Friday, November 18, 2005

Putting on the Blitz

If a whispy, ethereal being materialised in your living room and offered you an all-expenses-paid return trip to the summer of 1940 in order to experience the Blitz first-hand, would you take it up on its offer?

The Blitz spirit is of course a pivotal part of our national mythology. We've all seen those black and white images of cheerful cockneys sipping tea on the Piccadilly Line platforms whilst 'orrible Fritz did his worst up above.

Yet in Underground London Stephen Smith reminds us that at the start of the German bombing campaign London Transport put up notices expressly forbidding Londoners from using the network as a shelter, and later on still insisted that patrons needed to buy a ticket before descending to relative safety!

At first anyone seen rushing for the nearest station when the sirens rang was braded a Tube Cuthbert. "We are happy to say that majority of offenders are members of alien races" reported the Railway Gazette.

Sanitary conditions in the tunnels were often akin to those in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina was whooshing outside - which is why the better off sought shelter at a more exclusive tunnel complex beneath The Savoy.

Cecile Beaton's description of the goings on amongst the regulars down there makes it sound rather like Hitler's bunker in Berlin at the time of the Nazi Götterdämmerung . This debauched little circle ("airmen off duty, tarts on duty") was penetrated on September 15, 1940 when Phil Piratin, a communist and a leading figure in the Stepney Tenants Defence League, led a group of one hundred East Enders into the Savoy shelter.

Of the several disasters that befell the crowds huddled on the platforms during the summer nights of 1940, the worst was caused by a German bomb which bounced down an escalator at Bank, killing 117 people.

It seems that the Tube system has a long history of dubious PR. Colonel John Bell, General Manager of the original Metropolitan line had the unenviable task of putting a positive spin on the world's first underground steam railway. He claimed the acid gas had cured his tonsilitis and that such was the health-enhancing nature of the fumes that Great Portland Street station was being used as a sanitorium for sufferers from asthma and other bronchial complaints.

It's now over four months since I went cold-turkey on the Tube. The other morning I had a look in Victoria Embankment Gardens for the ventilation shafts Sir Joseph Bazalgette constructed to allow the District Line passing below to exhale at intervals. Stephen Smith says they are now disguised as plinths, but none of the those I examined were obviously dissembling.

There's a new book out by Gavin Mortimer - The Longest Night, which explores what it was like to experience the particularly heavy night of bombing on May 10-11, 1940. I've been giving it the eye in Foyles.

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