Thursday, 16 September 2010

Benedict's School, a Play, the Blitz

We have heard nothing about where Benedict will go to school. Notices informing families in our position concerning in what schools their children will be placed were to be sent last Wednesday. We received nothing as of this date. Neither a letter or a phone call. We called the woman in charge of the placements on Friday and Monday and left messages. No response to this point. On Monday we called the school closest to us in hopes of getting an appointment with the Headmaster to perhaps allow Benedict to sit in with a class. The receptionist told us that the Headmaster will not see us if it concerns Benedict's school placement as he has nothing to do with that end of the process. On top of that, said the receptionist, every spot in that school is taken. Accepting even one more student would bring the student population above what the safety codes allow. She did give me a name and phone number of a woman to call, but we haven't heard anything from her either. At this point schools have been in session for two weeks and, at least in my view, even if the school authority places him in a school, which would undoubtedly involve using either buses or tubes for him to get there, from an academic point of view we may as well tutor him ourselves. We have the math book from Benedict's school and can easily keep up with that. And we have the whole city of London as a classroom! How cool is that? Plus we have library cards with access to books to read and study. And we have Spanish lessons with Rosetta Stone (thanks again, Karen!) Aside from the social aspect, who needs school for a couple of months?

Erika held one of her classes in our home Tuesday morning. The students liked being in our home because it's so much quieter than where they live in Kensington, with its traffic and police sirens at all hours of the day and night. Apparently many of them have made arrangements for weekend trips to Paris, Amsterdam, and other cities on the continent. They seem to be under the impression that it will be less urban tumult there. From that regard they will be undoubtedly disappointed. After class they ate lunch, as seen in these photos.

Tuesday night Erika and I attended a play in the north of London. We left Benedict with homework assignments. The Tricycle Theatre is much newer and smaller than the first two theatres we saw plays in. It was rebuilt after a fire 20 years ago. This theatre tends to produce more avant garde and political works. What we saw were 5 one act plays by Tony Kushner, an acclaimed American dramatist. Kushner spent several days at Southwestern a few years ago giving workshops, participating in seminars, and presenting a public lecture. So I suppose you can say there was a kind of semi-personal connection with him and his work. Of the five plays I only liked two of them, another was interesting, and I nearly fell asleep during the other two.

Wednesday afternoon was one of those opportunities for using London as a classroom for Benedict. He received a history lesson for a couple of hours from Professor Mike Fosdal, our guide in Brighton. Prof. Fosdal led his class of SU students on a walking tour in London, and Benedict, Erika, and I tagged along. The theme was the Blitz, the bombing of London and other British cities by the Germans during WW II. Benedict read a book about the Blitz the day before so that he would already be a little familiar with its background.

We met Professor Mike and the students outside the Barbican tube station. We were within the City of London yet again, that small exclusive part of Greater London. The tour began just outside the ancient walls of London in the Barbican. Unlike today, when few people actually live in the City of London, a couple of hundred thousand people lived in the Square Mile in prewar years. Mostly working class people lived in the Barbican neighborhood of the City before the Blitz, and they lived in fairly crowded conditions. They provided manual labor and services for the bankers and lawyers who worked there. The Barbican lies within a half mile or so of St. Paul's Cathedral. Today there is much open space around the cathedral, but that wasn't the case before the war. At the time residences and small shops crowded up to the walls of the cathedral. The Barbican itself was rebuilt in the sixties as a model for contemporary living, an experiment that some people think unsuccessful because of the overuse of concrete. About the same time developers built a state-of-the-art entertainment and artistic complex in the area. The London Symphony Orchestra performs its concerts at the Barbican Centre. The Museum of London, which Benedict and I visited recently, is also in the Barbican.

The Blitz began on 7 September 1940. The worst of it lasted until May, 1941 with intermittent attacks thereafter and more concentrated V-2 bombings in 1944. In London alone 29,000 died and probably around 100,000 wounded, though that number is less knowable. We passed the seventieth anniversary of the start of the Blitz just last week, an occasion marked by newspaper articles and memories of the few remaining people still alive from that era. 

The Barbican was completely destroyed on 29 December 1940. The area surrounding St. Paul's was also completely bombed and burned that month.  The resulting fires usually caused more damage than the bombs themselves. As I noted in an earlier post, the City of London boasts numerous new buildings. (Such as the Gherkin; remember that? Looks like a missile?) And the Blitz is the reason. Of course all other parts of London suffered bombing. Ealing was not yet part of London, but it too suffered about 500 deaths. (Click here for a short account of a childhood in Ealing at the time.) And numerous other cities in England and Scotland were also attacked. Since German pilots and V-1 and V-2 rockets did not have sophisticated guidance systems they were unable to hit specific targets. They simply flew over a British city, in the case of the pilots, and dropped their bombs randomly. They followed the Thames until they reached London and then dropped their payload. Bombs and rockets often fell harmlessly in parks and waterways. Pilots were not aiming at Buckingham Palace when a bomb fell on it.

The photo above of St. Paul's in December 1940 is considered iconic. Its dome was the highest point in London, and people would look for it after night of bombing, feeling reassured that as long as the cathedral stood, so would England. Fires smoldered around St. Paul's, but for one bomb that did little harm the cathedral managed to escape unscathed.

In the photo below a bomb created a huge crater in the street in front of the Royal Exchange. The Bank of England is on the left. The crater extends down to the ticket office of the Banks Underground Station.

In this photo we can see more clearly how deep the crater was. As you can see, the Brits built a bridge across the crater at first.

 This is the same scene today. I took this photo on Wednesday during the walking tour with the SU students.

 Barbican as it looks today.

This is the Smithfield Meat Market, the last such market remaining in London. It has been in this location for about a thousand years. Somehow only one bomb landed on it during the Blitz.

The students are crossing in front of  St. Bartholomew's Hospital, about 100 yards from the Smithfield Meat Market. A hospital of that name has been here for hundreds of years. In 1616 William Harvey announced his theory of blood circulation here.

This is one of the many churches that survived the Blitz. It's only a few yards  from the hospital. You may not see the date, but note that the church was founded in 1123. The church of Saint Bartholomew the Lesser nearby wasn't so fortunate. It was heavily damaged. Many other old churches were destroyed and never rebuilt.

The students approaching St. Paul's through an ally between modern buildings.

In all of Britain 43,000 people died from the attacks during the war. As large and horrific this number is, it dwarfs the number of civilian deaths due to urban bombings by the British and Americans over the cities of Germany and Japan. Professor Mike noted that about 95% of deaths in WW I were to military personnel, but the vast majority of deaths in WW II were suffered by civilians. He also discussed with the students the moral ambiguity of bombing urban areas for the purpose of killing civilians, an act explicitly prohibited by just war theory.

The impact of visiting areas that experienced the destruction of the Blitz is far different than merely reading about it. Seeing photographs of the time and reading what it was like and then witnessing it today makes it far more real.

Tomorrow we leave for Scotland. We won't return until Monday night. Then on Tuesday we head for St. Albans, which was the Roman town of Verulamium. This blog will remain silent for about a week as we travel and then recover from our travels.

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