The 70th anniversary of the blitz recalls not only the horror of nightly bombing raids both on London and other English cities, but also the failure of its objective to demoralise their citizens living under sustained attack. Those who lived through it talk of helping each other and pulling together, united in the face of collective threat.
As an island race we’re sometimes accused of being insular and uncaring, yet the blitz spirit survives and is revealed in surprising and frequently unusual ways.
Noting the kindness of strangers in London last night as we all battled the ghastly combination of unrelenting rain and a tube strike – which equated to the wholesale disappearance of taxis – I was reminded of a different kind of solidarity.
Some years ago the Royal Academy staged an exhibition called Apocalypse – a multi-media platform where 13 artists portrayed their visions. Controversially included were Maurizio Cattellani’s ‘Pope’ a sculpture of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite and the Chapman Brothers’ ‘Hell’ – 5000 small mutilated figures arranged in the shape of a swastika, providing their comment on the horrors of 20th century genocide.
The blitz spirit emerged in an installation by German artist Gregor Schneider. A series of rooms, some resembling strip-lit cells and with artfully placed mirrors, provided a maze to explore and from which to try and escape.
Logically, escape had to be possible, yet there were numerous blind alleys which lent a note of increasing anxiety, which was doubtless the artist’s intention. However, within a short time of entering the maze the Brits within it had formed a cohesive group, sharing knowledge and advice to find a way out – and defeating the perceived threat of incarceration.
Discussing this reaction with a colleague the following the day, he revealed that his German wife had observed and been astonished by the British capacity to get together in the adversity of the daily commute.
She had noted that while commuters tended to be fairly insular, as soon as anything out of the ordinary happened they banded together in solidarity. Something as innocuous as a minor delay (never mind the ubiquitous ‘leaves on the line’) would generate rapport. Significantly she said ‘that would never happen in Germany’.
I was left to assume that Gregory Schneider had underestimated the ‘blitz spirit’ – the Brits in his maze ‘Kept Calm and Carried On’, and made their Great Escape.