We started reading Emma soon after the sirens took over our evenings and sometimes our nights. Their expectation was worse than their whine and from the first waning of the winter light in the late afternoon you found yourself nervously gobbling chocolate or peanuts or anything just to fill that pulsating, dark hole where your stomach used to be. Then, as the evening crept into night, your ears became the channels of all tension and fear. Every whirr, chirp, peep and whistle became the start of the horrible moaning whine. Bits of Mozart on the radio, a car alarm in the next street, even the wind: all the familiar sounds were anxiously filtered by the fevered brain, checked for their identity and intentions and finally allowed to pass. It got so bad waiting that you craved for it to be over with for the night. Let the urgent emergency pips break into the music, let the wailing begin, let the door be sealed, the wet rag be put in place over the threshold, the cat be accounted for, the gas masks donned and the cost counted. Two fell here, one fell there. Patriots rose to the occasion. This street hit, these people injured, lightly, moderately, badly or worse. Let the anxious voice on the radio express its fatherly concern and tell us that, this time, it was merely 'conventional', good old-fashioned explosives, and if we weren't lying under piles of rubble, we could take our masks off, unseal our doors, save our wet rags and above all stay at home.
LRB 7 March 1991 | PDF Download