Adversity has never driven people apart or broken their resilience. The cruel know this. They practice cruelty not by divide and conquer but by driving people together so that they may be collectively destroyed and their resistance rendered futile. To do this they turn cruelty into cause and charm, though the cause is vile and their charm corrupt as they seduce people and nations to do their evil bidding. This was the case in 1940.
That year Elizabeth Bowen, proudly Anglican and British, lies in the arms of her proudly Irish and Catholic lover. As they nest together, a monster makes its way across Poland. What could their differences possibly mean now as the world begins to know an onslaught never before in its history, one that would start with the quest for lebensraum and end with single bombs that could destroy entire cities.
Very soon, the destruction would be visited on London itself. The city lit by bombs would see its class system fade, ethnic divisions diminished, genders made equal, and confessional differences rendered meaningless. Those men who could afford it sent their wives and children into the country while they stayed on to play St. George slaying the dragon.
From atop the roofs of London, St. George would stand ready at an anti-aircraft battery and the maiden he defends would be in the Tube to attend to the injured and dying. For the lower and working classes, these two would even be the ones that had exchanged vows, but history does not always recall those stories. What it does recall are the Elizabeth Bowens and Graham Greenes.
I have started The Love Charm of Bombs, a record of five writers and those they loved during the blitz and in one fictitious case the V2 rocket attacks. They are the stories of people who were driven into one another’s arms by adversity, though these stories grew to be futile after the adversity was gone. They were people who defended and wept over what was the greatest city on earth at the time and they left the world with the tortured and beautiful prose of those stories.
In time we would come to know the stories more completely. And we know the outcome of the larger picture. The Allies won, the beast took his life in a bunker, Europe’s Jewish population was decimated, and the Americans having split the atom made its first practical use to be wholesale destruction. We also know that Dresden and Hamburg suffered much more than London from saturation bombing and the love stories of the fearless defenders and their maidens were often actually accounts of affairs.
In 1940, people could not know this. The Nazis have all the tactical advantages and Europe is largely under their control. Only one country stands up to them and they could hardly match Germany’s military might. Newly published at the time is The Power and the Glory. Escape from London air bombardment often meant going to sunny Mexico to live the life an alcoholic priest called to stand alone to face down the adversity of anti-Catholic governance, mirrored in the minds of the readers as Britain standing alone in its fight against tyranny.
In 1945, the world is left to pick up the pieces. The Axis, having picked a fight with the wrong country, are destroyed by British resilience and American might. The world settles into a new peace. Colonies become independent nations in a new ethos of human liberty and the Axis powers go from being models of cruelty to models of prosperity and democracy. In the United States, German scientists are working to develop those technologies that would give the United States the ICBM and eventually put a man on the moon. One would think the memory of war could not be forgotten quickly enough, though that would hardly be the case.
Werner Von Braun made Neil Armstrong possible, but in 1944 he is the terror of London. The blitz is long over, but Britain stares down that which proves less deadly but more terrifyingly fascinating. No longer do bombs need to be dropped from planes piloted by real men, who risk their own lives. Rather London faces the V1 flying bomb and the V2, a single stage rocket that can be launched hundreds of miles away. They are the predator drones of the day. The British call them robots.
Certainly a robot deserves a story and in 1951 it got one in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, a book William Faulkner proclaimed as “one of the best, most true and moving novels of my time, in anybody’s language,” though others think it should be given an award for making romantics cry and teenagers contemplate suicide. It produced two movies, television episodes, fodder for book clubs, and more than a few couples weeping as their own affairs came to an end. The only thing is the real affair had no robot ripping through the roof of a London apartment or penitent Catholic woman looking after the soul of an unbeliever. The real story had two people practiced in the beauty of romance, albeit adulterous.
The imagination was still there, however, and as adversity breeds love and imagination, the blitz produced more than its share. With that in mind I am undertaking The Love Charm of Bombs. It promises plenty on Graham Greene and it has Elizabeth Bowen and others. I go into reading it making no judgment on the stories it tells neither praising the nobility of facing down adversity or being judgmental about the affairs. Truth is the book promises to be about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstance, even if these people happen to be the literary and famous and their accounts not entirely true. I will only let the accounts of love rain down as certainly as bombs, knowing both may produce the possibility of great damage and perhaps even a great beauty.