Sunday, 12 February 2017

Apocalypse Now?

Some readers may be wondering what I've been up to recently, and why the blog posts have been so thin on the ground recently. The answer is that I've been busy putting together the arrangements for the ALS conference in Edinburgh, which we are this year jointly hosting with the Wilfred Owen Association. Although many others have contributed to the effort, I have inevitably been the central liaison point for most of the queries and complications that have arisen during this process, which has been going on for nearly two years now. Forget Brexit negotiations; can life possibly be that much more difficult for Theresa May than it is for someone organising a conference?
Well, yes, all right, maybe what I've been doing isn't quite as critical, or as taxing, as international diplomatic activities. I'm sure many of us are depressed about the political events of 2016 and apprehensive about the future of Europe and the rise of neo-Fascism throughout the western world. It must seem to many that Armageddon is on our doorstep.
        What did the people of Edinburgh think when, late on the evening of 2nd April 1916, a Zeppelin bomber arrived over the Forth estuary? It was one of four dispatched from Germany with the intention of attacking the naval base at Rosyth; the other three had gone off-course and presented no danger to the citizens of Edinburgh. Unable to locate the base on this dark, foggy night, the remaining airship headed for Leith, where it dropped a total of twenty bombs. As it crossed the city, people came out to see what was happening. Most families had only gas lighting in their houses; had they been equipped with electricity, they would have known that something was seriously wrong when their power went off. Out in the open, they could clearly make out the ghostly shape of the giant craft hovering above them. They would have been much safer if they had stayed indoors.
         Bombs were dropped close to Edinburgh Castle, where the panicking garrison is alleged to have fired blanks from the "One O'Clock Gun" as a deterrent. In the doorway of a tenement block, a crowd of people sheltering from the attack were killed when a high-explosive bomb landed nearby. The Royal Infirmary was hit, as were some schools, a whisky warehouse, and the Grassmarket, now an area popular with tourists for its hotels and restaurants. Thirteen people died altogether, among them 27-year-old David Robertson, who had recently been discharged from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards for health reasons.
         Let us, at least temporarily, forget the distant spectre of Britain's isolation from Europe and the possibility of the suffering that might result from growing racial intolerance and imperialist aggression, and put ourselves in the places of those people who were in imminent danger of losing their lives. A private in the Highland Light Infantry who was on duty in the early hours of the morning came across three terrified small children in one of the city's parks and escorted them home.  In Leith Hospital, anxious VAD nurses had been ordered to carry all their patients downstairs. After turning off all lighting, they reported that the windows were red with the reflection of the flames from incendiary bombs. Robert Robb lost his one-year-old son, who was killed when hit by a fragment of a shell. A minister, a doctor and their families were among those who had miraculous escapes, losing their homes but emerging unhurt from the rubble.
         Just over a year later, a 24-year-old junior officer named Wilfred Owen would arrive in the city of Edinburgh to be, at least partially, healed of the personal suffering and psychological damage done to him by the First World War. He would find, in that damaged place, a certain amount of comfort and the inspiration to write his best-known poems. He would find a new friend and mentor in 29-year-old Siegfried Sassoon, who was struggling with his own demons. Between them, these two men would take English poetry to new levels.

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