GFBA longlist continued – Bomber County, by Daniel Swift

This is the fourth book I’ve read on the GFBA longlist, and it has overtaken Maile Chapman’s “Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto” as the best, by some considerable margin.

Earlier this year, David Shields published a book called “Reality Hunger”, a manifesto for writers and artists to engage more with fact in their work, rather than fiction. Surrounded by the artificial, by mediated space, writers should reject the realist narrative and replace it with a collage of fact, fiction, impression, and aphorism, the better to reflect the information age that we live in. (This is a simplification of Shields’ work – his website can be found here for more detail.) As I’ve said elsewhere, what I value most about the GFBA is its holistic approach to literature, where novels share space with collections of poetry, biographies, histories, and so on. “Bomber County” is the first non-fiction title I’ve read from the longlist, and although it was probably written in ignorance of Shields’ manifesto, its extraordinary mixture of literary criticism, history, memoir, reminiscence and moral enquiry, brought to mind the literary possibilities that his manifesto is trying to make apparent to us (although I don’t think Shields is actually trying to construct anything new in “Reality Hunger” – a quick glance at pre-18th century European literature would demonstrate all the blurred boundaries, narrative tricks and inconsistencies that we would commonly associate with post-modernism, or not associate with what Zadie Smith termed “lyrical realism”). As such, “Bomber County” makes the novels I’ve read from the longlist feel flat and strangely slight, fundamentally unserious. This is possibly to do with Swift’s subject matter – the bombing offensive against Germany during the Second World War, his grandfather’s role in that campaign, and the way this new and horrifying form of warfare was reflected in the poetry of the time. In particular, Swift’s profound analysis of the war’s poetry, poetry “of the near distance”, “always at a remove”, sees him engage with language, its evasions and illuminations, in a way that the three novels I have read from the list don’t really attempt.

Swift’s grandfather was a bomber pilot, whose Lancaster was shot down in 1943, in the morally ambiguous year when the RAF was switching from precision bombing to the area bombing of German civilian targets. Several days later, his grandfather’s body was washed up on a Dutch beach, and buried in a nearby cemetery. Swift takes this as his starting point to reconstruct his life, his operational experience, and the wider role of the bombing campaign in the war. In tangent, he takes the Times Literary Supplement’s 1940 judgement that the war had produced and probably would produce no poetry of lasting value, certainly not in comparison to the 1914-18 war, and demonstrates that this judgement was as accurate as those early raids, when only 5% of bombs were said to reach their targets.

Swift’s belief that the peculiarities of bombing as a form of warfare are the main subject of Second World War poetry requires some elision – Keith Douglas, for example, possibly the best-known Second World War poet, is necessarily absent. A great deal of the work he cites is amateur, in the best sense of the word, and not world class. He is also required to marshal the big guns of TS Eliot and Dylan Thomas to his roster of war-poets, although this is not an inaccurate reading – both men were obsessed with the effects of bombing, the destruction of lives and property, and the bombers’ ability to make surreal landscapes out of familiar streets. I think Swift has made an extraordinary and original observation that this strange, disassociative and highly modern form of warfare acted as a pull on the poetic spirit though, and allowing this literary investigation to unfold alongside a lyrical recreation of his grandfather’s life makes this book both elegiac and beautiful. I read most of it through a film of tears, moved at such horrifying scales of loss, and at the inchoate urges when confronted by these sublime aerial landscapes of cloud and moonlight that made prosaic men reach for the language of poetry to express themselves, and find consolation for probable loss.

Needless to say, “Bomber County” didn’t make the shortlist, and so has not won the GFBA (encouragingly, it went to Alexandra Harris, for her “Romantic Moderns”). Daniel Swift should feel certain though that this wonderfully poetic book, about violence and destruction, heroism and sacrifice, will last.

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