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Culture Watch

London's War:
A Traveler's Guide to World War II
by Sayre Van Young
Ulysses Press; paperback
384 pages

Review by Jody Bush

Anglophiles and WWII history buffs will greatly enjoy joining Van Young in her comprehensive and immensely readable guide through London's wartime streets, featured spots, memories, and struggles. Even readers who may not know they have such an interest will find one developing as they begin to find themselves increasingly involved and fascinated. The author's enthusiasm (even passion) for sharing what she has learned, becomes absorbing.

Van Young begins by imagining the sounds and the vibrant nerve of wartime. With photographs, stories, maps, every 'visitor detail' that the explorer will need, she offers 20 walking tours. And quite a bit more. Each section lists Highlights, Underground Station, Photo Ops, Travel Scheduling, Cultural Preparations (an excellent resource of the armchair traveler) and Internet Best Bets.

Here are carefully researched history, fascinating anecdotal particulars, and a thorough sensitivity to the consequences of the bombings of London.

Here is the war as it affected the prominent areas and treasures such as Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral, and Big Ben: "The sound of Big Ben can easily transport the listener to the days of Edward R. Murrow broadcasting to America. 'This is London' he would begin...Big Ben tolling in the background...as the blackout began, as the possibilities of gas attack were debated."

Mr. Wren's (the esteemed architect of the mid-17th century) Neighborhood presents the war's effect on this wide area that encompasses much of his work and many of the most familiar historical sites.

"London is too big. It was too big for Hitler to destroy, and it's too big to walk everywhere to experience the wartime homefront. Our focus has been on the much frequented, compact haunts of central London: Westminster and Whitehall, Trafalgar Square, St. James's, Mayfair, Soho and Covent Garden, Bloomsbury, Marylebone, and the City .... dozens of important wartime sites and present-day attractions add nuance and texture to a homefront visit ... they're just so darned far apart. [In addition] are a selection of priority stops .... noted as absolutely must-sees." Here the reader will be introduced to some areas where tourists rarely go while continuing to enjoy Van Young's insight, stories, and tips.

The author visits the daily lives of the famous, the elite, and the ordinary folks: their struggles, thoughts, losses, fears, heartbreaks, courage, and politics; their favorite things, their music, food, pets, attitudes, fashions, art, and architecture. Some of the famous whose stories are here: George Orwell, Eleanor Roosevelt, Noel Coward, Edward R. Morrow, Cecil Beton, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, the Kennedys; Churchill and Chamberlain, of course.

There are moving tales of Londoners' heroism, generous spirit and determination to survive. The stark grisliness, misery, deprivation, courage and grit of these years and these people are neither soft-pedaled nor trivialized in any way. It is not forgotten that 30,000 Londoners died. As the stories come alive they begin to join the traveler on his or her way. It's Van Young's finely crafted, spirited prose that makes this happen. One doesn't expect to be so intricately, poignantly, and sometimes painfully pulled into the actual experience of London's homefront.

It's been said that London's War is written with "affection, humor, and scholarship." One could also add companionship. Wandering the war in London walks with Sayre is like traveling with a friend as your tour guide.

The author is a travel editor whose daytime job and long-term contributions involve serving as a research, community resource, and local history librarian for the Berkeley, CA Public Library.

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