Skiving

P.N. Furbank

  • You, You and You: The People Out of Step with World War Two by Pete Grafton
    Pluto, 169 pp, £2.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 86104 360 X

It is right to be suspicious of books produced by the tape-recorder, for they offer endless scope for deception and self-deception. It is perfectly possible for such a book to be saying nothing whatever for long stretches, and no one, not even the compiler, will have noticed. Or it can be saying something important which, again, the compiler never intended and is not aware of. As always with a book, we need to worry about the art involved, for that is where the book’s message will lie.

Pete Grafton’s purpose is ‘to examine the various “myths” of the Second World War, to see how they stood up to people’s recollections of those years. The motivation for doing this was the knowledge that there was a sizable gulf between the British war films that I had been fed on as a schoolboy (Kenneth More, Dirk Bogarde and Jack Hawkins equipped with Tootal cravats and stiff upper lips against the might of the Nazi war machine) and the often uncritical television documentaries and nostalgic Second World War books that are still produced, as opposed to the stories that I heard when I went out to work many years ago.’ Now, one crucial aspect of his book is that it is largely composed of quite small snippets. For this reason, we do not become involved with the informants or get drawn into their whole outlook or life as we do, say, in the books by Ronald Blythe. The main exception here is the long and disturbing narrative of a Glaswegian fusilier, and significantly, it is a pathological case-history. The fusilier’s life at that time (‘27 cases of absence, countless charges of disobedience, insubordination, dumb insolence, inciting mutiny, escapes from prison and escorts and two or three court-martials’) is declaredly the story of an illness – it relates how the Army drove this man mad. Admittedly, it is also, and secondarily, a political statement: ‘Most of this didnae come about because I didnae want to fight, or because I was a conscientious objector – indeed, in the beginning I joined the army because I thought it was the only way to fight fascism. A lot of my troubles came about almost naturally when I met the same attitudes in the British army as I had been learning about in fascism.’ Some truth in that, no doubt: but it is not a truth we can assess with only himself as witness. Even this long narrative is not much use to us historically.

For much the larger part, anyway, the book is composed of scraps, a great many of them about skiving, scrounging and fiddling.

London Boy: ‘I joined the Auxiliary Fire Service...One of the great attractions was you got to wear a steel helmet, and you had a bike. I didn’t have a very heroic career, though, because I deserted my bike in the middle of an air raid and took shelter. Fuck the Fire Brigade.’

Liverpool Girl: ‘I went to work for Rootes, in their aircraft factory. I think they were making De Havilland Mosquitos. To be quite truthful I don’t remember doing anything there.’

Factory Worker: ‘I would say at Briggs the paramount element was not war production, it was how much you were going to pick up at the end of the week. It was the money...We were out in the shelters playing pitch and toss, or cards, or watching the old dogfight overhead. It was lovely! But then they stopped that, didn’t they?’

What are we to make of all this? The thought that must loom large for us is that London Boy and Liverpool Girl must now be pushing sixty. Do they still often think this way about events of forty years ago, and only this way? No jokes, no affection or ideas, no imaginative response to the things happening in Warsaw or Stalingrad or Auschwitz – either then or now? It would be a depressing conclusion. It is different with the stories of horror: one can perfectly understand a person brooding over them for a lifetime.

I’ve a mate. A great bloke, honestly. He was a conscientious objector and lay in – Prison for nearly six months with no clothes, rather than put on the army uniform...He was in Imphal, and had just come back out of the first Chindit trip. A great bloke, but in some ways evil with it. I seen him getting Indian women and raping them. Smashing their face in and raping until it got so bad I had to fire at them to get them off...– if you seen it you’d say ‘Oh, that’s Nazis,’ but that was British troops...I’ll never forget that. Never, never forget that, Never.

Yet here again what most of all we ponder on, and need more knowledge of than we are given, is the agonising plight of the fusilier himself, still impaled, forty years later, on the horns of that dilemma: ‘A great bloke, honestly... Smashing their face in and raping...’

For the most part, though, the theme – as I say – is simply saying ‘fuck’ to the Army or the Fire Brigade, and the skiving that goes with it. It is not even colourful skiving – though one had momentary hopes of the group seconded to work on a Frostbite Machine. And the monotony is only mildly relieved by the purely gormless. ‘The first time I came home I had me great big haversack, me gas mask and me tin helmet and me mum looked at me and said “Ooh Rene, whatever have they done to yer?”’ I can’t help thinking of Bill Douglas’s autobiographical film trilogy, which ends with My Way Home. For from these snippets of reminiscence you could construct just such a dazed, affectless, zombie-like character as the self Bill Douglas portrays, before his moral rescue by an Army friend. And maybe this is how some of these speakers were or even are: but if so, as Douglas’s film rightly conveys, it is a tragic fact, and we want to know what particular ghastly sequence of traumas and deprivations has produced it. We want, indeed, just what Bill Douglas provides us with; and on the strength of it we might rationally be led to some political conclusions. On the other hand, we wouldn’t be tempted to listen to the unrescued Bill Douglas as a witness.

The point is: we are deluding ourselves in constructing whole characters and lives out of these fragments, or picturing on the strength of them a bunch of superannuated skivers, living on the memory of forty-year-old fiddles. There are other explanations: for instance, that this is the sort of thing Pete Grafton wanted to hear, and his informants were decent enough to oblige him. Having spent five years in the Army, never above the rank of corporal, I could, if I had set my mind to it, have given him yards of the stuff myself.

The way to a judgment on this book and its contents lies through art – that is to say, through the complex phenomenon of reading as exploited by novelists and analysed by critics. What the tape-recorded book leads to, in the form in which Pete Grafton has approached it, is the creation of illusions and monsters. There flits before the mental eye the worst kind of Tory fantasy: the layabouts and ‘loafers’ of ancient Punch cartoons.

This brings me to myth. The British people were not so deeply stirred to myth-making, or so dominated by myth, in the Second World War as they were in the First. There were plenty of myths about, once again, but flimsier and more ephemeral; and I cannot see that the Jack Hawkins and Kenneth More war films that Pete Grafton saw as a boy ever mattered much or influenced anyone at a deep level. Anyway, I do not follow what he says about myth; nor, much as I admire Angus Calder’s work, do I understand what he says about it either, in his Foreword to the book. Myth can be a very powerful, sometimes terrible thing: but, surely, the very last thing you would ask of it is that it should correspond to reality. Say you tape-recorded a returned Crusader, forty years after the fall of Acre, it would be odd to complain, on the strength of what he said, that Tasso had got it all wrong in Jerusalem Delivered: there were no enchantresses, scarcely a single fully-accredited dragon. What I find wrong in Grafton’s book is not that it slays harmless myths, which I don’t think it does, but that it all unwittingly breeds dangerous ones.