Letter from London: The Dove and the Bomb

Last week the artist and I sat in a slightly penned-off area of the park, one of the lungs of London, where concealed Second World War gun emplacements once awaited elements of the 1,500 German aircraft crossing the Channel daily. In this small south-east London neighbourhood, 1,396 high explosive bombs were dropped from 7th October 1940 to 6th June 1941 alone. These were 50kg and 250kg, sometimes 500kg, sometimes even 1,000kg, 1,400kg and 1,800kg bombs. Big brutes when not compared to the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Mind you, we were making plenty Germans homeless too. This is how war works. I still can’t get my head around it. The artist and I continued in silence before three fulsome cedar trees. I have never been to Kyoto in Japan, with its abundance of Zen temples, but better elements here are how I imagine their Zen gardens.

A feather floated to the ground. It was like a cartoon bird had been shot off-screen. ‘No bird of peace then,’ I said, noting the dullness and greyness of the pigeony feather. ‘No white dove of peace,’ chimed the artist. Just then, bizarrely, a very white dove — no less — flew towards us like a paper dart before landing at our feet. It was your so-called white dove of peace. Coincidence or not, I knew in Slavic lore they were said to be intermediaries carrying people’s souls to heaven. Immediately, I took a photograph of it, a small turquoise tag by one claw accompanying the feathery blaze of white. ‘Incredible,’ said the artist, as it took off again, as if we had imagined it.

I had been thinking about peace. Maybe it was the new project I have in development. On our way back, the artist continued home to her studio while I stopped to chat with neighbour Mark Edwards. Mark had his black electric bicycle with him which he said can do 50 miles without recharging. We first met years earlier during wonderful shared late nights in beloved Soho in central London when I was either post-producing other people’s movies, or returning back to Blighty having worked on my own. Mark was once described by UNESCO as one of the most widely published photographers in the world, and the first to specialise in sustainable development issues. A tall man with a shock of white hair, he asked what I was up to and I told him of my ambitions. Peace, we concluded, should be everyone’s yearning.

That afternoon, I went to see Christopher Nolan’s film ‘Oppenheimer’ in which Cillian Murphy plays the theoretical physicist and actual repressor of facts such as the effects of radiation exposure. A man who invented a weapon effectively to destroy all of human life. I felt like one of the last cineastes in London to see it. (Nolan and Murphy, I was thinking. Good Irish names.) I was first aware of Christopher Nolan after he made a student film with David Lloyd, a super-smart former colleague of mine. We may even have argued the case together for Nolan to be given free time at a digital post-production house, saying he will be hugely significant one day. Cillian Murphy I knew from shepherding much of the digital side of Danny Boyle’s ‘28 Days Later’. Indeed, I hung out with Cillian and writer Alex Garland while very much aware of both Cillian’s fetching brittleness as an actor and Alex’s newspaper-savvy father, the wonderful late political cartoonist Nicholas Garland, who also happened to be a founding journalist of The Independent.

Cillian in this film was like someone on top of their game — plenty truth, wisps of wisdom, not a moment of over-acting. What his director reeled in from him was screen gold. Elsewhere, I was gently surprised to see Tom Conti playing a conspicuously melancholic Albert Einstein. Oppenheimer getting his ‘connoisseurs of the explosion’ working hard all night and day followed by intense partying also reminded me of someone else I had the privilege of working with at the time, director Michael Winterbottom. Nor were the two physically unalike, somehow. Meanwhile in the plot it was Oppenheimer’s brother’s communist past which began to create its own fissures. Not to mention Oppenheimer’s financial contributions there. Nor did it help that he didn’t seem to care if the FBI were wire-tapping him because he knew he had never been a member of the communist party. Of course, this sense of obstinance or entitlement stunted him further when he saw former lover Jean Tatlock again in San Francisco while she was under surveillance and still a member of the communist party. (It was chilling to be reminded how mysteriously she died a few months later.) Then Roosevelt died and Hitler committed suicide, and the target became Japan.

The film was long and the shadows lengthening heavily on my way back across the park from the cinema. I saw Mark Edwards a second time, flashing past on his black electric bicycle. I had not seen Mark in a year before this day. I texted to say I had spotted him just after seeing ‘Oppenheimer’ on my own and he replied affably that he had been cycling along the river ‘to take in the lovely evening’. He reminded me that he had made a book once with physicist David Bohm — ‘Changing Consciousness: Exploring the Hidden Source of the Social, Political, and Environmental Crises Facing Our World’ — who had worked with Einstein and later Oppenheimer. ‘He had fascinating stories about them both,’ Mark said, claiming that Bohm was badly treated by Oppenheimer and ‘really sold down the river’. He said Bohm revered Oppenheimer almost as a father figure. ‘This didn’t stop Oppenheimer exercising his well-documented tendency for cruelty against Bohm,’ he said: ‘‘If we cannot disprove Bohm, we must agree to ignore him’,’ he told me Oppenheimer once said: ‘Oppenheimer’s views were not universally shared. The outstanding physicist JS Bell later said of Bohm’s papers, ‘I saw the impossible done’; and it is his view rather than Oppenheimer’s that has withstood the test of time.’ Mark continued: ‘According to philosopher Paul Feyerabend, Niels Bohr himself was stunned at what Bohm had achieved,’ pointing out the ease with which Oppenheimer named colleagues during the post-war communist witch-hunts: ‘In Bohm’s case his ‘father figure’ was quite willing to brand Bohm as potentially ‘dangerous’ because of his left-wing interests’.

Just after the white dove of peace had fled at the beginning of this piece, a woman had passed and greeted us both. She began telling us stirring tales of her Jamaican parents. Though her father flew here, they were part of the famous Windrush generation when in 1948 the British Nationality Act gave people from colonies the right to live and work here. (Bands at London’s Notting Hill carnival this year are paying homage to this generation as part of the Act’s 75th anniversary.) ‘My father came by plane not boat,’ she said, describing in great detail him seeing from the plane all these chimneys burning coal and thinking they must be small factories with lots of work for him. Famously, the welcome turned out not to be how they had expected it. We mentioned our surprise visitation from the dove. ‘I saw one too!’ she exclaimed, taking out her phone. ‘Just a few weeks ago!’ Showing us the photograph, she pointed out the turquoise tag by its claw. ‘Wait a minute,’ I said, showing her the fresh image that I had on my phone. They matched, perfectly, turquoise tag and all. It must have been the same dove.

Peter Bach lives in London.