I vividly remember reading Joachim Schlör‘s Nights in the Big City when it was first published almost twenty years ago – an extraordinary reflection on the impact of illumination and the perception of night in Berlin, Paris and London between 1840 and 1930.  It joined Wolfgang Schivelbusch‘s elegant Disenchanted Night on my bookshelves, a text whose subtitle – ‘the industrialization of light in the nineteenth century‘ – concealed as much as it revealed the richness of Schivelbusch’s narrative.

But even then I thought there was another, later story to tell: what happens when people who have become used to the (more or less) brightly lit city are precipitously plunged back into darkness?

I was thinking of the blackout during the Second World War.  This week I’m back at Radboud University in Nijmegen, preparing for a public presentation on aerial violence, and my thoughts have returned to my old question.  I think it’s an important one because we know so much about bombing – about crouching under the bombs, seeking cover in shelters, recovering the bodies of the dead and the injured, and then ‘carrying on’ –  but we often forget that its horror is not confined to the experience of an air raid, to what Pat Barker memorably describes in Noonday as ‘a stick of bombs … tumbling down the beam of a searchlight onto a building fifty yards ahead, an extraordinary sight, like a worm’s eye view of somebody shitting.’  Others turned to the shattered language of the sublime to capture the aw(e)ful sensation of a city – their city – in flames.

But my point is that these surreal scenes of sound and light and fury were dramatic punctuations in a pervasive atmosphere of anticipation and a larger landscape of terror that together constituted what we might think of as the slow violence of bombing.  Sarah Waters captures this (and much more besides) brilliantly in her novel The Night Watch:

‘It was always disconcerting, in a black-out, leaving the places you knew best.  A particular feeling started to creep over you, a mixture of panic and dread: as if you were walking through a rifle-range with a target on your back.’

Like Noonday, The Night Watch is the product of careful research as well as a luminous literary imagination; yet historians themselves have made remarkably little of the black-out, content to leave it in the shadows and direct attention to the pyrotechnic displays of the bomber’s art.  So what follows are merely notes, and even then confined to Britain, waiting a larger project. (In fairness, there is an important PhD thesis by Marc Wiggam, The Blackout in Britain and Germany during the Second World War (Exeter University, 2011), but his main concerns are policy and policing, and the discussion of cultural formations is largely confined to contemporary literary and film representations and says little about everyday life).

Britain had introduced a limited blackout in 1915, when its cities were menaced by Zeppelins and Gotha bombers.  In 1937, keenly aware of Stanley Baldwin‘s bleak injunction in his speech ‘A Fear for the Future’ that ‘the bomber will always get through’, the British government was already making plans for air raid precautions.

Ludgate Circus, London, 11 August 1939

A blackout was introduced in London on 11 August 1939, and a universal blackout imposed on the whole country by a ‘lighting order’ issued under Defence Regulation No 24 on 1 September 1939:

‘… every night from sunset to sunrise all lights inside the buildings must be obscured and lights outside buildings must be extinguished, subject to certain exceptions in the case of external lighting where it is essential for the conduct of work of vital national importance. Such lights must be adequately shaded.’

Felicity Goodall describes how journalist Mea Allan witnessed the introduction of the blackout:

‘I stood on the footway of Hungerford bridge across the Thames watching the lights of London go out. The whole great town was lit up like a fairyland, in a dazzle that reached into the sky, and then one by one, as a switch was pulled, each area went dark, the dazzle becoming a patchwork of lights being snuffed out here and there until a last one remained, and it too went out. What was left us was more than just wartime blackout, it was a fearful portent of what war was to be. We had not thought that we would have to fight in darkness, or that light would be our enemy.’

It was, as Geoff Manaugh notes, ‘a different form of camouflage, one that hid the city against the surrounding landscape by plunging its streets and buildings into darkness.’

AIR RAID PRECAUTIONS AND CIVIL DEFENCE IN WARTIME BRITAIN, 1942 (D 10588) A woman pulls closed the blackout curtains in her home before going to bed. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

Households were required to make special blackout curtains; they could not be washed, because this would let the light through, so housewives (sic) were enjoined to ‘hoover, shake, brush then iron them.’  The windows had to be closed to secure the blackout too, so rooms soon became airless. Chris Hill has the reaction of a teenage girl living in Romford, recorded in her diary for Mass Observation:

Friday 1st September – “…our makeshift blackout arrangements involve the use of a light so small that it strains the eyes. It’s only ten but I’m going to bed.”

Sunday 3rd September – “I decided we could not stop indoors; the blackout curtains made the rooms stuffy, and the light bad. We went into the town ‘to see what was going on’… Evidently, others had come out for similar reasons, so every street corner was ornamented with little groups of people…”

In short order a new city of ‘dreadful night’ was conjured into being.   John Lehmann later recalled that

‘London had become two cities.  The one, the daytime city where we went about our business much as before, worked in our offices and discussed what plans we could make for the future…  The other London was the new, symbolic city of the blackout, where one floundered about in the unaccustomed darkness of the streets, bumping into patrolling wardens or huddled strangers…’ [cited in Amy Helen Bell, London was ours: Diaries and memoirs of the London Blitz].

Blackout (Art.IWM ART LD 2913) image: Night scene of a city street with pedestrians carrying torches, a vehicle with masked headlights and a very dim
street light. The shapes of darkened buildings can be seen lining the street. Copyright: � IWM. Original Source:

The sensibility Lehmann describes – the floundering and bumping about and the attendant disorientation and disorder – may explain, in part, why war artists made so few attempts to capture the blackout.  This was not, as you might think, simply or even primarily the product of a collective reluctance to produce a near-black canvas.  In his War Paint, Brian Foss remarks that, ‘despite its status as the most universally experienced aspect of home front life,’ the blackout

‘is the subject of a mere handful of war pictures.  Of these, only one, purchased from Joan Connew [above], a hitherto virtually unknown painter from Kent, exploits both the rich tonal potential and the incipient visual confusion of a blanket use of brown and blacks.’

He argues that the absence from the War Artists Advisory Committee of blackout paintings was the product of a sort of counter-blackout that expressed ‘the psychological need for orientation points and beacons.’

So as the blackout was carefully calculated and disseminated (above), I think it important to register the attempts to impose an order upon and within its envelopment of the city.

Street lights were switched off, and drivers of vehicles had to mask their headlamps using thick cardboard discs,  obscure all other lights to the side and rear, and mark their bumpers and mudguards with white paint.  Sarah Waters imagines roads even in the capital becoming almost empty – she’s writing about Holborn – ‘with ‘only the occasional cab or lorry – like creeping black insects they seemed in the darkness, with gleaming, brittle-looking bodies and louvred, infernal eyes.’  That wasn’t a pure flight of the novelist’s imagination.  Pedestrians had to mask their torches too, and  Mrs Peg Cotton confessed that, as she walked home one night,

‘The tissue came off my torch and since the light is prohibited thus, I hid it under my coat.  The light shining out from below my skirts thus made me look like a crawling lightening-bug’ [in Felicity Goodall, Voices from the Home Front]

The blacked-out city was an unfamiliar one but also a dangerous one.  ‘The density of the blackout these cloudy moonless nights is beyond belief’, recorded Phyllis Warner:

‘No one in New York or Los Angeles can successfully imagine what it’s like.  For the first minute going out of doors one is completely bewildered, then it is a matter of groping forward with nerves as well as hands outstretched’ [Goodall, Voices]

When leaving the dimmed but illuminated interior of a house, a railway or a tube station, travellers were advised to close their eyes and count to fifteen to prepare for the abrupt plunge into darkness.

Wait! Count Fifteen Slowly Before Moving in the Blackout (Art.IWM PST 0096) Original Source:

Here is Sarah Waters:

As she opened the door she said, ‘I hate this bit. Let’s close our eyes and count, as we’re supposed to’—and so they stood on the step with their faces screwed up, saying, ‘One, two, three …’ ‘When do we stop?’ asked Helen. ‘… twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen—now!’ They opened their eyes, and blinked. ‘Has that made a difference?’ ‘I don’t think so. It’s still dark as hell.’

In the Blackout – Pause As You Leave the Station’s Light (Art.IWM PST 3456) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

As that vignette suggests, the very choreography of the city was altered and even regulated.  So, for example, pedestrians were advised to wear white at night (gloves, hats, armbands, buttons: Selfridge’s did a roaring trade in selling ‘blackout accessories’) –

Wear Something Light – Carry Something White (Art.IWM PST 14921) Copyright: � IWM. Original Source:

– and they were instructed to walk on the left to avoid colliding with one another:

It was even more difficult for drivers, especially those rushing to provide emergency help at the scene of an air raid.  Again, Sarah Waters is brilliant at conjuring the experience of her volunteer ambulance drivers during the Blitz.  Often, the flames cut through the darkness to provide hideous illumination.   ‘You didn’t need any lights or maps to find the way,’ one City of London fireman observed, ‘you just headed for the glow in the sky’ (below).

But it wasn’t always so simple.  Here’s another firefighter:

‘It’s no joke finding your way about in a vehicle during the blackout through back streets in a district you and your driver have never been in before! As we were now some distance away from the fires, and Jerry being overhead, we were proceeding without lights – except side lights which are so dimmed as to be useless for illuminating the road. The pump in front of us had turned round a corner. We followed and suddenly the tender bumped, lurched and went along with two wheels on the pavement. We had only just missed dropping into a crater about twenty feet across by ten to fifteen feet deep. The first pump had swerved the other way from us and was stuck with its nose in a heap of debris’ [Goodall, Voices]

By the beginning of 1940 more people had been killed in road accidents than by enemy action. Ironically one of the first was a council employee hit by a vehicle as he painted a white line on a curb near Marble Arch – these lines, marking curbs and steps, were intended to help people navigate the darkened city.

In addition, as Geoff Manaugh demonstrates, both the flow and the fabric of the city were reconfigured: a 20 m.p.h. speed limit was imposed, blue lights marked public air raid shelters, and new white markings appeared on roads to guide the traffic:

Unusual markings in the roadway at Piccadilly designed to help motorists at night during the blackout in World War II. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

You can find more photographs of London during the blackout at mashable here and, of course, via the Collections page of the Imperial War Museums.

The imposition of the blackout was remarkable successful – though once the flares and the bombs sailed down, the bombers quickly found their mark (if rarely the precise target they were aiming for).  So let me leave you with this exquisite exchange that captures the interplay between the blackout and the bombs; it comes from John Strachey‘s account of his days as an ARP warden, Digging for Mrs Miller:

‘As he put his head out, a man said “Warden,” out of the dark. “Warden”, went on the voice irritably, “Come and see these dreadful lights. Don’t you think you ought to put them out at once?” Ford went down the street a few yards and found a man in a trilby hat pointing towards the trees in Bedford Court. There were the lights all right, two of them behind the trees, and as they watched three more came slowly drifting and dropping through the higher sky, red, white and orange. “I’m afraid I can’t put those lights out,” Ford said. “You see, those are flares dropped from German aeroplanes.”

Bombs and books

Among a million and one other things, I’ve returned to my work on the history of bombing for my Reach from the Sky lectures in January.

Secret History of the Blitz

I’ve long admired Joshua Levine‘s work, and his Secret History of the Blitz is thoroughly impressive.  Many others have picked their way across the bomb-sites before, of course, but there are genuinely novel insights to be found amidst the rubble and Levine is an excellent (and wonderfully literate) collector.

2015 is the 75th anniversary of the the Blitz of 1940-41. It is one of the most iconic periods in modern British history – and one of the most misunderstood. The ‘Blitz spirit’ is celebrated by some, whereas others dismiss it as a myth. Joshua Levine’s thrilling biography rejects the tired arguments and reveals the human truth: the Blitz was a time of extremes of experience and behaviour. People were pulling together and helping strangers, but they were also breaking rules and exploiting each other. Life during wartime, the author reveals, was complex and messy and real.

From the first page readers will discover a different story to the one they thought they knew – from the sacrifices made by ordinary people to a sudden surge in the popularity of nightclubs; from secret criminal trials at the Old Bailey to a Columbine-style murder in an Oxford college. There were new working opportunities for women and the appearance of unfamiliar cultures: whilst prayers were offered up in a south London mosque, Jamaican sailors were struggling to cross the country. Unlikely friendships were fostered and surprising sexualities explored – these years saw a boom in prostitution and even the emergence of a popular weekly magazine for fetishists. On the darker side, racketeers and spivs made money out of the chaos, and looters prowled the night to prey on bomb victims.

From the lack of cheese to the decreased suicide rate, this astonishing and entertaining book takes the true pulse of a ‘blitzed nation’. And it shows how social change during this time led to political change – which in turn has built the Britain we know today.

You can find good reviews from the Independent here and from the Telegraph here.

Le gouvernement du ciel

Very different in reach and tone (but also impressively literate), and in many ways much closer to some of the themes I want to address in Cambridge in January,  is Thomas Hippler‘s Le gouvernment du ciel: histoire globale des bombardements aériens.  Readers interested in these things will surely know his remarkable account of Giulio Douhet,  Bombing the People: Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy, 1884–1939; the new book picks up from the last chapter of the previous one in many ways.

Here is the Contents List:


The earth, the sea and the sky

Towards perpetual peace

The colonial matrix

Civilisation, cosmopolitanism and democracy

The people and the populace

Philosophy of the bomb

Making and unmaking a people

Under the nuclear shield, ‘revolutionary war’

World governance and perpetual war

As you can perhaps divine from the chapter titles, this is at once an attempt to write a global history of the twentieth century through diagnostic episodes in bombing’s bleak history and a discussion of the political formations that aerial violence both presupposed and installed.


I stumbled upon a fascinating conversation between Thomas and Grégoire Chamayou (above) and since I provided a detailed commentary on Théorie du drone for those who can’t read French (you can access the full set here: scroll down for the links) I’ll try to do the same for Le gouvernment du ciel in the weeks ahead (and I’ll include some snippets from that extended conversation).

I don’t think my commentaries have been superceded by the publication of the translation, Theory of the drone, so I’m hoping the same will be true if there is an English version of Le gouvernment du ciel (though I can’t find any sign of one yet).

The sensual history of destruction

I’ve been in Paris this week, first for a presentation to Michel Wieviorka‘s seminar at the École des Hautes Études on Wednesday morning and then for a different presentation to Pauline Guinard‘s seminar at the École Normale Supérieure on Wednesday evening.  I hope this explains my silence!  Lots of good questions at both, and also lively conversations about the French intervention in Mali — which made today a good day to visit the Musée de l’Armée at Les Invalides.

An astonishing building, but I was disappointed at the exhibitions – too many uniforms and muskets and (especially when compared to the Imperial War Museum in London, even before its current reconstruction) remarkably little on the politics and culture of war (though there were some good three-screen videos).  Given my current preoccupation with the First World War, I expected much more from what turned out to be a lifeless series of galleries; appropriate, you might think, but I left with very few impressions of how so many French soldiers managed to survive the trenches and the barrages.  It was a far cry from the new history, anthropology and archaeology of the battlefield that has done so much to recover its raw physicality, its sensuality and even its intimacy.

FEIGEL Love-charm of bombs (UK edition)So I returned to the hotel to start Lara Feigel‘s The love-charm of bombs: restless lives in the Second World War (Bloomsbury, 2013) which I picked up at Foyle’s on my way through London (and still the best bookshop in the world).  When people ask me to recommend books that convey the experience of being bombed, my selections always include the opening chapter of Randall Hansen‘s The fire and the fury: the Allied bombing of Germany 1942-1945, where he uses eyewitness accounts to conjure up ‘The day Hamburg died’ with extraordinary power and economy – there is now a rich literature on this in German and in English, most notably Keith Lowe‘s brilliant Inferno: the devastation of Hamburg 1943 – and the central chapters of Sarah Waters‘s stunning novel The Night-Watch.  But I think I may have to add Feigel to the list because The love-charm of bombs traffics in that difficult but vital space between the documentary (Hansen) and the imaginative (Waters).

I say ‘may’ only because I’ve just started.  But Part I, ‘One night in the lives of five writers, 26 September 1940’, uses the work and lives of five writers – Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilda Spiel and Henry Yorke (‘Henry Greene’) – to address, in a remarkably fresh and compelling fashion, the relation between aesthetics and violence.  Feigel does this not in a conventional philosophical fashion, but by engaging directly with the ways in which, for these (and presumably other) writers, there was something thrilling, exhilarating and even sublime about the spectacle of military violence transforming the capital during the Blitz.  This was far more visceral than voyeurism, though Feigel is very, very good on the visuals (and would surely have been even better had she included the work of artists and photographers), because these men and women were profoundly, physically involved in the Blitz as air raid wardens, ambulance drivers, and auxiliary firemen.  The title comes from Graham Greene:

‘The nightly routine of sirens, barrage, the probing raider, the unmistakable engine (“Where are you?  Where are you?  Where are you?”), the bomb-bursts moving nearer and then moving away, hold one like a love-charm.’

FEIGEL The love-charm of bombsFeigel gives the events of that one night a peculiar intensity by beginning with what she calls a ‘newsreel’, a quick and lively summary of the Blitz, and then, as darkness falls, moving in sections from 7 p.m. (Blackout) through 10 p.m. (Fire) and 1 a.m. (Rescue) until 6 a.m., the All Clear, and the blessed arrival (for some, at least) of a new day.  It’s something of a conceit: the five writers were not dutiful scribes each at their separate desks on 26 September , so to bring them into view on this artfully re-imagined night Feigel darts back from their loosely collective present into their pasts, placing them in myriad networks of other writers and friends, inserting them into the narrative arc of the falling bombs, and freely using their writings so that they issue forth as something far more than the usual silhouettes glimpsed against the light of burning buildings.  And their involvements are profoundly sensuous: as the cover of the American edition (right) shows far better than the English edition above, and as the title intimates, even as they were unmoored from their familiar haunts and their old lives, they also sensed (and often seized) new possibilities for love as well as loss.

This is a very different ground to that crunched over by Patrick Deer in the equally brilliant Culture in camouflage: war, empire and modern British literature (still one of my favourite books about this or any other period) or Leo Mellor‘s Reading the ruins: modernism, bomb-sites and British culture (which I found remarkably austere), because its sense of culture is more sensuous, even sensual, because it addresses the erotics of surviving military violence in such an honest way, and – probably another way of saying the same two things – because it’s so close in spirit to Sarah Waters.

It’s also much closer to the way in which the humanities have recovered the Western Front.  In fact, Feigel insist that ‘these writers, firefighting, ambulance-driving, patrolling the streets,were the successors of the soldier poets of the First World War, and their story remains to be told.’  There are of course difficulties in privileging the privileged, and some of the most arresting memorials about life in the trenches were produced not by the gentlemen-officers but by the ordinary soldiers: but as Feigel shows, there are also riches to be recovered by picking their pocket-books.

Bomb Sight

Another pre-script…. Last week I noted two projects that aimed to bring drone strikes to your smart phone, but here’s one that promises to do the same for the London Blitz.  Developed by researchers at the University of Portsmouth led by Kate Jones, in conjunction with the National Archives, and working from the official wartime Bomb Census, Bomb Sight uses web and mobile mapping technology to ‘bring to life [sic] the maps that demarcate the location of [31,000] falling bombs during the London Blitz between October 1940 and June 1941.’  It’s a truly remarkable project that intends to link the sites on the map to photographs, eye-witness accounts and memories.

The project is being developed for the Android platform but there is apparently the future possibility of porting to the iPhone – assuming that Apple doesn’t find this as objectionable as it did Josh Begley‘s Drones+ app (I’m betting it won’t).

The blog recording the development of Bomb Sight includes some screen shots – I’ve pasted some below – showing detailed maps and augmented reality views that give more insight into the intended outcome.

Unlike attempts to plot drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere, the Bomb Census Survey maps produced by the Ministry of Home Security make it possible to identify locations with great (though sometimes variable) precision – a capacity that was of course unavailable to those dropping the bombs in the first place – and there is a rich vein of images and testimony to tap into too.

It’s that prospect of multi-media linkage that makes this such a brilliant project.  There have been other attempts to map the Blitz; the Guardian produced this remarkable map of the ‘incidents’ to which the London Fire Brigade responded on the first night of the Blitz, 7 September 1940, for example, and made available an online interactive so that the toll could be followed hour by hideous hour:

You need to ‘grow’ the markers on the map; the Guardian noted that each ‘incident’ typically involved multiple bombs.  But even more telling is the word itself: ‘incident’.  For, as John Strachey noted in his memoir of his time as an Air Raid Warden, it’s a bureaucratic, bloodless term:

In contrast, what Bomb Sight promises to do is not only to disaggregate each ‘incident’ to show every bomb dropped but, still more importantly, to deconstruct the very term itself: to link the bomb scatter to imagery and testimony and so give the lie to these bloodless abstractions.

Perhaps if something similar could be done for other cities around the world more people would be enraged at the continued recourse to bombing from the air as a legitimate political and military practice, and the politics of  ‘banning the bomb’ might be transformed into a more general demand to ban all bombs.

If you want to see more of Bomb Sight, there’s a very good video up at YouTube: