Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 12th, 2018

Life during wartime

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Over the last few days, I’ve been reading Maker of Patterns, the new “autobiography through letters” of the legendary physicist Freeman Dyson. Normally, I’m not all that interested in collections of a famous person’s correspondence—I’d rather see them used as primary sources for a more systematic biography—but Dyson was an unusually eloquent writer, and his retrospective commentary, which appears throughout the book, is loaded with insight and good stories. I expect to bring it up here more than once, but for now, I’d like to focus on the opening section, which covers Dyson’s years as a college student at Cambridge during World War II. The German bombing of England provided the relentless drumbeat to his life there, as it did in London, where his father, the composer Sir George Dyson, was serving as the director of the Royal College of Music. Dyson quotes a letter written by Hazel Bole, who was a student at the time:

I was fire-watching on the roof during the air raids. We students were there to throw sand on the incendiary bombs which the German bombers were raining down on us. One night I grabbed the large bucket, and someone else grabbed it too. I let go, and in a sudden flash of fireball I saw Sir George grinning at me.

Yet events in the wider world play less of a role in this part of the book than you might expect. As Dyson observes: “In these letters written during the darkest years of the war, the war is hardly mentioned.”

Part of this was due to the fact that Dyson was only seventeen years old at the time. Shortly after his arrival in Cambridge, he wrote to his family: “I find there is no compulsion, or even suggestion, for me to do anything in the way of duty, military or civil, until I have to register.” He later joined the Home Guard and the fire service, but his duties remained nominal, even as they provided occasional reminders of the horrific possibilities that they were designed to anticipate. Dyson wrote in another letter: “I was unexpectedly one morning appointed ‘staircase marshal’ which means that I have to look after my staircase, put out bombs and carry out corpses, if a bomb happens to burst within twenty yards of us. All my duties have amounted to so far is trying to get a stirrup-pump mended by plumbers who know nothing about it.” (He helpfully explains: “The stirrup-pump was standard equipment during the war for putting out fire-bombs. It stood in a bucket filed with water and pumped the water into a hose that was directed at the fire. It was hand-operated and needed no electricity. I never had a chance to use it.”) Even when the war came to his doorstep, his role was a limited one:

Sometimes a German bomber, having lost its way, would fly over Cambridge and drop a couple of bombs. One of these bombs fell on the student union just across the street from my bedroom in Trinity College. Since I belonged to our college fire service, I was ready to spring into action. But the college authorities told us that our job was to protect the historic buildings of the college. We were not allowed to cross the street. So we stood idly watching while the union building burned down.

Yet his removal from the war was also a revealing psychological choice. In a remarkable note, Dyson describes his father’s attitude:

Both at Winchester College [where Dyson attended high school] and at the Royal College, the war that began for England in 1939 hit us hard. We knew that we were in it for the long haul, with no end in sight, with a high probability that little that we valued would survive. And yet in a paradoxical way, our response to the war in both places was to ignore it as far as possible. My father in London, and our teachers in Winchester, understood that the best way to show our contempt for Hitler was to continue making music and to continue studying Latin and Greek, as if Hitler did not exist. My father said to the students in London in 1940, “All we have to do is behave halfway decently, and the whole world will come to our side.” That was his way of fighting Hitler…In Cambridge, just as in London and in Winchester, the way to defend England was to make sure that there would be something in England worth defending.

Reading this now, it’s easy to see the limits of the conviction that the world would rally around the side that tried to “behave halfway decently.” But there’s also something to be said for the importance of writing music and studying the classics during wartime. Even at moments of danger and uncertainty, life—or culture—can be about more than one thing, and acknowledging this is a crucial part of retaining our humanity when it seems the most threatened.

On some level, you could take Sir George Dyson’s mindset as an attempt to justify his reluctance to upend his life during the war, and you might be right. But he wasn’t wrong about the stakes involved. In a letter from 1943, Freeman Dyson wrote home: “I wish I had been in London for the air raid; there is nothing that makes me so happy as a display of fireworks. It seems they have given up the idea of a Baedeker raid on Cambridge, which is a pity.” He was referring to a series of raids undertaken by Germany in retaliation for the bombing of the historic town of Lübeck, of which the propagandist Baron Gustav Braun von Stumm said: “We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker guide.” (Goebbels, revealingly, was incensed by the statement, which undercut the official story that the response was a justified retaliation for “terror” by the British.) The values represented by the Dysons, both father and son, were genuinely under attack, and their continuation during the war was an affirmation of their dignity and significance. And when the time came to serve in other ways, Dyson was ready. As he writes tersely in his memoirs: “After leaving Cambridge in 1943, I spent two years working as a civilian in the operational research reaction of Bomber Command. The headquarters were in a forest north of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. Our job was to demolish German cities and kill as many German civilians as possible. We killed about four hundred thousand, ten times as many as the Germans had killed in Britain.” Dyson has memorably described his experience there elsewhere, but he doesn’t talk about it here. And for the two years that he worked on the war effort, he wrote no letters home at all.

Written by nevalalee

July 12, 2018 at 8:55 am

Quote of the Day

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A poet dares be just so clear and no clearer; he approaches lucid ground warily, like a mariner who is determined not to scrape his bottom on anything solid…There is also the obscurity which is the result of the poet’s wishing to appear mad, even if only a little mad. This is rather common and rather dreadful. I know of nothing more distasteful than the work of a poet who has taken leave of his reason deliberately, as a commuter might of his wife.

E.B. White, One Man’s Meat

Written by nevalalee

July 12, 2018 at 7:30 am

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