Exciting Sights

War brings out the best in us. This is almost a truism. We think of the old folks reminiscing; always they return to a few exciting years when life was wild with fun. 1939 to 1945: what a great time that was! lost to them forever, except in anecdotes wrinkled with smiles. When youngsters we did not understand our relatives: why does death excite them so, why does it make them happy; surely they should be sad and scared? Confused, we went to the history books. They did not help us much. The mental atmosphere long since faded away, only the novelists can recapture these years; a period when emotion tuned to the highest pitch, and then sustained for impossibly long periods of time, people became perennially excited, euphoric, intoxicated… It was like riding the longest, most frightening rollercoaster in the world. Amazing! Exhilarating! Let me off! Don’t you dare! Oh, what a lark it is.

The best in us. Also the worst. Our emotions at their most intense we feel absolutely alive; making us free and reckless, so that we take risks, experiment, and hurt those we hate and love. The proximity to death - he is like a new friend we can’t get rid of - is one reason for these feelings, but there are others more pressing; Colin Carmichael wanting to go overseas not for the action - no death junkie this, living off the adrenaline of war -  but to be with Colonel Mayne, the lead officer in the army hospital. Colin is in love with the Colonel… Do not misunderstand me - there is only one homosexual in this novel and it is not Honour Carmichael’s husband. Colin’s love is of the kind that we feel for parents and teachers, for those charismatic characters who stimulate us to transcend ourselves, especially in our difficult teenage years; war a return to adolescence; its crushes, the hero worship, the discipleship, the self-sacrifice. 

Colonel Mayne is not a thinker or a preacher or a teacher with a message. This man has no ideals to inspire his men. He doesn't need them. To have power and hold an important position is enough to make him a magnet for his staff’s emotions. The war helps, of course, by encouraging a belief in authority and creating tightly closed communities that bond the men together; the group coming before the individual self; Colin preferring the company of his army colleagues to that of his wife and children. The husband who goes to the pub with his army mates performs a ritual that binds the group together, producing a collective psyche that is now pervasive, fracturing family life, which loses its value. They are all men. The single sex nature of these groups is important; the emotions condensing the sex instinct - latent in all feeling - to leave an intense but sexually innocent love as a precipitate.1 Colonel Mayne, being leader of the group, is the focal point for these feelings; he is the totem his tribe worships. Bereft of Mayne’s presence Colin is jittery and uncommunicative; in the pub with his wife he is not content unless he talks to the other men or flirts with the barmaid (who has become part of the collective ritual).

Love makes these characters alive, free; and fragile.2

Strong feelings are what Honour, her sister Claudia, and the detached Andrew, fear. Unpredictable and unstable, passion is the great destroyer of order, of comfort, of a temperate indifference that turns domestic routines into innocuous habit. It is not war, but strong emotions that ruin a civilisation; wrecking the moral code, they excite the imagination to invent new worlds more intense and beautiful than can possibly exist in peacetime, now conceived as some undiscovered and wholly malleable future. Imagination feeds off the feelings and heightens them, making idealists of us all. Intoxicated by dreams, we insist that the world live up to them; clerks becoming artists, bureaucracies believed to be the avant-garde. The world before 1939? It is an old canvas, dull, out-of-date, stupid. Of course we must paint over it (in a style, note, that is thirty years out-of-date).3

Edith, coming round the corner with the pram, the baby asleep on his sour-smelling pillow, Peter at her side, met the funeral procession in the High Street. Although neither the day nor the time of this event had been announced, for the past half-hour the pavements had been slowly filling in anticipation of it. Indeed, by now, everybody seemed to know exactly what the dead Nazi looked like; how old he was; where he came from; what he wore; what papers he carried: details of those - the photographs, letters, bread-tickets, identity cards -  were a subject of open discussion not only in the hospital and the village but in the entire neighbourhood. The presence of the German airman in its midst, had, in fact, a curious effect upon the community. As if reacting to the alien body it harboured, it broke out in certain very positive, albeit divergent reactions; it showed itself detached, non-committal: or full of angry resentment; or again of an almost feverish excitement and interest, which, by no means absent in men, was admittedly and demonstrably at its most acute in certain women.

“What is it, Edith? What is it?” Peter said, half frightened. Edith did not answer. Forgetful of the pram, of the presence of the children entrusted to her, of Mrs Carmichael’s possible concern over the delay, she stood there: gazing not at the handful of men, constrained, in their official capacity to act as escort, but at the vivid red and black swastika; the enemy emblem draped over an unexpectedly small blunt coffin. The procession passed between the crowded pavements in absolute silence. Like Edith’s, every eye was fixed in a look of mixed incredulity and fascination on the swastika. Here, tangible to them for the first time, was the enemy. Here were his emblems: here at last was his very body, which even in death had not lost the menace, the mysterious potency that enmity itself endowed it with. They gazed at the coffin; watched it pass along the High Street, and then across the big cobbled square. Rigid suddenly, no one moved: faces were set and impassive: there was an enforced suspension of all emotion, all judgment. Peter said nothing; he stared about him with wide frightened eyes. As for Edith, who knew no values, who, solitary, had nothing to lose or gain by the betrayal of her emotions, she gazed at the enemy coffin, at the strange device upon it; and as she did so there was in the glistening eyes, the uncouthly parted lips, unguardedly expressed, the very ecstasy of love.

Our first reaction to this incredible scene is to praise the quality of British civilisation: it is prepared to drape a hugely emotive and odious symbol over a man because it believes right feeling is better than prejudice. How confident in its identity; how strong the belief in its humane principles; everyone respecting this decision; the crowd’s anger controlled by the aura of the event; the belief in its officials. Here is a people who have pride in themselves; in their own tolerance and self-control. The funeral recognising that a man has his own dignity, his individuality both part of and separate from the country which he serves;though such wisdom can only be learnt collectively in a settled culture ruled by a liberal elite confident in itself.

The emotions generated by this procession are beyond the comprehension of those who organised it; only just under control such emotions arise from a symbol redolent of death and estrangement, to produce ideas that are strange and previously unimaginable. Later Edith takes flowers to the grave… The villagers think little of it; the oddest behaviour made normal in times of fresh and lively love.5

A civilisation must control its citizens’ emotions; this it does by creating a temperate emotional climate in the public sphere, one that gradually seeps into private life.It is why a dead Nazi can be paraded past his silent enemy; the outer and inner restraints stronger than individual feeling, which are dampened down, suppressed. 

War can make a civilisation stronger. Intensifying the emotions, canalising them into national icons, submerging them in communal activities, the shared sense of a country increases until millions of Brits feel like a single People. But there are dangers here…

The war breaks down the civility on which a civilisation depends.War squeezes society tight and makes it more organised; strengthening its collective identity, so that a person’s feeling for an individual - the widow for her dead husband - is mingled with those for her country, and become inseparable; Edith’s emotion over the swastika-covered coffin an extreme but exemplary example.The nation is now a member of the family. This raises the emotional temperature; which gets extremely high in the small collectives; some of which have both the organisation and the influence to make things happen, to change things, to transform the society (war is a fine time for progressives and radicals; and yet the Left is usually against it).But such collective action, by setting the emotions free, produces behaviour that is unpredictable; it worries the more conventional types, like Honour and Andrew who are concerned about a Colin oblivious to his own crazy actions. Claudia also responds to the vitality of power - she falls suddenly in love with a commando - and loses her previous decorum as the passion takes over. To free the feelings is to destroy the civility middle class life is built upon; their comfort requiring thermostatically controlled central heating not a roaring blaze in a baronial fireplace - the middle classes need a carefully managed existence.10 

Collective life brings out the feelings and encourages the imagination, and these can be very destructive - to lose oneself to the emotions, and the fantasies it generates, is to guarantee a sad end.11 Always the susceptible will fall…

However, these characters do not fall all the way down: Colin and Claudia are saved. Though not by themselves. Colin is a weak man and dithers over Colonel Mayne’s offer of a posting in the Middle East. By the time he makes the decision it is too late. And Claudia… Her lover is taken away; his life is revealed to be a fiction.12 Defeated she returns to her fianc√© and his “affectionate irony”; a secure but unsatisfied civility.

Disaster comes dangerously close. Their escape, we could argue, mere contingency: if Colin had been quicker, Claudia more decisive, then both their magic men would have bound them with their spells. The novel itself suggests such an interpretation. But novels are only one means of understanding the world; we need history, we must read our sociology; and when we do… We discover that wider social patterns underlie these individual choices. Colin and Claudia conditioned to respect the temperate moralities distrust their feelings, so that the comfort of domesticity retains its restraining force, making life-changing decisions based on wild and unstable emotions extremely difficult; always there will be some reserve; there will be doubts; the tension between heart and mind delaying the hugely important decision until… Time drifts, and other people arrive and take over, take charge. Colin and Claudia are rescued by an old culture that is more powerful than the feelings of wartime. British values save the British people from the anarchy the British nation has produced.  

This book suggests another pattern, one that will reappear during the 1950s but which originates in the war. Although the feelings have been suppressed, they have not been eradicated; a few seeds left behind that will hibernate, later grow… Colin is falling for the new Chief, a different kind of man from Colonel Mayne; one more needy and more alive to the opposite sex. Soon nobody will be safe; every field will be pollinated by his peculiar strain… Or to put it more simply: the repressive puritanism of the English middle class is on the way out. During the war love broke out. Recaptured, it was sent back to its old prison, whose walls, it now finds, are actually made of flimsy materials - of habits and conventions, of stories, only. They cannot last long. They don’t.

(Review: On the Side of the Angels)


1. One could argue that the fault of Freudian analysis is not to separate out these different layers of feeling. 

2. All this is captured in another brilliant novel about the Second World War: Henry Green’s Caught (and see my Beautiful Collapse). 

3. It takes about this long for the ideas of the artists to penetrate the minds of bureaucrats. 

4. This swastika recognises that his nationality is an important part of his personality; the emblem symbolising his individual humanity, not the collective madness of the regime. 

5. See my piece on Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair.

6. Peter Burke’s Popular Culture in the Early Europe contains some highly suggestive analysis about the growth of the public sphere. What we regard as a bourgeois culture may well have been created by  academics - first the churches and their educational reform; later the secular educationalists (from the early 18th century). Together they created a culture interested in ideas, narrowly moral, and hostile to the crudity, extravagance and violence of the common people. Over many centuries a public culture emerged that was refined and educated, liberal and tolerant;*1 although initially this movement (“The Reformation of Manners”) may have made the public sphere more raucous; the ideas disseminated into a society that was still culturally and psychologically traditional.

One of the curious aspects of current political discourse is that it appears to be retrograding back to the 18th century, when an elite, isolated from the population, used the language of populism to support various of its factions; the press a willing ally to extremism and irrationality.*2

For the complex changes to the public sphere see Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man. This book, brilliant as it is, may miss something of the changes that have taken place in private life, which both provoked the revolt of the 1960s and contained it - the boundary between public and private can be removed because in their private lives the people increasingly act like public citizens (temperate, detached, tolerant, indifferent). We have been tamed.*3

*1 We mustn’t exaggerate - its popular manifestations could still be crude and ugly. For a wonderful illustration see the first and third volumes in Joyce Cary’s Chester Nimmo trilogy (the marvellous Prisoner of Grace and the weaker Not Honour More); also Sybille Bedford’s masterly A Legacy.

*2 Peter Burke offers a stimulating explanation for the wider cultural transformation in which these political changes took place. In the first centuries of the early modern era the spread of high culture, being literate, was quicker than a low culture still predominately verbal; its influence therefore was wide and strong. When popular culture too began to be centred on the word, from the 19th century onwards, its diffusion also speeded up; later to become the dominant influence (using new media extremely conducive to its forms and content) on contemporary life.

Burke also explains why the people suddenly became so attractive to the elite.

…if we look back over the three hundred years discussed in this book, the change in the attitudes of educated men seems truly remarkable. In 1500, they despised the common people, but shared their culture. By 1800 their descendants had ceased to participate spontaneously in popular culture, but they were in the process of rediscovering it as something exotic and therefore interesting. They were even beginning to admire ‘the people’, from whom this alien culture had sprung.

*3 This is certainly the suggestion of the films of Chabrol (especially of the late sixties; see my This is Love and Small Town Minds). Although novels of the later fifties and early sixties suggest that the younger members of the middle classes were rebelling against the liberal puritan model - Revolutionary Road, Room at the Top, Take a Girl Like You, The L-Shaped Room, The Golden Notebook… - now seen as too narrow and repressive and, crucially, weak and illegitimate. 

Then the break comes in the older generation: in Angus Wilson’s masterpiece: The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot.

An historical speculation: the middle classes of the 1950s reacted against the social freedoms of the war to produce an almost stereotypical bourgeois culture, which their children rebelled against; the rebellion starting on the bohemian fringes of this class.

The revolt of 1960s produced a fusion of public and private space; with the former seeking to accommodate the needs and wishes of the individual (within a commercial culture bounded by corporate utility). The public realm thus becomes an extension of one’s home. One consequence is that it becomes a fragile place; people no longer having a distinctly public persona lack the defences to protect themselves against abuse and argument; an attack on someone’s ideas now an attack on their identity, their person.

† My The Temperate Zone has more analysis. 

This attack made much worse because identity itself has been made into an idea, an ideology. Roger Scruton recognises this change but doesn't seem interested in the causes; while in typical fashion he isolates the issue and exaggerates it.▲1 When identity becomes ideological strange things happen: aspects of life and culture that are quite specific and unique are turned into unwieldy abstract concepts; a person is no longer allowed to live with a confusing array of often contradictory thought and feeling but is expected to hold a consistent idea about themselves; an adolescent experiencing the fluidity of feelings about sex and gender now believes they must choose between rather simple ideas - straight, gay or transgender - the choice permanently fixing their being.▲2  At the same time these ideas are regarded as personal and irrefragable. The result: all ideas becomes opinions, which cannot be challenged; a person’s views both delicate and adamantine.▲3

▲1 In his article Scruton says that certainty is no longer allowed in public argument. This produces the paradox that the one certain thing is that everything is uncertain! This is a good example of how a high level philosophical idea - knowledge is unstable - filters down and is degraded in popular culture. It also highlights what occurs when a public realm of knowledge is confused with a private space of feeling and opinion; a confusion that Scruton himself shares - rather than trying to properly understand these social changes he merely condemns them.

✦ Peter Burke has some excellent analysis on the interactions between low and high culture - neither is merely a passive receiver, both shape the other to fit their existing forms and prevailing needs.

▲2  See my Difficult Lessons. Scruton’s article is useful in making the distinction between sex and gender; biology and culture; distinctions that tend to be lost in popular discussion. One could, of course, argue that sex - male and female - is a simple dichotomy…And of course it is! nature tending to be simpler than the ideas it generates; a fixed biology producing a complex variety of feelings and thoughts. Crucially, though, there is no choice in the matter - foetus and baby are completely at the mercy of conception, gestation and birth. Only later, when gender is divorced from sex, can the latter be altered, our nature now determined by our ideas about it. But when choice enters… the range of expression and conceptualisation narrows. 

But then there are many people who want that narrowness - remember Chas in Performance, his reaction to Pherber’s argument that men and women should contain both sexes? “I’m a man. All man. I’m not one of your perverts.” This desire for simplicity and clarity is particularly acute in adolescence and early adulthood.

▲3  Think of one’s home life. Politics and controversial ideas tend not to be discussed - because they give rise to arguments and general unpleasantness. Better to let everyone have their own opinion, which remains largely unstated, leaving a consensus implied but not tested.

7.  See my piece on Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day.

8.  It shows how emotion can float free of specific symbols to become attached to anything that symbolises loss and bereavement; such de-coupling made possible by public events.

9.  An excellent book which proves the point, by showing the triumph of social democracy during the war, is Paul Addison’s The Road To 1945: British Politics and the Second World War. For an extreme example of destruction wrought by small groups during a conflict see George Katkov’s classic Russia 1917: The February Revolution; a book that shows just how devastating liberal opinion can be - the author blames the liberals, with their irresponsible extremism, for the fall of the Russian state.

10.  For a fascinating study of the tensions within the new middle classes of the 1950s; a decade when the old forms of middle class life were changing, see William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man; particularly the chapter on suburbia.

11.  An astonishing example is the fate of Ida, Augustus John’s first wife (see the magnificent biography by Michael Holroyd). This book, the core of which is John’s bohemian rebellion against his ultra-conformist father, could serve as a metaphor for the 1960s.

12.  The symbolism resonates.