Philip Hensher

Blown to blazes

Brian Dillon in The Great Explosion finds a cure for his depression researching a devastating explosion in a Kent munitions factory that killed 109 men and boys

Blown to blazes
Text settings

The Great Explosion: Gunpowder, the Great War and the Anatomy of a Disaster on the Kentish Marshes

Brian Dillon

Penguin, pp. 274, £

The story is an interesting one. Gunpowder had to be manufactured. In 1916 one of the places dedicated to the dangerous and difficult task was remote Kent. A fire broke out and led to a series of huge explosions. Deaths and injuries were not widely specified at the time for reasons of morale, but 109 men and boys were killed.

The explosives industry was a necessary, profitable but immensely dangerous one. It took the 1654 Delft explosion — in which Carel Fabritius was killed — for society to realise that explosives should probably not be manufactured in cities. The Kent disaster took place a couple of miles from Faversham, and the works had been built at a safe distance from the town precisely to limit the number of casualties in case of disaster. An incidental effect was that when the explosion did occur, it devastated an especially evocative and lonely part of the marshes, teeming with wildlife.

The search for a stable explosive material continued into the age of dynamite and TNT. By the first world war, the manufacture of explosives involved female labour as well as male — though in fact no women were killed in the 1916 disaster, which took place on a Sunday, when they were not expected to work.

The explosives works concerned was under a great deal of pressure to increase production. The Inspector of Explosives had, only that week, paid an unannounced visit, and had noticed that the Ministry of Munitions had delivered material far in excess of what could be handled, including 50 excess tons of TNT. On the night of Saturday 1 April, a small fire had already broken out and been extinguished between a boiler house and a TNT store, caused by sparks. Around midday the following day, a worker noticed that some bags piled up against building 833 were on fire. A gang was sent for, and worked initially on extinguishing the fire, then on attempting to remove the explosives in the building. Soon after one o’clock, the officer in charge decided to clear the men out. It was shortly after that, while evacuation was proceeding, that the colossal explosion took place.

Brian Dillon has written a book that aims to explain some of the history of the manufacture of explosives, focusing on the Kentish disaster. The story is embedded in a series of walks through the countryside and some summaries of other disasters, explosions in literature and so on. Though it is not a straightforward book, the practised reader will know what to expect when he sees the word ‘unclassifiable’ in a quote from Robert Macfarlane on the cover. It means a book that talks about the author as well as his subject. This sort of work, much influenced by the Anglo-German writer W.G. Sebald, is everywhere these days, and relatively easily classified.

Sometimes the story of the author’s involvement is well-told. Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk, for example,gained a considerable following from people interested in how training a hawk might help with bereavement; and there is some value in exploring how a writer becomes involved in a subject if it sheds light on an aspect of his or her personality.

Certainly readers seem to like this genre — and writers too. Dillon’s account of moving to Kent, indifferent to his circumstances, and then growing less despondent as his curiosity about the outside world increased, will appeal to this readership. ‘For the first time in my life,’ he tells us, ‘I had become the sort of person who notices the world around him.’ Foremost in his mind was the possibility of training himself out of solipsistic depression through taking an interest in things. His book, paradoxically, is both outward-turning, towards the effects of the explosives industry on a landscape, and deeply self-absorbed, exploring the change of the particular mind. I can see its recommendations being a help to others.

A recurrent feature of books of this sort is a tendency to acquaint the reader with the process of research. The National Archives in Kew regularly crop up. Recently I complained here about a historian padding out her pages with: ‘I tapped in my reader number and selected “Search the Catalogue”. It was a bleak afternoon in late November and I was at the National Archives in Kew.’ Here is Dillon at the same task in his unclassifiable way:

At the National Archives in Kew, I have requested half a dozen documents. Today I’ve forgotten my ID, of all things, and have to tramp up and down stairs twice, hot and embarrassed, before I acquire a user’s card…. I have been to the café and waited the requisite hour or so for my requests to show up…. Do I have to wear the white cotton gloves that are available on the way in?

Surely his editor should have told him that the story’s the thing — not how he inched his way towards it.

In his concentration on extraneous matter, Dillon neglects some obvious subjects for inquiry. There is surprisingly little attempt to discover anything about the lives of the victims of the 1916 explosion. What there is seems to be taken directly from the official inquiry, which had its limitations. The responses to the landscape are quite well-written in a manner that is elaborate and somewhat abstruse rather than effectively evocative:

The pond skaters, only briefly startled, were gathering again at the centre of the fractured star of shadow-bound light until at last I could see individual insects bracing themselves against the surface, once more attaining that condition of delicate and watchful stillness that I had destroyed.

But I’m afraid I don’t find the quality of the research impressive. Most of it is based on secondary sources — a detailed history of the manufacture of military explosive by Wayne Cocroft appears to have been comprehensively filleted. Even when Dillon gives a plain account of published commentary, his work is inadequate. To take one example: he devotes six pages to a summary of an article in Dickens’s magazine Household Words from the beginning of February 1852. He says that the author, Richard H. Home, visited a powder works in Hounslow ‘in 1852’ before writing the article, ‘How Gun-powder is Made’. He is critical of the piece, describing it as ‘luridly impressionistic’, and suggesting that the author had portrayed the gunpowder works as ‘the setting for a “sensation novel” or a story by Poe’. It is a ‘lavishly figurative piece of writing…[in which] he has in fact told us very little about how [gunpowder] is made’.

There are a number of objections to this account. First, the 1850s author in fact says that he expected a Gothic setting, ‘a huge and pyramidal structure’, but found in reality something very ordinary, ‘a quiet little low-roofed building, very much resembling the house of an officer of the coastguard’. It is unfair to criticise him for comparing the works to a story by Poe; he does not mention Poe at all. On the other hand, Dillon himself compares an old house to the House of Usher a few pages earlier. It is a matter of taste, but I think the figurative language is vivid and evocative, Dickens as an editor bringing the best out in a contributor: ‘Very like great bowls of cold punch… they contain a yellowish liquid… some of them seem full of frozen macaroni… crystals of saltpetre.’

Since the piece is 8,000 words long, it is unlikely that its author visited the works in 1852 before writing and printing the piece by early February. It is not reasonable to complain that the piece should have explained how gunpowder is made, being called ‘How Gunpowder is Made.’ It does explain how gunpowder is made, though the piece is not called ‘How Gunpowder is Made.’ It is called ‘Gunpowder’. The author was not a ‘regular contributor’ to Household Words but a salaried sub-editor, paid five guineas a week. His name, finally, was not Richard H. Home. It was Richard Hengist (né Henry) Horne.

It takes some doing to write six whole pages about an essay and get the title, name of the author, substance and style completely wrong, before sneering at most of those things. Perhaps this is what is meant when Dillon is puffed as ‘one of our most innovative’ writers of non-fiction.

He has come across an interesting episode of first world war history and he can write reasonably elegantly; but the effect here is muffled and only half executed. If, in future, he can keep his duller experiences away from the page, and can work up some human inquisitiveness that doesn’t limit itself to reporting the contents of printed sources, then he should be able to write a more disciplined and illuminating book.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £15.99 Tel: 08430 600033