A few months ago I published a blog post about the Ealing classic ‘Hue and Cry’. I observed how this film is an excellent way to grasp the scale of the damage done to London by the Blitz. Read it again here
More recently I watched the 1954 film ‘8 O’Clock Walk’; a fantastic drama starring the sadly recently departed Richard Attenborough as a man accused of murdering a child. The plot of the film is linked into a blitz bomb site in north London. Attenborough’s character is the last person to be seen with the murdered girl, while leading her onto the bomb site to look for a lost doll. We therefore get a clear view of what a bomb site looks like after a good decade of neglect, and learn other snippets of information as the film goes on. For example it is clear to see how quickly nature has reclaimed the land, and as the accused’s clothes are tested for pollen, we are given a list of the plants that were usually found on these sites e.g. Rosebay Willowherb. We are also given an overview of how the sites became integrated into the local geography. This one has become a short cut for shoppers and a playground for children. It is clear that bomb sites were not held in reverence as a marker of the war or of those who died there. They seem to have been simply accepted as a new piece of open space. You might think that tales of ghosts would abound, but no-one seems frightened to use the area at all.
|1950s Attenborough by @aitchteee|
While gleaning this information, I began to consider how bomb sites became a part of our culture for a while. As I discussed in my ‘Hue and Cry’ post, it took a long time for them all to be redeveloped – decades in fact. During that time they sometimes became important aspects of film plots – such as in ‘Hue and Cry’ (as a playground/meeting place) and ‘8 O’ Clock Walk’ (as a murder scene). Perhaps one of the first films to utilise these places was the 1944 film ‘A Canterbury Tale’, where Powell and Pressburger use an image of a bombed out Canterbury with a defiant cathedral rising out of the rubble. This is highly symbolic as each of the main characters arrive in Canterbury to find that despite the war creating huge upheaval in their lives, the things that they held most dear have survived. Another film to make a more direct use of a bombsite is ‘the 1949 Ealing film ‘Passport to Pimlico’, where a blast from an unexploded bomb reveals long lost Burgundian treasure. I’m sure that there must be other films from the 1940s and 1950s which use these areas of waste ground either for plot or atmosphere. Their influence went on through the ensuing decades too. John Boorman’s ‘Hope and Glory’ (1987) reflects back to a childhood growing up on bombsites. I also recently read an excellent novel entitled ‘A Commonplace Killing’ (Sian Busby, 2013) where a body is found among the 1940s rubble by playing children. I too have a long term writing project on the go which involves a redeveloped piece of blitzed land.
It’s perhaps rather ghoulish but these places have captured our imagination – from playing children to filmmakers. I wonder how long their legends will live on there, now that they have at last disappeared from sight.
My new book - ‘The History Usherette’s Second Seat Third Row’ is available to download from Amazon now. This is based in a south London cinema which succumbs to a doodlebug attack in August 1944. Its final showing is ‘A Canterbury Tale’ and a series of tales examines how the film affects those watching. Here’s an extract:
“Come and get under the counter!” the old man yelled out as he ducked himself underneath the cash register. Bob joined him among the cobwebs and piles of unsaleable books. He knocked a mouldy pile of Shakespeares to the floor as the impact was felt, perhaps a mile or so away.
“That was a near one.” The old man eased his joints into a standing position and began to assess the ceiling and the shelves for any damage. Bob restacked the Shakespeares and brushed a cobweb off his uniform.
“Thanks for the shelter. That kind of thing must be setting your nerves on edge. Don’t you get any kind of warning siren?”
“Usually yes, but sometimes one gets through before they can do anything about it. We’re all starting to listen out for them all the time now, without even thinking about it. Anyway, no sign of any damage this time. We live to read another day.”
“Well, good luck.” Bob touched his cap and left the bookshop. A thought occurred to him that people may be in need of help where the rocket had landed. Perhaps he ought to go and see what he could do. He followed the sound of the ringing bells and walked towards the column of smoke the continued to rise up, funnelling debris down onto the top of his cap. London seemed determined to send him back to the base covered in filth.