Jim Newcombe goes to The Blitz Party to commemorate Old Blighty’s victory on D-Day with an evening of raucous swing dance
After a sultry day exploring Wick Woodland and following the River Lee through Hackney Marshes up into Walthamstow Marshes, it is right to temper such wholesome questing across bosky ground with an evening of revelry, and tonight’s revelry is of the patriotic kind. Marking over seventy years since the famous Normandy Landings, to coincide with the anniversary of D-Day a Blitz party hosted by Bourne & Hollingsworth is being held at The Laundry on the verge of London Fields. I meet my guest, Florence Usher, at the station and take the short walk from there. Held in the basement of the building, the place is decorated with sandbags, black-out curtains and replica ration books to resemble an East London bunker.
In the deep red haze the lasses are decked in the garb of the 1940s, with pin curls and updos and side rolls, pompadours and polka dot dresses; their suitors affecting pipe-smoking, sporting braces with twisting mustachios and hair Brylcreemed to the side, with two-toned Oxfords or kitted out as soldiers. There is an in-house dressing table where the women are spruced and groomed to authenticate the style of the day. It is surprising the effort that is made for one night out. The dances too have been learnt by some: lindy-hopping to jump jive, swing and rhythm and blues as belted out by Capitano’s Vegas Rabble swing band. Beneath the banner of a Union Jack in the smoking area is a utility truck which people climb into for a photo opportunity, and while Old Satchmo croons away Flo enjoys sleuthing for clues and pretending she’s a journalist.
Our conversation broaches, among other things, the primary importance of eye contact; clowning and systemic constellations; shamanic rune and bone casting; the ancient divination text of I Ching; anarchism and Thoreau’s “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”; how an ancestral chain of kith and kin endures within an individual’s blood and spirit. Acknowledging this latter speculation, we wonder how many people at this Blitz party are truly mindful of the people who fought and died. For many it was their grandparents’ generation who knew the reality of the Blitz. There is no one from that era here tonight, nor from the generation succeeding them. If Blitz parties are held for no better reason than for people to emulate the fashion of a stylish bygone decade then they masquerade an incongruous façade. On the other hand, as in the manner of an Irish wake, perhaps suffering and celebration are not such strange bedfellows after all.
Noting the ten years between us, Flo enquires about the proximity of my own relations to World War II. My father was only five at the outbreak of the war. Coming from a broken home, he lived apart from his family from the age of thirteen in a succession of digs and at eighteen chose to do his National Service in Germany. He later, before accepting a managerial position, illustrated the guts of aero-engines at Rolls-Royce, whose industry was so crucial to our victory in wartime. My grandfather was a moulder, but since the foundries were badly hit by the economic downturn he had to go all over the country seeking employment, which he found casting cases for the Merlin engines which powered the Spitfires and Hurricanes that cleared our skies of the dreaded Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, thus preventing a German invasion. As with many of us, for me it is only a division of one or two generations, yet England has become, in the words of one of the country’s finest living poets, “a nation with so many memorials but no memory”.
Though gone are the days when the pub was the hub of the community, tonight’s entertainment and atmosphere emulates a time when, despite the locust years of the 1940s, the people knew how to throw a party. The music played is redolent of a more innocent time, or at least the illusion of an innocent time: there was a degree of moral decency and community spirit which seems to have all but eroded. There are times now when the public life of England seems to me to be alive only in the sense that a corpse is alive with maggots: it is segregated, sectarian, largely philistine. Yet I employ a factitious nostalgia: there has always been something present in, or absent from, the human psyche which yearns for Eden and Arcadia and we seek to rationalize this Sehnsucht with personal, political and historical justifications.
We order a second and final drink at a bar slung with vintage bunting. The bespoke cocktails, mixed and served beneath searchlights by New Orleans barmen wearing crushable trilbies, are expensive, but then cocktails in London always are. Aside from liking Irish Black Russians as a teenager and still indulging in a crapulent and restorative Bloody Mary now and then, I am not much given to drinking cocktails: they are usually too sweet, extortionate, too easy to drink (I am yet to find someone undaunted enough to share a Hangman’s Blood or a Tremblement de Terre with me, or indeed anywhere that will serve them). When I try to buy a bottled beer I find they have all sold out. No doubt the Pretty Polly nylon back-seam legs are making the fellas thirsty. But I am grateful for other, entirely sober means of intoxication, and, lest we forget that dancing is one of the first and last delights in life, we take to the floor to strut and twirl in close proximity.
All in all, it makes for an evening of vivid imagery and vibrant music, and since part of the PR strategy bills the event as “drawing red-lipped Land Girls and dashing American soldiers out onto the dance floor,” it seems not inapposite to comment on my own company. Flo, soon to embark on a philanthropic venture to Nicaragua for six months, is at turns philosophical, ruminative, yet vivacious and free-spirited, and just as winsome as when, twelve years ago in Derby, she first swanned into a nightclub called The Blue Note and cast me a radiant smile.
As I take my customary stroll home along a dark Regent’s Canal, sprouting with shepherd’s purse and Queen’s Anne’s Lace, I feel as if I have been staring at a full moon for the past few hours. It is a fine night. I have earned my fatigue. The daisies have all sealed their eyelids; it is time for me to seal mine.