Comment: In praise of apathy: salesmen and survivors, and what two very different bomb sites can tell us about pre-Olympic London in 2012

Something I saw today got me thinking about just what it means to live in a city, and what I hate and love about it. I suspect that it’s got something to tell me about why I distrust the London 2012 cheerleading so much, but I’ll only know when this post is finished. Before I go any further, here’s what I saw.

 

It’s a replica of the V2 flying bomb, designed by Nazi rocket scientist (and later, NASA boffin) Wernher von Braun and loosed upon London in the later stages of World War Two. The V2 was the successor to the V1 ‘Doodlebug’ that caused so much damage during the Blitz. They foreshadowed the intercontinental ballistic missiles of the Cold War arms race. In terms of their role and usage, though, today’s equivalent would be the pilotless drones deployed by the US over Pakistan.

 

I see this bomb most days. But I never notice it. Today I noticed it.

 

It seemed a funny thing to bolt to the side of a building beside the elevated platform of London Bridge station. Even if (the penny dropped…) that building, from the front, is a portico for the Imperial War Museum. That, at least, explained the Union Jack hanging beside it.

 

(If you don’t live in Britain, or maybe it’s just London, I’m not sure how I can adequately convey the strangeness of seeing a British flag. There just aren’t that many of them. I’m always quietly astonished on visits to Sweden, the US, France, anywhere, at the ubiquity of their national flags. I joke with Norwegian friends about their tendency of hoisting the national flag in their front garden, on birthday cakes, atop mountains, on lorries, on branded cans of food. In case they wake up one day having forgotten where they are. They usually just smile.)

 

Anyhow, something about the bomb bothered me.

 

I’ve heard a few bombs off in my life, but only two of them were in London. I was in Greenwich when the Canary Wharf IRA bomb exploded. I heard it and saw a little of the muzz just whisp up around the tower. And I was crossing Long Acre at 9.47am on 7th July 2005, when Hasib Hussein’s backpack bomb tore apart a packed Number 30 bus in Russell Square. Bombs never make the noise you expect. They just make a very short, almost backwards sound, that goes “Dnt.” It’s definitely a weird, disappointed full-stop, not a dramatic exclamation mark. There’s none of the “Pkhkh!” reverb you hear in Hollywood movies. It’s just a stumpy, loud, compacted noise that’s over before it’s begun. Mostly, you aren’t even sure it was a bomb at first. Especially if it’s somewhere you don’t expect one. Then you hear shouts.

 

That’s when you react – and whatever you might hope, you don’t react with any of Hollywood’s dive-to-the-floor excitement either, but with a weird, disorientated, off-balance fear. Something doesn’t compute. Then you start checking what’s missing (from the landscape, the soundscape, whatever), and wondering whether to go towards or away from it. It’s not good, any of it. I can’t imagine wanting to strap the bombs I heard, or the remains of them, to the side of any tourist building on the South Bank of the Thames.

 

But there was the V2.

 

A bomb on a building. Is it there because the war it comes from is over? Because it’s sanitized by the passing years and fresher historical traumas, like a Roman battlefield or mound of flint arrowheads? Undoubtedly. OK, what about: is it there because Britain was among the victors? Is it a trophy?

 

It certainly looks that way, next to a Union flag advertising something called the Imperial War Museum – at least to a non-Briton. (It’s a credit to the curators that they’ve resisted the easy bucks of misfit patriots and nostalgists; they’ve resisted the patriots’ theme-park trap. A V1 is suspended inside the roof, frozen in mid-fall just metres above visitors’ heads: the moment before impact. This is fear, and the bomb on the outside, visible from platform one of London Bridge rail station, are part of it.)

 

Still, my feeling won’t let me drop (oho) this. I have a problem with the V2.

 

I’ve always liked cities that wear their scars well. Not proudly, but honestly. I like Warsaw, for not pulling down the Palace of Culture, built in its centre on the orders of Stalin as a symbol of Russian-Soviet dominion. That alone would make it unpopular enough, give or take its boxy, brutal, anabolic-Empire-State rocketiness. But there it stands. To pull it down would be a lie. The people of Warsaw hold faith with the idea that the city can (it does) incorporate it.

 

I like Berlin, for leaving the bulletholes on the sides of buildings from the obscure, smacky back alleys of Wedding to the iconic Brandenburger Tor. Berlin has no choice. Just as it is for the Union Jack, for Berlin the past is a complex place. To cover the bulletholes – made by Russian, German, British and American bullets – would be an act of dishonesty. There’s plenty of dishonesty around in Berlin, of course (those street names that keep changing depending on who’s in charge) but still, the holes are there.

 

I was thinking of more examples when the train pulled in. I got on the train, sat with my face pressed against the smeared and scratchtagged window as we sighed and creaked over the girders and arches. The sky lowered, and by the time the door-press button activated at my stop, its hydraulic hiss and orange glow felt as welcoming as a lantern in a window.

 

Outside my station, somewhere in the southern suburbs, I crossed the road at a bridge. The vans and buses and mums with buggies flowed over the bridge, and I stepped between them and up onto the kerb. A long time ago, it someone had painted a sign on the bridge. I pass it a lot. This time, I read it.

And suddenly, I knew what bothered me so much about the V2 at London Bridge.

 

The ‘shelter for 700’ refers to a wartime air raid shelter in a siding under the station bridge. The shelter is one for local families to use when the bombs started raining from the sky, right from the Luftwaffe raids in 1941 to the V2s in ’45. There’s nothing here in this suburb, nothing but people. There’s never been a factory here, never a military base, never a government building. Just people, parks, churches and a couple of shops. But because it was a few short miles south of the Docks, it took a lot of its damage from jettisoned bombs. The bombers used to lighten their load in order to save fuel returning over the North Sea, and this was where they dropped anything they hadn’t already loosed over London, then headed up into the clouds.

 

This shelter was the underground refuge where hundreds of people, people very much like me and my wife and my kids and my friends, fled and hid and prayed and ate and hoped, while all through the night their homes and families and lives were bombed at random.

 

And what I like about it today is that the pain is still there; and that not only has nobody scrubbed it off or painted over it; no-one’s put a plaque there either. No-one here has chosen to make it official. No-one has stapled a bomb to the side of it, or planted a flag next to it, or chosen to preserve it in any way. Not the mayor, not local historians, not the council, not the Tourist Board, not the National Trust.

 

The disused shelter, the paint on the bridge, can fend for themselves. Unlike the V2, they speak their own truth. The V2 has been polished, repainted, mounted and juxtaposed with a flag and a museum, and these things speak for it. They put it into a story: one they tell me is, if not mine, then that of the city I live in. But the story that bomb tells is mediated, told by a narrator who wants to sell me something, his/her version of history and of London. It sounds glorious and defiant and false. There’s money behind that version, money for flags and plaques, and I don’t like it. The encounter feels hollow and dishonest, however true and terrible those V2 nights were.

 

By contrast, the paint on the bridge still there simply because it is – like most of London. It’s messy, it’s unofficial, and it’s honest. Like the wildlife and weeds of Deptford (before its wharves were turned into executive show-homes for the corporate set), or Stratford’s barbed-wire-and-birdlife hinterland (before it was turned into a stadium, its roads paved with logos), this sign is just a survivor.

 

There’s no preservation order on it. When somebody wants to move it, build over it, knock it down, put their graffiti over it or scrub it off, they will.

 

And I can’t help but smile as I walk home and reflect that, for the past 72 years and again today, nobody has wanted to.

 

 

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