London and The Weight of History: The War Rooms

I set forth on my wanders at 10:30 this morning, and got back to the hotel at almost 5:00.  All of this was done on foot, I might add.  After consulting a map I struck off in the general direction of the Imperial War Museum, and shortly came upon St. James’s Park.  There are so many impressive buildings, but instinct or luck led me to the War Museum.  I hadn’t ever seen Churchill’s War Rooms so that was the first order of business.  I ended up spending almost two hours in the underground bunkers.  First off, the Brits do things right.  It was a steep fee to enter, but you are given audio guides for free, and the flow of the museum is brilliant.  In addition to the actual War rooms and map rooms there is a large exhibit about Churchill.  I was particularly taken with an interactive screen that had some of his more memorable, humorous and cutting quotes.

There was an eerie sense of having stepped back in time as there were recordings of old radio and news show that had been playing during the Blitz and then the sirens would start, and I felt my heart stutter.  Child of the fifties I remember the drills, my father told me stories of Pearl Harbor Day, and an air raid siren has the power to set my nerves to quivering.  Then an actual recording of Churchill during the Blitz.

Many of the rooms had simply been left in August 1945.  The soldiers and typists and telephone operators just stoop up from their desks, locked up and walked away.  Which meant some of the rooms were time capsules — amber beads buried beneath the streets of London and filled with memories and fears, grief and determination that seemed to cling to the chairs, desks, typewriters, beds, etc.

One of the more touching things for me was an envelop that had three precious sugar cubes inside.  Some young officer had hoarded his sugar ration, and tucked it away in a drawer.  It was still there when the room were reopened decades later.  I wondered who he had been?  Whoever he was I hope he had lots of sugar in the years that would follow.

There was a picture in one room of St. Paul’s surrounded by smoke and flames its dome defiant against a burning sky and it made me think of my friend Connie, and her evocation of that time and the bravery of the Fire Watch.  At LonCon Connie talked about the people who saved the cathedral — they were vergers, and men too old to fight, and choir members, and shop girls who volunteered to sit on the roof night after night and beat back the flames.  It wasn’t just the RAF that stopped Hitler — it was ordinary people refusing to bed under the onslaught.

I found myself with throat aching, and tears blurring my eyes as I contemplated that time and those people, and I wondered if we could rally today?  If we could put aside our resentments to resist a great evil?  I’d like to hope so.

I bought a mug and a t-shirt for myself with the iconic Keep Calm and Carry On slogan.  I think it’s pretty good advice whether you’re facing down fascism or in our time rallying to fight global climate change & murderous fundamentalism of all stripes.

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