“And that was another hole in the ground that I didn’t find”: on walking and reading Blitzscapes
May 12, 2012 3 Comments
Walking the Blitzscape
In December 2010 I accompanied an interpretative walk tracing the path of the Sheffield Blitz, led by local poet Rob Hindle, and organised by those psychogeographically inclined chaps at Longbarrow Press. The appearance today online of a video fragment from Rob’s narration of the walk, has prompted me to chip in my own take on attempting to trace a Blitzscape.
The fragment captures a passing comment from Rob, explaining his failed attempts to trace any physical legacy of a known suburban house-casualty of the raid, Rob offers up the throw away line that I’ve used as the title of this piece: “And that was another hole in the ground that I didn’t find.” In this post I want to focus on that search-for-the-physical, the ‘scattered’ nature of the impact of the bombs on the built environment and the ability of that environment seventy years on to all but erase that ‘random’ destruction.
The poetry walk sought to re-engage with the spatiality of the bomb-run of the first (and main) Sheffield raid in December 1940. In psychogeographical style – to walk is to physically read place at a natural human pace, a pace that maximises the scope for full absorption of the places passed through, and joining them into a communal experience, and linear narrative – for the walk culminated in the approach to the city centre, the epicentre of the bombing, a flattened portion of the main shopping avenue.
The walk took about three hours, starting in the barren natural wastes of the city fringe moorland and ending in the once-waste shopping thoroughfare, each joined through bisecting diffuse outer and dense inner housing districts, cutting a straight path into the city. Much like the bombers did that winter’s evening 70 years before. We ended our walk at the site of the former Marples hotel, the locus of the highest casualty event of the raid.
The walk struck me in a different way to what I had expected (and perhaps than what had been intended). The slow trudge into the city centre was sparce. Occasional incidents and recollections, but largely Sheffield now. Not then. Cars, trees, falling winter light.
But it was when we hit the shopping strip – The Moor – that it started to feel weird (and haunted). The bottom of that strip currently re-laid to waste. The result of a stalled shopping centre redevelopment. Demolition of the shops built after the war to replace those destroyed by the bombers, now destroyed themselves in the name of progress.
As we walked up this emptying, twilight pedestrianised street I started to hear distant strains of some mutant music. At first I thought I was imagining it, but as we drew closer to the Town Hall we came upon a live music festival. A German free jazz band playing and filling the city centre air with jagged sound. Somehow, it seemed oddly fitting.
Perhaps this was an intended or synchronistic correspondence between the sparse-into-dense experience of the journey’s progression and of the increasing density of the bomb scatter inflicted as the attackers came closer to the centre of the city.
The walk sought to commune with the raid and its consequences. Spatially I think it did achieve something. But narrating absence by walking is difficult. I was struck by the way that this city has physically moved on. It has erased, incorporated, absorbed the events. Little remains now to be seen or touched. It took time and considerable effort, but the bomb sites here and elsewhere around the world were cleared away. Rubble was removed. Buildings grew back. Generations came and went.
The world moves on, swallowing up the traces
I find the ability of the world to move on – to erase the events and their legacy – and for subsequent history to play out on the same stage quite chilling (but I accept its necessity). But we stand at the brink of the death of ‘living memory’ of this event and time. It is about to become truly ‘history’, as abstract to those currently alive as Waterloo or the Somme. The land and its buildings cannot hold these stories in a way that can readily speak to us. Only human agency and the archive can do that. Perhaps characteristic of the notion that ‘history is written by the victor,’ there is plenty of testimony available to the lived-reality of air raids in the UK (see for example for Sheffield, SFRB 2008). I am not arguing, a la Sebald (2003) in relation to the German cultural response to Allied air raids, that there is a cultural amnesia at work in the UK over our air raid heritage.
I come from a generation (and a family background) that gave me direct physical access to ancestors who had witnessed the battlefields of the First World War and the air raids of the Second. In homage to that legacy I find myself drawn to the built environment in search of the fading physical traces that link my life and now, back to that heritage. For me it is personal. It connects to identity. Not in a patriotic way, more in an existential sense – that people I knew, and with whom I shared mundane pleasures and discourse had been touched by the tragedy of events that I couldn’t fully comprehend in terms of them as a ‘lived experience’ known directly to me. These ancestors left me photographs and documents, but most importantly they left me places through which they had walked and lived (and in which things had been done to them). These places then are canvasses, ever present through time. Events (and buildings) come and go. But if you stood in one spot you would be standing where millions of daily life-actions had been enacted over thousands of years. But how do you summon all or any one of them to the present, then glipse and connect to them?
I don’t know. All I know is that there’s something missing in the built environment when I go searching for these ghosts. Guess I’d better just keep searching (or otherwise learn to let go).
Giving thanks to a gutter
We can all read our life-course in a multitude of ways. We can all spot a role for contingency. The one I choose to hang on involves my grandmother. One lunchtime – a Tuesday I believe – she was on her lunchbreak strolling with a colleague along the high street of Teignmouth, a South Devon seaside town. Suddenly she heard and saw a bomber flying low, speeding towards her and straffing the street below it. She claimed she saw the pilot’s face before hurling herself into the gutter, pressing down into the dirt for dear life. Moments passed as she waited to find out whether her end had come. Then bombs fell on the small dock nearby. The raid was over. She lived, conceived my mother who in turn conceived me. I owe something to the gutters of Teignmouth and the accuity of my Nan’s sense of hearing and her (then) agile reflexes.
I’ve been to Teignmouth many times since. I’ve wandered the high street there pondering the pavements. Looking for that mundane event-space. But all the pavements, all the gutters there are indistinct. This environment, these structures, are indifferent to me. For I, and my ancestors, are but few in millions who have made myriad passing uses of their concrete, stone and iron elements.
Like Rob Hindle, I search but I don’t find the holes. They heal over and conceal the events that take place from time to time within them. They frequently frustrate what Moshenka (2010: 7) has styled the “treasure hunts of memory fragments”.
But sometimes the environment spews up traces
Moshenka has also written of the subtle ways in which a “fragmented” commemoration of the London Blitz is performed in that city through a process of “counter-memory”, the irruption of fragments (both physical and symbolic) of the Blitz into the ‘everyday life’ of the city. His study shows how, on a localised scale at least, places can offer up moments of remembrance. One example is the discovery of unexploded bombs on development sites or dredged up from the Thames. For Moshenka, such events – and their fleeting disturbance of the life of the city – are “counter-monuments”. By this he means that whilst monuments are consciously made, top-down civic installations, these irruptions are bottom-up, localised and/or beyond precise human control. They stop the ‘now’ in its tracks, and force us to confront the ‘past’. They also transfer some of the costs of the past to the present.
The big in the small; the small in the big
It is also the warping – and laying explicit – of the interaction between the macro and micro that I find enthralling about air raids. The whole-nation coordination entailed in the creation and tasking of a bomber fleet and the individual fate of the person, house, room impacted by the ‘unlucky draw’ of each bomb’s descent. To be in the wrong place/time when another nation passes overhead. Gregory (2011) captures this point well in his essay ‘Above the dead cities’. His essay shows how these levels of scale interconnect and frame an ‘inevitability’ of the eventual damage – a “natural history of destruction”. Perhaps, in extension of this we could add a “natural history of erasure” to describe the ‘inevitable’ processes by much most of the physical traces of such raids are erased from the face of these (once) dead cities.
I will close with one final thought – an acknowledgement that, whislt never as accurate and ‘precisely targeted’ as their operatives may contend, air raids are not entirely random in their footprint of destruction. Hewitt (1997) here ably shows a “social geography of bomb destruction” (305) whereby more than 90% of air raid deaths in the UK, Germany and Japan were civilian residents in dense inner-city residential areas, and with a preponderance of women, children and the elderly. Hewitt characterises this focus towards destruction of the truly civilian as “place annihilation” (319) – and yet, viewed via the built environment seventy years on the places subsist. The places won out. It was the people who were annihilated in this “civil ecology of violence” (319).
Gregory, D. (2011) ‘Above the dead cities’ in Daniels, Delyser, Entrikin & Richardson (eds) Envisioning Landscapes, Making Worlds – geography and the humanities , Routledge: London, pp. 12-24.
Hewitt, K. (1997) ‘Place annihilation: air war and the vulnerability of cities’ in Regions of Risk – a geographical introduction to disasters, Longman: Harlow.
Moshenska, G. (2010) ‘Charred churches or iron harvests? Counter-monumentality and the commemoration of the London Blitz’ Journal of Social Archaeology 10 (5) pp. 5-27.
Sebald, W.G. (2003) ‘Air war and literature’ in On the Natural History of Destruction, Penguin: London, trans Bell, A.
SFRB (2008) The History of Sheffield Fire Brigades 1379-1974, website at: http://www.sfbhistory.org.uk/
Sheffield Telegraph & Star Ltd (1948) Sheffield at War 1939-45
Links and sources
Photos and map from Sheffield Telegraph & Star (1948) via http://www.sfbhistory.org.uk/ which also has very thorough coverage of the Sheffield raids. The full bomb map is available to download at: http://www.sfbhistory.org.uk/Pages/History/Downloads.html