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Mother, Blitz! Or: London, Melancholy and Business as Usual An Essay by Orna Coussin

First published in “Granta Israel”, Spring 2014

English translation by Noam Benishie

“Being an only child, I was used as a punch- bag. On the outside everything was fine. Frustrations were taken out on me. Looking back on it now, I realize: they were dealing with some terrible stuff.”

A conversation with Esther, my mother, July 10 2012

“Now we are in the war. England is being attacked. I got this feeling for the first time completely yesterday; the feeling of pressure, danger, horror. The feeling is that a battle is going on— fierce battle. May last four weeks. Am I afraid? Intermittently. The worst of it is one’s mind won’t work with a spring next morning”.

Virginia Woolf’s Diary. Saturday, August 31st 1940.

I am drawn to the Blitz: the German bombardments of London during World War 2. My mother, Esther, grew up in their darkness and their light. Virginia Woolf ended her own life while they were still going on. And London was there at the time of the bombings; London, city of my dreams, my nightmares, my inspiration. London pretended it had been spared its ruin; that the end had not come.

First I approach my mother’s childhood home: Raglan Court, Wembley, North-West London. It was here that she was brought in from the maternity ward as a newborn. I am interested in Biography. In being able to capture something from the past, have a glimpse of it and relate it, ahead of memory.

Wembley, a village of sorts or a six-house mansion during the 16th century, and as late as the 18th and 19th centuries a rural, quiet, prospering and wealthy district largely owned by a certain Page family of the English nobility, became by the 20th century an urban, inhabitant-crowded area. In the 2001 census, the proportion of immigrants in Wembley, mostly from Asia and Africa, reached 52 percent of the population at large, the highest in the Kingdom’s regions. The early 21st century saw the English by descent becoming a minority.

By the time my mother was born here, on 13 April 1939, it was already home to the renowned stadium – the one referred to by all as the Twin Towers, the very formidable venue built in 1923 for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition and later considered, to cite Pelé, “the cathedral of football". It is the capital of football and it is the heart of football.” (The aforementioned original Wembley Stadium was demolished in 2003 to be built again in 2007, without the icon of the two fancy towers, much to the grief of many who became attached to these symbols of England and its football). But when my mother was born here on April 1939, the English by descent still constituted the majority of its residents, while my mother’s family were refugees from Germany, an enemy country, who had been granted asylum in England few months before Germany invaded Poland, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was still incumbent, and Churchill yet to be called to lead.

This is the distance between Raglan Court and 52 Tavistock Square, the London home of Virginia and Leonard, where they operated the Hogarth Press publishing house from the basement and where Ms Woolf wrote quite a few of her books: two hours 45 minutes by foot, an hour and four minutes by bicycle and forty minutes by public transport.

Raglan Court is a short, elongated, building, with brown bricks, brown tile roofs and brown chimneys. During a visit to Wembley in November 2013, it looked, more or less, as it did back in the years 1939 through 1945: Gloomy, three-storied, muddy. Green grass in front and around, as well as a hedge and several broad-trunked trees, their branches outstretched.

Esther and her family’s place is a ground-floor apartment, at the far-left corner of the photograph I have in hand. The grass slopes down towards a brown stone fence, bordering on a main road, Empire Way. From across the road Esther can remember an ice rink, where she enjoyed skating as a young girl. A little further down the road and left, you’ll find the national football stadium.

I have in my hand a photograph of Esther, a little girl, five years of age, maybe six, sitting on a low stone wall, in front of Raglan Court. Her hair is meticulously combed, side-parted, with plaits and hairpins. She wears a short, light embroidered dress. The palms of her hands rest on her knees. Her feet dangle, in white socks and dark shoes. The photograph is staged, festive, and yet she doesn’t smile. She seems shy, or sad. Her backdrop of Raglan Court looks drab, the trees in the backyard bare, with not as much as a leaf on their branches and yet, Esther is in a vernal short sleeved dress.


Here is one principle I learn from Virginia Woolf about writing a memoir: it is important to remember to whom things happened. Many memoirs fail, she writes in A Sketch of the Past, as “it is so difficult to describe any human being. So they say: ‘this is what happened’; but they do not say what the person is like to whom it happened. And the events mean very little unless we know first to whom they happened."

Who, if so, was my mother, the baby and little girl in early 1940’s London? That is, who were her parents, what occupied their thoughts, in what state of affairs – state of mind, support network, economic status, relationship – did they bring her up? And what occupied her own thoughts? What did she wish for? What scared her? Where did she find joy?

The Capell Family’s flat in Raglan Court is modest in size: three rooms and a tiny kitchen. In one of the rooms my mother is asleep, baby and little girl Esther. The living room is where Esther’s parents spend their nights: father Hans and mother Hildegard. Hans is a man of medium height and breadth, his face broad and rather handsome, high forehead, eyes ever dampened, lips fleshy, sporting a thin moustache. My mother is later to remark about Hans, that had he not been Jewish, she reckons he might have joined the Nazi party. She found him to be in accord with the German spirit; his gait was German, his general disposition was German - in the rigid sense of the word; in the cold sense. He was stern and never lavished love or appreciation on his female near and dear. Hildegard, on the other hand, nicknamed Hilde, was a tall, beautiful, upright woman, endowed with compassion and a sense of humour. Soon – maybe a year following the end of the war – she is to become ill with MS, constraining her movement around this world. In the third room you can find Oma, Hans’ mother and grandmother to Esther, portly and heavy-set.

Esther’s parents, young Hans and Hildegard, do not love each other. They would later seek to separate, more than once or twice. They are even going to send Esther away from home, trying to settle their separation, yet this wish is never to be realised. Oma, the grandmother, is usually grumbling, joyless.

Blitz is German for “lightning”. Multiple lightnings, courtesy of the German Luftwaffe, struck London in quite a few storms. The Blitz was the background music and fireworks spectacle that haunted my mother’s defining childhood years: it started as she turned one year and five-month old; bombardments, debris, massive fires, fear. When she turned one year and eight months, her city went up in flames; a fire consuming monuments, churches, docks, public buildings, private homes. By the time she was just over two years old, London was almost laid waste, with millions of homes ruined and thousands of its residents killed or wounded; when she turned five, she spent the nights sleeping inside an iron cage. Though not evacuated in one of the great children transports, she fled London, like many others, for several months – with her cousins, uncle and grandmother – to an English town, away from the eye of the storm, and like many others lived to return to London in the heat of the war, experiencing more whistles of bombs flying overhead before the silence that precedes their drop.

“You can drive the devil out of your garden, but you will find him again in the garden of your son”, wrote Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (Swiss pedagogue, one of the founders of modern pedagogics).

I muse about my mother’s actual garden, the backyard in Raglan Court, Wembley: A green, moist grass stretching to the brown stone wall; bare trees. And I read about the garden in the small Highgate childhood home of Roger Fry – influential art critic, a member of the Bloomsbury Group, a close friend of Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa – the man whose biography was completed by Woolf during the Blitz years; a charming, naïve spot, or in Fry’s words, “this garden is still for me the imagined background for almost any garden scene that I have read of in books.” I read Woolf, at the opening of Fry’s biography, suggesting that we “may pause for a moment on the threshold of that small house at Highgate to ask what we can learn about him before he became conscious of the serpent which bent down from the fork of a peculiarly withered and soot begrimed old apple tree […]”

And I think about the little garden of my childhood home in Ramat Chen, Ramat Gan, bordering on a field, as well as the neighbours’ yards, the garden where I would sometimes try to hide, near the oleander bushes and the Rangoon Creeper with its sweet smell wafting in the air, or in the shade of the weeping willow, trying to hide away from it all, from myself, yet I knew it had no hidden corner, it was bare for all to see, watched from every corner, and I felt trapped out there. What can I learn about myself, my mother, from the yards of our childhood," just before we noticed the neighbours’ biting dog, the German Luftwaffe’s bombers, the fear of exposure, the serpent bending down from the soot-begrimed apple tree?"

From September 7th 1940, from five p.m., from the moment the Blitz began, my mother can’t remember a thing. She was only a baby at the time, taking her first steps.

“...the German air force came in to attack London”, writes Peter Ackroyd in London – the Biography. “Six hundred bombers, marshalled in great waves, dropped their explosive and high incendiary devices over east London”. Neighbourhoods of Beckton, West Ham, Millwall, Woolwich, Limehouse and Rotherhithe all went up in flames. The flames of gas stations, power plants and docks in the port rose to heaven.

How did my grandparents, Hans and Hildegard, feel at the time? They left no diaries and I didn’t have the sense to ask them while they were still alive. As for the first days of the Blitz, my mother can only provide me with one interesting fact: her father wasn’t even around when the bombing started. He spent the first year of the war in detention, at a camp for enemy aliens, or German POWs, in Dundee, city of jute, marmalade and comics, north of Edinburgh and about 760 km from London. From the detention camp he was transferred as a civil defence soldier to the coastal resort town of Llandudno, Wales, west of Liverpool, about 400 km from London. Baby Esther took her first steps in Wembley, under bombings, with her mother and grandmother, alone, without the head of the family. Did they use to wear gas masks around the house, two mutually hostile women and a baby?

My mother cannot remember wearing a gas mask. She can only vaguely remember people marching down the streets, the cardboard boxes of the masks in hand, like the ones handed out over here in Israel during the Gulf War. She can only tell they had masks in the house, and that children were given children-customised masks, with a picture of Mickey Mouse or something of the sort.


Trying to learn about the first wave of bombings, the quintessential Blitz, I rely on different reports, sharing here mostly from Woolf’s, who resided in Rodmell, a quiet town on the banks of the river Ouse, not far from Brighton (today about an hour and fifty minutes from London), and once or twice a week she would visit her London apartment. She had only just moved from Tavistock 52 to another London apartment in Mecklenburgh Square.

On the eve of the first bombings Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary: “An idea. All writers are unhappy. The picture of the world in books is thus too dark. The wordless are the happy: women in cottage gardens”.

Woolf, tense at the time, in part due to the war, but also because of the publication of her biography of Roger Fry, had already experienced some airplane and gun shelling. “Suddenly there was pop pop from behind the church”, she wrote on August 28th. “Practising we said. The plane circled slowly out over the marsh and back, very close to the ground and to us. Then a whole volley of pops (like bags burst) came together (...). Then we heard the drone. Looked up and saw two planes very high. They made for us. We started to shelter in the lodge. But they wheeled and Leslie saw the English sign. So we watched— they side slipped, glided, swooped and roared for about five minutes round the fallen plane as if identifying and making sure. Then made off towards London. Our version is that it was a wounded plane, looking for a landing”.

But this is the Blitz now: A lightning storm. The Germans, writes Ackroyd, returned the following night, and the night after it. Strand Street, St. Thomas Hospital, St. Paul Cathedral (which almost miraculously survived), the West End, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly and The House of Commons were all bombed. Between September and November the city took roughly 30,000 shells. About 6,000 of its residents were killed and twice as many were wounded. The bombing lasted 76 consecutive days, with the exception of a day intermission due to particularly vicious weather conditions.

On Tuesday, 10 September, four days into the Blitz, Woolf wrote at the end of a visit to town: “Back from half a day in London— perhaps our strangest visit. When we got to Gower Street a barrier with diversion on it. (...) Not allowed in. The house about 30 yards from ours struck at one in the morning by a bomb. Completely ruined. Another bomb in the square still unexploded. We walked round the back. Stood by Jane Harrison’s house. The house was still smouldering . That is a great pile of bricks (..) A looking glass I think swinging. Like a tooth knocked out— a clean cut.”

On 17 September Woolf hears that all windows of the house in Mecklenburgh Square are broken, while the ceilings collapsed. She regrets moving from her previous apartment, in Tavistock Square. A month later, on 17 October, she realises she has actually been lucky: the building in Tavistock Square is ruined, gone. Three days later she visited the place: “So to Tavistock Square. With a sigh of relief saw a heap of ruins. Three houses, I should say, gone. Basement all rubble. Only relics an old basket chair (bought in Fitzroy Square days) and Penman’s board To Let. Otherwise bricks and wood splinters. One glass door in the next house hanging. I could just see a piece of my studio wall standing: otherwise rubble where I wrote so many books. Open air where we sat so many nights, gave so many parties.”

As far as the rubble is concerned, my mother can only remember that the outer wall in Raglan Court cracked following a bombing, and that a quasi-triangle of bricks was put in place so as to prop it up. During a visit to Wembley in the fall of 2013 I find three triangles of reddish-brown tiles at the corner of the flat, still holding, lest it collapses. And yes, my mom does have one early memory: “They put me up on a chest in the living room. They dressed me up in an orange woolly baby overall; in a rush, with urgency. We went out to the stairwell. There we found all the neighbours standing, in the dark. We were waiting for the all clear.”

My mother cannot tell much about the first Blitz, but what she can tell – and it isn’t clear from which point in time this knowledge comes – is that the German aimed, among other things, to harm the neighbourhood of Harrow-on-the-Hill, the prestigious all-boys public school of Harrow, where Churchill was educated, which stood two tube stations away from Wembley Park.

I collect statistics and realise that dozens of bombs fell near the home of my baby mother.[1] One fell outside the stadium. Four in Wembley Park Drive, two streets from her home, five in Beechcroft Gardens Street, another 100 meters to the west. All in all, Wembley Central took 21 bombs, one of which fell across Empire Way, producing the blast that probably affected the edge of the family building. Harrow-on-the-Hill took 28 of them. All in all, the borough of Brent, home to Wembley, sustained 772 shells, of the tens of thousands shells dropped on the whole of London in 71 aerial attacks: more than million homes – a million! – were destroyed or badly damaged during the Blitz.

It now occurs to me that Hildegard, my mother’s mother, as well as her mother-in-law, had to start a new life on their own in a new country, under bombings. To make a living, learn the language, raise a baby, cook and clean and pay the rent – everything that comes under the definition of domestic family existence in a foreign city. At some point during the Blitz years, as my mother recalls, Hildegard started working in town as a dental assistant. My mother remembers one particular trip to the clinic on Baker Street. It was near the end of the war. She was five or six years old. Waiting outside the clinic with her grandmother, she noticed barriers at the entrance to the tube, and she knew the underground tunnels served as shelters during bombings. And she can remember Zeppelins floating up in the sky.


As far as my mother can testify, Blitz years in the Capell home, a family of German refugees in London, are marked by silence. It is unclear whether it is a silence that stems from anxiety, depression or the effort to appear normal, as if everything is hunky dory, for the sake of life, roles, tasks. Ackroyd, in his London: the Biography, tries to figure out the spirit of this city, noting that in the face of the destruction, fear, death, and given the blackouts that residents were ordered to subject their nights to, Londoners remained surprisingly stable and calm.”This may in part be explained by the deep and heavy presence of trade and commerce within its fabric”, writes Ackroyd about the city. Selling and buying – this is the vein running through it, transcending any obstacle, resistant to any disaster. It’s business as usual – or nothing. Throughout the streets strangers would pass each other saying, “good night, good luck”.

It occurs to me that the same can be said about Tel Aviv, with its businesses as usual spirit in times of war. “Business as usual” is a fundamentally melancholic approach; not depressive – neither paralysing nor bringing down – but melancholic. It’s gloomy, sad, but creative; not a bad thing.


My mother’s early years saw London and its residents plunging into constant darkness. Street lamps were extinguished; vehicles were turned into one-eyed monsters, while wooden boards or black curtains covered all windows.

The statement that Londoners got used to life with dim nights recurs in many reports. They almost came to see it as a triviality. And anyway, under the full moon, the absence of street lamps was not felt, and looking up, they got to see the stars. Stars over London!

But there were also other nights, nights one couldn’t get used to. In the first chapter of The London Blitz Murders, Max Alan Collins’ popular thriller, just before the series of murders carried out under the cover of night, the author described the major raid of 10 May 1941, “… a night no one living in London was likely to forget. The Thames at low ebb, the moon full, the Luftwaffe delivered the war’s worst raid thus far— Westminster Abbey damaged, the Mint, the Tower, the Law Courts, the British Museum hit, even Big Ben’s face had been scarred (though still tolling right on time), as fires raged… and more than three thousand Londoners lost their lives…. A shattered city had trembled, dreading the next attack”.

On May 15th 1939, when my mother was one month and two days old, Virginia Woolf was hard at work on the Biography of Fry and on A Sketch of the Past, her memoir. “The drudgery of making a coherent life of Roger has once more become intolerable”, she writes, thereby explaining why she reminisces to the past, trying to evoke the image of her mother in A Sketch of the Past.

“(...)Very quick; very definite; very upright; and behind the active, the sad, the silent. And of course she was central. I suspect the word ‘central’ gets closest to the general feeling I had of living so completely in her atmosphere that one never got far enough away from her to see her as a person”.

I now try to summon the image of my mother as a child in London, at the age of one, two, five years old. She is alive and vivid, you see, my present tense mother, 74 years old, and I talk to her on the phone every now and then, she is perfectly present, and yet I find it very hard to summon her image. She is as distant as ever – not entirely comprehensible to me, despondent yet pulsing with vitality and creativity, and withdrawn. And maybe like Woolf’s mother she is still too near; central

I try and walk back into her childhood home. I lend an attentive ear, and then take a glance. Can I hear music playing? No, my mother – a wonderfully musical person – says no music could ever be heard around the house. There was no gramophone in place. But there was a radio, a short-wave one. It sounded programs, radio plays. Her parents loved Arthur Askey, a funny entertainer. “I remember how Hans wanted to listen to broadcasts from Palestine in 1948; didn’t work out.”

But sometimes they would read her some books. Shockheaded Peter – Der Struwwelpeter in German. And in English, Little Black Sambo, which Esther loved. And the Grimm Brothers fairy tales. And Hans Christian Andersen. Hold on, “who wrote that story about the kind prince whose eye was pecked by a bird?”

My mother then recalls: “When I was older, after the war, Hans didn’t like my reading fluffy teenage books, which I borrowed from the library. I remember this one afternoon in Raglan Court – I was sitting in my room with a girlfriend, playing jacks. Hans walked in, saying – I bought you something better. Read it. And he handed me A Tale of Two cities by Dickens. I was probably seven or eight. I think it was premature for me.”

Mother’s childhood home had a folding sofa, with brown, tweed-like upholstery. Her parents used to read the Evening Standard. And they smoked – it was pipe and cigars, whose smell mother relished, for Hans, and the occasional cigarette for Hildegard. Always Craven A – typically English-flavoured Virginia tobacco cigarettes, filtered or otherwise, and there was also this brand with a little “cap” at the end – particularly popular during World War Two.

The main room featured a round brown wooded dining table, with a glass plate on top. Then there was a black, large desk, standing by the window. And a little table in the kitchen, where they probably used to take their breakfasts. Mother can remember how she dipped her fingers in orange juice concentrate, licking them. And she recalls a coal heating stove in the kitchen.

What did they use to have for their family meals? My mother can’t remember, she is not even sure they shared meals at all. She only recalls them having omelettes made of egg powder, sold in little metal boxes. Fresh eggs were hard to come by. And yet it turned out to be no problem; mix the powder with water and make an omelette. Later on, as they started eating real eggs – my mother didn’t like it. She longed for the taste of the wonder powder. As she recalls: “a year after the war, we went on holiday to Belgium, and there at the hotel, Hans ordered a two-egg omelette for breakfast. I found his gluttony really embarrassing.”

What else can she remember? That during and after the war Hildegard had a metal box, rectangular in shape, divided into partitions, where she would place the banknotes for each purpose – one section for food, one for clothing, one for taxes and another for electricity. There was no such thing as an overdraft. It was all in that box.

She remembers how Hildegard made a doll house for her, which she adored. Hildegard took an orange crate, rested it on one of its side panels, placing shelves in the middle and some beams. She created a two-story doll house. She had it furnished with miniature furniture, made by her cousin, Erwin Brandt. A little bed, a little table, a miniature china tea set with greenish inlay like the real thing. A milk pot. A sugar bowl. Cloth curtains on windows.

How about sweets? What sweets can you remember?

“I’m not sure these are Blitz years’ memories. Maybe just after the war. Liquorice allsorts – [the coloured liquorice candies, manufactured in Sheffield, England, since 1842]. And there was Cadbury’s milk chocolate [manufactured in Birmingham, England, since 1824]. And Mars Bars [manufactured in Berkshire, England, since 1932].”

How about friends?

“I remember this boy in Raglan Court – Carl – who lived in the same building, different entrance. He used to come and play with me. And Hildegard, before he would leave to go back home, she would take some of my toys out of his pockets. Which he might have considered taking with. And I would be embarrassed”.

And parent’s friends?

“Yes, they had Berliner friends who had come to England even before they had. Carl and Eva Nathan. The Falks. The Lisbonas. And there was Hildegard’s cousin, Erwin Brandt, the one who made the miniature furniture for the doll house. I remember this one night, when Wembley was under thick fog. Erwin Brandt and his wife were invited for dinner. They were late. Hildegard went out every so often to see if anything was the matter. When they arrived after a few hours, it turned out they had taken a cab from the tube station, but you couldn’t see anything. Erwin Brandt walked ahead of the cab all the way to Raglan Court, hurricane lamp in hand!

And the stadium?

“Hound races – greyhound racing – in Wembley Stadium. Every Sunday men in green and grey suits would pass along the street, leading six-seven leashes each, attached to thin, beautiful dogs, tall and erect. Hans took me there one night. I remember the dogs running after an electric bunny and a gambling atmosphere.”

How about grandma?

“One of my earliest memories from Raglan Court: Oma sitting in a gown, her thin hair unkempt, a loaf of bread in hand and yelling in german. I don’t know, don’t think I knew back then, what she was yelling at.”

What else should I ask about?

What did they use to talk about at home? What made your parents laugh? What made you laugh? When did you cry? When did you hold back? What made you happy? What did you use to do all day? How exactly were they using you as a punch- bag? How can I evoke your memories? Can they be evoked? What memories remained with you, between you and yourself, as an adult? And how do you maintain, manage, retain this business as usual? How do you keep from collapsing like 52 Tavistock Street under the German bomb?

I find it interesting that Virginia Woolf wrote a memoir during the Blitz, and finished the writing of a biography – that is, that she was engaged with her non-fiction– before deciding to die. And I find interest in the legacy that she had left in her essay The Art of Biography, when writing that: “Is not anyone who has lived a life, and left a record of that life, worthy of biography — the failures as well as the successes, the humble as well as the illustrious? And what is greatness? And what smallness?”

And what about the one who lived and failed to write a diary, and can hardly, only just, recall a vague picture here, a blurred moment there?

On the day my mother was born, in a maternity clinic in Kilburn, two tube stations from Wembley, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary: “Two days of influenza after that, mild but sucking one’s head as usual...Now politics impend. Chamberlain’s statement in the House today. War I suppose not tomorrow, but nearer”.

In an entry two days later Woolf added: “But considering how many things I have that I like— What’s odd—( I’m always beginning like this) is the severance that war seems to bring: everything becomes meaningless: can’t plan.”

Woolf is intrigued by depression, while I am intrigued by melancholy. The two are not one and the same. I think of melancholy in the term attached to the word for hundreds of years, before a culture of “clinical depression” gained hold in the 20th century, with its designated drugs, putting all manner of sadness and mental pain in one basket, of the kind that can be treated and should be subdued. I think of melancholy in the sense of black bile, the kind sported by the Greek. The kind of melancholy that prompted Aristotle, or his disciples, to ask in the Problemata: “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly of an atrabilious temperament, and some of them to such an extent as to be affected by diseases caused by black bile…?” The kind of melancholy which, unlike depression, taps into pain and sorrow for the sake of thought, creation and the building of life; The kind of melancholy that one doesn’t seek to avoid, but rather to hark to. To let it sound its voice.

Melancholy in the sense that drove Robert Burton, the 16th century British scholar, to compose the Anatomy of Melancholy, declaring: “I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy. There is no greater cause of melancholy than idleness, no better cure than business;” melancholy in the sense of enhanced sadness and fear for no “objective reason”, of the kind that one can be momentarily extracted from through endeavours, action, or encounters with beauty; by listening to music, by reading poetry. This kind of melancholy is not the mental state that confines one, the woman, the writer, to bed, with no wish to get out of it. It isn’t melancholy that drives one, the woman, the writer, to drown herself in the river. Melancholy is the state of mind that brings one, a women, a writer, to be inflicted by black bile, lack of joy and fear, the knowledge of finiteness, loneliness, driving her to write The Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, Mrs Dalloway, The Death of the Moth, Three Guineas, A Sketch of the Past, The common Reader, Street Haunting – so long as depression doesn’t get the better of her. Melancholy of the kind that was later to drive my mother into a life dedicated to art, as a photographer. Her photographs are to capture moments of peculiar beauty, and silence, moments of loneliness interwoven with quiet harmony of shapes.

I refer to melancholy of the sort inflicting the melancholic Jaque in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, who replies to Rosalind’s question, “They say you are a melancholy fellow”, with “I am so; I do love it better than laughing”, then elaborates: “I have neither the scholar's melancholy, which is emulation, nor the musician's, which is fantastical, nor the courtier's, which is proud, nor the soldier's, which is ambitious, nor the lawyer's, which is politic, nor the lady's, which is nice, nor the lover's, which is all these: but it is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness.”

It is Jaque’s melancholy that bred within him the judicious assertion that “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players”, leading him to number seven parts in the life of any human;

“At first, the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

It was four months before the birth of my mother, when Hildegard arrived in London, a young Berliner, pretty and proud, five-month pregnant, hailing from an old Berliner family – in the city for generations, a German dynasty with its roots deep in 16th century Berlin, if not earlier. Hildegard was a dental medicine student who was not allowed to complete her studies in Berlin for being Jewish. She joined Hans, her roughly year-long husband, who had left her in Berlin about two months earlier, fleeing to London.

Hildegard and Hans – German refugees in an enemy country, a couple in their late twenties, who fled, each in turn, from their rented Berlin apartment with suitcases full of clothes and little more than some small items – settled down in the home of Hans’ sister and her husband, Elsbeth and Hans Grunenberg, who had already made their home in Harrow, the same expensive, prestigious neighboured in North-West London where Churchill had gone to school; she a dentist, he a professor of genetics. The sister and her husband emigrated from Berlin back in 1933, were not considered refugees and allowed to take in German relatives of first degree.

My grandparents got a small chamber in Harrow, above the garage. Yet when Grunenberg, the hosting brother-in-law, realised that Hildegard was pregnant, he told her forthrightly that he had no intention of accommodating a baby as well, it was way too much, he said, too much of a headache and mess for him, and demanded she had an abortion. Hildegard, my grandmother, refused. After a few weeks, as Oma, Hans’ mother, arrived from Berlin, the couple Grunenberg refused to accommodate her, offering to rent a big flat for Hans, Hildegard and Oma. And so the little Capell family found their home in Wembley, 15 minutes’ walk from the stadium.

During the war years Esther’s family went through some darkness. In 1942, Arthur, Hildegard’s father, was taken in from his dental clinic in Berlin to Theresienstadt and in 1944 was transferred to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. Grandma Martha, Hildegard’s mother, who emerges from accounts as manic-depressive, committed suicide in Berlin in 1942, the week her husband was taken to the camp. Annie, Hildegard’s little sister, worked in a weapon factory In England, and later moved to live in Brazil. Gerhardt, Hildegard’s brother, ran away from Berlin straight to Bolivia. Elsbeth, Hans’ sister and my mother’s aunt, committed suicide at the London Harrow flat in 1944. Hannah, Grunenberg’s second wife, committed suicide in the same home a few years later. These are all things my mother knows post-factum. None of them was ever discussed when she was a child. Postcards, news, announcements would all arrive every so often and that was it. And there was quiet. And tension. And there was anger. And Hildegard was taking tranquilisers.

One of the impressive highlights of the Blitz was the massive raid of Sunday, December 29th 1940. The shelling focused on the City; entire quarters of downtown London went up in flames. 19 churches were burnt to the ground, including 16 built by Christopher Wren following the first great fire. Yet unlike that fire, St. Paul cathedral survived this time, engulfed by burning rings.

December 29th 1940 is referred to as the Second Great Fire, alluding to the original Great Fire of 1666, which laid waste to five sixths of the city (Woolf, in January 1st 1941, opened a history book and read about that great fire, from the 17th century). A fire that probably broke on the night of September 1st 1666 at the bakery of Mr Farriner, the king’s baker, on Pudding Lane; though Farriner himself claims to have inspected all rooms before retiring to bed at night, finding as he did no fire burning but in one of the chimneys, from which he duly collected the embers to extinguish them. Nevertheless, though no grudge is held against the baker, the fire is still attributed to the bakery, without attaching blame; the fire was generated there, it broke out, while the hot and dry conditions of August 1666, coupled with a fierce south-eastern wind, carried it across the entire city.

Everything burned down in the great fire of 1666 – St. Paul, Fleet Street, 460 streets, including 13,200 homes that were all but wiped out. Residents’ accounts – official testimonies cite only six dead, but perhaps back in the day, lower-class dead were not figured in – paint a picture of London as a field of debris, dust and ashes, with those treading its streets unable to tell where they were, which street they were stepping along, and it was very hard to figure out which monument, church, public building or street the debris came from.

There had also been previous great fires. In 60 AD, queen Boadicea, head of the British tribe of Iceni, lead the uprising against the Roman occupation and caused the burning to the ground of the new vibrant settlement of London. I read in several books and essays that archaeologists found a film of red dust on coins thought to date back to this period. And in 959 AD the city was burnt down, along with St. Paul Cathedral. For some, London is eternally-burning – As Virginia Woolf referred to it in her Night and Day: “all the darkness of London seemed set with fires, roaring upwards”.

And London also comprises layers of pandemics. The Black Death of 1348 killed a third of the city’s residents. In 1406 the Plague returned, while in 1665 it killed about a fifth of London’s residents – a fatal bacteria passed to Londoners from rats via flees, and acting with dizzying speed: swelling of the crotch and armpits, red and black spots, terrible fatigue, impaired speech, hallucinations, internal bleeding, death; the homes of those affected were marked by a red cross with the inscription of “Lord, have mercy upon us”, while their relatives were forbidden from the streets for weeks on end.

All these layers of fire and disease and horror are no doubt imprinted on London, the childhood city of my mother; The city of dreams – nightmares and heart desire – for me. I seek to use these layers in my attempt to assemble the pre-memory memory; to fabricate the childhood image of my mother from non-fictional materials. What can you actually learn about mother’s multi-layered mind from multi-layered London? What can I possibly know – even now, having taken a glance into the childhood settings of my mother – about this mind, from which I sprang forth myself? On Wednesday, January 15th, about two months before her suicide, Woolf wrote in her diary: “We were in London on Monday. I went to London Bridge. I looked at the river; very misty; some tufts of smoke, perhaps from burning houses. There was another fire on Saturday. Then I saw a cliff of wall, eaten out, at one corner; a great corner all smashed; a Bank; the Monument erect: tried to get a bus; but such a block I dismounted ; and the second bus advised me to walk. A complete jam of traffic; for streets were being blown up. So by Tube to the Temple; and there wandered in the desolate ruins of my old squares: gashed; dismantled; the old red bricks all white powder, something like a builder’s yard. Grey dirt and broken windows. Sightseers; all that completeness ravished and demolished.”

While on January 26th: “A battle against depression, routed today (I hope) by (...) two days, I think, of memoir writing. This trough of despair shall not, I swear, engulf me.” On March 28th it did.

During the Little Blitz of 1944, as she turned five, my mother was sent with Oma and two of her cousins, Daniel and Reuben, along with Uncle Hans Grunenberg, to Darlington, 277 km north-east of London, a small English town boasting of the world’s first passenger railway station. It was not long after Elsbeth, mother of the cousins, had committed suicide. The family stayed in Darlington for an uncertain – unremembered – period. Esther can only remember attending a kindergarten in the town, in a low school building. And she recalls sharing a bed with Grandma Oma. And how she would get up in the morning to meet her cousins outside, and they would go back in and shout “good morning” at the top of their voices to Grandma, who would in turn wake up petrified, yelling, “Mama, Mama”, and the kids would almost cry out laughing. Then they returned home, to Wembley and Harrow, back to some more bombings.

My mother says she recalls no fear of the Blitz days. Only tension – almost like the suspense felt in games – with every bombing whistle. And then silence. They would go out to the stairwell, where they stood with the neighbours, waiting for the all-clear siren. She remembers the whistle of the bomb as it flew by, and silence falling from the moment it stopped to when it dropped.

The Blitz my mother remembers is the Little Blitz. Perhaps even a special wave of shelling that ensued thereafter; heralding the end of the war. Virginia Woolf didn’t have the chance to undergo the Little Blitz – she placed rocks inside the pockets of her coat and marched into the river Ouse on March 28th 1941. She was 59, while my mother turned almost two years’ old, and London still had the worst of the bombing ahead of it, to take place on May 10th 1941, followed by three years of relative calm, before bombs were to return on February and March 1944.

Unmanned aircrafts, carrying a bomb named V-1, also known as Doodlebug, and Flying Bomb, and Buzz Bomb, started appearing in London skies. They could be identified by their sound, the noisome whiz of the engine, followed by sudden silence, as the engine stopped and the bomb was dropped. They came in full daylight, with varying frequency, and Ackroyd writes that they were arguably harder to bear than any shelling. Suspense. The breath taken. Waiting to see where exactly the bomb drops. Knowing that one knows nothing. The nerves being wrecked. London took on a new spirit of anxiety, weariness, despair.

My mother recalls: by the time they had already been getting used to such bombings, they started providing homes with Morrison shelters –virtually iron cages. My mother’s room was furnished with a big, latticed “box”, which cannot accommodate an upright adult, but can stand a child, and one can sit and of course lay in it comfortably. It was sealed on three sides, slightly open on one side, like scaffolding. My mother slept in this cage every night and if a siren was heard, her parents and grandmother would join her.

My mother has no recollection of fear. Only suspense and distress.

What common thread can I run through the distress I feel now, which is but a hint of the distress I have sensed to a large degree all my life up till now, particularly the heavy, pervasive distress of my childhood, youth and coming of age – and the one marking the days of whistles and silence and bombs of my mother’s childhood? How can I run a common thread through my first year, as a sad baby, so they say, who often cries, rarely rejoices, and my mother’s infancy in the shade of the war? I think there are layers of distress, as the city bares its layers of fire and plague.

“Probably everybody has a more or less concealed inner chamber that he hides even from himself and in which the props of his childhood drama are to be found,” writes Alice Miller in her Dilemma of the Gifted Child. “These may be his secret delusion, a secret perversion, or quite simply the unmastered aspects of his childhood suffering. The only ones who will certainly gain entrance to this hidden chamber are his children”.

Could it be – beyond all that took place from my birth on – could my distress, the distress of my life until recently, many long years of despondency, anxiety, an essential failed attempt at touching joy – could it be that this melancholy was begotten as early as then, in the hidden chamber of shelled London?

After the Little Blitz, and the flying bombs, a new onslaught ensued: long-range rackets, impressively precise. And so, for quite a few more months, Londoners looked up to the sky, overwrought. Then suddenly, at once, it is over. By the end of March 1945, as my mother was about to turn six years old, a rocket dropped in Stepney, then another in Tottenham Court Street, and that was it. The raids stopped. The sky cleared up. London won the war.

I am reminded of Auden’s famous poem, Musée des Beaux Arts, composed at London in 1939, just before he left England – escaping the Blitz – to find shelter for life in the US. In times of tragedy, you just keep on, anyway, just like that.

”About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well, they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking

dully along [....]“

What else can I ask about my baby mother’s London? About the hidden chamber of her childhood, my desired destination?

I wonder, for example, how it was like in my favourite book shop, Foyles, Charring Cross, during the Blitz. I search, and read, and discover that it was actually interesting. Brothers William and Gilbert Foyle’s book shop, a book-selling business from as early as 1903, in Charring Cross since 1929, kept operating in the eye of the storm, but not without some involvement: as early as the mid 1930’s William Foyle sent a telegram to Hitler, offering him a good price for all books condemned for burning in Germany. He was blatantly refused. With the onset of Blitz, sand sacks full of old books were stacked around the shop windows, and William declared that he had the roof covered with copies of Mein Kampf to ward bombers of the shop. Then a bomb dropped, leaving a gaping hole right at the shop’s doorway. William treated the workers at the square to sandwiches and ginger beer – my favourite beverage at the small café of today’s Foyles – until they finished building a bridge over the hole, for the buyers, browsers and book lovers coming into Foyles’ five floors mainly for its non-fiction, as well as poetry, children’s literature, music sheets and a lot more. And how was it like in St. James Park, outside the palace? Did the ducks keep their leisurely swimming? Was the grass green? How about the benches? I count: fifteen shells dropped on the little park, right inside it, on the grass, on the lake, while dozens other fell nearby.

The Candy Bar, a Lesbian bar, needless to say, was yet to be around during the Blitz years. I must read more about gay and lesbian hangouts during the war. What’s the story there? I have yet to get into it. And what about the theatre? The show had to go on, sure, so I learn. Its interruption for 12 days on September 1939 by an order from the British government was guided by the notion that the nation must concentrate on the war effort, avoiding any engagement with culture, entertainment. Yet this order was revoked and the crowd flocked to shows, with only the setting changed – at times the shows were taken down to the basement floors of theatre houses, as others were prematurely interrupted or called off on the odd night of a particularly intense bombing. The Old Vic was closed down, and even sustained a direct hit. The Windmill Theatre declared, “We’re never closed” and the Cancan girls kept dancing, their backs bare, all time. I am still searching, and have yet to find, a list of plays running throughout town during bombings. But here is a charming detail: Adelphi Theatre put up a signboard professing the unequivocally indomitable spirit – a sign that the likes of which could later be seen in many theatres around town:

When an Air Raid Warning is received, you will be informed from the stage. Those wishing to leave will have seven minutes to find shelter. For those desiring to remain, the show will go on. Walk, don't run to the exits. Do not panic. REMEMBER YOU ARE BRITISH.

In Wembley Stadium meanwhile most games and most dog races were called off due to the blackout, but quite a few games and races took place during daylight, or in the dusky gloom. There was even a “wartime league”; the gates of the Football Cathedral were never shut. And what was going on in pubs, most of which, so I learn, were operating as usual unless sustaining a direct hit? How much bitter, how much lager and how much whiskey and cider were drunk and what did they talk about, what did they play or forget?

I don’t think I have been making a very good job of bringing my mother as a child back to life. And I can’t really make sense of my mother the adult. And I don’t know what it is exactly that Virginia Woolf succumbed to, how much it had to do with the sight of her wounded squares, whether they broke her spirit and how. And I don’t know what it is like to be London under bombings. But I might be getting a somewhat better idea. I know my mother likes cider and I raise a glass of this bittersweet beverage to her.

In my mind I now go back to the smell of London, the smell of barley and hops and frying and rain, with ancient paving stones and moist grass. I go back to the bench in Regent’s Park, near the water edge, reading in Woolf’s The Death of a Moth that biography is not a work of art, but rather a work of craft. A work bound by facts. “…the biographer must accept the perishable, build with it, imbed it in the very fabric of his work. Much will perish; little will live.”

I find the craft of biography writing a melancholic one. And it can have no completion. The world is not a stage – it is a story. The craft of storytelling is a work in progress. It is the business as usual.


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