Monday 24 July 2017

Dunkirk and Paxman

It is rare that I go to see a war film at the cinema, it's not usually something I can stomach. I had to switch off 'Platoon' when it was shown on the box and I have only managed to watch part of Tom Hanks' film 'Saving Private Ryan.' This latter was important to follow as my father was in D-Day ops. A few years before he died, in Italy where he was to revisit Salerno-sadly, he never made the battle sites but died in our hotel just after breakfast one August morning, we took him to Arromanches, the landing beaches depicted in the Hanks film. At the commemorative museum there I recall another veteran saying to dad 'It was hell, wasn't it?'
                                   'Not as bad as the desert,' my father replied, referring to El Alamein.
My father didn't mention the fact that nothing, even these major offensives, could prepare him for his role in the relief of Belsen. So, for him, D-Day wasn't hell. It was just bloody awful.

Watching the Christopher Nolan film 'Dunkirk' today I was quite moved and humbled. Demoralised young men stood in lines on a vast stretch of sand, not knowing their fate. In 1940 many were my father's age, just eighteen. They were waiting, defeated, to be picked up off the beach. But, I understand from personal testimonies, the really frightening aspects of the humiliating wait were the strafings from enemy fire. There was no shelter and Nolan effectively showed the randomness of war. Heads - you keep your head down and live, tails - you're blown to bits, to be 'buried' with the words 'Known unto God' on a headstone.

My father would have suffered a similar fear, although he was in armoured cars, with a driver, but one admires these men. They recovered, in most cases. They married in the 1940s and 50s, after de-mob, and had families.

Ordinary dads. Going to work, taking their families on day trips. Playing games, feeding the cat. Others never returned and died as teenagers or twenty somethings in France, in Germany, in the desert, out at sea, in the skies or on the Burma railway.

Never once did dad mention the horrors of war when we were growing up. I first heard about his experiences when I was in my thirties, some forty years after the end of WW2. Today Nolan put the audience, us, in the position of a uniformed participant, at a remove of 77 years and the big screen. But it was like we were there. One could only feel for the poor souls. What they went through to allow us to be British-not Nazi puppets. Such acts of unselfishness; those that weren't hit were soaked through, drowned or burned alive. Such profound sacrifice. A mug of tea and bread and jam were their rewards. No self-indulgence allowed.

Which brings me to Jeremy Paxman. Again I rarely watch him but one thing he said when promoting a book he'd written, and with which I concur, is that today 'we live in trivial times.' The fuss people make about what to eat, how their wine is served, lah-dee-dah, lah-dee-dee, is indulgence and, yes, trivial. It rarely matters what wine you drink if you are happy, in good company and have a sense of perspective. With so many horrors still being perpetrated around the world today having a glass of wine, anything to drink in fact, is luxury for some poor creatures.

Nolan made me feel for the soldiers waiting on the beach in 'Dunkirk'. Poor lads, I thought. One of them could have been my father, my uncle or a friend's father. We are very lucky to be living in trivial times. Mere irritation won't kill us. Enemy fire will.