Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).
Authors find their inspiration in the most unexpected places. New Yorker, Jessica Francis Kane, found hers in a report published by Her Majesty’s Stationary Office which she picked up in the British Library bookshop. It deals with an incident which took place during the bombing of London in World War II and which is commemorated in a plaque at Bethnal Green Underground Station in London. The plaque reads:
In memory of the 173 men, women and children who lost their lives on the evening of Wednesday 3 March 1943 descending these steps to Bethel Green Underground air raid shelter.
The deaths were not caused by a bomb, but by a sudden blockage on the stairs in which the victims were crushed.
A local Magistrate, Laurence Dunne, was given the task of investigating the incident in order to determine its cause. He struggled with conflicting accounts, traumatized survivors, racial tensions due to an influx of Jewish immigrants, rumours of secret bomb testing and new German weapons, and restrictions placed on information by a British government obsessed with the morale of the people. In the end, the government suppressed Dunne’s report until the war was over.
Thus far, the story is true.
Jessica Kane’s story begins thirty years later, when a young film maker, Paul Barber, decides to make a documentary about the accident and turns up on Laurence Dunne’s doorstep to interview him. Paul, it turns out, was one of the babies miraculously passed out of the tangle of bodies to rescuers. Central to the story, too, are Ada Barber and her daughter Tilly. They, too, were survivors of the crush, but Ada’s youngest child, Tilly’s little sister Emma, had died.
Through Dunne’s memories of his investigation, through the testimony of those who had been there at the time, and through the thoughts and actions of some whose lives had been affected by the whole incident, Kane recreates the atmosphere of East End London at that time.
At first, after reading Kane’s vivid recreation of that night, I was uncertain whether I wanted to go on reading about another wartime horror, but the same puzzle which had confronting Laurence Dunne drew me in. How had it happened? Why, on this particular night amongst so many others like it, had there been a problem? How could something so drastic happen and be over so quickly?
I became entangled, too, in the lives of Kane’s people. Not just in those of Paul and Dunne, Ada and Tilly, but in that of Bernard, an insecure young clerk who was given the terrible task of documenting the dead, listing what was found in their pockets and returning items their families. And of Clare, the young nurse who befriended Bernard and helped him through this trauma. Of Warden, James Low, who had changed a smashed light bulb on the stairs shortly before the accident but felt inexplicably responsible for the accident, and Sarah his wife. And of the Rev. McNealy, whose church lay close to the station entrance and who buried many of the dead and struggled to provide comfort to the living.
Kane effectively recreates the atmosphere of wartime London. The food and clothing shortages; the unrest cause by the influx of hundreds of Jewish refugees from Europe – the usual reaction of insular people to foreigners with foreign ways – exacerbated by a few racist trouble-makers; the daily exposure of its people to death, destruction and grief; and the friendships and community spirit which kept everyone going. But her story hinges on the mysterious cause of the accident, on something hidden which Dunne suspects and labours to uncover, and on his decisions about what to reveal and whether to ascribe blame is justified, appropriate or necessary.
Kane does not mention it, but there are resonances here with horrific modern accidents which catch the attention of the people who demand answers, reasons and scapegoats, and with the investigations which are instigated by various authorities and the reports which they eventually release. Can any one person be held responsible? Is it not a confluence of circumstances which trigger a disaster? How much good does a report do, or how much harm?
Paul, too, must consider these questions as he makes his documentary. And he, too, discovers uncomfortable facts about his past.
Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/