Those distant tunes of glory

21st April 2000 at 01:00
AS I write this I am looking at a faded black and white photograph of two soldiers. Both are wearing knee-length shorts, shirts with rolled-up sleeves, heavy socks and boots. The one on the left of the picture is wearing a Second World War cap, tilted jauntily, even precariously, to his right, revealing a large area of oiled, short, army-cropped hair. He has the kind of George Formby, slightly buck-toothed smile that many soldiers of the time seem to save for the camera.

The soldier on the right is slightly taller, is sporting a balmoral, and has a mere suggestion of a smile. With their folded arms and challenging stance, they could almost be defenders in a football team photograph. When the photograph was taken in January 1943, in either Alexandria or Cairo, they were not so much defending as attacking, as Montgomery's Eighth Army was chasing Rommel's Afrika Korps across North Africa. The two men had not long arrived in Egypt and were very shortly to go "up the desert" and see action in Libya and Tunisia.

I first saw the picture more than 50 years ago, and every time I looked at it, I always felt a sense of attachment and connection to the time when it was taken. It was partly because the soldier with the balmoral was my father, but also because I was part of a generation for whom the Second World War was not school history but a recent, and literally memorable, event which then became an integral part of our rearing, thanks to comics, books, radio, television, films and family reminiscences.

At the time of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, in 1995, there was a feeling that then was the time to let go; easier said than done, as was shown when Stephen Spielberg's cinematic tribute to his father's generation, Saving Private Ryan, became such a great success in 1998. Being of an age with Spielberg, I appreciated his efforts and identified with his reasons for making the film.

There was always something special to me about a generation whose parents experienced the First World War, lived through a depression, then another war, then the mixture of hardship and aspiration of the postwar period.

The photograph is an improved and enlarged version of an original postcard-sized snap. Whenmy sister gave it to me a few weeks ago, I found myself looking at it differently, almost, dare I say it, in a more detached way. It was as if I was looking at any seaside snap. The wartime connection was there, but definitely more diluted.

Maybe in these first months of the new century I'm beginning to distance myself from it to the extent that what happened between 1939 and 1945 can be looked at with the same objectivity as the conflicts of 1914-18 or 1899-1901. Maybe moving into a year that doesn't have a nine in it has broken the spell. Maybe the Second World War really has become only another bit of history and not an experience to be dwelt on or become obsessed about, as my son has frequently alleged.

Or perhaps it has something to do with Rachel and Laura. Rachel is aged four and Laura is two. They are the great-grandaughters of the soldier with the balmoral, not that he'll ever see them. Looking into the crystal ball at the beginning of their century is, as ever, pointless, but also inevitable and irresistible. Thinking of the future that awaits them seems to have ignited the chronological after-burners, creating a forward surge that is leaving much of previous experience further behind, though not entirely out of sight or mind. That would be expecting too much.

Incidentally, with the release of Private Ryan a book was published in America, lauding the contribution of the generation which fought the war and claiming for them a moral and spiritual superiority over later generations. Total nonsense, of course. That particular battle against fascism was won, but who today would claim total victory had been achieved?

Arguably the moral certainties of 60 years ago even made it easier to face the problems. Subsequent generations have had their own problems, which could not always be tackled far less overcome by a literal or metaphorical tightening of the belt or a bout of jingoism.

If Rachel and Laura ever get round to asking me about the photograph of their great-grandfather and the times in which he lived, I will hopefully respond in a way which acknowledges the spirit of his generation, while at the same time being aware that their generation has its own demons to overcome.

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