Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 24, 2017

After the Bombing, by Clare Morrall

After the Bombing is a deceptive novel.  At first I thought I was a bit disappointed by it.  I picked it up at the library because the author’s name was familiar to me: Clare Morrall’s Astonishing Splashes of Colour was shortlisted for the Booker (in 2003) and I remembered liking it very much.  But while I enjoyed After the Bombing enough for bedtime reading, it seemed to be ‘just a story’, if you know what I mean.  But as that story percolated in my mind over the next day or so, I began to see more of its merits.

Wikipedia tells me that Morrall was born in Exeter in 1952, well after the Exeter Blitz that frames her story, but like me, she would have grown up hearing family stories about the German bombing from those who experienced it.  Stories abut the terror of the raids, and then ”getting used to it.  Stories about lucky escapes, and about family members killed or injured by the bombing.  She would have seen streetscapes like those I saw as a small girl in London: gaps between the houses with weeds growing over remnants of rubble.  For us they were places to play in a city where large play spaces were at a premium, but for the adults around us these gaps in the streetscape were where a neighbour had lived, a place reduced to rubble overnight.  It wasn’t just the large-scale loss of homes, it was the destruction of community: if the occupants had survived, they had to find a home somewhere else and move away.  My father, an evacuee who returned to London because of ill-treatment by his hosts, has spoken of his street and the gang of kids he played with, gradually disappearing – one house after another, one child after another – until finally his house – almost the last one in the street – was bombed, leaving only the back of it standing.  That was when he had to move away from everything he had known to his grandparents’ house in a different, unscathed suburb…

Morrall has set her story in two time frames: the story of teenage girls at an Exeter boarding school damaged by the bombs, and then in the same school in the 1960s when one of the girls has grown up to become a music teacher there.  This structure enables her to show the long-term impact of the war on the generation too young to fight but old enough to understand.

The wartime scenes are vivid.  Exeter was not an industrial city and although there were the usual precautions no one expected it to be bombed. Parents had evacuated their children there from London because they expected it to be safe.  The first, unexpected raid sees the boarders in a terrifying dash to the newly-built air-raid shelter where they shiver with cold and fear because they did not have time to bring blankets.

This bombing is different from anything they’ve experienced before.

It starts again, more terrifying in the shelter than outside because the sound is magnified, booming across the roof, echoing in all directions.  Every bomb seems to be exploding directly above them or just outside the door, threatening to split them open and burn them up.  Alma curls herself into a tight ball and stuffs her fists into her ears, but nothing can stop the reverberations.  She tries to think about the people out there, those whose homes are going up in flames, the ones who didn’t get to a shelter on time, but her thoughts keep returning to her parents.  Are they in a safe place?  (p.11)

When they emerge in the morning, the boarding house has been damaged, and four of the girls have to be billeted at a local university, because there is nowhere else for them to go.  There are interesting young men there, who teach the girls dances like the Lindy-hop.  And they are under the care of Robert Gunner, a solitary, scholarly man twice their age, who comes back into the story again when his daughter attends the same school. 

But the novel is not a romance.  While the girls are attractive, they are too young for anything serious, and when the story switches to the 1960s the reader finds that there is a lost generation of women not unlike those after WW1.  Too many young women, not enough men, and the emotional damage makes it hard for some people to form relationships anyway. Alma Braithwaite, the central character, has lost too many people at a crucial time in her life to take any sort of risks.  She lives her life in a kind of stasis until an assertive new headmistress arrives and starts changing the way things have always been done before.

What Morrall captures really well is the anxiety of the adult Alma, stubbornly clinging to the way the redoubtable Miss Cunningham-Smith always did things.  At a vulnerable age in her psychological development, Alma has invested her sense of security in this formidable, unflappable headmistress.  When on the day after the bombing the girls’ temporary host Mrs Bates opens the door expecting the ARP warden with instructions on where to send the girls, the relief is palpable when

Instead, Miss Cunningham-Smith, headmistress of Goldwyn’s High School for Girls, sweeps past her and into the drawing room, tall and solid, her large teeth protruding slightly and her short, straight hair as neat as always.

The atmosphere changes in an instant.

‘Miss Cunningham- Smith!’ cries Miss Rupin, with delight.  You found us!’

‘Of course I did,’ says Miss Cunningham-Smith.  ‘I cannot believe you would doubt me.  I’ve been to Goldwyn’s, assessed the damage and followed your trail here, with the help of a somewhat pedantic ARP warden who kept muttering about not being able to share information with anyone.  Infuriating man.  Do I really resemble a German spy.’ (p.29)

As the two strands of the story takes shape, Morrall gradually reveals the reasons for the adult Alma’s fear of change, and the irrational lengths to which she is willing to go to prevent it.  The reader – initially invested in Alma’s perspective against her new headmistress but gradually made aware of the flaws in both characters – also sees that the new headmistress Miss Yates has demons of her own:

She hasn’t been a girl since she travelled from Oxford at the news of the bombing of Coventry, hurtling into the nightmare of the ruined city.  Her train dropped her on the outskirts – most of the centre had been destroyed, including the cathedral – so she’d had to walk for several miles.  She’s never been able to forget what she saw on that first day.  The raids hadn’t finished until six fifteen in the morning, and Coventry went on burning until nightfall, when the bombers came again, their path lit by the fires of their previous raid.  She didn’t know at that point that all of her family were dead – it took nearly a week to sort through the confusion – but she soon discovered her life could never be the same again.  (p.334)

This is the generation just a little bit younger than my parents, and I’m not aware of any other novels that have told the story of the war from their persepctive.  The characters of After the Bombing are not heroic, nor even particularly stoic in the way that we have come to know from stories of the Blitz, but for the generation that lived through the bombing at a crucial age, it blighted many lives irrevocably.

Author: Clare Morrall
Title: After the Bombing
Publisher: Sceptre, 2014
ISBN: 9781444736427
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: After the Bombing

 

 

 

 


Responses

  1. My relatives had nightmare stories of evacuations.

    • Yes. I’m sure there were many success stories, but my father and his brother had a terrible time. OTOH one day he was struggling ‘home’ from school on foot with a twisted ankle when a woman drove past and saw him, and turned around and drove him ‘home’. He points out for her to add the extra miles to her journey when petrol rations were so scarce was very generous indeed.

  2. I too enjoyed Astonishing Splashes of Colour and your review has certainly inspired me to try this one. Claire Morrall still live in Devon and goes to a book club with one of my mum’s friends:-)

    • Oh, wouldn’t that be fantastic, to have an author in the book group!

  3. Do you know about the bombsite.org website, Lisa? It’s map of all the WWII bomb sites in London. I still find it fascinating/alarming that old bombs are still discovered 70+ years later. Only a fortnight ago all the trains on my overground line were cancelled for a few hours because an unexploded WWII bomb had been discovered on a building site further up the line and a whole street and school had to be evacuated while it was dealt with.

    • Hi Kim, Yes, I do know about it, thanks:) I made a scrapbook for my father’s 80th birthday and I downloaded a map of where he lived that showed what had happened. I find it amazing to go to Docklands and see all those shiny new buildings that replaced the communities that used to be there before the Blitz.

  4. I was trying to think what novels might meet your criteria. Plenty, like E. Waugh’s Put Out More Flags series have the Blitz as background, but how about Stead’s Cotter’s England, Nellie and Tom Cotter are about that age, Nellie in particular making do with a house damaged by bombing.

  5. I’m going to forgive myself for forgetting the Waugh because it’s forty years since I read my first brother-in-law’s entire collection of Waugh, but *smacks forehead* how did I forget about Cotter’s England?


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