Saturday, April 9, 2022

Angus Calder's The Myth of the Blitz--and the Myth of the Blitz

I remember when picking up Angus Calder's The Myth of the Blitz (1991) I had expected to see Calder do his damnedest to tear the myth to shreds. And in the Preface to the book Calder acknowledges that it was with such an impulse the project began, with "anger . . . over the sentimentalisation of 1940 by Labour apologists," and the Churchillian poses of Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War, driving him "to seek, every which way, to undermine the credibility of the mythical narrative."

But then Calder tells us he decided that this was superfluous, "that the negative effects of the Myth on British societies have almost worked themselves out" amid the passing of an earlier generation, the backlash against Thatcherism and much else, and indeed had some disparaging remarks for another book which had taken that very approach of attacking the mythical narrative, Clive Ponting's 1940: Myth and Reality. Granting that such a work had its "uses," he virtually accused its author of simple-mindedness in equating "myth" with "lie," and "writ[ing] as if exposing scandalous untruths and cover-ups" when "virtually nothing in his book . . . was not known by . . . all interested members of the public . . . in the sixties." Very shortly afterward he was talking about Roland Barthes (always a bad sign).

And so rather than debunking the myth he concentrated on the making of the myth, which he treated with some sympathy (closing his book with the thought that the mythmaking may have played some part in "making a juster and friendlier society" than the one that had existed before).

Taken on its terms the book was not wholly without its interest, discussing as it did the portrayal of those crucial history events to the public and the world at large. However, I still thought that Calder had been unjust in his assessment of Ponting's project, and deeply wrong about the waning of the Myth's significance, mistaking his era for one of more consequential progressive potential than was to be the case. If what Ponting was writing had been reported before the facts in question were, as far as the general public, at least, was concerned, buried under the unending, colossal, quite deliberate reassertion of the Myth--such that so far as much of the public was concerned Ponting was unearthing it for the first time, and the snark about the fact wholly unwarranted. Moreover, just a few years on it was to be clear that where the enervation of Labour's leaders, the march of Thatcherism, were concerned, this was merely the beginning--with the same going for British leaders striking Churchillian poses, as might have been guessed from the reality that the country was once again at war in the Levant, as it remains to this day, all as a new generation of Tories strikes new Churchillian poses over grand visions of a "Global Britain" returned to east of Suez, made the more recognizable by the endless train of big screen retellings of 1940 in those myth-affirming terms (The Darkest Hour, etc.) to the same effect as before. In all that it was not Ponting who failed to appreciate the moment and its needs, but Calder.

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