John MacLeod (2010) River of Fire: The Clydebank Blitz

River of Fire is a book about before and after The Clydebank Blitz. Those who died in the aftermath of Luftwaffe bombing of Clydebank on Thursday 13th March 1941 and the following night. Those who survived the bombing and fled the town. Those who stayed. Others that came through a sense of duty and solidarity to help the victims of the bombing. John MacLeod looks at the aftermath, the thousands, who did not return to Clydebank after March 1941.

The facts are listed, the dead and injured, but juxtaposed with the way they were framed at the time.

When 528 were (with some revision) listed as dead over the two nights of bombing. The first wave of German bombers, largely unchecked, converging over Clydeside around 9pm and following Luftwaffe radio transmission beams. Around 236 Junkers 88 and Heinkel 111s that came from bases in northern France, Holland and Germany, and hugged the coast. Saturation bombing took place in a British city. Explosions could be heard at Bride of Allan in Stirlingshire.  

Such was the ferocity of bombing that one worker who had been there and experienced the bombing, when told over 500 died, remarked, ‘What street?’

The town of around 42 000 people was levelled. From one geographically small community 528 people were dead; 617 seriously injured. Hundreds—perhaps thousands—more were superficially hurt and cut. Of some 12000 dwellings—including tenement blocks as well as villas and semi-detached homes—only 7 were left entirely undamaged. Four thousand homes were completely destroyed: 4500 would be uninhabitable for months.

Those that died in the Clydebank Blitz on March 1941 are listed in the back of the book alphabetically, street by street, but in a changing burgh and districts are knocked together. Further complications are that many did not die in their homes. The Rocks’ family are listed as having lived at 78 Jellicoe Street.

Ann Rocks, Age 1, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1941.

Annie Rocks, Age 54, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1941.

Elizabeth Rocks, Age 28, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1941.

Francis Rocks, Age 21, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1941.

James Rocks, Age 4, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1941.

James Rocks, Age 32, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1942.

John Rocks, Aged 19, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1942.

Joseph Rocks, Age 17, At 72 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1942.

Margaret Rocks, Age 2, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1942.

Patrick Rocks, Age 6, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1942.

Patrick Rocks, Age 28, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1942.

Theresa Rocks, Age 25, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1942.

Thomas Rocks, Age 13, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1942.

Thomas Rocks, Age 5 months, At 78 Jellicoe Street, 13 March 1942.  

Many of us are will be familiar with the story of Patrick Rocks, who swapped shifts with his son at Beardmore’s. MacLeod uses fiction to dramatize his homecoming.

‘It was still not dawn when the planes retreated and bombers faded away, he picked his way to Jellicoe Street thorough what was left of Dalmuir. Wedged between the blazes at Singers and Old Kilpatrick, this sturdy community had been pummelled through the night… Rocks meandered through wreckage with mounting alarm. When he rounded the corner, his heart lifted to see the light through the window of his flat. Then, a few steps on, he realised it was but the moon, and the glow of flame, through one tottering gable.’

This would be a thin volume charting the rise and decline of shipbuilding on the Clyde, with some questionable assumptions, you’d expect from the son of the manse, such as Thatcherism being a necessary corrective to the British and Scottish economy. (Here’s a hint, we didn’t vote for Thatcher or Johnson and we didn’t vote Brexit. We didn’t vote Scottish Independence either – not yet).  

MacLeod also seems to be conducting a vendetta against a left-wing shop steward in the Daily Mail, a newspaper where he was once a reporter. (Nobody much in Scotland read the Daily Mail, not then, not now, not ever).

MacLeod is also quick to correct what he believes are the failings in Meg Henderson’s book about a fictional family set during the era of the Clydebank Blitz, The Holy City. (I just thought Henderson’s book about a matriarchal and feisty working-class family was pretty crap, whereas Henderson’s Finding Peggy was a Scottish masterpiece. I guess this is a matter of taste and I’ll tackle The Holy City again.)

MacLeod also seems to have a bugbear against nuclear disarmament.

His chapter, The Bombing of Ethics (which is a convoluted way of saying the ethics of bombing) looks at the German experience of being firebombed.  Hamburg and Dresden.

In Hamburg, for example, MacLeod quotes:

 ‘freak air currents spread a storm of fire across a four-square mile radius. People on the streets flashed into flames, while those huddled in shelters died asleep as the fresh air was replaced by lethal gases and smoke. Others were transformed into fine ash. By the time air raids ceased, 45 000 had been killed and a further 37 000 injured. 900 000 had lost their homes- up to two-thirds of the population of Hamburg fled the city.

Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five, begins with the narrator explaining, ‘all this happened, more or less’.

MacLeod’s account of the bombing of Dresden 13 February 1945 is more of a turkey shoot, Lancaster bombers stacked on top of one another dropping 4000 pound and 8000 pound bombs. In comparison, no bomb bigger than 1000 pounds fell on Clydebank.  And they dropped only four of that weight.

Air-Marshall ‘Bomber’ Harris wanted 5000 strategic bombers. 244 Lancasters flew over Dresden. They created a firestorm.

Temperatures rose to 1000 degrees Centigrade, jets of flame fifty-feet high hissed across streets…Dresden burned so bright, night became day.

Reap what you sow is MacLeod’s argument. There was a qualitative difference between what the Allies were trying to achieve by firebombing than the Nazis. What we did was right. What they did was ideologically and morally wrong. Them and us.

A quip (and perhaps apocryphal story) from Bomber Harris sums it up. Stopped in his car one night for speeding, the policeman warns the Air Marshal, he might kill someone with his driving.

‘Young man, I kill thousands of people every night.’

***

Perhaps it’s more instructive to look at the grandiose behaviour of General MacArthur in the Far East in 1945.  

‘No Radioactivity in Hiroshima Ruin’ was a New York Times, front page, report. Most of the world remained ignorant of what radioactivity was.

The diminutive Australian reporter, Wilfred Burchett, armed with a typewriter, travelled by train through Japan after their surrender to witness what had happened after the A-bomb, Enola Gay. He called out President Truman and General MacArthur.

The Atomic Plague was his report.

‘I became very conscious of what would happen in the event of a new world war. From that moment on, I became active on the question of nuclear disarmament…It was not possible to stand by.’

Burchett was on the winning side. He was on the side of right. Them and Us. What he was saying is there is no them and us. Just common humanity. We sometimes lose that in the small print. Mass murder is mass murder. And nuclear weapons will tip the planet into permanent winter. Lest we forget in the scramble to claim the moral high ground. .

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Kurt Vonnegut: President of the United States.

lkurt vonnegut “From the Collection of the Artist.”

Kurt Vonnegut turns up in the most unlikely of places. I’m not familiar with his writing, but I’m reading a book by Michael Lewis Liar’s Poker in which the author quotes Vonnegut below to describe how the bond market works to distort reality, and  to make it seem normal, a theme the everyman Billy Pilgrim’s character stumbles into in his Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5.

 There is a magic moment, during which a man has surrendered a treasure, and during which the man who has to receive it has not done so. An alert lawyer [read bond trader] will make that moment his own, possessing that treasure for a magic microsecond, taking a little of it and passing it on.

This bring to mind the way coinage used to be debased when it was precious metals made out of a substance equal to value of the currency, for example, either gold or silver, and it was an offence against the king or ruler to shave a coin. Now New York and London Stock exchanges are one of the greatest industries, in monetary terms, devised by man, and when it fails thousands of billions of pounds of public money needs to be spent to keep the foul-smelling water of commerce drinkable for the rest of us.

In Slaughterhouse 5, Billy Pilgrim finds himself in a shop that sells porn, but he’s more interested in a badly written sci-fi book used as a front to make it seem like a respectable book store. The book is written by an author he knows and admires Kilgore Trout. The narrative in Kilgore’s book matches Pilgrim’s own experience of being abducted by the Tranfalmadorians and is about a man and woman kidnapped by extra-terrestrials and taken to another planet, Zircon-212, and put on display in a zoo. He has another of his epiphanies that underpin the wisdom of the book.

These fictitious people in the zoo had a big board supposedly showing stock market quotations and commodity prices along the wall of their habitat, and a news ticker, and a telephone that was supposedly connected to a brokerage on Earth. The creatures on Zircon-212 told their captives that they had invested a million dollars for them back on Earth and it was up to them to manage it so that they would be fabulously wealthy when they were returned to Earth.

The telephone and the big board were all fakes of course. They were simply stimulants to make the Earthlings perform vividly for the crowds at the zoo…

The Earthlings did very well on paper. That was part of the rigging, of course…The news ticker reminded them that the President of the United States had declared National Prayer Week and that everybody should pray. The Earthlings had had a bad week on the market before that. They had lost a small fortune in olive oil futures. So they gave praying a whirl.

It worked. Olive oil went up.

Billy Pilgrim’s ability to transcend time and travel backwards and forwards showed him the fickle fiction of such fortunes. He followed the traditional path to wealth by marrying the obese boss’s daughter nobody else wants to marry, including Billy.

But there is a prophetic touch in the car stickers Billy Pilgrim passes sporting the message Reagan for President. Vonnegut’s novel was published in 1969. He had no way of knowing that the friend of Bonzo—and I don’t mean George W—would actually become President. Not even Vonnegut could have imagined that.

To take a further jump in time and imagine a woman President in Hillary Clinton –perhaps? Vonnegut imagined a world in which the fire-bombing of Dresden with conventional weapons with a power more lethal than the atomic age of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a war crime and unjustifiable. Hillary Clinton’s big message and big sell to the American people that the American future depend on equality of opportunity and is certainly far more left wing than the big two political parties in Britain offer:

To ensure a child born in the hills of Appalachia or the Rio Grande valley grows up with the same shot of success as Charlotte [Clinton] will.

Vonnegut’s character, Howard W Campbell, an American playwright that aligned himself with the Nazi Party strips the hubris of such messages to the bone.  Campbell writes a monograph that Billy Pilgrim gets to read. The reader looking over his character’s shoulder gets to read it too and assess its validity.

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor and urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humourist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor, but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone one with power or gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters…asking this cruel question, ‘if you’re so smart how come you’re not rich?’

Their most destructive untruth is it is very easy to make money. They will in fact not acknowledge how hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those without money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have to do less for the poor publicly and privately.

I’m beginning to believe that Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim were time-travellers and they’ve jumped in their spaceship and landed here in April 2015. If Vonnegut can pluck Billy Pilgrim from the ether, the Tranfalmadorians and their zoo, then perhaps we can pluck Vonnegut from death and elect him President of the United States, or even Britain. I’d vote for him.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole

Kurt Vonnegut (2010) Look at the Birdie

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This is not a modern collection of thirteen and a bit Kurt Vonnegut short stories as the publication date suggests. In a letter to a Mr Miller dated 1951 Kurt Vonnegut addresses anthropology, the Indian Ghost Dance of 1894 (which interested me) and among other things, whether writing can be learned at a school of writing. He concludes: ‘This letter is sententious crap, shot full of self pity…I quit GE, if I’m not a writer then I’m nothing.

This is Kurt Vonnegut before he was Kurt Vonnegut. His stories here are dated. The Petrified Ants I, II, III, for example, has brothers Peter and Josef, Russia’s leading myrmecologists (the study of ants), being sent from the University of Dnepropetrovsk to a mine sunk half- a-mile deep on a site of radioactive mineral water were petrified ants have been found by miners. The brothers are overseen by Borgorov, ‘favourite third cousin of Stalin himself’. The petrified ants mimic man’s evolution from hunter-gatherer to capitalism and communism. Obviously capitalism is the better of the two. This is where the petrified ants die enmasse, but the dilemma is what narrative line our intrepid myrmecologists will take? My thoughts slowed to a trickle.  I read on more through habit than interest.

‘Ed Luby’s Key Club’ is the longest story, about twenty-five pages, and is perhaps the pick of the bunch. It starts promisingly. ‘Ed Luby worked for Al Capone. And then he went into bootlegging on his own, made a lot of money at it.’ Ed Luby returned to his old mill town of Illium and bought it. He bought the radio station and several business. He also purchased the town’s restaurant and called it Ed Luby’s Steak House. Only the most select residents and bigwigs, such as the Judge and Mayor of the town got an invitation and a key that opened the front door to his restaurant and exclusive club.

Harve and Claire Elliot didn’t know this. They owned a small farm, but once a year, for fourteen years running, they went into town and ‘splurged’ like ‘King Farouk’. They make the mistake of going to Ed Luby’s Steak House uninvited. They make the mistake of being small town hicks and not taking no for an answer. A drunk man and woman turn up. Luby doesn’t let them in either. But he hits the woman so hard he kills her. His goons put the woman’s body in Harve’s car and tell his wife to drive…or else. They get picked up a mile from the scene by the chief of police, Luby’s brother. He tells Harve that he has witnesses, the Mayor and Judge Wampler,  both had seen Harve slug the woman and kill her. Claire is told she’ll never see her kids again. Both are going down. Harve’s lawyer refuses to defend him, tells him to plead guilty. The story goes great guns. The denouement however could have been scripted by J Edgar Hoover.

If you’re a Kurt Vonnegut fan it’s worth a look. If you’re not a Kurt Vonnegut fan it’s worth a look.