What’s wrong with a little destruction?

"Slough" by John Betjeman (1937):

Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now,
There isn't grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air-conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath.

Mess up the mess they call a town-
A house for ninety-seven down
And once a week a half a crown
For twenty years.

And get that man with double chin
Who'll always cheat and always win,
Who washes his repulsive skin
In women's tears:

And smash his desk of polished oak
And smash his hands so used to stroke
And stop his boring dirty joke
And make him yell.

But spare the bald young clerks who add
The profits of the stinking cad;
It's not their fault that they are mad,
They've tasted Hell.

It's not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio,
It's not their fault they often go
To Maidenhead

And talk of sport and makes of cars
In various bogus-Tudor bars
And daren't look up and see the stars
But belch instead.

In labour-saving homes, with care
Their wives frizz out peroxide hair
And dry it in synthetic air
And paint their nails.

Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now;
The earth exhales.

David Brent's analysis of "Slough":

'Right, I don't think you solve town planning problems by dropping bombs all over the place, so he's embarrassed himself there' -- brilliant.

But some people did think like that, or at least wanted to use the need for urban reconstruction after intensive bombing as an opportunity to build a better city. Even more common were plans for reconstruction before war came, to build a city which would better protect its inhabitants from bombing as well as provide a more pleasant way of life. Indeed, the latter might well be a byproduct of the former, as Alistair Cooke1 suggested in a review of Lewis Mumford's The Culture of Cities (1938). He first apologised for criticising Mumford's penchant for 'philosophic blueprint[s]', and then added that:

But it is inevitable at a time when A.R.P. underlines the fact that idealism is possibly the last drive a community acts on when it decides to rebuild itself. Profit, plague, satiation, and especially fear are paramount; a regrettable conclusion that Mr. Mumford himself amply proves in his section on "War as City-Builder."

He tells in masterly detail of the mediaeval [sic] city's ache for security after five centuries of looting and civic bankruptcy. But it is likely that radical reform in street-planning, and (in this country) in greenbelt planning, will take effect not from somebody's idealism but from Mr. Langdon-Davies's insistence that air raids make such foresight inevitable. Planning for war may, in this instance, bring about peace-time playgrounds that philanthropy would never have created.2

Not all visions of the bombproofed cities of the future were so positive. Only two weeks later, the same publication reported on the British delegation's report to the 1938 International Housing and Townplanning [sic] Congress, held in Mexico City:

Here we get in all its nakedness a picture of the life to which civilised man will be condemned if air-warfare is to be perpetuated as one of the enduring achievements of civilisation. It is true that his life would not be spent underground, but all the essentials of life would have to be duplicated underground. Car-parks would go beneath the surface so that they could be used as shelters (but according to Professor Haldane they would have to go at least 50 feet down), hospitals would have to go underground, so would museums, for the security of their contents, so should all places of public entertainment, and communications must of course be constructed underground, at a cost of about £1,000 a foot. It is just as well that we should realise what faces us even if actual war in the immediate future is avoided and only the prospect of war overhangs us.3

In a society where, apparently, it would either take the threat of war to build truly livable cities, or alternatively, that threat would force life partly underground, one can perhaps understand why 'the hatred of modern life, the desire to see our money-civilization blown to hell by bombs' was 'a thing [...] genuinely felt' by the protagonist of George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). Of course, none of these things happened, but that's another story.


  1. Yes, that Alistair Cooke, though being neither American nor British I'm more familiar with Alistair Cookie

  2. Alistair Cooke, "A diary of civilisation", Spectator, 26 August 1938, 241. 

  3. "The subterranean life", Spectator, 9 September 1938, 391. 

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6 thoughts on “What’s wrong with a little destruction?

  1. Or alternatively, rather than building underground, move these things out to the suburbs. Dispersal. It fit quite well with many interpretations of Le Corbusier's cite radieuse; all those white buildings in parks linked by superbly-landscaped highways. There's some interesting historiography mostly by American leftie/cultural studies types (so bring a sack of caveats) about the influence of air dread on suburban development.

    Coming from a family with a new town background, I have to say that rereading Slough after a few years leaves me a bit cold. Slough is a dump, sure enough, and Betjeman does a job of snarking it, but I bet it beat the piss out of 1930s Woolwich or Brixton, and there's a metric shitload of snobbery in there. To say nothing of the "everything was better on the land, and maybe having London coventrated would get us back there - it's only a few million dead poor people" meme.

    Curiously, Betjeman managed to combine this kind of hymn of hate for modernism with reams of stuff about how wonderful the Underground, especially the Metropolitan Line, and the north-west London suburbs (built at the same time) were; out by RAF Northolt and Bentley Priory, mark. The key is of course class: Into neat West Ruislip station/Pulls the bright electric train/With a thousand Ta's and Pardons/Daintily alights Elaine...She obviously wouldn't ever paint her nails, and therefore she gets a slot in the air raid shelter. But she does sound fucking incredibly dull.

  2. Whoops; misquoted.

    Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
    Runs the red electric train,
    With a thousand Ta’s and Pardon’s
    Daintily alights Elaine;

    Reading the rest, I think my point is only reinforced.

  3. Nemo

    This post reminded me of a quote attributed to Goebbles late in the war: "Under the ruins of our demolished cities the accomplishments of the stupid nineteenth century lie buried." This is quoted in Part 2, Chapter 6 of THE MORNING OF THE MAGICIANS (a/k/a THE DAWN OF MAGIC in the UK) by Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels. Now this isn't exactly a scholarly book, but it was a hell of a lot of fun to read when I was 16 or 17. The book is unsourced and if the quote is accurate it reflects something written by G is German and subsequently translated into French and then English. Also, it's not clear if G is talking just about 19th Century architecture or something much broader.

    Since I'm here I'll also mention that the American novelist Nicholson Baker has written a history of the early years of WW2 that might be somewhat up your alley. If you don't know who Baker is ( let's just say here that he is an unusual writer) there is a story about him and his new book here:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/04/books/04bake.html?_r=1&ref=books&oref=slogin

    and there is an excerpt from the book itself here:

    http://www.simonsays.com/content/book.cfm?tab=1&pid=616619&agid=2

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  5. Post author

    Alex:

    I don't know much about Betjeman, but 'snob' does seem to be adequate for a one-word description!

    What historiography are you referring to? I haven't looked very hard yet, but the American stuff I've seen is mostly about the nuclear era. You're right, dispersal is another effect of bombing on town planning, but it didn't fit in so well with my post's title :) I can't remember where I saw it -- I thought it was Edgerton or Wohl, but it's not -- but didn't Le Corbusier explicitly design a city that was resistant to air attack? Lots of open spaces, buildings which minimised their cross-sections from above, lots of big water features which could be used by firefighters when the water mains went out. That's going to bug me now ...

    Nemo:

    Ah, I've never read Morning of the Magicians, though I've heard plenty of things about it -- mostly bad (the Nazi-occult stuff in there sounds like it was basically complete rubbish). But that Goebbels statement does sound plausible, I think. Certainly Hitler spent a lot of time planning how to rebuild Berlin -- he was probably half-glad to see the place in ruins.

    That Baker book does sound interesting -- there's a few familiar names in the excerpt which don't normally get up in books by generalists.

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