Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Bomb Sights

I recently borrowed a book from the library, a great door-stop of a tome which details life in Britain in the 1980s. As the historian set the scene for the riots of 1981, he put forward a viewpoint, just in passing, which pulled me up short.  This was the assertion that at this point in time, inner cities had still not completely recovered and filled in its World War Two bomb sites.  And that in fact, the final rebuilding of a London bombsite did not take place until the end of the 1990s.  I have never given much thought to exactly how long it took our blitzed cities to recover.  But I probably held some sort of assumption that it was all done by the 1960s – that a need to construct thousands of new homes and offices had swallowed up the bombsites.  I feel sure that if I saw any piles of rubble in Sheffield’s east end during the 1980s, I never associated it with bombing – more an assumption that progress was sweeping out the old ways of working and living.  As slum clearances took hold and the traditional industries folded, demolition lines became blurred.

I carried out a web search to see if I could find any information which corroborated this assertion that it took more than 50 years to fill in the voids in London. What I did find was that this is a contentious issue.  There are a couple of quite heated debates that have taken place in forums.  One person agreed that the last bombsite was at Ludgate Circus and that this was finally developed at the close of the 20th century.  Others claim that they know of bombsites that still have not been fully redeveloped – gaps in streets that were never filled in, or playgrounds where fragments of bombed houses can still be seen.

Whatever the answer, I still found it amazing that it took so long to clear up the damage and replace all the lost buildings.  But this perhaps proves that I was not there to witness the sheer scale of the destruction.  Fortunately, just a couple of weeks later, a film came along to help bring this home.  The classic Ealing film ‘Hue and Cry’ was filmed in central London in 1946.  It makes very good use of the bombsites to create an atmosphere of seedy shabbiness, where criminals can take advantage and children become worldliwise.  The devastation cannot be escaped, such is its scale.  The scenes towards the end of the film are particularly good, where a gang of sleuthing boys descend on a gang of crooks. This large scale fight takes place by the Thames atop piles of rubble and inside the skeletons of buildings.  It looks like there is not a thing in tact along that stretch of the water.

A scene of houses being built is shown and it is obvious that the priority had to be housebuilding. It was in the politicians’ interests to see to it that their voters had comfortable homes first and foremost. When you give the matter due consideration, not all sites would have been suitable for residential development.  With all the resources ploughed into homes, of course many sites were going to be left longer than others before reconstruction could begin. Especially if they were publicly owned and in need of financial input from the local authority. ‘Hue and Cry’ certainly helped me to gain some perspective on post war redevelopment.

The film is also worth watching for the appearance of Alastair Sim at his brilliant best. There is also some novelty to be found in the depiction of several young boys who are obviously fresh out of school and in work.  This phenomenon is unknown to modern society.  I watched with interest the jobs that they happily kept themselves employed in, including market porter, ice cream bike operative and errand boy for the BBC.  1946 London was truly a world away, one where even the scars have now finally healed over.

Alastair Sim by @aitchteee

For a look at how World War Two changed our attitudes to the spirit world, see ‘Films With Spirit’ – part 5 of ‘Matinee Musings’ by Sarah Miller Walters, available as an Amazon Kindle book

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