History is treacherous. Narratives of nationhood are myths and legends derived from imperfectly understood events. Even now, the 2nd World War continues to drive the national narrative, with phrases like ‘Dunkirk spirit’ and ‘blitz spirit’ employed as definitions of British grit, stoicism and grace under pressure. But these phrases are slippery and mendacious, and we all know the kind of people who use them.
The Café de Paris on Coventry St., between Piccadilly and Leicester Square, had been closed for refurbishment for most of 1940, but the manager had been able to stockpile something like 25,000 bottles of champagne during the year. On 5th November he re- opened with the slogan: ‘the safest and gayest restaurant in town, 20 feet below ground’. It was slow going at first; London was still getting hammered, and that December saw one the worst nights for property damage of the whole blitz, when large parts of the City of London were flattened by incendiary bombs. However, club business picked up and New Year’s Eve was the best night it had had for over a decade. But the Café’s catchphrase was a terrible hostage to fortune: too many Luftwaffe bombs had penetrated deep underground, killing people sheltering in tube stations and basement facilities.
By 1941 attacks on London had lessened as the Luftwaffe bombed British provincial cities instead, giving Londoners breathing space and the city an opportunity to recover a little. On the 8 March the Café de Paris was thronged with customers who were braving an ongoing air raid to dine and dance to the music of Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, a popular singer from Guyana who was performing with his West Indian band. Betty Baldwin, daughter of former Prime minister Stanley Baldwin, was present and recalled: ‘The men, almost all in uniform, seemed extraordinarily handsome, the young women very beautiful, the whole atmosphere one of great gaiety and youthful charm’. At about 9.45, as Johnson was singing his number ‘Oh Johnny’, two 50kg bombs hit the building. One landed above the bandstand, killing Snakehips and all but one of his band. The other bomb exploded on the dance floor. Because the Café de Paris was a ritzy, exclusive, establishment, the ensuing carnage had a tinselly glitter, making it one of the most indelibly ghastly episodes of the entire blitz. As the wounded had their injuries washed with champagne and soldiers carried out their dead girlfriends, looters rummaged through the coats and handbags of the victims and took jewellery from the corpses. One of the eyewitnesses was Ballard Berkeley, an actor too old for the forces who had become a special constable instead: ‘In such a confined space the force was tremendous. It blew heads and legs off and exploded their lungs. … One hears a lot about the bravery during the war, but there were also some very nasty people … these people slipped in pretty quickly and it was full of people – firemen, wardens, police – so it was very easy to cut off a finger here or steal a necklace, and it did happen’.
The story of criminals using the blitz as cover remains one of the most startling aspects of life on the Home Front; Scotland Yard had to set up a special unit to tackle the deluge of looting; and, wherever possible, bodies dug out of buildings were guarded to prevent theft from the corpses. Some of the looting was merely opportunistic, but there were organised gangs who employed spotters to report likely prospects so thieves could be on the spot before air raid wardens or firemen got there. (My mother was a teenager in Swansea when that city was bombed, and recalled the eerie speed with which looters operated amongst the entrails of bombed houses, where the dead and dying still lay.) The story of the hit on the Café de Paris was a slightly taboo subject for several reasons. The looting obviously represented criminal self-interest taking advantage of the bombing and going against the national narrative of collective resistance. Also, there were similar tragedies happening all across London, dance halls in poorer areas being hit during Nazi bombing raids, and there was considerable resentment that the less glamorous dead generally didn’t rate more than a couple of lines in the paper. But what happened to Snakehips and his audience that night epitomises the surreal horror of indiscriminate bombing: opulence and gaiety supplanted by violent death in an instant. Nothing is stable, nothing is what it seems, nothing is what it was. There is no ‘new normal’, normality is simply abolished.
The Café de Paris remained closed for the rest of the war, reopening only in 1948. About the same time, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote a very bleak post-war symphony, his sixth, with an episode inspired by the Café de Paris bombing, a sort of hellish play on ‘Swanee River’ as played by Snakehips Johnson’s doomed jazz band. The novelist Anthony Powell also uses the bombing as a central episode within his grand series of novels of 20th century society ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ (he calls it the Café Madrid). As to the venue itself, Covid-19 succeeded where Hitler failed: the Café de Paris closed for good in December 2020, another fatality of the pandemic. As for Ballard Berkeley, he continued his career as a character actor in the West End and in the occasional B picture (I saw him in one on Talking Pictures the other day) but, unlike his old flatmate Cary Grant, he had to wait until old age for his finest moment: as the senile and xenophobic ‘Major’ in Fawlty Towers. Thus the heroic witness to the blitz enters the canon of British television comedy: playing a mad old man resentful at German guests staying in the seaside hotel where he is eking out his days.
Further reading: The Longest Night, Gavin Mortimer. London at War, 1939-1945, Philip Ziegler.