“The Bethnal Green Tube shelter disaster took place on the evening of Wednesday March 3, 1943.
173 people died in a terrifying crush as panic spread through the crowds of people trying to enter the station’s bomb shelter in the East End of London.
However, no bomb struck and not a single casualty was the direct result of military aggression, making it the deadliest civilian incident of World War Two.”
Jessica Francis Kane, read the full historical transcript of the enquiry into this, the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War, and she used what she read as the basis of her debut novel, a wonderfully vivid picture of people living through the event and its aftermath.
She tells her story through a number of characters:
- A mother who lost her younger daughter
- Her elder daughter, who survived but would not speak.
- The warden of the shelter, devastated by what has happened.
- A clerk who was delayed, who wonders if he might have been able to make a difference.
- A vicar, looking for answers, wanting to offer comfort and support…
All of their stories are beautifully observed, with just the right details picked to illuminate those lives. A hand held too tightly. A wireless turned up to mask a conversation. A breakfast left untouched. The picture is clear, and it is moving without ever becoming sentimental.
It falls to Lawrence Dunne, the local magistrate, to investigate and report on what happened. A fundamentally good man, he wanted to understand, he wanted lessons to be learned, and he wanted to show understanding of what people had been through, of what they had to endure in wartime conditions.
His story added another dimension. Much is said about the human instinct to find someone to blame, about how those who are ready to accept blame often accept more than they should, and about how apportioning blame is not really a resolution.
And, maybe most importantly, I saw the lives of Jessica Kane’s characters. I understood their words and their actions, their strengths and their weaknesses. They were flawed, vulnerable human beings.
I saw the world they lived in, the terrible event they lived through and had to live with. And I learned from it.
Thirty years after the event a young filmmaker, whose family was affected by the tragedy, interviews Sir Lawrence Dunne for a documentary about the tragedy.
Another dimension, it brought a different perspective, and it tied things together nicely, with a devastating final revelation.
The Report is such a vivid human story, a beautifully written book that made me feel and made me think.
And it is a story that will stay with me.