Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Not long before the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, a conventional bombing raid on Tokyo claimed some 100,000 lives in a single night. This happened on March 9th but there were no commemorative programmes to mark the 50th anniversary earlier this year - no debates about its morality, no documentaries about its survivors, no articles about how it had irreversibly altered the world we live in. The effects of that bombardment were probably as capricious and as cruel as those of the atomic bomb but they haven't been detailed for our regretful or awed contemplation. The bomb sucks our moral attention towards it just as a firestorm sucks in oxygen.

It does this because of its two terrible virtues as a weapon - its compactness and its instantaneity. What took 325 bombers over Tokyo took just one over Hiroshima. What happened over the course of a night happened in a few seconds - at 8.15 the clocks stopped and the world was transformed. Hiroshima - The Decision to Drop the Bomb (BBC1) gave a concise account of what had lead to that moment, a story of impure motives - of fear, revenge, diplomatic finesse and Faustian temptation. Truman wanted to end the war without Stalin's help and wanted also to demonstrate America's new power - Hiroshima may have been the first and only explosion of the Cold War.

The Shadow of Hiroshima (C4), Tony Harrison's filmed poem to mark the occasion, was concerned less with the apportionment of blame than with the nature of the city now. His film, like another poem about an inferno, took the form of a tour conducted by a ghost - not Virgil in this case, but the unknown man whose outline was burned into stone steps by the blast: "I am the nameless fanning man / You may address as Shadow-San." And it didn't attempt to erase the modern city, as many recollections do, but to find in it stranger echoes of the event. An empty baseball stadium offered a population of ghosts, vacant seats numbering the dead, a classroom of young children recalled the dispassionate equanimity of the bomb, which made no choices.

It could so easily turn callow this - simple pieties, nailed down with simple rhymes and simple rhythm. Harrison's tone of voice constantly has to curb the verse from its natural bent towards flippancy. You wonder if he has failed at one point, when he works a particularly sardonic pause into a couplet describing an old man imagining the day of the explosion: "Haru-San hears scorched throats croak / Where now new thirsts get quenched by... Coke." The contempt in the final word, that bathetic slump, seems to suggest moral condemnation. But it can't, surely, be worse to sell them soft-drinks than incinerate them? The irony is hollow, as flimsy as an empty can.

The best of the poem, though, was precisely its wariness of symbols - a knowledge of the ease with which they will crumple under any pressure of scrutiny. The peace doves to which the film returns again and again begin as emblems of victimhood, their flutter in the cages an echo of panic and unwitting attentiveness. When a hawk appears, you brace yourself a little - what can Harrison do to rescue these avian cliches of war and peace from triteness? He can ruffle their feathers for one thing. The hawk, soaring over the city, isn't linked to that single American plane, but to "The old Japan, that took Nanking / Under its dark, blood-splattered wing." And the doves aren't innocent either - some don't make it back to their lofts and hang around the peace park, bullying and crowding. They have become a nuisance and are destined to be poisoned or shot. Harrison concludes not with a sentiment but with a hard question: "Is the world at peace tonight/ Or are we all like Shadow-San/ Facing inferno with a fan?"