In the Night of the Day

In seven episodes, the second starting on the 79th anniversary of the day depicted in this story and the reminder following every Thursday for five weeks. I imagine the lives of real strangers, on both sides of the conflict, brought together during just one day out of the two thousand, one hundred and ninety-four days of the Second World War. Exploring the ways in which their lives became entwined on April 9th, 1941, in a small town called Smethwick, by fate as much as by politics.

I began this story, as an experiment, an attempt to express the past through the lives of people I will never know. The limitations of understanding, perspective, and even grammatical tense, have been made plain to me through this process. I initially grappled with this challenge in a world which seems so far away now and at a time when I could only pretend to imagine the level of ontological insecurity which befell those who endured The Blitz. In that respect, like those in the past, we all now also share and experience the anxieties of having one’s whole way of life changed and replaced by a new normal. More so than ever we all now live in the past, the present and within our futures - our tenses made strange.

In the pandemic, which we all currently live, politicians, of all descriptions, have valiantly tried to rouse us into believing that we’re at war with the Coronavirus. In the United Kingdom, for example, within speeches by our leaders that strived to be empowering yet settled for haphazard, the spirit of the Blitz has been evoked as a rallying cry to a nation in fear of the future.

It is wrong to draw upon the analogy of war for the situation we currently find ourselves in. Notwithstanding that equating the virus to an enemy, in a period of the Second World War where the enemy’s “bomber always got through” to the extent that it would kill over 40 thousand Britians in the 8 months between September 1940 and April 1941, might be a tad short-sighted and dare I say counterproductive to those of us socially distancing ourselves in our dwellings and hoping upon all hope not to be found by the virus.

But more so, it’s also wrong to incite the notion of war as, while some are mobilising and heading off to the frontline in the NHS, or as a delivery driver or manning cash registers, the rest of the nation are retreating into passive and self-isolatory existences within their homes.  Where the Second World War, with all of its moral and just urgency to crush fascism, gave Britain and her allies a role and purpose, in contrast, the Coronavirus has removed a sense of purpose and potency for so many.

That said, all of us today, just as those who headed to their bunkers each night during The Blitz have to adapt to the new normal of our respective realities so there are of course parallels to be drawn.

Monmouth Road, Bearwood, Smethwick, 3rd October, 1936. Photographer: N.A.Smith Photograph used with kind permission from Sandwell Community History and Archive Service
The Smethwick Harriers team, for the Staffordshire County Championship 1939. Shows left to right; W H Perry (24), C Pickering (25), J Oliver, R W G Lowe, J J Bushby, E H Edwards, Frank Cull, (22) Fred Cull, A New, (33) G Ed Photograph used with kind permission from Sandwell Community History and Archive Service

If we turn away from the current evocations of a wartime spirit, perhaps it’s apt, in the year Britain has left the European Union – a union, incidentally, that has effectively provided member states with economic incentives to avoid conflict for the last 75 years – that I have chosen to look back to a time before this when Europe was actually at war.

As the last few years of British politics have proven, burying one’s head in the sand is no defence to the fallout which follows political acts. It is as true today, as it was then, 79 years ago, during the early hours of April 10th, 1941 in Smethwick, that all of us, regardless of our political persuasions, or our attempts to hide from or ignore it, are touched by politics.

This is explored within my work via the collision of strangers, brought together by war, and then framed by one single day. In the Night of the Day is a historical imagining of the lives of these real-life strangers touched by war and the factual events which brought them together.

Ultimately, though, this work has been shaped by my commission from The Living Memory Project, who are dedicated to exploring the relationship between photography and the life stories they share, and the opportunity it afforded me to work with the wonderful staff of the Sandwell Community History and Archive Service at Smethwick Library.

On first becoming acquainted with the artefacts in the archive, it was clear that producing new photography was going to be an impractical solution to the aims being developed. I wanted to reflect history. I knew that I wanted to produce a work which relied upon the information I found there, as well as other archival sources from that period. I would use this as a foundation to further my own historical imaginings. In this light, the work which I was intending to produce had to be a real-life event documented within the archive. This decision led me to the events of April 9th/10th, 1941.

From these initial thoughts I developed a work about a single day in the life of Smethwick; notwithstanding, this approach still required the time to research, find and then disseminate reams of documents within the archive, which itself proved to be a time consuming and at times arduous task. What proved most interesting to me though were the things absent from the archive.

"A British Anti-Aircraft Battery in Action" by James Gardener (National Archives Identifier: 44266098)
Bomb damaged houses, Smethwick. C. 1940 Photograph used with kind permission from Sandwell Community History and Archive Service

Archives are not empathic spaces; they are often cool and dispassionate ones which aspire more to facts and evidence than to emotions. They are spaces where an air of objectivity reigns at all times, even if one could ask how objective can these spaces actually be when their curation is always the result of subjective decisions? That said, the only mention in the archive of the central protagonists within my work are names written in ink within old documents – there is nothing there that tells you about their lives. Their legacy, and that of the approximately 30 other civilian war dead, killed over that three day period of bombing in Smethwick, what they felt and the hopes that they all had, is absent.

As long as I can remember I’ve been intrigued by the Second World War, but in truth, I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it was the comforting soma presented by the narrative of old war films watched on TV on lazy Sunday afternoons, with their simplistic plot devices of right and wrong, of good and bad, which had seduced me? Yet, as time went on, it became clear that my interest was increasingly being shaped by the way war, in its telling, created opportunities for me to observe and explore the human condition.

This is exactly what I hope to achieve within this work: to explore the human condition. An exploration, in this case, that creates an image through words. Those imagined, innermost emotions of the human condition, and all of their nuances, are perhaps best told by a thousand words, through language, instead of a photograph. As a photographer, I’m more used to using a camera to tell stories, so I’m grateful for this opportunity to now use words.

So, yes, as the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War approaches, it’s as important as ever for us to retell stories which may have already been told. In this light, we must consider history, and it's telling, as an opportunity not only for revision but also an act of remembrance and reverence, for those who died for us to live.

Most importantly, we can see it as an opportunity to give life, once more, to those who are gone – if only through our words.

 

Read the full version of In the Night of the Day

Bomb damaged houses, Smethwick. Photographer: J.W.Mortimer Photograph used with kind permission from Sandwell Community History and Archive Service

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