Have a listen to this track, Spitfire, by the retrotastic Public Service Broadcasting. Chances are that if you’re white, male and British (and possibly even if you’re not) that the stirring rhythm and clipped narration conjures up the romantic image of the Spitfire aircraft “wheeling and banking” in the bright blue skies over Beachy Head. We see the young pilot in his flying helmet and RAF moustache – “Hunter Leader, bandits approaching!” -and gripping his flight controls before unleashing a hail of bullets.
I wrote that after listening to the track without having seen the video (brilliantly recut from the 1942 film The First of the Few) and was surprised as to exactly how closely my mental images match what appears.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised. World War II has already become our “founding myth”, our “war of independence”, part of our national identity. It seems as if it’s become ever more popular in recent years – the “austerity” calls of the post-2007 politicians harking back to it all the more loudly. Why? Mitch Benn put his finger on it for me in his show “the 37th Beatle” – he says that his generation, born in the Seventies, have had to put up with all their older relatives saying how great the Sixties were, and having an overwhelming sense of missing out. It suddenly struck me that this almost certainly applies to the Baby Boomer generation in the UK – probably uniquely – because of the UK’s particular wartime experience. These children, born in the 40s and 50s, would have been brought up being told how their parents’ generation had saved the world from fascism, and how they ought to be respectful and grateful for that. They also will have watched the endless romanticisations of WWII produced once the rawness of the truth was leached away by nostalgia – The Dam Busters (1955), The Great Escape (1963), 633 Squadron (1964) and so on – and so their WWII is the technicolor Hollywood version, where the good guys are handsome and the bad guys wore black hats. Of course, this generation will have had to have kept quiet about the war whilst their parents were alive, but now that generation has mostly gone off into the sunset, the Boomers are free to bring out their romantic views of The War (it’s always The War to them) without fear of rebuke. They can tell you details of tank battles, name strategic bridges and reel of the names of battleships destroyed. They weren’t even born at the time in many cases! I was born in 1980, but I don’t go on about the Falklands War (or the Miner’s Strike) because I’m too young to remember it. But every stately home and preserved steam railway has a WWII weekend now – people dress up and pretend – which still strikes me as pretty tasteless. Can you imagine attending a Bosnia, Iraq or Falklands themed event as a jolly family outing in twenty or thirty years from now?
What’s worse is that this romantic war-fauxstalgia affects politics, too. It plants the idea of Plucky Britain Stands Alone in the hearts of its people – which is dangerous rubbish of the worst kind. Yes, we got into the war before the Americans did. But don’t forget that a goodly fraction of the moustachioed pilots in the Battle of Britain were Polish, and that infantrymen came from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Australia and New Zealand. But of course, in the films, they’re all airbrushed out – and so our Stands Alone myth fuels cheap populist isolationism – a refusal to engage with the rest of Europe and a reluctance to realise that so much of what was taken for granted in Britain at the time was based on the system of Empire Trade that ensured the high value manufactured goods were Made in Britain using raw materials shipped in from the colonised countries.
It worries me that this war romanticism will take us out of a close engagement with our European neighbours, out of the EU and out of relevance to the 21st century. Spitfires will not save us this time.
(and in reply to the headline, Nigel Farage is surprisingly young – born in 1964, the year “633 Squadron” came out…)