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Frank Swinnerton: Aerial bombardment, the most stupid and futile aspect of war

Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Frank Swinnerton
From Young Felix (1923)

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It was already the time for air-raids, and Felix lived in the studio with the glass roof nearly in the centre of London. He was very frightened when the air-raids occurred; but he went on working in his studio during their course because he was still more frightened if he was in company with other people in a shelter. The crowd, the fears, the smells and discomforts, were worse to him than the danger of annihilation. In the studio he could die once; in these crowds he died a thousand times. And so when the first bangs of the defensive guns sounded, Felix swore explosively and continued to work. The whole of the war seemed to him stupid and futile; and in no particular was it more stupid and futile than in that of air-raids. But in that matter Felix was conventional, and thought no differently from those directly above from whose houses all the air-battles regularly and by miracle took place. He knew nothing about the war but the details which were published in the newspapers and those which received even greater publicity by word of mouth – until the time when he was used by the Government as a military artist, when he knew even less than he had known before.

***

And as they sat thus, above the music and racketting of the orchestra, Felix’s sharp ears caught a sinister thud. Almost at that instant, Mary turned to him and said:

“What’s the time? D’you think we better go now?”

As they were at the end of a row near one of the exit doors it was easy to creep out unobserved; and by the time they reached the door they had both heard another ominous thud, and a third. They turned to each other. Felix’s heart was like water, not from personal fear but from fear upon Mary’s account. He was horrified at the thought that he had brought her into danger. He trembled.

“Was that…something?” Mary whispered, as if she dared not think it true.

“Afraid so,” Felix acknowledged. He in turn did not dare to look at her for an instant. Mary’s face turned white. As they were now beyond the auditorium they could stop and listen. Thud, thud…thud, thud, thud…thud…Unmistakable. Felix turned to a commissionaire. Other people were walking unconcernedly upon the stairs, evidently deaf to these noises, or without fear of their significance.

“Is there a raid on?” he asked, in a low voice.

The commissionaire backed to the wall, looking surreptitiously at those who were near, and giving cautious glances of warning at Felix. He was a little alarmed, but his duty was to prevent a panic; and he was upheld by his duty.

“I’ll tell you,” he muttered. “Keep it dark. See? Yes, there is. You can’t go out. Best thing’s to go up to the saloon. Part of the roof’s concrete. You’ll be all right there…Only, don’t make a…see what I mean?”

In his heart, Feliz was afraid…afraid. He must not be afraid. His heart was fluttering; his mouth was dry. But the fear was physical only: his head was clear.

“Damn it, I mustn’t be afraid,” he muttered. “Simply mustn’t

“May as well make ourselves comfortable,” he said, with painstaking unconcern.

“Yes – oh, what was that?” She half sprang to her feet as a deep roaring crash, which seemed near at hand, drowned everything. Felix knew that it must be a bomb. He knew that at any instant such another crash might end their lives. It was intolerable. He saw horror growing in Mary’s eyes, a fear, a panic. At all costs that must be stopped. At all costs.

“The whole thing’s ridiculous,” he cried. “It’s such a farce, isn’t it? All this uncomfortable feeling we have, because of a bang. Only nerves: nothing decently in the way of alarm. It’s only the noise really, not the danger, that makes us sick. There’s practically no danger at all, you know.”

“No?” Again she looked at him like a child, and their hands sprang together. The warmth began to steal back to her cheeks, and the trustfulness to her eyes. She was caught up in the inexhaustible loquaciousness of Felix. Thud, thud, thud…overhead…thud…thud, thud. Louder, louder…Felix was desperate. He must go on talking. He must go on talking and talking until the bomb fell that might destroy both and mash them to bloody fragments.

“I will now,” he said, with a supreme effort to master his excitement, “I will now tell you the story of my life.”

Entirely absorbed, Mary frowned for an instant, forgetful of the thuds.

“Oh, but haven’t I heard that?” she objected.

“This is another one,” said Felix. “Listen!”

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