Bouncing bombs and revising revisionism

What motivated those who sought to bust the Dam Busters? Documentary evidence or fashion?

How many history books have you seen emblazoned with the words, "a new history"? A lot, I'll warrant, certainly many more than those which claim to be old histories. In fact, Amazon lists 189,973 history books that feature the words "new" and "history" in their titles, and even accounting for histories of New Zealand and New York, we can assume that many thousands of these books claim to be new interpretations of their subjects.

Of course, the whole point of any history is that it should shed new light, or present new evidence that supports an existing interpretation. History that does neither is little more than the historian's version of churnalism, in which secondary sources are simply digested, their sentences rephrased one notch below copyright infringement, and then chucked onto the shelves in time for Fathers' Day.

There's a lot of this junk history about, and the easiest way to spot it is to look for primary sources in the endnotes. If there are none, then the chances are the book should be left on the shelf. That's not always the case, but it's a pretty good rule of thumb.

The pressure on conscientious historians -- especially those writing for the trade, rather than the academic, sector -- is therefore to be revisionist. It's not enough to say to one's publisher that you have new material that will confirm an existing thesis. Instead, you have to offer something that can be called "a new history". Existing theories must be debunked, subjects turned on their heads, the house totally rebuilt.

All this is understandable, and I make no bones that I do the same thing myself. Next year, I shall publish a book on the Great Escape that will certainly be a "new history", because what I found in the archives tells a very different story to the one we all know from the movie and Paul Brickhill's book.

However, does there come a point in which history is needlessly revised? Is historical revisionism sometimes a product of commercialism and political fashion rather than research?

I think it is. Take the case of the famous Dam Busters raid, which is the subject of an excellent documentary by James Holland to be shown tonight on BBC2. (Declaration: James is a friend, but despite that, he's no idiot. It's a good programme, and no, you don't have to watch it.)

For many years, we have been told that the raid on the dams on the Ruhr and the Eder has been wrongly celebrated, and that despite the ingenuity of the bouncing bombs and the undeniable bravery of the RAF aircrew, the operation was more of a propaganda coup than something that really hurt the German war effort. The dams were quickly rebuilt, industrial output wasn't that badly affected, German morale was not dented - so the argument goes.

Such an analysis was doubtless a reaction to the tub-thumping presentation of the raid, especially that conveyed in the 1955 film, starring Michael Redgrave. For some historians, such as Max Hastings, the raid 'contributed little of substance and a great deal of moral force to the Allied cause at a hard and bitter time'.

This is the fashionably revisionist view, but as you shall see tonight, Holland argues that the Dam Busters revisionists have got it wrong. The raid was in fact a triumph, and did an enormous amount of damage. After studying the German archives, Holland shows that:

...not only were two major dams completely destroyed, so too were seven railway bridges, eighteen road bridges, four water turbine power stations and three steam turbine power stations, while in the Ruhr Valley alone, eleven factories were completely destroyed and a further 114 damaged, many severely. Vast tracts of land had also been devastated by the tidal waves that had thundered up to eighty miles from the dams.

Such damage can hardly be considered "little of substance".

Furthermore, Holland completely skewers the argument that as the dams were quickly rebuilt, the damage was therefore not that great. The whole point of their swift reconstruction "underlines just how important they were to Germany", and the men and material required had to be diverted from elsewhere.

Holland also argues that the destruction of the dams struck a huge psychological blow against the Germans, as these were structures that were venerated as triumphs of the country's might and technical knowhow. In short, the raid was indeed a catastrophe for Nazi Germany, and a triumph for the British.

Holland's analysis will no doubt draw its detractors, perhaps inspired by a politically fashionable thinking that seeks to denigrate just about every British success during the Second World War. Of course, there was much that we got wrong, but we also got many things spectacularly right

What Holland has done is to revise the revisionists, and as a result, put this historical episode back where it started. If he is correct -- and for what it's worth, I think he is -- then we must ask why were we so often told that raid achieved so little.

What motivated those who sought to bust the Dam Busters? Documentary evidence or fashion?

 

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Why the class of '94 still rules British poetry

The message of the 1990s generation - that seeing clearly is not as simple as we think - comes across powerfully in four new collections.

In 1994, the “New Generation” of poets was intent on bringing about one of those shifts that periodically redefine a culture. Twenty-odd years later, we can see that, imperfect though the project may have been, the baby boomers did change the face of British poetry. The class of ’94 still dominates the field, as this quartet of fine books demonstrates.

Of the four poets under review – one each from the remaining big trade poetry publishers – it is Kathleen Jamie who has arguably shifted ground the most over the decades. She is now equally well known for her insightful, evocative prose about the Scottish environment, in Findings and Sightlines. Like her prize-winning previous collection, The Overhaul, The Bonniest Companie is alive to every detail of plant and creature. Though they also capture skies, stones and animals, its (mostly short) poems work a little like a herbarium, storing these details for us to examine “a rock-pipit’s seed-small notes”, or “every fairmer’s fenceposts/splashed with gold”.

But the excitement of The Bonniest Companie comes in the concentration of its language and the way that concentration reveals its author’s fierce focus. The inclusion by anglophone Scots of entirely Scots poems in English-language books is a contemporary cliché and can be rebarbative. By contrast, Jamie reinvigorates poetic language, using dialect and loanwords alongside standard English to create vivid, springy textures. Colloquial compressions add to the bouncing, tight rhythms. Stepped lines compress the springs yet further.

None of this is drily technical: this joyous book re-creates the livingness it observes. A poem such as “Migratory III” feels tossed and slung between the line ends:

Those swans out there at the centre

of the loch

a dozen or thirteen

moored close together, none adrift –

they’ve only just arrived

an arrow-true, close-flocked,

ocean-crossing skein . . .

If Jamie has broken through to a new and distinct form of northern lyric, her compatriot Don Paterson deepens a long-term project in his 40 Sonnets. In recent books, he has variously translated, written about and anthologised the form. He is a master of strict formal verse, and his virtuoso touch has always embraced both humour and moving metaphysical reflection, as it does again here. The collection includes comic monologue, an onomatopoeic record of white noise, homage, love poetry and elegy.

Most of the 40 poems are in iambic pentameter. This is no longer the automatic choice for the sonnet form, as Paterson knows better than most. Elsewhere, beyond the sonnet, pentameter seems a natural fit for the diction of certain contemporary poets (such as Tony Harrison or Sean O’Brien) who have a particular kind of lapidary authority. For Paterson’s quicksilver intelligence, iambic pentameter provides a less “natural”, more audible music: the form adds to and changes the poem, not only as it is being written but for the reader. We hear and rehear its effects and the well-known sonnets of history echo in Paterson’s poems:

The body is at home in time and space

and loves things, how they come and go,

and such

distances as it might cross or place

between the things it loves and its

own touch.

Characteristically criss-crossed with a metaphysical thought that is also a spatial metaphor, this is an extract from “Souls”, one of several sonnets here that will surely soon enter the anthologies.

Sarah Maguire’s Almost the Equinox is itself an anthology. This generous volume, at almost 150 pages long, interleaves work from her four collections, eschewing the conventional chronological treatment. In its new and satisfying whole, we trace recurring themes. Each of three consecutive poems called “Psoriasis” is taken from a different collection. Connections are often tonal and emotional: a Tunisian migrant’s story juxtaposed with a Warsaw childhood juxtaposed with Ramallah create what Maguire calls “the soft cry of crossed songs”.

She observes the physical world and the definitive failure of human choices with equal clarity. Her tone can be wry: “Your abandoned bottle of Russkaya vodka lies in my icebox,/Cold as a gun . . .” After a while, though, it becomes apparent that wryness is a veil. These are love poems to the world. The “you” that they repeatedly address is not necessarily a lover but the poet’s self; even, perhaps, us. Maguire’s world knits together even when it seems not to: the Middle East and London, the lost birth mother with the adoptive one, absent lover and speaker. As she writes in her title poem, “The tide has turned, the Thames comes inching back,/drowning everything it will reveal again.”

If Maguire’s poetic world is densely furnished, Neil Rollinson’s seems to have had everything unnecessary removed. ­Talking Dead, his fourth collection, is as lucid and direct as anything being written today. Partly that is because he has moved beyond contrivance. Every word is subordinated to its purpose: not the display but a mastery of the writing self.

Rollinson was not part of the “New Generation” promotion but made his debut two years later. Though his poems read with the ease of apparent artlessness, they are absolutely wrought. This book’s title sequence turns the “little death” convention about orgasm inside out: the recently dead speak of the rapture of violent demise. That could be appalling in both taste and tone. But these lyrics are perfectly judged, as when “Talking Dead – The Bed” turns drowning into a dream sequence:

I opened my mouth to breathe,

like I do in dreams,

and the water flowed into me.

The point is not reportage but the resolving logic of a beauty that is found in unexpected places: death, the smell of urine, a child kicking a toadstool.

Rollinson has an impeccable ear. His eye is impeccable, too. And possibly that is the lesson of the 1990s generation: seeing clearly is not so simple as we once thought. 

Fiona Sampson’s collection “The Catch” is newly published by Chatto & Windus

The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie is published by Picador (62pp, £9.99)

Almost the Equinox: Selected Poems by Sarah Maguire is published by Chatto & Windus (149pp, £15.99)

40 Sonnets by Don Paterson is published by Faber & Faber (44pp, £14.99)

Talking Dead by Neil Rollinson is published by Jonathan Cape (51pp, £10)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war