Time for Several Whiskies
- Auntie’s War: The BBC during the Second World War by Edward Stourton
Doubleday, 422 pp, £20.00, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 85752 332 7
In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries made ‘post-truth’ their word of the year, defining it as an adjective that described circumstances ‘in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. This hardly seems up to the job: if that’s all the word means, the wonder is that we have waited so long for it. When has our understanding of public life not been shaped more by emotion than by ‘objective facts’? When was this golden age of objectivity? Surely not in the time when press lords such as Northcliffe and Beaverbrook liked to attest to it, along with the retired army sergeant next door who had been East and seen a thing or two. George Orwell offers a sharper insight into the meaning of ‘post-truth’ in his reflections on the success of pro-Franco propaganda in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. ‘I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway,’ he wrote in 1942. ‘I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.’
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 40 No. 17 · 13 September 2018
Ian Jack refers to the use during the Second World War of switch censors, BBC employees who were ready to cut off a broadcast instantly if a speaker wandered into ‘dangerous territory’ (LRB, 30 August). That wasn’t the only censorship technique available. Despite the entreaties of commissioning editors, the Passport Office (by which we should understand MI6) refused to grant Frank O’Connor, one of Ireland’s best-known writers, a permit to visit London to record for the BBC in 1942.
Trinity College, Dublin
Ian Jack doesn’t mention one occasion when the system of censorship at the BBC during the Second World War broke down with disastrous results. In 1942, the garrison of Tobruk, commanded by Major-General H.B. Klopper, was surrounded. In African Trilogy (1944), Alan Moorehead wrote that
When the battle was actually joined, an announcement came over the air from London suggesting that Tobruk was not after all vital and might be lost. How this disastrous and insane broadcast came to go on the air is still unexplained. The encouragement it offered to the Germans and the depression it spread among the isolated British defenders can be imagined … Klopper and his staff heard it and almost the last message that was received from Klopper said, ‘I cannot carry on if the BBC is allowed to make these statements.’
After fierce fighting, he surrendered. ‘The BBC was listened to intently every day in the desert,’ Moorehead added, ‘because it was usually the only contact the men had with the outside world.’
Vol. 40 No. 18 · 27 September 2018
My father, Denis Johnston, was a war correspondent with the BBC. He arrived in Egypt in 1942 when the Eighth Army was in full retreat ahead of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The BBC’s Cairo correspondent was Richard Dimbleby. My father was appalled by the sardonic laughter of the soldiers listening to Dimbleby’s breezy optimistic reports, which originated from the generals (LRB, 30 August). ‘From that time on,’ he records in his memoirs Orders and Desecrations, ‘I was firmly determined not to say a word that I would not be prepared to hear coming back to the ears of the Eighth Army at Alamein while I sat among them.’ The light dawned on the BBC brass in London and Dimbleby was recalled, much to his lasting indignation. Soon after that General Montgomery arrived. He recognised the power of radio in his own self-promotion, through which he transformed the morale of the Eighth Army, the counter-attack succeeded, and the tide of the war turned.
Listening to Children’s Hour in 1940 when I was eight years old, I heard the programme interrupted by a new voice, a man speaking in a firm, calm but urgent way. If you have a boat, the man said, capable of crossing the Channel, take it now to the coast of France and bring home some British soldiers. I asked my mother about this and she began to cry. In fact, for the next few days the grown-ups (my mother and aunt, and my friends’ mothers) were often in tears. A little was rather tremblingly explained to us. Soon we began to see lorries, and even buses, full of tired-looking soldiers, driving up the main road from the coast. I have listened to the wireless every day for most of my life – forgotten most of it, but never that interruption to Larry the Lamb.
I, too, believed I heard Churchill deliver that post-Dunkirk speech over the wireless on 4 June 1940. I was 14 at the time of Dunkirk and well aware of the possible consequences. Some years ago a schoolfriend asked me if I remembered the speech. He said it was rumoured that Churchill had not given it himself; the guy who played Larry the Lamb in the ‘Toytown’ series on Children’s Hour had impersonated him. We laughed that off. But after reading Ian Jack’s article I am now convinced that Churchill did not broadcast his speech. Its most defiant and inspiring passages were read during the nine o’clock news by the regular news reader. In the original speech Churchill referred to ‘the odious apparatus of Nazi rule’. Did the BBC presenter read ‘Nazi’ with the German pronunciation, or copy Churchill’s trademark, contemptuous ‘Naarzi’ pronunciation? It’s easy to understand how, in that time of dread uncertainty, so many of us heard Churchill’s own growling voice behind those words and felt a sense of reassurance and resolve.