Seventy-five years ago, on 13 June 1944, a pilotless aircraft flew over the south of England in the early hours of the morning. Its engine buzzed loudly, giving off flames in the moonless night, until it cut out somewhere over the East End of London at 4.25 a.m., and crashed in Mile End along with nearly a tonne of explosive. The blast destroyed a railway bridge, killed six people, injured 42 and made two hundred homeless.
Of the 156,000 British, Canadian, American and other Allied troops who sailed from Portsmouth for the Normandy beaches in June 1944, fewer than 1500 are still alive. They are all in their nineties, at least. My grandfather, a D-Day veteran who died in 1998, would be 103.
When I began working at the Freie Universität Berlin last September, I put up on the door of my office a photo of Bernhard Trautmann, captioned with Lev Yashin’s remark: ‘There have only been two world-class goalkeepers. One was Lev Yashin, the other was the German boy who played in Manchester, Trautmann.’
Desperate crossings – Lenin’s sealed train, Luding Bridge, Granma – were at the heart of several 20th-century revolutions, but the one that killed my great-grandmother seemed to be a perfectly average late-summer voyage. According to the official account, on 1 September 1948, the steamer Pobeda (‘Victory’), bound from New York to Odessa, was in the Black Sea, nearing its destination. A sailor rewinding some movie reels in a storage cabin inadvertently caused a spark, igniting the thousands of highly flammable filmstrips and phonograph records inside. Two crew members and forty of the 310 passengers were killed. Among them were Evgeniia Afinogenova, née Jeannette Schwarz of the Lower East Side, and Feng Yuxiang, former war minister of the Republic of China, on his way to bend the knee to Mao Zedong. Among the survivors were Afinogenova’s two daughters, aged six and eleven, my grandmother and her older sister, who were taken to Moscow to be raised by their grandmother.
On 20 July 1942, Time magazine led with a story on ‘Fireman Shostakovich’. ‘Amid bombs bursting in Leningrad he heard the chords of victory,’ the caption on the cover said, under a picture based on a Soviet propaganda photo taken on the roof of the Leningrad Conservatoire in September 1941.
A five-foot, one-thousand-pound unexploded Second World War bomb was found on Monday on a building site near where I live in Bermondsey. Several streets were closed, causing traffic chaos, and 1200 residents were evacuated. None of the police I spoke to knew how long we would have to leave for: we were told to prepare for ‘at least 48 hours’. In the event, I was allowed to return to my flat at 9 p.m., but the police, wanting to speak about evacuation plans for the following morning, when the bomb was scheduled to be moved, hammered on my door three times between midnight and 7 a.m., when I finally gave up on sleeping and left the area.
I have three half-metre-square maps of southern Europe framed on my living-room wall. Printed by the American air force on acetate rayon – lightweight, waterproof and hard to tear – the ‘handkerchief maps’ were given to my father-in-law, Howard Walker, who flew with the Australian Air Force during the Second World War.
Basil Davidson, who died last week at the age of 95, was a regular contributor to the LRB during the 1990s. In a generous sheaf of pieces, many of them reviews, he drew on his experiences as a member of Special Operations Executive during the war and his subsequent fascination with Africa. He was fond of exposition and argument, but his writing could be pithy too. On the postcolonial state in Africa: ‘a constitutional garbage can of shattered loyalties’. On Milosevic and the break-up of Yugoslavia: ‘the Chetniks . . . have appeared once more.' On intrepid writers pursuing their quarry in distant places: ‘Those who wander in the great forests of the African tropics do not always manage, like Conrad’s storyteller, to make it home again.’