I’ve got a fairly regular gig reviewing modern military books for the ‘Literary Review’, Britain’s least up-its-own-arse literary magazine, but inevitably the instruction from the editor are quite clear: ‘You’ve got a thousand words so stick to the point!’ (‘you driveling wanker!’, she probably adds, under her breath). Consequently, I’ve decided to use this blog to put up a few reviews of books, movies and other stuff that I’ve enjoyed with the added bonus that I can roam a bit more freely than I would be able to in a paid piece. So here goes.
I’ve never met Al Murray* but I’ve been a fan of his since I first saw ‘The Pub Landlord’ in action, and I’ve bored my kids rigid with witty bon mots shamelessly stolen from him ever since: ‘Where would we be without rules? France’. You get the picture.
But I’m not a comedy fanboy and until I bumped into him on Twitter, I had no idea about his fascination with military history. Having read his new book ‘Watching War Films with My Dad’, a veil has been lifted from my eyes. It turns out that a significant proportion of our early lives might have been pretty much interchangeable.
I’m a few years older than Al but for both of us, the cultural legacy of the Second World War looms large, as it does for many of our generation. Al’s father served as a National Serviceman after World War Two and then carried on as a Territorial Army officer afterwards but managed to inculcate in his son his own deep fascination with the history of the conflict.
Which is not dissimilar to what happened to me. My dad was fifteen when ‘The War’ broke out. He was born and brought up in a small town in mid-Wales where his dad – my grandfather – owned the draper’s shop on the high street.
As it happens my grandfather was one of the town’s war heroes. He had gone to London to seek his fortune in the early years of the 20th century and had ended up working at John Lewis’s department store on Oxford Street. When war broke out in 1914, he volunteered for the Queen Victoria Rifles, the Territorial infantry regiment recruited from the East End of London where he lived. He rose through the ranks to sergeant, serving on the Western Front before, in 1916, being commissioned in the field into the City of London Fusiliers. So it was as an officer that, in 1918, he won the Military Cross commanding a trench mortar battery. During the autumn offensive which finally defeated the German Army, he took one of his mortars out of cover and used it to neutralize a series of interlocking machine gun positions which were pinning down the advance in his sector. Neat huh?
Clearly this had an impact on my dad. His father, a clever but self-educated man, had managed to raise himself up from – in effect – the peasantry to become a respectable member of the provincial middle classes largely as a result of his martial valour. It was a lesson my dad took to heart.
But it was not to be. Dad was bright. Despite having to do his degree in two years, he managed to get the top First in 1943 and, instead of going into the army as he’d imagined, he was exempted from military service and drafted as an industrial chemist for Albright and Wilson’s in Birmingham, where he worked on refining the fillings for the incendiary bombs which were to be rained on Germany as the bomber offensive reached high gear. His only military service was as an Officer-Cadet Corporal in the ‘Senior Training Corps’ at the university: ‘the elite of Dad’s Army’ as he used to jokingly describe it.
I don’t know if he was disappointed by this, but I do know that he followed the course of the war with obsessional interest. Brooke, Montgomery and, above all, Churchill were his absolute heroes; Slim, de Gaulle and Eisenhower weren’t far behind. They stood tall against the Nazis (and obviously the Japanese in Slim’s case). For the rest of his life he devoured every book he could find about them. He could talk through the fall of France in 1940 more or less day by day and he would pass long car journeys by telling us the story of Alamein, D Day or Arnhem.
The first film my dad took me to see was the ‘Battle of Britain’ at the Marble Arch Odeon in – I suppose – 1969 when I was just five. I loved it, particularly the bit when the Stuka pilot was shot so that his goggles filled up with blood. As was the custom in those days, we got a lavishly illustrated souvenir programme with lots of stuff about how the film was made which I kept for donkey’s years.
By then I’d already started making Airfix models, with much maternal help (dad was a big man with hands like shovels, he captained the University of Wales 1st XV as a second row: fine handicrafts weren’t his thing) and he explained to me that the reason that the German aircraft looked different to the ones I’d made was because they were actually post-war Spanish version of the original German planes. It wasn’t until much later that I wondered why Spain was making early 40’s propeller-driven military aircraft for use in the jet age: the answer is, basically, that Fascists are fucking idiots.
Thereafter, it was a roller coaster of enthusiastic juvenile militarism. Early dabbling in Airfix Spitfires, Hurricanes, Stukas and Messerschmidts led on to Action Man. Between us, my brother and I eventually had about twelve of them, in various states of decrepitude, ranging from the earliest, with painted hair and fixed hands, to the last, with gripping hands, ‘eagle eyes’ and astroturf hair and beards (for the naval ones). Alpha to Omega. This was the toy of my childhood.
My brother Simon and I were fully equipped for Action Man wars. Apart from the soldiers (OK Al, dolls) we had the armoured car, the Scorpion light tank and – I seem to remember – a helicopter, together with a plethora of uniforms. Army officer; paratrooper; frogman; German stormtrooper; Foreign Legionnaire; the whole nine yards. We collected Action Man ‘stars’ and earnestly supplemented the retail goodies with the stuff you couldn’t get from the shops. My brother got the Mountie outfit with the fierce but rigid dog; I got two Action Men naked in plain, brown wrappings. Kinky.
Around about my eleventh birthday, I discovered Japanese Tamiya models. There was shop near us in South Kensington called Seagull Models and it was there I bought my first Tamiya 1:35th scale tank. It was a German Panzer Mark 2 which came with a little set of Afrika Korps figures. These were great, far more detailed than the polythene Airfix 1:32 scale toy soldiers that my brother and I played with. After this start, I began to acquire the paints, brushes and other paraphernalia that you need to make a really good job, and slowly but surely I got hooked. I reckon that between the ages of 11 and about 17 I always had some kind of 1:35th scale modelling project on the go.
Alongside the models came the books. My dad had a good library of World War Two literature which I had ploughed through, but my own collection soon became pretty respectable too, and actually hasn’t stopped growing. All of which has meant that I’ve become pretty much impossible to watch war films with. Inevitably they use the wrong tanks, the wrong uniforms and the wrong guns. I now find I sit in front of them, pointing out these little failings to anyone around me. This usually means I end up watching war films alone. The same is also true of spy films: having spent a significant chunk of my life working in intelligence, the extent of my spy-related, pettifogging, nit-pickery knows no bounds.
So I was gratified to learn that this behavior pattern isn’t just me. Al Murray does it too. He identifies the 1960s era Leopard 1 tank in ‘A Bridge Too Far’ (set in 1944) as a particular bête noir (actually this doesn’t bother me too much, the Leopard was pretty much the descendant of the World War Two Panther – just look at the hull shape) and he rightly excoriates the 1960s shite-fest that is (or was) ‘The Battle of the Bulge’ which used crappy and insignificant post-war American M48 tanks as ‘King Tigers’. So we’re definitely singing off the same hymn sheet (having said that, he does misidentify the ‘Panzerlied’ in the film as being the ‘Horst Wessel’ song. Tsk, tsk, Al: one ‘War Bore’ point to me).
I suppose the big difference between me and Al Murray is that I took my obsession with military history to what I saw as its logical conclusion and became a soldier. I don’t know if I expected that this would get the whole military thing ‘out of my system’ but the fact is that it hasn’t. I’m still annoying wife, kids and anyone else who watches a war film with me as much as I ever did, and I’ve actually extended my range to include the present day. Don’t give me your gritty, Iraq-based dramas, muthafuckas: I was there!
‘Watching War Films with my Dad’ is a funny book but it’s thoughtful as much as knockabout, and informative too. It would be easy to forget that Al Murray is an Oxford history graduate but he is, and a sharp historian’s mind informs the text. It’s the complete package for the military pedant: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll find out who invented canned food and why.
So, highly recommended. Incidentally, if you want my take on the most realistic war film, it’s ‘Downfall’, the classic account of the last days in Hitler’s bunker in 1945 (though don’t get me started about Waffen-SS troops wearing dot-pattern camouflaged helmet covers – I mean, for God’s sake!). But if you want to know how modern day British soldiers behave, I’d recommend the werewolf black comedy ‘Dog Soldiers’: it’s absolutely bang on.
* Since I wrote this I have, and a very nice chap he is too!
 I think this was actually the ‘Senior Division of the Officer Training Corps’. In those days, the ‘Junior Division’ of the OTC was what we would now call the CCF in Public Schools and Grammar Schools; the ‘Senior Division’ were the University OTCs.