Plymouth – December/January 2017-18
I sit at the large double-glazed window of a semi-detached house in a row of semis in Alexandra Road, Plymouth. It runs along the side of a hill overlooking the valley below, and up toward Blockhouse Park hill to the south. On the hillside opposite are row upon row of the exact same terraced houses butted together like Lego blocks. Each with the same sized back yard, with the same sized and positioned shed butted to the back of the house. These would once have been the coal house and outside toilet, but now likely to house a washer-dryer, bike gear and rejected microwaves waiting to be transported to the recycling centre or fly tipped.
The symmetrical lines are regular, ordered, predictable. Each rooftop and chimney perfectly aligned, each back yard stepping down the same degree as the next and the next, until the row reaches the road at the bottom. The bus runs along this road past the Ford Palladium that used to show movies through the middle decades of last century, but which is now home to a building supplier.
There are cars lining both sides of the streets, some facing each other, some not – making the streets so narrow that only one car can traverse the streets at a time, the others wait at the top or bottom for their turn.
I watch the winter sun, low in the sky, begin to fade over the horizon of roof tops and street lights, the roads glistening in ribbons down the hillside, still wet from recent rain. Grey clouds gather like a rugby scrum, threatening to unleash their thunder.
As I perched there on the window sill I read an account of woman who lived in this road as a young woman during World War II (read account here). I wonder if this house where I’m staying is the house she lived in. If this window is one that shattered with the force of the incendiary bombs dropped by the Germans. I look out to the back yard that slopes down to a stone wall, and wonder where their air raid shelter was. Was it near the chicken house? Was it close to the bottom fence to keep as much distance from the house as possible?
I read about how it was to experience 59 consecutive nights of bombings, years of rationing, the loss of some many people in your family, your street, your community. What does it do to you to see the destruction of your town, the buildings you’d go to with your mum to buy shoes and sheets and string, destroyed, nothing but rubble and splintered wood?
I think of the man that raised me, who never set foot in this country, but who in WWII fought in the deserts of Northern Africa from the age of 32 until he was 39. He returned to New Zealand when the Germans were defeated and never spoke of those years away. As a child I used to run my fingers over the indented scar on his leg. What’s that mark on your leg I asked one day when I was still small enough to climb on his knee. It’s where I got shot by a bullet in the War, he’d replied. It saved my life he told me – the only thing he told me about the War, other than tipping your boots upside down in the mornings to make sure the dessert scorpions hadn’t crawled in – because I was taken to a hospital and the next day my platoon were captured and taken to a prisoner of war camp, I was the lucky one he said. I had no concept of words like prisoner of war as a child, they were just words devoid of shape or colour or texture. But I imagined my dad lying in the dessert with a bullet in his leg while the rest of his platoon marched forward to somewhere less hospitable.
I think of my mother, the one who birthed me, living in London with her parents in the street where her grandparents and relatives and friends lived. I know little of their time in the War, because I didn’t find them until it was too late to ask the innocent questions children ask, or to capture like photographs, the memories of feelings I had yet to name and understand, on faces of the adults around me. After the War my mother, her brother and parents left London for good. It must have taken some degree of rage and courage to leave so much of the heart behind to travel and settle on the other side of the planet – a three-month trip from London on a ship across seven seas and oceans to a barely inhabited group of islands in the South Pacific. Did New Zealand heal the pains of war? Did it erase the bad memories of loss and death and ration cards and air raid shelters, and the smell of burning cities and damp bunkers, and the sound of whistling bombs and air raid sirens and people crying?
Plymouth took a heavy toll. Over the course of the War the people of Plymouth endured: 59 separate air raids; air raid sirens rang out 602 times; the destruction of their city including the two main shopping centres, two Guildhalls, a theatre, six hotels, eight cinemas, 26 schools, 42 churches, 1900 public houses and 3754 homes. In addition, 18,389 homes needed repair.
The impacts of this destruction on the mental and physical wellbeing of the people of Plymouth would have been immeasurable. The lives of every resident was shattered to one degree or another. And the impacts continued for the next and the next generation as those who lived through it tried to rebuild their lives. Their shattered hearts and tortuous memories gave them day-mares and nightmares – some didn’t talk of their ordeal, others drank, some did not return….
During the raids on Plymouth 4,448 civilians were injured and 1,178 civilians were killed.
...and in this new era?
In first world countries in the early 21st century the threat of traditional warfare has been superseded by new threats of jihad radicalism, chemical warfare and nuclear threats. Collateral damage isn’t even an appropriate term anymore as non-combatants are the target. In most cases there’s no way of warning people of an imminent attack.
However, in Plymouth every Monday morning at 11.30am, like an echo of the air raid sirens of the Second World War, a warning siren screams out from the naval base at Devonport. The siren warns of a nuclear event at the dockyards where 13 decommissioned Royal Navy submarines are waiting out their retirement like sleeping crocodiles. These submarines were nuclear powered and despite assurances that measures haven been taken to reduce the risk of a nuclear accident there have been four reported incidences of nuclear waste leaks since 2002. The risk of accident is one thing, but what about the opportunity those 13 submarines provide to a person or persons, as a target …not as tall as the Twin Towers, but potentially a devastating.
So every Monday in Plymouth I was reminded of the fragile peace we live in, of the environmental damage we have caused this magnificent planet in the name of providence and progress, and of the urgent need for a re-visioning toward a future fueled by kindness, compassion and wisdom. In my view it’s the only way to get beyond the self-destructive vision of a world driven by greed, shame and fear.