Two years ago, my grandfather died just a few months after his 90th birthday. Born in 1922, he belonged to ‘the wartime generation’, doing his bit for King and Country in London during the Blitz, then in South Africa, and finally in Egypt, where he was captured by Italian troops and sent to a PoW camp in Silesia, East Germany, his home for the last three years of the conflict. When the Soviet Army began its unstoppable encroachment towards Berlin, the camp where my granddad had been incarcerated was abandoned and he and his fellow captives were forced to embark upon an agonising march to the West in the depths of winter – a terrible ordeal that doesn’t exactly square with the adventures of plucky Brits with their reassuring hierarchy of stereotypes familiar from PoW escape movies. Of course, he never spoke of this. Why would he want to recall it? Like the rest of his generation, he returned home in need of a quite life, creating the genteel suburban idyll that proved so stifling to his children, making them especially receptive to the immense social changes sparked by the outbreak of rock ‘n’ roll barely a decade after the end of the conflict they’d been born into. But the long shadow cast by that conflict remained a potent cultural presence.
The launch of IPC’s ‘Battle’ comic, one of many on the newsstands that kept the war fresh in the minds of those born after it, came in 1975, exactly thirty years on from VE Day; but in 1975, that was an anniversary as near to then as the Miners’ Strike is to now. That’s how close it was. In 1975, anyone over, say, thirty-five had a clear memory of the war, whether as front-line troop, land-girl, evacuee or simply crouched in the Anderson Shelter. If you weren’t around in the early-to-mid-70s, it’s hard to emphasise how prescient the Second World War remained. ‘Dad’s Army’ was still being produced then, rather than having attained the reverential status of a classic archive show kept alive via the life support system of repeat screenings; ‘The World at War’, ITV’s landmark documentary series, had only just finished its original run; Sunday afternoons in three-channel TV land were a khaki sanctuary for 50s movies that relived episodes from the war, as were early Saturday evenings; many back gardens in my neighbourhood still had air-raid shelters, most of which had been converted to little sheds; and there even remained the odd empty spaces awaiting houses to be built on them that had been vacant since a bomb had wiped away the previous residence three decades before.
Every little boy of the time, of which I was one, owned at least one set of Airfix model soldiers, each figure cast in a solitary colour (you were supposed to paint them, but I never knew anybody who did); every little boy of the time still played a game called ‘War’, a game that left Britain’s playgrounds echoing with the sound of machine-gun fire, or the best that little boys could approximate; a reprint series of wartime British newspapers launched in the mid-70s saw me purchase the first issue and cut out a ‘wanted’ picture of Hitler in order to stick it on a wall at the end of my street; the street in question was – in the mind of me and my pals – behind enemy lines. I suppose we saw ourselves as the French Resistance. And, even if we were impervious to the glut of British war comics on display at our local paper shop, the eye-catching American intruder into our reading habits, Marvel, also had its own wartime hero in the cigar-chomping Sgt Nick Fury.
The fact that people my age (46) and older still refer to WWII as simply ‘The War’ is slowly becoming a far greater indication of one’s age than any telltale physical signs. A teenager might respond to a reference to ‘The War’ with the question – ‘Which War?’ There’s been quite a few since 1945, after all, some of which teenagers today have lived through, albeit from a safe distance. Their contact with the Second World War is akin to my contact with the Crimean War or the Battle of Waterloo, something that exists only in the pages of history books or in television documentaries, too far back in time to feel as real as Iraq or Afghanistan.
The death of my grandfather severed my last personal physical link with the war; all my grandparents are gone now. My parents were both born in 1943 and have no memory of the turmoil the stork delivered them into, only the relics of its aftermath – the bombsites, the stray bits of shrapnel unearthed on those sites, the medals on the mantelpiece alongside the sepia-tinged photograph of the uncle who never came home. When they are gone, their childhood recollections of battle-scarred urban landscapes go with them. When I am gone, the sense of the war still being within touching distance goes with me. It is already receding into history rather than living memory as all the old soldiers quietly bow out and leave behind the stories that will have to suffice when the untold stories are lost forever.
I do not belong to the 60s generation that mocked the war with satire and fought to liberate themselves from the conformist legacy of short back-and-sides and the demob suit; my generation were that generation’s children, and the rapport we shared with their parents perhaps gave us a different perspective on the war, just as exposure to Jimmy Young spinning old Doris Day records when staying at our grandparents’ homes gave us a different perspective on the recent past altogether. There remains an emotional connection within my generation to the wartime experience that comes from the holiday periods we spent with our grandparents as young children, treated to snippets of anecdotes concerning the exotic locations visited when on active service or tales of the blackout and rationing on the home front. We absorbed these stories and felt their emotions acutely because we loved our grandparents; and that has never left us. The generations that came after us have been denied that and thus the connection that kept the war as virtual present tense is broken.
So, whenever there’s a five in the year and the end of the Second World War is marked with another solemn service in a far-flung foreign field as well as beneath the cenotaph, attended by the diminishing number of servicemen and women who were actually there, my generation shares something special with them, perhaps aware that what we share is slowly slipping away from the present day as inexorably as the generation who engaged in the conflict. We not only mourn those lost during the war – we mourn our own loss. Getting older can sometimes have unforeseen consequences that transcend all the ones we anticipated.