'The Sunday Times' Article - 16th December 2001

'The Sunday Times' Culture Magazine - Front Cover

 

 

Comment: Culture - Come inside to a 1940s Christmas

It was a desperate, austere time, so why do we want to re-create it? Bryan Appleyard investigates our fascination with a cosy past.

 

  Snow has whitened the Dig for Victory cabbages. On the dining-room table, there is a bottle of Emva cream sherry and a chicken. Mince pies and a plum pudding are waiting in the kitchen. Paper chains are looped about the lounge, and a jigsaw is half-finished on the floor. The big wooden radio emits Christmas music, and real candles burn on the real tree. Soon, the family will gather round to hear the King’s Speech. All the windows are hatched with tape, and on the upstairs landing, a stirrup pump is ready, because, at unknown airfields across Europe, men are loading planes with bombs and incendiaries.

This is the Imperial War Museum’s evocation of Christmas 1940. The house at 17 Braemar Gardens, West Wickham, Kent, originally used for the Channel 4 series The 1940s House, has been reconstructed at the museum, and now it has been given its first “Christmas makeover”. Two-thirds of the 600,000 people who visit the museum annually troop through this cramped but potent exhibit. For the slightly older, it may look like granny’s house; for the younger, it will look like an alien dwelling on that distant planet we call The Past.

The makeover has intensified the experience. The shock of the television series — in which a real family was obliged to live in the house for nine weeks, in simulated wartime conditions — was the discovery that middle-class life only 60 years ago seems so impoverished and mean. The single bottle of face cream and the shaving things on the bathroom shelf contrast with our vast pharmacies of cosmetic chemicals; there is no fridge, and a heavy wooden draining board slopes into the Belfast sink.

Christmas should be a time of plenty. But here the paper chains are old, and will not survive the war. The gifts are cardboard, the cards reused from last year. Today, of course, there would be real plenty — limitless food and drink, Harry Potter paraphernalia, computer games, an infinity of choice on television to crowd out the Queen’s Speech. Yet the feeling in the 1940s house is better, warmer, truer. Cosy is the word, implying, as it does, a place of, if not quite safety, then at least removal from the horrors of the world. We may, in a sense, be at war this Christmas, but the Taliban seem to be crushed, and, anyway, they have no Heinkels or Dorniers to threaten Kent.

Cosy also implies a certain order, a clarity of purpose. We have so much choice that we don’t know what to do with it. In the straitened circumstances of the past, the procedures of life are rigorously but benignly enforced. We had to keep the boiler lit, to manage the food amid the strictures of rationing, to spend our evenings reading or talking, to wear the only clothes on offer. There was, then, no choice, but now we have nothing but choice.

It is this, perhaps, that drives the Bayleys — Ian, a graphic designer, and Jan, a nurse — to live the life and the styles of the 1940s. On his website, www.1940.co.uk, Ian explains: “The 1940s should not be forgotten. The memories of those that lived through this period of our history should be written down and preserved for future generations.” Ian and Jan cultivate the jitterbug, collect the clothing and music of the era and re-enact 1940s lives and events. “Here we all are in December 2000,” says a photo caption. But the photo shows a family in wartime fashions, and the date seems like a rebuke.

The Bayleys are not alone. Their site is flooded with messages from people, many abroad, hypnotised by this lived evocation of the past. Elsewhere on the net, www.cc41.net is “a website with a focus on wartime Britain”, www.homesweethomefront.co.uk commemorates the hardships and joys of Britain under siege, and www.jollygoodshow.org organises “wartime” dances and shows to raise money for charity. Living in the recent past, like angling, is a meditative sustaining hobby of the masses.

Why the 1940s? Well, perhaps because, in the 1990s, that date was 50 years ago, and we became aware that those who fought and brought up children in those years were nearing the end of their lives. But also because that war possessed a certainty that was, to the post-modern, affluent, confused imaginations of our day, cosy. Who could doubt that Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and the murderous militarism of Japan were evil, pure and simple? There could, then, be no anxieties about the rightness of our cause. Consequently, there could be no doubt about the impassioned cosiness of our homes. Living well was the best revenge against that intercontinental madness.

Hollywood, with typical overkill, got the message. Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Band of Brothers and Pearl Harbor exaggerated and enforced the imagery of an era when every domestic hearth was threatened. And then, with miraculous synchronicity, came September 11, warning us that we could be threatened again. No wonder the Americans appointed a man to oversee “homeland security” — the self-conscious archaism of the title an implicit acknowledgment that, to face this threat, we had to go back to the past, we had to remember there was, indeed, a homeland. And so, thanks to the terrorists, Christmas will be cosy again.

But the past has always had an allure that transcends mere fashion or the horrors of the news. Members of The Sealed Knot still re-enact the battles of the English civil war, “offering you the unique chance to experience at first hand the trials of a nation at war with itself”. “Sealed Knot battle re-enactments,” explains the publicity, “are colourful, exciting and above all realistic — the roar of the cannon, cavalry dashing across the field, thousands of soldiers clashing in battle, the colourful standards, the smoke and the noise of the drums vividly bringing to life the battles that helped shape our nation.”

That phrase “shape our nation” is the point. It echoes the sense of destiny that accompanies our fascination with the second world war. This was a time when life had historic purpose. So intense is this feeling that, for some, it is not enough just to read about it: they must live the times out, eating, dressing and fighting as people did when national identity was at stake.

For others, historic destiny is not required; the past itself has purpose, simply by being the past. The late artist Dennis Severs, tired of the sheer convenience of life in his native California, transformed 18 Folgate Street, in London’s Spitalfields, into a precise re-creation of its condition in the 18th century. He was not content simply to look at paintings of the period: he wanted to step out of the present and into the past. Visitors to No 18 are asked to imagine they have interrupted a family of Huguenot silk-weavers named Jervis, who cannot be seen but can occasionally be heard. They wander through the 10 fire- and candle-lit rooms. There is a smell of food and a half-eaten meal on the table. They feel “the bonding warmth of a generous family’s presence”.

Mick Pedroli, who has run 18 Folgate Street since Severs’s death, tells me that all of the 80 or so people who pass through in an evening fall silent. Some leave sobbing, many crying. David Hockney compared the experience to that of one of the five great operas of the world. “The house’s motto,” says the programme, “is: ‘You either see it or you don’t.’ Post-materialist, it seeks to remind a visitor of a scientific thing: what we cannot see is essential to what we do.”

“The past,” the novelist LP Hartley all too famously wrote, “is a foreign country.” No, it’s not: it’s different, but it’s our country, and it’s gone, which is why we weep. Folgate Street, the Sealed Knot, the Bayleys and the Imperial War Museum are all evidence of the sacred awe with which we view the lives of our ancestors. Folgate Street is “post-materialist”, and Pedroli describes its effect as “spiritual”, because the presence we feel is literally not of this world. The past is real, but it’s not here, and its presence cannot be counted, mapped or measured. Its first great consolation is that the intuition we all feel, but nowadays seldom dare express — that there is more to life than the material here and now — is true. Its second great consolation is that, by re-creating the lives of the dead, we glimpse the possibility of some kind of immortality for ourselves. One day, the museum crowds will look around our own quaint homes and wonder how we ever managed. One day, they will feel as if we have just left the room for a moment. Not quite gone, and certainly not forgotten.

This year more than ever, with a war on and with the end of the excessive confidence of the long consumer boom in the West, we want Christmas to be about the past. The old, confident future is too hard, and does not contain us. The past, in contrast, is certain and cosy. We were there; we will be there.

 

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