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.

It is fashionable nowadays to insist, as Calder does, on the limitations of first-hand evidence and generalisations made from it. We must, he says, refuse to accept ‘the “innocence” of any narrative’. Of course it is literally true that an axe may be ground consciously or otherwise in the account of any event, but in practice we are bound to accept the credibility of much we are told. What we read in newspapers, and the news we watch on TV, is not ‘innocent’, yet we accept most of it as basically true, making reservations about things that contradict our own beliefs, feelings or knowledge. Calder, for example, accepts the Home Intelligence Reports of the Ministry of Information made week by week for the Government during the Blitz. He scouts the idea that Mary Adams, who oversaw them, might have been less than impartial in selecting the material presented, saying she was capable ‘of judging and correcting her own biases’, a remarkable observation about anybody. The reports were distinctly upbeat, and who in the conditions of 1940 would expect anything else? Mary Adams would have got short shrift if she had reported a mood of pessimism. Calder is similarly credulous about the Mass Observation reports of the period, some of which he quotes without questioning their impartiality or innocence. It is true that the typical Mass Observation gift of making the unusual sound drearily commonplace is convincing in its way: ‘We had to take Vi to Cardiff. We were caught in a raid half-way there, but they let us go on with only our headlights.’ But the reports are surely treated too respectfully and given at too much length.

Now for a dive into the personal and fallible, comments from a participant on the view of the Blitz presented here, offered with no illusion that I am capable of judging and correcting my own biases. Credentials include presence in London during the whole period, returning from holiday to find my home inaccessible because of an unexploded bomb in the garden, helping to douse fire bombs in another raid, fire-watching, refusing to spend nights in shelters because they were more uncomfortable than staying under one’s own roof and I thought no safer – standard stuff, you might say. My feeling at the time was one of astonishment that the people I saw took death and destruction so calmly, their resignation blended with passive courage. I have the same feeling now. It seems to me that Angus Calder, like some other revisionist historians of the Forties, shudders away with such understandable distaste from the tone of Mollie Panter-Downes, and of a 1943 broadcast by Peter Scott from which he quotes, that he is unable to accept the essential truths contained in their vulgar propaganda.

Much of his energy is spent in battering at open doors. He emphasises that Dunkirk was a military disaster and quotes Churchill’s speech to that effect, but insists that the Myth has somehow turned the evacuation into a kind of victory. The wretched story of the internment of friendly foreigners is retold, and the inaccurate official figures of the time relating to British and German plane losses recited. But few people were deceived about these things. I met nobody who thought Dunkirk was anything but a catastrophe, many people were indignant about the treatment of foreigners, and the headlines in popular papers about the immense German losses in the Battle of Britain were a standing joke. Determined to show the obverse of the ‘Britain can take it’ attitude, Calder gives an unwarranted amount of attention to Communist and pacifist opposition to the War in 1940, and to a Communist Party convention held in London in January 1941, listing messages of support from Paul Robeson, Theodore Dreiser and Mao Tse-tung as if they were important. The reality was that the British CP’s opposition to the war in obedience to its Soviet masters’ voice left it politically null, until the German invasion of the Soviet Union made the Party for the first time a potent force in national rather than trade-union politics.

All this is such conventional and often-recited stuff that it shouldn’t need restating. There are times when Calder seems to despair of his own thesis, as when he says: ‘The greatest single fact suppressed by the Myth of the Blitz’ was that ‘because Churchill refused to give in, world power passed decisively away from Britain to the USA.’ To the many historians and others who think the decline of Britain as a world power was obvious long before 1939 the connection between wartime resistance and declining power is not obvious, and no serious attempt is made to justify it. Instead, the book’s later chapters deal with the relationship of books, films and radio to the conjectural Myth. They include some perceptive criticism linking the language of the Four Quartets to the destruction of cities, an interesting analysis of Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea, and some rather haphazard examination of films in the period, which takes a lengthy look at the erratic talent of Humphrey Jennings but doesn’t mention other work equally relevant, like the cleverly sugar-coated propaganda of The Way Ahead.

How should one look now, how did a participant look then, at what happened to Britain via rationing and restriction, piloted and pilot less bombs? My criticism of Angus Calder is not made from the Panter-Downes viewpoint. In 1940 I was what in the language of the period was called a revolutionary defeatist, believing the British capitalist state no match for the German military machine, expecting a German hegemony over Europe and an eventual conflict between the German empire and the USA. This bleak view still seems to me an accurate assessment of what was likely in 1940. Britain was saved from defeat and occupation by the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and American involvement in the war after Pearl Harbour.

It need hardly be said that this view was not generally shared. A Gallup Poll at the end of 1940 found the proportion of people who thought the war might be lost ‘so small that it could not be measured’. This was at the height of the Blitz and, whatever doubts one may feel about the accuracy of a poll taken in such circumstances, testifies to the minimal effect that death and destruction had on British (or later on German) morale. People – most people – in the bombed cities and large towns adapted without too much difficulty to the fact that if they were unlucky they might be dead tomorrow. In these circumstances they behaved better to each other, more generously, less possessively. A piece written twenty years ago expresses what I still believe to be true:

London in those days was in many ways an ideal city ... The way in which people behaved to each other relaxed strangely. Barriers of class and circumstance disappeared, so that London was more nearly an equalitarian city than it has ever been in the last quarter of a century. Was it mere romanticism that discovered ‘new styles of architecture, a change of heart’ in the bombed places? For a few months we lived in the possibility of a different kind of history.

Indeed, for longer than a few months. The bombs and fires were not the only agents forcing people towards equality. Rationing of food and clothing, the five-shilling ceiling on the cost of meals eaten out and the five-inch limit recommended by Hugh Gaitskell on the height of water in a bath, the recipes giving 17 ways of cooking potatoes and the advertisements praising Mrs Sew-and-Sew and Mrs Make-Do-and-Mend, the problem of whether to spend your weekly ration points on one tin of Spam or six of baked beans, the trivialities, the canting advertisements, the many shortages that did not involve actual suffering – all drove people together. They suggested the evolution of a society about which one could say like Orwell when he encountered a classless Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War; ‘In some ways I did not even like it, but I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.’

In a sense this impression of everybody behaving better was an illusion, like Orwell’s of a classless Barcelona, or at best the vision was partial, confined to urban life. In many country areas rationing was less stringently observed, bombing did not touch them, there was more complaint about shortages. In 1944 I went on a brief holiday from a London suffering the indiscriminate nose-diving of V1s to the peace of Devon. The official ration was an egg every other week, but in the Devon hotel they expected one daily for breakfast, and lamented everything from the miserly page size of newspapers to the impossibility of driving far because of petrol rationing. It would be a general truth of the war years to say that the easier life was the more people complained.

Yet the illusion (the Myth?) of a society free and equal, limited only by lack of resources, lasted through the decade. It was strong enough to bring Labour to power in 1945, the spirit of equality moving even Woodrow Wyatt (then writing, like me, for Tribune) to say that all inheritances should be limited to £20,000. Yet within a few years the impulse faded, and only the concomitants of rationing and bureaucracy remained. Orwell’s remark that there was no way in which one could distinguish this Labour government from a Tory one was characteristically overstated, but it was true that the Labour politicians in power had no wish to preside over a radical change in society. By the mid-Fifties consensus had set in, although it is unlikely that the most rightward-looking Labourites (e.g. Woodrow Wyatt) then dreamed of Thatcherdom. If the overturn had taken place would the result, forty years on, now be a society like benevolently bureaucratic Sweden, or something more authoritarian? The perhaps illusory chance was missed and we have instead a worse illusion, that of individual ‘freedom’, which always means the subjection of one group to the benefit of another. It is a sad reflection on civilised Western communities that it took the threat of imminent destruction to make people in them behave well to one another.