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.