The brief possibility of a different kind of history

Julian Symons

  • The Myth of the Blitz by Angus Calder
    Cape, 304 pp, £17.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 224 02258 X

A myth now, what is that? ‘A purely fictitious narrative embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena,’ my Shorter Oxford says, adding: ‘Often used vaguely to include any narrative having fictitious elements.’ That seems clear enough, and certainly covers an article recently read called ‘The Myth of President Kennedy’, which says that the assassinated idol of the Western world was little more, though certainly no less, than a rampant penis. The number and variety of his sexual activities (remarkable in view of his back troubles) left him open to blackmail by J. Edgar Hoover, he accepted a Pulitzer award for a book he didn’t write, his clean-living do-gooding reputation was, according to the article, purely fictitious. Is that what Angus Calder means by ‘the Myth of the Blitz’? It’s hard to know, because this Myth is elusive enough to deserve the capital letter it receives throughout. Calder goes eleven exhausting rounds with it here, giving the Myth the old one-two several times without once flooring it, let alone achieving a k.o.

The Myth has bothered Calder ever since readers of his People’s War (1969) saw the book as confirming it. Because of this unintended deception, he approached the Myth of the Blitz ‘in a spirit almost of self-hatred’, but his determination to ‘undermine the credibility of the mythical narrative ... every which way’ has been lessened now that Thatcherism has declined and ‘the generation of Labourites for whom the war was unquestionably a “People’s War” ’ is dead or politically passé. He assures himself and us that he can now face up to the Myth quite coolly, though his remarks about several aspects of the Blitz and commentators’ views on it are heavy with muted scepticism. Mollie Panter-Downes’s London Letters to the New Yorker are said to serve ‘the aim of convincing US readers that Common People in Britain were united in a Common Cause.’ Elsewhere it is said to be ‘conventional’ to write of the ‘intense and genuine sense of national unity’ engendered by the war and the bombing. On a similarly sceptical, even faintly contemptuous note Calder says ‘ “Chivalry” was attributed to Fighter Command’s young men,’ and ‘the Myth that the British were Bombed and Endured stands.’

One feels Calder is not punching his weight here, and that the doubting tone must surely mean he thinks there was no sense of national unity, no union in a common cause, no chivalry in Fighter Command. Yet this is contradicted by other comments in which, you might say, the Myth fights back. Is the Myth fictitious? Not at all. It ‘should not be taken to be equivalent to “untruth”, still less to “lies” ’. Was the Myth equivalent to suppression of facts? Not so: ‘no one has detected evidence of any large-scale “cover-up” concerning events in 1940-41.’ Perhaps it is exposed in post-war fiction? Alas, it ‘resists demystification’ in ‘a novel of 1940’ by Leslie Thomas, and survives another novel which shows how ‘by debunking the Myth component by component ... you end up with the same pattern.’ At the end the Myth beats Angus Calder on points. He doesn’t know, or at least is not able to convey or define, the meaning he is giving to the word.

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