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A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell

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I've read some great books already this year, but this one will undoubtedly end up on my Best of 2021. How I've managed not to read it before is a bit of a mystery, but it came to my attention just recently because it was featured in Lucy Worsley's documentary Blitz Spirit (which you can see on BBC iPlayer here - well worth watching). I've always known about the Blitz, as my newly married parents had to leave their London flat when it was bombed. But though I knew of it in a general sort of way, Chelsea Concerto brought it home to me in vivid detail that I'll never forget.

Faviell doesn't include year dates in her account, but I learned the background from Lucy Worsley. The Blitz began at 8 pm on 7 September 1940, when Hitler, annoyed that the British were bombing German cities, sent a convoy of 950 planes carrying incendiary and parachute bombs which were aimed at the warehouses in London's East End. 8 hours later, the German planes finally turned home, having destroyed most of their targets and killed 430 people. From that point on it was relentless for the rest of the year - on 29 December, the heaviest night of all, 100,000 incendiaries fell on the city. The Blitz continued on into 1941, until Hitler moved his planes elsewhere. By this time, 44000 people had lost their lives, and many many more had been rendered homeless.

Frances Faviell was an artist. She lived in Chelsea, an area of London which also suffered badly from the bombing because of its proximity to Battersea Power Station, a prime target on the opposite side of the river: 'The little borough was the third most heavily bombed in London. Of her wartime population no less than 2,099 were bomb casulalties, 534 of these being fatal. This meant that roughly one in every fourteen persons were either killed or injured'.

Faviell had signed up as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) worker at the beginning of the war. She had a small amount of nursing experience, so she ended up being assigned to a First Aid Post. Her training consisted of some attachments to London hospitals, where she encountered people from a lower social class for the first time. In the early months of the war, after an initial panic, everything seemed to settle down, and life went on more or less as normal: Faviell continued with her painting, and with dinner and lunch parties and 'a great many weddings', such as that of my parents. Refugees started to flood into London, and she was assigned a group to help house and clothe them - many had left home without even the barest of necessities. They would become her charges for the rest of the war. The news from Europe was bad, and as 1940 progressed, it was possible to watch dogfights between British and German planes in the sky above London: 'It seemed impossible at first to believe these were actual deadly battles and not mock ones as we had watched at aeriel displays at Hendon. It gave one a strange, sick feeling of excitement....It was horrible - but it had a macabre fascination impossible to resist'. Then, on 7 September, the bombing started. By the following morning, the whole East End was ablaze.

Now, after a few days of stunned shock and anger, Faviell and her fellow VADs were precipitated into the middle of the devastation. The bombing on Chelsea began, and many people lost their homes. Among them was a Doctor friend of Faviell's, whose twelve-year-old daughter, the only survivor of the family, was dug out of the ruins after four days, an event which made a tremendous impression on the workers.The relentless bombardment continued, but, as Faviell says:

The Blitz was providing something else besides bombs. it was making people talk to one another. People in shops, in the buses, in the streets often talked to me now. They opened up amazingly about how they thought and what they thought - how they felt and what they felt. They all liked to see the nurses' uniforms - and were loud in praise of the nurse, the firemen and the wardens. But they didn't like the indignity of sleeping in a bunk in a shelter with hundreds of others. The Blitz was doing something else - it was continuing the difficult process already begun before the war of breaking down class barriers.

Everyone was now exhausted and working flat out, including Faviell herself. As a nurse, and trained in anatomy at art school, she was assigned one of the grimmest of tasks - that of assembling the dismembered bodies for burial. '"Proper jigsaw puzzle, ain't it Miss"' as one of the mortuary attendants said to her. She also worked in a hospital that was taking in refugees from the East End, who upset the other patients because of how dirty they were. 'Some of these offenders were ordered to take a bath by the Medical Officer, but these were people who had never seen a bath, let alone taken one'. The experience, for both nurses and patient, was indescribable - one elderly woman was so encrusted with a lifetime of dirt that her body 'literally resembled the bark of a tree'.

But her most dramatic and dangerous experience - dramatised on Lucy Worsley's documentary - was the day when she was asked to help with a man who was trapped under a fallen building. He was in terrible pain, but the workers outside couldn't reach him, as he was stuck at the end of a tunnel. They literally seized on Faviell because of her slim light build, and persuaded her to attempt to reach him with a pad of chloroform. Owing to the narrowness of the shaft that led to the tunnel, she had to strip off down to her underclothes and be lowered in head first: '"Hold the torch in your teeth and grip tight"'. This event - told over several pages - traumatised her so much that she had to be put to bed by her loyal housekeeper Mrs Freeth.

There's more, so much more. The account is a stunningly vivid one, but it gains hugely from Faviell's perspective. It's good to know that in the middle of all this she managed to get married, and gave birth to her son in 1941. She writes extremely well, and looks at the sights and events with the eye of an artist. Certainly if you only ever read one book about London in WW2, this has to be the one.

 

 

 


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