From A. C. Grayling's "THE THINKING READ" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
In saying of this beautiful and profound book that booksellers will be hard pressed to know where to shelve it, I pay it a double compliment: for it is one of those rare works which defies categorization, being a tapestry of several interwoven genres at once: a memoir, a history, an understated epic, a book about poetry and war, a personal journey, and a poignant search for a tragic truth. It ranges so widely in its references, and focuses so acutely in its vision, that it moves and impresses not only because of the sadness of the central story, but also because of the sheer scope of the meanings that the author collects around it.
A more reductive description would say that Daniel Swift has gone in search of his grandfather, a bomber pilot in the Royal Air Force who was shot down and killed in the summer of 1943 during a raid on Germany. It would also say that it is a book about war poetry, conclusively and powerfully giving the lie to the claim that the First World War monopolized this genre; for Swift shows that the Second World War's poetry-inducing equivalent of the trenches was the bombing war, in outstanding poetry both by and about the bombers and the bombed, both by and about those who fought and those who suffered.
At sirens, sweat to feel the whole town wince
And thump, a terrified heart,
Under the bomb-strokes"
wrote Cecil Day Lewis in "Word Over All," and when one reads it in the knowledge that this is a genuine report of a horrible reality, it lances through to one's own heart, thumping to think of what has been and -- alas! -- still is endured by millions in the dire territories of our human condition. Swift sees Day Lewis as challenging the bombers to write poetry from their own point of view:
"Speak for the air, your element, you hunters
Who range across the ribbed and shifting sky:
Speak for whatever gives you mastery --
Wings that bear out your purpose, quick-responsive
Finger, fighting heart, a kestrel's eye."
Day Lewis was writing from the viewpoint of the civilian craning his neck up to watch the aircraft flying to their work of death, or coming to kill him and all around him: he wants their side of the experience too, and so commands them to tell us:
"Speak of the rough and tumble in the blue,
The mast-high run, the flak, the battering gales:
You that, until the life you love prevails,
Must follow death's impersonal vocation --
Speak for the air, and tell your hunter's tales."
And, as Swift shows, quite a few did so, in poetry sometimes of the highest quality. When the response came, it could have a shattering frankness:
"In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school –
Till our lives wore out."
Thus Randall Jarrell, airman.
"Where cloud rained fire, and we were in the cloud --
Its climate, dark, and deluge. And we spread
Simple as rain, like thunder loud,
To be the following weather of the dead."
Thus John Ciardi, rear-gunner in a B-29 bombing Japan.
The point is not that Swift's grandfather was a poet, for he was not. It is instead that in seeking to understand the warrior life and warrior death of his lost grandfather, who was killed in action when Swift's own father was a very small boy, Swift discovered that it was not just the detailed archives kept by both sides in the struggle, not just the survivors, reminiscences, debates, and histories, that fill out the picture of Squadron Leader J. E. Swift's military life and death, but poetry: remarkable poetry, all the more remarkable when one sees it in the context Swift provides. Poetry is a torch that shines into experience, and in this book its light is so brilliant that it illuminates not only the landscape of that era, but individual figures within it, including that of the lost Squadron Leader.
I should declare an interest. Swift mentions my own book on the bombing campaigns of the Second World War, in which I essay a moral audit of one significant aspect of it, namely 'area bombing,' which is the indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilian populations with the aim of terrorizing them, killing large numbers of them outright, and destroying the survivors' means of existence. He does not agree with all my conclusions, which are that although the primary duty of the Allied powers was to vanquish Nazism and Japanese aggression, the use of area bombing as one means to that end was not morally justified; and further, that it lacked the uncomfortable justification of being essential to achieving victory, which it was not -- for in fact it might even have prolonged the war, and made it harder for the Allies to win.
So I lavish praise on Swift's remarkable book not because we are on the same side of the argument, for we are not wholly so. It is because, having read many books about the air war, and having written about it myself, I recognise the special qualities of Swift's account: scrupulous research, perceptiveness, sensitivity, depth of personal engagement, synoptic understanding and breadth of intellectual sympathy, all going far beyond the usual histories and memoirs on the subject.
One thing we emphatically agree about, though, is the heroism of the flyers. Fifty-five thousand British and Commonwealth airmen died in the dangerous skies over Europe during the war; 45,000 USAAF airmen died there and over the Pacific likewise. These were great sacrifices, and they were made in circumstances that would test the courage of the best in any war. For them and the survivors who flew in fighters and bombers alike I have the greatest admiration. Though one aspect of the bombing war was a major moral error, that fact does not impugn the courage of the aircrews or the scars, visible and otherwise, of the veterans alive today. They have an epic stature, not least those among them whose retrospective on their war chimes with the kind of memory James Dickey captures, opening a fridge door late at night decades after bombing Japan:
"a reed mat catches fire
From me, it explodes through field after field
Bearing its sleeper another
Bomb finds a home
And clings to it like a child."
Swift builds a picture of his grandfather's experience from a wide range of apt resources, from Hector's farewell to Andromache before his fatal contest with Achilles in the Iliad, through Dante's inferno, to Breughel's painting of Icarus plunging from the sky -- just as his grandfather had plunged from the sky into the North Sea, still in the cockpit of his Lancaster bomber. He was on his way back from a raid on Münster, and Swift's careful research suggests that he was probably shot down by a Luftwaffe night-fighter pilot called Oberfeldwebel Karl-Heinz Scherfling, flying a Messerschmitt 110. Scherfling was in his early twenties at the time, and was himself killed in action the following year: the tragedy of lives lost, individually and in the mass, was not reserved to just one side of the argument.
Swift went to speak to Germans who had endured the onslaught of the Allies, so vastly greater than the Blitz on Britain in 1940 and the indiscriminate missile attacks by V1 and V2 rockets on London and elsewhere in the summer of 1944. These attacks, as polling showed, made their victims less likely to wish for retaliatory bombing on Germany than those who had not been bombed; the people keenest on bombing Germany to smithereens were Americans in their unbombed cities far across the Atlantic.
And when Swift sat in the kitchens of old ladies in Cologne and elsewhere, hearing them speak of their experiences, one of the things he remembered about the encounters was laughter; they had all shared in the double-sided tragedy that was bombing, and were released from the obligations of apology.
At the end of the war Churchill's personal physician, Lord Moran, wrote a book called The Anatomy of Courage about how military personnel withstand the stresses of combat. He remarked, "We must practise a prudent economy of emotion in time of war if we are to remain sane." Swift discusses the need for such economy, particularly by limiting the imagination. Imagination made the work called for in war impossible; waiting for tonight's raid and picturing one's aircraft falling like a burning torch from the sky would unnerve one too much. He sees in what is never mentioned or even alluded to in his grandfather's letters evidence of a tight mastery of imagination. "There is no news," his letters to his family often say, shortly after and before going on bombing raids. Quoting Dante's "I, one man alone / prepared myself to face the double war / of the journey and the pity," Swift comments that "To be a bomber is daily to war against an alternative version of your own story."
Swift tells us that a naturalist who studied post-war bomb-sites in London found them rich in unexpected wildlife. Rosebay willow-herb had sprung up on scorched-earth sites cleared of rubble; black redstarts which normally nest in rocky cliff-crags had colonised the broken walls and exposed interiors of bombed-out buildings. The strange beauty of cities on fire -- stark silhouettes against flames, water-covered streets where the fire-fighters struggled, reflecting the roaring inferno around them -- had transmogrified into subtle reclamations by other kinds of beauty.
When the bombing stopped in those landscapes the dead were silent, the survivors weary; the droning aircraft high above had gone home. Decades later Swift and his father traveled to the Netherlands to visit the cemetery where Squadron Leader J. E. Swift was buried, and to visit the beach where his body had washed up. They spoke to Dutch people who are still finding remains of crashed warplanes -- eight feet underground in some cases, so violent were the impacts. Sometimes the Dutch find unexploded bombs, too.
Swift was taken by one of the officials to see a recent war find.
For lunch, we have fried eggs with ham, and Gouda cheese in plastic wraps. We drink milk and eat an apple after, and then he takes me to a warehouse and shows me three wooden boxes full of jagged silver pieces. They are as sharp as a knife, he says, but to me they look like great boxes of salad. There are valves, pistons, the throttle. There are two engines and three propellers of a Lancaster ED 603, found fifteen metres down in the Ijsselmeer. One engine weighs 4000 lbs, and the propellers are twisted and organic. The whole looks once alive, with the barnacles and the propellers like fins and the valves below like gills.
This understated but piercing prose, this clarity, this juxtaposition of fried eggs with the twisted propellers of a four-engined bomber that was the coffin of dooming and then doomed men, is writing of an exceptional order. Combine it with its intricately woven personal and universal subject matters, and a classic emerges. Of all the books about war that I have read -- all war, not just the bombing war -- this is among the most moving and telling.
Read an Excerpt
The Poetry of a Lost Pilot's War
By Daniel Swift
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2010 Daniel Swift
All rights reserved.
Five Minutes after the Air Raid
12 June 1943
After the air raid, Virginia Woolf went for a walk. 'The greatest pleasure of town life in winter - rambling the streets of London,' she had written, a decade before. She called it 'street haunting', and in the essay of that title she gives instructions on how this should be done. 'The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful,' she wrote: 'The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves.' Picture her, then, stepping out into the bombed city. It is perhaps a little earlier in the day than she might have liked, this afternoon in the middle of January 1941, and in less than three months she will be dead, but today she is here to take a quiet pleasure in the ruins.
'I went to London Bridge,' she notes in her diary:
I looked at the river; very misty; some tufts of smoke, perhaps from burning houses. There was another fire on Saturday. Then I saw a cliff of wall, eaten out, at one corner; a great corner all smashed; a Bank; the Monument erect; tried to get a Bus; but such a block I dismounted; & the second Bus advised me to walk. A complete jam of traffic; for streets were being blown up. So by tube to the Temple; & there wandered in the desolate ruins of my old squares; gashed; dismantled; the old red bricks all white powder, something like a builders yard. Grey dirt & broken windows; sightseers; all that completeness ravished & demolished.
She is watching carefully, making her way north and then west, through traffic jams and rubble, and she pauses for a while in 'my old squares', the wide and orderly spaces of Bloomsbury where she used to live. But then, quite simply, life interrupts: 'So to Buzsards where, for almost the first time, I decided to eat gluttonously. Turkey & pancakes. How rich, how solid. 4/- they cost. And so to the L.L. where I collected specimens of Eng. litre [English literature].' From Bloomsbury, she walked past the Air Ministry on Oxford Street on her way to Buzsards, a café known for its wedding cakes and before the war its tables out on the street. After lunch, she goes on to the London Library in St James's Square. The fastest route is straight down Regent Street, and she had work to do on a new book.
Woolf's diaries, as the war begins, tell of a growing fascination. On the Sunday that Britain declared war, she was sewing black-out curtains at Monk's House, the cottage in Sussex she shared with her husband Leonard, and she wrote: 'I suppose the bombs are falling on rooms like this in Warsaw.' Three days later: 'Our first air raid at 8.30 this morning. A warbling that gradually insinuates itself as I lay in bed. So dressed & walked on the terrace with L. Sky clear. All cottages shut. All clear.' The bombs did not come that morning, but she waits and she watches. 'No raids yet,' she recorded on Monday, 11 September, but saw 'Over London a light spotted veil' of the silver barrage balloons on steel ropes, to defend the city from low-flying planes. The winter comes, and then the spring; a German bomber flies over Monk's House; Holland falls, and Belgium, and Chamberlain resigns. She is always looking at the skies. 'The bomb terror,' she writes in her diary: 'Going to London to be bombed.' In May 1940 there are rumours of invasion, and at the end of the month: 'A great thunderstorm. I was walking on the marsh & thought it was the guns on the channel ports. Then, as they swerved, I conceived a raid on London; turned on the wireless; heard some prattler; & then the guns began to lighten.' Transformed by her poised imagination, the rain becomes a raid, and then the falling bombs return to rain. 'I conceived a raid,' writes Virginia Woolf, the great novelist, thinking bombers where there were none.
Of course, in these fixated times she was at work on a novel. She called it 'Poyntz Hall' but it was published after her death as Between the Acts, and it too imagines bombers. After the country-house pageant which is the centre of the novel, the Reverend Streatfield stands on a soap box to address the audience on the subject of funds for 'the illumination of our dear old church', and as he begins to speak:
Mr Streatfield paused. He listened. Did he hear some distant music?
He continued: 'But there is still a deficit' (he consulted his paper) 'of one hundred and seventy-five pounds odd. So that each of us who has enjoyed this pageant has still an opp ...' The word was cut in two. A zoom severed it. Twelve aeroplanes in perfect formation like a flight of wild duck came overhead. That was the music. The audience gaped; the audience gazed. The zoom became drone. The planes had passed.
'... portunity,' Mr Streatfield continued, 'to make a contribution.'
The duck-like passing planes gently, ironically interrupt the platitudes of village life, but they are not wholly fictional. Throughout the spring and summer of 1940, Woolf had been watching the fighters scrambling over the downs, to the Battle of Britain, and hearing the distant music as the bombers came and went. Some days that summer, her diary is little more than a war report: 'Nightly raids on the east & south coast. 6, 3, 12 people killed nightly.' And even on the nights when there are no bombers - 'Listened for another; none came' - she begins to imagine them, to transform them into something useful. On the last Thursday of May 1940 she went out for a walk and 'Instantly wild duck flights of aeroplanes came over head; manoeuvred; took up positions & passed over.'
So much of Woolf's diaries reads as the roughs for so much of her published writing, and the notes on bombing from 1940 find their way into an essay, 'Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid'. She wrote it in August for an American symposium on women in the war and here she returns to the moment when the bombers are above. As she narrates: 'The sound of sawing overhead has increased. All the searchlights are erect. They point at a spot exactly above this roof. At any moment a bomb may fall on this very room. One, two, three, four, five, six ... the seconds pass.' Here we are, waiting and watching, as so often she was, and this time, as always before, the bombs do not fall, and she goes on:
But during those seconds of suspense all thinking stopped. All feeling, save one dull dread, ceased. A nail fixed the whole being to one hard board. The emotion of fear and of hate is therefore sterile, unfertile. Directly that fear passes, the mind reaches out and instinctively revives itself by trying to create. Since the room is dark it can only create from memory. It reaches out to the memory of other Augusts - in Bayreuth, listening to Wagner; in Rome, walking over the Campagna; in London. Friends' voices come back. Scraps of poetry return.
In the moments after the air raid, the frozen imagination - nailed to one hard board - awakes again, and it does so by remembering, and creating; by making something new from fragments of the past, a memory of music, a line of poetry.
In the last week of August 1940, the weather was hot, and every day in Woolf's diary there are air raid warnings. On the afternoon of Saturday, 7 September, the Blitz begins, and two days later she and Leonard go to London. 'Left the car & saw Holborn,' she writes:
A vast gap at the top of Chancery Lane. Smoking still. Some great shop entirely destroyed: the hotel opposite like a shell. In a wine shop there were no windows left. People standing at the tables - I think drink being served. Heaps of blue green glass in the road at Chancery Lane. Men breaking off fragments left in the frames.
The bombs continue to fall on the city. In the middle of October, she and Leonard return to London once more. They pass their old flat, in Tavistock Square, now open to the sky — 'I cd just see a piece of my studio wall standing: otherwise rubble where I wrote so many books,' she notes - and go on to their apartment at Mecklenburgh Square. Here, the windows had been blown out by a near bomb - 'All again litter, glass, black soft dust, plaster powder' - and they retrieve a few of their possessions. Some diaries and notebooks; 'Darwin, & the Silver, & some glass & china'; her fur coat, now dusty: at half past two they climb back into their little car and drive out to Sussex. She had long been ready to leave the city. In September, she had written to her old friend Ethyl Smith: 'When I see a great smash like a crushed match box where an old house stood I wave my hand to London.' Now, 'Exhilaration at losing possessions', she writes, and 'I shd like to start life, in peace, almost bare - free to go anywhere.'
Virginia Woolf was haunted by air raids, and after she killed herself at the end of March 1941, some were quick to blame the bombers. Violet Dickinson wrote to Virginia's sister Vanessa: 'I think she was dreadfully bothered by the noise and aeroplanes and headaches', and Malcolm Cowley, reviewing the posthumously published Between the Acts in the New Republic, called her 'a war casualty'. The raids for her were a dark fascination, and in a long diary entry written on Wednesday, 2 October 1940, she is sitting at Monk's House watching the sunset and thinking of her death in an air raid. 'Oh I try to imagine how one's killed by a bomb,' she writes, and furnishes the scene:
I've got it fairly vivid - the sensation: but cant see anything but suffocating nonentity following after. I shall think — oh I wanted another 10 years — not this — & shant, for once, be able to describe it. It — I mean death; no, the scrunching & scrambling, the crushing of my bone shade in on my very active eye & brain: the process of putting out the light, — painful? Yes. Terrifying. I suppose so - Then a swoon; a drum; two or three gulps attempting consciousness - & then, dot dot dot
Yet there is no full stop, and if there is a death-wish here it is overwhelmed by an opposite desire: to imagine the moment and to tell what comes after the air raid. She calls it 'the process of putting out the light', the last moments of consciousness, but she is not quite willing to let go of her deep literariness, for she is quoting Othello's words before he strangles Desdemona. 'Put out the light,' he curses her, and 'then put out the light.' It is a scene impossible to render, but 'I've got it fairly vivid': here is a trace of writerly pride.
After the air raid, a scrap of poetry returns, and a memory of August in Rome. There are sightseers in the rubble, picking at the fragments of blue green glass, and perhaps a taste of wine from the blown-out wine shop. Later in the afternoon, perhaps, a plate of turkey and pancakes at a café on Oxford Street.
This is not to say that the things we recover from the ruins are easy, or even necessarily good for us. On the day of her death, Virginia Woolf walked out to the river that runs near her house in Sussex and collected a stone from the bank. Putting the stone into the pocket of the fur coat she had retrieved from the flat at Mecklenburgh Square five months earlier, she drowned herself.
But it is to say that we do not only find death in the ruins. That day in Mecklenburgh Square Woolf took her books and china too, and the stationer's ring-bound journal in which she wrote her final diary entries. In the last months of her life, Woolf was planning an ambitious new book, a study that was to be about all of literature and all of her reading.
This was her grandest bid to bring something back from the ruins. She was not reading despite the bombs; she was reading with them, and the two — reading and bombs — are jumbled together in one of her last letters. 'Did I tell you I'm reading the whole of English literature through?' she wrote to Ethyl Smith on 1 February 1941:
By the time I've reached Shakespeare the bombs will be falling. So I've arranged a very nice last scene: reading Shakespeare, having forgotten my gas mask, I shall fade far away, and quite forget ... They brought down a raider the other side of Lewes yesterday. I was cycling in to get our butter, but only heard a drone in the clouds. Thank God, as you would say, one's fathers left one a taste for reading! Instead of thinking, by May we shall be — whatever it may be: I think, only 3 months to read Ben Jonson, Milton, Donne and all the rest!
She called this last book 'Turning the Page' or 'Reading at Random', and according to her biographer Hermione Lee it was planned as 'a collection of essays which would make up a version of English literary history'. She only completed fragments of the first two chapters.
What survives the air raid? The imagination, and then the scrunching and scrambling as the mind seeks to re-create itself. Hermione Lee records an anecdote told by Somerset Maugham that reveals much of Woolf's appreciation of bombing. After a dinner party in Westminster,' he recalled, 'she insisted on walking home alone during an air-raid. Anxious for her safety, he followed her, and saw her, lit up by the flashes of gun-fire, standing in the road and raising her arms to the sky.' She is beckoning to them, come closer.
In my childhood, I had only one grandfather. One was there, although already dead by the time I knew what that might mean. Grandparents are myths: their lives are the stories they suggest and we are told, and the one I had was myth enough to make up for the lopsided genealogy. He was Australian, a writer who left suburban Melbourne in the hot slow years before the Second World War to become a war correspondent in Europe, and he built a big house on the side of a hill in Tuscany, planted eucalyptus trees, entertained with a servant in a white jacket. There is a photograph of him having lunch with Hemingway. He was my mother's father, and my young cousins and I spent every school holiday in that house, playing badminton and lighting fires and never learning to speak Italian. This was my grandfather; I grew up in this myth.
But everyone has two grandfathers. I had another. My father's father simply wasn't there, and my father never spoke of him. He was not there and when I started writing this book, I did not know his first name.
My father and I are in his car, driving to an airport, and I have at last asked about the day his father died: about 12 June 1943. I don't remember what it was, but I do remember a catastrophe, my father says, and it must have been bad because that night he was allowed to sleep in his mother's bed. My father was three years old. At six, he was sent to boarding school. This felt like punishment. Later, he wanted someone to tell him what had happened, but he did not ask. You do not talk about this. Maybe everyone has this, says my father, this unease about where I was from. Maybe it is a standard emotion.
Later, my father sends me something he has written. It might be useful, he says, and I open it:
Aged five or six, just after the war and I think for several years after, I had a favourite bedtime story. I made my mother read it every night for months. In the story, a Russian family, mother and two children, are driving home at night in a pony-drawn sleigh through the forest in the snow, under the bright stars. As they near home they hear a pack of wolves behind. They hurry, but the wolves are faster. The family is crossing a clearing in the forest when the wolves catch up with them, leaping and snarling at the sleigh. At the moment all is lost, a dark figure steps silently from the surrounding forest, raises his gun and shoots the wolves. It is the children's father.
A few years later, he was at school, and learning the Lord's Prayer. 'Our father, which art in heaven,' it begins, and he imagined this was his father. He survived school, and then university, and in the autumn of 1962 he moved to France. 'Having always vaguely imagined as a child that my father might have survived the war - shot down and memory lost - this idea firmly rooted itself in my mind when I moved to France,' he writes: 'I had fantasies about the day I would meet him and recognise him. Sometimes he recognised me, and stopped me in the street. Quite soon further layers added themselves: he was not only alive, but very rich.' In time, my father marries, and has children, and one day as a small boy I am doing a project on ghosts for my homework. I don't remember when, but I asked my grandmother about ghosts and she said, of course. We were in her house, a thatched cottage in Sussex, and she pointed to the tree in the curve of the drive. A long time ago, she had seen my grandfather sitting there, and she was delighted, because she was not expecting him to have returned yet from the base. It was the day he died.
Excerpted from Bomber County by Daniel Swift. Copyright © 2010 Daniel Swift. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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