I catch a tube from Clapham Common at about 8.15 to go to Guy’s Hospital for dental treatment. Remarkably I am able to get on the first tube, but I have almost no space. But I do have enough space to look at my phone, and I read one of the daily pieces I’m sent from Writers’ Almanac. It always starts with a poem, as every day should, and it’s William Blake’s poem about London.
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse
“Marks of weakness, marks of woe” are still to be seen on London faces. I see them on this tube. I wonder what exactly are “mind-forg’d manacles,” but I think I know: Blake was perhaps one of those rare people who didn’t have them, living his highly creative life according to his own principles. The blights that plague the Marriage hearse are presumably syphilis, and goodness what a phrase is “Marriage hearse”?
I reflect on stumbling across Blake’s grave in Bunhill Fields in the City, the graveyard of the dissidents. Daniel Defoe is buried there as well.
The next piece in Writers’ Alamanac is about the London Blitz, probably explaining their selection of Blake’s poem.
“The Blitz began on this date in 1940. “Blitz” comes from the German word “Blitzkrieg,” which means “lightning war.” Germany had successfully invaded France, and now Hitler was determined to conquer Britain as well. The German Luftwaffe, or air force, had been engaging the Royal Air Force for a few months, but without much success. Hitler changed his strategy: rather than focusing on military targets, he set out to crush the morale of the British people through relentless attacks on its major cities.
The first wave of bombers — 348 in all — hit London at around 4:00 in the afternoon. The Luftwaffe primarily targeted London’s docks on this first attack, but many bombs fell in civilian areas as well. Four hundred and thirty people died, and 1,600 were seriously injured. The fires that had started as a result of the first wave of attacks served as beacons for a second wave that hit after dark and lasted until 4:30 the next morning. But Hitler’s attempt to crush the British spirit had the opposite effect. Winston Churchill said: “[Hitler] has lighted a fire which will burn with a steady and consuming flame until the last vestiges of Nazi tyranny have been burnt out of Europe.”
Journalist Ernie Pyle reported from London during the Blitz. He wrote: “It was a night when London was ringed and stabbed with fire. […] The greatest of all the fires was directly in front of us. Flames seemed to whip hundreds of feet into the air. Pinkish-white smoke ballooned upward in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape — so faintly at first that we weren’t sure we saw correctly — the gigantic dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
“St. Paul’s was surrounded by fire, but it came through. It stood there in its enormous proportions — growing slowly clearer and clearer, the way objects take shape at dawn. It was like a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-hungry soldiers on a battlefield.”
The attacks of September 7 were only the beginning. The Blitz continued for 76 consecutive nights, with the exception of a single night of bad weather. Bombs fell on London, Liverpool, Manchester, and several other cities in England and Wales. All told, some 43,000 British civilians died by the time Hitler called off the Blitz in May 1941, and more than a million homes were damaged or destroyed. The Blitz cost the Germans most of their air force, however: they lost most of their airmen and hundreds of planes.”
Famously (and probably apocryphally) my grandfather slept through the Blitz, which paradoxically many regard as London’s finest hour. It features heavily in books I read, not least the Cazalet Chronicles and the Dance to the Music of Time. People stood together. I was born 12 years after the Blitz, but its effects were everywhere to be seen. They still are: the street I live in has two blocks of 50s flats put up in spaces where the Victorian houses were destroyed. A man who lived in our house during the war knocked on our door a couple of years ago and asked to look round: he told us how he’d been in the house during the war and the windows had blown in after a bomb exploded in the street.
But my main thought after reading the account was how ignorant I was about the Blitz: I didn’t know that nearly 400 planes bombed London on the first night and that attacks continued for 76 consecutive nights; and I didn’t know that 43 000 civilians had died.
As I was early I decided to get off the tube at Borough and walk. As I winkled through the narrow streets I encountered for the first time the site of the Marshalsea prison, where Dickens’s father was held in reality and Mr Micawber in David Copperfield. One of the things I love most about London is encountering these hidden treasures.
Guy’s now is–like all big hospitals–a city as much as a hospital, but the old bits are there. I thought of John Keats and Thomas Wakely, founder of the Lancet, both of whom were students at Guys.
I saw an old arch abandoned like the statue of Ozymandias. It’s a war memorial and says across the top “Their name liveth for evermore.” What a con, I thought. Those young men died in mud and squalor and had no lives. They are not remembered.
From the 22nd floor of the Guy’s Tower I looked down on Blake’s Charter’d Thames snaking through the city. I looked particularly at the Tower of London and thought of Richard III having the two princes killed and Anne Boleyn being beheaded. Now I’m 65 I know that neither event was long ago.
After my dental adventure I walked past Southwark Cathedral where John Harvard, founder of the university, was baptised; the reconstruction of the Golden Hind in which Drake, who was essentially a pirate, sailed round the world; and the recreation of the Globe Theatre where Shakespeare’s plays were first performed.
And I looked across at St Paul’s and thought of its remarkable survival during the Blitz.
Once I couldn’t wait to leave London; now I’m ready to die here.