Friday, 16 May 2008

There'll always be an England

I'm from a totally non-religious family but once a week my sister takes my two year-old niece to a local Methodist church toddler group. The fact it's in a church is a coincidence. A few weeks ago, she phoned to tell me about a 1940s evening being held at the church hall and suggested that my 86 year old grand mother may like to attend. It sounded like a good idea and my Nana liked the sound of it too. So, I picked her up, drove to the hall outside Huddersfield and took my seat for and evening of war time songs.

It was a stiff and amateur performance but listening to these old songs was a strangely poignant experience. At the end, we were treated to a hot supper of meat pies and mushy peas. On the way home, Nana said wistfully, "There Always Be an England...well, where's it gone?"

Given that Nana spends almost all her time inside her home, financially comfortable and visited four times a day by NHS carers, I wondered what knowledge she had of contemporary England. It was also hard to know why she sounded so disappointed.

The sentiment reminded me of a comment made to me by an ex-girlfriend's grand father. He was a Commando during the war and, when asked, he would describe some of his horrific experiences. He was involved in some notoriously bloody action in Burma (I apologise for not being able to remember the names of these battles). He once recalled a moment when he found himself spattered by blood, bone and brain after his friend was shot in the head. And then he added, "When I look at what we've become and what's happened to the country, I don't think it was worth it."

I found it particularly hard to hear such disillusionment after his endeavour and hardship.

I wasn't around during the 1940s so I don't know what it was like. By all accounts, it was a pretty tough time. So where does this feeling of betrayal and disappointment come from? I think there's more than one factor and I'm going to hazard a few guesses - in no particular order.

My first guess is immigration. Actually, it's not much of a guess. It's what I've heard the people above talking about.

There's a line in the song There'll Always be an England:

"Britons awake! The Empire too, we can depend on you."

Despite this stirring faith that subjects of the British Empire would support us when necessary (as thousands of 'Commonwealth' soldiers did), I doubt this relationship was intended to be mutual. For example, I know that my Nana's heart sinks when she sees Asian people in her local shop. Despite the fact that people choose to come to England for its stability and opportunity (things the soldiers fought for), Nana sees Asians as dirty, untrustworthy and lesser-beings. As horrible as this is, immigration and racism contribute to Nana's sense that England, as she knew it, has gone.

My second guess, and slightly less tangible than my first, is propaganda.

At the prospect of being overrun by Nazis, I suspect that it suited the British ruling classes to ask the nation to pull together and fight. But did our soldiers really fight to preserve an archaic system where 90% of the country was in the hands of around 2% of the population (not exact figures but I know I'm not far off)?

Propaganda created and/or perpetuated the myths of England - fair play, rolling countryside and village cricket etc. The fact that (for many) the future didn't live up to these myths is not surprising. I think the soldiers, the sailors, the land girls, the female munitions workers, the Indians, the Africans, the New Zealanders, the Aussies and everyone else were sold a lie.

But let me stress at this point: I think the Nazis were worth fighting. If the Nazis weren't defeated, God knows what Europe (and the world) would look like today. It's just that deeds of individual and collective bravery and sacrifice wouldn't happen if people didn't believe in what they were fighting for. These are the things that won the war but these are also the things that lost hearts and minds in the long run.

I would've thought that the end of the war brought about mind-boggling hopes for a bright and peaceful future - indeed, I'm sure this helped our soldiers struggle on. And when they came home, they were promised a home fit for heroes - a New Jerusalem. The fact that this vision was never realised is more to do with the lies that were peddled and the imbalance of the real England that the soldiers were actually defending.

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