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Fighting crime in Newham while dodging Hitler’s bombs

PUBLISHED: 12:00 01 May 2016

The Luftwaffe bombing the Royal Docks in 1940     Picture: Newham Archives

The Luftwaffe bombing the Royal Docks in 1940 Picture: Newham Archives

Archant

Imagine living in a city where several hundred tonnes of high explosives fell from the sky and smashed into the streets and houses and factories every other day.

Bombe damage in Croydon Road, Plaistow    Picture: Newham Archives Bombe damage in Croydon Road, Plaistow Picture: Newham Archives

What would happen to its citizens’ attitudes towards death, love, risk, morality and crime?

These questions, and many others, have been asked – and to an extent answered – by Stratford-born novelist Mike Hollow, whose detective stories are set in Newham during the Blitz.

His first book, Direct Hit, concerns Det Insp John Jago’s efforts to solve cases in Plaistow, while Fifth Column, released last month, is based in Canning Town.

“My father grew up in Stratford but, being too young to join the army when the war began, he ended up fire-watching for the Home Guard during the Blitz,” Mike, a former translator at the BBC, said.

Bomb damage in High Street North, East Ham     Picture: Newham Archives Bomb damage in High Street North, East Ham Picture: Newham Archives

“I thought about him sitting on a roof, watching all those planes flying over, all those bombs falling on his town and I wondered what else was going on.”

Mike subsequently devoted himself to “constantly” researching the Blitz and became interested in Newham’s frontline role, changes in crime and the extent to which reality had been romanticised in the popular imagination.

“East and West Ham were hugely damaged – everything hinged on the outcome of the Blitz, and these places were at the centre of it all,” the 63-year-old said.

“It was an exceptional time – you could be bombed at any moment, you didn’t know if you’d survive the next day. People reacted to that in very different ways.”

King George VI & Queen Elizabeth visiting Freemasons Road in Custom House after an air raid on 23 April 1941          Picture: Newham Archives King George VI & Queen Elizabeth visiting Freemasons Road in Custom House after an air raid on 23 April 1941 Picture: Newham Archives

There were heroes and villains, Mike stressed, with certain types of crime rising just as firefighters were sacrificing their own lives to save others.

“Having been a journalist, I know that events are often stage-managed,” he said. “And during the Blitz the government wanted to portray a certain thing – plucky Cockneys standing up to Hitler.

“But there were people going around looting homes that had been hit by bombs, there were cowards and crooks as well as heroes.”

Mike has rejected romanticisation in part through his protagonist, whose first job in Fifth Column is to investigate a corpse found on a bombsite to

Sports day in West Ham, 1943, not long before V1 flying bombs began to drop on the area   Picture: Newham Archives Sports day in West Ham, 1943, not long before V1 flying bombs began to drop on the area Picture: Newham Archives

determine if the perpetrator was the Luftwaffe or someone closer to home.

He is “bright”, Mike said, and nothing like clichéd American PIs in that his life is not dysfunctional and he is not an alcoholic.

“He’s a Victorian, he worked on the Stratford Express before fighting in the First World War – I made him someone you’d actually expect to see in 1940,” he added.

Having buried himself in Newham’s past, Mike can also now see its present in a different light.

South Molton Street, in Canning Town, after being bombed in September 1940   Picture: Newham Archives South Molton Street, in Canning Town, after being bombed in September 1940 Picture: Newham Archives

“The key moment was the Olympics,” he said. “I remember on the first day, looking around the stadium, thinking ‘this is so weird’.

“My dad died in the 1990s but he used to work in Carpenters Road and I couldn’t get my head around how I would tell him that his old office, next to the dirty old factories, is now the site of the Olympics.

“The passage of time is so mysterious. And you notice it especially in Newham.”

Mike’s books are available at Waterstones and other bookshops as well as on Amazon UK.

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