The material legacy of aerial bombing

Listening to the Commons debate ahead of yesterday’s vote on airstrikes in Syria, I was struck by the absence of any substantial discussion about the long-term material consequences of bombing. Perhaps it is little surprise that, faced with shouldering the crippling weight of potential human casualties and political instability, those assembled relegated the loss of possessions and the built environment to a secondary concern, but a look at the history of the very room they were sat in demonstrates that aerial bombing has serious and long lasting consequences for the materiality of a city, and as a result, for its inhabitants.

The Commons chamber was all but destroyed following intense incendiary bombing on 10-11 May 1941, [Fig 1.] later recognized as the worst night of the Blitz. Photographs taken as the dust settled the morning after that sustained seven-hour raid show a city transformed. Should MPs wish to view them, they are held a few minutes walk away from Parliament, in the City of Westminster archives. These haunting images of skeletal buildings and smoldering rubble [Fig 2.] do not feature the 1,436 Londoners killed that night, but their spectral presence[1] can be felt in the sense of violence and dislocation that springs from the visual evidence of the city’s torn materiality.

My research into 1940s London brings me into contact with representations of a variety of bomb ruins. Some are (troublingly) beautiful, such as Cecil Beaton’s photographs for British Vogue[2], some are fantastical, such as the descriptions of the wasteland that was St Paul’s Churchyard in Rose Macaulay’s 1950 novel The World My Wilderness, but all – from the Neo Romantic paintings of Eliot Hodgkin and John Minton to the documentary photographs of Arthur Cross [Fig. 3] – are haunted by a sense of loss and confusion; all place the viewer as an outsider, alienated from their radically changed surroundings.

For many Londoners, this change was too hard to bear, and they were never able to fully reacquaint or relocate themselves in what had once been their city. For my own grandparents, who grew up in Battersea and North Kensington and relocated to Wimbledon during the war, the Blitz shattered their sense of belonging. My grandmother used to recount the knotting of her stomach as she took the train from Wimbledon to Waterloo during the war. Her fear was born from confusion as she became unable to locate herself in once familiar surroundings due the surprise disappearance of local landmarks. My grandparents left London as soon as they were able, relocating to the peace of the North York Moors – an ancient landscape in which they could once again feel secure and rooted. They never moved back, and never again identified as Londoners.[3]

For the inhabitants of the more than one million London houses destroyed by aerial bombing during WW2, material losses amounted to more than just bricks and mortar. Most lost photographs, holiday souvenirs, inherited ornaments and special occasion clothes – the things that, amongst other material possessions, act as memory prompts and help us explore and express our own identity and history.[4] It is easy to think of such losses as trivial, taking into account only the monetary value of aging trinkets, but, as suggested by Daniel Miller, it is the memories contained within these collected, inherited and saved things that provide us with the foundational support necessary to make it through experiences of loss.[5]

The material consequences of bombing echo down through time. Walking around Westminster today, I am still haunted by the losses of 10-11 May 1941, which present themselves in the material memory of bombing. The destruction lingers in the pockmarked Portland stone, scarred by long cleared blast debris. It is even tangible in the pockets of post-war rebuilding, whose presence speak of a lost past. These surroundings not only act as a reminder of the horror that happened here, but tell me that it could happen again. I would encourage MPs to consider this legacy when they pass under Churchill’s arch as they make their way into the rebuilt Commons chamber. At Churchill’s suggestion, the entrance arch was not replaced with new stone, like most of the chamber, but rebuilt out of the damaged stones of the original. I hope that the acts of violence still clearly visible on the arch can serve as a reminder of the deep and ongoing impact of aerial bombing on London.

It is easy to talk of rebuilding, and, providing the right financial and material resources are in place, relatively easy to construct new buildings on the foundations of bombsites. It is much harder to rebuild a sense of home and to reconstruct feelings of safety and belonging. Writing about the destruction of the Commons for the Daily Mail, parliamentary correspondent Percy Carter urged ‘But let us not waste time on sentiment. On with the war. All wounds will be healed in the new world we build.’[6] Seventy-four years on, London is still waiting for that scar tissue to fade.

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[1] In this, I draw on Steve Pile’s work on haunting. See Pile, S. (2005) Real Cities. London: Sage.

[2] For more on Beaton and ruins, see Rebecca Arnold’s work – http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/documentingfashion/2015/09/11/fashion-in-ruins-luxury-and-dereliction-in-photographs-of-1940s-london/

[3] Although I am focusing on London here, this sense of alienation can be found across post-war Europe. It is perhaps most poignantly described in the diary of an anonymous woman as she attempts to navigate the ruins of Berlin. See Beevor, A. (introduction) (2011) A Woman in Berlin. London: Virago

[4] There is a rich literature on the importance of material objects to personal identity. In particular, see Grant, L. (2009) The Thoughtful Dresser. London: Virago; Kwink, M. (Ed.) (1999) Material Memories. Oxford: Berg; Steedman, C. (1986) Landscape for a Good Woman. London: Virago; and Woodward, S. (2007) Why Women Wear What They Wear. Oxford: Berg.

[5] Miller, D. (2008) The Comfort of Things. Cambridge: Polity.

[6] Mortimer, G. The Longest Night: Voices from the London Blitz. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p319.

 

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