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We who lived through it

My father, a provincial boyhood and the long shadow of war.

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The most embarrassing social interaction I was ever involved in took place 43 years ago this month. It happened in the back room of my parents’ house in the Norwich suburbs. Those present around the family tea table to witness it included the Taylors – all five of us – my sister’s flaxen-haired German pen friend Irmgard, and her parents, Herr and Frau Ehlers. The ­latter, vacationing in England, had decided to pay their daughter and her hosts a visit.

There were several ways in which, from the angle of this 16-year-old observer, Herr Ehlers seemed to be chancing his luck. Item one on the list was to turn up unannounced on the doorstep, thereby plunging all the domestic arrangements into confusion. Item two was to spend most of the meal ­regaling us with his not especially favourable opinion of the UK. As the cups of tea gave way to the sandwiches and the sandwiches to the sliced-up Swiss roll, he droned somewhat censoriously on about the ­dirtiness of the London streets and the inability of the trains to run on time.

There was quite a lot of this. Dad, a gregarious and talkative man, kept unusually silent. Finally, there came a moment when for some reason the town of Flossenburg strayed into the conversation. Only I saw the gleam in my father’s eye. “I’ve been to Flossenburg,” he said, quietly. There was a terrible second or two in which Herr Ehlers strained towards the bait. “Oh yes?” he ­enquired. “And when were you in ­Flossenburg?” Another terrible second or two went by. “Fifth of May, 1945,” my father lobbed back. Shortly afterwards the Ehlers returned to London.

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In John Fowles’s The Magus (1966), a novel which has quite a lot to say about the ­Second World War’s impact on the ­British imagination, the saturnine hero, Nicholas D’Urfe (born 1927), opens the proceedings by reflecting that his parents were “born in the grotesquely elongated ­shadow… of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria”. Well, I was born in 1960 and the grotesquely elongated shadow of the ­Second World War hung over my childhood like a winding sheet.

To begin with, there were its physical mementoes, which could be glimpsed in practically every room in the house: Leading Aircraftsman JRG Taylor’s war medals in their box; the Nazi flags he had looted from various German town halls lay in a crate up in the loft; the RAF service greatcoat worn to dig the garden on autumn afternoons; above all the scrapbook – I have it here as I write – with the Daily Herald front page from 6 June 1944 and Eisenhower’s letter to the Allied Expeditionary Force. To these could be added all those queer little moments when, out of nowhere, the war would start making its presence felt: an old postcard of wartime Brussels, say, falling out of an album, or a short-wave radio band suddenly breaking into Morse code, which my father would gamely start deciphering.

Just as omnipresent were the war stories. Dad had been a ground-based wireless operator, who spent most of his time in Ireland “guarding the border” – essentially this meant stopping people smuggling petrol over it – before following the Allied Army over the Rhine. But even so he had his tales to tell: the Messerschmitt bullet that whipped through the side-panel of a truck, and passed through one of his colleagues and the radio before exiting on the farther side; the corpse discovered in the middle of a village street in France which, when picked up for disposal, simply came apart in the middle; the vodka orgy with two Russian soldiers in a German graveyard that ended with him being sick over the stones.

My mother’s tales from the Home Front – she was seven when the war broke out – were in some ways yet more compelling, for their focus was the house in which, a quarter of a century later, we now resided: it was my own bedroom to which, as a ten-year-old, she had returned after a raid to find shattered glass all over the blankets. My grandmother, too, had a story of standing at the upstairs window during the Baedeker raid of 1942, when the target was Norwich Cathedral, and seeing a Dornier bomber come in so low over the tree-tops that she could make out the pilot’s face ­staring from the cockpit.

If the war had a direct impact on our haunts and habitations – both sets of grandparents had their homes bombed out in 1942 – then it had also wreaked havoc on how we operated as a family unit, how we saw ourselves and the kind of people we assumed ourselves to be. Much of the (more or less) latent antagonism between my father and my maternal grandfather rested on the fact that whereas Dad had spent five years in Ireland, occupied Europe and the Middle East, his managerial father-in-law had been marked down as “reserved occupation”, and got no further than a stint with the ­Observer Corps on the ramparts of Norwich Castle. ­Several decades later, I rather sympathise with my grandfather – 36 when the war broke out, with a wife and two small ­children to think about – but back in the 1960s this was ­serious stuff.

Worse, there was a whole branch of the family – the Duckworths – from whom we were permanently estranged, after my father’s cousin Fred had announced, some time in the early part of the war, that his Methodist faith wouldn’t permit him to take up arms, and registered as a Conscientious Objector. My paternal grandfather, a veteran of the Somme, had declared that he “never wanted to see that lily-livered swine again” as long as he lived. And so the Duckworths had slipped out of our lives, turned into a kind of generational black hole in which the past had somehow been ­swallowed up, living only a few miles away but as remote from us as the pleasure domes of Kublai Khan.

As for the psychological effect of the war on my parents, an odd contradistinction seemed to apply. For my working-class father, the effect of five years’ war service was to ginger up his hedonistic side: you took pleasure where you could find it, went for a good time when the opportunity arose, and damned the consequences. Even as a very old man (he died in 2006) he would always say yes to a cup of tea or an unsolicited mid-afternoon snack on the grounds that he had lived through a time when you sometimes didn’t know where the next cup of tea was coming from. He had the same attitude to public transport. You climbed on the first train available: there might not be another.

For my much more middle-class mother, on the other hand, the privations of the Home Front – food rationing, no bananas, make-do-and-mend attitudes to clothes – merely made a residual puritanism worse. Deep into the 1970s, her attitude to housekeeping was still heroically in thrall to a frugality learned in the war years: the Sunday joints spun out into Monday’s shepherd’s pie and Tuesday’s rissoles; the cheap ­biscuits that lay mouldering in the tin ­because no one wanted to eat them; savage economies over bargain basement margarine and second-hand football boots.

There was a terrible game that she sometimes used to play at the dinner table – terrible in that its comedy didn’t quite disguise the existential nerve that twitched beneath – which involved trying to work out how long we could “survive” in the event of another conflict. A root through the store cupboards and an inventory of the fridge usually allowed her settle on a date two or three weeks away – provided, that was, that somebody had remembered to fill up the bath in advance. Nothing loath, my father would chip in with sage advice with what to do if a bomb fell on the house – ­hiding ­under the dining table being a ­better bet, he reckoned, than the cupboard under the stairs.

All this, naturally, worked its effect. In particular, it gave many of the great public events of the 1960s a context that in certain circumstances went back 20 or 30 years. One of my first proper memories, for example, is of watching the 1966 World Cup final with my father. Even as a five-year-old, sitting silent on the parquet floor and weeping as Weber slid in to make it 2-2 in last minute of ordinary time, I was aware of the immense significance of what was going on before me, knew that all this had a symbolic value that went way beyond 11 men in red jerseys racketing across the Wembley turf. No indeed, this was the Third World War by proxy. When it was over and Dad had stopped jumping up and down, he reached into his jacket pocket and presented me with a one pound note. This was an astonishing sum to give a child in 1966 – my pocket money would then have been a few pence – but I could see his point. Something altogether momentous had happened. Britain might be going to hell in a handcart. The Beatles, Mr Wilson and miniskirts – all of which my father hated – might be sapping our collective morale on every side. But for the third time in a row we had beaten the Germans at something. Once again, all was right with the world.

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Meanwhile, to add to spectacle of the Third World War being fought out in your front room, there was the paraphernalia of a Sixties-to-Seventies childhood to contend with. I can scarcely remember a toy purchased between the years 1964 and 1974 that didn’t have some connection to the events of 1939-45: 00-scale Airfix toy soldiers; model aircraft kits (even today I can tell you the difference between a Junkers JU-88 and a JU-87B Stuka, recall how many gun turrets there were on a Lancaster bomber, and put up a case for the Boulton Paul Defiant’s role at Dunkirk being underrated); replica weapons and uniforms; Action Man gear; Commando magazines. The best film I ever saw as a pre-teen was The Great Escape, closely followed by a three-hour epic called The Battle of Britain, while the local branch library was full of Colditz breakouts, Burma bridge-buildings and associated derring-do.

It was the same with the novels by Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell and Olivia Manning which one started reading a few years later in the sixth form. Here, it seemed, was an entire literature devoted to the war your father had fought in, where even the angry young men of the statue-toppling 1950s were signed up as junior subalterns. After all, the university-lecturing hero of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954) keeps his notes in an old RAF file, visualises the streets and squares of London by remembering a ­weekend leave spent there during the war and is forced to compare his tenure as a RAF corporal on the west coast of Scotland with the heroics of his student Mr Michie, who commanded a tank troop at Anzio.

All this – the toys, the books, the annual Remembrance Day service, the steady drip of parental reminiscence – had a profound impact on the view I took of the world. What you thought about domestic politics; what you thought about Europe (then, as now, a subject of rare concern); what you thought about Britain’s place among the nations: all this could be tracked back to Churchill, Eisenhower and the race to Berlin. Mired in a provincial adolescence, I swallowed all the stereotypes that my ­father’s generation brought back from the war like so many fish fingers. Thus:

Germans: Satan’s spawn, while grudgingly admired for their resilience, military nous etc.

Americans: to be honoured and revered for their part in the war effort. In fact, only a rung or two beneath the UK as a candidate for the world’s greatest nation. My father was known to stop USAF servicemen (not difficult to find in Norfolk, what with the proliferation of American air-force bases) in the street and insist on shaking their hands.

French: shifty and unreliable. This was a consequence of Vichy, but also of one or two 1944-era encounters with Gallic ­farmers unkeen on opening their barns to foraging British soldiery. Naturally, my ­father loathed General de Gaulle.

Italians: shifty and unreliable, and also comic and cowardly. Three British NCOs armed with a Bren gun would be perfectly capable of stopping the entire Italian army in its tracks.

Japanese: Possibly even worse than the Germans, on account of their treatment of POWs. My father could never be got to complain about nuclear warfare for the ­elementary reason that it had stopped him from being posted to the Far East.

Significantly, this conceptualising net extended far beyond Europe and the Americas. As we watched the foreign news on television in the mid-1970s, there would occasionally come a shout of “Terrorist! Terrorist!” – meaning that my father had caught sight of the Israeli PM Menachem Begin, whose Molotov Cocktail-tossing Stern Gang he had gone in fear of while ­helping to police the Palestinian protectorate back in 1946.

But there was something else that hung over the irresistible Seventies spectacle of my father telling us all what the French could do with their Common Market. This, it is fair to say, was a sense of guilt. The main reason I felt so close to the Second World War a quarter of a century after it ended was that my father, unlike the more ­juvenile parents of my schoolfriends, had actually fought in it, seen people die and pored over copies of a staff magazine awash with the obituaries of young men he had shared an office space with or played football with over the Norfolk recreation grounds.

All this produced a sobering generational nexus. “He was a better man than me,” my father used to declare, whenever the talk turned to his own father, Lance Corporal JW Taylor of the Norfolk Regiment, who had fought in the Boer War, been invalided out after Passchendaele and even in his sixties spent his evenings as an ARP warden out on the Norwich council estates. Well, on this scale of values my father was a better man that me. At the age when he was doing his basic training on the Blackpool seafront, I was swanning around at Oxford. At the age when he was sitting in a wireless operators’ truck on Luneburg Heath, I was lounging in a wine bar somewhere near Oxford Street pretending to be a PR executive. Compared to what he went through between the ages of 19 and 24, I was a decadent softie, and I knew it.

Three-quarters of a century after VJ Day, when the Japanese surrender brought the Second World War to its close, reminders of the conflict and its effect on our collective sensibility are still everywhere to hand. If one of its consequences was to nurture a sense of the national collective we are, and were meant to be – that whole “People’s War” framing, which sees the founding of the NHS as a natural progression from the solidarity of 1939-45 – then another has been to encourage the low-level chauvinism that hangs over our relationship with Europe. The continent is immemorially regarded as a cartel bossed by Germany, the country we defeated, and France, the country we rescued from tyranny. Even now, at a time of unimaginably lowered national prestige, it is possible for a certain kind of Englishman (and it is usually a man) to console himself with the thought that: “After all, we won the war.”

As for the personal consequences, only the other day I turned up a copy of John Keegan’s history of the Second World War, given to my father as a birthday present in the late 1980s, and returned to me by my mother after he died. On the flyleaf Dad had written his name and the four words, “Who lived through it.” As anyone born in the decades after the Second World War can tell you, in our own indirect and necessarily diluted ways, we lived through it too.

This article appears in the 14 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, This house must fall