Thursday 29 June 2017

Elizabeth Bowen, The heat of the night

Elizabeth Bowen on 'that heady autumn of the first London air raids', has a freedom, a light-headedness, the intimacy of the besieged, which she must have had already in her Anglo-Irish blood. The heat of the night, Chapter Five, I read in astonishment. Fear is my inherited sense of the Blitz, not privilege.
All through London, the ropings-off of dangerous tracts of street made islands of exalted if stricken silence, and people crowded against the ropes to admire the sunny emptiness on the other side.
Something of that sunny emptiness lasted into my childhood, fifty miles from London, drifts of leaves, dazzling silences. I didn't know bomb sites on the ground but I knew them in my mind.
The night behind and the night to come met across every noon in an arch of strain. To work or to think was to ache. In offices, factories, ministries, shops, kitchens the hot yellow sands of each afternoon ran to slowly; fatigue was the one reality. You dared not envisage sleep.
How much of this we take in with mother's milk is a conundrum.
That autumn of 1940 was to appear, by two autumns later, apocryphal, more far away than peace. No planetary round was to bring again that particular conjunction of life and death; that particular psychic London was to be gone for ever; more bombs would fall, but not on the same city.
Whence our sense of ruin.
The first generation of ruins, cleaned up, shored up, began to weather — in daylight they took their places as a norm of the scene; the dangerless nights of September two years later blotted them out. It was from this new insidious echoless propriety of ruins that you breathed in all that was most malarial.
I read this, not even at three a.m., and recognised everything.

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