Don’t mention the war….

Basil Fawlty (John Clees) not mentioning the war. Image from series 1, episode 6 of the BBC's Fawlty Towers

Basil Fawlty (John Clees) not mentioning the war. Image from series 1, episode 6 of the BBC’s Fawlty Towers

…at least, not unless you are a petty-minded bigot, who probably believes that excellence in the dying art of killing, maiming and destroying other people, other cultures somehow makes you a superior race.

Which is why, mostly i don’t. Except today, when the Sun plumbed new depths with its xenophobia and stirring of hatred.

Let’s not be shy. Just in case they have second thoughts later, i have included a screengrab of what they wrote down below. But let’s repeat it here, just to make abundantly clear how they….and i include the journalists who wrote this garbage….are not even pretending any more that they don’t encourage racism.

WHERE THE BREX WAS WON Streets full of Polish shops, kids not speaking English… but Union Jacks now flying high again

People from Portsmouth, Plymouth and Boston revel in their relief at EU exit

Screengrab of article published by the Sun, 26 June 2016

Screengrab of article published by the Sun, 26 June 2016

Ungrateful sods

Ah, yes: Plymouth, Portsmouth and Boston. I know all three of those fairly well, though for quite different reasons.

Escaping the Nazi invasion of his country, Poland, in 1939, my father made his way to England. There, for the next 6 years he served as a medical officer aboard the Grom-class destroyer (for which read, big fuck-off ship with loads of guns), Błyskawica. And if you think that’s a funny name for a ship, it means Lightning!

For much of that period, he and his ship were based in Plymouth. Just as well, really, because that is where he met my (English) mother, and therefore why i happen to be. Few complaints then, i suspect, from the citizens of Plymouth about the presence of these Polish speakers. Though, i grant you, my grandmother – a true racist! – never did forgive him for marrying my mum.

At some point in that period, the Błyskawica turned up in Portsmouth where, by ignoring orders, they possibly saved that city from a Coventry-like fate. Apparently, the local bigwigs were sufficiently impressed that one local council put on a celebration for its “Polish heroes” just four years back.

Meanwhile, if you read through the ship’s log, you will find that on more than one occasion, crew members ignored regulations, coming ashore during air raids to help put out fires and, likely, save the lives of some of those now fed up with hearing Polish spoken on the streets.

I am not sure that the Błyskawica ever did much for Boston. Having lived near that awful, ugly town for a while, i am not convinced that anything much less than the arrival of a pack of marauding zombie bulldozers could achieve anything useful in that neck of the woods. Some places are, perhaps, beyond redemption.

Long ago and far away

Mostly, i am not fixated with the war. As a child of the 60’s, i never did war: excaped national service by a mile. Although for much of my childhood it was a constant comicbook theme: cartoon nazis being bopped by noble Tommies. And it was big in the cinema, too. Many of the worst, most jingoistic films about WWII emerged between the late 50’s and early 70’s, before a more sceptical anti-war attitude took hold.

It also shocks me, now, to realise that the interval between the end of the war and my birth was little more than the age of my son (11) now. I was close to it, but not of it. Like many of the younger babyboomers, steeped in tales of British greatness, without ever having had to pay the real price for being involved.

Sure, my gran went on and on (and on) about it. And there was that time in the 70’s when it was briefly suddenly real. A shout. MY father emerging from the bathroom, blood streaming down one leg. In his hand, two small pieces of metal: shrapnel that he had taken on board some time during the course of the war, emerging unexpectedly forty years later.

But that was it. Over. Done with. Scarcely a topic that deserves to define our nationhood 70 years on. Nor, if i am honest, an argument either way as to whether Poles should or should not be here now.

Selective memory

Except, if most of us have moved on, have the decency to stop mentioning the war, it is for one generation a subject that never goes away.

Those babyboomers, of course, who weren’t there. An outraged octogenarian on the Jeremy Vine show yesterday, raving about ungrateful youth. Had he actually fought in the war? No: he was far too young. But, still…

And, too, Boris Johnson – does he count as a babyboomer? – invoking the memory of Hitler to campaign against Europe.

For some reason, they are stuck, forever defined by a mythical glorious past, in which Britain stood alone against the world and if we could do it then, we can surely do it now. Erased from their memory: all sense that we could never have done it all by ourselves.

That during the war, our shores were home to countless exiled armies, who later fought side by side with us in the re-taking of Europe. Erased, too, the vast quantities of men and materiel provided by the United States: the massive sacrifice made by the Soviet Union (over 20 million dead: a third of their population killed or injured in the war); the soldiers from India, Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Empire, men and women who came and fought for us although they didn’t have to.

Without all that, post-Dunkirk, stalemate might have prevailed for a while, Five years. A decade, perhaps. But eventually, absent a German coup, the removal of Hitler and his ilk from power, the invasion would have come and then we would have discovered we were not so special. No different from all the other countries that went down before the might of the Nazi wehrmacht.

Personally, i’d much rather we stopped mentioning the war. But if we have to – if the racists demand that we do – let’s also mention the role played by others in it.

And if you are a citizen of Plymouth or Portsmouth this morning, hang you head in shame. Many of you would not be here today were it not for what Poles did for you in the war.


About janefae

On my way from here to there
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