Part Two 1939-1969
Ordinary Giants | Part Two
Just Don’t Volunteer
“Now don’t forget, whatever you do, don’t volunteer for aircrew!” I can still hear my brother’s voice calling out as he left home to rejoin his unit after a weekend leave. He was eighteen months older than I, one of the first to be called up at the beginning of the war and was at that time an LAC in the Orderly Room at a fighter ‘drome’ in Kent which was taking the brunt of the German attacks on south coast airfields.
This is how my dad starts his memoir, A Navigator’s Tale. Being that bit older, Ernie was horrified at what he saw happen to those who flew, and told his younger brother to avoid active service as a flyer. Ron didn’t tell his brother he had already volunteered for aircrew, and was only waiting till he was officially old enough to be called up in order to commence training.
November’s Song (Elizabeth Jenner)
My mum was born, also in Fulham, on 11th March 1925, and later her family moved west to Hounslow. In 1939 she was a pupil at the Godolphin and Latymer Independent Day School for Girls, in Hammersmith. The school was evacuated from London after the declaration of war. Elizabeth — “Betty” — stayed in Hounslow and after a quick secretarial course, started working in a local bank. She vividly remembered the night of Operation Moonlight Sonata, the Luftwaffe air assault on Coventry on 14th November 1940, watching the waves of German bombers passing over London. The bombing left such devastation that German Propaganda Minister Goebbels turned the city’s name into a verb used when describing the destruction of cities. The bombing started a fire storm that engulfed Coventry city centre, destroyed over 4,000 houses, and destroyed or seriously damaged over a third of the city’s factories, all engaged in production for the war effort. It is estimated that 568 were killed in the course of the night.
And there’s my mum, aged fifteen, standing in her little back garden at 24 Colwyn Crescent, Hounslow, where I would be happily playing with toy guns in twenty years’ time, watching the bombers getting through. One of the attractions about moving to a semi in the suburbs in the 30s was they all had their own little garden. Betty’s dad Harry loved his garden, and when I was young my mum and I used to enjoy a pastiche of the traditional folk song In an English Country Garden by the improbably-named humourist Cardew Robinson, so I have borrowed that tune for this song.
Winter Statistics (narrative)
The Lutwaffe’s Operation Moonlight Sonata was revenged by the RAF’s Operation Abigail Rachel, when on 16th December 1940, on Churchill’s orders, the RAF dropped one hundred tonnes of explosives and 14,000 incendiaries on Mannheim. This was not precision bombing of military targets, this was area bombing of a city. In February 2017 I was in Hamburg, where when the RAF bombers got through in the course of Operation Gomorrah, ten incendiary nights in July 1943, they turned the entire city into a firestorm that killed between thirty and forty thousand people. Estimates vary.
It wasn’t until I was writing this song, about thousands, millions, of people’s life stories, and all the love that goes into such little gardens, being reduced to statistics where estimates vary, that I came across the statistics for the high cost of getting the bombers through. RAF bomber command suffered a 44.4% death rate, only exceeded by the losses suffered by the German U-Boat crews.
This song starts and ends with lines from my dad’s 1940 poem, about winter’s grey winds, and eyes frozen to stars, because sometimes I try to think that what poetry says makes more sense than statistics.
SONG FOR OUR WINTER
Winter drives grey winds
Grey horses of loneliness
Breathing chill mists
Over fields of my heart
With hooves ringing hollow
Across frosted rooftops
Grey horses ride homeless
Eyes frozen to stars.
Winter has aching
Beneath endless falling
Soft drifting of snow
And slow failing of wings
Gay singing of grasses
On ragged lips dying
Has deep sleep of music
Beneath broken strings.
Winter has high walls
To hide our lamenting
Walls of stone frozen
From fossilised leaves
Leaving no certain gap
For the breezes of pity
Shy flower of wonder
Rots under our eaves.
Winter has pale sudden
Fingers of sun haunting
Cold empty branches
Bare hedges and skies
Over fields of our hearts
Wearing grief for our winter
The chill air falls wounded
By a million sharp sighs
A Very Nice Man in a Uniform (Ron Johnson)
Ron was sent to Canada to learn to fly. Having won his wings, he spent Christmas 1943 on leave in New York, where he was lucky enough to see Gene Krupa play drums, Gary Cooper play Robert Jordan, and Paul Robeson play Othello. He was then sent to the Bahamas where he met the young men, mainly Canadians, who were to be his crew mates in 223 Squadron. They flew anti-submarine patrols, and stood aside when requested to allow the Duke of Windsor, moved out of the way to the position of Governor of the Bahamas where it was hoped he couldn’t betray any more battle plans to Germany, to play through on a golf course.
In my dad’s small collection of papers that he had kept, I found a pastiche of Lili Marlene that he had written (although later the author’s name had been heavily inked over!), Pressing on Regardless, about characters in and around 223 Squadron. The fifteen verses start off darkly sardonic and then although still ostensibly humorous the tone becomes increasingly bitter and sarcastic. I did think about asking Swill to sing the whole song; the specific references probably meant a lot to the lads of 223 Squadron, but are less interesting to anybody else half a century later.
So I wrote this for my dad to sing instead, where the shared experience of being in uniform encouraged the idea that a more classless, democratic society could be a post-war possibility. And Lofty is there, because he was the first of my dad’s mates to die, so Ron wrote a poem for him, Lofty is Missing. Swill finishes with the first verse of my dad’s version of Lili Marlene, because soon afterwards 223 Squadron was sent back to England, and special operations as part of 100 Group, motto “Confound and Destroy”.
Home by the Stars (Ron Johnson)
This was one of Ron’s proudest moments, 6th December 1944. His plane J Johnnie flew to Berlin, when everybody else turned back due to bad weather, carried out its mission to confound German air defences, then in worsening conditions my dad, despite being bottom of the class less than ten years ago, successfully navigated their way back to England. This is how he tells the story in his memoir:
The date and time are printed indelibly on my memory. 6th December 1944, and we were detailed to do a Window ‘Spoof’ on the Berlin area. Quite a distance for us and a first time venue. We had to climb to an optimum height soon after reaching France in order to reach the Berlin area with the minimum chance of interference. Very soon we began to experience severe icing conditions on the leading edges of the wings and the temperature dropped alarmingly. As the weather worsened our Wireless Operator picked up messages from base and other aircraft who were reporting they were aborting the mission and returning to base. Tommy, our Skipper, decided to press on however and as we had gone beyond the range of ‘Gee’, my navigation radar and radio beacons, I had to rely on DR, or Dead Reckoning. This meant that I would be navigating solely on calculations made on my chart with wind speeds and the occasional Astro shots, taken with the sextant on the stars, and reading off the resulting position from tables. Although trained in the use of Astro shots and their tables, most Navigators would rather rely on this only in emergencies. Suffice it to say that we finally reached our appointed turning point just outside the Berlin area and had carried out our RCM duties and dropped our ‘Window’ and hopefully produced a worrying resultant on the enemy’s radar. Tommy promptly turned, requested a course for home, put the nose down and prepared to ‘get the hell out of it’. Unfortunately, by this time the weather had worsened, snow and ice became a real hazard but the main trouble was that the winds had increased considerably from the west and I reported wind speeds of over 120mph dead against us.
This meant in navigation terms that if an aircraft has an airspeed of 300mph and there is a headwind of say 120mph then the aircraft’s speed over the ground or ground speed is only 180mph. The result is that the flight takes considerably longer and the fuel required is that much greater. The atmosphere aboard J Johnnie became very tense and all positions, with great discipline, remained silent to allow for only those intercom exchanges vital to the safe conduct of the flight — such as Tommy requesting a position from me, likely ETA at the coast, details of fuel readings from the Flight Engineer and any urgent messages picked up by the Wireless Operator. Tommy also urged the gunners to be even more watchful, as we would be very vulnerable if picked up by solitary enemy fighters. The time ticked away and a weight seemed to get heavier with every few minutes. We were still some half an hour or so away from the coast when the Engineer reported problems with number 1 engine and this was followed by Tommy calling over the intercom that the engine had cut out and he had been forced to ‘feather’ the engine and we were now flying on three engines. All pilots were trained to deal with this and the aircraft could fly quite satisfactorily on three engines, although it’s not the thing you would normally choose to do on operations in such appalling weather conditions. It also meant that more fuel would be used up by the remaining engines and, more importantly in such a situation as ours, there is greater stress and strain on the pilot and crew. The silence on the intercom was broken suddenly by the Mid Upper Gunner who called out “Skipper, I can see the Dutch coast and the channel dead ahead through the clouds.” Tommy began the descent and called to the Wireless Operator to alert the nearest diversion ’drome, which was Manston, of our predicament and gave them my ETA. We circled Manston and were given the emergency light to land. A final bump as the nose wheel hit the runway and we were home on English soil. Nothing could stop the hoarse cheers of relief from the crew. We had taken J Johnnie to Berlin and back in the most atrocious weather conditions. We had flown the last part of the journey home on three engines and on landing the Flight Engineer told us that number 2 engine had no more than a cupful of fuel left.
The Girl with the Golden Hair (Elizabeth Jenner and Ron Johnson)
When Ron was about to be sent back to England from the Bahamas, someone who’d gone to the same school as Ron asked him to take a necklace to his fiancée, Elizabeth Jenner, and that’s how my parents first met. My mum says it was a very thin necklace, you could hardly see it, and when I asked her about the engagement, she’d just say that that was what you did in those days, when they asked you to marry them you said yes because you didn’t expect they’d be coming back. I think my dad thought he was the luckiest man in the world, when Betty’s dad Harry invited Ron and some of his crew mates to spend Christmas with the Jenners. They went to London in the morning, and then in the best back room at number 24, Betty and Ron decided they were in love, even though Betty’s mum wasn’t likely to approve, what with Ron being merely a humble clerk from Heston. Betty’s best friend, Rodgie, who she met on her first day at the Godolphin and Latymer school, would always recall that Betty had such wonderful golden hair. Strangers would stop and touch it, she would say, adding quickly “Different times, of course.”
J Johnnie (narrative and Ron Johnson)
Basically, the job of J Johnnie and 223 Squadron was to confuse the German air defences, for example by making them think the bombers were in one place when they were actually heading for somewhere else. The inherent drawback to this plan became apparent on the night of 20th February 1945. This is how Ron describes what happened.
The time was about 0125 hours and we were approximately 30 miles SE of Dortmund, our height 18,000. From the reports of the crew members who were in the rear at the time, there were two, possibly three JU 88s involved in the attack. Tommy took evasive action and after the first attack we were left alone for a few minutes and as a G fix showed that we had corkscrewed 10 miles off course I reported this to the skipper and we altered course to make good our next turning position. All the time we had been weaving and carrying out our RCM duties. The second attack came within a few seconds of each other and from opposite directions and I could feel hits being made on our aircraft from tail to nose. I could hear our gunners firing: the mid-upper gunner was firing all the time, the tail gunner was forced to abandon his turret early in the combat as his clothing and turret were on fire, and both beam gunners were also using their guns. The last attack appeared to rake the aircraft from the tail and suddenly there was a violent rocking and the whole aircraft appeared to shudder. This must have been direct hits on the petrol tanks because J Johnnie began to dive out of control. The tunnel leading into the Navigation compartment burst into flames and I could smell smoke and burning everywhere. Somehow, with incredible courage and superhuman strength Tommy and Jack managed to regain control for a second and over the intercom the skipper said, still in his customary measured, calm Canadian drawl “This is the end fellows. Abandon aircraft!” The flames had reached inside the Navigation compartment and I pulled the emergency handle for opening the nose shell doors, my escape hatch, but they had stuck and only after a few desperate kicks with the heel of my boot they finally opened and I baled out. The Rear Gunner, one of the Beam Gunners and the two Special Wireless Operators baled out of the rear escape hatch where the other Beam Gunner was last seen kneeling by the open door fixing his harness. The Flight Deck was totally isolated by fire and the five crew members there had no chance whatsoever.
This is one of the two songs I had written before starting Ordinary Giants. I wrote it to perform at a modest launch event we had for A Navigator’s Tale. It was a modest memoir, too, which I had had to nag him gently to write, but then everything about Ron was essentially modest.
The launch was held in a small old cemetery chapel converted by my friend Yusuf, an Iraqi artist, ex-communist and refugee from Saddam, into a community art space. Under a bench there was his son’s foul blood-soaked shirt in a black plastic sack. Yusuf had smuggled his son out of Iraq, paid Druze militia to get him to safety in Beirut, where they were reunited when Yusuf gave his talents to the cause of the PLO. When the Israelis drove the PLO into the sea, the two of them made it onto a ship evacuating the fighters to Cyprus. Yusuf’s beloved son survived all this, only to be knifed nearly to death by a gang of racists in Hanwell. Another story.
Anyway, Ron and I were going to do an album together the year before he died, with those of my songs that he liked best (not the overtly political ones, thank you, Robb) combined with his poems, which I had encouraged him to gather together and order and word-processed for him. At the last minute, Ron decided he didn’t want everybody seeing his thoughts, his private self, in print. But I recorded this song, and the other songs he liked, anyway. This is a slightly different version, with the last verse taken from Ron’s memoir.
I have visited the graves of those members of J Johnnie who didn’t survive the attack. They are in Venlo, Holland, next to the border with Germany. Their headstones stand to attention, comrades, side by side. Tommy’s stone is the first one you see, at the end of the row, like he’s still looking out for the other members of his crew. His courage in holding the burning aeroplane steady for as long as possible, for as far as possible, so that as many of his friends as possible might escape, enabled my dad to be one of the lucky 50%. His headstone looks withdrawn, reserved, almost lonely; it’s very simple, with little more than his name on it, and in no way does it do his story, and his resolution, justice.
The photograph on the slip case of Ordinary Giants is Ron’s Mum, Lilian, flanked by two of his crew. They are smiling. On her right there is George Graham. My dad used to say Clint Eastwood’s laconic screen character reminded him of George, and he always suspected his sister Lily was very fond of him too. George was the rear gunner, one of the lucky five who survived out of a crew of eleven. On Lilian’s left is Ron Woods. In his original 1945 report about the last flight of J Johnnie, Ron wrote:
“I should like to put on record and recommend for his fine work, Flight Sergeant Woods, R.C.A.F, our mid-upper gunner. His guns engaged the fighters all the time and I could hear them firing at each attack and even as F/O Thompson gave the order to abandon aircraft on the last attack he was still firing, although it must have been obvious to him that his position was hopeless. The gunners have reported that F/Sgt. Woods obtained hits on one of the attacking aircraft and that it broke away… His conduct at the end is deserving of high praise… The conduct of the whole crew was a credit to the Squadron and to themselves.”
My Boy Won’t Come Back (Elizabeth Jenner)
When J Johnnie was shot down, Ron was listed as “Missing, believed killed”. Ernie was also missing; he had been shipped to Singapore to arrive just before the Japanese. It was a military disaster on an imperial scale; only much later did the family find out that Ernie was alive, that he had escaped Singapore in an open boat, and subsequently been concealed by nuns. Betty was convinced Ron was alive. As the war in Europe ground to its bitter, conflicted conclusion, my mum went to the cinema to watch the newsreel footage of the displaced and the liberated millions moving endlessly through the ruins, in the hope that she would see Ron amongst them.
And she went dancing too, because that was what you did, you danced at the Red Lion halfway along the High Street, or you danced at the Drill Hall. There was somewhere you could dance practically every night, because by then, in those days, you couldn’t be sure what was coming back and what wasn’t. Poland, whose integrity we had declared war for, was being horse-traded by Churchill for Greece with Stalin, so we could keep a close eye on the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, our short-cut to Churchill’s beloved Empire. Soon, we would be holding America’s coat while Democracy road-tested not one but two different atomic bombs on two different Japanese cities.
The conversation about cabbages and marigolds is in this song thanks to my friend Neil Smith. His father Tom was the only survivor from a training flight accident on 11th November 1944. Neil asked me to write a song about this. Tom asked his parents to write to the parents of his dead crewmates, both of whom were only sons. The letters they wrote in return talked about that year’s crop of blackcurrants. How else could you deal with such loss? The song was called Only Sons.
Ron came back a very ill man. In addition to the trauma of feeling trapped in a burning plane with the escape hatch jammed, that gave him nightmares for a decade, he was stick-thin and toothless from having spent all of April being force–marched through Germany. His kept a pencil-written record of this, that detailed how many men had to share the Red Cross food parcel each day, where they slept (on pine needles, occasionally in barns) and how their column was attacked by American fighter bombers. Ron’s memoir also records that for a while they were also guarded by “lines and lines of arrogant members of the Hitler Youth dressed in grey-green short trousers and shirts smothered with insignias and most of them carrying some kind of weapon… Somehow they presented a more menacing sight than their elders would have done and summed up for us all that was evil about the Hitler regime.”
Attlee For PM For Me (narrative)
This is the other song I had already written a version of beforehand. Originally a song intended as a contribution to the Labour Party leadership campaign of Jeremy Corbyn in 2016, it then grew into a Christmas single JC 4 PM for Me, a song intended to present Corbyn as a popular political figure, located positively in the general cultural landscape, which indeed is Corbyn’s status a year on. But at the time it attracted opprobrium not just from Tories (who attempted their own nasty little single) but also from outraged humourless leftists, who made clear they thought what the left needed was More Angry Anthems, not a leader located positively in the general cultural landscape.
Jeremy Corbyn enjoyed it, anyway.
Then it got a quick rewrite for the 17th of June elections, where Labour had a manifesto that located the party once again on behalf of the many, not the few, and achieved a result almost as impressive as Clem Attlee’s Labour victory of 1945. So it seemed obvious to write a version for this song suite that set out why the British electorate, first chance they got, voted out the unelected Churchill and for a Labour Party that was going to enact legislation for the many, not the few, and implement the recommendations of the Beveridge report.
Lou 1948 (Gladys Brown)
Here’s Gladys and Lou, pissing off another Conservative landlord with their enthusiastic anticipation of the coming benefits of the Welfare State. Lou’s Arch is based loosely on my Aunt Gladys’s Arch. Aunt Gladys’s Arch went into Belsen for real, and not all of him came back. He died early, too. Years later I get accidentally booked at Ringwood Folk Club, so I do my song about my great Aunt Gladys’s bungalow, and my particular lost world of childhood, metaphor for then as against now, St Ives End Lane, and this old couple at the back suddenly perk up, and at half time tell me how fondly they remember Arch and Gladys, but particularly Arch, because the old boy, he’d worked on the post with Arch, and Arch had been absolutely no question the best union rep a worker could wish for. I was so chuffed.
The Parachute (Ron Johnson)
My mum has this old clock you have to wind once a week. It’s about a hundred years old. I can’t imagine anything we make now will still be working in a hundred years’ time. When I was writing these songs, my mum said that she and Ron had found the clock when they had been clearing out Aunt Gladys’s bungalow. They thought it couldn’t possibly work again. But it did. The image of a stopped, broken clock seemed a good way to talk about my dad’s situation when he returned from Germany, so I moved the finding of a clock back in time to the late 40s. I invented the clockmender, and added some corroborating factual detail. Ron was a member of “The Caterpillar Club”, an informal association of men who had to bale out of aeroplanes and whose lives were saved by their parachutes, (so it is actually a silkworm not a caterpillar motif that identifies them). Wearing the dark blue “Caterpillar” tie, with its unostentatious pattern of small, stylised silkworms, was important to him, a quiet, constant, unostentatious reminder of J Johnnie. When they were first married Ron and Betty lived in a flat above the office of Harry Jenner’s building firm on Hammersmith Grove, and I was sure that one day Ron did return from Shepherd’s Bush Market with a puppy shivering under his greatcoat as a present for Betty. Only after I had written the song did Betty say they’d in fact both gone to a pet shop in Hammersmith, hoping to buy a King Charles spaniel. Spaniels proving too expensive, they’d settled for this little puppy instead, that had been part of an unwanted litter that had been destined to be “humanely destroyed”.
But this song is metaphor anyway rather than realistic account. Getting over, making sense of, or at least coming to terms with, what happened to him during the war, particularly between the months of February and May 1945, was a process for Ron, like the growing of scar tissue.
Nobby’s Class (Anthony Smith)
At my dad’s funeral, there were a couple of the children he’d taught in the 50s. One of them, Clive Boursnell, said “I bet I know something about your dad that you don’t know. Do you know what we used to call him? We used to call him Nobby, because his knuckles were all knobbly and bony.” Photographs of Ron after the war show him looking very thin. Look closely and you can see traces of the process taking place. Like a Dickens character, he acquires and becomes a couple of trademarks, a moustache, the pipe, so we’ll know who he is, so he’ll know who he is. In 1946, Ron marries Betty on 27th July, he’s then demobbed from the RAF and goes to college, where he takes the leading role in Edward II, and chooses not to go to Cambridge University when offered the chance. Instead, in 1947, he becomes a teacher at Lionel Road School in Brentford. His head teacher advises him that if any of the mothers invite him round for tea, he should most definitely decline all such offers.
Tony is our next fictional character, one of Nobby’s urchins and ragamuffins. Nobby’s character is fleshed out with various factual details. Ron always had an austerity-tinged reproduction of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers on his wall, he loved doing poetry with kids, he cycled to and from school football matches on Saturday mornings, bringing the school kit back with him for Betty to wash, he had lost all his teeth as a result of being a POW (thank goodness NHS dentures were free at the point of demand back then), for years he would jump screaming from bed in the night when he dreamed he was still trapped in J Johnnie, and he really didn’t like the Hitler Youth.
Per ardua ad astra is the Latin motto of the RAF: through adversity to the stars.
We’ll Be Lucky (Ron and Betty Johnson)
In 1949 Betty and Ron moved into their very own semi, newly constructed at 6 Worton Road, Isleworth, where — fingers crossed — they would live happily ever after for the next 60 years.
Betty had a thyroid condition, so wasn’t able to have children until 1955, and then only the one. That year singer Dickie Valentine’s A Christmas Alphabet became the UK’s first Christmas song to reach number one. The Korean War had ended in 1953 without the world blowing itself up, and Sir Edmund Hillary had sportingly conquered Everest on the very eve of the coronation of Elizabeth Windsor that same year. Rationing had finally ended in 1954, but not before the Tories had exploited the issue sufficiently to get Churchill returned to power in 1951. Their dismal mishandling of the Suez crisis is still eleven months away. Teddy boys wouldn’t be rioting in cinemas for another nine months, and their participation in the Notting Hill racist riots, and the temporary return from France of Oswald Moseley to stand for Parliament in North Kensington (he lost his deposit) is three years away.
Craven Vale Hall (narrative)
And for a while, it seemed we were lucky. We would be cared for from cradle to grave. Craven Vale, a small, perfectly formed housing estate built into a dip in the side of the hill leading to the race course by Brighton Council in the fifties, had its own health centre opened in 1958, ten years on from the creation of the NHS. There was a time when every new housing estate built in Brighton had its own health centre. By 2018, Craven Vale’s was the only one still open, a brilliant rehab centre that somehow magically literally got Betty back on her feet again in February and March. Actually, there was no “somehow” or “magically” about it. It was quality care and professional hard work, something deserving of absolute respect, but instead poorly paid and under threat from the right-wing politics of greed.
4 cheers for the NHS.
Dancing Round the Sun (narrative)
Children’s rhymes have now become children’s poetry! Significantly the anonymous protagonists now have names, possibly names with some resonance, and they have become individuals with individual futures too. Hadn’t we all, thanks to the Welfare State?
Lou 1958 (Gladys Brown)
“Let us be frank about it — most of our people have never had it so good,” declared Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1957, even though British culture was currently infatuated with the tales of discontent and dysfunction told by writers labelled “the Angry Young Men” (and the occasional angry young woman). The same year, coal-miner’s son Nye Bevan, who as Minister of Health in the Attlee government had overseen and ensured the founding of the National Health Service, surprisingly denounced unilateral nuclear disarmament at the Labour Party Conference, saying “It would send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference-chamber”.
Meanwhile, single-mum Gladys is buying her Stan some socks, and guess who she bumps into as the first ban-the-bomb march to Aldermaston passes Shepherd’s Bush Market heading west along the Uxbridge Road?
Bad Germans (Herr und Frau Schmidt)
Although, three years after Stalin died, First Secretary Khrushchev was able to deliver his “secret speech” in 1956, denouncing the excesses of Stalinism, this didn’t stop the Soviets from sending tanks into Hungary that same year. While the popular desire for social progress was apparently effected by Parliamentary mandates and the politics of consensus in Britain, in Eastern Europe it was rigorously enforced and policed by the policy of The Party, the politics of Marxist-Leninism, and Russian tanks. In the rest of the world, it was largely either moderated by the interests of capitalism or, when that proved unsatisfactory, eradicated by the CIA, conscripted armies, and American bombers. The favourite flashpoint of these two systems was always the divided city of Berlin, marooned in the middle of the DDR, the German Democratic Republic. In 1961, ostensibly to defend themselves further from fascism, and to stop workers absconding to the west in pursuit of the frivolities of capitalism, the DDR built a wall all the way across Berlin, thereby ensuring Germans continued to be clearly identified by Hollywood and all other forms of western thought control as the world’s leading bad guys. Even though even Hollywood has stopped routinely decimating native Americans and laughing at African Americans, if you want some villains you can mow down without compunction, dress them in field grey, give them coal-scuttle helmets, have them say “ja” and “nein” and off you go. Watching German soldiers – clearly never instructed in the tactic of taking cover – being machine-gunned in their droves in films like Where Eagles Dare or Inglourious Basterds, it makes you wonder how they ever even got as far as Warsaw, let alone Stalingrad.
Herr and Frau Schmidt are the invented names of the couple whose cottage Ron, frozen and exhausted, found after being shot down. They let him sleep, gave him coffee, and sent for the police. Wouldn’t you? What else could they do?
This song has behind it, talking to itself in the shadows, the voice of Karl-Heinz Gispert, the father of my 1970s German Exchange partner and lifelong friend, Hans Karl. When Karl-Heinz had sometimes had a couple of glasses of Rotwein more than usual, he would ask, rhetorically, why it was always die böse Deutsche who got the blame for everything. He’d point to the Americans in Vietnam, the Russians in Eastern Europe, the British in their Empire, and ask why they were not accused of butchery, oppression and military criminality. He’d been born in Worms. Worms had had a leather factory. The RAF bombing made him deaf in one ear. Yes, he’d been in the Hitler Youth. Everybody had to be. Yes, he’d seen Jewish people being thrown out of their homes, their possessions hurled through windows, and done nothing. Wouldn’t you? What else could you do?
This year I visited the Museum of German Resistance in Berlin. It wasn’t all decent upper class Prussian officers finally getting round when it was too late to trying to plant a bomb next to the mad bastard. But from the word go, once the big business interests and the old upper class ruling elite, not just in Germany but in the Western Democracies too, gave Hitler and all his other mad bastards the green light, they were utterly merciless.
So Herr and Frau Schmidt let Ron rest, gave him coffee, and called the police. Wouldn’t you?
There’s Always Ovaltine
I remember Kennedy being shot, and Churchill dying. Both events seriously disrupted my evening’s television. I particularly remember being cognisant of the reverent solemnity surrounding Churchill’s death. It was an opportunity to varnish the accumulating legend, that it was Churchill’s rhetorical facility with phraseology, about finest hours and the British Empire lasting a thousand years, rather than my dad and his mates flying into the inferno every night, let alone the Red Army battering their way from Stalingrad to Berlin, that had prevented the German Reich from lasting a thousand years.
I was also starting to be cognisant of a disjoint between the world my parents aspired to live in and my experience of growing up and into the 1960s. The world my parents aspired to was rather like a museum. When I got to visit East Berlin in 1987 and Ilmenau and the former DDR in 2000 I got the impression that, consciously or not, the DDR had tried to return Germany to how it was before 1933, emphasising German antifascism, the organisation of The Workers, pretending that the chaos of Fascism had been an aberration. For my parent’s generation, the intention of the fifties seemed to be a similar conscious attempt to pretend the chaos of the war had been an aberration, with no lasting harmful consequences, only the added bonus of decent schooling and healthcare for all as a just reward for all that regrettable blood, sweat and tears business. We were having to call the Empire the Commonwealth now, but that was as far as we need to go in revising our national identity, surely.
And on a superficial level, the war was everywhere… war stories turned into war films, there were war comics and war stereotypes, all telling us who we were, rewriting… editing… censoring and varnishing our past and, if we let it, our present too, with our heroic Churchillian self-satisfaction. We beat Germany in two world wars and a World Cup.
But then, there was The Teenager, that postwar phenomenon, that had such unexpected energy and creativity. Soon, despite the entertainment industry’s best efforts – ranging from indifference to patronage – this was an energy and creativity that seemed beyond all existing control. Working class kids, and lower middle-class kids happy to pretend they were working class kids, were synthesising a new culture out of thin air, or at least out of the attitudes of the disenfranchised and the rhythms of black working class culture anyway. It was exciting, but it could also get a bit bewildering, like when those berserk stroppy, screaming big girls sat behind me threatened to stab me at the Twickenham Odeon Saturday morning pictures special showing of A Hard Day’s Night.
You could always hope for the best, like your mum and dad, and have another cup of Ovaltine. But increasingly, I didn’t want to.
In 1965 I was going to church parades on Sundays. By 1975 I was going to The Winning Post to see Motörhead and Dr Feelgood on Sundays. I missed David Bowie at the White Bear in Hounslow (nearest pub to Harry’s 24 Colwyn Crescent too) but saw the Tom Robinson Band there. You definitely can’t say fairer than that.
All You Need is Love (And Comprehensive Schools) (narration — possibly by Pauline McCartney)
I also remember watching the Beatles sing Hey Jude on television for David Frost in 1968. My granny, who had died the year before, had bought a copy of With the Beatles because my younger cousin Dan liked to dance to the Beatles. And there it sat, with its sharp, cool, sardonic razor sharp black and white cover, incongruously amongst my gran’s collection of John Hanson and Drury Lane musical LPs, next to the piano you could pedal to play old music hall songs, in the very back room where Ron and Betty first officially fell in love twenty years ago. David Frost – once just Frost, the sharp, cool, sardonic razor’s cutting edge of early 60s late night satire, now transformed into David Frost, colour TV media personality. It was just before my grandfather died. The whole family watched it. I think “perplexed” generally describes the largely silent response of the silent majority.
All those young people, some of them very obviously Not White too, singing deliriously along. So was this what J Johnnie died for? I never asked my dad. I think he might have said: well, yes, partly. Peace and love? Yes, partly. But emphatically not for a place at the middle-class table for the lucky few, and slightly better servant accommodation for everybody else. My dad – unusually – refused to do what my mum wanted, which was to send me to the boys-only equivalent of the Godolphin and Latymer school she had attended. Instead I took the 11 plus like everybody else and – unlike everybody else, obviously – ended up at Isleworth Grammar School, the local holding pen for the crème de la crème of local adolescent males. Meanwhile, as a committed member of the teaching profession, and probably as both a quiet socialist and the kid who always came bottom of the class, every chance he got, Ron was a convinced advocate of comprehensive education. Because arbitrary selection and a place at the table for the lucky few – the possibility of social mobility for some and fuck off and die in a gutter for the rest of you – is the wrong way to run an education service and the wrong way to run a society. My dad used to go on these education conferences at Easter at Oxford university. One year he came back enthusing about a film he’d seen there, Kes. It was about a boy who lived up north and – errrm — a kestrel, and compared to the attractions of the films by Sergio Leone that I was deeply entranced by at the time, I didn’t think I would be rushing off to see it. Only when I was working my left wing way through KEN LOACH!!!! did I realise how eloquent it was, particularly the bit where the PE teacher insists on being Stanley Matthews or whatever, and the kid, who is good with kestrels but useless at football, gets put in goal where he whiles away the time by doing amazing gymnastics on the crossbar, only of course this isn’t what the teacher is looking for, is it?
I think it was comprehensive education that really was the issue that galvanised the Right, the Utterswines, into active reaction. Comprehensive education- even more than the NHS, which has a certain agreeable sentimentality and a certain self-interested logic attached to it – refutes on a conceptual level all the arguments of privilege and entitlement. It insists all are worthy of equal consideration, not just when they are ill, but in order for each to develop their potential with equality of access and by implication equality of value.
Ah. But you also need more than adequate funding, and professional independence from central government’s politicking agenda, particularly if that government happens to be riddled with public school toffs who think state education is just training the chimpanzees to work for peanuts.