Review: Coventry’s Blitz

David McGrory’s first instalment about Coventry’s history of war started with Coventry’s Blitz. I know it’s an old cliché to say that a history book is ‘well-researched’, ‘well-written’ and ‘in-depth’, but the fact is, this is. And not just all three of those things, but it’s humorous and entertaining, at times making me giggle and smile, as well as human. It’s not a given that history books takes on a personality just because they are written about a person or a point in time, but what McGrory does really well is give his books character, mostly with the help of personal family anecdotes, stories of locals and his informal, light-hearted approach to writing.

P74, Crashed Dornier 17
A downed Dornier 17 from a Coventry address! Is this the Dornier shot down on 14 November?

His inclusion of some truly fantastic images add to this effect ten-fold, and sometimes I found myself skipping text just to intensely study them, trying to work out where it was taken (if no information was given) and what that places looks like now; what are the people in them thinking about; what’s happened to them; and the one question that strikes me most is, why are they smiling? I often wonder what people thought about during the war. Was that it for 6 years? Or was life more normal than we expect it to be?

“For many, the blitz in Coventry is thought of as being the night of 14/15 November 1940.”

As a Southerner who since 2009 believes herself to be a true Coventrian, I can say that for many, the effects of German attention during the blitz is still ever present. A walk through the city centre, passed the Cathedral, the Herbert Gallery, War Memorial Park, they all seem to hold this secret of times gone by – that of course every knows and hasn’t forgotten.

P95, National Provicial Bank Broadgate
Service personnel pose on the corner of Broadgate, an instantly recognisable scene today

As someone so enchanted by history and the effects of war, moving to Coventry for University did nothing but increase my fascination, and in turn make me fall in love with the city. When one single place where you have lived, and thrived, has the ability to inspire you and help shape the person you have become, you can’t help but find more meaning in this book. It makes it a lot more personal.

When you think of the state of the world as it is now; wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and such, it’s horrific and shocking, but it feels a bit detached. Perhaps the ever increasing media reports make us just that bit more desensitised to it all. But when something has  happened ‘at home’ and you’re reminded of it in a book such as this, it does truly bring it home, making it that more real. McGrory does that. He brings him home and makes us remember.

P122, American soldiers walking down Jordan Well
Two American soldiers walking down Jordan Well with the Council House in the background, probably 1944

So in short, I recommend this to anyone who lives in Coventry. It’s not just a history book. It’s an incredible tribute to the city and the people in it. To others, the outsiders, perhaps it is just a history book, documenting events and lives and destruction. But to me, it’s a very carefully written documentation of destruction. By chronologically describing the events, it somehow tells a more harrowing tale, like when fiction builds up to the climax.

This is a terrific book that highlights how Coventry is saturated in a rich and colourful history.

And it kind of leaves you feeling, what if? What if it all happened again? How on earth would we cope as well as the people of 1940s Britain?


Coventry’s Blitz is available from Amberley Publishing.

Images have been extracted from Coventry’s Blitz and used with the permission of the publisher.


Review: Coventry and the Great War

This is definitely a book you should have on your shelf…

Coventry and the Great War
Coventry and the Great War is available from Amberley Publishing

This is a fantastic book, especially for those who are fascinated by the history of Coventry.

Although it starts with the school boy error of beginning a sentence with ‘On a warm summer’s evening…’, this can easily be overlooked as you read on and discover stories about the people of the city and what happened to it during the war.

McGrory’s addition of his own personal family history gives something a little extra and makes it all that more special.

Anyone that lives in or knows the area will enjoy seeing pictures of Great War Coventry and trying to imagine the difference between then and now. Especially as so much has changed around the Broadgate area!

Detailed with some great photographs and documents, this is definitely a book you should have on your shelf, even if just for reference or sentimental value.

Published by Amberley Publishing
128 pages
March  2016

Caught in the Crossfire, Herbert Gallery, Coventry

‘Caught in the Crossfire’ is the new thought-provoking exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry on show from January 25 to July 7, 2013.

The exhibition challenges both artists in their need to grasp the brutality of war and audiences who deliberate war and peace by taking them on a story-tour  of war from war-torn Iraq, the partition of India, World Wars to a final and lasting reminder of how to gain peace; providing you walk around the exhibit the right way that is.

With the clichéd political sound of Linkin Park’s 2010 ‘A Thousand Suns’ drumming loud and deep into my eardrums, I took in the wide variety of art work produced by Banksy, Iftikhar Dadi, kennardphillipps, Rosie Kay Dance Company and Matthew Picton, just to name a few. But it seems hard to be impressed and in awe and wonder of ‘War Art’ when it seemingly doesn’t affect anything.

Yes ‘Caught in the Crossfire’ is bound to get audiences deliberating the effects of war and pondering how they can put an end to it by printing their ideas on a place card at the end of the display, but it’s hard to comprehend how the glittery canvas of Iftikhar Dadi’s ‘Bloodlines’ (1997) can evoke any emotional response other than disdain when the topic at hand is brutal war, death and horrific politics. The piece was created by Pakistani artist Iftikhar Dadi incollaboration with Indian artist Nalini Malani, to mark the 50th anniversary of the partition of India. Granted the simplicity of colours in Dadi’s work; gold, crimson and blue are striking, mapping the Radcliffe lines which defined the 1947 borders of Pakistan, and the separation of gathered canvas’ portray the story of the collection; but it would seem the hand stitched sequins on the canvas’ only glorify war and division.

Project Officer for the Herbert’s Peace and Reconciliation Gallery, Natalie Heidaripour, was positive about the Dadi piece, saying that India’s partition is an important part of British History; “Although specifically referring to the partition of India the work also has a much wider resonance, exploring the human impact of colonialism, civil conflict and division.”

As Linkin Park turned to the even more predictable 30 Seconds to Mars, the exhibit moved along to Banksy, who of course makes an appearance with his remarkable graffiti images, and then onto kennardphillipps, which is a collaboration that’s been at work since 2002, initially in response to the Iraq invasion in 2003, between Peter Kennard and Cat Picton Phillipps. What kennardphillipps has on offer is an array of political photo op’s; one being Tony Blair stood in front of smoke and fire with a camera phone, smiling and taking a picture of his handiwork. Thought-provoking enough but it’s just another photo merger of what everyone already thought; nothing new to see here.

But I guess art gives people the opportunity for free speech without having to directly converse with politicians and says what everyone is thinking when they are too frightened to speak up.

Through the maze of display walls is a small dark room with a video on loop. Rosie Kay’s Dance Company produced ‘5 Soldiers’ in 2010; “a timely, controversial, thought-provoking and moving exploration of war in modern times” said the company’s website. The video depicts 5 soldiers, 4 male and 1 female, and attempts to show how war affects the body; “it looks at how the human body is essential to, and used in, warfare.” What impressed me about this piece was the dedication to produce it; Rosie Kay joined the 4th Battalion ‘The Rifles’ on battle training and spent time working with injured soldiers at Headley Court Rehabilitation Centre.

What really caught my eye wasn’t Banksy, it wasn’t Simon Norfolk’s “Israeli Sniper Wall, Part of Israeli / Palestine: Mnemosyne Series; 2007, it was Matthew Picton’s ‘Coventry 1940’. Commissioned by the Henry Moore Foundation, it is made of semi-burnt strips of Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’, composed for the consecration of the new cathedral in 1962, which becomes a circular map of Coventry and symbolises the devastation left by the war. The burnt paper portrays the burning buildings, whilst the dark burn holes denote the bombings in the centre of the city.

‘Coventry 1940’ was commissioned to appear next Picton’s ‘Dresden 1945’, a German city which shared the same fate as Coventry, and as such became twinned with the City in 1959. ‘Dresden 1945’ is sculpted like that of ‘Coventry 1940’ but uses burnt scores of Richard Wagner’s ‘The Ring’. The sculptures can’t be defined by the usual artist gabble that ‘the intricate detail of the burnt score adds to the effect that life is so fragile and war ruins that fragile life.’ The simple fact is that the sculpture is so intricate with the unpretentious use of a score that relates to war history, that you can’t help but gawp at the detail that went into the sculptures. They completely and utterly deserved to be a part of the exhibit.

The audience travels around from the destruction and devastation war causes, and towards the end finds themselves among art that portrays hope; “Iraq is Flying” 2006-9, a piece by Jamal Penjweny that shows soldiers and civilians jumping (for joy) in front of war-torn places. A woman jumps in front of tanks, for instance. But now that you’ve had a lesson in war history and artistic politics, you are then asked to get interactive and ‘add your instructions for Peace’ on a place card and attach it to the wall for all to see. Someone wrote “War keeps people employed” whilst another said, and quite true, “without war this art wouldn’t exist.”

But we need to stop fancifying war as fluffy, cuddly toy guns (as one part of the exhibition had on display; cushioned gun models and harsh heavy metal models), and depicting it with flowers and dancing soldiers. We need to face facts that war is war; gruesome, deadly and horrific, deal with it and change it, just not with art. Art doesn’t change anything, it just ‘Disneyfies’ and glorifies it for a means to an end. Journalists would be writing fluff stories if it wasn’t for war, politics, hatred, conflict and injustice. War provides jobs. War provides historical lessons that need to be learnt but not forgotten.