In the Soup

David Trotter

  • The Next War in the Air: Britain’s Fear of the Bomber, 1908-41 by Brett Holman
    Ashgate, 290 pp, £70.00, June 2014, ISBN 978 1 4094 4733 7

Hitchcock’s comedy thriller The 39 Steps, first released in June 1935, has become a ‘classic’. But it’s also a film of its moment, or more precisely of the difference between two moments: the summer of 1915, when the novel by John Buchan on which it’s based began to appear in serial form, in the middle of one world war; and the summer of 1935, when the odds on the imminent outbreak of another were shortening by the day. The film takes from the novel its title, the name of the protagonist (but not of anyone else), the narrative structure of a journey from London to Scotland and back again, and the device of a man pursued at the same time by the police and by enemy agents. But it’s the things in the film that aren’t in the novel that demonstrate what Hitchcock was really up to.

The most notable of these is a music-hall performer called Mr Memory. In the film’s opening scene, he answers the questions fired at him by the music-hall audience with absolute infallibility, as long as they concern matters of fact. His performance has two salient features. First, whatever the question, he can’t not answer it. He is, so to speak, under oath to respond (or he’s a machine). Second, what he knows consists of already common, if arcane, knowledge: the distance, say, between Winnipeg and Montreal. That’s why he invariably asks for confirmation. ‘Am I right, sir?’ Mr Memory’s unique talent is his ability to retrieve the less readily accessible bits of common knowledge with uncanny speed and accuracy. That talent has earned him the job of getting some information of value to a foreign power out of the country. Unlike Buchan, Hitchcock shows no interest at all in how the information was obtained. What matters to him is its storage, or conveyance. And there’s a further difference. In the novel, the information the villains are after concerns the mobilisation plans for the British fleet. In the film, it concerns the engineering specifications for a new kind of silent aeroplane engine. These the unfortunate Mr Memory coughs up redemptively in the final scene, after being shot in mid-performance by the top villain, who realises that the gaff’s been blown.

Brett Holman doesn’t refer to The 39 Steps in his densely packed study of the ‘fear of the bomber’ which, he wants to show, took hold of the public imagination in Britain in the period between the wars. But the episode that sets the tone for his argument also provides an instructive context for the introduction into Hitchcock’s film of things that aren’t in the novel. In January 1935, the Evening News solicited from its readers ‘untold stories’ of German air-raids on London during the final years of the First World War, as a warning to a new generation of what it might have to face:

If war came tomorrow, London would be an inferno of exploding bombs, of gases drifting in poisonous clouds through the streets, of flames leaping from building to building. Squadron upon squadron of enemy aeroplanes – hundred after hundred filling the sky – would rain down death upon the city. There would be no escape from that destroying horror – except flight from the doomed capital of empire.

Having emerged from the war as the ‘strongest nation in the air’, Britain now lagged far behind the other major powers. London, the Evening News maintained, was virtually defenceless. So began that year’s bombing panic.

The paper’s proprietor, Lord Rothermere, had begun to campaign for aerial rearmament. At the end of January, he announced the formation of a new pressure group, the National League of Airmen. Within a couple of months, more than two thousand pilots had joined. The Rothermere papers, including the Daily Mail, which had a circulation of more than 1.5 million, zealously reported its activities. During the general election in November 1935, the league endorsed 160 parliamentary candidates who had backed its seven-point rearmament programme. And there was, as ever, some tat to promote. In March, another Rothermere paper, the Sunday Dispatch, began serialising S. Fowler Wright’s apocalyptic tale of aerial invasion, ‘The War of 1938’. Once again, flames leapt from building to building (on this occasion at a safe distance, in Prague). The immediate stimulus to these nightmares was the international crisis provoked by Japanese aggression in China and by German demands for treaty revision.

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