Wartime Laughs and Horrors
Yesterday I swung from the hospital, where I was getting my usual dose of radioactivity for another scan, through a rainstorm to the cult paperback pulp fair, which has moved homes from Bloomsbury to Great Portland Street.
Except that hardly anyone was there, the tables were empty, the punters absent. No dealers or buyers, thanks to the pingdemic. A bundle of strange, lurid books caught my eye; slightly larger than paperbacks but with a slender page count, virtually pamphlets, printed that way because of the wartime paper shortage.
I bought one (price: 1/6d) called ‘Laughs of Mystery & Crime’, by one S Evelyn Thomas, who was clearly the publisher too. Well, we have her to thank for these because this one is actually very funny. A fortune teller studies her crystal ball and tells the rather desperate lady sitting opposite her; ‘I can see a tall stranger crossing your path – My God, he can certainly run!’
The articles are full of burglars in masks and stripped jerseys, cheery coppers on the street, chaps chucking bricks through jewellery shop windows and escaped prisoners with arrows all over their clothes. Simpler times, simpler pleasures. I’m always amazed when I discover a book in a new format, like those slender ones printed vertically and designed to fit into a soldier’s pocket.
One of the more unusual books to come my way arrives from my old friend Michele Slung in Woodstock, NY. ‘London Transport: At War 1939-1945’ by Charles Graves has some extraordinary photographs that were censored during wartime in order to keep up morale. Even now, the truly gruesome photographs appear to remain under low and key.
Buses were blown into craters and dangerous buildings collapsed on trolley wires. Trams were particularly susceptible to attack. The war for London was fought above and below ground. Stations were sometimes hit; bomb blasts threw 35-ton carriages into the air as if they were toys. On the first night of the Blitz, a bomb through a coach on top of another. Rescue work often continued by the light of blazing gas mains.
Protecting the transport system from attack was a huge undertaking, and despite the endless bombardments proved successful thanks to quick, decisive action and good co-ordination (are you listening, Boris Johnson?). Flood barriers were built in the tube system, and I still remember great sinister doors like bank vaults that guarded the corridors – are there any still about? If so, they’d be needed at the moment, as apocalyptic rains have hit London in what must be our worst-ever summer.
The ‘Make Do And Mend’ craze swept through the transport system, from replacing bus drivers’ hooters to reducing the thickness of bus tickets (.012 to .008 inches, if you must know). An unexpectedly delightful read.
Next up for me, the wonderful short stories of Satyajit Ray, a final assault on ‘The Once and Future King’, and the next part of ‘Our Mutual Friend’. I need to stop buying books for a moment. But books will get you through bad times better than good times will get you through no books.