Saturday, August 20, 2011
The Report by Jessica Francis Kane
A tragedy took place on the evening of March 3, 1943. It was during wartime in London and killed 173 people but had nothing to do with an air raid. The tube station at Bethnal Green had been fitted with bunk beds and cots to keep the community safe and comfortable during the endless nights of enemy attack. Women would struggle to navigate the stairs going down into the shelter while carrying large bundles of supplies, sometimes along with a baby or toddler in tow.
On the night of March 3, the usual crowds were arriving but reports varied on whether or not there were sounds of enemy aircraft coming from the sky. The amount of light in the entrance of the shelter was also in question. One thing was certain, by 8:30 pm eighty-four women, sixty-two children and twenty-seven men were dead and sixty-one others were left injured after being crushed on the stairs. As if the incident wasn't tragic enough there were government officials anxious to keep the details secret.
Kane writes about this tragedy in a style I've heard referred to as "faction". The facts are dovetailed with fiction and she pulls it off quite well. Paul Barber is a documentary filmmaker with ties to Bethnal Green who in the seventies seeks out Laurence Dunne, the magistrate assigned to conduct an inquiry. With generations between them they meet at Dunne's home which Barber thinks resembles something of a time-capsule from another era. Upon hearing his interviewer's last name, Dunne ponders a tie to a family involved in the tragedy and starts counting back the years and inquires about Paul's age. Could there be a connection?
The weight of responsibility Dunne faces is monumental. He is dealing with a grief-stricken community, prejudices regarding the influx of Jewish refugees, guilt by wardens on duty at the shelter and shame over behaviours by war weary citizens. His patient manner and refusal to finger-point make him an excellent candidate for the job. Wading through dozens of conflicting bits of evidence must have been trying but the evidence given by a little girl, Tilly, is the most shocking.
A fascinating and compelling read that has spurred me on to learn more about this wartime disaster.