The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Literatures in English

By Brian McHale; Randall Stevenson | Go to book overview

Chapter 8
1941, London under the Blitz:
Culture as Counter-History

Tyrus Miller

In his ‘London Letter’ to the Partisan Review of 3 January 1941, George Orwell recounted the bombing of London a few months earlier and described a collective feeling of watching the world in which they had grown up come to an end. But another, still stranger discovery was in store for Orwell in the nights of bombing: despite the fires, despite floodlights and flak and sirens piercing the air, much of the old world, that framework of grey everydayness in equal measure musty and reassuring, was still holding firm, as if by sheer force of habit and lack of sufficient adventurousness even to come crashing dangerously down. ‘When all is said and done’, Orwell wrote,

one’s main impression is the immense stolidity of ordinary people, the widespread vague con-
sciousness that things can never be the same again, and yet, together with that, the tendency
of life to slip back into the familiar pattern. On the day in September when the Germans broke
through and set the docks on fire, I think few people can have watched those enormous fires
without feeling that this was the end of an epoch…. But to an astonishing extent things have
slipped back to normal. (Orwell 1968: 2: 54–5)

In his ‘Ode’, written in May 1940 during the disastrous rout of the British forces at Dunkirk, the anarchist poet and art critic Herbert Read similarly observed that it was –

Human to relapse
into the old ways, to resume
the normality so patiently acquired
in days of peace.

(Read 1966: 159)

Whereas, however, Read saw this clinging to normality as a symptom of collective trauma, Orwell esteemed the surprising firmness of habit among the British popular classes. There was in them, he believed, a mulish inuredness to disaster, which would allow them to resist the Nazi strategy of forcing surrender through terror by air. At the same time, however, they also demonstrated an equally beast-like inability to imagine the future as very much different from how things were in the present. The British were immune to any radical fear of the future that would allow terror to shake the national spirit, but also to radical hopes that nourish wishes for a utopian future. If there were ever to be a New Jerusalem of socialism in England’s green and pleasant land, it would have to arise from those already existing

-98-

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