by Hugh Gilmore
By coincidence I had started reading “The Splendid and the Vile” when our (mostly) national shutdown began. As I got into it, however, I was struck by the many parallels between Larson’s description of London life during the Blitz and what the world at large is experiencing now with the coronavirus.
To refresh your memory: In the early stages of WWII, the German Luftwaffe bombed English industrial and military targets mercilessly for months, but avoided bombing London for reasons of diplomacy and international public relations. When England refused to surrender and in fact showed defiance to Hitler’s demands, Hitler decided to break England’s national will by bombing London. Starting on September 7, 1940, and for a total of 56 (of 57) consecutive nights, London was bombed. Thousands of people died as a result of these horrific raids.
The author, Erik Larson, had moved to New York right after the World Trade Center attack and he became fascinated by the way New Yorkers had adapted to the horrors of that day and its aftermath. It made him wonder about what life was like back in England during the early days of Winston Churchill’s stint as Prime Minister, especially the terrible months of the Blitzkrieg.
Specifically, Larson focuses the story on the first year of Churchill’s Prime Ministry, May 10, 1940, to May 10, 1941. The focal question is: How did everyone survive such an ordeal? (The short answer is blood, sweat, toil, tears...and luck. Sheer luck. Bombs dropped where they would. An entire block, all but one house, might be leveled by a bomb. People might shelter underground during a raid, safe from bombs, but drown when a water main was blown, filling their safe haven with rushing water.
What was it like to have your city bombed for weeks, turning into months, with no end in sight? To answer that, Larson turned to some lesser- known sources. Winston Churchill, of course, bestrides this world, rushing about, giving orders, holding conferences, rushing to roofs to witness nighttime aerial battles, entertaining dinner parties, annoying his wife Clementine, courting Franklin Roosevelt, trying to tame his unruly son Randolph and defying Hitler’s demands that he surrender.
The entire book is craftily told in scenes and reads like a fast-paced novel with multiple characters presenting their own stories and points of view in settings quite removed from the world of 10 Downing Street.
One particularly enjoyable thread uses excerpts from the diary of Joseph Goebbels, the German Minister of Propaganda. Goebbels would plot a disinformation plan, implement it and then become surprised and annoyed to hear Churchill’s chin-up reaction on his BBC radio broadcast. He had a law passed making it an act of treason for any German citizen to listen to Churchill’s radio broadcasts.
Another recurring character throughout the book is Churchill’s daughter, Mary, who was 17 when the war began. She kept a very personal diary that Larson was given privileged access to. Though she eventually joined and worked with some war relief stations, her night life was filled with nightclubbing, theaters and snogging with young RAF pilots whenever they came around to flirt with the society girls.
A touching theme throughout concerns the personal life of Churchill’s personal secretary, John Colville. The woman he adores, Gay Margesson, thinks he’s just plain old “Jock,” and his sad, doomed courtship of her is interspersed throughout the book.
Another recurring diarist in this story is Pamela Churchill, who had the misfortune to fall in love with Winston and Clementine’s son, Randolph, an argumentative pickle with a terrible drinking and gambling habit. Her emancipation is one of the more enjoyable stories told here.
And then there’s the voice of “the common man.” Three young Oxford men, a writer, an artist, and an anthropologist, began a project called “Mass-Observation.” They found about 500 volunteers from mostly middle-class society to make daily reports of things they’d experienced or noted during the war. Larson intersperses these reports to add detail to what the average person was thinking, doing and noticing.
As with several other of Erik Larson’s books (“The Devil in the White City,” “Dead Wake,” and Thunderstruck.”) “The Splendid and the Vile” is doing quite well on the Times Best-Seller List. He hardly needs another review to boost sales. But the present siege we’re living through with the virus provokes renewed sympathy and awe for what the English people endured during the bombings. And stands as a kind of attitudinal model for us: If they could survive thousands and thousands of bombing attacks, we can hold up to the problems we’re all facing now with this virus.
The parallels are not exact, of course. We Americans may go to sleep in fear of bodily harm, but we’re reasonably certain our homes will still be standing tomorrow morning. We’re also given the formal assurance that we have some measure of control over our fates through social distancing and hand washing. Yet, the sudden introduction of fear and distress to the lives we were living three months ago, the slackening of the economy, the loss of jobs, the dangers, the extreme alteration of our normal way of living, present many similarities with the England presented so vividly in this amazingly readable and informative book.