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Something has occurred to me about all the Bunting Britain ‘blitz spirit’, Dunkirk nonsense about the memory of the war, now that generation is passing. Three of my grandparents served, and the other was maimed as a munitions worker. Obviously, I’m full of regret now ... 1/n
that they are all gone that I didn’t interview them relentlessly about it. One grandmother’s career lifted off as a very young woman, taking her into the Civil Service and transforming her life. One grandfather was a Royal Engineer in North Africa and Europe. 2/n
But for all that, the first-hand knowledge they imparted was little. True, I was very young, but one common experience everyone will tell you is how difficult they all found it to talk about. How little they said, especially to young children. 3/n
What we did do together was enjoy popular culture, like sitting together on Sunday afternoons, watching black and white films on BBC2. My grandfather and I shared a particular affection for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films. 4/n
I love films from that time. ‘Brief Encounter’ is still one of my favourite films. Some of them were wartime: ‘Mrs. Miniver’, ‘Went the Day Well’, ‘In Which We Serve’ and so on. These were made with a propaganda purpose, or at the very least were subject to strict censorship.4/n
Indeed, so stylised were they that in the 60’s, films of that type were satirised in ‘Round the Horne’ through Dame Celia Molestrangler and ageing juvenile, Binky Huckerback. 6/n
Ask yourself, what was easier for my grandparents? Enjoying a nice, rose-tinted film with the grandchildren, or having incredibly difficult conversations about the experiences with a young, beloved child? 7/n
So without being aware of it, from the boomers onwards, many people’s images of the war were formed by propaganda from the time. Cold, damp, terror, death, mutilation, hunger, privation, disease, none of these things linger in the popular imagination.
Air raid shelters aren’t stinking, damp, cold, noisy places full of fear, crime and misery, but jolly cockerneys singing round the ol’ Joanna. Rationing was a jolly old, muddle-on-through lark, not a cause of serious hunger, leading to epidemics of prostitution for extra food.
Victory as embodied by the Churchillian spirit was assured at all times, rather than Churchill being viewed as a divisive figure, and defeat and occupation as near inevitable, and possibly even welcome for some to put an end to warfare.
I loved those films too. But I also love history. That was not what the war was like. When I think of it, I think of suffering and misery on a country-wide scale. I think of a profound depression of the National spirit, combined with a hope for a better future. It was grim.
People did and achieved astonishing and fascinating things: Dunkirk the breaking of the enigma code, the D-Day landings, the liberation of the camps the victory in the desert. All these are great.
But whilst Dunkirk was a profound aerial and naval victory, it was an unprecedented military defeat. And there were others: Crete, Singapore, many events to make us wish the war were not necessary and that we desperately needed allies.
The war was a horrific necessity, not a choice, so don’t blinded by propaganda, evoke it as something to aspire to. ‘Blitz spirit’ was only necessary because people lost their homes. ‘Dunkirk spirit’ was the evasion of disaster by the skin of our teeth.
Both are partly inventions by the understandable desire to put a gloss on history and the necessary propaganda work of the time. You should think of this when people evoke them. They should trigger in you the thought ‘I am being manipulated’. /ENDS
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