Al Murray is better known as a comedian whose alter ego, The Pub Landlord is frequently seen on television and in stadia and concert halls around the country. The Pub Landlord is xenophobic, right-wing, ribald and bombastic but audiences should not assume that Al Murray is anything like his comic creation in real-life. With his Oxford M.A. in modern history and his occasional television appearances as himself, Al Murray comes across as a cultured and thoughtful person who almost seems caged by the success of The Pub Landlord (but no doubt a very lucrative imprisonment!). What he really thinks of his audiences I can’t imagine, for many of them go to his shows precisely because they agree, at least in part, with the views of Al’s comic alter ego.
With his new book Watching War Films With My Dad, (October 2013), the real Al Murray fascinates with a series of essays, travelogues and biographical pieces largely based around the theme of the Second World War. I was expecting to find this book amusing, but was taken aback by the sheer depth of knowledge Al Murray has on modern history and the extent to which he produces new thinking on some well-trodden historical events (his section on the battle for Arnhem Bridge, subject of the film A Bridge Too Far is particularly good). I was very impressed and will probably go over many of the passages again, particularly when I next visit Normandy, the scene of the D-Day landings.
Not that the whole book is serious in intent – far from it. While Al’s theme is loosely based around the topic of war films, the book often digresses in to random essays which he wrote often while on the road, in moments snatched while waiting in hotel rooms to go off to a performance. I particularly enjoyed his chapter on making Airfix kits, a boyhood hobby which I shared with Al, spending many happy hours painting and assembling plastic model aeroplanes (the secret was to paint most of the pieces first but few people had the patience to do this, preferring to stick all the bits together then mess it all up with botched paint job).
So as well as the war and Airfix kits we read about what it’s like to go on stage at the O2 Arena (apparently the massive screens and the vast audience make it not unlike appearing on television). We read of Al’s love of paint-balling which he has indulged in many locations while on tour. In another essay we read of the three “H”s of history: Herodotus, Holinshed (author of the first printed history book, The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 1577), and Christopher Hill, the 20th century of Marxist historian who looked beyond the “great men” of history to the underlying societal changes which gave rise to historic events.
One thing I’d not really thought of before was how fluid the concept of a World War actually is. We in Britain are used to thinking that the War ended on VE Day, 8 May 1945. Or was it VJ Day on 3 September. The Americans see it as 2 September, but as Al says, “try telling that to the Japanese men who kept turning up in the 1970, still fighting for the emperor”. In France, the War ended twice – the first time in 1940 when the Germans invaded and then again in 1944 during the Liberation, pretty much a year ahead of the rest of Europe who carried on fighting for another year. In the Ukraine the war didn’t end until the early 1950s and in China it began in 1937 with the invasion of Japan. Poles might even think that it was only when the Soviet tanks left in 1989 that the War really ended. And so on.
As Al points out, it is worrying to think of how Nazi Party won the hearts and minds of it’s people with so many myths which they were able to promote among the German people. More worrying still to see how myth-making continues today. In Britain, before Christmas we were being told repeatedly by certain newspapers and politicians that on 1 January the granting of European Union membership to Bulgaria and Romania would result in and invasion of floods of economic migrants. Myths were being created about special flights being chartered in Bucharest to bring hoards of Romanians to use our health service, to sign on as benefit claimants and to steal our jobs. Needless to say, the flood was barely a trickle which nobody to date has actually been able to witness.
Even today, the Daily Mail has started a petition to say that with Britain being subject to extensive flooding, that we should commandeer our foreign aid budget to help our own people. This, from the sixth largest economy in the world, where as the New Statesman point out, “It’s easy to forget that Britain’s aid budget comes in at 0.7 per cent of our national wealth. It’s less in total than we spend on fizzy drinks in a year”. Don’t the government have a contingency fund any more? Last time I looked it stood at about £10 billion which is a tenth of the total Gross National Product of Bangla Desh. Do we really need to stop giving to poorest of the world’s poor suffering from flooding in Bangla Desh, Pakistan, Mozambique, Myanmar and Nepal? (see my article In Defence of the Foreign Aid Budget)
I was tempted to delete the last two paragraphs but what’s the point of writing a blog if you can’t have a rant from time to time?
Back to the book – the chapter on Arnhem is excellent. Al spent many hours in the National Archive reading war diaries of people who took part in the ill-fated attempt to capture this key bridge near the German border in Holland. Unfortunately a whole series of problem caused the Allies to fail to attack the bridge successfully:
- fog delayed the planes carrying British troops from taking off,
- our para-troops were landed too far from the bridge and had to march 8 miles carrying heavy packs,
- there were serious problems with the radios used for battlefield communications, and,
- there were far more Germans defending the bridge than had been expected.
Al states these conclusions with bitter humour and with a scathing attack on the way it was done, bearing in mind the stories of individual heroism expressed in the war diaries.
I’d just like to finish by giving Al’s response to the question, “Does war work?”. He starts this section with a debate about the Edwin Starr’s song, “War, What is it Good For”, which prompted Al to try to answer the question by saying, well, war is good for some things (my emphases), namely the destruction of Nazism. . .
By the end of the war the Greater German Reich was gone. In ruins, destroyed, never to return and, it could be said, Nazism with it. When modern Western governments ask themselves whether foreign interventions work, the answer is there: yes, Germany 1945. And the answer offers a price tag, and a clue to how it is done as well – you rout and destroy its armies and materiel in the field, completely and utterly smash the place to pieces, burn its cities down, cut the country in two, re-educate the entire population, if necessary quietly rehabilitate some of the people you were fighting, hold show trials to make it clear exactly who’s won and where the blame for the whole thing lies, then save its economy and rebuild it and occupy it for decades. This is how the most successful military intervention in recent history was achieved.
I will leave it to readers to think about recent interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and whether or not the West should have intervened in the current tragedy in Syria.
In the last chapter of the book writes of visiting the museum at Sainte Mere Eglise, and experiencing a personal epiphany (my dictionary defines this as “a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something”):
As I made my weary round the second hangar, next to the Dakota, I realised I couldn’t do it any more. I’d had enough. It all felt bombastic . . . it felt like it was glorifying war. I was suddenly sick of it all – sick of the flags, sick of the uniforms, sick of the minutely detailed weaponry, sick of the idea that any of it could possibly be glorious. . . I shuffled around the rest of the museum, disgusted at myself. I loved this stuff, I’d dragged my kids and my girlfriend to Northern France for this stuff, for pity’s sake. . . I said to myself that enough was enough.
I somehow think that Al will be unable to leave his passion for World War 2 for long. You can’t be that involved with a subject and walk away from it. As far as I’m concerned I found that this book sparkled because of that passion and I certainly hope that Al returns to historical topics before too long.