Frey Thorvaldsson

Narratives

Kept calm and carried on by Frey Thorvaldsson

General Gallieni, dining in civilian clothes at a small café in Paris on August 9, overheard an editor of Le Temps at the next table say to a companion, “I can tell you that General Gallieni has just entered Colmar with 30,000 men.” Leaning over to his friend, Gallieni said quietly, “That is how history is written."
― Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August
As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.
― George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, touching on his experience of the Blitz.

In 1940 Britain stood alone against Germany. Across the channel the German empire stretched from France to Poland. Hitler, finding himself triumphant in all undertakings (so far, crucially) was still unable to force Britain to the bargaining table. To remedy the situation he hoped to invade England. For a safe channel crossing air superiority had to be gained first. A campaign of attacking airbases and combatants grotesquely morphed into the nightly carpet bombing of English industrial towns.

As people found themselves on the receiving end of German bombs the best of the British was uncovered. Stoic Anglo-Saxon milkmen let no rubble halt a good day's work. Churchill made speeches that united the nation. Keep calm and carry on was plastered on every street corner. England stood firm in the face of adversity.

How true is that narrative really?

Sort of. The added bits of colour, like the photo of the milk man stumbling over rubble was staged. Other photos were doctored or censored. The sort of pictures we’re now used to from foreign war zones, of crying children amidst bombed out cities were kept out of the public's view. The keep calm and carry on posters were famously never printed and found useful only after the war. By then it was most fit for street-corner purveyors of British kitsch.

Milk man during the blitzThe famous photo of the milk man "carrying on". Read more about the staging of this picture here. Fred Morley (October 9, 1944) Milkman (© Getty Images)

At the time, keeping morale up was felt to be more important than telling the truth. Enemy casualty numbers were routinely inflated and British losses downplayed. When propaganda wasn't aimed at the home front the British government was skilfully courting American public opinion. For Britain to involve the Yanks as they had done in 1917 they needed to propagandise for all their worth. Part of this strategy was to play up the ‘old embattled nation standing alone’ element of British resistance and downplay the less savoury aspects, like the fact that 'vulnerable' Britain was a master of a globe-spanning empire of its very own.

In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.
― Winston Churchill, November 1943

What’s disturbing is that the propaganda still has a hold on us 80 years on. The time when the Luftwaffe could bomb British cities with impunity is considered rather fondly by some. Spitfires over the cliffs of Dover are the stuff of nationalist cliché.

For better or worse, the 'stiff upper lip' narrative of the Blitz has retained its potency. It’s a good story which has sharpened with time as nuance is erased. Those who remember Churchill as a divisive party politician, those who remember the shirkers, those who remember the cynicism of transparent propaganda, those who remember the bodies and know the fear of getting mutilated by bombs or crushed by brick, those souls are now safely tucked away underground. What’s left is the narrative, built to serve a nation at war but now hangs clouding the past.

As of late, with a pandemic forcing us to act as a nation again, these sorts of wartime references have been in vogue. It’s natural to want to compare and contrast the historical with the current. One has the dubious privilege to live as ‘history' unfolds which has at least been interesting, if not very fun.

The obvious point I tend to forget when reading history is that the people living through it don't know how things will turn out. Since March this has been brought home to me. It’s only now, with the vaccine being ‘rolled out' that we know where things are going. Having sighted a safe harbour we can now start the mythologising.

In the United Kingdom, the virus has been characterised by government incompetence and general public compliance. Lions led by donkeys is apt. Initially most were happy to do their part. After stay at home orders were given the centre of London was totally lifeless. It brought to mind a scene painted by Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August. She describes the empty streets of Paris on a sunny summers day, drained of life due to the feared German advance. A dormant London was for me a good time to jog and cycle without worrying about traffic. The total adherence which characterised the first few months of lockdown has slowly been whittled away by fatigue, confusing messaging and elites flagrantly ignoring the rules. Now I share the road again.

Before the pandemic, in one of my many fanciful moments I imagined what I’d do if I had lived in an Italian town during the Black Death. I imagined I’d do something smart, like staying away from people and rats... I suppose. I simultaneously carried with me a contradictory thought. I vaguely felt that I wouldn’t be one of those people who let fear overcome decency if a friend or kin was dying alone. I can’t say I reconciled these thoughts or even tried to. Whatever the case was, I hoped to be the smart but brave protagonist that everyone imagines they will be in a crisis.

In the actual pandemic which fate bestowed me, I was on the sidelines, of not much use to anyone. I’m not medically trained and luckily I know very few people who’ve had the virus. At the start of the pandemic I wore my mask upside down. Instead of heroics, this whole time has been about keeping an even keel and combatting loneliness. Not at all heroic, mostly plain boring.

When the myth-making is complete, I wonder what elements will be retained and which will get in the way of a good story. What I do know, is that none of the narratives about the Black Death which I’ve read have mentioned boredom.

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