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World War II nostalgia: Foyle’s War

27 April 2010

One of my favourite TV programmes, and the only one I watch regularly at the moment, is Foyle’s War.

It’s a detective series in the whodunit genre, and the protagonist is Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle and his sidekick Paul Milner. He has a driver, Samantha Stewart, and a son in the air force. It is set in the seaside town of Hastings on the south coast of England in the Second World War.

Unlike most modern whodunits, the detectives don’t have technology like DNA testing and cell phones. And also, there are the complications of police work in war time — spies, profiteers, the black market, hoarding, secret military research establishments experimenting with biological warfare, conscientious objectors, enemy aliens and the like. One of the more amusing incidents is where a profiteer is arrested for getting a turkey for Christmas dinner on the black market, and the police watching it, locked in the evidence room, and arguing that they ought to be allowed to eat if before it rots.

The producers have gone to some trouble to make the settings look authentic, with furniture, equipment, uniforms, clothing and hair styles fitting the time. One slightly jarring thing for me is what sound like fake American accents in some of the minor characters, but then I’m not an expert on American accents. Perhaps American viewers would find them OK… or not.

They’ve been shown on Sunday evenings, but recently they’ve been shown again on weekday mornings, which has enabled us to catch up with some episodes that we’ve missed. The weekdays ones are being shown jumbled up, not in any order. A couple of weeks ago they showed us one of the earliest ones, which showed how the characters came to be where they were. This morning they showed the last one, which was at the end of the war, when Foyle was about to retire, and his sidekick being promoted, and his driver looking for a job. Foyle’s last case. The scene was one of preparing for victory celebrations, and there were demobbed military types.

There was also quite a bit in the last episode that evoked some feelings about the end of the war. There was joy and happiness, yet also a feeling of sadness, which I think was caught very well, and reminded me of something of my own feelings about it.

I don’t remember a great deal about the war. I was born while it was on, and was 4 years old when it ended. One vivid memory is standing on Salisbury Island in Durban Bay waiting for my uncle to return from the war. He arrived in a four-engined flying boat, which arrived from the east, flying low over the Point before landing on the bay. He had been in the paratroop regiment, and gave my mother some silk from his parachute, from which she promised to make me a shirt, but never did. I remember during the war visiting some friends who had an atlas, and discovering that Britain and Germany were in completely different directions from what I had imagined. Everyone said they were “overseas”, and ships going to Europe headed south-west after leaving Durban harbour, so my mental picture was of Britain and Germany being somewhere in the region of Tierra del Fuego until I saw them on an actual map.

After the war I grew up reading Biggles books, and later on biographies of real-life air force pilots. My uncle (of the parachute) stayed with us, and had a couple of books called Aircraft of the Fighting Powers, which I read avidly at the age of 9 or 10, and though the war had been over for some years I could quote most of the statistics for most of the aircraft in the books. At that age my ambition was to be a fighter pilot, like Biggles, and to fly Spitfires, even though I knew that Spitfires were now obsolete, and there were rumours that one could buy them for scrap for £60 at the Zwartkop Air Force base near Pretoria, and I desperately wanted one. At the same time I also read, in the copies of Popular Mechanics that came to our school common room, about the Sabres that were being flown by the air forces in the Korean War, and read with a kind of fascinated horror about the effects of the napalm bombs that they dropped at the mouths of railway tunnels with trains inside, with diagrams showing how these marvellous techical innovations worked, and how the people in the trains would be lucky to die of suffocation before being cremated.

And as I read the biographies of the war-time pilots, a strange feeling of nostalgia came over me, of almost a kind of sorrow and sadness that the war was ending. For many of them, the war had given a purpose to their lives, and they were lost without it. So the victory celebrations were tempered with sadness.

And something of this was captured in the last episode of Foyle’s War. There was the lostness of returning servicemen, who weren’t sure what the future held for them. Foyle’s son, the pilot, was saying that he couldn’t bear the thought of working in an office.

I’ve read many books of twentieth-century history since my youthful desire to be a fighter pilot flying Spitfires, and reading about the events leading up to the Second World War there is a feeling of despair and helplessness. How could the leaders of that time failed to see that their actions would lead to a war in which many would be killed? How could they avoid it? But then, once the war had started, I had the same feeling, of half not wanting it to end. And that feeling came back to me watching the last episode of Foyle’s War. It was the end of the war, and also the end of the series; in real life the characters would get on with their changed lives in changed circumstances. In the TV series the characters would move off the set and take other parts and become other characters, but one could record them and go back and watch them again in their former roles.

But for some of those in real life it would have a sad ending. The war did give a meaning to their lives, and beyond the end of the war their lives stretched ahead, bleak and meaningless. In 1972-73 I quite often used to go for lunch at the Grosvenor Hotel in Soldiers Way in Durban, across the road from the old station. They had a bar lunch, large curry for 35c and a small one for 15c. It was the cheapest meal in town. The bar was decorated with World War II memorabilia, provided by the clientele: helmets, bayonets, badges, bits of uniforms, camouflage netting and the like. And most of the regulars in the bar were old soldiers, by then in their early 50s. And from their conversations they seemed to live sad, lonely and empty lives. Their only solace was coming to the bar and drinking to forget.

By then I was a pacifist. I did not want to fight in any wars. I did not want to have to kill people. Yet I still felt stirred at the sight of Spitfires in museums, or taken out to fly at air shows — perhaps by those who had bought the £60 scrap ones, and fixed them up and kept them flying. And there is something about Spitfires. The other day I caught a bit of another TV programme, James May talking about toys, and getting some school kids to build a full-size model of a Spitfire, and noting that the company that made the scale model kits, Airfix, said that their Spitfire kit had remained the most popular, by far.

And so I remain somewhat ambivalent about war. I am still a pacifist, but I don’t have the strong objections that some have to war toys, like model Spitfires.

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