Archive for September, 2016

Tail end Charlies

18 September 2016
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‘The Battle of Britain’, by Paul Nash (Imperial War Museum)

It was Battle of Britain Day last week, the anniversary of the last great air battle over Britain, in 1940, when pretty much every available plane on both sides was up in the sky. It’s well caught in Paul Nash’s huge canvas, which is now in the Imperial War Museum. My father-in-law Denis Robinson fought in the Battle of Britain as a Spitfire pilot, turning 22 during the Battle. Like many others, he didn’t fly combat missions again. After the Battle he was shifted first to pilot training and later to transport, for example running supplies into Normandy after D-Day, and ferrying the wounded out.

He reckoned that he survived through a mixture of having had a decent amount of flying experience pre-war, some luck (he was shot down but managed to crashland the plane), and, reading between the lines, a wilful disregard for some of the RAF’s stupidities.

Flying doctrine in the 1940s had it that the squadron’s four sections should fly in a straight line, one plane ahead, two behind. It took only a little experience to work out that this meant the whole formation was a sitting duck if attacked from behind, especially the “tail end Charlies,” as he called them, at the back. (There’s a good explanation of all of this tactical detail here).

As tail end Charlie, Denis took to weaving around behind the front pair, which made both him and the rest of the section harder to hit. He was, he recalled before his death, reprimanded for this breach of instructions. He promptly ignored the reprimand, as did other pilots in the same position. By the end of the Battle of Britain, it was accepted that the tail end Charlie would weave; by 1942, it was doctrine.

The RAF’s blinkers extended to its prejudice about the Polish airmen who had arrived in the UK after the fall of Poland. They were experienced and committed pilots who had performed creditably against the Luftwaffe in old aircraft, but that wasn’t how the RAF saw it.

The film Battle of Britain has a sequence in which a Polish squadron on a training flight under the supervision of an RAF officer, not yet permitted to fly combat missions,  break formation to attack a group of German planes, and story is broadly true. The squadron was commissioned, and performed heroically.

By that stage in the Battle of Britain, even the RAF’s stuffed shirts knew they needed pilots desperately, and were lucky that the Poles were here and ready and willing to fly. They represented the largest contingent of overseas airmen, as the Statista chart below shows.

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There’s a memorial to the Polish airmen—those who flew in the Battle of Britain and also later in the war—just off the A40 on the way out of London, close to Northolt airfield, and an adjacent garden of memory. We visited it on the Augist Bank Holiday. The memorial was refurbished about a decade ago, and is in good condition, but the garden, which is looked after by the Borough of Hounslow and the Polish Government, looks as if it has suffered from local authority cutbacks, and needs a little loving care, if only out of respect for the contribution they made to the Allied cause.

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Image: Wikimedia

 

 

 

The Deep Blue Sea

6 September 2016
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National Theatre set designed by Tom Scott. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Terrence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea, which is on at London’s National Theatre, is literally a period piece. It premiered in 1952, and the devices and secrets that drive plot and characters are no longer issues. No spoilers, but attempted suicide is no longer a crime, gas no longer poisons you, a woman who leaves her husband to live with someone else no longer has to lie about it.

Rattigan, who was gay at a time when homosexual acts were illegal, would have known all about the world of secrets, allusion and indirect meanings, which is perhaps one of the reasons why the writing and characterisation are strong. He wrote the play after a lover, Kenny Morgan, had killed himself by gas. There’s no evidence for the claim Rattigan once made in a letter that he wrote an initial version in which Hester, the lead character, was male and gay–such a play would have been unperformable in Britain in the 1950s–there is a later “distaff” version by Mike Poulton that re-works The Deep Blue Sea as if it were Morgan who were the central character and had failed in his suicide attempt.

(On gas suicides, I also recall a play by Alan Ayckbourn, although I forget which one, where he plays this idea for laughs. A woman is lying in the kitchen during a party with her head in the gas oven while party guests traipse through not realising what she’s doing, and engage her in conversation.)

The Deep Blue Sea is a technical tour de force, set in one location and in keeping with Aristotle’s idea of “the unities”, taking place in just 24 hours, or so. The National’s set, seen in the image at the top of the post, makes much of this over-crowded block of bedsits, with its thin walls and well-meaning landlady, although it doesn’t manage to convey one of Rattigan’s stage directions, that it stands in a badly bombed area of Ladbroke Grove.

This is another period piece: for this would have been the Ladbroke Grove of cheap lodgings and Peter Rachman, not of David Cameron’s “Notting Hill set“. Not, in the ’50s, the sort of place that the runaway wife of a wealthy High Court judge would expect to be found.

One other period element of the play that I missed completely in the National’s version: that the struck-off doctor Mr Miller, very much the play’s “centre of good”, was gay and had been disqualified after being jailed for a homosexual act. It’s implicit, but the various reviews of this and other productions seem clear on the point.

But if the play were just a social history, it would not be worth re-staging. It still works in 2016 because at its heart it is a play about desire. Hester leaves her husband, portrayed in the National’s version as generous but not passionate, for a relationship with a younger man, a pilot who is still reliving the war through a haze of alcohol. It’s evident that sex matters to her. Freddy Page, for whom she left her husband, is “the devil” that the play’s title alludes to.

The deep blue sea, in contrast, is the challenge of living with herself, about to be a divorced woman, having transgressed the social and sexual mores of the time.For this is a choice. (And this is a spoiler).

As Terence Davies, who directed a film version of the play, observes of the scene near the end of the play between Hester and her husband Sir William Collyer,

When he asks her to come back, he says, “Can’t you see what I’m offering you?” She says, “Yes, and do you have any idea how difficult it is to refuse it?”

The trangressive women is always a rich theme, and especially so in the ’40s and ’50s, as a decade of film noir reminds us.

And in our cultural stories, perhaps the transgressive woman, or transgressives of any gender, find themselves dead or alone, as the play suggests. Which is one way of making sense of the paean to the virtues of doggedness in Mr Miller’s fine speech to Hester in the final act of the play. Keeping on keeping on is a virtue, no matter how hard it seems at the time.