Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Blitz Spirit

Beer Monster

In spite of the bombings last Thursday, pretty much all of the public events planned for the weekend went ahead as normal.

On Sunday I attended the celebrations commemorating the 60th anniversary of World War Two. Well, sort of the 60th anniversary.

Someone commented on my blog a few days ago that, when it came to history, the only thing you could be certain about was dates. The rest was open to individual interpretation. As it happens, even the dates are flexible. The War in Europe ended on 8th May 1945 and the War in the Pacific on 15th August 1945. So, for some reason, we marked the end of the conflict on 10th July. This followed on from the recent commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar on 29th June (actual date of Battle of Trafalgar 21st October). I still haven’t figured out what that was all about. But I digress.

Anyway, I took time out from chatting with a loopy Polish veteran who had accosted me on the Mall, to complain to me about his son’s mail order Thai bride, to listen to what the Queen had to say about the week’s events. It was quite spooky at times as she was using distinctly Blairite language. It didn’t sound like her at all. I shivered particularly at her reference to the British people banding together to protect ‘our way of life’ in 2005 as we had done in 1945.

There’s something quite amusing about the Queen referring to protecting ‘our’ way of life – ‘wot? mine or yours luv’?’ but I’ll let that ride today.

She also made passing reference to the Blitz

Blitz, I keep hearing that word a lot lately.

The day before the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the averaged-out end of the War we were in Southwark Park on the other side of the Thames, attending the annual Bermondsey Beat festival.

Bermondsey is a unique place. It’s a small chunk of central London that has resisted many of the demographic changes that affected most of the rest of the city. It’s still predominantly white, working class and home to people who, by and large, were born in the area. For London, that’s extremely unusual these days.

Bermondsey still feels like London felt twenty, thirty or forty years ago. I can’t put my finger on why though. There are no large mountain ranges or glaciers nearby that have cut off Bermondsey from the rest of civilisation. No quarantine measures were in force. For the life of me, I just don’t know why Bermondsey hasn’t changed as much as the rest of the city.

I remember negotiating the sale of my parents' nearby shop a few years ago with a property developer. Naturally, I was trying to bump the price up. He was trying to bump it down. At one point he said ‘Look this is as good as you’re going to get. Every time there’s a property boom in London, there’s talk that people will snap up properties in Southwark and Bermondsey and the prices will shoot up but they never do. People just don’t want to live here’. Well, he was wrong. Our end of The Borough got awfully trendy, awfully quickly. Bermondsey, at the other end of The Borough, is next in line. The days of the working class London white tribe that currently live there are finally numbered.

This is a tribe of people whose idea of a fine night out is dirty fighting in a pub. They all smoke like chimneys. They all drink like fish. They eat shit. They are light on formal education. They dabble in dodgy deals. Their accent is harsh and incomprehensible. In years gone by, they formed mobs and burned down the occasional courthouse, gleefully attended hangings or put on a red coat, sunk a pint of rum and faced off a few thousand natives in some godforsaken part of the world. They are fiercely patriotic and not in some namby pamby inclusive liberal way. These are ‘old’ Londoners and there aren’t that many of them knocking about any more.

Anyway, the Bermondsey Beat festival consists of a half a dozen bands and whatever other events and stalls the organisers can cobble together; I particularly enjoyed the ‘Fun Dog Show’ which featured an array of the least fun dogs you could possibly imagine. Creatures spawned in Hell itself whose entire body weight lay in their jaws and forelimbs with tiny vestigial hindquarters. If somebody had so much as cut a finger within sniffing distance of that show there would have been bloody chaos.

But that’s Bermondsey for you.

The strangest part of the day came at around six o’clock. ‘Darts’, a lively retro ensemble singing act from the Eighties were doing their thing, when they suddenly stopped so that we could all hold a two minute silence in memory of the people killed in the bombings. This we all duly and respectfully did. At the end of the silence the organiser came back on stage and said ‘thank you for that and now back to the FABULOUS DARTS!!! and they went straight back into their show band style number.

You had to be there.

The silence was introduced by the local MP Simon Hughes who said some touching things about the emergency services, his thoughts for the people caught up in the explosions and the need for life to continue. The crowd was with him 100%. He also referred to the Blitz.

The Blitz

That bloody word again.

Because it was home to a high density of wharves and warehouses, Southwark/ Bermondsey was knocked around pretty badly in the last war. Having said that, the total fatalities were only something like 900. I say only 900 because, even though that’s 900 too many and each a tragedy, by the standards of the time it wasn’t very much at all.

The Blitz is a myth.

A necessary fiction put about by the British to keep up domestic morale and convince America that Britain was worth supporting even though we were obviously losing the war and losing it badly.

Londoners were no more or less resilient than any other group of human beings in similar circumstances. Sure there was heroism, stoicism and a refusal to accept defeat. There was also looting of bombsites and rioting outside the private bomb shelters that were closed to working class people. At least eighty people, maybe a lot more, were killed in the park at the end of my street by a single bomb in 1940. They were killed because they were huddled in an inadequate makeshift shelter. Well, more of a shallow trench than a shelter. No memorial marks the site today because the news was suppressed after it happened. The locals were none too happy about that. Round about the same time, a downed German airman parachuted into the park and was lynched by a mob from a lamppost. That story didn’t make the papers either.

Later in the war, between 1943-45, we erased entire German cities from the air, sometimes over the course of a single night. At least 600,000 German civilians were killed, compared to 57,000 British dead. In spite of all the death we rained down on Germany the German people carried on, yet no one goes on today about those plucky Berliners or Hamburgers.

I guess no one felt sorry for them because their government made illegal war on other countries. Those civilians were held to be somehow responsible for their government’s actions. I have to say I am a lot more sympathetic to the plight of those Germans after developments in my own country over the last couple of years.

One lesson people thought they had learned at the end of the Second World War was that you can't crush the morale of a city by bombing it: not London, not Berlin, not Leningrad, not Tokyo, not anywhere.

What I am trying to communicate is that neither the scale of the London Blitz nor the response of Londoners was any more horrible or more noble than anywhere else in the World during those terrible times. Creating a fantasy about a unique Blitz spirit reduces people and the things they endured to mere characatures, designed more to serve the PR interests of their masters rather than themselves.

Anyway, aside from the fact that the Blitz myth is precisely that, a myth, there's another reason why all this talk of the plucky London Blitz spirit in the face of the supposed Al Qaeda threat rings false...

There just aren’t that many Londoners actually living in London any more, certainly not from the tribe that endured the bombings in 1940/41. And that’s going to be awfully relevant to the British attitude and response to last week’s bombings. I’ll get onto that in a bit…

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