When you look at the iconic picture taken of the German city of Dresden in 1945, it is as though the statue of the Rathausturm, known as ‘Die Gute’ (the Goodness – a personification of kindness), is pointing in disbelief at the utter devastation wrought by the British, where an estimated 25,000 people (many of them civilians) were killed. Almost five years previously in November 1940, my home town of Coventry, was heavily bombed by the Germans because of its industry and munitions factory. Although the death toll (estimated c560+) was far less than in Dresden, it was still massively devastating in terms of the damage done to the city, which took years to rebuild.
The greatest symbol of that destruction is the ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral. I still go up its tower, St Michael’s, and two things stay with me when I look at the view; the first is imagining being up there on the night of the bombings, seeing planes overhead encircling the city. The second is, if you look south across the city, to the west you see the green of the more affluent parts of Coventry, including the War Memorial Park, whereas to the east you see the grey concrete-dominated developments of the less wealthy.
Dresden and Coventry are now twinned. In fact, Coventry was the first to twin with another city (Stalingrad in 1944) and has become foremost in symbolising peace and reconciliation through wars; its theatre is called The Belgrade Theatre, after the then Yugoslav city donated timber for its rebuilding. Antony Owen’s two poems here, Postman in the Smoke and Inferno, poignantly reflect the impact bombing had on the people of the two cities. In Coventry, “A postman stands in the flame grey postcode/staring at doorways with chimneys around them,/moaning as they open to charred occupants.” Then in Dresden: “These pails of dead firemen filled/with initialled rings weigh heavy.” But it is the men of power, who inflict the death and destruction. After Coventry, “Churchill will orate through smoke,/Dresden,/Hamburg,/Empire/Martha’s house.” Then in Dresden, where “flames are planned by warmongers/the rousing speech on still tables fat with ham.” Antony feels strongly that such twinning of cities needs to go beyond commercial gain and have a greater focus on cultural investment. He highlights, one symbol of this undervaluing of such ties; “The plaque presented by Stalingrad is now covered in pigeon shit under the Coventry ring road.”
I am not a pacifist, and like Orwell felt we had to go to war in 1939 (unlike in 1914), but the way in which ‘we’ went about ending the war, in Dresden, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, went well beyond any Convention. And yet, we still see it today, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, where a commentator on Al Jazeera remarked, a Third World War is being played out. Maybe we should start re-thinking how we twin with cities in these parts of the world, to foster greater empathy and peace.
Antony Owen was born in Coventry and was raised by working class parents. He is the author of four poetry collections by Pighog Press, Heaventree Press and most recently Hesterglock Press who published his latest collection Margaret Thatcher’s Museum. His work has appeared in several literary journals worldwide with translated works in both Dutch and Japanese war poetry anthologies by Poetry International Europe and Coal Sack Press (Japan). In 2015 Owen self-funded a trip to Hiroshima to interview A-bomb survivors and meet various schools who have been taught some of his poems. His work has been exhibited at various peace centres including the International Convention Centre, Hiroshima. In recognition of his work, CND Peace Education UK selected Owen as a patron in 2015 alongside award winning writer AL Kennedy. Owen is working on a fifth full collection titled We Are Made From Beautiful Atoms which is scheduled for publication circa late 2016.
Postman in the Smoke
In the smoking afterbirth of new Coventry
a singed dog dragged to water on its arse
licks the old nails deeper into his spleen.
A postman stands in the flame grey postcode
staring at doorways with chimneys around them,
moaning as they open to charred occupants.
The King is stuttering from the news –
a different stutter almost Germanic
and Churchill will orate through smoke,
it would be a crime not to touch
wicks of fingers pointing to God,
and take gold rings engraved with their names.
These pails of dead firemen filled
with initialled rings weigh heavy.
In safe rooms –
flames are planned by warmongers
the rousing speech on still tables fat with ham.
These men who pin faceless kings to ghosts
and tell them they did what needed to be done.
it is a crime not to observe silence,
to marry yourself to the past and be
very sorry for what happened here