I have become fixated with a map. It’s an interactive map of London that shows where the German Luftwaffe dropped bombs on the city between 7 October 1940 and 6 June 1941. It’s a period that includes 57 nights of consecutive bombing that pummelled the city at the height of the Blitz. You can find it on a site called bombsight.org. The map has been created by looking at the bomb census maps that were collated at the time – until now you would have had to go to the British Library to see them.
It’s a project that comes out of the University of Portsmouth and they have made their map to bring history alive – they have also been gathering people’s personal stories of those nights. Over 20,000 people died and 1.5 million people were made homeless during these months.
Each hit is marked by a red dot and when you look at the city on the pulled out version, it looks like a packed seed head – there is not one gap. Zoom in to see a particular neighbourhood and it seems like every other street was hit. It’s extraordinary that only 20,000 perished.
Yet the map works now in another way. A reading street by street explains much about the city you see today. My exploration has radiated out from the small street in Bloomsbury where I live. My road was not hit. The neighbouring street, however, took a double strike when two highly explosive bombs hit a row of houses. And this explains why it’s now lined by blocks of not very nice late-1950s apartments.
A five-minute walk away from me is a scrappy car park. You look on the map and see that this plot was also cleared by a bomb and you wonder what modern limbo has prevented any developer rebuilding on it for over 70 years. Then there’s the row of immaculate Georgian houses – so how come the map also shows a hit here? I walk over to take a look and, for the first time, see that two of the houses have lovingly rebuilt facades but at the back are all 1960s blandness. What about the park? Well that was terraced housing that never got rebuilt. Or where my local supermarket now stands: it’s another bomb that cleared way for that.
Almost every post-1945 building in my ’hood owes its presence to a bomb dropped from a German plane. Perhaps this is how history can really be brought to life – how many of the children, or adults, living in my neighbourhood realise that what the see every day is the consequences of war. It’s made me more sensitive to the city and its randomness and quirks. It’s also made me think how robust this old city must be: all that destruction and terror but it rebuilt. At their best, cities can heal again and again.
As we prepare to close the door on 2012, perhaps that’s also something the people of Aleppo can cling to. But that’s a story for another day.
Andrew Tuck is Monocle’s editor.