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Their Finest Years: Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis (2010)

Blackout and All Clear are two in  a series of novels that Connie has written about “historians,”  researchers from the mid  C21st century who travel back in  time to carry  historical research, embedding themselves in the past.   This is a notion that  she first explored in a short story called Fire Watch (1983)  in which an historian joins the fire watch protecting St Paul’s during the Blitz.  She returned to the idea in Doomsday Book (1993) in which  Kivrin Engel  travels  back from 2054  to England in 1320 with unforeseen consequences in both times. This was followed  by To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998),  set in the Edwardian period and in Coventry during the destruction of the Cathedral on 14th November 1940. I have written about this  here.

In Blackout, and its direct sequel All Clear,   Connie takes us  back to  the Second World War again. Three historians travel back from 2060 to 1940: Mike, masquerading as an American reporter,   who is meant  to go to Dover to witness the evacuation from Dunkirk.  but instead finds himself  on a rickety boat on its way to pick up soldiers from the beaches;   Merope (who takes the name Eileen), masquerading as a servant in Lady Denewell’s  country house in Warwickshire which has taken in child  evacuees from London; and Polly, who ends up working in a department store  on Oxford Street. All three discover that the time travel technology meant to take them back home (“the drops”) has stopped working.

After a whole series of near misses, they eventually  meet up in London as the Blitz begins. But now they face some  dreadful questions. Are they trapped in the past forever? Will they survive the Blitz? And, worst of all,  have their actions, even the tiniest, most  inconsequential ones, let alone rescuing  someone during  a bombing raid,  changed the course of history? Will the Germans in fact win the war?

Connie sketches an unforgettable picture  of London as the bombs fall night after the night  from September 1940 to May 1941. There are vivid scenes in the air raid shelters and Tube stations,  as well on the streets and in the shops and cafes as somehow Londoners keep going, despite everything.

There is loss and  tragedy,  but there is also a great  deal  of humour, much of it  provided by Alf and Binnie,  two  children evacuated  from the East End  – possibly the naughtiest children in the universe –   whom Eileen looks after. A host of other characters make their entrances and their exits ;  the vicar in Warwickshire who befriends Eileen;  Mrs Ricket, Polly’s  sourfaced landlady;  Mr Humphreys, a fire warden at St Paul’s;   Mr Dunworthy, head of the time travel department; Godfrey Kingsman, an ageing  Shakespearean actor who befriends Polly,  Alan Turing, the  decoding genius and Agatha Christie, the crime novelist.   In addition there is a sub-plot featuring Mary Kent,  who works in civil defence  during the V1 and V2 attacks in the summer of 1944, and  who is not whom she seems. And a significant role is played by Holman Hunt’s painting ” The Light of the World” in St Paul’s. Finally, there is Colin Templar’s quest.

At the end of of All Clear the myriad plot lines,  coincidences, confusions and mysteries  are  neatly  resolved and yet,  after  1400 pages,  you are still  reluctant  to say goodbye to the characters whose lives and experiences  you have shared so fully.  Let’s leave the last word to Eileen on VE day when she meets the vicar again in Trafalgar Square.

He beamed at her. ‘This is a wonderful night, isn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ she said,  looking around the crowd. She had wanted to come here, to see this, ever since she was a first-year student.  She’s been furious when she found out Mr Dunworthy had assigned it to someone else. 

But if she’d come then, she would never have properly appreciated it. She’s have seen the happy crowds and the Union Jacks and the bonfires, but she’d have had no idea of what it meant to see the lights on after years of navigating in the dark, what it meant to look up at an approaching plane without fear, to hear church bells after years of air-raid sirens.She’d have had no idea of the years of rationing and shabby clothes  and fear that lay behind the smiles and the cheering, no idea of what it had cost to bring this day to pass – the lives of all those soldiers and sailors and airmen  and civilians. …She’d have had no idea what this meant to Lady Denewell, who’d lost her husband and her only son, or to Mr Humphreys and the rest of the fire watch who’d worked so hard to save St Paul’s…

I was born ten years after  the war,  and yet I  found  these  these novels very moving. Read them. Your life will be enriched.





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