Thursday, 23 September 2010

70 years ago? Really?

Unless you've been living in a hole for the last few weeks (and 'hello' to those of you following this blog in Chile) then you've probably notice there have been one or two programmes on the tv relating to the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Apparently it's been the 70th anniversary of both.

Several things have occurred to me during this period and I thought 'what better subject to blog on' so here I go.

The first thing I should probably confront is the fact that I'm boldly venturing away from the First World War to discuss 'the other conflict'. Well this is true, I am jumping into the future but, it's my blog and I can do what I want (and I've said in the 'about me' bit that I'm interested in general warfare) and, as I'll discuss, I'm actually going to link this all in with WW1 in the end anyway and you'll all nod sagely at my insight (no you won't).

But anyway; the 70th anniversary.

Surely I'm not the only one who sees that number and thinks; really? Was it really 70 years ago. It'll sound odd for me to say it about a war that was begun, fought and won, nearly a good 40 odd years before I was born, but the Second World War seems so much more recent than 70 years ago and certainly far more recent than the FIrst World War which (in my humble opinion) is right on the cusp of passing out of 'contemporary' history altogether.

So why does WW2 feel more recent?

There's certainly the argument that WW2 still pervades our culture in more obvious ways than WW1, and I certainly think that's true to an extent. We are all familiar with what a Spitfire looks like, discussions of how such and such is like living in Nazi Germany, all of that stuff. We use the Second World War in various ways. However it's not like I see Spitfires and Hurricanes everyday when I walk down the street. I don't watch Ch5 so I rarely see tv programmes on Nazi Sharks so I don't have that much exposure to it. So why does it feel like the war was closer?

I think an element we have to consider is the fact that we have far more colour footage of WW2 than of WW1. Colour images make everything seem more contemporary (particularly those that have been digitally remastered) whereas the majority of the WW1 footage is black and white and, as a result, look like history.

There is also a blurring of the lines between fact and fiction in regards to the Battle of Britain. One of my favourite films growing up (and still now if I'm honest) is the masterpiece 'The Battle of Britain' starring Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Robert Shaw et al. It is a true tour de force of plane porn. It was filmed using planes from the war that were still flying (although many of the 'German' planes were actually their Spanish equivalent) and it looks astoundingly realistic. It is also shown on Channel 4 every 6 months or so and has totally entered visual memory.

But perhaps the most important reason why the war still seems so close, is that we still have numerous members of that generation still alive. These recent tv shows have had several living Spitfire pilots in them all available for interview. Also their children are easily still alive. My two grandfathers both served (to varying degrees) in WW2 so, therefore, my mum (and particularly) my dad provide a clearer link to the 'WW2' generation and I feel sure that this must be mirrored across society.

Which brings me to the key point. Why are we celebrating the 70th anniversary? That's not to say that we should just ignore this whole thing, I absolutely do not think that. But 70 is a bit of a weird anniversary to mark. Ok it's a decade one, but it's a bit of a random number to go all out over (and the media have really gone for it).

What I think we are seeing now, in 2010, is very similar to what was happening in the 1960s in regards to the First World War and the BBC series 'The Great War'. There appears to have been a realisation that this WW2 generation may not be around for much longer. Waiting for the 75th (a more natural anniversary) may not be sensible as many of the 'prime sources' may have sadly passed on.

We're getting such a raft of programmes now because there may not be another chance to make use of the direct memories of the pilots in the Battle of Britain (even with all the methodological issues inherent with them). We're watching the ending of an era. It's coming an awful lot later then it did with the WW1 veterans, with 'The Great War' marking the 50th anniversary in 1964, but then they also had to live through a 2nd global conflict, and advances in the welfare state etc have doubtless increased life expectancy in the population since the WW1 generation.

So whilst it does seem odd that the war really was 70 odd years ago, and that making such a show of a bit of a random anniversary date is peculiar, it does make a certain amount of sense. There will be a big 75th anniversary of course and the 100th will be really weird (a century ago? Really?) but there probably won't be many of the original combatants left in the audience by then.

It's now or never.

As it was at the time.