Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

A Reader’s Diary, 18 December 2013

Edward Luttwak begins his review of The Bombing War: Europe 1939-45 by Richard Overy (London Review of Books, 21 November 2013) with an extract from the report of the police president of Hamburg on the bombing that took place in the summer of 1943.

‘The scenes of terror which took place in the firestorm area are indescribable. Children were torn away from their parents’ hands by the force of the hurricane and whirled into the fire. People who thought they had escaped fell down, overcome by the devouring force of the heat and died in an instant… The sick and infirm had to be left behind by the rescuers as they themselves were in danger of burning… And these days were followed by more nights of more horror, yet more smoke and soot, heat and dust and more death and destruction.’

Luttwak writes that ‘the extract is enough to make plain the sheer horror of the air war waged by the British, Canadians and Americans against German cities’. Is it enough? The rest of his review is a calculation of the strategic value of the bombing based on statistics. His quotation seems like a nod in the direction of conscience, no more. With that out of the way, he can take the wider view which we expect of a historian.

The police president’s description reminded me of the first chapter of William Golding’s Darkness Visible, in which fire watchers on a night of bombing in London see a naked child walking down the street towards them out of the fire.

A child’s stride is quick; but this child walked down the very middle of the street with a kind of ritual gait that in an adult would have been called solemn. The captain could see – and now, with a positive explosion of human feeling – why this particular child walked as it did. The brightness on his left side was not an effect of light. The burn was even more visible on the left side of his head. All his hair was gone on that side, and on the other, shrivelled to peppercorn dots. His face was so swollen he could only glimpse where he was going through the merest of slits. It was perhaps something animal that was directing him away from the place where the world was being consumed.

Luttwak’s view that ‘a firm focus on numbers and on the passage of time confers perspective’ is, at the very least, open to challenge. Perspective, as every artist knows, can be misleading. Golding himself draws attention to it when the fire watchers first see what turns out to be a child coming out of the fire.

What had seemed impossible and therefore unreal was now a fact and clear to them all. A figure had condensed out of the shuddering backdrop of the glare. It moved in the geometrical centre of the road which now appeared longer and wider than before. Because it was the same size as before, then the figure was impossibly small – impossibly tiny, since children had been the first to be evacuated from that whole area; and in the mean and smashed streets there had been so much fire there was nowhere for a family to live. Nor do small children walk out of a fire that is melting lead and distorting iron.

Some numbers are so big, like the numbers of Jews killed in the Holocaust or the numbers of Japanese killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that they obscure the reality of individual tragedy. Perhaps that is the province of the novelist, not the historian.

William Golding

William Golding

Instead of the usual essay, my post on Christmas Day will be a short story. I hope you enjoy it!

The next entry in my Reader’s Diary is due on 1 January and will be about whatever I’ve been reading lately.

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