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Don't Mention the War

There was talk a while back about banning episodes of Fawlty Towers because there was a risk that some people might find them offensive.  This feels to me like another example of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but I suppose it is symptomatic of the times in which we live.  Given that John Cleese’s irascible hotel owner was exceptionally rude to everyone he encountered, which was after all the whole point of the programme, it would be hard to single out any individual or group who escaped the attention of Basil, or indeed the character of Major Gowen, played so splendidly by Ballard Berkeley.

Perhaps the most well-known episode was when Basil was concussed after a stuffed moose’s head that he had nailed to the wall in the foyer of the hotel, to try to add a touch of class to the establishment, fell on him during a fiasco of a fire drill.  Waking up in hospital, he subsequently discharged himself and returned to the hotel, though he was clearly in no fit state to do so, and wreaked havoc with the guests, most notably a group of unwitting German tourists who were trying to order a meal, at which point the catchphrase ‘don’t mention the war’ became commonplace across the country.

Several of the books I have read recently highlight the idea that the British obsession with the Second World War has become a significant hindrance to our political and economic development in the last seventy-five years, in everything from the onset of an unhealthy conceit that we are somehow better than everyone else to the distrust of experts at times when their advice would actually be very useful.  Cleese may have taken things to a new level, as he often did, but he was tapping in to a feeling that was already embedded in the national psyche.

As Otto English points out in his book ‘Fake History’, next to the suffering of other European nations, Britain actually got off relatively lightly in the Second World War.  Compared to the more than 300,000 French civilian deaths or the millions of Polish and Russian lives lost, not to mention the Holocaust, it was slight.  For example, more Hungarians and French civilians died in the war than all British civilian and military losses.

The jingoism that continues to linger today was not how people felt at the end of the war.  English tells his readers that most Britons who survived the events of 1939-45 did not revel in the victory.  They had spent six years separated from loved ones, living in fear and subsisting off paltry rations.  Life was colourless and empty.  Childhoods were swallowed and young lives were wasted in fighting a horrible and protracted war.  As such, the VE Day celebrations were brief and largely muted.  Most people wanted to move on and build a happier and safer future.  The British of 1945 had their eyes firmly on what was to come and not what had been.  That is why they voted Churchill out, opting for a vision of a better world instead, which Clement Attlee offered.

And yet in the years since, the Blitz and Dunkirk spirit have become sacred to many – a secret weapon to be summoned up in times of need.  During the Covid-19 pandemic, what English describes as ‘this banal nonsense’ was resurrected and people were told to keep calm and carry on, as if endurance was particular to the British and these qualities were imbued in their DNA.  He goes on to point out that Britain, almost alone among European nations, has not been conquered or invaded in a major war in the last two hundred years.  It has never had to stare into its soul and question what it is.  Instead, it has fallen back on those imagined and propagandised moments of glory.

The author concludes this section of his book in his usual forthright style by saying that the paradox of exceptionalism is that the conceit is not unique to any one country.  All nations are susceptible to the condition.  But all exceptionalism is ‘cultism’ whether we like it or not.  It creates pigeonholes and notions of groupthink.  It encourages division and walls.  At its worst, it leads to football violence, to acts of monstrous self-sabotage and even war.  Some believe in horoscopes and others in fairies, while others still believe in the ‘little ships’ myth of Dunkirk spirit.  But cling to that nonsense, he says, and you might as well believe in aliens and little green men.

During the World Cup match last week between Japan and Spain, the commentator, in what I hope was an unintended way, more than once seemed to lapse into the sort of racial stereotyping that still occurs too often.  He suggested that the Japanese were the sort of people who never gave up.  I do not think he actually used the word ‘surrender’, but it was hard not to be reminded of the footage from the 1930s and 40s of Japanese soldiers shouting ‘Banzai’ at the news cameras.  He also suggested that the relentlessness of the way the Japanese were playing was akin to the steady drip of water, which seemed particularly inappropriate if you know anything about methods of torture.  Although this was more usually associated with China rather than Japan, it still seemed like a dangerous path to go down during a football match.   

The October 2021 edition of the BBC History Magazine would appear to back up such comments when it said that the media has played a key role in reinforcing racial stereotypes.  Studies conducted across several decades have identified continuities in the association of white players with intelligence, and black players with instinct and power.  Recent research by Paul Ian Campbell and Louis Bebb, based on the analysis of British television commentary from the 2018 World Cup, found that whereas black players were overwhelmingly praised for physical prowess and athleticism, white players were identified with cognitive and character attributes.  This not only reinforced the long-standing idea of ‘natural’ black athletes but also contributed to social myths about black people as ‘hyper-physical’ and ‘cognitively challenged’ that impact upon their wider treatment by society.

Otto English makes the point that what we think happened in the past and what we are encouraged to believe are not necessarily how things were.  Events were not ordered or pre-ordained or clear cut.  History, like the human beings who forged it, is complex and nuanced, and all the more interesting for it.  But most people do not like complex and nuanced.  So increasingly around the world populists, lobbyists, influencers and pundits have sought to strip events of intricacy, to reinforce falsehoods and to cement myths that favour their agendas in the present.  In the process, history has been ‘footballified’.  It has been turned into a game, with sides and jeering supporters.  Detail has been traduced and truth jeopardised, with events remoulded by populists to fit neat little narratives and to secure power for their own ends. 

I asked my Lower Sixth class this week if they could guess what the tabloid headlines might be on Saturday morning ahead of the match with France.  When England have played Germany in the past, the usual refrains highlight ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’, or use words like ‘Achtung’ and names like ‘Fritz’.  Or perhaps we get Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army reminding us that ‘they don’t like it up ’em.’  Sadly, I fear we will either get onion sellers in stripy tops and berets or references to Waterloo or Agincourt this weekend.  Let us therefore hope that the quality of the sport can rise above the quality of the rhetoric and reportage – whatever the result may be.

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