Friday, 2 December 2016

Tell It Slant

I knew I'd forgotten something that linked the previous two posts (regular readers may have noticed my formalist tendencies, expressed as a liking for an echo of the preceding post in most new ones). Here it is: in the TLS, novelist William Boyd's Book of the Year is The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945 (Thames and Hudson ISBN 978-0500518250).
“Tell the truth but tell it slant”, Emily Dickinson advised. The validity of the statement is enshrined in the astonishing book that is The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939–1945 (Thames and Hudson) by Laurence Ward. The book is made up of hundreds of pages of detailed street maps, colour-coded to show the extent of bomb damage in London in the Second World War. Colours such as yellow for “Blast damage – minor in nature”; to black for “Total destruction”. These maps, at first glance, are like beautiful works of abstract art: meticulous mosaics of clustered hues. But then the slant truth seeps in – streets obliterated; one house “seriously damaged – repairable at cost”; a neighbour spared; and you realize exactly what awful testimony is precisely gathered here. It’s a book for Londoners – almost every district, every street you know, figures – but from this bombed city you inevitably think of all the others: Dresden, Caen, Manila, Tokyo – Aleppo.
If I were a Londoner (which I'm not, though I did give it a try) this would certainly be on my Christmas list this year.

An Ice-Cream War
(see what I did there?)

9 comments:

Zouk Delors said...

My mum was bombed out in Westbourne Grove, Notting Hill. It was a close call: the house next door was completely destroyed.

I suppose that, being the well-read person you are, you have read the highly acclaimed Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon, about a WWII psi-ops squad whose job it was to predict where those bombs would fall?

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

Started it several times in the 70s, never finished it (ditto "V"). May give it another go one of these days...

I don't regard myself as "well-read", btw -- most active readers will have read considerably more than me. It's possible my choices are better, though...

Mike

Thomas Rink said...

This reminds me of the house in which I've spent my first seven years (1966-1973), in Darmstadt. It belonged to my grandmother, consisted of only one storey and had a flat roof. The odd look was due to a direct bomb hit; prior to this, it was a regular three-storey apartment house. My grandparents reconstructed it from bricks they gathered from the rubble as best as they could. Some of the houses in the neighbourhood looked similar. I also remember that some of the older folk were still scared by the sound of piston-engined aircraft. I was told that it brought up memories of attacking squadrons of these huge four-engined bomber planes. Even nowadays, it happens several times a year that roads have to be blocked and houses evacuated due to a WWII bomb find which has to be disarmed (I now live in the Ruhrgebiet, which suffered severe bombing due to it being a centre of the steel and coal mining/processing industry).
I believe that this has become something like a "collective memory" or "national memory" (or however to call it) of us Germans. Consequently, a majority of us are still sceptical towards the military, frown at the Afghanistan and Kosovo missions of the Bundeswehr and desire a better relationship with Russia.
I had high hopes that the European integration and the end of the cold war would bring a definitive end to all this war madness. The rise of nationalist movements in the western world, the beginning of another Cold War against Russia and the wars in Iraq and Syria really scare me.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...

Thomas,

Hard to imagine, now, isn't it, that we were dropping bombs on each other, not so very long ago? I remember, back in the late 70s, meeting a German in London who was avoiding military service (I think -- he may have been a political fugitive) -- he said "war is an outdated form of communication", a way of thinking about it that had never occurred to me before.

Mike

Gavin said...

Mike, I'd avoided your previous post on books, then you slide this one in. I've long wanted a copy of the London Topographical Society version- I doubt I'll be able to resist this. I have a copy this https://www.amazon.co.uk/Safe-Houses-Wimbledon-War-1939-1945/dp/0951137816

Which contains a map of my local area and often explains why some insensitive and poorly designed buildings exist.

Thomas's comment about how the damage caused by war lingers on in the collective memory resonated with me I often thought that the lack of enthusiasm in Europe for much of the "war on terror" was tied to an understanding of what war really meant.

This website has the location of bomb "hits" during the first phase of the blitz - and its rather terrifying looking at the sheer area covered and also thinking about the many other cities all over Europe hit much harder.

http://www.bombsight.org/#9/51.2954/0.7841

Gavin

Mike C. said...

Gavin,

Sorry about that... Get someone else to buy it for you!

I think I've made this comment before, but one very revealing difference between us and our European neighbours is the way virtually no restoration work was done in Britain after the war. It was "bulldoze the lot, and start again -- but cheaper, this time, and uglier!" If you visit, say, Caen today, you'd never guess the place was levelled, ditto many German cities. Our lack of concern for our own cities may help explain our willingness to destroy those of others... The Americans gave us a big hand there, obviously, but then their cities and infrastructure are rarely places of beauty these days, either.

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

Of course, the New Towns of 1946, such as our own Stevenage, were built not only to alleviate the post-war housing crisis, but also to relocate arms manufacture to where it would draw fire from any future adversary away from the cities.

If you're interested in maps of explosive destruction how about this, from a 2001 BBC news report:
"Visitors to Dubrovnik are now greeted by a large map on the city's outer wall, pinpointing each one of the hundreds of impacts from artillery or mortar shells."

When mentioning that conflict, one shouldn't forget the destruction caused by NATO, including the TV Centre in Belgrade and the market in Nis.

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

Do you know, that thought had never occurred to me... No wonder they built Chauncy House like a nuclear bunker. Shame about the rest of the town...

Mike

Gavin said...

We visited Ypres last year and one of the options after the destruction of WW1 that they discussed was leaving the ruined remains of the town as they were as a memorial and rebuilding a modern replacement in the art deco style. A whole art deco city would be quite something should they have done that?. It's easy (and fun) to criticize British post war planners but I think I understand the desire to dispose of the old styles and ways as if they had some how contaminated everything and brought so much destruction but so much of the development forgot the people who would inhabit it.
The British weren't the only ones to go down the modernist route. Rotterdam was rebuilt in new styles and I once visited Kristiansund in western Norway - it was an ancient wooden town burnt during the war and rebuilt a la Birmingham. I don't think either are a great success though Rotterdam does have some cool buildings most of those are more recent.
The best British redevelopment I've seen is Plymouth, very 1950's but they seemed to have used better materials