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Category Archives: Connie Willis

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.





To say nothing of the cat: “To Say Nothing of the Dog Or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last “by Connie Willis (1998)

Ned Henry is a historian in Oxford in 2067. In this era historian isn’t  someone who spends 20 years producing a monograph on late Phoenician trading patterns which sells 63 copies, earns a luke-warm review in the Times Literary Supplement and is remaindered  within six months. In this era historians are travellers sent back on time trips (or “drops” as they call them) to carry out detailed reconnaisance  and research  on past historical eras and events. Too many drops, though, can give you time-lag, a euphoric state akin to being high.

Coventry Cathedral before the bombing raid

The time travel technology is known as “the net,”  invented by a couple of chancers who hoped to ransack history for priceless artifacts but then discovered that objects from the past cannot be transported through time, only humans can travel back and forth (or so it’s thought). Ned and his fellow historians are working on a multi-million project to rebuild Coventry Cathedral exactly as it was before it destroyed in a Luftwaffe bombing raid on 14th November 1940, Oddly it’s not being built in Coventry,  but in Oxford. The project  is the brain child of Lady Schrapnell, whom I imagine as  a cross between Lady Bracknell and Mrs Thatcher. She is not be brooked over the slightest  minute detail.


The story begins with Ned poking around the ruins of the Cathedral days after the raid,   trying to locate the bishop’s bird stump, a hideous Victorian flower ornament which has vanished –  and which Lady Schrapnell has insisted must be found. Unable to locate it he returns to Oxford where he meets  fellow historian Verity Kindle,  who has been infiltrated into the Mering family at Muchings End in Oxfordshire in  June 1888.

a Victorian bird stump

At this point a cat enters the story, Princess Arjumand,  who belongs to Tossie Mering, spoilt daughter of the family with a penchant for babytalk. Somehow the cat returns with Verity to 2067 after she rescues it from drowning.  It is imperative that  Princess Arjumand must be returned to 1888  to close the incongruity. (Ned has fallen instantly in love with Verity, by the way).

Ned is also sent back to  June 1888 and falls in with  a Balliol  undergraduate  Terence St Trewes (who has  an annoying habit of quoting Tennyson at every turn), his bulldog Cyril  and Professor Peddick. Terence is in love with Tossi Meringe,  and  thus the three men and the dog set off  on a boat trip along the Thames to Muchings End with many mishaps on the way. If  you  are thinking that this sounds rather familiar, you would be right. Ned and his party actually pass Jerome K Jerome  and his party on the journey which becomes the book  Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), published the following year.

Arriving at Muchings End,  Ned discovers Priness Arnjumand in his luggage, alive  and well, and meets Verity again who has returned from Oxford.  They now become embroiled in a series of increasingly farcical  events which involve returning the cat to Tossie and stopping  her marrying Terence, which will cause another incongruity as they know from her diaries that she married a mysterious “Mr C” after meeting him on a visit to Coventry Cathedral.  It was Tossie’s diaries, read by her  descendant Lady Schrapnell,  that inspired the Coventry Cathdral project.  A change in history could be catastrophic.

What follows are  nightime assignations, deceptions, impersonations,  coincidences, manipulations  and seances with Madame Iritosky – to say nothing of  Cyril and Princess Arjumand. And  there is still  the question of what happened to the bishop’s bird stump.  At one point  a drop lands Ned and Verity  in  the Cathedral  on the night of 14th November as it  is being bombed;  they barely escape with their lives.

Coventry Cathedral after the bombing raid

It felt like a direct hit. The blast rocked the cathedral and lit it  with with a blinding white light. I staggered off my knees, and then stopped, staring across the nave. The force had  knocked the cathedral momentarily clear of smoke, and in the garish afterlight  I could see everything; the statue above the pulpit engulfed in flames, its hand raised like a drowning man’s; the stalls in the children’s chapel, their irreplaceable misereres  burning with a queer  yellow light; the altar in the Cappers’ Chapel. And the parclose screen in the Smith’s Chapel….

I flung myself through the door and through the tower door and up the firelit stairs, wondering what I was going to say to Lady Schrapnell. In that one bright bomb-lit instant I has seen everything: the brasses on the wall, the polished eagle on the lectern , the blackening pillars. And in the north-side the empty wrought-iron flower stand. 

It had been removed for safekeeping after all. Or donated as scrap. Or sold at a jumble sale.

“Ned”! Verity shouted. “Hurry! The net’s opening!”

Lady Schrapnell had been wrong.The bishop’s bird stump was not there.

As the novel’s  full title suggests,  in the end the mystery is solved.

This is a hugely  enjoyable and entertaining novel which frankly came as a welcome relief after some recent science fiction novels  I have read,  whose plots  – involving  artificial intelligence and  jumps across the universe etc  –  seemed  humourless  and gave me a headache. We need more novels like this.