world war two

Not waving

I’m standing in the kitchen of my grandma and grandpop’s little house on the Bransholme estate in Hull. It’s about 1985 and I’m 10.

Already a budding historian, I’d been digging around in a junk shop and had found a couple of items that thrilled me. One was a map of British India – the Raj – and the Princely States, dating to the late 1930s.

My grandpop had been in India during the Second World War, so I thought he might be interested and brought it with me on our visit.

Grandpop got up impossibly early. He always did. Every job he’d had – and there were many, none of the permanent, none of them well-paying or respected – had required him to get up early. It was a habit and now, impossibly old to my eyes but actually a mere 72, he wasn’t going to change.

He started each morning by having a full wash in the kitchen sink, lathering up his face and his tattooed arms and his chest, getting himself ready for the day ahead. They had a bathroom in this house, but hadn’t had one before and the kitchen had previously been the only source of hot water. He wasn’t going to change his habits just because there was now a room for such things, not least because he wanted to use the rest of the hot water to make a pot of tea, just as he always had.

My presence didn’t change this. He made us both a cup of tea, and had his wash. I continued to babble on as I always did and still do, filling the potential silence with a stream of inconsequential words. He chatted idly with me as he washed, not really listening but not blanking me either. Your typical grandparent.

I got on to the subject of my Raj map and that he would know all about it because he’d been in India during the war. Was that great? Wasn’t it exciting? What was it like? Was it fun? Did you enjoy it, grandpop?

And then, slowly and quietly, he told me about the troop ship that took him there.

He was conscripted with his best mate. They went through basic training together and were assigned to the same regiment. They were posted to Undivided India together and were both on the same troopship. It was too hot and the waves made them sick but they were young and it was an adventure.

And then the Japanese navy torpedoed their ship.

Grandpop and his best mate were plunged into the Indian Ocean. Grandpop could swim. Not well, but enough to keep himself afloat.

His best mate could not swim. He flailed and panicked and splashed about.

And he kept grabbing grandpop and pulling them both under. His panicked weight around grandpop’s shoulders was drowning both of them. A lifeboat or some other rescue was approaching, but the guy kept flailing and dragging them both under. They were both going to drown before it reached them.

Grandpop held his best mate’s head under the water until he stopped failing. Fifteen, thirty minutes later – a day, a week, a year, it doesn’t matter – and the boat picked him up. Alone.

At least one of you survived, people said when they heard that the other guy had drowned.

At least one of them survived.

I may be the only person he ever told about that.

He finished washing, made us both another cup of tea, and talked about what we were going to do for my birthday that day. Did I want to come with him to The Centre? I did, because the betting shop, where he played 2p bets on the horses was smoky but fun. And The Centre had a supermarket with an automatic door, triggered by standing on a lumpy rubber mat in front of it, something I’d never seen elsewhere.

We’d go to the betting shop and then we’d go to the supermarket and both take turns jumping on to the rubber mat.

Don’t Let’s Be Beastly To The Nazis

A head-scratching part of the recent terrifying rise of the far right into positions of influence in western democracies has been accompanied by various people on the left loudly saying that (a) we have enabled the far right by making them into comedy figures, and (b) we should engage with Nazis rather than punching the fuckers in the face.

To deal with the second point first: famously-punched Nazi scum Richard Spencer, who was punched while in the middle of a live primetime unchallenged interview with Australian national broadcaster the ABC, and later again whilst being give free, unchallenged access to the masses by television, says he is now too frightened to leave his house to give interviews.

I can’t for the life of me think of a downside to this. A man who preaches hate for people of colour, Jews, LGBT+, anybody who isn’t him, who advocates – indeed, argues strongly for – concentration camps and the mass gassing and cremation of people who aren’t him, is now too scared to appear on TV.

Good. About fucking time.

As for “enabling” the Nazi scum by taking the piss of them: the people who complain about this are an unholy alliance of those who dealt with bullies at school by hiding from them and now never speak up ever…

…and those on the ‘left’ who have drifted so far to the left that they’ve come round and met themselves at the other side and are happy and content in the midst of fascists (you know who you are, Laurie).

The Second World War, you remember, the last time fascism was a powerful force in the world, featured just the same type of people wringing their hands and calling for us to be nice to the Nazis. We were nice to them. And then a war that enveloped the entire world and only ended with the use of nuclear weapons happened.

And during that war, we – the not-fascists – continued to make jokes about our foes, even as they dropped tonnes of bombs on our heads.

And it drove them mad. All the counter-propaganda in world produced nothing like the hilarity in the Home Front and the extreme anger in the Axis as the type of satirical and comedy songs we sang to ourselves and broadcast at them.

For instance, this from Florrie Desmond, laughing at Mussolini:

Or this from Spike Jones in the United States suggesting that farting in Hitler’s direction would annoy him (the song annoyed the people in charge of his jamming equipment, and also the remaining appeasers on the board of the FCC at least):

And Arthur Askey had a thing or two to say about Rudolf Hess suddenly making a run for it in 1941:

On that basis… keep taking the piss of the Nazis, it drives them mad. And keep punching the fuckers, just because.

Rickets for everyone!

As I continue to need distracting whilst I work towards my annual deadline, coming up on iTunes quite regularly are the two songs I have from Gracie Fields. 1,468 to chose from and “The Thing-ummy-bob” and “Wish Me Luck (As You Wave Me Goodbye)” are the ones iTunes has decided to play twice in the last hour.

I can stand a bit of Gracie Fields, based on the wartime connection (when her husband spirited her and her money out of the country) and the general campness that clings to her. But really, I can’t quite see the attraction. She couldn’t sing, she couldn’t act, she was no oil painting, she fell for bastards who treated her like crap and she insisted on being paid in precious dollars when performing “to her people” at the Festival of Britain on a brief visit back from Capri. No, as far as I am concerned, you can keep “Our Gracie” and all her works.

If you’ve never sat down and watched one — and why would you? — then her 1930s films can be summarised as follows: Plutocratic mill owner announces that he is closing the mill/shutting down the hospital/demolishing the sanatorium/being generally wicked in a 1930s way. The workers think things are hopeless, so turn to fellow-but-oddly-better-dressed-worker Gracie for help. She sings a song at them, then goes to see plutocratic mill owner’s son. She convinces him to join her campaign, gets on a train to that London, sees plutocratic mill owner himself, there’s a mysterious gap in the narrative as to what she said or did at this point*, she gets a train back to Grimsfield or Stonyborough or whatever Rochdale is pretending to be in this film, announces that the mill/hospital/sanatorium has been reprieved, links arms with the plutocratic mill owner’s son and sings another song at the assembled crowd.

Every Gracie Fields film is the same, except one, where she wasn’t from Rochdale, she was from Glasgow — but she was unable to maintain the accent so the producers dropped in a line about her being from both Rochdale and Glasgow, thus usefully covering the wandering diphthongs.

This video is an excellent piss-take of the standard ending of a Gracie Field film. The plot: plutocratic mill owner has unilaterally cancelled Sludgetown’s annual Rickets Fair. Sadly missing is an earlier scene, where she turns up in said plutocrat’s office to plead for the fair to go ahead; Josie Lawrence sings a song that starts “You’ll never know/What rickets/Have done for me!” whilst exposing comically bowed legs. You had to be there.

*There’s a possibility that she presented him with the Lancashire speciality of tripe and chips to change his mind. It’s more likely she put out. It was 1930s — they didn’t say.

The dirtiest shelter in town

It's deadline week at work, so I'm doing extra hours and working extra hard. My back and wrists ache and my eyes alternate between so-dry-I-can't-blink and so-watery-I-can't-see. But it's only once a year, so I can't complain too loudly.

To keep myself going and to provide the right degree of distraction (enough to stop me going mad but not enough to prevent me from actually writing) I've had iTunes on a loop with 1,486 songs (2.7 days of music) playing. Oddly, iTunes DJ gets obsessed with certain songs, so about 1,400 songs are sitting ignored while it churns round the other 86. For some reason, the song iTunes DJ loves most is the theme to the BBC's 'Kick Start'. It seems to play every 10 songs and the next time it comes up, I'm fucking deleting the bugger.

The song I love most at the moment (it has only come up once this week) is the one above, seeing as it combines my two favourite things — World War II and smut.