The lessons learnt from war decades ago help put today's problems in perspective.
Last week my wife and I joined three of our grandchildren on a visit to Duxford, a former wartime airfield. Among the huge array of things on show there was a special exhibition recalling the 1940s, and the World War II. It was of particular interest to us, because it brought back memories of a period which we had lived through.
It was obviously not surprising that such an exhibition was staged at Duxford; it is, after all, part of the Imperial War Museum. What I did find surprising was the number of people who had been attracted to attend the exhibition, most of them people for whom the war was a fact of history rather than a personal memory.
Yesterday I went to a performance in the next village to ours of “It's a lovely day tomorrow”, described, accurately, as a nostalgic documentary revue of 1939-45. I had a particular reason for going; it had been created more than 30 years ago by a friend of mine, Rex Walford, who sadly died last year in an accident.
What, again, I found surprising was that the large audience, only a minority of whom had known the author, were clearly fascinated by the flavour of World War II that the revue provided. I found it surprising because, as at Duxford, for most of the audience the war was history, not a personal memory.
There can, of course, be particular reasons for this kind of interest, the most common being that an anniversary is being celebrated. That can hardly be the explanation for these expressions of interest. The war began in 1939, and ended (in Europe) in 1945. There is no obvious anniversary reason for focusing on it in 2012.
It may be that I am reading too much into this, and that it is simply a case of a historical event catching people's imagination. It may be, but that explanation does not satisfy me.
I have been developing a theory to explain this phenomenon. I think the reason for the current great interest in the war may be the present economic difficulties in which the United Kingdom, and its European neighbours, are immersed. I hope that does not seem too fanciful; let me elaborate.
The economic situation that we face is without doubt a worrying matter of concern. It is affecting the lives of many people, and there do not currently seem to be many signs that it is improving. Anyone who lived through World War II will most certainly recall the depth of anxiety that pervaded people's lives, anxiety, especially in the first four years of the war that had overtones of impending possible disaster.
The reactions can appear eccentric. They included not just determination but humour — often rather unsophisticated humour. There were popular comedy shows on the radio, notably ITMA (It's That Man Again), whose star was Tommy Handley. Looking back, I have to recognise that ITMA would not appeal to most audiences today — but in the war, the appeal was great and the show, and many others, played a major part in maintaining morale.
War or economy?
The anxiety caused by the war was, of course, of a completely different order of magnitude from that caused by our current economic problems. The dangers of war were much greater than any dangers posed by the economic crisis. What could have happened, in the worst case scenario, was totally different from what could happen in today's worst case scenario.
Back to my theory. I think looking back at aspects of the war, for all its horror, may help people put today's problems in perspective. Of course people are not confusing the two sets of problems. Of course they are not going to believe that the economic problems can be alleviated by singing jolly songs to convince ourselves that we shall not be crushed by the enemy.
Nevertheless, looking at how people did respond in the war, and how they did manage to maintain morale, does help to remind us that however serious the problems we face, however anxious they make us feel, anxiety needs to be tempered with something else.
This, I admit, is not a fully tested theory. It may be no more than fanciful conjecture. I feel, however, that there must be some explanation for the great interest, on the part of people who have no memory of it, in what was happening socially during the war. I like my explanation — and so far no one has come up with a better one.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email: email@example.com
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