Holding Still: The Private Life of an Air Raid

Peter Adey

Abstract


In Pilsen
Twenty-six Station Road,
She climbed to the third floor
Up stairs which were all that was left
Of the whole house,
She opened her door
Full on to the sky,
Stood gaping over the edge.

For this was the place
The world ended.

Then
she locked up carefully
lest someone steal
Sirius
or Aldebaran
from her kitchen,
went back downstairs
and settled herself
to wait
for the house to rise again
and for her husband to rise from the ashes
and for her children’s hands and feet to be stuck back in place

In the morning they found her
still as stone, sparrows pecking her hands.

Five Minutes after the Air Raid
by Miroslav Holub
(Calder 287)

   

Holding Still

Detonation. Affect.

During the Second World War, London and other European cities were subjected to the terrors of aerial bombardment, rendered through nightmarish anticipations of the bomber (Gollin 7) and the material storm of the real air-raid. The fall of bombs plagued cities and their citizens with the terrible rain of explosives and incendiary weapons. A volatile landscape was formed as the urban environment was ‘unmade’ and urged into violent motion. Flying projectiles of shrapnel, debris and people; avalanches of collapsing factories and houses; the inhale and exhale of compressed air and firestorms; the scream of the explosion. All these composed an incredibly fluid urban traumatic, as atmospheres fell over the cities that was thick with smoke, dust, and ventilated only by terror (see for instance Sebald 10 and Mendieta’s 3 recent commentary). Vast craters were imprinted onto the charred morphologies of London and Berlin as well as Coventry, Hamburg and Dresden. Just as the punctuations of the bombing saw the psychic as well as the material give way, writers portraying Britain as an ‘volcano island’ (Spaight 5) witnessed eruptive projections – the volleys of the material air-war; the emotional signature of charged and bitter reprisals; pain, anguish and vengeance - counter-strikes of affect.

In the midst of all of this molten violence and emotion it seems impossible that a simultaneous sense of quiescence could be at all possible. More than mere physical fixity or geographical stasis, a rather different sort of experience could take place. Preceding, during and following the excessive mobilisation of an air raid, ‘stillness’ was often used to describe certain plateuing stretches of time-space which were slowed and even stopped (Anderson 740). Between the eruptions appeared hollows of calm and even boredom. People’s nervous flinching under the reverberation of high-explosive blasts formed part of what Jordan Crandall might call a ‘bodily-inclination’ position. Slackened and taut feelings condensed around people listening out for the oncoming bomber. People found that they prepared for the dreadful wail of the siren, or relaxed in the aftermath of the attack. In these instances, states of tension and apprehension as well as calm and relief formed though stillness.

The peculiar experiences of ‘stillness’ articulated in these events open out, I suggest, distinctive ways-of-being which undo our assumptions of perpetually fluid subjectivities and the primacy of the ‘body in motion’ even within the context of unparalleled movement and uncertainty (see Harrison 423 and also Rose and Wylie 477 for theoretical critique). The sorts of “musics of stillness and silence able to be discovered in a world of movement” (Thrift, Still 50), add to our understandings of the material geographies of war and terror (see for instance Graham 63; Gregory and Pred 3), whilst they gesture towards complex material-affective experiences of bodies and spaces. Stillness in this sense, denotes apprehending and anticipating spaces and events in ways that sees the body enveloped within the movement of the environment around it; bobbing along intensities that course their way through it; positioned towards pasts and futures that make themselves felt, and becoming capable of intense forms of experience and thought. These examples illustrate not a shutting down of the body to an inwardly focused position – albeit composed by complex relations and connections – but bodies finely attuned to their exteriors (see Bissell, Animating 277 and Conradson 33).   

In this paper I draw from a range of oral and written testimony archived at the Imperial War Museum and the Mass Observation wartime regular reports. Edited publications from these collections were also consulted. Detailing the experience of aerial bombing during the Blitz, particularly on London between September 1940 to May 1941, forms part of a wider project concerning the calculative and affective dimensions of the aeroplane’s relationship with the human body, especially through the spaces it has worked to construct (infrastructures such as airports) and destroy. While appearing extraordinary, the examples I use are actually fairly typical of the patternings of experience and the depth and clarity with which they are told. They could be taken to be representative of the population as a whole or coincidentally similar testimonials. Either way, they are couched within a specific cultural historical context of urgency, threat and unparalleled violence.

Anticipations

The complex material geographies of an air raid reveal the ecological interdependencies of populations and their often urban environments and metabolisms (Coward 419; Davis 3; Graham 63; Gregory The Colonial 19; Hewitt Place 257). Aerial warfare was an address of populations conceived at the register of their bio-rhythmical and metabolic relationship to their milieu (Adey). The Blitz and the subsequent Allied bombing campaign constituted Churchill’s ‘great experiment’ for governments attempting to assess the damage an air raid could inflict upon a population’s nerves and morale (Brittain 77; Gregory In Another 88). An anxious and uncertain landscape constructed before the war, perpetuated by public officials, commentators and members of parliament, saw background affects (Ngai 5) of urgency creating an atmosphere that pressurised and squeezed the population to prepare for the ‘gathering storm’. Attacks upon the atmosphere itself had been readily predicted in the form of threatening gas attacks ready to poison the medium upon which human and animal life depended (Haldane 111; Sloterdijk 41-57).

One of the most talked of moments of the Blitz is not necessarily the action but the times of stillness that preceded it. Before and in-between an air raid stillness appears to describe a state rendered somewhere between the lulls and silences of the action and the warnings and the anticipatory feelings of what might happen. In the awaiting bodies, the materialites of silence could be felt as a kind-of-sound and as an atmospheric sense of imminence. At the onset of the first air-raids sound became a signifier of what was on the way (MO 408). Waiting – as both practice and sensation – imparted considerable inertia that went back and forth through time (Jeffrey 956; Massumi, Parables 3).

For Geographer Kenneth Hewitt, sound “told of the coming raiders, the nearness of bombs, the plight of loved ones” (When the 16). The enormous social survey of Mass Observation concluded that “fear seems to be linked above all with noise” (original emphasis). As one report found, “It is the siren or the whistle or the explosion or the drone – these are the things that terrify. Fear seems to come to us most of all through our sense of hearing” (MO 378). Yet the power of the siren came not only from its capacity to propagate sound and to alert, but the warning held in its voice of ‘keeping silent’. “Prefacing in a dire prolepsis the post-apocalyptic event before the event”, as Bishop and Phillips (97) put it, the stillness of silence was incredibly virtual in its affects, disclosing - in its lack of life – the lives that would be later taken.

Devastation was expected and rehearsed by civilians. Stillness formed a space and body ready to spring into movement – an ‘imminent mobility’ as John Armitage (204) has described it. Perched on the edge of devastation, space-times were felt through a sense of impending doom. Fatalistic yet composed expectations of a bomb heading straight down pervaded the thoughts and feelings of shelter dwellers (MO 253; MO 217). Waves of sound disrupted fragile tempers as they passed through the waiting bodies in the physical language of tensed muscles and gritted teeth (Gaskin 36). Silence helped form bodies inclined-to-attention, particularly sensitive to aural disturbances and vibrations from all around. Walls, floors and objects carried an urban bass-line of warning (Goodman).

Stillness was forged through a body readied in advance of the violence these materialities signified. A calm and composed body was not necessarily an immobile body. Civilians who had prepared for the attacks were ready to snap into action - to dutifully wear their gas-mask or escape to shelter. ‘Backgrounds of expectation’ (Thrift, Still 36) were forged through non-too-subtle procedural and sequential movements which opened-out new modes of thinking and feeling. Folding one’s clothes and placing them on the dresser in-readiness; pillows and sheets prepared for a spell in the shelter, these were some of many orderly examples (IWM 14595). In the event of a gas attack air raid precautions instructions advised how to put on a gas mask (ARPD 90-92),

i) Hold the breath.

ii) Remove headgear and place between the knees.

iii) Lift the flap of the haversack [ …]

iv) Bring the face-piece towards the face’

[…]

(v) Breathe out and continue to breathe in a normal manner

The rational technologies of drill, dressage and operational research enabled poise in the face of an eventual air-raid. Through this ‘logistical-life’ (Reid 17), thought was directed towards simple tasks by minutely described instructions.

Stilled Life

The end of stillness was usually marked by a reactionary ‘flinch’, ‘start’ or ‘jump’. Such reactionary ‘urgent analogs’ (Ngai 94; Tomkins 96) often occurred as a response to sounds and movements that merely broke the tension rather than accurately mimicking an air raid. These atmospheres were brittle and easily disrupted. Cars back-firing and changing gear were often complained about (MO 371), just as bringing people out of the quiescence of sleep was a common effect of air-raids (Kraftl and Horton 509). Disorientation was usually fostered in this process while people found it very difficult to carry out the most simple of tasks. Putting one’s clothes on or even making their way out of the bedroom door became enormously problematic. Sirens awoke a ‘conditioned reflex’ to take cover (MO 364).

Long periods of sleep deprivation brought on considerable fatigue and anxiety. ‘Sleep we Must’ wrote journalist Ritchie Calder (252) noticing the invigorating powers of sleep for both urban morale and the bare existence of survival. For other more traumatized members of the population, psychological studies found that the sustained concentration of shelling caused what was named ‘apathy-retreat’ (Harrisson, Living 65). This extreme form of acquiescence saw especially susceptible and vulnerable civilians suffer an overwhelming urge to sleep and to be cared-for ‘as if chronically ill’ (Janis 90). A class and racial politics of quiescent affect was enacted as several members of the population were believed far more liable to ‘give way’ to defeat and dangerous emotions (Brittain 77; Committee of Imperial Defence).

In other cases it was only once an air-raid had started that sleep could be found (MO 253). The boredom of waiting could gather in its intensity deforming bodies with “the doom of depression” (Anderson 749). The stopped time-spaces in advance of a raid could be soaked with so much tension that the commencement of sirens, vibrations and explosions would allow a person overwhelming relief (MO 253). Quoting from a boy recalling his experiences in Hannover during 1943, Hewitt illustrates:

I lie in bed. I am afraid. I strain my ears to hear something but still all is quiet. I hardly dare breathe, as if something horrible is knocking at the door, at the windows. Is it the beating of my heart? ... Suddenly there seems relief, the sirens howl into the night ... (Heimatbund Niedersachsen 1953: 185). (Cited in Hewitt, When 16)

Once a state of still was lost getting it back required some effort (Bissell, Comfortable 1697). Cautious of preventing mass panic and public hysteria by allowing the body to erupt outwards into dangerous vectors of mobility, the British government’s schooling in the theories of panicology (Orr 12) and contagious affect (Le Bon 17; Tarde 278; Thrift, Intensities 57; Trotter 140), made air raid precautions (ARP) officers, police and civil defence teams enforce ‘stay put’ and ‘hold firm’ orders to protect the population (Jones et al, Civilian Morale 463, Public Panic 63-64; Thomas 16). Such orders were meant to shield against precisely the kinds of volatile bodies they were trying to compel with their own bombing strategies. Reactions to the Blitz were moralised and racialised. Becoming stilled required self-conscious work by a public anxious not to be seen to ‘panic’. This took the form of self-disciplination. People exhausted considerable energy to ‘settle’ themselves down. It required ‘holding’ themselves still and ‘together’ in order to accomplish this state, and to avoid going the same way as the buildings falling apart around them, as some people observed (MO 408). In Britain a cup of tea was often made as a spontaneous response in the event of the conclusion of a raid (Brown 686).   

As well as destroying bombing created spaces too – making space for stillness (Conradson 33). Many people found that they could recall their experiences in vivid detail, allocating a significant proportion of their memories to the recollection of the self and an awareness of their surroundings (IWM 19103). In this mode of stillness, contemplation did not turn-inwards but unfolded out towards the environment. The material processual movement of the shell-blast literally evacuated all sound and materials from its centre to leave a vacuum of negative pressure. Diaries and oral testimonies stretch out these millisecond events into discernable times and spaces of sensation, thought and the experience of experience (Massumi, Parables 2). Extraordinarily, survivors mention serene feelings of quiet within the eye of the blast (see Mortimer 239); they had, literally, ‘no time to be frightened’ (Crighton-Miller 6150). A shell explosion could create such intensities of stillness that a sudden and distinctive lessening of the person and world are expressed, constituting ‘stilling-slowing diminishments’ (Anderson 744). As if the blast-vacuum had sucked all the animation from their agency, recollections convey passivity and, paradoxically, a much more heightened and contemplative sense of the moment (Bourke 121; Thrift, Still 41). More lucid accounts describe a multitude of thoughts and an attention to minute detail.

Alternatively, the enormous peaking of a waking blast subdued all later activities to relative obsolescence. The hurricane of sounds and air appear to overload into the flatness of an extended and calmed instantaneous present.

Then the whistling stopped, then a terrific thump as it hit the ground, and everything seem to expand, then contract with deliberation and stillness seemed to be all around. (As recollected by Bill and Vi Reagan in Gaskin 17)

On the other hand, as Schivelbusch (7) shows us in his exploration of defeat, the cessation of war could be met with an outburst of feeling. In these micro-moments a close encounter with death was often experienced with elation, a feeling of peace and well-being drawn through a much more heightened sense of the now (MO 253). These are not pre-formed or contemplative techniques of attunement as Thrift has tracked, but are the consequence of significant trauma and the primal reaction to extreme danger.

Traces

Susan Griffin’s haunting A Chorus of Stones documents what she describes as a private life of war (1). For Griffin, and as shown in these brief examples, stillness and being-stilled describe a series of diverse experiences endured during aerial bombing. Yet, as Griffin narrates, these are not-so private lives. A common representation of air war can be found in Henry Moore’s tube shelter sketches which convey sleeping tube-dwellers harboured in the London underground during the Blitz. The bodies are represented as much more than individuals being connected by Moore’s wave-like shapes into the turbulent aggregation of a choppy ocean. What we see in Moore’s portrayal and the examples discussed already are experiences with definite relations to both inner and outer worlds. They refer to more-than individuals who bear intimate relations to their outsides and the atmospheric and material environments enveloping and searing through them. Stillness was an unlikely state composed through these circulations just as it was formed as a means of address. It was required in order to apprehend sounds and possible events through techniques of listening or waiting. Alternatively being stilled could refer to pauses between air-strikes and the corresponding breaks of tension in the aftermath of a raid. Stillness was composed through a series of distributed yet interconnecting bodies, feelings, materials and atmospheres oriented towards the future and the past.  

The ruins of bombed-out building forms stand as traces even today. Just as Massumi (Sensing 16) describes in the context of architecture, the now static remainder of the explosion “envelops in its stillness a deformational field of which it stands as the trace”. The ruined forms left after the attack stand as a “monument” of the passing of the raid to be what it once was – house, factory, shop, restaurant, library - and to become something else. The experience of those ‘from below’ (Hewitt 2) suffering contemporary forms of air-warfare share many parallels with those of the Blitz. Air power continues to target, apparently more precisely, the affective tones of the body. Accessed by kinetic and non-kinetic forces, the signs of air-war are generated by the shelling of Kosovo, ‘shock and awe’ in Iraq, air-strikes in Afghanistan and by the simulated air-raids of IDF aircraft producing sonic-booms over sleeping Palestinian civilians, now becoming far more real as I write in the final days of 2008. Achieving stillness in the wake of aerial trauma remains, even now, a way to survive the (private) life of air war.

Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank the editors and particularly the referees for such a close reading of the article; time did not permit the attention their suggestions demanded. Grateful acknowledgement is also made to the AHRC whose funding allowed me to research and write this paper.

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Keywords


bombing; terror; affect; acquiescence; mobility



Copyright (c) 2009 Peter Adey

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