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Loss and Hope

The Times noted in its "On This Day" column on 13 June that it was the anniversary of the first V1 bomb to fall on London. Just two weeks later, on 27 June 1944 Highbury Corner was destroyed by the same weaponry. Here is how George Orwell described it in Tribune, published three days later, and composed in Canonbury Square:

I NOTICE that apart from the widespread complaint that the German pilotless planes ‘seem so unnatural’ (a bomb dropped by a live airman is quite natural, apparently), some journalists are denouncing them as barbarous, inhumane, and ‘an indiscriminate attack on civilians’.

After what we have been doing to the Germans over the past two years, this seems a bit thick, but it is the normal human response to every new weapon. Poison gas, the machine-gun, the submarine, gunpowder, and even the crossbow were similarly denounced in their day. Every weapon seems unfair until you have adopted it yourself. But I would not deny that the pilotless plane, flying bomb, or whatever its correct name may be, is an exceptionally unpleasant thing, because, unlike most other projectiles, it gives you time to think. What is your first reaction when you hear that droning, zooming noise? Inevitably, it is a hope that the noise won’t stop. You want to hear the bomb pass safely overhead and die away into the distance before the engine cuts out. In other words, you are hoping that it will fall on somebody else. So also when you dodge a shell or an ordinary bomb—but in that case you have only about five seconds to take cover and no time to speculate on the bottomless selfishness of the human being.

We are often led to see Orwell as a somewhat grim, austere character, and certainly the development of the V1 bomb directly influenced his arena of "permanent warfare" as the background to Nineteen Eighty-Four; this following his broadcasts on the year long Battle of Stalingrad which descended from bombing and shelling to hand-to-hand combat, street by street, cellar to cellar. But he never ceased in his thought to be a democratic socialist, and his writing during this period represents not a prediction but a warning. Animal Farm, a satire that chose the Soviet Union as representing revolution gone wrong, was never banned by the later South American dictators. They simply hadn't understood it.

Let me leave you with the warm Orwell that Canonbury residents, few of them left now, remember. Of the father bringing up his adopted child, laughing and playing in the outdoor ponds of Highbury Fields. A child who woke his father in the morning by tickling his toes. The highly unusual sight in the 1940s, following the death of his first wife, of a single father with a pushchair and what little rationed shopping was available that day. Yes, he struggled but he never gave up on the hopes of 1945 for the building of the New Jerusalem in England. His final volume of collected papers, reflected in our work and beliefs at Union Chapel, in 1949-1950 is entitled "Our Job is to Make Life Worth Living".

Andrew Gardner