in Lincoln’s Inn Fields when I was fire-watching. They were, no doubt, caretakers, and I could hear their voices far across the square. They were talking about actresses and distant connections of the Royal Family, of course. One night I saw a soldier come fighting out of a pub and get his teeth knocked out. One could hear them fall as distinctly as pebbles, a hundred yards away.
* © 1962 and renewed 1990 by V.S. Pritchett. Used by permission of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.
[Special thanks in assembling this week’s feature are due to: Jim McKinniss; Mark Giorgione of the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica, California; Andreas Pauly at the Hofer Estate; and Carl Scarbrough at David Godine. D.S.]