Saturday, 1 September 2012

Playing at the past

Isn't this scene fantastic? The Tea Party. Precise date, not sure. Let's say 1 September 1944, may as well, since at our local museum, it's the 1940s Festival.

Sounds of rattling tea cups, scratchy music on the wireless, the sight of starched linen cloth spread over the wooden folding table. It all makes me feel nostalgic for the decencies and honour of the good old days, even though I wasn't born, and wouldn't liked to have been.

Couldn't have been, in any case. The father didn't come back to Britain until 1956, thanks to being imprisoned in the Suez Crisis. He came home with nothing, but his wartime memorabilia was by then stashed in his mother's house. Suitcases of photographs he'd taken for newspapers and the public record; open them up for piles of dead bodies, blown-apart buildings, towns on fire, streets which looked like there should be pavements and roads but now were rubble and dust, people standing on stony hillsides, dressed in long robes. Arabs, my mother said dismissively, like these were the last people you should ever trust on earth, but my father said this was so-and-so and he'd worked alongside him, and he was alright so long as you didn't turn your back, now stop looking at them, put them away and don't look again, because that time was then, and all I can say, It was war.

From the photographs I discovered, but probably shouldn't have been looking under the furnitures in my grandmother's musty house, I could see in those black and white images what the outer reaches of human nature could achieve, out of any experience of mine, but more puzzling even than the heaps of dead bodies and the bombed out houses was my father saying It was war, as if this was all the understanding he could give me, even though we both knew it was no understanding at all.

So anyway our local museum run the 1940s Festival, and I'm glad they do, because it's an opportunity for people like me, with no experience of the Second World War, to try and communicate to our children something about the story we all follow, the reasons why it took place, the study you could do, how we like to imagine England in 1944, yes, let's watch Dad's Army and need never speak about the terrible things that people can do to each other and will do again because, well, you know, It was war, but there are good things here, there are! See, it gave us The Tea Party with rattling cups and scratchy music on the wireless, and the beautifully starched linen tablecloth.

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