Saturday, July 21, 2018

A plaque for C.P. Snow and the first Nazi raid on Leicester

Placed so obscurely that you have to know it is there before you find it is a plaque marking the Leicester birthplace of C.P. Snow.

Snow, who lived from 1905 to 1980. was a scientist and civil servant who served in the Lords as a minister in Harold Wilson's short-lived Ministry of Technology.

He was also a novelist and was at one time was taken enormously seriously by the critics. Since his death, though his sequence Strangers and Brothers has been adapted by the BBC for both radio and television, he has fallen into almost total eclipse.

Really, it is the writers this doesn't happen to who need explaining, but reading Snow today it is difficult to see why he enjoyed such a reputation. As Simon Hoggart once observed, his characters address one another in the language of Times editorials.

Even the famous phrase he coined - "the corridors of power" - seems to be used less these days.

Anyway, Snow's plaque is not on his birthplace, which has disappeared, but on the house next door.

When I read about this I remembered the German raids on the area around Leicester station. You can map where the bombs fell by finding the postwar buildings dotted down incongruously among the Victorian streets. 

Could the same thing have happened here in Aylestone? It did. 

The air raid near Leicester station took place in November 1940 and was the city's worst night of bombing in the war. But its first raid was in August 1940, when the streets where Snow's house stood were attacked. 

As we came up the Saffron Lane past the end of Cavendish Road the gas main was blazing and I could see lots of bomb damage, many buildings were in ruins, people were just being rescued with ambulance’s and fire engines all around. This was less than half an hour after the raid. 
Six people were killed; Cavendish Road was only one mile from our house. In broad daylight the German Dornier Do.17 bomber flying very low curved round the gas works after dropping its bombs (it missed), straight towards our house. 
Mother had the pram with Graham in it just approaching our front gates. My brothers Arthur and Tony had been debating what sort of plane it was, when they decided it was German, they made a dash for our shelter. 
Mum had heard reports of German planes machine gunning civilians; she snatched Graham up out of his pram and made a dash for the shelter just as the plane roared over, my mother fell into the Anderson shelter; mum was black and blue for weeks.
The six people who died are now remembered on a discreet plaque on the wall of a hall attached to the Ecumenical Church of the Nativity, which stands where Cavendish Road joins Snow's Richmond Road.

So was Snow's old family home destroyed by a German bomb? No, but it was damaged.

Snow's brother Philip was himself a remarkable man who captained Leicestershire's second XI, became a colonial administrator and captained Fiji in first-class games.

In his memoirs Philip Snow recalled:
As the bombing of England started in earnest in 1940, my conscience in beautiful remote Lau was deeply stirred, not least when I heard that the area around our Richmond Road house in Leicester was almost the first to be bombed. 
A single German plane had dropped its bombs near the gasometers and all along the unbroken line of terraced house in Cavendish Road, which was at the bottom of our garden: flying fragments has smashed our third-storey windows and some people living parallel to us had been killed.
It's a long way from lower middle-class Leicester to Fiji or the House of Lords.

Exploring the area I found the former Aylestone Library, which must have been known to the Snow boys - a third brother became a historian and wrote a history of Leicestershire cricket.

1 comment:

Frank Little said...

"The two cultures" was another CP Snow coinage which has been largely forgotten. The phrase which comes to me now at each sign of advancing years is "arrest of life".