Saturday, 19 November 2011

She was a woman in a crowd, surrounded but alone

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane is a superb, heartbreaking, human read. It's a fiction-based-on-fact retelling of the 1943 disaster at the Bethnal Green tube station/bomb shelter. 173 people died on the stairs into the shelter, crushed to death in the crowd on a night when no bombs were dropped on London.

Although we know from the blurb (or general historical knowledge) about what happened that night, the structure of the book allows the story of the alert, the rush, the crush and the aftermath to develop in parallel with our growing understanding about how it happened and the cumulative stories of individuals and their individual actions which contributed for good or ill. The author presents each of them as rounded individuals, and the magistrate appointed to investigate and write the report takes a similar approach. 

We hear from the warden who put a brighter light bulb onto the stairs, the various council bureaucrats who hadn't approved funding for a handrail, the police man who chose to stop a group of small boys for playing with torches rather than hurrying to his post at the shelter entrance, the clerk transfixed by the green soles of a girl's shoes, a harassed mother hurrying to the shelter with her daughters.  The result was a human report, put together with ceremony and sympathy, and written to explain, understand and heal. 


There's a whole separate strand about telling the truth. The magistrate did not apportion blame - and chose to omit a crucial detail about how the crush started because he was worried about tensions in the community. The Government also refused to provide information about whether new guns had been fired that night (which might have sounded like bombs landing and exacerbated the crush), and sought to suppress the report, because it was worried about morale in the community. In the individual case of the magistrate and told through a sympathetic point of view the decision to suppress information seems sensitive, decent and constructive - but a similarly motivated approach by the Government seems patriarchal, patronising and obstructive. Interesting.

I read this book because two reviews - by Rachel at booksnob and Darlene at roses over a cottage door - both posts are well worth a read, as is this article. I loved this book, and am about to start to press it on everyone I know.

1 comment:

  1. I'm worried your Persephone didn't arrive! Let me know, love Bellezza (your Secret Santa)