Darkness falls from the air

LONDON AT WAR 1939-1945 by Philip Ziegler, Sinclair-Stevenson £20
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THE story of London at war is essentially that of the Blitz. Of course there are sub-plots: evacuations, food shortages, the great tides of European immigrants and American soldiers that swept through the city. But what distinguished London's war-time experience from that of anywhere else in Britain was the scale of the bombings. Between the first and the last German raid, the alert was sounded on 1124 occasions. "If these were averaged," wrote the social scientist Richard Titmus, "it may be said that Londoners were threatened once every 36 hours for over five years." Over half of Britain's fatal or serious casualties occurred in the capital - 30 percent of the City was virtually destroyed, 20 per cent of Stepney and Southwark.

The results affected every part of every Londoner's life. Buildings took on a talismanic significance: everyone agreed that the collapse of St Paul's would have had a catastrophic effect on morale. Londoners suddenly became interested in art - Stephen Spender put it down to the fact that music, the ballet, poetry and painting were concerned with a seriousness of living and dying with which they themselves had suddenly been confronted. Women found themselves with new responsibilities and freedoms. "Saw a woman road-sweeper today," one veteran recorded in her diary. "Don't think we got as far as that in the last war."

Social distinctions, too, were momentarily weakened. The Home Guard, the fire services, the ARP all cut across traditional class structures and for the period of the worst raids - the Blitz proper, from September 1940 to May 1941 - Londoners had to get used to sleeping together, often in the foulest conditions. Some of them even found that they enjoyed it. Long after the Blitz had stopped, the Underground continued to play host to 6,000 troglodytes every night: "Families had taken root far below the surface ... some children of nearly three had never spent a night in their homes." Mrs Martyn, deputy chief warden at Holborn since 1940, almost broke down when told that the shelter was closing: "I don't know what I shall do when I haven't got to come here every night. I think of all the people as my children."

Ziegler is not so nave as to swallow "the myth of the Blitz" whole. He is quick to point out how the worst prejudices survived and were often exacerbated by war. Jews were blamed for monopolising the shelters, women for the shortage of cigarettes, American soldiers for seducing English girls. Class rivalries remained a reality: the wealthy found ways round the food shortages - they could avoid the worst effects of rationing by eating in restaurants - and when, at the beginning of the raids, Hitler's bombs fell almost exclusively on the East End, this was seen by many as proof that the Nazis to the East and rich Londoners to the West were on the same side. Atlee told Harold Nicolson: "If only the Germans had had the sense not to bomb west of London Bridge there might have been a revolution in this country."

But the Germans did bomb Park Lane and Bond Street, and Philip Ziegler finds that there is a lot to agree with in the Blitz myth. It is true that in time the bombings inspired a sense of comradeship which defied class boundaries, and the raids were endured with positive good humour or at least an "English" doughtiness. The statistics suggest that looting and other crimes were comparatively rare.

Ziegler tells his heart-warming story pointillist fashion, quoting from diaries, letters and reported comments of a cross-section of the city, from the journals of Lord Woolton to those of Gladys Cox, "a middle-aged widow from West Hampstead". The biographer of Diana Cooper, Mountbatten and Edward VIII, he has a good ear for the conceits and foibles of the upper classes - Charles Graves lamenting that the reduction of the sugar allowance "will make it all the more necessary for us to dine out" - but too many of the working-class characters seem to have walked off the set of an Ealing comedy. "I am not going out without me corset on," Ziegler makes one woman, whose home faced imminent collapse, say. "I never 'ave and 'Itler won't make me."

And if at times Ziegler's style is almost too jaunty for the terrors he recounts - perhaps here he remains a victim of "the myth of the Blitz" - he has a fine eye for irony, including the greatest irony of all: at the end of the War politicians, architects and planners were talking bravely of giving the city a fitting reward for all it had so heroically endured. "If we do not make London worth the spirit of those who fought the Battle of Britain, posterity will rise and curse us for unimaginative fools" proclaimed the Architectural Review in 1944. But it didn't turn out quite as planned. Fifty years on and Ziegler wryly quotes Wren's epitaph in St Paul's: "If you need a monument look around you."