Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Angus Calder - The Myth of the Blitz


What springs to mind when you you hear about the Blitz? Probably, if you have lived in Britain for any length of time, you'll imagine chirpy cockneys standing together against the might of Hitler's armies. You might well think of pictures of the contrails caused by the dogfights as Spitfires battled Messerschmitts in glorious sunny skies over Kent.

Even if you don't think of these things, you'll have heard of them, and you will also have heard of the way that the whole of England pulled together and stood united, uncomplaining against the common foe.

Angus Calder's book "The Myth of the Blitz" would no doubt leave many retired colonels spluttering into their Daily Telegraphs, because he seeks to examine the story of the Blitz, as it is normally told, and unsurprisingly he finds that it is not without fault.

First and foremost he demolishes the idea of unity. Firstly the idea of class unity is taken apart - unsurprisingly the workers worked longer and harder, and suffered more (no deep bomb shelters for the East Enders, the tube stations had to be occupied, in a struggle often led by the Communist Party).

Calder examines how the "Myth" was created, even as the battles and bombings were being fought. From the moment Churchill made his speeches (hated by many in the Tory party) he was part of weaving a story, backed up by the media and filmmakers, of plucky little England.

It's interesting for instance, how even shortly after the Battle of Britain, observers describe the lovely summer, even though the weather was unusually bad. This is important, because it shows how quickly particular images and ideas took root in popular consciousness.

Calder uses many little examples to proves his sweeping points (how many fishermen refused to travel to Dunkirk, and how even the ones that did helped little - but that doesn't stop the myth of the small ships being created). He then discusses the idea of "Deep England" as the backbone to the myth, from both the left and the right.

This part is much harder to totally agree with. The theory is that a vision of England as a pastoral, classless country with thatched roofs and small villages is what was created to try and pull the English together. No doubt there is some truth in this, but I think he gives it too much importance. You can read more in the Wikipedia article here.

Either way this is an important book, pulling away as it does the lies and half-truths told about one of the most important periods in recent English history and pointing the way to a better understanding of the social and political forces that ended up shaping the later half of the last century.

Related Reviews

Angus Calder - The People's War: Britain 1939 - 1945

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