Bomber County: the Lost Airmen of World War Two

Early in the Second World War, Cecil Day Lewis wrote a poem called "Where Are the War Poets?". That same year, 1941, Robert Graves gave a radio talk on the question: "Why has this war produced no war poets?" Seventy years later, when we think of war poetry, we still think
of the Great War and writing from the trenches: of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg and Rupert Brooke. "The last war has had neither its Iliad nor its War and Peace," wrote George Steiner in The Death of Tragedy. "None who have dealt with it have matched the control of remembrance achieved by Robert Graves or Sassoon in their accounts of 1914-18."

One of the many achievements of Daniel Swift's book is to set this record straight. The conventional wisdom is wrong. The Second World War, he argues, produced a considerable body of British and American poetry, by veterans and civilians alike. Robert Conquest, Dylan Thomas, Stephen Spender and Day Lewis are among the British poets. The airmen Randall Jarrell, John Ciardi and James Dickey are among the Americans. And Swift does a fascinating job of arguing for some of the great poems of the 1930s and 1940s - T S Eliot's "Four Quartets" and W H Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" - to be seen in their historical context as responses to the wars of the time. It is no coincidence, he argues, that Auden paid such attention to Bruegel's Icarus. He and Christopher Isherwood were in Brussels in December 1938 finishing their book Journey to a War, an account of their trip, during the Sino-Japanese war, to China, where Auden witnessed the new aerial warfare and reflected on "the best way of watching an air battle if you don't want a stiff neck".

In the course of his defence of Second World War poetry, Swift introduces us to a number of little-known writers and to verse such as Mervyn Peake's powerful "Rhyme of a Flying Bomb" and Jarrell's "Second Air Force", with its haunting opening image of a woman looking on, apart, at the man's world of war. Or this last line of Jarrell's "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner": "When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose." Swift also helps us to read familiar poems anew. Betjeman's best-known line - "Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!" - looks very different in a section on the landscape of the bombed city.

This leads us to the central thrust of Swift's argument. He is not just re-evaluating a group of war poets in an academic dispute about who should be in the canon. He is keen to reclaim a whole area of verse and literature: the account of bombers and, in particular, the bombed city. He juxtaposes two very different accounts, those by airmen and those by people on the ground, who were trying to find a language for this novel form of warfare.

Swift trawls widely, ranging from the diaries of Virginia Woolf and Spender's account of his time in the National Fire Service to Cecil Beaton, Graham Sutherland and Winston Churchill describing the ruined landscape emerging before their eyes. Sutherland, an official war artist, later recalled "the absolute dead silence" of London during the Blitz, "except every now and then a thin tinkling of falling glass - a noise which reminded me of some of the music of Debussy".

The range of sources is impressive - artists and poets, but also R S R Fitter's study of the wildlife of London, focusing on plants that flourished in the new wastelands. "Notably the rose-bay willow-herb", he remarks, which likes plenty of light - "which of course it gets on the open blitzed sites". A few pages later, Swift switches focus deftly from Hector in the Iliad to Sigmund Freud and on to today's debate about the morality of bombing in the Second World War: 45,000 dead in Hamburg in July 1943, 25,000 dead in Berlin in February 1945, up to 60,000 dead in Dresden.

The author does an excellent job of laying out this debate in all its complexity, and shifts focus effortlessly from the big picture to fine detail. We learn what the airmen wore ("on your feet, silk socks, then air force socks, then wool socks, then flying boots"), how many brushes were issued to them (four) and what Virginia Woolf ate on a visit to Bloomsbury during the Blitz.

And this is the point about Swift's book. It is not conventional literary criticism - genre, canon and biography. It is certainly not literary theory. Instead, it is an exciting new kind of criticism - part literary readings, part history and part personal memoir, tracing the story of what happened to his grandfather, a pilot who disappeared over Holland in 1943.

Swift acknowledges the influences of Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory and W G Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction. But the real achievements are his own - the illuminating details and readings, the eye for the telling absence, the awareness of the importance of fantasy and myth in people's versions of history. This is an astonishing debut.

Bomber County: the Lost Airmen of World War Two
Daniel Swift
Hamish Hamilton, 304pp, £20

David Herman is a former television producer

This article first appeared in the 16 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war against science

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.