Reading the Ruins: Modernism, Bombsites and British Culture

By Phillips, Lawrence | Times Higher Education, February 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

Reading the Ruins: Modernism, Bombsites and British Culture


Phillips, Lawrence, Times Higher Education


Reading the Ruins: Modernism, Bombsites and British Culture. By Leo Mellor. Cambridge University Press 256pp, Pounds 55.00. ISBN 9781107009295. Published 15 September 2011

The negotiation of the Blitz is still a permanent fixture of British post- war culture at the beginning of a new century. As the living record of eyewitnesses diminishes each year, the place of the Blitz and the war in the national consciousness is set to persist, thanks to its popularity in schools linked to the national curriculum and as a perennial favourite among authors, film-makers and television producers. The ability of a history of trauma to focus national sentiment is well understood.

Indeed, as the art historian Kristine Stiles has argued, cultures of trauma can reveal more than the violence itself. An acceptance of the culturally defining historical break that ignores the mechanisms by which violence and trauma are encoded diminishes the cultural productions of the periods that immediately precede and follow. The result is the equivocal evaluation of the literature of the 1930s through to the 1950s, still seen as a rather marginal scholarly pursuit of works of marginal literary merit. Viewed through the prism of the national myth of the Blitz and a dominant post-war sensibility, it is unsurprising that writing of the late 1940s and 1950s largely fails to deliver: a conceptual gap and deferral that must await the more overt social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s. Then there is the curious mystery of the disappearance of British Modernism. While there has been a great deal of discussion around the ever-lengthening Victorian tail of Modernism, there is a presumption that its fate seems to have been determined by the cultural guillotine of the Blitz.

Leo Mellor's meticulous and revealing study is an illuminating response to many of these problematic elisions. Destruction - social, cultural and technological - has a long aesthetic pedigree that lay at the heart of the various strands of thought and experimentation that sustained Modernism. From the 1890s, fears of invasion, the possibilities of technological terror and the mass obliteration of cities fed a particularly rich cultural ferment of which the Futurist celebration of the aesthetics of technology and war represented only an unusually well-codified example. …

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