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Ken Loach's Spirit of 45: Britain's turn to Labour after the war

What ever happened to Timothy? He was perhaps the embodiment of gentle English civilisation.


Image: BFI

Watching Ken Loach’s most recent film, The Spirit of ’45, reminded me of a letter I received from my fellow film director Lindsay Anderson, written in the last week of his life in August 1994. Anticipating Ken Loach, I had tracked down the surviving cast of Humphrey Jennings’s seminal documentary A Diary for Timothy, described by his biographer as “the best evocation, in film or any other medium, of the reasons why the country ‘went Labour’ at the 1945 elections”, and I had asked Anderson if he would like to direct the sequel, in which the cast contrasted Thatcher’s Britain with their hopes and fears of 50 years before.

Anderson told me that Jennings’s vision had long gone and he could think of nothing to replace it. He concluded, “Things have turned out so very differently from the way Humphrey Jennings hoped. I feel too discouraged by the way things have gone and are going to be. I’m sorry about this.”

Anderson called Jennings “the only real poet British cinema has yet produced”. You may remember A Diary for Timothy (incidentally, it has just been re-released by the BFI). Filmed in the last six months of the Second World War, it is a poetic representation of Britain breaking out of fear into hope, out of darkness into light, out of war into peace. News of the progress of Allied forces comes from radio broadcasts, but the film is really about the lives of four characters on the home front which capture the national mood.

There’s Peter the Typhoon pilot, recovering in hospital from injuries sustained over D-Day. His improving health symbolises national recovery. Geronwy the communist coal miner is determined to maintain wartime improvements: “Once, miners with broken backs were dragged to hospital in flat carts. We’ve got our own ambulance cars now, and nursing services and canteens and pithead baths: nothing at all will stop us after the war.” Alan the gentleman farmer, whose land represents continuity with the past, is digging for victory. Bill the train driver unites the others in the war effort. In the words of the scriptwriter, E M Forster, he is “carrying the miner’s coal, the farmer’s crops and the fighting man’s munitions”. Cut to a gurgling baby, little Timothy Jenkins, born five years after the declaration of war on 3 September 1939, and the words of the narrator, Michael Redgrave, “All these people are fighting for you.”

Contrary to this optimism and, indeed, to the euphoria on the home front at the end of the war, recaptured in the newsreels shown by Ken Loach, a mood of anxiety pervades the film. The narrator puts a prophetic question to Timothy:

“What are you going to do? Will it be a world of greed, unemployment and then another war, or will you make the world a more decent place? You will have the power to choose, the right to criticise, so life in a way will be more dangerous. You will have the difficulty of growing up free. What’s going to happen during the next years when you are here and we are not?”

This is the question that lingers in the mind and must make everyone who has seen the film wonder: what happened to Timothy? How did he cope with being a symbol of the New Britain? I have the answers.

His mother, Betty Jenkins, told me that Timothy’s stardom began when she received an unexpected visitor at her bedside in the Queen Mary’s Maternity Home, then at Eynsham, near Oxford:

“Sister hurried in and placed my baby in my arms without any explanation. Then a thin, artistic-looking young man came in and strode about the room looking at us from all angles. After a while, he turned to a young woman I got to know as his production assistant: ‘Well. I’m satisfied, Di, if you are,’ he said. Then he left. He was quite abrupt.”

And then, according to the New Statesman film reviewer writing in November 1945, “a baby begins to grow up knowing even less than we do of the world into which it has thrust itself”. It is interesting to realise that during the making of the film nobody knew how the war would end nor, of course, what would follow. The NS reviewer, William Whitebait, was prophetic in another way. Placing A Diary for Timothy in his top ten films of the year together with The True Glory and Burmese Victory, he opined that the documentary and semi-documentary had now come into their own with, “it may be supposed, lasting effect”.

“Will you make the world a more decent place?” “Decency” was the word that got the surviving cast of A Diary for Timothy going in 1994/95, and as Lindsay Anderson had chosen not to direct the film I wrote up my research for the New Statesman (“Glory traps”, 12 May 1995).

It seemed, however, an unsuitable question to put to Peggy Jones, whose father, “Gronno” (Geronwy), had died in 1973. As late as 1986, 1,800 men had laboured hundreds of feet underground in Ynysybwl, hewing out 14,000 tonnes of coal and 8,000 tonnes of slag a week. While presumably few would want back the life of a deep-pit miner, what Peggy was witnessing was the death of a community. Nothing remained of the once-mighty Lady Windsor Colliery but a memorial of fake coal in a trolley. On the surface, above the ground honeycombed with filled-in tunnels, there were a few jumps so that little girls could exercise their ponies. The pit baths had gone; so, too, had the Workmen’s Hall, the Institute and the miners’ pub, the Windsor. The cottage hospital where Ger­onwy was filmed recovering from a (fake) accident was a home for the terminally ill. It was the comprehensiveness of the destruction that was shocking. “Dad would turn in his grave if he knew what had happened to this place. He would have put a shoe up Mrs Thatcher’s backside,” Peggy said.

In 1995 both the farmer and nurseryman Alan Bloom and Peter Roper the Typhoon pilot were leading remarkably positive lives. Roper, who migrated to Canada in 1959, had become a distinguished psychiatrist specialising in space and aviation medicine. His views on decency were Blairite:

“To me, decency means responsibility, to ourselves, to our families, to community and country. This hasn’t been emphasised. You hear a lot about human rights, but you just can’t have them without responsibilities. I think that’s what is missing in Britain. It’s changed since the war. If people stood up to their responsibilities as much as their rights, Britain would be a better place.”

Dr Roper is still alive. Alan Bloom died in 2005, aged 98, a horticultural legend. According to his obituary in the Guardian, he had bred or named 170 plants, written 27 books, opened a steam museum and created an extraordinary public garden and nursery in Norfolk. In 1995 he looked like an Old Testament prophet rather than the gentleman farmer in A Diary for Timothy, who could have been played by a pipe-sucking Gregory Peck. Silver hair down to his shoulders and a ring in each ear, he toasted bread on a gas fire; by his chair lay CND and Quaker pamphlets and Jung’s Memories, Dreams and Reflections. A Diary for Timothy was “a noble concept” and he had been “full of zeal for fighting Hitler” but he refused to look back.

There was much of the modern world he found “indecent”, particlarly its materialism, so he went his own way. He kept little money (“for what should it profit a man . . .”), employed a former patient or two from the local psychiatric hospital and immersed himself in the wonders of nature. Perhaps if Jennings or Orwell had met Bloom 50 years after the war they would have recognised an eccentric British genius, and a good man.

There was no trace of Bill the engine driver. So what of Timothy?

By 1995 the gurgling baby had become a thin, asthmatic 50-year-old living in the London dormitory town of Houghton Regis. He taught at a local middle school and struggled to introduce a national curriculum to ever larger classes with insufficient resources. He had plenty to say about decency:

“Children are more assured but more selfish than when I started teaching. There’s little regard for the elderly and they seem more out for what they can get. There’s another thing, too. When I started teaching there was only one kid in my class from a separated family. Now one-third are on income support and I suspect quite a number have single parents. I think it’s the fault of unemployment chiefly. So I don’t think this world is a very decent place.”

On the face of it, Timothy seemed a promising spokesman for the New Britain with plenty to say. He read the Guardian, sometimes the New Statesman. But he was shy about A Diary for Timothy and he had not shown it to his two children. He resented being cast as a symbol; it was an unwanted responsibility. Perhaps he’d had his fingers burned by previous media exposure, in a Central TV documentary of 1985 which included an excruciating scene of him and his young children wandering round a desolate shopping precinct in Luton on Christmas Eve, with muzak carols over the Tannoy and Space Wars on the computer screens. This was intercut with footage of Timothy’s first Christmas. In the 1945 film, a choirboy’s high, pure voice sings “Adeste Fideles” and a dribbling Tim becomes, in Jennings’s symbolism, a surrogate for the Holy Infant. Across the nation, glasses are raised to “absent friends”, and a card from Timothy’s father is read: “My dear son, a very merry Christmas to you . . . May you always be happy and truly content with the life you have been given.”

I kept in touch with Timothy until his premature death in 2000. What Humphrey Jennings would have made of his old subject’s life we will never know, because he also died prematurely, in 1950. But George Orwell would have found him a typical Englishman as defined in his “England Your England”, the essay he wrote in the war, just before Jennings made his film.

Timothy personified “the privateness of English life”, to quote Orwell. He loved his little semi-detached house with garden in the Home Counties and he was “addicted to hobbies and spare-time occupations” – photography, gym coaching, gardening. He showed “the insularity of the English”, being not un-European, but not wanting to go there. Instead he took his children round English castles and museums and subscribed to History Today. He was not a flag-waving, goose-stepping patriot but he always bought a British car (Vauxhall, because its motors were made in Luton) and stood up in front of the television during the Remembrance Day silence. He did not hold strong views about the Germans. As for politics, he was not a socialist but he would never vote Conservative; nor did he and his wife, Sue, discuss how they would vote – another instance of this privateness.

In A Diary for Timothy the Jenkinses represent, perhaps in a rather smug way, the Christian and family values of the English middle class. Timothy, in the words of Orwell, was “without definite religious belief . . . but retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling”. Unlike him, his children were not baptised and no one in the family was a churchgoer, but he had a Christian burial with that fav­ourite hymn of Songs of Praise, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”.

Timothy personified “the gentleness of the English civilisation . . . its most marked characteristic”, as Orwell said. This may sound a bit old-fashioned now, as does the very word “decency”. But I hope it does justice to this hitherto anonymous wartime baby who unwittingly stood for so much.

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A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Are we too complacent in thinking that the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power will never be repeated?

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

This can be uncomfortable. It raises the awkward issue of what philosophers have learned to call “moral luck” – the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz. Or, to take a sharply contemporary example, that one Muslim youth from a disturbed or challenging background becomes a suicide bomber but another from exactly the same background doesn’t. It is as though there were a sort of diabolical mirror image for the biblical Parable of the Sower: some seeds grow and some don’t, depending on the ground they fall on, or what chance external stimulus touches them at critical moments.

If what interests us is simply how to assign individuals rapidly and definitively to the categories of sheep and goats, saved and damned, this is offensively frustrating. But if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.

***

It would be possible to argue that the anti-Semitism of a lot of German culture – as of European Christian culture overall – was never (at least in the modern period) genocidal and obsessed with absolute racial purity; limited but real possibilities of integration were taken for granted, converts to Christianity were not disadvantaged merely because of their race, and so on. Yet the truth is that this cultural hinterland offered a foothold to the mania of Adolf Hitler; that it gave him just enough of the permission he needed to identify his society’s problems with this clearly definable “alien” presence. In his new book, Hitler: the Ascent, Volker Ullrich compellingly tells us once again that no one could have been under any illusion about Hitler’s general intentions towards the Jews from his very first appearance as a political figure, even if the detailed planning of genocide (lucidly traced in the late David Cesarani’s recent, encyclopaedic Final Solution) took some time to solidify. Yet so much of the German public heard Hitler’s language as the slightly exaggerated version of a familiar trope and felt able to treat it as at worst an embarrassing overstatement of a common, even a common-sense, view. One of the most disturbing things about this story is the failure of so many (inside and outside Germany) to grasp that Hitler meant what he said; and this failure in turn reinforced the delusion of those who thought they could use and then sideline Hitler.

To say that Hitler “meant what he said”, however, can be misleading. It is one of the repeated and focal themes in Ullrich’s book that Hitler was a brazen, almost compulsive liar – or, perhaps better, a compulsive and inventive actor, devising a huge range of dramatic roles for himself: frustrated artist, creative patron, philosopher-king (there is a fine chapter on the intellectual and artistic circle he assembled frequently at his Berchtesgaden residence), workers’ friend, martyr for his people (he constantly insinuated that he believed himself doomed to a tragic and premature death), military or economic messiah and a good deal else besides. His notorious outbursts of hysterical rage seem to have been skilfully orchestrated as instruments of intimidation (though this did not exactly indicate that he was otherwise predictable). Ullrich devotes a fair measure of attention to the literal staging of National Socialism, the architectural gigantism of Albert Speer which gave the Führer the sophisticated theatre he craved. In all sorts of ways, Hitler’s regime was a profoundly theatrical exercise, from the great public displays at Nuremberg and the replanning of Berlin to the various private fantasies enacted by him and his close associates (Göring above all), and from the emotional roller coaster he created for his circle to the dangerously accelerated rate of military-industrial expansion with which he concealed the void at the centre of the German economy.

Theatre both presupposes and creates a public. In the anxiety and despair of post-Versailles Germany, there was a ready audience for the high drama of Nazism, including its scapegoating of demonic enemies within and without. And in turn, the shrill pitch of Hitler’s quasi-liturgies normalised a whole set of bizarre and fantastic constructions of reality. A N Wilson’s challenging novel Winnie and Wolf, a fantasia on Hitler’s relations with Winifred Wagner, culminates in a scene at the end of the war where refugees and destitute citizens in Bayreuth raid the wardrobe of the opera house and wander the streets dressed in moth-eaten costumes; it is an unforgettable metaphor for one of the effects of Hitlerian theatre. Ullrich leaves his readers contemplating the picture of a vast collective drama centred on a personality that was not – as some biographers have suggested – something of a cipher, but that of a fantasist on a grand scale, endowed with a huge literal and metaphorical budget for staging his work.

All of this prompts questions about how it is that apparently sophisticated political systems succumb to corporate nervous breakdowns. It is anything but an academic question in a contemporary world where theatrical politics, tribal scapegoating and variegated confusions about the rule of law are increasingly in evidence. On this last point, it is still shocking to realise how rapidly post-Versailles Germany came to regard violent public conflict between heavily armed militias as almost routine, and this is an important background to the embittered negotiations later on around the relation between Hitler’s Sturmabteilung and the official organs of state coercion. Ullrich’s insightful account of a de facto civil war in Bavaria in the early 1920s makes it mercilessly plain that any pretensions to a state monopoly of coercion in Germany in this period were empty.

Yet the idea of such a state monopoly is in fact essential to anything that could be called a legitimate democracy. In effect, the polity of the Third Reich “privatised” coer­cion: again and again in Ullrich’s book, in the struggles for power before 1933, we see Nazi politicians successfully bidding for control of the mechanisms of public order in the German regions, and more or less franchising public order to their own agencies. A classical democratic political philosophy would argue that the state alone has the right to use force because the state is the guarantor of every community’s and every individual’s access to redress for injury or injustice. If state coercion becomes a tool for any one element in the social complex, it loses legitimacy. It is bound up with the rule of law, which is about something more than mere majority consent. One way of reading the rise of Hitler and National Socialism is as the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society. It is the deliberate dissolution of the idea of a Rechtsstaat, a law-governed state order that can be recognised by citizens as organised for their common and individual good. Rule by decree, the common pattern of Nazi governmental practice, worked in harness with law enforcement by a force that was essentially a toxic hybrid, combining what was left of an independent police operation with a highly organised party militia system.

So, one of the general imperatives with which Hitler’s story might leave us is the need to keep a clear sense of what the proper work of the state involves. Arguments about the ideal “size” of the state are often spectacularly indifferent to the basic question of what the irreducible functions of state authority are – and so to the question of what cannot be franchised or delegated to non-state actors (it is extraordinary that we have in the UK apparently accepted without much debate the idea that prison security can be sold off to private interests). This is not the same as saying that privatisation in general leads to fascism; the issues around the limits to state direction of an economy are complex. However, a refusal to ask some fundamental questions about the limits of “franchising” corrodes the idea of real democratic legitimacy – the legitimacy that arises from an assurance to every citizen that, whatever their convictions or their purchasing power, the state is there to secure their access to justice. And, connected with this, there are issues about how we legislate: what are the proper processes of scrutiny for legislation, and how is populist and short-view legislation avoided? The Third Reich offers a masterclass in executive tyranny, and we need not only robust and intelligent counter-models, but a clear political theory to make sense of and defend those models.

***

Theatre has always been an aspect of the political. But there are different kinds of theatre. In ancient Athens, the annual Dionysia festival included the performance of tragedies that forced members of the audience to acknowledge the fragility of the political order and encouraged them to meditate on the divine interventions that set a boundary to vendetta and strife. Classical tragedy is, as political theatre, the exact opposite of Hitlerian drama, which repeatedly asserted the solid power of the Reich, the overcoming of weakness and division by the sheer, innate force of popular will as expressed through the Führer.

Contemporary political theatre is not – outside the more nakedly totalitarian states – a matter of Albert Speer-like spectacle and affirmation of a quasi-divine leader; but it is increasingly the product of a populist-oriented market, the parading of celebrities for popular approval, with limited possibilities for deep public discussion of policies advanced, and an assumption that politicians will be, above all, performers. It is not – to warn once again against cliché and exaggeration – that celebrity culture in politics is a short route to fascism. But a political theatre that never deals with the fragility of the context in which law and civility operate, that never admits the internal flaws and conflicts of a society, and never allows some corporate opening-up to the possibilities of reconciliation and reparation, is one that exploits, rather than resolves our anxieties. And, as such, it makes us politically weaker, more confused and fragmented.

The extraordinary mixture of farce and menace in Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent distillation of all this: a political theatre, divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity, bringing to the surface the buried poisons of a whole system and threatening its entire viability and rationality. But it is an extreme version of the way in which modern technology-and-image-driven communication intensifies the risks that beset the ideals of legitimate democracy.

And – think of Trump once again – one of the most seductively available tricks of such a theatre is the rhetoric of what could be called triumphant victimhood: we are menaced by such and such a group (Jews, mig­rants, Muslims, Freemasons, international business, Zionism, Marxism . . .), which has exerted its vast but covert influence to destroy us; but our native strength has brought us through and, given clear leadership, will soon, once and for all, guarantee our safety from these nightmare aliens.

***

This is a rhetoric that depends on ideas of collective guilt or collective malignity: plots ascribed to the agency of some dangerous minority are brandished in order to tarnish the name of entire communities. The dark legacy of much popular Christian language about collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus could be translated without much difficulty into talk about the responsibility of Jews for the violence and poverty afflicting Germans in the 1920s. (Shadows of the same myths still affect the way in which – as recent reports suggest – sinister, vague talk about Zionism and assumptions of a collective Jewish guilt for the actions of various Israeli politicians can become part of a climate that condones anti-Semitic bullying, or text messages saying “Hitler had a point”, on university campuses.)

Granted that there is no shortage of other candidates for demonic otherness in Europe and the United States (witness Trump’s language about Muslims and Mexicans), the specific and abiding lesson of Nazi anti-Semitism is the twofold recognition of the ease with which actually disadvantaged communities can be cast in the role of all-powerful subverters, and the way in which the path to violent exclusion of one kind or another can be prepared by cultures of casual bigotry and collective anxiety or self-pity, dramatised by high-temperature styles of media communication.

Marie Luise Knott’s recent short book Unlearning With Hannah Arendt (2014) revisits the controversy over Arendt’s notorious characterisation of the mindset of Nazism as “the banality of evil”, and brilliantly shows how her point is to do with the erosion in Hitlerian Germany of the capacity to think, to understand one’s agency as answerable to more than public pressure and fashion, to hold to notions of honour and dignity independent of status, convention or influence – but also, ultimately, the erosion of a sense of the ridiculous. The victory of public cliché and stereotype is, in Arendt’s terms, a protection against reality, “against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”, as she memorably wrote in The Life of the Mind. Hitler was committed to the destruction of anything that challenged the simple self-identity and self-justification of the race and the nation; hence, as Ullrich shows in an acutely argued chapter of Hitler: a Biography, the Führer’s venom against the churches, despite their (generally) embarrassingly lukewarm resistance to the horrors of the Reich. The problem was that the churches’ rationale entailed just that accountability to more than power and political self-identity that Nazi philosophy treated as absolute. They had grounds for thinking Nazism not only evil, but absurd. Perhaps, then, one of the more unexpected questions we are left with by a study of political nightmare such as Ullrich’s excellent book is how we find the resources for identifying the absurd as well as for clarifying the grounds of law and honour.

The threats now faced by “developed” democracy are not those of the 1920s and 1930s; whatever rough beasts are on their way are unlikely to have the exact features of Hitler’s distinctive blend of criminality and melodrama. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking as hard as we can at the lessons to be learned from the collapse of political legality, the collective panics and myths, the acceptance of delusional and violent public theatre that characterised Hitler’s Germany. For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.

Hitler: a Biography – Volume I: Ascent by Volker Ullrich is published by the Bodley Head

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism