Saturday, February 19, 2022

Light Perpetual - remembering the New Cross V2 disaster

An eye catching, if slightly storm frayed billboard advert in New Cross Road announces the paperback publication of Francis Spufford's novel 'Light Perpetual'. Spufford has been teaching creative writing at Goldsmiths since 2008 and the novel is directly inspired by events in New Cross Road. As he explains in the book, 'for the last twelve years, I've been walking to work at Goldsmiths College past a plaque commemorating the 1944 V2 attack on the New Cross Road branch of Woolworths. Of the 168 people who died, fifteen were aged eleven or under. The novel is partly written in memory of those South London children, and their lost chance to experience the rest of the twentieth century'.

The premise of the novel is to imagine what might have been given some very slight alteration in circumstances - supposing a technical fault has caused the missile to fail during its journey, as many did, or it landed relatively harmlessly in a park rather than a crowded shop on a Saturday?

'That's time for you. It breaks things up. It scatters them. It cannot be run backwards, to summon the dust to rise, any more than you can stir milk back out of tea. Once sundered, forever sundered. Once
scattered, forever scattered. It's irreversible. But what has gone is not just the children's present existence [....]  It's all the futures they won't get, too. All the would-be's, might-be's, could-be's of the decades to come. How can that loss be measured, how can that loss be known, except by laying this
absence, now and onwards, against some other version of the reel of time, where might-be and could-be and would-be still may still be'.

And so Spufford imagines how the lives of some of the children who died might have played out in the decades to come, what they missed out on and what the world missed out by their absence. I really enjoyed the novel but admit to being puzzled why he set a story that is so clearly tied to a real New Cross event in the fictional south east London borough of Bexford. But as he recently explained, 'I wanted to find a way of remembering the event that was faithful but not literal, so had to invent a London borough and drop a V2 of my own on to it, not to trample on anybody’s real grief'.


There are actually two memorial plaques at the site (where the Iceland store now stands)- the first put up by Deptford History Group in 1994...

...and the second sponsored by Lewisham Council unveiled in 2009, as reported here.

As I roved out on Deptford Broadway

The events are also referenced in a song from 2012 included on the compilation 'Deptford Day: Songs About SE8'. 'As I roved out on Deptford Broadway'  by Neil Gordon-Orr imagines somebody looking back on their youth in the pubs and cinemas of New Cross and Deptford and missing his friends lost in the Second World War, including in the V2 attack.

As I roved out on Deptford Broadway

As I roved out one summer Sunday
To take the air on Deptford Broadway
Fell in with Jo and Sam and Susie
Says I who'll share my wages with me?

We had a quick dram in the Dover
In the Royal Albert we sipped some porter
Sam left with Jo and Susie after
She caught the tram and I fell over

I saw Susie the next Friday
In the Odeon kissed through a movie
Next week we danced in the New Cross Palais
Next year in St Pauls we were married

Now I sit here in the Granby
And all those years have gone behind me
So have a drink and sit beside me
My old friends' stools are all long empty

Sam never came back from the army
Jo crossed the seas when she got married
And Susie died right here in New Cross
When the rocket blew up Woolworths

Now I go walking every Sunday
I dodge the cars on Deptford Broadway
I think of Sam and Jo and Susie
And all the other ghosts beside me

The sunlight perpetual reflects off the gold letters on the billboard
'Come, other future. Come, mercy not manifest in time; come
knowledge not obtainable in time. Come, other chances. Come,
unsounded deep. Come, undivided light. Come dust' (Frances Spufford)


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