3 March 1943, London: The air raid sirens sound in Bethnal Green and the residents begin making their way to the tube station which is being used as a public air raid shelter. As the crowds begin to descend the steps into the station there’s an accident, the entrance becomes obstructed and 173 people are crushed to death.
This tragic true story is the subject of Jessica Francis Kane’s new novel, The Report. Although hundreds of people were affected by what happened, Kane’s story concentrates on just a few of them: eight-year-old Tilly and her mother Ada, two survivors of the crush; Bertram Lodge, a young clerk who was heading towards the shelter as the crowd began to push forward; James Low, the chief warden of the shelter, who is stricken with grief and self-blame; and the Rev McNeely from St. John’s church in Bethnal Green who attempts to give hope and comfort following the disaster. Spending time with each of these characters before, during and after the incident gives the story a very personal touch and allows us to see things from several different perspectives.
Thirty years later a young filmmaker, Paul Barber, decides to make a new documentary about Bethnal Green and pays a visit to Laurence Dunne in search of answers. Dunne is the magistrate who was commissioned by the Home Secretary to write a report on the tragedy – which he did within three weeks, having interviewed a large number of witnesses, survivors, medical staff and other officials. When Dunne agrees to cooperate with the documentary, some new details about the disaster and Paul’s own past are brought to light.
This was the worst civilian disaster of World War II and yet I think it’s safe to say that even today it’s not something that many people have heard about. I was vaguely aware of it, but only because it was briefly alluded to in another book I read. I had never read about it in any depth and had no idea what caused the disaster or what happened afterwards. Something that becomes clear as you read the book and learn the details of Dunne’s inquiry is that no one person was to blame for what happened – and yet almost everyone involved blamed either themselves or someone else to some degree. What Dunne wanted to avoid was making one person or group of people into a scapegoat and he had to make some important decisions as to what he would and would not include in his report.
An interesting blend of fact and fiction, The Report manages to be both informative and moving, without ever becoming too sentimental. The theory that Kane puts forward at the end of the novel may or may not be close to the truth, but either way I’m glad to have had the opportunity to learn more about such an important historical incident.