:: Article

Destroying, Forgetting, Remembering

By Christopher Madden.


Daniel Swift, Bomber County: The Lost Airmen of World War Two, Hamish Hamilton, 2010.

In 1997 the late W. G. Sebald delivered lectures in Zürich entitled ‘Luftkrieg und Literatur’ (‘Air War and Literature’), examining the silence of German writers about the Allied Bombings of the Second World War. The lectures were controversial, eliciting defensive and supportive reactions in equal measure, somewhat proving Sebald’s contention that not enough had been said in relation to this history. Providing a critique of literary works that sought to confront the horrific experiences on the ground during the bombings, Sebald singled out the ‘literature of the ruins’ as being the representative example of a form incommensurate to the task of fully breaking the apparent taboo of representing Bomber Command from the viewpoint of the German population. Such works, argued Sebald, proved ‘on closer inspection to be an instrument already tuned to individual and collective amnesia, and probably influenced by pre-conscious self-censorship – a means of obscuring a world that could no longer be presented in comprehensible terms’.

Beyond all else, such self-censorship on the part of Germans resulted from guilt over the Holocaust and aggressive precipitation of the Second World War itself. Time, however, affords critical and emotional distance from the events. In recent years a number of books have arisen as if responding to Sebald’s nuanced critique, most notably Jörg Friedrich’s also controversial The Fire: The Bombing of Germany 1940-1945 (2006). The debate continues to be taboo-busting, since the texts written about the subject attempt not only to overcome this type of German silence but equally to confront British guilt over Bomber Command. Seventy-five years after the Second World War, Europe is clearly in a position to address history in mutual terms, and Daniel Swift’s hugely impressive debut Bomber County: The Lost Airmen of World War Two will come to be seen as an essential text in this regard.

For Swift, Bomber Command is family history. His grandfather, James Eric Swift, was a pilot with 83 Squadron of the Royal Air Force. Having completed many sorties, one night he goes up in a Lancaster bomber to bomb Münster. On the return journey he disappears, the exact nature and location of his death not known until years later. This is the premise of the grandson’s book: in a sense it is a memoir of a specific moment, or in another sense the history of a moment specific to the writer and through whose telling takes on a universality with which we continue to reckon. In Bomber County a number of modes coalesce to revelatory effect: travelogue, literary criticism; the historical account it furnishes also invites the reader to question the limits of historiography, posing as it does alternative ways of obtaining truth about the past. When the archive is left wanting, Swift turns to poetry and literature to access the past. The book practices as much as defines an historical poetics of air war.

The reader starts out where James Eric Swift ended, at his burial place in Holland. Characteristic of the book’s organic research process (refreshingly, Swift never adopts a tone of categorical certainty), the journey to Holland ends up as an act of reading in which the cemeteries constitute texts of commemoration, archives of grief. Walking along rows of uniform tombstones, he discovers the subtle ways in which the families of the deceased sought to work within the authorities’ rigid rules of commemoration whilst honouring their deceased in a manner personal to them. An expressive economy emerges, from factual statements of name, birth, and death dates to short lines of poetry, frequently misquoted across tombstones and occasionally within the same row. ‘This was not a failure of the imagination’, Swift remarks, ‘but a testament to the repetitive formality of grief’, the graves ‘carrying out a conversation in verse’. What an intriguing insight into collective memory, in which human fallibility is revealed by misquotation, as an individualised mark of passing.

The subtitle of the Prologue is taken from Dylan Thomas’s ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’, a poem that Swift reads as a paradigm of commemoration, and from which Bomber County unfolds. Thomas’s poem articulates the difficulty of coming to terms with the new warfare and its advanced violence, taking in citizens and enemies alike. Air war challenged the boundaries of the human, namely the psychological capacity to withstand an experience that had yet to be understood. The forceful immediacy of the Allied Bombings and the Blitz brought the poets of the Second World War to the brink of paralysis, as if language itself had suffered trauma. The child in Thomas’s poem is both singular and universal, since deaths by air war are ‘repetitions of the single experience’. Thus, as Swift argues, ‘the duty of the poet is to mark the death but to keep the secret of the passing’.

Swift’s book seeks to overcome the judgement that the poetry of the Second World War pales in comparison to the poetry of the First. His analysis begins in earnest by referring to the moments following the air raids, when Virginia Woolf took to the streets of London during nocturnal wanderings through the wreckage. Somerset Maugham’s recollection of following Woolf during one such ramble is powerful for the image it provides of her ‘lit up by the flashes of gun-fire, standing in the road and raising her arms to the sky’. ‘She is beckoning to them, come closer’, Swift observes, and cites Woolf’s essays and diaries in his account of the writer’s confrontation with their new, discombobulating reality.

Whereas Sebald found that ultimately the ‘literature of the ruins’ evaded the full extent of this reality, Swift avers that ‘the question of war poetry is a question of landscape’, as Woolf found it to be in the ruins she encountered: ‘In the moments after the air raid, the frozen imagination […] awakes again, and it does so by remembering, and creating; by making something new from the fragments of the past, a memory of music, a line of poetry’. Perhaps this, together with the First World War, explains the modernist images of fractured reality, exposing what another of Swift’s interlocutors, T. S. Eliot, was mindful of when he referred to the perseverance of ‘tradition’ in the contemporary writer. This lesson is clearly absorbed by Swift himself, since the reader discovers time and again that literature compensates for the gaps in his grandfather’s life narrative, offering symbolic meaning in the absence of brute fact. In a striking example of the book’s congruence of literary theory and biography, Swift outlines the narrative of the RAF pilot within the framework of Vladimir Propp’s structuralist theory of the folk tale to draw attention to the fact that narrative form is subverted by life narrative: ‘The bombers who fly and do not return threaten our need for stories because they thwart the possibility of an ending.’

It is against the backdrop of these theories of poetry of the air war that the book operates, amidst the accumulating historical evidence about his grandfather’s death. The chapters have titles and dates, alerting the reader both to the underlying chronology that inspires the research and the heterogeneous resources with which it is interleaved. Though formally inventive, Bomber County matches the onslaught of its underlying chronology by offering a similarly cumulative account of history detailing the nature of bombed cities, the aesthetic experience of bombing (pace Woolf, Rebecca West, Stephen Spender and W. H. Auden), the anxiety-ridden hours of waiting before a sortie, and philosophical discourses about the morality of Bomber Command. Indeed, the moral dilemma itself also becomes a question of fictive biography as he places his grandfather within A. C. Grayling’s question of whether RAF pilots could have gone against Bomber Harris’s demands and refused to carry out the raids. Swift’s speculations over his grandfather’s potential position had he survived allow him to explore the nature of guilt within an intensely personalised conditional history.

Swift refers intermittently to the journal entries and letters of his grandfather, and the notable example of another RAF pilot, John Riley Byrne, giving equal literary-critical weight to their normatively domestic language as he does to the distilled images of the poets. Swift was bound to pay attention to his grandfather’s everyday writings, despite their offering little by way of historical revelation other than the period details that build up our image of the past. Though the emotional truth is hard to detect, Swift senses the strain in his grandfather’s situation when the letters adopt the ‘thwarted tempo of the squadron log’. Similarly, another melancholy moment stems from mention of the abrupt cessation of John Byrne’s journal as the reader learns that they were signed off by the pilot’s own father. ‘This is what it means to see a life in history: someone else must finish the work,’ Swift explains, a sobering injunction if ever there was, and one which Bomber County honours. It is with such non-poetic, documentary evidence of the air war that an alternative poetics is subtly traced.

The Epilogue opens with Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’. His poem about the often casual event of death, a singular tragedy enfolding within the everyday reality of the living, invokes the ill-fated early aviator Icarus, who flies too close to the sun and pays the ultimate price for his vainglorious ambition. Auden may not have drawn the analogy with Bomber Command but Swift certainly does: his grandfather is Icarus. But where Icarus leaves Daedalus, his father, to mourn his loss, James Eric Swift’s death means his son is left to mourn the premature loss of his father. The lack of fit between the myth and Swift’s family biography draws upon poetic irony as a way of understanding individual and collective pasts. It is yet another elegant example of Swift’s fastidious technique and Bomber County’s unerring ability to make language work when we, and history, are lost for words.


Christopher Madden recently completed his doctoral thesis on W.G. Sebald at the University of Sheffield.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 15th, 2010.