Playing in the ruins

A Labour legend, an intelligence colossus and dystopia in

South London.

After a day spent in the Brixton archives looking at an intriguing set of photographs, I was finally able to spend a morning investigating the circumstances behind the unique vibe of Lambeth, the crumbling but romantic location where David Bowie was born in January 1947.

Some of the background to this was suggested to me by my friend Val Wilmer, a few years ago, in the form of a fossil, of a primitive sea urchin, that she gave to my son Curtis. She still vividly remembers how she found the fossil in South London, around 1947 or 1948, when she was a seven year old exploring the cellars of bomb-damaged houses. They were filled with what were, for a young kid, treasures – all abandoned by their long-disappeared tenants. Our sea urchin came from a case she came across in an abandoned house in Streatham.

Where I live now, in Greenwich, was similarly battered by bombing, including damage from the V1, the pioneering cruise missile that was the first of Hitler's Vengeance Weapons.  I have long been fascinated by the rumour, prevalent in South London, that this part of the city took more than its fair share of punishment because it was judged expendable. Today, I finally verified that this rumour was correct, and that this took place despite the best efforts of a famed Labour politician who, at the time, was the most celebrated ex-pupil of Stockwell Road Infants School, the establishment where David Jones famously wet his pants during his first day at school around September 1951.

The story is recorded in Most Secret War by RV Jones, a physicist who was probably the most crucial expert in military technology and intelligence of World War II. Jones had tracked most of the Nazi technical capabilities throughout the war, and by early 1944 was well aware of the development of Hitler's Vengeance weapons, and had even managed to obtain radar plots of tests on the V1 which showed the Peenemunde scientists had managed to hugely increase accuracy of their new weapon. When the V1 bombardment of London started on the evening of 12-13 June, 1944, Jones was already considering how he could reduce the new weapon's effectiveness.

His plan was simple: using an MI5 agent codenamed George – who was also responsible for The Man Who Never Was – he would send misleading reports via double agents that the new weapons were overshooting their target. The reports had to be painstakingly compiled, for fear the double agents would expose themselves – this was done by giving the correct points of impact for the weapons that had overshot, combined with the timings for other V1 bombs that had in fact fallen short of their target. The effect would be to make the Peenemunde scientists compensate for this 'error' by reducing the range of the new weapon, so that future V1 bombs would generally fall short, protecting the West End and other areas. The downside, of course, was that the impact of the V1 would centre around South London, including Brixton, David Jones's birthplace. 

There was one opponent of this plan: Herbert Morrison, prominent Labour politician (and grandfather to the Dark Lord of spin, Peter Mandelson), and at the time Home Secretary in the War Cabinet. Morrison was born in Lambeth, attended Stockwell Road Primary, and thought that RV Jones had no business arranging for Nazi bombs to drop on his constituents, believing that the scheme “was an effort by Government officials in Westminster, Belgravia and Mayfair to keep the bombs off themselves at the expense of the proletariat in South London”. Churchill was out of the country at the cabinet meeting at which the scheme was discussed; Morrison chaired the meeting, and ruled that the misleading intelligence reports should stop.

The outcome showed that even one of Labour's wiliest politicians could be fooled. RV Jones minuted that he could only change the policy should he receive instructions in writing. The War Cabinet's Air Secretary persuaded his colleagues that the issue was so Top Secret that nothing about it should be committed to paper. Hence RV Jones' scheme carried on – with the result, he later calculated, that civilian casualties were perhaps 2,000 lighter than would have otherwise been the case, but that South London continued to bear the brunt of V1 attacks.

For kids who, like David, grew up in South London in the early post war years, Jones's policy had a direct effect on their lives. Lambeth, Dulwich, Lewisham and surrounding areas had suffered from conventional bombing, like East London, but the V1 bombings grew a mythology of their own. Dotted around these kids' neighbourhoods, the bombsites were cleared of rubble, and made for fascinating playgrounds. In the case of Stansfield Road, where the Jones family lived from 1946 (or earlier,  some Electoral Rolls records are missing) until 1953, there were major bombsites within walking distance on every side, including Stockwell Street and Chantrey Road, the next street along from Stansfield Road.

Val Wilmer lived just down the road, at Streatham, which like Brixton was popular with entertainers and variety artists: “Where we grew up there had been AA guns on the common, so we found bullets there, scattered around. Then there were  big houses which had been bombed. there would have been a lot of that, most council blocks were built in  bomb damaged areas. Only the basements of these grand houses are left. And that's where you would play. Then there's buddleia everywhere, very fragrant, full of butterflies so you can run around catching them with a net. Bombsite plants. And you catch tiddlers, sticklebacks and minnows. As a child you'd have known about waterboatmen, newts and things like that. I felt every child did.”

Did the distinct, ravaged, fragrant landscape of Brixton impress itself on the young David Bowie? Undoubtedly. Did it have an effect on his music? I think so. In Starman you will see photos of Hansa Studios, where he completed Low and recorded “Heroes”; it's pockmarked by bullet holes and bomb damage, part of a court-yarded space still strewn with rubble and overgrown with plants. He would later remark how he felt at home in the city. As he hit the age of 30, he was once again playing in the ruins, with a joy of discovery he and his friends had first experienced in the ruined basements of Brixton.