“The beach where the body washed up is wide and white, with cafes raised on silts and couples drinking beer in the sand.” This sentence begins Swift’s account of the last days of his grandfather, James Eric Swift, a bomber pilot for the RAF during WWII. But Bomber County is no biography. Swift circles his grandfather’s service to examine not just the man but also the myth that the second world war, unlike the first, failed to produce significant poetry; it lacked an image of sufficient horror to grasp the imagination of artists, so the thinking goes. Swift disagrees. The bombing campaign was to WWII what the trench was to WWI. “Bombing forced new verse,” Swift writes, bringing T.S. Elliot, Virginia Woolf, Andrew Marvell, James Dickey, John Ciardi, Stephen Spender and dozens of other poets, including poet-pilots, into a loose narrative that allows him to spiral off again and again on unexpected tangents. In this way the book reminded me a little bit of Sebald’s Rings of Saturn.
By using poetry and the sorrowful story of his grandfather’s fate, Swift is also able to address the morality of sweeping destruction. The guilt question doesn’t come up until late in the book but when it does it sticks. “Again and again, in the poetry of this war, we find the new landscape of a bombed city; again and again, in the new landscape of this war, we find a poet going out for a walk in the rubble.” Swifts’s grandfather, though not himself a poet, went for one of these walks. “He is thinking now, of his own work; he is considering his guilt,” Swift writes. “The early summer of 1943 marked the start of the moral problem of bombing and the close of my grandfather’s war. He was lost, neatly, at just the right time, and so I could tell you here the story of a hero…” Earlier, when considering for the first time the details of his grandfather’s work, he writes:
In the dusk, you go out to the plane, and sit on the grass, and smoke. You know that you will have no real food for ten hours. You have a Thermos of tea, and a piece of chocolate, but it will be so cold in the plane that you have to hold the chocolate in your mouth to warm it up. It will feel like minus fifty degrees and your teeth will ache, and so you get dressed up. Uniform, then a wooly, a thick jumper, then a fur-lined flying suit, with zips, so that if you are wounded they can unzip it from your body; on your feet, silk socks, then Air Force socks, then wool socks, then flying boots. The planes take off close. As one lifts, another is beginning to roll along the runway, and the next is joining the queue.
Throughout the book Swift’s prose is highly restrained; this is his only use of the second person. Of the numerous ways that Swift could have relayed this information, he chose the tricky second person, because it creates an immediate intimacy; that “you” is the reader, and the cockpit comes alive, and that “you” is also Frank Swift, and in this moment you feel Daniel Swift move a bit closer to a grandfather he only knows on paper.
Swift, a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, and The Times Literary Supliment, is an excellent writer (this is his first book), and Bomber County is a unique and beautiful book.